Review of A Prayer to Our Father by Nehemia Gordon and Keith Johnson (Hilkiah Press), 2009.
Gordon and Johnson provide a gentle walk through unfamiliar territory surrounding the Lord’s Prayer. The territory is unfamiliar because they explore the Hebrew version of this well-known passage of Scripture. The walk is gentle because they have included their personal experiences as they traveled the land of Israel in search of the Hebraic roots of these verses. In a combination of travelogue, history and linguistic detective work, this book guides the reader to insights that only appear in the Hebrew original. It is a journey worth taking.
Clearly written with the average reader in mind, A Prayer to Our Father does not overwhelm with etymological intricacies or theological arguments. Instead, it presents a journey of enlightenment, for the authors and for the reader, as it traverses the land of Israel, examining culture and history in an effort to peel back two thousand years of translation accumulation. The journey reaches its climax in an analysis of the Hebrew worldview connected to our Lord’s simple prayer. The insights – and corrections – discovered in this recovery are formidable and immediately applicable. This is a valuable contribution to any believer’s library.
A. J. Moen, D. Phil.
Master’s International Divinity School
“Ass – a long-eared, slow, patient, sure-footed domesticated mammal, Equus asinus, related to the horse, used chiefly as a beast of burden.” (Dictionary.com)
It’s been several months since the publication of my book A Prayer to Our Father, which I wrote together with Keith E. Johnson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina. This book explores the Hebrew origins of what is commonly known as the “Lord’s Prayer”. Many of my Jewish brothers and sisters have expressed great concern over the book. Some have even speculated that I have secretly converted to Christianity and am leading others into the Christian faith. Some of my Christian friends have joined in this speculation thinking that perhaps there is a “surprise ending” to the book in which I proclaim my faith in Jesus. On the flip side, some Messianics are spreading the false rumor that I allegedly hold secret meetings during my speaking tours in which I try to convince “believers” to abandon their faith. I hate to disappoint the rumormongers but none of these is true. I have not converted to Christianity nor do I attempt to convince anyone to change their faith. I suppose the reason for these false speculations is that some people have a hard time understanding why a Jew who does not believe in Jesus would write a book on his teachings unless he has a secret agenda. I thought I explained this rather well in my books but I guess not everyone reads my books. Or perhaps I am not as eloquent as I like to think. So I am writing this to try and set the record straight.
Let me start with my views on Jesus of Nazareth, or as he was known 2000 years ago, “Yeshua”. Over the past few years I have gained a great respect for his teachings, but I have not embraced the Christian faith nor have I become a “Messianic Jew.” I clearly state this in all of my presentations in order to avoid any possible confusion. I am, as I have been for over twenty years, a Karaite Jew, which means I believe the Tanakh (“Old Testament”) to be the perfect word of God. As a Karaite Jew, I await the coming of an anointed King (in Hebrew: “Messiah”) who will be a direct descendant of King David. I have no idea what his name will be and therefore I do not rule out the possibility that his name will be “Yeshua”. Many Jews, and Karaites in particular, may vehemently disagree with me on this last point. All I can say is that when the anointed descendant of David reigns as a flesh and blood king over Israel, as promised in the Scriptures, we will all know his name as an accomplished fact.
So why do I have what one of my sisters – a devout Orthodox Jew – refers to as an “unhealthy interest in Jesus”? It started many years ago, when I came out of Rabbinical Judaism and began researching all of the world’s religions. I was particularly interested in ancient Judaism in all of its forms and this naturally included the teaching ministry of Yeshua of Nazareth. My interest in this subject is not as unusual as my sister might think. Over the past century, Jewish scholars have increasingly carried out research to uncover the Hebrew background and context of the New Testament. One of the greatest of these scholars was Professor David Flusser, himself an Orthodox Jew, who taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I was trained in the study of ancient Jewish texts at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where I earned my Masters Degree in Biblical Studies and I view my own research on the teachings of Yeshua as part of this scholarly tradition.
To give this research some context, a number of years ago I was privileged to have worked with the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written by an ancient Jewish movement called the Essenes. While I believe the Dead Sea Scrolls contain great value, at no time did I ever become an Essene. Furthermore, as a textual scholar researching the scrolls it was not my role to convince anyone whether or not to believe in Essene Judaism. My role as a scholar was to attempt to understand what these ancient documents meant in their original linguistic, historical, and cultural context. This is how I see my role in exploring the Hebrew background of the New Testament. It is not my role as a textual scholar to lead anyone into the Christian faith. Nor is it my role to lead anyone out of the Christian faith. These are issues of personal faith and belief that are beyond the scope of my research. My role as a textual scholar is to understand what Yeshua taught in the linguistic, historical, and cultural context in which he preached. For those who believe in Yeshua I would think this should be of great importance. But it should also be important for non-Christians, as Yeshua was indisputably a pivotal figure in world history who profoundly influenced the development of Western civilization.
In addition to my interest in all forms of ancient Judaism, there is another reason I think it is important for me to share the results of this research, especially with Christians. It relates to an experience I had many years ago in Jerusalem. Living in the Holy City, I meet all kinds of interesting people. One such gentleman was an American tourist who described himself as a “Messianic Gentile”. I had heard of “Messianic Jews” before but did not know what a Messianic Gentile was. He explained that he believed Yeshua to be the Messiah and wanted to live as Yeshua lived. He told me that as a Jew, Yeshua refrained from eating pork and went to the synagogue on the Sabbath. Although he had no Jewish ancestry that he knew of, he too wanted to live as Yeshua had lived, refraining from pork and going to a synagogue on the Sabbath. At the time I had never met anyone quite like this and was very intrigued. We ended up spending many long hours discussing our respective beliefs and practices. One day he was telling me about the prayers in his congregation back in America and he proudly announced that in his Messianic synagogue they recited the Amidah. When I heard this I was shocked because I knew something he obviously did not know. The Amidah is the standard prayer of Rabbinical Judaism and I grew up as an Orthodox Jew praying this prayer three times a day. The Amidah is also known as the “Eighteen Benedictions” but today actually contains 19 benedictions. The 19th benediction, which my friend obviously did not know about, is called the Birkat HaMinim which means “the Blessing of the Heretics”. Despite its name, it is actually a curse of the so-called “heretics”. Historical sources, most notably the Talmud, inform us that this 19th benediction was added to the Amidah around the year 90 CE in order to prevent those Jews who accepted Yeshua as the Messiah from participating in synagogue services. At the time, the Rabbis did not have the authority to prevent Yeshua’s Jewish followers from attending the synagogues but they reasoned these people would stop coming if a public curse was proclaimed upon them during every prayer service. When this “Messianic Gentile” told me his congregation recited the Amidah during their services I thought surely he meant the Amidah without the Birkat HaMinim. So I asked him to show me his Messianic prayer book and I quickly flipped to the section containing the Amidah. To my horror I found that it indeed contained the Birkat HaMinim. It had been translated in a very clever way to obscure its meaning, but there it was in black and white in both Hebrew and English. I was heartbroken at the thought of an entire group of devout people, who were searching in their own way for Scriptural truth, proclaiming a public curse upon themselves because they did not understand the historical context of their own faith. They wanted to live as Yeshua lived but ended up reciting a prayer created to curse those who believed in Yeshua. I realized then and there that the Almighty had blessed me with an understanding of ancient languages and ancient Jewish texts and I was morally obligated to share that information with anyone who needed it, even if I disagreed with them on important matters of faith.
As a Jew, it is not all that strange for me to interact with people that I disagree with on matters of faith. This is part of the pluralism inherent in Jewish culture in general. There is an old saying that “if you ask two Jews you get three opinions.” This witticism is based on a fundamental principle in Rabbinical Judaism that there are seventy true meanings to every single word in Scripture. The result of this doctrine is that multiple opinions can be tolerated, even when they are diametrically opposed. This approach has imbued Jews with a relatively pluralistic attitude towards matters of belief, especially when these beliefs do not result in any practical expression of ritual observance. This is in sharp contrast to the Christian tradition of breaking fellowship, and indeed in earlier centuries of burning people at the stake, over the subtlest of doctrinal nuances.
As a Karaite, I do not agree with the Rabbinical principle that there are seventy true meanings to everything in Scripture. I believe there is only one true interpretation. However, with the Temple in ruins and the People of Israel in a state of Exile we do not necessarily know what that one true interpretation is. This necessitates a pragmatic pluralism which in some ways is even more tolerant than Rabbinical Judaism. Karaite Jews believe we must do our best to discover the truth but also humble ourselves before God and admit that we can never know for sure “until a priest with Urim and Thummim should appear” (Ezra 2:63). This humility means not judging our brothers for disagreeing on matters of faith, and even on matters of ritual observance, as long as they do their best to discover the Scriptural truth. I am not saying every Jew, nor even every Karaite, always lives up to these ideals but they are nevertheless values deeply rooted in Jewish culture.
Considering that there are, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia, over 33,000 denominations, I would have thought Christians to be even more tolerant to differences of faith and practice than Jews. To be sure, this may be true for many Christians. However, I did not realize how alien this pluralistic approach was to some Christians until last year when I was on a speaking tour in the USA. After one of my presentations a man walked up to me and thanked me for the information I had shared. He told me that he had been told by his congregation leader not come to my presentation. The congregation leader had warned him that as someone who does not believe in Jesus I was not “anointed” to speak the truth. The man objected to his congregation leader: “If God could use Balaam’s ass to speak the truth then surely he could use Nehemia”.
I suppose most Jews would be deeply offended at being compared to a female donkey but I was more disturbed by the arrogance of this man’s congregation leader. I was raised with the tradition of the Rabbis who taught: “Who is a wise man? He who learns from every man.” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1). Karaite Jews wholeheartedly embrace this principle, often quoting the words of the 12th century Rabbinical sage Maimonides (Rambam): “Accept the truth from whoever speaks it.” When Maimonides said this he was referring to the mathematical and astronomical knowledge he learned from ancient Greeks sources. He did not dismiss or ignore this knowledge even though it came from pagans because the knowledge was true in its own right. It is important to note that this was not simply “secular” knowledge to Maimonides; it had practical application to the observance of certain biblical commandments.
The original disciples of Yeshua and their heirs understood that truth had value regardless of its source. Evidence of this can be found in the Book of Acts, which quotes the words Gamaliel, a leading Pharisee of the 1st century. Although Gamaliel was not a believer in Yeshua, the Book of Acts considered what he said to be valuable and true in its own right. The notion that a Christian today would categorically deem what Jews have to say as worthless and untrustworthy because of our different beliefs is the zenith of arrogance. I am reminded of the words of Paul of Tarsus (admittedly a Jew) who warned the Gentiles:
“But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.” Romans 11:17-18
I suspect Paul was talking about something that was already happening in his own time: Gentiles were embracing the faith in Yeshua and boasting that they were better than the Jews who did not share their new belief, even though these Jews were the “root” of their faith.
As if this arrogance were not bad enough, shortly after being compared to Balaam’s ass, the specter of anti-Semitism reared its ugly head. I had been invited to speak at a Christian conference when the organizer received a dire warning from a local Christian pastor. The pastor proclaimed that as a “non-believing Jew” I was operating under the control of the “spirit of Antichrist”. When I heard this I thought the pastor meant it metaphorically, but it turns out he meant there was a literal demonic spirit that was influencing my every move. He explained that it was nothing against me personally but all “non- believing Jews” are under the spirit of Antichrist. Boasting against the root is one thing, but this amounts to cursing the root.
Some of my fellow Jews reading this are probably thinking: “So why bother, Nehemia! Let the goyim languish in their ignorance.” My answer is that there are countless Christians out there who want to understand their faith in its original historical, cultural, and linguistic context. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew who spoke Hebrew and lived as a Jew among Jews. It just so happens that God has blessed me with a knowledge of ancient Judaism and ancient Hebrew and I feel compelled to share this information with those with those who need it, even if I disagree with them on important matters of faith. The Torah teaches us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves which means to treat others as we ourselves want to be treated. I know that if I lacked vital knowledge I would want someone who had this knowledge to share it with me. I must, therefore, share the knowledge I have with those who need it. I am not saying I know everything or that I have all the answers. But if God could use a donkey to speak to Balaam perhaps he is using me for some purpose that is beyond my comprehension. I pray that like Balaam’s ass this is a burden I can continue to bear.
Last December I spoke in a Florida state prison on the Hebrew origins of the Lord’s Prayer. I had never been inside a prison before so I was quite nervous. Mike Harrell, who runs a prison-motorcycle ministry called “Born Again to Ride”, invited me to do this event with him. Mike goes into prisons all over Florida with a large assortment of Harleys and other loud motorcycles and then puts on a rock concert. The idea of “Born Again to Ride” is that inmates who would never otherwise be interested in God are drawn to the motorcycles and the music. When Mike first suggested I do a prison event with him, I warned him that I don’t know how to operate a motorcycle and don’t play any musical instruments.
He assured me that my prison event would not involve any motorcycles or Christian rock bands. Instead I would be speaking at a weekly Bible study. The prisoners who participate in this sort of Bible study have already “cleaned up their act” and dedicated their lives to God. I would be there to teach on the Hebrew background of the New Testament to give them a deeper knowledge of the faith they already embraced. I jumped at the challenge and asked Mike to arrange it.
Weeks later when we finally pulled up to the prison compound I started to think I had made a mistake. The prison looked like an Israeli border fortification, surrounded by a high chain-link fence with plenty of razor-wire and watch towers at regular intervals. We had to go through several layers of gates and steel doors to get to the main entrance area where a guard searched our bags and our bodies for any contraband. We were then led down a series of hallways each of which ended in a steel door opened by an unseen guard in a control room somewhere. After about 10 minutes of this we finally arrived in the prison chapel where I set up my laptop and projector. The prisoners arrived about half an hour later. There were 30 inmates who came to the Bible study and a guard followed them in to do a head count before locking us into the chapel and leaving. One prisoner in the front row saw my computer and asked excitedly if it was really a “laptop”. He explained he’d “been inside” for 20 years and had never seen a laptop computer except in the movies.
As I introduced myself and the subject I realized I was locked in with Mike, the prison chaplain, and 30 convicted inmates; there was no guard anywhere to be seen! Despite my apprehensions, I was very pleased with how my message was received and later said to Mike that I especially enjoyed having a “captive audience”. As I presented the information, the inmates would often interrupt me with questions. I usually ask my audiences to leave their questions to the end. But I realized these men probably have few opportunities to express themselves so I decided to answer their questions as they came. Instead of just spitting back answers, I opened a dialogue with them. As they would ask questions I would respond – in a Jewish way – by asking questions of my own, in order to challenge them to think. As I interacted with the inmates, I was extremely impressed by their knowledge of Scripture and Hebrew. Mike later explained that prisoners have lots of time on their hands; those that dedicate their lives to God spend much of this time studying. One example that really stood out for me was when I asked them, in response to one of their questions, if they knew the Hebrew meaning of the name “Jesus”. The prisoner in the front row who had asked me about my laptop blurted out: “It means ‘Yahweh saves’”. I was surprised that a convicted criminal who had never seen a laptop before knew something that most Christians do not know. I asked him how he knew this and he told me he studies for hours on end with his Bible, a Strong’s Concordance and a Hebrew dictionary. This reminded me of a letter written by William Tyndale, one of the first people to translate the Bible into English. At the time, translating the Bible was a crime and Tyndale was eventually burned at the stake for his efforts. As Tyndale sat in the dungeon of Vilvoorde Castle awaiting execution, he wrote to his jailers asking for:
“a warmer cap… permission to have a candle in the evening, for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark… But above all, I entreat and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the Procurer that he may kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary, that I may spend my time with that study.”
I went into that Florida state prison fearing for my life but went out genuinely inspired by the dedication of these men to search out the truth and acquire knowledge even under the most difficult of human circumstances.
Reproduced with permission of Zola Levitt Ministries, Inc.
We just did a great interview with Don Harris on his radio program Red Letter Edition Live. Listen to the recording of the program in the archives!
A Prayer To Our Father
Nehemia Gordon & Keith Johnson
© 2009 Hilkiah Press
Review by Gabriel Patton
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory for ever and ever.] Amen.
There are a thousand variations in hundreds of languages of the Lord’s Prayer. It is perhaps the most commonly spoken prayer in almost every Judeo- Christian sect on earth. It is the only one ever written by Yeshua Himself, a gift to His people, every syllable full of solemn gratitude and hope. If this last statement is true, how can there be so many different interpretations? Which version is the true original, uttered by Yeshua and spread by His disciples? The most popularly recited prayer in Christianity and Catholicism, it is commonly accepted that these verses of Scripture (Matthew 6: 9–13, and Luke 11:2) are translated from the Greek. But God did not choose to reveal His Word to the world in Greek. He intentionally chose the Hebrew language as the conduit for his message. So what does it all mean?
This is the question that A Prayer To Our Father seeks to answer. More than just a simple exercise in translation and etymology, this book is a journey of discovery, and takes the reader from the United States to the Holy Land, from the locker rooms of the NFL to a secret underground vault guarded for a millennia by Jewish rabbis, a place so highly regarded that not even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was allowed to see what was inside. It is within this sacred chamber that the true wording and indeed the full meaning of the Lord’s Prayer is revealed.
The authors, Nehemia Gordon and Keith Johnson, met over a discarded Torah Scroll, became fast friends, and spent years studying the Tanakh with a particular focus on the Gospel of Matthew, written in Hebrew. It is during this time together they embark on their spiritual journey. Nehemia is a Jewish Scholar raised in Chicago and living in Israel. Keith Johnson is a former chaplain for the Minnesota Vikings football team, and an African-American minister living in North Carolina. While they have very different philosophies, backgrounds and cultures, they find the common interest of knowing the full meaning of Yeshua’s message far outweighs any differences they have.
Most impressive is their intense focus on the exploration of the Hebrew origins of the Lord’s Prayer. Once they have resolved themselves to uncover its fullness, they do not stray for a moment. They allow the words from the text to be the mutual witness to each other, never once attempting to proselytize toward any particular denomination. A Prayer To Our Father takes what could have been a rather dry, academic subject and brings it to life with firsthand accounts of answers to prayer and confirmations of faith. This book demonstrates the Word of God can mean different things to many people, but its Divine origin makes its truths inexorable. MT
Printed with permission from The Messianic Times, September-October 2009, page 16.