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Basic Worldview:
104 Why Christianity?

History of Judaism Study

Introduction, Purpose, Definitions and Terminology
Timelines: Jewish and Gentile Writings and Thought
Eliminating Potential Sources of Complex Monotheism
Was Jewish Complex Monotheism Borrowed from the Greeks?
The Hebrew Bible Teaches Complex Monotheism - Part 1
The Hebrew Bible Teaches Complex Monotheism - Part 2
Complex Monotheism after the Close of the Hebrew Bible
Philo Affirms Complex Monotheism in Pre-rabbinic Judaism
Criteria of Biblical Monotheism, Christianity & Pre-Rabbinic Judaism
New Testament Christianity as a Sect of Judaism
When Was Complex Monotheism First Rejected?
Simple & Complex Monotheism before the Rabbinic Period
What Separates Biblical Judaism & New Testament Christianity?
God's Sovereign Choice of Abraham & His Offspring
Summary, Conclusions, and Implications

The Rejection of God's Sovereign Choice of a Particular Family and that Family's Descendants

We now turn to Sommer’s assertion that Christianity rejects God’s sovereign choice of a particular family and that family’s descendants. Certainly, many historical and modern forms of Christianity express a rejection of God’s selection of the Jews in some form or fashion. But as this study has shown, the question is not what subsequent Christian groups or theologians have said in the centuries since the New Testament and pre-rabbinic period. The real question is whether the New Testament itself rejects God’s sovereign choice of Abraham and his descendents, the Jewish people.

A critical clarification must be made up front on this issue. The previous discussion examined how New Testament Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism both set aside significant portions of Sinai’s specific commandments citing post-Mosaic authorities as the means for such action even while appealing to Mosaic narratives for justification. In distinction, the current issue relates more to one particular aspect of God’s covenant with Abraham than the Sinai covenant through Moses. The specific aspect in question is God’s selection of Abraham and his descendants as his people, which took place four hundred years before Moses and the Exodus. While it is true that the Law of Moses preserved God’s selection of Abraham and his descendants and yet expanded greatly on the Abrahamic covenant, the New Testament does the same. In fact, as we will also see, the Law of Moses even included a means for Gentiles to convert and become a part of God’s chosen people. Consequently, the mere inclusion of Gentile converts by Christianity does not, on principle, constitute a rejection of God’s selection of Israel. Both the Sinai Covenant and the New Testament simply add their own set of new requirements for both Jews and Gentiles beyond what was required in God’s original covenant with Abraham.

Contrary to common perceptions of some Jewish and Christian groups, it is absolutely inaccurate to say that Christianity denies God’s choice of or ongoing covenant with Abraham and the nation of Israel. Instead, the New Testament plainly teaches that the New Covenant is a covenant that God established with Abraham’s ethnic descendents, the nation of Israel.

Jesus establishes his new covenant with twelve Jewish men (his apostles.)

Matthew19:28 And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Luke 22:29 And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me; 30 That ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

In Ephesians 2, Paul explicitly says that Gentiles who were once aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise made to Abraham and his descendents are now no longer strangers and foreigners. Instead, they can be fellow citizens with the Jewish saints in the household of God. Paul’s point is not that God has gotten rid of his covenant with Israel and made a new covenant with the Gentiles. Instead, Paul is saying that through Jesus, Gentiles can now be a part of God’s covenant with Israel.

Ephesians 2:11 Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; 12 That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: 13 But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; 15 Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; 16 And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: 17 And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. 18 For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father. 19 Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God;

Similarly, in Romans 11:16-24, Paul uses the metaphor of two trees to illustrate the relationship between Israel and the Gentiles. Throughout the illustration it is clear that God has a relationship with the Jewish, olive tree, not the wild olive tree that represents the Gentiles. According to Paul, Gentiles who follow the Jewish Messiah are grafted into the Jewish, olive tree. They do not remain part of the wild olive tree. Nor does God ever discard the Jewish olive tree and embrace the wild Gentile olive tree in its place.

The inclusion of Gentiles into God’s covenant with Israel is also part of the Law of Moses. Even in the Law of Moses there were provisions allowing Gentiles to live among the people of Israel and to participate in God’s covenant with Israel.

Exodus 12:48 And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land: for no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof. 49 One law shall be to him that is homeborn, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you.

Leviticus 19:33 And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. 34 But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

The only difference here between the the Law of Moses and the New Covenant in this regard is that one requires Gentiles to keep Moses’ commands in order to become a part of God’s people while the other requires Gentiles to keep Jesus’ commands for this same purpose. But both retain God’s selection of Abraham’s descendants as the reason Gentiles need to become a part of Israel. Moreover, since Rabbinic Judaism has had to set aside and replace a significant portion of Moses’ commands, modern Gentiles who might convert to Judaism today would likewise have to keep post-biblical Oral Law of the Talmud. Once again, there is no sect of Judaism today that prohibits Gentile adoption into Israel by means of conversion. And there is no sect of Judaism today to which one can convert by keeping Moses’ commands as they are laid out in the Hebrew bible. Every sect of Judaism today predicates conversion based on adherence to a new book of commands written after the Hebrew bible.

In Galatians 3, Paul points out that salvation is available through Abraham’s descendents alone. More specifically, Paul states that God’s promises were given to Abraham and that through Abraham’s descendent (Jesus), salvation comes to both the Jew and the Gentile alike.

Galatians 3:14 That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. 15 Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but a man’s covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto. 16 Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. 17 And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. 18 For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise. 19 Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. 20 Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. 21 Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. 22 But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. 23 But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. 24 Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. 25 But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. 26 For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

There is no principle difference regarding Gentile conversion between Christianity and modern Rabbinic Judaism. Both accept Gentile converts with the prerequisite of keeping their own respective post-Mosaic commands. Moses’ Law even embraces Gentile inclusion among God’s people. Since Gentile conversion does not constitute a rejection of Israel as God’s unique people, a related question emerges. What about the New Testament’s position that a large portion of Jewish people are severed from the Abrahamic covenant unless they embrace the New Covenant?

Contrary to Sommer’s assessment, the New Testament continues to uphold God’s commitment and particular interest in Israel. New Testament Christianity does not reject God’s choice of the Jewish nation. In Romans 11:1-2, Paul asks this very question. Has God rejected Israel? He firmly answers this question in the negative. But, as Paul explains there have always been both faithful and unfaithful Jews in the history of the people of Israel. God continues to accept those who are faithful and reject those who are not just as Elijah interceded against Israel when Israel followed after Baal. In the biblical account, the prophet Elijah accuses the entire nation of being unfaithful to God. God’s response articulates that out of the entire nation of Israel in Elijah’s day, only 7,000 men were faithful to him. New Testament teaching only makes the same claim as the biblical account of Elijah. Some Jews were faithful to God, many others were not. Yet God’s covenant remained with those Jews who were faithful to his covenant. Gentiles who wanted to receive salvation and inherit the promises to Abraham would have to become part of the faithful remnant of Israel, not replace it.

Romans 11:1 I say then, Hath God cast away his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew. Wot ye not what the scripture saith of Elias? how he maketh intercession to God against Israel, saying, 3 Lord, they have killed thy prophets, and digged down thine altars; and I am left alone, and they seek my life. 4 But what saith the answer of God unto him? I have reserved to myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal. 5 Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace.

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the constant report is that some of Abraham’s descendents are not included in God’s covenant. This begins with Ishmael, Abraham’s oldest son. It continues with Esau, Abraham’s oldest grandson. And it continues among Israel’s own descendents. The Law of Moses required that Israelites who sinned against the covenant were to be cut off from the land. We have already seen that in the prophet Elijah’s day only 7,000 Jewish men were faithful to God. The same story is told and retold throughout the books of the prophets leading up to the Babylonian Destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC when God removed the people of Israel from his land and destroyed the Temple because of the ongoing sinfulness of many generations.

New Testament teaching about the Jewish people does not differ or contradict the Hebrew Bible’s own assessments of Israel. It merely recognizes the biblical trend. Some portions of Israel were faithful to God and some were not. In many cases, the majority of Jews were not faithful to God. Yet God’s covenant remained with the faithful Jews. It was never given to another nation.

In fact, the New Testament insists that God’s interest and intention is to save all of Israel. Paul states this very thing later in this same chapter of his epistle to the Romans.

Romans 11:25 For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. 26 And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: 27 For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins. 28 As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes. 29 For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.

Likewise, the Book of Revelation looks forward to and recounts the symbolic sealing of 144,000 Jews before the coming of the Messianic kingdom (Revelation 7:1-8.) Throughout his letter to the Romans, Paul insists that God’s interest is first toward the Jew and then to the Gentile.

Romans 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.

Romans 2:10 But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile:

Likewise, in Acts 1:8 Jesus tells the apostles to be witnesses of him first in Jerusalem and Judea and then to the Gentile world.

A reading of the New Testament shows that it is inaccurate to conclude that New Testament Christianity rejects God’s choice of the people of Israel. On the contrary, the New Testament recognizes that God’s covenant is with Israel. Even the New Covenant that Jesus made is made with Jewish men (Luke 22:29.) All of Jesus’ apostles were Jews. God’s interest is in faithful Jews first and then in getting Gentiles to convert, embrace God’s new covenant with the Jews, and so to join the Jewish people. The New Testament never abandons God’s plans for his people Israel. Instead, the New Testament teaches that God’s intention is to save all Israel and this will happen before the coming of the messianic kingdom. The God has no covenant with the Gentile nations. But, like the Mosaic Covenant, the salvation of the Gentiles is dependent upon God’s promises to Abraham, God’s covenant with Israel, and the Messiah who is a descendent of Abraham, Jacob, and David. As with the Mosaic Covenant, Gentiles who abide by God’s teachings can participate in God’s covenant with his people Israel. New Testament teachings and assessments about the people of Israel is substantively no different than that of the Hebrew Bible itself. Nor is it any different than the comments expressed to us in an email by a modern, orthodox Jew who excluded religious, but non-orthodox, Jews from genuine Judaism and equted them to Christianity, which he feels is not genuinely Jewish.

“Quoting a reform Rabbi is the same as quoting a Christian. I have the utmost respect for Reform Judaism…but its not genuine Judaism!” – Email to biblestudying.net, April 9, 2011

Whether we are talking about Paul’s comments in the New Testament, Elijah’s comments in the Hebrew Bible, or the comments of this modern, orthodox Jewish email author, the sentiment is the same. All of them are Jews who feel comfortable labeling large segments of their contemporary religious Jewish population as having deviated from and being unfaithful to true Judaism. It would be unfair to criticize one of these parties as if they are rejecting God’s relationship with Israel while at the same time approving of the exact same kind of statements from another party.

Later forms of Christianity may have departed doctrinally from New Testament teaching of Jesus and his apostles, but it is not possible to conclude that New Testament Christianity rejects God’s unique and abiding convenantal selection of the people of Israel. Consequently, it is not possible to reject Christianity on illegitimate charges such as these. Having seen that none of the reasons offered so far provide a untenable basis for categorically separating New Testament Christianity from biblical Judaism, we now turn to the final issue mentioned by Sommer: the concept of a dying a rising god.

Christianity’s Belief in a Dying and Rising God

According to Sommer, the only significant theological difference between Judaism and Christianity essentially arises from the conjunction two central Christian beliefs: the belief that Jesus was God and the belief that he died and rose from the dead. For Sommers, this equates to the pagan concept of a dying and rising God.

The only significant theological difference between Judaism and Christianity lies not in the trinity or in the incarnation but in Christianity’s revival of the notion of a dying and rising God, a category ancient Israel clearly rejects. 62 – Benjamin D. Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, p. 135-136

In his book, Sommer explains that Judaism rejects the idea of a dying and rising god.

Endnote 62: On this crucial difference, see Bloom, Jesus, 6-7. To be sure, the category of dying-and-rising god has been vastly exaggerated in scholarship, both by Biblicists and comparative religionists…Nevertheless, the conclusion that scholars have discovered this notion too often does not mean that it never can be discovered at all…Thus Israel’s rejection of this motif remains clear, even if we should note with the Smiths that the motif was less prominent in the ancient Near East than many scholars have suggested. – Benjamin D. Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, p. 257

However, as we will see, excising New Testament Christianity from biblical Judaism on these grounds is both historically and biblically unsound for several reasons.

First, we have already seen a great deal of documentary evidence provided in Segal and Sommer’s own books of a widespread belief in a divine Messiah and divine incarnation in pre-rabbinic and even early rabbinic Judaism. The identification of a man-like, hypostasis of YHWH who was associated with the Davidic Messiah, the Word/angel of YHWH, who descended into flesh through a miraculous birth, and who later became immortal, was exalted, and ascended to heaven was not a unique, novel, or foreign idea in pre-rabbinic and early rabbinic Judaism. To the contrary, these traditions were widespread and quite common. Even Rabbi Akiba identified Daniel 7’s heavenly “son of man” figure as both God and the Davidic Messiah, which at least leads toward incarnational implications, even as Segal has acknowledged. Other traditions identified the man-like hypostasis of YHWH with human figures like Enoch, Elijah, Melchizedek, Jacob, and Moses. Segal even identifies a text known as “the Prayer of Joseph” in which the Patriach Jacob is said to have existed as God’s principle angel before descending into a human existence as Jacob, which on principle is no different than God’s incarnation as the man Jesus in Christianity. Likewise, incarnational ideas about this hypostasis (person) of YHWH were common in pre-rabbinic and even rabbinic Judaism.

So, we can see that the New Testament identification of Jesus as an incarnation of the Word of YHWH who was miraculously born and later exalted, immortalized, and taken into heaven is by no means contrary to pre-rabbinic Judaism (even though later rabbis eventually labelled it as heretical). As Sommer has said, Christianity’s belief that God was incarnated as a man is not theologically distinct from biblical Judaism.

Second, Judaism and the Hebrew Bible both express a commitment to the belief in the resurrection of the dead well before the time of Jesus.

Resurrection - resurrection from the Latin resurgo (‘I rise’), refers to the belief that the dead will ultimately be raised and have their bodies restored to them…this belief is found in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – The Oxford Companion to the Body

Resurrection - resurrection, the rising from the dead of a divine or human being who still retains his own personhood, or individuality, though the body may or may not be changed. The belief in the resurrection of the body is usually associated with Christianity, because of the doctrine of the Resurrection of Christ, but it also is associated with later Judaism, which provided basic ideas that were expanded in Christianity and Islam. – Encyclopedia Britannica

Jewish Eschatology – Jewish eschatology is concerned with the Jewish Messiah, afterlife, and the revival of the dead. In the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) – … He will be descended from King David (Isaiah 11:1) via King Solomon (1 Chron. 22:8–10), The Moshiach will be a man of this world, an observant Jew with "fear of God" (Isaiah 11:2)…Death will be swallowed up forever (Isaiah 25:8)…All of the dead will rise again (Isaiah 26:19) – wikipedia.org

Salvation – In those religions that regard man as essentially a psychophysical organism (e.g., Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Islam), salvation involves the restoration of both the body and soul. Such religions therefore teach doctrines of a resurrection of the dead body and its reunion with the soul, preparatory to ultimate salvation or damnation…Judaism – Because Judaism is by origin and nature an ethnic religion, salvation has been primarily conceived in terms of the destiny of Israel as the elect people of Yahweh, the God of Israel. It was not until the 2nd century bce that there arose a belief in an afterlife, for which the dead would be resurrected and undergo divine judgment. Before that time, the individual had to be content that his posterity continued within the holy nation. But, even after the emergence of belief in the resurrection of the dead, the essentially ethnic character of Judaism still decisively influenced soteriological thinking… Encyclopedia Britannica

Clearly pre-rabbinic Judaism contained a widespread belief in divine messiah who descended into flesh. And to this day Judaism includes a general belief in the resurrection of the dead. The only ingredient that is still missing is the idea that the divine messiah himself would die, in which case his subsequent resurrection would also be a foregone conclusion. But if Sommer regards Christianity’s incarnation as a non-issue, it seems that the death of such an incarnation must be regarded as a potential outcome, in which case subsequent resurrection would be a foregone conclusion.

Third, the objection from Sommer is further dissolved by the fact that passages in the Hebrew Bible itself indicate the concept of a Messiah who dies. We have yet to prove this point. But if it turns out to be true, the result would be a situation in which all three of the critical concepts are authentically Jewish and yet somehow when you put them all together they become a pagan idea that Judaism has rejected and must reject. Or at least, so goes the argument. Consequently, if the idea of a dying Messiah is also demonstrably Jewish in the pre-rabbinic era, then the absurdity of this allegation emerges. With that said, let us move forward with the evidence of a dying Messiah in pre-rabbinic, non-Christian Judaism.

One example of this trend comes from Daniel 9:26, which specifically mentions a Messiah who will be cut off. The Hebrew word for “cut off” in Daniel 9:26 is “karath” which is commonly used to refer to being put to death (Genesis 9:11, Exodus 12:15, 19, 30:33, 38, 31:14, Leviticus 7:20, 21, 25, etc.) We have already seen that Rabbi Akiba identified a figure from earlier in Daniel (chapter 7) as the Davidic Messiah. Two chapters later, we have Daniel mention a messiah who dies. Is it unreasonable to consider that both passages might be discussing the same Messiah who is divine and who dies?

Likewise, Zechariah 12:10-14 mentions a Davidic figure who was killed and who was of some importance to the people of Israel, as indicated in part by the application of the title “firstborn,” which designates the ranking heir over a household.

Zechariah 12:10 And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn. 11 In that day shall there be a great mourning in Jerusalem, as the mourning of Hadadrimmon in the valley of Megiddon. 12 And the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart; the family of the house of Nathan apart, and their wives apart; 13 The family of the house of Levi apart, and their wives apart; the family of Shimei apart, and their wives apart; 14 All the families that remain, every family apart, and their wives apart.

Even rabbinic texts like the Talmud identify Zechariah 12’s Davidic figure with the Messiah. The Talmudic account even presents the possibility that this dying Messiah would be resurrected.

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 proceed 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 – Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 2, Theological Objections, p. 222

Zechariah 12:10 is discussed in the Talmud in b. Sukkah 55a. The verse – read with a singular, not plural, subject – is first interpreted to mean that it is the evil inclination (i.e., the sinful tendency in man) that was slain, and the people wept when they saw how easily it could have been overcome. The second interpretation states that the people wept over Messiah son of Joseph who was slain fighting in the last great war (i.e., the last great future war) for his people, after which Messiah son of David asked God to raise him from the dead, and his request was granted. From this we learn two significant points: (1) The Hebrew was understood to be speaking of an individual person or thing, not of a plural subject (in other words, the one who was pierced through and slain, not those who were pierced through and slain); and (2) there was an ancient Jewish tradition interpreting the text in terms of a Messiah figure who died and then was raised from the dead. Recently, the Stone edition and the NJPSV translated Zechariah 12:10 with a plural subject: “They shall look toward Me because of those whom they have stabbed; they will mourn for him” (Stone); 301 and, “They shall lament to Me about those who are slain, wailing over them” (NJPSV). 302 But these interpretations are not reflected in some of the most ancient Jewish sources (cf. the Septuagint and the Talmud, b. Sukkah 52a; the Targumic rendering is similar to those just cited), nor are they a grammatically natural reading of the text. – Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 3, Messianic Prophecy Objections, p. 148-149

“And the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart [Zech. 12:12].…What is the cause of the mourning?—R. Dosa and the Rabbis differ on the point. One explained. The cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, and the other explained, The cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination.” – The Babylonian Talmud, Sukkahh 52a

It is well with him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, since that well agrees with the Scriptural verse, And they shall look upon me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son; but according to him who explains the cause to be the slaying of the Evil Inclination, is this an occasion for mourning? Is it not rather an occasion for rejoicing? Why then should they weep?” – The Babylonian Talmud, Sukkahh 52a

The commentaries of other Jewish scholars on Zechariah 12 are similar to that of the Babylonian Talmud in speaking of a dying and rising Messiah.

“All the heathen shall look to me to see what I shall do to those who pierced Messiah, the son of Joseph.” – Ibn Ezra, commentary on Zechariah 12, 12th century.

It is more correct to interpret this passage of Messiah, the son of Joseph, as our rabbis of blessed memory have interpreted in the treatise Succah, for he shall be a mighty man of valour, of the tribe of Joseph, and shall, at first, be captain of the Lord's host in that war, but in that war shall die.” – Abrabanel, commentary on Zechariah 12, 15th century

“I will do yet 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 an atonement, in such a 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." - Moses Alshekh, commentary on Zechariah 12, 16th century

Similarly, Isaiah 52:13 through Isaiah 53:12 speaks of someone called the servant of God (Isaiah 52:13) who is also put to death (verses 8-10.) While it is not universal for Jews today to identify Isaiah’s “servant of God” with the Messiah, there are Jews in the rabbinic and pre-rabbinic periods who did make this connection.

Rabbi Jonathan ben Uzziel, a 2nd century A.D. disciples of Hillel (the Pharisaic leader whose teachings are preserved in the Talmud), connects this passage to the Messiah with these words:

Behold my servant Messiah shall prosper; he shall be high, and increase, and be exceeding strong: as the house of Israel looked to him through many days, because their countenance was darkened among the peoples, and their complexion beyond the sons of men. (Targum Jonathan on Isaiah 53, ad Iocum)” – Rabbi Jonathan ben Uzziel

Notice how Jonathan ben Uzziel simply places the word Messiah after Isaiah 52:13’s “Behold my servant.” Thus, he indicates that this passage is describing the Messiah. Likewise the Babylonian Talmud (compiled in 5th century AD) speaks similarly, identifying the Messiah as the one whom Isaiah says will bear our sicknesses.

Here is a comment from Talmud discussing the same section of Isaiah talked about by Jonathan ben Uzziel.

The Rabbis said: His name is "the leper scholar," as it is written, Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted. [Isaiah 53:4].” – Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b

The Midrash Rabbah, in interpreting Ruth 2:14, makes the following comments about the Messiah again connecting the Messiah with Isaiah 53.

“The fifth interpretation [of Ruth 2:14] makes it refer to the Messiah. Come hither: approach to royal state. And eat of the BREAD refers to the bread of royalty; AND DIP THY MORSEL IN THE VINEGAR refers to his sufferings, as it is said, But he was wounded because of our transgressions. (Isa. LIII, 5).” – Ruth Rabbah 5:6

The Midrash Tanhuma, also affirms the Messianic nature of of Isaiah 52:13 by applying Isaiah 52’s description “My servant shall be high, and lifted up, and lofty exceedingly.”

“Who art thou, O great mountain?" (Zechariah 4:7) This refers to the King Messiah. And why does he call him the "great mountain?" Because he is greater than the patriarchs, as it is said, "My servant shall be high, and lifted up, and lofty exceedingly." He will be higher than Abraham who said, "I raise high my hand unto the Lord" (Gen. 14:22), lifted up above Moses, to whom it is said, "Lift it up into thy bosom" (Numbers 11:12), loftier than the ministering angels, of whom it is written, "Their wheels were lofty and terrible" (Ezekiel 1:18). And out of whom does he come forth? Out of David.” Midrash Tanhuma

We might also note that this last quote also states that the Messiah will be a descendent of King David.

Below is the 13th century (AD) Jewish scholar Levi ben Gershon’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 18:15-19. Also called Gersonides or Ralbag, Levi ben Gershon connects the prophet who would be like Moses from Deuteronomy 18 with the servant of Isaiah 52:13 and identifies them with the Messiah.

“'A Prophet from the midst of thee.' In fact, the Messiah is such a Prophet as it is stated in the Midrash of the verse, 'Behold my Servant shall prosper' (Isaiah 52:13)…Moses, by the miracles which he wrought, brought a single nation to the worship of God, but the Messiah will draw all peoples to the worship of God.” – Levi ben Gershon, commentary on the Pentateuch (Deuteronomy 34:10)

Below is the Midrashic passage discussing the same thing that Levi ben Gershon commented on:

“It is written, Behold, my servant shall deal wisely, He shall be exalted, and extolled, and be very high (Isaiah 52:13). It means, He shall be more exalted than Abraham of whom it is written, 'I lift up my hand' (Genesis 14:22). He shall be more extolled than Moses of whom it is said, 'As a nursing father beareth the nursing child' (Numbers 11:12). 'And shall be very high'—that is, Messiah shall be higher than the ministering angels.” – Midrash Tanhuma

From these two quotes we see that Levi ben Gershon and a Midrashic interpretation of Isaiah 52:13 both proclaim the Jewish belief that the Prophet of Deuteronomy 18:15-19 is the Messiah. More importantly, they identify the Messiah with the dying servant in Isaiah 52-53.

Below is a Midrash quoted by Dr. Brown. It records a Jewish belief in a suffering Messiah in connection with Isaiah 53.

…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 the end comes. – Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 2, Theological Objections, p. 222

As Brown explains, the Schottenstein Talmud (an Orthodox commentary published by Artscroll-Mesorah,) also identifies Isaiah 53’s suffering and dying servant with the Messiah.

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 Footnote 388: Tractate Sanhedrin, Talmud Bavli, The Schottenstein Edition (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Mesorah, 1995), vol. 3, 98a5, emphasis in original. – Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 2, Theological Objections, p. 224

Noted Jewish scholar Raphael Patai also documents evidence of Jewish identification of Isaiah 52-53’s servant with the Messiah.

Raphael Patai – Raphael Patai (November 22, 1910 - July 20, 1996),[1] born Ervin György Patai, was a Hungarian-Jewish ethnographer, historian, Orientalist and anthropologist...founded a Zionist organization in Hungary that procured support for the settlement of Jews in the British Mandate of Palestine. Raphael Patai studied at rabbinical seminaries in and at the University of Budapest and the University of Breslau, from which he received a doctorate in Semitic languages and Oriental history. He moved to Palestine in 1933, where his parents joined him in 1939, after he received the first doctorate awarded by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in 1936. He returned briefly to Budapest where he completed his ordination at the Budapest Rabbinical Seminary. – wikipedia.org

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, Footnote 389: Patai, Messiah Texts, 104-5. – Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 2, Theological Objections, p. 225

In his book, Brown provides further documentation of traditional, rabbinic commentaries that identify Isaiah 53 with the Messiah.

Even traditional Jewish commentaries referred Isaiah 53 to the Messiah, meaning the Messiah son of David. 391 What 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 transgression 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 reviling and insults, reproaching both him and the God in whose name he appears. 394, Footnote 393: Driver and Neubauer, Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah, 2:78, Footnote 394: Ibid., their emphasis. – Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 2, Theological Objections, p. 226-227

As Brown explains, although Nachmanides’ commentary avoids specifically stating that the figure of Isaiah 53 will actually die, Isaiah clearly states that this is the case.

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 – Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 2, Theological Objections, p. 227

However, rabbinic authorities who interpreted Isaiah 53 to refer to Israel as a nation readily understood it to refer to the death of the “servant” figure.

Not surprisingly, when reading the text in terms of Israel, the three most respected Rabbinic commentators, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak, saw numerous references to the servant’s death. Radak, for example, claimed that 53:8 spoke of the fact that the people of Israel “used to be put to death in many ways: Some were burnt, some were slain, and others were stoned – they gave themselves over to any form of death for the sake of the unity of the Godhead.” 152, Footnote 152: As rendered in Driver and Neubauer, Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah, 2:53-54. – Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 3, Messianic Prophecy Objections, p. 75

As Brown chronicles, Rabbi Moshe Alshich also identified Isaiah 53 with the Messiah.

Moshe Alshich – Moshe Alshich, also spelled Alshech, (1508 - 1593, Safed), known as the Alshich Hakadosh (the Holy), was a prominent Jewish rabbi and biblical commentator in the latter part of the 16th century. He lived in Safed, Palestine. – wikipedia.org

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 King Messiah.” 400 – Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 2, Theological Objections, p. 228

Footnote 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. Iii. 45).” See ibid., 2:264. – Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 2, Theological Objections, p. 228

In the lengthy quote below, Brown comments on another discussion of the suffering Messiah presented from a rabbinic text known as the Pesikta Rabbati.

Pesikta Rabbati – Pesikta Rabbati or P'sqita Rabbita is a collection of Aggadic Midrash (homilies) on the Pentateuchal and prophetic lessons, the special Sabbaths, etc. It was composed around 845 CE and probably called "rabbati" (the larger) to distinguish it from the earlier Pesita. – wikipedia.org

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, 37 of the important eighth- to ninth- century midrash known as the 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 the 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. – Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 2, Theological Objections, p. 229-230

As Brown explains, it was common for Jews to understand the figure featured in passages such as Isaiah 42 and 53 in relation to the Messiah.

This servant is obedient and righteous, setting captive free, and according to the Targum, this servant is none other than the Messiah. 107 This is confirmed by Rabbi David Kimchi – one of the so-called “big three” medieval Rabbinic commentators – who also interpreted the words “Behold my servant” in Isaiah 42:1 with specific reference to “King Messiah.” 108, Footnote 107: The Aramaic reads, “Behold my servant the Messiah.” Footnote 108: Note also that Metsudat David interprets Isaiah 42:1 with reference to King Messiah. – Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 3, Messianic Prophecy Objections, p. 43

Below, Brown sums up the evidence concerning a Jewish belief in a suffering, dying, and even rising Messiah from Isaiah 52:13-53:12.

The Rabbinical evidence is as follows:…The Talmud interprets various verses in this section with reference to righteous individuals within Israel (including the Messiah) but never once with reference to the nation of Israel as a whole. – Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 3, Messianic Prophecy Objections, p. 59-60

We have addressed this objection elsewhere (see vol. 1, 2.1 and vol. 2, 3.23), demonstrating that the Hebrew Bible pointed to a suffering then-reigning Messiah, while many Jewish traditions also spoke of a suffering Messiah. Recently, some prominent biblical and Semitic scholars, Israel Knohl of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Michael Wise of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, have argued that even before the time of Jesus, there was a Jewish belief in a suffering Messiah, something which scholars have debated for many decades. 331 – Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 3, Messianic Prophecy Objections, p. 167-168

First, we must remember that many traditional Jewish interpreters – from the Targum until today – had no problem reading Isaiah 52:13-53:12 with reference to the Messiah, thus reading this section of Isaiah as a distinct passage in its own right. In other words, the passage was interpreted independent of the preceding context of the return from the Babylonian exile…Or how could the Targum paraphrase this passage to reflect the events of the Bar Kochba War, which took place more than six hundred years after the return of the exiles? 113 And why did Rashi begin his comments on Isaiah 52:13 by stating that the passage applied to the righteous remnant within Jacob who would prosper at the end of days? 114 – Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 3, Messianic Prophecy Objections, p. 45

So, for example, the Targum interprets the passage with reference to the Messiah – as a warring, victorious king, even to the point of completely twisting the meaning of key verses 117 – while the Talmud generally interprets the passage with reference to the Messiah, or key individuals (like Moses or Phineas), or the righteous (for details on this, see 4.8). Note also that Sa’adiah Gaon, the influential ninth-century Rabbinic leader, interpreted Isaiah 53 with reference to Jeremiah. This means that virtually without exception, the earliest Jewish sources – and therefore the most authoritative Jewish sources – interpret Isaiah 52:13-53:12 with reference to an individual, and in some cases, with reference to the Messiah. While it is true that Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak all interpreted the passage with reference to Israel, other equally prominent leaders such as Moses ben Nachman (called Nachmanides or the Ramban), felt compelled to follow the weight of ancient tradition and embrace the individual, Messianic interpretation of the Talmudic rabbis (found in the Midrash, despite his belief that the plain sense of the text supported the national interpretation). Noteworthy also is the oft-quoted comment of Rabbi Moshe Alshech, writing in the sixteenth century, “Our rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the Messiah, and we shall ourselves adhere to the same view.” This too is highly significant, since Alshech claims that all his contemporaries agreed with the Messianic reading of the text, despite the fact that Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak had all come out against that reading. Could it be that Rabbi Alshech and his contemporaries came to their conclusions because the text clearly pointed in that direction? – Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 3, Messianic Prophecy Objections, p. 49-50

Most prominently, I pointed to Nachmanides (the Ramban), one of the greatest of all medieval Jewish thinkers, a commentator, a mystic, and philosopher, and a legal scholar. 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.” 128 Other commentators have interpreted this key passage with reference to the sufferings of Messiah son of David…Rabbi Mosheh El-Sheikh (or Alshekh), claimed that “our Rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah” and also referred to a midrash that stated, “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.” 130 – Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 3, Messianic Prophecy Objections, p. 58

Even Maimonides, the influential medieval codifier of rabbinic law, understood the servant of Isaiah 52-53 as a reference to the Messianic king. In chapter 11 of Hilchot Melachim of the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides quotes Isaiah 52:13’s statement that the servant will be exalted and lifted up. According to Maimonides, this servant is the Messianic king.

4. …When the true Messianic King will arise and prove successful, his [position becoming] exalted and uplifted… – Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim, Chapter 11, translation by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, published by Moznaim Publishing Corporation

Isaiah 52:13 Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted (07311) and extolled, and be very high (01361).

For comparison to Maimonides’ statement about the Messiah, here are the Hebrew words used in Isaiah 52:13 which refer to being exalted and lifted up.

07311 ruwm
a primitive root; v; {See TWOT on 2133}
AV-(lift, hold, etc…) up 63, exalt 47, high 25, offer 13, give 5, heave 3, extol 3, lofty 3, take 3, tall 3, higher 2, misc 24; 194
1) to rise, rise up, be high, be lofty, be exalted
1a) (Qal)
1a1) to be high, be set on high
1a2) to be raised, be uplifted, be exalted
1a3) to be lifted, rise
1b) (Polel)
1b1) to raise or rear (children), cause to grow up
1b2) to lift up, raise, exalt
1b3) to exalt, extol
1c) (Polal) to be lifted up
1d) (Hiphil)
1d1) to raise, lift, lift up, take up, set up, erect, exalt, set on high
1d2) to lift up (and take away), remove
1d3) to lift off and present, contribute, offer, contribute
1e) (Hophal) to be taken off, be abolished
1f) (Hithpolel) to exalt oneself, magnify oneself
2) (Qal) to be rotten, be wormy

01361 gabahh
a primitive root; v; {See TWOT on 305}
AV-exalt 9, … up 9, haughty 5, higher 4, high 3, above 1, height 1, proud 1, upward 1; 34
1) to be high, be exalted
1a) (Qal)
1a1) to be high, lofty, tall
1a2) to be exalted
1a3) to be lofty
1a3a) to be lofty (of Jehovah’s ways-good sense)
1a3b) to be haughty, be arrogant (bad sense)
1b) (Hiphil) to make high, exalt

In his notes on this portion of the Mishneh Torah, translater Rabbi Eliyahu Touger confirms that Maimonides is here citing Isaiah 52:13.

When the true Messianic King will arise and prove successful, his [position becoming] exalted and uplifted,The phrase is adapted from Isaiah 52:13: “Behold, My servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and uplifted very high.” – Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim, Chapter 11, translation by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, published by Moznaim Publishing Corporation

As other scholars such as Brown have noted, Isaiah 52:13 continues through the rest of chapter 53:1-12. The servant mentioned in Isaiah 52:13 is the same figure discussed in Isaiah 53 who bears the iniquities of the people (v. 11). In this way, though Maimonides doesn’t discuss the death of the Messiah, he does show that it is reasonable to identify the servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 as the Messianic King. Therefore, the conclusion that the Messiah would die is not far removed from Maimonides’ interpretation of the passage given that Isaiah himself designates that the same servant who will be exalted and lifted up will also be "cut off from the land of the living" using a common Old Testament manner of reference for to being put to death (v. 8).

Further evidence of rabbinic and pre-rabbinic Jewish beliefs about a dying and even rising Messiah can be found in Dead Sea texts. In his book, Brown sums up the discussion of the Messiah from Jewish sources dating to the first century and earlier. 

This becomes even more interesting when we realize that the Jews who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls were looking for two Messianic figures, called the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel. 30 In addition to this, the important first-century document called the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, in particular the Testaments of Levi and Judah, also had much to say about this priestly Messiah, speaking of him in highly exalted terms. 31 – Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 1, Historical Objections, p. 85

Footnote 30: For refutation of the idea that the authors of the scrolls expected only one Messiah of Aaron and Israel, see John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature (New York: Doubleday, 1995); note also L. H. Schiffman, “Messianic Figures and Ideas in the Qumran Scroll,” in The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 116-29. It is also noteworthy that in several other Qumran texts, there is reference to a Davidic Messiah and a priest (see Collins, Scepter and the Star, 74-101); note further b. Sukkah 52b, interpreting Zech. 1:20 with reference to the two Messiahs, Elijah, and the righteous High Priest.

Below, Brown explains that, in accordance with Talmudic teaching, Saadia Gaon (the important medieval rabbi discussed earlier) also believed there would be a Messiah who would die.

Sa’adiah ben Yosef Gaon – Sa’adiah ben Yosef Gaon…b. Egypt 882/892, d. Baghdad 942,[3][4]) was a prominent rabbi, Jewish philosopher, and exegete of the Geonic period. – wikipedia.org

Saadia ben Joseph al-Fayumi – The Jewish scholar Saadia ben Joseph al-Fayumi (882-942) ranks as the most important medieval Jewish scholar of literature and history...Saadia became affiliated with the academy at Sura, Babylonia, and became the gaon (head) of the academy in 928. – Encyclopedia of World Biography

Writing a few decades before Hai Gaon, an even more prominent scholar, Rav Sa’adiah Gaon, also addressed the question of the Messiah. He explained that there would actually be two Messiahs, the Messiah son of Joseph (mentioned explicitedly in the Talmud in b. Sukkah 52a), who was associated with a time of victory mixed with hardship and calamity, and the Messiah son of David, who would establish God’s kingdom on the earth. However, if the Jewish people would be God-fearing and obedient, it was possible that there would be only one Messiah, the son of David, and no Messiah son of Joseph, meaning less suffering for Israel. 354 J. I. Schochet provides a useful summary:

Quite significantly, R. Saadia Gaon (one of the few to elaborate on the role of the Mashiach ben Yossef) notes that the sequence is not definite but contingent! Mashiach ben Yossef will not have to appear before Mashiach ben David, nor will the activities attributed to him or his death have to occur. All depends on the spiritual condition of the Jewish people at the time the redemption is to take place. 355 – Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 2, Theological Objections, p. 212-213

Saadia Gaon was not alone in his discussion of a suffering messiah. Other Jewish scholars have documented beliefs about a suffering and dying Messiah from rabbinic and Talmudic literature.

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 – Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 2, Theological Objections, p. 221

As we near the end of this section, there is another issue worth mentioning concerning the charge that Christianity entails the idea of a dying and rising God. Long-standing Christian tradition has defined the person of Jesus Christ in terms of two natures, one fully divine and the other fully human. Both natures are said to be perfectly joined in the incarnation. The subtle relevance of this point can be illustrated by an internal discord between certain Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians in which Roman Catholics describe Jesus’ human mother as “the mother of God.” A typical Protestant response is that Mary is more accurately only the mother of Jesus’ human nature, not his divine nature. Our point here is not to argue for or against either position, only to demonstrate that such distinctions are possible and potentially relevant. In the same way, the traditional view of Christ is that his mortal human nature undergoes death, not his divine nature. His divinity remains immortal and exempt from death. Thus, within this traditional Christian view, it could be said that God acquires a human nature that dies, but it could not be said that God dies in which case the comparison to a “dying and rising god” begins to fall away.

Of course, delving fully into Christology (the study of the nature of Jesus Christ) is beyond the scope of this study. Nor is it the focus of this study to examine the extent to which the New Testament substantiates any particular doctrine about the nature of Christ. However, the allegation that Christianity asserts the idea of a dying and rising God must necessarily not only address this long-standing Christian view but demonstrate that such a view does not represent the original or normative Christian understanding concerning the person of Christ. In his assertion that the only substantial theological difference between Judaism and Christianity is Christianity’s assertion of a “dying and rising god,” Sommer does not address this potential, historical distinction regarding Christ. Nevertheless, due to the subtle and technical nature of this particular issue, the thoroughly Jewish nature of the incarnation, of resurrection, and of a dying messiah remains the most important and compelling proof in this aspect of the debate. This returns us to the main thrust of our investigation.

A survey of available Jewish literature reveals that pre-rabbinic and even rabbinic Judaism included belief in a Messiah who was a “man-like” hypostasis of YHWH (also identified with the Word of YHWH figure) who descended into flesh (became incarnate) as well as a Messiah who would suffer, die, and be resurrected. Likewise, Judaism teaches the resurrection of the dead, believes in a human Messiah. How could the combination of these ideas suddently become non-Jewish or heretical? Given these historical facts, it seems impossible to conclude, as Sommer does, that the New Testament idea of a divine Messiah who dies and is resurrected is alien to Judaism.  

On the contrary, New Testament teaching about Jesus is simply an application of Jewish beliefs about God and the Messiah to the particular person of Jesus. There is nothing novel, foreign, or contrary to Judaism about the idea of a human Messiah who dies, the resurrection of the dead (including the Messiah), a hypostasis of God who becomes a man (and is even known as the “son of man”), the idea of a historical figure that is immortalized, taken into heaven, and exalted, or the identification of such figures with the Davidic Messiah. The New Testament merely joins all of these authentically Jewish beliefs from the pre-rabbinic and rabbinic periods into a single picture and identifies them with the historical person of Jesus. These are Jewish beliefs, not pagan ones. They are derived from the Hebrew Bible and they are presented in Jewish literature before and during the rabbinic period (independent of the rise or influence of Christianity). Jesus is a dying and rising man in accordance with common Jewish beliefs about the Messiah as an incarnation of the Word of YHWH.

Conclusions Regarding Biblical Judaism and New Testament Christianity

As we close this section we will summarize the results of our findings. In the earlier sections of this study we have seen historical documentation evidencing that Judaism cannot be distinguished from Christianity on the basis of Complex Monotheism or beliefs about the incarnation of a man-like hypostasis of YHWH. We have now examined additional attempts to distinguish Judaism from New Testament Christianity on the basis of Jesus as a potential Messianic candidate, how each religion treats the Sinai Covenant and the Law of Moses, God’s choice of Israel as his people, and the belief in a divine Messiah who becomes a man, dies, and is resurrected. An investigation of all issues shows that it is not possible to categorically separate New Testament Christianity from biblical Judaism, pre-rabbinic Judaism, and even rabbinic Judaism in any substantive way.

Neither Rabbinic Judaism nor Christianity practices the bulk of the Law of Moses. Instead, both entail explanations for why major, significant sections of the Law of Moses are no longer applicable for God’s people. Both Rabbinic Judaism and New Testament Christianity explain changes to the Law of Moses and the Sinai Covenant by appealing to an authority which they feel can legitimately modify God’s covenant and Law. Both attribute this authority to statements in the Hebrew Bible authorizing such developments. They simply disagree over whose authority is legitimate. However, both religions retain some of the selected portions of the Law of Moses that are still applicable. In the New Testament Jews were not required to forsake the Law of Moses or reject the Sinai Covenant. Rather, in the New Testament, there is rejoicing and celebration when Jews who believed in Jesus still kept the Law of Moses and the apostles themselves continued to participate in the Temple activities during their lifetimes while the Temple still stood.

Likewise, New Testament Christianity does not reject God’s choice of the Jewish people. On the contrary, the New Testament reports that Jesus’ covenant was with the Jewish people and vested in his Jewish apostles. Like the Mosaic Covenant, the New Covenant is for the Jews first and with the Jews. However, in both the Mosaic covenant and New Testament Christianity, Gentiles who convert can participate with the Jews in the Jews’ covenant with God. Likewise, the New Testament emphasizes God’s ongoing interest in faithful Israel and his intention to save the entire nation. New Testament teaching about Israel mirrors similar assessments made in the Hebrew Bible. Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament convey that not all of Abraham’s and Israel’s descendents were faithful to God. Those who weren’t faithful were cut off from the covenants and promises made to Abraham and Israel. At many points in Israel’s history, the faithful Jews were far outnumbered by those who had turned away from God. New Testament teaching on this subject differs in no substantive way from assessments made in the Hebrew Bible itself.

In addition, pre-rabbinic and even rabbinic Jewish literature displays a common Jewish belief in the resurrection of righteous men, in prominent saints who become exalted, immortalized, and are taken to heaven, in a righteous Messiah, of a suffering, dying, and rising Messiah, and in God incarnate as a man including a “man-like” hypostasis of God who is identified with the Messiah. The New Testament simply takes these Jewish beliefs and identifies them with Jesus as the incarnation of the Word of YHWH who died and rose from the dead. Therefore, New Testament teaching about a divine, dying and rising Messiah is not a foreign idea contrary to Judaism or a concept borrowed from paganism. On the contrary, belief in a divinely incarnate, dying and rising Messiah is an authentically Jewish belief (both in its parts and as a whole) that has only been discarded by rabbinic Judaism in more recent centuries and certainly long after the era of biblical Judaism. And while, as Sommer states, belief in a dying and rising god is sometimes exaggerated or falsely ascribed to pagan religions, it is no exaggeration to say that pre-rabbinic Judaism displays clear depictions of the Messiah as dying and rising and as the human incarnation of a divine hypostasis of YHWH.

Finally, formal explusion from Judaism based on the identification of Jesus as a false Messiah is not apparent until after the second century AD. Likewise, Assertions of Jesus as a false Messiah within the rabbinic community are not found until rabbinic literature dating until after the second century AD. While it is clear that many Jews and many rabbis of the first and early second century rejected Jesus as a false Messiah, it is also clear that other Jews and some rabbis accepted Jesus as the Messiah in accordance with longstanding Jewish beliefs about the Messiah and Complex Monotheistic views of the God of Israel. But most importantly, belief in a false Messiah is demonstrably not a historical criterion for exclusion from Judaism, as indicated directly by the case of Rabbi Akiba.

Ultimately, categorically separating New Testament Christianity from biblical Judaism must be based on biblical and historical grounds. However, with no historical or biblical support to substantiate modern, conventional Jewish objections, the denial that New Testament Christianity is legitimate Judaism in essential continuity with the Hebrew bible remains unfounded historically and biblically untenable.