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What is Christian Hebraism and Is It Relevant for Today?

Christian Hebraism transformed Christianity completely during the Middle Ages. However, the impact this movement had on the world remains forgotten by most people who consider themselves believers today: clergy and laity alike.

I realize I’m not the scholar this subject deserves if Christian Hebraism will have to be re-introduced to believers in the 21st century and beyond. But given the fact that none of the scholars who have specialized in this subject have produced materials in a format more accessible for the mass reader, any effort to resurrect the legacy of Christian Hebraism is better than no effort at all.

I began to investigate this subject matter three years ago when I experienced a “home coming” of sorts in my faith journey. I will explain this in an attempt to illustrate how deeply personal this subject is to me. The discovery of the story of Christian Hebraism helped bring together many of the otherwise scattered pieces of information I had accumulated through the years when it comes to the Reformation of the Middle Ages. But most importantly, it made me feel like I had “come home”. It made me realize that what I have been sensing intuitively and have been looking for through the years, others had been looking for something similar as well, some 500 or more years ago. This is both humbling and comforting from a spiritual standpoint and I will try to share this perspective with you.

 

A unique compilation of Latin moral, grammatical and historical treatises was collected by Geoffrey of Ufford in the 12th-century. Almost nothing is known of Geoffrey’s life, and this manuscript appears to be the sole surviving copy of his work. Public Domain. Source: https://www.bl.uk/medieval-english-french-manuscripts/articles/hebrew-in-christian-manuscripts-of-the-early-middle-ages

 

One more thing that will probably help you understand why I am so sensitive to the origin of words, languages and translations – I grew up during the 70s and the 80s in Bulgaria – a hard-core Communist country. Communism is based on violence, theft and ruthless, shameless lies, deception, fraud, manipulation, and propaganda. Growing up, my parents didn’t voice their opposition to Communism in front of me and my brother – they wanted to protect us. But when I was thirteen years old one night I walked in on my father listening to The Voice of Europe on short wave radio in the dark and I realized there was something going on that I didn’t know about. I got my hands on a short wave radio and became an avid listener of the Voice of Europe and the Voice of America. I slowly began to realize we were living in a parallel reality and a lot was going on we had no clue about. Under Communism there is no freedom of speech. If there were freedom of speech, the opposition would expose their fraud and crimes and their regime would be over with very quickly. They controlled all the media: TV, radio and print. Thankfully, short wave radio was there to help bring some news to the people living behind the Iron Wall. I was one of them.

The foundation of Communism has to do with the manipulation of words. Words are the tool we use to explain things. When we corrupt words, we bring a corrupt understanding of the essence of the matter they are meant to convey. For example, Communist regimes have always called their terrorist, totalitarian regimes “people’s republics”. They have fake Constitutions, fake Parliaments and fake elections. This is a gross perversion of the very meaning of what a republic, a Constitution, a Parliament and elections are meant to be. There are no “republics” in Communism. They are all in fact dictatorships. But the Communists are shameless psychopaths and they have zero remorse as they impose their regimes forcing untold millions to submit to their “republic” at gun point.

Gradually, as one grows up in a country totally dominated by the Communist regime, you begin to realize all the public slogans, school textbooks, newspapers, TV and radio are there to produce nothing but one gigantic psyopp intended to keep the people brainwashed into believing the lies of Communism as a dogma and the Communist regime as its executive (and executing) embodiment.

I became a believer in God because I kept having questions such as “how did this world come into being?” and “what happens after we die”? No one could give me an adequate answer. I loved to read books and used to spend hours and hours in the local library while growing up. Thankfully some classic literature had made its way into the Communist system. I realized that people have been asking these same questions through the ages but they still didn’t have any good answers. I also read a number of books I purchased from a bookstore selling Eastern Orthodox literature. This was very interesting but still no real answers came from going to the Orthodox Church, lighting candles, getting baptized as Orthodox, and reading their books.

Finally, at the age of 20 I came into contact with some believers who actually read the Bible and discussed things about it. I started going to the meetings of a congregation that didn’t resemble the Orthodox Church – no temple, no priest, candles, icons and so on. I realized that the only way I can become a “believer” is to accept that Jesus had risen from the dead, that he is alive somewhere in a dimension we can’t see (Heaven), that the Bible is true, and that I need to turn away from my sinful way of life (and there was much to turn away from, trust me)! I took the leap of faith and experienced a dramatic conversion at the age of 20, only a few months before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. My world had fundamentally changed and the world itself was about to change as well. Such was the beginning of my faith walk. I didn’t worry too much about who wrote the Bible and in what language, who translated it, how and when. What was important for me at the time and for many years to come was to be “spiritual”; to read the Bible, to try to grasp its teachings, to try to live according to them, and to try to get others to do the same. Sounds simple but it’s a huge challenge in and of its own. I would say most Christians spend the majority of whatever time they have trying to do their best doing exactly this; study the Bible, pray, try to live out its teachings, try to do good works, try to help others become believers.

Sadly, not so many believers go deeper and investigate the origins of the faith, the history of Scripture, the historic background, culture and context of the different events described, the true meaning of its teachings as they were given at the time, and what all this means to us.

However, I have remained as hungry to learn about the origins of the faith, as I am to learn how to live its teachings. I therefore share my discoveries without any specific agenda except my deeply seated desire to get to the bottom of the story, to learn the truth about something as much as it’s possible and only then to draw my conclusions about it. It’s with this mindset that I have been pursuing the re-discovery of Christian Hebraism during the Reformation of the Middle Ages and its relevancy for us today.

TALMIDIM – NOT DISCIPLES; RABBI – NOT “MASTER”; YESHUA – NOT “JESUS”

My first encounter with the Jewish heritage of the faith was in 1993 when I visited a Messianic congregation where I also purchased the Jewish New Testament by David Stern. It impacted deeply my perception of the historic Jesus as a fully Jewish man, as well as the Jewishness of the Gospel, the “church” (a term we will be deconstructing in a future post), and really the faith as a whole.

I remember how refreshing it was to learn that the “disciples” I had been reading about in the Gospel were in reality “talmidim”, that the real name of Jesus was actually Yeshua and that he was a Rabbi, not “Master” as some translations would have us believe.

Does this matter? Do we have to use Hebrew words and then learn what they mean vs. accepting a bunch of substitute and sometimes totally made up Hellenistic terms? I’ll make the case for Christian Hebraism as I post more on this subject and you can investigate this for yourself and make up your own mind.

NO ONE TALKING ABOUT CHRISTIAN HEBRAISM

I was fortunate enough to have graduated from a Bible School that rejected the replacement theology and honored the Jewish people. This Bible School helped many accept a Biblically correct theological, moral and ethical position of support and love for Israel and the Jews. This was also a Bible School that took the position that the Reformation of the Middle Ages was “the” much needed reset and remake Christianity needed in the pursuit of its original, more authentic beginnings. However, I didn’t hear anyone in Bible School talk about Christian Hebraism and its impact on the Reformation of the Middle Ages.

That was almost 30 years ago.

Since then I have been around a good deal of Christians who love Israel and the Jewish people, the Messianic Jewish movement, and have also gotten to know many non-Jews who have walked away from Protestantism and embraced the messianic movement. When I say “Christians” this includes ordinary believers and leaders alike. They love God, they are zealous about bringing Christianity back to its Jewish foundation, they are eager to express their faith in a way closer to its Jewish origins and they emphasize the changes we need to implement on a liturgical level. But again, they know about Christian Hebraism as much as a Southern Baptist.

To learn about Christian Hebraism today one has to dig deep into the vaults of higher academic learning. While the Messianic movement has picked up quite a lot of momentum during the last 30 years and we rejoice over this fact, it remains a mystery to me why hardly anyone has attempted to re-introduce the Christian Hebraists to our generation. As I kept learning about their passion to re-discover the Truth of God through the lens of Hebrew, I couldn’t help but think about the implications of such discoveries for us today.

I wish I didn’t have to do this. This is not my “full time” job at this point in time and I don’t have the professional theological credentials to challenge the status quo when it comes to the Hellenization of the faith vs. its rightful Hebraic origins. But I kept on digging and investigating this story for me and the sense that I have an obligation to re-tell this forgotten story kept growing in my spirit.

WHAT IS CHRISTIAN HEBRAISM?

“Historically Christian Hebraism has been understood as the use of Hebrew, rabbinic, or Cabbalistic sources for Christian religious purposes during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The use of such source material had dramatic results including the re-translation of the Old Testament, the re-interpretation of the New Testament, and the re-examination of historically central doctrines of Christianity” – Prof. Jerome Friedman, Kent State University [https://www.amazon.com/Most-Ancient-Testimony-Sixteenth-Century-Christian-Hebraica/dp/0821407007]

Stephen Burnett, author of “Christian Hebraism in the Reformation Era (1500-1660)”, says the following: “The Reformation turned Christian Hebraism from a pastime of a few hobbyists and theologians into a broad intellectual movement that involved students and professors, printers, and patrons of many kinds living throughout Europe. Christian Hebraist authors were the central actors in this movement.” [https://www.amazon.com/Christian-Hebraism-Reformation-Era-1500-1660/dp/B01181VYU4]

Going forward, I will quote extensively Prof. Jerome Friedman and Stephen Burnett. They have summarized so much of the information that’s missing from the arsenal of Biblical Scholars and ministers today.

Johannes Reuchlin (1455 – 1522) was classics scholar whose defense of Hebrew literature helped awaken liberal intellectual forces in the years immediately preceding the Reformation.

Christian Hebraica became one of the most powerful spiritual and intellectual forces of the Reformation of the Middle Ages. It became known as “Hebraica Veritas” (Hebrew Truth) because for the first time in 1,000 years Christians recognized the Hebrew Bible and classical Hebrew as the legitimate source of spiritual truth, not Jerome’s Latin translation. While it’s true that Jerome did study Hebrew and Greek in order to produce the Vulgate into Latin, the Reformers of the Middle Ages felt they had many good reasons to re-examine Jerome’s translation which was given the status of “inerrant” or inerrant-like by the Roman-Catholic Church.

Christian Hebraists were scholars of Hebrew literature. Hebraists approached Jewish texts with both academic and polemical motivations; some wanted to study Jesus in his time while others sought a way to convert Jews to Christianity. Their focus was on Biblical scholarship, religious philosophy, and the aggadah. Christian Hebraism offers a fascinating perspective into the history of printing, linguistics, and European culture in the Middle Ages as well as comparative religion and Jewish-Christian relations. By impacting theology, literature, science, and philosophy, Hebrew literature played a vital role in the development of Western culture.

 

IS CHRISTIAN HEBRAISM RELEVANT FOR US TODAY?

Undoubtedly, this is the proverbial “million dollar question”. If the story of Christian Hebraism is only something that was relevant to the people in the Middle Ages, I can understand why very few people today should care about it.

But let’s go back to what Prof. Jerome Friedman had to say about the implications of Christian Hebraism, this intentional return to Hebrew as the primary lens of Biblical learning, and let’s see if there might be something important we need to pay a little more attention to:

“Historically Christian Hebraism has been understood as the use of Hebrew, rabbinic, or Cabbalistic sources for Christian religious purposes during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The use of such source material had dramatic results including the re-translation of the Old Testament, the re-interpretation of the New Testament, and the re-examination of historically central doctrines of Christianity”

Could this be the crux of the matter, the very kernel of what this treasure hunting journey is all about?

  1. Re-translation (of the Old Testament, for better accuracy and understanding)

  2. Re-interpretation (of the New Testament, due to better understanding of Hebrew, the language used by the Jews in the 1st century)

  3. Re-examination (of the historically central doctrines of Christianity! This is huge.)

Christians have been in pursuit of a better, more authentic, and truer to the original version Christianity for the last 500 years. The creation of many translations of Scripture has been a huge part of this pursuit of authenticity.

The return to the Hebraic framework of thought has resulted in actual re-interpretations of the New Testament itself.

But have we done any serious re-examination of the historically central doctrines of Christianity in light of the fact that Hebrew, not Latin or Greek, is “the” most important key to the correct understanding of the Truth of God?

You may think we’ve done enough but my answer would be a “no”!

But hey, I am nobody. I’m just a normal guy who wants to know why I believe what I believe, why do we do what we do and most importantly, what is the Truth of God as intended by Him? If I am ready to live or die for what I believe, I don’t see why I need to spare one’s sacred cows in my pursuit of Truth.

Standby as post more articles on this subject and we look into the genius of the Hebrew language, what it has meant for the world, the true history of its origins, and how Christian Hebraism relates to our faith today.

I would like to also invite you to check out the beta version of a wiki I have been using to organize my research in the area of Hebraica Veritas. It’s only in its beginning stages but I haven’t seen even this much organized in one place when it comes to Christian Hebraism on the Internet – so I hope this can add to your own research: https://threefold.life/wiki

George Bakalov

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