Cover Story

Great escapes

Issue: "All in the family," March 2, 2002

Throughout the centuries some Jews, rebelling against constant Talmudic and occasional Messianic excitement, explored an almost unspeakable alternative: becoming a Christian. Ironically, pressure to "convert" from church, government, or mob made true conversion more difficult-for what honest person would make for material reasons a decision about the most important spiritual question? Nevertheless, some Jews over the years responded to Christ as did early Jews like Peter the apostle: "You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

Those who made credible professions of that sort included Epiphanius, who in 368 became the Bishop of Constantia in Cyprus. Born of Jewish parents in Palestine, he gained wide respect for his scholarly learning, denounced the use of images in churches, and wrote the Panarion, an encyclopedia of Jewish and Christian sectarian groups. The writer Petrus Alphonsi converted in 1106; he wrote many tales, one of which appeared in a 1961 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and wrote an evangelistic dialogue between himself before and after conversion. Solomon ha-Levi, known as the learned and pious rabbi of Burgos, Spain, converted in 1391. He studied theology at Paris, was ordained a priest, and eventually, under the name Pablo de Santa Maria, became Bishop of Cartagena and then Archbishop of Burgos.

This path of transformation, however, was unusual. The world of the Talmud dominated Judaism over the centuries, and when the going got tough, new Messiah candidates emerged. In 1665 Eastern European Jews, stunned by Cossack attacks on them in 1648 and thereafter, pinned their hopes to Turkey's Shabbetai Zvi. Born on the 9th of Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple-one rabbinic tradition held that the Messiah had to be born on that day-the brilliant but manic Zvi received backing from leading rabbis such as Nathan of Gaza and from probably one-fourth of Jews alive at that time; some say one-half. Zvi strode into Constantinople in 1666 saying the Sultan would be impressed enough to give him authority over the land of Israel. Instead, Zvi received three options: Prove through miracles that you are the Messiah, convert to Islam, or die. Zvi chose conversion, and a few of his supporters followed him into Islam, forming a Muslim sect that continues to this day.

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Many Jews disciplined themselves with further Talmud study, but so desperate was the need that some still hoped in Zvi and awaited his second coming. In the 1750s one honored rabbi, Ya'akov Emden, accused a great Talmudic expert, Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz, of "secret Shabbetianism." Accusations and counteraccusations led to an uproar, and the issue was never settled.

Also during that decade, one Jacob Frank won a following for his claim to be the reincarnation of Zvi. Frank said Zvi could have displayed Messianic powers had Jews repented, but they did not because they were sexually unsatisfied. Frank and his followers had orgies and sinned openly in other ways as well, saying that in the Messianic time all was legitimate. He also argued that sin carried to the extreme would become repugnant, so people would then turn away from it. Rabbis excommunicated Frank and he faded from view, but not before showing that many who deny Christ respond to crackpot Messianic claims.


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