“Jewish Christians” invariably emphasize the existence of proofs in the Hebrew Bible for everything they believe about Jesus. It is this claim that justifies the entire enterprise of “Jewish Christianity”, and although it is no longer as fashionable among other Christians as it once was, it really is central to the entire development of Christianity. After all, if the Hebrew Bible is the word of God, it must refer to the most basic religious truths, and we’ve already seen that without the discovery of a correspondence between the career of Jesus and the Biblical description of the Messiah, the new religion could not have gotten started.
So the Bible was subjected to the most intense scrutiny to make it yield references to beliefs that no one had found there before. We must, of course, examine the results of that effort in some detail, but before we do so, some general observations need to be made.
First of all, anyone whose exposure to the Hebrew Bible has been limited mainly to these “proof-texts” may have been subjected to a serious distortion of perspective. It is terribly important to recognize that these verses are not typical examples of what a person would find by leafing through the Bible. The best of them are rare, isolated, difficult passages, and if their Christian interpretation were true, they would stick out like the proverbial sore thumb in the context of the Bible as a whole. This consideration is logically relevant to the interpretation of individual verses, because it means that there is a heavy burden of proof on a defender of the Christological reading. Let’s say that there is a verse that can reasonably be interpreted in two ways. One interpretation would make it fit smoothly into the entire pattern of Biblical religion, while the other would make it say something altogether unexpected and peculiar in the context of the Bible as a whole. It certainly seems more reasonable to choose the first interpretation. As we proceed, we’ll see that this consideration becomes relevant in only two or three cases; most of the time the Christological interpretation just doesn’t work even without an appeal to wider context. Still, this is one general point to keep in mind.
There is a second, related observation that is perhaps of even greater importance. When people say that the Hebrew Bible contains references to the trinity, the virgin birth, the divinity of the Messiah, the crucifixion of the Messiah, and other such doctrines, what precisely do they mean? Do they mean that God intended to teach these beliefs clearly and unambiguously to the Jews who lived before Jesus? If so, this is a very difficult position to defend. Not only do Jews fail to see these references, but many modern Christian scholars fail to see them as well. This point will become even more forceful after we discuss the major “proof-texts” in some detail, but it really doesn’t require too much documentation. It’s unlikely that even representatives of Jewish Christianity will argue that there were Jews in the generation before Jesus who believed in the trinity as a result of references in the Hebrew Bible.
This leaves the possibility that the references to Christian beliefs in the Hebrew Bible are more subtle and can be discerned only by someone who already knows them to be true. Although Jews could not agree to such a claim, it is far more easily defensible than the first possibility, and Christians can argue that the Hebrew Bible has hidden, profound meanings which are accessible once certain truths are already known from other sources. But let us be clear about what this means. It means that the verses we are talking about have a more obvious meaning that does not have anything to do with specifically Christian ideas. It means that they cannot be used to prove these ideas to someone who does not already believe.
This argument is a bit complicated, so let’s try to rephrase it more briefly. No one would argue that the Gospels don’t contain references to the idea of a virgin birth or the crucifixion of the Messiah, but many reasonable people, including Christians, don’t see such references in the Hebrew Bible. If God wanted to teach such ideas clearly in the Hebrew Bible, he could have made them as clear as they are in the Gospels. It seems to follow that God wanted people to be able to read the Bible without seeing these beliefs. In that case, quoting verses to prove these doctrines to non-Christians doesn’t appear to make sense. This is a peculiar dilemma, which some medieval Christians solved by saying that the references are clear except that God has made the Jews blind. This blindness has now extended to many Christian scholars, and few people today would take such an argument seriously. A Christian might still maintain that the Hebrew Bible contains indications (not crystal-clear proofs) of these doctrines, but it should be recognized that this is a much weaker claim than the one usually made in Jewish Christian pamphlets on this subject.
After these preliminary remarks, let us turn to a selection of the central verses used to demonstrate the most important Christian beliefs. Since we can’t discuss every single verse in the Hebrew Bible that has ever been quoted in support of Christianity, we are going to choose those passages that are quoted most often and appear most persuasive. In other words, this will be an honest effort to confront the best case that can be presented to demonstrate the truth of Christianity from the Hebrew Bible.
The verses which are supposed to refer to a specifically threefold deity are particularly weak as proofs aimed at someone who is not already a Christian. Usually, the argument is simply based on the fact that terms for God appear three times in the verse, and this is just not a persuasive reason for accepting as strange and difficult a doctrine as the trinity. (Needless to say, there are many more verses where terms for God appear only twice, a few verses where they appear more than three times, and an overwhelming majority where such a term appears just once.)
The most commonly cited verse of this sort is “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The point is supposed to be that the threefold deity (“the Lord our God the Lord”) is really one. In fact, however, this is a mistranslation. Since Hebrew omits the present tense of the verb to be (even the “is” in “the Lord is one” does not appear in the Hebrew), the correct translation is, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” Here the trinitarian interpretation can’t even get started, but the main point is that this type of evidence (from threefold repetition) is significant only for someone who already believes.
The verses said to demonstrate plurality within God that deserve serious attention are supposed to demonstrate such plurality without pointing to a specific number. The passage quoted most frequently to prove this is Genesis 1:26, where God, speaking at the climactic moment in the process of creation, says, “Let us make man in our image.” Now, the Bible almost always uses singular verbs in referring to God (beginning in Genesis 1:1), and the plural here really does require explanation. But almost any explanation is superior to the view that the Bible has chosen this verse to teach us the doctrine of the trinity. The verb may be a plural of majesty (the “royal we”), a plural of self-exhortation (as in the English “Let’s go” even when someone is talking to himself), or an indication that God was consulting the angels at this critical point of creation. Some Jews have even suggested that God was including the earth in the task of creating man, since it would supply the body while he would supply the soul. (Note that the earth and water were commanded to bring forth other living things – Genesis 1:11, 12, 20, 24.) Every one of these interpretations explains very naturally why the plural verb is used here and not earlier or later in the chapter. Only the trinitarian interpretation fails to do this.
Another verse often cited to demonstrate plurality within God is Psalm 110:1: “The Lord said unto my lord, Sit thou at my right hand until I make thine enemies thy footstool.” We are told that the second “lord” should also be capitalized and that one divine being (the Father) was speaking to the other (the Son). It is far more likely, however, that the author of the Psalm is writing a dialogue between God and the author’s lord, i.e., the king. Thus, the Lord said to the author’s lord (= the king), “Sit at my right hand,” i.e., under my protection. (“To David” in the heading of the Psalm means “dedicated to David” and not “by David.”) The verse, then, refers to one divine Lord and one human lord and has no reference to plurality within God.
The Virgin Birth
There is only one verse in the entire Hebrew Bible that can be quoted in an attempt to demonstrate that the Messiah – or anyone else – would be born of a virgin. That verse – Isaiah 7:14 – reads as follows: “Behold, the ‘almah shall conceive [or “is pregnant”] and shall bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
There are two issues here, and it would be convenient to deal with them separately (I) Does ‘almah mean virgin? (2) Can the son be Jesus? With respect to the first question, there is no linguistic reason to translate ‘almah as “virgin.” The word has a masculine form (‘elem), which means “young man,” and there is every reason to believe that the feminine form means simply “young woman.” Just as an ‘elem might or might not have had sexual experience, so an ‘almah might or might not be a virgin.
In fact, among the half-dozen or so times that the word ‘almah appears in the Hebrew Bible, there is an instance in which it is next to impossible for it to refer to a virgin. Proverbs 30:19 speaks of four “ways” or paths: “The way of an eagle in the air, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship in the sea, and the way of a man with an ‘almah.” The common characteristic of these “ways” is apparently that they leave no trace. Such an interpretation is the only one that fits in well with the following verse, which says: “Such is the way of an adulterous woman; she eats and wipes her mouth, and says, ‘I have done no wickedness.’ ” Now, since the one form of intercourse which does leave a trace is “the way of a man” with a virgin, ‘almah here must be a nonvirgin. It should also be kept in mind that whenever the Bible wants to say “virgin” in a legal context, where precision is necessary (Leviticus 21:3, Deuteronomy 22:19, 23:28, Ezekiel 44:22), it always uses the word betulah – never ‘almah. Finally, even if we were to concede Christianity” (against all the evidence) that ‘almah meant “virgin,” the verse would mean that this virgin would conceive, and in the process she would lose her virginity. (This is meant quite seriously. Such an interpretation would be a lot more reasonable than the introduction of a radically new doctrine like virgin birth on the basis of this single verse.)
The second question was: Can the son in this verse be Jesus? Isaiah spoke these words to King Ahaz when he was being besieged by two other kings. The prophet wanted to assure him that he needn’t worry, and so he told him that this young woman would conceive and have a child, and that “before the child shall know to refuse evil and choose good, the land (of these) two kings shall be forsaken” (Isaiah 7:16). [Footnote 1: Even though this is not an overt miracle, it is not at all surprising that Isaiah should call it a “sign.” Moses himself was given a “sign” which consisted simply of a reassuring prediction that something good would happen in the fairly near future (Exodus 3:12).] That the child is Jesus (who was born more than seven hundred years later) is so clearly out of the question that Isaiah 7:14 is really a challenge to the faith of a believing Christian. The question is: How could Matthew (1:22-23) have so grievously misinterpreted Isaiah by referring this verse to Jesus? There might be an answer. Perhaps Isaiah was referring to an event of the near future but subtly hinting at a greater event hundreds of years away. This may be fine for someone who is already a believing Christian, but since it concedes that the plain meaning has nothing to do with Jesus, the verse can no longer be used as proof of the virgin birth.
At first glance, the belief that the Messiah is God contradicts the repeated Biblical statements that he would be descended from David. The Gospels don’t even tell us that Jesus’ mother was a descendant of David; instead, in two genealogies that are not quite consistent with one another (Matthew 1:1-16 and Luke 3:23-38), they say this about his father. (Jesus himself, despite the Biblical evidence, apparently denied that the Messiah would be descended from David at all – Matthew 22:41-45 and Mark 12:35-37.) However these problems are to be resolved, we are told that the Hebrew Bible says that the Messiah will be God. Let’s see if this is true.
Behold, the days come, says the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous branch, and a king shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely, and this is the name whereby he shall be called, The Lord our righteousness (Jeremiah 23:5-6).
If the king is called “The Lord our righteousness,” it would seem that he must be divine. The trouble is that this is a mistranslation. We’ve already noted the fact that Hebrew leaves out the present tense of the verb to be. What this name really means is “The Lord is our righteousness” (or “salvation”). It doesn’t describe the king as the Lord; rather, like many other symbolic names in the Bible, it makes a statement about God. (Even many ordinary Hebrew names like Daniel and Isaiah are statements about God.) There are, in fact, almost precise analogies to the structure of this name. Moses built an altar that he called “The Lord is my banner” (Exodus 17:15), and Gideon built one that he called “The Lord is peace” (Judges 6:24). In both cases the word is is missing from the Hebrew, and it is not necessary to say that no one has ever claimed that these altars were God.
Now we come to Isaiah 9:5 (9:6 in some translations). The Christological translation of the verse goes like this: “For a child has been born unto us, a son has been given to us, and the government has been placed upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called ‘wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, prince of peace.’ ” A child who is called mighty God and everlasting father would appear to be divine.
Now this is probably the best of all the Christian proof-texts in the Hebrew Bible. The translation just given is linguistically acceptable, and if this verse were found on an isolated scrap of paper produced by an unknown culture, we could legitimately entertain the possibility that this culture believed that God would become a man. It is at this point that we must remember one of the preliminary remarks at the beginning of this chapter. If there is a verse that can reasonably be interpreted in several ways, it doesn’t make sense to choose the one which will yield a startling, radical, unique (and, in this case, philosophically difficult) doctrine if the others produce a meaning which fits smoothly into the entire framework of Biblical religion. This is the only verse in the Hebrew Bible that can reasonably be regarded as a reference to a god-man. In light of this, let’s take a look at three alternate interpretations.
1. Leave the translation as is, but understand that the “praises” of a king were routinely highly exaggerated in the ancient orient. “Mighty God” means nothing more than “godlike in power” (in fact, the fundamental linguistic meaning of the word translated “God” is probably “powerful one”), and “everlasting father” is the equivalent of the routine greeting, “May the king live forever” (1 Kings 1:31, Nehemiah 2:3).
2. The translation is wrong. After “upon his shoulder,” translate: “and the wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the eternal father [i.e., God] has called his name ‘prince of peace.’ ” In this translation, “mighty God” and “everlasting father” are not part of the child’s name at all.
3. The strongest likelihood is that both translations given so far are wrong. We have already seen that symbolic names in the Bible tend to be complete sentences that often make a statement about God (“The Lord is our righteousness,” “The Lord is my banner,” “The Lord is peace”). The same section of Isaiah contains three symbolic names that are complete sentences: “A remnant will return” (Isaiah 7:3), “God is with us” (Isaiah 7:14 – that’s the meaning of Immanuel), “Speed spoil hasten plunder” (Isaiah 8:3). It is likely, therefore, that this name is also a complete sentence and that it makes a statement about God (not directly about the child). Translate the name as follows (the grammatical structure is perfectly acceptable): “The mighty God, the eternal father, the prince of peace is planning a wondrous deed.” (If you know Hebrew, the point is that el gibbor avi ‘ad sar shalom is the subject of yo’etz.) The child is probably Hezekiah, and the wondrous deed is the destruction of Sennacherib’s army. In any case, the verse does not speak of a divine or everlasting son.
Finally, there is one more verse on the divinity of the Messiah that serves double duty by demonstrating his birth in Bethlehem as well. “And thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall come forth unto me one who is to be a ruler in Israel, whose origins are of old, from days of yore” (Micah 5:1 = 5:2 in some translations). The Christological translation of the last phrase (miqedem mimei ‘olam) is “of old, from everlasting,” which demonstrates that this ruler is eternal and hence divine. But aside from the almost immediate reference to “the Lord his God,” we are once again dealing with a mistranslation. The crucial words appear in another verse, where they cannot possibly refer to eternity: “Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant unto the Lord as in days of old, and as in former years” (kimei ‘olam u-keshanim qadmoniyyot – Malachi 3:4).
The point of the phrase is that this future ruler, who may indeed be the Messiah, will have come forth from Bethlehem because his royal origins are “of old, from days of yore,” i.e., from the old and venerable House of David, and David was born in Bethlehem. In other words, according to the most probable reading of this verse, it not only fails to say that the Messiah is everlasting, it doesn’t even say that he will be born in Bethlehem. The point is that Bethlehem will be his indirect point of origin because it was the birthplace of the father of his dynasty. Jews don’t have to insist on this last point; the Messiah may very well be born in Bethlehem. It’s just that the verse probably doesn’t say this.
Finally, we cannot avoid at least some reference to the historical question of Jesus’ actual birthplace. Since this is a delicate question and it is not our purpose to engage in historical criticism of the Gospels, it might be best to note briefly the view expressed by Father Raymond Brown, who has written the most comprehensive study of the infancy stories in Matthew and Luke. He begins by quoting another scholar’s remark that “the overwhelming evidence to the contrary has made the thesis that Bethlehem was not the historical birthplace of Jesus the accepted opinion of New Testament scholarship.” Father Brown considers this statement too strong, but he goes on to speak of the “grave objections against the claim that [birth at Bethlehem is] a historical fact” and concludes that “the evidence for birth at Bethlehem is much weaker than the evidence” for other elements of the infancy narratives (The Birth of the Messiah , pp. 513-516). While this is not the place to discuss the difficulties which lead to this conclusion, it is certainly the view of most New Testament scholars that the tradition that Jesus was born in Bethlehem is at least uncertain and that it may have arisen as a result of one interpretation (probably erroneous) of Micah 5:1. (Matthew 2:5-6 specifically makes the connection.) If so (and we are not insisting that this view is firmly proven), not only does Micah 5:1 not predict Jesus’ birth, the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem may have arisen as a result of Micah 5:1.
To sum up:
1. The verse does not speak of an everlasting ruler.
2. It probably does not speak of the ruler’s birth in Bethlehem.
3. Jesus was probably not born in Bethlehem.
4. Even if points 2 and 3 are wrong, this would not demonstrate that Jesus was the Messiah. When the Messiah comes, he may indeed turn out to have been born in Bethlehem.
The Humiliating Death of the Messiah
We are now ready to take a careful look at what is supposed to be the most impressive proof-text of them all: Isaiah 52:13-53:12. The passage describes a “servant of the Lord” who will suffer from (or for) the sins of others, “place his grave among the wicked,” and “see his seed and live a long life.” Now, this was probably the most important passage found by early Christians struggling with the paradox of the crucifixion, and the idea that Jesus died for the sins of others probably originates from this chapter. In other words, it is not that Jesus’ death for the sins of others is a remarkable fulfillment of Isaiah 53; it is because of Isaiah 53 that people attributed this purpose to Jesus’ death. In a way, the point is even clearer in this case than it was when we made a similar point about Micah 5:1. In that case, either Jesus was born in Bethlehem or he was not. Here, no one saw Jesus die for the sins of others; they only saw him die. The interpretation of his death is a result, not a striking fulfillment, of Isaiah 53. We must be careful not to get caught in circular reasoning. [Footnote 2: We should also recognize the possibility that the problem of circular reasoning in these proof-texts is even more extensive than we’ve indicated so far. After all, once Christians interpreted Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 as descriptions of the crucifixion, it was natural for them to assume that all the minute details in those chapters must have been fulfilled. The stories of the crucifixion would then be elaborated to include such details (e.g., Jesus’ silence before his accusers, the casting of lots for his garments, etc.). It is very likely that there was precisely this development of legendary detail, and we should not allow ourselves to be misled by it.]
Actually, before getting involved in such problems, we have to ask ourselves the most basic questions of all: Who is “the servant of the Lord”? Do we have any reason to think that he is the Messiah? One way of trying to answer these questions is to see if the term servant of the Lord appears elsewhere in Isaiah where the identification might be clear. Another way is to examine Isaiah 53 itself and see whether or not the descriptions of the “servant” there give us any reason to identify him with the Messiah.
With respect to the first approach, we are rather lucky, because a servant of the Lord is mentioned in eight chapters between Isaiah 41 and 50. In five of the chapters, the servant is clearly and unambiguously the people of Israel (41:8-9; 44:1, 2, 21; 45:4; 48:21; 49:3 [49:5-6 is problematical and could be either Israel or the prophet, depending on the translation]). One reference is probably to the prophet (50:10); the references in the other two chapters are uncertain (42:1, 19; 43:10; 44:26), but they can easily refer to Israel (compare 42:19 with 43:8). What all this means is that when we get to Isaiah 52-53, we should be strongly predisposed to regard any “servant of the Lord” as the people of Israel. To say that the servant in Isaiah 53 is the Messiah, we would need extraordinarily persuasive reasons. Instead of such persuasive reasons, we have no reasons at all.
How do we go about deciding whether a particular Biblical passage refers to the Messiah? Well, we’ve already seen that Messiah is simply another way of saying “the king of the house of David who will rule over a redeemed Israel in an age of peace, prosperity, and justice.” There is nothing – absolutely nothing – in Isaiah 53 to indicate that the servant is this king. Incredibly, this is really all that needs to be said about Isaiah 53 as a Christian proof-text. [Footnote 3: The fact that some Talmudic rabbis took the chapter messianically (though not in the Christian sense) is of interest to historians, but it does not mean that Jews are in any way obligated to adopt such an interpretation. By the Middle Ages, virtually every Jewish authority rejected it, not only because of opposition to Christianity, but because there is no basis for it in the text.]
Nevertheless, the chapter has become so central that a few more remarks are necessary. We have seen that our most reasonable expectation ought to be that the servant is the Jewish people. As a collective symbol, the servant can be said to suffer any fate suffered by many individual Jews, and he can be said to enjoy the rewards of any large number of Jews. Hence, although the prophet makes no mention of an intervening resurrection, the servant can go to his grave (because of the martyrdom of so many Jews) and later “see his seed and live a long life.”
So far, we have been arguing that any Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 is improbable. It’s time to note that a specifically Christian reading is even more difficult. First of all, whatever the complex relationship between the “Father” and the “Son” might be, is it really reasonable for God to call himself his own servant? If not for this chapter in Isaiah, would a believer in the trinity even consider the use of such an inappropriate term? Secondly, a straightforward reading of “see his seed and live a long life” doesn’t fit either the first coming or the second, since no Christian expects Jesus to have children, and “long life” does not normally mean “eternal life.” A forced, nonliteral understanding of “seed” and “long life” becomes the only way out. Thirdly, the Hebrew phrase ish makh’ovot vidua‘ h.oli (“a man of pains, and familiar with illness”) refers to a man of constant, long-lasting afflictions and cannot refer to anguish, however intense, which lasted but a few hours, or even days. Finally, the lack of any explicit reference to a resurrection makes a Christological reading all the more difficult. In other words, even though parts of the crucifixion story may well have been written with Isaiah 53 in mind, there remains a residue of material in that chapter that cannot be squared with Jesus’ career or with the later belief that he was divine. Isaiah’s “suffering servant” is the Jewish people, and it is a terrible irony that their sufferings through the ages were made even more intense because of the belief that they are the villains, rather than the victims, in Isaiah 53. [Footnote 4: We should note that some scholars consider the servant to be the prophet. This view requires us to take the verses about his death as references to his going to the brink of death, and there are Biblical parallels to such a usage. Although we think that the “Israel” interpretation is correct, the “prophet” interpretation is more easily defensible than the Messianic one.]
We could go on to deal with other verses that have been quoted to support Christian doctrines. The seventy weeks of Daniel, for example, don’t really culminate in the time of Jesus, and the seventieth week in particular works out so poorly that even the most ingenious calculations require the assumption that God granted the Jews a last-minute delay of several decades. There is no reason to believe that Psalm 22 refers to the Messiah, and the translation “They pierced my hands and feet” (Psalm 22:17) is not based on the standard Hebrew text. We’re afraid, however, that this chapter has already gotten too long, and we’ve dealt in some detail with the most important verses. The central point is that the intense effort to turn the Hebrew Bible into a Christian book just doesn’t work. The Bible must therefore be read as it really is – as a purely Jewish work. Jews who become interested in Jewish Christianity are often led for the first time to revere the Hebrew Bible as the product of divine inspiration. We ask such people to retain that reverence, not as Jewish Christians, but simply as Jews.
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COPYRIGHT © 1978 DAVID BERGER AND MICHAEL WYSCHOGROD
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Berger, David, 1943-
Jews and “Jewish Christianity”.
1. Judaism-Apologetic works.
2. Jewish Christians.
3. Missions to Jews. I. Wyschogrod, Michael, joint author. II. Title
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