Finding Jesus in the pages of the Jewish Scriptures
The early followers of Jesus were Hebrew-speaking Jews, who lived in the land of Israel, practiced first-century Judaism, and were conversant with the Hebrew Scriptures. They were convinced that Jesus was their long-awaited Promised One. However, most Jewish leadership did not share their view. These leaders held that Jesus never fulfilled the requirements to be the Messiah. Thus, began an ancient debate that has carried on for almost two thousand years. Today, all the main branches of Judaism maintain that Jesus is not the Jewish Messiah.
Did Jesus fulfill messianic prophecy?
Dennis Prager, in Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, writes:
Why do Jews not accept Jesus as the Messiah? Judaism does not believe that Jesus was the Messiah because he did not fulfill any messianic prophecies . . . The Messiah will bring universal peace . . . It has been obvious for over nineteen hundred years [and] the messianic days of peace have not arrived.1
Alfred J. Kolatch, in The Jewish Book of Why, explains:
Of the Jews living in Palestine in the early centuries . . . relatively few accepted him as the Messiah whose coming . . .was predicted by the prophets of Israel . . . The arrival of the Messiah was to bring with it the amelioration of oppressive conditions and the restoration of Israel to its former glory.2
Moreover, some evangelical Christians actually side with these rabbis. Pro-Israel Jewish supporter Rev. John Hagee argues that Jesus is the savior of the Gentiles, but He is not (at least was not in the first century) the Jewish Messiah:
There is not one verse of Scripture in the New Testament that says Jesus came to be the Messiah . . . And if Jesus refused by his words or actions to claim the be the Messiah to the Jews, then how can the Jews be blamed for rejecting what was never offered?3
Did Jesus claim to be the Messiah?
The first Jewish followers of Jesus claimed that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Mainstream Judaism maintains that he was not. Since when have Jewish people completely agreed with one another? The discussion is entirely academic if Jesus, himself, never claimed to be the Messiah. Did Jesus ever make this claim? Luke recorded this account:
These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled . . .Thus it is written, that the Messiah should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:44, ESV)
Jesus carefully divided the Jewish canon into its three traditional parts: the Torah (Law), the Nevi’im (Prophets), and the Ketuvim (writings and Psalms) from which Judaism derived the acrostic Tanakh. Jesus pointed to the Hebrew canon, in its traditional form, and claimed that it described him.
Propaganda or promised one?
Are these words the propaganda of a charlatan, passionately painting himself into the pages of the holy text? Did Jesus seek by disingenuous means to persuade his followers that he is the Promised One, going so far as to allege that the Jewish prophets described his life? If so, his dishonesty calls into question the many truth-claims he made throughout the New Testament. If Jesus was dishonest, insincere, or misrepresented himself, then how can we trust his teaching?
Were these words redacted into the gospels over one hundred years after Jesus’ death by anonymous editors? Did early Christians vainly attempt to validate Christianity in order to answer hostile critics who argued that Christians followed a defeated leader? The German historian Rudolph Bultmann claimed that neither Jesus nor his followers foresaw his arrest and execution by the Romans. In the second century AD, Christians attempted to explain this dilemma by appropriating passages out of the Jewish Scriptures, out of context, that they believed foretold that the Messiah would die and rise again. They then carelessly applied these passages to Jesus in their effort to explain his early failure to establish the messianic kingdom. According to this German theologian, the predictions of the Messiah’s death and resurrection “were later products of the Hellenistic Church . . . insofar as the idea of a suffering, dying, rising Messiah . . . was unknown to Judaism.” 4
Did Jesus misrepresent himself or misinterpret the Jewish Bible? Did early Christians, a generation after his death, misapply the Jewish Scriptures in a polemical attempt to bolster the faith and respond to critics? If either of these arguments are true, then the entire New Testament collapses along with Yeshua, his authority, and all of his teaching. If Yeshua’s claims were untruthful, or if they were redacted into the Bible one hundred years after his death, then Jesus cannot be the promised Messiah. Those who believe in him are deluded. No one should believe in Jesus, not even Gentiles. However, if he was clearly described in the pages of the Jewish Bible, and honestly foretold by the prophets, then everyone should believe in him, especially his own Jewish people. These questions lie at the heart of the great debate.
What exactly is the Messiah?
The word messiah is derived from the Hebrew word מָשִׁיחַ (mashiach) which is translated “one who is anointed.” The noun comes from the verb “to anoint,” a ceremonial process involving the coronation of the king and commissioning of priests throughout the Jewish Bible. The concept of a particular Anointed One, developed within the Jewish Scriptures and refers to a promised descendant from the line of King David who will redeem the Jewish people and reign on the Davidic throne. In the Greek Bible, the word is translated Christos, from which we get the English word “Christ.” Traditional Judaism and Christianity agree in principle that the Messiah will be a monarch, a descendant of King David, who will reign on his throne, and establish a global kingdom. He is sent by God and will usher in a utopian era of peace.
Jewish views of the Messiah
Traditional Jewish views focus on the Messiah’s victorious reign. The Jewish Encyclopedia says, “the descendant of David . . . is to free Israel from the power of the heathen world, kill its ruler and destroy his hosts, and set up his own kingdom of peace.”5 Spitzer says, “The Messiah will help usher in the redemption of the Jewish people . . . judge and descendant of King David . . . great warrior . . . skilled judge . . . [and] academic head.”6 Contemporary Jewish views stress the messianic era of peace and minimized or altogether rejected the belief in a literal, personal Messiah. It emphasized human responsibility and effort to repair the world, heal society, and usher in a utopian era of civilization: “There is no messiah, just a messianic age . . . Reform Judaism rejected the traditional Jewish hope for an heir of King David to arise.”7
Biblical definitions of the Messiah
The earliest reference to a prophetic son of David is found in 2 Samuel, approximately 1000 BC. During David’s reign, his court prophet Nathan declared to him, “When your days are done and you lie with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you . . . and I will establish his kingship. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish his royal throne forever” (2 Samuel 7:13-14, JPS). About three hundred years later, in the dynastic reign of David’s line, Isaiah the prophet declared to Judah, “A shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse , a twig shall sprout from his stock. The spirit of the LORD shall alight upon him: A spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of counsel and valor, a spirit of devotion and reverence for the LORD” (Isaiah 11:1-4, JPS).
The prophet Hosea predicted that the Jewish people will languish without a king on the throne for centuries and then one day God will send a descendant of David to reign: “The Israelites shall go a long time without king and without officials, without . . . Afterward, the Israelites will turn back and will seek the LORD their God and David their king—and they will thrill over the LORD . . . in the days to come” (Hosea 3:4-5, JPS). The first century Jewish writer of 4 Ezra expressed his messianic hopes:
This is the Messiah whom the Most High hath kept until the end of days, who shall spring from the seed of David, and shall come and speak unto them; he shall reprove them for their ungodliness, rebuke them for their unrighteousness, reproach them to their faces with their treacheries (4 Ezra 12:32).8
While traditional Judaism and Christianity agree that God will send the world a promised redeemer, a descendant of King David who will establish peace, how will people recognize him when he comes? What were the prophecies in the Jewish Scriptures that described the coming Messiah, and how can we be certain that Jesus fulfilled them? This study will explore four objective tests for the promised Messiah: (1) Where was the Messiah supposed to be born? (2) What miraculous signs would point to this birth? (3) What would the Messiah accomplish? (4) When would these events transpire? Where, what, and when. The study will discuss passages taken from the Jewish Scriptures, often called the Old Testament. In most of the passages, I will be using the translation by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS), 1985.
Messiah will be born in Bethlehem
According to the Jewish Scriptures, the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. The Hebrew prophet Micah said:
And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrata, least among the clans of Judah, from you one shall come forth to rule Israel for Me, one whose origin is from of old, from ancient times…He shall stand and shepherd by the might of the LORD, by the power of the name of the LORD his God, and they shall dwell [secure]. For lo, he shall wax great to the ends of the earth (Micah 5:1-3, JPS) [In other translations this is Micah 5:2-4]
Historic context of Micah 5:2‘s messianic prophecy
At the time Micah lived, the kingdom was divided between ten tribes composing the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and two southern tribes composing Judah. These kingdoms fought perpetually. Micah lived in the southern kingdom of Judah, and prophesied around the eighth century BC, during the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom and its expansion toward Judah.9 During the reign of Hezekiah of Judah, Assyria marched upon Israel and proceeded to besiege Jerusalem. Micah consoled Hezekiah and Judah with the promise that Assyria would not defeat Judah. Moreover, God will send a redeemer who will reign over the people so that they may live in security: “He shall stand and shepherd by the might of the LORD . . . and they shall dwell secure” (Micah 5:3a, JPS). This will be no ordinary king from David’s line. His reign will extend “to the ends of the earth” (Micah 5:3b, JPS).
It is clear this prophecy could only point to the Messiah because (1) Micah described a future king of Israel, (2) whose kingdom will be global, and (3) who will redeem Israel from her enemies, and (4) who will establish for the Jewish people security and peace. No king of Judah or of Northern Israel after ever accomplished this task. Furthermore, the king will be born in Bethlehem, the genealogical origin of David’s dynasty. Logically, a descendant of David should emerge from his ancestral hometown.
Jewish interpretations of Micah’s messianic prophecy
Early Jewish interpreters understood this passage as messianic. The Jerusalem Talmud relates a conversation between a local Arab and a Jewish farmer:
An Arab said to him . . . “Jew, Jew . . . today the Messiah-king was born.” He said to him, “What is his name?” [He replied] “Menachem” . . . [The Jew asked] “Where is he from?” He said to him, “From the royal capital of Bethlehem in Judea.” (y. Berachot 2:3)10
Eliezer ben Hyrkanus relates in his midrashic work Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer that the Messiah’s name will be called Yinnon (to continue) citing Micah 5, “But thou, Bethlehem . . . from thee shall he come forth unto me who is to be ruler over Israel; whose ancestry belongs to the past, even the days of old” (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 3:1).11
Eliezer makes a remarkable observation: though the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, he existed “before the world was created” (Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 3:1). Micah says his goings forth are מִימֵי עֹולָֽם mimei olam (“from the days of eternity”). In other words, the Messiah has eternally existed. The Messiah is not a created being. The text implies a divine nature. Early Jewish interpreters understood this. The writer of 1 Enoch says, “From the beginning the Son of Man was hidden and the Most High has preserved him” (1 Enoch 62:7). Classical rabbinic texts described a pre-existent Messiah in b. Pesachim 54a, Nedarim 39a, the Revelation of R Joshua b Levi, and Seder Gan Eden.12
Summary of Micah 5:2
According to Micah 5:2, the Messiah will come from the town of Bethlehem. Matthew understood this meaning in the first century when he cites this verse to explain Jesus’ credentials (Matthew 2:6). Early Jewish commentators understood this to be a messianic prophecy describing the origins of the Messiah. Moreover, it is logical that the descendant of David should arise from his ancestral hometown, Bethlehem. The word בֵּית־לֶחֶם beit-lechem means “house of bread.” How interesting that the one who called himself the “bread of life” (John 6:35,48) would be born in a city known as the “house of bread!”
Messiah will be born of a virgin
The Messiah, born in Bethlehem, will have a miraculous birth—born of a virgin. Isaiah the prophet, a contemporary of Micah, described the birth and mission of the Messiah.
Historic Context for Isaiah 7‘s messianic prophecy
Isaiah taught in Judah in the last third of the eighth century BC and prophesied to the kings of Judah during the reigns of Uzziah, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.13 Isaiah 7 describes King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of the Northern Kingdom of Israel marching upon Jerusalem to depose Ahaz and establish a puppet monarch (Isaiah 7:1). Isaiah met Ahaz outside Jerusalem to deliver God’s promise of redemption. He offered Ahaz a sign: “Ask for a sign from the LORD your God, anywhere down to Sheol or up to the sky.” But Ahaz replied, “I will not ask, and I will not test the LORD.” (Isaiah 7:11).
Isaiah then addressed the entire house of David and the house of Israel. The following is from the English Standard Version: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14, ESV). Isaiah foretold the birth of a redeemer, born of a virgin, whose name, Immanuel (עִמָּנוּ אֵֽל), translated “God with us.” Matthew along with the early followers of Jesus understood Isaiah 7:14 to describe the virgin birth of Jesus:
When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit . . . All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). (Matthew 1:18-23, ESV)
Objections to Isaiah 7:14
Critics question Matthew’s translation of Isaiah. Some modern Bible versions translate the phrase “the young woman shall conceive” rather than “the virgin shall conceive” (e.g., Jewish Publication Society, New Revised Standard Version, New English Bible, New Jerusalem Bible). At issue is how to translate the Hebrew word עלמה (‘almah). In modern Hebrew, this word refers to a young adult of marital age.14 Tovia Singer, of Outreach Judaism explains that the Hebrew word merely refers to young woman who may or may not be a virgin. The word bethulah (בְּתוּלָה) specifically refers to an unmarried virgin. Had Isaiah meant “virgin,” he would have used this word instead:
For nearly two millennia the Church has insisted that the Hebrew word almah אלמה can only mean “virgin.” This is a vital position for defenders of Christianity to take because Matthew 1:22-23 translates almah in Isaiah 7:14 as “virgin.” The first Gospel quotes this well-known verse to provide the only “Old Testament” proof text for the supposed virgin birth of Jesus…Matthew crudely misquoted the prophet Isaiah, and both a key tenet of Christianity and the credibility of the first Gospel collapses.15
For centuries, rabbis argued that Matthew mistranslated Isaiah 7:14, perhaps conveniently, to build a case for the virgin birth. The doctrine of the virgin birth is founded on Christian mistranslation of the Jewish Scriptures.
Responses to Isaiah’s prophecy
While it is true that the word בְּתוּלָה bethulah is used in rabbinic Hebrew to refer to a sexually pure woman, it is not clear how the word אלמה ‘almah was used by Isaiah in the eighth century BC. The Hebrew language has evolved from Biblical Hebrew to rabbinic Hebrew, and arrived at Modern Hebrew. The English language has similarly evolved. Beowulf (c. 725 AD) was composed in Old English, about 800 years before the King James Bible ushered what is now considered Modern English.16
Consider this excerpt from the prelude to Beowulf:
Hwæt we Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. 17
Most of these words are no longer in modern English dictionaries. What is clear, is that the English language has evolved significantly in 800 years. The Hebrew language is over three thousand years old. It is logical to assume that the usage of common words has evolved.
Ancient Greek translations of ‘almah’
How did Isaiah and his contemporaries understand the word אלמה ‘almah in this passage in the eighth century BC? The word is used ten times in the Hebrew Bible. While it is unclear if it describes a woman who is sexually pure, it is never used to refer to a married woman ‘ishah (אִשָּׁה). It is always used of a young woman whom, in ancient society, would usually be a virgin. In the third century BC, Jewish scholars in Alexandria, Egypt translated the Jewish Scriptures into Greek. Tradition held that 70 sages carried out the translation. The Greek translation became known as the Septuagint (LXX).18 Among the LXX manuscripts is a Greek edition of Isaiah 7:14 which reads:
διὰ τοῦτο δώσει κύριος αὐτὸς ὑμῖν σημεῖον ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Εμμανουηλ
(Isaiah 7:14, LXX)19
Therefore, the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Emmanuel.20
According to this translation, the word for ‘almah is translated παρθένος (parthenos), the Greek word for “virgin.” Parthenos is related to the name of the Greek temple in Athens, the Parthenon, devoted to Athena, the eternal virgin. This word is used throughout the New Testament and in classical Greek literature, such as Homer, to signify a sexually pure young woman.21 Therefore, two centuries before Christianity, Jewish interpreters understood this passage to describe a virgin birth.
Ancient Ugaritic usage of ‘almah’
However, still more linguistic evidence even before Isaiah’s time indicates that the word ‘almah most likely referred to virgin. Moreover, Isaiah’s annunciation may have been a familiar formula from Near Eastern literature. In 1929, French archaeologists discovered in Ras Shamra, Syria the remains of the eleventh century BC, city of Ugarit. The vast amount of Ugaritic literature found shed light on the use of Hebrew words. The Ugaritic word ‘glmt is the cognate for the Hebrew ‘almah and is used exclusively to describe the perpetual virginity of the Near Eastern goddess Anat. E. J. Young says, “In Ras Shamra, as we have already seen, without exception it has reference to an unmarried woman, and is constantly used as a designation for [the goddess] Anat.”22
In 1933, a fourteenth-century BC clay tablet was found narrating the marriage of the virgin goddess Nikkal and the moon god Yarih.23 Line 5 says: hl ‘glmt tld ben, “Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”24
The annunciation is almost word-for-word identical with Isaiah 7:14. Gastor says, “These words equate with the famous utterance, Isaiah vii, 14 . . . is thus shown to be a quotation!”25 Cyrus Gordon, one of the scholars of the Ancient Near East who researched the findings said,
It is there predicted that the [virgin] goddess will bear a son The terminology is remarkably close to that in Isaiah 7:14 . . . she is called by the exact etymological counterpart of Hebrew ‘almah . . . therefore the New Testament rendering of ‘almah as “virgin” for Isaiah 7:14 rests on the older Jewish interpretation which in turn is now borne out for precisely this annunciation formula by a text that is not only pre-Isaiahnic but is pre-Mosaic . . . on a clay tablet.26
Isaiah could have used alternative words such as bethulah, ‘ishah, na’arah, yaldah, or another term for young woman. He chose a word that was already familiar from the annunciation of miraculous birth of divine origin. He chose a word found in pre-Assyrian literature at a time when the Assyrian empire was threatening to overtake Judah. Oswalt explains:
He [Isaiah] may have used this term precisely because of its richness and diversity. The Ugaritic cognate ‘glmt is used with reference to a goddess who was understood to be a perpetual virgin . . . perhaps then it is the dual focus of the oracle that explains the use of ‘almah here.27
Summary of Isaiah 7:14’s messianic prophecy
Some translators still believe the Hebrew word ‘almah is ambiguous. By itself, and without a historic context, it may not indicate a virgin. It is only used ten times in the Bible. In modern Hebrew, the word does not refer to a virgin. What is clear, is that there was an ancient context for the word: (1) in Isaiah 7:14, it indicated a miraculous birth, (2) it was understood in the third century BC by Jewish sages in Egypt to describe a virgin birth, and (3) the syntax of this prophecy follows the formula of a pre-existent Near Eastern annunciation of a virgin birth of a son of the gods in nearby literature. It would have been understood in that context by the eight-century readers and by Isaiah.
Messiah will suffer and die to atone for sin
In Isaiah 53, the prophet foretells that the Messiah will suffer and die for the sins of Israel before.
Historic context for messianic prophecies in
The oldest objection to the Messiahship of Jesus has been that he never established peace on earth and restored the Jewish nation.
World peace must accompany the Messiah, and should peace not come, the Messiah has obviously not come . . . what is the Christian explanation? There will be . . . a second coming, at which time Jesus will fulfill the messianic functions originally expected of him. For Jews . . . this explanation is logically unsatisfactory and the idea of a second coming is nowhere to be found in the Bible.28
Rabbis argued that the Messiah was supposed to establish peace on earth, restore the kingdom to Israel, and reign on the throne of David. Since Jesus died without accomplishing these, he is not the Messiah. Christians construed the idea of a second coming and that the Messiah first had to die for our sins. This belief is not found in the Jewish Scriptures, nor was it ever accepted by Judaism prior to Jesus. Was the “second coming” an afterthought by Christians? Or did the Hebrew prophets describe a suffering Messiah who would precede a reigning Messiah?
The Servant Songs
Isaiah’s Servant Songs (Isaiah 42, 49, 50, and 53) are prose describing the life and mission of one simply identified as the Servant of Yahweh. These passages describe his mission:
This is My servant, whom I uphold, My chosen one, in whom I delight. I have put My spirit upon him, He shall teach the true way to the nations. (Isaiah 42:1, JPS)
He who formed me in the womb to be His servant—To bring back Jacob to Himself, that Israel may be restored to Him. (Isaiah 49:5, JPS)
Then in the 53rd chapter, Isaiah writes,
He was despised, shunned by men, A man of suffering, familiar with disease. As one who hid his face from us, He was despised, we held him of no account. Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing, our suffering that he endured. We accounted him plagued, smitten and afflicted by God; But he was wounded because of our sins, crushed because of our iniquities. He bore the chastisement that made us whole, and by his bruises we were healed. We all went astray like sheep, each going his own way; And the LORD visited upon him the guilt of all of us. (Isaiah 53:3-6, JPS)
In this passage, Isaiah describes the servant of the Yahweh as (1) rejected by people, (2) suffering, (3) wounded for Israel’s transgressions, and (4) carrying the guilt of the people of Israel upon him. The word מְחֹלָל m’cholal means “to pierce” (Isaiah 53:5). The servant was pierced through.
Isaiah continues, “For he was cut off from the land of the living through the sin of my people, who deserved the punishment” (Isaiah 53:8 JPS).
The servant is killed. However, his death is considered by the prophet to be a guilt offering: “He made himself an offering for guilt” (53:10 JPS). The word for guilt offering, ‘asham (אסהאם), is used in the Pentateuch for the guilt offering the high priest offered on behalf of Israel to atone for their sins.
Rabbinic interpretations of Isaiah’s Servant Songs
Remarkably, this mission of the servant seems to describe Jesus. Jesus was rejected by the nation, suffered, identified with those who suffered, and was martyred. However, his followers claimed that his death atoned for the sins of the people. Rabbis disagree with this interpretation. In the first place, Isaiah says, “You are My servant, Israel in whom I glory” (Isaiah 49:3, JPS). The medieval exegete Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi) explained that the servant described is Israel.
He mentions all Israel as one man, e.g., (44:2) “Fear not, My servant Jacob”; (44:1) “And now, hearken, Jacob, My servant.” Here too (52:13), “Behold My servant shall prosper,” he said concerning the house of Jacob.29
In response, it must be said that Rashi wrote his commentary in France during the first Crusade. In 1096, European armies marched through the Rhineland on their way to liberate Palestine. As they passed through the Rhineland, they burned down Jewish villages and murdered Jews.30 It is logical that Rashi witnessed the suffering of the Jewish people at the hands of sinners, and saw in this tragic servant of the LORD a personification of Medieval Jewish suffering.
Rashi, Isaiah 53, and Israel
Whatever his reasons, Rashi was the first interpreter to apply Isaiah 53 to Israel and influence future interpretation of this passage. “Until Rashi . . . applied it [Isaiah 53] to the Jewish nation, the Messianic interpretation of this chapter was almost universally adopted by Jews.”31 Some rabbis disagreed with Rashi and continued to maintain that the servant of Yahweh is the messiah. R. Eliyya de Vidas writing in 16th century said,
The meaning of “He was wounded for our transgressions, . . . bruised for our iniquities,” is that since the Messiah bears our iniquities, which produce the effect of His being bruised, it follows that whoso will not admit that the Messiah thus suffers for our iniquities must endure and suffer for them himself.32
Prior to the Rashi’s reinterpretation of the meaning, the servant of Yahweh was understood by most Jewish sages to refer to the Messiah. The following are some examples: Targum Jonathan (an Aramaic translation) of the book of Isaiah, dating around the second century, says,
“Behold, My servant the Messiah shall prosper.”33 The Babylonian Talmud says, What is the Messiah’s name? . . . The rabbis said: his name is the ‘Leper Scholar.’ As it is written Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted (b. Sanhedrin 98b)34
Midrash Ruth Rabbah, dated around the fifth century AD, a commentary on the Book of Ruth, comments on Ruth’s interaction with Boaz:
And Boaz said unto her . . . come hither, and eat of the bread, and dip thy morsel in the vinegar . . . [an] interpretation makes it refer to the Messiah . . . And dip thy morsel in the vinegar refers to his sufferings as it is said, But he was wounded because of our transgressions (Isaiah LIII, 5) (Midrash Ruth Rabbah 5:6)35
The medieval rabbi Maimonides (Rambam) wrote in the twelfth century:
What is to be the manner of Messiah’s advent, and where will be the place of his appearance? . . . He came up as a sucker before him, and as a root out of the dry earth . . . in the words of Isaiah, when describing the manner in which the kings . . . will shut their mouth; for that which had not been told them they have seen, and that which they had not heard they have perceived.36
Pre-Christian interpretations of Isaiah 53
Perhaps the most remarkable finding is from Qumran. Second century BC discoveries among the Dead Sea Scrolls found pre-rabbinic Jewish interpretations of Isaiah 53 during the second temple period. Among them is the Self-Glorification Hymn, 4Q471b, in which the writer quotes Isaiah 53 in first person and identifies himself as a divine Messiah, seated in heaven with the angels:
Who is counted as me to be despised and who is despised as me? Who is like me, forsaken by men . . . And who is like me among the gods [angels] . . . for I [am seated] with the gods [angels], and my glory is with the sons of the King.37
The Israeli archaeologist Israel Knohl explains that the writer of the hymn claims to be the Messiah, and even claims to be, in some sense, divine. The Qumran Messiah claims to be the suffering Messiah from Isaiah 53, and at the same time seated in heaven with the angels. The finding is significant because it dates the messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 over a century before Christianity and before the emergence of rabbinic Judaism:
Thus, the messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 was not discovered in the Christian Church. It was already developed by Qumran. In view of these facts, we should consider the possibility that the depiction of Jesus as a combination of the “Son of Man” and the “suffering servant” was not a later invention of the Church. Perhaps the historical Jesus really did see himself in this way.38
These citations address the very heart of the question raised at the beginning of the study. Did early Christians reinterpret the messianic narrative in the Jewish Bible in order to explain Jesus’ death? Clearly, many Jews already understood that the Messiah would suffer and die for the sins of the people. They interpreted Isaiah 53 in that way. A suffering, then later, reigning messiah was an acceptable view not only by Christians or rabbinic scholars but even by pre-rabbinic interpreters before the first century.
Messianic prophecy in Zechariah 12:10
This discussion begs the question: isn’t the Messiah supposed to establish peace on earth and reign on David’s throne? When the Messiah is revealed, Zechariah 12:10 describes a scene in which the nation of Israel mourns because they see that Messiah has been pierced:
And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. (Zechariah 12:10, ESV)
The Hebrew phrase אֵת אֲשֶׁר־דָּקָרוּ et asher daqru means “whom they have pierced.” It refers to Israel mourning as they look upon one whom they wounded. The verb refers to piercing and running through with a sharp weapon.39 The passage describes the arrival of the Messiah to rein on David’s throne. The response of the nation is sorrow and repentance when they see that he was pierced.
Second Temple literature acknowledged that the Messiah would die before he would reign. The apocryphal book of 4 Ezra says, “For My son, the Messiah shall be revealed . . . And it shall be after those years, that My son, the Messiah shall die” (4 Ezra 7:27-30).40
Messiah would be killed before the Messianic era
Rabbinic literature also acknowledged that the Messiah would be killed before the Messianic era, however separated the personages into two separate figures. Interpreters described the first prophetic figure who will be killed as Messiah ben Joseph, and the second prophetic figure who will reign as Messiah ben David. The Babylonian Talmud says, “And the land shall mourn, every family apart (Zechariah 12:12) . . . One said ‘This is the mourning over the Messiah’” (b. Sukkot 52a).41 It also says, “And the land shall mourn (Zechariah 12:12). What is the reason of the mourning . . . R. Dosa says . . . ”over the Messiah who will be slain”(b. Sukkot 52a).42 One medieval commentator wrote, “When Messiah ben Joseph is killed his body will remain cast out for forty days . . . until Messiah ben David comes and brings him back to life . . . and then Messiah ben David . . . will in safety and peace for many days” (Hai Gaon). 43
From this discussion, it is clear that the traditional Jewish view that the Messiah will come once and establish peace on earth, restore the throne of King David, and found a Messianic kingdom is only half of the narrative. This view disregards the greater mission of the Messiah: to establish peace between the human race and God. That peace had to be established first through the Messiah’s atoning death for sin. That first mission was described in Isaiah 53 and Zechariah 12:10. It was understood in Second Temple Judaism, by the Qumran community, and even within rabbinic Jewish texts.
Messiah will die before AD 70
According to the Jewish Scriptures, the Messiah will come before the temple is destroyed. The Second Temple was destroyed in AD 70 which logically means that if God’s promises to send a redeemer to Israel may trusted, then the Messiah must have come before its destruction.
Throughout the Jewish Scriptures, the Messiah is referred to as “the root of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:10), one who will reign on the “throne of David” (Isaiah 9:7, Jeremiah 17:25; 22:2, 4, and 30), along with other titles describing his role and Davidic lineage. The only text in the Jewish Bible where the term haMashiach (the Messiah) is found is in Daniel 9:24-26:
You must know and understand: From the issuance of the word to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the anointed leader [Messiah] is seven weeks; and sixty-two weeks it will be rebuilt . . . in a time of distress. And after those sixty-two weeks, the anointed one [Messiah] will disappear and vanish. The army of a leader who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. (Daniel 9:25-26, JPS)
Context of Daniel’s prophetic writing
Daniel was a young man when he was taken to Babylon (modern day Iraq) by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. At the time, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the First Temple, and carried most of the inhabitants into exile. In chapter 9, Daniel is now an old man and asks God when the city of Jerusalem, and the temple (sanctuary) will be rebuilt. God answers Daniel through a prophecy. He is given a chronology of events. These are the sequence of events described in Daniel 9: (1) the temple will be rebuilt in times of trouble, (2) the Messiah will arrive, (3) the Messiah will be cut off or be killed, and (4) after his death, Jerusalem and the temple will be destroyed by an army.
The Hebrew word translated “anointed” is the word mashiach. This word is used generically in the Bible to describe one who has been anointed. However, in this passage it is describing a promised royal king or prince מָשִׁיחַ נָגִיד mashiach nagid who is to come. The passage says that King Messiah will be cut down or destroyed:
יִכָּרֵת מָשִׁיחַ וְאֵין לֹו
Yikarat mashiach v’ein lo
Time period for the Messiah’s arrival
Furthermore, the passage describes a specific timetable when these historical events will occur. It says that these events will transpire over the course of sixty-nine weeks “from the issuance of the word to . . . rebuild Jerusalem until . . . [Messiah] is seven weeks . . . and sixty-two weeks” (Daniel 9:25) (i.e., sixty-nine weeks). The Hebrew word used that was loosely translated שִׁבְעִים shevi’im is actually not the word for seven days. The Hebrew word for seven days is the feminine plural word, שׁבעות shavuot. The word used, שִׁבְעִים shevi’im, refers to a heptad or unit of seven years. It is used elsewhere in Daniel and also found in (c.f. Mishnah Baba Metzia 9:10; Mishnah Sanhedrin 5:1) where it describes a heptad or seven years.44 Therefore, the term “seven-years and sixty-two years”, is referring to sixty-nine units of seven years, or 483 years.
Therefore, the prophecy says that there will be 483 years between the “issuance of the word to rebuild Jerusalem” and the coming of King Messiah. Then it goes on to say that the Messiah will be “cut off.” Which decree is the prophecy referring to? There are several decrees in the Jewish Scriptures permitting the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Cyrus decreed that the Jewish people should return from captivity and rebuild the temple around 539 BC (2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4). Darius’ decreed authorized the Jewish people to resume constructing the temple (Ezra 5:3-17). Artaxerxes authorized more exiles to return to Jerusalem (Ezra 7:11-26).
However, it was the decree of Artaxerxes to Nehemiah that specifically named Jerusalem and authorized the Jewish people to rebuild and restore of the city (Nehemiah 2:1-8). According to the Book of Nehemiah, the decree to rebuild Jerusalem was given in “in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year” of the reign of Artaxerxes (Nehemiah 1:1, JPS). According to historical sources, Artaxerxes ascended to the throne in December (Tishrei) 465 BC.45 Since he ascended to the throne in December (Tishrei), after the Jewish New Year, the twentieth year of his reign falls in 444 BC.
If Artaxerxes issued the decree to rebuild Jerusalem in 444 BC, and the Messiah is prophesied to be cut off 483 years later, it should be a simple matter to calculate when that would be. However, the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, consisting of 360 days. Our historical years are described according to a solar calendar, consisting of 365.2422 days.46 Therefore, in order to carry out the calculation, the lunar years have to be converted into solar years.
The prophecy describes a time period of sixty-nine weeks (units of seven-years). Sixty-nine weeks is 483 lunar years (LY). One lunar year is equal to 360 days. To convert the time period from years to days, one multiplies 483LY X 360 days/LY = 173,880 days. One solar year (SY) is 365.2422 days. To convert the time period from days into solar years, one divides 173,880 days ÷ 365.2422 SY/day = 476.07 SY. Therefore, the prophecy speaks of 483 lunar years or 476.07 solar years.
To see this visually, consider this calculation:
|69 weeks||7 lunar years||360 days||1 solar years||= 476.07 solar years|
|week||1 lunar year||365.2422 days|
If the decree to rebuild Jerusalem was given in on 444 BC, then add 476.07 solar years and one arrives at the year AD 32. However, there is no year zero. AD 1 came immediately after 1 BC. Therefore, it is necessary to add one year. The final number is AD 33. A number of scholars have supported AD 33 as the year of Jesus’ crucifixion including H. Hoehner, 47 J. K. Fotheringham, 48 J. Finnegan, 49 P. Barnett, 50 R. E. Brown,51 and C Humphreys.52
Conclusion on messianic prophecy
Followers of Yeshua have maintained for almost two thousand years that Jesus is the promised Messiah of Israel and was clearly described in the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures. Luke records that Jesus himself made that claim. Critics have maintained that Jesus was not described in the Jewish Scriptures. Either he was mistaken, the claims were generated after his death, or early followers of the Messiah altogether mistranslated the Jewish Scriptures.
This study explored five key prophecies in the Jewish Bible: (1) the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, (2) the Messiah will be born of a virgin, (3) the Messiah will suffer and die to atone for sin, and (4) the Messiah will die before the Second Temple is destroyed. The evidence points to Jesus as the one who filled the requirements to be the Messiah.
If Jesus is not the Messiah described in the Jewish Scriptures, then it would be wrong for anyone, including Christians, to accept him as anything more than a first-century moral teacher. If he is the promised Messiah, then he is the promised redeemer for all people including his own people, the Jewish people.
1. Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1981), 87.
2. Alfred J. Kolatch, The Jewish Book of Why, vol. 1 (Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David Publishers, 1985), 71.
3. John Hagee, In Defense of Israel, First Ed. (Lake Mary, FL: FrontLine, 2007), 136.
4. Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, trans. Kendrick Grobel, vol. 1 (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 1951), 4.
5. Joseph Jacobs and Moses Buttenweiser, “Messiah,” Jewish Encyclopedia (New York, NY: Kopelman Foundation, 1906), Article. 10729, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10729-messiah.
6. J Spitzer, “Who Is the Messiah?,” My Jewish Learning, 2017, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/beliefs/Theology/Afterlife_and_Messiah/Messianism/Who_is_the_Messiah.shtml.
8. Robert Henry Charles, ed., The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English, vol. 2 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1913), 614.
9. J. Gordan McConnville, “Micah, Book Of,” ed. Mark Boda and J. G. McConnville, Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 544.
10. Jacob Neusner, ed., The Talmud of the Land of Israel, trans. Tzvee Zahavy, vol. 1 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 88.
11. Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer (Sefaria, n.d.), https://www.sefaria.org/Pirkei_DeRabbi_Eliezer.3.2/en/Sefaria_Community_Translation?lang=en&with=all&lang2=en.
12. Jacobs and Buttenweiser, “Messiah,” 511.
13. H. G. Williamson, “Isaiah, Book Of,” ed. Mark Boda and J. G. McConnville, Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 364.
14. Eliezer Ben Yehuda, “אלמה (‘almah),” Hebrew/English Dictionary (New York, NY: Pocket Books, 1989), 232.
15. T Singer, “Does the Hebrew Word Alma Really Mean ‘Virgin’?,” Outreach Judaism, accessed August 2, 2017, https://outreachjudaism.org/alma-virgin/.
16. Colin Chase, ed., The Dating of Beowulf (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1997), https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/j.ctt1287v33.
17. “Beowulf (Old English Version),” text/html, Poetry Foundation, (2017), https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43521/beowulf-old-english-version.
18. Crawford Howell Toy and Richard Gottheil, “Bible Translations,” Jewish Encyclopedia (New York, NY: Kopelman Foundation, 1906), 186, http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3269-bible-translations.
19. Alfred Rahlf, ed., Septuaginta, trans. Bernard Taylor and Dale Wheeler, Version 5.4, 2012.
20. Lancelot C Brenton, ed., The Septuagint in English (LXX-B), Accordance Edition (London, UK: Samuel Bagster and Sons Ltd., 1851).
21. Joseph Thayer, “Παρθένος,” Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon (Peabdoy, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995).
23. Theodor Herzl Gaster, “The ‘Graces’ in Semitic Folklore: A Wedding-Song from Ras Shamru,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society January, no. 1 (January 1938): 37.
24. Ibid., 45.
25. Ibid., 50.
27. John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1986), 210.
28. Prager and Telushkin, Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, 87.
29. “Yeshayahu – Isaiah – Chapter 53,” Chabad.Org, 2017, http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/15984/jewish/Chapter-53.htm.
30. “Rashi (Solomon Ben Isaac),” 2017, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/rashi.
33. Samson Levey, An Aramaic Interpretation; the Messianic Exegesis of the Targum (Cincinnati, OH: Hebrew Union College, 1974), 63.
34. Isadore Epstein, ed., The Hebrew-English Edition of the Babylonian Talmud, trans. J Schacter and H Freedman, New Ed., vol. Tractate Sanhedrin (London, UK: Soncino Press, 1994), 98b.
35. H Freedman and M Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah: Ruth, trans. L Rabinowitz, vol. 8 (New York, NY: Soncino Press, 1983), 61-64.
36. Samuel R. Driver and Adolf Neubauer, The Suffering Servant of Isaiah (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Pub, 1877), 374.
37. G. Vermes, trans., The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Revised Ed. (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2012), 343.
38. Israel Knohl, The Messiah Before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls, trans. David Maisel (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 26.
39. S. Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs, דָּקַר A Hebrew Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1907).
40. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English.
41. Cf. https://www.sefaria.org/Sukkah.52a?lang=bi. Sefaria uses the William Davidson English edition and renders, “The land will eulogize, each family separately . . . One said that this eulogy is for Messiah ben Yosef.”
43. Ibid., 169.
44. H. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1977), 119.
45. S. H. Horn and L. H. Wood, “The Fifth-Century Jewish Calendar at Elephantine,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 13, no. 1 (1954): 9, doi:10.2307/543003.
46. “Solar Calendar,” Encyclopedia Britannica (Encyclopedia Britanica, 2012), https://www.britannica.com/science/solar-calendar.
47. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of Life of Christ.
48. J. K. Fotheringham, “THE EVIDENCE OF ASTRONOMY AND TECHNICAL CHRONOLOGY FOR THE DATE OF THE CRUCIFIXION,” The Journal of Theological Studies 35, no. 138 (1934): 146-62, doi:10.2307/23965042.
49. Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964).
50. Paul Barnett, The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub Company, 2005).
51. R. E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1994).
52. Colin J. Humphreys, The Mystery of the Last Supper: Reconstructing the Final Days of Jesus, 1 edition (Cambridge, UK New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).