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Jewish Perspectives

The Jewish People and Messiah

One Jewish scholar has said that, "The question of Messiah or Messianism is where the conflict of Judaism and Christianity had developed and continues to exist." It is difficult to pin down exactly what Jewish people believe concerning the Messiah because the rabbis never worked out a consistent systematic theory concerning the Messiah. But interestingly Dr. Solomon Shechter has worked out four main points under which rabbinic ideas concerning the Messianic Age can be summarised:

The Messiah will be a descendant of the house of David.

His purpose will be to restore the kingdom of Israel and extend it over the whole world and in the final battle the enemies of God will be destroyed.

The establishment of Messiah’s kingdom will be followed by the spiritual rule of Israel when all nations will accept the belief in the unity of God, acknowledge his kingdom and seek instruction from the law.

The Messianic Age will bring material and spiritual happiness, death will disappear and the dead will rise.

Negatively, Jewish people often contend that Messiah has not appeared, that he will not be divine and that he has nothing to do with personal salvation. A medical doctor in charge of an exhibition of Judaism once said to me, "You believe Messiah has come; we are still waiting for him. You believe he will come again. Well, when he comes perhaps we shall see that he is Jesus. But why get so het up about it now? Why be so concerned about it now? The doctor could only say that because he did not believe that his personal salvation had anything to do with the Messiah so to him it was nothing to get "het up" about.
That is the general attitude of Jewish people with regard to the issue. As one young Orthodox Jew said to me at the end of one of our debates, "Your trouble is that you make far too much of Messiah. To you he’s everything; to us he’s not such an important person, whoever he is."

From a Christian standpoint it’s something of a mystery that the Jew can, from the same Scriptures we read, arrive at such a different view of the Messiah and his work. Dr. Patrick Fairburn put it like this:

"In the Old Testament Scriptures there are so many clear and explicit testimonies to the truth of Christ’s messiahship that we should have thought the rejection of Him by the people holding these Scriptures to be the word of God almost incredible had not the palpable existence of the fact proved it to be otherwise."

The New Testament Scriptures consistently argue from the Old Testament revelation concerning the Messiah and his work. When Paul sets before us in the book of Romans the whole sweep of God’s redemptive purposes as they are centred in Christ, he does so on the basis of Old Testament Scripture. When the Saviour spoke to the confused disciples on the road to Emmaus, after rebuking them for being "slow of heart to believe all that the prophets [had] spoken", he began "at Moses and all the Prophets, [and] expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself."

"To the law and to the testimony…"

When witnessing to Jewish people, we have to be prepared to root our argument in their own
Scriptures. Bearing in mind the controversy between Judaism and Christianity concerning the Messiah - in which the Jew refuses to accept the authority of the New Testament - we must be ready to consider the testimony of Old Testament on its own grounds. I do not want to press that unduly because I am fully aware that ultimately our interpretation of the Old Testament will depend on whether one accepts the rabbinic writings in the Talmud or the teachings of the apostles in the New Testament.

Dr. John "Rabbi" Duncan, a great character from nineteenth century Scotland, a great Hebrew scholar and a man mightily used of God among the Jewish people, in his lecture The Holy Spirit and the Jews, says:

You say the Talmud is the word of God; we say it is not. We say the New Testament is the word of God; you deny it. We say that Jesus is the Messiah the Son of the living God; your fathers crucified him as a blasphemer and you say you see no reason to forsake the wisdom of your fathers. Well, one thing is sure and on all hands confessed - Adonai is the only God and the Tanakh (Old Testament) is His blessed word. In that word he has promised his Holy Spirit. The holy men of old read the promise, and implored the gift - the promise is in your hands, and reading you should repair to Adonai: He may be found - He is near … With your eye thus directed in singleness of heart toward Adonai, for His good Spirit to instruct you, read, study, meditate by day and night on the Tanakh (Old Testament), the acknowledged, the indubitable word of God. What the result will be I know full well.

In much the same vein the thesis of a recent book by R L Reymond, Jesus Divine Messiah: The Old Testament Witness states: "If we today would follow Jesus in His hermeneutical method, we must make the exegesis of the Old Testament, no less than the New the basis of our Christology." (p. vi) A reviewer of that book contends the weakness of the book is that Reymond does not let the Old Testament texts speak for themselves but looks at them through the glasses of the New Testament. That will be the difficulty and I doubt if we can altogether avoid it.

Messiah through Jewish eyes

Now it appears to me that the most useful contribution that I can make with regard to the vast subject of Messiah is to look at the subject from and Old Testament or the Jewish perspective. First, from the ground of the Old Testament revelation to the appearance of the Messiah and then, pressing through the inter-testamental period into the New Testament period, I want to illustrate the necessity of the New Testament revelation for a proper understanding of the Old Testament. Its hardly necessary to say that the contribution will be suggestive rather than comprehensive but I trust that it will at least stimulate our thinking concerning the progressive revelation of the Messiah.

We look, then, first of all to the five books of Moses and raise the question, "What revelation is there of the Messiah?" I remember attending a lecture in Glasgow of the Council of Christians and Jews when the speaker was a rabbi speaking of the idea of Messiah in Israel. In the question period a Jewish person raised the question, "Is it true that there is no mention of the Messiah in the five books of Moses?" The rabbi confirmed that indeed it is true there is no mention of Messiah in the Pentateuch.

Among the Jewish people the five books of Moses, the Torah, are the most important part of Scripture. They are elevated above all the rest of Scripture and everything else takes a secondary place. I’ve sometimes been challenged by Jewish people that when I’m quoting from the Prophets that they are "only commentary on the law". The twelfth-century philosopher Moses Maimonides proposed eleven different degrees of revelation and the Pentateuch takes the highest place. So, therefore, if it is true that there is no mention of Messiah in the treasured five books of Moses that is lending support to the Jewish contention that Messiah is not really central to Judaism. The law is central to Judaism, not the Messiah.

Moses and the Messiah

Hengstenberg’s Christology of the Old Testament contains six references to the Messiah in the Mosaic books. Genesis 3:15 is the embryonic statement of the gospel. God speaks to the serpent: "And I will put enmity hatred between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head and you shall bruise His heel." We know that from the hindsight of the New Testament revelation that the divine curse on the serpent is also God’s blessing upon man, in the sense of what God will do in the heart of the man.

In Genesis 9:25, 27 there is the blessing of Noah upon Shem, in which the blessing of God is narrowed to a particular race of mankind.

In Genesis 12:1-3 God chooses Abraham and his seed: "I will make you a great nation; I will bless you." God promises that the Jewish people will come from Abraham and that through him He will bless the world. The promise is narrowed down to a nation. It is interesting to note that the three elements in the blessing upon Abraham are identical to the three elements in the divine statement of Genesis 3:15: the propensity to sin is dealt with when God puts hatred in for the serpent in the human heart: "I will put enmity between you and the woman". He then extends the pronouncement to the corporate seed: "and between your seed and her Seed." So also with Abraham: "I will bless you" and then the extension to the corporate seed: "I will make of you a great nation". And then, the Seed of the woman seed shall crush the serpent’s head and the serpent shall bruise His heel. In Abraham ultimately "all the families of the earth shall be blessed".

As the Scriptural revelation increases and progresses we see that the blessing upon the world can only be through the work of the Messiah, and in Genesis 49:10 we read: "The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes. And to him shall be the obedience of the people." The promise is focussed on the tribe of Judah and in Numbers 24:17 Balaam prophesies, "A Star shall come out of Jacob; a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel." Finally, in Deuteronomy 18:15-18, we learn that God will raise up in Israel a Prophet like Moses.

The shadow of Messiah in the law of Moses

In the next great part of that revelation, the deliverance from Egypt, the giving of the law and the accompanying ritual of priesthood and sacrifice, Christians feel there is much more evidence of the Messiah. In the Exodus God laid down the principles of redemption. The deliverance from Egypt, for example comes through the sacrifice of a lamb. Nevertheless, there is no specific reference to a personal Messiah except, perhaps, in the promise of the "prophet like Moses" in Deuteronomy 18, although the Jews strongly argue against applying the passage to the Messiah. But God was establishing principles that would direct the attention of the Jewish people to a future period of blessing. The law not only described the perfect order for the kingdom of God, it also revealed the imperfections of the present state, and these factors served to constrain an earnest soul to long for an answer that would increasingly be seen to be realised only in the promised blessing of God.

The ritual of the priesthood and the sacrifice, which Christians now see as rich in symbolism of the person and work of the Messiah, was not necessarily connected in the minds of the Jewish people of that period with the work of a personal Messiah. When the Jew was laying his hands upon the sacrifice and confessing his sin he saw only the basic principle that this was the way in which God deals with his sin. But he would hardly make the connection with the Messiah. Nonetheless, the imperfection of that ritual must have increasingly pressed upon the mind of the thinking Jew the need to look beyond this. Dr. Patrick Fairburn has put it very strongly:

The felt imperfection and deficiency in the appointed sacrifices could not fail in such minds to connect itself with the Messiah, with whose coming there was always associated the introduction of a state of order and perfection. Indeed, this principle of felt imperfection must have had a bearing upon all parts of the Old Testament economy. The establishment of the kingdom and thus the king in Israel, not only narrowed the blessing further from the tribe to the family, the family of David, but also laid the foundation for the expectation of the perfect king. But the disappointments with the successive kingdoms and kings would have again served to deepen he realisation that fulfilment of promise with regard to the future kingdom would only be accomplished in a glorious kingdom and a perfect king.

Looking to the future

When we move into the prophetic period, the figure of the personal Messiah emerges much more. Nowhere is the Messiah more clearly presented to us than in the prophecy of Isaiah. In chapter 7 we have "the virgin" who will conceive and bear a son his name shall be called Immanuel. In chapter 9 we read of the Child who will be called "Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." Chapter 11 introduces "the Branch" and God’s blessing upon him.

The latter 27 chapters of Isaiah’s prophecy, can be divided into three sets of nine chapters separated by the expression in 48:22 and 57:21, "There is no peace for the wicked". The middle chapter of the middle section is Isaiah 53, which presents to us the heart of the gospel, and in the midst of that chapter are the words. "He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities."

In the third chapter of Zechariah we are introduced to "the Branch", spoken of in chapter 9 as the king riding on a donkey into Jerusalem. In chapter 13:6 we read of the wounds in his hands, and in chapter 13:7, "Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, against the man who is My Fellow", a very interesting expression that a man is God’s "Fellow". And, of course, there is the great statement, "And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and of supplication; then they will look on Me whom they have pierced; they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn."

At this point I am concerned not so much with particular predictions of the Messiah but with the overall view that goes to make up the Old Testament picture of the Messiah. Just as rearranging the words in a sentence makes a very different sense, so the same predictions rearranged present a very different overall picture. And this to some extent seems to be the case with the Jewish people and those of the Old Testament period. Alfred Edersheim in his Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah puts it like this:

The general concept of what the rabbis had taught of the Messiah differed totally from what was presented by the prophet of Nazareth. Thus, what is the fundamental divergence between the two may be said to have existed long before the events which finally divided them. Both rabbinism and what, by anticipation, we designate Christianity, might regard the same predictions as messianic and look for their fulfilment whilst at the same time the messianic ideal of the synagogue might be quite other than the faith and hope the Church has claimed. Therefore, it is important, if possible, to ascertain what view the Jew had formulated of the expectation of the Messiah in the period immediately prior to the commencement of the Christian era the period at the close of the Old Testament prophets utterances up to the revelation of the Old Testament scriptures.

Between the Testaments

Throughout the period between the completion of the Old Testament and the coming of Christ, though there were no further divine utterances through the prophets, it was not without its writings and many of these have survived. All these writings are held to be distinct from the inspired Word of God both by the synagogue and the Church. Nonetheless, there is some value in these writings because they convey something of the religious thought of that period and therefore may indicate Jewish messianic views of that time.

First of all, it is perhaps not without significance that there is no reference to a personal Messiah in the books of the Apocrypha, though they do envisage a national restoration of Israel. Maybe the silence is due rather to the character of the books than the absence of a hope of the Messiah, for that hope is clearly expressed in other writings of the same period. Another major work dating from the inter-testamental period, albeit not set out in written form at that time, is the "Tradition of the Elders", the Mishnah. In its entirety it has but two cursory references to the Messiah.

The other main writings from that period are the apocalyptic writings of which the book of Daniel is sometimes referred to as the parent. By way of contrast, in the apocalyptic writings we have a considerable volume of visionary comment with regard to the Messiah. Dr. Beasley-Murray, an expert in this field, says in the New Bible Commentary that, "Eschatology is the subject where development is most marred in this inter-testamental period. It is particularly noticeable in the conception of personal immortality, the kingdom of God and the Messiah. Perhaps the best example is the book of Enoch."

The Book of Enoch

Bishop Westcott says of the book of Enoch, "No apocalyptic book is more remarkable for eloquence and prophetic vigour. In Enoch the advent of Messiah is contemplated with joyful and certain hope."

Consider the following passage:

I saw in heaven one ancient of days, his head was white as wool and with him was another whose countenance was as the appearance as of a man full of grace, like unto one of the holy angels. And I asked one of the angels which was with me to show me all of that Son of Man, who he was and wherefore he went with the ancient of days, and he answered me this is the Son of Man unto whom righteousness belongs, with whom righteousness dwells, and who reveals all the treasures of that which is concealed, because the Lord of Spirits hath chosen him whose lot before the Lord of Spirits has surpassed all.

Summarising the book of Enoch, one writers has said, "Without adding any new element to the fullness of the old prophets, the writer of Enoch endeavours to combine onto one grand image the scattered traits in which many had foretold the workings of their great king and if he only dwelt on the resistless might and certain triumph which should attend his advent he differs from later zealots in retaining the essential character of a superhuman glory with which Daniel had portrayed him. He appeared in several places to recognise the pre-earthly existence of Messiah while at the same time he describes him as very man and the clear recognition of the eternal predestination of Messiah and of the relation in which he stands to God to the whole world of spirits is one of the more conspicuous points in the teaching of the book of Enoch."

Of the many titles given to the Messiah in this book the following might give some idea of the conception of Messiah of that period. He is "the righteous one", "the elect one", "the anointed", "the Son of Man", "the Son of God. It has been said that few records of antiquity outside the Bible are of greater interest.

The Targumim

This was also the period when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek and the necessary shades of difference in expression produced by translating from one language to another could perhaps furnish another indication of the current thought of that period. However, with one or two exceptions, the passages on Messiah do not convey anything different to the original Hebrew. Interestingly, the two passages from the Torah already mentioned – Genesis 49:10, the Shiloh passage, and Numbers 24:17, Balaam’s prophecy concerning the star rising in Israel – are both more clearly applied to the Messiah.

Likewise the rendering of certain Psalms. Psalm 72 – "his name forever shall endure" – and Psalm 110 give renderings which point to the pre-earthly and eternal existence of the Messiah. But there were also other translations or explanations of Scripture in this period which have survived, called Targumim, or translations. It became customary that the reading of the Hebrew Scriptures in the synagogue was followed by a verse-by-verse translation into Aramaic. These ancient translations were eventually collected and became the accepted translation. The two main Targumim are Onkelos and Jonathan.

In the Targum Onkelos on the Torah there is little reference to the Messiah, but one or two passages – Genesis 49 and Numbers 24 – are clearly recognised as references to the Messiah. For example, "till Shiloh come" and "unto him shall be the gathering of the peoples" becomes in the Targum, "Until Messiah comes, whose is the kingdom and to whom is the gathering of the nations." Balaam’s prophecy, "There shall come a Star out of Jacob and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel" becomes, "A king shall rise from Jacob and a Messiah shall be anointed from Israel."

Targum Jonathan in contrast – and particularly on the prophets – has many interesting and significant messianic interpretations which show the view of the Messiah then held. The translation on Isaiah 11:1, "There shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse and a branch out of his roots shall bear fruit" is explained, "A king shall come forth from the sons of Jesse and Messiah will rise from his son’s sons."

In Isaiah 4:2, "In that day shall the Branch of the Lord be beautiful and glorious and the fruit of the land shall be excellent and comely for them that are escaped from Israel", is explained as "the branch of the Lord, the son given to the house of David who shall endure forever, in whose time shall be much peace."

In that rendering of a verse from the prophet Isaiah, other prophetic statements are incorporated to give a particular sense to the passage. Wording from Jeremiah 23 and Zechariah 3 with regard to "the son given to the house of David who shall endure forever" is used to interpret Isaiah’s writing. This conflating of Messianic concepts is very common in this kind of writing and the overall picture is of a Messiah who will be a conquering and triumphant king but also the servant of the Lord. For example, in the Targum’s rendering of Isaiah 42:1, "The servant of the Lord, the servant whom he hath chosen, who should prosper" combines a statement from Isaiah 52:13 "Behold my servant shall deal prudently".

But although the Targum Jonathan connects Isaiah 53 with the period of Messiah, his sufferings are seen as the sufferings of the Jewish nation – though that is by no means the uniform view in these early Jewish writings.

One final illustration must suffice to complete the picture, and that is from a quite remarkable fragment known as the Psalms of Solomon. The concepts here seem to bring us close to what we might imagine was the expectation of those who were shortly to welcome the Messiah. The general picture in the Psalms of Solomon is of a king who reigns over the house of David appearing at a time known only to God; a righteous king taught of God, named Messiah the Lord, pure from sin and never weak because God renders him strong by the Holy Spirit. This invincible one brings blessings of restoration on the land and with regard to righteousness; he breaks his enemies by the word of his mouth; purifies Jerusalem; judges the nations and the nations will behold his glory. It is important to note that this is the picture of one far above any earthly ruler or champion and it is no earthly kingdom that is here described.

This brings us then to the next important source of information of that period with which we shall be more at home and that is of course the New Testament itself. We shall not be looking here to see what the New Testament teaches with regard to the Messiah, but for indications of what the Jews of that time were expecting of the Messiah.

Waiting for Messiah

First of all, it is obvious that there was a general expectation of the Messiah. For instance, we read of those coming to John the Baptist in Luke 3:15. The people were in expectation and all men mused in their hearts of John whether he was Messiah or not. Consider Philip’s explanation to Nathaniel in John 1:45: "We have found Him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote." Or the Samaritan woman John 4:25: "I know that Messiah is coming … When He comes he will tell us all things."

Clearly, there were those who were more exercised with regard to his coming –Simeon, for instance, in Luke 2:25, "waiting for the Consolation of Israel", and Anna in Luke 2:38: "Coming in at that instant she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem." So there were those who were particularly exercised with regard to this expectation of the coming of the Messiah.

Secondly, there is some indication of the expected manner of his appearing. From the wise men in Matthew 2:2 who asked, "Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?" We might suppose it was expected that Messiah would be born, but it is more likely that the knowledge of his birth formed part of a particular revelation to Magi because John 7:27 suggest that the more general opinion was that Messiah would appear suddenly and mysteriously: "We know where this Man is from [he had grown up among them] but when the Messiah comes, no one knows where he is from." In the rabbinic writings, Sanhedrin 97a says three things appear "suddenly" or mysteriously: Messiah, a gift and a scorpion.

He was to appear also from Bethlehem. The chief priests answering Herod in Matthew 2:5 said that he would come to Bethlehem in Judea, "for thus it was written by the prophet". The people in John 7:41 say, "Has not the Scripture said that Messiah comes from the seed of David and from the town of Bethlehem where David was?"

Furthermore, it seems it was a general belief that Elijah would prepare the way for Messiah. The priests and the Levites ask John the Baptist in John 1:21, "Are you Elijah?" and "Are you the Prophet?" The disciples ask Jesus Matthew 17:10, "Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?"

Thirdly, the lineage of Messiah was clearly important. He was to be the son of David. The people’s response to his healing in Matthew 12:23 is that they "were amazed and said, ‘Could this be the Son of David?’" It appears that "son of David" was a general title for the one who should come. The blind cry out to him in Matthew 9:27 and Matthew 20:30 "Have mercy on us, Son of David."

Messiah the King

Fourthly, the expectation of his office and his work was also indicated because the title "son of David" clearly contained more than just the question of his lineage. It pointed also to his office and work as the king. Nathaniel responds in recognising Jesus as the Messiah, in John 1:49, "You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" The crowds respond to the feeding of the 5,000 in John 6:15 by trying to make him king.

At his triumphal entry into Jerusalem in Mark 11:9,10, the crowds cry, "Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David!" Luke 19:38 records the words, "Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!" and John 12:13 has "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! The king of Israel!"

They also saw him as a prophet. The people respond to the feeding of the 5,000 in John 6:14 by saying, "This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world." The Samaritan woman in John 4 viewed Messiah as a prophet, although for some the Prophet and the Messiah seem to have been distinct personalities. The priests and the Levites in John 1:25, for example, ask, "Why then do you baptise if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?"

However, though we are able to detect in the Jewish expectation of the Messiah a recognition of his functions as king and prophet, there is in comparison little or no recognition of his priestly office. In other words, except for the significant statement of John the Baptist in John 1:29, "Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" there is little evidence of any expectation of the Messiah which would include humiliation and suffering. Indeed there are many indications that the suffering of Messiah was not part of their expectation.

When Jesus spoke of his death in John 12:34, the people say, "We have heard from the law that Messiah remains forever; and how can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up?’ Who is this Son of Man?" In Matthew 17:23, the disciples respond with great sorrow to the announcement by Jesus of his impending death. Matthew 16:22 records Peter’s rebuke following Christ’s prediction of his death: "Far be it from You, Lord; this shall never happen to You!"

Even after his death they were still struggling with this concept of his suffering. In Luke 24:21, after Christ’s death the disciples say, "We were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel." If the disciples of Jesus found the concept difficult, how much more the people generally.

God or man?

One final question of the New Testament concerns the character of Messiah. Did the people anticipate a divine Messiah, or simply a human saviour? Is there any indication as to the current view in this connection?

We have just one or two of the statements that would seem to have a bearing upon the question. Take, for instance, the witness of John the Baptist in John 1:34: "I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God." Of course John the Baptist stood in a unique position and that was likely part of his particular revelation. But what of Nathaniel in John 1:49, when he says, "You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"? What had happened convinced him of the powers of the Saviour and drew this response, but the expression used could indicate that this was an accepted designation of the Messiah, that he would be the Son of God.

Martha calls Jesus, in John 11:27, "the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world." Notice the two designations: "the Messiah" and the one "who is to come into the world" and, in between them, "the Son of God" which seems likely, therefore, to be another designation for the Messiah.

Further, we have Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:15: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" and his statement John 6:69, "You are the holy one of God". Though that may not necessarily be an indication of the general expectation, there is the high priest’s question in Mark 14:61: "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the blessed?" That seems to indicate more clearly that this was an accepted designation of the Messiah, "the Son of the blessed".

Obviously its very difficult to establish just what the Jewish people at the time of Christ did anticipate with regard to the character of the Messiah because even if it is true that the terms "Son of God", "Son of the blessed" and "Holy One of God" were accepted designations of the Messiah, we still don’t know what the people understood by such terms. However, in the light of Old Testament teaching and inter-testamental literature, we may safely say that though we have no evidence that Jews at the time of Christ embraced the concept of a divine Messiah, nonetheless the Messiah was far above any ordinary human. So much so that, as one writer has put it, the boundary line between it and the concept of a divine Person was so narrow that it could very easily be overstepped.

The big issue

I remember a Jew asking me two questions: "First of all", he asked, "is there any indication in our Scriptures that Messiah will be divine? And secondly, did Jesus himself actually claim to be divine?"

So far, I’ve tried to avoid looking at this question of the concept of the Messiah with the hindsight of Christian fulfilment. Now let us see if we can come to anything like a full picture of the expectation with regards to the Messiah in his divinity from Old Testament scripture. This is important because, as the Jewish scholar David Daube says, "The conflict between the synagogue and the church always was, and still is, about the question of the divinity of Jesus, not about minor issues."

In Genesis 1:1, the very first name by which God reveals himself, Elohim, is plural and at the creation of man he says, "Let us make man in our image".

The Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4 reads, "Hear, O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is one". In the Hebrew you have Elohim, the plural name of God, and the word one 'echad', a word that in other places is used with the idea of a composite unity. So there is a sense in which you could say, "the Lord our Gods, the Lord is one" in the sense of unity.

Though this does not prove the Trinity, even in the classic doctrinal confessional statement of the Jewish people there is nothing that militates against the ultimate full revelation of the mystery – and it must ever remain a mystery to us – of the Trinity.

In Isaiah 7:14 we have the son who is Immanuel, God with us. And in Isaiah 9, one of the most powerful evidences in the Old Testament, we see the child who is "the Mighty God" and "the everlasting Father".

Isaiah 52:13 is often overlooked, but the prophet speaks of Messiah as being "exalted and extolled and very high", the very same expression he uses in Isaiah 57:15 to describe the One who is "high and lifted up whose name is holy". The same expression is used in Isaiah 6: "I saw the Lord high and lifted up".

In Zechariah 12:10 God says, "They shall look upon me and they shall mourn for him."

The Angel of the Lord

Another area of study is the concept of "the Angel of the Lord".

Who was it who met Moses at the burning bush? It was the angel of the Lord. But it was God who was speaking.

Who was it who met Hagar at the fountain? It was the angel of the Lord, but she was convinced that Jehovah had spoken to her.

What about Jacob wrestling? With whom was he wrestling? The prophet Hosea tells us that he was wrestling with the angel of the Lord. But Jacob was convinced he had met with God. He called the name of the place Peniel, the face of God.

When the angel of the Lord appeared to Samson’s parents in Judges 13, they said, "We have seen God. We shall surely die."

Zechariah has some interesting comments on this in chapter 2. Verse 10 says that the Lord will come to his people and the next verse says, "You will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me". Now, is it God who comes or God who sends? And you’re left in a little bit of a mystery there at the end of it all Malachi 3 - the angel of the covenant, the angel of the Lord, seems to be linked clearly with the Messiah who will come. Now the rabbis made a study of 'the angel of the Lord' and they asked these questions. Is it an angel through whom God speaks? Is it God himself, or is it one who stands in such unity of nature that he’s able to speak as God and yet be distinct from God? The conclusions the rabbis came to is that one who promises in the first person and accepts worship cannot be a mere angel. Secondly, he cannot simply be God himself because he is a distinct person. And thirdly, they said, he is the one who always mediates between God and man. It’s interesting that they’ve come that far. We would say that if he speaks in the first person as God, and if he is distinct as a person, then there must be a unity of nature that makes him one with God. And the key to that mystery is only to be found in the further revelation of the New Testament scriptures. Similarly, the sufferings of Messiah, with which even the Jews of old struggled, are surely only understandable, and wonderfully so, in the fulfilment of them in the person of Jesus.

I remember a rabbi in Glasgow saying, at the end of a meeting, "If you forget everything else tonight, remember the words of Jesus as he died upon the cross: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ I cannot possibly believe that Jesus could be both Lord and Messiah and at the same time be forsaken by God." But Jesus was quoting from a passage which is unbelievably descriptive of the world that was at the cross. Psalm 22 begins, "My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me" and goes on to say, "they have pierced my hands and feet", "they cast lots upon my vesture and parted my garments among them". It ends in the words "it is finished" or "He has done this". And it’s the most amazing description of the work of the cross. Put it against the actual event of the cross and the connection is impressive.

By way of summary, the general view of Messiah among the Jewish people at that time embraced a high view of his character; he would be a sort of superhuman figure. But they had little, if any, concept of his suffering and death for sin. This is in fact confirmed further by what we find in the rabbinic writings immediately following the New Testament period.

The Talmud

There existed at the time of the New Testament a body of tradition, the teaching of the elders, which was gathered and put into writing about 200 AD as the Mishnah. For the next 300 years it was debated in the rabbinic schools and the comments of the rabbis were added to it. These additions were known as the Gemara. The two together constitute the Talmud.

In the Mishnah there are just two cursory references to the Messiah. However, in the Gemara, there is considerable comment on the Messiah and the Messianic Age. Indeed there are many more Old Testament references to the Messiah in the Talmud than in the New Testament. And many of the passages referred to would not seem to be clear predictions of the Messiah from our perspective. The truth that Messiah is, in fact, the sum and substance of all the history, the institutions, and the predictions, of Israel is very clear through that work. It seems also to underline the rabbinic handling of scripture. For there are two classic statements in Talmud: firstly, "all the prophets prophesied only of the days of the Messiah". And secondly, "the world was only created for the Messiah". Therefore almost everything in Old Testament should be given this messianic application. It’s somewhat like Pointillism, that form of painting in which myriad flecks of paint combine to form a picture. But, of course, the resulting picture might be viewed in different ways and the picture painted by the Talmud is certainly very different to that painted by the New Testament scripture. However, if the rabbinic references to the Messiah are analysed, you will find that many of them are in accordance with the fundamental points of Christian belief with regard to Messiah.

Alfred Edersheim in his Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah gives a list of beliefs clearly deducible from rabbinic writings. He states that they recognise:

his pre-earthly existence

his representative character

his sufferings and death for people

his redemption and restoration of Israel

This is particularly interesting with regard to his sufferings and death, as this aspect of Messiah's role is rarely considered by modern rabbis, if not actually avoided. However, the sufferings and death of the Messiah in connection with sin are not infrequently referred to in rabbinic writings. Messiah is seen willing to take sufferings upon himself that Israel might be saved and, on the ground of his messianic work, God and Israel are reconciled. We could also cite ancient liturgy.

The additional service of the Day of Atonement contains a fascinating prayer that is clearly lifted from Isaiah 53 and speaks of a Messiah who bears our sins. All this gives some indication that, going back into ancient days, the attitude of the rabbis, or those who wrote such prayers, was of messiah suffering. It would be altogether unacceptable today. The modern rabbis in their handling of these many messianic references seem to have been influenced in such a way as to produce a radically different picture of the Messiah.

Alfred Edersheim in his Prophecy and History in Relation to the Messiah says, "Israel’s apostasy began not with the appearance of Jesus. Rather it was the logical outcome of what had preceded. Israel’s rejection began with the return from exile in Babylon." A return from Babylon resulted not in a return to the religion of the Old Testament but to Judaism, and Edersheim sees the spirit of this change evidenced in the apocryphal and the apocalyptical writings. He lists the following recognisable changes: First of all, God himself is no longer the God of the Old Testament. Sometimes he’s in Greek form, sometimes in a Judaic, narrow, nationalistic form. The idea of placating God by one’s works and good living is also sometimes introduced. Secondly, there was an externalising spirit in the realm of morals. There was an absolute silence with regard to the doctrine of original sin and with regard to the Messiah. Even in the apocalyptic writings attention was being focused more and more on the period of the messianic age rather than the person of the Messiah.

So although there are many references to Messiah in the rabbinic writings that seem to concur with the Christian view, the overall emphasis of the rabbis moved from a personal Messiah to the glory of the nation. Even the Messiah could be seen as a means to that end. This overall Israel-centred view governs messianic concepts in the Talmud and therefore is the view we find current amongst the Jewish people of today. They will say, "You make far too much of Messiah. To you he’s all-important. To us he’s no such important person, whoever he is".

The challenge to me is the question of Jesus’ attitude to the Old Testament scripture. One of the most impressive things about his ministry is that he is absolutely soaked in the (Old Testament) scripture. He knew it through and through and was able to use it so thoroughly and apply it so masterfully. When you consider that Jesus had nothing of the New Testament, that he’s working against the whole background of Old Testament scripture, it challenges you to look at the scriptures from that perspective. It is right, as we speak to the Jewish people, to fairly come at the Old Testament scripture as it stands. However, we also need to realise that ultimately we cannot understand that Old Testament scripture without understanding the revelation and purpose of God through the New Testament scriptures.


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