Jews don’t believe in a suffering Messiah
That is not true. From the Talmud until our own day, important Jewish traditions have acknowledged the Messiah’s sufferings. In addition, many Jews believe in two messiahs, a triumphant reigning king called Messiah ben David, and a suffering warrior called Messiah ben Joseph. More importantly, the Hebrew Scriptures speak clearly of the Messiah’s sufferings. In fact, it is because our Bible describes the Messiah as a priest as well as a king that he had to suffer on our behalf, fulfilling his priestly role. To miss this is to miss an essential part of the Messiah’s work.
There are many rich, beautiful, and theologically moving traditions in Jewish literature about the sufferings of the Messiah. In fact, the learned Jewish scholar Raphael Patai devoted an entire chapter to the subject in his unparalleled collection titled The Messiah Texts.378 More than fifty years earlier, Gustaf Dalman, a Christian scholar of Judaica whose reference works are used by Jewish scholars to this day, devoted an entire volume to the subject of the suffering Messiah in Jewish tradition.379
Further, the texts that describe the Messiah’s suffering are not obscure, little-known texts representing the views and opinions of peripheral Jewish groups. Rather, they are found in the most important branches of Rabbinic literature, including the Talmud, the midrashic writings, and the medieval and modern commentaries on the Bible.
Some of these traditions speak of the sufferings of the Messiah son of David (or Messiah ben David), the Messiah whose coming religious Jews pray for daily. Other traditions speak of the sufferings of the Messiah son of Joseph (Messiah ben Joseph), the immediate forerunner of Messiah ben David according to some traditions (see above, 3.22, and below, 3.24, for more on this).
Patai makes this startling statement regarding the Messiah’s sufferings:
The sufferings Israel must face in the days of the Messiah are temporary and transitory. They will last, according to the Talmudic view … seven years; a later Aggada … reduces this period to a mere forty-five days. The Messiah himself, on the other hand, must spend his entire life, from the moment of his creation until the time of his advent many centuries or even millennia later, in a state of constant and acute suffering.380
Summarizing the key Rabbinic teachings on the sufferings and afflictions of the Messiah, Patai writes:
Despised and afflicted with unhealing wounds, he sits in the gates of Great Rome and winds and unwinds the bandages of his festering sores; as a Midrash expresses it, “pains have adopted him.” According to one of the most moving, and at the same time psychologically most meaningful, of all Messiah legends, God, when He created the Messiah, gave him the choice of whether or not to accept the sufferings for the sins of Israel.
And the Messiah answered: “I accept it with joy, so that not a single soul of Israel should perish.”… In the later, Zoharic [i.e., mystical] formulation of this legend, the Messiah himself summons all the diseases, pains, and sufferings of Israel to come upon him, in order thus to ease the anguish of Israel, which otherwise would be unbearable.381
Jewish tradition is filled with moving references to a suffering Messiah. Let’s look first at the traditions relative to Messiah ben Joseph (also called Messiah ben Ephraim in some texts). According to the Talmud (b. Sukkah 52a), this Messiah would perform many mighty acts of valor for his Jewish people before dying in the great war that would precede the reign of Messiah ben David.
In fact, Zechariah 12:10 (“They will look on me, the one they have pierced”), quoted with reference to the death of Yeshua in the New Testament, is applied to Messiah ben Joseph in this Talmudic text (for further discussion of Zech. 12:10, see vol. 3, 4.31). The Talmud also goes on to say that God would hear the prayer of Messiah ben David and would raise Messiah ben Joseph from the dead.382
Later Jewish traditions expanded on the sufferings of Messiah ben Joseph. This midrash, describing one of the houses in heavenly paradise, is typical:
… there sit Messiah ben David and Elijah and Messiah ben Ephraim. And there is a canopy of incense trees as in the Sanctuary which Moses made in the desert. And all its vessels and pillars are of silver, its covering is gold, its seat is purple. And in it is Messiah ben David who loves Jerusalem. Elijah of blessed memory takes hold of his head, places it in his lap and holds it, and says to him, “Endure the sufferings and the sentence your Master who makes you suffer because of the sin of Israel.” And thus it is written: He was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities (Isa. 53:5)—until the time when the end comes.
And every Monday and Thursday, and every Sabbath and holiday, the Fathers of the World [i.e. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob] and Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon, and the prophets, and the pious come and visit him, and weep with him. And he weeps with them. And they give him thanks and say to him: “Endure the sentence of your Master, for the end is near to come, and the chains which are on your neck will be broken, and you will go into freedom.”383
Were you aware that such texts existed in Jewish literature? Judaism does believe in a suffering Messiah. In fact, Christian readers will immediately be struck by two parallels between this midrashic description of the sufferings of Messiah ben Ephraim and the very real sufferings of Jesus the Messiah: (1) Both are said to suffer for the sins of their people, Messiah ben Ephraim enduring pain and affliction while waiting to be revealed to Israel, Messiah Yeshua enduring mockery, savage flogging, and crucifixion at the very moment that most of Israel was rejecting him. (2)
The sufferings of both are explained with reference to Isaiah 53, the biblical text most frequently cited by followers of Jesus in order to prove that the Hebrew Scriptures did, in fact, point directly to him. Yet here the midrash applies this text to Messiah ben Ephraim, exactly as the Zohar did with reference to the Messiah’s sufferings: “In the hour in which they [i.e. the souls of the righteous sufferers] tell the Messiah about the sufferings of Israel in exile, and [about] the sinful among them who seek not the knowledge of their Master, the Messiah lifts up his voice and weeps over those sinful among them. This is what is written, He was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities (Isa. 53:5).”384
There is also an extraordinary comment about the atoning power of the death of Messiah ben Joseph made by Moshe Alshekh, the influential sixteenth-century rabbi, in his commentary to Zechariah 12:10:
I will yet do a third thing, and that is, that “they shall look unto me,” for they shall lift up their eyes unto me in perfect repentance, when they see him whom they pierced, that is, Messiah, the Son of Joseph; for our Rabbis, of blessed memory, have said that he will take upon himself all the guilt of Israel, and shall then be slain in the war to make atonement in such manner that it shall be accounted as if Israel had pierced him, for on account of their sin he has died; and, therefore, in order that it may be reckoned to them as a perfect atonement, they will repent and look to the blessed One, saying that there is none beside him to forgive those that mourn on account of him who died for their sin: this is the meaning of “They shall look upon me.”385
As for Messiah ben David, despite the fact that Maimonides made no mention of any kind of Messianic sufferings for him (referred to above, 3:22), there are many important traditional texts that do speak of the sufferings of Messiah ben David. Here are some key texts.
In the well-known Talmudic passage summarized by Patai (see above), Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi found Elijah the prophet sitting in a cave and asked him when the Messiah would come. When Elijah replied, “Go, ask him himself,” Rabbi Yehoshua asked, “And where does he sit?” Elijah then explained that he sat at the entrance of the city, further clarifying that the Messiah had these distinctive marks: “… he sits among the poor who suffer of diseases, and while all of them unwind and rewind [the bandages of all their wounds] at once, he unwinds and rewinds them one by one, for he says, ‘should I be summoned, there must be no delay’ (b. Sanhedrin 98a).”386
How this conveys the heart of the Messiah, eager and ready to be revealed to his people, yet suffering with them in pain and sickness. The account concludes with this poignant narrative.
Rabbi Yehoshua went and found the Messiah, asking him, “When will the Master [meaning the Messiah] come?” The Messiah answered, “Today,” a reply that Rabbi Yehoshua found dishonest, later saying to Elijah, “The Messiah lied to me, for he said, ‘Today I shall come,’ and he did not come.” Elijah said, “This is what he told you: ‘Today, if you but hearken to his voice’ (Ps. 95:7).”387
The Schottenstein Talmud, an extensive and highly valuable Orthodox commentary being published by Artscroll-Mesorah, offers this striking commentary on the passage:
They [namely, those sitting with Messiah] were afflicted with tzaraas—a disease whose symptoms include discolored patches on the skin (see Leviticus ch. 13). The Messiah himself is likewise afflicted, as stated in Isaiah (53:4):… Indeed, it was our diseases that he bore and our pains that he endured, whereas we considered him plagued (i.e. suffering tzaraas [see 98b, note 39], smitten by God, and afflicted. This verse teaches that the diseases that the people ought to have suffered because of their sins are borne instead by the Messiah [with reference to the leading Rabbinic commentaries].388
In 1998, while lecturing to a small group of Ph.D. students at a leading Christian seminary, I had occasion to study this very Talmudic text. As I read and translated with these students, I was suddenly overcome with emotion, barely managing to hold back the tears. Somehow this legendary text became real to me, and I was struck by the Messiah’s longing to be revealed, his carefulness to be ready at any moment, and the frustration on the part of my Jewish people that “today” had not yet come.
How natural it was for me to think back to the pain Yeshua bore when our people did not recognize him, when they could have had their “today” almost two thousand years ago (see Luke 19:41–44, and my discussion in vol. 1, 2.1). How quickly my mind went to the long and difficult centuries our people have endured, proclaiming daily their faith in the Messiah’s imminent coming, still waiting, still hoping. (In the classic words articulated by Maimonides in the Thirteen Principles of Faith and recited daily by traditional Jews, “I believe in the coming of the Messiah, and even if he tarry, yet I will wait for him every day, expecting him to come.”
See further vol. 3, 4.2.) And how my thoughts went to our Messiah, waiting even now with eager anticipation, ready to return to earth with the blast of the ram’s horn. These traditional Jewish texts strike a deep chord in me—and perhaps in you as well. But there’s more to learn about the suffering Messiah in traditional Judaism. Let’s keep reading.
We have pointed out that portions from Isaiah 52:13–53:12, the famous passage describing the sufferings of the servant of the Lord, were applied to the sufferings of the Messiah in some Rabbinic sources. In this regard, Patai noted that “the Messiah becomes heir to the Suffering Servant of God, who figures prominently in the prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah” (i.e., Isaiah 40–55).389
Yet this passage was frequently quoted in the New Testament with regard to Jesus. You would have thought that this fact alone would have discouraged the rabbis from using it to refer to the Messiah. After all, if Isaiah 53 is a Messianic text, then Jesus, better than any other candidate, fits the bill. (For in-depth discussion of Isaiah 53, see vol. 3, 4.5–4.17.) Yet some Talmudic rabbis believed this text referred to the Messiah, as did some medieval mystics.
It would be fair to ask, however, whether any of the major Jewish commentators on the Bible actually read Isaiah 52:13–53:12 with regard to the Messiah, since it is one thing for a Talmudic midrash to cite an isolated verse from this section and apply it to the Messiah. After all, Talmudic citations are not meant to be precise interpretations of the biblical text but are often based on free associations and wordplays.
It is another thing, however, for a traditional Jewish commentator to apply the text to the Messiah, especially given the missionary activity of the church through the ages, along with the history of “Christian” anti-Semitism (see vol. 1, 2.4–2.9). And yet there were key commentators that did apply Isaiah 52:13–53:12 to the Messiah (meaning Messiah son of David), with specific reference to his sufferings.390
I am especially familiar with these interpretations due to an unusual event that took place when holding a live radio debate with ant-missionary Rabbi Tovia Singer in May of 1991. As we were discussing Isaiah 53, Rabbi Singer stated that not one traditional Jewish Bible commentary interpreted the passage with reference to Messiah son of David.
I differed with him emphatically, stating that several traditional commentaries did, in fact, say that Isaiah 53 referred to the Messiah. To this Rabbi Singer gave me a challenge: If he could prove me wrong, would I become a traditional Jew? “Yes,” I responded (since I was sure I was right in my position), asking him in return, “Would you become a Messianic Jew if I could prove you wrong?” To this he in turn responded, “Yes.”
Right then and there, we shook hands on it. And he was wrong indeed! In fact, we got on the air again a few weeks later (together with the host and moderator, Messianic Jewish leader Sid Roth), and Rabbi Singer explained that what he meant to say was that no traditional Jewish commentary applied Isaiah 53 to the death of the Messiah son of David—a subject that had never come up once in our previous discussion.
Of course, Sid and I released Rabbi Singer from his promise (I never expected him to become a believer in Jesus just because he made a mistake in the middle of a live debate), but an unforgettable lesson was learned: Even traditional Jewish commentators referred Isaiah 53 to the Messiah, meaning Messiah son of David.391
What then were some of the commentaries to which I referred?392 Most prominently, I pointed to Moses ben Nachman (called Nachmanides or the Ramban), one of the greatest of all medieval Jewish scholars and famed for his Barcelona debate with the Catholic Jew Pablo Christiani (see vol. 1, 2.12). He claimed that Isaiah spoke of “the Messiah, the son of David … [who] will never be conquered or perish by the hands of his enemies.”393 In spite of this victorious description of the Messiah, however, Nachmanides also spoke of his suffering:
Yet he carried our sicknesses [Isa. 53:4], being himself sick and distressed for the transgressions which should have caused sickness and distress in us, and bearing the pains which we ought to have experienced. But we, when we saw him weakened and prostrate, thought that he was stricken, smitten of God.… The chastisement of our peace was upon him—for God will correct him and by his stripes we were healed—because the stripes by which he is vexed and distressed will heal us: God will pardon us for his righteousness, and we shall be healed both from our own transgressions and from the iniquities of our fathers.…
He was oppressed and he was afflicted [v. 7]: for when he first comes, “meek and riding upon an ass” [Zech. 9:9], the oppressors and officers of every city will come to him, and afflict him with revilings and insults, reproaching both him and the God in whose name he appears.394
Quite strangely, when interpreting the verses that speak clearly of the Messianic servant’s death, Nachmanides goes out of his way to avoid the obvious fact that the servant did, indeed, die. Instead, he attempts to explain that the Messiah was willing to die, that he expected to die, that it would be reported that he was cut off from the land of the living, and that evil Israelites, together with wicked Gentiles, would devise all kinds of deaths for him.395
Thus Nachmanides still claims that “there is, however, no mention made in the Parashah [i.e., portion of Scripture] that the Messiah would be delivered into the hands of those who hated him, or that he would be slain, or hung upon a tree; but that he should see seed and have long life, and that his kingdom should be high and exalted among the nations, and that mighty kings should be to him for spoil.”396
It would have been much truer to the text to speak plainly of the Messiah’s death, explaining the references to his seeing offspring and having long life in terms of his resurrection.397 Still, it is fascinating to see how a rabbi of Nachmanides’s stature found it appropriate to read Isaiah 53 as a prophecy of Messiah son of David, describing his sufferings as well as his exaltation.
Other significant commentators interpreting this key passage with reference to the sufferings of Messiah son of David include Rabbi Moshe Kohen Ibn Crispin (or Ibn Krispin), who first described the highly exalted nature of the Messiah (following a famous midrash to Isaiah 52:13; see above, 3.22) and then spoke of his sufferings in great detail, explaining that he would share Israel’s “subjugation and distress” and be “exceedingly afflicted”:
… his grief will be such that the colour of his countenance will be changed from that of a man, and pangs and sicknesses will seize upon him … and all the chastisements which come upon him in consequence of his grief will be for our sakes, and not from any deficiency or sin on his part which might bring punishment in their train, because he is perfect, in the completeness of perfection, as Isaiah says (11:2 f.).398
Commenting on some of the central verses, Ibn Crispin writes:
A man of pains and known to sickness, i.e., possessed of pains and destined to sicknesses; so all that see him will say of him. They will also, it continues, on account of his loathsome appearance, be like men hiding their faces from him: they will not be able to look at him, because of his disfigurement. And even we, who before were longing to see him, when we see what he is like, shall despise him till we no longer esteem him, i.e., we shall cease to think of him as a Redeemer able to redeem us and fight our battles because of all the effects which we see produced by his weakness.
… it will be as though he had borne all the sickness and chastisements which fall upon us.… Or, perhaps … from his pity and prayers for us he will atone for our transgressions: and our pains he hath borne, viz., as a burden upon himself … i.e., all the weight of our pains he will carry, being himself pained exceedingly by them. And we esteemed him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. We shall not believe that there could be any man ready to endure such pain and grief as would disfigure his countenance, even for his children, much less for his people: it will seem a certain truth to us that such terrible sufferings must have come upon him as a penalty for his own many shortcomings and errors.399
Much more could be quoted, along with selections from the commentary of Rabbi Mosheh El-Sheikh (or Alshekh), who claimed that “our Rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah,” also referring to a midrash that stated that “of all the sufferings which entered into the world, one third was for David and the fathers, one for the generation in exile, and one for the King Messiah.”400
In our own day, Isaiah 53 was applied directly to Menachem Schneerson, hailed as Messiah ben David by his devoted followers worldwide, with specific reference to his suffering. Thus, when Rabbi Schneerson (known simply as the Rebbe, in keeping with Hasidic tradition) suffered a stroke in 1992 and could not speak, his followers pointed to Isaiah 53:7, “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”
When his paralyzed condition showed little or no improvement, they pointed to other verses in Isaiah 53 that speak of the sickness of the servant of the Lord. The Rebbe became sick, they claimed, so that we might be healed! When he died in 1994 at the age of ninety-two, some of his most loyal disciples proclaimed in writing that his death was an atonement for us, in keeping with the traditional teaching that the death of the righteous atones (see above, 3.15)—and then they began to pray fervently and wait expectantly for his resurrection and/or return.401
If I didn’t see and hear and read these things for myself, it would be difficult to believe them, seeing that they form such an exact parallel to the suffering and death of Yeshua (as atonement for our sins), along with his resurrection (thank God, Yeshua really did rise from the dead!), and his awaited return. Yet the traditional Jewish teaching of a suffering Messiah was so ingrained in the Jewish psyche that the suffering and death of the Rebbe was seen by his followers in wholly Messianic terms—in spite of the fact that they had to use a favorite text of “Christian missionaries” (namely, Isaiah 53) in very “Christian” ways. As Patai observes:
There can be little doubt that psychologically the Suffering Messiah is but a projection and personification of Suffering Israel.… Similarly, the Leper Messiah and the Beggar Messiah [spoken of in the Talmud] … are but variants on the theme of Suffering Israel personified in the Suffering Messiah figure. And it is undoubtedly true in the psychological sense that, as the Zohar states, the acceptance of Israel’s sufferings by the Messiah (read: their projection onto the Messiah) eases that suffering which otherwise could not be endured.402
The final text we will read actually gives the fullest and most detailed description of the Messiah’s sufferings found anywhere in the major Rabbinic sources. I refer to chapters, 34, 36, and 37 of the important eighth-to-ninth century midrash known as Pesikta Rabbati. In fact, the descriptions of the Messiah’s sufferings found there are possibly stronger than anything found in the New Testament.403 Some scholars, basing their position on the fact that the Messiah is called Ephraim in these chapters, believe that the reference is to Messiah ben Joseph.
Others, however, point out that he is referred to as “My righteous Messiah,” which would normally be taken to mean Messiah ben David. Thus, Rabbi Schochet notes that “the term Ephraim, though, may relate here to collective Israel, thus referring to Mashiach ben David.”404 In any event, what we have before us is indisputable: a Rabbinic text prized by traditional Jews and outlining in graphic detail the vicarious sufferings of the Messiah. Here are selections from Pesikta Rabbati chapter 36, as translated by Patai:
They said: In the septenary [i.e., seven year period] in which the Son of David comes they will bring iron beams and put them upon his neck until his body bends and he cries and weeps, and his voice rises up into the Heights, and he says before Him: “Master of the World! How much can my strength suffer? How much my spirit? How much my soul? And how much my limbs? Am I not but flesh and blood?…”
In that hour the Holy One, blessed be He, says to him: “Ephraim, My True Messiah, you have already accepted [this suffering] from the six days of Creation. Now your suffering shall be like My suffering. For ever since the day on which wicked Nebuchadnezzar came up and destroyed My Temple and burnt My sanctuary, and I exiled My children among the nations of the world, by your life and the life of your head, I have not sat on My Throne. And if you do not believe, see the dew that is upon my head.…”
In that hour he says before Him: “Master of the World! Now my mind is at rest, for it is sufficient for the servant to be like his Master!”405
The Fathers of the World [Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob] will in the future rise up in the month of Nissan and will speak to him: “Ephraim, our True Messiah! Even though we are your fathers, you are greater than we, for you suffered because of the sins of our children, and cruel punishments have come upon you the likes of which have not come upon the early and the later generations, and you were put to ridicule and held in contempt by the nations of the world because of Israel, and you sat in darkness and blackness and your eyes saw no light, and your skin cleft to your bones, and your body dried out was like wood, and your eyes grew dim from fasting, and your strength became like a potsherd.
All this because of the sins of our children. Do you want that our children should enjoy the happiness that the Holy One, blessed be He, allotted to Israel, or perhaps, because of the great sufferings that have come upon you on their account, and because they imprisoned you in the jailhouse, your mind is not reconciled with them?”
And the Messiah answers them: “Fathers of the World! Everything I did, I did only for you and for your children, and for your honor and for the honor of your children, so that they should enjoy this happiness the Holy One, blessed be He, has allotted to Israel.”
Then the Fathers fo the World say to him: “Ephraim, our True Messiah, let your mind be at ease, for you put at ease our minds and the mind of your Creator!”406
Amazingly, one key passage cited in the Pesikta with reference to the Messiah’s afflictions is Psalm 22, the psalm of the righteous sufferer, a psalm well known among Christians because it is applied to Jesus in the New Testament—although anti-missionaries are quick to point out that it is not a Messianic psalm (see vol. 3, 4.24). Yet here it is applied to the Messiah in Pesikta Rabbati.407 Notice also how the Messiah here willingly suffers because of (or for the sake of) the sins of his people, having to endure rejection, scorn, and mockery—and after that, he is highly exalted. I assure you: If you gave these passages to Christian preachers, they would have plenty of sermon material!
What makes this all the more interesting is that we could have easily expected some Jewish leaders to try to expunge all references to the Messiah’s sufferings from the traditional literature, since Christians claimed that according to the Hebrew Scriptures the Messiah had to suffer and die. But the fact that there are so many texts that speak of these sufferings in the Talmud, the midrashic collections, the mystical literature, and the Bible commentators reminds us that Judaism does indeed believe in a suffering Messiah. It is too scriptural to deny!
However, Messianic Jews would be quick to point out that there is a distinct redemptive reason for these sufferings. They are part of God’s gracious help on our behalf and part of the priestly ministry of the Messiah. He reached out to us, becoming like us in our weakness and laying down his life as an atoning sacrifice on our behalf. As we stated in our discussion of the Holocaust (vol. 1, 2.10), Jesus the Messiah is the best known Jew of all time, yet he was beaten, flogged, humiliated, and nailed to a cross. He is a Messiah with whom we can identify—and who can identify with us—a suffering Messiah who brings life, deliverance, and lasting victory to all who put their trust in him.
The midrash we just cited contains powerful words spoken by the Messiah to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: “Fathers of the World! Everything I did, I did only for you and for your children, and for your honor and for the honor of your children, so that they should enjoy this happiness the Holy One, blessed be He, has allotted to Israel.”
But there is something more powerful than this: Messiah Jesus really did suffer and die for the sins of Israel and the world, rising in power and ascending to heaven, where he sits enthroned until the time of his return. All that he did, he did for us! I pray that through his pains, you will find the happiness and peace with God that he has purchased and provided. In the words of Simon bar Jonah, one of Messiah’s first followers and a man who witnessed Yeshua’s life and death and then saw him after his resurrection,
[Messiah] suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
1 Peter 2:21–25
378 See above, n. 84, for publication information. The section dealing with the suffering Messiah runs from 104–21.
379 Gustaf H. Dalman, Der leidende und der sterbende Messias der Synagoge im ersten nachchristlichen Jarhtausend (Berlin: Reuther, 1888). Cf. also Gustaf H. Dalman, Jesaja 53: das Prophetenwort vom Sühnleiden des Gottesknechtes mit besonderer Berücksichtung der jüdischen Literatur, 2d ed. (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs’, 1914). For a thorough bibliography on the subject through the early 1980s, see Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.—A.D. 135), rev. Eng. vers, by Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar, and Matthew Black (Edinburgh: T &T Clark, 1973–1987), 2:547–49.
380 Patai, Messiah Texts, 104.
382 This provides an interesting parallel to the Christian belief in Messiah Jesus, who suffered, died, and rose from the dead. I should note, however, that in the Talmudic text I just cited, there is no concept of Messiah ben Joseph dying for the sins of Israel, so the parallel is hardly exact. (For the Rabbinic teaching that the death of the righteous atones, see above, 3.15)
383 Midrash Konen, from Bet HaMidrash, 2:29–30, as translated by Patai, Messiah Texts, 114, his emphasis.
384 Zohar 2:212a, as translated by Patai, ibid., 116, his emphasis. For Isaiah 53 cited by the Zohar in the context of the atoning power of the death of the righteous, see above, 3.15, where another portion of this text from the Zohar is quoted as well.
385 As cited in David Baron, The Visions and Prophecies of Zechariah (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1972), 442. Baron, in translating from the Hebrew, capitalized the pronouns relating to God (e.g., “me” in the phrase “They shall look unto me”) as well as to Messiah ben Joseph (e.g., “himself in the phrase “he will take upon himself all the guilt of Israel”), giving the erroneous impression that Alshekh may have viewed the Messiah son of Joseph as divine. To avoid confusion, I removed all capitalization, since, in any event, there are no capital letters in Hebrew.
386 Ibid., 110.
387 Ibid., his emphasis.
388 Tractate Sanhedrin, Talmud Bavli, The Schottenstein Edition (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Mesorah, 1995), vol. 3, 98a5, emphasis in original. The actual text in the Schottenstein Talmud includes the Hebrew of Isaiah 53:4, represented here by my ellipses. Nothing has been deleted from the text. Need I emphasize that once more Isaiah 53 is being cited with reference to the Messiah’s sufferings, and this time in a compendium of Orthodox commentaries?
389 Patai, Messiah Texts, 104–5.
390 Note that Targum Jonathan, the Targum to the prophetic books, applied this section directly to the Messiah (“my servant the Messiah”) but changed the text in a number of key points, thereby effectively removing all references to the Messiah’s suffering. How odd it is that the Targum recognized that the servant of the Lord spoken of in Isaiah 52:13–53:12 was actually the Messiah—a fundamental position of the New Testament—and yet found it necessary to radically alter the meaning of the text to make it into a statement of the Messiah’s military prowess and his victory over the nations. It would have been more logical to attempt to argue that the text did not refer to the Messiah at all! For a discussion of all this, see Samson H. Levey, The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation: The Messianic Exegesis of the Targum (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 1974), 63–67.
391 For audio copies of the debate (including a recap with Sid Roth), contact ICN Ministries, 8594 Hwy. 98 W., Pensacola, FL 32506; 850–458–6424; fax: 850–458–1828; www.icnministries.org.
392 For the more common traditional interpretation associating Isaiah 52:13–53:12 with the people of Israel, see vol. 3, 4.5–4.6, 4.10. I find it somewhat ironic that the classic Jewish commentators who read the passage in terms of Israel’s sufferings believe that Isaiah prophesied of the deaths of many Jews through the ages. Yet when the passage is interpreted with reference to the Messiah, it is normally claimed that Isaiah 53 does not speak of the death of the servant of the Lord! Such a contradiction in interpretations actually came to the surface in 1992 at Yale University when the campus rabbi from Lubavitch raised objections to my presentation in a public forum hosted by Christian students there. (We were comparing the Messianic credentials of Yeshua with those of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.) The inconsistency in his interpretations became apparent to almost everyone in the audience.
393 Driver and Neubauer, Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah, 2:78.
394 Ibid., 2:81, their emphasis.
395 See further vol. 3, 4.10–12, 4.14, on the prophesied death of the servant of the Lord according to Isaiah 53.
396 Driver and Neubauer, Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah, 2:84.
397 For a detailed treatment of the relevant verses, see vol. 3, 4.10–12, 4.14.
398 Driver and Neubauer, Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah, 2:103.
399 Ibid., 2:107–8, emphasis in original. Amazingly, Ibn Crispin ends his comments by saying, “This prophecy was delivered by Isaiah at the divine command for the purpose of making known to us something about the nature of the future Messiah, who is to come and deliver Israel, and his life from the day when he arrives at discretion until his advent as a redeemer, in order that if any one should arise claiming to be himself the Messiah, we may reflect, and look to see whether we can observe in him any resemblance to the traits described here: if there is any such resemblance, then we may believe that he is the Messiah our righteousness; but if not, we cannot do so.” Even more amazingly, the scribe who copied out Ibn Crispin’s interpretation was troubled by it, although he hoped that “an answer may be found in it against the heretics who interpret it of Jesus.” And so he added that “it does not seem to me to be right or permissible to apply the prophecy to the King Messiah (for reasons which any intelligent man will easily find out); it must, in fact, be referred either to Israel as a whole, or to Jeremiah.” See ibid., 2:114.
400 Ibid., 2:259. According to Alshekh, the Jewish people will say of the Messiah, “We beheld a man, just and perfect, bruised and degraded by suffering, despised in our eyes, and plundered verily before God and man, while all cried, ‘God hath forsaken him;’ he must surely, therefore, we thought, be ‘despised’ likewise in the eyes of the Almighty, and this is why he hath made him ‘an offscouring and refuse’ (Lam. 3:45).” See ibid., 2:264.
401 See the quote from Mordechai Staiman, below, 3:24, with reference to the Rebbe’s hoped-for return. Cohn-Sherbok, The Jewish Messiah, xv–xvi, summarizes some of the key events as follows: “When the Rebbe suffered a stroke, his followers were not deterred; indeed, the Rebbe’s incapacity fueled the flames of messianic enthusiasm. His illness was invested with redemptive significance: the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 was perceived as being a reference to the Rebbe’s debilitated state.… Even the Rebbe’s death did not daunt those who were convinced of his Messiahship. He would return! In the view of one Israeli newspaper, those who had lost faith in the Rebbe were like the worshippers of the golden calf who had given up hope of Moses’ return from Mount Sinai. Within a few months of the funeral, two volumes appeared, explaining the grounds for continuing faith in his Messiahship. Eventually, as time passed, a number of messianists became convinced that the Rebbe had not in fact died: in their view he remains alive but concealed. Hence what happened on 3 Tammuz 5754 (the Jewish date of his death) was an illusion. The Rebbe’s corpse, they argued, was a test for carnal eyes; but in truth there was no passing away or leave-taking at all.”
402 Patai, Messiah Texts, 105.
403 Interestingly, some have speculated that these chapters of Pesikta Rabbati, which is a compilation of a series of Sabbath sermons preached in the synagogue, bear evidence of Christian influence. On the contrary, these chapters remind us of just how Jewish true “Christianity” really is.
404 Schochet, Mashiach, 92–93, n. 2, where he also points out some overlap in terminology in the descriptive titles of the two Messiahs.
405 Cf. Yeshua’s words to his disciples about suffering: “All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes. A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!” (Matt. 10:22–25). Note also John 15:18–21: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me.”
406 Patai, Messiah Texts, 113–14.
407 Several verses from Psalm 22 are quoted in Pesikta Rabbati 37:2.