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Are We “People of the Book”?


This month of October began with the Jewish holiday, Simchat Torah, which celebrates the end and restart of the annual reading cycle of the five books of Moses.  This tradition of reading through the Torah—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—the five most important books of Scripture in Jewish tradition, dates back before the time of Jesus.  While Torah has often been translated as “Law,” that is only one aspect of its semantic domain.  A wider and better interpretation for Torah would be “instruction” or “teaching,” for at its core the Torah leads and guides its followers like a good mentor.

Over time, the scope of Torah’s meaning expanded beyond those first five books to encompass the entire Hebrew Scripture or, what is popularly known in Christian tradition, as the Old Testament.[1] Jewish tradition even went as far as wedding this “written Torah” with an “oral Torah,” or rabbinic rulings, which became foundational for 2000 years of Jewish thought descending from the Mishna. 

But for early Christianity, the letters of Paul and the writings of other nascent leaders became central in instructing its early followers in the life and teachings of Jesus.  This collection of texts came to be called the “New Testament”[2] and became an enduring appendix for the earlier revelation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

When the church father, Jerome of Stridon (located in modern day Bosnia), made his monumental Latin translation of both the Old and New Testaments, he moved to Bethlehem in order to learn Hebrew so as to translate directly from the Torah (382-405 CE).  This new translation, the Vulgate, became widely adopted by the Catholic Church and would be instrumental in many other translations in Europe.  In fact, the very first book ever printed on Johannes Gutenberg’s groundbreaking mechanical, movable type printing press in the 15th century was the Gutenberg Bible, a Latin edition largely following the Vulgate. 

As Jerome’s Vulgate began merging the two Testaments into one bound book, these holy Christian scriptures took on a unified name—“the book,” biblos, or the Bible.  With the rise and ascension of Islam in the 7th century, Jews and Christians were given the pejorative nickname, “people of the book (′Ahl al-Kitāb).”  In that ancient Islamic world where literacy was the exception and not the rule, perhaps, this was veiled jealousy and admiration for the Jews’ and Christians’ tradition of hallowed texts.[3]

As Islam subsumed and reinterpreted some of Jewish and Christian written traditions, Judaism would embrace the derogatory epithet, “people of the book,” as defining their identification with the Torah.  Today in Israel, at the beginning of every summer, there is a national book fair called “Shavua haSefer (week of the book)” that is an enormous display of the latest Israeli publications.  This annual book bazaar is a continual reminder of Judaism’s identity with literacy that was first birthed through the propagation of the Torah.

After the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press, books and literacy spread to the masses in the West.  This included the Bible.  With the Reformation in the 16th century, the translating and printing of Bibles was a consistent result of Protestant work.  No longer beholden to the Catholic Church’s Latin Vulgate which was no longer understood or practical for the common people, Martin Luther led the way for other Bible translations when he made the first popular German translation of the Bible in 1534.  Like Jerome, he also translated the Old Testament or Torah from the original Hebrew.

In the wake of the Reformation, Bible translation became a focus for the Protestant-Evangelical movement spreading around the world in the 20th century.  As we approach the end of 2018, impressively, there are now 683 different translations of the complete Bible.  Yet, at least 1.5 billion people do not have a complete translation in their mother tongue.  And even for those 683 languages that do have a Bible translation, the numbers do not indicate the actual quality of each mother tongue Bible.

Unlike most English Bible translations, which have been translated from the original languages, Hebrew and Greek, most Bible translations are often based on a European language Bible like English, French, or Spanish.  While Jerome and Luther learned Hebrew in order to translate the Old Testament or Torah, today there is a dearth of Bible translators with a real, working knowledge of Hebrew.  While there have been recent attempts to correct this Hebrew inadequacy for Bible translators and consultants, the systemic lack of attention to biblical language expertise by fervent Evangelical institutions is glaring. 

This deficiency of Evangelical biblical language proficiency could be a canary in the coal mine of church-wide biblical illiteracy growing in the 21st century.  Why is it that, today, most religious Jews can read some of the Torah in its original language, Hebrew, most religious Muslims can read some of the Koran in its original language, Arabic, but almost all religious Christians need translations?  Yes, it can be argued that the spread of Christianity was empowered by its universal message, making it highly compatible in many cultures and languages.  Yet, that strength can also be a weakness, when the shifting winds of culture and language blow back on the original biblical meaning and context.  To safeguard the gospel message, a robust relationship with Hebrew and Greek are essential for the future of the Evangelical church.

May Jews and Muslims provoke us to jealousy.  If we Evangelicals say Scripture is the final authority in determining faith and practice, we should prioritize its reading and learning, especially in its original languages.  We are not “People of the Book” if we are not fluent in that book. 

Today, we live in an unprecedented time in history with amazing access to seemingly endless information and knowledge, including insights about the Bible.  But how do we weigh competing interpretations over Scripture if we do not take seriously our biblical training?  Our ability to travel internationally and virtually by internet is extraordinary.  If we are truly trying to follow the Lord’s teachings in the Book, we should not squander the learning opportunities that He has given us in this 21st century.  Jerome’s example of coming to the Land of the Bible to learn Hebrew is even more relevant today.

[1] One of the first usages of the title “Old Testament” is attributed to the early Church Father, Melito of Sardis (died 180 CE), in modern day Turkey, which is recorded by Eusebius in Ecclesiastical History, 4.26.14.

[2] The early Church Father, Tertullian of Carthage, in modern day Tunisia (155-240 CE), was one of the first to categorize an Old and New Testament.  "All Scripture is divided into two Testaments. That which preceded the advent and passion of Christ—-that is, the law and the prophets—-is called the Old; but those things which were written after His resurrection are named the New Testament. The Jews make use of the Old, we of the New: but yet they are not discordant… (Against Marcion, Book 3, Ch. 14)."


Charity Report: Your Gifts Helped these Ministries, Individuals, and Families during July, August, and September 2018 

JCF gave food vouchers to 30 needy families in Jerusalem for the Rosh HaShana holidays ($1,113).

Ernie is an elderly divorced Israeli father of two adult sons.  He is in the midst of multiple challenges as his health is deteriorating, he suffers from depression, and he currently needs dental treatment which he cannot afford.  JCF is helping cover part of one month’s rent until he is able to move to a subsidized apartment ($640).

A Christian Arab family in Bethlehem has been having problems with getting clean water to their home. They have had to pay to have water delivered by truck to their home. Now the water company informed them that they need to buy a new pumping system to supply water to their roof. JCF is helping cover part of the cost ($289).

News in Israel

The earliest stone inscription bearing the full spelling of the modern Hebrew word for Jerusalem was recently displayed at the Israel Museum. More.

The Bible Museum in Washington, D.C. recently revealed that five of its assumed Dead Sea Scrolls are fake and will not be displayed anymore. More.  On the website, "The Lying Pen of Scribes," scholars and scientists have identified more than 70 purported Dead Sea Scroll fragments that have surfaced on the antiquities market since 2002.  A year ago, Dr. Kipp Davis, a research fellow at Trinity Western University and associate of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute was already raising awareness to the forgeries at the museum and elsewhere.

93-year-old crowned Israel’s new ‘Miss Holocaust Survivor.’ More.

Ancient Hebron discoveries.  Walls of the city from the Early and Middle Bronze Age were excavated.  Findings include buildings from the Early Roman period, a four-chambered house, pottery vessels, jars bearing ancient Hebrew inscriptions with the words “to the king of Hebron,” jewelry and coins, as well as workshops from the First Temple period, with wine and olive presses, and pottery kilns. More.

Israel’s Rainy Winter Season to Start. More

Why Judaism Takes Rain Very Seriously. More.

Come See the Land of the Bible 
Yoni Gerrish and JCF Biblical Study Tours

  • Ehrlich Tour from Chicago (Mar 9-23, 2019) “Israel’s Landscapes and Memory”
  • Johnson Tour from Minneapolis ( Apr 5-17, 2019) “Israel’s Landscapes and Memory”

For more information on how you can join one of these tours, here.

There are approximately twelve needy and very lonely Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem who have been receiving loving care and companionship from an aid organization with whom we partner.   These Survivors receive monthly checks to support them economically and receive regular volunteer visitors, which is also very important to them.  A very nice program was begun to link boys from a local institution for disadvantaged children and youth, to some of these Holocaust Survivors.  This has greatly benefited both the teenage boys and the elderly survivors.
Loneliness is a huge problem to people who have lost all their family and often their spouse.  Visiting some of these Jerusalem Survivors regularly ourselves, we know how important this program is which supplies both financial and emotional support.  
The donations of JCF have been used in part with help to maintain the ongoing expense of supporting these survivors in Jerusalem with monthly help in form of coupons for food items.  The other part has been used to cover maintenance problems in their homes. For example, when our staff visited a 90 year old Survivor, her small, modest apartment was quite dark owing to a broken slatted shutter which could not be raised and had been like this for more than a week.   Having received the gift from JCF, we were in a position to immediately arrange its replacement.  One of hermost  terrible memories is from her home town of Yasi in Romania where she suffered terribly from violence and terror.  She lost most of her family and witnessed people being pulled out of their homes and killed.  She finds it very difficult to talk about those memories. She is suffering from many health problems, does not have children, and lost her husband many years ago.  Visits from Christians like us mean the world to her.