The Sign of the Cross: of Jewish Origin
I see the New Testament as intensely Jewish. But outside of the New Testament, is there anything else that is intensely Jewish that speaks of Jesus? Yes there is, and I will tell you of it. Let's take for instance the Cross. Readers of the New Testament will remember that Paul, who called himself, and rightly, an Israelite, from the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee, said of the cross, " I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live", and, "God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." And Jesus Himself said, referring to the cross,,"If I am lifted up, I will draw all men to Me." Well, this is in the New Testament. Where is the community of Jews outside of the New Testament, yet in the New Testament days, who speak of Jesus, who speak of the cross?
Well, before there were the Dead Sea Scrolls to tell us what 1st century thought could be like, what first century Aramaic could be like, scholars, ever since the discovery in 1909 of this "Jewish" literature in Aramaic (Syriac), said something like, Yes, this is Jewish, but it's from the 2nd or 3rd century AD, written by Christians who were "Judaizing", that is, making it as if they, too, were "original" Jews or trying to bring back Judaism into the Church. But then, as years went on, other scholars, who could read the orginal and compare with the new discoveries, said, "No. this is no later than the first century - and is even earlier than some parts of the New Testament, and was written by Jews who believed in Jesus, who lived in a heavily Jewish area, just outside Palestine (Israel). Among these scholars are two important ones, J.H. Charlesworth, and Samuel Hugh Moffett of Princeton Seminary.
So, what do they say about the "Odes"- Hymns that come from this Jewish "Christian" community?
Firstly, this community of Jewish believers was so early that writings show an even earlier stage than some of the New Testament writings. In the latter writings, yes, there were still a lot of Jews in the "church" but most members were Gentiles, who, surprisingly, believers in Jesus the Jewish Messiah. The New Testament tells these Gentile believers - please, respect your Jewish brothers and sisters in your midst. They were there before you in the faith of the Lord. You Gentiles are only recent "grafts" into the seed of Abraham.
But these Odes are so early that the opposite situation was existing. The community of Jesus was almost totally Jewish and Gentiles were just starting to come in as believers, and so the Jewish believers had to be told - please, do not dishonor these Gentiles who are now coming into your midst. do not despise them. Who told them that? Well it was Jesus Himself. That is right in the middle of Ode 10, which the community chanted together, Jesus speaks to them, sort of like the Prophets of old, when the Lord suddenly speaks through the words of the prophet, and Jesus says in this Ode, "The Gentiles who were dispersed are now gathered together. But I am not defiled in my loving them, because they praised Me in high places" . And so, we understand, don't you do the same!
And so, we understand, they went out as a community to the field to pray their Psalms (we have 42 of them) in Aramaic and pray to the Lord. J.H. Charlsworth calls these psalms the "worlds first Christian hymnbook". And they did something that the ancient Jewish world and the world of the Tanakh often did. They didn't just think things, and say things, but they acted them out, or made physical gestures that made the point, or helped released their heart into what they were mouthing - just like today, Jews not only say the Shema (Hear O Israel...), and think and say the psalms or other portions of the Tanakh, but also kiss the scrolls as they are passed or walked around, kiss and touch their fingertips and then the "Mezuzahs" on the doorposts of their houses, and many other things of doing, in order to demonstrate - like celebration of the Passover Seder.
And so they went out into the field, at the start of the day, and they began to pray, and as they did, they did something else. They stood and streched out their arms, and looked out to heaven and prayed out in wonderful Aramaic their Psalm 42 and saying what they were doing, as they made thus the sign of the cross:
"I have extended my hands, and approached my Lord, PeSHiTut 'iDi W'tKRBt LeWaT MaRi
For the expansion of my hands is His sign. MeTuL deMaTCHi diDi 'ATeh *
And my extension (stretching out), is the common cross, PeSHiTut K'S'a PeSHiTa
That was lifted up on the way of the Righteous One." de'ETTL' 'AL URCH'a de TiRTS'a
(James Charlesworth translation)
*the word for "sign" here in Aramaic is the same word in Hebrew for Sign of the Covenant, "'OT" HaBrit that God looks at and "remembers", such as the rainbow in His Covenant not to send another Flood on earth, or the OT HaBrit of circumcision. This is the background for the OT HaBrit of the New Covenant, the Bread and the Wine. God looks down at the Assembly of the Believers in Jesus who are gathered together in faith and partake of His Remembrance at the table of the Lord. Here in the Aramaic Psalm 42 is the "OT" of the cross. This is the background of the a number of ancient churches still around today which consider the making of the sign of the cross a "sacramental" - something not really a "sacrament" but neither is it an "ordinary" sign.
So, if you are Jewish and feel like making the sign of the cross, go ahead. It is as Jewish as Matzah ball soup or Gefilte fish. And if you are not Jewish and you believe in Jesus, remember, He is the Jewish Messiah, as well as the Savior of the World and yours.
Note 1: Even today, once the Syriac script is put into the Hebrew characters, Hebrew speakers can make out some or most of the Ancient Aramaic prayer from this Jewish Christian community.
Note 2. Where this Jewish Christian community of Jews lived was either Edessa (Urhai), the capital of the ancient kingdom of Osrhoene, or Arbela (Arba'a Ilu - the four gods, but now the Iraqi city of Irbil), the capital of Adiabene (Syriac: ܚܕܝܐܒ, pronounced Ḥaḏy’aḇ or Ḥḏay’aḇ). Adiabene was the very last province of the ancient and much feared Assyrian Empire (the prophet Jonah had been sent by God to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh) . In the first century, the queen of Adiabene, Helene, became Jewish with her son, the prince Izotes, and many of her nobles. According to the 1st century Jewish general and historian, Josephus, Adiabene was the only country to send in fighters to fight alongside the Palestinian Jews in their revolt against the Romans in the first century. This queen of Adiabene was much honored by the Jews because of this and her charitable works during the same famine that Paul writes about in the New Testament. Her many chambered tomb, once thought to be the burial place of the Kings of Israel, is on Salaheddin street in East Jerusalem. Adiabene itself, having become partly Jewish, due to the evangelization of Addai (Thaddeus) from Caesarea Phillippi in the Galilee, became the home of the Aramaic Jewish Christians (as well as the probable home of the Aramaic/Syriac version of the Old and New Testaments, the Peshitta) and Adiabene also became the sending mission station for the Aramaic missions to Persia, Afghanistan, possibly India, and China, the missions of the "Church of the East". Adiabene, the center for the earliest bishops of the Aramaic Church of the East is considered by that Church to have been initially evangelized and/or brought into the "Apostolic" sphere by one of the "Seventy" Adai (Thaddeus), who had been sent to nearby Edessa by the Apostle Thomas. Thomas himself would go on to India to found the Church in the southern Kerala region.
While in Edessa, Adai sent his disciple, Mari, like himself one of the Seventy, to Persia. Mari is considered as the founder of the Persian Church. These three, then - the Apostle Thomas, Addai, and Mari (along with another, are considered by the Church of the East, if not strictly the founders, then the "continuers" of the Jewish Apostolic community of believers in Jesus in the spread of the Aramaic Church from Jerusalem to the Far East. In the early 4th century, the bishop of Adiabene consecrated a bishop, Papa bar Gagai, for the southern portion of Mesopotamia, for the city of Seleucia-Ctesipon, and from that time, the centrality for the Aramaic church shifted from the northern center of Adiabene with its capital city of Arbela, to the southern center of Seleucia-Ctesipon (near Babylon).
It is thought that the reason that Jewish Christianity prevailed in the Aramaic speaking east while it did not in the Greek west is related to these facts - Christianity until the 4th century was an illicit and often persecuted by the pagan Roman Empire, while the enemy of the Roman Empire, the Parthian Empire of Aramaic speaking lands, though also pagan, were more tolerant of their minorities. After the destructions of Jerusalem and prohibitions against Judaism of the two rebellions of the Jews against the Romans - 66 AD and 135 AD - many Jews fled Palestine, and fled, not west to Roman lands, but to the East of Jerusalem to the Aramaic speaking Parthian Empire. Thus the Jewish influence in the Kingdom of Adiabene. Among the Jewish stream into the Parthian Kingdom, were also the Jewish Christians. Thus, though the early Church of the East engaged in occasional disputes with other Jews about the identity of the Messiah, the disputes were not vitriolic, and the Church of the East itself retained its Jewish roots and coloration. That is why the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Peshita) retains some of the same readings as Jewish interpretive material commonly known by the term Agaddic. Of all the Christian Eucharistic liturgies, the Aramaic one used by the Church of the East, now known as the Korbana of Mar Addai and Mari, retains the most Jewish elements in its prayers.
The Jewish orientation of the early Church of the East can also be shown in its self understanding as to its founding and early leadership under its bishops. Aside from its understanding that its earliest founders were Jewish apostles and their disciples (Thomas, Addai-Thaddeus, Mari, Aggai-Haggai), three bishops directing the church are also considered to be both Jewish and, what is more, in the blood line of the Messiah Himself (Abris = "Ivri = Hebrew", a relative of Jesus' mother Mary, Avraham, a relative of James, and Yaakob, a relative of Joseph). This physical descent from the family of Jesus, perpetuating the seed and dynasty of David in the Churches leadership, is startling different than the outworkings of the "Gentile Church" within the Roman Empire. As the Church of the East Mission spread to India, it also spread the language of its homeland -Aramaic, the language of Jesus and the language of the Jewish Talmud ("Gemara") which developed in Babylon. This resulted in the startling phenomenon of the Christians of South India (Kerala), the so-called St. Thomas Christians, though speaking in their native Indian dialect, pray in the language of Aramaic, and the language akin, though not identical, to that of the Jewish Talmud. The language of the Aramaic Christians in particular, also at the core Aramaic, has come to be called Syriac, due to the nomenclature of the area of origin. When the Church of the East in India received an influx of new people from Mesopotamia in the 5th and 6th century, the Indian Church of the East came to be popularly known as the "Syro-Chaldean Church", that is; the Church of the People from Syria and Chaldea ( Abraham, was from Ur of the Chaldeans). Toward the end of the nineteenth century - beginning of the twentieth, the Syro-Chaldean Church in India, launched two missions. One was to the north of India among the Hindus. The other was to the West, through England and then the United States. That latter mission, had as its purpose the bringing of the Aramaic way as a sort of bridge church, neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant, but by being what it was to the core, a third way of approach - Apostolic, Catholic/Sacramental, and Evangelical/Biblical. The daughter of that western movement of the Aramaic Indian church, the Syro-Chaldean Church of North America, is also charismatic.