“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.