Friday, 6 February 2009

A Noahide Manifesto?

A Review of Restoring Abrahamic Faith, James D. Tabor, Genesis 2000, Charlotte, NC., 2008

Restoring Abrahamic Faith is not intended for an academic readership, but those with either an interest in the “Hebrew roots” movement, or who perhaps have been members at some stage of a Sabbath-keeping church. “It is more particularly addressed to the millions of biblically oriented Christians who love the God of Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets.” (p.4)

The potential for a book like this is huge. The Hebrew roots movement is usually known more for its enthusiasm than its scholarship, but Tabor is undeniably a scholar, and a very good scholar.

The first surprise was that Tabor is not interested in a specifically Christian debate, and the New Testament is peripheral to his case.

… the TORAH and the Prophets must be the fundamental foundation of any restoration of BIBLICAL FAITH. Other sacred texts offer commentary and elaboration... (p.20)

The second surprise is that the writing style is not only non-scholarly, but highly reminiscent of the author's former affiliation, the Worldwide Church of God. Tabor speaks of a “great and unseen Hand” (p.2), Earth is “our polluted planet” (p.1), the purpose of life is “the creation of holy, righteous character” (p.69). Like old copies of The Plain Truth there are – as the first quote demonstrates – caps and italics in profusion. The introduction is reminiscent of the opening pages of The Wonderful World Tomorrow – What It Will Be Like: the world is going to hell in a handcart (“And yet we live in a world of utter religious confusion.”) But Tabor has a panacea to offer: “You can expect to be surprised and challenged by what follows.” It's not a promising start.

Neither does Tabor do his credibility any favors when he cites with approval a Jehovah's Witness booklet, Strong's concordance, McMillen's None of These Diseases, Hislop's The Two Babylons, and Adam Clarke: a selection that most of his fellow academics would surely regard as motley. Works of contemporary scholarship are thin in the footnotes, and there is no bibliography.

Given the many Christian references and footnotes, it takes a while to appreciate that Restoring Abrahamic Faith is in part an appeal for Christians to abandon any idea of Jesus as Messiah or Son of God, and to adopt a cut-down form of Judaism (more on this below.)

Certainly the Gentiles who turn to the God of Israel in this way, as well as those from the Lost Tribes of Israel, will live their lives in a new solidarity with the fortunes of the Jewish people. Others may choose conversion to Judaism... (p.107)

The problem is that Christianity denies the pillars of the BIBLICAL FAITH: God, TORAH, and Israel. (p.153)

It's worth pausing at this stage to ask what Tabor means by “Lost Tribes of Israel.”

Significant portions of these tribes ended up among the peoples of northwestern Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States – namely among the Welsh, Scots-Irish, Scots, Anglo-Saxons, and Scandinavians. (p.79)

… history shows that the bulk of these tribes migrated northwest into Europe, and did finally fulfill the promises that were made to the two sons of Joseph – Ephraim and Manasseh, about unprecedented national greatness... (p.80)

… these so-called “Lost Tribes” of Israel... have lost their Israelite identity and consider themselves Gentile... (p.65)

This, we are assured, is not the same thing as Anglo-Israel or “standard” British-Israel theory, a point Dr Tabor was keen to stress in personal correspondence in preparation for this review. Anyone familiar with British-Israel belief might however be hard pressed to see something different here. Isn't this sort of claim pseudo-history? “I refer to good scholarly research as to where these tribes actually migrated.” (p.80) What good scholarly research? Dr Tabor cites Anne K. Kristensen, but was unaware of Greg Doudna's challenge to Kristensen's hypothesis in Showdown at Big Sandy (p.228-239) when questioned. Tabor rejects out of hand the explicit racism of “identity theory” (White supremacist interpretations of Anglo Israelism), but seems unaware of – and unperturbed by – the implicit racism that under-girds the theory itself.

While at first glance there doesn't seem to be a lot of difference between what Tabor is arguing for and the “non-standard” British-Israelism of Herbert Armstrong, the Lost Tribes theory has had other advocates, among them David Horowitz (1903-2002).

In fact Tabor's personal manifesto seems largely indistinguishable from that of the United Israel World Union, a marginal Jewish organization formed in the 1940s by Horowitz, and maintained by Dr Tabor since the founder's death.

The primary purposes of UIWU are to represent a universal version of the Hebraic faith to the non-Jewish world... Central to this mission is the conviction that scattered among the Gentiles are untold numbers of descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel who are discovering their identity and their kinship to the Jewish people. Membership is based on the simple declaration of faith in the One God of Israel and a commitment to live according to the principles of the Hebrew Bible. Members, accordingly, observe the Sabbath day, Jewish festivals, and a biblical “kosher” diet, although the manner and extent of such observances is left to one’s individual conscience. (UIWU website.)

The organization has a tenuous “real world” presence in the ministry of Ross Nichols at the former Temple Sinai Synagogue in St. Francisville, Louisiana.

To describe United Israel as Messianic Jewish would be wrong; a better term is Noahide.

Noahides describe themselves as people who have embraced the Seven Laws of Noah as set out in the Torah and the Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud. Jewish Law defines them either as Bnei Noach or Gerim Toshavim. Almost all of the modern-day Noahides are former fundamentalist Christians who have rejected Christianity and the divinity of Jesus... Dr. Tabor... is generally thought of as the most academic of the Noahide leaders... While many of them view Jesus in a positive light (as an observant Jew who tried to spread the message of Torah to the world), they make it clear that they view Christianity's deification of Jesus as blasphemy. Yet their positive attitude towards the human being Jesus clearly presents a challenge to the Jewish world. (Rosemary Frei)

While Tabor, in recent correspondence with the writer, expressed reservations about the word Noahide, he states in the book: “This Noahide Code... might be likened to a basic 'clean up operation' for those who are turning from idolatry, paganism, and misguided ways of our secular society.” (p.55)

Whatever the preferred terminology, the author has moved a long way from his sectarian Christian roots.

Commenting on the merits or otherwise of Noahide Judaism is something that's well beyond the scope or competence of this review, other than to say that it manifests a certain allure – a stripped down monotheism with neither Trinity nor Talmud. My reservations are more that the book exploits pre-critical assumptions about biblical authorship – for example that David composed the Psalms, or Moses wrote the Pentateuch – and also fails to distinguish myth from history, as in the Cain story (p.68). It's hard to imagine that Dr Tabor shares these views, yet they're seemingly “good enough” to ease his case for this target audience. Accepting that the book is an exercise in apologetic rather than academic writing, these failings still grate. Tabor is a master of almost saying something, but leaving wiggle room. This may be the mark of a cautious scholar, but this is not intended as a scholarly text. Does Tabor support a version of British-Israelism or not? "Not 'standard' BI." Is that a no or a yes?

At times the author's imagination seems to take full flight in passages worthy of William Dankenbring. “These tablets [given on Mt. Sinai] seem to reflect some kind of advanced laser-like holographic technology in which data was embedded into these translucent stones.” (p.42)

Good theological writing moves people on. It encourages them to read widely and expand their vision. It doesn't patronize them or, even worse, exploit their naivete. It seems to me that Restoring Abrahamic Faith fails these criteria.

Chapter four, “The Messiahs”, is possibly the strongest, and most provocative. Tabor makes some telling points relating to the Dead Sea Scrolls and the “varied and even contradictory” messianic traditions that became “hardened and inflexible” in the hands of emerging orthodox Christianity.

The great error of Christianity was to turn the Nazarene into a paganized God-Man, hardly even a human, who uniquely “suffers for the sins of the world.” (p.147)

The chapter concludes by directly asking “Was Jesus the Nazarene the Messiah?” The answer offered is an only slightly-nuanced “no.”

The final chapter is a kind of altar call, though not one Christians – those who believe that Jesus was much more than a good man and a great prophet – could embrace. Tabor's plea is for Christians to purge the Hellenistic dualism that was introduced early in church history; to return to the faith of Jesus, not a faith about Jesus. There can be little doubt about the author's passion or sincerity. Unfortunately for those who share Dr Tabor's background, there may be disturbing echoes to be heard, among them the voice of former colleague Roderick C. Meredith, bludgeoning his flock with a battery of proof texts on “restoring apostolic Christianity.” Listen a little harder perhaps, and you might hear the shade of Ellen G. White asserting her role in completing what she thought the sixteenth century Reformers had failed to complete – a theme Tabor also mentions (p.165).

These are well traveled roads. James Tabor has simply followed them further back than most, into the years BCE.

Which is fair enough, if the road actually leads anywhere. But if we had the ability, via some kind of time machine, to return to an agreed beginning, would we really find a pure, unblemished faith, or were the waters just as murky for those people living then? Is the projection of a perfect moment of origin, whether in Abraham's time, at Sinai, or later in an upper room in Jerusalem, the revelation of a shining ideal, or just another mirage that masks the realities of human inconsistency?

Restoring Abrahamic Faith is available for $15 plus postage from Genesis 2000 (


  1. Excellent review Gavin. Dr. Tabor is a good scholar in other areas but he has always had a somewhat and easily detectable bias that the answer to this quest he is on lies is a return to Jewish/Hebrew roots. I can hardly contain myself in saying, to me, this is no answer to anything.

    Some of his comments in his other publications put me in mind of what I have called being "God Haunted" in the sense one might be who experiences the "Jerusalem Syndrome" when in Israel. I think this is what one notices in this particular book.

    To me of course, becoming more Jewish, Torah sensitive or enamoured with what may not even be the real, or at least knowable, characters known as Abraham or Moses is hardly is no way to go.

    Oral traditions transmitted over 3800 years or so are mere hearsay in the final analysis.

    I don't even know what my grandfather said or didn't say in his life, much less Abraham or Moses.

  2. Gavin, thanks for taking the time to read my book and offer your analysis. Despite your negative assessments I do appreciate it. As I wrote you in our personal exchanges back in December, I dearly wish you and I could trade views on God, the Bible, and theology over more than a few beers in some neighborhood bar. So many of your comments and observations here left me wondering what you think yourself about this, that, and the other when it comes to these matters of biblical faith.

    You are correct that this particular book, unlike the others I have published with HarperSF, UC Berkeley, and Simon & Schuster, is not intended to be a professional academic contribution to my field. It is very much a personal manifesto, a kind of "this I believe" presentation based on the Hebrew Bible.

    Just a couple of stray observations.

    The words in small caps were not intended as emphatic style (shouting!), but were limited to a number of conceptual terms--Torah, Abrahamic, One God, YHVH, Testimony, that were technically defined and then subsequently used. I probably should have explained that in the preface, or come up with another method of doing what I intended to do.

    So far as I understand things Noahide is a rabbinic way of referring to the ethical requirements Jews understand are applicable to the humanity in general--in contrast to the specific covenant of the people of Israel. Accordingly, any non-Jew is a Noahide, either living up to the standards of this understanding of "ethical monotheism" or not. The formulation of the Noahide code is found in rudimentary form in some late 2nd Temple sources, including some of the N.T. writings (Acts 15, 1 Corinthians 5, etc.), but it is only in the Talmuds that one finds the full system expounded and codified. My own understanding of what I call in my book, "Hebraic faith," is much broader than the Noahide concept and would seek to apply Torah ethics more generally and universally, insofar as they might be applicable in various times and places. This seems to me to be more in keeping with the ideal vision of things one finds in the Hebrew Prophets (isa 2, 66, Zech 14, etc.).

    James Tabor

  3. It's not everybody who would respond to a negative review as graciously as you do James, and it fits well with what several people who know you have told me - you're a genuine and thoroughly decent person. I do appreciate your further clarification on the terms Noahide and "Hebraic faith."

    I think it would take quite a few beers to establish some kind of theological consensus - but the conversation would certainly be stimulating!

  4. Thanks for the reply Gavin. I have done hundreds of book reviews in my 30 year academic career, for just about every major journal in my field, and of course read thousands more. As you know, reading reviews is one of the things academics probably have to spend more time at than just about anything else--to "keep up," as we say. In my experience "book reviews" are usually far more revealing of the reviewer than the book reviewed. It is incredibly difficult to reflect the main sense of a book, and remove oneself enough to offer the reader of the review a fair taste of the book in a balanced way, and still include evaluations both negative and positive that will be helpful to both the author and the review reader.

    James Tabor

  5. The rabbinic Noah is not the Noah of the Bible. Hence the rabbinic "Noachide Laws" are not Biblical.

    Please see: