Definitions – by Jim

You ask what the Messiah will be like with an eye to what the scriptures say about him. It is, of course, good to consult the scriptures. My intention when sitting down to the computer today was to begin describing the Messiah from the scripture. However, there is a certain difficulty in that you and I begin from different assumptions. It occurs to me that I must discuss methodology before drawing upon scripture.

How shall you and I decide what scriptures are about the Messiah? Some scriptures I assume we will readily agree do not have any bearing on the person of the Messiah, whatsoever. Turning to a random page in the Torah, I read: “You may eat any clean birds” (Deut. 14:11). Because this verse is the granting of a permission, I believe we will agree that this is not a reference to the Messiah, even though as a member of Israel he is granted that same permission. Similarly, prohibitions are not references to the Messiah, though being obedient to God, he will not violate those prohibitions. “Do not murder,” therefore, is not a description of the Messiah. It is a description of a prohibition. And many narrative portions have nothing to do with the Messiah as well.

But then what scriptures do directly pertain to the Messiah? Dr. Brown often points out that Messianic passages are not labelled with the word “Messiah”. The word “Messiah” is not the scriptural term for the figure described by that title. Isaiah 11, for example, is universally agreed to be referring to the Messiah, though the word never appears in the chapter. Because this is the case, Dr. Brown takes this as a permission to label any passage as Messianic. This is not sound.

It is clear that when one is defining an object or kind, one sets forth specific parameters. When an object fits those specific parameters, it can be identified as that object or kind. If it contains something foreign to that object or kind, or it is missing something that belongs to that object or kind, then it is something else.

Let us take, for example, the square. Let us define a square as a closed four-sided figure, the sides of which are all straight and all equal in length and whose interior angles are each of them right angles. If I describe a shape to you, even if you cannot see it, given enough description, you will know if the shape is or is not a square. So, if I describe a shape with a curved edge, you will know immediately that it is not a square, even if you do not know what the shape is. The same will be the case if I describe a shape with only three sides: it is not a square. A four-sided figure whose angles are not measured at 90 degrees is also immediately known not to be a square. But, if I describe a closed figure with four equal sides, then it is unknown whether or not the shape is a square, because it may be a non-square rhombus (i.e. it’s interior angles may not be right angles.) The same is true if I describe a closed four-sided shape with four right angles; it might be a non-square rectangle, rather than a square. In these last two instances, not enough information is given to know if the shape is a square or not.

This presents a problem for Jesus. According to the definition of Messiah agreed upon by Christians and Jews, Jesus does not fit the definition. (Jesus does not reign and has not reigned as king, for example.) Dr. Brown recognizes this problem, and so he argues that some parts of the definition of the Messiah are unrecognized as such by the Jewish people. He argues further that those parts not recognized by Jews as defining the Messiah are essential qualities that can only be fulfilled by the Messiah. Since Jesus fulfilled those parts, he is the only one able to fulfill the other parts as well.

This argument should meet a little resistance from the Christian. Jews and Christians agree that the Messiah will be a Davidic King that rules in a time when the Jewish people have been gathered back to Israel, in a time when there is world peace, and in a time of universal knowledge of God. (I have not established this, yet, I know, but I do not expect disagreement. Certainly Dr. Brown would not disagree.) Let us say that such a king does arise and it is not Jesus. Dr. Brown’s definition puts him in a strange place where he will have to say that this person is not the Messiah. Even as there is a purification of the world, Dr. Brown’s definition would exclude this person. At this point, even the Christian should hesitate. Something seems to have gone askew logically.

The Jew has no such logical dilemma. He considers those kingly elements to be essential to the definition of the Messiah. The questionable elements, those not agreed upon by Jews and Christians, will cause them no problem. If a king rises without the Christian definition, the Jew is in no bind. His definition will be satisfied with no conflict.

But the question remains how Dr. Brown knows those to be part of the definition of the Messiah. As I wrote earlier, he gives himself permission based upon the fact that the Messiah is not identified as such in Tanach. However, this does not begin to answer how one knows a prophecy is Messianic or not.

To link one passage to another, they must have in common certain features. To be sure that one passage refers to the same object as another, where they are called by different names, or where one or both are unnamed, they must share some essential qualities to be certain that they are the same. One does not wish to prematurely assert that two things are the same, even when they share some qualities, as a rhombus does with a square.

Therefore, we must be careful of making certain mistakes. The first is taking an essential property of the Messiah and making it sufficient to identify the Messiah. Not every son of David is the Messiah or even a king. The Messiah must be a son of David. This means anyone who is not a son of David is disqualified (as Jesus is on these grounds). However, being a son of David is not a sufficient quality for identifying one as a Messiah. The second mistake one might make is making an assertion about the Messiah that is not obviously linked to the definition of the Messiah. Let us temporarily adopt the Christian notion that a certain figure in Tanach is prophecied to die for the sins of humanity. If no link exists in passages about this figure and the Davidic king who rules in a time of peace and universal knowledge of God, then they might be two different and unrelated figures. They can only be tied together by a trait or traits that can and must be shared only by them, traits that must appear together in a passage to make clear that they are one and the same. Mere assertion cannot be taken as proof that both figures are really one, the Messiah.

Allow me now to return to a point made earlier. The word “Messiah” is not used in Messianic passages. So, the question is how does one know who the Messiah is? The word is an agreed upon term to refer to a particular person of whom the prophets of Israel wrote. It is a word of rabbinic origin, I believe. It is obvious that the word was in use before the NT. And if so, it is obvious that a definition was understood before the time of Jesus. The only way, then, to know if a particular person was the Messiah was to see if he comported to the definition of the Messiah, just as when I describe a plane figure to you, you must know the definition of a square to determine if the figure is or is not a square.

It is not a sound methodology to assume that a particular figure is the Messiah and then find a new definition by going back to Tanach to find this new definition. This is, of course, how Dr. Brown and the Church in general finds their definition of the Messiah. The Church admits to this day that Jesus did not fit the definition of the Messiah as understood before Jesus. One will hear Christians say that the Jews were expecting a king not a suffering sacrifice. This is an implicit admission that Jesus did not fit the definition of the Messiah. Only later a new definition was supplied when Jesus’ followers insisted upon his being the Messiah regardless of his failure to meet the definition. The Church has offered its own definition, a redefinition of the Messiah, by first assuming that a particular figure was the Messiah and then taking their beliefs about his qualities and making them the new definition. This, of course, makes it impossible to identify Jesus as the Messiah, because it relies upon circular reasoning. One could not know Jesus was the Messiah, because one could not know what the Messiah was until he knew what qualities Jesus had or is supposed to have had. (I write “supposed to,” because many of his qualities are assumed but were unobserved and unknowable.)

A sound methodology would rely upon the definition of Messiah to test the human candidate. This is the method of investigation I propose we take, that we look to Tanach to see what could be known about the Messiah before the time of Jesus. We will only correspond passages to one another when they have a clear link that excludes other figures from being discussed. We will not use prophecies that would not or could not have been clearly associated with the Messiah before the time of Jesus but were considered the definition of Messiah only after some maintained that he was the Messiah.

For instance, we will not accept that Isaiah 7:14 is about the Messiah. No one reading that passage before the NT was written would have any reason to associate the passage with the Messiah. The context does not make it to be about the Messiah. It does not even carry a teaching about a virgin birth, certainly not clearly. It is only after Jesus is believed to be born of a virgin that this verse is applied to the concept of the Messiah. In fact, the whole prophecy regarding the child is not taken, but only one part of it. Before Jesus, no one would have recognized this as a Messianic prophecy and therefore it will not fit within our definition of the Messiah that he will be born from a virgin.

I hope I have laid out the principles clearly. Do you agree, 819, with a methodology that relies upon a pre-Jesus definition? Do you agree that one cannot first assume the Messiahship of Jesus or any figure and then justify acceptance of that candidate with a new definition? If so, I think we are on secure ground and may continue forward. Please let me know.

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Yisroel C. Blumenthal

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4 Responses to Definitions – by Jim

  1. Dina says:

    Well done, Jim!

    • Jim says:

      Dina,

      Thank you.

      It is a real possibility that we need a new term to describe the Christian messiah due differences in definition. Of course, one could answer that even if Jews and Christians do not share the same concept of a messiah, the same word could be employed. They would just be homonyms. One problem I see with this is that is creates enormous confusion. Missionaries constantly use homonymous terms, and so the Jew and Christian appear to be talking about the same thing but are not doing so in reality. It would be best, then, to separate the two concepts with different terms in the interest of clarity.

      One possible term would be the Greek “Christ”. This has the advantage of reflecting that the Christian idea is not derived from the Hebrew scriptures. It reflects that this is not the Jewish concept. However, I believe that too many people would remain confused. It would be asserted that the two terms are really the same, one just a translation of the other. And indeed, since “messiah” is the English of a Hebrew term, it is equivalent to “christ” as the Greek of the Hebrew term.

      What may be needed is an entirely new word. This may be the only way to avoid confusion.

      Jim

      • Eleazar says:

        Maybe, Jim. But now we have the Messianic/Hebrew roots movement that does it best to blur the lines as much as they can by substituting Hebrew terms/concepts for the Greek words/concepts Almost like a reverse Septuagint.

        I once saw a show where the messianics were trying to explain that Jesus must have been born on Sukkot because the Greek word translated “Manger” could also be cross-translated into the Hebrew as “sukkah”. Therefore, they feel it should be read as “They laid him in a sukkah”.
        Also heard messianics say that the woman with the issue of blood, when she “touched the hem of his garment” that she was really grabbing the tzitzit on Jesus’ tallit. Like you can see a messianic doing on another thread, it is linguistic acrobatics to de-Gentile and to Judaize the New Testament and Christianity while keeping the primary Christian doctrines.

        Mainline and Evangelical Christians I talk to personally believe the messianic/roots movement is the most heretical and loose cannon movement in a long time. And is setting Christians adrift without an anchor. Hopefully their ship will find a solid Torah landing.

        • Concerned Reader says:

          Eleazer, do you not think that New Testament references to fringes and phylacteries refer to Tzittzit and Teffilin? I think the New Testament makes it plain that most of Jesus’ early followers were actually Pharisees.

          The fact that Gamaliel is still considered a saint in the Orthodox Church seems to suggest that at least some of Jesus’ students were actually practicing Jews. In fact, Chrysostom’s homilies against the Jews exist because the man was angry that Christians in his congregation wanted to attend Synagogue and observe Jewish holidays.

          If the messianics are trying to re Judaize Jesus, I see this as a positive thing at least in the sense that at their antinomianism might soften, and they can relate better to Judaism.

          Mainline Christianity does see Hebrew roots as heresy, because the messianic finds the Torah relevant for today. It may not be perfect, but I think Judaism has enough arguments to refute mainline Christian doctrine, such that a messianic who wears a kippah should not be scary. It seems to me, you can’t avoid Judaizing the New Testament, especially if you are studying the historical Jesus.

          When I was in school I was stunned by some of the treatises for ethics and Christian practice that I studied, (which modern Christians don’t apply,) but which bear striking similarity to some Jewish literature.

          There were sources where Christian teachers tried to answer practical daily life questions like,

          0. Is it ok to utter the customary well wishes at a Roman wedding or celebration?
          1. is it permissible to attend a Roman wedding and accept the food offered there?
          2. Are the Roman baths permitted for use if it is for medical reasons? (the literature actually looked down on the baths, gymnasium, and theatre because it would require tacit acknowledgement of the gods.)

          3. If a Church destroys a pagan idol’s statue, is it permitted to re use the materials once its been destroyed?

          The answer to that last one (according to Tertullian) was no. His reasoning was, if you destroy an idol and reuse the material, you give the pagan cause to think you are merely destroying his deity for gain, and not for the sake of the truth.

          What struck me about this literature is that Pagans didn’t think like this, let alone talk like it. Even modern Christians dont.

          A polytheistic Roman Hellenist could care less what deity you served or in what way, as long as his power wasn’t threatened.

          The only peoples who would even care about “the proper way to demolish an idol,” are those who have some exposure to Judaism or ancient G-d fearing practices.

          Even the totally hellenic material in the New Testament (such as in John’s gospel,) is not proper Hellenic thought process, but is a blend, like something you would see in Philo.

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