Investigating Hebrew Roots of Christianity

A number of months back, I did a livestream on Facebook about inconsistent Unitarian arguments. Afterwards, I asked my Facebook friends what sort of topic they would like me to address next. One friend asked if I could address the “Hebrew Roots” movement, because she had gotten questions in a women’s Bible study she leads.

I had never heard that phrase before, but I had certainly had contact with folks in that movement, both in my personal life and online. What I hadn’t done before, though, was really study this movement and what it promotes. Until my friend was looking for help, I had just thought of those folks as placing a higher value on knowing about the Jewishness of the beginnings of Christianity. I hadn’t thought about them as attempting to influence others to do the same or challenging mainstream Christianity.

I came across another example more recently when my wife, who is active on Youtube, came across some people there who were promoting observing the Mosaic law for Christians, and who spoke very harshly about Christians and churches, calling people to “come out of Babylon”, meaning Christian churches.

Some Categories to Consider

Now, it ought to go without saying, but doesn’t, that not everyone who identifies with Jewishness in some way, but believes in Jesus, is the same. Consider the following list of possibilities.

• Ethnically Jewish (hereafter Jewish), but doesn’t practice anything specifically Jewish, practicing Christian customs indistinguishable from gentile Christians
• Jewish, practicing some or all Jewish customs practiced by Jews today (feasts, etc.), but only out of family tradition. Doesn’t feel God requires them of himself or gentiles.
• Jewish, practicing what can be practiced of the Mosaic law, not to earn salvation, but because he feels it is important for Jews who come to believe in Jesus to maintain their Jewishness. Doesn’t believe these laws apply to gentile believers.
• Jewish, believing that the Mosaic law is intended for all believers in Jesus, not to earn salvation but to be obedient to God.
• Gentile, conforming to what can be obeyed in the Mosaic law, not out of obligation, but because he just feels more of a connection to the roots of his faith by doing so.
• Gentile, believing that the Mosaic law is intended for all believers to obey and actively seeks to promote that obedience among other Christians, but not connected to salvation.
• Gentile, believing that the obedience to the Mosaic law is so important that, if a Christian refuses to do this, that Christian’s salvation is highly questioned or outright denied. This often goes along with teaching that the churches are all corrupt and will be condemned.

Now, this list is not exhaustive, and doesn’t connect any of these categories to the names and titles that are generally applied to people who fall within these or other categories. Considering the variety, though, which people do you think are the most vocal online and among Christians? Of course, it is those, whether Jew or gentile, who seek to impose the Mosaic law on all believers. And this is a problem.

As I’ve investigated this movement, it has occurred to me that it just never appealed to me, and it took me a while to figure out why. The fact is, without any help from anyone in this movement, I always asked a lot of questions about how the Bible works together. When reading through the Old Testament, I would see the many laws there and ask how they relate to Christians today. Reading through the New Testament, I saw that my questions were being asked in the church from the very beginning, as soon as non-Jews began to believe in and follow Jesus. I saw that, whenever the question came up about requiring gentiles to follow Jewish customs or the Mosaic law, they were never required to keep it all. The way the church leadership handled the issue ranged from merely instructing gentiles to refrain from activities that would be highly offensive to their Jewish neighbors (Acts 15), to outright commands against those who were trying to impose the law on gentile believers (Galatians, Colossians). I also saw, though, that there wasn’t a general command given to the church to cease to do what is in the law if they were doing it before. This told me that if I saw someone seeking to behave Jewishly, I shouldn’t worry about it. They aren’t wrong. That’s between that person and God.

What’s Out There

From my reading and conversations, I know that there really are no two congregations in this movement that are exactly alike, and that this diversity runs deeper than small points of theology. However, some broad categories can be identified.

First, there is Messianic Judaism, which is defined as a movement of ethnically Jewish believers in Jesus, who consciously maintain their Jewish identity in Messianic synagogues, attempting to reach the Jews for the Messiah. They usually don’t believe that gentiles are under the law, but seek to promote a Jewish belief in Jesus. Interestingly, most of those who attend these congregations are not ethnic Jews.

Second, there is the Hebrew Roots or Hebraic Roots movement. This is a movement by primarily gentile Christians who believe in getting back to the Hebrew roots of Christianity by observing the Mosaic laws. They may go by different names: Hebrew Roots, Jewish Roots, Messianic Christian, Torah Observant, etc. What they basically have in common is the belief that, Jew or gentile, if someone believes in Jesus, that person is obligated to keep the law of Moses.

Within these larger groups are innumerable subsets whose beliefs vary much. As I have begun to study this multifaceted movement, I’ve come to some basic, preliminary conclusions about how to move forward, that I hope would be generally agreed upon, unlikely as such a thing may be.

First, there is only positive to be gained by a deeper study of Scripture, which necessarily includes the Hebrew Old Testament. Seeing the connections between the ancient, biblical faith of Israel provides immense background for understanding of Jesus and the New Testament. Having a desire to learn how the Hebrew Scriptures posing to Jesus is a very good thing. Therefore, if a person identifies with what they read and finds value in things like the feasts and dietary laws to help have more context for their following Jesus, that is just fine.

Second, I have had only further confirmation of the biblical principle that the New Testament interprets the Old. By its very nature, the Hebrew Scripture is an incomplete body of work. Since the coming of Jesus, the Old Testament must be interpreted in light of Him. When it isn’t, serious error about the nature of Jesus, the New Covenant, and salvation itself are the frequent result. God does not contradict Himself. Therefore, nothing in the New Testament contradicts the Old, but it must be seen as providing the clearest, most correct interpretation of the Old, even, at times, offering interpretation that would never have occurred to the Old Covenant believers. Otherwise there are many times contradiction is the result, when the first Scripture is thought to interpret the second.

Third, and lastly, for this article at least, I see the root problem to be the impossibility of developing a sound interpretive method that can harmonize a belief in promoting the observance of all that is in the Torah with the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture. This is especially true considering the New Testament interpreting the Old.

One symptom of this is a lack of unity about what laws are still applicable to Christians today. The obvious retort is to point out the differences between different groups of Christians. The problem with this retort is that, when you get into specifics, it is rather easy to see how other motivations, such as human pride and desire for power, can influence the handling of texts. Also, when it comes to the essentials of the faith, there is great unity among all conservative Protestant or evangelical denominations. The essentials are those things we need to have to be saved. Among those promoting some sort of return to Jewish or Hebrew roots, even the essentials are often muddy, with affirmations of salvation by grace through faith alone spoken by the same person that refers to Christian churches as Babylon, doomed to destruction. This, while others do not take it this far.

There just don’t seem to be any solid guides, within the movement, to come to the truth, when the basic principle of New Testament interpreting Old is rejected.

Look for more on this in the future. As I said, I do have friends in the movement and my desire is that, if they continue there, that they do so from a firm, Biblical foundation, and do not end up like those Jewish Christians condemned by Paul in Galations and Colossians.