Dr. James Tabor Review

A Prayer to Our Father: Hebrew Origins of the Lord’s Prayer by Nehemia Gordon and Keith Johnson released the first week of June, 2009. It represents a rare and uncommon collaboration between Nehemia Gordon, a Jew devoted to the ancient Hebrew faith, and Keith Johnson, a dedicated African American Christian believer and pastor. The book is as much about the remarkable relationship of these two men, and how they embarked on a common quest for the historical and Hebraic origins of the prayer, as it is about the understanding of the prayer itself. The impressions are deep and stirring. I want to recommend this book far and wide. It is one of the most inspiring, instructive, and spiritually important works I have read in a long time.

Both men represent truly remarkable stories. Gordon, a Chicago native, who now lives in Jerusalem, is a scholar with B.A. and M.A. degrees in Biblical Studies from Hebrew University. Son of an orthodox Rabbi, but now identified with the Karaite Jewish community, Gordon was fired at an early age to forge his personal understanding of his Jewish faith based on a direct study of the Hebrew Bible. Johnson, who now lives in Charlotte, NC, has his Masters of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical and is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. He has served as pastor of Park Avenue Church in Minneapolis, and as chaplain of the Minnesota Vikings.

The book is written in an autobiographical style that pulls the reader into an engaging, unfolding story, that is every bit an adventure in learning and discovery. The most remarkable aspect of this story for me was to see how Johnson, as a devoted Christian seeking the Hebraic roots of Jesus (Yeshua), was drawn to study Hebrew with Gordon, and how Gordon in turn, without sharing Johnson’s messianic views, could nonetheless wholeheartedly participate in the historical quest for the Hebraic roots of Jesus’ most famous and well-known teaching–the Lord’s Prayer. This symbiotic relationship alone makes the book stand out as a unique and singular contribution that can be of great interest to both Christians and Jews.

But what is just as remarkable are the results of the historical investigation itself. Johnson and Gordon take turns narrating their stories in a gripping first person style. Central to the book is an analysis of the Prayer as it appears in the various copies of Hebrew Matthew preserved by Ibn Shaprut, a 14th century Rabbi living in Spain. This is the text of Hebrew Matthew (called Even Bohen) that Professor George Howard brought to the attention of the academic world in 1987 (see my notes and summary). I agree with Howard, as do Gordon and Johnson, that this version of Matthew is not merely a translation of our Greek New Testament manuscripts, but represents an independent and ancient source written originally in Hebrew that was passed down in rabbinic circles for centuries. Hebrew Matthew offers us an opportunity to examine the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples in the original Hebrew, rather than an approximated version based on a translation from the Greek.

The book is divided into two "terrains," one geographical and the other textual. Gordon and Johnson first examine all available evidence as to where Yeshua might have taught the prayer. They take the reader to all possible geographical locations, from Jerusalem to the Galilee, based on references in the New Testament and other early Christian sources. At each place they relate their own experiences and analysis of what appears to have been the most likely setting for the "mountain" scene depicted in Matthew 5 and Luke 6. They then turn to a line by line, phrase by phrase, analysis of the prayer in Hebrew, compared with the traditional English translations that are based on the Greek. There are surprises and insights at every turn, and frankly, I don’t want to spoil the adventure for readers by revealing in this informal review much about the content. Let me just tantalize a bit here and say that no one reading this book, whether Jew, Christian, Muslim, or secularist, will ever be able to think of, much less pray, the AVINU (Hebrew for "Our Father") prayer in the same way again. One’s understanding of the simple power and meaning of this prayer will be thoroughly enlightened and transformed. I am pleased to recommend this book to any and all who will take up the challenge to expand their horizons and experience the excitement of historical and textual investigations. You will not be disappointed.

Dr. James D. Tabor, Chair, Deptartment of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina, Charlotte

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