Recently I’ve been asked to weigh in on the common Evangelical use (and misuse) of the Hebrew language. In particular, there seems to be an ever evolving collection of Hebrew “buzz words” that circulate in sermons and conversations, such as “shalom” “eshet chayil” or “torah.” I wish I had a quarter for every time a young bible student learned the word “hesed” and quickly found a tattoo parlor.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong about wanting to understand the biblical text better in its original language; understanding the ancient use of hesed really does illuminate a text. However, I can’t help but cringe when I see two related phenomena: a Christian misusing/misunderstanding the Hebrew language or a Christian mysticizing the Hebrew language.
And I consider these two impulses related because they often stem from a desire to understand and restore some connection to the Hebrew Bible. What I would like to propose here is that Evangelical culture sustains this desire for rootedness in the Ancient Israelite world, insisting “Jesus was Jewish, and we share in his cultural identity.”
So why this quest for ancient origins? Theo Hobson argues that an alarming evangelical rationale has emerged expressing, “Why not turn to Judaism for the cultural richness that Protestantism has historically lacked?”
Evangelicals know little of Jewish history, as Theo Hobson writes,
“For many evangelicals, the Jewish people exited the stage of history after the destruction of the temple in a.d. 70 and only reemerged in the 1940s with the Holocaust and the birth of modern Israel. For too many evangelicals, the “diaspora” might as well be a Yiddish term for “intermission” (Evangelicals turning to Jewish customs? It’s complicated)
In one example, a professed Evangelical shares his insight:
Our heroes have always been Hebrews
“Lacking a heritage that includes centuries of saints and martyrs and venerable ecclesiastical institutions, we evangelicals turn to the Old and New Testaments for our models and heroes of the faith. The evangelical may not be able to identify Saint Anthony, Christopher, or Demetrius of Thessalonik, but we know—and revere—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. To paraphrase an old Willie Nelson song, our heroes have always been Hebrews
Indeed, it is almost impossible to overestimate the influence of the Old Testament on the evangelical imagination. In its most basic form, the evangelical mind is an anomalous type of the Hebraic mind. Modern Jews might sneer at the presumptuous of the connection, but it is a truism that evangelicals consider themselves to be the other “People of the Book.” (Why Evangelicals Love the Jews).
What is remarkable in this assessment is the blunt assertion that evangelicals are “the other People of the Book.” Christianity in its inception began a tumultuous relationship with the Hebrew Bible, flat-out rejecting the cultic laws as unnecessary in the wake of Christ. As such, Christianity is not logocentric in the same way Judaism has been, nor has Christianity embraced mysticism and magic the way strains of Judaism have. Further, the Hebrew Bible’s language and laws have not been central to Christian identity, in fact quite the opposite. Thus, it is odd when Hebrew expressions, such as “the names of God” or key buzz words, circulate in an almost mystical way, as if they hold the key to some secret connection to the past, to the text, and to God. I think Hobson is on to something in his assessment of the Evangelical Protestant search for cultural origins.
So what does this have to do with your Hebrew tattoo? On the surface level, nothing. I myself have an important Hebrew phrase that inspired my Master’s thesis project tattooed to my neck. But when you add to Hebrew buzz words the evangelical practice of “Christian” seders, incorporating Jewish wedding rituals, calling pastors “rabbis,” blowing the shofar, discovering hidden “names of God” in the Hebrew text, one has to wonder whether this fascination with Judaism is a new strain of dispensationalism and/or supersessionism coated in naïveté.