Saturday, January 25, 2020

Jesus and the Messianic prophecies: Summary and conclusions

Having surveyed what I understand to be the main Messianic prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Micah and Zechariah, as well as the Deuteronomy-based Samaritan Messiah, I shall now attempt to summarize what I have found and draw some conclusions.


Which prophecies I considered and why

First of all, I should perhaps say something about the apparent spottiness of my survey, which has excluded a great many passages commonly thought of by Christians as Messianic prophecies. Some few of these, such as the famous Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, I reject entirely as manifestly having nothing to do with the Messiah or with Jesus. Many others, though, such as the "suffering servant" prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah, may well have been intended as Messianic prophecies and may well have been fulfilled by Jesus, but have nevertheless been excluded from my survey. This is because my purpose has not been to list every single prophecy that may be about the Messiah or about Jesus, but rather to collect the prophecies that define the Messiah -- those that can tell us what exactly Jesus and his disciples were claiming when they claimed he was the Messiah.

Take Isaiah 53, for example, universally regarded by Christians as a prophecy of Jesus' atonement for sin ("he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: . . . and with his stripes we are healed"). It may well be just that -- but what it is not is one of the passages that help to define the idea of the Messiah. "Jesus is the Messiah" does not mean that Jesus was wounded for our transgressions and so on. Isaiah's "suffering servant" is not clearly and explicitly a Messianic figure. Rashi takes him to be a symbolic representation of the nation of Israel. The Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8 asks Philip about Isaiah 53, "I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man?" So far is this chapter from being explicitly Messianic that his first thought was that it was about Isaiah himself!

I believe that the prophecies I included in my survey, in contrast, do define the Messiah. In other words, when Jesus said he was the Messiah, he was saying that he was the person referred to in these prophecies.



The centrality of the Messiah

I was impressed to discover just how major a theme the Messiah is in both the Old and New Testaments. All the major prophets and several of the minor ones wrote about the Messiah. If we include all the prophecies about the Messiah's work (the restoration of Israel), even those that do not focus on the Messiah as an individual, they account for an even larger percentage of the Bible's prophetic material. I have sometimes been tempted to think of the Messiah as being something like Hanukkah -- a relatively minor aspect of Judaism, the importance of which has been exaggerated as a result of Christian influence -- but that was a mistake. The centrality of the Messiah to the Old Testament is a manifest fact, not, as I have sometimes thought, an artifact of reading the book through the lens of Christianity.

Jesus and the writers of the New Testament were very, very familiar with these prophecies -- not just with the general idea of the Messiah, but with the detailed content of the Messianic writings -- and made numerous specific allusions to them, many of which would not be noticed by most modern readers (including myself before undertaking the present project). This has confirmed to me the importance of facing this issue head-on. Jesus Christ is first and foremost Jesus Christ, a Messiah claimant, and believing in him while at the same time sidelining the whole Messiah business is simply not an honest option.


David and Moses

The three most-mentioned personal names in the Bible are Jesus, David, and Moses, in that order. That fact in itself confirms what I have said about the centrality of the Messiah. The Jews were expecting the coming of a new David and a new Moses, and Jesus claimed to be both.

Among Jesus' contemporaries, opinion seems to have been divided regarding whether the new David and the new Moses -- the Messiah and the Prophet -- were to be two people or one. I come down on the latter side of the controversy. From the point of view of Old Testament prophecy, the Messiah ben David cannot be separated from the Prophet like unto Moses. The same things that make him a second David also make him a second Moses.

David ruled over a united and independent nation of Israel. The northern tribes seceded under the reign of his grandson Rehoboam, and this northern kingdom was destroyed and scattered by the Assyrians circa 722 BC. The Davidic dynasty continued to rule the southern kingdom of Judah until the conquest of Judah by Babylon in 597-586 BC. At that time, most of the Jews were deported to Babylon and lived in exile there; they would later return to their homeland, but not as a free and independent nation. The new David -- David's legitimate successor -- was to restore Israel to the situation it had enjoyed under David. That is, he was to bring the exiles (meaning the Ten Lost Tribes and, for prophets who wrote during that period, the Jews in Babylon) back to their homeland, free Israel from the rule of foreign nations (Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome), and establish himself as sovereign king of Israel.

But this is also a summary of what Moses did: He freed Israel from subjection to a foreign power (Egypt), and he led them back to the ancestral homeland from which they had been exiled -- well, almost brought them back. As we know, Moses himself died just before entering the promised land, and so the work of the exodus was completed by his successor Joshua -- or, to use the Greek form of his name, Jesus. Thus Jesus' very name has prophetic significance, suggesting one who would succeed Moses and complete Moses' unfinished mission of liberation and restoration. It also seems significant that his father's name was Joseph; in the Old Testament, it is Joseph who brings the Israelites into Egypt in the first place and Joshua/Jesus who finally brings them back to their own land. (Mary, for her part, has the same name as Moses' sister Miriam, the only woman to play a prominent role in the exodus.)

Who is the Messiah? The Messiah is a new David and a new Moses. This is the central unifying concept that underlies all the Messianic prophecies.


A summary of the Messiah's mission

The Messiah will, above all, reestablish the throne of David and rule on it forever. All the tribes of Israel will return to their ancient homeland and be reestablished as a single united kingdom, no more to be subject to foreign powers. The Messiah will be full of the spirit of the Lord and will rule with wisdom and justice.

Besides ruling specifically over Israel, the Messiah will also have dominion over the whole earth. He will bring peace, either by destroying the heathen nations (often referred to metaphorically as wild beasts) or by rendering them peaceful and harmless. He will abolish war and weapons of war. Israel will live in safety and have nothing to fear. He will also bring material prosperity, favorable weather, and an end to hunger.

The Messiah will rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and reestablish the Levitical cult of animal sacrifice. The tabernacle of Moses may also be restored alongside the Temple. One prophecy speaks of the Messiah himself being a priest.

The Messiah will be a prophet like Moses. He will put an end to idolatry and cleanse Israel of their sins, and he will spread knowledge of the Lord over the whole earth.


A second coming?

There is not the slightest hint in Old Testament prophecy that the Messiah will come twice. His is a "second coming" all right, but a second coming of David.

I tend therefore to think of the Christian doctrine of the Second Coming as something of a cop-out, an facile way of dealing with Jesus' apparent failure to do what the Messiah was expected to do. Either Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophecies, or he didn't. If he did, we must come up with some non-obvious but convincing interpretation of those prophecies, since if they are taken at face value he did not fulfill them. If he did not fulfill the prophecies, then he was not the Messiah, and the real Messiah is either still to come in the future or else was a delusion all along.

To my mind, to posit a Second Coming is simply to say that the Messiah has yet to come -- but that when he does come, he will be a second Jesus as well as a second David and a second Moses.


Jesus as the Messiah

Let's start with the easy part. Jesus was a undeniably a prophet, and a prophet of Mosaic and more-than-Mosaic stature. Like Moses, he led the way out of Egyptian slavery (though, ironically, the Egyptian to whom the people of his day were enslaved was -- Moses!). This aspect of the Messiah's mission fits Jesus perfectly.

As for putting an end to idolatry and spreading knowledge of the Lord over the whole earth, it can be argued that that process was set in motion by Jesus. The spread of Christianity put an end to the "idolatrous" pagan religions of the Roman Empire, and today "non-idolators" (comprising Christians, Muslims, Jews, and the non-religious) comprise some 70% of the world population. Even among those who do not profess to worship the God of Abraham, some degree of knowledge of that God is virtually universal. Christianity, if not Jesus personally, did "speak peace to the heathen," successfully assimilating the Roman Empire (not without some regrettable assimilation in the other direction!) and rendering the heathens nations no longer a threat.

As for the Davidic part of the Messiah's mission, Jesus certainly did not accomplish it in any literal sense. He did not gather Israel. The Jews were already living in their homeland in his time, though most of them had been driven out by the end of the 2nd century and did not return in large numbers until modern times. The Ten Lost Tribes remain lost. Jesus did not free Israel from foreign rule; it continued to be ruled by the Romans, and later the Arabs and the British. Israel is now an independent country again, but that did not happen until many centuries after Jesus, and its sovereignty over Jerusalem is still contested. Jesus did not restore David's throne, and the new Israel was founded as a modern democratic state with no king. Jesus did not rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, which had already been rebuilt centuries before and was still standing in his day. This Second Temple was destroyed in AD 70 and has never been rebuilt.

If, then, we wish to maintain that Jesus was the Messiah and accomplished the Messiah's mission, all this must be interpreted figuratively. Jesus was figuratively a king. He figuratively reunited the tribes of Israel in their homeland and freed them from foreign oppression. He figuratively rebuilt the Temple.

Jesus himself clearly claimed to be a king only in a figurative sense. Once, when a crowd of would-be subjects "would come and take him by force, to make him a king," he ran away from them and hid in the mountains (John 6:14-15). When questioned by Pilate about his pretensions as "King of the Jews," he said, "My kingdom is not of this world," and, "Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice." Jesus' kingdom is the kingdom of truth, and his subjects are all those who are "of the truth." Certainly it makes sense to say that Jesus is a leader, that he has authority -- and he holds that authority not by force like a tyrant, nor because it has been delegated to him by the people like a consul, but rather as a legitimate monarch, who has authority because of who he is -- and who his Father is.

Building the Temple of the Lord is also relatively easy to interpret figuratively, with reference to Jesus' role as what might loosely be called a religious reformer, as someone who brought humanity into a new relationship with God. Every Temple, every religious edifice, is sooner or later desecrated or destroyed, or is simply outgrown by new developments in human consciousness, and so people like Moses, David, Jesus, and Joseph Smith are necessary -- builders of temples -- people who, although they respect and build-upon existing foundations, fundamentally offer new wine in new bottles. By putting Jesus in a list with others, I in no way mean to imply that he was not absolutely unique -- but it was Jesus himself who, by calling himself the Messiah, claimed to be in some sense the same sort of thing that Moses and David were, and who also said there would be others like them to come. It may seem somewhat counterintuitive to put King David in the same category as Moses and Jesus, but I think it is justifiable. The great Psalmist introduced into the law-based religion of Moses something personal and conscious and lyrical -- almost "Romantic" avant le lettre -- and it was on this foundation, even more than on the stone tables of Moses, that Jesus was to build his Temple.

That leaves the gathering of Israel, the hardest aspect of the Messianic mission to apply to Jesus, even figuratively. My best guess is that it has to do with the establishment of Christianity as a universal religion, transcending the ethnic religion of Judaism. The Lost Tribes were thought of as being scattered throughout all the nations of the earth, and the Messiah was to set up an ensign to the nations that would draw God's people from every corner of the world. When Jesus said his disciples were to be "fishers of men," he was alluding to Jeremiah's account of the gathering of Israel -- first by fishers casting out their nets and drawing in the catch en masse, and then (the phase we are in now?) by hunters who would "hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks." We may see in the idea of the Lost Tribes a symbolic expression of the fact that God's people, or those who have the potential to become such, are not confined to one nation.


What did the prophets know?

I have given my understanding of what Jesus may have meant when he called himself the Messiah. Is it also what the prophets meant when they said that the Messiah was coming? There are several possible answers to that question, listed here in descending order of orthodoxy.

  1. God revealed Jesus' life and mission to the prophets. They knew who he was and what he would do, but they wrote about it in figurative language, which was later misunderstood by the Jews.
  2. God revealed to the prophets more or less what we see in the prophetic books -- that a new David was coming to gather Israel, rebuild the Temple, etc. God meant this all figuratively, and was in fact referring to Jesus, but the prophets themselves did not know that and wrote in the expectation that their prophecies would be fulfilled in a more literal manner.
  3. The prophets had only a vague knowledge that a "savior" was coming, an idea which they elaborated on based on their own beliefs and expectations, perhaps supplemented by a handful of specific but ill-understood precognitions.
  4. The prophets had no truly prophetic knowledge of Jesus at all. They wrote what they wrote for their own reasons, and were "inspired" to some degree, but Jesus and his mission played no causal role at all in the production of the prophetic books. Jesus, born among people who were expecting a Messiah, decided to cast himself in that role and to reinterpret the Messianic prophecies as references to himself. Had he been born in a different culture, he would have assumed the role of the Saoshyant or or the Mahdi or Maitreya Buddha or whatever, and would have read his own mission into those prophecies.
I consider option 1 to be clearly wrong. It is just not plausible that so many different prophets would have couched their prophecies of Jesus in the same, rather non-obvious, figurative terms. I tend to think that the truth lies somewhere between options 3 and 4, but really I'm not at all sure.

4 comments:

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - First of all, thank you for this series - it has been a real eye-opener and challenge.

Of your options, it is 3. that I recognise as summarising my own attitude.

wrt 1 and 2; I don't seen any reason to grant the OT prophets anything approaching infallability in their predictions - or even their aspiration, esepcially when these cannot be validated in any obvious or straightforward fashion.

wrt 4; This seems to be predicated on an assumption that Jesus being a Jews, and being born where and when he was, was merely accidental - and that would seem to be an absurdity, given that these things could be chosen and Jesus was identified during pre-mortal life for his role, and could therefore be placed by God into a particular niche of teh scope and span of Creation.

Thus Jesus's claim of being the Messiah necessarily entailed not just saying he was teh expected Messiah; but also teaching the ways in which - in effect - the prophets had erred, and the (small-minded, and indeed not obviously Good - it seems to me) socio-political Messianic expectations were misguided.

After all, a prophet who was 'merely' a combination of Moses and David's achievements, with (what sounds like) immortality added to the package, does not fundamentally change the human condition of mortal life; in particular all Men (except maybe the Messiah himself) would still suffer disease and ageing, and all would be transient, then everyone would die and go to dwell forever in the half-life of Sheol.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Thanks for the input, Bruce, and for the link from your blog.

I remain undecided as to how essential Jesus' Jewishness was. Certainly it was not accidental; he chose the best time and place in which to be born. But did he choose to incarnate as a Jew because the Jews alone worshiped the true God and were God's chosen people, or simply because theirs was quantitatively the most suitable of the available religious environments?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm. Yes, as usual there are big assumption need making, but usually covert. For example regarding scripture, and the relative status of texts. By regarding the Bible as all equal, the OT is given de facto primacy because it is bigger. Therefore the Old frames the New. Similarly with the Synoptics versus the Fourth. Etc.

But the most successful recent Christian revivals in the West have been Jesus orientated, NT and Gospel focused.

Anyway... How essential is Jewishness of Jesus. If his message is as IV Gospel, then not essential. Merely expedient. But not ideal.

After all, for Jesus to claim to be divine was a non starter for a monotheistic religion and led to severe and permanent problems.

Francis Berger said...

Thanks for this insightful and thought-provoking series of posts, Wm. It has been a real treat to follow your analyses. Of the four options you put forth, option 3 resonates most with me as well.

Nevertheless, I am intrigued by option 2 even though I don't feel it is the most correct here. To state the obvious, Jesus offered much more as a messiah than the OT prophets seemed capable of envisioning, literally or metaphorically. Ironically, this 'more' Jesus offers comes off as appearing as 'less' when juxtaposed against OT expectations/hopes of what the manifestation of the messiah would bring forth.

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