Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Hebrew is an ancient language, dating back over 6000 years. It is in a completely different family to the
English languag. English is part of a family of languages called "Indo-European". Hebrew is part of the
Like English, Hebrew has an alphabet. In fact, our English word "alphabet" comes from the names of the
first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph and Beth. The Hebrew alphabet was used as the basis for
the ancient Greek alphabet, which in turn became the basis for the alphabet used by the Romans, and
now by most languages in Europe.
Unlike English, the Hebrew and Yiddish language are written from right to left. As an example, here is
the first verse of Genesis, written without the vowel signs.
with vowel signs
Hebrew words have power:
We tend to take written language for granted. According to Jewish legend, the Torah (the five books of
the Bible) was written 2000 years before the Universe was created, and by implication, the letters
themselves predated the Universe. God used the Torah as a blueprint when He created the universe.
The Torah is the utmost truth; since the Torah is a relatively small book, it is believed that the Torah
contains not just the "obvious" reading, but many, many different hidden meanings as well.
For example, in Genesis, it is written that "the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and
breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." Later on in Genesis, "Adam"
is referred to, but nowhere is Adam introduced - it's taken for granted that the reader understands that
"Adam" must be the man in question. Now, in Hebrew, Adam is written like this:
This consists of three letters (right to left): Aleph, Daleth and Mem.
The word for "blood" in Hebrew is "Dam" - letter Daleth and letter Mem. LetterAleph by itself not only
represents the "Ah" sound, but also the element of air, or breath - so "Adam" is seen as blood with the
breath of life - the man created by God.
There are many other such hidden meanings in the Bible - using letters as numbers, using a "cypher" so
that the last letter of the alphabet corresponds to the first, the penultimate letter corresponding to the
second, and so on, and hidden abbreviations. Scholars have spent many years finding meaning in these,
and the Talmud is a body of writing which largely consists of commentaries - the "hidden meanings" - on
the Torah. Even today, Jewish scholars are researching such hidden meanings. In recent years, the
"Bible Code" has received a lot of publicity; this is a system where supposed hidden messages are
teased out of the bible by picking, say, every 31st letter in a sequence, or every 42nd letter, to reveal
Each Hebrew letter corresponds to a number; most Hebrew bibles actually use the letters to indicate
chapter numbers and verse numbers. This means that every single Hebrew word has a numeric value,
and scholars have long been fascinated by entirely different words that have the same numeric value as
each other. A simple example: the word for love is Ahebah (Alef-Heh-Beth-Heh), which adds up to 13.
The word for unity is Achad (Alef-Cheth-Daleth), which also adds up to 13. Thus there is a
correspondence between love and unity. The art of finding words with the same numeric value is called
gematria - the concept is vaguely similar to numerology (where a person's name is reduced to a
number, to indicate their personality), except that gematria is usually conducted on biblical names and
the names of angels.
Finally, Hebrew letters are divided into three categories: three "mother" letters, which correspond to the
three elements (Air, Water and Fire - Earth is considered to be a combination of all three elements, and
not an element in its own right), seven "double" letters, which correspond to the seven planets known to
the ancients (Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn). Double letters are so called
because they historically had two different sounds; for example, the letter "Peh" can have a "P" sound or
an "F" or "Ph" sound; some of these distinctions have now disappeared - for instance, the letter "Gimel"
only has a single sound now (a hard "G"), but used to have two sounds ("G" or "J"). The remaining
twelve letters correspond to the twelve zodiac signs:
The Hebrew letters
The Hebrew Vowels
Like most early Semitic alphabetic writing systems, the alefbet has no vowels. People who are
fluent in the language do not need vowels to read Hebrew, and most things written in Hebrew in
Israel are written without vowels. However, the Rabbi realized the need for aids to pronunciation,
so they developed a system of dots and dashes known as points. These dots and dashes are
written above or below the letter, in ways that do not alter the spacing of the line. Text
containing these markings is referred to as "pointed" text. Below is an example of pointed text.
For emphasis, I have drawn the points in the illustration in blue and somewhat larger than they
would ordinarily be written.
V'ahavta l'rayahkhah kamokha.
And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Leviticus (19:18).
There is another style used for handwriting, in much the same way that cursive is used for the
Roman (English) alphabet.
Another style is used in certain texts to distinguish the body of the text from commentary upon
the text. This style is known as Rashi Script, in honor of Rashi, the greatest commentator on the
Torah and the Talmud.
Today, increasing numbers of people, both Jews and non-Jews are being prompted to learn Hebrew. If they are like me, they need encouragement both to start and to continue. Here are some “reasons why” which may be of help.
1. Hebrew is the primary language of the Old Testament Scriptures. The apostle Paul wrote, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training.” (2 Tim. 3:16). At that time there was no recognised Scripture other than what is now commonly known as the Old Testament, which is almost entirely written in Hebrew.
2. Hebrew unfolds the riches of the whole body of the Scriptures. Martin Luther wrote, “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.”
3.Hebrew especially helps us to understand the synoptic Gospels (Matthew,Mark and Luke). There are a number of early witnesses who report that the life of Jesus was originally written down in Hebrew. Among them is Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis in AsiaMinor (circa 130 A.D.), who says, “Matthew put down the words of the Lord in the Hebrew language, and others have translated them, each as best he could.”
However, since the mid-nineteenth century it has become fashionable to believe that Hebrew was not the primary language of Jesus and his contemporaries. Therefore, Dr. Robert Lindsey, a senior member of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research and author of Jesus, Rabbi & Lord, writes, “Passages in the Gospels have become unclear and are easily misunderstood, or the meaning entirely missed, because their interpretation has become
separated from an understanding of their Hebrew linguistic and cultural roots.”
Recent analysis by scholars of the Jerusalem School has shown that there is indeed a Hebrew “undertext” lying behind nearly half of the New Testament (at least the first three Gospels and probably, also, the first half of the book of Acts). The late Abb・Jean Carmignac, a Roman Catholic scholar who worked on the Dead Sea Scrolls for twelve years, came to a similar conclusion quite independently.
4. Hebrew helps us to understand the use of Old Testament Scriptures in the New Testament and to use the Scriptures properly ourselves. Have you ever been puzzled that New Testament writers often go beyond the apparent contextual meaning of the Old Testament passages which they quote? To our Western, Graeco-Roman minds, such use often seems far-fetched, yet we accept it as valid. If we are to use the word of truth correctly (2 Tim. 2:15), wouldn’t we do well to recover, for ourselves, the ancient methods of interpretation which these writers used with such creativity?
5. Hebrew gives firsthand access to early Jewish literature. The sages and teachers of Israel have preserved important information about the historic, religious, cultural and linguistic context in which Jesus and Paul taught. They complement the Scriptures and often fill important gaps in our understanding, yet much of this literature remains unavailable in English.
6. Hebrew helps prevent and correct error. For this reason an 11th century Arabic document berated Christians for abandoning the general knowledge of Hebrew. Dr. Joseph Hertz, late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, wrote, “The Men of the Great Assembly rightly felt that the Synagogue Service must be in Israel’s historic language, which is the depository of the soul-life of Israel. Hellenistic Jewry [in Alexandria] did not share this view, and it dispensed with the Sacred Language in its religious life.” Quoting Schechter, he continues, “The result was death. It withered away, and ended in total apostasy from Biblical Judaism.”
Throughout the centuries of dispersion among other nations, Jewish children have continued to be taught Hebrew and so retained firsthand access to the Hebrew Scriptures. Is it possible that the Church has become more susceptible to error as a result of abandoning the general knowledge of Hebrew? When the common man was given access to the scriptures in his own language, through the mass production of the first printed editions of the Bible in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries A.D., it led to a reformation and a revival of the Church.
What if every Christian child were to be taught Hebrew as a second language?
7. Hebrew deepens understanding of the Church’s spiritual roots and identity. Sharing a common language helps to reinforce a sense of kinship. Members of the Church are no longer “excluded from citizenship in Israel” (Eph. 2:12). “Our forefathers were all under the cloud and passed through the sea” (1 Cor. 10:1). Those who study Israel’s ancient literature and share in the communal life of Jewish people, gain an enriched and constantly deepening appreciation of their common root in the Lord God of Israel. This can only strengthen the Church against flowing with the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the world and the dangers of
alienation from the Jewish people.
8. Hebrew enables us to participate in and benefit fully from the Hebrew service of the synagogue. Synagogue attendance was taken for granted and remained habitual for Jesus, Paul and members of the early Jewish Church in the land of Israel until the exile of the Jews in 135 A.D. Elsewhere, both Gentile Christians and Jewish believers continued to take part in synagogue services until at least the fourth century A.D. Today, the service of the synagogue remains open to anyone who wishes to go along.
9. Hebrew gives insight into the world view of the people who speak it. Dr. Clifford Denton is editor-in-chief of Tishrei, a quarterly journal which explores the Christian faith through its Jewish roots. He writes, “Immersion in a language produces far more than conversation. A language determines the very mind-set of a person. A person who thinks in Hebrew is a different person from one who thinks in English, all other things being equal. Thus, the Hebrew language gives more than an accurate understanding of words. It is within the very root structure of what it is to be a Jew.”
10. Hebrew is the lingua franca of modern Israel. It goes without saying that anyone who visits or lives in Israel will do better if he or she speaks the language of the people. Even a little is helpful, because people tend to be warmer and more responsive if one tries to communicate with them in their own language. Modern Hebrew and biblical Hebrew are very similar. One forms an excellent foundation for learning the other.
11. Hebrew is relatively easy to learn. David Bivin, co-author of a Hebrew language course and of a book on the Hebrew background to the life and teaching of Jesus, writes, “Hebrew is to a large extent a phonetic language with a relatively small vocabulary. Generally it is based on a simple three-letter root system which provides a helpful memory aid in the formation of various verbs and nouns; nothing like the complexity of many modern European languages.” Neither should one be put off by the strange-looking alphabet. Its twenty-two letters are relatively easy to learn and can be learned within a week. With practice, they soon become familiar.
12. There is something special about reading the scriptures in their original language.
But you'll only find out if you learn how! The student begins to reap the benefits of learning Hebrew immediately. However, language learning is a cyclic process. At times one is elated by the advances one has made, at others one seems to be getting nowhere. In either case, to make further progress it is essential to push steadily on, even if slowly. “He who gathers little by little will become rich” (Prov. 13:11).
Re-discovering the Scriptures in its original language
What are some things that a Bible reader misses by reading only a translation? For one thing, there are many plays on words throughout the Bible. One of the first examples of a play on words is in the story of the creation of Eve. Adam said, She shall be called Woman [ishah] because she was taken out of Man [ish] (Gen. 2:23). Adam had seen female animals, but this was the first time he had seen a female ish. This newly-formed creature resembled Adam, but it was obvious that she was female. So Adam added the feminine suffix -ah to ish. Another possible explanation: When Adam awoke from his sleep and saw the woman standing before him, perhaps he thought it was another man, and said, “Ish?” and then as the woman came into focus, “Ahhh!” (This explanation is not to be taken seriously of course.) Another play on words can be seen when Adam names the woman “Eve”: And Adam called his wife’s name Eve [Chavah, “living; life-giver”], because she was the mother of all living [chai] (Gen. 3:20). Similar plays on words can be seen in the namings of Cain, Seth, Noah, Isaac, and the twelve sons of Jacob, and, of course, at the naming of the Messiah: "...thou shalt call His name Yeshua [salvation]: for He shall save (yoshia) His people from their sins" (Matt. 1.21, Hebrew translation).
Another feature in the Hebrew of the Bible is the concept of word origins and the relationship of words to one another. Sometimes this is similar to a play on words. Man (adam) was created from the dust of the ground (adamah). In the transliteration we can see that adam is taken out of adamah. Contained in the word adam is dam, the Hebrew word for “blood,” reminding us that the life of Adam is in his blood.
Here is an example of word origin: Why was Abraham the first person to be called “a Hebrew” (ivri)? The first place the word ivri/Hebrew occurs is in Gen. 14:13, where the phrase “Abram the Hebrew” appears, with no explanation of what a “Hebrew” is. Some people suggest Abram was called a Hebrew because he was a descendant of Eber (Gen. 11:14), and this is a possibility. Another possibility, though, is found in the meaning of the ayin-beit-resh (three Hebrew letters) root of ivri. The word means “to cross over” (a river or a street, e.g.). This is exactly what Abram did. He “crossed over” in a figurative, spiritual sense when he abandoned polytheism and embraced monotheism. The Jews who translated the Septuagint used the Greek phrase Abram to perate, “Abram the passer”) in this verse. In other places they used the Greek word Ebraios to translate ivri/Hebrew. Knowing all this helps us to identity more closely with our father Abraham. We are all “Hebrews” in a figurative sense if we have “crossed over” from the kingdom of sin and darkness into the kingdom of righteousness and light. Like our father Abraham, we are all “passers” as we pass through this world, looking for “a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10).
The poetry of the Prophets is another area of Scripture that is greatly enhanced by some knowledge of Hebrew. Anyone who has studied both foreign languages and poetry knows that poetry loses some of its impact when it is translated into another language. This is true of prose, too, but even more so with poetry. And many of the Prophets’ writings are written in poetic form. Here are a few examples that I ran across while studying Isaiah in Hebrew:
… He [Yahweh] looked for judgment ( mishpat), but behold oppression (mispach) , for righteonsness (tsedakah) , but behold a cry (tse’akah) (5:7)
… For it is a day of trouble (mehumah) , and of treading down ( mevusah) and of perplexity (mevuchah) (22:5)… Fear (pachad) , and the pit (pachat), and the snare (pach) are upon thee (24:17).
… precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little
tsav la-tsav, tsav la-tsav
kav la-kav, kav la-kav
ze’ir sham, ze’ir sham (28:10)
Another feature of Hebrew is the use of acrostics. Several Psalms (and Lamentations and the “virtuous woman” passage of Proverbs 31) are written in such a way that the first verse begins with the letter aleph, the second with the letter beit, the third with the letter gimel, and so on. Psalm 119 has groups of eight verses for each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
A knowledge of Hebrew also allows a reader to see different levels of meaning in the Scriptures. When Isaiah says of the wicked dead that “their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched,” the word translated “their fire” is isham, a word formed by combining “fire” (esh) and the possessive “their” suffix, -m. This is how possessives are formed in Biblical Hebrew, so “their fire” is an accurate translation. But the word … can just as accurately be read as asham (“guilt”) is not removed. Their guilt provides the fuel for their fire.
Learning Hebrew idioms can help a reader to better understand the Bible. An idiom is a combination of words that has a meaning which cannot be understood by simply knowing the meaning of each individual word. In English we have hundreds of idioms, such as “That’s a horse of a different color” or “That really hit the spot!” These statements have nothing to do with horses and colors or hitting and spots. Students learning a foreign language must learn idioms as complete units, one at a time. It’s not enough to just know the definitions of the individual words. My seven years’ experience teaching English to foreign students has made me very aware of the importance of learning idioms. If students try to understand an idiom by looking up the definitions of the individual words, they will not get an accurate understanding of what the writer or speaker is trying to communicate. This is as true of Hebrew as it is of English. A Strong’s concordance is fine for understanding individual words, but it will not be of much help if you are dealing with an idiom. One example of a Hebrew idiom is baruch ha-ba, translated literally as “blessed is he that comes”. In Hebrew this idiom simply means “welcome”. When I lived in Israel, the road leading up to Jerusalem had shrubbery trimmed in the shape of Hebrew letters, proclaiming baruchim ha-baim liyrushalayim, “Welcome to Jerusalem.” When the Messiah lamented over Jerusalem He said, “Ye shall not see Me henceforth, til ye say, “Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord” (Matt. 23:39). In other words, He will not return until Jerusalem welcomes Him as their Messiah.
Perhaps the most important benefit of studying Hebrew is the benefit of having the mind renewed. The student of Hebrew begins to develop Hebraic thought patterns, and a Hebrew-based Biblical world view gradually replaces the Greek-based non-Biblical world view that most Western people have. Marvin Wilson discusses “The Contour of Hebrew Thought” in his book Our Father Abraham. Of course the mind can be renewed quite a bit by extensive reading of the Old Testament in a literal word-for-word translation such as the King James Version, where the Hebraic word order and sentence structure are retained to some extent.
So, how does a person learn Hebrew? The best way, of course, is to go to Israel and spend a few months in an ulpan, where students attend intensive Hebrew language classes full time. This is how I learned. During my two years in Israel, I spent a total of ten months in ulpan, attending classes five hours a day, five days a week.
If someone is serious about studying Hebrew, I strongly recommend going to Israel and enrolling in full-time language classes there. After about three months in ulpan, I was able to read and understand some of the simpler texts of the Bible, in spite of the differences between modern and Biblical Hebrew. I later studied Biblical Hebrew independently, and taught a class. I have retained my knowledge of the language by further independent study and by teaching Hebrew to others.Not everyone can go to Israel long enough to study Hebrew, of course. Some large cities (in the New York area, especially) offer courses, as do some colleges and universities. There are many “teach yourself” courses with tapes, videos, and computer programs. These are better than nothing, but cannot compare to learning in a classroom setting. The person who can learn a foreign language without the help of a real live flesh and blood teacher is a very rare individual.
Recently, I received several and, as I read them, two things were apparent. They are basically copying one from the other without giving any real serious thought to what they realty believe, and secondly, most of what they declare as articles of faith are theological statements that are fundamentally in error. For example, the one I have before me begins, "We believe that the Bible, composed of both the Old and New Testaments, is the only, infallible inerrant, and authoritative word of God." Many statements of faith begin just this way, not realizing the error and danger of what they declare as a basic, fundamental statement of belief. Recently, here in Austin, a well-known Baptist minister, pastor of one of the largest, if not the largest Baptist churches in the city, declared to his congregation in his morning message that "the greatest heresy being perpetuated in Christian circles today is the heresy of the inerrancy of the Scriptures." He went on to explain that such a doctrine or theology limits or confines God to the pages of a very small book.
This doctrine of inerrancy, and infallibility is one of relatively recent date that develops in the Church to the West and completely disregards the Hebrew concept of inspiration. To the Hebrews, the word of God was indeed inspired but not confined to the pages of a scroll, or book. Why should the Christian be concerned about the Hebrew concept of inspiration? Because I believe it represents Jesus' concept, because He was a Jew, and not just any Jew, but a rabbi, learned in the Law.
Not long ago, when I appeared on Christian television and made the statement that Jesus was not just a Jew but a rabbi, learned in the Law, one individual wrote to me and asked: How can Christians believe the teachings of the rabbis? Most were backslidden and Jesus is constantly rebuking them. Since their teaching was largely from oral tradition and not found in the inspired Bible, why should we care about anything they had to say?
It is most unfortunate that this type of thinking is prevalent in Christian circles today. Actually, it is an expression of a subtle, often subconscious attitude on the part of many Christians that is quite serious and most dangerous. We might even go so far as to define it as "hellish." Itis a "hellish" ingrained anti-semitism that expresses itself in an unwillingness to accept Jesus as a Jew. The perverted logic is, "How could anyone so dear and precious to me, someone I love so much and to whom I have surrendered my life, be a Jew?"
I believe that this type of thinking expresses the conviction of many Christians today. It is usually buried deep within the subconscious mind, or repressed, and only manifests itself overtly when one's spiritual guard is down. It is the result of the spiritual ship of the Word of God being torn loose from the moorings of the historical foundations of biblical faith. Moorings that were secured firmly in the foundations of historic Judaism. As a result, the spiritual ship has for centuries been awash in a sea of pagan theology that has led to the gentilization, i.e., paganization, of the Church. We have forgotten that we were wild olive branches grafted into the natural olive tree. We have forgotten from whence it is that the branch receives the nourishing sap. We have forgotten that we no longer have pagan ancestors, but our ancestors are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and that we too passed through the sea with Moses. We have lost our affinity to things Jewish, and, if you will, to a Jewish Jesus.
The Church has failed to recognize for the last 1800 years that the movement to which Jesus gave birth was a Jewish one, totally within the historic Judaism of his day. Further, Jesus himself was a Jew, a rabbi, spoke Hebrew, used well-known rabbinic methods of teaching, and perhaps most importantly, drew largely on the Scriptures and oral traditions of his day in his teaching. It is often overlooked that much of whatJesus said was not new or original but was based on what the rabbis had said and were saying. Jesus was constantly refering back to the Scriptures and to the oral traditions of rabbis who had preceded him or who were his contemporaries. Unless this fact is clearly understood one will be greatly confused when an attempt is made to, understand the magnificent sayings of our Lord.
It is very difficult for us, almost 2,000 years removed from Jesus' day, to project ourselves back across the centuries of time to a culture and language so totally foreign to the western mind of today. And yet, before we can even begin to understand these magnificent and thrilling words of Jesus, that is exactly what we must do.
The first thing that one must realize is that Jesus was a Jew. This fact should be obvious; however, it is surprising how many Christians are shocked to learn that Jesus was a Jew. And not just any ordinary Jew. He was a rabbi, a teacher; one learned in the Scriptures and the religious literature of his day, which was considerable. The way in which the rabbis, and Jesus as well, viewed this material is nearly impossible to explain to those with no backgroundin the Hebrew language and culture or rabbinic literature and thought.
The rabbis of Jesus' day had a reverence for the inspired Word of God that transcends that of most Christians. However, they believed that God had communicated his Word in both oral and written form. The Oral Law they considered to be no less authoritative than the Written Law. The rabbis, and I believe we can also establish, Jesus himself, believed that the Oral Law was given to Moses at Sinai simultaneously with the Written Law. Not only did they beleve that the Written Law was inspired, they believed that men of God who came later to interpret or to enable us to better understand the Word of God were also directed by the Holy Spirit. They believed that God gave the Holy Spirit to the interpreters (those who gave, understanding to the Written Law) just as he did to the writer. The interpreter needed to be equally as inspired by God to understand the text as the writer was inspired to write. Unless the Holy Spirit directs the reader, he can not understand God's great written truths. This is a view of inspiration that is much more sophisticated and abstract than themore limited view often put forward in Christianity.
One rabbi would sometimes disagree with another rabbi In his interpretation of a particular passage. In the view of the rabbis, this did not mean that one interpretation was less valid than the other. Both were led in their interpretation by the Holy Spirit. In the same way in which a magnificent, many-faceted diamond can be viewed from many different angles, so God's Word possesses inexhaustible facets that can be viewed from nnumerable angles. In the New Testament we can find many examples, to illustrate our point. The Apostle Paul states that "a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law" (Romans 3:28). But James says that "a man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:24). Both Paul and James are interpreting the same °Scripture: "And he [Abraham] believed the Lord, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15:6). That this is indeed the passage upon which both are basing their interpretation is evident from Romans 4:3 and James 2:23, where Genesis 15:6 Is quoted.
Both authors are presenting, as it were, their oral law, or interpretation, of the written law. At first glance, these two interpretations--one, that man is justified by faith, and the other, that man is justified by works--seem to be contradictory. Actually, both interpretations are different facets of the same scriptural truth. As James says, "You see that faith was active along with his [Abraham's] works, and faith was completed by works" (James 2:22). Both are looking at the same diamond, but each from a different perspective, and each with a different point, to impress upon his readers. Again, the Jewish concept of inspiration is much more sophisticated than that in Christianity. In the Jewish view there can be any number of interpretations. In the more fundamental Christian view of inerrancy there can be only one view. Recently, a well-known, Christian Bible teacher stated on television that God so directed the writing of the New Testament that He even inspired the tense of the Greek verbs...the conjugation of every verb and the declension of every noun. Every word, every tense and mood was God-breathed. This type of perspective on inspiration is unfortunate and immature. Apparently, the teacher was not aware that we have over 4000 Greek manuscripts (approximately 480 complete) of the New Testament, and there, are no two, that are identical or agree on all points. Which of these 4000 is the inspired text, the God-breathed text? Furthermore, Mr. David Bivin and I established in our book, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, that the original Gospel was not communicated in Greek, but rather in Hebrew. Most -Christians have never realized that the Greek text of the New Testament which is in use today by pastors, students, and scholars, and from which all modern English translations of the New Testament are made, is an eclectic, or composite text. That is, it is an artificial text which does not represent any known Greek manuscript. It is also important to understand that it is on the basis of this eclectic or artificial text that all arguments and/or discussions on inerrancy and infallibility are carried on.
What should be the obvious conclusion on the subject for the thoughtful and honest student of the Scriptures? That all such discussions are moot, given the nature of the New Testament text. Our modern critical editions* of the New Testament, such as Griesbach (1775-1806), Tischendorf (1869- 1872), Westcott and Hort (1881), Weiss (1894-1900), Nestle (1904 until its 26th edition in 1977), and the latest Bible Society edition, are each the creation of a scholar or group of scholars. Word by word, the evidence of the thousands of New Testament manuscripts is weighed. Finally, after all the evidence has been considered, a decision is taken on what should have been the original word at a given point in the text. Often there are several different words or variants among the thousands of ancient manuscripts, and scholars must decide at each word which of the variants must have been the original!
A committee of scholars, actually takes a vote for us on which of the variants is the most original. Our modern English translations are not the translation of any one of the ancient manuscripts. They are translations of one of the modern critical editions and created by this arbitrary and artificial method. Why is this artificial method necessary? Because there is not one manuscript which is considered to be the best. Scholars could have printed one of the many complete manuscripts and listed at the bottom of each page the variant readings found in all the other manuscripts. This is the procedure which has been followed for many, ancient works. Instead, what, scholars have done in the case of the New Testament text is to arbitrarily create a text that is not identical with any manuscript. It is a reconstructed text which hopefully accurately represents the original Greek text. But the original Greek text itself, the "autograph", has never, been found not even a single fragment. Our eclectic text is an attempt to reconstruct the autograph from ancient manuscripts, which are descendants of the original and removed from it by hundreds of years.
Everyone who loves the Bible and is a serious student of the word will ask the question, . "What does the knowledge that the Greek text of the New Testament is an eclectic text do to my belief in the integrity of the Scriptures? If our text is an artificial text of what can I be certain? Doesn't this undermine the validity of the sacred text and put all Scripture in question? In other words, what can I believe anymore?"
A proper understanding and a correct knowledge of the subject of textual transmission is not a disadvantage to the lover of the Bible and of truth, but an advantage. Today we have thousands of new manuscripts which were unknown just over one hundred years ago. These additional manuscripts, rather than being a hindrance, actually make it possible to more precisely determine the exact text of the original. These thousands of manuscripts, coupled together with the enormous strides that have been made In the science of textual criticism in the last fifty years now make it more possible to arrive at the original words written down by our inspired writers of the biblical text. Our knowledge and understanding of the text of the "autograph" is thousands of times greater than in the 18th and 19th centuries when New Testament scholars first began cataloguing and comparing the relatively few manuscripts then available.
What are the results of all this? A real transformation in the view of biblical scholars regarding the genuineness and authenticity of the Scriptures. In the 18th and 19th centuries, biblical scholars, especialy those of the German school, were very critical if not skeptical of the basic accuracy of the text. They viewed almost all of the text as legend or myth. The real miracle is that today, with the thousands of texts we have at our disposal to examine and compare, scholars presently working in the field are able, as never before, to better understand and more accurately reconstruct the original text.
Especially Is this true with regard to the Synoptic Gospels and the words of Jesus. The end result is that today scholars have a much greater regard for the basic historicity and fundamental accuracy of the biblical text than at any other time in history. Think of itover 4000 Greek texts alone to study and compare! This is truly a miracle of God when one considers that the greatest number of manuscripts available for any ancient classical text is usually not more than ten to twelve. Rather than being concerned and in despair, the serious and honest student of Scripture will rejoice over God's, marvelous preservation of His word and our increased ability to understand His word as never before in history, an ability which enables him to "rightly divide [interpret] the word of truth" (II Timothy 2:15)
For all practical purposes, in order for the Bible to be inerrant one must have an inerrant method for interpreting it. But the Scriptures themselves tell us that: "No prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (II Peter 1:20). Because inspiration is the Holy Spirit working in and through men it is quite possible that several men will be illuminated each by a different facet of the same diamond. When someone says that there is only one way of interpreting a Scripture, what he really means, whether he realizes it or not, is that that one way is always his own way, his own interpretation or the interpretation perhaps of his denomination. This "one way" view of interpreting the Scriptures is fraught with danger. Why? Because its rigidity, inflexibility, arrogance, and presumptuousness leads to two very unbiblical and ungodly results:
1. The interpreter plays God by assuming that finite man can confine the magnificence of God's revelation of Himself to man to just one narrow limited interpretation.
2. Factionalism or divisiveness, which ultimately leads to denominationalism.
The Jewish view of interpretation is not only more biblical, but safer and healthier than the bigoted "one way" view. It is the more lenient and therefore the more preferred method of interpretation because it allows the interpreter, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, to view God's diamond in its multifaceted form.
Espousing the doctrine of inerrancy or infallibility places one in an indefensible position. If the Bible Is the Infallible Word of God, then one has to have it all, know it all, and there can be no contradictions. It must be perfect. Of course, this is exactly the position taken by those who hold to inerrancy, that the Bible is the "that which is perfect" of I Corinthians 13:10. Therefore, their reasoning continues, there is no longer any need for miracles, healings, or other manifestations of the Holy Spirit, no need for God to speak to man today. We already have in the perfect text all that is necessary for the believer. The doctrine of inerrancy is bibliolatry, a worship of the Bible or a worship of the text of the Bible. But, which text? Which of the thousands of Greek texts of the New Testament and hundreds of Hebrew texts of the Old Testament is the inerrant text? And then, we do not even possess all the known books. We do not have the Old Testament Book of Jashar mentioned in Joshua 10:13 and II Samuel 1:18, nor do we have two of the total of four books Paul wrote to the Corinthians, or his epistle written from Laodicea mentioned in Colossians 4:16. If for no other reason than this we cannot declare the Bible to be perfect. Added to this is the problem that no autograph, or original copy, of any book of the Bible has been preserved to this day. We have no complete manuscript of any book of the Bible any earlier than 200 to 300 years after its date of composition in the case of the New Testament books, and from 600 to more than 1000 years in the case of books of the Old Testament. Coupled with this is the fact that each and every text we do have, even the best of them, contains many scribal errors as well as other problems.
Of course, those espousing the "one way" method of interpretation respond that even though all that might be true, If we did possess the original or autograph text, it would be inerrant.
However, this position is simply a religious "cop-out" and again manifests a lack of understanding of the nature of biblical inspiration. In addition, its adherants must always be on the defensive. They must know it all and have answers for every textual problem.
The truth is we do not know it all nor do we have all the answers. The sooner one realizes that and admits it the closer he will be to understanding correctly the whole subject of inspiration. But, if the Bible is not the infallible Word of God, what is it? It is an inspired revelation of Him who is the Infallible Word. That is, the inspired document, i.e., one that did not arise from purely natural sources, is God's revelation of Himself to man. You see? This now allows the believer to be on the offensive. Our faith is not in a text or a document, but in a person. Maybe there are problems with the texts. Maybe we do not have all the answers. But there are no problems with God! He and He alone Is perfect. God's perfect revelation of Himself to mankind. We can now point the individual to God and challenge the individual to seek and find Him.
But, I want to emphasize that I am not saying that all Oral Law is on an equal par with the biblical text. The Oral Law is always changing from generation to generation, and as customs and circumstances change, so does the Oral Law. The Oral Law is not static. Unlike the Written Law, the Oral Law can change. Sometimes the decisions of earlier rabbis, are reversed by later rabbinical authorities to meet the needs of the changing times. But the written text is static. It can never change. Michael Wyschogrod, in Evangelicals and Jews In Conversation, published by Baker Book House, has pointed out.
After the weekly reading of the prophetic portion in the synagogue, the reader concludes with a blssing that prasies God "all of whose words are true and just" and "who is faithful to all of his words." In so doing, the reader expresses the conviction that the text he has just read is the Word of God. No such blessing is conceivable over a rabbinic text(Tanenbaum Wilson, and Rudin 1978:39).
The biblical text is unique as the Word of God. The oral law elaborated ans interprests the scriptural text in such a way that in spite of all the importance Jusaism attachess to the oral law, it does not eclipse the primacy of the Bible as the Word of God (op. cit).
Through Jews view the Oral Law as highly important and authoritative coupled with and inseparable from the Written Law, they have never viewed it in quite the same way as they have the Written Law. The Oral Law is intepretation. It expands and elaborated the meaning of the Written Law.
The Oral Law in compendium of Jewish thought. It is a vast literature containing almost every opinion possible on almost any subject. Though much of rabbinic literature dating after the time of Jesus preserves and reflects traditions from Jesus' time and before, most of it was created after his time. A signigicant part of it was created in Babylon. And all of it was finally put in writing in a period when Christian polemic with, and persecution of Jews had already begun.
In spite of the above, we must not underestimate the importance which Jesus attached to the Oral Law (unwritten in his day) which was then in current circulation. There can be no doubt that Jesus considered the Oral Law to be authoritative. "Observe and practice what they [The Pharisees] say," he admonished his disciples (Matthew 23:3). "What they say" can mean only on thing-their (the Pharisees) interpretation of the Written Law, the Oral Law, since there was no question at all about the Written Law. It was accepted by all sects of Judaism. To quote Jesus:
Heaven and earth would sooner disappear than one yod [the smallest letter in the Hewbrew alphabet] or even one kotz ["thorn," a thorn-like projection used by scribes to decorate certain leters of the alphabet] from the Torah (Matthew 5:18). (See Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, page 155, where this passage is treated in more detail.)
*A critical edition of an ancient text is one in which most variant readings are noted, usually at the bottom of the page.