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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Mark Eastman :: The Search for the Messiah

Mark Eastman :: Chapter One: The Hope for Messiah

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For 3500 years the Jewish people have awaited the arrival of their anointed redeemer, deliverer and savior - the Messiah. God, speaking through Moses declared:

"I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And it shall be that whoever will not hear my words, which he speaks in my name, I will require it of him." (Deuteronomy 18:18-19)

This passage declares that the Messiah would come from the midst of the Jewish people, yet he would be a great prophet who would speak the very words of God! The passage goes on to claim that whoever does not heed the word of the prophet, believed by many rabbis to be the Messiah, God will hold him in judgment.[1]

The hope for the Messiah is central to the life of the observant Jewish believer. The prayers of the faithful and the teachings of the rabbis down through the ages have focused on this promise. However, many of the beliefs about the Messiah have changed dramatically over the centuries. Early rabbinical beliefs about the mission, character, origin and destiny of the Messiah (450 B.C.E-400 C.E.) [2],[3] were radically different from the beliefs of modern rabbis. Dozens of passages in the Tanakh[4] that the ancient rabbis believed referred to the Messiah, are interpreted by modern rabbis as non-Messianic! This includes passages of scripture that were interpreted for thousands of years as Messianic. How can this be? Why have the rabbis changed their position on Messianic prophecy? What was the motivation behind the dramatic change in interpretation?

As we examine the various beliefs of the ancient rabbis we will find that not only are they in stark contrast with contemporary Jewish thought, but the ancient views are in almost perfect agreement with Christian beliefs regarding the character, lineage, birth, mission and destiny of the Messiah.

However, despite this fact, some 20th century Jewish scholars have accused Christians of fabricating the belief that the Messiah would be the Son of God, born of a virgin and that he would come, suffer and die for the sins of the people and then come again.

Listen to the words of one 20th century Jewish scholar, Samuel Levine:

"As you know, the Jews were in Israel for around 1000 years before Jesus appeared. They had a definite concept of what the Messiah would be like -there was a status quo regarding the nature of the Messiah. The Christians appeared and introduced an entirely different picture of what the Messiah would be like (Son of God, God incarnate, born of a virgin, two comings, etc). Thus, the Christians changed the status quo concept of the Messiah, and so the full burden of proof rests upon them."[5]

In the following pages we will discover what the "full burden of proof" actually reveals. We will take a trip through time as we examine the ancient and modern rabbinical interpretations of Messianic prophecy. The dramatic change in rabbinical Messianic beliefs can easily be demonstrated by comparing the writings of the rabbis of the last 2300 years with modern rabbinical interpretations of Messianic prophecy. You may be as startled as I was when you read the views of these ancient rabbis. The ancient rabbinical views are nearly 180 degrees in opposition to those of modern rabbis. However, the vast majority of modern Jews have never been taught the ancient views.

An examination of those ancient writings reveals that the Messianic "status quo" spoken of by Samuel Levine never existed. Throughout the history of rabbinical thought there have always been differing beliefs regarding many aspects of the Messiah's mission and destiny. These views are expressed and discussed extensively in the ancient rabbinical writings. The Messianic beliefs found in the Talmud and the Midrashim represent the majority opinions of the various rabbinical academies. As we examine these views we will see that the Christian beliefs regarding the birth, character, mission and destiny of the Messiah are in most cases identical to those of the ancient rabbinical ones. Therefore, the ancient rabbinical beliefs were not changed but embraced by the Christians. The burden of proof, therefore, rests on modern rabbinical scholarship to explain their radically different view of the Messiah!

The Skeptic Asks

As an agnostic, scientifically trained physician, I had an ongoing struggle with the paradoxical life and claims of Jesus of Nazareth. During my years in college and medical school I had developed sophisticated set of assumptions, pre-suppositions, beliefs, conjectures, theories, rationalizations and mental gyrations in order to explain away the life, claims and even the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. However, his life and its indelible effect on human history defied my every attempt to explain it away.

On the one hand, Jesus has been worshipped as the Messiah, the Son of God, God in human flesh, by billions of people, including millions of Jews, for more than nineteen centuries. In fact, in the last two centuries, there has been an increasing acceptance of the Messiahship of Jesus by many Jews.[6],[7] however, during the last nineteen centuries he has also been rejected, despised and even ridiculed by many, including the majority of the Jewish leadership. In fact, in many Bible believing Jewish families, conversion to Christianity means the loss of one's Jewishness. Many families even consider such a conversion the equivalent of death! However, if one becomes an atheist, Buddhist, Muslim or an agnostic, you are still accepted as Jewish with open arms!

What is the reason for this sharp dichotomy?

This paradoxical reaction to Jesus raises many difficult questions. Why is Jesus of Nazareth such a point of contention among the Jewish leadership? Was the acceptance of Jesus by some Jews, including such unlikely converts as priests, rabbis and members of the Sanhedrin, the result of a simple difference in interpretation of Messianic prophecy? Was the rejection of the promised Messiah foreseen by the writers of the Hebrew Bible? Was the acceptance of Jesus by some Jews the result of his bodily resurrection proclaimed by the New Testament records?

These, and other issues concerning Jesus baffled me. I just couldn't believe that the very people who were waiting for the Messiah would fail to recognize him when he came. After all, the ancient rabbis had a keen knowledge of the scriptures and the Hebrew language. Most would agree that their knowledge of Hebrew was superior to our current knowledge.[8] Consequently, it seemed illogical that they would reject the very leader that they had awaited and studied about in the scriptures for over a thousand years.

I wondered whether the biblical passages that the early church fathers believed were Messianic were also believed to be Messianic by the ancient rabbis? Did the early Christians go through the Tanakh and pick scriptures out of context and apply them to the life and Messianic claims of Jesus? Or, were these same scriptures also believed to be Messianic by the rabbis of Jesus' day?

Finally, I wondered whether Jesus of Nazareth was even an historical figure at all. Was his life a fabrication, a legend, an "ideal," made up by digging through the passages believed to be Messianic by the rabbis of the day?

This denial of the historicity of Jesus has been a common approach used by liberal Bible critics and rabbis over the centuries to explain away the life of the carpenter from Nazareth. However, there are some very unsettling questions created in claiming that Jesus was a non-historical figure. How do you explain the testimony of the early church? And why would the Jews and the Romans embark on an all out persecution of people who believed in a non-historical figure? It just didn't fit.

The early Christian church was almost exclusively Jewish. In the face of relentless persecution, and despite the warnings of the Jewish leadership, thousands of Jews became immediate believers in the Messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth. We know from history that in the first few centuries of Christianity hundreds of thousands of people were killed for believing in the Messiahship of Jesus.[9]

Why was a belief in the deity of Jesus so important that Jewish women were willing to endure even watching their own children being put to death for refusing to worship Caesar? Why were thousands of first century Jews and Gentiles willing to be crucified, stoned, beheaded, eaten by lions, burned at the stake and even fried alive in metal pans for belief in Jesus? Why was he embraced with lifelong devotion and material sacrifice by some Jews and yet rejected and cursed by the majority of the Jewish leadership?

Was Jesus simply the author of a well-devised plot to fulfill prophecy? Or was he "Messianized" by his followers after he died? Was the life of this carpenter from Nazareth the fulfillment of the Messianic mission and destiny the rabbis of Jesus' time were expecting? Or, was his life the tragic ending of a lunatic, or worse yet, a charlatan? These are some of the questions I set out to answer.

If you are an atheist, an agnostic or an observant Jew, I'd be willing to bet that you have also struggled with the claims of Jesus of Nazareth and the phenomenal impact that this one man has had on planet earth. If he was truly an historical figure then we must explain this impact. He is simply too controversial to ignore.

In my quest to fairly evaluate the claims of Jesus I decided to sift through the evidence of secular history, the sacred Jewish scriptures and the writings of the ancient rabbis to gain an accurate picture of the expected Messiah. I then compared my findings with the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. The result was a stunning "new view" of the life, character, mission and destiny of the Messiah.

Sadly, most Jewish people are now taught a slanted and biased view of Messiah which either ignores or flatly denies the overwhelming consensus of the early Jewish scholars. Our hope is that the evidence presented here will result in a more balanced and accurate understanding of the centerpiece of Jewish hope-the Messiah.

The Hope for Messiah

The hope for the Messiah actually predates the promise recorded by Moses in Deuteronomy chapter 18. For thousands of years the rabbis have recognized that the promise of a redeemer for mankind goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden and is thereafter woven throughout the Tanakh, even up to the last prophet Malachi. The promise of Messiah is so prominent in the biblical text that it led one Talmudic writer to state;

-All the prophets prophesied only of the days of the Messiah.- Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 99a

In Genesis 3:15 we find the promise of a Redeemer for mankind given to Adam and Eve after their temptation and fall into sin. After the sin of Adam and Eve we read that God placed a curse on Satan and promised that the "seed" of the woman would ultimately bruise the head of the serpent (i.e. Satan).

"So the Lord God said to the serpent: 'because you have done this, you are cursed more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.'"
(Genesis 3:14-15)

In this passage we see the beginning of the spiritual battle between good and evil on planet earth, between the seed of the woman and Satan's seed, culminating in the ultimate conflict between the Messiah and Satan. The ancient rabbis clearly understood that this battle was between the Messiah, the seed of the woman, and the usurper Satan.

In the ancient commentary on Genesis 3:15, the Targum Jerusalem states:

"And it shall be that when the sons of the woman study the Torah diligently and obey its injunctions, they will direct themselves to smite you (Satan) on the head and slay you; but when the sons of the woman forsake the commandments of the Torah and do not obey its injunctions, you will direct yourself to bite them on the heel and afflict them. However, there will be a remedy for the sons of the woman, but for you, serpent, there will be no remedy. They shall make peace with one another in the end, in the very end of days, in the days of the King Messiah."[10],[11]

In this Targum we see that the prophecy in Genesis 3:15 was believed to be a reference to the Messiah and his people who diligently follow the Torah. According to this passage it would be the Messiah who would provide the "remedy" for mankind. That is, he was to provide the remedy for man's sin. He would reconcile man back to his Creator. As we will see, even before the very first sin in the Garden of Eden, God's plan of salvation would involve the redemptive work of the Messiah. Anyone who reads the Talmud, or any ancient rabbinical literature, will see the Messiah referred to as "The Holy One of Israel", "The Redeemer of Israel", "the Righteous One" and many other exalted titles. In these references of the Messiah there is the emphasis on his character (being pure from sin), and on the work of redemption that would be accomplished through his life. As we look further at the mission and work of the Messiah it will become apparent that his major mission, his major accomplishment was to be the reconciliation of mankind back to his creator.

The Hope during the Talmudic Period

"The world was not created but only for the Messiah." Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b

The Tanakh (or Old Testament) written in Hebrew and Aramaic was gradually compiled between about 1450-450 B.C.E. By the year 285 B.C.E., the Jewish canon of scripture was completed and was being translated into the common language of Greek. The biblical text we have today has been proven by textual discoveries to be nearly identical to the canon of scripture translated in 285 B.C.E..

After the return of the Jews to Israel, following the Babylonian captivity, rabbis (teachers) began to compile commentaries on the entire Hebrew Bible. These interpretations of scripture were at first transmitted orally, but by the time of the second century C.E. They were being compiled in the mishna, the Talmud, Targumim and Midrashim in written form. These ancient commentaries covered nearly all aspects of Jewish law, traditions and many social issues. (e.g. marriage, divorce, land use, etc.). However, most importantly, they go into great detail regarding the Messiah's origin, mission and destiny.

The above quote from the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b summarizes the exalted view of the Messiah in the eyes of the rabbis during the Talmudic period, 200 B.C.E.- 500 C.E. The Mishna, Targums, Talmud, and the Midrashim [14]present a very high view of the Messiah. It is fair to say that the Messiah is the central focus of these incredibly voluminous works written by the ancient rabbis. Every aspect of the origin, life, mission, time of his coming and destiny are discussed in these writings.

The promise of the Messiah is so central to the Bible that, according to the rabbis, prophecies of his mission and destiny are woven both visibly and invisibly throughout the biblical text. The rabbis see two types of Messianic prophecies in the Bible. There were those prophecies that were predictions of some aspect of his life, e.g. birth, lineage, character, mission and destiny. Then there were "types," "shadows" or "similitudes" which were veiled prophecies of some aspect of the Messiah's life.

Alfred Edersheim, the renowned 19th century Messianic scholar, states:

"That a careful perusal of [the rabbinical] scriptural quotations shows that...such doctrines as the premundane existence of the Messiah; his elevation above Moses and even the angels; his representative character; his cruel sufferings and derision; his violent death, and that for his people; his work on behalf of the living and the dead; his redemption, and restoration of Israel; the opposition of the Gentiles; their partial judgment and conversion; the prevalence of his law; the universal blessings of the latter days; and his (the Messiah's) kingdom -can all be clearly be deduced from the unquestioned passages in the ancient rabbinical writings."[12],[13]

Therefore, according to Edersheim the ancient rabbinical beliefs on virtually every aspect of the Messiah can be found in their writings. It is those writings that we will draw upon as we try to build the Messianic picture.

In the Talmud, the Messiah was viewed as much more than just a man, much more than a prophet. The term "Messiah" (pronounced "Mashiyach" in Hebrew) means "Anointed One." Although there were many "anointed" priests, kings and prophets in the history of Israel, there was only one mashiyachb -"the Messiah" as we shall see, there is evidence from ancient Hebrew scriptures that the Messiah would not only be a prophet and redeemer but, God in human flesh as well. It is these ancient writings that we will rely upon as we search for the Messiah.

As we examine the writings of the ancient rabbis and the Messianic portrait painted by the Tanakh, we will endeavor to discover whether Jesus of Nazareth or anyone else in history has fulfilled the Messianic composite they were expecting.


[1] Fourteenth century rabbi Levi Gershon applied this verse as messianic based on Midrash Thanhuma which points to the Messiah as being greater than Moses. Although the Midrash does not state that this is the Messiah, Rabbi Gershon deduces from the Midrash that the Messiah will be "The Prophet." For a discussion of the messianic application of this passage by the rabbis, See Messianic Prophecy, Rachmiel Frydland; 1980.

[2] This is the time period in which "Rabbinical Judaism" began and the Talmud, Mishna and Misrash were written.

[3] B.C.E. means Before Common Era as opposed to the Christian "Before Christ". C.E. means common era.

[4] Tanakh is the name for the Jewish Bible used by Orthodox believers. Tanakh is a contraction for Torah (The law) - Nevi'im (The Prophets) - Kethuvim (The Writings). For the purposes of this book we will use the term Old Testament as a synonym for Tanakh.

[5] You Take Jesus, I'll Take God, Samuel Levine, pg 12, Hamoroh Press, 1980.

[6] Among the many testimonies is that of Dr. Alfred Edersheim, a Jewish Messianic scholar. In his book, "The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah," he compiled over 456 Old Testament pasages which ancient rabbis believed referred to the Messiah. Edersheim was born and rasied an Orthodox Jew. However, as an adult, after a careful study of Messianic prophecy he became a believer in the messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth.

[7] According to Ariel Ministries, there are at least 100,000 Jews today who accept the Messiahship of Jesus

[8] If anyone doubts this statement then I would challenge you to examine the 1985 Jewish Publication Society translation of the Tanakh. At the bottom of nearly every page are footnotes with the words "meaning uncertain" in reference to hundreds of Hebrew words. Certainly the authors of " those unknown words" knew their meaning or they would not have included them in the Holy Scriptures!

[9] See Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

[10] The Targums are Aramaic commentaries on the Tanakh, compiled between 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E.

[11] The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation; The Messianic Exegesis of the Targum, Samson H, Levy (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, 1974), pg. 2.

[12] A discussion of these writings can be found in Appendix I.

[13] That is the existence of the Messiah eve nbefore the creation of the universe.

[14] The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim, MacDonald Publishing Co. 1883, pg 164-165.

Chapter Two: The Suffering Servant Next Section →

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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