Jesus, Messianic Prophecy, and a Question of Judaisms

ancient-hebrew-holy-writings

Perhaps you’ve heard this question before: “How can Jesus be the Messiah when he didn’t fulfill any of the prophecies?” A typical Christian might be surprised at this question, but trust me, it’s a question a typical Jew would ask that typical Christian. Today, I would like to address this very issue. I encourage you to check out this website to see precisely why Jews do not accept Jesus as the Messiah: http://www.aish.com/jw/s/48892792.html. This post will largely try to clarify a number of fundamental points about Judaism and Christianity, and then address some of the claims from the website.

The Judaisms of Jesus’ Day
The first thing that needs to be clarified is the fact that the “Judaism” of today is not the Judaism of ancient Israel, or even the Judaism of Jesus’ day. Babylon’s destruction of the Temple in 587 BC essentially ended the Temple-based religion of ancient Israel in the Old Testament, and after the exile there was a shift to a more Torah-based religion. Sure, both Temple and Torah were present, but there was a shift in emphasis. Before 587 BC, it was TEMPLE…Torah. After 587 BC it was TORAH…Temple.

Now, because of the fallout from the exile, there had developed a number of different “Judaisms” by the time of Jesus:

  • There was the brand backed by the Sadducees and Temple Elite, which tried to suck up to Rome in order to retain some amount of power and control of the Temple.
  • There was the brand of the Pharisees, which said, “Don’t just keep Torah, keep our oral tradition too! That way, God will know we’re really serious about being faithful to Him! Then maybe He’ll send His Messiah, bring His presence back to us, and make us the top nation in the world!”
  • There was the brand of the Essenes, which said, “You all are hopelessly corrupt! We’re going out to the desert, as the true people of God, and we’re waiting for the end the age!”
  • And then there was the brand of the Zealots, which said, “Let’s help God out by smashing in the heads of the Romans!”

HebreuxArche

Each “brand” had their own understanding of what the Messiah would do. The reason why this is important is because when the Temple was destroyed by Rome in 70 AD, that spelled the end of the “Sadducee brand” of Judaism—it died. A few years later, with the Bar-Kochba rebellion in 120 AD, the “Zealot brand” of Judaism bit the dust too. Likewise, the “Essene brand” faded away. The only “brand” that survived the destruction of Jerusalem was the Pharisaic brand of Judaism. After 70 AD it morphed into what is known today as “Rabbinic Judaism,” from which the modern forms of Judaism come.

The “Fulfilled” Judaism
Yet there was one other very important “brand” of Judaism that in the first century: the movement that developed around Jesus of Nazareth. You have to remember that Christianity originally was a “Jewish movement.” Now, there were obvious differences between the Pharisaic brand of Judaism and the “Jesus brand” of Judaism. The Pharisees emphasized strict adherence to Torah as a way to win God’s approval back—consequently, they came up with even more “oral laws” on top of the laws in the Torah. As is obvious in the New Testament, Jesus completely disagreed with them. His interpretation was that the point of the Torah was to (a) Love God and (b) Love your neighbor, defined as anyone…Samaritans, Gentiles, Jewish low-lifes…anyone.

Jesus also pronounced judgment on not only the legalism of the Pharisees, but the corruption of the Sadducees and the Temple establishment. In fact, he prophesied the Temple would be destroyed because of its corruption. And so, when it was destroyed in 70 AD, the only two “brands” of Judaism left was the Pharisaic brand, which became Rabbinic Judaism and still to this day looks for a Messiah,  and the “Jesus brand,” which developed into what we now call Christianity, which claims to be “fulfilled Judaism.”

The reason why I say “fulfilled Judaism” is because of what we are told in the Old Testament about Abraham’s covenant. The goal of that covenant had always been to redeem God’s creation and to bring about universal salvation. The formation of the nation of Israel and the establishment of the Torah was always meant to be a means to that end. The Torah, meant to define who the Jewish people were, had that purpose. But when the Messiah came to open the door of salvation to the Gentiles as well (i.e. the goal of God’s covenant with Abraham), the Torah as the defining reality of the people of God would obviously become irrelevant. It had served its purpose.

To the Prophecies!
All that background is vital to go over before addressing the issue of Jesus and Messianic prophecies. If nothing else, it is important to realize that today’s Judaism is not the “root” of Christianity. Christianity did not branch off from today’s Judaism. Rather, both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism were the two branches of the older, Pre-70 AD Jewish life.

Therefore, modern Judaism essentially stems from a rabbinic point of view. It obviously will reject Jesus’s claims because it is starting from an entirely different point of view. Right off the top, they define “Messiah” as a literal political king of an established kingdom of Israel that will rule the world in a future age of perfection. They get that view from a distinct reading of certain Old Testament passages. The question thus becomes, “Are they reading those passages correctly?” They would say yes; but the Jewish writers of the New Testament would say no. So, which interpretation is correct? Let’s look at what the website says.

1. Jesus didn’t fulfill the messianic prophecies
Christianity obviously disagrees here. Rabbinic Judaism interprets Ezekiel 37:26-28 as referring to a future third Temple. It says: 26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them forevermore. 27 My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 28 Then the nations shall know that I the LORD sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary is among them forevermore.

I think this is problematic, being that at the time of Ezekiel there wasn’t even a second Temple yet—it seems odd he would be prophesying about a third one.

In any case, Ezekiel looks forward to a time of restoration, when the people of God would have one shepherd (i.e. king), would live in the land, would enjoy an everlasting covenant with God, and would have God’s sanctuary among them. The early church said that in Jesus the Messiah, God had established His new everlasting covenant (prophesied in Jeremiah 31:31-34 as well), that the kind of sanctuary God was building was Christ’s body—the Church, and that the entire earth would be the Lord’s, not just the land of Israel. Salvation would not just be for Jews who live in the Land of Israel; it would extend to all nations throughout the earth.

Now, has the ultimate fulfillment of universal peace happened yet? Of course not. But the early Church’s testimony was that in Jesus the Messiah the wheels had been set in motion and that through the Holy Spirit (also prophesied about being poured out in Joel 2:28-29), the Kingdom of God was indeed being established throughout the world, and would be fulfilled when Jesus returns.

The last bit in this section clearly shows the difference between rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. They expect the entire cosmos to be changed in an instant with the coming of the Messiah. Christianity, on the other hand, claims that Jesus was the “firstfruits” of the New Creation, that he is the “cornerstone” of God’s Temple that is being built, and that he has planted the seeds of the Kingdom of God which are growing up over time. This is what is called the “already/not yet” view of eschatology, or “inaugurated eschatology.” Christianity proclaims that the “end times” have come, but they are not complete yet—we are thus “living between the times,” and thus have a part to play in God’ grand salvation plan as it unfolds.

2. Jesus didn’t embody the personal qualifications of Messiah
Again, Christianity disagrees. Jesus was clearly understood to be a prophet in his day. His prophecy of the Temple’s destruction vindicated him as both prophet and Messiah. I find it strange that the web article says Jesus couldn’t be a prophet because prophecy ceased in Israel in 300 BC. If they’re still looking for a Messiah who is a prophet, by their own admission it can never happen, for we are 2400 years past the deadline. Now I bet they’ll say that when the Messiah comes, God’s Spirit will be poured out once again. Well, that’s the very thing the early Christians (who were Jews) claimed had happened.

Also, Christianity does not teach that Jesus was  “demi-god.” That is a misunderstanding on Jews’ part regarding who Jesus was. As far as the Davidic lineage, the genealogies in both Matthew and Luke make the claim that Jesus was, in fact, a human being, descended from the line of David. Yes, Christianity teaches he is also God, but that is a far cry from saying Jesus was a “demi-god.” This is something that lies at the heart of the mystery of the Christian faith: Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.

As for Torah observance, I believe I addressed this earlier. Torah was the defining law for the Jews as the people of God, but it was always a means to the end of bringing salvation to the Gentiles. When Jesus came and made salvation available to Gentiles, Torah-observance became irrelevant. It was never meant to be what the Pharisees claimed it was to be—the binding “rule book” that said the only way you can be saved and part of God’s people is by getting circumcised, etc. Jesus rails against the Pharisees for this very thing.

3. The “Mistranslated Verses
Now, I am going to tell you right now. My take on this is probably different than most Evangelical Christians. (Of course, I think I’m right!)

(A)    Isaiah 7:14: I agree—almah clearly means “young woman” and not “virgin.” In the original context, it is a prophecy about the birth of Hezekiah, the future faithful king who would save God’s people from Assyrian oppression. I think Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14 with that in mind—to say that Jesus, like Hezekiah, will save people from oppression, but not that of another nation, but from sin itself.  But there is something else going on—Caesar Augustus was celebrated for being “born of a virgin.” Now, obviously people didn’t literally think that, but because they worshipped him as a god, that was a way to revere him. Given that, I think Matthew is also making the claim that  Jesus—not Caesar—is the one “born of a virgin” (i.e. God in the flesh). In short, I think he might be talking metaphorically.

(B)   Isaiah 53: The Suffering Servant—again, I agree. Isaiah 53 is clearly about the redeemed remnant of Israel who suffers in exile but who comes out from exile. I also think that the NT writers knew that full well too. That’s their point—they do this all the time. They are saying, “Jesus is just like the remnant who suffered for the sins of the nation, but whom God brought out of exile to continue to work through to bring his salvation to the world. Jesus suffered, just like the righteous remnant; Jesus was brought back from the dead, just like the righteous remnant was brought back out of exile, and in Jesus we see the fulfillment of the salvation God worked through the righteous remnant.” In short, the NT writers weren’t saying that Isaiah 53 was a PREDICTION of Jesus. They were pointing to that past event of the remnant being brought out of exile, and claiming that in Jesus, what God was doing THEN was being COMPLETED NOW, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

4. Judaism is Based on National Revelation
I find this explanation hugely problematic. It was Moses the individual who led Israel to Sinai and through whom God revealed himself. And what is the entire Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, I/II Samuel, I/II Kings, and all the prophets’ testimony about? How the Israelites continually broke the covenant and were unfaithful. They rejected Moses time and time again. They rejected YHWH as their king and wanted kings like the pagans. They rejected YHWH as their God and went after idols throughout the entire Old Testament.

So at the end when it says, “Judaism is not miracles. It is the personal eyewitness experience of every man, woman and child, standing at Mount Sinai 3,330 years ago,”—that is not only contradicting what it just said, it proves that such “eyewitness accounts” were useless. If you can’t base your faith on one person’s experience, how can you do it on many people’s experience? Subjective experience is subjective experience. Furthermore, such an eyewitness event didn’t do much for the later generations who fell away from YHWH continually.

One’s faith is based not simply on a past event, but on the continual faith-interaction with the Living God. The New Testament claims that the Pharisees were so obsessed with Torah-keeping that they essentially made that their idol, just like the Sadducees and the Temple priesthood had made the Temple their idol. Because of that, they were blind and deaf to what the Living God was doing in their midst when He sent Jesus as their Messiah. Just as they rejected Moses and every prophet YHWH had sent to them throughout their history, they also rejected Jesus. That is the essential message we find in the New Testament.

Conclusion
So how does Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism relate to each other? They are the two “brands” of Judaism that survived the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Quite obviously, they give very different answers regarding what “true Judaism” is. But I think it is best to see the New Testament as a testimony to what the early Church claimed was a “fulfilled Judaism” that was now moving into a whole different age, and then Rabbinic Judaism as an attempt to make sense of the destruction of the pre-70 AD Jewish way of life and a looking-forward to a still yet future Messiah.

3 Comments

  1. Mr. Joel greetings from Greece. I am an eastern orthodox christian too. I really enjoy your articles. I have learned a lot. I love searching about history, theology etc. I read the Scriptures, both Old and New Testament, everyday and writings of the Fathers… But I am a bit confused in this article. What do you mean in that passage about the virgin birth of our Lord? Don’t you accept the virgin birth of Jesus or the ever-virginity of our Lady? I think it is basic for our Church. I believe that the virgin birth is not only based on this verse but on Genesis 3:15 too. And I always relate in my mind Sarah with Mary. Sarah was an elder woman and barren and she got impregnated and Mary was virgin and she got impregnated too with the power of God.

    1. Hi there! Thanks for your note and your question regarding Isaiah 7:14 and the virgin birth. First of all, this short post obviously is not addressing the full issue of interpreting Isaiah 7:14. There is a lot more to tease out. But to the point: the creeds affirm that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary–I’m not going to deny that; but at the same time, I’ll admit I don’t understand it.

      I think it also needs to be acknowledged that outside of Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives, the topic of the virgin birth simply doesn’t come up again in the New Testament. The question when it comes to what Matthew and Luke were trying to convey comes down to exegesis. I think that if you and I were Jews reading Matthew, we would realize that when he was referencing Isaiah 7:14, he was referencing an event in Jewish history: the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis, when Ahaz failed to put his trust in YHWH, and Isaiah condemned him for it. In the original context of Isaiah 7, I think Isaiah is prophesying about the birth of Hezekiah, and saying that Hezekiah would be faithful, and that YHWH would work through Hezekiah to save Judah from the Assyrian oppression that Ahaz invited in. In the original context, “almah” really does just mean “young woman.” BUT, the way Matthew uses it conveys (a) Mary’s virginity, but also (b) that Jesus is like Hezekiah–He will be a faithful king who will save God’s people, not from political oppression, but from the oppression of sin and death itself.

      When Luke refers to Jesus being born of a virgin, he was addressing a Gentile audience in the Roman Empire. And if you and I were Roman citizens reading Luke’s Gospel, we would immediately associate talk of a “virgin birth” to Caesar Augustus. Virgil hailed Augustus as one “born of a virgin,” who brought his “Gospel of salvation to the entire world” –meaning political peace (the Pax Romana) to the known world. So when Luke uses that language and applies it to Jesus, he is making a clear political statement: Jesus, not Augustus, is the one truly born of a virgin, the true Lord and Savior who brings His Gospel to the world.

      Simply put, Jews and Gentiles of that time would be seeing a lot more going on in the virgin birth passages than we tend to do today. We tend to focus solely on the “Mary was a virgin” part, and we fail to see the larger message that Matthew and Luke were conveying.

      1. Yes I agree with you. I know that many of the verses that gospels use have their historical background and a bigger and more spiritual meaning in Christ. I believe that many of them are just types of Christ like Hosea 11:1, as the Apostles and the Fathers say. Hosea 11:1 is not even a prophecy. The Lord just says that He called Israel from Egypt. So you believe that our Lady is truly ever-virgin but that verse of Isaiah is not an indicative of her virginity. There are many passages of Old Testament that are types of Mary and her virginity not only Isaiah 7:14. I also noted that our Lord is mentioned in Matthew 1:9 as a descedant of kings Ahaz and Hezekiah so maybe your point is true.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: