Beyond Tradition

"Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men." Colossians 2:8

The Messianic Matrix

Sean D. Harmon 

 
Part I of IV:

The blueprint

When studying the pieces of Messianic prophecies scattered throughout the Old Testament,
or what has been recognized as prophetic by Jewish authorities on the subject from ancient times to today, without a doubt, it's not hard to see why biblical theologians, both Jewish and Christian, came to the conclusion that there are two Messianic personalities foretold in the scriptures. There is a Conquering King persona that oftentimes parallels prophecies of what seem to be (or Christians presently argue, and Jewish rabbis once argued) a Suffering Servant persona.

In fact, the reader cannot progress far into the Old Testament writings before they are inundated with descriptions of, and predictions concerning a coming "Anointed One," who would be a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, specifically through the descendancy of David (examples: Psalm 89:1-4; Ezekiel 34:22-25; Hosea 3:4-5); would serve as a political ruler of Israel; would conquer not just his enemies on behalf of Israel but subdue the nations of the world (Psalm 2; Isaiah 9:6-7; Zechariah 9:9-10), and who would actually have a status with God no man had ever known before (Psalm 110; Daniel 7:13-14). This often presides in passages that also denote end time events regarding Israel and the effects of judgment on the world in general (Micah 4:1-2), particularly in books of the prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, most of which were written between 1,500 - 200 BCE.

Sometimes these prophecies seem to appear in short spurts (seemingly out of place within the context of the theme). Sometimes they expand across whole chapters, such as the notorious and highly disputed Isaiah chapter 53 passage. Sometimes they are vague. Sometimes they are perfectly clear and unquestionable. Sometimes they appear over-layered or bilateral with other prophecies about Israel or the then current Judaic dynasty (there may have been times the prophets thought they were referring to a current situation, dynasty, or an event that would happen in the near future, not realizing they were foretelling something that wouldn't happen for many generations to come). Sometimes they are in the past tense, known as the "prophetic past" -- future events mentioned in the past tense were often used to emphasize the certainty of what God had spoken was as good as done even though it technically hadn't occurred yet. Sometimes they are in the first person, almost as if the prophet is writing about himself, particularly in the book of Psalms written by king David.

How do we know these are Messianic prophecies? Though many of them are sometimes vague and highly disputed, prophecy usually always entails a connection to Israel, and most of the time the description contradicted the present situation of Israel at the time it was written. In most cases they herald an everlasting king ruling within an everlasting corporeal kingdom in Israel working in conjunction with Almighty God himself who would restore the scattered Semitic tribes back to this kingdom (notably the house of Israel and the house of Judah, which, as of today, is seemingly an impossibility since no one knows for sure where some of the tribes are located), and who would destroy Israel's enemies, establish the royal throne of David, rule the nations of the world from this throne and even herald God's salvation and worldwide peace that would last forever.[1] However, as I mentioned earlier, other passages point out a lowly servant, despised and rejected, whose enemies would eventually prevail against him, and that he would ultimately suffer defeat and die for his efforts, perhaps even for the sins and burdens of others.

Because the nuances of these two messianic personalities -- a Conquering King (who would rule forever) and a Suffering Servant (who would die) -- seem contradictory, many in the ancient Jewish community could not understand how such diverse activities could be fulfilled in a single individual. Due to this conundrum, various opinions formed, thus ancient rabbis posited the idea of at least two messiahs to come,[2] and in some cases even multiple messiahs, priests and kings.[3] This shows the impossibility it apparently was in reconciling the many descriptions and illustrations just in one person, so rather than seeing one Messiah in two different roles, they saw multiple messiahs: the suffering and dying servant they called Messiah ben Joseph (the son of Jacob in the Old Testament) who they believed would rise from the tribe of Joseph instead of Judah.[4] The second would be a reigning king they called Messiah ben David who would rise directly from the tribe of Judah via David. The two of these individuals would be accompanied by at least two others, in most cases, Elijah and a righteousness priest. One of the esoteric ideas used to try and connect these figures held that ben Joseph would be slain in a righteous war against a superhuman enemy Gog and Magog (see Ezekiel chap 38 and 39), and ben David would slay these enemies, resurrect ben Joseph, permanently reestablish the Davidic dynasty, and they would both rule the nations of the world in tandem. Some believed that ben David himself would be slain and actually be resurrected to a higher status level.[5]

There were many diverse views to try and solve these issues, and current scholars have also recognized dual messianic connotations expressed in the Dead Sea Scrolls (scrolls preserved by the extremely fundamental Jewish Qumran community prior to 70 CE) that not only correlate with ideas expressed by rabbis of the Talmud, but that similarly reflect off of canon and apocryphal Old Testament scriptures; specifically a Messiah ben Aaron and another as Messiah ben Israel, with implications that they would also rule simultaneously.[6] James Charlesworth and Joseph Fitzmyer identify these two distinct messianic figures in the scrolls as clearly playing some sort of eschatological role with a "Son of God" cooperating with a more priestly-type counterpart. Charlesworth also notes the latter as having remarkable similarities with the New Testament Hebrews epistle's description of Jesus as High Priest, but also notes stark differences, such as Hebrew's repudiation of the ordinances of the Torah in contrast to the Qumran priest being more of the endorser of such practice. 

In any event, the fact remains clear, regardless what the majority of modern Jewish scholars dismiss today, at a point in history pre-Christian era and up to the first century, ancient Jewish sages indeed recognized a messianic theme from Hebrew Old Testament scripture and attempted to interpret it the best they could (more on that later). This is the blueprint that the early first century Christians, many of whom were Jews and familiar with these views and ideas that swirled in their culture, were expounding on in their written works.

The first century Judean Messiah

As was pointed out earlier, the Old Testament scriptures express this messianic hope in varying degrees, but some of the most notable Davidic prophecies that stand out are that of a Conquering King ruling in an everlasting dynasty  (see 2 Samuel 7:8-17; Psalms 89:1-4; Isaiah 9:6-7; Isaiah 11:1-10; Jeremiah 30:8-9; Ezekiel 34:22-25; Ezekiel 37:24-25; Hosea 3:4-5), and this was clearly the most consistent view held by second Temple Jews of the first century. The first century writer Philo spoke of this expected hero who would "subdue great and populous nations" and "fight for the pious, so as to overwhelm their enemies with shameful destruction."[7] Josephus indicated that the second Temple Jews expected "one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth," which they interpreted from "their sacred writings."[8] The apocryphal Hebrew book Psalms of Solomon, written sometime in the first century BCE and the book of Ezra, which dates towards the end of the first century,[9] probably reflect the most detailed messianic view of what first century Jews expected and hoped. The expectation within these texts clearly falls on the Conquering King. The passages within the book of Solomon show a distinct awareness and lament of the suffering under Roman conquest in the hopes of this expectant deliverer, and Craig Evans notes that chapters seventeen and eighteen may be explicitly expressing some of the earliest forms of Jewish messianism.[10]

Because the political situation was unbearable for the Jews in the first century, helplessly overshadowed and oppressed by this pagan Roman menace for such a long duration, it was only natural for the collective Jewish populace to place their hope in this political Conquering King or Son of David (the one and only title bestowed on Jesus throughout the gospels by the people in the Judean community who interacted with him prior to the crucifixion) who would deliver them from this misery.[11] The first century historian Josephus also corroborates with this expectation by describing the "oracles in scripture" that motivated many of the false messiahs that rose up during this era that tried to lead certain numbers among the populace in uprisings against Rome and that eventually lead up to the ultimate war of 70 CE.[12] That Simon Bar Kokhba, leader of the second Jewish revolt against the Romans (132-135 CE), was heralded as Messiah before his bitter defeat additionally exemplifies this historical pattern.[13] 

This extrabiblical historical expectation certainly was not isolated from the followers of Jesus who were clearly under this very impression about Jesus' mission prior to his crucifixion; yet little did they realize at the time the true divine plan that was in store and that would give birth to a whole new doctrine, ideology and theology. The historical expectation of ben David we find in the gospels starkly coincides with the apocalyptic attitudes and expectations found in extrabiblical Jewish literature around the same time just as we would expect to find. In other words, we see many instances of this expectation of a conquering hero expressed in a variety of different ways and degrees in the gospels, such as:

The instance when the crowd was so impressed with Jesus they wanted to seize him and make him their Messiah by force (John 6:14-15). It explains Zacharias' (John the Baptist's father) messianic exaltation against the enemies of Israel in Luke (1:67-74).

It's why Jesus often seemingly inexplicably warned his disciples or some of the recipients of his miracles to keep such miracles quiet, lest the extraordinary nature of the miracle or event create an unrestrained pro-messianic frenzy with the people around him who believed he was this expectant Messiah (examples: Mark 3:10-12, 7:32-36, 9:7-9; Luke 8:51-56); and at times Jesus even avoided the public when this frenzy got out of hand (Mark 1:40-45). The atmosphere was tense during this time with rebellion undoubtedly at every turn and ready to ignite at any point, thus such a frenzy was extremely dangerous, detrimental to Jesus' cause at the time and had to be guarded cautiously, which is probably also why he never openly claimed to be the Messiah himself, or why he charged his disciples not to use this title outside their inner circle (Mark 8:29-30).

Though Jesus did eventually allow the crowds to collectively proclaim him king when he rode into Jerusalem on an ass, each gospel explicitly places this event towards the end of his ministry and just before his crucifixion. In fact, in Mark's gospel, the verbal attacks from the authorities are especially magnified after this event. The gospel of John clearly indicates this event occurred at the last Passover (John 12:1-16), and in Luke (19:37-44) Jesus weeps as he enters the city because he knew at this point his ministry was drawing to a close, the authoritative priesthood still refused to recognize him as their king and the consequences that would ensue as a result.

This historical Conquering King anticipation would undoubtedly also explain why the disciples were bickering over who would be the greatest in this expectant coming kingdom (Luke 22:24-30), and why the mother of James and John boldly requested that her sons sit on Jesus' right and left in "his kingdom" to come, indicative of their anticipation of a corporeal kingdom.

This messianic expectation is also expressed in the consternation of the Jewish authorities and their fear that Jesus' rise to national prominence would likely end up in a revolt against the imperial government (John 11:47-48).

This is undoubtedly why even John the Baptist began to question Jesus' agenda after John was imprisoned by Herod (Matthew 11:2-3). Perhaps John suspected that Jesus was dragging his feet with this anticipated kingdom -- a political one -- and we certainly get a glimpse in the beginning of the story as to what apocalyptic scenario John the Baptist was expecting Jesus to fulfill (Matthew 3:7-12).

This would unquestionably explain why Peter denounced Jesus' admission that he would suffer martyrdom at the hands of the Romans, the very enemy they anticipated would be destroyed in his conquest, thus provoking a rather harsh rebuke by Jesus in return (Mark 8:29-33). Peter was merely expressing a common expectation held by the Jewish culture he was apart of; so impenetrable that it was an outburst by Peter in spite of the prior moments Jesus had undoubtedly spent counseling them about his role and God's true divine plan.

This would further explain Peter’s rash militant reaction when the mob came to seize Jesus (John 18:10), clearly expecting that this was the moment of truth when their expectant king would rise up take back their sovereignty from Roman rule.

This might also be one of the reasons why Jesus' family grew concerned about the direction his teachings were going (Mark 3:28-32), and why they wanted to get a hold of him, presumably to get him back on track and focused on the mission they were expecting (however, there may have been another explanation why his family became concerned about this, discussed here: My Logos is Better Than Yours). Surely, it's only logical to assume, based on the gospel of Matthew and Luke and the revelation given to Jesus' mother Mary by the angel, that at least she was aware who her son was and what his destiny entailed. So, within this context, obviously she would not have been taken aback by his claims to messiahship. However, she and possibly the rest of his family were likely expecting a political ruler of Israel, not a redeemer who would die and resurrect, something Jesus made the central theme of his ministry, and perhaps felt his ministry was leading in the wrong direction, particularly when his own countrymen began to accuse him of "having a demon" (Mark 3:28-30; John 8:52, 10:20). Interestingly, in Matthew's account of the Nativity story, the angel delivers the message to Joseph in a dream that Jesus would fulfill the role as Redeemer and Savior of Israel (Matthew 1:21), whereas Luke records the angel delivering the message directly to Mary that Jesus would actually rule forever as the Conquering King (Luke 1:30-33).

Some theorize this was indeed Judas' motive for his betrayal of Jesus, who, out of sheer impatience used it as a desperate attempt to force Jesus to play his military hand as Messiah ben David and once and for all lead a revolt against the imperialistic Jewish and Roman regimes. The recant Judas gives after his betrayal: "I have betrayed innocent blood" (Matthew 27:3-4) seems to affirm this notion, because when Judas saw that his expected apocalypse wasn't going to happen, he felt remorse for betraying a man he and the nation had grossly miscalculated as the Messiah they were expecting.

This is undoubtedly why the two Emmaus men stated that they "had hoped" Jesus was "the one" after his crucifixion made this reality an impossibility in their minds (Luke 24:21).

Even after Jesus' resurrection, these political expectations were still indelibly fixed in the perceptions of his followers, who simply couldn't grasp the fact he had resurrected from such a prior fate (Luke 24:10-11).

This messianic perception is also indicative in the book of Acts, where they directly ask him if he would fulfill this role and restore the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:3-6).

There are numerous places in the gospels reflecting this conflict between the spiritual role Jesus claimed and their own messianic expectation that we know would have preceded Jesus from the extrabiblical sources of this era, which indeed had such a powerful hold on the psyche of first century Judean culture that, despite Jesus' explicit foretelling of his imminent death, resurrection and the purpose it would serve, even his own disciples could not grasp this strange ideology he was teaching until after it had occurred (also see Mark 9:31-32; Matthew 17:22-23; Luke 18:31-34, 24:8-11, 24:24-25; John 12:32-34; 16:16-19).

The point of weeding out these subtle hints and clues that saturate the gospel stories is that it corroborates with the messianic expectations we find in extrabiblical sources, and that both reflect a political ruler who would fight victoriously against the imperial powers, not a spiritual priest who would die... certainly not by Roman crucifixion. We clearly see this historical first century messianic portrait in very subtle and some not so subtle ways like pieces to a puzzle we can piece together from the scattered incidents throughout all four gospel stories to get the portrait and then see that it directly resembles the portrait we find in other ancient sources about messianic expectations of that period.

The Jewish/Christian conflict

Of course, none of the Old Testament prophecies actually mention Jesus by name, but Christians tout that these two messianic personalities are to be fulfilled in one man, and that the resurrection made this dual role possible. They proclaim that the agenda of Messiah ben David or the Conquering King is yet to be fulfilled in Jesus' second coming (see Matthew 24:42-44; Mark 13:26; Luke 12:36-37; John 14:2-3; 1 Corinthians 15:23; 1 Thessalonians 2:19, 4:15-16, 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-8; 1 Timothy 6:13-14; Hebrews 10:37; 1 Peter 1:13; James 5:8; Jude 1:14-15; Revelations 16:15, 19:11-16, 22:20), or on-hold, while
many of the prophecies erroneously attributed to Messiah ben Joseph (at least as far as the concept of dying and suffering) or the Suffering Servant was fulfilled in his first appearance, where he specifically served as priest who died for the purpose of salvation, after which the prophecies of a ruling king would be synthesized, something his followers could not comprehend prior to the resurrection (Luke 17:24-25; 1 Peter 1:10-12; Hebrews 10:12-13). Note in the gospel of Luke (4:16-21) where Jesus recites an Isaiah (1:2) passage that he proclaims is a self-fulfillment, he cuts off the passage in mid-sentence that states: "... and the day of vengeance of our God," indicating the abrupt gap of time between Jesus' first coming (redemption) and his second (revenge).

This has caused quite a bit of controversy to say the least, being that not only were these roles not definitively spelled out this way by the ancients prior to Christianity, but these two roles often exist in tandem within the same Old Testament prophetic passages, leaving Christians to claim, in many cases, that these passages are "partial" fulfillments. In other words, Christians argue that these two roles were like two mountains sitting in the distance. The ancient prophets were looking at these future mountains while describing them, and other than slightly different shapes and colors in different areas, the prophets were unable to fully distinguish whether it was one mountain or two different mountains, hence, often conflated the two within the same descriptive context, and both the prophets and subsequent rabbis who analyzed the differences of these two mountains and who tried to interpret the meaning were incapable of seeing the highway that connected them both (the resurrection), as well as the valley of time (2,000 years and counting) between them. However, modern Jewish scholars scoff at this idea.

Every Jewish and Christian theologian still has some expectation of Messiah ben David or the Conquering King who is yet to come (the Suffering Servant is now less agreeable), but orthodox Jews and Jewish scholars completely disavow Jesus being either personality as an utterly spurious assertion, riddled with misinterpretations of Jewish scripture. Since they reject belief in the resurrection, logically he was not the Messiah in their eyes, because not only is it absurd to consider a crucified man the Messiah, but his mission did nothing to help Israel politically or even spiritually (in their view), hence, injustice and corruption still occurs to this day (in fact, the total destruction of the Jewish people occurred just four decades after his crucifixion by the very enemies he was expected to destroy). They also point out that since he is not currently reigning as king in Israel, which is the only sign of the true Messiah, he cannot possibly be the true Jewish Messiah.

It's funny, but I've noticed a lot of secular atheists arguing on the side of Jewish scholars, and in turn, Jewish scholars using arguments of a lot of German rationalists (atheists), both with the intent to refute Christian messianism. This makes for some rather odd bedfellows, because Jewish scholars are just as theosophical as Christians, and of course these same secular rationalists they cite denounce the legitimacy of the entire Old Testament just the same. Jewish critics, particularly those behind the counter-missionary sites, vehemently oppose these Christian assertions about Jesus and his messianic role mainly by claiming that most of these prophecies declared as fulfillments in Jesus are just lack of understanding specifically of the Hebrew scriptures. Often times, what makes it quite easy for them to dismiss these interpretations is that there are indeed some cases (albeit few) that the Jewish Old Testament bible (chiefly the Masoretic text, but various other sources) differs in its translation from the Christian Old Testament bibles. However, though Jewish scholars hold their texts as an authority above and beyond Christian texts that they argue contains intentionally spurious translations, this accusation isn't at all as cut and dry as they would have us think.

 

How bias are the texts?

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) in the 20th century, which included Hebrew (Old Testament) manuscripts dating many years prior (sometimes hundreds) to the Common Era, shattered a whole lot of preconceived views about translation and transmission. In comparison to the numerous Old Testament texts we have today, which were derived from different ancient sources, the discovery showed that the scribes were indeed about as precise, as far as the traditions were concerned, in transcribing scripture as once touted, and that the Old Testament overall and in comparison to other texts had been remarkably preserved. Conversely, however, divergences, mainly in verse arrangement, style and spelling did in fact exist, particularly against the Masoretic text (completed around the 10th century CE).[14]

Much of the ancient Hebraic sources of the Old Testament were destroyed in the 70 CE war, so when the idea formed to begin work on the Masoretic text (MT), this apparently made it difficult for the Jewish scribes to get to some of the oldest and reliable sources (the DSS had yet to be discovered, and they obviously wanted nothing to do with Christian Greek texts of the OT), and what's worse, the Hebrew texts that were available apparently also had variations between them.[15]

Ironically, the comparison of the DSS also proved that the Septuagint bible (or LXX -- the translated Hebrew Old Testament into Greek around the 2nd century BCE), which many modern Jewish scholars once dismissed as being "Christian tampered," actually proved similar to the same underlying sources that were used in the conception of the DSS. In other words, the DSS, the LXX, and the MT may be connected by a common underlying ancient source ancestor (either a text or texts) that they all shared. Another important factor that became apparent is that where the MT and the LXX seem to diverge, the LXX follows closer to the older text that was also used by the DSS.[16] Obviously the DSS, the LXX and the earlier sources they rely came before any sort of dispute between Christian and Jewish theologies, thus free from bias in this regard. This suggests, in spite of the LXX being unjustifiably viewed as a Christian corrupt source, that the reverse may be true. Though this is not necessarily indicative of doctrinal corruption or conscious redaction of Jewish scripture on a major level, if anyone did any conscious alternations, the discoveries of the DSS and the comparison to the LXX and MT make it more probable that Jewish scribes, well after to the first century, altered their texts just enough to make it "less Christian."

What I find remarkable is that though Christian texts are frequently accused of Christian bias, many of the modern Jewish bible translators of the Old Testament openly admit a bias against Christian translations with the sole intent to steer away from such interpretations.[17] Reliability, however, isn't necessarily the translators themselves, regardless of any driven religious bias or non-bias, but the antiquity of the sources used to compare the prophecies. If Jewish scribing of the Old Testament occurred after the first century (Masoretic text, English translation of the Tenach, etc.), one can argue that there is indeed a Jewish bias, specifically anti-Christian bias. If Christian scribing of the Old Testament occurred after the first century (Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, Vulgate, etc.), one can argue that there is indeed a pro-Christian bias. However, if the textual transmission occurred pre-70 (Dead Sea Scrolls, Septuagint), then translation bias in either case obviously doesn't hold any weight, which then solely comes down to interpretation. As we shall examine, the translations from which modern Jewish scholars use against the "Christian" translation, at times actually go against these older pre-Christian sources.

 
The analysis breakdown

Since the Conquering King and Suffering Servant are often intertwined in the same prophecies (as we shall see), I've decided to specifically focus on the Suffering Servant in this article, or those prophecies touted by Christians as fulfillments or partial fulfillments in Christ. There are supposedly more than 300 prophecies from the Old Testament canon that conservative Christians tout as fulfillments in Christ, which I didn't include here since I felt most of these prophecies were quite frankly ridiculous, argued as passages taken totally out of its original context, argued by some as being orchestrated by Jesus himself (example: compare Zechariah 9:9 vs. Mark 11:1-11), just plain coincidental, or I left them out simply due to space constraints, as some of these prophecies alone would take volumes to go through the various arguments, interpretations and debate surrounding them.

It should be noted that there are also apocryphal Hebrew (Old Testament) scriptures containing messianic prophecies -- particularly notable in Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach -- that were not included in the Old Testament canon, but for the sake of practicality we'll stick with the Old Testament (OT) canon. The OT represents the prophecy that was written down prior to the Common Era, and the NT represents the interpretations of those passages in correlation to Jesus by the Christian writers. What I'll do is post the original OT passage and the comparable NT passage, then present arguments from each side -- critic and apologist. The particular passages that are used here may not be the only scripture in the NT referencing the fulfillment, so note that these are just select individual examples. The passages I use will either be from the New International Version or New American Standard bible that I frequently quote from (just for the sake of language clarity), but I'll address the variant translations from the older sources when applicable.

A New Covenant (New Testament)

Old Testament:

Jeremiah 31:31-34
: "'Behold, days are coming,' declares the LORD, 'when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,' declares the LORD. 'But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,' declares the LORD, 'I will put My law within them and on their heart. I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, know the LORD, for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,' declares the LORD, 'for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.'"

And...

Isaiah 59:20-21: "'A Redeemer will come to Zion, and to those who turn from transgression in Jacob,' declares the LORD. 'As for Me, this is My covenant with them,' says the LORD: 'My Spirit which is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring, nor from the mouth of your offspring's offspring,' says the LORD, 'from now and forever.'"

New Testament:

Matthew 26:27-28: "And when He (Jesus) had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you; For this is my blood of the new testament [diatheke], which is shed for many for the remission of sins.'"

 

Romans 11:26-27: "And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: 'The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.'"

 

Hebrew 8:8-13: "But God found fault with the people and said: 'The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant (diatheke) with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah'... By calling this covenant 'new,' he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear."  


Other New Testament passages include:
Luke 22:20; Romans 11:25-27; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 10:14-16. We should first note that Jeremiah's passage wasn't just exclusively recognized by early Christians, but also seems to have been recognized by some ancient rabbinic commentators in the Talmud as pertaining to Messiah…

"When the time of the advent of the Messiah will be near, then the blessed God will say to him: "With him I will make a new covenant. And this is the time I will acknowledge Him as my son, saying 'This day have I begotten thee'" (Midrash Tehelim, fol.3, col.4).

 
Notice the rabbinic commentator here combines the Jeremiah prophecy, in the the first part, with the "begotten son" prophecy in Psalms in the second part (Psalms 2:7-12), which was also thought of as pertaining to the Messiah. Also...

 
"He will sit and expound the new Torah which He will give through the Messiah" (Midrash Talpiyot, 58a).

 
Jewish argument:

Even though there is yet no sign of this Jewish "new covenant" or "testament" described by Jeremiah and Isaiah, modern Jewish scholars argue that this does not necessarily mean that God would abolish the Torah (first five books of the OT which contained covenantal laws) per se, but more like augment the law. However, different schools of ancient rabbis debated over this, some of which also viewed it as an abolishment of ceremonial laws.[18] The Greek word for "testament" is diatheke, and was the same word used to refer both to the New and Old Testament in the gospels, and is the same interchangeable word as "covenant."

Nonetheless, Jewish scholars emphatically insist that this is not the "Christian" New Testament anyway, since parts of Jeremiah's prophecy have clearly not been fulfilled. Jeremiah makes it clear that this new covenant will be given to the house of Israel and the house of Judah who are the Jewish people, and it's pretty clear that most orthodox Jews do not presently accept Jesus or the New Testament. Moreover, the house of Israel and the house of Judah are together in this scenario and the passage indicates this will be a permanent thing, yet both tribes were utterly scattered in the aftermath of the 70 CE war, and are still scattered, which makes this an unfulfilled prophecy and voids this covenant as being the New Testament of Christ.

Christian argument:

Christians argue that this "new covenant" can't really mean anything other than what it says: a new covenant, which is imprinted within a person, hence, validating the Christian claim that the believer: "is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter" (Romans 2:29), indicative of an inward law. Moreover, since Jeremiah explicitly states they would not have to teach anyone this new law (in red text), suggests that an outward law that must be taught to those who are ignorant of it would cease to exist. Nothing expresses Christian soteriology more than the last verses in the Jeremiah passage: "their sin I will remember no more."

Christians also point out that the argument the Jewish people presently do not acknowledge Jesus as Messiah disregards the reality that the first Judeo-Christians obviously were in fact Jewish; in fact the first church was established at Jerusalem. It also disregards the fact that at least the partial gathering of the tribes occurred in 1948 when Israel officially and miraculously became a nation once again, and that the full gathering (Ezekiel 37:21-22), along with the Messianic revelation to the Jewish people and the acceptance of Jesus as their king will be fulfilled in his second coming when his rule as Messiah ben David is underscored (Hebrews 10:12-13; Revelation 19:11-16).

Compare with…

Old Testament:

1) Isaiah 49:6-8: "He says, ‘It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations [Gentiles] so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’… Thus says the LORD, ‘In a favorable time I have answered You, and in a day of salvation I have helped You; and I will keep you and give you for a covenant of the people..." (click here to read the whole passage).

And…

2) Isaiah 42:1-6: "'Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights I have put My Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations… He will not be disheartened or crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands [the Gentiles?] will wait expectantly for his law'... 'I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I will also hold you by the hand and watch over you, and I will appoint you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations [Gentiles]'" (click here to read the whole passage).


Jewish argument:

Though the second Isaiah passage (2) was thought of as Messianic in some of the ancient Jewish Targum manuscripts, this remains debatable since it is apparently not found in all of them.[19] Modern Jewish scholars argue, however, that "My Servant" is usually representative of the descendants of Jacob (or his second name which was Israel) as a whole and would probably argue that in both cases Isaiah is either referring to Israel as his servant or Isaiah the prophet speaking about himself as the caretaker and mediator of Israel. Moreover, the second passage clearly states that he will not be crushed until he establishes justice on the earth, and since Christians declare that the Torah (law) was basically nullified by Jesus' mission on the cross (see Galatians 3:11), the term "law" that the coast lands are waiting (green text) is contradictory to this belief.

Christian argument:

Christians point out that what makes that argument problematic is that not only did Isaiah never present any law or salvation to the Gentiles noted in the first Isaiah passage (1) ("nations" in plural always referred to Gentiles), but God abruptly declares in the following verses that he is the Lord and will not share his glory with another (Isaiah 42:8), making it a contradiction in terms to think that these passages are referring to Israel or Isaiah, and instead suggests someone who is either more than just a mortal man or linked to Yahweh himself in a unique and profound way, undoubtedly the Messiah himself.

Moreover, "My Servant" did not always apply to Jacob (Israel) and simply cannot be referring to Israel in the first passage (1) since he is actually used by God to restore the tribes of Israel (noted in the red text). Yes, Jesus was crucified, but Christians proclaim his resurrection solves the discrepancy about his fate and correlates this with a coming fulfillment of the rest of the description in the second Isaiah passage (2), and though the Torah is often specifically associated with the Mosaic law or covenant, the Hebrew word for "law" is towrah which technically just means "instruction" or "direction."

So Christians conclude that these passages refer to Christ because:

  • No other new covenant has been established in Judaism which does not need to be taught, and is why its adherents still teach the Torah -- the outward law -- in order to know God's ways (or "knowing the Lord") just as they did in ancient times. Therefore, Jeremiah's declaration of a new internal covenant leaves Jewish scholars in a bind. Either they must: a) accept Christianity as this "new covenant," which was a historical offshoot of first century Judaism with all its initial adherents being Jews; b) Jeremiah was simply wrong; c) after 2,000 years and counting, this is still yet to come.
  • Christianity began with the proclamation that the law was indeed written in their hearts as opposed to an outward appearance, and Paul particularly expressed that it would no longer be an external law that was required to be taught, just as Jeremiah stated.
  • "My Servant" was not Jacob, Israel, or Isaiah in this case because God uses him not only to restore the tribes of Israel but who would distribute God's salvation to the world, even among the Gentiles, so this was clearly referring to a mysterious third party.
  • Isaiah specifically stated that God will appoint this Servant as "a covenant of the people" and that it would be proclaimed to the Gentile nations; whether one argues a stark historical coincidence or not, Christianity indeed proclaims Jesus as the covenant of the Christian faith himself (see Mark 14:24; Romans 3:25; 2 Corinthians 3:14; Hebrews 10:29) and this proclamation has gone worldwide.

 
Click here for Part II, or go home 

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Source References

1. Craig A. Evans, Messianc Hopes and Messianic Figures in Late Antiquity (pdf), pp.10-15; 2006 (http://craigaevans.com).

2. Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts, p.7, 166; 1979.

    David Baron, Rays of Messiah’s Glory, pp.18-20; 2000 (reprint).

    John Ankerberg, John Weldon, and Walter Kaiser, The Case for Jesus the Messiah, pp. 57-58; 1989.

3. Alan Avery-Peck, The Review of Rabbinic Judaism: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, pp.83-85; 2005.

4. Kaufmann Kohler, The Messiah of the Tribe of Joseph, Jewish Encyclopedia (www.jewishencyclopedia.com).

    Alan, ibid., p.90.

5. See Messiah ben Joseph: Details.

6. James H. Charlesworth, The Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls, pp.213-220; 2006.

    Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The One Who Is to Come, pp.89-96; 2007.

7. Philo, On Rewards and Punishments, XVI:95 (www.earlychristianwritings.com).

8. Josephus, War of the Jews, book 6:5:4 (www.ccel.org).

9. See Psalms of Solomon for a brief description.

    Psalms of Solomon, the book (www.carm.org).

    4 Ezra, the book (http://etext.virginia.edu).

10. Evans, ibid., (pdf), pp.20-21.

11. Joseph Jacobs and Moses Buttenwieser, Rise of Popular Belief in a Personal Messiah, Jewish Encyclopedia (www.jewishencyclopedia.com).

12. Josephus, War of the Jews, book 6, chap. 5:4 (http://wesley.nnu.edu).

13. Evans, ibid., (pdf), pp.31-33.

      Also see Bar Kokhba Revolt.

14. Anthony Weiss, Controversy Lurks as Scholars Try to Work out Bible's Original Text; 2014 (http://www.timesofisrael.com).

15. Menachem Cohen, The Idea of the Sanctity of the Biblical Text: Testimony from the Second Temple Period (http://cs.anu.edu.au).

16. James C. VanderKam, Peter W. Flint, The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, pp.100-101; 2002.

      Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Dead Sea scrolls and Christian origins, p.7; 2000.

      Carsten P. Thiede, The Dead Sea Scrolls, pp.127-130; 2000. 

      Rick. G. Jones, Appendix (http://mysite.verizon.net/rgjones3/Septuagint/spappendix.htm).

17. Encyclopedia Britannica, Biblical Literature: Jewish versions (www.britannica.com).

      Jewish Publication Society's 1917 edition, Preface - "The repeated efforts by Jews in the field of biblical translation show their sentiment toward translations prepared by other denominations.  The dominant feature of this sentiment, apart from the thought that the christological interpretations in non-Jewish translations are out of place in a Jewish Bible, is and was that the Jew cannot afford to have his Bible translation prepared for him by others" (www.mechon-mamre.org).

18. Kaufmann Kohler, Eschatology: A New Law, Jewish Encyclopedia (www.jewishencyclopedia.com).

19. Bernd Janowski, Peter Stuhlmacher, and Daniel P. Bailey, The Suffering Servant, p. 198; 2004.