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Jesus the Suffering Messiah

In a previous post I tried to show how the belief in Jesus’ resurrection completely altered the disciples’ perspective on who Jesus was.  During his lifetime they thought he would be the future king of Israel; when he was crucified they realized they were wrong; when they then came to believe he had been raised they realized that they had been right, but in a way they did not at the time think.  Jesus, for them, now that they believed he was raised, was far more than a human king.  He was a divine being, the ruler of the world, the king of All.  Yes, he would be the ruler of Israel as well.  But that was when he came back from heaven as the victorious Son of Man, destroying his enemies and all those who were aligned against God, before bringing in his utopian kingdom.  That was to happen very, very soon.

The resurrection of Jesus not only made the followers of Jesus rethink their views of who (and what) he was; it also made them understand the significance of his death in a radically different way.  This new understanding of Jesus’ death became the central teaching of Christianity.

As I have repeatedly argued, no one had ever imagined that the messiah would be crucified.  That was just the *opposite* of what was supposed to happen to the messiah.  And yet Jesus, for the Christians, was the messiah.  And he did get crucified.  How did they explain that?  They explained it by arguing it was God’s plan all along for the messiah to be crucified.  The earliest Christians – well before Paul – created the idea of a suffering messiah.

The notion of a suffering messiah would have been (and was) nonsense to Jews in the time of Jesus.  Until the Christians came along.   But the Christian logic, for them, was irrefutable.  Jesus was the messiah.  Jesus suffered.  Therefore…

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Christians, Muslims, and God: Wheaton College in the News
The Resurrection of the Son of God



  1. Avatar
    willow  December 21, 2015

    “We tend not to see what we are not looking for.”

    Even the most obvious becomes near hopelessly blurred, after so many years spent in the church, that no less than tells us what it is we are to see.

  2. Avatar
    qaelith2112  December 21, 2015

    Some Christians resolve the contextual problem in their own minds by holding to a concept of “dual meaning” of texts, or of “dual prediction” prophecies (some other term for this eludes me). That is: yes, they will agree, that text does refer to Israel, as “second Isaiah” (well, they don’t acknowledge multiple authors…) expressly says, *BUT* (!!!) it *also* clearly predicts the fate of the messiah to come. Many other passages are treated similarly — of course they have a clear historical context, but they simultaneously reveal something else. Or some prophecy might have been intended for an event in the near-future of the writer/speaker, but that’s only one part of it — it has a dual purpose, and it also foretells another event in the more distant future. All of this is cognitive dissonance resolution. There doesn’t seem to be any systematic way of identifying where a “dual meaning” exists, apart from the reader’s theological need for the text to have that second meaning.

  3. Avatar
    Eric  December 21, 2015

    I recall from somewhere (Crossan?) that the fact that the Gospels were written in codex form (rather than as scrolls — some critical basis for this due to length or some other orthographic reason) says something not only about early Christian literacy but also their station in life. I believe the case is that codex writing suggests early followers included more of a merchant-class scribe-typw (scribes for merchants, not necessarily merchants themselves, I suppose). Scrolls still then being the more scholarly format.

    So this not only suggests a lack of scholarly literacy (to the negative), but a rational for relatively early access to literate members (to the positive, with respect to early-ish recording of traditions)..

    • Bart
      Bart  December 22, 2015

      I’m not sure we know for a fact what form the Gospels were originally written in. They certainly *circulated* in codex form as far back as we have evidence. I would think they would be accessible to literate members whatever form they took.

  4. Avatar
    Luke9733  December 23, 2015

    I don’t know if you saw a trailer for a new movie coming out “Risen”, but I cringed watching just the trailer! It treats the story as though everyone was just waiting for Jesus to rise 3 days after his crucifixion and there are Roman soldiers instructed to make sure his body never leaves the tomb! It’s just plain bad.

  5. Avatar
    billw977  December 25, 2015

    I’ve read “Jesus, Interrupted” and now I’m on “God’s Problem”. I’m struck by the fact you don’t mention answered prayers when you used to be a “believer” or talk about answered prayers from folks you used to minister to. Surely, being in the position you were in, you’ve had experience with this? For me, just reading the Bible was one thing, but the “proof in the pudding” was does it work? Does God hear me or answer my prayers? Yes, people are suffering, but people are also experiencing unexplained “healings” and “miracles” and relief from all sorts of problems…..me included.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2015

      Yes, I do deal with prayer in God’s Problem!

      • Avatar
        billw977  January 1, 2016

        I’m not sure what you mean when you say you deal with prayer in “God’s Problem”. I didn’t see it. I totally see when you talk about discrepancies, inconsistencies, theodicy, etc. These things have plagued my thinking about the Bible for a long time, but I kept plugging away as a believer, mainly because of answered prayer, not only for me but the witness of thousands of others you read about in Christian circles. Not too many folks can attain to the position of training and learning you’re in so a lot of us are hanging on your conclusions and insights to these other issues. Have you considered, like the story of Elijah and the watered down altar, that even though the scriptures have come down to us battered and distorted as they are, that God still honors them? I just don’t know that the percentage of “problems” in the Bible out weighs the consistencies and answers it gives. What about, this world of suffering is the result of mankind, starting with Adam and Eve, rejecting God and accepting the “wisdom” of the serpent (Satan)? There is an evil in this world that is tearing at everything good, including the Bible. Maybe we should be surprised and awed that God allowed it to come down in the well preserved condition it is in?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 2, 2016

          Yes, that would be a position of faith. In God’s Problem I try to explain why I no longer share that faith….

  6. Avatar
    shakespeare66  December 26, 2015

    “Notice in particular Isaiah 49:3, where the author tells you whom (who) he is referring to when speaking of the servant: “You are my servant, Israel”

    I spent the summer in a Bible study group at an evangelical Lutheran church in PA. We spent the entire summer reading the Book of Isaiah and looking at it as a justification for Jesus as a suffering messiah. I indicated that I thought the passage 49:3 was referring to Israel, not Christ. The room went silent.

  7. Avatar
    Cracker  June 18, 2016

    “But in fact, Isaiah 53 is not talking about the messiah. Read it carefully. Where does the term “messiah” ever occur in it? It doesn’t. ”

    Since this is a old blog post I have to ask have you, Dr. Ehrman, reversed your position on this? I mean, in your book How Jesus Became God, p. 66, you note that Jews had many names for Messiah. So it doesn’t matter if the text doesn’t actually use the word “Messiah”.


    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2016

      I don’t have teh book with me. Are you sure I said that there were many “names” for the messiah? Which name in Isaiah 53 would be a name for the messiah?

      • Avatar
        Cracker  June 19, 2016

        I don’t have it either now, it’s 400 km’s away from me now. If I remember right, you said that Jews could refer to Messiah as “chosen one” or “elected one”

        But my point is to argue against argument that “because word ‘Messiah’ is nowhere to be seen in Isaiah passages, it therefore doesn’t speak about Messiah”. So even if I don’t provide any name it wouldn’t matter. Talmud seems to make its own mind what the name would be, calling Messiah a “leper scholar” (Sanhedrin 98b).

        • Bart
          Bart  June 19, 2016

          I think you may have slightly misread me. My point, I believe, is that Jews had a variety of concepts of what the messiah would be like. But the one thing all these concepts had in common was that he would be a figure of grandeur and power who would overthrow the enemy and bring in God’s rule on earth. And that was just the opposite of one who suffered and died at the hands of the enemy.

          • Avatar
            Cracker  June 20, 2016

            We can’t prove that to be the case for all Jews. We can not commit the hasty generalization fallacy here.

            But that’s beside the point. Do you agree – or do you remember writing – that Jews could interpret texts to be about Messiah even if the text itself didn’t use the word ‘Messiah’?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 21, 2016

            No, I don’t recall writing that.

  8. Avatar
    Veyron  May 9, 2018

    Hi guys, Bart and Cracker, I’m not sure if I did understood you correctly, but it is evident from rabbinic tradition that the Jews interpreted specific Old Testament passages as a reference to the Messiah without appearing this term in the Hebrew text. Isaiah 53 is traditionally interpreted by Midrash Tanhuma in messianic terms

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2018

      The problem is that the surviving Midrashim date from long *after* the beginning of Christianity, not before.

      • Avatar
        Veyron  May 11, 2018

        Yes, that is problematic. Interestingly, all targumic and talmudic manuscripts were redacted AFTER the time of Muhammad. Scholars are generally in agreement that one of the main reasons behind it was the allusion to Muhammad’s wifes (Aisha/Fatima?). If I had the chance I would ask them why they did it (although it is obvious why for every intelligent Muslim). One can only imagine what would happen if there will be a clear description of Prophet Muhammad in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. It can be proved that he was prophesied e.g. by Moses or Isaiah, but only through a deep critico-historical analysis of Jewish, Christian and Muslim sources.

  9. Avatar
    rhilton@cox.net  June 5, 2020

    When Paul says in First Corinthians 15:3 “that Christ died according to the scriptures” to what scriptures do you think he is referring?


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