Rhetoric was a required course at the University of Illinois at Urbana and I was not a happy camper. As a Jewish kid from Chicago who considered Bob Dylan my idol, I found it difficult to reconcile being a no-name college student when I was certain my destiny was to pursue my music and song-writing career. But in the meantime, I was taking this class. Little did I know that it would change the course of my life.
The professor, Dr. Palmer, was Jewish and immediately sized me up. He confronted my blatantly flip attitude and though I didn’t want to care, I respected him for it. Nevertheless, I was not eager to write the long term paper he required of all his students. About six weeks into the semester, I entered his office where I was to give him a progress report” on my paper. There were other students present as well, and when I told him that I had not yet chosen a topic, he told me to just wait while he dealt with the others.
During this somewhat lengthy “wait” an idea popped into my head that I had not considered before. I immediately interrupted him and declared, “Professor Palmer, I’m going to write my paper on why the Jews at the time of Jesus didn’t think he was the Messiah.” He was interested. It turns out that this was a subject that he, as a Jew, had looked into on his own. He let me know then and there, “I’m going to be more critical of your paper than usual.” I inwardly moaned, thinking that his special interest in my paper was not good news! Nonetheless, I got a Bible, some other books and I began my research.
My approach was to explore exactly what was the Jewish concept of the Messiah. I vaguely remembered some things from Hebrew school, like the Messiah would change the world for the better. But now I was going to actually use historical and biblical sources to determine what the people were expecting and why they came to the conclusion that Jesus didn’t fit the portrait. I read much of what the traditional Jewish scholars had to say on the subject as well as what was available from the perspective of Christians, areligious historians and textual critics.
It seemed to make sense to get my answers from practitioners of faith, so I met with two rabbis and two Christian ministers to discuss these unsettling matters. I was eager to hear both sides. I asked many questions of the rabbis like, “Why do you think the Jewish people of that time rejected Jesus?” “How can we know that he wasn’t the Messiah?” One rabbi spoke of many different philosophies and sects that were prevalent at the time of Jesus. Much of it was over my head. The other rabbi responded in a more visceral way. He was quite upset over my questions. He said to me, “In light of the Holocaust, I find this subject abhorrent. Besides which, I’m not going to do your work for you. You need to read more!”
My questions for the Christian ministers went right to the issue. “What evidence makes you think he is the Messiah?” I asked. “Why are you so sure that the messianic prophecies refer to Jesus?”
Of the four clergy with whom I met, the most striking comments came from one of the Christian ministers. He actually opened our interview time by asking me if the questions I would pose to him were for my paper or for Stephen Katz. I was taken aback by his directness and perceptivity. In the course of researching the paper, I started wondering that very thing. The minister ended our interview with another astute comment, this time in the form of a challenge. “Stephen,” he said, “the only way for you to know if Jesus was the Messiah, is to ask him into your life. I can tell you that if you do that, you will know the answer one way or the other.”
The truth of the matter was that I had started to lean in the direction that it just might be true that Jesus was the Messiah and that his claims were not unfounded. But that was as far as I went. I was not ready to act on that kernel of faith.
I got an “A” on the paper and wanted to just shelve my unanswered personal questions of faith for another day or maybe forever. I quit college and pursued my music, but very shortly I came face to face with my own limitations and failure to be who I thought I could be. At the same time, my girlfriend decided to follow Jesus as her Messiah. All the discomfort precipitated by my paper for the rhetoric course flooded in on me. I recalled the minister’s challenge to find out if Jesus truly was the Messiah. I began to pray that if God really existed, I would know it and if Jesus was the Messiah, that I would know the truth of that as well.
A very short time after that prayer, I realized that it was all true. I wish I could have written Professor Palmer a postscript to my college paper. It would have been something to the effect of: “Some Jews at the time of Jesus did believe he was the Messiah, and two thousand years later there are still Jews (your author included) who agree.”
Editor’s Note: Stephen Katz did return to college and went on to get two graduate degrees in Social Work and in Missiology.