The Messiah Texts by Raphael Patai, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989 reprint), $19.95 paperback
Everyone knows that through the ages, the sum and substance of Jewish thinking about the Messiah has been reflected in that one statement: When Messiah comes, there will be peace.” Right?
Wrong! The Messiah Texts, by Jewish scholar Raphael Patai, explodes this popular conception. Drawing from 4000 years of Biblical and Rabbinic writings, Patai assembles a veritable “Everyman’s Guide to the Messiah.” In highly readable form, this is the story of what Jews have believed about the Messiah from the days of the prophets till the 20th Century. Presenting mostly Aggadic (non-legal) material, Patai recounts the hopes, aspirations, and sometimes disillusionments of our people as we looked for the One who was to come and redeem us.
While the popular idea of a Messiah bringing peace to the world will be found in this volume, it may surprise the reader to find that many ideas about the Messiah thought to be the exclusive domain of the “Christians” are also echoed, such as the “Suffering Messiah” and the “New Worlds and a New Torah.” Considering that the New Testament was written by Jews, this is perhaps not as surprising as it might at first seem. Is the idea of a suffering and dying Messiah, so central in the New Testament, foreign and unJewish? Patai shows from both Biblical and Rabbinic sources that such a concept has been an important thread in the history of Judaism. Is it pagan and sacrilegious to call the Messiah “Lord” and “God” as do the followers of Jesus? Patai brings us the example of a 9th century writing which lists eight names for the Messiah, including “God.” And if it seems contradictory that Christians, while claiming to base their beliefs on the Old as well as the New Testament, do not keep the Law of Moses, Patai marshalls an entire chapter of material concerning a new Torah to be in effect after the Messiah comes. This reviewer wishes to point out that Patai is a Jewish scholar who does not believe in Jesus. He has neither an axe to grind nor a case to defend.
Obviously, parallels notwithstanding, the ancient rabbis did not accept the Messiahship of Jesus or the authority of the New Testament, although they are often in agreement with the New Testament that certain passages in the Bible refer to the coming Messiah. For instance, the rabbinic writers saw two different Messiahs, one who would suffer (Messiah ben Joseph) and one who would reign in triumph and establish peace (Messiah ben David). Jesus claimed to be the one Messiah who would first suffer and later return victoriously.
This reviewer would challenge those who read The Messiah Texts to also read the New Testament. You will come away convinced that the question you should be asking yourself is not “Is the New Testament Jewish?” but rather, “Could it be that Jesus really is the Messiah?” Along the way, Patai will give you a good education in Jewish Messianic thought. And if you hurry, you can buy this book in time for Pesach. For there is a Rabbinic tradition that the Messiah will come at Passover, fulfilling the dreams of a thousand generations. The Messiah Texts just might help you prepare to meet an unexpected guest.