How Likely Is It That Jesus Is the Messiah? Part I
Are there passages on the divinity of the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible?
This is the third part of a series on Jesus’ resurrection. The previous article argued the evidence for the Messiah was one of the key background factors to consider. The next few parts of the series will discuss this evidence.
We will consider whether the promised Messiah was expected to be divine. The next article will address whether a suffering Messiah is consistent with the Hebrew Bible. The following article will assess if the Messiah was expected at a particular time in history.
Messiah in the Hebrew Bible
The word Mashiach (‘anointed one’) rarely appears in the Hebrew Bible. Although the word means “Messiah”, it can also refer to people (such as Cyrus) who were not the Messiah.
So does the Hebrew Bible tell us little to nothing about the Messiah? Not necessarily. One of the Talmudic sages pointed out:
In their prophecies with regard to redemption and the end of days, all the prophets prophesied only about the messianic era…(b. Sanhedrin 99a)
If that’s the case, we would expect the Hebrew Bible to be full of information about the Messiah. Michael Brown, an expert in Semitic languages and Messianic Jew, provides several helpful principles for understanding these passages (1):
- Messianic prophecies are never clearly announced: nowhere in the Hebrew Bible does it say ‘this passage is about the Messiah!’
- Many Biblical prophecies are fulfilled gradually: for example, in Genesis 15, God promised Abraham that his descendants will return to the promised land 400 years later. The rest of the Torah recounts the process of how God fulfilled that promise.
- The prophets saw the Messiah coming on the immediate horizon: “They did not realise that centuries would come and go until between their initial prediction and its actual fulfilment” (p191)
- The importance of reading the passage in its context
- The Messiah would be both priest and king: I will focus on some passages related to the king (or son of man) in this article and the priestly passages in the next
- The Messiah is the ideal representative of Israel — the history of Israel parallels the life of the Messiah.
Anticipating a potential objection, why should we listen to what a Messianic Jew says? Isn’t he biased against the traditional Rabbinic position? These principles are all consistent with how traditional rabbis have interpreted passages about the Messiah.
Son of Man—the Messiah
Daniel 7 is a good place to start. Almost all influential rabbis of Jewish tradition (for example, Rashi and David Altschuler) considered this passage to be about the Messiah:
“As I looked, “thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze…
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:9–14, NIV)
Jesus’ most common title was son of man. At his trial, when asked if he was the Messiah, Jesus quoted Daniel 7 (Mark 14:61–62).
The Divine Son of Man
The Gospels also claimed he was divine. For example, Jesus stated: “No one knows the Father except the Son [Jesus]” (Matthew 11:27, NIV). He claimed knowledge of God the Father, greater than any human or angel that ever lived. The Gospels also showed he forgave sin. The teachers of the law rightly stated: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7, NIV).
Jesus’ disciples claimed he walked on the water (Mark 6), even though “He [God] alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.” (Job 9:8, NIV) John’s Gospel spoke of Jesus (the Word) as the divine creator, “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1, NIV)
The clouds of heaven
The Rabbinic view denies the divinity of the Messiah. Does the Hebrew Bible also contradict the New Testament? Son of man (in Hebrew and Aramaic) can mean ‘human’ or ‘man’. However, Daniel 7 includes some intriguing details.
One of only a few passages written in Aramaic in the Hebrew Bible, Daniel 7 refers to the one like a son of man as “coming in the clouds” (v13). According to Prof Daniel Boyarin, rabbi and scholar of early Judaism, the Hebrew equivalent of this phrase is used 70 times (for example, Deuteronomy 33:26–27) in the Tanakh. In every instance, it refers to God.
Second, there is the cryptic reference to the plural word “thrones” in Daniel’s vision:
“As I looked, “thrones were set in place,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat.
His clothing was as white as snow;
the hair of his head was white like wool.
His throne was flaming with fire,
and its wheels were all ablaze. (Daniel 7:9, NIV)
The Messiah appeared to sit on a throne next to God (the Ancient of Days) — suggesting equality with him. Scholars of early Judaism, such as Alan Segal and Daniel Boyarin, found that belief in “two powers in heaven” was common in the first century:
There is significant evidence…that in the first century many — perhaps most — Jews held a binitarian doctrine of God. This Jewish doctrine was named minut [heresy] by the Rabbis as an important part of constructing Jewish orthodoxy as separate from Christianity. (2)
For example, 1 Enoch—probably written in the 2nd century BCE — picks up on this passage from Daniel 7. The “head of days” [Ancient of Days] sits on the throne to judge. His head is “white like wool” (1 Enoch 46:1) and with him is one like a son of man who also sits on a throne (1 Enoch 61:8; 62:2–5; 69:27–29).
The divinity of the son of man is even more explicit in 3 Enoch, written around the 5th century CE. In this book, the son of man was a divine angel (Metatron) who sat on a throne next to the Ancient of Days.
Talmud, son of man and Metatron
The Talmud also discussed the connection between Metatron and the son of man (b. Sanhedrin 38b). Rav Idi was asked about Exodus 24. Why is the angel (messenger) of the Lord in Exodus 24 referred to by the divine name?
In other words, the min argues that Metaṭron seemingly has precisely the redeemer features that are characteristic of his direct ancestor, Enoch the Son of Man, or for that matter Jesus, the Son of Man as well, including the power to forgive sins (Mark 2:10) (3)
Rav Idi’s response was startling. He did not deny the angel was divine. In fact, he interpreted this messenger to be Metatron — the phrase used in 1 and 3 Enoch to describe the son of man of Daniel 7:
Rav Idi does not deny the existence of Metaṭron; he does not finally, cannot it seems, deny even the power of Metaṭron, of his capabilities as Second God. (3)
So the New Testament depiction of Jesus as the divine son of man is consistent with the Hebrew Bible — and with the first century Jewish context through to late antiquity.
Messiah — Mighty God
Isaiah 9 also spoke of the eternal rule of a divine figure:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever. (Isaiah 9:6–7, NIV)
Many have challenged the translation of el Gibbor as “Mighty God”. But, Old Testament scholar Alec Motyer pointed out (4), when el appears together with a descriptor like Gibbor in the Hebrew Bible, it is always a description of God. So there is little precedent for translating this phrase as “god-like” or “chief”.
Isaiah would have been aware that many would interpret this phrase as a description of God. For example, in the next chapter, both Chabad and the Jewish Publication Society (1985) translate el Gibbor as Mighty God — a reference to God (Isaiah 10:21).
Isaiah 9 about the Messiah?
The reference to a son of David who will rule forever immediately connects this prophecy to similar passages in the Hebrew Bible on the promised Messiah (e.g. Psalm 2, 2 Samuel 7).
The Talmud (Tractate Derekh Eretz Zuta) also referred to the child of Isaiah 9 as the Messiah. Similarly, the famous Jewish medieval scholar, Rambam (Maimonides) in his Epistle to Yemen (5):
The Messiah, indeed, ranks after Moses in eminence and distinction… Six appellations were divinely conferred upon him as the following passage indicates: “For a child is born unto us, and a son is given unto us, and the government is upon his shoulder, and he is called Pele, Yoetz, el, Gibbor, Abiad, Sar-Shalom.” (Isaiah 9:6(5)).
However, some influential Jewish commentators like Rashi and Abraham Ibn Ezra argued Isaiah 9:6–7 (5–6) was about Hezekiah. Yet, as a son of David, Hezekiah partially fulfilled this prophecy (leading Israel to temporary deliverance from Assyria).
But we know he did not reign forever as predicted in verse 7(6). After his death, the evil King Manasseh took the throne (2 Kings 20:16–21). Judah was exiled from the land four generations later. The fulfilment of the prophecy would have to wait — who else but the Messiah?
Jesus’ life and the expected Messiah
I’ve argued above, the Hebrew Bible claimed the Messiah was divine. So if Jesus was the promised Messiah, we expect the New Testament to claim he was divine — which it does.
The Gospels also claimed Jesus did many miracles as a sign that the Messianic kingdom was coming (Isaiah 35: 5–7; Isaiah 49:6–7; Isaiah 61:1–3). And as a testimony that God has sent him.
Consistent with the expectations of the Messiah, the Gospels claim Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2) and was a Son of David (2 Samuel 7). As expected of the Messiah, many Jews rejected him (Isaiah 49:1–7) and many non-Jews followed him (Genesis 49:10; Isaiah 42:4).
The Messianic Kingdom has not yet come
There is an important BUT. Both Jews and Christians agree the Hebrew Bible promised the Messiah will reign forever and bring eternal peace (e.g. Isaiah 11, 65, 66).
We are not living in the “new heavens and new earth” of Isaiah 65–66. For this reason, Rabbinic Jews claim Jesus cannot be the Messiah — the victorious king.
In response, Christians argue this promise is in the process of fulfilment. The Hebrew Bible spoke not only of a victorious king. First, a suffering high priest will make atonement for his people. The next article in the series will examine these passages.
- Michael Brown. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume Three. Michigan: Baker Books.
2. Daniel Boyarin. Two powers in Heaven, in The Idea of Biblical Interpretation, H. Najman and Newman (Eds), Boston: Brill.
3. Daniel Boyarin. Beyond Judaisms. Journal for the Study of Judaism 2010; 41: 323–365
4. Alec Motyer. The prophecy of Isaiah. Leicester: IVP press.
5. Moses Maimonides. Epistle to Yemen (translated by Boaz Cohen).