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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

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    JosiahBent  May 27, 2020

    Hey Bart, regarding the Jewish attack against the Romans in 66-70 CE, is there any historical evidence to suggest that it was carried out by “a jewish messiah”?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2020

      No, we have very good records about how it all happened, in Josephus’s five-volume account of the War (he was an active participant). it was not because of a messianic pretender but because of animosity for Roman administrative overreach.

  2. Avatar
    JosiahBent  May 27, 2020

    Another question is:
    Do we have any historical sources that would suggest there being other people who were declared as the messiah?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2020

      Yes indeed. The most famous is Bar Kochba, responsible for the second Jewish uprising in 132-35 CE.

  3. Avatar
    Jaclynm  July 21, 2020

    Bart, do have any information on Jesus being Messiah ben Joseph (relating to Shiloh)?

    Jstor
    Torrey : The Messiah Son of Ephraim
    Third page (255)

    ” The rise of the Nazarene sect with its Messiah ben Joseph and its appropropiation of the Old Testiment prophecies was most unwelcome to the Jewish doctors. Especially disturbing was the new interpretation of Isaiah 53, which was claimed as definite prediction of the death of Jesus of Nazareth. “

    • Bart
      Bart  July 22, 2020

      Not really. He is never called that. Joseph, of course, was a very common name at the time, so I’m not sure too much should be made of it….

  4. Avatar
    SHameed01  July 28, 2020

    What are your thoughts regarding the following quote?

    “This rabbi described those who interpret Isaiah 53 as referring to Israel as those: “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….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 deliver Israel, and his life from the day when he arrives at discretion until his advent as a redeemer, in order that if anyone should arise claiming to be himself the Messiah, we may reflect, and look to see whether we can observe in him any resemblance to the traits described here; if there is any such resemblance, then we may believe that he is the Messiah our righteousness; but if not, we cannot do so.” (From his commentary on Isaiah, quoted in The Fifty-third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters, Ktav Publishing House, 1969, Volume 2, pages 99-114.)

    • Bart
      Bart  July 29, 2020

      I don’t know. Sounds like it is written by a Christian. Who is “this rabbi”? And who is describing what “this rabbi” said?

      • Avatar
        SHameed01  August 1, 2020

        I will get in touch with Rabbi Tovia Singer (famous Orthodox Counter-Missionary Jewish Rabbi) on the subject if I can and will let you know his thoughts. But lets say even if there was a Jewish view of the Messiah dying for the sins of mankind, there are still other passages that would disqualify Jesus as the Messiah according to the Old Testament. One extremely compelling evidence is found in Ezekiel that talks about the restoration of the animal sacrificial system for sins, which flies in the face of the Book of Hebrews that clearly argues that only Jesus is the sacrifice for sins. Any thoughts?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 2, 2020

          I would say that the opinion of the author of the Book of Hebrews would have no bearing on whether Jesus was truly the messiah or not. It would just be his opinion, not some kind of “official source of disqualification.”

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