How did the Old Testament instruct people to recognize God's promised messiah?
As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene... No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life. 1
- Albert Einstein
Jesus was a crackpot.
- Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
3.1 Who or what is the Messiah?
The Hebrew word mashach, that we translate messiah, means anointed one. The Greek translation of the same word, christos, is our word Christ. Therefore, when you hear the English-speaking Christian talking of Jesus Christ, or Jesus the Christ, they are referring to their belief that Jesus is the Anointed One, or the Messiah as promised in the Old Testament.
The prophets of ancient Israel spoke quite often of the Anointed One. The significance of anointing is that it was a ceremonial sign of being set apart for a special purpose, and as a symbol of having God's power or approval. Ancient Israel's prophets, priests, and kings were all anointed for their respective duties within the nation. In a minor sense, each of these were anointed ones.
The future Anointed One, however, was specified by prophecy to come at a certain time, in a specific place, having a certain lineage, be called "Mighty God", accomplish specific tasks, suffer rejection and seeming defeat, yet establish a kingdom that would destroy all of its enemies. The Anointed One would rule this kingdom forever.
3.2 Which Old Testament prophecies did pre-Jesus Jews believe spoke of the coming Messiah?
Of all the Old Testament prophecies which Jesus fulfilled, there are two major reasons to concentrate on those which we clearly know pre-Jesus Jews believed spoke of the future Messiah.
1.) Now that Jesus has come, Christians could theoretically be accused of describing as messianic only the prophecies that Jesus seems to have fulfilled.
2.) Modern Jews who reject Jesus could, likewise, theoretically deny as messianic those prophecies that he actually did fulfill.
In order to prevent Christians or Jews or anyone else from reinterpreting ancient Israel's messianic expectations after-the-fact, it must be determined which parts of the Old Testament ancient Judaism agreed upon as pertaining to God's promised Anointed One. This is accomplished by turning to individuals having a personal background of Judaism, or having intricate knowledge of ancient Israel's long religious and political history. This will help to more objectively answer the question "What were the people in Jesus' day supposed to be looking for in the way of a Messiah?"
The problem encountered here is not a lack of information about what this Anointed One will be or do, but an information overload. Over 456 passages of Scripture were declared by the Jews to be Messianic in nature. Because of so many, only a fraction of the specific passages claimed to be messianic will be presented. The scriptural passages themselves will not be introduced until later when they will be compared side-by-side with what Christians believe are their New Testament fulfillments.
1. Genesis 3:15 - The Messiah will come:
This is the first Messianic prophecy in the Bible that promises God will send a male descendant through Adam and Eve to defeat and destroy Satan. Semitics Professor Charles Feinberg documents that, "There has never been a time, from ancient days to the present, when the Messianic interpretation of Genesis 3:15 has not had its able advocates." 2
2. Deuteronomy 18:15 - The position he will hold:
Here God promises that one day he will raise up a prophet as great as Moses by whom God will call everyone to account. According to Paton J. Gloag,
The Talmud asserts 'that Messiah must be the greatest of future prophets, as being nearest in spirit to our master Moses.'... This prediction, then, could only receive its accomplishment in the Messiah. 3
3. Isaiah 9:6,7 - The nature of his identity:
These verses, frequently seen on Christmas cards, include the words, "For to us a child is born... And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father...". The chief significance being that the Anointed One will be the everlasting Mighty God AND will be born as a child. The Targum of Isaiah, which is an ancient rabbinical commentary, confirms Jewish belief in the Messianic nature of this passage,
His name has been called from old, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, He who lives forever, the Anointed One, in whose days peace shall increase upon us. 4
4. Daniel 9:24-27 - When he will come:
This passage prophecies that after the decree goes out to rebuild Jerusalem, the "Anointed One, the ruler" would arrive after a period of seven plus sixty-two shabuim, or cycles of Sabbaths (a Sabbath being one year out of every seven when no crops are planted). This is 69 cycles of seven years, or 483 years. After this last cycle has begun, the "Anointed One" will be killed and, afterwards, Jerusalem and the temple will be destroyed.
Because of this passage's specificity, even the Jewish Talmud describes its content as having indicated the end of the Messiah. It is an interesting observation that outsiders to Judaism, like Tacitus and Suetonius, also noted the Jewish anticipation of the Messiah's arrival. Referring to the time around Jesus' appearance, Tacitus recorded in his work Histories:
There was a firm persuasion... that at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers coming from Judea were to acquire a universal empire. 5
5. Micah 5:2 - Where he will come:
Micah states that the Anointed One will come from Bethlehem although having existed "from ancient times". Gloag comments on this passage:
All the ancient Jewish interpreters adhere to the Messianic meaning... So also the testimony of the Targums is in favor of the Messianic interpretation of the prophecy. 6
6. Psalm 22 He will suffer:
This describes the same specific details of suffering and mockery to which a great number of smaller passages clearly prophesy the Messiah would be subjected. John Ankerberg quotes Moishe Rosen that early rabbinical writings describe this Psalm as painting a grim Messianic picture: "The Messiah's body is bent low". 7
7. Isaiah chapters 52-53 - His death will be a guilt offering to God, but he will again "see the light of life":
These chapters contain a great deal of Isaiah's extensive writings about the Anointed One as the servant of the Lord. They speak of the Anointed One's innocence as well as his mortal punishment. The giving of his life will be for the intercession and justification of those whose sin he bore. But it goes on to state that the Lord will prolong his days and he will see the light of life and divide the spoils of what his death accomplished.
This passage is one believed to have influenced some Jews to conceive of a two-Messiah idea. Dr. Raphael Patai writes,
When the death of the Messiah became an established tenet in Talmudic time, this was felt to be irreconcilable with the belief in the Messiah as the Redeemer who would usher in the blissful millennium of the Messianic age. The dilemma was solved by splitting the person of the Messiah in two. 8
The New Testament's overall record of Jesus' actions matches the issues and events that were prophesied. Although many passages concerning the Messiah could be covered, Hebrew scholar Alfred Edersheim extensively reviewed the rabbinic commentaries on the Messianic prophecies. As to whether or not the New Testament claims accurately reflect Messianic expectations, Edersheim summarizes,
Accordingly, a careful perusal of their  scripture quotations shows that the main postulates of the New Testament concerning the Messiah are fully supported by rabbinic statements. Thus, such doctrines as the pre-mundane existence of the Messiah; his elevation above Moses, and even above the Angels; his representative character; his cruel suffering and derision; his violent death, and that for his people; his work on behalf of the living and of 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 kingdom - can clearly be deduced from unquestioned passages in ancient rabbinic writings... There is, indeed, in rabbinic writings frequent reference to the sufferings, and even death of the Messiah, and these are brought into connection with our sins... 9
3.3 How were the messianic prophecies being interpreted in Jesus' day?
Having established some proof of the prophecies which are Messianic in nature, we now need to see how they were being interpreted prior to Jesus' arrival. For we know that when Jesus began his ministry, many people would accept him as the Christ, others would not, and still others would later be swayed one way or another by ensuing events.
This mixed manner in which Jesus was received is better understood in light of knowing the expectations in circulation at that time about the coming Messiah. While there was general agreement on which parts of Scripture were speaking of the promised deliverer, as we've just reviewed, not everyone was in agreement on the exact nature of that persona.
People differed in their answers to the question "How will we know him when he gets here?" Many Jews, and even Roman occupation forces to a lesser extent, had their eyes out for a military conqueror. That is the temporal vision of which Messiah had popularly been cast; someone who might extricate the geopolitical nationstate of Israel from its territorial occupation by foreign armies.
-- THE TWO-MESSIAH INTERPRETATION
Besides the conquering king prophecies, Scripture also foretold of the Messiah's rejection, suffering, and death. Being paradoxical to an eternal messianic kingdom, this led some Jews to conclude that the totality of messianic prophecies actually spoke of two different Messiahs.
The fact that prophecies stated the Messiah would hold the offices of both priest and king was cited as further support of a two Messiah interpretation. This is because the offices of priest and king were strictly separated. Priests were to be descendants of Aaron from the tribe of Levi, while kings were to be of King David's line from the tribe of Judah. Therefore, because this prophecy extremely limited the section of the populace from which the Messiah could come (though other prophecies even narrow it down even further), it may have seemed more probable that Scripture spoke of two men, not one.
In the two Messiah interpretation, a first Messiah, referred to as Messiah ben-Joseph, would fulfill the prophecies concerning the priestly acts including suffering and death. A second Messiah, referred to as Messiah ben-David, would then follow to fulfill the prophecies describing a conquering king whose rule would be divine and eternal. In the minds of many, suffering and dying just did not seem to be a fitting description of the military super-general some Jews interpreted Scripture to be indicating.
-- THE ONE-MESSIAH INTERPRETATION
Of course, other Jews believed that there would only be one Messiah. Scripture never referred to the Anointed One in any kind of plural sense. In fact, certain prophecies speak of a singular individual who will perform both priestly and kingly duties. Proponents of the single Messiah interpretation likely concluded that God would work out whatever paradoxes were involved with one who was supposed to both die and somehow rule eternally. Perhaps it occurred to them that Scripture was not trying to describe two Messiahs who would each come to earth once, but one Messiah who would come twice.
Within all these different avenues of ancient Jewish thought are two subtle yet interesting facts that enhance the overall believability of the Bible:
1.) Although the ancient Jews recognized within Scripture a paradox (perceived contradiction) about a Messiah who was eternal but would be born and die, the paradox was let stand. The point is that statements were not edited out because they did not make sense. They were left in because it was all taken as the Word of God. The creative interpretation of two Messiahs was uncalled for and need not have been constructed as a safety net to make sure God or his prophets had not gotten confused.
2.) The fact that many Jews of Jesus' day denied his unique fulfillment of the messianic prophecies is itself a testimony that Jesus did not precede those prophecies. For one cannot say that
- messianic prophecies were written by the Jews to make it look as though Jesus had fulfilled them, AND...
- believe that the Jews are still waiting for someone to fulfill the prophecies because they do not think Jesus did.
Only one or the other can be true. So because Jews at that time did reject Jesus as the Christ, and many still do, clearly the hundreds of specific Messianic prophecies came before Jesus, not afterwards.
In the next section, we will now look at those messianic prophecies and see if their fulfillments can actually be found in the person of Jesus.
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NEXT: Does Jesus fulfill the messianic prophecies?
When were the biblical books written? <the short version>
WHY THIS CHAPTER?
There are at least two reasons to look at the Messiah from the perspective of pre-Jesus Jews:
1.) Now that Jesus has come, Christians could theoretically be accused of describing as messianic only the prophecies that Jesus seems to have fulfilled, and...
2.) Modern Jews who reject Jesus could, likewise, theoretically deny as messianic those prophecies that he actually did fulfill.