What to Say When They Say…
My rabbi told me: ‘Christians take messianic prophecies out of context to try to persuade Jews that Jesus is the Messiah.’ He says that if you take passages out of context you can prove anything you want, and that if you don’t know the original Hebrew, it is impossible to understand the meaning of those texts.”
Well, the rabbi makes a good point: if people take a Bible text out of its context and completely disregard the meaning of the surrounding Scriptures and known historical interpretations, they can make it say what God never intended. So far as Christians taking all the prophecies out of context, that is the kind of sweeping statement that needs to be questioned. In this case, almost all the texts Christians cite were understood by some ancient rabbis as referring to the Messiah. We have excellent documentation to support this.
Secondly, it would be foolish to think that Peter, James, John and the other apostles didn’t know Hebrew. When Philip found Nathaniel, he said, “‘We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph,'” (John 1:45b). Even today, while there are many believers in Jesus who do not read or understand the Hebrew texts, there are certainly others who do.
Finally, if the rabbi says that you can’t understand the Jewish Bible unless you know Hebrew, he is arguing for gnosticism rather than Judaism.
Gnosticism places distance between the religious authority and the seeker/student by claiming a superior or elite knowledge. Since a minority of ordinary Jews and Christians understand Hebrew, it is something that a religious authority can hide behind. In fact, a good translation, while not having all of the nuances of the original languages, is more than sufficient to one’s understanding. Not only that, but those who know modern Hebrew and Greek may well have lost certain language nuances that the ancient translators understood.
Finally, I would point out that statements which sound believable are not necessarily true. The rabbi himself may have accepted such a statement without checking its validity, because it came from someone he respected and because it helps him comfortably dismiss a belief which is considered taboo.