The Challenge of a Crucified Messiah

“For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor.1:21-22)

For the disciple of Jesus, His death is seen as the ultimate demonstration of God’s love to humanity. Jesus is called the “Suffering Servant” (Acts 3:13; 8:32ff), and the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29, 36; Acts 8:32; 1 Peter 1:19). While the Christian community takes these truths for granted, the majority of the Jewish community asserts that Jesus’ death automatically annulled the possibility of Him being the promised Messiah of Israel.

This is seen in the following comments:

“The only way to define “the Messiah” is as the king who will rule during what we call the Messianic age. The central criterion for evaluating a Messiah must therefore be a single question: Has the Messianic age come? It is only in terms of this question that “the Messiah” means anything. What, then, does the Bible say about the Messianic age? Here is a brief description by famous Christian scholar: “The recovery of independence and power, an era of peace and prosperity, of fidelity to God and his law and justice and fair- dealing and brotherly love among men and of personal rectitude and piety” (G.F. Moore, Judaism, II, P 324).If we think about this sentence for just a moment in the light of the history of the last two thousand years, we will begin to see what enormous obstacles mus be overcome if we are to believe in the messianic mission of Jesus. If Jesus was the Messiah, why have suffering and evil continued and even increased in the many centuries since his death?”-David Berger and Michael Wyschogrod, “Jews and Jewish Christianity” A Jewish Response to the Missionary Challenge (Toronto: Jews for Judaism, 2002),20.

“Jesus mistake was that he thought he would be the Messiah, but when he was hanged his thought was annulled.” (R. Shimon ben Tzemah Duran (1361-1444)

“We are obligated to believe that a Jewish man will come who will begin to save Israel and will complete the salvation of Israel in that generation. One who completes the task is the one, while the one who does not complete it in that generation but dies or is broken or is taken captive (Exod 22:9) is not the one and was not sent by God.” (R. Phinehas Elijah Hurwtiz of Vilna (1765-1821), Sefer haberit hashalem (Jerusalem, 1990), 521

Over the years many Christians can’t understand why Jewish people can’t see that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53. It would be nice if it was that simple. One of the most common questions is whether the New Testament authors were familiar with Isaiah 53 or any other texts in the Tanakh (the Old Testament) that pointed to a suffering messianic figure. After all, they were Jewish and had read the Scriptures all their lives. But there is no doubt that the early followers of Jesus had a hard time accepting the fact that Jesus was going to suffer and die: A couple of passages prove my point:

“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you! (Matt 16:21).”

He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise. But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it. (Mark 9:31).“

Also, with the exception of 1 Peter 2: 24-25, the New Testament passages that quote Isa. 53 don’t address the atoning significance of the Servant’s suffering. There is no doubt that the authors of the Gospel stress the death of Jesus. Paul’s citation of Isaiah 53:1 (Rom 10:16) with John’s (John 12:38) make the same point: the Jews have rejected the gospel. We do see Jesus is a Passover sacrifice (e.g, Jn. 19:14;1 Cor. 5:7-8); an unblemished sacrifice (1 Pet.1:19; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 7: 26-28; 9:14; 1 Pet. 2:21-25); a sin offering (Rom 8:3; 2 Cor. 5:21) and a covenant sacrifice (e.g., Mk. 14:24; 1 Cor. 11:25).

Peter uses Old Testament prophecy in Acts 3:18, where he declares: “But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ should suffer, he thus fulfilled.” Where in the prophets are we told that God’s “Christ (or Messiah) should suffer”? Isaiah 53 is probably what Peter is alluding to. Probably the most explicit case for Isaiah 53 being used is in Acts 8: 32-34 in the exchange between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.

It was after the resurrection that Jesus said:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

Unfortunately, Jesus does not list any specific texts that say the Messiah will suffer and die. Also, Paul says the following: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15: 3-4). Once again, the problem with this passage is that Paul does not list what texts he is referring to in the Tanakh (the Old Testament). He is probably referring to the entire redemptive plan of the plan of the Old Testament. Or, given his use of Jesus as a sacrificial atonement (see Romans 3:25-26), he may be alluding to Isaiah 53. But if we just jump to Isaiah 53, that brings up the issue of whether Paul is using the LXX (THE Greek Septuagint).

We should heed the word of John Collins about this issue:

“The Christian belief (in a suffering Messiah) in such a figure, and the discovery of prophecies relating to him, surely arose in retrospect after the passion and death of Jesus of Nazareth. There is no evidence that any first century Judaism expected such a figure, either in fulfillment of Isaiah 53 or on any other basis. The notion of a suffering and dying messiah eventually found a place in Judaism.” –John Collins, Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature, (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2007), 124.

Building on the words of Collins, Solomon Schechter speaks about the issue of a righteous person atoning for sin in his book Aspects of Rabbinic Theology:

Atonement of suffering and death is not limited to the suffering person. The atoning death extends to all the generation. This is especially the case with such sufferers as cannot either by reason of their righteous life or by their youth possibly have merited the afflictions which have come upon them. The death of the righteous atones just as well as certain sacrifices [with reference to b.Mo’ed Qatan 28a].‘They are caught (suffer) for their sins of the generation.’ [b Shabbat 32b]. There are also applied to Moses the Scriptural words, ‘And he bore the sins of many’ (Isaiah 53), because of his offering himself as the atonement for Israel’s sin with the golden calf, being ready to sacrifice his very soul for Israel when he said. ‘And if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of my book (that is, from the Book of the Living), which thou hast written’ (Ex. 32) [b. Sotah 14a; b Berakhoth 32a). This readiness to sacrifice oneself for Israel is characteristic of all the great men of Israel, the patriarchs, and the Prophets citing in the same way, whilst also some Rabbis would, on certain occasions, exclaim, ‘Behold I am the atonement for Israel’ [Mekhilta 2a;m. Negaim 2:1]-Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology. London: 1909. Reprint. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1994, 310-311.

Conclusion

In my opinion, answering Jewish objections to Jesus is one of the most challenging aspects to the field of Christian apologetics. Michael Brown has written more on it here. The best thing to do with any Jewish person is to build relationships of trust. Never assume anything. Always follow the example of our Lord by asking questions. And always remember that all Jewish people come to faith just like anyone else. They must be open to the truth and God’s Spirit must open their eyes (2 Cor.4:4-6).

Sources:
1. Craig, W L. Christian Reasonable Faith, Wheaten, ILL: Crossway Books. 1984, 240-241.

2. Sheller, J. L., Is The Bible True? How Modern Debates and Discoveries Affirm the Essence of the Scriptures, New York. Harper Collins Publishers. 1999, 191.

3. Yancey, P. The Jesus I Never Knew. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1995, 55).

4. Ibid.

5. David Berger, The Rebbe, The Messiah And The Scandal Of Orthodox Difference, (Portland: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. 2001), 21.

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