WEDNESDAY is WORD DAY:The Search for Messiah (Chapter Two) Mark Eastman and Chuck Smith

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The Search for Messiah (Intro) Mark Eastman and Chuck Smith

Chapter Two

The Suffering Servant

Throughout the Hebrew Bible there are passages about a righteous servant who would suffer physical abuse, mockery, derision, rejection and finally death. This suffering servant, though pure from sin himself, is wounded on account of the sins of the people and through suffering and death, the people of God would be healed.[1] The identity of this suffering servant is, however, a serious point of controversy between Christian and Jewish scholars.

From the first days of the church, Christians have claimed that the suffering servant passages were references to the Messiah and that the rejection, suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth were evidences for his Messiahship. Peter the Apostle points to the suffering and death of Jesus as a God ordained plan rather than an unforeseen consequence of a failed ministry;

"For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow his steps: Who committed no sin, nor was guile found in His mouth, who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously, who himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness; by whose stripes you were healed." (1 Peter 2:21-24)

Here Peter paraphrases Isaiah 53, one of the most famous of the suffering servant passages and declares its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

Many Old Testament prophecies of a suffering, rejected individual are quoted in the New Testament as Messianic and fulfilled in the life of Jesus. The New Testament records that after his resurrection Jesus even declared that the Messiah must suffer:

"Then He said to them, 'O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into his glory?' And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded to them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself."(Luke 24:25-27)

Modern rabbis contend that the suffering servant is not the Messiah. Rather, they claim, he is either an unknown temple priest, perhaps King Hezekiah,[2] or even the nation of Israel itself.

Again, 20th century Jewish author Samuel Levine regarding the suffering servant in Isaiah 53:

"Many Jewish commentators feel that it [Isaiah 53] refers to the Jewish people on the whole. We find many instances in the Bible where the Jewish people on the whole are addressed to, or are described, in the singulary....Thus, Isaiah 53 could very well be describing the history of the Jewish people — despised by the world, persecuted by the crusaders and the Spanish Inquisition and the Nazis, while the world silently watched...The verses therefore do not point exclusively to Jesus, or to a Messiah."[3]

However popular this belief has become in modern Jewish scholarship, it has not been held throughout the history of rabbinical thought. There is abundant written evidence, from ancient rabbinical sources, that the suffering servant is indeed the Messiah.[4] In fact, by the time of the writing of the Mishna and the Talmud, the paradoxical destiny of the Messiah had created a struggle in the minds of the rabbis. In addition to the suffering servant prophecies, the Bible had woven throughout its text the prophecies of a triumphant, ruling and reigning king who would bring everlasting righteousness to the earth and restore Israel to its place of prominence among the nations. This contradiction was too much for the rabbis to unite into one person. So, they began to speculate that there were to be two or possibly three Messiahs!

According to their speculations, the suffering servant, called Messiah Ben Joseph, would be killed in the war of Gog and Magog. The triumphant, ruling and reigning servant, called Messiah Ben David, would rebuild the temple and rule and reign in Jerusalem. This belief eventually became firmly rooted in the Talmud.[5]

There is great disagreement between Jewish and Christian scholars as to whether the suffering servant passages are indeed Messianic. From the Jewish perspective scholars argue, "If any people should have recognized the Messiah, the one who was the focus of their national existence, wouldn't it have been the Jews?" From the Christian perspective, others respond "But how could God have made the birth, lineage, character, mission and destiny of the Messiah any more obvious?"

Let's look at some of the suffering servant passages from the Hebrew Bible and their ancient interpretations to find the true identity of the one called the "suffering servant."

The Suffering Servant Songs

In the book of Isaiah there are a group passages called "The Suffering Servant Songs." These four vignettes are found in Isaiah 42:1-7,Isaiah 49:1-6Isaiah 50:4-9Isaiah 52:13-53:12. We will focus on the fourth suffering servant song since it is the most disputed portion of Isaiah.[6]

"Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently, He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high. Just as many were astonished at you, so his visage was marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men; so shall He sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths at Him; for what had not been told them they shall see, and what they had not heard they shall consider. Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; and when we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem him. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; he was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment, and who will declare his generation? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of My people he was stricken. And they made his grave with the wicked; but with the rich at his death, because he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he has put Him to grief. When you make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. He shall see the travail of his soul, and be satisfied. By his knowledge My righteous servant shall justify many, for he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore, I will divide Him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul unto death, and he was numbered with the transgressors, and he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors."

From the time of the development of the written Talmud (200 - 500 C.E.) this portion of scripture was believed to be Messianic. In fact, it was not until the 11th century C.E. that it was seriously proposed otherwise. At that time Rabbi Rashi began to interpret the suffering servant in these passages as reference to the nation of Israel.[7]

One of the oldest translations of the Hebrew scriptures are known as the Targums. These are aramaic translations of very ancient Hebrew manuscripts that also included commentary on the scriptures. They were translated in the first or second century B.C.E. In the Targum of Isaiah, we read this incredible quote regarding the suffering servant in Isaiah 53:

"Behold, my servant the Messiah shall prosper; he shall be exalted and great and very powerful. The righteous one shall grow up before him, lo, like sprouting plants; and like a tree that sends its roots by the water—courses, so shall the exploits of the Holy One multiply in the land which was desperate for him. His appearance shall not be a profane appearance, nor shall the awe of an ignorant person, but his countenance shall radiate with holiness, so that all who see him shall become wise through him. All of us were scattered like sheep... but it is the will of God to pardon the sins of all of us on his account...Then I will apportion unto him the spoil of great nations...because he was ready to suffer martyrdom that the rebellious he might subjugate to the Torah. And he might seek pardon for the sins of many."[8]

According to this commentary, the Messiah would suffer martyrdom, he would be, "The Righteous One" and would provide a way for God to forgive our sins. This forgiveness would be accomplished, not because of our goodness, but on account of the righteousness of Messiah. As we shall see, this is the very message of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament!

A reading from a Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah prayer book contains this passage:

"Our righteous anointed is departed from us: horror has seized us, and we have none to justify us. He has borne the yoke of our iniquities, and our transgression, and is wounded because of our transgression. He bears our sins on his shoulders, that we may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by his wound, at the time that the eternal will create the Messiah as a new creature. O bring him up from the circle of the earth. Raise him up from Seir, to assemble us the second time on mount Lebanon, by the hand of Yinon."[9],[10]

In this beautiful prayer, a commentary on Isaiah 53, we discover several of the ancient beliefs on the mission of God's righteous Messiah:

1) He would apparently depart after an initial appearance: "Our righteous anointed is departed."

2) The Messiah would be the one who justifies the people:[11]

"Horror has seized us, and we have none to justify us."

3) The Messiah would be wounded because of our transgressions and would take upon himself the yoke or punishment of our iniquities.[12]

"He has borne the yoke of our iniquities, and our transgression, and is wounded because of our transgression."

4) By his wound we would be healed when he reappears as a "new creature."

"We shall be healed by his wound, at the time that the eternal will create the Messiah as a new creature."

In the Babylonian Talmud there are a number of commentaries on the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. In a discussion of the suffering inflicted upon this servant we find the following statement:

"This teaches us that God will burden the Messiah with commandments and sufferings as with millstones."[13]

In another chapter of Sanhedrin we find a discussion on the name of the Messiah. In this remarkable portion of the Talmud we read:

"There is a whole discussion in the Talmud about Messiah's name. The several discussants suggested various names and cited scriptural references in support of these names. The disciples of the school of Rabbi Yehuda Ha' Nasi said 'The sick one is his name,' for it is written, 'Surely he has borne our sicknesses and carried our sorrows and pains, yet we considered him stricken, smitten, and afflicted of God.'"[14]

In the Midrash we again find reference to the "Suffering Servant" of Isaiah 53. In characteristic fashion we read one Rabbi quoting another in a discussion of the Messiah's suffering:

"Rabbi Huna in the name of Rabbi Acha says: 'The sufferings are divided into three parts: one for David and the fathers, one for our own generation, and one for the King Messiah, and this is what is written, 'he was wounded for our transgressions.'"[15]

In a portion of the Midrash, called the Haggadah (a portion which expounds on the non-legal parts of scripture) in the tractate Pesiqta Rabbati [Compiled in the ninth century, but based on writings from Talmudic times from 200 B.C.E.-400 C.E.] we read an interesting discussion of the suffering of the Messiah:

"And the Holy One made an agreement with the Messiah and said to him, 'The sins of those which are forgiven for your sake will cause you to be put under an iron yoke, and they will make you like this calf whose eyes are dim, and they will choke your spirit under the yoke, and on account of their sinsyour tongue shall cleave to your mouth. Are you willing to do this?' Said Messiah before the Holy One: 'perhaps this agony will last many years?' And the Holy One said to him: 'by your life and by the life of my head, one week only have I decreed for you; but if your soul is grieved I shall destroy them even now.' But the Messiah said to him: 'Sovereign of the world, with the gladness of my soul and the joy of my heart I take it upon me, on condition that not one of Israel shall perish, and not only those alone should be saved who are in my days, but also those who are hid in the dust; and not only should the dead of my own time be saved, but all the dead from the first man until now; also, the unborn and those whom thou hast intended to create. Thus I agree, and on this condition I will take it upon myself.'"(Pesiqta Rabbati. chapter 36)

Another section of chapter 37, Pesiqta Rabbati, says the following:

"The Patriarchs will one day rise again in the month of Nisan and will say to the Messiah: 'Ephraim, our righteous Messiah,although we are your ancestors, you are nevertheless greater than we, for you have borne the sins of our children, as it is written: 'Surely he has borne our diseases and carried our sorrows; yet we regarded him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our sins, bruised for our iniquities, upon him was the chastisement that makes us well, and through his wounds we are healed.[16] Heavy oppressions have been imposed upon you, as it is written: 'As a result of oppression and judgment he was taken away[17];but in his day, who considered that he was torn from the land of the living because of the transgressions of my people?'You have been a laughing stock and a derision among the peoples of the world, and because of you they jeered at Israel, as it is written, You have dwelt in darkness and in gloominess, and your eyes have not seen light, your skin was cleaving to your bones, and your body withered like wood. Your eyes became hollow from fasting, and your strength was dried-up like a potsherd, as it is written.[18] All this happened because of the sins of our children, as it is written: 'And Jehovah laid on him the iniquities of us all.'" (Isaiah 53:6)

In these fascinating portions of the Midrash we see language which closely parallels Psalm 22.[19] The writer specifically ties together the sufferings of the pierced servant in Psalm 22 (tongue shall cleave to your mouth...dried up like a potsherd) with the servant in Isaiah 53, whose sufferings provide a way for the children of Israel to be saved. The fact that the writer of this portion of the Midrash would tie the sufferings of the servant in Psalm 22 (the pierced one) and Isaiah 53, the despised and rejected one, is nothing less than astonishing. Clearly at least some of the rabbis of the ancient Midrashim believed that the Messiah would suffer and that the sufferings found in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 belong to the same person.

In the eleventh century C.E. the rabbinical interpretation of Isaiah 52-53 began to change. Rabbi Rashi, a well-respected member of the Midrashim, began to interpret this portion of scripture as a reference to the sufferings of the nation of Israel. However, even after this interpretation took root, there remained many dissenters who still held onto its original, Messianic view.

In the fourteenth century Rabbi Moshe Cohen Crispin, a strong adherent to the ancient opinion stated that applying the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 to the nation of Israel:

"distort[s] the verses of their natural meaning…As then it seemed to me that the doors of the literal interpretation [of Isaiah 53] were shut in their face, and that 'they wearied themselves to find the entrance', having forsaken the knowledge of our Teachers, and inclined after the stubbornness of their own hearts' and of their own opinion, I am pleased to interpret it, in accordance with the teaching of our Rabbis, of the King Messiah, and will be careful, so far as I am able, to adhere to the literal sense: thus possibly, I shall be free from the forced and farfetched interpretations of which others have been guilty. This prophecy was delivered by Isaiah at the divine command for the purpose of making known to us something about the nature of the future Messiah, who is to come and to deliver Israel,"[20]

Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel (1437-1508), a member of the Midrashim, made the following remarkable declaration regarding the suffering servant of Isaiah 53:

"The first question is to ascertain to whom this prophecy refers, for the learned among the Nazarenes expound it of the man who was crucified in Jerusalem at the end of the Second Temple, and, who according to them, was the Son of God and took flesh in the virgin's womb, as is stated in their writings.Jonathan Ben Uzziel interprets it in the Targum of the future Messiah; and this is also the opinion of our learned men in the majority of their Midrashim."[21]

Two centuries later we find the comments of another member of the Midrashim, Rabbi Elijah de Vidas, a Cabalistic scholar in 16th century. In his comments of Isaiah 53 we read:

"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 who so will not admit that the Messiah thus suffers for our iniquities must endure and suffer them for himself."[22]

We have also the writings of the 16th century Rabbi Moshe El Sheikh, who declares in his work "Commentaries of the Earlier Prophets," regarding the suffering servant in Isaiah 53:

"Our rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion thatthe prophet is speaking of the king Messiah, and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view."[23]

These remarkable references from the ancient rabbis leave no doubt that the suffering servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 was indeed believed to be the Messiah. Even more remarkable is the fact that the suffering servant of Isaiah is connected with the suffering servant of Psalm 22. Finally, we find the ancient rabbis claiming that the suffering and death of the Messiah would have the effect of freeing us from our sins. This is in complete agreement with the Christian concept of the Messiah!

Even without these ancient references, there are several other reasons why the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 could not be the nation of Israel.

First, the suffering servant is an innocent person without sin:

"And they made his grave with the wicked; but with the rich at his death, because he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth." Isaiah 53:9

Israel has an admittedly sinful past, the Hebrew scriptures even admit this fact. Psalm 14:2-3 says:

"There is none that does good, no not one."

I Kings 8:46 says:

"...for there is no one who does not sin."

Ecclesiastes 7:20 says:

"For there is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin."

Secondly, the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 suffers on account of the sins of others.

"Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all."(Isaiah 53:4)

Thirdly, the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is willing to suffer.

"He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; he was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth." (Isaiah 53:7)

In the entire history of their nation, the Jews have never suffered willingly.

Finally, the suffering servant's end was death.

"Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul unto death, and he was numbered with the transgressors, and he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors." (Isaiah 53:12)

The nation of Israel has suffered much, but she has never died. In fact, the nation of Israel was re-gathered back into the land after nearly 1900 years of world wide dispersion, an event unprecedented in world history.

"Let Israel now say; many a time they have afflicted me from my youth; yet they have not prevailed against me." (Psalm 129:1)

Finally, listen to the words of 19th century Jewish scholar Herz Homberg;

"This prophecy is disconnected with what precedes it. According to the opinion of Rashi and Ibn Ezra, it relates to Israel at the end of their captivity; the term "servant" and the use of the singular number referring to the individual members of the nation. But if so, what can be the meaning of the passage, 'He was wounded for our transgressions.' Who was wounded? Who are the transgressors? Who carried the sickness and bear the pains? And where are the sick? Are they not the same as those who are smitten and who bear? And if each turned to his own way, upon whom did the Lord lay the iniquity of them all? The Ga'on, Rabbi Sa'adyah, explains the whole Parashah of Jeremiah: and there are indeed numerous parts of scripture in which we can trace a great resemblance to what befell Jeremiah while persecuted by the false prophets. But the commencement of the prophecy, 'He shall be high and exalted and lofty exceedingly', and similarly the words with the mighty he shall divide the spoil', will not admit of being applied to him. The fact is that it refers to the king Messiah, who will come in the latter days, when it will be the Lord's good pleasure to redeem Israel from among the different nations of the earth...and even the Israelites themselves will only regard him as 'one of the vain fellows', believing none of the announcements which will be made by him in God's name,but being contumacious against him, and averring that all the reproaches and persecutions which fall to his lot are sent from heaven, for that he is 'smitten of God' for his own sin. For they will not at first perceive that whatever he underwent was in consequence of their own transgression, the Lord having chosen him to be a trespass-offering, like the scapegoat which bore all the iniquities of the house of Israel. Being, however, himself aware that through his pains and revilings the promised redemption will eventually come at the appointed time, he will endure with a willing soul, neither complaining nor opening his mouth 'in the siege and distress wherewith the enemies of Israel will oppress him' (as is pointed out from the passage here in the Haggadah)"[24]

Here we have in the clearest term possible the belief that the prophet was speaking of King Messiah. Furthermore, Homberg states that the Messiah, when he comes, will be rejected "as one of the vain fellows, believing none of the announcements which will be made by him in God's name." Finally, he sees the rejection and death of the Messiah accomplishing the role of the trespass-offering for the sins of the people. The Messiah suffers not because of the sins of himself, but on account of the sins of the people. Through Messiah's suffering and death "the promised redemption will eventually come!"

As we will see, in his understanding of Isaiah 53, Herzog has pointed out the very heart of the Christian message!

Psalm 22 "The Pierced One"

One of the most graphic and controversial portions of scripture is Psalm 22. The passage is disputed because of the nature of the sufferings it describes and because of the two different interpretations applied by Christian and Jewish Bible scholars. As we have already seen in the above discussion, the rabbis of the ancient Midrashim tied the sufferings of the Messiah figure in Isaiah 53 to those of the suffering servant of Psalm 22. However, today most modern rabbis deny the Messianic application of Psalm 22.

"My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Why are You so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning?... They cried to You, and were delivered; they trusted in You, and were not ashamed. But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people. All those who see me laugh me to scorn; they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, he trusted in the LORD, let him rescue him; Let him deliver him, since he delights in him! Many bulls have surrounded me; Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me. They gape at me with their mouths, as a raging and roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it has melted within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, And my tongue clings to my jaws; You have brought me to the dust of death. For dogs have surrounded me; The assembly of the wicked has enclosed me. They pierced my hands and my feet; I can count all my bones. They look and stare at me. They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots...For he has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; Nor has he hidden his face from him; But when he cried to him, he heard...All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You...They will come and declare his righteousness to a people who will be born, that he has done this." (Psalm 22:1, 5-8, 12-18, 24, 27, 31)

In these verses we find the rejection, mocking and death of a righteous servant of God, one "who trusted in the Lord" from the time of his birth, and did not despise the affliction he endured. Yet this Righteous One was a reproach to the people, a "worm," "scorned," one whose hands and feet were pierced and one so overcome with thirst that his tongue cleaved to his mouth.

The identity of this suffering servant is, to say the least, a point of great contention. The description of his physical suffering bears a striking resemblance to crucifixion, including the bleeding ("poured out like water"), the dehydration ("tongue cleaves to my mouth") and the disarticulation (dislocation of the joints) that occurs in crucifixion ("all my bones are out of joint"). Of course, Christians claim that this is a prophecy of the crucifixion of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

Perhaps the most controversial portion of the scripture is the interpretation of the word translated as "pierced." The most ancient translations of the Hebrew texts are the Greek Septuagint,[25] the Aramaic Targums [26]and Latin vulgate versions. These versions of the Bible were translated using very ancient Hebrew manuscripts that were extant in the period 400 B.C.E.-300 C.E. At that time the Hebrew language was diminishing in use, however it was still well understood by the ancient rabbis who translated the Tanakh. The seventy scholars that were chosen to translate the Hebrew manuscripts into Greek were certainly chosen because of their expertise in languages and understanding of scripture.[27]

When we examine these ancient translations of the Tanakh we find that in each case the word in question is translated from Hebrew into the Greek, Syriac or Latin word equivalent to "pierced." The ancient rabbis commissioned to translate the Tanakh into the Septuagint and the ancient Targums were apparently convinced that the word in question was indeed "pierced!" The fact that Christian translators (who translated the Hebrew Tanakh into the Latin vulgate) translated the same word as pierced, was not an issue at the time! They were simply following what the rabbis had done hundreds of years previously. However, since the "piercing" of Jesus of Nazareth, the translation of this word has become a major point of controversy.

Not only do most contemporary rabbis deny the Messianic application of this verse, some have even stated that Christians fabricated the translation themselves!

According to Samuel Levine:[28]

"That verse of 'they pierced my hands and feet,' which seems to point to Jesus, is a mistranslation, according to all of the classical Jewish scholars, who knew Hebrew perfectly. In fact, the Christians have invented a new word in the process, which is still not in the Hebrew dictionary"

Mr. Levine is correct about one thing here. The ancient rabbis knew Hebrew perfectly well. But there is no doubt that the word translated as "pierced" was in their dictionaries because they rendered it that way in the Septuagint and the Targums! Both of these documents were translated some two hundred years before the birth of Jesus.

The Hebrew word which translates as "pierced" is the word "karv", , and was certainly the word those ancient scholars translated. Modern Jewish Bibles translate the word in question as "like a lion." Obviously these are two very different meanings for what should be the same word in the biblical text. So where does this radical difference in rendering come from?

The Jewish Publication Society relies on the Massoretic Hebrew text for the translation of their version of the Bible.[29] However, this text is dated to approximately 800-1000 C.E. The writers of the Septuagint, the Targums and the early Christian Bibles relied on much more ancient texts.

The massoretic text has a completely different word, "kari"  (like a lion), instead of the word "karv"  (pierced) most likely found in the much more ancient texts.

Obviously when you look at the two Hebrew words,  and , we see that they are structurally very similar. The Hebrew letter vav () found in "karv" (pierced) is very similar to the letter yod () found in the word "kari" (like a lion). Clearly a mistake in copying was possible, but was this change from the ancient text a simple copyist' error or the deliberate changing of the text of the book of Psalms?

Was the rejection of Jesus' Messianic claims by the first century rabbis the motive behind the changing of the text as well as its interpretation? We may never know.

Even without this dilemma we find that the ancient rabbinical interpretation of the word in question varies dramatically from modern rabbinical sources. The rabbis who wrote the Talmud and the Midrash interpreted this entire Psalm as Messianic.

In the Yakult Shimoni (#687), a commentary on Psalm 22 we read:

"'Many dogs have surrounded me', this refers to Haman's sons. 'The assembly of the wicked have enclosed me. They pierced  (karv) my hands and feet'. Rabbi Nehemiah says;'They pierced my hands and feet in the presence of Ahasuerus.'"

This commentary shows that the reading "pierced" was accepted by rabbis of that time.

Psalm 22 is also applied to the Messiah in the Midrash Pesikta Rabbati, (Piska chapter 36:1-2) as we saw in our discussion of Isaiah 52 & 53.

They Will Look Upon Me Whom They Have Pierced!

In the book of Zechariah we find a fascinating prophecy regarding the response of the nation of Israel when they are returned to their land and finally see and recognize their Messiah. God speaking through Zechariah stated:

"And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on me whom they have pierced; they will mourn for him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for him as one grieves for a firstborn." (Zechariah 12:10-12)

Modern rabbis claim that the person spoken of here is not the Messiah, rather a king or priest of either the past or future. However, this very passage is applied to the suffering servant, Messiah Ben Joseph in the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 52a. The rabbi asks:

"What is the cause of the mourning [of Zech. 12:10]. It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Messiah, the son of Joseph, since that well agrees with the scriptural verse, 'And they shall look upon me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son.'"

In this amazing quote we see that the ancient rabbis believed that the Messiah would not only be "pierced" or "thrust through," but that he would also suffer martrydom ("the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph").

Again we see how the interpretation of prophecy has changed over the last 1600 years. Was the piercing of the hands and feet of Jesus of Nazareth, and the thrusting through of his side by the Roman guard, the reason for the change of interpretation of these prophecies? If we are to argue that the ancient rabbis had a more thorough understanding of the ancient Hebrew language, we must accept the ancient views as closest to the true prophetic meaning.

The Messiah Will Suffer and Die for the People!

The evidence speaks for itself. Throughout most of the history of Jewish scholarship many of the highly respected writers of the Talmud and the Midrash (most of whom were leaders of Rabbinical academies), shared a common belief. The Messiah would be despised, rejected, suffer by being pierced and ultimately die for the sins of the people!

Consequently, if the 20th century rabbi or Bible scholar chooses to cling to the belief that the Messiah will simply be a man who will not be despised, rejected or pierced, he will do so in stark contrast to ancient rabbinical thought and in the face of overwhelming and mounting evidence to the contrary.


[1] Isaiah 52:13-53:12.
[2] Babylonian Talmud, Sandedrin 98-99b.
[3] You Take Jesus, I'll Take God, Samuel Levine, pg 24-25 Hamoroh Press.1980.
[4] See appendix IV, Rabbinical Quotes on Isaiah 53.
[5] The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim, Appendix IX.
[6]. Messianically applied in Targum of Jonathan, written between first and second century C.E.
[7]. See The Messianic Hope, Arthur Kac.
[8] See comments on Isaiah 53 in Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Appendix IX.
[9] Yinon is one of the ancient rabbinical names of the Messiah.
[10] See The Messianic Hope, Arthur Kac, The Chapter of the Suffering Servent.
[11] To justify is to make one acceptable and righteous in the sight of God.
[12] i.e. Our individual sins.
[13] Talmud, Sanhedrin 93b.
[14] Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b.
[15] The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim, Appendix IX.
[16] A reference to Isaiah 53.
[17] A reference to the death of the Messiah
[18] A reference to Psalm 22:15-16
[19] In fact, there is no other portion of scripture that parallels the language in Presiqta Rabbati chapter 37 as closely as does Psalm 22.
[20] A Commentary of Rabbi Mosheh Kohen Ibn Crispin of Cordova. Fora detailed discussion of this reference see The Fifty Third Chapter of Isaiah According to Jewish Interpreters,preface pg x, S.R. Driver, A.D. Neubauer, KTAV Publishing House, Inc., New York, 1969.
[21] "The Messianic Hope", by Arthur Kac, pg. 75.
[22] ibid, pg. 76.
[23] ibid, pg. 76.
[24] From the exposition of the entire Old Testament, called Korem, by Herz Homberg (Wein, 1818).
[25] The Septuagint; seventy Hebrew and Greek scholars translated the Hebrew Tanakh into Greek beginning in 285 B.C.
[26] Targums: Translated in 200 B.C.
[27] Some Jewish legends say seventy-two scholars, six from each tribe of Israel, translated it in 285 B.C. The exact amount of time it took to translate the Tanakh (Genesis-Malachi) is not known. Some scholars feel that the Septuagint is flawed in some of its translations. However, it was accepted during the first century C.E.. as a bonafide translation and was used extensively in synagogues and by the common man.
[28] You Take Jesus, I'll Take God, Samuel Levine, pg. 34, Hamoroh Press, 1980.
[29] This is one of the major publishers of Bibles for the Conservative and Orthodox Jews.

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WEDNESDAY is WORD DAY:The Search for Messiah (Chapter One) Mark Eastman and Chuck Smith

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The Search for Messiah (Intro) Mark Eastman and Chuck Smith

Chapter One

The Hope for Messiah

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.

Yes! Jesus is Coming!  

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