Tangled in Roots
In the 1970s the ‘messianic movement’ sought to reach ethnic Jews with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The hope was to show them that Jesus truly is the Messiah prophesied in the Scriptures and that by believing in Him they can receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life. Practically speaking, it meant sharing the gospel with ethnic Jews.
Turn the clock ahead 30 odd years and the landscape has changed considerably. Jews who believe in Jesus are not the only ones claiming to be ‘messianic’. One movement which has laid claim to the title is the so-called Hebrew Roots movement.
What is the Hebrew Roots movement?
It is a difficult movement to pin down, as Menachem Kaiser explains: “It’s a loose identity. There isn’t a church, there isn’t a leader. It gets very fragmented.” Kaiser wrote an in-depth article on the Hebrew Roots movement for Tablet magazine. In it Kaiser describes what seems to be the common denominator in the various branches of the movement: “The movement’s central belief is that the Torah is still binding—that God, or Yahweh, or Hashem, did not intend for Yeshua’s appearance to render irrelevant the lessons of the Old Testament, whose rules and instructions remain valid. The Brit Chadasha, or New Testament, which most Christians believe superseded the Torah, is understood as a sort of extension of the Torah.” Stephen Katz, North American Director of Jews for Jesus, gives this succinct definition: “The Hebraic Roots or Jewish Roots movement refers to various organizations with a common emphasis on recovering the original Jewishness of Christianity.”
Most of those who associate with the movement are not ethnic Jews. They are Gentiles who have no intention of converting to Judaism yet follow Jewish laws, customs, and practices. This has caused no small amount of confusion and trouble for those ethnic Jews who do believe in Jesus. Rich Robinson, who serves as Senior Researcher at the Jews for Jesus headquarters in San Francisco, wrote a series of articles on the challenges that the Jewish messianic movement faces. He writes: “Some ministries and groups exhort all followers of Y'shua—Jewish or not—to observe Jewish holidays. Many teach the importance of recovering the first-century faith of believers in Jesus and rejecting the pagan notions they feel have corrupted faith in the Messiah.” Exactly what pagan notions they reject is not always clear; it ranges from the rejection of worship on Sunday to the rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. However, the movement is united in its rejection of modern Christianity as a perversion of the pure, first century version of their religion.
The history of the Hebrew Roots movement is as opaque as its teachings. Because it has no structure and should be considered a “grass-roots” movement, determining its origin is very difficult. Earlier movements, like the Sacred Name Movement and the World Wide Church of God from the 1930’s have definitely influenced the perspectives of the Hebrew Roots Movements. For example, Herbert Armstrong – leader of the World Wide Church of God – taught that Christians had to observe parts of the Jewish law, including keeping the Sabbath, adhering to Jewish food laws, and celebrating the Jewish festivals. He also believed in British Israelism, which teaches that British, American, and many European peoples were descended from the so-called Ten Lost Tribes of the Northen Kingdom of Israel. Most alarming, however, is Armstrong’s rejection of the Trinity, which many proponents of Hebrew Roots also do.
Even though Hebrew Roots takes many of its cues from Armstrong, the movement really took off after his death in 1986. In the mid-90s Dean Cozzens of Open Church Ministries published a supposed prophecy titled “The Hebrew Movement”. In it he claimed that God had foreordained four movements in the 20th century. Pentecostalism would be the first, then faith healing, leading to the Charismatic movement and finally, the Hebrew roots movement. Others joined the movement and in 1998 Dean and Susan Wheelock began publishing Hebrew Roots Magazine. They also started a website, Hebrewroots.net, which still operates today. With the help of the internet the movement started to grow and spread.
Not all Hebrew Roots proponents will agree with this characterization of their origins. Richard Fisher explains that the movement has many other influences and has branched into numerous streams. He writes: “It’s hard to define the HRM because it is so diverse and made up of so many disparate groups and individuals. It’s a moving target. It’s a vast smorgasbord of everything from scholarship, as in the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research, to so-called Third Questers, to individuals practicing subjective pop (make-it-up-as-you-go) Judaism. It can even include the medieval mystical Kabbalah, with its esoteric numerology. More often than not there are no distinctions made between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant or between the Bible and the Talmud. This movement can impose legalism with a vengeance or in some instances may simply suggest Jewish practices that they say will give us deeper insight and understanding as well as make us more “authentic” believers.”
Even though the movement is varied, there are common traits that has the potential to do great harm to the church and its witness to the lost.
1. Quoted by O’Neil, Lorena. 2014. Hebrew Roots rising: not quite Christians, not quite Jews. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/03/13/ozy-hebrew-roots-movement/6373671/ Accessed: 5 February 2015
2. Kaiser, Menachem. 2014. For some believers trying to connect with Jesus, the answer is to live like a Jew. http://tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/161086/observing-torah-like-jesus?all=1 Accessed: 5 February 2015
3. Katz, Stephen. 2001. The Jewish Roots movement: flowers and thorns. Havurah 4(1).
4. Robinson, Rich. 2003. The challenge to our Messianic movement, Part One. Havurah 6(2): 2-3.
5. Fisher, G. Richard. 2014. Bewitching believers through the Hebrew Roots movement. https://www.thebereancall.org/content/january-2014-bewitching-believers-hebrew-roots Accessed: 25 June 2023