Diminishing References and Dr. Brown’s Staggering Mistake
Between May and July of 2017 I participated in an online debate in which I exchanged arguments with Dr. Michael Brown on the subject of the “Real Jewish Messiah.” In the course of the debate Dr. Brown presented an argument that I exposed as faulty. In the context of the debate itself, Dr. Brown failed to realize the weight of my argument but subsequently, after an exchange of e-mails, Dr. Brown accepted my argument and publicly acknowledged his mistake.
However, while Dr. Brown acknowledged his mistake, he makes the claim that it is of minor significance and that on the whole, his position has been strengthened. I disagree with Dr. Brown’s assessment. I believe that Dr. Brown’s mistake is extremely significant, it affects the very core of Dr. Brown’s argument and that Dr. Brown’s incredible inability to see his mistake completely undermines all of his arguments. Please allow me to elaborate and substantiate my position.
This was a debate about the Real Jewish Messiah. What is the role and function of the Jewish Messiah according to the Jewish Scriptures?
At the outset of the debate Dr. Brown acknowledged that the role assigned to the Messiah by traditional Judaism is an accurate rendition of Scripture. Dr. Brown acknowledged that the Messiah is to regather the Jewish exiles, build the Temple of the Lord, establish God’s kingdom on the earth, and usher in an era of peace and the universal knowledge of the Lord. As the debate progressed, Dr. Brown further acknowledged that the Messiah is to validate the message of the Jewish people and that he is to continue the legacy of King David. Dr. Brown accepts that all of these Jewish expectations are rooted in the words of the Jewish prophets.
However, Dr. Brown argued that this is only one part of the Messiah’s role. According to Dr. Brown, Judaism has overlooked the Scriptural testimony concerning an additional role of the Messiah. Dr. Brown claims that the Jewish prophets taught that the Messiah is first to come and die as a vicarious atonement after being rejected by his people and only then return to fulfill the Messianic role assigned to him by traditional Judaism.
If Dr. Brown would stop here, then the debate between Judaism and Christianity would be a minor disagreement. If the missionary claim would be limited to the notion that before the Messiah fulfills the role assigned to him by traditional Judaism he first needs to perform another function, the difference between Judaism and Christianity would not be so sharp. In fact there are some traditions within Judaism that portray the Messiah as one who suffers in a redemptive sense before he appears as a glorious king. (It should be noted that these traditions do not portray the Messiah as dying.) If the debate would be limited to the question of the atoning role of the Messiah there would be no practical ramifications to the disagreement.
However, Christianity goes far beyond assigning an additional role to the Messiah. The missionary claim is that all of humanity needs to put its faith in this redemptive sacrifice of the Messiah, and they need to do it now. According to Dr. Brown, faith in God without faith in the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus is inadequate and incomplete. Judaism cannot accept this claim. The foundational claim of Judaism is that faith in God is sufficient and complete and does not need to be supplemented with any other faith. (Let it be noted that Christianity elevates this faith in their Messiah to the level of faith in the divine, and as such it cannot be compared to faith in God’s Law, faith in God’s prophets or faith in God’s appointed witnesses which are not faith in the divine.)
This then is an argument with deep and far-reaching practical ramifications and the ramifications are relevant to me and to you here and now. Do you need to put your faith in the redeeming sacrifice of a dying Messiah as Christianity claims? Or is faith in God sufficient without this faith in a vicarious atonement?
On what foundation does Christianity rest this claim? Why should we believe the claim of the Church that requires man to put his or her faith in this sacrificial Messiah?
To answer this question Dr. Brown points to Isaiah 53. Isaiah 53 portrays the servant of God as one who bears the sins of those who despise him and describes the ultimate vindication of this servant. Dr. Brown and missionary Christianity point to this passage in the Jewish Scripture to support their claim for faith in a dying Messiah.
This passage is a far cry from what the Christian requires to establish a Scriptural foundation for the doctrine of faith in a dying Messiah. The passage says nothing about faith in the suffering servant, the key component which sets the Christian doctrine apart from Judaism. And the passage does not identify the servant of the Lord. There is no clear identifying statement that tells us that this passage speaks of the son of David.
In our debate, Dr. Brown did not seriously address the first of these two problems (i.e. the failure of the prophet to teach the need for faith in the servant). But Dr. Brown did spend some time in an attempt to address the second problem, the identification of the servant. It is in this context that Dr. Brown presented his “diminishing references” argument. This argument was one element of a larger rationale in which Dr. Brown attempts to “prove” that the servant of Isaiah 53 is the Messiah.
Before we address Dr. Brown’s rationale for identifying the servant as Messiah let us point out that the Divine Author could have easily saved us this trouble. The Author could have identified the Messiah by name. Throughout Scripture, the Messiah is most positively identified by the name “David,” (i.e. Ezekiel 37:24) or “descendant of David” (i.e. Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15). If the salvation of mankind hinges upon us recognizing that this passage speaks of the Messiah, the Author should have done a better job. The fact that that the Author did not clearly identify the servant tells us that it is not all that important for us to know just who the servant is. The true message of the prophet rings clear without us knowing the identity of the servant.
Despite the fact that the Author did not identify the servant by name, Dr. Brown claims that he knows that the servant is the Messiah. Dr. Brown acknowledges that earlier in the book of Isaiah the title “servant” belongs to the nation. However, Dr. Brown points out that there is an individual within the nation who also bears this title. In Isaiah 49:5-6, the servant is sent on a mission to Israel so it is clear that the servant in this instance is not the nation as a whole. Dr. Brown argues that it is the Messiah. But the text does not make this clear. This individual can be the prophet or the righteous community within the large body of the nation.
But let us put this question aside and move forward with Dr. Brown’s argument and I quote: /“If we examine the evidence carefully, we will see that the references to the servant as a people actually end with Isa 48:20, while the references to the servant as an individual come into clearest focus beginning with Isaiah chapter 49 and continuing through the end of chapter 53. Accordingly, in chs. 40-48, when the greater focus is on the servant as a nation, the term “Israel” occurs 34x and “Jacob” 19x, whereas in chs. 49-53, where the greater focus is on the servant as an individual, “Israel” occurs 6x (5 in ch. 49) and “Jacob” 3x (all in ch. 49). So, by the time Isaiah 52:13 is reached, the spotlight is on a person, not a people, although the person is certainly connected to his people.” /
Dr. Brown is making two separate arguments. First he is claiming that from chapter 49 onward, the servant is no longer identified as Israel in the national sense but rather it refers to an individual. His second argument contends that it is not merely the word “servant” that is not associated with national Israel from chapter 49, but that the prophet’s attention in general has shifted from the nation to the individual.
I did not directly address the first of Dr. Brown’s two arguments (that the word “servant” no longer refers to the nation after chapter 49) in the context of the debate, instead I focused on his second argument, which is the subject of this particular discussion. I will take the liberty to digress now and address Dr. Brown’s first argument.
It is true that the word “servant” is not explicitly associated with national Israel in chapters 49 thru 52 of the book of Isaiah. However, the prophet makes it clear in these same chapters that the community of Israel is God’s servant and accomplishes His purpose on earth. The prophet tells us that God placed His word in Israel’s mouth in order to plant the heavens and establish the earth (51:16). It is clear that Israel is God’s instrument to achieve God’s purpose. In these chapters Israel is referred to as the nation with God’s Law in their heart (51:7). Israel is described as pursuers of justice and seekers of God (51:1) hardly terms the prophet would use if he was trying to deemphasize national Israel’s role in God’s redemptive plan. And finally, Israel is given the title “armor bearers of the Lord” (52:11). An armor bearer is someone who helps the primary warrior as he goes to battle (e.g. 1Samuel 14:1). It is clear that the prophet wants us to see national Israel as one who plays an active role in God’s plan as we approach Isaiah 53. Dr. Brown’s contention that once we reach chapter 49, the prophet no longer wants us to see national Israel as God’s servant is refuted by the text.
Let us now approach Dr. Brown’s second argument, the argument of diminishing references. This is where Dr. Brown is not simply wrong (as he is in all of his missionary arguments) but where he made a staggering mistake. Dr. Brown made the claim that within the set of Isaiah 40 thru 53, the opening of chapter 49 serves as a pivot. While in chapters 40 thru 48 the prophet’s primary attention was focused on national Israel, from chapter 49 thru 53 the focus has become the individual servant within Israel and not national Israel. Dr. Brown based this argument on the fact that the words “Israel” and “Jacob” appear fewer times in chapters 49 thru 52 than they do in chapters 40 thru 48.
However, Dr. Brown failed to consider the fact that the prophet has other ways to refer to national Israel. “My nation,” “Zion,” “Jerusalem,” and “armor bearers of the Lord,” are just a few of the references to the people of Israel aside from the words “Israel” and “Jacob.” Then we have various pronouns that the prophet uses in a way that make it clear that he is referring to the nation. Plural pronouns or female pronouns are clear references to Israel as a national entity and not to the individual within the nation who is invariably described in masculine and singular terms.
When we consider all of the different ways that the prophet uses to refer to the nation and when we consider the proportion of national references to total of verses it becomes clear that the prophet did not shift his attention away from the nation after chapter 49, instead his attention upon the nation intensified. The ratio of clear and unmistakable references to the nation in proportion to number of verses actually increases from chapter 49 onward and does not decrease as Dr. Brown’s argument would suggest.
Once Dr. Brown understood this calculation (this took place on November 15 2017), he retracted his argument. In his apology video he explains that this argument was not his own, he had read it in the work of another Christian missionary. Furthermore, he argues that when I presented the refutation to his argument, all I said was that there are over 150 references to national Israel in chapters 49 thru 52. I did not follow this up by explaining that the proportion of national references increase in these chapters over and against the preceding chapters. The fact that I did not present the punch-line to my refutation prevented him from fully grasping my argument.
I find this amazing. What is there to grasp? How sophisticated do you have to be before you realize that an argument about the focus of the author can only be measured in proportion to the amount of sentences he uses? How knowledgeable do you have to be before you realize that “Zion” or “My nation” are references to Israel as a nation? And if this concept was beyond the grasp of Dr. Brown, then how did he figure out that the individual servant is the Messiah? The Messiah is not mentioned by name in this entire section of Isaiah (40-53). How is it that when it comes to national Israel, Dr. Brown cannot see anything unless the prophet spells it out by name but when it comes to the Messiah, Dr. Brown demands that we see every imaginary shadow?
But it goes much further than this. Dr. Brown has condescendingly described traditional Jews as incapable of reading Scripture for what it actually says. He has told us that the traditional Jews cannot see the true meaning of Scripture because they read the Scriptures in the context of rabbinic commentary. But we now see that Dr. Brown cannot see the text of the Scripture because he is desperately trying to establish a case for Jesus. Isaiah 51 and 52 contain not one explicit reference to the individual servant within the nation (whoever he may be). At the same time, these two chapters (Isaiah 51 and 52) are intensely focused on national Israel. If someone fails to realize this obvious Scriptural truth how then can they turn around and claim to be especially attuned to the word of the prophet? How can this same person preach to people about reading Scripture honestly?
For the record, Dr. Brown presented this faulty “diminishing references” argument before we debated (in a lecture he presented in New York). I wrote an article in which I refuted this argument in October of 2016. He read this article (and commented to me on certain details of this article) but clearly failed to grasp my refutation to his argument. He presented the same argument in his opening video of our debate in May of 2017 and he heard my refutation again in June of that same year. I explained my refutation several times in articles that were posted publicly and in personal communications. It was not until November of 2017 when Dr. Brown finally realized that his argument was faulty.
In his apology video (March 2018), Dr. Brown still seems to feel that I was at fault for not making my refutation clear enough. He tells the audience that I did not tell him how I was counting. How outrageous! This was an argument that he brought to the table. It was he who made a claim about the focus of the prophet. It is his responsibility to make sure that the argument works. If he is made aware of facts that he was not consciously aware of when he presented his argument, it is incumbent upon him to recalculate and see if his argument still works. My counting is irrelevant, this was his argument and it is his responsibility to count. The fact that Dr. Brown fails to realize that it is his responsibility to make sure that his arguments are honest and true tells us that we cannot rely on his arguments.
I will close this article with one final appeal to the lover of God’s word. The Author of Scripture put the vindication of Israel’s testimony at the center of the Messianic vision. The ultimate moment in human history is described as humanity attaining knowledge of God (Deuteronomy 32:39; Isaiah 11:9; 40:5; 45:6; 49:26; Ezekiel 36:26; 37:28; 38:23; Zechariah 14:9). The prophets tell us that when this happens it will come as a vindication of Israel’s testimony a validation of her hope and the answer to her prayer (Isaiah 25:9; 43;9,10; 44:8; 49:23; Psalm 102:18). The prophets did not speak about this in riddles or secrets. They said this openly and clearly. They said this so clearly, that those who ridicule Israel’s testimony are forced to acknowledge that this is the message of the Scripture. Israel’s testimony has very few enemies that are more vocal than Dr. Brown’s community and the teachers of this community are forced by the clear word of God to acknowledge that the Messiah will vindicate Israel’s message.
Dr. Brown attempts to deflect this open refutation to his position by claiming that the trust of Israel that will be vindicated will be the trust that we attain when we accept his Messiah. This deflection is no more than the thinnest of smokescreens. The entire point of these prophecies that I quoted is that the hope that Israel had while in exile, while suffering, while being ridiculed by people like Dr. Brown, will be vindicated. The prayer that Israel prayed through the ages is the prayer that is answered with the revelation of God’s glory. Dr. Brown’s argument is the very argument that the prophets set out to refute with their ringing pronouncements.
But I would like to draw your attention to another one of Dr. Brown’s deflections. Dr. Brown claims that my focus on the vindication of Israel’s trust in God is irrelevant to the discussion about the real Jewish Messiah. Did you hear that? What else could Dr. Brown tell you that he is attempting to silence the word of God on the issue of the Messiah? The prophets of God made it clear that the validation of Israel’s hope stands at the center of the Messianic vision. And Dr. Brown would have you look away. He would have you focus on what he sees as central to the concept of Messiah and ignore what the prophets of God made clear.
I appeal to you. Please allow yourself to be moved by the word of God. Absorb the clarity that the prophets imparted to us. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by the words of a man who has dramatically demonstrated that his bias has him directing people’s hearts away from the word of God.