Smiling and shaking hands, the Rev. J. David Davis looks and sounds like your typical Baptist preacher as he greets members of his congregation.
"Gary, Martha, good to see you. You doin' all right?" he drawls to one couple, his Georgia twang a casual counterpoint to his conservative blue blazer and imposing salt-and-pepper mane.
Then Davis steps back to the pulpit and, instead of speaking of sin and redemption, begins discussing passages from the Bible as they relate to Judaism.
Davis is the pastor of Emmanuel, a former Baptist church that has abandoned its fundamentalist heritage to seek spiritual guidance in Jewish thought.
The congregation's 80 members constitute the world's largest single bloc of B'nai Noach--or Children of Noah--a small but growing movement that has been called Judaism for Gentiles.
The Noahites aren't Jews--they don't keep kosher or have bar mitzvahs--but they believe that the Talmud's seven Laws of Noah contain the core of God's intended religion for non-Jews.
Those laws prohibit blasphemy, idolatry, murder, theft, adultery and eating the flesh of a living animal, and command followers to establish courts of justice.
"It's a very simple life. It's void of theology. And it's a very simple study," said Davis. "I think you can reduce it to two commandments, and Jesus gives us those two commandments: Love God and love people."
For 17 years, Davis was a Baptist preacher. But after becoming pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in 1972, he became plagued by doubts about the Bible's literal truth.
He learned about the Noahites from Vendyl Jones, an ex-Baptist preacher who runs the Institute for Judaic-Christian Research in Arlington, Tex. Gradually, the Noahite discussions replaced his Baptist sermons. Then, Michael Katz, an orthodox rabbi from Marietta, Ga., began leading the Athens congregation in Wednesday night study of the Torah.
"In 1986 is when we really made the break," said Davis, who is 46.
Like Jews, the Noahites reject the concept of virgin birth and the idea that Jesus Christ raised himself from the dead. They believe Jesus was an important rabbi but not God.
The definitive break came in one Sunday in 1989 when Davis and a handful of followers, deciding that the church's steeple and cross were pagan symbols, sawed them off the building. They also removed the words "Baptist" and "Church" from the sign in front.
Most people in Athens are Baptist and more than a few were upset by the goings-on at Emmanuel.
The ex-Baptist preacher contends that "most Christians got just too much starch in their drawers."
"We intimidate the people here locally," he said. "They're great people here in Athens, but they don't understand it. And anything you don't understand, you're afraid of."