Jesus fulfilled none of the Messianic prophecies?
To the contrary, we know that Jesus is the Messiah because he fulfilled so many Messianic prophecies. The only real way to deny this is to claim that the many prophecies he clearly fulfilled are not Messianic, which is quite an impossible stretch.
To be perfectly candid, the first time I ever read this objection in a traditional Jewish book, I was absolutely shocked.313 I was familiar with the claim that the authors of the New Testament fabricated the details of the life of Jesus to make it look as though he had fulfilled the Messianic prophecies. This is because his birth, life, death, and resurrection fulfilled so many prophecies and Messianic foreshadowings that anti-missionaries were forced to argue that Yeshua’s life was almost “written to order.”
Thus, the argument ran, although it appears from the New Testament that he fulfilled many Messianic prophecies, in reality, he fulfilled none, since the events recorded never happened. This, of course, completely stretches the limits of credibility, for it suggests that the authors of the Gospels actually thought they could fool their contemporaries, who were themselves eyewitnesses of the Messiah’s life, death, and resurrection.
How absurd! (For further refutation of this extremely specious argument, see vol. 4, 5.14.)314 It is another thing entirely, however, to claim that the life of Yeshua, as recounted in the New Testament writings, did not fulfill any Messianic prophecies. This objection certainly comes as a shock to the tens of thousands of Jewish believers in Jesus who came to faith in him because of the Messianic prophecies.
“But how do we know which prophecies really are Messianic?” you ask.
That is a good question to ask, but before answering it directly, let me draw your attention to several Rabbinic statements that point to the widespread nature of Messianic prophecy in the Scriptures. In a famous dictum of the Talmud it is stated, “None of the prophets prophesied except of the days of the Messiah” (meaning “the Messianic era,” b. Sanhedrin 99a). This is in harmony with the statement of Yeshua’s disciple Peter, who said, “All the prophets from Samuel on, as many as have spoken, have foretold these days” (Acts 3:24).
Writing in the twelfth century, Moses Maimonides stated that “this belief in the Messiah is in accordance with the prophecies concerning him, by all the prophets, from our master Moses until Malachi, peace be unto them.”315 Once again, we see the emphasis on the pervasive nature of the Messianic hope in the Hebrew Scriptures. It should come as no surprise, then, that the writers of the new covenant Scriptures saw references to the details of Jesus’ life throughout the Hebrew Bible. We can summarize the main prophecies that Yeshua fulfilled (and is fulfilling) as follows:
- He was born where the prophet said he would be born (cf. Targum Jonathan, Rashi, and Radak on Micah 5:2).
- He came into the world when the prophets said he would (according to the combined prophetic witness of Daniel, Haggai, and Malachi, along with hints found in the Talmud; see vol. 1, 2.1).
- He performed miraculous deeds of deliverance and healing, in accordance with the prophecies of Isaiah (Isa. 35:5–7; 49:6–7; 61:1–3).
- He was rejected by his own people, as was prophesied (Ps. 118:22; Isa. 49:4; 53:2–4).
- He suffered before his exaltation, as the prophets declared (Psalm 22; Isa. 52:13–15; Zech. 9:9).
- He died and then rose from the dead, according to the Scriptures (Isaiah 53; Psalms 16; 22).
- He has brought the light of God to the nations, as the prophets said he would (Isaiah 42, 49, 52)—so that countless millions of people who were once “pagans” now worship the God of Israel through him.
- His last act, before he returns to Jerusalem in power and glory, will be to turn his people Israel back to him (Isaiah 49)—and it is this that he is now doing!
In addition to these major prophecies, the New Testament also points to lots of minor, specific fulfillments, along with allusions, foreshadowings, and midrashic (i.e., homiletical) applications of texts from the Tanakh, in keeping with Jewish interpretive methods of the day. Thus, James Smith can point to more than one hundred verses from the Hebrew Bible that are cited or alluded to in the New Testament with reference to Jesus and/or the events relating to his ministry.
These include verses such as Isaiah 7:14, cited in Matthew 1:23 (see above, 4.3); Jeremiah 31:15, cited in Matthew 2:18; Psalm 78:2, cited in Matthew 13:35; Malachi 3:1, alluded to in Mark 1:2; Psalm 69:17, cited in John 2:17.316 More specifically, Christian author Herbert Lockyer lists nineteen prophecies fulfilled in the death of Jesus alone, noting that he was to be betrayed by a friend, be sold for thirty pieces of silver, be forsaken by his disciples, be accused by false witnesses, be mocked and beaten, be pierced in his hands and feet, be crucified with thieves, pray for his persecutors, be the object of ridicule, have his garments gambled for, be deserted by God, agonize with thirst, commit himself to God, have his friends stand far off, be spared having his bones broken, be pierced, be hidden by darkness, be buried with the rich, and die a voluntary, substitutionary death.317
“But,” you might say, “not all of these references can be called Messianic prophecies. Some of them are hardly Messianic, while others are hardly prophecies.”
Actually, the New Testament authors, in keeping with the sentiments later expressed in the Rabbinic writings, saw the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures as pointing to King Messiah. Thus, they sometimes pointed to events in the history of Israel that found parallels in the life of Yeshua (see vol. 4, 5.2, on Matt. 2:15, citing Hos. 11:1), as well to events in the life of David that were paralleled in the Messiah’s life (see 4.22 and 4.26). That means they did not only consider the clear evidence of the prophecies, but they also considered Israel’s history to be prophetic in some sense as well.
“Exactly,” you say. “That’s my whole point. The New Testament is totally cavalier in its use of the Hebrew Bible and it can’t be taken seriously.”
I understand your point, but I reject it for two reasons: First, scholars who have carefully examined the usage of the Tanakh in the New Testament have noted that there is often great depth and insight in the New Testament interpretations. If you will simply review some of the points we have made in this volume (see, e.g., 4.1, 4.3, 4.23, 4.29), you will have to admit that there is real substance to the New Testament’s usage of the Hebrew Bible.
Second, compared to the Messianic interpretations of the Tanakh found in the early Rabbinic writings—some of which were composed more than five hundred years after the days of Yeshua and, ostensibly, could be expected to be more methodical and temperate—the New Testament authors were very sober and systematic. It is the Rabbinic writings that are often cavalier and noncontextual.
Alfred Edersheim, the learned nineteenth-century Jewish Christian scholar, summarized the Rabbinic data as follows: “The passages in the Old Testament applied to the Messiah or to Messianic times in the most ancient Jewish writings… amount in all to 456, thus distributed: 75 from the Pentateuch, 243 from the Prophets, and 138 from the Hagiographa, and supported by more than 558 separate quotations from Rabbinic writings.… The Rabbinic references might have been considerably increased, but it seemed useless to quote the same application of a passage in many different books.”318
What is the nature of some of these quotes? I will cite some representative examples, but as you read them, I would ask you to consider this one question: If the authors of the New Testament or contemporary Messianic Jews were applying these verses to Jesus as Messiah, would traditional Jews say that the verses were being twisted, misused, or taken out of context? The answer is self-evident.
Here, then, are some of the many examples listed by Edersheim:
- In the creation account, Genesis 1:2, it is stated that “the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” This is explained to mean “the Spirit of the King Messiah,” with reference to Isaiah 11:2 (see Genesis Rabbah 2:4, among other places).
- Through an extremely convoluted line of reasoning, the word for “generations” in Genesis 2:4—“These are the generations (Hebrew, toledot) of the heavens and earth”—is found to contain a hint of the six things the Messiah will restore to the earth (see Exodus Rabbah 30:3).
- Eve’s words in Genesis 4:25 at the birth of her son Seth, “God has granted me another seed,” are taken to refer to the Messiah, as if the text spoke of “a seed coming from another place” (Genesis Rabbah 23:5).
- Numbers 11:26 relates that Eldad and Medad, two Israelite elders, prophesied outside the camp. According to the Jerusalem Targum to this passage, their prophecy “is supposed to have been with regard to the war of the later days against Jerusalem and to the defeat of Gog and Magog by the Messiah.”
- Ruth 2:14a reads, “And Boaz said unto her [Ruth], At mealtime come thou hither, and eat of the bread” (KJV). Midrash Rabbah Ruth to this passage contains what Edersheim rightly calls “a very remarkable interpretation.” He points out, “Besides the application of the word ‘eat,’ as beyond this present time, to the days of the Messiah, and again to the world to come, which is to follow these days, the Midrash applies the whole of it mystically to the Messiah, viz. ‘Come hither,’ that is, draw near to the kingdom, ‘and eat of the bread,’ that is, the bread of royalty, ‘and dip thy morsel in vinegar’—these are the sufferings, as it is written in Is. 53:5, ‘He was wounded for our transgressions.’ ‘And she sat beside the reapers’—because His Kingdom would in the future be put aside from Him for a short time, according to Zech. 14:2; ‘and he reached her parched corn’—because He will restore it to Him, according to Is. 11:4. R. Berachiah, in the name of R. Levi, adds, that the second Redeemer should be like the first. As the first Redeemer (Moses) appeared, and disappeared, and reappeared after three months, so the second Redeemer would also appear, and disappear, and again become manifest, Dan. 12:11, 12 being brought into connection with it. Comp. Midr. on Cant. 2:9; Pesik. 49 a, b. Again, the words, ‘she ate, and was sufficed, and left,’ are thus interpreted in Shabb. 113 b: she ate—in this world; and was sufficed—in the days of the Messiah; and left—for the world to come.”319
- Ecclesiates 1:9 simply states, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Edersheim notes that in the midrash to this verse, it is shown at great length that the Messiah would reenact all the miracles of the past.
- Many verses in the Song of Solomon are taken by that book’s highly expansive Aramaic Targum to refer to the Messiah.
- Special attention should be given to b. Sanhedrin 96b-99a, the lengthiest and most focused Messianic discussion anywhere in the Talmud, cited at length by Edersheim for that very reason.320 There is an extraordinary level of speculation among the sages quoted in this passage in terms of the times of the coming of the Messiah and the nature of the Messianic age, with many of the interpretations tied to specific verses. Thus, for example, in one section in which various proposals are being offered for the name of the Messiah, it is suggested that his name could be Chaninah, based on Jeremiah 16:13 (“So I will throw you out of this land into a land neither you nor your fathers have known, and there you will serve other gods day and night, for I will show you no favor [Hebrew, chaninah].”), while another suggestion is offered that the Messiah’s name is Menachem son of Hezekiah, based on Lamentations 1:16 (“No one is near to comfort [Hebrew, menachem] me, no one to restore my spirit.”). Similar examples—in the Talmud, Targum, and Midrash—could easily be multiplied.
In light of all this, I ask you once more: Whose interpretation of the Messianic texts is the more sober and systematic, the Jewish authors of the New Testament, or the Jewish authors of the Rabbinic texts? Clearly, it is the former.321
Believers in Jesus truly do have solid support for their conviction that he indeed fulfilled the Messianic prophecies, especially when comparison is made between Yeshua, our true Messiah, and some of the notable false Messiahs who gained widespread acceptance among Rabbinic leaders. How ironic it is that anti-missionaries accuse Messianic Jews of being unscholarly and uneducated when we claim that Jesus is the prophesied Messiah! There is quite a double standard here. Just look at the Messianic fervor that surrounded the warrior Bar Kochba, hailed as Messiah by Rabbi Akiva, the leading sage of his generation and one of the heroes of the Talmud. Yet Bar Kochba was not a teacher, or a miracle worker, or a peacemaker, nor was he born at the right time or in the right place. On what basis, then, was he hailed as the Messiah of the Scriptures? Or what were the Messianic credentials of the manic-depressive Shabbetai Svi, the massively popular false Messiah of the seventeenth century? What prophecies did he fulfill? Yet some of the greatest rabbis of his day became his followers based on his personal charisma coupled with some incredibly far-fetched mystical interpretations. Or what of the revered leader of the Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the Rebbe. Years after his death in 1994 his followers are still claiming that he was Messiah. On what scriptural basis? (See further vol. 1, 1.6 and 2.2.)
Yet followers of Yeshua are required to dot every i and cross every t in our interpretation of the Messianic prophecies—which we are still happy to do—while followers of the Rebbe (or in past generations, followers of Shabbetai Svi or Bar Kochba) can make Messianic claims for their leaders with virtually no straightforward biblical support at all. There is an unfair double standard here. In addition to this, anti-missionaries can make a good case in the abstract (“When the Messianic prophecies are fulfilled, everyone will know it because there will be universal peace on earth,” etc.), yet the Talmudic literature is far from clear on this subject, and as stated, false messiahs have appeared throughout Jewish history, sometimes gathering large followings, despite the fact that they fulfilled none of the key Messianic prophecies.322
A very sincere traditional Jew once told me that the burden of proof was on me if I claimed that Yeshua was the Jewish Messiah. Traditional Jews, he argued, had nothing to prove. I beg to differ, since our Messianic candidate has already fulfilled many clear and significant biblical prophecies, and he is the Jew through whom more people have come to worship God than any other Jew in history (multiplied a thousandfold!). And to this day, in his name, miracles still happen. Who do you say that he is?
313 It was in the popular study of Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, The Nine Questions People Ask about Judaism (repr., New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986).
314 The absurdity of this argument is highlighted by the level of charges brought by anti-missionaries. Typical is the comment of Singer: “Missionaries manipulated, misquoted, mistranslated and even fabricated verses in Tanach in order to make Jesus’ life fit traditional Jewish messianic parameters and to make traditional Jewish Messianic parameters fit the life of Jesus.” See A Lutheran Doesn’t Understand Why Rabbi Singer Doesn’t Believe in Jesus: A Closer Look at the “Crucifixion Psalm,” Outreach Judaism, <http://outreachjudaism.org/like-a-lion.htm>.
315 As translated by Boteach, The Wolf Shall Lie with the Lamb, 3, my emphasis.
316 “Appendix VI, Messianic Prophecy Cited in the New Testament,” in Smith, The Promised Messiah, 491–501. This useful appendix begins with the relevant New Testament text, followed by the Old Testament reference, the indication of fulfillment (i.e., how it was cited in the New Testament), the speaker, and the gist of the prophecy.
317 Herbert Lockyer, All the Messianic Prophecies of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973), 146–58.
318 See Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 2:980, appendix IX, “List of Old Testament Passages Messianically Applied in Ancient Rabbinic Writings.” The examples in the following list are found on 2:980–1010. Despite its age, this remains the most complete and usable list of its kind, although the method of citing Rabbinic texts has since changed, and some of the citations may have been noted incorrectly in his discussion.
319 Ibid., 2:985. The only issue I would take with Edersheim’s rendering is his use of uppercase pronouns (Him, His) when dealing with the Messiah, since this is not in keeping with Rabbinic practice.
320 The Schottenstein edition of the Talmud provides extensive discussion of this important Talmudic section; cf. also T. Leyishuah, ed. and trans., The Chofetz Chaim on Awaiting Moshiach (Jerusalem and New York: Feldheim, 1993).
321 Many scholars follow the view of C. H. Dodd in his classic study, According to the Scriptures: The Sub-structure of the New Testament (London: Nisbet, 1952), in which he argued that certain texts from the Hebrew Bible, joined primarily by theme, were grouped together as a collection of Messianic testimonia, drawn on throughout the New Testament writings. The origins of this collection would ultimately be in Yeshua’s teachings as transmitted to his disciples.
322 Note also that Maimonides acknowledged that even the Talmudic sages differed in terms of some of the specific chronological details of the Messiah’s advent, writing, “There are some Sages who say that Elijah’s coming will precede the coming of the Messiah. All these and similar matters cannot be [definitely] known by man until they occur, for these matters are undefined in the prophets’ [words], and even the wise men have no established tradition regarding these matters, but only [their own] interpretation of the verses. Therefore, there is a controversy among them regarding these matters. Regardless [of the debate concerning these questions] neither the order of the occurrence of these events nor their precise details are among the fundamental principles of the faith.” See Touger, Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 244–46, rendering Laws of Kings 12:2. It should also be pointed out that there was no standardized Jewish teaching on the Messiah until Maimonides wrote his famous Law Code almost seven hundred years after the completion of the Talmud—and even then, not all Jews accepted his rulings as binding.