The published translation of an inscription found on a stone in the days just before Jesus was born – published a few years ago now – opens upthe question of just what type of Messiah the Jews were expecting and just who Jesus was? So let’s get looking.
RETHINKING THE MESSIAH ?
“Go your way, Daniel, for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end.” (Daniel 12:9)
So here’s the deal. There’s not a low profile debate going on in Israel these days, and it involves on some level, whether or not Jesus, (Yeshua in Hebrew), – might indeed be the promised Messiah. It revolves around the work of an Israeli professor at Hebrew University, – one Israel Knohl, – and an archaeological discovery from early in this century and a stunning translation of the inscription on that ancient artifact. First of all let’s establish just what we’re talking about.
What was found was a tablet or stone with ink inscriptions from the period just before Christ. For years it was very difficult to decipher some of the writing but now Professor Knohl believes he has successfully done so; – and the resulting translation could transform what we know about what Jews of that time believed about the nature of their faith. As Knohl puts it, – (and he‟s not exactly buying into the Christian interpretation), – “The text changes the way we look at the historical Jesus, and provides a missing link connecting Judaism and Christianity.”[i]
OK, we’ll get technical – but just for a moment. Much of the debate between Judaism and Christianity, (originating as a Jewish sect believing that many prophetic Scriptures had been fulfilled by Yeshua), – centers on just what sort of Messiah was to be expected. Modern Judaism claims almost exclusively now, that what the Scripture called for was a triumphant Messiah who would rule an ascendant Israel. Now much of this controversy centers around the interpretation of portions of Isaiah 53. Let’s look at Isaiah 53 verses 3 & 5. “He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief… But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.” The now unanimous position of traditional Judaism is that the passage refers to the Jewish nation as a whole. The Christian one is that it is referencing the person of the Messiah come first as the suffering servant, and later to return as King Messiah. To the Christian, Christ’s suffering and death as the payment for sin, is clearly visible in the phrase “But He was wounded for our transgressions.”
The rabbinic interpretation however was not always the case. Even the Babylonian Talmud written as late as AD 1000, held to the Messianic interpretation of the passage.[ii] It was ultimately a famous French Jew named Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, who put a definitive modern spin on the passage in the 11th century. From thence forward Jewish authorities have considered the passage to have in mind the entire nation of Israel.3 The Israeli paper Haaretz summarized it thus: “The premise that the Messiah died and was resurrected is considered the foundation of the Christian faith, one which differentiates it from Judaism.”[iii] But getting back to the tablet now, it is characterized as an apocalyptic vision given by the angel Gabriel. According to Professor Knohl, – here’s what it says. The beginning of the inscription describes an End Times or eschatological war. Jerusalem is besieged and “residents are expelled from the city in groups.” Then God sends forth “my servant David,” to in turn send the Messiah Son of Joseph to give a sign heralding “the coming redemption.” That’s when it gets critically interesting.[iv] Beginning in line 80 it reads “L‟shloshet yamin hayeh,” which is translated “in three days live.” And its in the imperative case. What the entire line reads then is “In three days live, I Gabriel, command you.” So to who is this being said. The next line answers. To the “Sar hasarin” or “prince of princes.”[v]
Knohl boldly goes on to suggest a link between the resurrection claims of Christians and ‘Gabriel’s Revelation.’ He finds the link in the fact that the notion of a Messiah that dies and rises in three days is an established part of Jewish thought by the time that Christ walked the earth. In his mind, it was not just an addition of later Christian thinkers. According to Knohl, Jesus saw “His mission” was to be put to death by the Romans “so his blood will be the sign for redemption to come…This is the conscious view of Jesus himself.”[vi] Yehezkel Kaufman, yet another professor from Hebrew University confirms that thought, seeing the “motif” of the resurrection after three days as something “adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story.”[vii]
Christian authors like Hal Lindsey have been pointing that out all along. As Lindsey pointed out in a recent broadcast, many early Jewish thinkers were actually expecting 2 MessiahS; – The first, the Son of Joseph, a suffering Messiah, – and later, a Son of David, – or Messiah-King. Luke 4:16-20 records a very enlightening event, when Jesus goes into a synagogue and reads from the scroll of Isaiah. What’s interesting is that Jesus is reading from Isaiah 61 beginning with verse 1,but then stopping in the middle of a sentence, – right where today we find a comma, in the middle of verse 2. Christ is pointing out the fact that the passage refers to the two phases of His coming. “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, Because the LORD has anointed Me To preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD” Luke 4:20-21 then records; “Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’” So not only was He claiming to be the very Messiah, but He also did something else unheard of; – He stopped quoting a Scripture in mid-passage. It was a signal as to what was going on. The very next words were clear reference to His 2nd Coming as Judge of the World. The rest of Isaiah 61:2 reads, “And the day of vengeance of our God.”
The upshot of all of this seems to be that there is growing evidence that the Christian view, that the Messiah would come as a ‘suffering servant’ was at least present in some 1st century Jewish thought. And that at least some Jewish scholars recognized that there had to be a double manifestation of the Messiah to fulfill the Scriptures. So perhaps, this translation of this fairly recent archaeological find may open that discussion. Despite reasoned argument, Scripture itself tells us that the Jews retain a blind spot when it comes to understanding that Jesus is the Christ, the fulfillment of the Law. “But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” (2Cor 3:14-16) But there is good news in even this. That blindness will run its course: It will have its end. Paul explains it in Romans 11:25-26, when he writes, “that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved.”
[i] Ofri Ilani, Dead Sea tablet suggests Jewish resurrection imagery pre-dates Jesus, Haaretz, July 6, 2008
[ii] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98
[iii] Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), Jewish Virtual Library
[iv] Joel C Rosenberg, Missiles & The Messiah Making News, July 8, 2008
[v] Ancient Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection, New York Times, July 6, 2008
[vi] Joel C Rosenberg, Missiles & The Messiah Making News, July 8, 2008
[vii] Ancient Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection, New York Times, July 6, 2008