Jews, Christians, and the Messianic Hope
“I believe with complete faith that the Messiah will come, and although he may tarry, yet each day I will wait for his coming.”—Moses Maimonides (also called Rambam), (1135-1204).1
MESSIAH! Belief in his arrival was nurtured among the Jews for centuries. Yet, when Jesus of Nazareth came, most Jews ultimately rejected him as Messiah. To the Jewish mind, Jesus did not live up to expectations.
“Messiah” means “anointed one.” Among Jews the term came to stand for a descendant of King David who would usher in a glorious rule. (2 Samuel 7:12, 13) By Jesus’ day the Jews had suffered for centuries under a series of harsh Gentile rulers. They longed for a political deliverer.2 So when Jesus of Nazareth presented himself as the long-awaited Messiah, there was naturally much initial excitement. (Luke 4:16-22) But to the great disappointment of the Jews, Jesus was no political hero. On the contrary, he claimed that his Kingdom ‘was no part of the world.’ (John 18:36) Furthermore, Jesus did not then usher in the glorious Messianic age foreseen by the prophet Isaiah. (Isaiah 11:4-9) And when Jesus was put to death as a criminal, the nation as a whole lost interest in him.
Undeterred by these events, Jesus’ followers continued to proclaim him as the Messiah. What accounted for their remarkable zeal? It was the belief that Jesus’ death fulfilled prophecy, specifically the prophecy of Isaiah 52:13–53:12. This reads in part:
“Behold, My servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, . . . for he shot up right forth as a sapling, and as a root out of a dry ground . . . He was despised, and forsaken of men, a man of pains, and acquainted with disease, and as one from whom men hide their face: He was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried . . . He was crushed because of our iniquities: The chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed. All we like sheep did go astray, we turned every one to his own way . . . He was oppressed, though he humbled himself and opened not his mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, . . . he was cut off out of the land of the living. . . . And they made his grave with the wicked.”—JP.*
A Suffering Messiah?
Did Isaiah here foretell a suffering, dying Messiah? Most modern Jewish commentators say no. Some claim that the Suffering Servant was the nation of Israel itself during its Babylonian exile. Others relate the suffering to periods such as the Crusades or the Nazi Holocaust.3 But does this explanation stand up to close scrutiny? It is true that in some contexts Isaiah does speak of Israel as God’s “servant.” But he speaks of Israel as a wayward, sinful servant! (Isaiah 42:19; 44:21, 22) The Encyclopaedia Judaica thus draws this contrast: “The real Israel is sinful and the Servant [of Isaiah 53], free of sin.”4
Some, therefore, argue that the Servant represents a ‘righteous elite’ in Israel that suffered on behalf of the sinful Jews.5 But Isaiah never spoke of any such elite. On the contrary, he prophesied that the whole nation would be sinful! (Isaiah 1:5, 6; 59:1-4; compare Daniel 9:11, 18, 19.) Besides, during periods of affliction, Jews suffered whether they were righteous or not.
Another problem: For whom did the Servant suffer? The Jewish Soncino commentary suggests the Babylonians. If so, who confessed that the Servant suffered ‘because of our iniquities’? (Isaiah 53:5) Is it reasonable to believe that the Babylonians (or any other Gentiles) would make such an astounding admission—that the Jews suffered in their behalf?6
Interestingly, some first-century rabbis (and a number since then) identified the Suffering Servant with the Messiah.7 (See box on page 11.) Thousands of Jews came to see undeniable parallels between the Suffering Servant and Jesus of Nazareth. Like that Servant, Jesus was of humble origin. Ultimately, he was despised and shunned. Though he carried out no political conquest, he bore the diseases of others, miraculously curing their ailments. Though innocent, he died as a result of judicial miscarriage—a fate he accepted without protest.
A Dying Messiah?
Why would Messiah have to die? Explains Isaiah 53:10: “But the LORD chose to crush him by disease, that, if he made himself an offering for guilt, he might see offspring and have long life, and that through him the LORD’s purpose might prosper.” (Ta) This alluded to the Levitical practice of offering up animal victims to atone for sin or guilt. Messiah would suffer a disgraceful death, but like a sacrificial victim, his death would have atoning merit.
If Messiah died, though, how could he fulfill the prophecies about his glorious rule, much less “see offspring and have long life”? Logically, by a resurrection from the dead. (Compare 1 Kings 17:17-24.) Messiah’s resurrection would also resolve the seeming contradiction between Daniel 7:13, which predicted that the Messiah would triumphantly come on the clouds of heaven, and Zechariah 9:9, which said that he would humbly arrive on an ass. The Talmud tried to explain this paradox by asserting: “If they are meritorious, he will come with the clouds of heaven; if not, lowly and riding upon an ass.” (Sanhedrin 98a)8 This would mean that the prophecy at either Daniel 7:13 or Zechariah 9:9 would remain unfulfilled. Yet, Messiah’s resurrection would allow him to fulfill both prophecies. Initially, he would come humbly to suffer and die. After his resurrection, he would return in glory and usher in the heavenly Messianic rule.
Hundreds of Jewish eyewitnesses testified that Jesus experienced a resurrection from the dead. (1 Corinthians 15:6) Can such claims be brushed aside?
Judaism and Jesus
Most first-century Jews rejected Jesus as Messiah. Still, he had a profound impact upon Judaism. Though Jesus is barely mentioned in the Talmud, what little is said tries “to belittle the person of Jesus by ascribing to him illegitimate birth, magic, and a shameful death.”*—The Jewish Encyclopedia.9
Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner admits that these tales “seem as though they are deliberately intended to contradict events recorded in the Gospels.”11 And with good reason! The Catholic Church had exacerbated Jewish aversion to Jesus by its anti-Semitism. It further alienated Jews by declaring Jesus to be a supposed ‘God the Son’—part of an incomprehensible Trinity—in direct contradiction to Jesus’ own teachings. At Mark 12:29, Jesus quoted the Torah, saying: “Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God is one Lord.”—King James Version; Deuteronomy 6:4.
Though Judaism resisted conversion, “Christianity affected Judaism considerably. It forced the Rabbis to change their emphasis and in some instances to alter their views.”12 Rabbis of earlier generations believed that the Messianic hope permeated the Scriptures. They saw glimmers of that hope in such Bible texts as Genesis 3:15 and Ge 49:10. The Palestinian Targum applied the fulfillment of the former verse Ge 3:15 to “the day of King Messiah.”13 The Midrash Rabbah said of the latter verse Ge 49:10: “This alludes to the royal Messiah.”14 The Talmud also applied prophecies of Isaiah, Daniel, and Zechariah to the Messiah.15 “All the prophets have prophesied only for the days of the Messiah,” Talmud, Sanhedrin 99a.16
But under the pressure of Christendom’s conversion efforts, Judaism reassessed its views. Many Scripture texts that had long been applied to the Messiah were reinterpreted.17 As modern times dawned, under the influence of higher criticism of the Bible, some Jewish scholars concluded that the Messianic hope does not appear in the Bible at all!18
The Messianic hope, however, underwent something of a rebirth with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Writes Harold Ticktin: ‘Most Jewish factions regard the emergence of the State of Israel as a great prophetic event.’19 Nevertheless, the issue of when the long-awaited Messiah is to arrive has remained unresolved in Jewish thought. The Talmud says: “When thou seest a generation overwhelmed by many troubles as by a river, await [the Messiah].” (Sanhedrin 98a)20 However, the Jewish Messiah did not come during the dark night of the Holocaust nor during the tumultuous birth of the State of Israel. One wonders, ‘What further troubles must the Jewish people yet undergo before the Messiah will come?’
Seeking the Messiah
The Messianic hope was born and nurtured with the Jews. Among them that hope has grown dim. Its brilliance has been nearly extinguished by centuries of suffering and disappointment. Ironically, millions among the nations, or Gentiles, have come to seek and ultimately to embrace a Messiah. Is it just a coincidence that Isaiah said of the Messiah: “Unto him shall the nations [Gentiles] seek”? (Isaiah 11:10, JP) Should not Jews also seek the Messiah themselves? Why should they deny themselves their long-cherished hope?
It is in vain, however, to seek a future Messiah. Were he to arrive, how could he establish himself as a bona fide descendant of King David? Were not genealogical records destroyed along with the second temple? Though such records existed in Jesus’ day, his claim of being a legitimate descendant of David was never successfully challenged.* Could any future Messianic claimant ever produce such credentials? One must therefore seek the Messiah who came in the past.
This requires taking a fresh look at Jesus, dispensing with preconceived notions. The effeminate ascetic of church paintings bears little resemblance to the real Jesus. The Gospel accounts—written by Jews—show him as a powerful, vibrant man, a rabbi of extraordinary wisdom. (John 3:2) Actually, Jesus surpasses any dream the Jews ever had of a political deliverer. As a conquering King, he will usher in, not some fragile political state, but an invincible heavenly Kingdom that will restore Paradise to the entire earth and under which “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb.”—Isaiah 11:6, JP; Revelation 19:11-16.
Will you live in that Messianic age? Maimonides advised Jews simply to ‘wait for Messiah’s coming.’22 Our times are too critical, however, to risk having missed his return. The whole human race sorely needs a Messiah, a deliverer from the problems that plague this planet. It is therefore time to seek him—intensely, actively. Jehovah’s Witnesses are eager to help you to do so. Remember, seeking the Messiah is no betrayal of one’s Jewish heritage, since the Messianic hope is intrinsic to Judaism. And by seeking the Messiah, you may well find that he has already come.
1. The Book of Jewish Knowledge, by Nathan Ausubel, 1964, page 286; Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1971, Volume 11, page 754.
2. The Messiah Idea in Jewish History, by Julius H. Greenstone, 1973 (originally published in 1906), page 75.
3. Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1971, Volume 9, page 65; Soncino Books of the Bible—Isaiah, edited by A. Cohen, 1949, page 260; You Take Jesus, I’ll Take God, by Samuel Levine, 1980, page 25.[5 & 5a]
4. Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1971, Volume 9, page 65.
5. Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1971, Volume 9, page 65; The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah, by Christopher R. North, First Edition, 1948, pages 9, 202-3.
6. Soncino Books of the Bible—Isaiah, edited by A. Cohen, 1949, page 261.
7. The Book of Isaiah, commentary by Amos Chakham, 1984, page 575; The Targum of Isaiah, edited by J. F. Stenning, 1949, page 178; The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah, by Christopher R. North, First Edition, 1948, pages 11-15; Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1971, Volume 9, page 65.
8. The Babylonian Talmud, translated by Dr. H. Freedman, 1959, Volume II, page 664.
9. The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1910, Volume VII, page 170.
10. Israelis, Jews, and Jesus, by Pinchas Lapide, 1979, pages 73-4.
11. Jesus of Nazareth—His Life, Times, and Teaching, by Joseph Klausner, 1947 (first published in Great Britain in 1925), page 19.
12. The Jewish People and Jesus Christ, by Jakób Jocz, 1954 (first published in 1949), page 153.
13. Neophyti 1, Targum Palestinense, Ms de la Biblioteca Vaticana, Génesis, 1968, Volume I, pages 503-4; The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation, by Samson H. Levey, 1974, pages 2-3.
14. Midrash Rabbah, translated and edited by Dr. H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, 1961 (First Edition 1939), Volume II, page 956; Chumash With Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth and Rashi’s Commentary, translated by A. M. Silbermann and M. Rosenbaum, 1985, pages 245-6.
15. The Babylonian Talmud, translated by Dr. H. Freedman, 1959, Volume II, pages 663-5, 670-1 (Sanhedrin 98a, 98b).
16. New Edition of the Babylonian Talmud, edited and translated by Michael L. Rodkinson, 1903, Part IV, Volume VIII, page 312 (Tract Sanhedrin); The Babylonian Talmud, translated by Dr. H. Freedman, 1959, Volume II, page 670 (Sanhedrin 99a).
17. The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah, by Christopher R. North, First Edition, 1948, page 18; The Jewish People and Jesus Christ, by Jakób Jocz, 1954 (first published in 1949), pages 205-7, 282; The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, edited by Dr. J. H. Hertz, 1929-36, Volume I, page 202; Palestinian Judaism in New Testament Times, by Werner Förster, translated by Gordon E. Harris, 1964, pages 199-200.
18. Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1971, Volume 11, page 1407; U.S. Catholic, December 1983, page 20.
19. U.S. Catholic, December 1983, page 21; What Is Judaism?, by Emil L. Fackenheim, 1987, pages 268-9.
20. The Babylonian Talmud, translated by Dr. H. Freedman, 1959, Volume II, page 663.
21. The Works of Josephus, translated by William Whiston, 1987, “The Life of Flavius Josephus,” 1:1-6, and “Flavius Josephus Against Apion,” footnote on 7:31, 32.
22. The Book of Jewish Knowledge, by Nathan Ausubel, 1964, page 286.
23. The Targum of Isaiah, edited by J. F. Stenning, 1949, pages vii, 178; The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation, by Samson H. Levey, 1974, pages 63, 66-7; The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah, by Christopher R. North, First Edition, 1948, page 11.
24. The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah—According to the Jewish Interpreters, by S. R. Driver and A. Neubauer, 1969, Volume II, page 7; New Edition of the Babylonian Talmud, edited and translated by Michael L. Rodkinson, 1903, Part IV, Volume VIII, page 310.
25. The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah—According to the Jewish Interpreters, by S. R. Driver and A. Neubauer, 1969, Volume II, pages 374-5.
26. The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah—According to the Jewish Interpreters, by S. R. Driver and A. Neubauer, 1969, Volume II, pages x, 99-100.
All citations of the Hebrew Scriptures are taken from either The Holy Scriptures (JP) or Tanakh (Ta), both by The Jewish Publication Society of America.
Says Israeli scholar Pinchas Lapide: “Talmudic passages about Jesus . . . were mutilated, distorted, or obliterated by church censors.” It is thus “more than likely that Jesus originally had a much greater impact on rabbinical literature than the fragments we have today bear witness to.”—Israelis, Jews, and Jesus.10
See The Life of Flavius Josephus, 1:1-6.21
[Box on page 11]
The Suffering Servant in Rabbinical Writings
Over the centuries a number of respected Jewish authorities have applied the prophecy of Isaiah 52:13–53:12 to the Messiah:
The Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel (1st century C.E.). In its rendering of Isaiah 52:13, the Targum says: “Behold, my servant, the Anointed One (or, the Messiah) shall prosper.”23
The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b) (c. 3rd century C.E.): “The Messiah—what is his name? . . . The Rabbis say, The leprous one [; those] of the house of Rabbi [say, The sick one], as it is said, ‘Surely he hath borne our sicknesses.’”—Compare Isaiah 53:4.24
Moses Maimonides (Rambam) (12th century): “What is to be the manner of Messiah’s advent, and where will be the place of his first appearance? . . . In the words of Isaiah [52:15], when describing the manner in which the kings will hearken to him, At him kings will shut their mouth.”25
Moses ibn Crispin Cohen (14th century): “I am pleased to interpret [Isaiah 53], 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 [Jewish commentators] have been guilty.”26
[Pictures on page 10]
Most Jews rejected the notion of a “suffering Messiah.” It went contrary to their expectation of a conquering King
[Picture on page 12]
Only the Messiah can bring about the glorious conditions foretold by Isaiah