Jews and Jewish Christianity - Jesus and the Messiah

Let us begin with the fundamental belief that Jesus was – and is – the Messiah. Since the very word Christ means Messiah, this belief lies at the heart of the Christian faith.

But how do we go about testing the claim that Jesus was the Messiah?

The first thing to remember is that the term Messiah gets its basic meaning from Biblical prophecy; it is only because of such prophecy that people expected the Messiah in the first place. Any person claiming to be the Messiah must, therefore, be able to pass a very exacting test: Has he done what the Bible expects of the Messiah?

We must begin, then, by taking a look at the Bible as a whole. How would the Messiah of the Hebrew Bible be described by someone who had just read the text for the first time without any knowledge of either Judaism or Christianity? If our hypothetical friend were a perceptive reader, his first observation would be that the word messiah simply refers to any king or high priest who was anointed with oil in accordance with the custom of ancient Israel. There is, however, a rather special king from the House of David who is described in several Biblical passages as the man who will preside over a redeemed and perfected world. Eventually, Jews came to use the word Messiah (this time the capital M is justifiable) to refer to that king, and it is in this context that any man claiming to be the Messiah must be judged.

In other words, the only way to define “the Messiah” is as a king who will rule during what we call the Messianic age. The central criterion for evaluating a Messiah must therefore be a single question: Has the Messianic age come? It is only in terms of this question that “the Messiah” means anything. What, then, does the Bible say about the Messianic age? Here is a brief description by a famous Christian scholar: “The recovery of independence and power, an era of peace and prosperity, of fidelity to God and his law, of justice and fair-dealing and brotherly love among men, and of personal rectitude and piety” (G.F. Moore, Judaism, II, p. 324). If we think about this sentence just for a moment in light of the history of the last two thousand years, we will begin to see what enormous obstacles must be overcome if we are to believe in the messianic mission of Jesus.

If Jesus was the Messiah, why have suffering and evil continued and even increased in the many centuries since his death?

We don’t know much about Messianic figures between the period of the Hebrew Bible and the lifetime of Jesus. The first Christian century, however, was a time when tensions between Jews and Romans were reaching the boiling point, and we know of at least three or four “Messiahs” during that century. In that sense, Jesus’ career was not unique; it reflected a fairly common tendency in Jewish society at that time. In fact, at least one of the other Messiahs was also killed by the Romans. Unlike the other movements, the one started by Jesus survived its founder. The direction that Christianity took differed from what Jesus had in mind (as we shall see, he would have protested his designation as God with every fiber of his being), and it is very important to understand how the belief that Jesus was the Messiah survived his death.

In light of what was universally understood to be the function of the Messiah, the crucifixion was a terrible logical and psychological blow to Jesus’ followers. The Messiah was supposed to redeem Israel, bring peace and justice to the world, make the wolf live peacefully with the lamb, and see to it that “they learn war no more” (Isaiah 2:1-4, 11:1-10). Something, it seemed, had gone terribly wrong. How could the paradox of a crucified Messiah be explained?

A story is told about a modern rabbi and a Christian missionary that highlights this problem. One of the great rabbis of the last hundred years was riding on a train in Russia, and he overheard a conversation between a Christian missionary and some deeply religious but uneducated Jews. The Jews had just expressed their confidence in the judgment of the ancient rabbis concerning the Messiah. “In that case,” asked the Christian, “how can you explain the fact that Rabbi Akiva [one of the greatest Talmudic rabbis] initially thought that Bar Kochba [a Jewish revolutionary of the second century] was the Messiah?” The Jews were taken aback and could find no answer. The rabbi, who had been listening quietly, turned to the Christian and asked, “How do you know that Bar Kochba wasn’t the Messiah?” “That’s obvious,” he replied; “Bar Kochba was killed without bringing the redemption.

There can be little doubt that many of the first century Jews who had been attracted by Jesus’ preaching sadly submitted to the conclusion forced upon them by his death. They had been mistaken. God had not yet chosen to redeem his people. They would have to wait once more, however long it might take, however much their hearts might be aching for redemption.

But for others this was impossible. The belief was too strong, the hurt too great, to face the terrible truth. There simply had to be an explanation, and such an explanation was found.

First of all, Jesus was said to have been resurrected. Secondly, the Bible was examined with the purpose of finding what no one had ever seen there before – evidence that the Messiah would be killed without bringing peace to the world or redemption to Israel. (We’ll talk about the results of the search – especially Isaiah 53 – in a later chapter.) Thirdly, there was the expectation of a second coming, at which time Jesus would carry out the task expected of the Messiah. And finally, there had to be an explanation for the first coming and its catastrophic end. The basic structure of this explanation was to shift the function of the Messiah from a visible level, where it could be tested, to an invisible one, where it could not. The Messiah’s goal, at least the first time around, was not the redemption of Israel (which had clearly not taken place) but the atonement for original sin, which was seen as a sort of inner redemption. Whether or not such an atonement was necessary is something we’ll discuss later, but at least no one could see that it hadn’t happened.

Please don’t misinterpret this as an argument that describes Jesus’ disciples as cynical manipulators of religious beliefs. These are beliefs that resulted from powerful psychological and historical pressures and were surely sincere. But an understanding of the process that formed these beliefs should arouse some skepticism, not about the sincerity with which they were held, but about their truth.

At this point, a little digression of about sixteen hundred years might be helpful in giving us another glimpse of this process. You may have heard about Shabbetai Zevi. He was the most successful Jewish Messiah since the time of Jesus, and in 1666 there were very many Jews throughout the world who believed in him. In September of that year, however, he was forced to become a Moslem, and ten years later he died.

The conversion was as great a shock to Shabbetai Zevi’s followers as Jesus’ crucifixion was to his. Again, most Jews overcame the need to continue believing and bitterly resigned themselves to yet another disappointment. But others could not, and the similarities between their explanations and those of the early Christians are really striking. (Historians, by the way, generally agree that the basic similarities result mainly from the similarity in the problems faced and not from Christian influence on these seventeenth-century Jews, many of whom lived in Moslem countries.) Shabbetai Zevi was said to have predicted his conversion. He too was expected to return again – first from his converted state and later from beyond the grave. The reality of his death was denied, and here too we find a story about an empty grave. Once again people examined the Bible to find what no one had ever found before – this time, vidence that the Messiah would convert without bringing peace to the world or redemption to Israel. And once again they were “successful”; where Christians, for example, found that Isaiah 53 prophesied that the Messiah would be “pierced,” Shabbetai’s followers found that he would be “profaned.” (The word meh.olal in verse 5 can be translated either way.) And finally, there had to be an explanation for the first coming and its catastrophic end. Once more the solution was a shift of the Messiah’s function, at least the first time around, from a visible to an invisible level. Here the Messiah had to enter the world of evil to liberate invisible “sparks of holiness,” and while we can’t go into details here, the explanation is quite as brilliant as its Christian counterpart, if not more so. Eventually, the ultimate step was taken, and Shabbetai Zevi too came to be considered God.

These are both fascinating episodes in the history of religion. In both cases, a Messiah ended his career in a way that made continued belief in him impossible; in both cases, the impossible was made possible by redefining the role of the Messiah so that it would fit this man’s career.

The Jewish people have refused to take the easy way out. If the Bible’s description of the Messiah has not been fulfilled, there is only one conclusion to be reached: he has not yet come. To Jews, who were often subjected to mockery and contempt when asked where their Messiah was, this conclusion was painful, sometimes excruciatingly painful. But an honest facing of the facts made it – and still makes it – inescapable. In adversity and joy, through holocaust and statehood, Jews faithful to the Torah and the prophets can only repeat the words of their forefathers: “I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and though he may tarry I shall wait for him every day, hoping that he will come.”

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Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Berger, David, 1943-

Jews and “Jewish Christianity”.

Bibliography: p.

1. Judaism-Apologetic works.

2. Jewish Christians.

3. Missions to Jews. I. Wyschogrod, Michael, joint author. II. Title

BM648.B45 296.3 78-9423

ISBN 0-87068-675-5