The Word of the Lord in the Future of Hebraic Christian Education

Beit Midrash for calendar_month April 2024

Some may think that teaching the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem is a novel idea! But, in truth, such a vision is anything but novel. As a matter of fact, it is profoundly old, dating back thousands of years to the days of the patriarchs, prophets, priests, kings, and sages of Israel—the people, the nation, and the land of the Bible. God himself has even established the fact that the “Word of the Lord will go out from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3).

Education has always a unique experience for the people of the Bible. “Life is for learning, and learning is for life” continues to be a prominent dictum for the Jewish people, who view study and learning not as an exhausting, laborious task but as one of the highest forms of worship. And, indeed, those who study Scripture with a view toward doing it engage in the very essence of shachah, the Hebrew word for worship, which means to prostrate one’s self in the presence of the Deity.

The importance of education is built into the very aleph-bet of the Hebrew language, where the lamed is the tallest and largest of all the letters and appears at the aleph-bet’s midpoint. In the earliest forms of the Hebrew language, long before the lamed became a grapheme, it was a pictograph of an ox-goad, the ancient instrument that was used to train oxen by applying pointed pressure to their hindermost parts. The letter lamed is graphically foundational to the word lamad, which means both “to teach” and “to learn.” The size and placement of the lamed in the aleph-bet, therefore, underscores the fact that teaching and learning are to be held in the highest regard among the people who revere the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, God’s lamed, his ox goad, continually applies gentle but firm pressure to the hindermost parts of his children, directing them into paths of righteousness and peace.

Education was clearly present in the earliest annals of the Israelite people. From the time of Samuel, formal “Schools of the Prophets” were directed by some of Israel’s finest spiritual leaders in order to carry forward what Moses had established in the wilderness when God directed him to ordain seventy leaders to share his prophetic spirit. This exercise was so approved of God that two men in the camp of Israel who had not been bidden to the ordination exercise erupted in such ecstatic proclamations of divine truth that Moses was prompted to exclaim, “Would to God that all his servants were prophets!”

During the Israelite monarchy, formal education in the study of the Torah was established in the city of Jerusalem. As a matter of fact—and perhaps quite ironically—the very first such school alluded to in the Tanakh, one which may even have been a proto-yeshiva, was organized by and presided over by a woman named Huldah, a gifted and anointed prophet and a teacher. The importance of Huldah’s school is demonstrated in the fact that when Hilkiah, the high priest, discovered a long-lost scroll in the Temple during the reign of King Josiah, its authenticity was not established by the king, by the high priest, or even by the prophets Jeremiah or Zephaniah. The scroll was delivered to Huldah, who engaged in the exercise of what have come to be known as the sciences of Biblical Introduction and Textual Criticism and, in that process, determined, much to the joy of all Israel, that the scroll was indeed the Torah.

Around the time of Jesus, a scholarly group of supremely dedicated Torah scholars emerged in Jerusalem whom English translations of Scripture term “scribes.” These scholars were actually called “sopherim,” which literally means “counters,” because they counted the number of words (79,976) and letters (304,805) in the Torah. In the course of their counting, the Sopherim discovered an amazing fact about the Torah when they sought to determine which Hebrew word appears in the very middle of its text. When they counted forward and backward, they arrived at Leviticus 10:16, the text that describes the time when Moses was searching for the scapegoat for the Day of Atonement.  To their amazement, however, they discovered that there was no middle word in the Torah. Instead, on both sides of its midpoint was the word derosh so that the middle of the Torah says simply, “Derosh derash.Derosh derash is an infinitive absolute, whichis used in Hebrew to express the intensity or certainty of verbal action. This phrase is translated in English as “searched diligently.” From this textual fact, the sages concluded that the very essence of the Torah is expressed at its midpoint, the act of “searching diligently.” So, the sages of Israel have always devoted their lives to “searching the Torah diligently.” The yeshivot that they have organized have been legendary for their devotion to the teaching of the Torah among the Jewish people.

The ministry of Jesus did not introduce a revolutionarily new  religion or methodology of teaching to Israel. In fact, it followed in the style that was common to the people of Jesus. Jesus was a Jew, and his religion was biblical Judaism that was manifest as Second-Temple Judaism in his time. Jesus, therefore, was a peripatetic teacher whom virtually everyone recognized as a rabbi, some recognized as a prophet, and a very few recognized as the divine Messiah. He taught in parables, just as his contemporaries, the sages and rabbis of Israel, did. And, Jesus never commanded his apostles to make Christians, nor did he instruct them to make believers. In fact, in his Mega-Mitzvah, the Great Commission, he instructed them to go into all the world and make talmidim, disciples whose purpose would be to imitate their Lord in every aspect of their lives. Jesus had his own yeshiva of disciples whom he specifically called, saying, “Follow (imitate) me.” And his disciples, including the apostle Paul, faithfully said to others, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”

“Follow me as I follow Christ.”

1 Corinthians 11:1

Through the centuries, thoughtful scholars have followed this same methodology and have proclaimed the same message, making disciples who faithfully follow those teachings of Jesus and the apostles, which can be encapsulated in the term Hebrew truth. When Jerome was commissioned in AD 382 to translate the Scriptures into Latin, he actually coined the phrase Hebraica Veritas (Hebrew Truth) as he dared to challenge the church’s total reliance on the Greek Septuagint as “the Bible” (in much the same way in which many Christians in recent centuries have considered the King James Version to be the text that came down from Sinai, later to be translated into Hebrew and Greek). Jerome insisted that his translation return to the Hebrew texts in order to establish Hebraica Veritas.

At the turn of the sixteenth century, scholars emerged in various academic circles throughout Europe who began to question whether the Latin Vulgate and church tradition could be totally trusted. They styled themselves as Christian Hebraists and devoted themselves to the study of Hebrew. From these Christian Hebraists and their teaching of Hebraica Veritas, the hermeneutical principles on which the Protestant Reformation was founded emerged. Many of the Reformers, including Ulrich Zwingli and Philip Melanchthon, were Christian Hebraists. Even Martin Luther famously taught that “the Hebrew language is the best language of all. … 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.” From this kind of thinking, the Reformation motto “Sola Scriptura” emerged, followed by “Sola Gratia” and “Sola Fide.” At that time, Sola Scriptura meant grounding Christian faith in Hebrew Scripture alone, including the Hebrew thought that undergirded the Apostolic Scriptures.

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

This same safe foundation is available to today’s church; therefore, a return to knowledge of the Hebrew language of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Hebrew thought of the Apostolic Scriptures is essential for today’s church and especially its future leaders. This is a rock, a sure foundation that will stand when the world is on fire, for as Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

The quest for Christian education today is the same as it was then. And, it is a logical conclusion that education should be focused upon―and whenever possible in―the land where Jesus walked.  The very land of Israel cries out with truth. From the headwaters and rapids of the Jordan River to the waterfalls of Ein Gedi, the streams of Israel sing the praises of the one who creates mayim hayim. From the Negev to Mount Hermon and from the Mediterranean to the Golan Heights, the very rocks of the land teach divine truth. This land is pregnant with truth, and it erupts in a symphony of divine revelation that stirs the heart and illuminates the mind. Just being in the land of Israel is an exercise in “walking through the pages of the Bible,” where one can indeed “walk today where Jesus walked” and trace the footsteps of holy men and women of old who were carried along by the Holy Spirit so that the words that they spoke and wrote were not their own but the very Word of God. The Holy Land is a teacher extraordinaire. From the land of Israel ambassadors can be sent to the nations equipped with the language that God thundered from Sinai, the tongues of fire that the Israelites both heard and saw.

Christian education today must return to it source, to the moreh/talmidim methodology of the first century, to the Hebrew font of living water that is unpolluted from downstream impurities. I personally give thanks to God for spiritual visionaries who have equipped countless people with tools to translate the Scriptures into their own languages while at the same time instructing them in Hebrew truth that respects and honors the faith of Jesus and his Jewish antecedents.

It is time for Christianity—and Christian education in particular—to heed the words of Father Edward Flannery who famously said that an over-Hellenized, over-Latinized Christianity—and we might even say today, an over post-modernized and even nihilized Christianity—needs a re-Judaizing process so it can return to its founding ideals and the roots of its faith.

May all of us who aspire to be Christian educators commit ourselves to the task of helping the world rediscover the God of Scripture by equipping them with the Almighty’s own personal self-disclosure, the revelation of the Hebrew Scriptures, including the Apostolic Writings, and by insisting that they rightly divide those Scriptures by cutting a straight path through the Word of God with careful exegesis and exposition that reads everything out of the texts and nothing into them. In so doing, may we assist our fellow believers in recovering the Jewish roots of their Christian faith and in restoring their long-lost relationship of loving support for the international Jewish community and the nation of Israel. May we be faithful to the heavenly vision until that day when the Jewish Messiah stands upon Mount Zion with all the righteous of the earth, Jew and Gentile, and establishes his eternal dominion of shalom on earth.

Baruch haShem.

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