Feb 212007
 

Is Jesus the Jewish “messiah”, and if so, why do more Jews not believe in him?

 

The first difficulty in deciding if Jesus is the Jewish “messiah” is the ambiguity of the term “messiah” in Judiasm. “Messiah” is a rather general term in the Bible meaning “anointed”. Because kings and priests were anointed with oil to set them apart, the word “messiah” can apply to any king, high priest, or other “anointed” one.  Even the pagan King Cyrus is called the Lord’s “messiah” in Isaiah 45:1.

 

There are a number of prophecies in the Old Testament that seem to point to one particular messiah of unique importance. The problem is that Jewish interpreters differ on just what these prophecies mean. Reformed Jews tend to interpret the “messiah” prophecies as pointing to the nation of Israel as a whole. Kabbalist Jews often interpret the messiah as an immortal spiritual force. Even among those who interpret the prophecies as indicating a unique human individual, there is disagreement about the characteristics of that individual, or even how MANY “unique” messiahs there are supposed to be. These disagreements were even more significant in Jesus’ day – when Judaism was possibly even more diverse than it is today.

 

In particular, there were some teachers who talked about the Messiah “ben David” (son of David) and others who talked about the Messiah “ben Joseph” (son of Joseph). Some apparently believed in the priority of one or the other of these messiahs, some believed both would come, with different roles to play.

 

In very general terms, the Messiah ben David was seen as a military conqueror, who would restore the Kingdom of Israel and the temple. The Messiah ben Joseph was seen as bringing spiritual renewal through personal sacrifice (much as Joseph of Egypt saved his family through his own personal ordeal). Of those who believed in both messiahs, the Messiah ben Joseph was seen as a precursor to the Messiah ben David.

 

If we take into account what I wrote on earlier about the different sources of the Old Testament (http://perennis.pathstoknowledge.com/documentary_hypothesis) these two different messiahs fit rather neatly into the agendas of the primary sources of the Old Testament – the “J” (and “P”) sources and the “E” (and “D”) sources. The “J” and “P” sources champion David and the Southern Kingdom – whereas the E and D sources are more critical of David and champion the Northern Kingdom – home of the traditional descendents of Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh)

 

In the context of Jews arguing about whether the primary messiah is the son of David or of Joseph, Jesus’ dialogue in the temple assumes a whole new meaning:

“Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, What do you think of the Christ [messiah]? Whose son is he?They said to him, Of David.  He said to them, How then does David in the Spirit call him Lord, saying,  The Lord said to my Lord, sit on my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet?  If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” (Matthew 22:41-45 WEB)  Jesus is apparently coming down on the “ben Joseph” side of the argument. It’s also interesting that “Joseph” is traditionally the name of Jesus foster father as well.  There is no doubt that many of those who followed Jesus did so because they HOPED we was the Messiah ben David. He is often addressed by the hopeful crowd as “son of David”, and he doesn’t seem to discourage this – but there are a number of indications that Jesus did not see himself in the role of Messiah ben David. When identifying his mission, he several times refers to Isaiah 61 – a relatively gentle and compassionate picture of messiahship – more in keeping with the Messiah ben Joseph.  As Jesus reads in the synagogue:  The Spirit of the Lord is on me,because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,to proclaim release to the captives,recovering of sight to the blind,to deliver those who are crushed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19 WEB) Other indications of how Jesus saw his role: For the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost. (Luke 19:10 WEB) For the Son of Man didn’t come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. (Luke 9:56 WEB) I argued earlier (http://perennis.pathstoknowledge.com/bibliolatry) that Jesus seems to share some of Jeremiah and Isaiah’s criticism of the priestly code. It may well be that Jesus is not in agreement with the idea of the Messiah ben David.  However, it’s clear that some of the New Testament authors intend to keep that option open. Matthew and Luke both try to establish Davidic descent for Jesus, and Matthew in particular tries to mention every possible prophetic fulfillment for Jesus.  We need to candidly admit that some of these apparent “fulfillments” of prophecy are problematic. Some of them rest upon questionable translations and many of them are clearly taken out of context with regard to their primary fulfillment. Personally, I like to credit the New Testament authors with enough intelligence to realize (at least some of the time) that this is occurring.  When Matthew, for example, tells us that Jesus’ sojourn in Egypt fulfilled Hosea: “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.” (Hosea 11:1 WEB) …He must certainly realize that this verse of Hosea does not appear to be a messianic prophecy of any sort. What the author of Matthew seems to be saying is that Jesus recapitulates or represents various scriptural patterns or archtypes in scripture. Jesus can be understood, in other words, in terms of scriptural themes well known to readers of the Old Testament.  As a tangent, it’s interesting that the prophet quoted here, Hosea, is a prophet of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, not Judah – and the theme of the sojourn in Egypt is most associated with Joseph, and the suffering messiah.  This having of seeing the events of one’s own time in prophecy isn’t unique to Christian apologists.  For example the promise in Deuteronomy (18:15-18) that a second Moses would arise. Many Jews today regard this as a prophecy of a still-future messiah. But many scholars believe that the Deuteronomists who collected or created the “second Moses” prophecy actually saw them as being fulfilled by their great hero, King Josiah.  Compare the wording Deuteronomy 34:10 with 2 Kings 23:25 – and remember that scholars believe both Deuteronomy and 2 Kings 23 were written by the same individual or group.  There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom Yahweh knew face to face (Deuteronomy 34:10 WEB) Like him [Josiah] was there no king before him, who turned to Yahweh with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him. (2 Kings 23:25 WEB) Nevertheless, the idea of a “second Moses” is an idea and pattern that persisted long after Josiah, and has been applied by Christians to Jesus and by Jews to a future Messiah.  Is Jesus, then, the Messiah?  He certainly has a spiritual anointing from God, and embodies many of the patterns and archetypes of messiaship found in the Old Testament, particularly when referring to the Messiah ben Joseph. The fulfillment, however, is often in a more spiritual sense. The messianic prophecies are, in effect, symbols of what Christians see in Jesus to be spiritual realities. Christians should have no problem in seeing Jesus as “anointed” – with it’s original meaning of “set apart for God’s purpose”.  In this sense, he is the Messiah (or “Christ” as it would be rendered in Greek). Jesus does NOT meet all of the specific requirements that have been derived from the Old Testament by Jewish tradition over the centuries. This is particularly true in that there are several versions of these requirements depending on the body of Jewish tradition being discussed.  As this short essay began as a response to a particular article on the web

(http://www.aish.com/jewishissues/jewishsociety/Why_Jews_Dont_Believe_In_Jesus.asp)

 

         there are a few specific remarks I should make in response to that article directly. The point of the article is that Jesus does not meet the requirements of a Jewish Messiah – a conclusion with which I’ve partially agreed above. A few points in the article, however, need comment.

 

Regarding Jesus as a prophet, the site says:

 

Ø      Prophecy can only exist in Israel when the land is inhabited by a majority of world Jewry, a situation which has not existed since 300 BCE.

 

While this may be a Jewish tradition, it is, biblically, completely ad-hoc. No such rule is apparent from scripture.

 

Ø      The Messiah must be descended on his father's side from King David (see Genesis 49:10, Isaiah 11:1, Jeremiah 23:5, 33:17; Ezekiel 34:23-24). According to the Christian claim that Jesus was the product of a virgin birth, he had no father — and thus could not have possibly fulfilled the messianic requirement of being descended on his father's side from King David.

 

Actually, none of the scriptures cited actually SAYS this. They only mention Davidic descent.

 > The Messiah will lead the Jewish people to full Torah observance. The Torah states that all mitzvot remain binding forever, and anyone coming to change the Torah is immediately identified as a false prophet. (Deut. 13:1-4)

Actually, that’s not what Deut 13:1-4 says. It says a false prophet is identified by the fact that he… well, makes false prophecies. In point of fact, the authors and editors of Deuteronomy – Jeremiah very likely being one of them, believed that many of the priestly laws were not God-given at all.

 “For I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices: “(Jeremiah 7:22 KJV)

>Throughout the New Testament, Jesus contradicts the Torah and states that its commandments are no longer applicable. For example, John 9:14 records that Jesus made a paste in violation of Shabbat, which caused the Pharisees to say (verse 16), "He does not observe Shabbat!"

Only rarely does Jesus contradict the Torah – or more specifically attribute a commandment of the Torah as being of human origin. What he does do on a regular basis is apply a very spiritual, humanistic interpretation to the Torah. Jesus does not believe that making paste to heal a blind man on the Shabbat violates the spirit of Shabbat. It certainly doesn’t violate scripture – only the traditional accretions piled on top of scripture. Jesus would have a few words to say regarding anyone who feels that leaving someone blind honors God.

> Of the thousands of religions in human history, only Judaism bases its belief on national revelation — i.e. God speaking to the entire nation. If God is going to start a religion, it makes sense He'll tell everyone, not just one person.

This national revelation has not prevented the existence of various “branches” of Judaism with different beliefs and practices, including different beliefs about the Messiah.

(from the footnotes)

Ø      Saying that God assumes human form makes God small, diminishing both His unity and His divinity. As the Torah says: "God is not a mortal" (Numbers 23:19).

Focusing on God’s transcendence and totally ignoring his immanence, on the other hand, can make God distant and unapproachable. Jewish mysticism doesn’t seem to have a problem with the immanence of God. To quote J. Abelson from “Jewish Mysticism”

“ALL finite creatures are, in divergent senses and varying degrees, part and parcel of the Deity. Creatio ex nihilo is unthinkable, seeing that God, in the Neoplatonic view, is the Perfect One, 'an undivided One,' to whom no qualities or characteristics can be ascribed, and to whom, therefore, no such idea as that of intention or purpose, or change or movement, can be applied. All existences are emanations from the Deity. The Deity reveals Himself in all existences because He is immanent in them. But though dwelling in them, He is greater than they. He is apart from them. He transcends them.”

There are also several criticisms of Jesus descent based on the problems of Joseph being only his adopted father, and of Mary and Joseph’s Davidic line as being tainted.

While I regard the genealogies of Matthew and Luke as primarily symbolic, it seems to me that the criticism is misplaced. If we allow that God being the father of Jesus (rather than Joseph) is absolutely literal, then we are dealing with a totally unique situation, and it seems difficult to argue that any conventional laws of adoption or descent apply. How can being the Son of God “disqualify” someone for any honor whatsoever? If the critic is going to concede that Jesus is literally the Son of God, then proper messianic descent is the least of the critic’s issues.

If the critic assumes this is figurative, but still wants to calculate ancestry, then there is no reason not to consider Joseph’s genealogy.

As to the Jeconiah curse, an excellent job of refuting it is done by the Jews for Jesus

http://www.jewsforjesus.org/answers/prophecy/jeconiah

In brief, there are good arguments that the curse was reversed due to Jeconiah’s repentance, and the site in fact quotes a number of rabbinical opinions that it is specifically through Jeconiah’s line that the Messiah WILL come!

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