Hebraica Veritas and Christian Faith

Recovering and Restoring the Church’s Hebrew Foundations

Beit Midrash for calendar_month March 2023

The God of Scripture speaks Hebrew. As a matter of fact, the only name that God ever chose for himself to express his own self-identity is the Hebrew name יהוה―Yhwh, the term that reveals his divine essence as the “I AM.” Amazingly, just one four-letter Hebrew name revels the truth about God’s immutability, his aseity, his eternity, and his omniscience, telling us that he never changes, he is the source of his own existence, he has always existed and he will always exist, and he knows everything—all of this because he exists in the eternal present.

When Yhwh’s voice thundered with such power that the entire earth heard him, he spoke in Hebrew that was so dynamic that the Israelites who were assembled at the base of Mount Sinai both heard and saw the Ten Words that he delivered to Israel and the world. The sages say that the Israelites “not only heard the Lord’s voice but actually saw the sound waves as they emerged from the Lord’s mouth. They visualized them as a fiery substance.” The third-century ad sage Simeon ben Lakish graphically declares that the heavenly Torah that predated creation was written by God “as letters of black fire on a parchment of white fire … the Torah scroll that was given to Moses was made of a parchment of white fire, and was written upon with black fire and sealed with fire and was swathed with bands of fire.” God’s Word was, indeed, a “fiery decree” (Deuteronomy 33:2) that appeared as visible tongues of fire that the people could see. Here is how Holy Scripture describes this phenomenon: “The people saw the sounds, and the lightning, and the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking” (Exodus 20:18). How does one see sounds? Philo of Alexandria answered this question as he described the phenomenon at Sinai: “The flame [on the mountain] became articulate speech … so clearly were the words formed … that they seemed to see them rather than to hear them” (De Decalogo 33). Then, Rabbi Yochanan asserted that “God’s voice, as it was uttered, split up into seventy voices, in seventy languages (Talmud, Shabbat 88b), so that all the nations should understand” because God said, “Is not my word like fire … and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29. The language that was “split” as “cloven tongues of fire” so that every nation on earth could hear God’s Ten Commandments was Hebrew.

Abraham, The First Messenger of Hebrew Truth

Hebraica Veritas rests on the foundation of the ancient patriarch of faith, Abraham. A Sumero-Babylonian by birth and an Assyrian by nationality, Abraham received the divine revelation of monotheism and chose to believe in the one and only God. Then, he heard God’s voice speaking to him in Hebrew:  “Lech l’chah” (“Go for yourself), and he left his home and security in Haran of Syria and journeyed into the unknown but headed for the Promised Land. When Abraham crossed over the Euphrates River and into that land, his crossing over actually made him the first Hebrew. The word Hebrew comes from the word eber, which means “to cross over” or “from the other side.”

Abraham is, according to the apostle Paul, “the father of us all [Jews and Gentiles]” (Romans 4:16). This means that he is the father of the faithful, those who have been justified by faith in God and who have chosen to follow the Lord and fulfill his instructions in utter faithfulness. He and his wife Sarah are the ones whom God commanded his people, “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth” (Isaiah 51:1–2).

Abraham is the example par excellence for those who would walk with God in faith. Scripture repeatedly says that when God spoke to Abraham, “early in the morning” thereafter, the patriarch rose up to do God’s bidding. There was no vacillating, no procrastination, no doubt, no fear. Abraham was a man of faith and faithfulness!

Abraham had a story to tell to the nations because God anointed him to be his apostle of monotheism. So Abraham erected his tent complex alongside the major byways and erected altars there where he could preach the good news of God’s salvation to all who came by. God had made him the prophetic intercessor for the Gentile peoples when he promised him: “I will bless you, and through you I will bless all the families and nations of the earth” (Genesis 12:3; 22:18). Abraham was a prophet and teacher of Hebrew Truth! And he became the progenitor of the Hebrew/Israelite/Jewish people whom God commissioned to be a light to the nations and for salvation to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6). And his tongue became the language of truth.

Hebrew: The Language of Deeds

The Hebrew language is a power-packed vocabulary. With barely 7,000 fundamental words, compared to 171,146 words and another 47,156 obsolete terms in the English language, biblical Hebrew speaks succinctly and with stark clarity. (Even Modern Hebrew has only 33,000 words.) Every Hebrew word is derived from a three-letter verbal stem; therefore, Hebrew is a verb-based language rather than a noun-based language like English. It focuses totally on function over form. Hebrew is a “doing” language, not a “thinking” language. For the Hebraist, therefore, the focus is on deed over creed on orthopraxy over orthodoxy. By focusing on verbs and action, it avoids the problems of substantives and the ideas that they suggest. Paul Evdokimov suggests that “of all the languages, Hebrew conveys most faithfully the dynamism of the word of God and always shows us an action in it.”

In reality, whenever one thinks of “truth,” one would have to think in terms of the Hebrew language and the Hebraic worldview and mindset in which the Scriptures were revealed and written. Jesus himself said, “Your Word is truth.” The Word of God is truth, and the Word of God came to us through Hebrew-speaking and Hebrew-thinking prophets, sages, and apostles!

The precision with which Hebrew speaks makes it the perfect vehicle for the proclamation of the very Word of God. As God progressively made episodes of divine self-disclosure (revelation) to prophets, priests, kings, and sages, he did so in Hebrew. Those who heard the voice of God speaking in their ears heard Hebrew words that created Hebrew thought. These were “holy men and women,” and they all were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” so that when they heard God, they did not attempt to give their own private interpretation to what God said: they merely spoke what God spoke.

The utter accuracy of the Hebrew texts is astounding. When interpreted with a Hebrew mindset (and a set of “Jewish” eyes), whether the truth is hidden or apparent, the Hebrew texts jump from the pages and penetrate the heart of the reader and the hearer. God said what he meant and he meant what he said! And, Hebrew has always been the finest language for succinct and clear talk. Is it any wonder then that Martin Luther exclaimed, “The Hebrew language is the best language of all, with the richest vocabulary . … If I were younger, I would want to learn this language, because no one can really understand the Scriptures without it. For although the New Testament is written in Greek, it is full of Hebraisms and Hebrew expressions. It has therefore been aptly said that the Hebrews drink from the spring, the Greeks from the stream that flows from it, and the Latins from a downstream pool” (Martin Luther, Tischreden in Pinchas E. Lapide, Hebrew in the Church: The Foundations of Jewish-Christian Dialogue, 1984).

Hebrew and the Apostolic Scriptures

Luther pointed out the importance of recognizing the abundance of Hebraisms in the Apostolic Scriptures. It is virtually certain that the Gospel of Matthew was originally penned in Hebrew, for numerous Apostolic and Ante-Nicene Fathers (including Papias of Hierapolis, Irenaeus, Origen, and Jerome) make that assertion. The other Gospels contain so many Hebraisms that some suggest they were written in Hebrew and then translated into Greek.

Most scholars and translators have attempted to deny that Jesus and his disciples discoursed in Hebrew in the early Notzrim movement. They assert that Aramaic had relegated Hebrew to liturgical use only and driven it from public discourse. This may have been true among the intelligentsia and aristocracy of Jerusalem and the Temple cult, but it was not true of the Galilee, where Hebrew was in currency both liturgically and in public discourse. Jesus and his disciples were largely from the areas around the Sea of Galilee; therefore, they were surely conversant in Hebrew.

One thing that is certain is that when Jesus conversed with Paul on the Damascus Road, he spoke in Hebrew even though Paul was a polyglot. While some translations have dared to substitute the word “Aramaic” for the word “Hebrew” in this text: “When I had fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me and saying in the Hebrew tongue, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 26:14). The Greek text of this passage says the voice spoke Ἑβραϊστ—Hebraidi (Hebrew, not Aramaic) to Paul.

Gentile Christianity and Language Deficiencies

After the apostle Peter was commissioned by an angel to open the door of faith to the Gentiles at the household of Cornelius, God began to add those who had been aliens from the commonwealth of Israel to the community of faith by grafting them into his family tree. The movement was accelerated dramatically when God called Paul and he was commissioned with the apostolate to the Gentiles. Since the Greek language was virtually the lingua franca of the Mediterranean Basin where the Gospel began to go to “the uttermost parts of the earth,” it was only natural that the gospel should be preached and the Scriptures conveyed in Greek. The Hebrew Scriptures had already been translated into Greek by seventy-two Jewish scholars in Alexandria, Egypt, during the second and third centuries bc. The Apostolic Scriptures that were being developed were conveyed largely in Greek as well. And the word of salvation was heralded to countless souls in nations that had no understanding of Hebrew at all.

The problem of translations, however, is that every translation is also an interpretation. While translators make every effort to be objective, they cannot help but be subjective because their own heritage straitjackets them into using words in their own vocabulary that approximate the words that they are translating.

One good example of such problems with inadequate translation occurred when the Hebrew word for faith, emunah, was translated with the Greek word pistis. Emunah means faith in the sense of faithfulness to God. Pistis, however, means “intellectual assent to a set of premises.” With this simple change of nuance, Christian faith was transformed from an exercise of believing and doing what God has commanded into merely giving intellectual assent to church dogma. Similarly, the Hebrew word for repentance, teshuvah, was translated with the Greek word metanoia. Teshuvah means “to turn the whole person around and go in the opposite direction.” Metanoia, however, means “to change one’s mind.” Again, the action words of Hebrew that involved the whole person were exchanged for Greek words that deal only with the mind.

The Hellenization and Latinization of Christianity

This was the case with the efforts to express Hebrew concepts from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Hebraic thought of the Apostolic Scriptures.  Many nuances of language were lost in translation, causing theology and practice to be modified, sometimes minimally and sometimes maximally so that Gentile Christianity became significantly different from Jewish Christianity. Eventually the Hebraic foundations of original Christianity were purposely abandoned in favor of ideas from Greek philosophy and Latin politics. Primitive Christianity was rapidly Hellenized and Latinized.

A prime example of such an obtuse distortion of Hebraic faith was adopted by the church in the early fourth century ad when the Roman Emperor Constantine demanded that the church abandon its traditional celebration of the crucifixion of Jesus on the day of Passover according to the Jewish calendar and replace it with the celebration of what would eventually become Easter. “Let us, then, have nothing in common with the Jews. … Therefore, this irregularity [Passover observance] must be corrected, in order that we may no more have anything in common with those parricides and murderers of our Lord” (Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, chapter 9).

Another example was the church’s abandonment of the Sabbath in favor of Sunday for a day of rest and worship. The church chose the Latin day of the sun god over the Sabbath of the Lord in order to distance itself from its Jewish roots. Still further, the church adopted the timing of the Roman Saturnalia and its worship of Saturn in order to set a time for the celebration of the birth of Jesus and make transitions into the church easier for the pagans.

During this time, the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures came to be viewed as theOld Testament. Some scholars, like Jerome in the early fifth century ad, continued to insist that the Hebrew texts of Scripture had priority over the Greek texts and had to be consulted in order to achieve an accurate translation and interpretation of Scripture. Jerome was widely condemned; however, he persisted and coined the phrase Hebraica Veritas to describe his vision for accuracy in translating and applying Scripture. Though Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation became the official text of the Western Church, the Septuagint continued to be dominant in Eastern Orthodoxy. Finally, Greek thought reinforced by the Greek language subsumed the Hebraic truth of Jesus and the apostles. Systematically, Hebrew truth was replaced with philosophy and, in some cases, pagan practices. Hebraica Veritas was replaced with Gentile tradition and practices. Eventually, this trend continued in such a downward spiral that scholars and churchmen of faith and vision said, “Enough!” and they began to question the direction of the church openly.

Christian Hebraists and Reformation

At the beginning of the sixteenth century a group of Christian scholars from all across Europe made a startling discovery that all Christian leaders, scholars, and laypersons would do well to learn. After more than a thousand years of neglect, they came to understand that the Christian faith is inherently Jewish, anchored in faith in the God of the Jews, founded upon the Hebrew Scriptures (commonly called the “Old Testament”), and established on faith in the Jewish Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Whereas the Western Church (Roman Catholicism) had long since divorced itself from its Hebraic foundations, these Christians came to understand that Christian faith cannot be accurately understood or experienced without returning it to the Hebraic matrix from which it emerged.

These Christian scholars came to be called “Christian Hebraists” because they maintained that in order to be properly understood, the Holy Scriptures must be studied in Hebrew. This means that the “Old Testament” texts must be studied in the Hebrew in which they were written (or in the Aramaic of a few texts) and that the “New Testament” texts must be studied with a view to the Hebraicisms and Hebrew thought that underlies the Greek texts themselves. This meant that the Latin Vulgate text that Jerome had produced in the fourth century and could no longer be the Bible of the church as had been the case for centuries in Western Christianity. This was a virtual “Back-to-the-Bible” movement that was determined to recover the true interpretation of Scripture by committed study of the original texts in the original languages in which the biblical authors composed their writings and in which the biblical Author had revealed his Word to them.

This understanding gave birth to what came to be called the “Reformation Hermeneutic,” the method of interpretation that featured the grammatico-historical method. In this approach to biblical interpretation, the grammar of the text itself first had to be understood (which meant studying in Hebrew). Then, the history and culture of the people to whom, through whom, and for whom Scripture was given had to be considered.  

These sixteenth-century Christian Hebraists adopted Jerome’s phrase Hebraica Veritas. Many of their insights were radical for the church because they not only questioned the accuracy of the Vulgate but because they also refused to equate church tradition with Holy Scripture as the church had done for centuries. Out of their insistence on Veritas Hebraica came the motto of the subsequent Protestant Reformation, Sola Scriptura (“Scripture Alone”). It was amazing that truth that had so long been buried under church and other human tradition suddenly was rediscovered when the commitment was made to study the Scriptures in Hebrew and in the context of the history and culture of the Jewish people.

Foundations of the Protestant Reformation

The Christian Hebraists and their Veritas Hebraica created the atmosphere in which the Protestant Reformation emerged when Martin Luther nailed 95 Latin Theses to the door of the castle-church in Wittenberg in 1517, demanding that the church eliminate anti-biblical practices such as the sale of indulgences. Many of the prominent leaders of the Reformation were Christian Hebraists, and most of the other leaders of the movement approached Scripture with the same worldview and mindset that the Hebraists used and with the same hermeneutical principles that they employed.

This approach produced a revolution in Christianity, a commitment to Scripture alone and to faith alone that had not been seen for centuries. The sixteenth century, therefore, was a turbulent time in Christian history, for what it meant to be church was revolutionized and what it meant to be a Christian was radically changed.

Christians by the millions came to understand the truth of the first century that salvation was not controlled and dispensed by the church and its professional clergy. The Roman Church’s mantra, “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (“Outside the church there is no salvation”) was totally debunked. Salvation was understood as the same thing that Abraham experienced when he was “justified by faith” when righteousness was “imputed” to him for his faith.

A profound new respect for the authority of Scripture also emerged from this milieu. Increasingly, the Scriptures found their way out of the exclusive province of the clergy and into the hands of the people. The church was returned to the people where it was in the first century and where it had always belonged.

The Grammatico-Historical Method

The methodology of interpretation that the Christian Hebraists espoused was the Grammatico-Historical hermeneutic that later came to be called the Reformation Hermeneutic. These rules for interpretation of Scripture were based in the most ancient Hebrew hermeneutic, the Peshat, the literal sense of the texts themselves, which was expanded centuries later into the PaRDeS system (featuring the Peshat [literal], Remez [hints], Derash [homiletical], and Sod [mystery] forms). One can find in the teachings of Jesus and the apostles clear examples of what was later formalized in these Jewish rabbinic hermeneutical principles.

The Christian Hebraists understood that if the texts of Scripture were taken out of their contexts, they became pretexts for proof texts because they could never be rightly understood when interpreted without biblical methodologies employed by Jesus and the apostles or when transplanted into foreign traditions and cultural interpretations alien to the Hebrew culture and history in which Scripture was given.

Unfortunately, the drive toward reformation and renewal of Hebraic truth was stalled when nationalism and other competing interests—including the inevitable desire to maintain the status quo of succeeding reforms rather than continuing in the spirit of reformation sidetracked the divine movement. What was even more unfortunate was that some of the Christian Hebraists themselves were distracted from the singleness of vision for Sola Scriptura and began to dabble in legalisms, esoterics, heresies, and even kabbalistic thought. This caused the Christian Hebraist movement to lose credibility (and rightly so!). By the year 1550, the movement had largely died out, except for a continuing interest in studying Hebrew in the major universities in Europe.

The Restoration of All Things

The process that emerged spontaneously at the beginning of the sixteenth century, however, unleashed a prophetic work of restoration that would continue slowly and gradually over the following five hundred years. Successive renewal movements emerged that were concerned with restoring various aspects of biblical truth that was experienced in the first-century church.

 All of these efforts brought the church closer to its biblical heritage even though each of them crystallized into denominations that subsequently failed to continue in the spirit of the Reformation dictum, “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” (“The reformed church must always be reformed.”). The church of Jesus Christ, having lost its Jewish connection by the end of the second century, has been and will continue to be a church being reformed until the time when it finally achieves the “restoration of all things” that will prepare it for the return of the Messiah at the end of the age (Acts 3:20–21).

So, here we are moving on into another century. Time is marching on, but God is forever committed to the full restoration of Veritas Hebraica, the faith once delivered to the saints. Who will join the quest for restoration? Who will be the Christian Hebraists of the twenty-first century? Who will take up the banner of Hebraica Veritas and stand in the face of the global assault on the verities of Holy Scripture and become warriors for truth under the hand of the mighty God of Israel?

About the Author
John D. Garr, Ph.D.
President & CEO