Karaite Korner Newsletter #503
The Aramaic Letter Exposed
"When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the LORD, the God of Israel, they... wrote a letter to Artaxerxes. The letter was written in Aramaic script and in the Aramaic language... The king sent this reply: ...issue an order to these men to stop work..." (Book of Ezra, Chapter 4)
I recently spent two weeks traveling around Israel with Keith Johnson, the Methodist pastor who co-authored with me A Prayer to Our Father on the Hebrew origins of the Lord's Prayer. The original purpose of Keith's visit was to prepare for a 12-part teaching series on Christian television (http://www.glc.us.com/) entitled "Finding Common Ground in an Ancient Hebrew Prayer." The day after Keith arrived in Jerusalem he received an ominous e-mail from the general manager of the television satellite network informing him that the planned filming was cancelled. She went on to say that if Keith wanted the program to ever be reconsidered, his Jewish friend Nehemia Gordon—that's me—would be required to participate in a televised debate with a Jewish convert to Christianity. When Keith informed me of this I couldn't believe my ears. We had gone from a Jew and Christian walking together on common ground, back to the time of the Spanish Inquisition. In those dark centuries the Catholic Church pressured Jews to engage in public disputations with their "converted peers." The most infamous of these disputations took place in 1263 when the rabbinical sage Nachmanides was forced to debate Pablo Christiani. This Jewish convert to Christianity was notorious for convincing the French king to force the unconverted Jews in his realm to wear the hated yellow star, a practice later adopted by the Nazis. Nachmanides knew that nothing but hatred and persecution ever resulted from these debates and he pleaded with King James I of Aragon to release him from the disputation. Here I was nearly 750 years later and the general manager of a Christian television network was giving me an ultimatum to engage in a disputation with one of my "converted peers." It was surreal. I felt like she might as well have asked me to wear a yellow star to make the picture complete.
The morning after receiving the ultimatum, I returned from walking my dog to find Keith sitting on the sofa with an astonished look on his face, the kind he gets when something spiritual happens. He told me that when he woke up he heard a voice saying "The book of Ezra, stopping the work." He then opened his Bible to the 4th chapter of Ezra where he read about a letter sent by the enemies of Israel to the king of Persia. In the letter they demanded that the king stop the Jews from building the Jerusalem Temple, the place where God caused his name to dwell forever (1 Kings 9:3; 2 Kings 21:7). What's unusual about this letter is that it's one of only a handful of passages in the Tanakh written in Aramaic. At the time Aramaic was the international language (like English today) and the Book of Ezra quotes the Aramaic Letter word for word in its original language. Keith told me he understood the significance of this when he checked his e-mail a few minutes later. There was a follow-up from the manager of the Christian television network with more details about her ultimatum. She explained that her converted Jew was challenging the validity of the Aleppo Codex, the Leningrad Codex, and Hebrew Matthew, claiming instead the "textual primacy" of his own Aramaic version of the New Testament. Keith had referenced the first two of these Hebrew manuscripts in a 12-part teaching series (http://hishallowedname.com/) he had already done on the same television network. Because of the converted Jew's challenge, Keith's first series on the subject of God's holy name was now pulled from television after airing only seven episodes. A modern "Aramaic Letter" had been sent and the work of honoring God's holy name was stopped.
When Keith discussed with me the idea of debating the converted Aramaic Jew, I knew the issue was not really the three Hebrew texts. The Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex are indisputably the most important manuscripts of the Tanakh or "Old Testament." The Aleppo Codex is considered so important that it is the only manuscript on display alongside the Dead Sea Scrolls at the "Shrine of the Book," the section in Israel's national museum dedicated to the Tanakh. For its part, the Leningrad Codex serves as the basis of the Hebrew Bible used in every seminary and university in the world. As far as Hebrew Matthew is concerned, Keith and I have never claimed it was the original word-for-word Hebrew gospel written 2,000 years ago. In our book and interviews we explain that Hebrew Matthew has gone through a long process of textual transmission. Its importance is that, despite this long transmission, it is not a translation. We encourage people to consider Hebrew Matthew as "another witness" along with Greek, Aramaic, and others to the original words of Jesus, or "Yeshua" as he was known 2,000 years ago.
I knew what the ultimatum was really about from a Bible symposium Keith and I participated in last year alongside the same converted Aramaic Jew. Before agreeing to do the symposium, I made it clear I was happy to discuss textual issues but was not interested in a modern-day "disputation" about matters of faith. This was reiterated and agreed upon the night before the event. Despite all this, the converted Aramaic Jew used his platform to inflame the Christian and Messianic audience against me as a Jew who doesn't believe in Yeshua. I wasn't entirely surprised. The day before the event I knew I was in for trouble when I attended a Messianic Sabbath gathering of about 200 people. At one point in the event someone read the traditional weekly Torah portion in English. They then asked me to read the traditional portion from the Prophets in Hebrew. I was honored to read the word of God in the presence of those who believe in him and his perfect word, even if we disagree on some fundamental matters of faith. If I'm not mistaken, the section they had me read was from 1 Kings. When I finished reading in Hebrew, they asked the converted Aramaic Jew to read a section from the New Testament in Aramaic—he was there promoting his new edition of the New Testament which had the English and Aramaic on opposite pages. What followed were two of the most painful minutes I've ever experienced. The converted Aramaic Jew virtually broke his teeth on every letter, and after making it through about two verses there were calls from the audience begging him to just read it in English. He then read the English with perfect fluency. When I saw how he struggled to read his own Aramaic text, the one printed in the Bible he is supposed to have translated, I knew there would not be a serious discussion of texts at the symposium the next day.
The low point of the symposium came when the converted Aramaic Jew pointed at me and with spittle flying from his mouth warned the audience that Hebrew Matthew is contrary to faith in Yeshua because it never calls their beloved savior "Messiah." It was a powerful speech. In the Hollywood version, young women would be fainting and grown men would be weeping. The only problem was that not a word of it was true. Now let me stop here and remind everyone that I'm not Messianic or Christian. I'm a Karaite Jew who believes Yeshua existed and had some valuable things to say, but doesn't "believe in him" in the Christian sense. Having said that, here are some of the passages in the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew where Yeshua is, in fact, identified as the Messiah: 1:16; 2:4; 16:16-17, 20; 23:10; 26:7, 68; 27:17, 22. Hebrew Matthew 27:17 is particularly interesting because it has a form of the word Messiah in a place where it is missing from the Greek. This Hebrew text of Matthew was discovered by Professor George Howard of the University of Georgia and published back in 1987, when I was still in high school. Anyone can get his Hebrew Gospel of Matthew from Amazon.com and verify these verses for himself.
They say that those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it. I have no intention of repeating history by debating a converted Jew, or any Christian for that matter, on the validity of our respective faiths. The history of such debates has never brought anything to the Jewish people but persecution and suffering. Nachmanides himself was forced to flee Spain after he won the disputation against Pablo Christiani. Beyond the historical sensitivities, I don't feel it is my calling to convince Christians to abandon their beliefs or to accept mine. I have found that one's core beliefs are a matter of personal faith and relationship with God, not something that yields to hostile argumentation and disputation.
After several e-mails back and forth between Keith and the general manager of the Christian television network, she added one last, surprising, piece of information. The real issue wasn't Hebrew Matthew, or the Aleppo Codex, or even the Aramaic. The real issue was that "several trusted sources" had told her I was secretly grabbing hold of believers and convincing them to give up their faith in Yeshua. This is an old rumor that I referred to last year in my note entitled "The Ass Speaks Out." What I didn't reveal back then was that the very same converted Aramaic Jew was involved in that rumor. His exact role is still unclear to me. However, it was in the context of that rumor I first heard through intermediaries he was insisting that I engage him in a public disputation. For the record, I was not then, nor have I been since, going around trying to convince anyone to change his core beliefs in Yeshua or against Yeshua. Since the rumor has resurfaced, I think it's time for the ass to speak out again and tell the whole story I only alluded to the first time.
The seminal event behind the rumor was a meeting of three families in a double-wide trailer in Central Texas. It was arranged by a friend of mine who happens to be an ex-Christian who converted to Judaism. On one visit to Texas, she asked me to join her and her husband in meeting two other families of ex-Christians. Another friend of mine from the Dallas area who is a "Hebrew roots believer" also attended the meeting. When we got there, everyone took turns sharing their life stories. Each family had a different set of experiences and I found the whole thing fascinating. At the same time, I was a little uncomfortable for my "Hebrew roots believer" friend who was sitting there quietly while the ex-Christians explained why they had stopped believing in Yeshua. Towards the end of the session I decided to ask the question, "Did I ever try to convince any of you to give up your faith in Yeshua?" The woman who organized the meeting told everyone that back when she and her husband were Christians, I had encouraged them to take their faith seriously and not drop a lifetime of belief because of minor textual questions they were struggling with. The second family said they had never communicated with me before but had been encouraged in their Christian faith years earlier when reading my book The Hebrew Yeshua vs. the Greek Jesus. The third family had not read any of my books and didn't really know much about what I taught on the subject (shocking, I know!). The father explained that he began to question his faith in Yeshua and the New Testament after reading a book called Two Witnesses, written by an ex-Worldwide Church of God member.
The next part of the story provides a real-life example of my approach to matters of faith—and should help debunk the rumor that I go around trying to convince people to abandon their belief in Yeshua. After the discussion in the double-wide trailer, everyone descended on the potluck meal like locusts. I was standing off to the side when a woman in her twenties walked up to me and discreetly asked if I could help her. She told me she had some reservations about giving up Yeshua and asked if I could help convince her that Yeshua was not the Messiah. I told her this was something I could not do. I explained to her that this is a matter of faith and personal belief that she needed to work out for herself in fear and trembling, with prayer and study. I also suggested that she speak to her pastor, rabbi, or priest. I don't regret anything I said, and if I had to do it again I wouldn't change a thing.
The trouble began when the young woman with the doubts followed my advice and spoke to a Messianic pastor. She told him about the meeting and he is the one who started the rumor that I came to Texas to convince believers to give up their faith in Yeshua. According to one version of the story that made its way back to me, he or one of his people phoned a prominent Messianic teacher at two in the morning. They reportedly told this Messianic teacher that I had a group of believers in a room at that very moment and was going through the reasons why they should give up their faith. They were hysterical and wanted to know what to do about it.
I only heard about these rumors some time later. I was on tour when I got a call from another prominent Messianic teacher. He asked me point blank if the rumors were true. I told him they weren't, but if he really wanted to get to the truth he should talk to the people who were in the double-wide trailer in Central Texas. To my surprise, he actually went through with it and in the end the Messianic pastor who started the rumor was forced to retract his story. Of course, by then the rumor had taken on a life of its own. In some Messianic circles I became a mythical figure, like the archvillain Keyser Soze in the movie The Usual Suspects. The mere mention of my name made some Messianic believers nervous. Fathers would tell their children that if they weren't good, Nehemia Gordon would come in the middle of the night and snatch away their faith. The fact that none of it was true didn't matter.
Now I need to stop here and say something to my fellow Jews. I know some of you are saying to yourselves, "Nehemia! What's wrong with you! Why aren't you trying to convince Christians to give up their faith in Jesus?" My cousin recently told my mother she was worried I was becoming a Christian because I spent so much time dialoguing with them. I want to allay her fears and those of my other Jewish brothers and sisters: I am not becoming a Christian. As I've already said, I simply don't feel I've been called to convince Christians to give up their faith. If you look at the writings of the Jewish counter-missionary Rabbi Tovia Singer and the Christian apologist Dr. Michael Brown, the arguments haven't fundamentally changed in nearly 2,000 years. I don't think I would have a great deal of original thought to contribute to this discussion. On the other hand, I think there is so much more to be gained in our respective walks of faith by focusing on what we have in common rather than on our differences. If we can find a way to do this with some sound scholarship, who knows what we could discover about ourselves and each other! The sky's the limit!
My father, an Orthodox rabbi, has a different take on it. When he read the last chapter of A Prayer to Our Father, in which Keith Johnson and I call for more Jewish-Christian interfaith dialogue, he was not pleased. He said to me in his deep bass voice, "We have our thing and they have their thing. Why do you want dialogue? Just leave it alone." When I look back at the tragic history of Jewish-Christian relations over the last 2,000 years I am convinced that a lack of dialogue is decidedly unhealthy. On the flip side, people like Pablo Christiani and his modern-day incarnation create division and hatred by throwing fat on the fire. God promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that those who bless them would be blessed and those who curse them would be cursed (Genesis 12:3; 27:29). I believe the nations of the world have much to benefit by meeting Jews on common ground in that they will be blessed for blessing the descendants of Jacob. It also provides both of us an opportunity to learn about one another in a way that lets us grow in our respective faiths.
I want to make it clear that this is not about Messianic Jews, converted Jews, or whatever you want to call them. Throughout history, Messianics have often suffered persecution alongside their Jewish brothers. They had the extra burden of internal Jewish pressure for holding beliefs that were unpopular, to say the least—something I can identify with as a Karaite Jew. I have nothing against Messianic Jews and I count some of them among my closest friends. I can be friends with them because we respectfully agree to disagree on our differences and focus on what we have in common.
Another thing this is not about is Aramaic vs. Hebrew. I for one am convinced that Aramaic has great value for the study of the New Testament and, indeed, for the Tanakh as well. If nothing else, the various Aramaic versions shed light on how the Bible was understood by Semitic-speaking groups in different periods. I look at the Aramaic versions as witnesses, and the more witnesses the better. As with anything, you need to swallow the wheat and spit out the chaff. This is even true, believe it or not, of things that I say! (No, just kidding! You should blindly accept all my words!)
I thought long and hard before deciding to expose what happened with the Aramaic Letter. I've been attacked plenty of times in the past and usually grit my teeth and bear it in silence. One of the things that convinced me to speak out this time was something that happened while Keith and I were on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. We were talking about the Aramaic Letter and Keith insisted it was time for me to write a second "Ass Speaks Out" note. I told him he should write it and jokingly suggested he call it "The Black Ass Speaks Out." He was not amused and glanced at me from the driver's seat with an annoyed look on his face. And then his jaw dropped. He started yelling, "Look at the ass! Look at the white ass!" I gave him a perplexed look of my own. Then my neck was unexpectedly jerked to the side as Keith suddenly pulled the car off the road and came to an abrupt stop. He told me he had just seen a white donkey running along the roadside parallel to the car. I thought he was just being spiritual until he got out and started looking for it. I followed him into the wilderness and after a few minutes we found it. It was an Onager, more commonly known as the "Wild Asian Ass." It had scruffy white hair that blended in perfectly with the barren limestone hills of the Judean Desert. As I stared down the wild ass, looking directly into its eyes, I knew what I had to do. When I later looked up the phrase "wild ass" in the Bible I found the following verse:
"Who has let the wild ass go free? Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass?" (Job 39:5)
Even though the Aramaic Letter has been sent, the work will not stop. The work of building bridges and finding common ground will continue. The work of empowering Jews and Christians by giving them access to the Hebrew sources of their respective faiths will continue. The work of teaching, explaining, and glorifying the name of the Father of Creation will continue. The wild ass has been set free and no bonds will hold it back from doing the will of the Creator.
An online version of this note with a picture of the wild ass we saw in the desert and links to some of the things referenced is published at: