This is Part 1 in our series on “Athens or Jerusalem? Establishing the Spiritual Heritage of Jesus’ Followers”
“Consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.” (Rom. 11:18)
Long before modern psychology, biology or sociology, the Bible understood that to live well in the present, and have confidence for the future, we must know our past and where we came from. Knowledge of our beginnings is central to biblical faith, which begins with Genesis, ”be’resheet” in Hebrew, which means “in the beginning.” The New Testament, too, begins with “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Mt. 1:1).
In order to get acquainted with the faith family we are part of, the Prophets appeal to us to, ”Look to the rock from which you were cut… Look to Abraham your father…” (Isa. 51: 1-2). Connecting with our history and “roots” (to use a popular term) in Israel and the Jewish people is the only way to make sense of the Christian faith, of what it means to be a follower of the Jewish Jesus, how to live our lives, and what’s to become of us. This, in a word, is our heritage.
While the roots of Christianity run deep in Jewish soil, few Christians have much knowledge or understanding of their Jewish heritage. Some go so far as to reject outright the idea that Jews or Judaism have anything to do with living a New Testament (NT) Christianity or anything to contribute to our faith walk with Jesus. Much of the responsibility for this lies with Christian educators and theologians who stress ideas and theologies that have grown out of their own Western cultural influences, or from Church “Fathers” like St. Augustine and Martin Luther, whose worldviews reflect a different, and sometimes opposing culture to that of the Jewish mindset that authored Scripture.
Scripture tell us that Gentile Christians are grafted into the same root system of one olive tree, joined by faith to the people of Israel, and adopted as “children of Abraham.” That means that the true “Fathers” of our faith are Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets, who like Jesus, the Apostles and Paul prepared a heritage, history and family of faith for us to be a part of, and in which we learn how to live our lives, think about life, God, and the world around us. Without this Jewish faith heritage, we are left to wander like orphans in a wilderness of competing worldviews.
For more on how the Church ended up so far from her Jewish heritage, watch a discussion with Israel Today Members on “The Church and Israel: a history of what went wrong.
Athens or Jerusalem?
Which brings us to the crucial question we will be asking in this series. “How did the Jewish people in the Bible view the world around them, the God of Israel and their own humanity? And how is that different from how we see God and the world around us?” This is of course a daunting task and we can only begin to scratch the surface. It requires digging into the biblical languages, culture and faith, and learn what it means to walk in the faith of our father Abraham in today’s world.
A word of caution. For some of us this will not be easy. It is not comfortable to have our presuppositions challenged, especially concerning our personal belief systems. It can be scary. But to be serious about our faith, we must try to uncover aspects of our faith rooted in Jewish heritage. It is my belief, and experience, that this journey is well worth the effort and will bring both blessing and benefit to all who dare “look to our father Abraham.”
While the Bible clearly reflects a way of life and worldview that is unabashedly Jewish (for better or for worse!), and the first century Jews who followed Jesus were grounded in Jewish, Hebraic thinking, some point out that Hellenism and the Greek philosophy of the times impacted the Jews and early Christians. They assume that Paul, the “Apostle to the Gentiles” whose epistles were written in Greek with concepts that seem foreign to Jewish culture, was especially influenced by the predominate Hellenistic culture of the time.
Many of the NT Jews, like Paul, took Greek names, and certainly Jews, and Judaism, were influenced by the culture of their day. Let’s not forget, however, the extraordinary ability of the Jewish people to endure centuries of persecutions, exiles and upheavals while preserving their culture, faith, language, and in our day, their land.
One of the issues we will look at is the NT’s use of Greek words and what they would have meant to the Jewish writers who penned them. Words like ”logos” which translates to the Hebrew ”davar” or “Word,” have numerous philosophical connotations in both the ancient Greek and Hebrew worlds. Similarly, ”nomos,” Greek for “law” in the NT, does not come close to describing the Hebrew ”Torah.” What exactly was Paul referring to in the numerous times he uses “nomos”? One can quickly see how important it is to understand the Jewish world before translating or even reading the NT.
If God chose the Jewish people, then He also chose the Hebrew language through which to reveal Himself. “The Old Testament is the foundation of the New. The message of the New Testament is in the Hebrew, not Greek tradition. Our tutors to Christ are Moses and the Prophets, not Plato and the Academies,” writes NT scholar Norman Snaith in The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament.
In this series we will look at Snaith’s writings as well as others who have labored to reveal and restore the Hebrew background to the NT. We will also host live Zoom discussions for your questions and comments on each chapter in the series. Join us as we go on this journey to better understand the Jewish-Christian faith.