Messianic Judaism is ancient; it was the religion of the first generation of Yeshua’s disciples. Our world, however, perceives it as a new movement because Messianic Judaism didn’t emerge out of the dust of history in its modern form until the 1970s.
At the 1969 Hebrew Christian Alliance of America in Asheville, North Carolina, attendees started singing Havenu Shalom Aleichem. Six years later, they renamed the group the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA) and never looked back. The Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) formed just a few years after that. Hebrew Christianity was becoming Messianic Judaism, and an intentional shift in focus and praxis began to take place. Yeshua was still at the center, but the context shifted to a synagogue expression instead of a church one.
The early Hebrew Christian movement provided a spiritual home for Jewish people who had become Christians but still wanted to retain some connection to their Jewish identity despite being in the church. Messianic Judaism took Jewish identity a step further. Jewish disciples began consciously reconnecting with Jewish practice for its own sake and strove to build Messianic Jewish congregations.
This movement, of course, had its figureheads, and anyone who studies this turbulent period of Messianic Jewish history is likely to encounter names such as Martin Chernoff, Manny Brotman, Dan Juster, and, of course, David H. Stern. My personal connection with Dr. and Mrs. Stern began before I could even begin to realize what Dr. Stern’s contribution to the Messianic Jewish movement was, and what it would mean to me.
Dr. David Stern and his wife, Martha, became friends with our family when we first arrived in Israel in the early 1990s. I was a young child at that time, so I don’t remember much about the Sterns per se, but I do remember that we occasionally dog-sat their beautiful—and very large—white lab, named Vanilla. Now, as an adult, I have the blessing of growing my own relationship with the Sterns. They are supportive of my family’s work at the Bram Center for Messianic Jewish Learning in downtown Jerusalem, where I teach.
We cannot adequately thank Dr. Stern for the tremendous donation of his personal library to the Bram Center when it opened in 2015. We are honored and proud to have his study materials lining the shelves of our center, where a whole new generation of young Israeli Messianic Jewish followers of Yeshua are now beginning to consider, study, and build on what Dr. Stern and others began in the ’60 and ’70s in America. David and Martha have attended almost every lecture and event we have hosted here. It is always meaningful when they are with us.
The Sterns have lived in Jerusalem for more than thirty-five years, and I recently visited their home to conduct an interview. As I slowly flipped the pages of David’s sixtieth-birthday personal photo album, I found that he is a man of diverse interests, including mountain climbing, surfing, and body building.
It was intriguing to see such a Bible scholar as a prize-winner for Mr. Israel Body Building Contest in the ’80s, but not too surprising considering the number of pictures of him as a muscular twenty-something man who had once traveled up and down the western U.S. seaboard interviewing surfers and collecting information for what he hoped would become a surfer’s bible.
In 1963, Dr. Stern and William S. Cleary published the Surfing Guide to Southern California, and the dream of the surfer’s bible was never realized. However, he went on to publish a different Bible.
The Early Years and Education
Dr. Stern earned his Ph.D. in economics from Princeton, and worked as a professor at UCLA. However, his tenure there was relatively short-lived; he opted instead to run a hippy commune with a health-food store called “Back to Eden ” rather than remain an academic.
Once, as Dr. Stern was looking for real estate in northern California, he walked into a health-food store, much like the one he had managed in Los Angeles, but this one was run by a Christian commune. While his own store had featured books about “how to raise your baby as a vegetarian,” this one had books about the LORD. He spent the night at the commune and, at the church meeting that night, heard a sermon on Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Dr. Stern wondered, “Why do I have to be saved from anything? What’s it about?” Having bought a Bible and a Watchman Nee book, he continued on his search for truth. A few months later, alone in a motel room, he came across the same text from Romans 10:9 and realized that, in fact, he now believed it. Looking up at the cracked ceiling, he verbally confessed, “Yes, I believe.”
Dr. Stern was convinced that his Jewish identity was still meaningful and felt drawn to contribute in the development of Messianic Judaism. He earned his M.Div from Fuller Theological Seminary. Afterward, he attended the west-coast branch of the Jewish Theology Seminary, University of Judaism for a year. He met several rabbis, whom he later invited to speak at Fuller for a first-of-its-kind course called “Judaism and Christianity.”
Marriage and Aliyah
In 1974, Dr. Stern traveled with other seminarians to Israel to learn Hebrew. While he was there, he visited a yeshiva, where an administrator asked him, “What’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing at Fuller Seminary?” David explained that he was a believer in Jesus. The administrator said, “Well, we’re sorry, we don’t want you—you can’t stay here because we have empty cups to fill, and we want to fill them with what we have to fill, not with what you want to say.” He suggested that David meet with a former Christian who had converted to Judaism, a German Lutheran who was studying to become a rabbi.
The former German Lutheran took no offense at David’s faith since he himself had previously been a Christian, but he asked David, “What are you doing living in America? … now that the Jewish state exists, no significant Jewish movement will be centered in the Diaspora. Don’t you know, ‘For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem’?”
Isaiah 2:3 had a profound impact on Dr. Stern. He had grown up in the Reform movement with little attachment to the land of Israel. From that moment, he knew he would live in Israel.
David met Martha the following year at a Messianic Jewish conference called Messiah ’75, where he was eagerly anticipating meeting eligible young women. He says that the Lord had given him a prophetic word about meeting his wife at the conference. Martha had been raised by atheist Jewish parents who had no interest in the Jewish homeland, but she had read the book Exodus when she was ten years old and knew she had to live in Israel. She wanted to marry someone who felt the same.
The newly married couple spent a year working for Jews for Jesus. They made Aliyah to Israel in 1979, after their first daughter, Miriam, was born. A second child, Daniel, was born in Israel in 1981. Dr. Stern was in his forties when they made Aliyah, so in lieu of serving in the IDF, he spent some time in HAGA (civil defense). Martha remembers, “He would come home each night, and our three-year-old son, Daniel, would ask, ‘Did you kill any bad guys today?’ David would answer, ‘No, but I handed out a lot of forks and spoons!’”
When the Sterns arrived in Israel, Jewish believers were few and far between. Martha recalls, “At that time, the expression was very traditional Christian-mode for Jewish believers … Nobody had a clue about Messianic Judaism.” The Sterns joined the community in Netanya led by Shira and Ari Sorkoram, who also had a vision for Messianic Judaism, and together pioneered early Messianic Judaism in Israel.
They began making an impact by introducing simple Jewish practices to their congregation. Martha recalls, “We did Shabbat; we did Friday night gatherings … somehow a bunch of young people did come. And I remember we would cook a big meal, and people would sleep over, and we just started doing it. I remember one time, a group of us stayed at Beit Emmanuel in Jaffa for a weekend, and we brought our own challah, and we lit our Shabbat candles, and everybody there was in shock. They were like, ‘What are you doing?’ People just didn’t have a clue.”
The Sterns and the Sorkorams moved their community to Ramat haSharon. Three years later, when the Sterns moved to Jerusalem, they joined the Netivyah congregation, pastored by Joseph Shulam.
David and Martha were instrumental in starting a traditional Torah service for Messianic Jews when some German visitors to Netivyah wanted to film a demonstration of a Torah service. Joseph Shulam acquired a scroll and accommodated the request. The Sterns urged Joe, “Why don’t we do this for ourselves?”
They made arrangements to conduct a service for the upcoming holiday of Yom Kippur. They brought mattresses and slept at the building so they would not be driving on the holy day, and they conducted the first Messianic Jewish Yom Kippur service.
Encouraged, the Sterns persuaded the leadership at Netivyah to start a Torah service on Shabbats, first once a month, then twice a month, and eventually every Shabbat. Visitors to the Netivyah congregation today enjoy traditional synagogue Shabbat services.
Complete Jewish Bible
Dr. Stern’s most well-known contribution to Messianic Judaism is his Complete Jewish Bible. Prior to that, he translated The Jewish New Testament, a translation of the New Testament from a Messianic Jewish perspective, with his subsequent Jewish New Testament Commentary.
Dr. Stern had made a list of things the Messianic Jewish movement would need to thrive, and the list included Messianic Jewish Bible commentary. He began by writing commentary on the book of Acts “because it had lots of action and Jewishness,” but he realized his main task involved reframing the translation for a Jewish reading. At almost every verse along the way, he was saying to himself, “Well, the text says this … but what it really should say is this.” He realized that part of his task was to create a new translation—so he decided to try.
Dr. Stern had learned Koine Greek at Fuller, so he knew his way around the language of the New Testament. He said, “The Bible is both the hardest and the easiest book to translate—it’s the easiest because there are commentaries on practically every word in the Bible, and the hardest because it’s the Word of God.” The translation took shape as a simple, readable version that emphasized the Jewish character of the New Testament. Hebrew idioms and Jewish conventions were made explicit. Transliterations of Hebrew names replaced Anglicized versions: Yeshua instead of Jesus, Ya’akov instead of James, Sha’ul instead of Paul.
Dr. Stern sent the finished translation to thirteen different Christian publishers and a few secular ones as well. No one was interested. He considered self-publishing, but he felt he would need to include a robust commentary to explain and support the choices he had made as a translator. The writing of a commentary delayed the project, and in the meantime, he also wrote his well-known Messianic Jewish Manifesto and Restoring the
Jewishness of the Gospel.
Phil Goble, a friend from Fuller, came to visit the Sterns in Israel. When he heard about Dr. Stern’s reluctance to publish without supporting commentary, he said, “The Word of God is quick and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, and it doesn’t need David Stern’s commentary to prop it up.”
In 1989, David published The Jewish New Testament, under his own publishing company, Jewish New Testament Publications. Barry Ruben helped with the management and distribution of Dr. Stern’s works in the U.S. and remains their publisher under Messianic Jewish Resources. Dr. Stern’s works have now been translated into numerous languages.
Dr. Stern finally released his commentary in a separate volume in 1992. In 1998, he published the Complete Jewish Bible, combining his New Testament translation with an adapted version of the Jewish Publication Society’s 1917 edition of the Tanach, which had just gone into public domain. The Complete Jewish Bible has become a hallmark translation for the English-speaking Messianic Jewish movement around the world.
Others have realized the significance of Dr. Stern’s effort to produce a New Testament translation governed by Jewish context and culture. For example, a decade and a half later, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler released the Jewish Annotated New Testament. Martha recalled going to the Talpiot neighborhood in Jerusalem to hear a presentation about it. She introduced herself to Dr. Brettler, who said of Dr. Stern, “Oh, I know very well who your husband is. I have his books.”
Martha continues, “I felt like the Lord showed me, ‘Look what’s happened in the forty years since you became a believer.’ I mean, we were there when Jews for Jesus was going out on the streets, and nobody knew about believing in Jesus … Hardly any Jewish person at all believed in Jesus. And now there’s a Jewish lady [Levine] doing a commentary on the New Testament. That’s pretty amazing!”
Martha gave me a meaningful look and said, “Your family probably wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing if we hadn’t moved here.” And she’s probably right. My parents had copies of The Jewish New Testament around the house when I was growing up, and so did my grandparents. My grandfather also had the Messianic Jewish Manifesto (republished in 2007 as Messianic Judaism: A Modern Movement with an Ancient Past).
Stern’s vision and work still play a very important role in building the next generation of Messianic Judaism here in Israel. I feel privileged to have a personal connection to the pioneer who has done so much to move the idea of Messianic Judaism forward. Without a doubt, his legacy will continue to impact people’s lives for the gospel of Yeshua and perpetuate the great value of knowing the Jewish Jesus better.
All of Dr. Stern’s books are available at messianicjewish.net. The Sterns also have a Facebook author page under the name David H. Stern, where a verse of the day and Dr. Stern’s weekly Torah commentary are published.
Editor's note: Dr. David Stern passed into the world of truth on Tishrei 13, 5783 (October 8, 2022). May his memory be for a blessing.