Arnold G Fruchtenbaum
What do Jews think about Jesus? There is no uniform Jewish opinion concerning the person of Jesus. The views range from “he never existed” to “a great Jewish prophet. The variety of Jewish views concerning Jesus becomes apparent when one looks through the books on Jesus in a Jewish library. Not uniformity but variety is the term for the understanding of what Jewish writers say about Jesus, as the following quotations will show.
Since he was regarded as a Jew, there was still within Judaism, at the beginning of the third century, association with the followers of Jesus. One passage in the Talmud seems actually to name the Gospels and quote a specific teaching, but there are opposing opinions about this.”1
“We sought an answer as to why Judaism did not assent to the Messiahship of Jesus. We found that it was because Jewish tradition did not regard the required messianic conditions as fulfilled with his coming. Judaism, therefore, adhered to the hope that in the days ahead God would bring redemption. But there was no unanimous opinion as to when the Messiah would come and what his exact role would be.”2
“From Nazareth – a place so unimportant that it is never mentioned in the Old Testament – there arose among the Jewish people a singularly tender and heroic soul. In him religion was the most real thing in life.. and, although he was only a youth when he launched his public career upon the tempestuous seas of Palestinian affairs, his sympathy for suffering humanity was as ardent as his faith was strong.
“There was something in the character of the man that was overwhelming – a flood of measureless or resistless attractiveness. Unschooled folk from the common walks of life were drawn to him in bonds of personal attachment. Beyond the grave of their buried hopes they clung desperately to his message.
“Jesus himself never wrote a book – not so much as a line – yet it is estimated that more than sixty thousand volumes have been written about him. Eight hundred languages and dialects tell his story. Such is the incomparable grandeur of his influence that for nineteen centuries he has held the undivided interest of men.
“It often happens that he whom one age stones another age enthrones. Less than one hundred years after the man of Nazareth was crucified as a common criminal, people had already magnified him as a supernatural being and were worshipping him as Very God. ‘The name of Jesus,’ once wrote Emensen, ‘is not so much written as ploughed into the history of the world.’ To me – because I am a Jew – this is an amazing thing, for nothing quite like it has ever happened on so large a scale in the annals of man.”3
“For nineteen hundred years Jewish history, as wide as it is voluble, has been provokingly silent concerning the most influential Jew the world has ever seen. Of all the amazing things that have happened to Jesus over the centuries, few are as perplexing as this astonishing paradox.
“For Jesus was born a Jew; he lived on the ancestral soil of Palestine, never once setting his foot on alien territory; he taught a small group of disciples, all of whom were as Jewish as he; the language he spoke dripped with Jewish tradition and lore; the little children he loved were Jewish children; the sinners he associated with were Jewish sinners; he healed Jewish bodies, fed Jewish hunger, poured out wine at a Jewish wedding, and when he died he quoted a passage from the Hebrew book of Psalms. Such a Jew!4
“…this scholarship has brought out the fact that Jesus was a Jew, and that his Jewishness was solid to the core – even to the point of sharing contemporary Jewish prejudices. Of course, a great man is always something more than the product of antecedent and surrounding forces. But, be that as it may, no great man can completely transcend his own people. Jesus was born into a definite thought life which was Jewish; he shared the Jewish system of ideas; the only Bible he was familiar with was the Hebrew Old Testament; his apocalyptic ideas were those of his own fellow Palestinians. No Jew was born and reared in the bosom’ of his people more completely than Jesus. And not until he drew his last breath did he escape being a Jew.”5
“Such essays, competently written in the last half-century a great number of times by a great number of able rabbis, normally make two brief points. The first of these is that those Christian views which regard Jesus as more than a man are inconsistent with Judaism and uncongenial to Jews; this view often focuses on the ‘Christian Christ.’ The second is that those virtues ascribed to Jesus the man, the ‘Jewish Jesus,’ are characteristic Jewish virtues, expressed in Judaism and integrally a part of it. Such a Jewish Jesus may well have been a good and great man – a prophet, a rabbi or a patriotic leader – but he was not better or greater, say these writings, than other great Jews.”6
“When we Jews have understood Christian explanations, and when we have not, we have consistently rejected the Christian claims about Jesus. We have not believed that Jesus was the Messiah; we have not been willing to call ‘him Lord; we have not believed that the Logos became incarnate as Jesus; we have not believed that Jesus was, or is, the very God-ness of God.”7
“It seems to me not to violate the documents or that scholarship which I have imbibed to think of Jesus as some one who had gifts of leadership and who is something of a teacher. I believe too that I discern in him a Jewish loyalty at variance with the views both of Christian and Jewish partisans who, through opposing motives that cancel each’ other out, detach him from Judaism. I believe that Jesus firmly believed that the end of the world was coming soon. I believe that he believed himself to be the Messiah, and that those scholars who deny this are incorrect.
“I own to seeing no originality in the teachings of Jesus.
“I cannot ascribe to the teachings of Jesus a striking uniqueness in particulars which in honesty I do not discern.”8
“I discern no possible religious assessment of Jesus, either by me or by other Jews.”9
“By his unique personality, Jesus did not fit into any of these categories. Something of each of these is in him, but he defies all of them. Men of such extraordinary perception and passion in the spiritual life of mankind as Jesus was are what ‘sports’ are in biology.”10
“Jesus was a Jew and a Jew he remained till his last breath. His one idea was to implant within his nation the idea of the coming of the Messiah and, by repentance and good works, hasten the ‘end’.11
“The kingdom of heaven, according to Jesus, is in the present. The kingdom of heaven, according to Judaism, is to be ‘in the latter days.’ The former is to come suddenly, ‘like a thief in the night’; the latter will be ‘the fruit of long development and hard work. True socialism is Jewish and not Christian. How, then, could Judaism regard Jesus as the Messiah?”12
“‘Jesus was not a Christian,’ but he became a Christian. His teaching and his history have been severed from Israel. To this day the Jews have never accepted him, while his disciples and his followers of every generation have scoffed at and persecuted the Jews and Judaism. But even so, we cannot imagine a work of any value touching upon the history of Jews in the time of the Second Temple which does not also include the history of Jesus and an estimate of his teaching. What, therefore, does Jesus stand for in the eyes of the Jews at the present time?
“From the standpoint of general humanity he is, indeed, ‘a light to the Gentiles.’ His disciples have raised the lighted torch of the Law of Israel (even though that Law has been put forward in a mutilated and incomplete form) among the heathen of the four quarters of the world. No Jew can, therefore, overlook the value of Jesus and his teaching from the point of view of universal history. This is a fact which neither Maimonides nor Yehudah ha-Levi ignored.
“But from the national Hebrew standpoint it is more difficult to appraise the value of Jesus. In spite of the fact that he himself was undoubtedly a ‘nationalist’ Jew by instinct and even an extreme nationalist – as we may see from his retort to the Canaanitish woman, from his depreciatory way of referring to ‘the heathen and the publican,’ from the terms Son of Abraham,’ ‘Daughter of Abraham’ (Which he uses as terms of the highest possible commendation), from his deep love for Jerusalem and from his devoting himself so entirely to the cause of ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ – in spite of all this, there was in him something out of which arose ‘Non-Judaism.’ What is Jesus to the Jewish nation at the present day?
“To the Jewish nation he can be neither God nor the Son of God, in the sense conveyed by belief in the Trinity. Either conception is to the Jew not only impious and blasphemous, but incomprehensible. Neither can he, to the Jewish nation, be the Messiah: the kingdom of heaven (the ‘Days of the Messiah’) is not yet come. Neither can they regard him as a Prophet: he lacks the Prophet’s political perception and the Prophet’s spirit of national consolation in the political-nation sense.
“Neither can they regard him as a lawgiver or the founder of a new religion: he did not even desire to be such. Neither is he a ‘Tanna,’ or Pharisaic rabbi: he nearly always ranged himself in opposition to the Pharisees and did not apprehend the positive side in their work, the endeavor to take within their scope the entire national life and to strengthen the national existence.
“But Jesus is, for the Jewish nation, a great teacher of morality and an artist in parable. He is the moralist for whom, in the religious life, morality counts as everything. Indeed, as a consequence of this extremist standpoint his ethical code has become simply an ideal for the isolated few, a ‘ZukunftsMusik,’ an ideal for ‘the days of the Messiah,’ when’ an ‘end’ shall have been made of this ‘old world,’ this present social order. It is no ethical code for the nations and the social order of today, when men are still trying to find the way to that future of the Messiah and the Prophets, and to the ‘kingdom of the Almighty’ spoken of by the Talmud, an ideal which is of ‘this world’ and which, gradually and in the course of generations, is to take shape in this world.
“But in his ethical code there is a sublimity, distinctiveness and originality in form unparalleled in any other Hebrew ethical code; neither is there any parallel to the remarkable art of his parables. The shrewdness and sharpness of his proverbs and his forceful epigrams serve, in an exceptional degree, to make ethical ideas a popular possession. If ever the day should come and this ethical code be stripped of its wrappings of miracles and mysticism, the Book of the Ethics of Jesus will be one of the choicest treasures in the literature of Israel for all time.”13
“Jesus, the Jesus of the Gospels, only Son and Incarnation of God for the Christians, in his human lifetime was a Jew, a humble Jewish artisan. This is a fact of which no Christian has a right to be unaware.
“Everything we know about Jesus shows that he was Jewish. Not only Jewish by belief, by religion. Jewish by birth.”14
“Insofar as we can know of them through the Gospels, Jesus’ family was Jewish: Mary, his mother, was Jewish, and so were all their friends and relatives. To be at once an anti-Semite and a Christian is to try to marry reverence with abuse.”15
“Nothing would be more futile than to try to separate from Judaism the Gospel that Jesus preached in the synagogues and in the Temple. The truth is that the Gospel and its entire tradition are deeply rooted in Jewish tradition and in the attempts at renovation and purification which had been manifested for almost two centuries in Palestine.”16
“The story of Jesus is, then, a simple one, understandable in terms of modern political experience, and probably little different from the numerous other Jewish Zealots who led groups of rebels to martyrdom and crucifixion. In the real life of Jesus we can discern nothing supernatural, no theology, no dogma, only zeal for this people and his God.”17
“But interreligious understanding based on mutual respect is not a one-way street. We Jews have long clamoured for this indispensable change in official Catholic dissemination of facts and interpretation. But what about our Jewish attitudes toward Christendom, toward Jesus especially? Are we to remain adamant orthodox – in our refusal to examine our own statements, our own facts, our own interpretations of the significance of the life of Jesus, the Jew? Have we examined our own books, official and otherwise, to reappraise our oft times jaundiced view of him in whose name Christianity was established? How long can we persist in ignoring his lofty and yet so simple stated prophetic and rabbinic teachings, merely on the grounds that he repeated much that was voiced by his prophetic predecessors and rabbinic contemporaries? Was Micah more spiritually and morally original than Amos and Hosea? Do none of the rabbis we revere and whose utterances we have our children master repeat each other?
“How long shall we continue pompously to aver that the chief contribution of Jesus was simply a rehash of all that had been said before by his Jewish ancestors? How long before we can admit that his influence was a beneficial one – not only to the pagans but to the Jews of his time as well, and that only those who later took his name in vain profaned his teaching?
“We have been – not without much justice – constantly on the qui vive to fend off what we have, often rightly, regarded as insulting and demeaning slurs upon us and upon our faith. But I would hope that we, too, have grown up sufficiently in our religious security and as the world’s most adult religion in terms of seniority,that we can now afford to render unto Jesus that which is Jesus’s without blanching or self-flagellation.”18
“To Jews, that Jesus appears as an extraordinarily beautiful and noble spirit, aglow with life and pity for men, especially for the unfortunate and lost, deep in piety, of keen insight into ‘human nature, endowed with a brilliant gift of parable and epigram, an ardent Jew moreover, a firm believer in the faith of his people; all in all, a dedicated teacher of the principles, religious and ethical, of Judaism. But is he not something more than a teacher? Should he not be taken for a moral prophet also, one who promulgated new, higher, hitherto unknown principle of conduct?
“Not if the record is examined objectively.19
“But will not Jews accept him, if not as a prophet, then at least as a perfect man, an ideal for all to imitate?
“That too is not tenable. The sober truth is that Jesus, spiritual hero that he is, is not perfect.20
“Very well then, says the Christian, let it be conceded that Jesus is neither God, nor uniquely His son, nor the Messiah, nor a moral prophet, nor even an impeccable human being.
“Certainly he was, despite his defects, a great man, a gifted and exalted teacher. Will not the Jews accept him as such?
“To which the answer of Jews runs: ‘Have Jews, except under the extremist provocation, ever quarreled with such a presentation of him?”21
“Enough evidence has been presented that Jesus, as represented by the Gospels, had placed himself outside the synagogue and the Jewish people.”22
If these quotations show anything, it is to reveal that there is no such thing as the Jewish view of Jesus. Not uniformity but variety is the dominant theme. To some he was a great Jewish moralist, teacher, and prophet who was responsible for the spread of Jewish ideas among the Gentiles. To others he was little more than a parrot repeating ideas of other rabbis, showing no originality of his own. To some he was a Jewish patriot who was born a Jew, lived a zealous Jewish life, and died a Jew. To others, though he was born a Jew, he became a non-Jew and placed himself outside the fold of Judaism.
To virtually all, whoever he was, rightly or wrongly, they concluded that he was not the Messiah. He did not fulfil the messianic requirements and, therefore, could not be the Messiah.
But what are these messianic requirements by which Jesus is adjudged not to be the Messiah?
Whatever they are, there is only one source to discover them. This source is the Hebrew Scriptures, commonly referred to as the Old Testament. If there is an objective standard for messianic expectations, this is it. There is no other option or source to turn to. Therefore, to these we now turn to see what the Messiah of the Old Testament was really to be like.
THE MESSIAH OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
A. The Conflict of Isaiah 53
1. The Paradox
Anyone who sets himself to the task of seeking to know what the Old Testament has to say about the coming of the Messiah soon finds himself involved with a seeming paradox. At times one even seems to be faced with an outright contradiction. For the Jewish prophets gave a two-fold picture of the Messiah who was to come.
On the one hand, the inquirer will find numerous predictions regarding the Messiah which portray him as one who is going to suffer humiliation, physical harm, and finally death in a violent manner. This death was stated by the Jewish prophets to be a substitutionary death for the sins of the Jewish people. On the other hand, he will find that the Jewish prophets also spoke of the Messiah coming as a conquering king who will destroy the enemies of Israel and set up the messianic kingdom of peace and prosperity.
This is the two-fold picture the Jewish prophets gave of the Messiah. For centuries past, during the formulation of the Talmud, our rabbis made serious studies of messianic prophesies. They came up with this conclusion: The prophets spoke of two different Messiahs.
The Messiah who was to come, suffer and die was termed Messiah, the Son of Joseph (Mashiach ben Yoseph). The second Messiah who would then come following the first was termed Messiah, the Son of David (Mashiach ben David). This one would raise the first Messiah back to life, and establish the Messianic Kingdom of peace on earth. That the Old Testament presents these two lines of messianic prophecy was something that all the early rabbis recognized. The Old Testament never clearly states that there will be two Messiahs. In fact, many of the paradoxical descriptions are found side by side in the same passages, in which it seems that only one person is meant. But of the early rabbis the two-Messiah theory seemed to be the best answer.
For centuries Orthodox Judaism held the concept of two Messiahs. Since the Talmudic period, however, in the history of. the Jewish people the Son of David alone was played up in the imaginations of Jewish hearts and minds. The other messianic figure, Messiah, the Son of Joseph, the suffering one, was ignored, He was there in Jewish theology when needed to explain the suffering Messiah passages contained in the Old Testament. His existence provided an escape clause when thorny questions were raised. Otherwise this Messianic figure was largely ignored. Today, few Jews have heard of him or know of his existence in Jewish theology of days gone by. The one that Jews today know of is the one who is to conquer: Messiah, the Son of David.
2. The Source of the Paradox
One of the major sources from which the rabbis developed their concept of the suffering Messiah, the Son of Joseph, was Isaiah 53. The present-day bone of contention regarding what the Old Testament says about the Messiah centres on this chapter. The passage speaks of a servant, the Servant of Jehovah. This servant undergoes a great deal of suffering ending in death. The chapter goes on to state that this suffering is a vicarious suffering, that the death is a substitutionary death for sin. He is suffering and dying for the sins of others. The passage goes on to indicate that this servant is resurrected. The bone of contention is not so much over what the passage says but of whom does it speak.
The question today concerns of whom Isaiah was speaking. Did he prophecy concerning the Messiah here? Rabbis say that this is the Christian interpretation of this passage and not the Jewish one.
The Jewish interpretation, they would say, is that Isaiah is speaking about the people of Israel, the Jewish people suffering in the Gentile world. This is the Jewish interpretation, the rabbis would say – and it does not speak of the Messiah at all.
But to make the passage speak of the collective body of Israel seems almost to force an interpretation. Taken by itself, the passage seems to have only one individual in mind.
3. Rabbinical Interpretations of Isaiah 53
But is this conflict merely between the Jewish interpretation and the Christian one? The history of Judaism shows otherwise. The interpretation that Isaiah 53 is referring to the Jewish people is really a recent one. The original interpretation of Isaiah 53 by Jewish rabbis has been that it is speaking of an individual – the Messiah himself. In fact, the concept of Messiah, the Son of Joseph, comes from this passage. But for a clearer idea of what the old Jewish view of Isaiah 53 was, it would be good to turn to history.
Among the earliest Targums are those of Jonathan ben Uzziel dating from the first century AD. His Targums on this passage of Isaiah begin with these words: “Behold my servant Messiah shall prosper…” The Targums of Jonathan ben Uzziel were heavily quoted by the early rabbis and he was certainly considered an authority on the Jewish view of Scripture. He definitely considered the Isaiah passage to speak of Messiah. Jonathan ben Uzziel could hardly be accused of adopting the “Christian interpretation.”
That Jonathan ben Uzziel was not alone in this interpretation becomes clear from a quotation from Rabbi Don Yitzchak Abarbanel from about 1500. While he himself did not accept the view that the Isaiah passage referred to the Messiah, he makes a dramatic admission:
The first question is to ascertain to whom (this scripture) refers: for the learned among the Nazarenes expound it of the man who was crucified in Jerusalem at the end of the second temple and who according to them was the Son of God and took flesh in the virgin’s womb as it is stated in their writings. Jonathan ben Uzziel interpreted it in the Targum of the future Messiah; but this is also the opinion of our learned men in the majority of the midrashim.
In spite of Abarbanel’s personal view regarding this passage, he freely admits that the majority of the rabbis of the Midrashim took the passage to speak of the Messiah. He thus points out that Jonathan ben Uzziel was not alone in his opinion, but rather this was the Jewish view of the period of the Targumim and the Midrashim.
The Zohar, thought to have been written either by Simon ben Yochai in the second century or by a Spanish rabbi in the thirteenth century, makes certain statements which have obvious references to the Isaiah passage:
There is in the garden of Eden a palace called the Palace of the sons of sickness; this palace the Messiah then enters, and summons every sickness, every pain, and every chastisement of Israel; they all come and rest upon him. And were it not that he had thus lighted them off Israel and taken them upon himself, there had been no man able to bear Israel’s chastisement for transgressions of the law: and this is that which is written, “Surely our sickness he had carried.”
The Zohar in this quotation quotes from Isaiah 53:4 and referred the passage to the Messiah himself. The passage further makes Israel distinct from the one referred to in the Isaiah passage. Furthermore, the Zohar recognizes the vicariousness and substitutional element in the passage – the Messiah is taking upon himself the suffering due to Israel for their sins.
More evidence from within the same period is provided by the Talmud: “The Messiah – what is his name? . ..those of the house of Rabbi Yuda the Saint say, The sick one, as it is said, “Surely he had borne our sicknesses” (98b).
Like the Zohar, the Babylonian Talmud also took the Isaiah passage to refer to the Messiah. Verse 4 is specifically applied to the person of the Messiah himself.
In Midrash Thanhumi we find:
Rabbi Nahman says, the word “man” in the passage..refers to the Messiah, the son of David, as it is written, “Behold the man whose name is Zemah”; there Jonathan interprets, Behold the man Messiah; as it is said, “a man of pains and known to sickness.”
The Targums Yalkut 11:338:7 refers Isaiah 52:13 to the Messiah and says of this passage: “He shall be exalted and extolled – He shall be higher than Abraham, higher than Moses, higher than the ministering angels.”
The Midrash Cohen, when dealing with Isaiah 53:5, puts the following words in the mouth of Elijah the prophet. Elijah says to Messiah: “Bear the suffering and punishment of thy Lord, with which he chastises thee for the sins of Israel, as it is written, ‘He is pressed for our rebellion – cursed for our iniquities’ until the end come.”
Another Midrash on this same passage states: “All the sufferings are divided into three parts. One part goes to David and the Patriarchs, another to the generation of the rebellion (rebellious Israel) and the third to King Messiah.”
Another volume that takes the Isaiah passage to refer to the Messiah is the Mahsor or the Prayer Book for the Day of Atonement. One of the many prayers found in this volume is called the Musaf Prayer. It was written by Rabbi Eliezer Kalir around the seventh century AD Part of the prayer reads as follows:
Messiah our Righteousness is departed from us: horror hath seized us, and we have none to justify us. He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities, and our transgression, and was wounded because of our transgression. He beareth our sins on his shoulder, that he may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by his wound, at the time that the Eternal will create him (the Messiah) as a new creature. 0 bring him up from the circle of the earth, Raise him up from the land of Seir, to assemble us on Mount Lebanon, a second time by the power of Yinon.
The more this Yom Kippur prayer is studied, the more interesting it becomes. The prayer voices fear that the Messiah has departed from the people, which assumes the Messiah had already come to them and has left them. Furthermore, the Messiah who has departed has suffered vicariously for the people, the sins of the people having been placed on this Messiah. Now after suffering, the Messiah has departed from them; this is the cause of their consternation. Now the people pray for the Messiah to come back a second time. Much of this prayer is a direct quotation from the Isaiah passage. This shows, therefore, that even as late as the seventh century, the Jewish view was still that this passage had reference to the Messiah.
That this view was still the dominant one among Jewry in the tenth century is seen from the commentary of Yepheth ben All:
As for myself, I am inclined with Benjamin of Nehavend, to regard it as alluding to the Messiah…He (the prophet) thus gives us to understand two things: In the first instance, that the Messiah will only reach his highest degree of honour after long and severe trials; and secondly, that these trials will be sent upon him as a kind of sign, so that, if he finds himself under the yoke of misfortunes while remaining pious in his actions, he may know that he is the designated one…. The expression “my servant” is applied to the Messiah as it is applied to his ancestor in the verse, “I have sworn to David my servant.”
This rabbi, too, recognized the passage to be in reference to the Messiah. He makes the point in accordance with the passage that the Messiah will reach his high state of glory by means of suffering.
Jews in the eleventh century also considered the passage to speak of the Messiah. In the Bereshith Rabbah of Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan we find these words:
The Holy One gave Messiah the opportunity to save souls but to be severely chastised: and forthwith the Messiah accepted the chastisements of love, as it is written, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted.” And when Israel is sinful, the Messiah seeks mercy upon them, as it is written, “By his stripes we were healed,” and, “He carried the sins of many and made intercession for the transgressors.”
By quoting from Isaiah 53, verses 7, 5, and 12 respectively, the author of Bereshith Rabbah draws certain conclusions. One is that the Messiah will save many, but that this salvation of the many, is accomplished by means of his suffering. Secondly, the Messiahs sufferings are viewed to be vicarious in nature, for he is seen as suffering for the sins of Israel.
Another rabbi from the eleventh century, Rabbi Tobiyyah ben Eliezer, in his Legah Tova has this to say about Isaiah 52:13: “And let his kingdom be exalted,” in the days of the Messiah, of whom it is said, “Behold my servant shall prosper; he will be high and exalted, and lofty exceedingly.”
Among the most famous rabbis of this period was Moses ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides or the Rambam. In his writings he, too, makes the Isaiah passage refer to the Messiah:
Regarding the mission by which Messiah will present himself…he will not commend himself to our veneration by reason of his notable extraction; but the marvelous deeds he shall perform will show him to be the anticipated Messiah… Isaiah states, “He grew like a tender plant, and as a root out of dry land,” signifying, that his exact descent will not be known, till his successful career will direct people’s attention to it…. But a noteworthy circumstance will be that crowned heads will stand amazed…. So they will remain in utter silence, as Isaiah predicts, “At him will kings shut their mouths, for what had not been told unto them shall they see, and what they never heard shall they understand.” The Rambam quotes from Isaiah 53:2 and 52:15, respectively, and refers these passages to the Messiah’s person. This is his view regarding the entire passage.
Also from the eleventh century, an ancient Jewish writing states concerning the Messiah:
Messiah, the son of Ephraim, will die there, and Israel will mourn for him. And afterwards the Holy One will reveal to them Messiah, the son of David, whom Israel will decide to stone, saying, Thou spakest falsely: already is the Messiah slain. ..and so they will despise him, as it is. written, “Despised and rejected of men.”
The writer presents the Two Messiahs view which was the common Jewish view of his day. One Messiah, the Son of Ephraim or Joseph, will die. After his death will come the Messiah, the Son of David, whom, the rabbi says, Israel will reject. He quotes from Isaiah 53:3 to prove his point.
During this time, we have for the first time in the history of Jewish theology the idea that this passage was not in reference to the Messiah, but in reference to the people of Israel. It was first propounded by Rabbi Shlomoh Yizchaki, better known as Rashi. But since he went contrary to the traditional Jewish view concerning this passage, there was an immediate reaction by other Jewish authorities.
One rabbi who reacted against the new view propounded by Rashi was Rabbi Moshe Kohen Ibn Crispin of Cordova and Toledo in Spain at about 1350:
I am pleased to interpret it in accordance of our Rabbis, of the King Messiah, and will be careful, so far as I am able, to adhere to the literal sense: thus, possibly, I shall be free from the fancied and far fetched interpretations of which others have been guilty.
This prophecy was delivered by Isaiah at the divine command for the purpose of making known to us something about the nature of the future Messiah, who is to come and deliver Israel, and his life for the day when he arrives at discretion until his advent as a redeemer, in order that if any one should arise claiming to be himself the Messiah, we may reflect, and look to see whether we can observe in him any resemblance to the traits described here: if there is any such resemblance, then we may believe that he is the Messiah our lighteousness; but if not, we cannot do so.
The “fancied and far fetched” interpretation that Rabbi Crispin has reference to is the interpretation of Rashi that this does not refer to the Messiah but to the people of Israel. This rabbi reacts against this interpretation and insists that this Isaiah passage refers to Messiah, that it was written for the purpose of helping identify the Messiah so that he can be recognized when he comes.
In the sixteenth century we have the words of Rabbi Saadyeh lbn Danan of Grenada, c 1500:
One of these, Rabbi Joseph ben Kaspi, was led so far as to say that those who expounded it of the Messiah, who is shortly to be revealed, gave occasion to. the heretics to interpret it of Jesus. May God, however, forgive him for not having spoken the truth! Our Rabbis, the doctors of the Talmud, delivered their opinions by the power of prophecy, possess a tradition concerning the principles of interpretation…alludes solely to the King Messiah.
This Rabbi also reacts against the interpretation that the Isaiah passage refers to the people of Israel. He demands that Jewish interpreters return to the Talmudic interpretation that this refers to the Messiah. He also helps to shed some light as to the reason why many were switching over to the new view. It was during this period that many debates broke out between rabbis and Christians, and the latter used Isaiah 53 to show that Jesus was the Messiah. Because of the force of their arguments, as a defense rabbis began to refer the passage to Israel.
Also from the second half of the sixteenth century are the writings of Rabbi Moshe Le Sheich (Al Shech), who was a disciple of Joseph Caro, author of the Shuichan Aruch. He, too, demanded that all Jewish interpreters return to the more traditional interpretation when he wrote: “Our Rabbis of blessed memory with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah. And we ourselves shall also adhere to the same view.”
The writings of Rabbi Eliyyah de Vidas are from about the same time. He wrote the following c 1575 concerning Isaiah 53:5:
But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, the meaning of which is that since the Messiah bears our iniquities which produce the effect of his being bruised, it follows that whosoever will not admit that the Messiah thus suffers for our iniquities, must endure and suffer them himself.
This rabbi, too, refers the passage to the Messiah and states that the Messiah will suffer vicariously, for he suffers for the sins of the people. The Rabbi goes on to say that those who refuse to believe and accept the vicarious suffering for sin which the Messiah bore are doomed, according to the passage, to suffer for their own sins.
Even in the seventeenth century there was still reaction against Rashi’s interpretation of the Isaiah passage, as the writing of Rabbi Naphtali ben Asher Altschuler (c 1650) shows: “I will proceed to explain these verses of our own Messiah, who, God willing, will come speedily in our days. I am surprised that Rashi and Rabbi David Kimchi have not, with the Targums, applied it to the Messiah likewise.”
By the nineteenth century, the new view propounded by Rashi and followed by Rabbi David Kimchi had pretty well won over the older view of the rabbis. But the victory was not total, for there was still a reaction against it. Herz Homburg in his Korem, written in 1818, wrote: “The fact is, that it refers to the King Messiah, who will come in the latter days, when it will be the Lord’s good pleasure to redeem Israel from among the different nations of the earth.”
So to interpret Isaiah 53 as speaking of Messiah is not non-Jewish. In fact, if we are to speak of the traditional Jewish interpretation, it would be that the passage speaks of the Messiah. The first one to expound the view that this referred to Israel rather than the Messiah was Shlomo Yizchaki, better known as Rashi (c 1040-1105). He was followed by David Kimchi (1160-1235). But this was to go contrary to all rabbinical teaching of that day and of the preceding one thousand years. Today, Rashi’s view has become dominant in Jewish and rabbinical theology. But that is not the Jewish view. Nor is it the traditional Jewish view. Those closer to the time of the original writings, and who had less contact with the Christian apologists, interpreted it as speaking of the Messiah.
4. The Text of Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Summary of It’s Content
The text itself should be able to help us determine whether the Suffering Servant is the individual Messiah or the nation of Israel.
In Isaiah 52:13-15 God is doing the speaking. He is calling the attention of all to the Suffering Servant. God declares that his Servant will act wisely and his actions will gain him a position of glory. God further states that his Servant will suffer, but this suffering will eventually gain the silent attention of world rulers when they begin to understand the purpose of his suffering. The Servant will be terribly disfigured, but will in the end save many.
After God has thus drawn the attention of the people to his Servant, the people now respond in 53:1-9. In verses 1-3, they confess their non-recognition of the Servant in his person and calling. In verse 1 they claim to be surprised at what they had just learned from the three preceding verses. In verse 2, they note that at the time that the Servant was with them, there did not seem to be anything special about him. His childhood and growth were no different than those of others. He was not particularly charismatic jn his personality that it would attract men to him. His outward features were hardly unique. On the contrary, verse 3 points out that the opposite was true. Instead of drawing the people to him, he was despised and rejected by men in general. He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with personal grief. His rejection was not merely passive; it was active, and the people did their best to avoid him.
In verses 4-6, the people confess that at the time of his suffering, they considered his suffering to be the punishment of God for his own sins. Now, however, they acknowledge that the Servant’s suffering was vicarious: He suffered for the sins of the people and not for his own sins. The people confess that is was they who went astray; they each one had gone their own selfish ways, and the punishment of their sins was laid upon the. Servant of Jehovah. This passage, then, is a confession of a change of attitude on the part of the people towards the Servant as they recognized the true nature of his sufferings. The severe judgment which the Servant had suffered led the people to form an opinion of him, since his suffering seemed to mark him out as a special victim of Jehovah’s anger. But now confession is made concerning the reversal of this opinion which marks the beginning of repentance.
In verse 4, those who formerly misunderstood and despised the Servant on account of his miserable condition now are better instructed. They now recognize that the Servant of Jehovah was vicariously suffering for them and took upon himself what was actually due to them. They confess that his sufferings were of an altogether different nature from what they had supposed. They are now bearing witness against themselves, lamenting their former blindness to the mediatorial and vicarious character of the deep agonies of body and soul that were involved in the suffering. The error being confessed is that they had considered his sufferings as a punishment for sins he himself had committed.
In verse 5, the people confess that the vicarious suffering of the Servant of Jehovah resulted in reconciliation and spiritual healing. This verse penetrates more deeply into the meaning of the Servant’s sufferings, seeing the connection between his passion and their sins. The connection is two-fold: Chastisement for our sins – suffering was the penalty for the people’s transgression; Means of Reconciliation – it was the remedy by which the people are restored to spiritual health. It was for the sins of the people that he was suffering and not for his own sins.
In verse 6, the people confess that the necessity of the sufferings spoken of in the preceding verses was that the people were so wholly estranged from God that substitution was required for reconciliation. They had strayed and selfishly sought their own way; yet Jehovah laid their sins on the Servant. Thus the people confess with penitence that they have long mistaken him whom God has sent to them for their good, even when they had gone astray to their own ruin.
In verses 7-9, the prophet appears to be doing. the speaking as he describes and details the sufferings of the Servant that lead to his death.
In verse 7, the Servant is pictured as humbly submitting himself to unjust treatment. He does not speak a word in his own defense. He suffers quietly, never crying out against the injustice done to him.
In verse 8, we find the death of the Servant of Jehovah. Here we are told that after a judicial trial and judgment, he was taken away for execution. The Servant of Jehovah was being executed for the sins of the prophet’s own people, who were the ones who deserved the judgment of judicial execution. But no one seemed to realize the holy purpose of God in this event. Verse 8 is a key verse to the entire passage, in that we learn that this was a sentence of death pronounced in a court of law and then executed. This verse clearly states that he did not deserve the death. Those for whom he was dying never realized the true reason for his death. But, as verses 4-6 have related, they assumed he was dying for his own sins.
In verse 9, the burial of the Servant is described. After his death, those who executed him assigned a criminal’s grave for him along with other criminals. A criminal is what they considered him to be, and that is the way he was executed. Yet he would be buried in a rich man’s tomb! This is true poetic justice, since in actuality the Servant had done nothing wrong, nor was there anything wrong in his character.
In verses 10-12, we have the results of the sufferings and death of the Servant of Jehovah. These results in the end are very beneficial.
In verse 10, it is recorded how God was pleased to allow the Servant to suffer and die. This was the means by which God was going to make the atonement for the people. The death of the Servant was an offering for the sins of the people. The ones who had gone astray and sinned would now be forgiven on the basis of the death of the Servant, for by his substitutionary death he provided the atonement for the people. God punished the Servant in place of the people and thus the sins of the people were atoned for. This verse further states that the Servant will see his posterity and his days will be prolonged. How can that be if the Servant is killed? The only way that this would be possible is by means of resurrection. So the pleasure of the Lord, the verse concludes, will continue to prosper in his hand, for he will live again because of his resurrection.
Verse 11, declares that God will be satisfied with the work of the Servant. The Servant of Jehovah dies a substitutionary death for the sins of the people. The question now – Will God accept this substitution? And the answer is, Yes. For God will see the sufferings and death of the Servant and his justice will be satisfied. Therefore, God can make the next statement, that because of his vicarious suffering and death, the righteous Servant will justify many. To justify means to declare righteous. So the Servant who suffered and died and is now resurrected will be able to make many righteous. The people who were sinners and could do nothing because of separation from God will be able to be made righteous by the Servant. This verse concludes by telling us how this is possible – the servant bears their sins. Their sins are put on the Servant’s account, and the account is considered paid in full by the Servant’s blood So God declares that his righteous Servant will cause many to be justified in the knowledge of himself, for he will bear their sins.
Verse 12 records that the Servant will be tremendously and greatly blessed by God in the end above all others. The reasons for this are given in the verse. First of all, he willingly and voluntarily suffered and died. Secondly, he was humble enough to allow others to consider him a sinner and to consider him as suffering and dying for his own sins. However, thirdly, he actually “Bare the sin of many.” For the many who are justified and made righteous are so only because he has put their sins on his account. Fourthly, and finally, the Servant makes intercession and pleads to God on behalf of the sinners.
This, essentially, is the summary of what the content of the passage is. If the Servant is Israel, the people are the Gentiles. If the Servant is the Messiah, then the people are Israel, the Jewish people. Until Rashi, all Jewish theology taught that this referred to the Messiah. Since Rashi, most of rabbinical theology has taught that it refers to Israel. If the passage is taken literally and read simply, it speaks of a single individual.
5. Clues to Interpretation
The text itself provides a number of clues as to which is really meant. In itself, it makes plain whether an individual Messiah is being referred to or the collective body of Israel.
An important clue as to whom this passage refers is the consistent usage of pronouns. A distinction is maintained between WE, US, and OUR as over against HE, HIM, and HIS. The use of WE, US, and OUR in the passage must refer to Isaiah the Prophet and the people to whom Isaiah is speaking. The use of HE, HIM, and HIS must refer to the Suffering Servant. Now Isaiah was a Jew, as were also the people to whom he was speaking. It will be good to requote a portion of this passage to bring out the emphasis of the various pronouns in order to get a clearer understanding of the point being made. The following quotation is Isaiah 53:4-9:
Surely HE hath borne OUR griefs, and carried OUR sorrows; yet WE did esteem HIM stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. Be HE was wounded for OUR transgressions, HE was bruised for OUR iniquities; the chastisement of OUR peace was upon HIM; and with HIS stripes WE are healed. All WE like sheep ‘have gone astray; WE have turned every one to his own way; and Jehovah hath laid on HIM the iniquity of US all.
HE was oppressed, yet when HE was afflicted HE opened not HIS mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so HE opened not HIS mouth. By oppression and judgment HE was taken away; and as for HIS generation, who among THEM considered that HE was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of MY people to whom the stroke was due? And THEY made HIS grave with the wicked, and with a rich man in HIS death; although HE had done no violence, neither was any deceit in HIS mouth.
Obviously the WE, US, and OUR are the Jews. Isaiah and the people are the Jews. Isaiah is speaking to the nation of Israel, the Jewish people as a whole. He is including himself with the collective body of Israel. Isaiah represents the Suffering Servant as being in a different category: HE, HIM, and HIS. HE is the one who is suffering for US. HE is the one God is laying OUR sins upon. HE is the one who is going to die for OUR sins so that WE can have salvation through HIM. The constant and consistent use of pronouns and the identification of the pronouns exclude the Suffering Servant from being Israel. Rather, the Suffering Servant is the Messiah himself.
The second clue is the closing sentence of verse 8, which also serves to exclude Israel from being the Suffering Servant. It reads: “…he was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due.”
As Isaiah the prophet views the death of the Suffering Servant, he discloses that his death is for the sins of “my people.” Who are Isaiah’s people? No one questions that Isaiah was a Jew. Thus, Isaiah’s people must be the Jews; they must be the people of Israel as well. And if “my people” are Israel, they cannot be the Suffering Servant. Hence, the Suffering Servant must refer to the individual Messiah.
A third clue lies in the fact that throughout the entire passage, the Suffering Servant is, portrayed as a singular human personality. There is no hint of allegory or any clue that the Suffering Servant is to be taken allegorically as referring to Israel. He goes through all the functions that an individual personality goes through There is no personification of Israel at all in this passage. Israel is kept distinct from the Suffering Servant. Messiah is being viewed as a future historical person that would accomplish the prophecy of Isaiah. Israel is the people looking on while this is happening. This is no personification of Israel only the view of a future historical person.
The fourth clue lies in the fact that the Suffering Servant is presented in the passage as an innocent sufferer (verses 4-6, 8b1 9b). It is easy to see how this can be true of the Messiah, but is impossible of Israel. Moses and the prophets never told Israel: You will suffer for being innocent; but rather: You will suffer for your sins unless you repent and conform to the revealed will of God. God punished Israel many times and in various ways, and it was always because of sins. Both the Babylonian Exile and the present day Dispersion were results, according to the prophets, of disobedience on the part of Israel to the revealed will of God. This is in sharp contrast with the Suffering Servant, who is portrayed as an innocent sufferer.
The fifth clue is the fact that the Suffering Servant is further portrayed as a voluntary, willing, and silent sufferer (verse 7). He willingly submits to the suffering he undergoes and voices no complaint as to the injustice done him. Furthermore, as he undergoes these sufferings that lead him to his death, he is silent. In Israel’s history, the Jews have been oppressed, gone into captivity, exile, and finally into present-day dispersion. But none of these occurred on a voluntary basis on Israel’s part. Israel has generally fought back, and these things fell on Israel only because she was defeated and Israel was never defeated willingly. But the Messiah would be a willing sufferer. Furthermore, reading through the literature of Jewish history, it can barely be said that Israel was a silent sufferer. Rather, during her sufferings, Israel has always cried out against the inhumanity of those who were perpetrating the sufferings of Israel. Israel has produced a long line of literature cataloguing her sufferings and complaints. The activities of the Jewish Defense League show that there is a violence directed against anti-Semites and a desire to see them destroyed. So this, too, rules out making the Suffering Servant the personification of Israel and again points to it as referring to the Messiah.
The sixth clue is that in this passage the Suffering Servant suffers a vicarious and substitutionary death (verses 4-6, 8,10,12). He suffers for the sake of others, so that they need not suffer for their sins. Nowhere in the Scriptures or in Jewish history do we ever see Israel suffering for the Gentiles. Israel often suffers because of the Gentiles but never for the Gentiles. Israel suffers, but Israel always suffers for her own sins. There is no substitution where Israel is concerned, only where the Messiah is concerned.
The seventh clue that is given is that the sufferings of the Servant of Jehovah bring justification and spiritual healing to those who accept it (verses 5b, lib). The sufferings of Israel have failed to bring justification and spiritual healing to the Gentiles. After three thousand years of Jewish suffering; the Gentiles are hardly justified and are still spiritually sick, as became obvious with the way that Gentile nations were involved in the Holocaust. But Messiah’s suffering was to bring this justification and spiritual healing to Jewish lives, a point that will be further developed in the last chapter.
The eighth clue is a crucial one. The Suffering Servant dies (verses 8,12). The sufferings of the Servant lead to an end in death. This especially makes the personification of Israel in this passage impossible. The Jewish people are alive and well and have never been destroyed in spite of many attempts to destroy them by anti-Semites throughout the centuries. This again forces one to the conclusion that the Suffering Servant cannot be Israel personified, but rather the individual personality of the Messiah. As for the people of Israel, they live.
The ninth and final clue naturally follows: the Suffering Servant is resurrected (verses 10-11). The one who died for sins does not stay dead but is resurrected and can see the results of his suffering in that he brings justification and spiritual healing to many. Since Israel never died, there is no need for a resurrection. But if a person like the Messiah’ dies, God will certainly resurrect him to live again.
This, then, is the conflict over Isaiah 53. If one simply reads the chapter as one would read any chapter of another book, no other conclusion can be reached than that the individual person spoken of is suffering for the sins of the Jewish people. And for centuries, this was the only conclusion that Judaism ever had – they labelled the Suffering Servant as the Messiah, the Son of Joseph. Later rabbinical interpretation which made the Suffering Servant a personification of Israel seemed more an attempt to explain away rather than an actual explanation of the passage. This chapter must be read without prejudice and taken simply for what it is saying. This chapter must not be interpreted in any way that is only a defense against Christian polemics but only for what the content of the passage really is. The traditional Jewish viewpoint is most in harmony with the simple statements of the text itself, speaking of it as the sufferings of the Messiah for the sins of Israel.
If the Old Testament only spoke of Messiah in terms of his suffering, it would hardly give us enough to go on. But there is much more to the Old Testament picture of the Messiah than that which is found in Isaiah 53. In these other passages there is often less conflict -any at all – than the conflict over Isaiah 53. These other passages, taken along with Isaiah 53, go a long way to show how the Messiah was to be a thoroughly unique person.
B The Uniqueness ot His Birth
Following the account of the creation, the Old Testament continues with the story of Adam and Eve. Satan in the guise of a serpent deceives Eve and causes her to break the one commandment of God. Adam follows suit. The result is that sin enters the human family and the human experience. Man now stands under the righteous judgment of God. Nevertheless, at the time of the fall, God provides for future redemption. As he addresses Satan, God says: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed: he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15).
The key note of this verse is the statement: seed of the woman. In and of itself, this statement may not seem unusual, but in the context of biblical teaching, it is most unusual. For throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, a man’s lineage was never reckoned after the woman but only after the man. In all the genealogies we have in the biblical record, women are virtually ignored because they are unimportant in determining genealogy. Yet the future person who would crush Satan’s head while himself only suffering a slight wound would not be reckoned after a man but after a woman. In the biblical pattern, this is highly unusual. In spite of the normal biblical pattern, we have a clear statement that the future redeemer comes from the seed of the woman. His birth will only take into account his mother. For a reason that is not explained here, the father will not be taken into an account at all. Yet this goes totally contrary to the whole biblical view regarding genealogies.
That this verse was taken to be messianic is clear from the Targums of Jonathan and the Jerusalem Targums. Furthermore, the Talmudic expression “Heels of the Messiah” seems to have been taken from this verse. But Genesis itself does not explain how or why this redeemer can be labelled “seed of the woman” when it goes contrary to the biblical pattern.
Centuries later, Israel had a great prophet in the person of Isaiah. It was left to this prophet to explain the meaning and reason why the Messiah would be only reckoned after the seed of the woman. Isaiah writes: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (7:14).
The very fact that the birth of this person spoken of in this passage is described as a “sign” points to some unusual thing regarding the birth. In other words, the birth could not be normal, for that would not fulfil the requirement of the word “sign.” It had to be unusual in some way, perhaps miraculous or at least attention-getting.
The very existence of the Jewish people stemmed from a “sign” of a birth. The Scriptures make clear that both Abraham and Sarah were beyond the point of being able to bear children. Abraham was ninety-nine years old and Sarah eighty-nine. She had, of course, already undergone menopause when, in Genesis 18, God promised that Sarah would have a son within one year. This would be the “sign” that God will keep his covenant with Abraham and will make a great nation from him. A year later this “sign” took place in the birth of Isaac, through whom the Jewish people came. It was the sign needed to authenticate the covenant. This was a miraculous birth.
The birth of the son in Isaiah 7:14 was also to be a sign – to be unusual in some way. But this time the unusual nature of the birth was not going to be due to the great age of the mother. This would be a sign by virtue of the fact that this son would be born of a virgin.
Right at this point, another conflict often ensues. Rabbis today claim that the Hebrew word ALMAH does not mean “virgin” but “young woman.” But what they fail to explain is how this would be used as a sign. A young woman giving birth to a baby is hardly unusual, in fact, it happens all the time! Often Rashi is the one quoted as showing that ALMAH means “young woman.” It is true that Rashi interpreted Isaiah 7:14 to mean a young woman, perhaps for the same reason that he made Isaiah 53 refer to Israel and not to the Messiah. But this is not enough to prove that Rashi always made ALMAH to mean a young woman. This Hebrew word is also found in the Song of Solomon 1:3 and 6:8. In these passages Rashi makes ALMAH to mean “virgin”! So, regardless of how Rashi interpreted Isaiah 7:14, he elsewhere did use the word ALMAH to mean “virgin.” Furthermore, Rashi admitted that many Jewish scholars of his day made Isaiah 7:14 to refer to a virgin. It can easily be seen than Rashi was trying to counteract Christian polemics with his interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 rather than being honest with the text itself. Also, as in the case of Isaiah 53, Rashi was again going contrary to popular Jewish interpretation.
A far more authoritative Jewish source than Rashi is the judgment of the seventy Jewish rabbis who translated the Greek version of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, about 250 BC. These men lived far closer to the time of Isaiah that Rashi – by about thirteen hundred years – and were closer to the original usage of the word. These seventy rabbis all made ALMAH to read parthenos, which is the simple Greek word for “virgin.”
Even if ALMAH is allowed to mean “young woman,” it still must be admitted that the word can refer to a virginal young woman. It must not be ignored that this birth was to be a sign – an unusual birth. This is best seen if taken to mean a virgin birth.
This, then, is the explanation of the mystery of Genesis 3:15. Messiah would be reckoned after the seed of a woman because he would not have a father. Because of a virgin birth, he could only be traced through his mother and not his father. Thus, Isaiah 7:14 clarifies the meaning of Genesis 3:15: the Messiah will enter the world by means of the virgin birth.
1. The Place of His Birth
Not only was the means of Messiah’s birth prophesied, but so was the place of his birth. This was done by the prophet Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah. In chapter 5 of his book, verse 2, we read: “But thou, Bethlehem Ephrathah, which art little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall one come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.” Concerning this verse, there is far less disagreement among Orthodox rabbis, since they generally take this to mean that the Messiah will originate from Bethlehem. This is the view taken by The Soncino Books of the Bible, which is the Orthodox Jewish commentary on the Old Testament and which takes as its source some earlier Jewish commentaries.
2. His Lineage
Another point that is uncontested is that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David. From this comes the rabbinical ascription of the title, Messiah, the Son of David. Of the numerous passages that might be cited, we will limit ourselves to the following two, both from Isaiah:
“And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch out of his roots shall bear fruit” (11:1).
“And it shall come to pass in that day, that the root of Jesse, that standeth for an ensign of the peoples, unto him shall the nations seek; and his resting-place shall be glorious” (11:10).
Jesse was the father of David, and thus these passages show that Messiah will come from the house of David. To this all Orthodox Judaism agrees. Other passages regarding this same point will be cited later in a different context.
3. The Sufferings of the Messiah
That the Messiah will suffer and die was something that all early rabbis agreed would be. They referred to the suffering Messiah as Messiah, the Son of Joseph, making him distinct from Messiah, the Son of David. The central passage from this view was Isaiah 53, which has already been discussed. Another passage dealing with the sufferings of the Messiah was Psalm 22:1-21.
To summarize the passage, we find that the Messiah is forsaken by God, is ridiculed and tormented by the people, and his clothes are gambled away by his tormentors. He suffers such agony that his bones all come out of joint, his heart breaks with a mixture of blood and water, and his hands and feet are all pierced. In many ways this psalm is very similar to Isaiah 53, providing even more detail as to the type of suffering and agony that the Messiah must undergo. The rabbis in the Yalkut also referred this passage to Messiah, the Son of Joseph.
4. Messiah the King of Israel
In all the passages discussed so far, Messiah was portrayed as a man, but a man of sorrows. He was to suffer and die. The earlier rabbis all recognized this to speak of Messiah, and called him Messiah, the Son of Joseph. For as Joseph the patriarch suffered at the hands of his brethren, Messiah would too. But other passages spoke of another kind of Messiah, not a sufferer, but a conqueror. Not a dying Messiah, but a reigning one. This one was called Messiah, the Son of David, by the rabbis. Most of what is said about the Messiah in Moses and the Prophets revolves around the Messiah coming to bring peace and to establish the Messianic Kingdom over Israel. There are far too many such passages to even begin to list here, but two such passages will be quoted in full. It should be noted how differently this Messiah is portrayed in comparison with all the previous passages thus far discussed. It is little wonder that the early rabbis were confused and so devised the theory of the two Messiahs, each coming once. The first passage is found in Isaiah 11 1-10.
That this speaks of the Messiah and the messianic age the rabbis, both ancient and modem, agree. Unlike the previous passages, there is no picture a dying Messiah being rebuked and despised by his people. The picture we get here is of a reigning Messiah who brings peace and prosperity to the entire world. The peace extends down to the animal kingdom. The wicked are removed in judgment, and differences between the nations are settled by Messiah’s authoritive word. The knowledge of the God of Israel spreads until it covers the entire world. The whole world has an intimate knowledge of the God who created the world, now that the reigning Messiah has brought peace and prosperity to it.
A second passage which gives the same picture is found in Psalm 72:1-19. This psalm is applied as speaking of the righteous reign of the Messiah in the Talmud, and the Targums make the first verse to read as follows: “Give the sentence of, thy judgment to the King Messiah, and thy justice to the son of David the King.”
The Midrash on the Psalms follows suit and connects this psalm with Isaiah 11:1. Furthermore, among the many differing names given to the Messiah by the rabbis of the Talmud was the name Yinnon, which was taken from the Hebrew rendering of verse 17 in this very psalm. So this passage also presents a different view of the Messiah than the others discussed, earlier. This, then, is a two-fold picture presenting a major problem to anyone trying to formulate what the Old Testament has to say about the Messiah.
Other passages that deal with the kingship of the Messiah give us two other aspects of the person of the Messiah. One of these is the sonship of the Messiah with God, and the other involves the God-Man concept. In order to get a complete picture of the Old Testament’s concept of the Messiah, it is necessary to discuss these two points, which we will touch on briefly.
5. Messiah’s Sonship with God
Two passages make the point that the Messiah is also in some way the Son of God. The first of these is Psalm 2, which deals primarily with the kingship of the Messiah, but which also brings out the Messiah’s sonship with God. Concerning this psalm, Rashi admits, “Our rabbis expound it as relating to King Messiah.” Although the majority of rabbis in earlier years also expounded this psalm as of King Messiah, many rabbis today would refer it to David rather than. Messiah. But the words of the psalm and a comparison of history would exclude David as a possibility altogether. In this passage God tells the person he is speaking to that he is turning over the dominion and the authority of the whole world to him. History makes very clear that David never had that dominion, nor was he ever able to exercise that authority. Hence, David must needs be excluded. Thus, the early rabbis were correct in interpreting this psalm to speak of the Messiah, who in this psalm is referred to as the Son of God.
Also in this same psalm, God warns that all must submit to the Son of God, the Messiah. Those who refuse will be punished: Those, however, who take refuge in the Messiah, that is, place their faith and trust in him for their salvation, will receive new life.
The second passage comes from the wise king, Solomon. In the Book of Proverbs, in chapter 30, verse 4, we have a series of six questions. The first four questions all have the same question of identity: Who did it? Here they are. Number one; “Who has gone up into heaven and come down?” Number two: “Who has gathered the wind in his fists?” Number three: “Who has bound up the waters in his garment?” Number four: “Who has established all the ends of the earth?” These are four questions that Solomon is asking, indicating that the answer is very clear. When we look at the events described in these four questions, it is obvious that only one person could possibly do all those things: God himself.
Now we come to the fifth question: “What is his name?” We see that only God can do those things in the first four questions, but now, what is God’s name? His name no one really knows how to pronounce anymore, for throughout the centuries we feared to take God’s name in vain. So the pronunciation has been forgotten. In Hebrew we have it in the four letter yHVH. It is the name for which we substitute the word Adonai. In English we sometimes give it the name Jehovah. The name is YHVH, the great I AM. So it is God, the great I AM, who did all these things.
Now let us go onto the sixth and last question, which is found in the very same verse: “What is his son’s name, if you know”? Notice how Solomon is posing the sixth question. We first had four questions asking who did all these great things. The answer was: God did all those things. The fifth question was: What is God’s name? The answer: YHVH, the great I AM is his name. But then Solomon poses a trick question because he knows at this stage of biblical history it would be impossible to answer. That is why he adds to the sixth question the phrase: “If you know?” The question is: “What is his son’s name, if you know?” The obvious meaning here is that this God, the great I AM, has a son. Up to the time of Solomon and after, we did not know this name because it was not as yet revealed. This was not an unusual approach in the Scriptures. For instance, throughout the whole history of the Book of Genesis, no one knew God’s name because God first revealed it to Moses in the Book of Exodus (3:14-15, 6:2-3). The people living during the time of Genesis knew that there was a God, they just did not know his name. By the same token, no one knew the name of the Son of God throughout Old Testament Judaism. But Old Testament Judaism did know that God had a son, for both David and Solomon spoke of him.
The Messiah’s sonship with God is thus related to his Messiahship. In Psalm 2, this sonship is related strongly to Messiah’s kingship.
6. The God-Man Concept and the Messiah
Another aspect involving the kingship of the Messiah is the strange God-Man concept concerning the Messiah Some passages dealing with the kingship of the Messiah add a whole new dimension as to the person of the Messiah, making him a man and yet more than a man. One of these is Isaiah 9:6-7:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his goverment and of peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of Jehovah of hosts will perform this.
Verse 6 declares that a son is born into the Jewish world who will eventually control the reigns of government. Verse 7 identifies him as the messianic descendant of David; it gives a dramatic description of his reign, which will be characterized by peace and justice. But in verse 6 he is given names that can only be true of God himself. “Wonderful Counselor” and “Prince of Peace” can be true of a man, but “Mighty God” and “Everlasting father” cannot. This new dimension presented by Isaiah regarding the person of the Messiah is that the Messiah had to be a man, a descendant of David, but also he was to be God as well.
This further explains what Isaiah had said two chapters earlier (Isaiah 7:14) when he stated: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: behold1 a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call ‘his name Immanuel.”
In this passage, which we discussed earlier, Isaiah declares that there is going to be a son born of a virgin. Then he is given a name which is said to be Immanuel. In the Bible, when a parent names his child, it shows the thinking of the parents. However, when God gives a person a name, it actually represents his very character, as only God can foresee. So when this child is named by God Immanuel, the name portrays the actual character of the child. What does Immanuel mean? It means: With us, God. So here we have a child that is born of a virgin who is With Us, God or God is among us! The Isaiah 9 portion further clarifies that this son is a descendant of David, and he is labelled as God himself. So Isaiah clearly portrays the Messiah as the God-Man.
Nor is Isaiah alone in presenting this picture. Jeremiah echoes Isaiah in chapter 23, verses 5-6:
Behold, the days come, saith Jehovah, that I will raise unto David a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely; and this is his name whereby he shall be called: Jehovah our righteousness.
Here, too, a descendant of David reigns upon the throne Of David, and the character of his reign is described as one of peace and security for Israel. Yet he is given the very name of God, which can only belong to God himself – Adonai Tzidkenu – Jehovah our righteousness. This is the YHVH, the very name God revealed to Moses as being his own personal name – I AM. So once again the future king Messiah of Israel is seen as a man on one hand but as God on the other. As with the sonship concept, the God-Man concept is related to Messiah’s kingship.
This, then, concludes the picture given of the Messiah in the Old Testament. On the one hand he is a suffering and dying Messiah. On the other he is a conquering and reigning Messiah called God and the Son of God. The solution of the rabbis was to formulate the doctrine of two Messiahs: Messiah, the Son of Joseph, and Messiah, the Son of David. But this is not the only option.
1. Rabbi Morris Goldstein, Jesus in the Jewish Tradition (New York: Macmillan Co, 1950), p 232.
2. Ibid, p 233.
3. Ernest R Traffner, As a Jew Sees Jesus (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1931), pp ix-x.
4. Ibid, p 1.
5. Ibid, pp 19-20.
6. Samuel Sandmel, We Jews and Jesus (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), p vii.
7. lbid, p 44.
8. Ibid, p 109.
9. Ibid, p 110.
10. Beryl D Cohon, Men at the Crossroads (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1970), p 114.
11. Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Macmillan Co, 1925), p 368.
12. Ibid, p 406.
13. Ibid, pp 413-414.
14. Jules Isaac, Jesus and Israel (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), p11
15. Ibid, p 15.
16. Ibid, p 74.
17. Simon S Levin, Jesus Alias Christ (New York: Philosophical Library, 1969), p 71.
18. Maurice Elsendrath, Jewry and Jesus of Nazareth (England: The Parks Library, 1964), p 6.
19. Rabbi Milton Steinberg, “Basic Judaism”, Jewish Information, Vol 3, No 4, Spring, 1963, p 37.
20. Ibid p 39.
21. Ibid, p 40.
22. Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, “Why Jews Don’t Accept Jesus”, The Jewish Digest, 1973, p 27
(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 1 No 4, The Messiah, Summer 1993)Our Online Courses