A Suffering Messiah: Consistent with the Hebrew Bible or a Christian Invention?
Part II: A suffering Messiah in Judaism and Christianity
Many think the Messiah of Judaism has always only been a victorious king. Didn’t Christianity have to invent a suffering Messiah to account for Jesus’ death? According to Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin, these arguments must be ‘completely rejected’:
The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent, and it remained current among Jews…well into the early modern period. (1)
This article starts with some examples of the suffering Messiah from Jewish tradition. Then looks at key passages from the Hebrew Bible.
Belief in a suffering Messiah before Jesus?
Several documents from the Dead Sea Scrolls (dated approximately 100 BCE) offer evidence of ancient belief in a suffering Messiah.
Israel Knohl, Professor Emeritus at Hebrew University Jerusalem, argues certain hymns (e.g. the self-glorification hymn) in the Dead Sea Scrolls show belief in a suffering Messiah:
The hero of the hymns claims divine status. He claims to be superior to the angels and describes himself as taking a seat in heaven surrounded by the angels, thus clearly comparing himself to the biblical God. Simultaneously,
he depicts himself as “despised and rejected of men”… He thus identifies himself with the “suffering servant” in Isaiah. (2)
The Apocryphon of Levi, another manuscript from the Dead Sea Scrolls, spoke of a servant who will bring atonement for Israel:
The hero of the text is not only a priest but also a teacher; yet, like
the servant, he is a victim of persecution…The work also contains significant verbal echoes of the book of Isaiah, particularly Isaiah 40–55, where the servant songs appear. (3)
The Great Isaiah scroll (1QIsa^a), the oldest and most complete manuscript of the book of Isaiah (dated approximately 100 years before Jesus) is also supportive of the Messianic interpretation.
The text is very similar to the much later standard Hebrew (Masoretic) text. Yet there is an important difference pointed out by Martha Himmelfarb, Director of Judaic Studies at Princeton:
At Isaiah 52:14, in place of MT [Masoretic Text]’s “His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance” — 1QIsa^a reads mashahti, “I have anointed”: “So have I anointed his appearance beyond that
of any (other) man.” (3)
A victorious king, suffering servant, or both?
The previous article in the series focused on passages in the Hebrew Bible about a victorious king who will reign. Jewish tradition grappled for many centuries with how to reconcile these depictions of a victorious king with a suffering Messiah.
Many concluded both sets of passages spoke of one Messiah without resolving the paradox. Others proposed two Messiahs:
- Mashiach ben Yosef (Messiah son of Joseph): the suffering servant
- Mashiach ben David (Messiah son of David): the victorious king
Christianity resolved this dilemma by positing that Jesus will first come as the suffering Messiah and return as the victorious king. Modern Judaism, in contrast, no longer interprets the suffering passages as Messianic.
The Messiah: “the one they have pierced”?
One of the most famous passages on the suffering Messiah is from Zechariah:
“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.” (Zechariah 12:10, NIV)
John’s Gospel (19:34–37) cited the earliest Jewish translation — the Septuagint—when speaking about Jesus’ death as a fulfilment of this passage from Zechariah. The one who would bring healing to Israel through his death.
There is evidence from the Talmud (Sukkah 52a) that Rabbinic Jews also considered Zechariah 12 to be about the Messiah. Sukkah 52a suggests the ‘pierced one’ was Mashiach ben Yosef (Messiah son of Joseph).
As we’ve seen above, the Davidic messiah was not the only messiah figure in Jewish tradition. Scholar of Judaism, Martha Himmelfarb pointed out texts such as Zechariah spoke of a priestly messiah:
.…in ancient Israel both kings and priests were anointed, making them messiahs in the literal sense, and it goes back as far as Zechariah’s prophecies at the very beginning of the Second Temple period…For Zechariah, Zerubbabel, the
Persian governor descended from David, and Joshua the high priest
(Zech 3–4, 6:9–15) are two “sons of oil” (Zech 4:14). (3)
Meaning of Zechariah 12
The first eight chapters of Zechariah are concerned with the building of the second temple by the pivotal figures Zerubbabel and Joshua.
Chapters 9–14 are of a very different genre. Along with Ezekiel, Zechariah is the most cited book in Revelation. Despite the small, and currently unimpressive second temple, there will come a time when God will send his representative to bless Israel.
This representative will be a victorious king — he will defeat God’s enemies (Zechariah 9:1–8). Yet he will be gentle and humble (Zechariah 9:9), and will be killed (Zechariah 12:10).
The Divine King
Michael Heiser, a Hebrew Bible scholar, points out that the pierced one of Zechariah 12 is also the angel of the Lord:
This angel is God in human form — and the heir of David in Zechariah is identified the same way. The Old Testament prophet not only foresaw a crucified Davidic king, but an heir of David who was God in human form. (Michael Heiser) (4)
Zechariah 12:8 states that the house of David (from whom the Messiah came) will be “like God, like the angel of the Lord”:
Jewish readers would have known that God and the angel of the Lord are identified with each other in passages throughout the Torah. (4)
For example, Hagar, when receiving a message from the angel of the Lord:
She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” (Genesis 16:13, NIV)
Similarly, the angel of the Lord when speaking to Moses through the burning bush, identified himself as the divine name yud-hey-vav-hey (יהוה) (Exodus 3:1–14) — which Rabbinic Jews often refer to as HaShem.
The Divine Pierced One
Finally, we get to Zechariah 12:10, where Israel mourns this divine king — who was pierced:
They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.” (Zechariah 12:10, NIV)
Michael Brown, scholar of Near Eastern languages, pointed out that the mourners are turning to God. He is the only one referred to in the first person in Zechariah 12 (e.g. “I will keep a watchful eye on Judah” v4):
“They will look on me the one they have pierced.” It is perfectly clear, therefore, that the me in this verse is the Lord himself — as rendered in the Jewish translations cited above [Sukkah 52a and the Septuagint] — suggesting the real possibility that the Hebrew text is speaking about the Lord Himself who was pierced. (5)
The death of this suffering Messiah will bring cleansing from sin:
On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity. (Zechariah 13:1)
Zechariah 13:7–9 continues the account of this suffering Messiah (identified by Ibn Ezra also as Mashiach ben Yosef). He is the shepherd (King) struck by the sword who brings God’s people back to him:
They will call on my name
and I will answer them;
I will say, ‘They are my people,’
and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.’ (Zechariah 13:9)
Psalm 22 in Jewish tradition
Psalm 22 is another passage about a suffering Messiah. For example, Rashi, the most influential commentator of Jewish tradition, considered this psalm to be about “the time of our redemption in the days of our Messiah”.
Pesikta Rabbati (approximately 7th century CE), also considered Psalm 22 to be about the Messiah (Mashiach ben David). According to Martha Himmelfarb, Psalm 22 primarily shaped the midrash’s description of the Messiah’s suffering.
As we’ll see below, the message of Pesikta Rabbati has a lot in common with Isaiah 53. The Messiah does not come at the end of history. He comes to suffer for each generation:
…this homily understands the messiah to be suffering for the sins
of each generation. Because of the suffering he has endured (Pes.
Rab. 31§§26–27) (3)
Meaning of Psalm 22
The Gospels also considered Psalm 22 to be about the Messiah. For example, Mark 15 put the words of Psalm 22:1 in the mouth of Jesus on the cross:
At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Psalm 22:1]) (Mark 15:33–34, NIV).
He experienced great physical suffering:
My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.
Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me;they pierce my hands and my feet. (Psalm 22:14–16, NIV)
The psalm appears hopeless. But finally there is a turning point — a promise of vindication:
For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. (Psalm 22:24, NIV)
Servant of Isaiah 53: Israel?
Isaiah 53 is a major source of debate between Modern Jews and Christians. Modern Rabbinic Jews believe Isaiah 53 (technically, Isaiah 52:13–53:12) is about Israel (the “collectivist view”).
My earlier article comprehensively reviewed Jewish commentaries on Isaiah 53 from the 1st-18th century CE. No Rabbinic text up to 1000 CE mentioned the collectivist view (that the servant was Israel). Origen — a Christian — was the only writer during this time to speak of the collectivist interpretation of Isaiah 53.
During this period of harsh persecution against Jews, the collectivist interpretation understandably grew in favour. It soon became the dominant view.
Isaiah 53 about the Messiah?
The Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 has an ancient pedigree. Az milifnei vereishit, 7th century liturgy for Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), is an example of how ubiquitous the idea of a suffering messiah was:
One important conclusion we can draw from “Az milifnei verei
shit” is that by the early seventh century, the idea of a messiah who
suffered on behalf of the people of Israel and gained atonement for
them was so widely accepted that it could claim a place in the Yom
Kippur liturgy. (3)
Yom Kippur celebrates the day recorded in Leviticus 16 when the high priest made atonement for Israel. Of course, after the destruction of the temple, the sacrificial system was abolished. Yet milifnei vereishit taught the Messiah had taken the place of animal sacrifice.
His suffering made atonement for Israel. Martha Himmelfarb argues this liturgy “depict[s] the messiah as bearing Israel’s sins in order to find forgiveness for the people.” (3)
Although the collectivist interpretation became more popular, the Messianic view never disappeared from Judaism. For example, Nachman of Breslov, writing in the late 18th/early 19th century, continued to affirm the sages of the Talmud taught the Messianic view:
Our Sages also teach (Sanhedrin 98b): Mashiach will suffer sickness on behalf of all Israel, as it is written (Isaiah 53:5), “He was stricken because of our transgressions.” (Likutei Moharan 118:1)
The suffering and rejected servant
Isaiah 53 is the final servant song in a series of four poems in Isaiah 40–55. The first three songs speak of the Messiah as a servant who will redeem Israel and the rest of the world. In an earlier article, I looked into more detail at these passages.
Isaiah 53 explains this redemption will come through the suffering of the servant. He was “despised and rejected by mankind” (Isaiah 52:14, 53:3).
The servant performed the role of a priest. He will “sprinkle many nations” (Isaiah 52:13) — an act of a priest. Yet, it is his life that is given as a guilt offering (Isaiah 53:10). The servant was “pierced for our transgressions… crushed for our iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:5–6, NIV)
The vindicated servant
But the death of the servant is not the end. He will be vindicated. God will resurrect him from the dead:
…and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:10–11)
In summary, Hebrew Bible texts such as Isaiah 53 (dated to sixth century BCE), Zechariah 12–13, and Psalm 22 provided the foundation for later beliefs in a suffering Messiah.
- Daniel Boyarin. The Jewish Gospels. New York: New Press.
- Israel Knohl. The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls. California: University of California Press.
- Martha Himmelfarb. Jewish Messiahs in a Christian Empire: A History of the Book of Zerubbabel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Michael Heiser. Zechariah’s Divine Messiah. Bible Study Magazine.
- Michael Brown. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 3. Baker Books.