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Jesus and the Messianic Prophecies – Did the Old Testament Point to Jesus?

In my previous post I started to explain why, based on the testimony of Paul, it appears that most Jews (the vast majority) rejected the Christian claim that Jesus was the messiah.

I have to say, that among my Christian students today (most of them from the South, most of them from conservative Christian backgrounds), this continues to be a real puzzle.

“But there were prophecies of Jesus being the messiah,” they argue. “Hundreds of Old Testament passages, such as Isaiah 53, describe him to a tee.”

They genuinely can’t figure it out.

What About Old Testament Messianic Prophecies?

In their view, the Old Testament makes a number of predictions about the messiah:

  • he would be born in Bethlehem
  • his mother would be a virgin
  • he would be a miracle worker
  • he would be killed for the sins of others
  • he would be raised from the dead

These are all things that happened to Jesus!  How much more obvious could it be?  Why in the world don’t those Jews see it?   Are they simply hard-headed and rebellious against God?  Can’t they *read*?  Are they stupid???

What is very hard to get my students to see (in most cases I’m, frankly, completely unsuccessful) is that the authors of the New Testament who portrayed Jesus as the messiah are the ones who quoted the Old Testament in order to prove it, and that they were influenced by the Old Testament in what they decided to say about Jesus, and that their views of Jesus affected how they read the Old Testament.

The reality is that the so-called “messianic prophecies” that are said to point to Jesus never taken to be messianic prophecies by Jews prior to the Christians who saw Jesus as the messiah.  The Old Testament in fact never says that the messiah will be born of a virgin, that he will be executed by his enemies, and that he will be raised from the dead.

Messianic Prophecies in Isaiah?

My students often don’t believe me when I say this, and they point to passages like Isaiah 7:14 (virgin birth) and Isaiah 53 (execution and resurrection).   Then I urge them to read the passages carefully and find where there is any reference in them to a messiah.   That’s one of the problems (not the only one).

These passages are not talking about the messiah.  The messiah is never mentioned in them.  Anyone who thinks they *are* talking about the messiah, has to import the messiah into the passages, because he simply isn’t there.

I should stress that no one prior to Christianity took these passages to refer to a future messiah.

Then why are they read (by Christians) as if referring to the messiah?  What happened is this:  ancient Christians (within a couple of decades of Jesus’ death) who believed that Jesus *was* the messiah necessarily believed that Jesus fulfilled Scripture.  They, therefore, began to read passages of the Old Testament as predictions of Jesus.  And so the interpretation of these passages was changed so that they were now seen as foretelling the birth, life, and death of Jesus.

Once those passages are read that way, it is very hard indeed to read them the way they had been read before.  When Christians read Isaiah 53, they simply can’t *help* but read it as a prediction of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  But for those who read the passage just for what it has to say, it does not appear to be about the messiah.  (You’ll note that the term “messiah” never occurs in it.)

Are These Prophecies Really Messianic?

So that is one problem with Christians using the Old Testament to “prove” that Jesus is the messiah.  They are appealing to passages that do not appear to be about the messiah.  The other is the flip side of the coin.  Christians who think that Jesus fulfilled predictions of the Old Testament base their views, in no small measure, on what the Gospels say about Jesus’ life:  He was born in Bethlehem.  His mother was a virgin.  He healed many people.  He was rejected by his own people.  He was silent at his trial.  And so on – there are lots of these “facts” from Jesus’ life, it is thought, that fulfilled Scripture.  But how do we know that these are facts from Jesus’ life?

The only way we know is (or think we know it) is because authors of the New Testament Gospels claim that these are the facts.   But are they?  How do we know that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem?  That his mother was actually a virgin?  That he was actually silent at his trial?  And so forth and so on?   We only know because the Gospels indicate so.   But the authors of the Gospels were themselves influenced in their telling of Jesus’ story by the passages of Scripture that they took to be messianic predictions, and they told their stories in the light of those passages.

Take Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.  A couple of times on the blog I’ve talked about how problematic it is to think that this is a historical datum.  It’s true that both Matthew and Luke say that Jesus was born in that small village.  But Mark and John do not assume that this is true, but rather that he came from Galilee, from the village of Nazareth.   Moreover, Matthew and Luke *get* Jesus born in Bethlehem in radically different and contradictory ways, so that for both of them he is born there even though he comes from Nazareth.  Why don’t they have a consistent account of the matter?

It is almost certainly because they both want to be able to claim that his birth was in Bethlehem, even though both of them know for a fact he did not come from Bethlehem, but from Nazareth.  Then why do Matthew and Luke want to argue (in different ways) that he was born in Bethlehem?  It is because in their view — based on the Old Testament prophet Micah 5:2 — that’s where the messiah had to come from.  And so for them, Jesus *had* to come from there.  They aren’t recording a historical datum from Jesus’ life; they are writing accounts that are influenced by the Old Testament precisely to show that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament.

You can go through virtually all the alleged messianic prophecies that point to Jesus and show the same things: either the “prophecies” were not actually predictions of the future messiah (and were never taken that way before Christians came along) or the facts of Jesus’ life that are said to have fulfilled these predictions are not actually facts of Jesus’ life.

One fact about Jesus life is certain: he was crucified by the Romans.  And that was THE single biggest problem ancient Jews had with Christian claims that Jesus was the messiah.  There was not a Jew on the planet who thought the messiah was going to be crushed by his enemies — humiliated, tortured, and executed.  That was the *opposite* of what the messiah would do.  To call Jesus the messiah made no sense — i.e., it was nonsense – virtually by definition.   And that was the major reason most Jews rejected the Christian claims about Jesus.


Another Problem with Calling Jesus the Messiah
Readers’ Mailbag on Revelation: November 6, 2015

115

Comments

  1. Avatar
    john76  November 10, 2015

    Seeing Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 behind the crucifixion narrative in Mark is the wave of the future in New Testament scholarship. See for example the table on the top of page 89 of the recently released Jewish Annotated New Testament: https://books.google.ca/books?id=DZRJ5zXUI2QC&pg=PA93&lpg=PA93&dq=the+jewish+annotated+new+testament+gospel+of+mark+crucifixion&source=bl&ots=pWb4my13aI&sig=j2hJGVO_72M7_LXn-2Di4TwZCBU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCEQ6AEwAWoVChMI2p3v78qEyQIVwlY-Ch2IlwAA#v=onepage&q=the%20jewish%20annotated%20new%20testament%20gospel%20of%20mark%20crucifixion&f=false

    You have to scroll up a few pages to see the table on the top of page 89.

  2. Avatar
    essamtony  November 10, 2015

    If I understood Dr. Ehrman correctly, he is stating that the early Christians re-read the Old Testament with new eyes. Any passage that seemed to allude to an event that happened in the life of Jesus was declared a prophecy that Jesus fulfilled.

    Now, there was no reason for the early Christians to invent that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and then go to Micah 5:2 and imagine it as a prophecy about Jesus. There is no requirement for the Jewish Messiah to be born in Bethlehem. In fact, Dr. Ehrman clearly states that none of these passages are explicit that it belongs to a future Messiah. Thus, the early Christians are not obligated to match the “prophecy” of any given passage; If it didn’t match the life of Jesus, then (for them), it was not a prophecy about the Messiah.

    I am reasoning that Micah 5:2 grabbed the attention of the early Christians because it matched a story in the life of Jesus; that he was born in Bethlehem, regardless of the reasons that placed him in Bethlehem that night.

  3. Avatar
    mcgred  November 11, 2015

    Bart, can you discuss the Hermeneutical method of Typology used by the gospels writers, Patristics and other christian authors to read into the Hebrew bible images of Jesus in order to validate the religion and hijack the Tanakh as their own. Also, without the Typological use of the Tanakh does Christianity even have a foundation?

  4. awgonnerman
    awgonnerman  November 12, 2015

    It makes sense to me that the early Christians re-read the Hebrew Scriptures looking for signs of Jesus, and incorporated what they found into the stories of his life. At the same time, whether the word ‘messiah’ appears in any of those passages is essentially irrelevant to most Christians, both ancient and modern. Second Temple Judaism had the concept of ‘messiah,’ drawn from the written text and oral traditions. This was the world in which early Christians interpreted and expanded on their faith.

    Christians believe a lot of things that the text does not say explicitly. The doctrine of the Trinity, for instance, is not mentioned once by name, and yet can be defended based on the text. That understanding of deity has far less support in ancient times outside of Christianity than the concept of a messiah.

  5. Avatar
    willow  November 13, 2015

    Same here. All it took was learning a little Hebrew, a good and preferably older Strong’s Exhaustive that didn’t add too many side notes, and a big, fat, Hebrew/Greek/English Interlinear . You probably know all of this but, what a shocker! Psalm 22:16: Ka’ari/כָּ֝אֲרִ֗י means like a lion, not pierced. אֲרִי: Lion; Strong’s word 738. Interestingly enough, the H/G/E interlinear translates like a lion as pierced, though that’s not the Hebrew interpretation of the word(s) in question.

    Daqar means pierced (among other Hebrew words) Strong’s word 1856.

  6. Avatar
    brubel  November 17, 2015

    Proverbs 8 (Wisdom) is mentioned a bit in your book about How Jesus Became God, and by a few comments in this thread. I always felt it was clear that this Proverb was written by people who worshiped Yahweh and Asherah jointly –given the symbols of Asherah worship at the beginning of the chapter below. Thoughts?

    On the heights beside the way,
    at the crossroads she takes her stand;
    3
    beside the gates in front of the town,
    at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud:

    • Bart
      Bart  November 18, 2015

      Possibly. There were other circles as well, though, that held to female divine consorts.

  7. Avatar
    billw977  December 23, 2015

    One thing for sure though, IF everything written about Jesus in the Gospels really did happen, it wouldn’t take much for just a casual reading of passages like Isaiah 53 to recognize that this was about the Messiah, Jesus. But how does one prove that ANY of this happened? We can’t SEE the wind, but we can SEE the results of the wind. It’s hard to believe a major world wide, world changing religion came about from some “made up” stories.

  8. Avatar
    Cracker  May 22, 2016

    “There was not a Jew on the planet who thought the messiah was going to be crushed by his enemies”.

    I have to wonder why this hasty generalization fallacy keeps appearing in texts written by scholars. Jews at the time were very diverse (as Dr. Ehrman has noted in many books), so we do not know what ALL of them would or wouldn’t think about killed Messiah. This fallacy has to stop.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2016

      OK, well I suppose then we could say “We have no record of any Jew on the planet who thought….”

      • Avatar
        Cracker  June 2, 2016

        That’s better, I think. Because when we acknowledge that we do not know everything about every sect of Judaism, then the hypothesis that “Christianity started as a Jewish sect that waited suffering Messiah” is valid. This means that hypothesis is possible, not that it’s probable, of course. After acknowledging that, then we proceed to see the evidence.

        But that’s another story. For me it’s enough if I see Dr. Ehrman avoiding the Hasty generalization fallacy in his texts.

  9. Avatar
    sksinks  August 5, 2016

    just a couple of questions. do you “have” to be a messiah to be a savior? where does the pistis sophia come from?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2016

      Well, I myself don’t have to be, luckily. 🙂 But no, “savior” could be applied to various figures, including the emperor. It just means “someone who delivers people from threat or danger.” Do you mean the *book* Pistis Sophia? It is a Gnostic writing.

      • Avatar
        sksinks  August 11, 2016

        yes, ihave read it, but they ? say they dont know where it came from supposedly jesus is speaking in it talks about the mysteries what ever they are.

  10. Avatar
    Zboilen  September 18, 2017

    Hi Bart, what do you think the original reading is for psalm 22:16? Do you think it’s “like a lion,” or “they pierced my hands and feet.”?

  11. Avatar
    Lostcities  November 23, 2017

    Hi Bart do you have any views on the original meaning of Zechariah 12 which John uses in his crucifixion account?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 24, 2017

      What are you thinking of in particular?

      • Avatar
        Lostcities  November 24, 2017

        Was it ever seen as a messianic prophecy before Christianity? John’s usage of it seems like it’s taken out of context and he also changes the pronoun of the quote from “me” to “the one”! It seems like he’s using it to construct his narrative

        • Bart
          Bart  November 26, 2017

          I’m not sure which verses (John or Zechariah) you are referring to.

          • Avatar
            Lostcities  November 26, 2017

            Sorry! was Zechariah 12: 10 seen as a messianic text? It looks to me like John has taken it out of context and used it to construct his narrative about Jesus being speared

          • Bart
            Bart  November 27, 2017

            Yes, it originally was referring to a figure in the prophet’s own day — possibly even himself. John has reinterpreted the passage messianically (so too in the book of Revelation (1:7).

  12. Avatar
    Lostcities  December 5, 2017

    Does the interpretation of Zechariah 12:10 in the Talmud as referring to Messiah Ben Joseph being killed in battle suggest any pre-Christian Jewish belief in a suffering Messiah or is this a later development?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 6, 2017

      I don’t think so. The Talmud, of course, was written many centuries after the beginnings of Christainity.

      • Avatar
        Lostcities  December 6, 2017

        According to the Talmud the rabbi discussing this interpretation was Dosa Ben Harkinas who died around 130ce. Is the Talmud not really a reliable source of what these Rabbis actually said as it was written down much later?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 8, 2017

          A good deal of scholarship since the 1970s or so has been devoted to showing why it is so problematic to think that Talmudic materials actually date to the earlier periods. The pioneer was Jacob Neusner.

          • Avatar
            Lostcities  December 8, 2017

            Thanks for replying Bart! So if I understand you correctly these rabbis in the 1st/2nd century probably didn’t say this and it was made up by later authors?

          • Bart
            Bart  December 10, 2017

            It’s not quite so simple as “someone made it up”; but yes, many of the traditions attributed to earlier rabbis were formulated in the years after they had died.

  13. Avatar
    prestonp  June 4, 2018

    Why didn’t most of the Jews recognize Jesus as their Messiah? That’s an excellent question, one which Jesus was asked and answered.

    At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

    It pleased GOD to withhold the identity of His Son from the wise and learned and that remains the case today. He doesn’t conceal His true identity from anyone in reality. His requirements to find Him necessitate a degree of humility and an eagerness to come to the Truth in ways not based on human merit.

  14. Avatar
    prestonp  June 4, 2018

    Why didn’t most of the Jews recognize Jesus as their Messiah? Again, an excellent question. Jesus seemed unable to understand it, too, as seen here:

    but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” “We are not stoning You for any good work,” said the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because You, who are a man, declare Yourself to be God.”…

    They didn’t believe GOD could be a man according to their own words. They said this before He was murdered and resurrected. So, when they said that about Him, He wasn’t understood by the Jews to be a suffering servant/messiah at that time.

    • Avatar
      flcombs  June 4, 2018

      You certainly have a lot of assumptions. How did you determine what Jesus actually was asked and what he actually said if anything? Even if the statement is true, how did you determine he was “full of joy through the Holy Spirit” and not some other stimulation? Aside from drugs and other possibilities, I’ve seen many people get emotional and excited over things that obviously were not really true. It is actually pretty easy to get most people worked up emotionally on some topic and be euphoric and “full of the spirit”. Just look at sports or politics these days. Heck, even Christians that vehemently disagree on Christian issues often claim to be full of the Holy Spirit. People of many religions have found “truth” through “humility and eagerness” and didn’t need Jesus to do it.
      “It pleased GOD to withhold the identity of His Son from the wise and learned and that remains the case today”:
      Isn’t it the “wise and learned” Christian scholars that do the fancy interpretations of the OT scriptures and prophets to explain how Jesus is found there when others don’t see it?
      So, if you are a believer, what category is yours if you can’t be wise or learned? Honestly, I’m just trying to clarify how you view yourself considering your position. Are you claiming God only loves the ignorant and Christians are or must be ignorant to “find Jesus” (interesting reflection on Christian apologists there!)? You are certainly pointing out a large contradiction in the Bible and Christianity. One the one hand, the claims like you point out that God is hiding things from the wise and learned and requires some special knowledge or insight. Ok, so on the other, obviously the Bible is wrong when it claims you are to “test all things”, stone “false prophets”, etc. How do the unwise and unlearned go about doing those things since they wouldn’t know or understand? That WOULD explain a lot! Perhaps that is why there are over 40,000 Christian groups alone: no questioning or testing?
      God apparently withheld the identity of Jesus from the wise and learned to prove that he really isn’t “kind and loving”, or so that the OT prophets would be false and not believed. What would be the “good” purpose to mislead OT prophets as to how to know the Messiah? You can’t blame people for rejecting Jesus for not fulfilling God’s own prophecies when God deliberately gave poor or false information to his own prophets and in his own (infallible?) scripture. After all, a true omnipotent and omniscient god that wanted people to be saved and obey would be very clear to all as to the identity of the Messiah. It is very easy to read the OT and realize that Jesus is not the Messiah without a lot of special interpretations. So, either Christian claimed inspired scripture and prophets have the wrong information or Jesus is not the Messiah. If it requires “special knowledge and understanding” (i.e. be learned and wise) to see how Jesus “fulfills” claimed prophecies, then obviously Christians are wrong in claiming God loves everyone and wants everyone to be saved “if only if….”.

      • Avatar
        prestonp  June 5, 2018

        “Ehrman and Metzger state in that book ( The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. ) that we can have a high degree of confidence that we can reconstruct the original text of the New Testament, the text that is in the Bibles we use, because of the abundance of textual evidence we have to compare. The variations are largely minor and don’t obscure our ability to construct an accurate text. The 4th edition of this work was published in 2005 – the same year Ehrman published Misquoting Jesus, which relies on the same body of information and offers no new or different evidence to state the opposite conclusion.

        Melinda Penner

        • Avatar
          flcombs  June 8, 2018

          You didn’t address if Christian apologists are “wise and learned” and therefore God hides truth from them.

          Do you consider yourself wise and learned in your comments or since Jesus was revealed to you are you not among the wise and learned?

          Again, you just stated assumptions in your posts and haven’t shown why you made your claims as fact. Unfortunately, even having the original text does not mean the story is true or the quotes in the text are accurate, etc. It would prove that the writers were who they were claimed to be or that they accurately passed along stories that were accurately passed to them. You can easily have reliable text passing false stories and information or embellishing them.

          I think your position is something like “assuming the Bible is reliable textually and assuming the stories are true as written….”. Just realize that if you can’t establish your position as true there is no reason for others to assume it is. We see too many issues with Bible contradictions, authorship and so on to just take your word for it.

  15. Avatar
    prestonp  June 4, 2018

    Another most interesting way to address the topic of how He was received by the Jews is to examine the manner in which those Jewish followers did thoroughly consecrate their lives to Him. Many of them were tortured and brutally murdered for not renouncing Him as their/the Savior. They forsook everything to be His disciples. They gave up their worldly pursuits, their ambitions, control over their futures in order to walk with Him, to be counted among those who were His true disciples and the entire world was and is challenged by what they said and wrote about Him. No other human being has had as profound an influence as He, largely because His early Jewish disciples loved Him so.

    • Avatar
      flcombs  June 4, 2018

      Again, a lot of assumptions. What documentation to you have as to how extensive the “torture and brutality” was for Christians and WHY? Research shows a lot of the claims are legendary or spotty events. And the reasons are often for other things, not for not “rejecting Jesus”.

      Many followed Muhammad and died believing in his message, yet Christians reject that as proof of his message as true. It’s a stale argument that people don’t die for things that aren’t true as it happens all the time and through history. That they believe, maybe, but you don’t see Christians believing in or joining up with ISIS because of their beliefs and willingness to die for them.

      Obviously most Jews did reject Jesus and his claims to be the Messiah (if he made them). You can always find a few people that believe anything. Your argument that God hid the truth from the wise and learned would say that it was only the ignorant Jews who obviously didn’t know prophecy, etc. that followed Jesus anyway. So, it’s hard to give them much credit for knowing what they were doing from your other statements.

      • Avatar
        prestonp  June 5, 2018

        “The position I argue for in ‘Misquoting Jesus’ does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament”
        Bart

  16. Avatar
    flcombs  June 8, 2018

    Of course first ASSUMING what is IN the text is correct and true anyway!

    Even as is, with 40,000 different Christian groups apparently there are many ways to interpret what is there.

  17. Avatar
    prestonp  June 13, 2018

    One fact about Jesus life is certain: he was crucified by the Romans. And that was THE single biggest problem ancient Jews had with Christian claims that Jesus was the messiah.
    There was not a Jew on the planet who thought the messiah was going to be crushed by his enemies — humiliated, tortured, and executed. That was the *opposite* of what the messiah would do. To call Jesus the messiah made no sense — i.e., it was nonsense – virtually by definition. And that was the major reason most Jews rejected the Christian claims about Jesus.

    And they rejected Him long before they had Him executed, so they didn’t know He would be rejected when they rejected Him. That didn’t enter into their thinking. So they were wrong. He came to His own and they rejected Him.

  18. Avatar
    RG959  September 20, 2018

    Bart,

    What is your interpretation of Isiah 53:1

    “Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

    Are the Jewish people here saying who could have believed that were being allowed back to our land and who else has heard this great message that we’re now free from Babylonian captivity? Historically didn’t Cyrus, king of Persia conquer the Babylonians and allow the Jews to return home?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2018

      It’s a rhetorical device. There’s not actually a person talking to someone else asking a question.

  19. Avatar
    Nikos  July 2, 2019

    Yeah I think this was the problem that Marcion was encountering . The Canonical Gospel editors of the 2nd Century kept Interpolating the OT texts into the Gospel narratives (and Paul’s letters). Claiming Jesus fulfilled Messianic prophecies that never existed.

  20. Avatar
    armandomolinajr.  November 19, 2019

    I like to put things into context myself when I read the Bible. All Jews at the time of Jesus had been taught that the worship of a person was forbidden and that the long awaited messiah would be an anointed king, a savior, but only a man who would be the savior of the Jewish people. I’m assuming none of the Jews at the time were waiting for the messiah so they could worship Him. So how was Jesus and his followers able to amass a following using the Old Testament to prove he was God? The Jews had been reading and studying the Torah for centuries long before the life of Jesus. Why is it that they never interpreted the Scriptures the way early followers of Jesus were beginning to?

    Christian Guy.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2019

      Long story. It turns out Jews did sometimes worship beings other than God the Creator. As to why Jesus’ followers came to think that he was more than an earthly messiah, but actually a divine being: that’s an even longer story. It’s the question I address in my book How Jesus Became God, if you want the full answer. Shortest possible answer: they believed that after his death he had been taken into heaven to dwell with God, and in the Greek, Roman, and Jewish worlds, anyone taken up to dwell in heaven after death was thought to have become a divine being.

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