For some the name Jewish New Testament is shocking



David H. Stern received me in his splendid house built on a small hill in Jerusalem. We had a drink in the large living room and then descended to a small yard where a bougainvillaea bloomed abundantly. A few steps lower down a guest room has been built in an old cistern cut out of the rock and formerly used for holding drinking water. Beside that is Dr. Stern’s study. The walls are filled with books. David had just come home from a round of jogging and appeared very muscular for a man of 62. As well as all his intellectual activities he also knows everything about surfing. We talk about David’s most popular book, The Jewish New Testament. David said, ‘The usual translations of the New Testament into English make it hard for people to see it as the Jewish book it really is. This is why the title Jewish New Testament shocks people – Jews, because they think of the New Testament as a book only for Christians, and Christians because they forget that the roots of their faith are Jewish.’ David Stern’s books have given the Messianic Jewish movement a strong theological foundation.


The conventional wisdom in the Jewish community is that normal Jews do not come to faith in Yeshua as the Messiah of Israel, and that Jews who do were either forced or enticed, or are disturbed, deprived or depraved. My story is proof to the contrary. Take my word for it, or find people who knew me back then: I was intelligent, talented, successful, upright, happy and loved both before and after he found me and I came to him. Yet even though blessed with all these things, I lacked the answer to everyone’s ultimate question, ‘What does life mean?’ I searched for twenty-two years; and to my own surprise, the trite but true answer is given by Yeshua.

I am Jewish, a fourth-generation native of Los Angeles. My great-grandfather, Elias Laventhal, arrived there in 1853, when the population was around 2,000; he and his wife Berthe, who sailed around the Horn and met him there, must have been two of the town’s first twenty Jews. Their daughter Sarah and son-in-law Jacob Stern purchased a house on the southwest corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street in 1904; Hollywood’s first full-length movie was made in their barn (it’s now a museum near the Hollywood Bowl), and the Keystone Cops were filmed in their swimming pool. He and my father Harold Stern, were in real estate; my mother Marion Levi Stern came from a well-to-do ‘Our Crowd’ family in New York.

So I was born in 1935, the third son in a loving Jewish family. We belonged to the city’s best known Reform synagogue, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, attending its services on Rosh-HaShanah and Yom-Kippur. We also celebrated Passover and Chanukkah at home. My father, by precept and example, upheld high moral standards. My mother devoted her life to community service and at one time was president of the Los Angeles branch of the Council of Jewish Women. She and I read the Torah aloud together when I was eight. I attended the synagogue’s Sunday school for ten years and was considered so promising that Rabbi Max Dubin suggested I should become a rabbi too. I praise God for my Jewish identity and upbringing. It gave me an ethical anchor during my years of seeking; and it gives depth, direction and context to my life in the Messiah now.

My spiritual odyssey began at fifteen, during a visit to a former junior high school teacher. After hearing how my life was going, she said, ‘You’re not happy, are you?’ In response I suddenly burst into tears. I had discovered that I was unhappy – till then I hadn’t known it. I asked her what I should do about it, and she recommended psychoanalysis. For seven of the next sixteen years I spent between three and five 50-minute hours per week on the couch.

During this time I tried to construct a meaningful life. Since I didn’t know what life meant, this wasn’t easy! For example, my choice of college major was arbitrary. After sampling mathematics (one semester), political science (one year) and philosophy (two weeks), I settled on economics, because it seemed to touch on all the subjects that interested me. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa from UCLA at nineteen, earned an MA and PhD from Princeton University with a dissertation on bargaining behavior, and at twenty-four became the youngest faculty member in UCLA’s Graduate School of Management.

I had glamorous hobbies – mountain-climbing, waterskiing, surfing. In 1963 I co-authored the Surfing Guide to Southern California (to be reprinted in 1998 and considered a classic by surfers). I lived in one of the rickety old houses at Topanga Beach, directly in front of one of the best surfing spots in the state (I should know – I wrote the book). I became a connoisseur of fine wines. I played piano, clarinet, guitar, recorder and organ, and composed minuets in the style of Joseph Haydn, my favorite composer. Long before the authentic performance movement became popular I purchased a Broadwood-and-Son pianoforte made in 1805. I contributed to worthy causes and could feel I was helping make the world a better place.

Family, friends and strangers saw my life as one of excitement and purpose, but my nagging inner question, ‘What does life mean?’ still drew a blank. After a while it got to me. If nothing matters, why bother? On the threshold of a promising career, I shocked colleagues and relatives by resigning my professorship. For me, economics had not turned out to be the hub at the center of the wheel, but the hole in the center of the bagel.

I read, surfed and talked with friends (who seemed to know no more than I about life’s meaning). I finished up psychotherapy and got a little happier. I fasted 27 days, after which, oddly enough, I did become inwardly at peace and remained so. But I still had no drive to do one thing rather than another. I could live on my investment income, so I didn’t work.

During the hippie era I became interested in vegetarianism and became leader of a commune that ran three health-food stores in the Los Angeles area called ‘Back to Eden.’ I was an inept manager, so the stores went broke. A common stereotype of Jews is that they all have outstanding business ability; would that it were true! I looked into about two dozen religions, some Eastern, some Western, some – who knows? It never occurred to me to investigate either Judaism or Christianity. Not Judaism, because my experience of growing up in it had not led me to expect that it could address the questions of life’s meaning (it’s a common mistake that adults judge the religion of their childhood by the criteria of children). Not Christianity, because, ‘as everybody knows, Jews don’t believe in Jesus.’

I sought to extract from these various religions whatever I could use in putting together a world-view; in effect, I was out to create ‘Sternism.’ None of these religions held me for long except one, which I followed for two years, because it, unlike the others, had a theory of history. I couldn’t have told you that at the time, but this was its attraction – the other religions found neither meaning nor direction in the sequenced events of human civilization. I mention this because the intellectually satisfying thing about the Bible is that it tells you that history has a beginning, a middle and an end – a direction, a purpose, a goal. Moreover, the Bible’s claims concerning the origins and goal of history make more sense than any other, and certainly more sense than none.

As this religion had some appeal for me, and because I had nothing better to do with my life, I decided I would propagate its teachings to a needy world; but it failed me when it proved unable to deal with the guilt of sin. A relative had died, and I had written a letter of condolence based on the teaching of this religion. I thought that in it I had expressed my love; but instead, I had conveyed my subconscious arrogance, had given no comfort and had caused great anguish. Feeling guilty, I consulted this religion’s founder for advice on what to do. He said, in essence, ‘Hang in there. It will all work out if you keep showing them your love.’ But it was this religion’s version of ‘love’ that had created the problem in the first place.

I was beginning to become aware of the sinfulness of sin without having a word for it. This religion, like others of its kind, hasn’t a clue about the fundamental seriousness of sin. The advice that ‘it will all work out,’ whether couched in the language of karma or of psychology, neither deals with an individual’s guilt nor describes the absolute offensiveness of sin to a holy God. Abandoning my plan to become this religion’s ‘Paul,’ I was once again in the market for better answers.

Since I no longer had health-food stores to run or a religion to push, I accepted my brother’s offer to work for him in his real-estate development business. I drove up and down central California looking for land on which he and his partners could build apartment complexes.

One night, when I was on the road, I stayed in a motel where the owners had placed on the nightstand a small magazine of Christian testimonies from the Full Gospel Businessmen’s fellowship. I read how Jesus had brought peace, order and meaning to the lives of the men who wrote them; and tears welled up in my eyes. But tears prove nothing – I cry over the stories in Reader’s Digest too. Still, I see now that this was God’s first move in the events leading to my salvation.

One day, as I was passing through Marysville, north of Sacramento, I entered a health-food store that, with its displays of organically grown fruit and open barrels of raw nuts, reminded me of my own stores. But on its walls, instead of volumes on how to raise your baby to be a vegetarian, there were books with Jesus Christ’ in their titles. Those two words did not attract me; but I leafed through a book called The Spiritual Man, by Watchman Nee; and it seemed to contain at least as much sense as the religions with which I had been involved.

I asked, ‘Who owns this store?’ The clerk replied, ‘We’re a Christian commune.’ ‘That’s interesting,’ I said, ‘I had a hippie commune that ran health-food stores like this. Can I crash with you tonight?’ (I knew that was an Okay question to ask at a commune.) They accepted my invitation.

After an appointment with a real estate agent in nearby Yuba City, I joined them at their communal house, located in a tiny town with the prophetic name Smartsville. There I heard their pastor Jerry Russell preach on Roman 10:9:

‘If you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’

I didn’t understand the verse, but he said it six or eight times, so it stuck in my mind. I had no trouble with its first two clauses. Since most of the other religions I had investigated taught that we are all God, and that we all get reincarnated, I supposed it would be true of Jesus too. I had nothing against him, so why should he be an exception? It was the rest of the verse that puzzled me – ‘…you will be saved.’ I remember a cartoon from the late 1950s showing a preacher behind a huge pulpit and a vast audience ranging back into darkness; the focus was on two mystified congregants, with one whispering to the other, ‘Saved from what?’ However, since the sin issue had begun to surface in my consciousness, I was beginning to become aware that it is sin and its consequences from which we must be saved.

I was mulling these things over after the sermon when a fellow of about twenty, six months a believer, stationed himself in front of me and jarred me from my thoughts with a question no one had ever put to me in my thirty-seven years of living: ‘Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour and Lord?’ I sighed a knowing sigh and explained in my most patient professional voice, ‘I’m really delighted, brother, that you’ve found a path to God that meets your needs, and if you want to hear what I’ve learned about God I’ll be glad to tell you.’ I thought that was a great answer; but he didn’t think so at all and began telling me I was a sinner, the penalty for sin is death and eternal separation from God, but God accepts a substitute, as shown by the sacrificial system, and the ultimate sacrifice is Jesus, who died for you and me, and you can accept him by faith, and you can pray to receive him in your heart right now, and … He went on and on. Finally, when he paused for breath, I thanked him, turned and left the room. I must admit that even though his callow insensivity bothered me at the time, it was from him that I first heard the essence of the Gospel. Now, when I find myself communicating the Gospel to people who don’t seem open to it, I remember how God used this person in my life.

I crossed the street to the communal house and noticed there how the people in this commune truly loved each other. I could see it in how they treated one another. (‘By their fruits you will know them.’ ‘A new commandment I give you: love one another as I have loved you. By this the world will know that you are my disciples.’) I was impressed, because in those days lots of hippies and ex-hippies (like these people) talked about love, but seeing it in practice was rare. My being impressed by their love was a very Jewish reaction. Jewish people tend to judge by actions rather than beliefs. Someone who behaves well will be forgiven strange beliefs, but a person with the ‘right’ beliefs will not be forgiven improper actions.

After a good night’s sleep I returned to their store, bought some more books and went on my way, reading as I drove up and down California. (Do I dare admit publicly that this is to be taken literally – the steering wheel in one hand, a book in the other? Anyhow, I don’t drive like that any more.) On the night of 20 October, 1972, I was in a motel in Fresno and couldn’t sleep, so I opened the New Testament, and my eyes fell across Romans 10:9. To this day I can’t explain it, but I realised I had come to believe that Jesus is Lord – he alone, not all of us – and that God had raised him from the dead – him alone, not all of us. So, staring at the blank ceiling, I confessed it aloud to God; and according to that verse I was, at that moment, saved.

It took a while for the implications of that un-dramatic event to manifest themselves in my life. For example, it didn’t occur to me to get baptized, or to go to a church. When, some six weeks later, I revisited the Smartsville commune and told them what had happened, they were understandably delighted and invited me to be immersed in the Yuba River. I was glad to do it, and I can say that its Sierra-fresh 40-degree water didn’t even feel cold.

In the months that followed, I confronted the question of whether God’s Word as revealed in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is really his truth. Yet the more I tested my faith by questioning, the more I became intellectually satisfied that the Bible is God-inspired, that it tells us the truth about him and his involvement in human history, and that it is the one infallible guide to correct faith and practice. From the beginning my beliefs were always open to rebuttal by facts and logic, and they still are. But I trust Yeshua to keep me ‘until that Day.’

God has worked in me to resolve my questions about life’s meaning. Where do we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? And most of all, why bother? As I explored the Bible I found that it spoke to these questions of mine with ever deepening insights. It satisfied both my heart and my mind, and it continues to do so.

I did not immediately feel the full tension of being Jewish and at the same time believing in Yeshua as Israel’s Messiah. During the following months, as I became an object of controversy, and the ramifications of the two-thousand-year-old problem became clearer, I saw that understanding it and working toward resolving it would become my life’s work. I soon became as interested in Judaism as in the New Testament. I concluded that while the so-called ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’ is, as one Jewish writer puts it, a ‘myth’; equally false is the conclusion that a person cannot be a Jewish ‘believer’ and must choose either Christ or Judaism, but not both. I became convinced in my spirit that the Lord was calling me to help develop Messianic Judaism as a genuine option wherein a person could be 100% Jewish and 100% a follower of Yeshua the Messiah.

Being an academic type, I returned to school, first to Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, where I earned a Master of Divinity degree and taught the seminary’s first-ever course in ‘Judaism and Christianity.’ Then for a year I studied Talmud and Rashi alongside America’s future rabbis in the Graduate School of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

In 1974 Fuller organized a ‘Hebrew in Israel’ study tour, which I joined. My intention was only a summer visit – I had never once thought of living in Israel. But when the head of an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva I was visiting in Jerusalem learned of my beliefs, he urged me to talk with an ex-Lutheran who had converted to Judaism and was studying to become a rabbi. This person, on hearing my vision for Messianic Judaism as a movement within the Jewish people, was not opposed; indeed he was rather intrigued. However, he challenged me not to remain in California but to make aliyah (immigrate to Israel). He said no significant Jewish movement would ever again be centered in the Diaspora, now that the Jewish state exists. ‘Don’t you know,’ he asked, that ‘out of Zion shall come forth Torah, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem?’ Instantly God used this apostate Christian’s citation of Isaiah 2:3 to change my mind 180 degrees, and from that moment I knew that one day I would live in Israel.

After graduating from Fuller, I planned to attend ‘Messiah ’75,’ the 1975 convention of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America. About a week before this conference, God gave me a prophecy. He woke me at 4 AM and had me write:


‘At Messiah ’75 I will show you your wife. At first you will not recognize her. When you do, you will be dismayed, because no woman on earth could meet the standards you have set up for your wife! But when you think about it, you will realize that I have made the right choice. It will then be up to you to woo and win her. I am the Lord.’


He fulfilled the prophecy by bringing me to Martha Frankel, another Messianic Jew; and in 1976 she ended my forty years of bachelorhood, as we were married under the palm trees that had shaded my grandparents’ backyard.

Shortly after we were married, we spent a year with the organization Jews for Jesus. Then I began my Messianic Jewish writing projects, and in 1979 our daughter Miriam was born. Four months later we made aliyah. In 1981 our son Daniel was born in Tel Aviv, our family’s only sabra (native-born Israeli). But we are Israelis too, part of the great ingathering promised by God and for which Jews have prayed three times daily for two thousand years. We live in a remodelled old stone house in Jerusalem.

As of now I have produced four books; Messianic Jewish Manifesto, which presents my view of the history, ideology, theology and program of Messianic Judaism in a systematic way; Restoring the Jewishness of the Gospel: A Message for Christians, a 90-page abridgement of ‘Manifesto’ for Christians who have not seriously considered the Jewishness of their faith; the Jewish New Testament, which is my translation of the New Testament into English in a way that expresses its Jewishness, and a companion volume, the Jewish New Testament Commentary, which deals, verse-by-verse, with the Jewish issues raised in the New Testament. As I write this, I am several months away from publishing the Complete Jewish Bible, which combines in a single volume my version of the Tanakh (Old Testament) with the Jewish New Testament. I see no end to this work of mine, because it deals with the greatest schism in history, the separation between the Church and the Jewish people. If I had a hundred researchers and lived to be 120, there would still be more to do.

Through saving me and giving me this work God has given meaning and purpose to my life. He has also given me a wonderful wife and children and a place to live in the Land of Israel, the home of the Jewish people. Praise you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, preserved us and enabled us to reach this joyous season.


From: Hoekendijk Ben, Twelve Jews discover Messiah, New Wine Press, England 1997, pages 68-78