- Next, note that some of these seem to contradict one another.
- How is the Messiah going to lead Israel to greatness, while at the same time the Messiah is to be rejected by Israel?
- How is the Messiah going to be the ultimate conqueror, yet also be killed in weakness?
- How is the Messiah going to usher in world peace (by destroying the wicked), when Israel herself is wicked (‘incurably ill, and desperately wicked’—said Jeremiah)?
- How is the Messiah going to come ‘on clouds’ and ‘on a donkey’ at the same time?
- How is Messiah going to come from the line of David (tribe of Judah) and from Levi at the same time?
- Let’s look at possible ways to ‘resolve’ some these tensions/contradictions:
Assuming we believe the Scriptures, which the first century Jews did, we have essentially three live options in resolving such contradictions:
- Let’s see these in action:
Option 1 (two different messiahs, at least) is most visible in the situation of dealing with the death of the messiah. Later Judaism came up with TWO Messiahs—a Messiah, son of David and Messiah, son of Joseph. A good summary of this is found in MTJL:165ff:
“Messiah ben Joseph, also called Messiah ben Ephraim, referring to his ancestor Ephraim, the son of Joseph, is imagined as the first commander of the army of Israel in the Messianic wars. He will achieve many signal victories, but his fate is to die at the hands of Armilus in a great battle in which Israel is defeated by Gog and Magog. His corpse is left unburied in the streets of Jerusalem for forty days, but neither beast nor bird of prey dares to touch it. Then, Messiah ben David comes, and his first act is to bring about the resurrection of his tragic forerunner.
“Scholars have repeatedly speculated about the origin of the Messiah ben Joseph legend and the curious fact that the Messiah figure has thus been split in two. It would seem that in the early legend, the death of the Messiah was envisaged, perhaps as a development of the Suffering Servant motif. A prophecy of Daniel, written about 164 B.C.E., is the earliest source speaking of the death of a Mashiah (“Anointed”) sixty-two (prophetic) weeks after his coming and after the return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem (Dan. 9:24-26). While it appears that Daniel had a temporal ruler in mind, whom he calls Mashiah Nagid (“Anointed Prince”), some two centuries later, the author of 4 Ezra unmistakably refers to the Messiah, belief in whom had developed in the meantime, when he puts words in the mouth of God to the effect that after four hundred years (counted from when?), MY son the Messiah shall die (4 Ezra 7:27-30).
“When the death of the Messiah became an established tenet in Talmudic times, this was felt to be irreconcilable with the belief in the Messiah as the Redeemer who would usher in the blissful millennium of the Messianic age.The dilemma was solved by splitting the person of the Messiah in two: one of them, called Messiah ben Joseph, was to raise the armies of Israel against their enemies, and, after many victories and miracles, would fall victim to Gog and Magog. The other, Messiah ben David, will come after him (in some legends will bring him back to life, which psychologically hints at the identity of the two), and will lead Israel to the ultimate victory, the triumph, and the Messianic era of bliss.
“This splitting of the Messiah in two persons, which took place in the Talmudic period, achieved another purpose besides resolving the dilemma of the slain Messiah. According to an old tradition, the Messiah was perfectly prefigured in Moses. But Moses died before he could lead the Children of Israel into the Land of Promise. Consequently, for the parallel to be complete, the Messiah, too, had to die before accomplishing his great task of ultimate Redemption. Since however, the Messiah would not be the True Redeemer of God if he did not fulfill that ultimate task, the only solution was to let one Messiah, like Moses, die, and then assign the completion of the work of Redemption to a second Messiah.”
[Also, the Dead Sea Scrolls testify to the Qumran Community’s belief in TWO messiahs: one priestly, and one royal—to resolve a different ‘tension’ within the messianic strands in the OT.]
Option 2 (complimentary and conditional descriptions) can be illustrated from the donkey-versus-clouds tension. The Talmud has this interesting passage at b. Sanh 98a:
“R. Joshua ben Levi cited two verses that seemed mutually contradictory. One verse says, ‘And behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven’ (Dan. 7:13), while the others says, ‘[Behold, they king cometh unto thee]…lowly, and riding upon an ass’ (Zech. 9:9). However, the two verses declare: If Israel are meritorious, Messiah will come ‘with the clouds of heaven’; if not, he will be ‘lowly, and riding upon an ass.’”
Notice that this option (although not present or suggested in the biblical text), makes the prophecies conditional—depending on Israel’s righteousness at the time of Messiah’s approach—and therefore the conflict is resolved by one side NOT being ‘fulfilled’ at all.
- The two contrasting descriptions/roles apply to TWO DIFFERENT “messiahs”
- The two contrasting descriptions/roles are each CONDITIONAL, meaning that only one will actually occur (the other being precluded by the circumstances)
- The two contrasting descriptions/roles apply to the same messianic figure, but will be fulfilled in DIFFERENT times (or circumstances)
Option 3 (two different comings of the same messianic individual) can be seen in the understandings of the earliest Jewish believers in Jesus.
- The death of the Messiah was reconciled with the victory/eternal life of the messiah via the resurrection of the Messiah (preserving both prophecies, without having to “split” the messiah in two).
- The donkey-versus-clouds tension is resolved by having the ‘donkey’ one happening at a different time than the ‘on clouds’ one. But again, notice both are preserved and both are fulfilled by the same person.
- Before we assess these different options, notice that all three approaches would create the same problem for you/us: why would you accept ANY messianic figure that DIDN’T fulfill ALL the prophecies.
- In Option 1, why would you/we believe in Messiah ben Joseph (who came much earlier than Messiah ben David), since he obviously didn’t fulfill the promises of military victory over the Gentiles (instead he was killed and defeated!)? And, why would you/we accept Messiah ben David, since he obviously didn’t fulfill the promise of being killed?
- In Option 2, why would you/we believe in a messiah who came ‘on clouds’, since he DIDN’T fulfill the prophecies of coming ‘on a donkey’, or vice versa—indeed, he wasn’t even supposed to do them both, since they were conditional and mutually-exclusive (in this option)?
- In Option 3, why would you/we believe in a messiah who fulfilled only the first-appearance prophecies, since He wasn’t even supposed to complete the others until later?
So, if you are going to accept the premise of early Judaism that the Scripture is trustworthy in its recording of God’s messianic promises, then you are going to be faced with the same problem no matter what approach you take. What this means, friend, is that the Messiahship of Jesus cannot be thrown out on the basis of currently unfulfilled messianic prophecies—this situation exists within Judaism as well.
- .. The Servant passages in Isaiah (esp. 52-53) depict a suffering, dying, rejected, and scorned (by Israel) Messiah. I have demonstrated elsewhere that this was a common Jewish understanding of this passage from very early on, but messianic interpretations of this passage persisted in Judaism for centuries and centuries. Compare this passage from Midrash Konen (no earlier than the 11th century AD, cited in MTJL:114f):
- Now, what are the strengths and weakness of the three options? How might we assess their relative credibility, in terms of their fidelity to the scripture?
Option 1 (multiple messianic figures) has the advantage of allowing every single messianic prophecy be completely true (by ascribing dissonant ones to different messianic figures, e.g. David, Elijah, Aaron, various prophets, Ezra, or even the entire nation of Israel). The obvious difficulty with this view is that there is generally no textual warrant for it, or textual evidence to support it. The texts never seem to distinguish between a Messiah, Son of David and a Messiah, Son of Joseph at all. And there are major complications of having two messiahs (for example): after Messiah ben David raises Messiah ben Joseph from the dead, which one fulfills the rest of the messianic functions? How do the two interact in the Messianic kingdom on the earth? But the main problem with it, of course, is that it is without biblical support.
.. There is the additional difficulty of how the “abused” messiah is to be recompensed. OT theology strongly asserts that the Righteous Sufferer not only is recompensed, but recompensed ‘wildly’ by the Covenant God. If the Acclaimed Messiah “gets all the glory and reward”, what is the suffering messiah supposed to get? [Notice that if the two figures are the same, and a resurrection is the ‘bridge’ between the two, then the problem is wonderfully solved—the Suffering One is rewarded for his suffering, with exaltation, dominion, and glory.]
Option 2 (conditional and/or complimentary fulfillments) has the advantage of recognizing that many prophecies ARE conditional, as taught in Jeremiah 18 and illustrated in the preaching of Jonah against Ninevah. This, in a messianic context, is sometimes appropriate as well, as can be seen both in the rabbinics and in the words of Jesus.
.. Option 3 (different comings/occurrences/events, but the same messiah) has a big advantage in not “needlessly multiplying messiahs” (thank you Ockham) and yet still allowing all/most the prophecies to be taken as to-be-fulfilled. So, it has the greatest likelihood of being faithful to the biblical text, as it stands and as it is naturally interpreted, but it has the disadvantage of requiring the difficult task of sketching out a vision of the Messianic career, in which ALL of these at-tension elements fit naturally and logically together.
The chronological approach (i.e., the events occur in a sequence, perhaps separated by periods of time, and these events are somehow logically related to occur in this sequence) is how the early Jewish Jesus movement understood the data, as taught to them by Jesus. [Of course, the chronological approach is ALSO used in Option 1, as should be obvious from the fact that M.b.Joseph was killed BEFORE M.b.David ‘saved the day’…so a chronological approach is not at all illegitimate, or even a Christian-only approach.]
Jesus consistently taught His disciples (or TRIED to teach them!) that His ministry required suffering/obedience to God before he would be enthroned and exalted. It was a fundamental framework in His self-understanding as the messiah:
“He asked them, “What are you discussing with each other as you’re walking along?” They stood still and looked gloomy. 18 The one whose name was Cleopas answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know what happened there these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They answered him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet, mighty in the things that he did and said before God and all the people, 20 and how our high priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and had him crucified. 21 But we kept hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel. What is more, this is now the third day since these things occurred. 22 Even some of our women have startled us! They were at the tomb early this morning 23 and didn’t find his body there, so they came back and told us that they had actually seen a vision of angels who said he was alive. 24 Then some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they didn’t see him.” 25 Then Jesus said to them, “O how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe everything the prophets said! 26 The Christ had to suffer these things and then enter his glory, didn’t he?” [Luke 24.17ff. Notice that He specifically repudiates the theology that the ‘good part’ was supposed to come first!]
From that time Jesus Christ began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. 22 And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” 23 But He turned and said to Peter,“Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” (Matt 16.21f)
He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ was to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. [Luke 24.46f]
And the early Jewish believers in Jesus finally understood, that the messianic glory was supposed to FOLLOW the messianic obedience/suffering:
- So, if Option 3 is a better way of resolving the tension between the Suffering Messiah data and the Triumphant Messiah data, how was a first century Jew supposed to know that Jesus was the Messiah? If the miracle/glorious stuff was “scheduled for later”, then what reason would a first-century Jew have for accepting Jesus on this first appearance in history?
There was a background timing reason that would help ‘restrict our search’ to this time period, and there were basically two reasons that were available to the Jewish generation of Jesus, and one additional reason for both that generation and for the wider world:
The first was a timing one—current expectations about the messiah (from prophecies of Daniel and others) placed the coming of the messiah in this period (although they were said to refer to the Roman Emperor Vespasian, as opposed to a Jewish messianic figure!!!!). The ancient world was well acquainted with the expectations of the Jewish people of the day, and this shows up in several ancient historians:
The first evidential reason people of that time would have recognized Jesus as the Messiah would have been that the character of His miraculous works fit the profile of the Coming One.
Jesus gave numerous indications of His messianic status, but two particularly explicit incidences stand out.
First, in Matthew 11, John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus (from prison) asking about his messianic status:
When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” 4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.
- “Okay, so I see how the Suffering experiences of the Messiah needed to precede the Exaltation experiences of the Messiah, but why couldn’t the Exaltation experiences have IMMEDIATELY followed the resurrection?”
Actually, they probably were intended to do so…
After Jesus ascended to heaven, and sent the promised Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost—as the means of facilitating the “in-dwelling” of the Law—Peter’s second sermon made that specific offer to Israel:
“And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance like your leaders. This is how God fulfilled what he had predicted through the voice of all the prophets—that his Christ would suffer. Therefore, repent and turn to him to have your sins blotted out,so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord and so that he may send you Jesus, the Christ whom he appointed long ago. Heaven must receive him until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through the voice of his holy prophets. In fact, Moses said,
‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must listen to everything he tells you. Any person who will not listen to that prophet will be utterly destroyed from among the people.’
“Indeed, all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who followed him, also predicted these days. You are the descendants of the prophets and the heirs of the covenant that God made with your ancestors when he said to Abraham, ‘Through your descendant all the families of the earth will be blessed.’, When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning every one of you from your evil ways.” [Acts 3.17ff]
Notice that Peter specifically claimed that:
- Israel’s repentance would result in the “times of refreshing”
- Israel’s repentance would result in the second “sending” of Jesus the Messiah
- This Jesus was waiting in heaven (after an earthly life as ‘Jesus’) until the “time of universal restoration”.
- Jesus was sent FIRST to Israel, to bless them by helping them to renew their spiritual condition.
The rabbinic passages we looked at earlier indicated an awareness that Israel’s repentance had to precede the coming of the Glorious Messiah (see above), and the OT prophets said that Israel’s repentance had to precede it also. Indeed, the rabbinic passages from the Talmud indicated an awareness that the time had passed, and that the full-glory kingdom was being delayed because of Israel’s lack of social justice. To repeat them here:
.. So, technically speaking, the Glorious Return of the messiah COULD have occurred immediately after the resurrection, but it was (as the OT taught and as Jewish teaching recognized) dependent on Israel changing her mind about Jesus, about truth, and about social justice…