Asking the right questions
I have always asked a lot of questions. My inquisitive nature, passion to try and figure things out, desire to always question what people tell me, and need for a spiritual life all lead me, a Jewish guy, to believe in Jesus Christ. These same traits—with one small but different approach, also lead me to reconsider and revaluate things and eventually stop believing in him. The difference between these two journeys, from my perspective, is the first resulted from me asking a lot of questions, and the second resulted from not just asking a lot of questions, but from asking the right ones.
I believe questioning things is always a good thing to do. Either you find out you were right about what you originally thought, and believe it more strongly, or you find out you were wrong and change your mind. Or you find out you’re not sure, and continue asking questions until you do find out. If you’re afraid to question things, then you don’t have a solid belief system anyway, and it will eventually fall apart one way or the other. Just like the unexamined life is not worth living, so I think the unexamined faith is not worth believing.
I also believe one can learn either through one’s own experiences (or mistakes) or from others. I hope my story helps people wrestling with the issues I did. Writing this story has helped me to work through and better understand my own journey, which occupied a lot of my own time and energy.
Before I begin, let me make a few caveats. First, I do not feel bitter about my experience in Christianity. It served as an important learning experience for which I remain grateful. I met a lot of wonderful people through it. They treated me well and many became good friends. Contrary to what some people may think, I never encountered any antisemitism. If anything, almost all gentile Christians I knew had a great love and respect for the Jewish people and the Hebrew Bible. While it’s easy to say they were really antisemites at heart since many of them believed Jews who did not believe in Jesus would go to hell, I don’t think this is a fair judgment. Evangelical Christians generally believe anyone who rejects Jesus is going to hell—Jew or gentile alike. Therefore, I don’t consider this belief antisemitic. Moreover, if you truly believe that everyone who given the chance does not accept Jesus is going to hell, then I think there is nothing antisemitic or hateful about sharing your faith with people. In fact, you would be negligent if you did not, just like if you thought you had the cure for cancer you withheld it from people who needed it.
Also, had I not had this experience, just as a practical matter, I don’t think a lot of other things in my personal and professional life would have happened that got me where I am today. Most importantly though, the net result of this all has made me more interested in my Jewish faith and has made me greater appreciate it than I otherwise would have.
Since I no longer believe the way I did, I will to strive to present the other side fairly. I do not think it’s honest to make straw men out of other people, or others’ beliefs. As an attorney, I think I need to understand my opponent’s position for what it is, not what I would like it for it to be, or how I would like to parody it. Just like a Jewish person would not want a Christian to think they understand Judaism and the Jewish people if all they read was the New Testament and material from Christian missionaries, so too I think it’s unfair for Jews to make caricatures about Christianity. If you are Jewish, learn about Jesus and Christianity from reading what Christians write about what they believe, and what objective academics say about the religion and its history—don’t just read material from Jewish counter-missionaries. Read the New Testament. And read about the church fathers, Augustine, Athanasius, Jerome, Anselm, Calvin, Luther, and others. Read about the split between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church, and the Roman Catholic Church and Protestantism.
In the interest of fairness and accuracy, let me also clarify that no Hebrew-Christians (Messianic Jews), or any of the evangelical friends I later made, ever attempted to “brainwash” me, deliberately lied to me, purposely mislead me, or anything of the sort. A lot of the anti-Christian polemics I see from Jewish counter-missionaries angers me. Vilifying and demonizing the other side, especially fellow Jews who care enough about their spiritual lives to make drastic choices but still care enough about their heritage to consider themselves Jewish does nothing positive. If anything, it only further alienates them, gives them a persecution complex, and makes it harder for them to reconsider their erroneous beliefs. I believe when you attack people, they generally respond by defending themselves, even if they are wrong. At least I did. On the other hand, I believe traditional Jews should not be afraid to engage Hebrew-Christians and reach out to them.
Anyway, regarding my Christian friends, even if they had such deceptive motives, which they did not, they had no need to try to deceive me because I deceived myself and everything they said was already music to my ears. I believe the messianic Jews and evangelical Christians I knew sincerely believed what they believed. In retrospect, I think there is a lot of cognitive dissonance involved in the belief system, but they hold their beliefs sincerely.
Finally, if you’re a Christian reading this, or a Jew who still believes in Jesus, please don’t feel personally judged by what I say. Just like Christians are happy to point out that they can judge the sin and not the sinner, I try to do the same. I believe I can critique, and where necessary attack what I believe is a faulty belief system without attacking individuals who believe in it. Also, I freely admit I am not a theologian, either on Judaism or Christianity. I probably only know enough to be considered dangerous. Yet, I believe I know quite a lot, and a lot more than a lot of people who adhere to either religion do about them. Regardless, there are counter-arguments to everything I present here. I will try to address some of them, but for the sake of brevity, will not get to all of them and don’t feel I need to.
In the beginning (well, not quite).
There is a lot I can say as this part of my life lasted for about twelve years, but I will try to only discuss the relevant parts.
I grew up in a fairly non-observant home and lost interest in religion after my Bar Mitzvah, although I always felt a strong sense of Jewish identity. I had a nominal Jewish education beforehand but Hebrew school, Sunday school, and the like were not things I enjoyed. With no pressure from my parents, I dropped it after my Bar Mitzvah. I got somewhat interested again, however, when I joined the Army and would attend Shabbat services whenever I was away in training. At this point I realized, like a lot people, that when times are hard, spirituality matters and God suddenly feels closer.
In 1993, right before my senior year of college began, the chaplain for my National Guard unit, a Protestant minister, invited me to a church service while we were away in training. I had wanted to go to a Shabbat service that night but there weren’t any on the remote base. He warned me he would talk about Jesus and the New Testament, and did not want to offend me. I told him not to worry. After spending two miserable weeks in the field, I had time to clear my mind and was receptive to hear anything. The chaplain gave a short sermon from The Gospel of John, the part with Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman. Something about what he said made an impression on me. I told him the next day that when I got back to college, I wanted to read the New Testament. He smiled and asked why, and I told him since I was Jewish and we didn't believe in "that stuff," I wanted to know exactly what I didn't believe and why.
He told me that was great, and then suggested that I might come to discover it was true after all. He also asked me if I'd ever known or heard of any Jews who believed in Jesus. I said no, I'd never met any, but I knew about them, and they were "nuts." He smiled and told me to keep an open mind and that he had an Israeli friend who was a Holocaust survivor and a Messianic Jew—did I think that guy was nuts? I think I told him if you'd lived through that experience, you were entitled to believe whatever you wanted.
Returning to college, I got busy and never followed through with reading the New Testament. In the fall of 1994, I started law school. When I picked the law school I decided on—I knew I was supposed to go there. There were no flashes of lightening or anything. I just had a feeling that was where I was supposed to go for some reason.
In the year after deciding I’d read the New Testament and beginning law school, some other important events occurred in my life, including some family conflict. In retrospect, this more than anything else put me in a state where I sought solace. I was also young and impatient for answers.
After the first semester of law school, I finally started reading the New Testament. Around February 1995, after I had read about half of it, the local library held a book sale. There were thousands upon thousands of books there. There were several tables set up with religious books of different sorts. Every book at the sale cost $.25, $.50, $.75 or $1.00. I selected a bunch of books about religion, Christian, Jewish, and others, and then noticed that underneath of these tables, there boxes with more books.
I crawled underneath the tables, dragged out a box, and without looking, put my hand straight to the bottom of it and pulled out a book—Jesus for Jews, put out by Jews for Jesus. I looked at the book of "testimonies" of Jewish people who believed in Jesus and thought to myself—I'm not possibly going to buy this! But then I thought, wait a second, I’m a smart guy. If it’s all nonsense, then why be afraid of it? If I don't buy the book, it's just because I’m afraid. Without sounding melodramatic, I also felt like some door in the universe opened which I should not shut.
After I arrived back to my apartment, I immediately started reading it. One story caught my interest. It described a Jewish lawyer named Jay. He apparently had become successful in his field and even argued cases before the Supreme Court. Who was this guy, I thought? I'd never heard of him. He must have gone to Harvard Law School or something. No. The book explained he graduated from my law school, one not particularly known outside its region. Just an interesting coincidence, I thought.
After putting the book down I went to the law school to check my mail box for assignments. I pulled out a flyer, which had just been placed there that day. It announced one of the law professors had scheduled a seminar. There were going to be three guest speakers, one of which was this man, Jay. My jaw dropped. This seemed strange. It was going to be in two weeks on a Friday afternoon. At the time, I had never heard of Jay before and did not realize he was somewhat of a star in the evangelical world. He had gone on to argue many cases in front of the Supreme Court, had a daily radio show, and was lead counsel for a conservative Christian legal organization.
Two weeks later, I found myself sitting in the back of the room with 250 or more people, waiting patiently for Jay to speak. I sat in the back row, in the corner. There was no possible way Jay saw me. Yet he did! He looked right at me a dozen times while speaking. As if he knew I was there! But how could he? I left the room after he got done with his part and paced around the building for an hour or two, debating what exactly to do.
Eventually, I returned to the room and by that time, there were maybe three people left and Jay was answering some questions. I waited my turn. I introduced myself and shook his hand. He looked at me like he knew exactly why I was there.
"Let me tell you about an interesting thing that happened to me." I proceeded to tell him about finding the book, and reading the New Testament. "Okay", he said, what do you think all this means? I said, "It’s an interesting coincidence."
He responded, "I don't believe in coincidences" and I admitted I did not either. Anyway, I told him I was interested in what I was reading in the New Testament, but had not reached any conclusions about anything. He offered to send me a book, and to talk with me. After assuring me no one from Jews for Jesus would call or knock on my door, he left. I clearly remember either during this conversation or sometime shortly afterwards, Jay told me the only decision I needed to initially resolve was whether Jesus was the messiah. Everything else, he told me, would fall into place afterwards. Ironically, this turned out completely the opposite of what happened, as I will explain later.
Soon afterwards, Jay sent me a number of books and he and I began speaking frequently. I finished reading the New Testament and then started on page one of Genesis and began reading the Old Testament straight through. Jay also invited me to his home for Passover, and I went up and met his wife, children, and brothers, both of whom had become Christians in recent years. We stayed up talking for hours.
Jay, a busy man, gave me his time and took an interest in this facet of my life. His attention felt particularly validating and he had no ulterior motive. Moreover, he had a bright legal mind and made some persuasive arguments which at the time I could not effectively rebut or answer. After more dialogue and books, he invited me to his son’s Bar-Mitzvah at a messianic synagogue that June or July.
I had mixed impressions of the place. There was something dynamic about it with the music and ambience—but something about it all felt entirely fraudulent also. I would soon learn that the overwhelming majority of the people who went there were not even Jewish, and that most Jews, myself included, who became Christians ended up in evangelical churches.
Anyway, by the end of the summer of 1995, I’d finished reading the entire NIV Study Bible, Old and New Testament, cover to cover, a number of other books, and thought I knew everything. I also had a number of other strange coincidences unfold, all of which I felt at the time somehow proved Jesus was the messiah. Although I could spend several pages detailing all these experiences, I no longer interpret them as meaningful in the manner I once did. In retrospect, I believe, among other things, that if one intensely focuses one’s thoughts, emotions, and energy into something, one will attract the people, circumstances, and things back into one’s life that harmonize with that passion—whether it’s Christianity, Judaism, Islam, a new car, a girlfriend, a job, etc.
Accordingly, the more energy I focused into this burning question, the more compelled I felt to decide what I believed. Among other people, I met with my old Rabbi, the man who had performed my Bar Mitzvah, and told him about my experiences. Having not seen me in over ten years and having no idea why I wanted to meet with him out of the blue, he heard me out and acted charitably under the circumstances. In retrospect, I acted offensively towards him and behaved like I was in some type of adversarial proceeding. Although he offered coherent arguments against everything I said, and tried to present the other side of the story—I didn’t want to hear any of it at the time. I guess in retrospect, one thing I learned from this experience is that people believe what they want to believe regardless of what you tell them, and second, the way you present your case to them is often as important if not more important than what you actually say. Although I don’t fault the Rabbi for what he told me or how he handled things, I think if he had taken a somewhat softer approach at points, he could have won me back. But that soon became irrelevant.
In August, 1995 I returned to start my second year of law school. Right before the school year began, however, on a Friday night I found myself driving back up to the messianic synagogue, about two hours from my law school. During the service, feeling like my eternal destiny somehow depended on the matter, I responded to an “altar call.” I prayed to accept Jesus into my heart and said the proverbial sinner’s prayer—and meant it. My decision to repent of my sins and accept Jesus as my lord and savior felt sincere, and, I noticed then and for sometime afterward—that I felt different. This “feeling”, for lack of a better word, ebbed and flowed, and eventually dissipated entirely the more I questioned things, but that was to come later.
A few days after my conversion experience, I got an excited call from Jay, asking me what had happened. After I told him, he told me he had something to share with me. He explained he did not want to tell me this until now because he did not want influence my decision about things. According to him, although he was scheduled to come to the law school and speak the day we met, he nearly canceled his trip at the last moment because he had an emergency issue to deal with. He said, however, he prayed about it and felt God tell him he had to go there because he had to do something that only he could do. This revelation confirmed my feeling that he actually was looking at me during his speech and somehow knew about me. It also solidified and provided me with yet another “proof” Jesus was the messiah.
Anyway, I soon returned to law school, and finding it unfeasible to drive two hours every Friday night to the messianic synagogue, I had to find an alternative. Jay suggested I find a solid evangelical church to join, and I did. I started attending services and eventually joined a conservative church. The pastor and everyone else there treated me very well and were glad to have me, and I felt comfortable, for a while. I more or less stayed at that church until I graduated law school, though I soon got connected with a non-denominational evangelical church in the nearby major city where I made a good circle of friends. I enjoyed being the token Jew, telling my testimony, and feeling self-important, as though I had brilliantly figured out something Rashi and Maimondides overlooked.
Leaving out a lot of relevant but extraneous information, after graduating from law school and having an initial negative job experience, a friend from church graciously took me in as his roommate. For two and half years, my job allowed me a lot of time to read and study. Things then started to unravel for me.
Before I get to that part, let me first explain that those first several years, from say 1995 until 1998, I felt close to one hundred percent convinced of my beliefs. I had a good understanding of the gospel message, had read the New Testament cover to cover several times, certain books and chapters regularly, and many other books. I went to church services and bible studies regularly, listened to a lot of tapes of sermons, teachings, etc. and poured myself into this part of my life. While I’d more or less dropped the contact with Messianic Judaism after the first year, I still read quite a lot about the Jewish roots of Christianity. I read books and listened to tapes by Stan Telchin, Dr. Michael L. Brown, Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum and others. I felt persuaded by their arguments. Dr. Brown, especially, had answers for everything—something which should have indicated how problematic this all was. Because if a message, teaching, principle, etc. is clear and simple, it shouldn’t require all kinds of explanation and mental gymnastics to understand. But again, I didn’t make that connection until later.
I also incorporated this all into my personal life in every respect I could. I volunteered with Prison Fellowship Ministries. One weekend, during the summer of 1996, I went to New York City and visited with a friend who was volunteering there with Jews for Jesus, even handing out leaflets with them. Oh, was I convinced . . . Yet I still had some nagging doubts. Something somewhere just didn’t make sense, but I stifled it because I felt entrapped with what I felt was an almost irreversible decision I had made. After all, I had evangelized fellow law students, professors, co-workers, family members, and others. I was rarely obnoxious about it, but I was intense. What a fool I would feel like to find out I might have been wrong the whole time.
Although I had heard about Rabbi Tovia Singer (www.outreachjudaism.org) and other Jewish counter-missionaries, I did not want to examine their material. And, even if I had, it would have made no difference at the time, because, as I will further explain, I was still looking at things through the wrong end of the telescope. Rather than asking whether all of “this stuff” was compatible with what the Hebrew Bible actually taught (and with my common sense), instead I tried reconciling the Hebrew Bible, my weak understanding of Judaism, and my own personal identity struggle—with belief in Jesus. In other words, my attitude was basically: Since I already believe in Jesus and know this is true, how can I make it all fit properly. In retrospect, this seems so obvious now, but at the time, I did not realize what a flawed approach I had to the whole thing. It took years and some life experience for me to figure that out.
Things in my happy little world, just me and Jesus, soon began to change however. Whereas Jay had told me all I needed to do was decide if Jesus was the messiah and then everything would work itself out, after a while, just the opposite occurred.
I continued to read a lot and since I enjoy arguing, I also listened to debates and arguments. Some how or another, I stumbled onto a Reformed Christian pastor who debated Roman Catholics. I listened to a lot of his tapes, and began reading about the Roman Catholic Church. I then began reading a lot about the Eastern Orthodox Church. I probably read twenty books on the subject, thousands of pages of articles from the internet, and listened to hundreds of hours of tapes. On one occasion I called and spoke with the dean of the major Eastern Orthodox seminary in the U.S. who generously talked to me for several hours, answering many questions I had. Much of what I read was just basic history of Christianity, written from a fairly objective and scholarly view.
I discovered through this process that the simple Christianity I thought I believed was not simple at all. It was problematic to the core. For instance, the New Testament didn’t fall out of the sky after the last apostle died. For the first few hundred years, there was not even a New Testament. Accordingly, creating a theology based on matching up different verses from different New Testament books and claiming it proved anything is inherently problematic, since for the first 400 years, different groups of Christians didn’t even accept that certain New Testament books were even legitimate. Others accepted books that didn’t eventually make it into the canon. Some groups believed Jesus was fully God. Others believed he was only a man. There was no New Testament to settle the issue. The various Christian groups argued about it. Doctrines such as the trinity, the nature of Christ, baptism, etc. developed over time, and with controversy.
From the Orthodox Christian and Roman Catholic perspectives, however, there was such a thing as Tradition, somewhat but not entirely akin to the Oral Law in Judaism. This, however, was not compatible with the evangelical notion of sola scriptura, the idea the Bible alone is the only source of authority and has all the answers. Once I seriously studied the issue, however, the idea of sola scriptura became untenable and contrary to fact, reason, and history. In simple terms this meant—without getting into an entire theological treatise—that the historic Christian ideas of salvation, original sin, heaven and hell, and a lot of other things were not how the NIV Study Bible, the evangelical church, or “Messianic Judaism” presented them.
The evangelical response, kind of like a dog chasing its own tail, was that the New Testament is its own authority. By this point, the whole thing became very confusing for me. Since the New Testament canon itself was admittedly the product of a human tradition (since evangelicals do not believe that the historic church whether Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox had any special link to God), how could I be sure it had the right books in it? Ironically, Martin Luther decided to exclude books from the Old Testament canon the Church had always accepted, arguing since the Jews did not accept them into their cannon of the Bible, neither should he (probably one of Martin Luther’s few positive endorsements of anything Jewish)
And how could I be sure the all of these Protestant theologians relied upon to navigate through the various doctrines had done so correctly? And if that was the case, I had to admit that much of what evangelical Christianity based itself on, such as the doctrines of the trinity, nature of Christ, and many other points were just things they had picked and chosen from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition, while they rejected points they didn’t like, such as venerating saints and icons, Mary, and a litany of other traditions. It felt like peeling away layers of onion.
The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox had reasonable answers to these issues, but I felt like the evangelical answers were forced and ultimately incoherent. Moreover, although evangelical Christians seem quick to point out that Judaism has no consensus on a lot of its teachings—the same is true with evangelical (Protestant) Christianity, with its thousands of denominations, each claiming they’re right, and the others are wrong.
Several books I read almost lead me to consider joining the Orthodox Church. In particular, listening to tapes and reading books and articles by Frank Schaeffer, the son of the late Protestant theologian Francis Schaeffer particularly influenced me. Frank had left Protestant Christianity, entered the Orthodox Church, and offered stinging rebukes to just about every sacred cow I unwittingly believed in. As Frank Schaeffer satirically put it, if Christianity was wrong—then the Orthodox Church had been the ones most consistently wrong for the longest time!
Although I considered joining the Orthodox Church, since it was starting to make the most sense, a few things stood in my way. First, I felt like doing so would totally repudiate my Jewish identity. Whereas before, I deluded myself into believing I could be Jewish and Christian simultaneously by going to evangelical churches—joining a church with icons, incense, where I kissed crosses, and took communion, etc. just felt completely un-Jewish no matter how I tried to rationalize. It was an entirely separate religion. Moreover, the Orthodox took these things very seriously. They were not just trappings, but sacraments. Second, those things I found most appealing about Eastern Orthodox theology were the same things that made it closer to Judaism in some respects than it was to evangelical Christianity. Finally, notwithstanding some of these similarities and doctrines I found appealing, the fathers of the Orthodox Church such as John Chrysostom and others were raging Jew haters. (Of course, the same was true of many fathers of the Roman Catholic Church, and certainly of Protestantism as well. In fact, one has to look pretty hard to find any Christian patriarchs of any tradition who did not hate the Jews).
After two years of this type of confusion (1998-2000), it felt like time to take a break. Just as timing had it, I also changed career paths at that point, and moved to new places. For the next seven years, I practiced criminal law as a defense attorney, prosecutor, and then criminal appellate attorney. I put the whole Jesus thing on the back burner and tried to forget about, but never really could. I consciously decided that whereas before, I often discussed religion in general with people and my own story in particular, from now on, I would keep my mouth shut about what I believed, especially since I wasn’t so sure anyway. Also, in the new career path I had entered, I wanted people to recognize me for my work, not for being the weirdo Jewish guy who believed in Jesus.
I grew up a lot during this time and learned some more about life. Some of what I learned, especially because of my job, was that regardless of what one says one believes, it’s how one acts that really matters. To put it more strongly, the general premise of evangelical Christianity, that what one believes is more important than how one acts—is something I began to find repugnant, irrational, and absurd. In other words, for all intents and purposes, what does it matter if someone claims to be a devout Christian, knows the Bible, and goes to church—but molests his stepdaughter seven times—like one of my clients did. Is this person really better off on judgment day than Oskar Schindler, who saved 1,100 Jews from the Holocaust but probably never had a born again experience with Jesus? Perhaps this whole idea that the most important things are whether you believe Jesus is the messiah, that he is God incarnate and that he died for your sins—theological beliefs that cannot be proved or disproved—are not the most important things.
Another basic premise of Christian theology and the Christian worldview stopped making sense to me: the notion of depravity, that you cannot change, the notion you need Jesus to save you, die for you, live his life through you, guide you, etc. Moreover, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If someone believes they cannot change (without Jesus) then it certainly becomes true for them.
But what happens when one does really believe in Jesus, but finds that after a while, like me, it really wasn’t changing me. I was basically the same guy I was beforehand. I guess some people could say I never really believed it, or I didn’t believe it enough, or I had forsaken it. Of course, it’s also possible it was never true to begin with. Other issues, that I had learned more about from studying Eastern Orthodoxy, such as the teaching of vicarious atonement, someone else dying for your sins, also became unpalatable. So did the idea of original sin itself. What actually makes more sense? The idea that we are all born as sinners and need a savior, or what traditional Judaism teaches: that we are born morally neutral, with the ability to choose either good or evil, that we have a propensity to choose evil, but the ability through our God-given free will to choose good? Moreover, what does the Hebrew Bible really teach about this? Does the Genesis story really teach the Christian doctrine? Or is the Christian doctrine of original sin the result of just doing violence to the text and creating a man-made religious belief out of something not there.
As these ideas went through my mind over the years, so did several others. First, I became increasingly uncomfortable with my identity. Was I Jewish or was I Christian? Beforehand, it felt simple. In the beginning, I was a Messianic Jew, a Jewish-Christian, Jew who believed in Jesus, or whatever. But once I had to put these labels into practice in the real world, what did they mean? From the beginning of my conversion experience onwards, and especially after the year 2000, I just felt out of place. Should I go try going to church again? I didn’t really want to, but on the other hand, that part about burning in hell, etc. didn’t sound appealing. Also, what was so terrible about believing in Jesus? He never hurt me. In fact, in some sense, he becomes like the perfect imaginary friend. He loves you no matter what. He identifies with the despised, the downtrodden, the weak, and the helpless. And if you’re not happy, you just find another church or theologian that presents Jesus the way you want him and gives you the requisite Bible versus to support the theology that fits you.
On the other hand, as a person who tries to act transparently with others and not hide who I am, I would have felt awkward going back to Synagogue anywhere. I also felt like I had to figure out what I believed before I started doing anything. Moreover, I wanted the truth, not just something to make me feel good, but, something that did have to make sense.
I remember on one funny occasion when one of my colleagues learned I was a Christian. He was a deeply religious evangelical type but I never told him about myself. When he finally found out, he was completely surprised and kept remarking how he never realized I was a believer. I started laughing out loud. When he asked why, I told him that although I knew he didn’t mean it as an insult, I thought it was hysterical that after all the tapes I listened to, times I’d read the Bible, arguments I had, etc., that the bottom line was that the guy who worked in the office next to me for a year had no idea that I “believed in Jesus.”
Another important thing I had to consider was exactly how I wanted to live the rest of my life. As I was getting older, and looking to get married, did I want to marry a Jewish girl? I had always hoped to, but was it going to be a normal one, or one who believed in Jesus? If we had children, how would I raise them? Would my son get circumcised? Go to Hebrew school? If I wasn’t going to marry a Jewish girl, did I really want to marry an evangelical Christian? Would that be fair to her if I wasn’t really serious about my faith?
Over the years of practicing criminal law, other ideas permeated my mind and spilled into my thinking in this area of life. The ideas of: evidence, burdens of proof, and standards of review. Let me explain. Just because one hears prosecutors or defense lawyers make compelling arguments means nothing unless you know what type of evidence they are building their case on and what burden of proof they have to meet.
If the evidence they offer is tainted, biased, untrustworthy, subject to interpretation, unreliable, or unbelievable, even though their arguments may sound convincing—they are not. Similarly, the prosecutor has the burden of proving a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, not by a preponderance of the evidence. The defense attorney has nothing to prove and nothing to rebut. All he needs to do to win is poke holes in the government’s case. He need not explain what really happened or even offer plausible alternatives. If he does offer plausible alternative theories, however, then that should cause a jury to find his client not guilty.
In other words, if an event is subject to several different interpretations, then perhaps you need to give the benefit of the doubt where appropriate. Moreover, while the defense can offer multiple theories of why their client is not guilty—even theories that are incompatible with each other, the prosecution cannot. Put another way, the prosecutor cannot say, “we’re not sure what the guy did, but he either did this, that, or something else, so you should find him guilty.”
Furthermore, after a case is decided it gets reviewed on appeal. The appellate court employs different standards of review than the one used at trial. It gives a certain amount of deference, whether a lot of deference, some deference, or no deference to the jury or judge that convicted someone.
As an attorney, I had come to recognize sound and unsound arguments, and how to evaluate evidence. I also realized when advocates presented their cases in a straightforward manner rather than by manipulating evidence to fit their preconceived notions of a case and arguing theories that strained credulity to reach their predetermined conclusions. Moreover, I learned that just because someone can present powerful arguments might only mean that they are good rhetoricians. After all, people get wrongly convicted of crimes for which they are later exonerated. The prosecutors must have made some kind of good arguments in those cases. Furthermore, as an appellate attorney, I read and wrote many briefs to the court. There were many times I read the other side’s brief, then when I looked at the record, lo and behold what they cited either: (1) was not there at all or, (2) did not say (or did not exactly say) what they claimed it did. Also, I knew that I could also write persuasive briefs that selectively included or omitted facts advantageous to my position. I could then make powerful arguments, all based on my selective facts.
With these things in mind, I began to re-evaluate my beliefs in Jesus, the truth of Christianity, and how it all fit into my life. I started reading more, books by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, by David Klinghoffer, Faith Strengthened, by Isaac Troki, Judaism on Trial, by Hyam Maccoby, and all the counter-missionary stuff, including Rabbi Tovia Singer’s written material and lecture series, and other books and lectures. I also started reading and re-reading some of Dr. Michael Brown’s final books from Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus. None of these books in and of themselves overwhelmingly proved anything, but slowly, things started coming together and making sense. First, I had already figured out from years earlier that the whole idea of the New Testament in terms of how it was compiled, etc. was somewhat of a mess. You could believe the whole thing was divinely created and categorized, but I had real doubts. It had no divine table of contents. How does anyone know Matthew really wrote The Gospel of Matthew, or Mark wrote Mark, etc? These are all traditions that come from the historic church, as I explained earlier. Therefore, while one could believe these this was all divine, it was just as plausible to believe that a bunch of men got together and just decided—this goes in and this doesn’t. Period. Unless I was going to accept everything these guys taught, at their various church councils, why accept any of it?
Next, what would be the criteria for falsification on this all? At this point, my professional life and spiritual life began to click. As I intimated earlier, I had been looking at everything out of the wrong end of the telescope. The issue was not whether Judaism and the Hebrew Bible lined up with Jesus being the messiah. The issue was whether Jesus being the messiah lined up with the Hebrew Bible. To put it another way, the burden of proof is on Christianity and the New Testament to prove itself, not on Judaism and the Hebrew Bible to defend itself. Just like Christians have nothing to prove as to why they do not accept Mohammed as Allah’s final prophet, or accept Joseph Smith, or accept the Bahai faith, so too, Judaism has nothing to prove or disprove either as to why it doesn’t accept Jesus.
Next, what rules of evidence apply? Unlike evangelical Christianity, Judaism has never constrained itself with the idea of sola scriptura. In other words, Judaism has always had an oral tradition considered equally inspired as the written Torah. Whether one actually believes in its inspiration (or of that of the written Torah) is immaterial, the point is Judaism allows one to look at more than just the written Hebrew Bible to help resolve these issues. Even if did not, however, even by just relying on the Hebrew Bible alone, Christianity’s claims are problematic.
With that in mind, for me, it became pretty simple. I knew who had the burden of proof, and what some rules of evidence were. But next I wanted to determine what the burden of proof was. Was it proof by a preponderance of the evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt, somewhere in between?
My belief—which some might disagree with—is that if any of what the New Testament teaches concerning prophecies from the Hebrew Bible, teachings from the Torah, etc. do not line up just about perfectly, without having to strain or manipulate things, then the New Testament doesn’t get even get to the jury for consideration—so to speak. Why? Because the Torah is pretty clear on things. It’s supposed to apply to the Jewish people forever. It never hints it’s going to be replaced. Assuming God wants us to know the truth and not get confused, He could have said, “this all just temporary . . . when my son the messiah comes to die for your sins, do everything he says. . . eat pork. . . work on the Sabbath . . . furthermore—listen to what Paul says . . .”
In other words, if God intended a change in the program—he presumably would have spelled it out so the most clueless person would know. Put yet another way, we should not have to argue whether Jesus fulfilled the prophecies and whether the teachings of Christianity are true, that should be self-evident. To restate it yet again, who the messiah is should not need to be a matter of faith.
At this point, I felt anyone looking honestly at the issue must concede Christianity is a mess. Arguably, not a single prophecy Jesus supposedly fulfilled really matches up correctly with the Hebrew Bible. You can read about all of these issues in other sources, but just a few examples suffice. First, let me say, however, that I do not believe all these mistranslations, interpolations of texts, arguments that strain credulity etc. were done deliberately in a malicious manner. Instead, I’ll concede, for the sake of argument if nothing else, that the New Testament writers really believed Jesus was the messiah. I think what they then did was find things in the Hebrew Bible on which to base what they believed to be real in their lives. And they used translations, whether from the Septuagint, Targums, or elsewhere to make their case. I’ll give them some benefit of the doubt on that.
So—the messiah is supposed to be a descendant of King David—well, conveniently so is Jesus according to the New Testament writers. But, these things don’t exactly match up. According to the New Testament, Jesus had no human father, so he really wasn’t a biological descendant of King David. Okay—Christians respond Joseph still counts since he was Jesus’ legally adopted father. Well, that’s an interesting argument, but let’s be honest, isn’t that just a way to get around an obvious problem?
Similarly, the entire notion of the virgin birth is a mess. Matthew said that Jesus was born of a virgin in order to fulfill the prophecy in Isaiah. Yet, when you read Isaiah 7:14: (1) it doesn’t really use the word virgin, and (2) even if it did, that “prophecy” (assuming it ever was a messianic prophecy) had nothing to do with a supposed virgin birth that happened 700 years later. The virgin birth is not some minor point in Christianity. The whole gospel message rests on it. Jesus had to be born of a virgin so he would be born without sin (which is all based on the doctrine of original sin—something alien to the Hebrew Bible to begin with). And he had to be a descendent of King David because the messiah has to be a descendent of David. Another interesting point is that Paul, who spelled out a lot of Christian doctrine on original sin in his letters, never mentions the virgin birth. What explains that? How about this one—it was a later innovation and is not true. (In fact, I find it quite amazing that Jesus’ virginal conception and birth, a doctrine so central to Christianity, is supported only by Isaiah 7:14—a passage that does not really support it anyway. This is astounding, in my opinion, because if the messiah was supposed to be divine, born of virgin, etc., so he could die for my sins, reconcile me to God, and offer me eternal life, one would think the Hebrew Scriptures would be replete with other passages demonstrating this point).
Okay, so Jesus really isn’t a physical descendant of King David and his supposed virgin birth, which the New Testament explicitly claims directly fulfills a prophecy from the Hebrew Bible either does not fulfill or—at least it’s very questionable if it does. There is example after example of these types of problems. How many does one need before one realizes one side is not following the rules of evidence and playing fairly. Of course, Christians have answers to every one of these conundrums. Whole books have been written to reconcile these problems and contradictions. In a nut shell though, this happens all the time with Christian proof texts for messianic prophecies: when Christians need or want the texts to apply literally, then they must apply literally. On the other hand, if it helps their argument for the passages not to be taken literally, then we should not take them literally. In other words, heads I win—tails you lose.
But remember, Christianity has the burden of proof here, and they should not get to offer multiple but incompatible theories of why something is true. And that’s setting aside the fact Christianity claims this is all divinely inspired and inerrant. One example of this attempt to have it both ways is with Jesus’ supposed genealogy. For example, the New Testament claims Jesus descended from the king Jeconiah. The Hebrew Bible teaches God cursed Jeconiah, and therefore, his descendents would be excluded from being a possible messiah. Some Christian study bibles and apologists (such as Josh McDowell, author of Evidence that Demands a Verdict) agree with this problem and say it’s why Jesus had to be born of a virgin. On the other hand, Dr. Michael L. Brown says that God lifted the curse so it wasn’t a problem for Jesus to descend from Jeconiah. Well—it’s either one or the other. These are two incompatible theories offered to solve a problem. To look at it another way, when you know your client is guilty and he comes up with seventy five different explanations for things, you start to wonder . . . Maybe you shouldn’t trust your client.
Messianic Jews and evangelicals might reply that the Hebrew Bible has just as many problems: two different creation stories, etc. etc. Okay, but (1) that does not prove that the New Testament is inspired or true; (2) Judaism has an oral law that explains these types of things and Christianity does not and; (3) Judaism doesn’t teach it’s the only path to God and that everyone who does not follow it is eternally lost. And again, who has the burden here? Who is asking Jewish people to adopt a belief system that is not explicitly commanded in Torah?
Finally, there is the issue of what constitutes the correct standard of review to employ to this all. As a criminal appellate attorney, I learned that on appeal, the courts do not employ the same standards that one uses at the trial. By way of analogy, I think this applies here. In other words, we are reviewing evidence and conclusions second hand, not as eye-witnesses, and not even close in time to the event. We are kind of acting like an appellate court reviewing a case that has already been decided two thousand years ago. How do we review the evidence? Do we give the authors of the New Testament and proponents of Christianity a lot of deference? Some deference? No deference?
I believe we should give them no deference, and perform a de novo review of this all. In other words, we (especially Jewish people) should take a fresh look at their conclusions but give them no weight whatsoever. If their evidence and arguments persuade us, fine, but the fact that they may have convinced others previously should mean nothing. In my opinion, this is the correct posture to take because the authors of the New Testament are not disinterested parties. They wrote the New Testament because they already believed this was true, not as objective history. Moreover, there is little to no corroborating evidence of any of these supposed events. I’m not suggesting Jesus never existed, or he didn’t so some things written about in the New Testament, but how much can we trust? What, if anything, can one actually verify through other sources?
There is a second reason but I think important reason to review it all from a fresh perspective, at least if one is Jewish. That’s because, according to Christianity, or at least its evangelical wing, your eternal destiny hangs in the balance. As a Jew, however, there is a competing narrative. One that claims Jewish people must adhere to it. While Christians may try to argue about whether one wants to stand on judgment day and face God having rejected Jesus, I would turn that question around.
If Jesus is not the messiah, the son of God, God incarnate—then believing he is God amounts to idolatry. In that case, how would I explain to God on judgment day that I believed in something idolatrous, even though the evidence was full of holes? Do I want to argue with God that if you do the necessary mental gymnastics, then you can conclude Jesus is the Messiah? And that’s why I believed in him . . .
Just one example of applying this de novo review to the New Testament and seeing how it comes up short suffices—for me anyway. In Matthew 22:41-44, there is the story of how Jesus dazzled the Pharisees by tripping them up with story about King David’s psalm about the messiah, and how the messiah could not be a physical descendent of David. This concerns the verse “The Lord said to my Lord” from Psalm 110 (See Rabbi Singer’s Book pp. 303-308 for an analysis of this point). The point of the story is to show smart Jesus was because the Pharisees did not have an answer for him. This is ridiculous, however, because the Hebrew actually says, “The Lord said to my Master.” Again, without getting into a whole theological treatise on the point, it’s obvious this alleged conversation could never have happened. Anyone who knew Hebrew could have answered Jesus, especially the Pharisees, who were the Torah scholars of their day. This is just one example of something that at the very least seriously cuts against any claim the New Testament is divinely inspired, or even accurately reflective of what happened at all. So do so many other passages, such as multiple ones from the Gospel of John where whole conversations occur that sound completely artificial and made up after the fact. There are plenty of examples from Paul’s writings, where he quotes passages from the Hebrew Bible, but only quotes the half of the verse that helps his cause, and excludes the part that cuts against him (Of course, Dr. Michael Brown and others all have elaborate answers to all these problems).
Also, employing the concepts of burdens and standards of proof, evidence, and standards of review, why is it: (1) every prophecy Jesus supposedly fulfilled is something we cannot observe and which is of no value, and (2) he did not fulfill any prophecy that we can observe, and which would be of value? For instance, whether or not a virgin gave birth to Jesus, aside from the point of whether it’s even a real prophecy to begin with—so what? It can’t be proved either way and ultimately and it does nothing of any value for anyone. On other hand, world peace, something that can be clearly observed and would benefit everyone—is something he did not fulfill, even though it clearly is a messianic prophecy.
Well, (1) then who was Jesus? (2) why have so many people (including me) believed in him? and (3) what about all these unanswered questions, like sacrifices, the temple getting destroyed, etc.
To answer the first question: the only honest answer is—I don’t know!
Imagine this scenario, however. Let’s say a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the year 2007 believe their Rabbi, who died several years ago, is the messiah (and some apparently do). Never mind he didn’t gather the Jews from around the world and bring them back to Israel, rebuild the temple, bring world peace, make the lion lie down with the lamb, etc. They still really believe he was the messiah. Let’s say ten to eighty years after he died, some of his followers wrote inconsistent narratives about his life and which appealed to the Hebrew Bible to support their notion that this Rabbi was the messiah. Never mind that the prophecies didn’t exactly match up. Let’s say that the rest of the Jewish community persecuted this sect of Jews, and one of their persecutors, a man who never met their supposed messiah, fell of a horse one day and clamed that the Rabbi appeared to him, told him he was the messiah, and revealed things to him. This man then started writing letters and teaching things that were inconsistent with what Jewish people everywhere, from Reform to Orthodox believed. He said you could eat pork, didn’t have to get circumcised, etc. Then, after a few hundred years, there weren’t any Jewish followers of this ultra-Orthodox Rabbi whose initial Jewish followers believed he was the Messiah. This new group of gentile followers, however, claimed they were the real thing. Their initial writings and all the later ones vilified the rest of the Jewish world for not accepting him. Their political leader then made their religion the official one for everywhere he ruled. He convened a council of all of these gentile followers of this once Jewish religion and had them canonize their various books and define their doctrines . . . do you get my point? What would be the response at the point of the rest of the Jewish world? In other words, if one is looking to try to figure out how this all happened, it’s not too hard to contemplate.
Regarding the second question, in my opinion, people believe in Jesus and accept the Christian message for the following reasons: Asking questions results in getting answers, i.e. ask and you shall receive, knock and the door shall be opened for you.
When you ask certain questions, you get certain answers. If the question you’re asking is, “How can I, a wretched sinner deserving of eternal hell and damnation have a relationship with a pure and holy God who demands substitutionary atonement and blood sacrifices” then Christianity has the best answer around. The answer is: you don’t have to do anything! He’s done it all for you. All you have to do is BELIEVE. I heard one Christian teacher say there are only two religions in the world, those who believe you have to do something or many things and those (i.e. only Christianity) who believe it’s already been done for you (I recognize my question above is somewhat of an oversimplification).
I said in the beginning, for me at least, what got me to repent of this all was to ask the right questions. The right question, I believe, is, “is the entire Christian thesis and narrative about original sin, depravity, substitutionary atonement, etc.” one I should accept? Does it make sense? Is it really what the Hebrew Bible, which it claims to be based on, teaches?
I believe the answer to that question—unless one takes things wildly out of context, mistranslates, forces arguments, uses faulty evidence, employs the incorrect standard of review, etc.—is a resounding—No.
Therefore, I no longer believe it. On other hand, it offers hope to a lot of people. And that is nothing to mock or discount. Life is tough, and for some people, it is exceptional unfair and cruel. The story of Jesus dying on the cross and rising is powerful. It inspires people. A lot of good has resulted from Christianity. It inspired William Wilbeforce to fight against the slave trade. It inspired some gentiles during the Holocaust to save their Jewish neighbors (it also arguably inspired a lot of Jew hatred). Much of what Christianity has to teach is positive also. I still love the parable of the prodigal son (who incidentally never had to pay the father back, offer a sacrifice, etc.). Some of what Jesus taught is compatible with Torah and Judaism.
Also, do we really think gentile people suffering in gulags, prisons, from drugs, etc. are going to become Orthodox Jews, start keeping kosher, stop working on the Sabbath? Of course not. This is another reason Christianity succeeded and continues to enjoy success. It offers the one true God of Judaism without the perceived burdens of Judaism—circumcision, obedience to the Torah and the like. It offers a get out of hell free card. Why shouldn’t people believe it? If they’re asking the questions that Christianity has the answers to—then those answers will satisfy them. At least for a while anyway. . .
Also, most Christians put the cart ahead of the horse. They begin by hearing a presentation of the gospel. They believe it, and then they try to reconcile everything (to the extent they care) with the Hebrew Bible. I believe a lot people keep believing in it because: 1) they have invested a lot in it and don’t want to admit they’re wrong; and 2) they don’t see a good alternative or good reason to stop believing it. Since every religion including Judaism has problematic aspects to it, why should Christians jettison their beliefs? Moreover, people believe all kinds things not necessarily supported by the evidence. For instance, religious Catholics believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, plays some integral role in their faith and they will swear they know it’s true, etc. even though evangelical Christians find such an idea anathema. And this is putting aside the billion Muslims who believe what they do, the Hindus, etc. My gut instinct tells me that people remain attached to Jesus, primarily for the same reason they remain attached to any belief—they have a powerful emotional attachment to it.
Finally, what about all the classic Christian arguments and other proof texts: the Temple was destroyed, how do Jewish people atone for their sins? What about Isaiah 53, Daniel 9, and this, that, and the other . . . Well, first these are not new arguments. Christians have asked them and Jews have responded to them from the beginning. Books are written to respond to them. Read both sides of the arguments and see what side makes the most sense. Also, question the premises behind the questions themselves. I found by doing so, I discovered most of the questions themselves had a faulty premise. Or, you could find answers within the Hebrew Bible, sometimes just a few verses away. But this all too much to get into now and this story has gone on for too long.
In February 2007, I married a wonderful girl—who is Jewish. Several months before, I finally made my break with believing in Jesus. I have slowly and deliberately embraced my Jewish faith, and am incorporating it back into my life one day at a time. I am trying to continue to ask the right questions, and so far, am getting satisfying answers. At the risk of demeaning or insulting those who believe in Jesus, let me say after I repented of what I now consider a false belief system, I felt a total sense of relief. Similar to the same sense I felt when I first came to believe in him. Except this time, things are finally starting to fall into place, just like Jay suggested they would—but for entirely different reasons.