“The New Testament is so brutal to read in Hebrew when I compare it to the beautiful language of the Old Testament.”
Our Israeli tour guide said those words to me during a conversation he and I had atop a three-story building in Jerusalem that houses a Jewish synagogue, a Christian memorial, and an Islamic mosque. He labeled the structure “a true miracle” because the three faiths have peacefully cohabited there for centuries.
The building in question is the believed location of King David’s tomb. The Tomb is enclosed on the first floor within the Sephardic Synagogue of Mount Zion. The second floor houses the Room of the Last Supper, built by the Byzantine Christians in 390 A.D., and later rebuilt atop its ruins by the Crusaders in the Twelfth Century. The mosque occupies the top floor.
Differences in architectural styles, materials, and construction methods are immediately apparent when you visit archaeological sites in Jerusalem where the ancient layers are exposed. While I gazed over the city view and pondered our guide’s opinion of the Hebrew New Testament translation, I realized his view of the New Covenant scriptures mirrored what I saw in the ancient buildings—the Israelite kings, particularly Herod the Great, quarried new stones of immense size, where succeeding civilizations used smaller, less-hewn stones and in many cases recycled materials from buildings they’d destroyed in their conquests.
So, was our guide’s statement one man’s culturally informed opinion, or a revelation from God for me, in the Holy Land, to direct my pursuit of understanding?
The question has my attention. So much has been written about the need for followers of Yeshua to understand and embrace the Hebrew foundations of our faith. The reason I went to Israel was at God’s direction, to learn about His chosen land as I learn about Yeshua as the Son sent to His chosen people.
Words are imperfect containers of truth. The challenge of translation, where so much cultural context is embedded within each language, is both maximizing fidelity to the original meaning of a text and minimizing the destruction of meaning through cultural misunderstanding.
I certainly have had enough experience reading English text written by non-native English speakers to empathize with our guide’s perspective. Surely a Scripture translation gets much more care and scrutiny than your typical instruction manual for an electronic gadget, yet for him, the majesty of the New Covenant in Hebrew is somehow lost in translation.
As we continued our conversation, our guide elaborated that Judaism is a Word-based faith, that the Word of God and its rabbinical interpretation through the Talmud is strict in its insistence that God cannot be seen, indeed His name is too holy to be spoken, which in turn is why Jews (in his estimation) cannot accept Yeshua as God.
So I asked him, “How then do adherents to Judaism view the theophanies portrayed in the Old Testament, i.e. God walking in the garden of Eden in the cool of the day, God appearing to Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, and so on?”
His answer: the Hebrew Bible renders those scenes as “the voice of God,” not a physical manifestation.
That got my attention, too. I had no idea if his opinions had theological merit, yet I saw God at work, giving me clues of truth He’s hidden for me to discover.
I pondered the questions on and off as we proceeded on our day’s exploration itinerary. We made another pass through the Jewish quarter of the Old City to the Temple Mount, with just enough time within the one-hour midday visit window for non-Muslims.
As we made our way to the wooden bridge past the Western Wall, I observed a very different atmosphere from my first visit. It was the first day of the new Hebrew month, and many groups gathered at the Wall and chanted prayers and sang in unison. A unique communal expression of devotion.
While crossing the bridge we encountered a group of young men singing and dancing. It seemed to be a spiritual song. Our guide told us these men were engaging in a protest against the prohibition of Jews praying to God on the Temple Mount. Their passion and zeal and a growing police presence mixed into a flammable vapor, at risk of ignition by a wayward spark.
We crossed the threshold onto the plaza between the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock and immediately encountered Yeshua’s presence. He walked this territory. The paving was not Herod’s original, yet His presence percolated from the ground below.
We surveyed the plaza and the Eastern Gate, which the Muslims walled in and fronted with a burial ground, in the belief the Jewish Messiah would not traverse defiled ground. Immediately, this thought: The risen Yeshua, the Anointed One, will not be deterred by anything man-made.
The police atop the Mount signaled our time was up, and we transitioned to our next stop, the Western Wall Tunnels. A vast and highly sophisticated underground city revealed more of the engineering and construction sophistication of Herod and his Roman benefactors.
At this point in our journey the sciatic nerve pain in my left leg hit a level 10 peak, so I planted myself inside an ancient miqwa’ot, or purification bath, while my companions continued exploring the excavated treasures beneath astride the Western Wall. I prayed in the Spirit and hummed a hymn tune, then yielded to three women who came to engage with a remnant of their Judaic heritage.
We ended our tour that day with a stroll through Via Dolorosa in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City and parked ourselves at the Viennese Café inside the Austrian Hospice, a self-described “unfussy guest house.” We rested around the table, enjoyed the best apple strudel I’ve ever tasted and a stout cup of coffee, and engaged in a brief rabbinic-style Bible study, discussing and debating the questions raised over the Room of the Last Supper a bit more.
All this took place on our last full day in the holy city of Yerushalayim. The city where Yeshua will one day return and rule along with His risen saints. The treasures of experience and revelation I gathered will take months, if not years, to fully discover, process, and understand with the Lord.
Where it begins for me: the physical and archaeological history, the cultural immersion, and the presence of God are the body, soul, and spirit of what He wants me to understand, vitally connected like my own body, soul, and spirit.
And one more thing—though it has been customary through the ages to articulate the names of the people and places in the Bible in the conventions of whatever language to which it’s translated, I left Israel with a new conviction.
His name is Yeshua. He is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. I am grafted into His chosen root.
From here forward, I don’t want anything about my Savior and Lord to be lost in translation.