By Rabbi Michael Skobac
Many Christians have a very difficult time understanding how it is possible for Jewish people to study their Bible and fail to see it pointing to Jesus as the Messiah. Is it possible, as the Greek Testament claims, that Satan has blinded the Jews who now have a veil covering their eyes? (II Corinthians 3:14-15, 4:3-4; Romans 11:7, 25) Or is it possible that Christians have been seeing a mirage?
There are many passages where the Bible clearly speaks about the Messiah who would one day come to the world. These passages are so clear, that Jews and Christians are in agreement that they describe the Messiah:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the L-rd shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the L-rd. His delight shall be in the fear of the L-rd. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear. But with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Righteousness will be the belt around his waist, and faith-fullness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all My holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the L-rd as the waters cover the sea. Isaiah 11:1-9
The days are surely coming, says the L-rd, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will dwell securely. And this is name by which he will be called: The L-rd is our righteousness. Jeremiah 23:5-6 (See also Jeremiah 30:7-10 and 33:14-18)
My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow My ordinances and be careful to observe My statutes. They shall live in the land that I gave to My servant Jacob, in which your ancestors lived; they and their children and their children’s children shall live there forever. And My servant David shall be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and I will set My sanctuary among them forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them; I will be their G-d and they shall be My people. Then shall the nations know that I the L-rd, sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is among them forever-more. Ezekiel 37:24-28 (See also Ezekiel 34:23-31)
These passages describe a wise and righteous descendant of David who will rule Israel as King when the world has been transformed into a utopia of universal peace and knowledge of G-d. It is important to understand that the focus of scripture is not on this special anointed one who we refer to as “The Messiah”, but to describing what the world will look like when he is here. While there may be about a dozen passages specifically refer to this special king, there are over a hundred that simply paint a picture of the utopia that will flower when he is reigning. These passages speak about the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland after being scattered across the globe. There, they will live in peace, follow G-d, live according to the teachings of His Torah and will be sought by the nations of the world as spiritual teachers. The world will destroy their weapons of war and enter into an age of eternal peace and knowledge of G-d. (See Isaiah 2:1-4, Micha 4:1-4, Hoseah 2:18, Isaiah 32:16-18, 60:18; Zechariah 8:23, Isaiah 60:3, 61:6,9; Zechariah 14:9,11; Psalm 86:9, Zepheniah 3:9, Isaiah 66:23, Jeremiah 31:33-34, Ezekiel 11:19-20, 36:26-27, Deuteronomy 30: 1-9, Isaiah 11:12, 40:11, 43:5,6, 49:12,18,22, 60:4, 66:20, Jeremiah 3:18, 30:3, 31:7, 32:37, Ezekiel 11:17, 20:41, 34:13, 36:24, etc.)
Aside from failing to fulfill the central messianic criteria of the scriptures, there was also a prophecy that Elijah the prophet must return before the coming of Messiah (Malachi 4:5-6 [3:23-24 in Jewish versions of Malachi]). Bearing this in mind, the Gospel of Matthew asserts that John the Baptizer was Elijah (11:14, 17:12). This claim, however, does not hold up to scrutiny. John the Baptizer was actually very popular, and some people even thought that he might be the Messiah. When he was asked if this was so, he denied it. He was then asked if he was Elijah the Prophet, and he said, “I am not” (John 1:21). In addition, the prophet Malachi prophesied that when Elijah returns, he would “restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers”, but there is no evidence that John the Baptizer fulfilled this.
The Christian doctrine of Jesus’ “second coming” is an admission that he failed to fulfill these essential Messianic passages and will have to return in the future to do so. It is important to realize that the notion of a second coming can be used to rationalize the failure of any messianic candidate. The question then becomes why anyone should believe that person was the Messiah when they first came upon the scene? Christians have resorted to two basic ideas in order to promote the idea that Jesus qualified as Messiah 2000 years ago despite not having fulfilled the clear Biblical messianic criteria outlined above.
One of these arguments is that the miracles that Jesus did attest to the fact that he must have been the Messiah. At this point, we will not discuss the historical credibility of the Gospel accounts. Suffice it to say, there are extremely strong grounds for doubting the veracity of these stories. Let’s assume, however, that it is possible that Jesus performed numerous miracles. The question that needs to be asked is, “How many times does the Bible tell us that we will be able to identify the Messiah as a result of the miracles he will perform?”
The answer to this question is that the Bible never tells us that miracles are relevant in this regard. It is important to understand why this is so. Why didn’t the Bible ever inform us that we would be able to identify the Messiah through his miracles?
The reason for this omission stems from the fact that miracles are an unreliable barometer of anything. While Moses performed miracles in Egypt, Pharaoh’s magicians were able to replicate them (Exodus chapters 7-8). In Deuteronomy chapter 13, we are told that false prophets will have the ability to perform supernatural miracles in order to test our fidelity to G-d. Interestingly, the Greek scriptures state that false messiahs will do incredible miracles to mislead people (Matthew 24:24). Clearly, if a false messiah is able to perform miracles, then miracles cannot prove that someone is the Messiah.
The second approach used by Christians is to assert that scripture both foretells and confirms that Jesus is the Messiah. Many Christians feel that these “proof texts” are so compelling that they find it impossible to understand how they have had no impact on Jews for the past 2000 years.
The basic flaw with this approach stems from the way in which these passages have been mined. Rather than objectively reading the Bible to understand what it actually means, some Christians have approached it with a pre-conceived conclusion in mind. Like an “archer” who first shoots his arrow into a tree and then paints a target around the arrow, these Christians assume from the outset that Jesus was the Messiah and then try to find passages in the Bible which “sound like” Jesus. As a result of this circular approach to reading the Bible, the meaning of the Bible has been distorted in order to shoehorn Jesus back into the text. If a person wears red-tinted glasses, everything they see will appear red. Similarly, when Christians approach the Bible with “Jesus glasses”, this will color everything they read.
A few examples will help illustrate how this approach leads to a distortion of the text.
And one shall say unto him, What are those wounds in your hands? Then he shall answer: Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends. Zechariah 13:6
Numerous Christians have offered this verse as evidence that the Hebrew Scriptures make reference to Jesus of Nazareth. However, all that needs to be done to puncture this illusion is to simply read the entire chapter of Zechariah when it becomes clear that the passage is speaking about a false prophet. This example is so blatant, that most Christian scholars and Bible commentators have acknowledged this (NIV Study Bible, New Interpreters Study Bible, etc.)
Another verse from the Hebrew Bible marshaled to support the belief that Jesus was the Messiah is found in the 41st Psalm:
Yea, mine one familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, has lifted up his heel against me. Psalm 41:9
This verse is not only cited in countless missionary tracts, but the Greek scriptures themselves quote this verse as fulfilled in the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot (John 13:18).
The critical question here is whether, in truth, Psalm 41 is a Messianic prophesy. Was it written in order to give the Jewish people vital information they will need in order to help identify their Messiah? Or is this simply another example of reading Jesus back into the Bible to buttress a belief in him arrived at independently of the testimony of scripture? Having already shot the Jesus arrow, the Christian then draws his target and declares this verse a Messianic prophecy because it seems to resonate with Jesus’ life.
This exploitation of scripture can be confirmed by carefully reading the entire Psalm and asking, “How might someone have understood it before the advent of Christianity?” Is there any reason that someone living ten years before the birth of Jesus would have understood it as a Messianic prophesy? Is there any reason that someone reading it prior to Jesus would have even thought that it was a prophecy at all?
When attentively reading Psalm 41, it becomes difficult to understand how any Christian would entertain the possibility that it is referring to Jesus. This is because the very person who exclaims that he has been betrayed by a close friend (verse 9) earlier beseeches G-d, “I said, L-rd, be merciful unto me; heal my soul; for I have sinned against You” (verse 4).
Two very clear examples of how reading the Jewish Bible with Jesus-colored glasses led to taking passages out- of-context in order to find “prooftexts” can be found in the second chapter of Matthew. We are told that Joseph was warned to leave Bethlehem because Herod would attempt to kill Jesus. Joseph takes Jesus and Mary and flees to Egypt. Matthew then claims that this took place to fulfill a Messianic prophecy from the Hebrew Scriptures:
And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the lord by the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt have I called My son. Matthew 2:15
However, if we examine the source of Matthew’s quote, we see that he seriously distorted its meaning:
When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son. Hoseah 11:1
The 11th chapter of Hoseah describes the early history of the Jewish people after G-d redeemed them from the Egyptian exile. Throughout this story, the Jewish people are spoken of as G-d’s son (Exodus 4:22). Matthew, here,
ignores this context and distorts the true meaning of the verse by claiming that it was actually a prophecy about the early days of Jesus. It is clear that Matthew is only able to obscure the actual meaning by quoting only the later half of the verse, leaving out the beginning, which clarifies that it is speaking about Israel.
Further on in the second chapter of Matthew, we are told that Herod was angered when the wise men failed to inform him of Jesus’ whereabouts. In order to nip the messianic threat in the bud, Herod sends a force to kill all the baby boys from two years old and under in Bethlehem and all the surrounding towns. Matthew goes on to claim that this story was anticipated in the Jewish scriptures:
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet saying: In Ramah was there a voice heard, lamentation and weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and would not be comforted, because they are not. Matthew 2:17-18
Here Matthew quotes the entire verse, but nonetheless distorts its actual meaning. By examining the original context of this verse from the 31st chapter of Jeremiah, we see that Rachel was not weeping for children who were murdered, but for children who were still alive, but taken into captivity:
Thus said the L-rd: Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears. For your work shall be rewarded, says the L-rd, and they shall come again from the land of the enemy. And there is hope in the end, says the L-rd, that your children will come again to their own border. Jeremiah 31:16-17
Submitting all Christian proof-texts to this kind of scrutiny leads to similar results. Inevitably, they are all built upon circular reasoning that quotes these verses out-of-context in order to find alleged prophecies about Jesus. Numerous Christian scholars have acknowledged this process. One of these authorities is Walter Riggans, who honestly confesses:
Let me repeat this point: there is no self-evident blueprint in the Hebrew Bible, which can be said to unambiguously point to Jesus. Only after one has come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and more specifically the kind of Messiah that he is, does it all begin to make sense and hang together. “Yehoshua Ben David” Olive Press, 1995 page 155
Among Evangelicals, it is often claimed that it only among more liberal Christian scholars that such an admission would be made. Even if this were true, it misses the point. As Christians of any flavor, they don’t approach the scriptures with a Jewish bias. They believe in Jesus. Yet their careful reading of these passages from the so-called “Old Testament” does not clearly point to Jesus.
However, Walter Riggans is not a liberal Christian. He is a born-again evangelical. And there are many others. Michael Rydelnik, a professor a the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, wrote of how disturbed he is about this development in an article entitled, “Some Bad News about the Good News”:
There is bad news for the Messianic movement. Some scholarly followers of Yeshua are taking him out of the Hebrew Bible…I’m convinced that an interpretive approach that negates Messianic prophesy is becoming prevalent among many scholars who believe in Yeshua…these believers adopt views that find it hard to see Messiah in the Hebrew Bible. The Messianic Times, Summer 1997 page 5
It seems that these scholars are willing to confront the Bible on its own terms without approaching it with an agenda. Of course, once we believe something, we can find allusions to almost anything in the Bible. (See “The Pooh Perplex” by Frederick Crews)
While it may be possible to read the Bible from Revelation back toward Genesis and find passages that “sound like” Jesus, reading the Hebrew Bible without a preconceived conclusion (like Alice in Wonderland’s verdict before the trial) will not lead to evidence for belief in the Nazarene.
What about Isaiah 53? It should come as little surprise, by now, that numerous Christian scholars have come to the conclusion that this famous passage is not really a prophecy about Jesus. Indeed, they are in agreement with the way in which Jews have traditionally understood this chapter: as a passage about the historical suffering of Israel. (This view can be found in the New English Bible: Oxford Study Edition, The New Interpreters Study Bible, The Harper Collins Study Bible, etc.)
Many Christians who insist that Isaiah 53 is an incontrovertible proof that Jesus was the Messiah has never really carefully studied the entire book of Isaiah. But is it possible to truly understand the 53rd chapter in isolation? Could it be that if they were to approach this chapter in-context and without a bias of finding support for their belief in Jesus, they might see things differently? This has been the case for numerous Christian scholars and Bible commentators who have sought to understand this chapter from Isaiah on its own terms.
Again, it is obvious that if someone approaches this text with a prior belief in Jesus, they will see striking connections. But is this passage a clear Messianic prophesy? Would someone reading it prior to Christianity have necessarily understood it as such? And more importantly, even if one assumes that this passage is a Messianic prophesy, what evidence is there that it is speaking about Jesus? This is an important point. Imagine a verse in the Hebrew Scriptures that said, “The Messiah will come”. Many Christians would insist that it is referring to Jesus. However, this is only so because they already believe in him as the Messiah. The verse (which doesn’t exist) would merely be saying that the Messiah would come, but doesn’t clearly and unambiguously identify Jesus as the subject.
It is possible to see that in the 1st century, the followers of Jesus did not understand this passage in Isaiah as a Messianic prophecy. In the 16th chapter of Matthew, Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah. At that point, Jesus tells his followers that he will go to Jerusalem and suffer many things and ultimately be killed. Peter should have said, “Of course! You are the suffering servant from Isaiah 53!” But Peter doesn’t react this way. He protests and says that this will never happen to Jesus. In the 9th chapter of Mark, Jesus teaches his disciples that he will be delivered up to evil men who will kill him. However, Mark tells us in verse 32, “But they understood not that saying, and were afraid to ask him.” Clearly, these followers of Jesus did not assume that he came to the world in order to suffer and die. They were never led to believe that this chapter of Isaiah forecast the death and suffering of the Messiah.
Why is it that Jewish people (and numerous Christians) have understood this chapter of Isaiah as referring to the historical suffering of the Jewish people? Is there any basis for such an understanding?
This chapter is the 4th of four “Servant” poems in the book of Isaiah. It speaks about the Servant of the L-rd. Who is this servant? Someone approaching this chapter with the benefit of having read the prior chapters of Isaiah would know exactly whom the Servant is:
But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob who I have chosen, descendant of Israel My friend; You, whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called from its remotest parts, and said to you: You are My servant; I have chosen you and not rejected you. Isaiah 41:8-9
You are My witnesses declares the L-rd, and My servant whom I have chosen: That you may know and believe in Me and understand that I am He, before Me there was no god formed, neither shall there be after Me. Isaiah 43:10
But now, listen, O Jacob My servant, and Israel whom I have chosen. Thus says the L-rd who made you, and formed you from the womb, who will help you: Do not fear, O Jacob My servant, Yeshurun who I have chosen… Remember these things O Jacob, and Israel, for you are My servant, I have formed you, you are My servant O Israel, you will not be forgotten by Me. Isaiah 44:1-2, 21
For the sake of Jacob My servant, and Israel My chosen one, I have called you by your name. Isaiah 45:4
Go forth out of Babylon, flee from the Kasdim with a voice of singing, declare, tell this, say it even to the ends of the earth: say: The L-rd has redeemed His servant Jacob. Isaiah 48:20 And said unto me, you are My servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified. Isaiah 49:3
Actually, we see that in the Bible as a whole, not just in the book of Isaiah, the Jewish people are referred to as G-d’s servant (see Leviticus 25:42,55, Jeremiah 30:10, 46:27-28, Ezekiel 28:25, I Chronicles 16:13, Psalm 136:22, 79:10, 135:1, Isaiah 54:17, 63:17, 65:8-9, 13-15, 66:14, Nehemiah 1:10-11, Deuteronomy 32:36, 43). We could understand why it might be possible for the reader of Isaiah 53 to assume that this chapter, as well, is about G-d’s servant Israel.
In addition, the careful reader should consider the immediate surroundings of chapter 53. If we see that chapters 52 and 54 share a common theme, it would be reasonable to suspect that chapter 53 follows this pattern. Indeed, chapters 52 and 54 paint a picture that contrasts the historical degradation of the Jewish people at the hands of the nations of the world to their future redemption by G-d and glory. This is very helpful knowledge in trying to understand the meaning of chapter 53.
All scholars agree that Suffering Servant chapter of Isaiah 53 really begins with verse 13 in chapter 52. There, G-d announces that His servant will ultimately prosper, be exalted, lifted up and very high. In verses 14-15 G-d tells us that when this happens, the kings and nations of the world will be totally shocked and astonished. This is worth thinking about. If the Servant here were Jesus, why would his ultimate elevation and exaltation surprise the world? There is no one in the history of mankind who would shock the world less if he were to be lifted up and exalted in the future. In reality, the only people who will be shocked if the subject of this chapter were Jesus would be the Jewish people. But we are not told that the Jewish people will be shocked, rather the rest of the world will be shocked.
Indeed, the Bible never tells us that the Jewish people will be in for a big surprise in the future. Isaiah tells us that the nations and kings of the world will be shocked because they never expected to see the redemption and exaltation of G-d’s servant. The Bible repeatedly tells us that the only people who will be shocked at the climax of history will be the nations of the world, not the Jewish people (see Micha 7:15, Isaiah 41:11, Jeremiah 16:19, etc.).
The most critical question to ask when studying Isaiah 53 is: Who is speaking? Often, Christians assume that this is a speech that the Jewish people will make one day in the future when we recognize that we were wrong for rejecting Jesus. However, if we understand the flow of Isaiah 53 from the end of chapter 52 (and in the original texts, these chapter divisions don’t appear, they were inserted by Christian monks in the middle ages) we realize that the people exclaiming “Who would have believed what we are hearing?” in 53:1 are the shocked nations and kings of the world spoken of in the previous verses. In chapter 53, Isaiah is telling us the confessional speech that will be made by the nations and kings of the world as they reflect back on their history of scapegoating and persecuting the Jewish people.
This dynamic, which tells of how the historically persecuted Jewish people will ultimately be redeemed and exalted by G-d and ultimately acknowledged by the nations of the world is well-developed in scripture. We see this theme described very clearly in passages such as Isaiah 60:1-3, 10, 14-15; 61:6-9; 62:2-3, etc.
While these thoughts merely scratch the surface of understanding this chapter of Isaiah, it begins to explain why both Jewish and Christian scholars have understood it as a reference to G-d’s servant Israel.