Cohen (who calls himself "Howard the Jew") began studying the history of the first century about 30 years ago. It was then that he had a realization: Jesus was a mainstream Palestinian Jew.
Before Cohen began his studies, he simply hadn't thought much about Jesus. Like most Jews, Jesus simply seemed linked with Christianity.
But since then, he has devoted his Sundays to discussing the Jewishness of Jesus. "I want Christians to hear their own testament from a Jewish perspective," Howard says. "Only recently have Christians begun to understand that their religious roots are Jewish, and they're eager to learn and embrace the connections." Cohen also believes that presenting the Christian testament from a Jewish perspective decreases anti-Semitism. When Christians understand that Jesus wasn't condemning his fellow Pharisees in a hateful manner, but merely engaging them in a debate about Jewish law, then a light comes on for many Christians.
"When I read your red letters," Cohen tells Christian groups (in some Christian Bibles, Jesus' words a re-printed in red letters), I don't see anything that contradicts Judaism. I see an observant Jew."
And Christians can't get enough. They are awed by Cohen's knowledge of their testament, which not only often surpasses their own knowledge, but gives them a Jewish perspective they've never before heard.
"All of us have questions in our minds about Jesus," says Bob Bragg, the leader of a Sunday school class that has booked Cohen every year for six years. "Was the tomb story true? Or was it altered over the years? When Jesus apparently rose from the dead and had dinner with disciples, was it an image or was Jesus really there? Howard made us think about these questions."
Even though Cohen raises questions that aren't typical for Christians to consider, Bragg assures me that his faith in Christianity isn't shaken. "I believe that Jesus is the Son of God. But how much of the Bible is historically accurate? So much was written long after it actually happened, so how accurate is it? These questions just won't go away."
Jack Allen from the First Methodist Church in Richardson says someone once asked why the Jews didn't accept Jesus. Cohen's answer was, "Why did you guys accept him?" Allen said.
Cohen doesn't evangelize, because it's against a basic tenet of Judaism. When he talks about the historical Jesus from a Jewish perspective, he's simply--and with a contagious excitement--passing on what he's learned.
Cohen's spontaneous and energetic sense of humor allows him to get by with just about anything. People laugh as much as they learn. "This is what that story meant before you people got hold of it," he grins, launching into what is often another revolutionary interpretation for Christians of their own scriptures. "Jesus didn't tell his followers to start eating pig. He never advised them not to do Jewish stuff, like putting on tallis or tefillin. He said to stop doing things for the wrong reason."
Everyone I spoke with described Cohen as utterly charming. His sense of humor, honesty, and energy fill the room. Christians who have heard him speak feel safe being open with him.
One of Cohen's professors, Dr. Virgil Howard, says, "Christians invite Howard to their churches because he talks to them in a way that allows them to explore their own thoughts. He doesn't have an axe to grind, and he doesn't come in and try to convert everyone to Judaism. So people see him as non-threatening."
No one is offended. Laughter continually fills the room, and Cohen effortlessly keeps his audiences spellbound. During his first Sunday at Wilshire Baptist church, Cohen bounces into the room and asks the question, "So what do you want to talk about?" Someone quickly jumps in with a question, and Cohen is off like a proton in a particle accelerator. He may spend 15 or 20 minutes answering the question, veering off on dozens of tangents, and reminding the class several times that he's getting around to the question. If someone interrupts with another question, Cohen says, "Wait just a minute, I'm on a roll here." The audience erupts into laughter, and when he finishes his thoughts, he promptly remembers and gets back to the last question asked.
Cohen also likes to clear up misconceptions about the way Jews treated Jesus. "When Christians talk about Jesus being condemned by Jews for healing on the Sabbath, we don't know what you mean," Howard recently told a group at Christ United Methodist Church of Plano, Texas. "Every Jew knows that it's OK to save a life on the Sabbath."
The same thing applies to the passage in Mark 2:27-28, where the Pharisees supposedly criticize Jesus and his disciples for picking grain on the Sabbath, Cohen believes. "You think we didn't work on the Sabbath in the concentration camps to save our lives? Of course we did," says Cohen. "Halakha (Jewish law) addresses harvesting for profit, not gathering food in order to remain alive. We don't understand where this idea in your gospels came from. It certainly doesn't come from what we know about Jewish law."
The gospels were written long after the death of Jesus with the purpose in mind, Cohen says, to present Jesus as Lord and Messiah. Cohen believes the problem is that when these books were written, Judaism and Christianity were sharply divided. "Before that, Jesus and his followers were just another Jewish sect," Cohen says. "But by the end of the first century, who's left? James is dead. Peter is dead. A half-million Jews are dead or enslaved. The writers of the Christian testament don't have the foggiest idea about Jewish life or law. They didn't have Talmud or the oral law. So they didn't know that what Jesus did wasn't a violation of the Sabbath."
Information like this captivates Christians. Many have never heard anything close to this perspective.