Leaving a partial truth for a greater truth
Religion | A short list of notable Jewish Christians of the past five centuries
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 11/04/17, 09:19 am
My column in the Nov. 11 issue of WORLD Magazine brings out a surprising Pew survey statistic: If you add up all the religious adults in the United States who identify as Jewish, about one-third are Conservative or Orthodox, one-third are Reform (liberals of whom only 29 percent feel certain that God exists), and one-third are … Christian.
A new Barna survey includes another remarkable statistic: 23 percent of all American Jewish millennials, whether they self-identify as religious or not, say they believe Jesus was God in human form.
It’s nothing new for Jews to embrace Christian understandings and make a public profession of faith, or at least a private, sometimes secret one. The short list that follows includes capsule biographical information on just a few of the many notable public Jewish Christians of the past 470 years. (WORLD Magazine published another, longer list in 2002.) Neither list includes those forced to “convert.” The following list is limited to those who personally chose Christianity, made a mark in their professions or publications, and suffered the slings and arrows of outraged rabbis who considered them traitors.
It’s true that in centuries past Jews sometimes derived material and professional advantages when they made professions of faith in Christ. That’s clearly not the case in the United States today, and over the centuries the personal disadvantages involved in conversion—leaving family, friends, and established livelihood, while undergoing harassment by Jewish community leaders—often outweighed any personal advantages obtained. Generally, only those convinced that they were leaving a partial truth for a greater truth were willing to exile themselves from the communities they knew.
John Immanuel Tremellius, converted to Christianity around 1530, becomes professor of Hebrew at Cambridge. A strong Calvinist, he is later professor of theology at Heidelberg, where he produced a Latin Old Testament that is published in Frankfurt in the 1570s and London in 1580. With Theodore Beza’s Latin New Testament attached to it, the Tremellius Bible was the Protestant contender against the Vulgate issued by Pope Sixtus V in a Reformation vs. counter-Reformation battle of Latin bibles.
Christian Gerson, a German pawnbroker, read out of “curiosity” a New Testament one of his customers was pawning. Seeing that the New Testament relied heavily on the Hebrew Bible, he repeatedly read his new book “in secret so that my wife should not notice … my heart was troubled and anxious for weeks, food or drink had no taste for me.” Gerson felt he must convert and did so, but at a heavy cost: “My wife, with whom I had lived in marriage, with love and fidelity, and with whom I had two sons, I left at her request … all my Jewish neighbors and acquaintances … have become implacable enemies.”
Paul Christian (Malachi ben Samuel), a Polish rabbi, converted several years after being impressed by a Yiddish translation of the New Testament. He was particularly surprised that marginal references to the Hebrew Scriptures were not distorted, as he had been told they would be. He wrote, “My heart became full of doubt. No man can believe the pain and ache that assailed my heart. I had no rest day or night. … What should I do? To whom should I speak of these things?” He finally felt he had no choice but to cross over.
Friedrich Albrecht Christiani was stunned to find himself believing in Christ. The Hamburg resident, educated in the Talmud, said, “I was so zealous for my Jewishness that had someone told me then of my prospective conversion, it would have appeared as strange to me as it seems incredible to others.” But he found himself unable to refute Esdras Edzard’s arguments, and decided to go with what his mind, rather than tradition, told him.
Christophorus Paulus Maier (formerly Solomon ben Maier of Frankfurt) turned to Christ after being disappointed by false messiah Shabbatai Zvi. Paolo Medici also converted after he came to believe that the long list of false messiahs “accepted and credited” by Jews showed they were missing the truth. When Giulio Morosini converted, he said that his faith did not depend on Jewish messianic failure, but was strengthened by it.
Jacob Melammmed converted with his family because “Shabbatai Zvi, for whom we had waited for a whole year with fasts and mortifications, was all lies.”
Yom Tov (formerly Theodore John of Prague) converted because “vain waiting for a messiah” made no sense to him “when really He is come long ago.” Phillip Ernst Christfelss (formerly Mordechai ben Shemaya) also converted to the “true Messiah, Jesus.”
Rabbi Judah Monis, after becoming the first Jew to receive a college degree in America (M.A., Harvard, 1720), publicly embraced Christianity and was baptized. In 1735, aided by a loan from Harvard, he published a Hebrew grammar, the first to be published in America.
Abraham Jacobs published an autobiography in which he wrote how he obtained a New Testament from a Lutheran pastor who came to study Hebrew with his father, a Frankfurt rabbi. Jacobs read several pages a night, after his parents had gone to bed, and began visiting the pastor’s house. His father discovered him one night reading the New Testament and hit him. When Jacobs said he wanted to convert, he was thrown out of the house, and eventually had to head to England.
August Neander (born David Mendel) became professor of church history at the University of Berlin, where the influential Friedrich Schleiermacher also taught. One observer commented on the “sad and singular sight” of “Schleiermacher, a Christian by birth, inculcating in one lecture room with all the power of his mighty genius, those doctrines which led to the denial of the evangelical attributes of Jesus.” Meanwhile, in another room “Neander, by birth a Jew, preached and taught salvation through faith in Christ the Son of God alone.” Neander wrote many scholarly books, including the multi-volume General History of the Christian Religion and Church. Before his death in 1850 he went blind but dictated notes for the last section of his church history on the last day of his life.
Joseph Wolff was baptized in Prague and resolved to become a missionary/explorer. He learned Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, and other languages of west and south Asia and became a missionary to Jews in Persia, Turkistan, India, Arabia, and other lands. According to Lewis Way’s Travels and Adventures of Dr. Wolff, he was one “to whom a floor of bricks is a featherbed and a box is a bolster; who travels without a guide, speaks without an interpreter, can live without food and pay without money, forgiving all the insults he meets with and forgetting all the flattery he receives. … Such a man (and such and more is Wolff) must excite no ordinary degree of attention in a country and among people whose monotony of manner and habits has remained undisturbed for centuries.”
Isaac da Costa, his wife Hannah, and his friend Abraham Capadose were baptized in Holland. Da Costa became Holland’s leading poet and Capadose a leading physician. Da Costa’s short book, Accusations Again the Spirit of the Century, attacked the rationalistic materialism that was coming to dominate Holland and demanded that Christ again become the center of national life. Da Costa wrote often of Christ and also his Jewish heritage: “In the midst of the contempt and dislike of the world for the name of Jew I have ever gloried in it.” The Jewish Encyclopedia commented about him: “His character, no less than his genius, was respected by his contemporaries. To the end of his life he felt only reverence and love for his former co-religionists.”
Sixteen-year-old Haim Herschell in Poland became anxious at Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) services when he joined in saying, “We have now no temple, no high priest, no altar, and no sacrifices.” He eventually moved to London and founded the British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Among the Jews and taught numerous Bible classes for both Jews and non-Jews. When he died in 1864, 300 policemen for whom he had held a weekly class were in the funeral procession.
Former Rabbi Michael Solomon Alexander converted to Christianity in 1825 after concluding that rabbis had concealed the truth about Jesus. Seven years later he became professor of Hebrew and rabbinical literature at King’s College, London. His name came first on the long list of those who signed a “protest of Jewish Christians in England” against the accusation that Jews used Christian blood in Passover rites. When the British Parliament endowed the position of bishop of Jerusalem, the appointment went to Alexander. In Jerusalem, he opened both an institution for the training of Jewish Christian missionaries and a hospital for poor, sick Jews.
Israel Saphir, a merchant of Budapest, was baptized, along with his wife, two sons, and three daughters. The younger son, Aaron Adolph Saphir, went on to become a celebrated Presbyterian pastor at three British churches from 1861 to 1888. He always remembered how up to age 12 he hoped for something more than the religion he taught could give: “I was brought up in my childhood in the synagogue and taught that there was one God, infinite, incomprehensible, high above us and omnipresent. Much stress was laid on the unity and unicity of God. But this bare, vague and abstract monotheism leaves the mind in darkness, while the heart is chilly and desolate.”
This puzzled Aaron, because in the Bible, “I was met by no abstract idea of unicity but by a loving God, who appeared unto Abraham and spoke to him, who led Israel through the wilderness and dwelt among them. After, when I thought of the kindly, concrete, friendly and human way in which the Lord God then appeared unto his people and dwelt with them, I wondered why he was not now with us, loved and followed. One day I was looking at some books in my father’s library and the title of one arrested my eye. It was Immanuel, God with us. The thought went through my mind like a flash of lightning; it thrilled my soul. Oh, I exclaimed, if it were true that God should appear in human form, what a blessing that would be.”
Paulus Selig Cassel became a conservative Berlin journalist and soon editor of the influential Erfurt Zeitung. Realizing that political differences often have religious roots, he started exploring the connection of Christianity and conservatism. In the course of his research he studied the New Testament and became a believer in Christ. He was a popular writer and lecturer, as a biographer notes, “He liked to arouse curiosity by announcing [lectures] under peculiar titles; but he always endeavored, no matter what his subject might be, to lead his heroes from it to Christ. [He] gave to many, both Jews and Christians, the first impulse towards serious thought, which brought them in the end to the knowledge of the Savior.”
Elected to the Prussian Parliament, Cassel later served as a pastor, and developed a vision of how to be most effective that differs from the conventional. He wrote that evangelizing visits to Jews are of little use: “Public lectures were much more to be depended on; and these must not obtrude their missionary character, but must be of a kind to interest Jews and Christians alike. … Tracts must be written on subjects connected with all departments of life, in order to bring the Jew by various paths to face the one great question.” Cassel in the 1870s and 1880s defended Jews against anti-Semitic attacks, and even the Jewish Chronicle, normally critical of converts, reported, “A genius like Cassel is always an honor to his former brethren in the faith.”
Lewis Henry Salin, an immigrant to Kentucky who secretly read the New Testament in Germany before leaving there, heard a Baptist minister’s call to go forward at the end of a service and professed Christ. “All my relatives, from my father to the remotest cousins, like a panorama passed through my mind,” he later wrote. “I imagined I could hear them curse my very soul, while a frown of hot displeasure was resting upon each countenance. … The solemn and weighty words of our Savior, with greater force than ever, came rushing to my mind. ‘He that loveth father or mother … more than me is not worthy of me.’ … [W]ith great difficulty I went forward and united my destiny with the Baptists.” For the next 45 years he was a merchant and minister.
Daniel Landsmann, a Jerusalem tailor and Talmudic scholar was baptized in 1863 and was almost killed—but by his own people, angered that someone well educated in Jewish tradition should become a Christian. His beliefs began to change when he found upon the street a page in Hebrew torn from a book. He loved what he read, and when he later found out that it was the Sermon on the Mount, he thought differently about Jesus than he did before. When he told all that he believed Jesus is the Messiah, his wife left him, one fanatical group put spikes in his hands, and another tried to bury him alive. He finally moved to New York City and, with a wealth of Talmudic knowledge and a humble spirit, moved many to consider Christ.
Theodore Jonas Meyer, a Presbyterian missionary in Italy, nursed those dying in a cholera epidemic until he also fell prey to the disease. Barely surviving, he became a peacemaker between Catholics and Protestants in Italy and later wrote about what his own background taught him about justification by faith: “I was brought up in the fear of God by my parents, who were pious rabbinical Jews. … I sought to appease Him, and to earn His mercy, by work and prayer. … But with all this I still felt uneasy, and always believed that I had not done enough.”
Joseph Schereschewsky, a former Lithuanian rabbinical student, was consecrated as the Episcopal Church’s Bishop of Shanghai. In 1879 he laid the cornerstone for St. John’s College, the first Protestant college in China. Known as one of the most learned Orientalists in the world, he also translated the Bible into both Mandarin and colloquial Chinese and stayed at his translation tasks even though partially paralyzed and unable to speak.
Alfred Edersheim finished seven years of writing The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, which became a standard work. Born in Austria, he served as a Presbyterian minister in Scotland and a lecturer and preacher at Oxford, with his most productive time spent (as he wrote in the preface to his masterwork) “in a remote country parish, entirely isolated from all social intercourse.” He noted that “if any point seemed not clear to my own mind, or required protracted investigation, I could give days of undisturbed work to what to others might seem perhaps secondary, but was all-important to me.”
Talmudic scholar and lawyer Joseph Rabinowitz was baptized and, through writings and sermons, began influencing Russian Jews to become “Sons of the New Covenant.” He drew up a list of 12 articles of faith, patterned after Maimonides’ 13 principles, but proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. He wrote parables such as this one: “Two foolish people were traveling in a four-wheeled wagon. Noticing that the wagon was moving heavily, they examined it and found that a wheel was missing. One of the foolish people sprang out and ran forward along the road, saying to every one he met, ‘We have lost a wheel. Have you seen one?’ At last a wise man said to him, ‘You are looking in the wrong direction. You should seek your wheel behind the wagon, not in front of it.’ This is the mistake that Jews have been making all of these centuries. The four wheels of Hebrew history are Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. Jews have been looking into the future when they should have been looking into the past.”
Leopold Cohn, a Hungarian rabbi, came to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. An outraged Jewish community forced him to flee, so he studied at divinity school in Scotland, immigrated to the United States with his family, and opened a storefront classroom/church in a heavily Jewish section of Brooklyn. On weekday evenings Cohn provided free English lessons, using the New Testament as a text. On weekends he preached. Later he opened a medical clinic and a kosher food kitchen, and delivered free coal to the Jewish poor, telling each person he helped, “Receive this in the name of Jesus.” He also opened a sewing school at which more than 200 girls and their parents heard about Christ, with many coming to believe.
Isaac Lichtenstein died, leaving writings explaining how he read a copy of the New Testament after 40 years of work as a rabbi in Hungary and embraced “the greatness, power, and glory of this book, formerly a sealed book to me. … I had thought the New Testament to be impure, a source of pride, of selfishness, of hatred, and of the worst kind of violence, but as I opened it I felt myself peculiarly and wonderfully taken possession of. A sudden glory, a light flashed through my soul. I looked for thorns and found roses; I discovered pearls instead of pebbles; instead of hatred, love; instead of vengeance, forgiveness; instead of bondage, freedom. … From every line in the New Testament, from every word, the Jewish spirit streamed forth.”
To those who hated the idea of a long-term rabbi turning “renegade,” Lichtenstein replied, “I have been an honored rabbi for the space of forty years, and now, in my old age, I am treated by my friends as one possessed by an evil spirit, and by my enemies as an outcast. I am become a butt of mockers, who point the finger at me. But while I live I will stand on my watchtower, though I may stand there all alone. I will listen to the words of God.”
Dr. Boris Kornfeld, imprisoned in a Soviet concentration camp for political subversives, talked with a devout Christian and came to believe in Christ. He tried to help starving prisoners by refusing to sign papers that would send them to their deaths, and he reported to the camp commandant an orderly who was stealing food from prisoners. One day he talked at length about Christ with a patient who had just been operated on for cancer; that night the orderly had his revenge and Dr. Kornfeld was murdered, but the patient pondered his words, became a Christian, and eventually wrote about Kornfeld and conditions in the Gulag. The patient’s name: Alexander Solzhenitsyn.