A Jewish Messiah: Yeshua in the First Century

By Skip Moen, Ph.D. / December 7, 2016
In brief form, this document intends to articulate the concept and person of the Messiah from a thoroughly Jewish, first century perspective. Of course, this means some interpretation and extrapolation is required since we cannot interview those first century men and women who actually encountered Yeshua and concluded that he is the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. But the purpose of this study is not to exhaustively describe what the Jews expected or what actually transpired. It is rather to counter the popular Christian view, promulgated by the Gentile Church after 135 CE and solidified in dogma by 485 CE.

The reason such a study in needed is obvious. If “Jesus” as understood by Church dogma is a construction based on a priori philosophical and theological assertions (e.g. the dual nature of a God-Man), then there is little point in examining the Jewish background of the Messiah. The Messiah of the Church is, for all intents and purposes, not Jewish. He is the universal Savior, the man who is God (somehow), unlike every other human being who ever lived but (somehow) also human like us. He is unique among all Mankind, only fictitiously a product of Jewish heritage but actually the result of divine intervention and manifestation. The Messiah of the Church might be Jewish in name, but that is really as far as it goes. He is distinctively not Jewish as far as Jews are concerned, as any examination of modern Judaism will confirm. The Church also acts as if he is not Jewish, despite inconvenient historical records, insofar as he is proclaimed as God in the flesh, the Savior of the world, adaptable to any culture and time because, of course, he really is God who is outside all cultures and time. God might have chosen to arrive in a Jewish context, but God isn’t really Jewish and so the incarnation of God as a Jew is an accidental attribute of the divine plan, not an essential one. As far as the Christian Church is concerned, what matters is that “Jesus” is God, not that Yeshua is a Jewish Messiah.

Unfortunately, the texts tell us a different story. At least on the surface, the gospels recount the life of a man who is totally Jewish in heritage, birthplace, ethnicity, custom, training, pedagogy and purpose. If we “discover” a Christian Messiah in these accounts, it comes at the expense of sacrificing a Jewish prophet. The problem for Christianity is fairly straightforward: all of the accounts of this man are written from a Jewish perspective and claim Jewish significance. There is no indication at all that any of these authors thought their Messiah was abandoning the traditional faith of their forefathers or that he was in any way not essentially Jewish. In fact, they go out of their way to assert just the opposite; that Yeshua came to correctly interpret and apply the revelation of YHVH to Moses and that at no time did he overturn or abolish any of the Mosaic way of living. They assert that he lived a fully observant lifestyle, accomplished a Jewish mission for a Jewish population and enlisted Jews to act as his agents after he departed. Furthermore, according to the gospels, Yeshua specifically targeted the Jews, not the larger world, taught with rabbinic methods they understood, claimed to be the Messiah within a Jewish context and made no effort to reach outside his ethnic community. This striking fact is so obvious that both Christians and Jews often claim it was Paul, not “Jesus,” who really introduced Christianity to the world. I believe this is a tragic error; a mistaken reading of Paul’s own letters, but that is another story.

Most of us are quite familiar with the Christian Messiah called “Jesus.” We have grown up with the dogma that this “man” is really God the Son, the incarnate Word who pre-existed his physically miraculous birth and who, upon fulfillment of his mission, returned to heaven as one person of the Godhead. We have probably attributed his insights and miracles to his divine nature. We have marveled at his sacrifice claiming that it is a complete mystery how God Himself, in the person of the Son, could die on the cross to atone for our transgressions. Because salvation was the focus of the Christian Messiah, we overlooked the logical inconsistencies that haunted even the theologians who were responsible for the dual nature proclamation. And we certainly didn’t pay attention to the Messianic claims of the Jewish rabbis. Their eyes were divinely blinded to the truth. Jesus is God in the flesh. What more could we want?

But the rabbis wrote a lot about the Jewish Messiah and what they wrote reflected the common expectations of the crowds that heard Yeshua and saw his miracles. That is to say, if these thoroughly Jewish people understood him to be the Messiah, they understood this claim within their own culture and time. They were most decidedly not part of the Church, an organization that did not exist when Yeshua walked the hillsides of Israel. They believed him to be the Messiah because of their Jewish perspective. It is this perspective that is the basis of the gospel accounts. If we don’t know what this is, then we have only the “Jesus” of the Church, not the man who shows up on the pages of the apostles’ records. That means we must recapture the concept of the Messiah in ancient Judaism. Abraham Cohen provides a starting point.

Whereas other peoples of antiquity placed their Golden Age in the dim and remote past, the Jews relegated it to the future. . . . The glorious future centered around the person of a Mashiach, ‘an anointed one,’ who would be deputed by God to inaugurate this new and wonderful era.[1]

Cohen goes on to point out that there were very few detractors to this claim in spite of considerable variation in opinions about the identity of the future Messiah. Nevertheless, some general points can be made. After each point, I will try to draw parallels to the apostolic writings.

The Messiah was part of the Creator’s plan from the beginning. The rabbis spoke of “King Messiah” being born from the beginning, “for he entered the mind (of God) before even the world was created” (Pesikta Rab. 152b).
Certainly the prologue of John comes to mind. If we do not read “Word” (with a capital W) as the equivalent of a pre-existing being, but rather as the already-developed purpose and plan of YHVH from before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8), then there is no exegetical reason to conclude that the prologue of John says anything more than what was common among rabbinic thinking. With this interpretation, John 1 is not opposed to Orthodox Judaism nor would it have been strikingly unintelligible to orthodox believers.

The Messiah would be a human being “divinely appointed to carry out an allotted task. The Talmud nowhere indicates a belief in a superhuman Deliverer as the Messiah.”[2]
Virtually everything in the gospel accounts of Yeshua can be understood within this framework. In fact, some explicit statements of Yeshua are difficult to understand in any other way. The continuous question of the gospels is, “Are you the Messiah?” not, “Are you God?”

The Messiah would be a descendant of David. He is commonly referred to as “the son of David.”
The gospel accounts take the same view, referring to precisely the same language.

The actual name of the Messiah was disputed by many rabbis who often bent the texts of the Tanakh in order to support a particular name of distinction for one group or another.
The gospel accounts provide the name, and justify it with miraculous beginning or angelic endorsement. The name, by the way, only works as a wordplay in Hebrew, not Greek.

The distinction between Messiah ben David and Messiah ben Joseph is not prominent, mentioned only once in the Talmud. As a result, it seems likely that the general populace thought of the appearance of the Messiah in terms of re-establishing the kingdom. But the idea that the Messiah would appear as a suffering servant was also in the cultural mix. Cohen remarks in a footnote, “The conception of a Messiah son of Joseph only came into existence after the failure of Bar Kochba’s revolt in A. D. 135.”[3]
Cohen cites Klausner as the source, but if we consider the gospel accounts and their use of the suffering servant theme in Isaiah, we see that the Messiah ben Joseph was already in play prior to Bar Kochba in the writings of the apostles.

As political tensions increased in the first century, the expectation of the arrival of the Messiah grew. Josephus notes that many men claimed to be the Messiah and while some rabbis embraced various claims, other rabbis contended that the Messiah would not appear until Israel as a whole was ready.
The gospels testify to the same phenomenon, i.e., other claimants to the title “Messiah.” It is also possible that Yeshua’s remarks about the return of the Messiah can be seen in the same way the rabbis interpreted the event (e.g., “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?”)

The rabbis preached “the doctrine that there will be ‘travail of the Messiah,’ i.e. his coming will be attended by pangs of suffering in the same manner that a child is born a the cost of much pain to its mother. . . . they taught that the world would show signs of utter demoralization before his arrival and the conditions of life prove well-nigh unbearable.”[4]
One has only to reflect of Yeshua’s comments in Matthew 24 to see the parallels. Jewish Messianic thought encompasses the same material that Yeshua proclaimed on that occasion.

The Messiah will come at a time of particular political unrest and bitter warfare, according to Genesis Rabba 42:4. This is symbolically represented by the wars between Gog and Magog.
The gospel records and the history of the era both fit this rabbinic view.

Other calculations concerning the arrival of the Messiah and its accompanying victory over the collapse of the world are found in the Talmud. “. . . most of them indicating a date about the end of the fifth century.”[5] However, these attempts to calculate the arrival of the Messiah were typically rejected by the rabbis who considered the efforts no more than fruitless speculation. “As against the belief that God had determined an exact date for the dawn of the Messianic era, there grew up another doctrine that the date was not fixed but would be affected by the conduct of the people. That thought was read into the words, ‘I the Lord will hasten it in its time’ (Is. lx. 22), which were explained in this sense: ‘If you are worthy I will hasten it; if you are not worthy it will be in its time’ (Sanh. 98a).”[6] Yeshua’s comment about only the Father knowing the date could easily reflect this rabbinic teaching.
This rabbinic idea is parallel to Yeshua’s own remarks about the date of the return, particularly the claim that only the Father knows. Furthermore, the gospels clearly pick up the suffering servant motif as a way of understanding Yeshua’s role.

Several expectations surrounded the event of the Messiah’s arrival and the subsequent Messianic age. Because these expectations were part of the rabbinic culture of the time, it is easy to see why Yeshua’s claim to be the Messiah might have been rejected on purely Jewish grounds. These expectations included:

The Messiah will illumine the whole world, i.e., replace the purpose of the sun.
He will cause running water to pour forth from Jerusalem; water that will heal every disease and ailment.
He will cause the trees to produce their fruit every month.
All ruined cities will be rebuilt and there will be no wasteland in the world.
He will rebuild Jerusalem with sapphires.
Peace will reign throughout nature.
He will make a covenant between all creatures of the world and Israel.
Weeping and wailing will cease.
Death will cease in the world.
Everyone will be happy.[7]
Most importantly, Israel’s position of preeminence in the world will be restored. This change will be so striking that many Gentiles will attempt to join the Jewish community, but they will have to be rejected because their motives are not pure. In addition to preeminence, the Messianic age will reunite all the tribes of Israel. In spite of the statement in the Tosefta that the ten tribes will not share in the ‘olam ha’ba, the Talmud states the opposite, that is, that the ten tribes will be reassembled. This event will precede two striking displays of Messianic power: the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of the Holy City. Finally, the Messianic age will be extended to those righteous ones who have died. The resurrection of the dead became a central pillar of Messianic thinking, generating rabbinic claims that resurrection is taught throughout the Tanakh.

A review of these Talmudic expectations and the common cultural beliefs about the Messiah helps us understand two critical factors: 1) many Jews rejected Yeshua’s claim because he did not fulfill the common beliefs and expectations, particularly the socio-political ones, and 2) those Jews who did accept Yeshua as the Messiah did so in spite of the fact that he did not fit all of the rabbinic concepts. We can easily understand why some Jews rejected him, but the more perplexing question is why Torah-observant Jews within the rabbinic ethos accepted him. The answer seems to be that those observant Jews who accepted his Messianic claim did so on the basis of his character, teaching and resurrection. While other notable holy men might have taught very similar ideas, none were resurrected from the dead as proof of divine endorsement. In fact, with a few exceptions, it seems that most of Yeshua’s followers were in line with rabbinic expectations and, consequently, completely demoralized after his death. Only the resurrection changed their perspective. This is the paradigm-shifting event that caused them to reassess their common expectations and view the life of Yeshua as the fulfillment of prophecy. Without the resurrection, Yeshua is just one more in a long list of failed Messiahs. The shift from Messiah ben David to Messiah ben Joseph can be accounted for only if the resurrection is viewed as the ultimate divine endorsement of Yeshua’s claim to be the Messiah. This event recasts the Talmudic expectations and the cultural assumptions so that they are temporally separated. All of the rabbinic beliefs may still become reality, but they are now separated into two different temporal periods. Once we see this shift, Yeshua’s claims are validated. But it takes the miracle of life from the dead to push us to rethink our common assumptions.

If we have established that it is possible to understand Yeshua as Messiah within the Jewish cultural context of the first century, then it is necessary to explain the role and purpose of a fully Jewish Messiah. This is our next task.

First and foremost, within a Jewish context a Messiah must act as a godly guide to living. Torah, of course, forms the foundation, but Torah must be applied to life as we know it in the culture and time of our present. It must have adaptability. This is precisely what the Oral Torah and all of the subsequent commentaries intend to accomplish. Since direction signals are some of the most confusing signs on life’s highway, we need more than a few indicators. We need a guide, someone who has gone before us and knows the way. If we are to be delivered from the confusion of hundreds of possible choices before us each day, we need someone to follow. That person must also be one who knows just how difficult it is to sort out the confusion, to stay focused and to experience the distractions common to all of us. In other words, in Hebrew, we need a Messiah. A Messiah is someone whom God appoints to represent fully and completely what God is like in this world and what we have to be like to stay in alignment with Him. A Messiah is literally a rescuer of those who have lost their way among the choices. A Messiah not only points us in the right direction, he has already taken that road and knows where it goes. He is the anointed representative of God. In the past, God appointed various men as messiahs, anointing them to perform specific roles within the community of the faithful. They all pointed, in some not-clearly-defined way, toward a final version of this chosen rescuer, one who would provide the last word about directions for living. The final version of this anointed one would be the mentor of godly relationship and the rescuer to all of us who have lost our way. Furthermore, this final anointed representative would successfully complete the necessary steps for the restoration of the creation itself. In the end, death would cease and the world would be happy, as the rabbis believed. This accomplishment requires that God appoint a special person for the task, a second Moses who is so close to YHVH that he is able to complete the assignment of being fully human as God originally intended.

To accomplish these things, the Messiah would have to conqueror death itself, because unless that issue is settled once and for all, everyone will still feel the uselessness of life. The Messiah provides an anchor point, not because he explains the theology of restoration but because he has experienced it. Such a guide is the trusted interpreter of human experience. He is authorized by God and worthy to follow. But we must nevertheless choose to do so.

This brings us to reconsider the role of the final, unique Messiah, the one chosen by YHVH to act as His full representative and authorized executor of His will for humanity. Previous messiahs played limited roles, but this one is the end of the line, the last word of God in the realm of men. His life, unique from beginning to end, is the sure sign that God has empowered him to act as our guide, our final guide, to kingdom living. In fact, because of his resurrection from the dead, he is elevated to the King who will never die again, and therefore the Kingdom he establishes is without end. All of this is about the history of God’s involvement with men and the Messiah is an historical person, not just an idea of ecclesiastical construction. He has an ancestry, a culture and ethnicity, a point-of-view, a defined language and a way of living in the world. In other words, he is like us—human in a human world.

According to the gospels, Messiah Yeshua fulfills these multiple roles. He is the final word of interpretative commentary on the revelation given to Moses. In that capacity, he is the last rabbinic sage. He is the fully authorized regent of YHVH. In other words, he is Lord of life and has been elevated to the position of King over the world. He is the ultimate expression of YHVH’s will in human form. He is the Torah of YHVH manifest in our world. And he is the guarantor of God’s plan of total restoration. His resurrection from the dead is the first-fruit sign that God has not abandoned His intention that all creation will be reconciled and will glorify its Creator. There is no more important person who ever lived, or lives, in all humanity.

This Messiah fulfills a crucial role that is easily overlooked by Westerners. In our world, rationality is the hallmark of truth. Being human means being rational, logical and cognitive. This emphasis on mental affirmation and propositional logic can leave us empty of the emotional experience of God. We have all the right facts but we are left with a black hole in the heart. We don’t know God because we don’t feel Him. As Arnold Bennett observed, “There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of a truth, yet until we have felt its force, it is not ours. To the cognition of the brain must be added the experience of the soul.” Yeshua the Messiah introduces us to the feelings of the Father, and these feelings are not judgment, rejection and stern demands. They are graciousness, compassion, care and concern. Yeshua shows us the Father in his healing, forgiveness and sacrifice. Yeshua writes a theology of emotion with his life, something we have longed for since the poet David. Perhaps this is the most important of all his roles for us, Westerners who have been taught that there is something terribly wrong with who we are, Westerners who have succumbed to Plato’s view of the material world, Augustine’s view of sinful nature and Luther’s view of penal atonement. Yeshua comes to demonstrate that YHVH grieves over His lost children and seeks us with a broken heart of emotional longing and undying love. In this sense, Yeshua is the culmination of a biblical theme that begins in the Garden—the recovery of God as Father.

Daniel Boyarin (The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ) points out that a divine Messiah is not a foreign concept to Jews, but this is not the same as saying that the Messiah is deity. We must be careful (extremely careful) to recognize that the language of the apostolic authors is not our language. The words they chose to use mean what they meant in the first century, not what they mean to us today. Since Jewish thought includes the idea that every person has a “divine spark” because of the animating action of the Ruach Hakodesh, it is perfectly acceptable to claim that Yeshua as Messiah exhibits in the fullest sense this divine connection. But that is not the same as the claim that he is deity. Perhaps it is helpful to note that the word “deity” is never found in Scripture and did not come into the language until Augustine coined the word in Latin. Our contemporary equivalence of “divine” and “deity” simply did not exist in the first century. History demonstrates that many human beings were considered divine during the time Yeshua walked in Israel, but that did not make them equivalent to the one true God, YHVH. The Jewish believers in the first century viewed Yeshua as The Messiah without claiming his ontological equality as YHVH. They certainly accepted him as their Lord and Master, as YHVH’s fully authorized representative, as the final interpreter of Moses and as the once and future King. They may even have seen him as divine. One must wonder what else is necessary in order to fulfill the role of Messiah.

What does this mean for us, followers two millennia removed from the Jewish culture and context of the Messiah’s earliest proponents? Don’t we have the same connection with Yeshua that they had, removed only by intervening years? Yeshua is still the final interpreter of Moses, not the replacement of Moses. He is still the only one who deserves unrestrained loyalty and deference. He is, after all, my King here on earth. He is still the conqueror of death. How that happened is not nearly as important as the fact that it did happen, and because it happened you and I are released from the specter of meaningless existence. Death is not the end. He has proven that. He is still my daily guide. Yes, his words require decoding for my world, a world far removed from the political-social-ethos of the first century. But human problems are fairly constant across the ages and his instruction is valid for us just as it was valid for his disciples. In the end, I choose to live according to his life and words. He is still the one who helps me experience the reality of the Father’s love. He is my friend who talks with me about a God who cares and demonstrates what that care means in the ordinary acts of human existence.

How does any of this humanity diminish his importance? Frankly, it doesn’t. The only stumbling block here is that we have been accustomed to think of this unique, authorized representative of God’s word as deity, not in the sense of the first century use of the term “divine” but in our theologically Christian sense of the term where “divine” for us means “God.” We are frightened that we might have a Messiah who is not “God.” That doesn’t seem to have bothered any of his original followers, but it certainly bothers us. The real question is, “Why does it bother us?” Perhaps our concept of divinity is really a reflection of the Church and not the Bible. Perhaps we are Augustine’s children rather than Abraham’s.

How does this affect exegesis? What do we do with all those stories and lessons and instructions from Yeshua that we find in the biblical text? May I suggest that in order to understand what our faithful guide Yeshua the Messiah is teaching us, we must first understand the content of his teaching in its own environment. Since he is teaching about Torah in the context of first century Jewish thought, it seems reasonable to know something about the cultural background before we attempt to extract ideas from a commentator on these topics. In other words, it’s not possible to understand the apostolic writings unless we understand the Tanakh and the rabbinic ethos of the first century. That doesn’t mean we put aside the words of the Messiah until we have fully comprehended the body of literature. Such a task is impossible for us. We must begin somewhere and grow as we learn. Where we begin will be a choice. From that starting point, we will be driven to see the larger reality because of these smaller steps and we will struggle to incorporate that larger reality into our lives. Tension, progress, confusion, deliberation, decision, and revelation—all seem to be part of this journey.

But it isn’t a journey for everyone. You will have to decide.

What is the role of the Jewish Messiah? As simply as possible, it is to accomplish God’s will on earth. That means he will become the model for living, the faithful friend who reveals the Father, our King and confidant, and the one whom YHVH Himself elevates to authority over all creation. What else do we need?

[1] Abraham Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud, p. 346.

[2] Ibid., p. 347.

[3] Ibid., p. 348.

[4] Ibid., p. 349.

[5] Ibid., p. 351.

[6] Ibid.

[7] cf. Cohen, op. cit., p. 353.