The first Jewish believer to share the gospel in Jerusalem in modern times: A history of Messianic Jews in Israel, Part 3

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Joseph Wolff preaching the gospel in the Land of Israel

Joseph Wolff (1795-1862) is a remarkable character and quite an eccentric person. He was Jewish, and he broke new ground by bringing the gospel to places where no one had dared to go before him.

Besides Israel, he also traveled to Turkey, Armenia, Afghanistan, India, Kashmir, Egypt, Ethiopia, Yemen, Greece, and many other places, often finding the local Jews or whoever he thought were the lost tribes, and preaching to them. He easily got carried away with his zeal and sometimes he made enemies by telling people a bit too brazenly that they were going to hell lest they believe the gospel. At some point, he became convinced that Jesus would return in 1847, and spoke of that to anyone who would listen. When asked in 1852 why he did that, he replied, “because I was a great ass.” People testified that he had a poor understanding of social conduct and interactions, and often said and did things that were not socially acceptable. I think that had he lived today, he would be diagnosed with some sort of letter combination.

In this article, we will focus on his first few visits to Jerusalem in 1822 and 1823, because here he was the first Jewish missionary who brought the gospel to the Jews in Hebrew since the time of the apostles.

But first, some background. He was born in 1795 as the son of a rabbi in Bavaria. After having heard the gospel, and not getting any clear answers from his father, he left his parents’ home at the age of eleven to “find truth for himself.” He initially became a Roman Catholic, but got in trouble for arguing with his tutors and attacking the doctrine of papal infallibility. While in Rome, he met Henry Drummond, who encouraged him to study at the London Jews Society (LJS).

A historian who wrote the LJS’s history in 1909 described Wolff as “the most remarkable missionary, in many ways, that ever served in the Society’s ranks, [and] who must indeed be regarded as the pioneer of its Missions in the East.”

His first mission trip to the Middle East was financed by Drummond, so he didn’t work for the LJS formally. The LJS did, however, follow his work, supported it, and reported on it. After passing through Gibraltar, Malta and Egypt, Wolff finally embarked from Alexandria towards the Land of Israel on December 13, 1821. He hired several camels, and the caravan was on its way. He traveled along the shore and arrived in Jaffa on December 28. As his “firman,” travel permit to Jerusalem wasn’t ready, he continued north to Lebanon, where he arrived in early 1822, planning to study Syrian Arabic, and promising shipments of Bibles to convents. In March he was back in Jaffa, but his firman had still not arrived, nor had the shipment of scriptures from Cairo that he was waiting for. He decided to not let that stop him, so on March 9 1822, he arrived in the city of Jerusalem as the first Jewish missionary since the apostle Peter. The firman arrived a few days later.

In Jerusalem, Wolff stayed in many places. First with a Catholic convent, then an Armenian convent, and then he rented a room with a Muslim, in order to more easily meet with Jews. He met with the Greek Orthodox Procopius, who promised to assist Wolff with Bibles and New Testaments. He later wrote that he “passed over their idolatry in silence,” and whenever he spoke to Jews to reach them with the gospel – he had no problems speaking about the non-protestant Christians as “idolaters.” Despite this, he somehow managed to keep good relations with Greek Orthodox and Armenians. Less so with Catholics. Wolff stated in his reports that his objective was to win the Jews for “pure Christianity” – not the idolatry that they see among the Christians in Jerusalem.

Wolff is the first missionary in Jerusalem who developed a good relationship with the Jewish population. Rabbi Moshe Secot, an Ashkenazi Jew, agreed to show Wolff around the synagogues, and mentioned that there are 700 Jewish families living in Jerusalem. Wolff showed Rabbi Secot a Hebrew New Testament.

“Have you ever seen this book before?”

“Not only seen, but read it through with great attention when at Aleppo, in the house of a Rabbi. Those passages of the Old Testament cited in the New, speak undoubtedly of the Messiah.”

Altogether Wolff mentioned in his journal over forty different Jews by name with whom he had conversations during the months he spent in Jerusalem, about the Talmud, the New Testament and Christianity. Some were accepting, some were more hostile. One said that “No Jew will ever read it.” Wolff did, however, succeed in selling or distributing Hebrew New Testaments.

The only case where Wolff said that he successfully “converted” someone was seventeen-year-old Avraham ben David. He came to Wolff with a friend and said that he had “argued with Christians, but none of them was able to answer.” One of these Christians that Avraham had argued with was Melchior Tschoudy, mentioned in the previous article, from whom he had received a Hebrew New Testament.

On April 19, 1822, Wolff wrote in his report: “Avraham ben David calls on me every day, and confessed to-day with tears in his eyes that he is convinced that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and that he will now speak with his wife and mother about Christ Jesus the Lord.”

Wolff describes many debates with various rabbis. In his own words, he won all the arguments. One of the rabbis who spoke to him often was Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Shklov, “the chief rabbi of the Polish Jews of Jerusalem.”

Mendel was born in Lithuania in 1750, and had been a disciple of the famous rabbi, the Gaon of Vilna (Eliah ben Solomon Zalman, 1720-1797). He arrived in Israel in 1808, and first lived in Safed. He continued to Jerusalem with a group of followers in 1812. He came with the intent to reestablish Ashkenazi presence in Jerusalem, after they had been expelled in 1721. They also wished to rebuild the demolished Hurva Synagogue. It was a complicated bureaucratic endeavor which didn’t come to pass until 1864, long after Mendel’s death. The Hurva was again demolished in 1948 and rebuilt in 2010.

Mendel came and spoke to Wolff often, but the primary reason he and other rabbis did so seemed to be other reasons than the desire to hear the gospel – the reason was rather that they tried to convert Wolff back to Judaism. Besides that, they also had another ulterior motive – they gave him letters to bring to European Jews and Rabbis, to secure better communication with them and receive more financial help, as they were suffering hardships from the Muslim government.

Rabbi Mendel, however, also saw Wolff as a potential danger, and tried to prevent other Jews from seeing him while continuing his own debates. Nevertheless, Wolff successfully distributed Hebrew New Testaments to these rabbis, urged them to read it and examine it for themselves, and even followed up on it.

On April 25, a trunk of Bibles that Wolff had been waiting for finally arrived in Jerusalem. He sold and distributed Bibles in many languages among Christian pilgrims and even engaged Jews in helping him sell them to both Christians and Muslims. Several Catholics received his Bibles in Italian.

On April 28, Catholic father Cozza issued a ban against Wolff’s Bibles. “As that man who lately arrived at Jerusalem for the destruction of the Catholic religion, has distributed several books, I command you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, to deliver to me all the books which he has distributed, and to tell me the names of those who have bought them; and whosoever shall dare to act contrary to this order, shall be excommunicated in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Despite this Catholic ban, Wolff reported on May 11, “I never take a walk without being entreated by Greeks, and Armenians for tracts and Bibles, and even by many of the Catholic inhabitants, in despite of the excommunication.”

On April 27, only two days after his trunk arrived, the rabbis proclaimed an “excommunication of the New Testament” – which meant that Wolff must have started distributing them in Hebrew right away. In his reports, he stated that he distributed them for free, because of the Jews “dire financial circumstances.” Despite this ban, on May 4, he wrote: “Several Jews called on me, and asked for New Testaments, tracts, and Bibles. – I gave them the books gratis. They read them in the streets, but the Jews from Barbary [North Africa] took them out of their hands, and burnt a great many.”

We can see that Wolff endured opposition, but despite this, he was successful in establishing a relationship with the Jewish community in Jerusalem. He sold them Old Testaments, which they readily received, although these were not without problems. Books printed in Europe at that time would often use a cross to mark references, which led some Jews to believe that the English added it as a superstitious worship of the cross.

On April 30, Wolff visited a rabbi who had a Bible like that. He wrote in his report: “I observed that several leaves had been torn out of the Hebrew Bible which I have presented him with. I asked the reason for it.” It is due to “an enthusiastic Jew … on account of the crosses which are to be found in the Bible.”

Another rabbi claimed that there are several mistakes in the Bible, e.g. in Isaiah 9:6, and he did not like that the Samaritan text was cited in the notes, “and the sign of the cross, notwithstanding the innocency of the intention, ought not to have been chosen.” He also said that the characters were too small and that the letter kaf is often used instead of the letter bet.

On May 5, an edict was pronounced by the Sephardi rabbis that due to the crosses and the Samaritan notes, all the Old Testaments which Wolff has given for free must be burned. Wolff immediately sent them a letter:

“To the Rabbis, the Princes, and the Learned! I have learned that public orders have been given in your synagogue, that the twenty-four books, containing the Old Testament, should be committed to the flames. I desire rather to receive them back; if not, you must pay me the full price of the books, and all expenses of them, for I have given them to you to learn from, and not that they should be burnt. Woe to you shepherds of Israel, saith JOSEPH WOLFF P.S. The mark which you suppose is a sign of the cross, is nothing but a mark of Keri and Ketib.”

Avraham ben David delivered the letter to the rabbis, and they invited Wolff to a hearing conducted in Hebrew. The spokesman’s name was Rabbi Meyahis, and he explained to Wolff that only the rabbis can distinguish the true text from the notes, and regular people should not have a Bible in which a Samaritan version is included in the notes. “Furthermore,” he said, “and with respect to the New Testament which you have distributed, you must know yourself, for you are of the seed of Israel, that it is against the law of Moses, which you yourself so highly esteem, and we are therefore determined to burn every copy of it.”

Wolff answered that the Old Testaments had been distributed with the permission, and even the desire, of Rabbi Mendel, the great rabbi of the Ashkenazim. As for the New Testament, Wolff denied it was perverting the law of Moses, but then he came up with a surprising initiative: “But as you are determined to burn them, I shall not longer make presents of them, for I have given them to be read and not to be burnt.” He signed a paper obligating himself to stop giving out New Testaments in Hebrew to Jews.

One rabbi insisted that “it is the tenet of the Talmud: ‘A Torah, written by heretics, must be burnt.’” But Rabbi Meyahis was satisfied with Wolff’s obligation and concluded the meeting. “Let us not quarrel, but be friendly together; we will, with all our hearts, receive from the English nation, copies of our Bible, but without notes, without comment, without any preface, and without any Latin character.” To this Wolff replied: “And you shall receive such as you desire.” Whereupon all answered: “Amen! Amen!”

Wolff then brought in Rabbi Mendel as a witness that he indeed desired Wolff to distribute copies of the Old Testaments to the Jews. Wolff reported on the meeting: “Morenu Meyahis and the other then explained to him the reason, as above-mentioned, for desiring me not to distribute them. He conceded to their decision, but recommended highly, the editions of the Hebrew prophets and Psalters, published by the London Society for promoting Christianity amongst the Jews – and they entreated me not to distribute New Testaments any more. I gave them my word of honor on paper, not to make presents of them or of the tracts, among the Jews in Jerusalem, any more, when I perceived that they were determined to burn every copy. But this does not prevent me lending copies of the New Testament to those who, I am sure, will not burn them.”

Indeed, the very next day, a wealthy Jew asked Wolff to lend him a New Testament which he would read through carefully, and then give it back.

When Wolff eventually left Jerusalem, he had distributed to Jews “some thousand tracts – many of them burnt by the rabbis.” We don’t know exactly when he left, as his journal ends abruptly on May 11, but he seems to have stayed in Jerusalem for two or three months.

Almost a year later, in April 1823, Wolff was back, and this time he was not alone. Would he fulfill his commitment not to distribute the New Testament in Hebrew to Jews? Yes, he would, and we will see how. He arrived with Pliny Fisk and Jonas King, two American missionaries of ABCFM who he had met in Malta. Since his last visit to Jerusalem, he had gone through Aleppo, Beirut, Antioch, Cyprus and Alexandria. As he arrived in Malta, he intended to go to England, but when he met these two missionaries and learned that they were headed toward Jerusalem, he decided to follow them. A report from the Malta Bible Society from the time conveys that the sizeable amount of scriptures they brought with them included 312 copies of the New Testament in Hebrew.

As they arrived, they split up, but kept close contact. Wolff took lodging in the Jewish quarter, while the Americans rented rooms in the Greek convent. “They went to the uncircumcision, and I to the circumcision,” Wolff wrote. Fisk wrote in a letter a few days later that Wolff was “engaged day and night in preaching to the Jews and disputing with their Rabbis.”

Wolff’s lodging with the Jews was met with opposition, but his old friend Rabbi Mendel came to his aid. A compromise was reached in which Wolff stayed in a house belonging to a Muslim within the Jewish quarter. That way, no one could accuse him of living among the Jews. The reason some didn’t want him there was partly because it would make it easier for him to spread the gospel, but also because they were afraid the Muslim authority would suspect the Jews of trying to become independent with European help.

Rabbi Mendel still tried to win Wolff back to Judaism. When some Jews accused Wolff of having embraced Christianity out of personal interest, Mendel defended him. “Mr. Wolff is sincere. He has been led astray in his early years by reading the New Testament, and for this reason I am very much grieved to see him so firm.” Another rabbi came to Wolff, begging him to believe the Talmud. Wolff did read the Jewish writings and the Talmud, but used it to show them the errors. Wolff mentioned in his writing a “stir” among the Spanish Jews as soon as they observed that he was reading their book, and “trying to shew that they are in error out of their own books.” Some synagogues banned lending Jewish literature to Wolff, but many disregarded it. Wolff remarked that one of the rabbis said that “it never was seen in Jerusalem, that a Jew should come there for the purpose of persuading them that Jesus is the Messiah.”

Honoring his commitment not to distribute the New Testament in Hebrew, Wolff still “lent” New Testaments to those who asked him. He read the New Testament in Hebrew with many Jews explaining the gospel and even had disputes with many about the validity of the Talmud. An 80-year-old Polish rabbi named Marcowitz, who, according to Wolff, was secretly a Christian, helped him to find arguments within the Talmud which agreed with the New Testament.

In July 1823, Wolff left Jerusalem for the second time. He wouldn’t be back until 1829.

Of all the Protestant missionaries in the Holy Land, Wolff was not only the first Jew but also the first one able to speak to his fellow countrymen about Yeshua. Wolff left Jerusalem with the impression that the Jews were open to the gospel, and his patrons as well as the LJS believed him. This was only partly true, as he also faced large opposition. Both contemporary reports and later literature have often exaggerated Wolff’s impact. Exaggerations like “Wolff came with a caravan of twenty camels loaded with Hebrew Bibles and he gave out hundreds of Hebrew New Testaments to eager Jewish souls” are common even today, but are largely mythical. However, he definitely did have an impact. He was the first one to establish good contacts with the Jewish community, got rabbis to read the New Testament, and convinced at least one Jewish person that Jesus is the Messiah. It was a humble start, but it was a start. In these two short years of 1822 and 1823, seeds were sown, and more would come.

Just as the other protestant missionaries before him, Wolff only stayed for a while and then went on to a new place. There was no possibility for a protestant to settle permanently in Jerusalem. In the next article, we will see how the missionaries sent by the LJS solved this by setting up a “Bible Society Room” in Jerusalem.