Who was the Jewish Messiah?
Before addressing Denis’s points I want to clear the decks, so to speak, and survey the broader historical context of the Jewish messianic expectation in the Hebrew Bible and other Jewish writings. I hope the relevance of this survey to the discussion will become clearer as we proceed.
In the Hebrew Bible the term ‘messiah’ (‘anointed one’ in Hebrew) applied to the Jewish King who was anointed with oil at his coronation. He is thus called the Lord’s anointed (see 1 Samuel 10:1 and Psalm 2:2). After the destruction of the monarchy by the Babylonians in 587 BCE some Jews recalled a tradition where God told David (the great king) that he would always have a descendant on the throne (see 2 Samuel 7:14-16). So the idea that there would be a future messiah to fulfil God’s promise, a future king like David who would rule Israel once more as a a sovereign nation in the Promised Land was cherished by many Jews.
In the time of Jesus there appears to be no single idea of what Israel’s future deliver would be like. Some thought he would be a warrior king like David; others, like those who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls looked to a priestly ruler who would teach God’s Law; others looked to a cosmic figure sent by God to overthrow evil in the world (see 4 Ezra 13:1-11 and 1 Enoch 69).
In NO source before the writing of the New Testament is there ANY reference in the Bible or anywhere else to a future messiah who is to suffer and die for the sins of the world as Paul claims in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. This idea appears to be a novel Christian invention. Some scholars suggest it may originate in a combination of a belief in a future messianic deliver with the idea found in the Bible of the suffering righteous one in passages like Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. But the term messiah NEVER occurs in these passages.
So Jews who were anticipating the messiah were NOT looking for anyone remotely like the Jesus of Christian belief. Jews of whatever view were ALL expecting the messiah to be a powerful man who would lead the Jews into a new world order that abolished injustice and brought peace. This is why many Jews still today reject Christianity. It is radically contradictory to the messianic expectations of their own scriptures. Remember: prior to the advent of Christianity there is no evidence of Jews who believed that the messiah to come would suffer and die for the sins of the world and be raised from the dead. This makes Paul’s claims in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 extraordinary, even blasphemous. So how did this unexpected idea arise? I am not entirely sure. Perhaps during the ministry of Jesus his followers had come to think he was the promised anointed one. He would deliver Israel and bring freedom to God’s people. However when it appeared to them that he had been crucified this belief was radically disconfirmed. But when some people reported having “visions” of Jesus (see Acts 26:19 for this terminology) a few or more followers felt compelled to reassert their earlier convictions about Jesus being the messiah. If God had given them a spiritual vision of Jesus alive he must have been the one they believed him to be. But not all were convinced of the authenticity of these visions (also known as resurrection appearances). Some of the followers of Jesus had serious doubts about these “resurrection” stories (see the doubts expressed by disciples even after witnessing the appearances in Matthew 28:17) and Paul writing long before the gospels betrays no knowledge of an empty tomb.
In time passages in the Hebrew Bible were pressed into service to explain how God’s messiah could be crucified (so they thought) and raised alive to God (a view shared by Muslims and Christians). One such passage, which though it does not mention a messiah, was nevertheless taken to refer to Jesus was in the prophet Isaiah who speaks of the suffering of God’s righteous one whom he calls the “Servant of the Lord”. There are four “Songs of the Suffering Servant,” as scholars call the different passages in Isaiah, the most important of which is Isaiah 52:13-53:12. The interpretation of this passage is not easy but the widely held view amongst scholars is that it is speaking poetically of the suffering of the nation of Israel during the Babylonian captivity (Isaiah 49:3 suggests this). It is important to note however that there is NO evidence whatsoever that any Jew, prior to Christianity, ever took the passage as a reference to the future Jewish messiah. Notice that Isaiah refers to the Servant’s suffering as already having taken place in the past.
Christians understood their beliefs about Jesus’ own suffering in the light of this and similar passages. But not all understood Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sins or as an atonement. The author of Luke’s gospel omits crucial propitiatory verses in his sources in the writing of his own gospel. For example, Luke’s significant omission of the crucial verse ‘For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many’, to be found in his source at Mark 10:45; and in Luke 22 where the NRSV footnote says ‘ancient authorities lack, in whole or in part 19b-20’, the sacrificial language about the body and blood of Jesus. For Luke the death of Jesus is that of a Jewish martyr, exposing Israel’s rejection of its prophets.
It is against this historical backdrop and survey of the literature that we can now address Denis’s comments. In the light of the above considerations we can now look again at the conclusion to the article by Denis:
‘In short, if one is reading the OT like a modern hyperliteralist, insisting on only what is explicit and on the surface, then one is not going to find references to what is referred to in Acts 17:2-3 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. However, on the other hand, as was noted, Paul did not necessarily handle Scripture in that way. Paul was an ancient Jew, and thus it is worth noting that within the paradigm of Jewish tradition, the Scriptures cryptically or indirectly referring to things like those listed in Acts and 1 Corinthians is neither absurd nor impossible.’
But I would suggest that Paul’s eisegesis was far from being within the Jewish tradition. His novel concept of a suffering and dying messiah was utterly alien to the faith of his fathers, and probably blasphemous. He created (or inherited) notions of the messiah, human sacrifice, and anti-Torah polemics (see his letter to the Galatians) that understandably horrified his Jewish contemporaries, even many Jewish Christians.