How to NOT Waste Your Time: Bible Codes, Numerology, and Lost Tribes

I’ve grown up in the fringes of Christian fundamentalism. That hasn’t always been a bad thing, they were many good people and some very good lessons learned from teachers and pastors. But something that always seemed to come up were fringe ideas and people spending hours and days and weeks “researching” strange topics from Bible codes, and Gematria (numerology) or somethings about the lost tribes of Israel and if Jesus was black or white or whatever. the proponents of these things always have some neat little tidbit that they have discovered that gives everyone goosebumps and everyone goes “ooooh.”

However, there is a big problem with most of this. It’s hogwash.While exciting and mysterious, Bible codes cannot be proven. In fact, the problem is that there are many different manuscript traditions of the Bible and no two match completely. For instance, the Masoretic version of Isaiah 52-53 and the Dead Sea Scrolls have very different spelling of words and so we could not just say Isaiah 53 has a Bible code in it! We can’t. It’s malarkey. If there is one, what is the key? How do we know it works? And most importantly, why are we looking for secret codes while ignoring what the Bible tells us concerning our conduct?

Gematria is much the same. What is the key to interpret your numerology? There isn’t one in Scripture and it is also something that cannot be applied universally. Much the same for word pictures. I’ve never seen anything convincing or even consistent when it comes to these. In my experience, it is always touted by those who have barely a modicum of understanding of Hebrew and pawn it off as “research” to their listeners who are fascinated by a language they don’t understand. For instance, there is an entire Bible out there dedicated to putting in the article “et” when convenient. In Hebrew, there is an article that is placed before a direct definite object. It is spelled aleph tav. The reasoning behind this newfangled Bible and the teachings I’ve seen on this is that Jesus calls himself the Alpha and Omega in Revelation. Those are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, so these people extrapolate from there that the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet are aleph tav. So every instance of this word in the Old Testament must be a reference to Jesus! Well…. The fancy pants translation only puts it in where it is convenient and not every instance. Just use a Bible app like e-Sword and search for the word. You’ll see so many (over 7000) instances of the word and in many verses no real reference to the messiah. For instance, take Genesis 34, the rape of Dinah. You mean to tell me that when Shechem tells his father to get him Dinah as his wife that the “et” in that verse is really about Jesus? I can think of no responsible exegesis that would consider this verse about the messiah in any way.

I’ve been told that I am a member of the lost tribes of Israel because of my English heritage (and ability to grow a beard, or having been “called” into Hebrew Roots [wonder what they would say about that now]). I’ve also been told that West Africans are really the lost tribes, or the Germanic peoples, or Native Americans. Every one of these claims has been supported by conjecture and very circumstantial evidence. I have never seen anything that would convince me (a trained historian) that these claims have any merit. Even if any of them were true, we have no way to prove it (or argue persuasively). There is no written record, no archeological evidence, nothing. Most of the claims come from word similarities or claiming the Israelites were some other group that we know something about. But the more important question is this: who cares? Go read the book of Acts, I’ll wait here… OK, back already? Did you see where The apostles preached to the nations? Did you see how Paul systematically went to the nations that surrounded Israel and claimed souls for God from them all as the prophet Isaiah said would happen?  Did you notice that Acts two with the tongues of fire was a reversal of the curse at Babel? God is making a people from all nations (just like Israel was a mixed multitude Ex. 12:38). No one is any more special than the other because of an accident of their birth and heritage. I’ve also heard the claim that because the Europeans were the bulwark of Christianity they had to be the lost tribes. Yeah, too bad there have been Christians in the Middle East, Africa, India and Asia as long or longer than in Europe. And the ironic thing is that many who believe this also reject that Catholics are Christians which were the only Christians in western Europe until 1517! So they appeal to them and reject them at the same time. Crazy. I see no reason to even entertain these claims and I cannot for the life of me see why they would even matter. One needs only to read the biblical narrative for itself and stop putting one’s own silly ideas onto the text and see what the text is trying to tell us. It is most definitely not telling us to worry about if we’re from a lost tribe or not. By the way, there is plenty of evidence that there really aren’t any lost tribes and there is debate on how extensive the northern exile really was, but this would require its own post to address.

Oh yeah, And Jesus was not an Anglo-Saxon. Sorry, he probably looked a lot like Middle Eastern people today look. Even if Jesus were white or black, again what could it possibly matter?! Why waste your time studying something so random and inconsequential? Why not study the Holy Trinity? Or gee I don’t know, maybe some of the teachings of Jesus?

Even if some of this had any merit to it, it is more gee golly wiz information than anything that is substantive and important to the faith. Instead of trying to use internet videos and vague statements from encyclopedias, you could be studying the actual Bible. You could learn Greek and Hebrew and know the interesting reasons why certain words are chosen over others in translation and why they matter. You could read scholarly books and articles on how early Christians understood the faith and practiced it ( I recommend Craig A. Evans for starters). You could do the hard work of studying theology (I mean real theology, not internet garbage that isn’t much more than confirmation bias).

The reason people gravitate towards the silly things like Bible codes, is because they are exciting and it takes next to nothing to understand them. You get a few wows and then you forget about it. Or you watch the evening news and then go to a “prophecy” conference, not remembering that you did the same thing last year and everyone was convinced this was the end. We are too lazy to do the hard work up front. We want the pay off right now, and so these cheap tricks provide that, but there is so much out there that we miss because we settle for parlor tricks. Most people are not willing to do the hard work of actual Bible study or theology. It is hard work, but it is worth it. Having studied for years and put in the hard work of reading primary sources, of learning the languages and studying theology, I can finally reap the rewards of actual and substantive knowledge (though I still need more study). And if our faith is true, it is worth studying. Many pages have been stained with the ink of scholars and their long studies into the mysteries of our faith and we ignore it for exciting fluff.

I encourage you not to be disheartened, but to be disciplined and study. Start with reading your Bible, perhaps a good study Bible. Look for the scholars names who compiled the notes and read there work. And of course, read N.T. Wright, the early church fathers, St. Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. The things worth doing are almost always hard. But they are always worth it.

Easter, Pascha and Internet Nonsense

I’ve recently browsed the interwebs and seen many posts on how Easter is pagan and we need to be keeping Passover and many other things. Mainly I have seen well meaning people blaming Constantine for what they deem as pagan or at the very least the wrong date for celebration. So I thought I would write an entry on this issue and hopefully produce more light than heat.

I specifically read an article by the ministry One for Israel titled “Why are Passover and Easter Celebrated at Different Times?”  Here, check it out.

https://www.oneforisrael.org/bible-based-teaching-from-israel/why-are-passover-and-easter-celebrated-at-different-times/

For the most part the article seems to stick to standard historical reporting. The Christians were looking to the Jews to calculate when to celebrate the resurrection and then decided that they should do the calculations themselves instead of relying on a religion that was at odds with Christians. Also, there is early evidence that Christians were calculating their feast at an early date in the west as Polycarp came to the west with a question concerning Pascha and there was no agreement, but no schism either. See Eusebius, Historia ecclesiastica, 5.24.

The problem I have with the article is that it states, “If these words are not shocking to you, they should be! The Nicean Council decided that they would celebrate a separate festival on the first new moon after the Spring Equinox, (which is always March 21st in the Gregorian Calendar) to make a deliberate break with the people of Israel. Easter doesn’t feature even once in the Bible…The English word “Easter” comes from “Eostre” – a goddess associated with Spring, and was co-opted for the name of the new festival to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus, which was decidedly NOT Passover.”

The documents from the council were written in Greek, not English (if English even existed at this early date). When they mention “Easter” as translated into English, the Greek word is Pascha, which is a loan word from Aramaic, meaning Passover. In fact, English is the only language that calls it anything else. Greek is Pascha, Latin, Pasca, Spanish, Pascua etc. To claim that Constantine supplanted Passover with a new holiday called Easter is not only false and unsupportable given the evidence, but it betrays an ignorance of language, history and just plain reason (sorry, this gets my blood boiling).

We cannot say that this holiday is pagan based on a name some obscure barbarians (who were, by the way, pagan in the fourth century) in a far flung corner of the empire decided to call the holiday at a later date. From what the experts think, Easter was a month name, much like Thursday is Thor’s day and that the feast fell in this month and so that is what it came to be called. Do I like it? Not particularly. Perhaps we should call it what the rest of the churches in the rest of the world call it, Pascha. But to say, based on this English word, that all of Christian historical practice is wrong goes beyond the evidence… and is just plain silly.

The letter of Constantine encourages Christians to calculate the feast on their own. Also, there was no set date agreed upon and the east and the west still disagree. The eastern churches were a month after the west last year. But in general, it will be the first Sunday after the full moon after the spring equinox. That is the Sunday after Passover, just like this year. So I think this is perfectly acceptable. The feast of first fruits according to the Torah is the day after the Sabbath of Passover week and the day that Yeshua rose from the dead. So modern (and ancient) Christian practice is keeping the feast of first fruits as the resurrection, since Yeshua is our first fruits of the resurrection, 1 Cor. 15:23.

So have Christians forgotten where there customs come from? In general yes. We could all do better on that. Have we supplanted God’s holy days with our own? I don’t think so. This still seems to me to be at the very least permissible. We are celebrating the ultimate moment in the history of the universe. If the Jews in the book of Esther can celebrate Purim because of God’s handy work (God is actually never mentioned in Esther) then I think we can celebrate the most important things for our faith.

Not to mention that there were several calendars current in the first century, and after, that Jews used. So why should we stick to the rabbinic calendar? The Bible unfortunately does not tell us enough to calculate it on our own. The Dead Sea sect had a calendar that kept the holy days falling on the same day each year, which kind of sounds like what Christians do with Pascha/Easter. We just don’t seem to be in a position to know for certain what calculations are absolutely correct, and it would seem to me that the church for both practical and theological purposes had the right to calculate the feast on their own.

I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with this. In fact, I looked back at my comments online and I’m being attacked personally instead of refuting the facts. So, ask yourself what the evidence demonstrates. I’m not talking about videos on Youtube, but the primary sources from the time period and what actual experts say.

Is Christmas OK?

Recently I delved into the topic of the origins of Christmas and argued the case that Christmas is not pagan in origin, but from serious devotion to the Son of God. So it’s not pagan, but there are other arguments against its celebration. For one, it’s not in the Bible. Nowhere are we commanded to celebrate Jesus’ birthday or other Christian feast days. Many of the anti-Christmas persuasion  use this argument to establish Christmas as a non-sanctioned holiday and therefore should not be celebrated. Two, only the holidays of Leviticus 23 should be celebrated. God gave us these holidays so why make up our own? Both of these arguments rely on the assumption that we are only allowed to celebrate what is explicitly commanded in Scripture. Anything else is an aberration and should be treated with extreme suspicion. Besides these arguments is the assumption that Christianity has been apostate from the “biblical” faith and mixed with paganism. As I’ve argued against this position elsewhere, I won’t bother with it again except to say that it is a hangover from 19th higher criticism and radical protestant propaganda making out the Roman church to be the beast of Revelation.

What I will argue here is that Christmas and other Christian holidays are at least permissible and even good for us. Why would Christians deem it permissible to commemorate their own holidays? The answer is simple, it’s biblical. Esther 9:27 “The Jews established and made a custom for themselves and for their descendants and for all those who allied themselves with them, so that they would not fail to celebrate these two days according to their regulation and according to their appointed time annually.” The Jews in the book of Esther establish a holiday celebrating their deliverance from the Persians and Haman by keeping two days of feasting. Well, it’s in the Bible, so it’s OK to celebrate you might say. Funny. What came first, the writing of Esther or the holiday? So while Esther gives us biblical precedent, for the Jews celebrating Purim they were charting new waters. They must have thought they had justification for doing so. One funny thing is, God is not mentioned commanding the holiday, in fact, God is not mentioned in the entire book of Esther. Of course a case can be made for His hidden hand guiding events, but there is no explicit command to celebrate these days nor mention of God in them. So Christmas, in fact mentions more about God than even one of the biblical holidays!

Hanukkah has kind of taken over the place of Christmas for a lot of Hebrew Roots folks, but again, this is not a commanded holiday. In fact, it’s not even in the Protestant Bibles they use except in the New Testament. We see Jesus celebrating Hanukkah in John ten. This means that the messiah himself thought it at least permissible to observe this holiday, you know, since he walked all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem to observe it. The Hanukkah story as recorded in the books of the Maccabees at least appeals to God’s intervention, but it does not state that God commands anyone to celebrate it. So we have two holidays in the Bible that God does not command that are permissible at the least. Though many would go further and argue that these holidays teach us about God’s deliverance and faithfulness to his people. I would agree. That is the same way I see Christmas. What better way to teach about God’s faithfulness than to commemorate when Christ,

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humble himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

Hanukkah and Purim are additions but are OK with in the Hebrew Roots movement. Since it is argued that these two holidays were commemorations of God’s direct intervention into history,they are justified. OK, great, sounds good to me. This argument cuts both ways though. What could be more of a direct intervention of God into history than his putting on flesh and dwelling among us? Indeed, there is nothing more radical, nothing more revolutionary than the culmination of God’s plan in the person of Jesus Christ. By his coming into the world, the revolution of God’s kingdom was inaugurated. Besides the resurrection, this is one of the most important events in all of history. Without the nativity, we don’t have the crucifixion and resurrection. We don’t have the redemption of all flesh.

With the absolute importance of the event of the nativity, coupled with the understanding that the holiday is not pagan, but actually Christian in origin, then I believe we are completely justified in celebrating Christmas. If the Old Testament saints and those in the second temple period could order their calendar according to God’s actions, so can Christians. We have the biblical precedent for it.

Constantine Did Not Make Christianity Pagan

I hear from so many people and have seen so many YouTube videos claiming that Constantine changed everything in the fourth century. With his legalization of Christianity he somehow co-opted the religion and mixed it with pagan elements as a means of controlling his vast empire. The Council of Nicaea decided to get rid of all the biblical stuff and put a Christian face on Easter and Christmas, which were formerly pagan holidays. This resulted in the Roman Catholic Church and centuries of apostasy and we are just now started to recover from it. So goes the argument…or assertion, rather.

Constantine has often been characterized as the man of lawlessness or the anti-Christ or just another corrupting influence on the church by Hebrew Roots or radical Protestants. I’ve sat through many a Bible study, usually around Christmas or Easter, that devolves into conspiracy theories of Constantine’s corrupting influence on the church. In fact, I used to believe this. Then I got myself in trouble by trying to write a paper for a history class on the council of Nicaea to prove once and for all to myself that what I had been taught was right. The problem is, there’s not much to go on. There is a lot of popular level garbage out there that repeats the same things, but never go back to the source. In the discipline of history, one must support their arguments on primary sources. A primary source is a document written at or about the time of the event and preferably by an eye witness. The Gospels would count as primary sources for the life of Jesus, but the Gospel of Mary or something late like it from the third or fourth century cannot count as a primary source for the historical Jesus, it’s simply too late. So I started digging into the documents produced by the council and the topics to be discussed and what actual scholars have to say about it. Also, I’ve been reading a lot about the time period and how the church fared before and after its legalization by Constantine.

What I have found is that the church did not radically change in structure or practice. In fact, the council was called to address the problems of theology that were being taught by Arius. Arius taught that Jesus, the Word, was a created being and was not co-eternal with the Father. So Arius was non-trinitarian. In fact, it wasn’t until years later that the whole doctrine of the Trinity had to be spelled out, again as a response to heretical teaching.

What then was Constantine’s role? Not much. He “presided” over the council, but as far as making any kind of decisions for how the church functions there is no evidence that he did so. The claim is often stated that”Constantine convened the council of Nicaea introducing pagan elements into Christianity like Christmas and Easter and made it the Roman Catholic Church.” There are so many problems with this.

First of all, as was just said, Constantine had no power over the bishops. Until the legalization of Christianity, it was basically a death sentence to be ordained bishop. Most of the bishops of the early church were martyred by pagans. Why then would these bishops that were appointed before this legalization then bow to paganism? Not only that, but the bishops ruled in favor of what is now called Nicene or orthodox Christianity, that is, belief in the equality of the Father and Son. However, in 331 Constantine began to favor Arian Christianity and even exiled many bishops. Read the works of Athanasius of Alexandria. He was present at the council, he is one of the most influential theologians defining the Trinity and he spent most of his time in office in the desert or monasteries hiding from imperial forces trying to arrest him. So why would the church continue with practices established by an emperor who was persecuting them? The simple answer is that they did not.

Christianity was legalized by Constantine, but he did not make it the official religion of the empire. That came in the late fourth century after the Arian controversy was coming to an end. Orthodox Christianity finally found imperial favor and Arianism ceased to exist over time. But the thing is, the trinitarian, nicene church did not change during this time. Nothing was added, only the further definition of doctrines that were already held. Read the canons from the council yourself and see that there is no evidence of change in church theology or structure. The church wasn’t this wonderful Hebrew Roots institution until 325 then it went into apostasy as so many of my friends have claimed. There were already offices of bishop in the late first century and the role of priests, liturgy etc. In fact, a good study of the councils will show that they were convened because of a new problem where a further definition of regular practice or belief had to be made plain. At the end of the fourth century we see this happening with the council of Constantinople that affirmed the Nicene creed and expanded the passage concerning the Holy Spirit as that was the problem of the day. At no point were the bishops trying to make up new doctrines, but to further define those already held.

Christmas and Easter

Christmas was known to be celebrated as early as the second century, hundreds of years before Constantine! He did not change the date or even begin the celebration of Invictus Sol. In fact, Thomas Talley argues in Origins of the Liturgical Year that Invictus Sol was celebrated on December 25th to compete with the Christian holiday, not the other way around. Throughout the fourth century we still see Christians writing against pagan practices and we do not see them adopting any. Paganism was the great syncretic religion that brought in other elements. Therefore, we know for sure that Constantine did not “start Christmas.” Here’s a more in depth look at Christmas. Christmas as a Jewish Concept

Easter is an English word. The name is obscured by history, but many think it does come from a pagan deity. However, that has no bearing whatsoever on the historical holiday that is called by that name only in the English language. One only has to visit a Greek church or really any church for that matter to see what they call the feast of the resurrection. It is called Pascha in every language that I’m aware of and certainly of the languages of the historical church (Latin, Greek). Pascha is the Aramaic word for Passover and it is what is used in the Greek New Testament for the feast where Jesus was crucified, the authors simply transliterated it. It is stilled called this in most churches, so the name “Easter” as proof of Constantinian perversion is ridiculous.

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English people states that the feast falls in the month of Easter. Just like the days of the week in English, the months also had (have) pagan names. But does a little known language calling a feast Easter on the fringes of Europe make the ancient celebration pagan? No. Constantine did not even speak English (if it even existed at the time). How then, and why, would all of Christianity suddenly start celebrating a pagan holiday of a Germanic goddess? It seems to me that this argument is predicated on a complete ignorance of language and history and frankly, clear reasoning.

Folkways

A word about folkways. A folkway is a local custom that is found in a certain area, or is done by the common people. Many point to Easter eggs or bunnies as proof the entire holiday is pagan, but these are simply folkways. There is nothing in the teaching magisterium of the historical church that institutes these practices. They are simply local customs that were made popular in America and elsewhere, like groundhogs day. Am I saying they’re OK? No. Are they pagan? Maybe. The problem is that we can’t be certain. But the question I guess we should be asking is how does this line up with Scripture and is it honoring God? But the existence of a folkway does not mean the church has endorsed or encouraged it.

As far as the holiday of Easter itself, it is based on Passover and was reconciled to the Julian and later Gregorian calendars to always fall on a Sunday. Even though Passover can fall on any day of the week, the feast of first fruits, the day Jesus was resurrected, always falls on the day after the Sabbath. So instead of following the rabbinic calendar, Christians calculated their own observance based on the Old Testament calendar and reconciled it to the Julian calendar. In this way they solidified Pascha/Easter to always fall on the same day of the week. It should also be noted that the Essenes had a similar calendar that where Passover always fell on the same day and Sukkot and the Day of Atonement did the same. So the argument that the rabbinic calendar is “the true” biblical calendar is far from certain (this deserves a blog post all by itself!).

Concluding Remarks

Was Constantine a pagan? Who knows. Frankly, it doesn’t matter when it comes to the argument that is so often brought against historical Christianity. As I have demonstrated, we have no reason to think that he had influence over doctrine at Nicaea, he persecuted Nicene Christianity as did the next several emperors, Christmas and Pascha (Easter) were celebrated from ancient times, and the church structure and leadership remained in place. So the argument that Constantine changed everything and invented the Roman Catholic Church is without merit. In fact, the bishop of Rome wasn’t even present at the council of Nicaea, but only sent an envoy. It saddens me greatly to see so many people led astray by the Constantine conspiracy. The problem, much like the assertion that Christmas is pagan, is that people keep repeating it and no one checks the original sources. So if you believe that Constantine changed everything, look into the history of the church. Look into the theology both pre and post Nicaea. You’ll see a continuity there. If I’m wrong on this, then give me some legitimate sources (not youtube videos with stock photos and spooky music). Look at the evidence yourself and come to your own conclusions. If the president came to your church meeting, then told you to celebrate a pagan holiday, and then starting persecuting you regardless of your observance, why would you still do it? That is the situation of Athanasius and the other bishops of Nicaea.

Read the original materials from the councils, and the ante-Nicene Fathers and the Nicene Fathers and you’ll see a continuity of theology and structure. Read some good secondary sources as well. Some places to start are Thomas A. Talley: Origin of the Liturgical Calendar, Lois Farag: The Coptic Christian Heritage, Kallistos Ware: The Orthodox Church. Also the podcast by Father Thomas Hopko on Bishops starts in the first century and goes to the present. This has great evidence and explanations of what was happening at each period and why.

So the question remains, if Constantine didn’t bring the church into apostasy, and we see the same structure and practice throughout the early centuries, what are we to do? I pray you find the truth as I pray that I do as well.

Here’s a link to the Canons of Nicaea

Fr. Hopko’s series on bishops

 

Tradition: Jewish, Christian, and the Hebrew Roots Movement

“The Church lied to me!” is the common refrain heard in Hebrew Roots circles. The central tenant of the faith is that Christianity has lost its way and compromised with the world by adopting pagan customs. To rectify this historical mistake, Hebrew Roots seeks to find authentic worship styles based on the Bible, specifically, the Torah. Another common feature of Hebrew Roots believers is to adopt rabbinic Jewish customs. The argument is that the Jews preserved in a living community the practice of Torah and so we should take a queue from them in how we worship the God of the Bible. After all, Yeshua/Jesus was Jewish, so we should worship as he worshiped.

This is a good thought. This is what all those WWJD bracelets were about right? We should do what our messiah did. I agree. However, there is a glaring problem between following what Yeshua/Jesus did and following Jewish custom. Here’s a little history for us. Yeshua lived during the second temple period. There were about five dominant Jewish sects at the time he walked the earth. Zealots, Essenes, Sadducees and Pharisees and his own ministry which came to be called the Way (Christians). The first two were expecting an apocalyptic war with Rome that would usher in the messianic age, but were destroyed by Rome instead. The Sadducees controlled the temple and were fairly limited in size. Once Titus had destroyed the temple, the Sadducees went the way of the Zealots, Essenes and Dinosaurs. All of these had been tied specifically to the land or the temple. Once these elements were either destroyed or unattainable, they ceased to exist. The Pharisees on the other hand were more focused on halakhah, the walking out of Torah. They were focused on interpretation of the text and were more closely tied to it than the temple or the land. This element allowed their brand of Judaism to survive the cataclysmic events of the first century. So with the other sects destroyed, there were two dominate strands of Judaism, the Way (Christians) and the Pharisees, from which rabbinic Judaism came.

These two sects obviously had some different beliefs, mainly centered around the messiah. After the revolt and destruction of the temple (which Christians sat out because of Matthew 24), the Pharisees met in Jamnia in 90 AD to discuss matters of the faith. The council added the twelfth benediction to the prayers which was a curse on Christians.They also formalized the canon of the Hebrew Bible, which is what the Protestant Old Testament consists of, and was eventually codified as the Masoretic text The Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, was predominately used by Christians in the Diaspora and contained the deutero-canon or apocrypha. The Septuagint was rejected by rabbinic Judaism for its Greek language and because it was the favored Bible of the Christians. In fact, if you ever wonder why the New Testament quotes in your Bible don’t match up to what your Old Testament says, it’s because your OT is based on the Masoretic text and the New Testament writers were quoting the Septuagint.

Pharisaic Judaism and Christianity began to split even further by the second century. The Jews revolted again under the banner of Simon bar Kokhbah, who was heralded as messiah by Rabbi Akivah. Of course the Christians sat out this revolt too. Our messiah had come a century before and Christians had been systematically ejected from synagogues decades earlier. So the complete severance seemed to come around 135 AD.

Now, what many in the Hebrew Roots movement advocate is taking literature written by the rabbinic Jews, specifically the Talmud, or Rashi or a host of other medieval rabbis or modern ones over against any Christian tradition. At my former congregation there were those who advocate following the Talmud and Mishnah because Moses set up the seventy elders over Israel who became the Sanhedrin, and when they were destroyed that authority passed on to the rabbis. Therefore, anyone who worships the God of Israel must follow the rabbis.

This position is quite problematic for the believer in Yeshua to accept. For one thing, it cannot be demonstrated that this authority passed to the rabbis. The rabbis (or Pharisees) did not have it during the second temple period and the Great Council mentioned in the Talmud as set up by Ezra is a historical fiction that cannot be supported by second temple literature. So the only source we have for the rabbis having authority is the rabbis! Another problem, and this one is sufficient for me at least, is that no where in the New Testament is authority for practice and doctrine to be given to someone that is outside of the community. Acts and Paul’s letters show the establishment of a structure for the body of Christ. The elders and deacons have authority that we are to submit to. No where does it mention that we should look to unbelievers for authority. The council in Acts fifteen takes place with the leaders of the Church. They do not ask the Sanhedrin what should be normative practice, that is decided by the believing community. What the real problem is, is that if we submit to the authority of the rabbis, they will tell us to burn our New Testaments and reject Yeshua as messiah. In fact the Talmud Gittin 56b-57a Yeshua is described as boiling in excrement. In other places he is referred to as a sorcerer. So am I to take this document that calls the Son of God (God Himself) a sorcerer and in hell boiling in excrement as authoritative over my life and worship of God? Absolutely not. This is the heart of the matter for me. I cannot submit to the authority of documents written in reaction to Christianity from people that did not believe in the messiah.

Now what about Christian tradition? Is it all pagan? No. Most of the calendar and major feast days were established in the first four centuries of Christianity during which time it was heavily persecuted by pagans. Almost any scholar who is an authority in this area acknowledges that Christianity did not at this time adopt pagan festivals as its own. There is no evidence from the primary sources either. In fact, Christianity was trying to show itself distinct from the pagan world it lived in.

So what of Christian tradition? From the beginning it kept many customs that Yeshua and his disciples would have kept. This is the one thing that I applaud Hebrew Roots, is they are trying to revive this practice. However, the historical church has been doing this all along. The Liturgy of the church is based on the Liturgy of the temple. The Epistle to the Hebrews and Revelation are both highly Liturgical books and we see in Acts that Peter and John are praying at the temple and that many priests have believed as well (3:1 and 6:7). Christianity started in the temple and synagogue and when those institutions were no longer open to them, they kept the practice that they had begun with. Indeed, Moses was shown the pattern on the mount and we are shown the vision of John of heaven and Yeshua as our high priest. So Christian worship oriented itself on these things. For all the problems of rabbinic Judaism, try going to a synagogue on Shabbat and then an Orthodox Christian Liturgy on Sunday and see the parallels. It is because they both have a common source, the temple.

Christianity and Judaism both then preserved the temple worship, but Christianity did so with the knowledge of messiah. Instead of kissing the Torah, we kiss the Gospels which tell us of the living Word. The tripartite design of the church is based on the tabernacle as well as the incense and alter, now all understood in light of messiah. We do have new customs, customs instituted by the New Covenant. Communion and Baptism, although with Old Testament parallels, have been given fuller meaning and are a mark of membership in the body of Christ. Rabbinic Judaism does not and cannot have these. Rabbinic Judaism cannot be the body of Christ for obvious reasons. Therefore, I cannot look to something outside of the body for authority and tradition. Besides, after much research and looking at the church in fairness, I have seen that I had been missing many things that are straight out of the Bible and were certainly practices that Yeshua would have done.

What then should the authority for tradition be for believers in messiah? Should it be the messiah himself? As well as his followers and there followers after them? If the Holy Spirit is truly indwelling believers in Christ, and we believe Yeshua’s words that the Spirit will lead us into all truth (John 16:13), then the church warrants closer inspection on what authority it holds for the believer. That is unless Yeshua was wrong and the Gates of Hell did prevail against it (Matt. 16:18).

“If I am delayed, you will know how people out to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and the foundation of the truth.” 1 Timothy 3:15

It seems that Paul is explaining that the body of Christ contains the truth and is reliable for instruction and authority. Have there been abuses? Sure. But that does not mean we should wholly reject anything Christian. Were it not for the historical Church, the Hebrew Roots Movement would not have its New Testament, translations into the vernacular, or would have been taught about the faith at all.

We owe the Christians and the Church before us a huge debt for preserving truth. Without the Church, I would not have known of messiah. I cannot then wholly reject the institution that has been the historically visible body of Christ on earth for two thousand years, that has preserved the faith and passed it to me for rabbinic customs that are later than Christian ones, and reactionary to them in many ways. I think we can learn from Rabbinic Judaism, but to accept its tenants as normative for the believer in messiah is going too far. I’m not sure where to go from here, but I cannot accept a system as authoritative that rejects the authority, and Godhood of Yeshua the messiah.

 

Christmas as a Jewish Concept

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The cave under the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Christ.

It’s that time of year again; shopping, eating and awkward family visits. For the Hebrew Roots folks, it’s even more awkward. Christmas is generally frowned upon as a pagan celebration and roundly condemned as something believers should not be taking part of. This was my position for several years. Rejection of Christmas is part and parcel of the Torah Observant communities.

Generally Deuteronomy 18 is quoted “do not learn the ways of the nations or worship me in their way.” I admit this is a powerful motivator that gets one thinking about what “the church” has gotten wrong over the years.

Christmas and Easter are usually touted as Christians adopting pagan holidays to make conversion easier for the pagan. If we have the same holidays and customs, we’ll be more attractive right? I was convinced for a while. We hear it over and over again that Constantine changed everything in the fourth century and instituted these new holidays. One only has to search Youtube for Constantine and Christmas to get a myriad of condemning videos.  Here’s where I got into trouble. I started studying the history myself and just doing a little thinking.

Christmas was around way before Constantine. In fact, it is mentioned off hand in a work by Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis 1.21.145) in the second century and we can ascertain from Saint Augustine’s writings the same thing.

So here’s where the Jewish element comes in. The Christians believed (and still do) that they are in some way Israel. In the early years, they thought of themselves as part of the Jewish religion and are characterized as such in Acts of the Apostles 24:14. They obviously shared many things in common with the various strands of Judaism in the second temple period. Many of these beliefs can be found in the literature of the time and from the Talmud. Although the Talmud was written and codified much later, it does preserve some early material. One of these beliefs is the concept of integral age. The Patriarchs and prophets were born and died in at least the same month, and usually on the same day. This idea can be found in Tractate Rosh Hashana of the Talmud: “R. Jehoshua, says: In Nissan the world was created, and in the same month the patriarchs were born, and in Nissan they also died; Isaac was born on the Passover; on New Year’s Day Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah were visited, Joseph was released from prison, and the bondage of our fathers in Egypt ceased. In Nissan our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt, and in the same month we shall again be redeemed.” If this is true of the prophets, would it not be acceptable for the messiah? That is what the early Christians thought.

The back drop of the second century is that the Gnostic heresy was in full swing. The Gnostics believed that Jesus/Yeshua was only an apparition or that God only descended upon him at baptism and left him before the crucifixion. The main point being that the flesh was evil and God was saving us from this fleshly existence. So when you have a group of Gnostics saying “Hey the Word didn’t come in the flesh, ’cause that’s bad” you’ve got an issue.

What happened, I believe, is that Christians took this belief in integral age and the advent of messiah to calculate his birth at least partially in response to Gnosticism. We know that messiah died on Passover so he must have been born then right? But wait! In the beginning the word became flesh. So messiah became flesh well before birth, certainly not at baptism as some the heretics taught. So if he died on the same day he was made flesh, that would be the date of his conception, not birth. His birth would be nine months later (as the ancients believed). So all we have to do is puzzle out what day Passover was when he was crucified and then add nine months to it. Here’s how we got the dates on the Julian and later Gregorian calendar.

Most Hebrew Roots people I know insist on using the biblical calendar. However, when I ask them when they are celebrating Passover or what have you, they give me the Gregorian date. The same thing was going on in the Diaspora and the early Christian communities. They took what dates they thought were correct for the new year, rosh chodesh etc. and reconciled it to the local Julian calendar, exactly as my friends do today. No one in Spain or Rome was waiting around for months for a messenger to come from the Sanhedrin to tell them the new year was here and Passover is in two weeks. It was just impossible to rely on that, and there is plenty of evidence the Diaspora didn’t always recognize the Sanhedrin’s authority anyway (just read Philo of Alexandria).

All this is to say that in the west the early Christians thought that Christ was crucified on March 25 (probably not the right date, but, oh well, sorry). In the east, April 6th was the day they thought Passover fell that year. So if you add nine months to either of these two dates, you get the two dates for Christmas, December 25th in the west and January 6th in the east. This idea came from a belief they held in common with Jews of the second temple period of integral age and does not seem to have pagan origins.

During the second century Christians were not in the habit of adopting pagan customs. They were trying to be distinct from their pagan persecutors and the rabbinic Jews that they had mutually cut ties with. So to say that Christians were adopting this day to make conversion easier for pagans denies the character of the faith in the early centuries. Further, we see no evidence from any ancient source that encourages such behavior, but the complete opposite.

This belief that everything Christian was once pagan mainly comes from the higher criticism and radical Protestantism of the 18th and 19th centuries. Higher criticism claimed (with scant evidence) that Christmas as well as many other Christian customs were adopted by the faith for attracting pagans. This is called the History of Religions Hypothesis (what I have been arguing for is called the Calculation Hypothesis).  The radical Protestants thought it was a “pope-ish” custom and of course, Rome was the Harlot from Revelation. Since the 19th century this idea has been picked up by Seventh Day Adventists and others and made its way into Hebrew Roots, which is basically predicated on the premise that the church lied to us and is trying to lead us into false worship.

I abandoned this belief of the church lying to us on further inspection of the history of Christianity and an examination of the arguments that are put forth by Hebrew Roots. It started with this article by Andrew McGowan, a scholar of early Christian beliefs and practices

http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/new-testament/how-december-25-became-christmas/

From here I read everything in the bibliography, especially the primary sources, to recreate his research and see it for myself. I then began reading widely on the first six centuries of Christianity, both primary and secondary sources, and could not find any evidence for adoption of pagan customs for Christmas. Needless to say, I was floored. I had spent the last few years telling my family we’re not going to celebrating a pagan holiday, based on watching a few video on Youtube and listening to self proclaimed “Torah teachers”. I read another scholarly source that argued that Christmas grew out of Hanukkah. As Hanukkah was the re-dedication of the temple, the advent of messiah is a re-dedication of the temple of our bodies. The image of God in man is being redeemed by God becoming man. So the idea is thoroughly second temple Jewish/biblical.

I concluded most of my research last January, after Christmas. So this year will be the first year in half a decade that I’m open to the idea of celebrating the holiday. How does that look? I’m not sure. Maybe some pagan influence has come in over the centuries and folk ways have taken root (and certainly Coca-Cola). So I still want to be careful. My main goal is to honor God. Growing up Protestant, the only Christian holidays were Christmas and Easter, there was no greater calendar of events or seasons besides a reluctant Valentine’s day. Advent, Lent, even Pentecost wasn’t on the radar. From my study of the liturgy and church calendar I’ve come to realize that these two holidays were part of an entire cycle that lasted the entire year and suffused it with contemplation of the messiah, much of it based on the biblical holidays found in Leviticus 23. My understanding of early Christianity has grown in leaps and bounds and I must say, I haven’t found the conspiracy that Hebrew Roots had taught me. I don’t mean to beat up on them, they are mostly well meaning people and teach this as a given. In fact, many Christians just readily admit that Christmas is pagan because it’s repeated so much most people think it actually is, but it’s not! Hardly anyone has bothered to check these assumed positions, Christian or Hebrew Roots.

My challenge to you, instead of taking my word for it, go do the research yourself. Read Thomas Talley’s Origins of the Liturgical Calendar and Bradshaw’s The Origins of Feasts, Fasts and Seasons in Early Christianity. These are scholarly sources that are not propaganda from someone who has a dog in the fight. And of course, read the primary sources of early Christianity. I think what you will find is that Christmas fits neatly into accepted beliefs of second temple Judaism from which Christianity came. It was a holiday to commemorate the redeeming of our flesh, the true temple (Hanukkah) and to combat the Gnostic heresy that messiah did not come in the flesh.

I think after this I’ll do one more reflection on Christmas and then I’ll tackle the issue of Constantine. I’m sure that won’t be controversial at all!

God bless, and may we all walk in His Truth.

Exodus From Hebrew Roots

For the last few years I have been attending Hebrew Roots/Messianic Jewish congregations. After the church left me wanting, I encountered this movement that told me half the stuff I’d been taught were false, and that God was restoring his people in these last days. Instead of the same three sermons on half of a verse plus an alter call (for the same twenty five people every Sunday) to “get saved,” the Hebrew Roots folks were reading chapters at a time and teaching in depth. Needless to say, I was impressed. Jesus was Jewish, and Hebrew Roots was highlighting this fact. I felt like I was finally getting some education and participation out of my faith.

However, not everything was kosher (see what I did there?). While there was an emphasis on the Old Testament that is wholly lacking in many Protestant churches (at least those I grew up in), there was almost a total lack of anything explicitly Christian in much of the teaching. We started looking at what the Talmud and medieval rabbis had to say concerning the Bible and ignoring anything Christian. Indeed, the Christian religion is widely condemned as “pagan” and of Papal invention. Christmas, Easter, even the name Jesus is frowned upon by many groups. By the way, I’ll be doing separate posts dealing with all three of these issues.

The last place I attended for any length of time changed belief and practice almost by the quarter. When I first attended, we were to use the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) for referring to God. By the time I left, it was HaShem (Hebrew of  ‘The Name’) and the guys starting to play dress up as Hasidic Jews. There was almost no mention of Messiah and certainly a de-emphasis of the New Testament. The new practice was to assume the authority of the rabbis and the Talmud. Since the Torah cannot be interpreted without tradition, then we need an authority to do this for us. Moses set up a council of 70 elders in Exodus and that eventually became the Sanhedrin, then when the temple was destroyed that authority passed to the Rabbis and writers of the Talmud. So, as faithful believers in the God of the Bible, we should follow the strictures of Rabbinic law to serve our God. There was also a scant appeal to Matthew 23:2 that this is what followers of Yeshua (Jesus) were supposed to do.

This bothered me greatly. Not only was there almost no mention of the Messiah, now we are following Rabbis who deny that Yeshua is the Messiah and Son of God. In fact, the Talmud states that Yeshua is burning in hell in his own excrement (Gittin 56b-57a). When mentioned, this was usually usually excused by saying that the Jesus they’re talking about is the one invented by the church.

Now I realize that practice and theology vary widely from group to group and that we cannot conflate bad practice to the validity of the theology of Hebrew Roots, but herein lies the problem. There is no coherent theology that unifies the movement. The main points seem to be, keep the commandments of God, Christianity has lied to us and God has restored his Torah in the last days, and most of the time there is an attraction to Jewish styles of worship, practice and biblical interpretation. However, the extent of this varies so much from group to group that it is rather vague assumptions than points of doctrine.

I’m all for searching for the truth and seeing what errors have been propagated in the name of Christianity, but a wholesale rejection of anything Christian I believe is wrong. Many reject the Trinity, or the divinity of Messiah because “these are not Jewish concepts.” Of course they’re not! Rabbinic Judaism developed after Christianity and in reaction to it. It is true that what we find in the New Testament is unique, but there are also parallels in Second Temple Judaism. Indeed there are many things that historical Christianity preserves from Second Temple practice that were suppressed by Rabbinic authority because they were “too Christian.” I’ll link a post to this topic when I finish writing it.

So for the sake of brevity, my main point is that Hebrew Roots has unnecessarily rejected Christian theology for an incoherent set of conflicting doctrines. I think much of this comes from not understanding the doctrines in the first place and when someone comes along giving a convincing explanation of how to approach the Old Testament many reject orthodox Christianity for Hebrew Roots. I’m all for keeping the commandments and pointing out the failures of the church in doing and teaching these things, but to put myself under the false religion of Judaism is too much. One man said to me that Christianity is a religion about Jesus, but he wanted the religion Jesus practiced, then proceeded to follow medieval rabbinic interpretations of the Bible. This cannot be what Jesus meant when he set up his church (dare I use this word?) to bring the Gospel to the nations.

This is my first post and I imagine I’m going to address individually many of these issues I’ve brought up. I’ve titled this Exodus From Hebrew Roots because that is the direction I’m heading. I’ve been studying Second Temple Judaism, The early Christian period, Patristic writings and early Christian theology. In doing so I have found many of the criticisms that Hebrew Roots has for Protestantism (well, I guess low church evangelicals), and many of the things they emphasize can be found in the early church. The interpretations are just a little different. For example, I started on this path by visiting an Orthodox church after attending a synagogue the previous day. I found the style of worship very similar except the obvious emphasis was on Jesus at the church. But what I came to realize is that historical Christian worship is based on the liturgy of the temple. The reason I was attracted to Hebrew Roots was its emphasis on doing what Jesus and his followers did, only to find out that there are churches that have been doing this all along and not looking to Rabbinic Judaism for direction. So I have been asking myself, given that the Holy Spirit leads the followers of Messiah, would there not be correct worship and practice in the church as opposed to Rabbinic Judaism that rejects Jesus as the Messiah?

No matter where I end up on this journey, I doubt I can accept that following precepts from a religion that rejects Jesus as Messiah as correct observance that God actually condones. So for now, I’ll keep the commandments as best I know how and keep studying how other Christians have done it over the centuries.

Be sure to look for more posts in the next couple of weeks!

May God bless you