The old hymn “I Would Be Like Jesus” has a chorus that has the hymn singers assert, “Be like Jesus, this my song, in the home and in the throng; Be like Jesus all day long! I would be like Jesus.”
Many Christians don’t realize that there is a battle being waged between Jewish externals and rituals as a means of spirituality and sanctification and truly biblical means that are internal heart issues. None would argue that being more like Jesus is a very commendable goal. After all, we are to constantly look to Him (Hebrews:12:2) and see Him as our ultimate example (1 Peter:2:21). But with every journey in life we must decide how we are going to get there. The larger issue of being like Jesus is: What does it really mean? What does it look like? and Just how is it accomplished?
The late Jewish scholar and researcher of first century life in Israel, David Flusser, said rightly; “Jesus was a Jew in every way” ( Jewish Sources in Early Christianity , Adama Books, New York, 1987, p.7). There is absolutely no denying that Jesus was born a Jew and lived an observant Jewish life. He did this to fulfill completely every demand of the law, He did it for us (Romans:8:1-4), and He continues to do it in us if we are true believers.
So if we want to be like Jesus, does that mean that we must become observant Jews, as some allege? Is that what being like Jesus really means? Should Gentile believers try to be Messianic Jews? Can they? Should Gentiles don a yarmulke, worship in a synagogue, blow a shofar, wear a prayer shawl, call Jesus Yeshua or Yeshu, keep the Old Testament feasts and dietary laws, and give their pastors the title of Rabbi, even though Matthew:23:8 says otherwise? Are Jewish ceremonies and practices efficacious?
Do we need to restore first century or later Jewish practices to really be good Christians? The Pharisees practiced all the ceremonies, but theirs is a cautionary tale since Jesus told them that they did these things in vain (Matthew:15:7-9, See also Matthew 23).
So, is Jewishness next to godliness? One very modern movement would answer the question with a loud—“yes, more or less!” This growing movement is called the Hebrew Roots Movement (HRM). Unfortunately, it lacks a shared, coherent, consistent theology, an internal mechanism of doctrinal control, and it is filled with mavericks who seem to be making it up as they go along in terms of attachment to Jewish accoutrements.
Some in the HRM are way over the edge in their denial of the Trinity and seem to know Jesus only in the flesh. As we will see, this movement is an idea, a view, an attitude, or a philosophy; a shared concept that Jewish traditions and Judaism are far superior for the church, a sure fire way to a deeper sanctification and with some, possibly even salvation.
It’s hard to define the HRM because it is so diverse and made up of so many disparate groups and individuals. It’s a moving target. It’s a vast smorgasbord of everything from scholarship, as in the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research, to so-called Third Questers, to individuals practicing subjective pop (make-it-up-as-you-go) Judaism. It can even include the medieval mystical Kabbalah, with its esoteric numerology. More often than not there are no distinctions made between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant or between the Bible and the Talmud. This movement can impose legalism with a vengeance or in some instances may simply suggest Jewish practices that they say will give us deeper insight and understanding as well as make us more “authentic” believers.
Here, then, is a loose definition of the Hebrew Roots Movement. It is a very modern movement that insists that we must resurrect first-century Judaism (our Jewish Roots) and the milieu and lifestyle of first-century Jews and impose them on both Jewish and non-Jewish believers. This is not just an academic study to better understand Scripture and its setting but is rather a movement of restoration that claims that the church has moved off its Jewish foundation and must return to a more Jewish way of life to be authentic.
Although there is great benefit in studying the archaeology, geography, sociology, religion, and customs of the ancient biblical world, it does not follow that we must reinstitute and copy those times, replete with language, customs, and even dress.
It is obvious in much of the HRM that it’s not just the study of the first century for interpretation, information, and illumination that carries the day but keeping the traditions and practices of the Jewish Talmud, which was completed long after Jesus in the years 400-500 ( The Encyclopedia of Jewish Religion , Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1965, p. 374). Actually, there are two Talmuds, namely the Babylonian Talmud and the Palestinian Talmud. The Talmuds vary in many of their customs, traditions, and practices.
Jewish believer Stephen Katz expresses his concerns when he says, “Much of the Jewish Roots Movement is actually based on later Jewish/rabbinic tradition. More importantly, the question of whether Gentiles need to add Jewish lifestyle and return to Jewish roots was settled by the Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15. The remarkable news of the Gospel is that, in Y’shua, Jews and Gentiles have direct access to God” (“The Jewish Roots Movement: Flowers and Thorns,” March 1, 2001).
In practice, many promoters of the HRM draw their content more from Talmudic Judaism than from Old or New Testament Judaism. Acts 15 addresses head-on the relationship of Gentile believers to Judaism. The Apostle James told the Jewish believers that they should not disturb Gentile believers. In verse 19, James strongly commanded, “I judge that we [Jews] should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God.” Then an official letter went out to the Gentiles reaffirming the decision: “Since we heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, ‘you must be circumcised and keep the law’—to whom we gave not such commandment” (v. 24). In other words, “Back off trying to make Gentiles into Jews!”
Messianic Jewish believer Stan Telchin sees the imposition of Jewish law and practice on Gentiles as one of the more troubling aspects of the Messianic Jewish Movement: “I know that the overwhelming majority of Jewish believers do not attend Messianic synagogues. It has been suggested that less than five percent of the Jewish believers in the United States attend them….Many Jewish people who I have brought to such synagogues have told me they felt as though they were looking at a caricature—an imitation and not the real thing” ( Messianic Judaism Is Not Christianity , Chosen Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 2004, p. 83).
If Telchin’s statistics are even close, it means that up to 95 percent of the attendees at Messianic synagogues are Gentiles and only 5 percent are Jews. This tells us that Gentiles are being “converted” to forms of Judaism that even many Jews reject. That turns Acts 15 on its head. The really big question that Hebrew Roots teachers must answer is, “Why are there far more Gentile believers than Jews in Messianic synagogues and Messianic fellowships?”
This imposition of Jewish practice on non-Jewish believers really does constitute a serious issue that promotes elitism, unnecessary division, wide confusion, and unbiblical practices. We can almost understand Jews who convert to Christ who still try to keep some of the cultural aspects and celebrations of their familial heritage. If their intentions and motives are not legalistic, and if these things are not done for salvation or out of religious elitism, there may be some minor benefit. Yet to impose them on Gentiles (as is the case, more often than not) is a direct violation of Paul’s words to the Colossians: “So let no one judge you in food or drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (2:16-17). So Paul tells the Gentiles at Colossi that they are not to let anyone force Judaism on them. Didn’t Paul tell the Ephesians that saved Jews and Gentiles were now one new body and one new man—the church (Ephesians:3:1-8)?
We have already mentioned the very confusing practice of superimposing the later Talmud and Talmudic traditions on New Testament believers (Jew or Gentile). Isn’t this as serious as any of the extrabiblical books imposed on cult followers? Some of the Talmud has nothing to do with the New Testament and only reflects later Judaism without a land, a temple, a priesthood, or a sacrifice.
The Hebrew Roots Movement is cavalier and does nothing as far as the above cautions. The use of later rabbinical material must be done with much care, that is, sparingly and judiciously. We must be sure that it can be verified and corroborated by earlier or contemporary sources. It is our only safety. If we are unsure of a later source, would it not be dangerous to add it to the Bible (Revelation:22:18-19)?
One very important and urgent issue that the Hebrew Roots Movement never addresses is—which Judaism? This is the elephant in the room.
It would be more correct to speak of Judaisms. There were different streams of Judaism in the first century. Is it to be the religious Pharisees? And, if so, is it the school of Shammai or Hillel? Or is it the religion of the Sadducees? Why not the Judaism of the Zealots or the Herodians? Is it to be the Judaism of John the Baptist? Better yet, the purists—the separatists called the Essenes. As has been mentioned, any first-century Judaism of any stripe cannot be fully practiced since there is no temple, no priesthood, and no animal sacrifices. Some in the Hebrew Roots Movement seem to be enamored with modern Orthodox Jews. But the large and unanswered question is: which Orthodox group?
In the complex world of Jewish Orthodoxy, there are a myriad of competing groups with different dress and different traditions, all claiming to have their corner on the truth. A few of the somewhat cloistered groups in Jerusalem are the Ger Hassidic Dynasty, the Belz Hassidic Dynasty, the Karlin Stolin Hassidic sect, the Breslav Hassidic Dynasty, the Samar Hassidic Dynasty, the Chabad Hassidic sect, and the Neturi Karta. (For details, differences, and dynamics of these groups, see The Mysteries of Jerusalem , Adam Ackerman, Multipress, Jerusalem, 2007, pp. 61-77). Which one is right?
There is an almost total ignoring by the Hebrew Roots Movement teachers of two-thirds of the New Testament, namely the Epistles of Paul (as well as the other Epistles). There is some tipping of the hat to selective pieces of Romans that in their view speak of Abraham and also of being grafted into Judaism, or Jewish Roots. It is clear that being grafted into Israel has to do with Abrahamic and Messianic blessings—not cloning or trying to act like Jews. These spiritual privileges are real spiritual and eternal blessings. They do not mean dressing up and pretending to be of some other nationality or religion.
Gentile believers have received the Word of God, the Messiah, and His salvation. Being grafted into Abraham’s blessings is as beautiful and as simple as Gib Martin and Larry Richards explain: “The olive tree…is a familiar and beautiful part of the landscape of Israel. It is a symbol of both strength and blessing. David penned in Psalm:52:8: ‘I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the mercy of God forever and ever’….Paul uses the branch of an olive tree to picture what God has done in grafting in the gentiles, the ‘wild olive tree’ (Romans:11:17) into the cultivated olive tree, Israel. In Paul’s metaphor, some of the olive tree’s branches were broken off and wild shoots were grafted into the tree. God was turning the Gentiles into fruit-bearing people….Paul is pointing them to the very source of their lives: God. God is the Keeper of the vineyard, the ultimate Gardener” ( The Book of Romans , Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN, 2007, p. 168).
Ignoring the Epistles is one way to avoid a deluge of material about New Testament church life, church structure, church officers, church practices, and beliefs. It’s no wonder that those in Hebrew Roots have a truncated and skewed message. I say this with sadness.
What we are dealing with is both foundational and fundamental. Is it to be synagogue or church? The Jews had a practice that if anyone professed Christ they were to be thrown out of the synagogue (John:9:22). Yet those in the HRM would try to pretend that synagogues are good places to be—or at least to emulate or push their way back in. Can we merge church and synagogue? Should we? We need to remember that Jesus said clearly, “On this rock I will build my church.” He did not say, “I will build my synagogue.”
Is it to be law or grace? The Book of Galatians deals with that in great detail. However, as I said, the Epistles are neglected and ignored, and Galatians is skipped over. It is interesting to note that Paul told the Galatians that a trip back to Judaism indicated that they had become both “foolish” and “bewitched” (Galatians:3:1). The word “bewitched” is the Greek root baskano , and it means to be allured and drawn into false doctrine.
Is it Old Covenant or New Covenant? If it was anything but New Covenant, Jesus would have never said at His last supper, “For this is My blood of the new covenant which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew:26:28). This is repeated in Mark:14:24 andLuke:22:20. The repetition must be there for a good reason. Jesus must have known that some would ignore much of the New Covenant or get the two covenants confused.
Is it the Passover or the Lord’s Supper? Paul reminded the Corinthians what the Passover stood for and what was really central: “For indeed Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians:5:7). It’s clear that all the Old Testament ceremonies, symbols, and feasts were types and shadows pointing to Jesus (Colossians:2:16-23, Hebrews:10:1-10).
Is it Saturday or Sunday? Saturday (the seventh day) was clearly attached to the finishing of the Old Creation (Genesis:2:1-3). Sunday, the first day of the new week celebrates the Resurrection and the new creation in Christ. Christians are a new creation (2 Corinthians:5:17).
Is it Jewish externals and superficial ritual purity or internal cleansing and heart purity? Psalm 51 answers that question clearly: “Sacrifice you did not desire or I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise” (vv. 16-17).
This brief article is not intended to be an exhaustive analysis of the Hebrew Roots Movement. For now we are just asking questions. There are detailed larger articles and a book in production to examine in depth and detail the entire movement. We hope to offer corrections to many aberrant practices and deal more fully with some of the issues raised in this piece. Stay tuned.