God is moving powerfully among the Jewish community in Israel. From the perspective of a Bible professor in Israel, Dr. Mishkin shares how the Jewish Messianic movement in Israel is growing and thriving. He shares his personal story of coming to the Christian faith, his assessment of Jewish-Christian relations, and how to lovingly talk about Jesus with Jews.
More About Our Guest
David Mishkin serves on the faculty of Israel College of the Bible in Netanya, Israel. He is the co-editor of Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (with Craig Evans) and the author of Jewish Scholarship on the Resurrection of Jesus. He is helping to lead a movement of awakening in Israel through oneforisrael.org.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology Biola University.
Scott Rae: And I'm your cohost, Scott Rae, Dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: Today we're here. We're the guests joining us all the way from Natanya, Israel. Dr. David Mishkin has a PhD in Biblical and Religious Studies with a focus on Jewish Christian relations. We've had a chance to meet personally on a trip I went to in Israel last year, but I first came across Dr. Mishkin when I was doing research for the class I teach at Biola on the resurrection and came across his dissertation and an academic book distinctly on Jewish objections to the historical case for the resurrection. It fascinated me. And David, thanks for joining me a couple times in class, but even more so joining us today for the podcasts.
David Mishkin: Thanks. I'm glad to be here.
Sean McDowell: We would love to begin by just hearing your journey to faith with your Jewish background, becoming a believer. Can you tell us about that?
David Mishkin: Sure. I'd be happy to. Well, give you the relatively brief version. All of my grandparents were Yiddish speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe to New York in the early part of the 20th century. This was the Fiddler on the Roof generation. Actually, it's a very common story among Jewish people in America. So my parents were raised, for the most part in New York city as Orthodox Jews. And when I was raised, however, we were definitely still Jewish, but we were no longer Orthodox and we celebrated the holidays. We had a very strong cultural identity. I had my bar mitzvah, we did everything but no longer as Orthodox Jews. We were more liberal, culturally very Jewish, but religiously more liberal.
David Mishkin: So that was one aspect to my upbringing where when you're Jewish, the idea of Jesus having any reality in your life is just a nonissue. It wasn't something that was spoken about. I never thought about it. It was just too distant even to be a question. So that's kind of one aspect of my upbringing and if my childhood. But also in my life, there were some other things. For example, when I was growing up, I suffered from severe depression and even at a very young age, I not only was depressed, I had thoughts of suicide, so this was a big, obviously influence, and something that was very real and powerful in my life. That's basically the way I grew up. After high school, I went to college and thereafter maybe a year or something like that, other things happened and I not only thought about suicide, but I actually attempted suicide, not just once but three times. And for three nights in a row I took large amounts of pills and alcohol and after the third night I was found and I was taken by ambulance to a hospital there in Boston.
David Mishkin: Now I didn't feel, Oh, this is so great and I'm so lucky to be alive and happy and all of that. It was just something that happened and basically after that time I went back to New York and it was there that I learned a little bit more about my family's history. For example, I learned that both of my grandfathers, in fact, as well as one of my great grandfathers, had all committed suicide. This is without connection. It was just, you know, one of those things that happened.
Scott Rae: That's quite a family history.
David Mishkin: Yeah. Yeah. And whether you see that through the lens of psychology or theological grid or sociologically or whatever. Yeah, it's really pretty heavy. And maybe that started to explain things. But one thing I had going for me, I realized was that because I had hit rock bottom, I really had nowhere to go but up.
David Mishkin: So for the next few years I tried different jobs and different things. And then basically out of the blue, it was about three years later that I heard the gospel for the first time in my life. It was a Jewish friend of mine who told me that now she believes that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. And as soon as I heard that, I went through basically a typical litany that almost all Jewish people go through, which is, no, that's not true. That's nonsense. He's not for us. This is nonsense. You know, things like that. But only about a day or two later I realized I had to know more and I realized how little I knew and not just about Jesus obviously, but about God, about the Bible, about heaven and hell, all these new concepts.
David Mishkin: So I decided to read the old Testament first. And after I read through Genesis, I read through it relatively quickly. I realized that God exists and I can't exactly explain how I knew that. I know this is partly an apologetic podcast, but at the time I just knew God exists. So I continued to read from the old Testament and I read, at the time, not all of it, but certainly more than half of it. And I knew it was time for me to go out and get a complete Bible with the Old Testament and the New Testament together. And the very first verse, of the New Testament caught my interest right away. It says, here is the genealogy of Christ Jesus, the son of David, the son of Abraham. And in that particular Bible, every time it had the word Christ, it had an asterisk. And on the bottom of the page it said, or Messiah. So in a sense that was first theology lesson and it's amazing how different those two words, Christ and Messiah are to most Jewish people.
David Mishkin: Now they mean the same thing, but we're hearing it from a very different point of view, in a different lens. And I read through Matthew and I had no idea what I was going to find. Here I am, 24 years old, not only had I never read the New Testament as far as I know, I had never even seen a New Testament. I had never been to church for any reason, for a wedding or a bake sale or something social or anything. So this was totally foreign to me. So I kept reading and after a few weeks I read through the entire New Testament and kind of liked what I read, but I didn't want it. I thought maybe it's true. So I had an idea, maybe I'm going to read through it again. And in a sense I was looking for loopholes, maybe reasons why, even if it's true, I don't have to believe.
David Mishkin: And I remember I was about halfway through the New Testament again now for the second time and I was in Romans chapter eight and chapter nine. And here I am a nonbeliever, trying to understand the complexities of things like predestination and I'm still working on some of those things. But I realized, well, there's a lot of things I don't understand and probably some things I'll never understand, but what do I really believe? And I realized I believe in God now. And what about Jesus? Well, I realized after all this reading from the New Testament, I believe that he really is the Jewish Messiah. And it kind of dawned on me, well, if this is good news, why not be happy about it?
David Mishkin: Now that summer, as I was reading the Bible, I was also listening a little bit to some Christian radio stations and so I knew a little bit about a prayer, which is basically the equivalent of what some would call the sinner's prayer. And right there in my room I prayed and I asked Jesus to be my Lord and savior and my Messiah and right then God started working on me and I became a radically changed person.
David Mishkin: Now it's important to say that, as we all know, sanctification is a process. I'm not perfect today and I probably won't be perfect tomorrow. Maybe next week. You never know, but it's a process. But right away, God started working on me. I often compare myself to the man in John chapter nine who was born blind. Many people saw that an actual miracle had taken place, but not everyone wanted to credit that miracle with Jesus. And that's kind of what happened to me.
David Mishkin: Anyway, at the end, maybe another month or two after I was a believer, I found out a little bit more about my family. For example, I am, in my Jewish family, I wasn't even the first one to come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. I have an older cousin who's a dentist in New York and he had become a believer maybe a year or two years before and after all these years, over 30 years now, there are still just two of us in the family, but it's certainly been a great blessing that there's at least one other in the family. So that's how God got ahold of me originally and God's still working on me.
Scott Rae: David, just one quick follow up on that, briefly, how did your immediate family react when you came to faith?
David Mishkin: Well, as I usually say, I didn't win any popularity contests. In most Jewish families, whether they're Orthodox or more liberal, that's usually considered the worst thing you could do. So on one hand it was a negative thing, but in my case, my parents, again going back to John chapter nine, who saw this great change, although they weren't really quite ready to attribute that to Jesus, they saw a very good and positive change in me. So although they didn't like the reason I was attributing for this change, they definitely liked the change. So it was kind of a kind of a mixed thing in my case.
Scott Rae: Now, David, as we've talked before, you've lived in Israel for some time and you've watched sort of the religious landscape in Israel for quite some time. And you've told us before that you believe God's doing something really powerful among the Jewish community in Israel with you've seen lots of people coming to faith in Christ. Can you tell us a little bit more about that movement? Cause I don't think that's particularly well-publicized, you know, hardly anywhere in the US.
David Mishkin: Sure. There are a lot of great things happening. Let me first give you some statistics. Obviously there's a lot more going on than just numbers, but the statistics are impressive as well. As far as we can tell, and there have been studies in 1948, right before Israel's war of independence, as far as we know there were just under 30 Jewish believers in Jesus. Now you heard that right. I didn't say 300 or 3,000.
Scott Rae: That's it? 30?
David Mishkin: 30.
Scott Rae: Wow.
David Mishkin: No, obviously God knows the real number and so forth, but that's the best that we could come up with. Then if we go to the 1980s there were perhaps 300 or 400 Jewish believers in Jesus in Israel. Now remember Israel is about the size of New Jersey. Just to give you some perspective of size. So that was in the 1980s, 300, 400. Now we're saying upwards of 30,000 Jewish believers in Jesus in the land of Israel.
David Mishkin: So there's a dramatic huge jump just in recent decades. A lot is going on in the land of Israel.
Sean McDowell: In your own ministry and at the college, you've told me certain stories about what you believe God is doing in particular today. Could you tell us about some of those and what you see God doing in the present right now in Israel?
David Mishkin: Well at Israel College of the Bible, one of the things we're very proud of is the fact that it's the only Hebrew speaking Bible college or evangelical Bible college in the world, but it's specifically a place for Jewish and Arab Israelis studying together, learning the word of God together, ministering together. In fact, one of the programs we have every couple of years is for pastors and we usually have 12 Jewish pastors, 12 Arab pastors. And they're not only studying theology together and pastoral counseling and things like that, but they're learning from each other. They're growing, they're speaking in each other's churches, and really bonds are being formed between Jews and Arabs in Israel today, and that's really exciting.
Scott Rae: That's actually very, very encouraging to see the kind of sounds like a similar outworking of the kind of racial reconciliation that took place in the early church when Jews and Gentiles were worshiping together in the state of Israel. Well, let me ask you another question just about the situation Israel today. Let's take, take the average Jewish person off the streets who comes to faith in Jesus as their Messiah. How would they be treated differently and sort of how would their life be different as a Jewish believer in Israel today?
David Mishkin: Well, actually most Israelis are secular. Very often you see maybe news footage on television and when they do a story on Israel, you might see a picture of a very Orthodox Jewish man because it's easily recognizable, this is the Jewish state. In the government too, the Orthodox are disproportionately represented. But the point is most Israelis are secular.
David Mishkin: So whereas in America, for the Jewish person to believe in Jesus, it's kind of a cultural identity issue. But if you're an Israeli, if you were born and raised in Israel, for example, and if you did the army, and you speak Hebrew, you live in Jerusalem, you live in Tel Aviv or wherever, it's obviously that you're still Jewish. It's obvious that you still Jewish. So it's a little bit different than the American experience. And it depends on the family. Sometimes it's persecution. If it's a religious family, an Orthodox family, in an extreme case, they would actually hold a funeral for the person who becomes a believer in Jesus saying, you're no longer my son. You're no longer my relative. It's that serious. But again, in Israel, most people are secular.
Scott Rae: So it really would be the dead to me phrase coming to fruition essentially by performing that funeral.
David Mishkin: Absolutely. Among the religious, among Orthodox Jews today. Yes.
Sean McDowell: David, you, you've mentioned some of the barriers already in our discussion about why it would be difficult for a Jewish person to come to faith. But could you spell out what some of those issues are besides maybe just family pressure, what you said earlier about just Jesus not being on the radar for a lot of Jewish people. Are there other sociological, historical or big theological barriers that are in the way so to speak?
David Mishkin: Well, I would say all of the above. There are absolutely theological issues and theological barriers. But the number one reason is the last 2000 years of Jewish and Christian interaction. It's a horrific history. When I was growing up, if you had asked me to explain church history, I would have said, Oh yeah, I know all about church history. Let's see. There's the crusades and there's the inquisition and there's the pogroms and there's the Holocaust and all of this. Obviously, as you know, there was a whole lot done throughout church history in the name of Christianity or in the name of Jesus that has nothing to do with, obviously New Testament faith.
David Mishkin: Now, the way we usually respond to this is first of all to say, well, wait a minute. Just because people did things in the name of Jesus, that doesn't mean that Jesus is the problem. Oh, these people weren't real Christians. That's a good argument to some extent, but there's also a problem with it. Because when we look throughout church history, even the good guys, the people that most evangelicals would affirm as heroes of the faith, for the most part they said and did horrible things against the Jewish people as well. The obvious examples would be John Chrysostom and even Martin Luther.
David Mishkin: So there's a very long history where antisemitism, unfortunately, was totally mingled with Christendom. I'm not saying it's in the new Testament, I'm talking about the last 2000 years of history. So this is why, for most Jewish people, the idea of even thinking about Jesus is just beyond a reality for them.
Scott Rae: Let me follow up on that. I'm sure you've given some thought to this, but I think it strikes most of us, just who read the New Testament and who read about Jews and Gentiles being reconciled to God together, being one in Christ, you know, all of the things that had to be overcome in the first century that there were done so theologically, with such clear statements about the essential equality of Jews and Gentiles before God, by virtue of being in Christ, all of that. How do you account for the rise of antisemitism, kind of basically following right on the heels of this such clear New Testament teaching that would seem to fly in just the opposite direction?
David Mishkin: Yeah, that's a good question. I think a lot of people talk about the parting of the ways. In other words, after Jesus was here, and specifically after the destruction of the temple, two groups were forming. And it took not just a matter of years or even decades, but several hundred years before Christianity as we know it and Judaism as we know it were fully developed. And in the early days it was a rivalry. Prior to the destruction of the temple, there wasn't just one type of Judaism. There were several different sects that you're obviously familiar with, but after the destruction of the temple, basically it all formed into what became rabbinic Judaism. That was one group. The other group was the followers of Jesus, so it was kind of a rivalry. Which one was the truth? Which one is the real heir to the Old Testament?
David Mishkin: So before it was a theological issue, it was very much us and them. And it started, for example, in the earliest days of church history, I'm talking about after the New Testament was written, the idea that God has fully rejected the Jewish people. What's usually called supersessionism or today more politically correct is called fulfillment theology. That came about not so much because of looking into the scriptures and seeing what's written there, but it was a rivalry. They would say, look at the Jewish people. They no longer have a Homeland. Their temple is destroyed. They're scattered around the world. What a pitiful lot. We must be right and they must be wrong. So it was really a rivalry from the earliest days.
Sean McDowell: And that's heartbreaking that it was interpreted that way.
Scott Rae: But you can see where that might develop theologically out of what we would call, supersessionism, I think we use today, most often in our circles, David to describe that is replacement theology. That the church has replaced Israel as the chosen people of God.
David Mishkin: I was just going to say today, people who would adhere to that, they usually wouldn't refer to themselves as replacement theologians. I was just saying it's more user friendly or it's more politically correct. Today they would usually say it's fulfillment theology.
Scott Rae: But I think the message to the Jewish people I think was largely the same that the church has somehow replaced Israel as the people of God in the ongoing plan of God. And I could see where that kind of competition might develop, though it's still a little harder to see how the varial antisemitism could have arisen out of that competitiveness. But you know, maybe that's a testament to the depravity of human beings and our potential to do evil to one another.
David Mishkin: Well, I think it's definitely that. But the New Testament, I would say is a Jewish book or rather a series of Jewish books. And what we see for example in the gospels is an in house debate. So when Jesus used harsh language, it was, I would see it for the most part, the same as when Isaiah or Jeremiah brought the message of God and used often harsh words to their own people and that's what Jesus was doing as well. But when the gospel went further and further away from Israel and now there are basically no more Jews involved, they didn't see it in context. They just saw it as being against Jews rather than kind of an in house debate. I think that's an important part of the story.
Scott Rae: That's really helpful.
Sean McDowell: David, I'm curious, as you see Jewish people become believers in Christ, do you see kind of common threads that characterize their stories, such as meeting a Christian or just reading the New Testament or as we've seen in Muslim world many times kind of dreams and visions?
David Mishkin: Yes. In the United States, most Jewish people who become believers statistically hear the message from a Gentile friend, so don't ever say, well, I can't share the gospel with a Jewish person. We need another Jewish person to do that. The truth is in the United States, most Jewish people hear from a Gentile at work or a neighbor or wherever. In Israel, it's a little bit different. Now before maybe 20 years ago in Israel, all the testimonies I hear of people who became believers prior to that time, they were always overseas and they said, I was in the United States or I was in Europe or I was traveling and there I met Christians because you virtually couldn't meet any in Israel. But now in the last 20 years, definitely in the last 10 years, there's a lot going on. There are a lot of ministries, there are a lot of people sharing.
David Mishkin: So today in Israel, most people are hearing the gospel not only in Israel but from other Israelis. And the Bible college I'm with, Israel College of the Bible, is a part of a bigger group called One for Israel. That's oneforisrael.org and if you go there, you'll see many, many videos, in Hebrew and in Arabic, testimonies of Israelis, dozens upon dozens. So if you want to know the stories of Israelis, you can go there. But a common thread for all Jewish people is just growing up thinking that Jesus is the most foreign thing to a Jewish person and then usually after reading the new Testament, realizing that it's an incredibly Jewish story.
Sean McDowell: Hmm. That's really helpful. That's very helpful. When we had a meal together not long ago in Jerusalem, you shared about what drew you to do academic research on the historical Jesus and gave us some perspective about how many Jewish believers are doing that kind of research today. Could you share that with our listeners?
David Mishkin: Sure. In the last, let's say century, there's been a slow but steady progression of Jewish scholars, not believers in Jesus, Jewish scholars who are taking a more objective look at the person of Jesus. This movement is often called the Jewish reclamation of Jesus. In other words, these are Jewish scholars who aren't looking for the answer to the question, is Jesus the Messiah? Did he rise from the dead? Is he the savior? But rather as historians, they're asking questions like, who was this guy? So they're acknowledging, first of all, that he exists, existed. They're acknowledging that he was a Jew and there's been a lot of scholarship.
David Mishkin: So over the last hundred years as this scholarship has been going on, there have been other people documenting the scholarship. So you can find books about, well what's the Jewish view about how Jesus looked at the law or whether or not Jesus saw himself as the Messiah and various issues. So I decided to focus on what does this Jewish scholarship tell us about the resurrection of Jesus. What have they said about the resurrection of Jesus? And the short answer is not much, which is why a big part of the book is not so much looking at what they said about the resurrection, but asking the question, well what are some of the obstacles? What are the theological issues? What are the other reasons why this hasn't been a main area of study?
Scott Rae: David, one last question for you. What I'm fascinated with is what you are doing at Israel College of the Bible. And I think our listeners would be very interested to know that the makeup of your students is roughly, you know, a third Arab Christians and two thirds Messianic Jews who are all studying together. How do you make that work?
David Mishkin: Basically by putting the gospel first. I know I've heard of some ministries which are called reconciliation ministries and certainly, I do think reconciliation is a good thing, but sometimes they can be forced, you know, and sometimes there could be an agenda on one side or both sides. What we're doing at that college is studying the word of God together and doing ministry together. For example, every year we have at least one missions trip. And lately the last few years we've been going to places in Europe which have a lot of immigration, either from Northern Africa and/or the middle East. In other words, a big Arabic speaking population. And we'll send a team, this is a group of Jews and Arabs from Israel there to say we've got good news, we're not talking about politics, but we're talking about Jesus. So I think when people focus on the message of the gospel and minister together, that's probably the best way of reconciliation. We may not agree on every political issue. That's okay, but if we're focused on the gospel, that's the best way to do it.
Scott Rae: I can see that. That'd be such a powerful witness to see Arab and Jewish believers together, serving together, studying together, and sharing the good news of the gospel together.
Scott Rae: David this has been so encouraging to hear about all the good things that God's doing within the nation of Israel, among the Jewish people. And to hear your work at the Israel College of the Bible and the approach to reconciliation between Jews and Arabs that you are taking that's so gospel centered, so good theologically. We really appreciate your work and would implore our listeners to be in prayer for what God's doing, not only not only in the state of Israel, but in the Arab world, but particularly through David, through your work at the Israel College of the Bible.
Scott Rae: So we really appreciate you coming on with us. It's great news to hear what God's doing within the state of Israel.
David Mishkin: Thanks.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. David Mishkin and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and feel free to share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.