Friday, 10 August 2012

A Handbook for Exploring the Jewish Roots of Christianity



Stephen Andrew Missick

Copyright 2012 Stephen Andrew Missick


Jesus was Jewish as were all his apostles, disciples and most of his early followers. Many people believe that organized Christianity has lost sight of its Jewish roots and is in need of rediscovering them. There is now a large movement of people who are trying to re-connect to the Jewish origins of Christianity. Now, there are many diverse groups attempting to discover a more authentic form of "Christianity." This includes Hebraic Christian groups and the Messianic movement. Many groups strongly disagree with one another. This has created confusion. Where can one get accurate information to do on a quest to discover Jesus the Jewish Messiah? In this handbook, I give the approach that I have taken in exploring the Semitic Roots of Christianity.

I need to make a quick note about words. Certain Jewish roots groups use distinctive terminology and have different approaches towards the sacred name of God. My goal with this handbook is to communicate. Therefore, I deal with issues about words, which initially may obstruct communication, especially to the uninitiated, in the course of this study.

Back to the Bible

The first step in understanding the Semitic understanding of the Jesus is to understand the Bible. Many Christians have a limited understanding of the Old Testament and this actually impedes their understanding of the New Testament. An example of this would be the feasts mentioned in the Gospel of John and the Acts of the Apostles. These Jewish feast-days are actually Biblical festivals or "the feasts of the Lord." The Gospel of John mentions Tabernacles (Sukkot) and Passover. The Acts of the Apostles mentions Pentecost (Shavuot) and alludes to Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in Acts 27:9.

Serious students of the Bible should take an interest in the different versions of the Bible that have come down to us. The traditional Jewish Old Testament is called the Massoretic Texts because it is a version that was passed down to us by a group of Middle Eastern scribes called the Masorites. The oldest Masoretic manuscripts we have are the Aleppo codex and the Leningrad Codex both of which date to the 900s AD. About two hundred years before the birth of Christ, a translation of the Old Testament was made into Greek by the Greek speaking Jewish community in Egypt. This Greek version is called the Septuagint. The New Testament often quotes from the Old Testament from the Septuagint version. The Jewish translators of the Greek Septuagint thought that "Jesus" was the closest approximation of the name "Yeshua" (or Joshua) into the Greek language. The Latin Vulgate was also translated directly from the Hebrew by Jerome. He studied with and consulted with rabbis in his research and translation. Jerome spoke Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, as well as his native Latin. Jerome also distinguished between the Jewish Canon and books included in the Christian Old Testament but not recognized by the Jews. Jerome called these book "apocrypha." Both the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate are older than the traditional Massoretic texts and we should be mindful that they are witnesses to Hebrew texts older than any we have today. It is also interesting that in certain places, the Dead Sea Scrolls biblical texts confirm Septuagint renderings.

For More Information:

"The Books and the Parchments" by F.F.Bruce

Bible Languages

The Bible is written in three languages, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Hebrew and Aramaic are Semitic languages and are closely related. The Semitic language family includes Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Maltese, Ethiopian languages, Mahri, Soqotri and Dhofari. It also includes extinct languages such as Ugaritic, Punic and Akkadian. Semitic languages are related to the "Afro-asiatic" languages which means that they are distantly related to Egyptian (and Coptic) and Berber. Linguists classify Hebrew as a dialect of Canaanite. In the Old Testament, the language we call Hebrew is never called "Hebrew." It is called Canaanite and Judean (Isaiah 19:18, 36:11). Linguists have been able to theoretically reconstruct the language that Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and all other Semitic languages by comparing and contrasting all the Semitic language. This root language is called "Proto-Semitic."

The Greek language is an Indo-European (or Aryan) language. This means that it belongs to the same language family that Iranian, German, English, Italian and Spanish belong to. There are important Jewish resources in Greek, this includes the Apocrypha, which is ancient Jewish literature, and works of Jewish scholars such as Josephus and Philo of Alexandria.

Linguists dispute the contention that some people make that because people use different vocabulary or they conjugate verbs differently, that they think or perceive reality differently. Also, it seems that language and culture are different things.

For those interested in linguistics:

"How Biblical Languages work" by by Peter James Silzer and Thomas John Finley

"An Introduction to Linguistics," The Great Courses, by John McWhortner

Ancient Sources

Judaism has evolved through the centuries. We shouldn't assume that because the Jews have a tradition today that that tradition derives from ancient times. An example could be the Kippah, a head covering that Jewish men wear. It is believed that Jewish men did not wear the Kippah in ancient times and that this practice was adopted from the Moslems and after the year 600 AD. Sometimes Jewish sources do not help clarify the Bible. An example would be the Jewish midrash about Bithia, Moses' adoptive mother. (Midrash is Jewish oral tradition.) According to the Midrash, Bithia stretched her arm out over one hundred feet like "Plastic-man" in order to grab the ark of bulrushes carrying the baby Moses upon the Nile. This tradition is obviously mythological. Also, the rabbis supposed that Dagon was a fish-god because his name sounds like "dag," a Hebrew word for fish. The rabbis were wrong. Now, from archeological discoveries we know that Dagon was a god of grain. So, the best way to study Jesus (and the Bible) in light of his culture, language and times, is through ancient sources. This includes the aforementioned Josephus and Philo of Alexandria. It also includes the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls is a hoard of ancient manuscripts that include biblical and extra-biblical literature. The Dead Sea Scrolls are dated from 200 BC-70AD. Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls are written in the original Paleo-Hebrew script, rather than in the Square Aramaic script that we now call "Hebrew." The Samaritans still use the original Hebrew script and have preserved an important version of the Torah.

The Apocrypha

When studying the Semitic Roots of Christianity, it is essential to be familiar with the Apocrypha. Many Protestants have a strong aversion to the Apocrypha because they fear that they are Roman Catholic. They are not Roman Catholic-they are ancient Jewish writings. One important apocryphal book is First Maccabees. We know from the Gospel of John that Jesus kept the Feast of Hanukkah. However, oddly enough, the Jews did not preserve the Hanukkah story-Christians did-in First and Second Maccabees. Jesus observed Hanukkah and the story of the Maccabees in an essential historical narrative that fills part of the so-called "400 silent years" that separate the Old and New Testaments. The Jews of Egypt had a different Canon of Scripture than the Jews of Israel. The longer canon was included in the Greek Septuagint version. The Christian Church canonized the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament with the extra books. Jerome noted that the Jewish Canon was shorter and designated the books not in the Jewish version as "apocryphal." However, the Apocrypha was accepted as a part of the Old Testament by the Church, despite Jerome's ideas on the matter. After the Protestant Reformation, Protestants broke with tradition and began to recognize only those books in the Jewish canon of Scripture as canonical.

Certain other "apocryphal" books of ancient Jewish origin were preserved by Christians and not by the Jews. The Ethiopic Christians preserved the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilees (which were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls). Roman Catholics preserved "Messianic Jewish" literature such as "The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs" and "First and Second Esdras."

Aramaic as the Language of Jesus

It is clear from the New Testament that Jesus spoke Aramaic. After the time of the Babylonian Captivity, the common language of the majority of the Jewish people transitioned from Hebrew to Aramaic. Although it appears that Hebrew survived in isolated enclaves, most of the common Jewish people no longer understood Hebrew. This being the case it was necessary to have the Bible translated into Aramaic so that the people could understand the Scriptures. These Aramaic versions of the Bible are called the Targums (or Targumim). Aramaic Targums were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the east, a community of Christian Jews spoke a dialect of Aramaic called Syriac. They produced a Messianic Jewish Targum of the Old Testament that was translated from Hebrew into Aramaic. This version of the Old Testament is called the Syriac Peshitta. An ancient Aramaic Judeo-Christian hymnbook has also survived. It is called the "Odes of Solomon." The Targums were an important part of synagogue worship. Synagogue services were opened with the "Sh'ma" in Hebrew: "Here O, Israel, the Lord your God, is One." Then the Scriptures were read in Hebrew. Then the Targum of the Scripture reading was recited in Aramaic. This was followed by a homily in Aramaic and services were concluded with the Kaddish prayer, which now is recited in periods of morning. The Kaddish shares clear links with the Lord's Prayer.


Liberal Bible Scholar Bruce Chilton has written extensively on Jesus and the Targumim in such books as "A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible."

For the Kaddish see: "The Old Jewish-Aramaic Prayer: The Kaddish" by David De Sola Pool

Joachim Jeremias has written extensively on Aramaic as the language of Jesus Christ

Stephen Missick has several helpful Aramaic resources available including "The Words of Jesus in the Original Aramaic" and "The Language of Jesus: Introducing Aramaic."

The Ebionites and other early Jewish Christian Groups

For those who are interested in the early Jewish Christians, an abundance of information can be gleaned from the writings of the Early Church Fathers. Eusebius is considered the "Father of Church History." When Constantine ended the horrific persecution of the Churches, Eusebius sat down and wrote a continuation of the history of the church, starting from the end of the Book of Acts and going to the year 325. Eusebius preserved vital information on the early Jewish Christians. He included stories about James the Brother of Jesus and stories about the descendents of Jude the Brother of Jesus that he found in Jewish Christian sources. Eusebius also notes that the first fifteen Bishops of Jerusalem were Christian Jews and that several of them were blood relatives of Jesus. (Eusebius claimed he derived his information on early Jewish Christianity from the writings of an early Jewish Christian named Hegesippus. Eusebius also wrote on the topography of the Holy Land and on Messianic Prophecies.) We know from the Church Fathers that the Ebionites, a sect of Jewish Christians, had great admiration for James the Brother of Jesus and that they were vegetarians. An account of James the Brother of Jesus written by the Ebionite Jews and titled "The Ascents of James" has survived because it was incorporated into "The Clementine Recognitions" and the "Clementine Homilies." These books about Clement tell the story of Clement, a disciple of Simon Peter who accompanied him in his missionary endeavors. The Didache, an early Christian worship manual with a strong Jewish flavor, has also survived.


"Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries" by Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik

"The Ascents of James" by Stephen Andrew Missick

"The Lost Religion of Jesus" by Keith Akers

"Defending Constantine" by Peter Leithart

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