One of the most popular anti-missionary groups is called “Jews for Judaism.” They are a direct response to the Christian counterpart “Jews for Jesus.”
Anti-missionaries are Jewish people who actively seek to prevent other Jews—and non-Jews—from accepting Yeshua as Messiah. And, in the case of many Messianic Torah believers, they have effectively destroyed faith in Yeshua through persuasive, compelling arguments against Yeshua’s nature.
Anti-missionaries derive some of their most frequently used arguments from a book entitled Hizuk Emunah (“Faith Strengthened”). A brief examination of the original book, however, reveals several weaknesses. Let us consider such arguments in order to equip ourselves for the battle that lies ahead of each one of us, either directly or indirectly.
Isaac the Karaite
Faith Strengthened was written by Isaac ben Abraham Troki, who lived in Russia in the 1500s and was a famed Karaite polemic writer. In his book, he vehemently attacks the New Testament gospel writings as unreliable and corrupt. He teaches that the Gospels misquote, or take passages from the Tanach out of context.
In its day, Faith Strengthened elicited condemnation from Christian leaders (who renamed it “The Fiery Darts of Satan”), and conversely hailed praise from Jewish leaders. Still today, some three hundred years later, it seems apparent why anti-missionary groups such as Jews for Judaism would choose this book as their primary source for refuting the rabbi from Nazareth. But a few points from the book just don’t add up.
First, anti-missionary groups today consist mostly of Orthodox Jews who believe in both the Written and Oral Torah and are rooted firmly in both Torah practice as well as rabbinic tradition. While Karaites on the other hand (and of whom Isaac Troki was one) believe solely in the authority of the written Hebrew Scriptures alone. Thus, the Karaite sect regularly denounces rabbinic tradition as extra-biblical and non-binding. In some sense, they are descendants of the Sadducee sect from Second Temple Period—both being literalists who reject rabbinic methods of interpretation.
Rabbinic Orthodox Jews and Karaites have feuded within Judaism for hundreds of years. Since the rabbinic movement does not recognize Karaites as a legitimate expression of Torah faith, it is extremely surprising—and appears contradictory— that rabbinic Jews would choose a book written by a heretical sect to refute what they believe is a heretical religion.
This article will examine two examples of the types of arguments against Yeshua that Faith Strengthened details.
“You Shall Call His Name Emmanuel”
The English version of Matthew 1:23, quotes, “And they shall call his name Emmanuel;” but the Hebrew original [from Isaiah 7:14], states, “and she shall call.” It is also a striking fact that the name Emmanuel was not given to Jesus by his mother at the time of His birth. Nor do we find that the Emmanuel mentioned in Isaiah was ever to be considered the Messiah. (Faith Strengthened, Part 2 Chapter 3)
The issue here surrounds an apparent controversy regarding the choice of Yeshua’s name. It appears from Matthew 1:23 that Joseph was visited in a dream and informed that Mary’s impregnation was through the Holy Spirit, and that the child would be called Emmanuel.
Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:22-23)
These verses in Matthew are quoting Isaiah 7:14, and Troki has several issues with this quotation. One of his main points is that the name “Emmanuel” was never given to Yeshua. To the unsuspecting and honestly inquisitive follower of Yeshua, Troki’s literal approach can become a point well made in this instance.
However, according to the majority of Jewish opinion, this Isaiah passage was originally referring to Hezekiah. But, Hezekiah was never called Emmanuel either. Therefore, most agree that the meaning of this passage was written metaphorically, i.e., Yeshua is the visual sign that “God is among His people.” This reference does not mean that Yeshua was to be literally named “Emmanuel.”
Troki’s second issue with this Matthew passage is the supposed deviation from the original Hebrew changing “and she called” to “and they shall call.” Thus, his accusation is that the author of Matthew intentionally distorted the Hebrew because, clearly, Mary did not name Yeshua “Emmanuel.”
How then, would we reconcile this second argument, especially if we are unfamiliar with the original Hebrew language? A key component to making sense of this quandary is to understand that the ancient Hebrew scrolls did not contain vowels. This is crucial because with the absence of a fixed system of vowels, Hebrew words were subject to different readings, and in some cases, variant meanings.
This led to an approach to Scripture called al tikra—which is foreign to the Karaite world but is common in rabbinic Judaism—where a Hebrew word is not read according to its standard vocalization in order to derive a deeper meaning from the text. It appears that indeed this is what is going on in Matthew’s quote and scholar Robert Gundry has found evidence of Matthew’s alternate reading in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Troki’s third objection to this matter is that Isaiah 7:14 is not speaking about Messiah at all. Yet, remember that in the world of rabbinic midrash every verse can hold multiple meanings. In support of this, E. Ellis notes that midrash sometimes “involves the transposition of a biblical text to a different application.”
We can also see this in the Scriptures themselves, such as when Isaiah reinterprets the exodus from Egypt as referring to future (not past) deliverance from the oppression of the nations. Therefore, to interpret Isaiah’s prophecy as referring to the Messiah is not at all problematic within rabbinic Judaism, and even finds support within its texts: the Talmud (quoting Isaiah 9:6) states that Hezekiah could have been a messiah. Yet, this type of midrashic interpretation would have been unacceptable to Troki because, as a Karaite, he rejected rabbinic interpretive methods.
“He Shall be Called a Nazarene”
And He came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled, which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:23)
This quotation has been falsely made, and is not to be found in any part of our prophetic writings; which subject has been more fully treated of in the former part of this work. (Faith Strengthened, Part 2 Chapter 6)
The passage about Messiah’s upbringing in Nazareth fulfilling prophecy has puzzled Bible scholars for centuries. Troki’s refutation is simple: there is no verse in the Prophets that even remotely resembles the one quoted here in Matthew. Therefore, Troki asserts that this was simply made up.
What Scripture is Matthew 2:23 quoting when it references Yeshua being called a Nazarene? To be fair, we have to agree that no “single” verse matches Matthew’s quote. To defend the book of Matthew’s integrity, however, several explanations can be proposed. One is that the phrase “what was spoken” refers to an oral prophecy rather than a written one. Though this is possible, it is unlikely, for we find the expression “it was said” before scriptural quotes in rabbinic literature. Most likely “it was spoken” is just another way of saying “it is written.”
A second explanation can be found in the fact that, in this quotation, “prophets” is written in the plural form, even though normally quoted in singular form. Why would this be? Perhaps Matthew merged several different verses into the form of one quotation.
For example, 1 Samuel 16:1 records the story of Samuel being instructed by HaShem to go and anoint David son of Jesse as the king who will replace Saul. Three hundred years later the Prophet Isaiah stated: “A shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch [netzer] from his roots will bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1).
This passage in Isaiah has long been interpreted as speaking of the Messiah as is evidenced, in the Midrash, Targums, and Dead Sea Scrolls. The Messiah is called “a branch,” but here Isaiah uses the more uncommon Hebrew word for “branch,” netzer as opposed to tzemach. This derivative affords a word play with the Hebrew for the town “Nazareth” which is Netzeret. Yeshua becomes the netzer (“branch”) from netzeret (“Nazareth”). This word play emphasizes the Master’s lowly beginnings in the humble town of Nazareth.
But this is not the only passage to speak of Messiah as a branch; see also Zechariah 6:12, “He will branch [tzemach] out from where He is,” and “Behold, I am going to bring in My servant the branch [tzemach]” from Zechariah 3:8.
You may have already noticed here, however, that the Hebrew word used for branch in these instances was tzemach. There is even one tradition in the Midrash that the Messiah’s name shall be “branch” [tzemach] based on these verses.
Matthew seems then to have combined all the “branch” references from Isaiah, Zechariah, and Jeremiah into one quotation creating a clever wordplay. Of Matthew’s method of exegesis here Gundry writes, “This is a quotation of substance quite in accord with rabbinical and classical style.”
So how does this information help us debunk Troki’s writings? Because if Troki practices only Karaite Judaism, it would be erroneous to believe he would willingly accept this midrashic method of exegesis.
Is the Pot Calling the Kettle Black?
This brings us back to our original point of how surprising it is that rabbinic Jews so willingly use a Karaite work to discredit the Gospels. The gospel writers employ the same exegetical techniques that the rabbis do. In fact, if you took Troki’s arguments and applied them to rabbinic literature, then the Talmud, the Midrash, and virtually all rabbinic interpretations, would fail by the same criteria. It is not fair for the midrashic content of the Gospels to be criticized by the people who use the same midrashic methods.
In commenting on the incident in Yeshua’s childhood where he is in the Temple with the elders, Dr. Doeve points out that Yeshua was using the rabbinic midrashic method of exegesis:
What else can one imagine this to have been but a discussion in which they were engaged in midrash. And clearly it is not the method, but the results which are at issue here. If Jesus had used a different method than they did, they would not have been amazed at His understanding and answers. Their amazement must relate to His deducing things from Scripture, which they had never found before.
The Master tells his disciples, “Every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old” (Matthew 13:52). Yeshua and the disciples were using the same scribal techniques the sages were using because they were part of that world and that community.
On the other hand, the Master sends scathing words of rebuke toward the methods of exegesis of the Sadducees—the Karaites of his day. He tells them that they do not understand the Scriptures.
Could the same be said of the modern-day Karaites whose rigidly literal interpretation often falls short of the Master’s expectations? Troki’s biggest problem with the Gospels could be summed up quite easily: The gospel writers were not Karaites. Thus, their interpretive methods do not settle well with his ability to properly understand their writings.
Indeed, the Scriptures are reliable and trustworthy when placed firmly within their Jewish context. This context includes the midrashic method of exegesis. While it often seems like it is the rabbinic interpretations that lead people away from our Messiah, Yeshua, a keen observer will note that just beneath the surface is the pulse of a Karaite.
- Matthew 1:20-22.
- Adin Steinsaltz, The Talmud: The Steinsaltz Edition: Reference Guide (New York, NY: Random House, 1989), 103.
- Robert Gundry, The Use of the Old Testament in St. Matthew’s Gospel (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1975), 90.
- Midrash is a method of exegesis of a Biblical text used by the ancient Rabbis. It comes from the root word darash, which means “to search out, inquire.”
- E. Earle Ellis, The Old Testament in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991), 92.
- Isaiah 19:19-22.
- b.Sanhedrin 94a
- See for example t.Chullin 2:23-24.
- See Targum Isaiah 11:1, Lamentations Rabbah 1:51, y.Brachot 4:2, 25b, and 4Q161 15-25.
- See also Isaiah 4:2, Jeremiah 23:5 and 33:15.
- Lamentations Rabbah 1:51.
- Gundry, The Use of the Old Testament, 97.
- Dr. J. H. Doeve, Jewish Hermeneutics in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts (Assen, Netherlands, Koinklijke Van Gorcum & Comp, 1954), 105.
- Matthew 22:29.