Where Little Ones Splash: The Hebrew Roots Movement

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The Hebrew Roots Movement has more to offer than merely rediscovering the biblical feasts and referring to New Testament personalities by their Hebrew names.

Internal critique is as vital as contriteness for maintaining vibrancy in the life of the Church. The New Testament promotes the salutary practice of gentle admonishment among Christians. Paul apparently had this in mind when he penned the phrase “speaking the truth in love.”[1]

Like other popular movements with a reformative dimension, the Hebrew Roots Movement (HRM) could gain much from constructive self-criticism. Those leading and those supporting the movement should encourage it. For without internal critique, our labors may yield only short-lived benefits and dubious achievements.

Crossing denominational lines, the HRM is more amorphous than delineated, and it includes much diversity. I can, therefore, speak knowledgeably only about the wing of the movement which has been influenced by the Jerusalem-based research of the late Robert Lindsey and David Flusser through the efforts of their Christian students. This wing may be described as being mainly Protestant Evangelical and Charismatic.

Dozens of HR teaching ministries have emerged within the last twenty-five years. Usually educated individuals holding undergraduate, seminary, and even doctorate degrees manage them.[2] Two principal aims of these ministries are: 1) exposing Christians to the marvelous insights accessible through a Hebraic approach, and 2) equipping laymen to serve as Sunday school teachers, Bible study leaders, etc.

This model has worked well in that it has allowed the movement to expand steadily among Protestant Evangelical and Charismatic Christians. But, of course, no model is exclusively advantageous. One benefit often comes at the expense of another. This is certainly the case for the current HR model. It has two interrelated weaknesses whose affects will become more salient, if they are not corrected.

First, those who view the HRM as having a reformative role to fill must acknowledge a glaring conflict of interests. Hebraic teaching ministries rely heavily on Protestant Evangelical-Charismatic sources of money. In other words, can those bearing the banner of change succeed at reforming the preaching tradition, when they are financially dependent on funds from individuals and churches which have a strong affection for that same tradition? Obviously, this arrangement favors not disturbing the status quo.[3]

Secondly, educated laymen constitute the main leaders of the HRM. Alongside their important contributions, a paucity of highly trained experts persists. Few of the leaders hold earned graduate degrees from accredited Jewish institutions or Judaica departments at secular universities. As a result, the movement lacks the credibility required to challenge aspects of the preaching tradition. To challenge them successfully and to offer more suitable theological alternatives would require experts working together.

Operating in tandem, these two factors act as restraining forces. Leaders shy away from questioning cherished theological assumptions. Consequently, issues remain unraised and needed theological initiatives cannot be undertaken. For example, consider the following trio:

  1. How do ancient Jewish literary sources affect our view of Scripture? Can our Statements of Faith be improved upon in the light of such sources?
  2. If eternal life and the kingdom of heaven are related, but independent concepts in ancient Judaism, how should we distinguish them one from the other in our preaching and teaching? For example, are there identical demands for receiving eternal life and entering the kingdom of heaven?
  3. Jewish tradition has long praised tsedakah and gemilut hasadim (deeds of charity). Is this same concern emphasized adequately in the HRM? Has it inspired pioneering ministries which excel at feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, etc.?

Here I have given a sampler of issues and initiatives which deserve more attention. Our reluctance to engage them, and other similar ones, is symptomatic of the HRM’s underlying dilemma. Like a swimming pool for toddlers, it lacks a deep end.

The HRM has more to offer than merely rediscovering the biblical feasts and referring to New Testament personalities by their Hebrew names. But to offer more, leaders and supporters must start dredging together in order to remove the shallowness. Such an undertaking will require courage. Co-religionists will be offended, and their ire will be expressed fiscally. It will also require rethinking about material resources. Boldness to chart a new course alongside long-term vision for investing in expertise, may be the right mix for stimulating our succulent Hebrew roots to produce something more exciting than dried traditional fruit.

Detail from an illuminated manuscript depicting the two olive trees and the lampstand of Zechariah’s vision. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

  • [1] David Bivin, “Doers of the Word,” in Sermons From Narkis (ed. Joseph Frankovic; Jerusalem: Jerusalem Perspective, 1996), 17-19
  • [2] The degrees held are usually in fields other than Judaica or Bible.
  • [3] This also applies to instructors who hold doctorate degrees in Judaica or Bible and lecture at Christian institutions where faculty members must sign a doctrinal statement.

Comments 1

  1. Joshua McClintock

    I found that point #2 is probably the single most divisive issue. Since it touches soteriology, it’s immediately suspect (at least to reform circles). So much happened between Malachi and Matthew which is illuminated by non-canonical writings that the vast majority of Christians and leaders are left filling in the blanks or not even realizing there are blanks to fill in. This said, I think there are a progression of links which can lead us from the early understanding of the kingdom of God to how Paul might understand it in his writings.

    I think first understanding how the affirmation of shema constituted the ‘receiving of the kingdom’ is critical. It sets a stake in the ground and helps us to understand how it may have first been understood.

    Brad Young makes a great point about the kingdom also being seen in relation to 1 Chron 28. David tells us that … God took pleasure in him to ‘make him king’ over all Israel. This ‘ratsah l’hamlik’ forms a basis for how those who are now 900+ years removed from that situation can, by process, ‘make God their king’ or even ‘take pleasure in God so as to make him their king’. In the midst of a Roman occupation where the loss of their national sovereignty flew in the face of the promised eternal Davidic kingdom (albeit conditional based on the keeping of the commandments in this context), the ‘kingdom of God’ would allow Israel to show Caesar who the real king by having a pseudo-kingdom within the Roman overrule. I think it follows that Jesus’ formulation of the kingdom of God was such that it moved the focus off the political reality and into spiritual reality of renewal and redemption.

    Shema is affirmed by Jesus as being the greatest commandment. The rabbinic view helps us to understand that affirming shema is tantamount to ‘receiving the kingdom’. If this is true and Jesus can expect his audience to view it this same way, is Jesus leveraging this understanding and extending it so as to say, that when you join my movement you are receiving the kingdom of God as it was actually intended? Jesus seems to be the new Moses at the head of the new Exodus, even the King at the head of this outbreaking of which the Baptist, was the breaker.

    Since Jesus seems to position himself as the very personal expression of the Father, Jesus is the very expression of shema, the perfect Israelite, the perfect keeper of the commandments. Where Israel failed, the perfect Israelite passed. So that what can be said about Jesus can be said about his people. So this is our link between the two worlds.

    Paul appears to combine Deut 6:4 and Deut 10:17 in 1 Cor 8:6 and drops Jesus directly into the formulation. As N.T. Wright said (and I summarize), Paul establishes early on, a high Christology within the citadel of Jewish monotheism, namely that of shema.

    Then the next question is, does Paul link the the confession of Jesus with what he views as the real and proper understanding of shema?

    Romans 10:9 when he says, “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Could this confession be linked with Paul’s understanding of shema?

    If shema is a confession or affirmation of God and God alone, does Paul commandeer shema so as to say, ‘If you really understand shema, you’d understand that you are really affirming Jesus as Lord.’?

    These are where my thoughts are right now. I have such a desire to understand how the first century world of Judaism and early Christianity link together. I welcome any corrections to my statements or conclusions.

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  • Joseph Frankovic

    Joseph Frankovic

    Joseph Frankovic graduated with a Master of Arts degree in American Studies from Northeastern State University. He holds additional degrees in other disciplines, including Biblical Literature, Classical Studies, and Midrash. He earned these degrees at state and private universities and accredited Jewish and Christian seminaries.…
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