By Eric Chabot
Over the years there have been a slew of books that discuss the birth of the Jesus movement. Linguistically speaking, Christianity didn’t exist in the first century. Judaism in the first century was not seen as a single “way.” Thus, there were were many Judaisms (i.e.,the Sadducees, the Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots). The followers of Jesus are referred to as a “sect” (Acts 24:14;28:22); “the sect of the Nazarenes”(24:5). Hence, the first followers of Jesus were considered to be a sect of Second Temple Judaism. Part of history is to look at historical causation and ask what might be the best explanation for a specific event. Skeptics have posited that the birth of our faith does not rely on a miracle such as the resurrection of Jesus.
Traditional Jewish Expectations
The word “messiah” means “anointed one” and is derived from verbs that have the general meaning of “to rub something” or, more specifically, “to anoint someone.” The Jewish Scriptures records the history of those who were anointed for a specific purpose such as priests (Exod. 28:41; 29:7, 29; 30:30; Lev. 7:36; 8:12; 16:32;), kings (Jdg 9:8; 9:15; 1 Sam. 9:16; 10:1; 15:1, 17; 16:3, 12, 13; 2 Sam. 2:4, 7; 3:39; 5:3; 1 Chron. 11:3; 5:17; 127; 2 Sam. 19:11; 1 Kgs. 1:34, 39, 45; 5:15;19:15,16; 2 Kgs 9:3, 6,12;11:12; 23:30; 2 Chron. 22:7; 23:11; 29:22; Ps 89:21), and even prophets (1Kgs. 19:16; 1Chron. 16:22; Ps.105:15).
One of the Jewish expectations is that the Messiah will enable the Jewish people to dwell securely in the land of Israel (Is.11:11-12; 43:5-6; Jer.23: 5-8; Mic.5:4-6), and usher in a period of worldwide peace. Part of the Messiah’s mission is to put an end to all oppression, suffering and disease (Is.2:1-22; 25:8; 65:25; Mic.4:1-4) and create a pathway for universal worship to the God of Israel (Zeph.3:9; Zech.9:16 ;14:9). Another traditional view is that the Messiah will spread the knowledge of the God of Israel to the surrounding nations (Isa.11:9; 40:5; 52:8). Even in the Qumran community which predated the time of Jesus thought there were possibly two Messiahs, one priestly and one royal (1QS 9.11; CD 12.22-23; 13. 20-22; 14. 18-19; 19.34-20.1; CD-B 1.10-11; 2.1; 1Q Sa 2. 17-22).
The Davidic Messiah
While God promised that Israel would have an earthly king (Gen. 17: 6; 49:6; Deut.17: 14-15), he also promised King David that one of his descendants would rule on his throne forever (2 Sam.7:12-17; 1 Chr.17:7-15; Ps.89:28-37).
As seen in 2 Samuel 7:12-17, the immediate prophecy is partially fulfilled in David’s son Solomon. However, the word “forever” shows there are future descendants to come. God promised David that his “seed” would establish the kingdom. The New Testament states that Jesus the Messiah, the “seed of David.” Jesus is God’s chosen vessel to restore God’s kingship over mankind (Matt. 1:1; Acts 13:23; Rom. 1:3,4; Rev. 22:16). Therefore, the fulfillment reached its completion in the Messiah, both son of David and the one greater than David ( Psalm 110:1-4). As it says in Luke 1:32-33, “He shall be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end.” In this sense, Jesus is not simply a son of David, but instead, the Son of David.
Jesus’ crucifixion is attested by all four Gospels. Therefore, it passes the test of multiple attestation. It is also one of the earliest proclamations in the early Messianic Movement (see Acts 2:23; 36; 4:10). It is also recorded early in Paul’s writings (1 Cor.15), and by non-Christian authors Josephus, Ant.18:64; Tacitus, Ann.15.44.3.
Even John Dominic Crossan, one of the founders of the Jesus Seminar even says the following:
“Jesus death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be. For if not follower of Jesus had written anything for one hundred years after his crucifixion, we would still know about him from two authors not among his supporters. Their names are Flavius Josephus and Cornelius Tacitus.” (1)
Roman crucifixion was viewed as a punishment for those a lower status (i.e., dangerous criminals, slaves, or anyone who caused a threat to Roman order and authority). Given that Jewish nationalism was quite prevalent in the first century, the Romans also used crucifixion as a means to end the uprising of any revolts.
The New Testament writers expanded on the theme in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 to include persons who had been crucified.
A quick glance at Paul’s statement in Gal 3:13 confirm this: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE.” Therefore, to say that crucifixion was portrayed in a negative light within Judaism within the first century is an understatement. In other words, anyone who was crucified was assumed not be the Anointed One of God. In the context of the covenant of Israel, the Near Eastern pattern was of both blessing and curse.
The blessing is for those who obey the stipulations of the covenant while the curse is upon those who violate the stipulations.
Deuteronomy 27:6 says, “Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.” We see this in the following passage: “If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all the commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God.” (Deut. 28:1-2) For a Jewish person to be blessed was to being the presence of God and enjoy his presence and all the benefits that this entailed. The blessing was to experience God’s shalom in one’s life. In contrast to blessing, to be cursed was to be outside the presence of God. To be declared “unclean” or defiled meant was an offense to the Jewish people.
Donald Juel discusses the challenge of a crucified Messiah:
The idea of a crucified Messiah is not only unprecedented within Jewish tradition; it is so contrary to the whole nation of a deliver from the line of David, so out of harmony with the constellation of biblical texts we can identify from various Jewish sources that catalyzed around the royal figure later known as the “the Christ” that terms like “scandal” and “foolishness” are the only appropriate responses. Irony is the only means of telling such a story, because it is so counterintuitive. (2)
Paul commented about the challenge of proclaiming a dying Messiah to his fellow countrymen:
“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)
Despite the fact that there is a case for a suffering Messiah in some of the Jewish literature that post dates the New Testament, we shouldn’t overlook Justin Martyr’s work called Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. In it, we see the challenge of a dying Messiah. Justin Martyr, the Palestinian Christian who in his mature years taught and wrote in Rome, tries to make the case that Jesus’ Spirit empowered ministry fulfills Scripture at many points and offers proof that he really is Israel’s Messiah to Trypho the Jew. But Trypho is not persuaded by this argument. In one part of this work, He replies:
It has indeed been proved sufficiently by your Scriptural quotations that it was predicted in the Scriptures that Christ should suffer…But what we want you to prove to us is that he was to be crucified and be subjected to so disgraceful and shameful death…. We find it impossible to think this could be so. (3)
How has a dying Messiah been received by the Jewish community throughout history? Perhaps a couple of comments can shed some light on this issue:
“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 (4)
On many occasions I have heard old saying, “Jesus is just one of several messiah’s in the first century” is not only patently false but also a gross oversimplification. Just because someone leads a messianic revolt does not qualify them as “the Messiah” (notice the capital “M”). Here are some of the figures who claimed royal prerogatives between 4 B.C.E and 68-70 C.E but are not called “the” or “a” Messiah:
1. In Galilee 4 B.C.E.: Judas, son of bandit leader Ezekias (War 2.56;Ant.17.271-72)
2. In Perea 4 B.C.E.: Simon the Herodian slave (War 2.57-59;Ant 17.273-77)
3. In Judea 4 B.C.E.: Athronges, the shepherd (War 2.60-65;Ant 17.278-84)
4. Menahem: grandson of Judas the Galilean (War 2.433-34, 444)
5. Simon, son of Gioras (bar Giora) (War 2.521, 625-54;4.503-10, 529;7.26-36, 154) (5)
So what if Jesus was a failure? Maybe there was another Messiah who would come that would restore the Jewish people to self- rule. Out of the all the messianic movements within Judaism, I will mention some that I believe are rather significant.
So after glancing at these issues, what needs to asked is the following:
1. Would there be a Christianity today apart from the resurrection of Jesus? Sure, just because a new religious movement grows doesn’t make a faith true. But given the negative views of crucifixion and a dying Messiah, it seems that the early Christian movement (pre-70 A.D.) should of ended very quickly.
Hence, in light of all the varied messianic expectations and given the failure of messianic revolts, the Christian can echo the comments by scholar C. F.D., Moule in his book, The Phenomenon of the New Testament. Moule affirmed that the actual existence of the Nazarenes, which is an event, called for an explanation. Moule went onto say that the phenomenon was brought about by ‘a most powerful and original mind and a tremendous confirmatory event.’ (6)
As we conclude, I am well aware of several naturalistic explanations that try to explain the birth of our faith. We should remember to study the resurrection in it’s first century context. From my experience, this pays great dividends. While Christians take the time this season to celebrate the Savior of the world, let us heed the words of my friend Dr. Michael Brown who says, “Unless Jesus is the Jewish Messiah of both Israel and the nations, he can’t be the Savior of the world.”
1.J.D. Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. 1994), 45. While it is true that scholars agree that there are some interpolations in Josephus, it should be noted that while the manuscript tradition of Testimonium of Josephus has the interpolations, a solid case can be made that the original passage is accurate- especially the part about Jesus being crucified under Pilate.
2. Donald H. Juel, “The Trial and Death of the Historical Jesus” featured in The Quest For Jesus And The Christian Faith: Word &World Supplement Series 3 (St. Paul Minnesota: Word and World Luther Seminary, 1997), 105.
3.Saint Justin Martyr, The Fathers of the Church, trans. Thomas B. Falls (New York: Christian Heritage, Inc., 1949) pg, 208, 291
4. David Berger, The Rebbe, The Messiah And The Scandal Of Orthodox Difference (Portland: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. 2001), 21.
5. Arthur Zannoni, Jews and Christians Speak of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press.1994),113-114.
6. C.F.D. Moule, The Phenomena of the New Testament (London: SCM, 1967, 3, 17).
Eric Chabot is the director of Ratio Christi, The Ohio State University, and CJFM Midwest Representative. He has an M.A. from Southern Evangelical Seminary and blogs reguarly at Thinkapologetics.com