WHY ARE CHRISTIANS & MESSIANICS TURNING TO GOD?
WHO REALLY KILLED JESUS?
Who Killed Jesus?
by Tovia Singer
What can you answer to a “Christian” who claims that the Jews killed Jesus? I was too angry to think clearly of a good answer for that.
P.S. . . It’s hard to be a Jew in Hawaii sometimes!
You shouldn’t get so angry at Christians who insist that the Jews killed Jesus. Your outrage may be directed in the wrong direction. It’s more likely that your accuser blindly embraced the dark depiction of the Jews as we were cast by the authors of the New Testament. The odious charge of deicide is clearly leveled against the Jewish people in the Christian Scriptures. From the narratives in the Gospels and letters of Paul, there can be no doubt that the Jews alone are responsible for Jesus’ death. In his earliest letter, Paul writes,
“…even as they have of the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins always; for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost!”
(I Thessalonians 2:14-16)
Moreover, not does the New Testament viciously condemn the Jews for the crime of deicide, but shockingly, the Romans are entirely exonerated in the Gospels. This selective vilification is not only directed toward those Jews who allegedly plotted and collaborated in Jesus’ crucifixion, but it places the responsibility for the death of Jesus on the Jewish people as a whole. Virtually all the Church Fathers regurgitate this devastating charge, casting the Jews as “Christ-killers.”
Accordingly, the Holy Friday liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church and Byzantine Catholics uses the expression “impious and transgressing people,”1 and the strongest expressions are in the Holy Thursday liturgy, which includes the same chant, after the eleventh Gospel reading, but also speaks of “the murderers of God, the lawless nation of the Jews,”2 and, referring to “the assembly of the Jews,” prays: “But give them, Lord, their reward, because they devised vain things against Thee.”3
Until the middle of the 20th century most Christian churches included references to deicide in their hymns and liturgy. The following, for example, is a verse from a hymn written in 1892 for use in the Church of England to call upon God to convert the Jews to Christianity:
Though the Blood betrayed and spilt,
On the race entailed a doom,
Let its virtue cleanse the guilt,
Melt the hardness, chase the gloom;
Lift the veil from off their heart,
Make them Israelites indeed,
Meet once more for lot and part
With Thy household’s genuine seed.4
The author of the first Gospel goes out of his way to portray Roman leaders at the time of the crucifixion as patsies of the Jews, wanting no part in Jesus’ death. Matthew casts Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Iudaea Province (the Roman combination of Judea proper, Samaria and Idumea), as a reluctant accomplice to Jesus’ death, and he symbolically washes his hands of the gruesome affair.5
In spite of the numerous contradictions contained in the four Gospels of the Passion Narratives, the New Testament unanimously casts Pilate as a thoughtful Roman leader, hopelessly trying to reason with the lynch-mob mentality of the Jewish crowd, arguing for Jesus’ vindication. The Jews, on the other hand, are consistently portrayed as bloodthirsty, maniacal, and a debased rabble, demanding that Jesus is put to death. The benign caricature of Pontius Pilate in the Gospels, on the other hand, is one of a melancholy, weak leader who finally relents to the murderous demands of the Jews, and reluctantly hands Jesus over to be crucified.
Mark also depicts Jesus as innocent of committing any crime against Rome, and Pilate as extremely reluctant to execute Jesus, blaming the Jews for his death.6 In Matthew, Pilate washes his hands of Jesus’ execution and grudgingly sends him to his death.7
In Luke’s Gospel, Pilate not only agrees that Jesus did not conspire against Rome, but Herod Antipas, the tetrarch, admired Jesus as a saintly miracle worker,8 and finds nothing treasonous in Jesus’ actions.9 In the Book of John, shockingly, the warm, amiable feelings express between Pilate and Jesus are mutual, where Pilate finds no fault in Jesus,10 and Jesus finds no sin in Pilate.11
It could be said that Matthew, singlehandedly, is responsible for the first blood libel against the Jews. The first Gospel claims that after the Roman governor begged the frenzied crowd to spare Jesus’ life, the Jews answer him, “We take his blood upon ourselves and our children!” In these chilling verses, Matthew provides deep insight as to how the mind and soul of your acquaintance were poisoned by the slander conveyed against our people in the New Testament. Pilate said to the Jews:
“What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all [the Jews] said to him, “Let Him be crucified!” Then the governor said, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they cried out all the more, saying, “Let Him be crucified!” When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it.” All the people answered and said, “His blood be on us and on our children.”
The Gospel of John has the dubious distinction of being both the most popular Gospel (widely considered the most “spiritual” of the canonical Gospels) and the most anti-Jewish. The term the “Jews” (Ἰουδαῖος – pronounced Ioudaios) in the Book of John functions as a hostile collective stereotype and is identified with “evil” and the “devil.”12 Like the Synoptics, the fourth Gospel also completely exonerates the Romans for the crucifixion of Jesus while holding the Jews entirely accountable for his execution.13 In a conversation between Jesus and Pilate, Jesus goes out of his way to comfort the Roman procurator of Judea assuring him that he has no power of his own, and therefore,
“the one who delivered me to you [the Jews] bear the greatest iniquity.”
In fact, nowhere in the New Testament are the Romans ever condemned for the crucifixion of Jesus. This cannot be said about the Jews. For example, in the Book of Acts, the Jews alone are excoriated and vilified for crucifying Jesus. Notice how the Roman culpability is never mentioned anywhere in this odious text:
Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.
It is not difficult to understand why Pontius Pilate is venerated as a saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. According to Eastern Orthodox traditions, Pilate committed suicide out of remorse for having sentenced Jesus to death.14
In contrast to the gracious, benign caricature of Pontius Pilate conveyed in the Gospels, according to noted historians, including Philo and Josephus, the Roman Governor was renowned for “his violence, thefts, assaults, abusive behavior, endless executions, and savage ferocity”15 and as a “cruel despot who executed troublemakers without a trial and ordered his soldiers to randomly attack, beat, and kill scores of Jews.”16 Not surprisingly, this record of Pilate’s brutality is mentioned nowhere in the New Testament. A cruel tyrant such as Pilate would not have hesitated to execute any leader whose followers posed a potential threat to Roman rule. The notion that the Jews would or could demand of Pilate to crucify Jesus is preposterous.
If you stop and think about it, Christendom’s indictment against the Jews for crucifying Jesus is ludicrous. On the one hand, the New Testament insists that it was the most wonderful thing for mankind to have an atonement through Jesus’ death. On the other hand, the Jews are vilified by the same New Testament for killing him. If you take New Testament theology to its full logical conclusion, the Jews should have been praised in the New Testament for making this atonement possible, not condemned. Does all this make any sense?
With regard to your request for advice on how to answer the Christian who accuses the Jews of killing Jesus, remember that you are dealing with someone who is operating out of a venomous hate for the Chosen People, the nation Who God regards the “apple of His eye” (Zechariah 2:8). He is probably not interested in understanding why his charges are preposterous. Instead, remind him that his Bible says that the Almighty will bless those who bless Israel, and curse those curse Israel (Genesis 12:3). In short, Jew-hatred is a sin that damns the soul.
Bear in mind that although, as a result of this despicable charge of deicide, countless Christians have committed unspeakable atrocities against the Jewish people, many decent Christians condemn it. The reason for their condemnation, however, is often varied. There is no doubt that many Christians denounce anti-Semitism because of their genuine affection for the Jewish people. Unfortunately, many Christians who loudly declare their love for the Jewish people and condemn this charge of deicide have an ulterior motive: They do not want to be perceived by their potential Jewish converts to Christianity as being anti-Semitic or associated with Christendom and its long, dark history of hate.
Rabbi Tovia Singer
- Ware, Metropolitan Kallistos and Mother Mary. The Lenten Triodion. St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2002, p. 612 (second stichos of Lord, I Have Cried at Vespers on Holy Friday) ↩
- Ware, Metropolitan Kallistos and Mother Mary. The Lenten Triodion. St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2002, p. 589 (third stichos of the Beatitudes at Matins on Holy Friday) ↩
- Ware, Metropolitan Kallistos and Mother Mary. The Lenten Triodion. St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2002, p. 586 (thirteenth antiphon at Matins on Holy Friday). The phrase “plotted in vain” is drawn from Psalm 2:1. ↩
- “Thou, the Christ Forever One,” words by William Bright, from Supplemental Hymns to Hymns Ancient and Modern, 1889) ↩
- Matthew 27:22-25 ↩
- Mark 15:8-15 ↩
- Matthew 27:13-25 ↩
- Luke 23:8 ↩
- Luke 23:3-23 ↩
- John 18:38 ↩
- John 19:11 ↩
- John 8:44 ↩
- John 19:11 ↩
- “Pontius Pilate.” Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. ↩
- Philo, On The Embassy of Gauis. Book XXXVIII 299-305. ↩
- Josephus, Jewish War 2.9.2-4 ↩
THE VIRGIN BIRTH
The Virgin Birth
by Rabbi Tovia Singer
Why did you say Christians mistranslate the Scripture by saying “almah” doesn’t mean “virgin,” when their translation of virgin comes from the Septuagint’s “parthenos,” not the Hebrew “almah”? “Parthenos” does mean “virgin.”
They didn’t mistranslate but used a different text. This is pretty well known. Did you not know? I don’t think this is a very good thing to have on your page.
Your inquiry will undoubtedly make an enormous contribution to this work. Your question contains some of the most commonly held misconceptions regarding Matthew’s rendering the Hebrew word alma as virgin in Matthew 1:23. Highlighting your question will, no doubt, benefit countless others who are confused by the same mistaken presuppositions imbedded in your question.
Your assertion that Matthew quoted from the Septuagint is the most repeated argument missionaries use in their attempt to explain away Matthew’s stunning mistranslation of the Hebrew word alma. This well-worn response, however, raises far more problems than it answers.
Your contention that “parthenos does mean virgin” is incorrect. The Greek word Παρθένου (parthenos) can mean either a young woman or a virgin. Therefore, Παρθένου can be found in the Septuagint to describe a woman who is clearly not a virgin. For example, in Genesis 34:2-4, Shechem raped Dinah, the daughter of the patriarch Jacob, yet the Septuagint refers to her as a parthenos after she had been defiled. The Bible reports that after Shechem had violated her, “his heart desired Dinah, and he loved the damsel (Sept. parthenos) and he spoke tenderly to the damsel (Sept. parthenos).” Clearly, Dinah was not a virgin after having been raped, and yet she was referred to as a parthenos, the very same word the Septuagint used to translate the Hebrew word alma in Isaiah 7:14.
Moreover, the Septuagint in our hands is not a Jewish document, but rather a Christian recension. The original Septuagint, translated some 2,200 years ago by 72 Jewish scholars, was a Greek translation of the Five Books of Moses alone, and is no longer in our hands. It therefore did not contain the Books of the Prophets or Writings of the Hebrew Bible such as Isaiah, from which you asserted Matthew quoted. The Septuagint as we have it today, which includes the Prophets and Writings as well, is a product of the Church, not the Jewish people. In fact, the Septuagint remains the official Old Testament of the Greek Orthodox Church, and the manuscripts that consist of our Septuagint today date to the third century C.E. The fact that additional books known as the Apocrypha, which are uniquely sacred to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church, are found in the Septuagint should raise a red flag to those inquiring into the Jewishness of the Septuagint.
Christians such as Origin and Lucian (third and fourth century C.E.) edited and shaped the Septuagint that missionaries use to advance their untenable arguments against Judaism. In essence, the present Septuagint is largely a post-second century Christian translation of the Bible, used zealously by the Church throughout its history as an indispensable apologetic instrument to defend and sustain Christological alterations of the Jewish Scriptures.
For example, in his preface to the Book of Chronicles, the Church father Jerome, who was the primary translator of the Vulgate, concedes that in his day there were at least three variant Greek translations of the Bible: the edition of the third century Christian theologian Origen, as well as the Egyptian recension of Hesychius and the Syrian recension of Lucian.1 In essence, there were numerous Greek renditions of the Jewish Scriptures which were revised and edited by Christian hands. All Septuagints in our hands are derived from the revisions of Hesychius, as well as the Christian theologians Origen and Lucian
Accordingly, the Jewish people never use the Septuagint in their worship or religious studies because it is recognized as a corrupt text.
The ancient Letter of Aristeas, which is the earliest attestation to the existence of the Septuagint, confirms that the original Septuagint translated by rabbis more than 22 centuries ago was of the Pentateuch alone, and not the Books of the Prophets such as Isaiah. The Talmud also states this explicitly in Tractate Megillah (9a), and Josephus as well affirms that the Septuagint was a translation only of the Law of Moses in his preface to Antiquities of the Jews.2
Therefore, St. Jerome, a Church father and Bible translator who could hardly be construed as friendly to Judaism, affirms Josephus’ statement regarding the authorship of theSeptuagint in his preface to The Book of Hebrew Questions.3 Likewise, the Anchor Bible Dictionary reports precisely this point in the opening sentence of its article on the Septuagint which states, “The word ‘Septuagint,’ (from Lat. septuaginta = 70; hence the abbreviation LXX) derives from a story that 72 elders translated the Pentateuch into Greek; the term therefore applied originally only to those five books.”4
In fact, Dr. F.F. Bruce, a preeminent professor of Biblical exegesis, keenly points out that, strictly speaking, theSeptuagint deals only with the Pentateuch and not the whole Old Testament. Bruce writes,
The Jews might have gone on at a later time to authorize a standard text of the rest of the Septuagint, but . . . lost interest in the Septuagint altogether. With but few exceptions, every manuscript of the Septuagint which has come down to our day was copied and preserved in Christian, not Jewish, circles.5
Regarding your assertion that Matthew was quoting from the Septuagint, nowhere in the Book of Matthew does the word Septuagint appear, or, for that matter, is there any reference to a Greek translation of the Bible ever mentioned in all of the New Testament; and there is good reason for this silence. The first century Church was well aware that a Jewish audience would be thoroughly unimpressed by a claim that Jesus’ virgin birth could only be supported by a Greek translation of the Bible. They understood that if Jews were to find their Christian message convincing, they had to assert that the Hebrew words of the prophet Isaiah clearly foretold Mary’s virgin conception. Matthew could not suggest that only a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures supported his claim. Therefore, in Matthew 1:22-23, the author of the first Gospel insists that it was “spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child…’” Matthew loudly makes the point that it was specifically the prophet’s own words that proclaimed the virgin birth, not the words of any translator.
Isaiah, of course, did not preach or write in Greek, and therefore throughout his life the word parthenos never emerged from the lips of the prophet. All sixty-six chapters of the Book of Isaiah were spoken and then recorded in the Hebrew language. Matthew, however, claimed that Isaiah – not a translator – declared that the messiah would be born of a virgin. No such prophecy was ever uttered by the prophet.
Furthermore, this contention becomes even more preposterous when we consider that the same missionaries who attempt toexplain away Matthew’s mistranslation of the Hebrew word alma by claiming that Matthew used a Septuagint when he quoted Isaiah 7:14 also steadfastly maintain that the entire first Gospel was divinely inspired. That is to say, these same Christian missionaries insist that every word of the New Testament, Matthew included, was authored through the Holy Spirit and is therefore the living word of God. Are these evangelical apologists therefore claiming that God had to rely on a Greek translation of the Bible? Are they suggesting that God quoted from the Septuagint? Did the passing of five centuries since His last book cause God to forget how to read Hebrew that He would need to rely on a translation? Why would God need to quote from the Septuagint?
Although Matthew’s mistranslation of the Hebrew wordalma was recklessly crafted, it was deliberate endeavor. It was not the result of a clumsy decision to quote from a corrupt Greek translation of the Bible. The most casual reader of the seventh chapter of Isaiah recognizes that Isaiah 7:14 is not discussing the birth of a messiah at all.6
The Christian editors of the Septuagint retrofitted and shaped this Greek recension so that it would comport with Matthew’s mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14; not the other way around.
The prophet’s original intent regarding the young woman in Isaiah 7:14 was unimportant to the author of the first Gospel. Matthew was driven only by his fervid desire to somehow prove to his readers that the virgin birth was prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures. Bear in mind that the author of the first Gospel — more than any other writer in the New Testament — deliberately shaped and contoured his treatise to promote Christianity among the Jews. In essence, Matthew was writing with a Jewish audience in mind. He understood that in order to convince the Jewish people to embrace Jesus as their messiah, it was essential to demonstrate his claim of the virgin birth from the Jewish Scriptures. Luke, in contrast, was writing for a non-Jewish, Greek audience and therefore makes no attempt to support his version of the virgin birth from the Hebrew Bible.
In his attempt to promote numerous Christian creeds amongst the Jews, Matthew was faced with a serious quandary. How would he prove that Jesus was the messiah from the Jewish Scriptures when there is no relationship between the Jesus of Nazareth of the New Testament and the messianic prophecies of the Jewish Scriptures? How was he going to merge newly inculcated pagan myths, such as the virgin birth, into Christianity with a Hebrew Bible in which a belief in a virgin birth was unknown?
In order to accomplish this daunting task, verses in the Hebrew Scriptures were altered, misquoted, taken out of context, and mistranslated by the author of the Book of Matthew in order to make Jesus’ life fit traditional Jewish messianic parameters, and to make traditional Jewish messianic parameters fit the life of Jesus. In essence, he felt compelled to claim that the Hebrew prophets themselves foretold that Jesus was the messiah. It is therefore no coincidence that, with the exception of Paul, no writer of the New Testament mistranslated the Jewish Scriptures to the extent that Matthew does throughout his Gospel. Paul’s famed misquotations from the Jewish Scriptures, on the other hand, went largely unnoticed because his audiences were, for the most part, unlettered gentiles.
Ironically, the widespread Bible tampering found in the first Gospel was sparked by Matthew’s desire to convince Jews that Jesus was their promised messiah. Yet strangely, if the Book of Matthew had never been written, the Church, no doubt, would have been far more successful in its effort to evangelize the Jews. In essence, had promoters of Christianity avoided the wild Scripture tampering that clutters almost every chapter in the Book of Matthew, the Church might have enjoyed far more success among the Jews as did previous religions that targeted the Jewish people for conversion.
For example, the priests of Baal did not attempt to bolster the validity of their idol worship by misquoting the texts of the Hebrew Bible, as Matthew did. As a result, the Bible reports that the idol Baal gained enormous popularity among the Jewish people. In contrast, once the nation of Israel was confronted with a corruption of their sacred Scriptures by authors and apologists of the New Testament, their apostasy to Christianity for the most part became untenable. Therefore, throughout history the Jewish people remained the most difficult nation for the Church to sway. Consequently, whereas the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John enjoyed overwhelming success among their gentile audiences, the Gospel of Matthew played an enormous role in the ultimate failure of the Church to effectively convert the Jews to Christianity, at least the knowledgeable ones. Jerome repeats this statement in his Apology Against Rufinus ii, 27 (Migne, P.L. 23, 471). ↩
- Josephus, preface to Antiquities of the Jews, section 3. For Josephus’ detailed description of events surrounding the original authorship of the Septuagint, see Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XII, ii, 1-4. ↩
- St. Jerome, preface to The Book of Hebrew Questions, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 6. Pg. 487. Hendrickson. ↩
- The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Excerpt from “Septuagint,” New York: Vol. 5, pg. 1093. ↩
- F.F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, p.150. ↩
- The seventh chapter of the Book of Isaiah begins by describing the unfolding Syro-Ephraimite War, a military crisis that was confronting King Ahaz of the Kingdom Judah. In about the year 732 B.C.E. the House of David was facing imminent destruction at the hands of two warring kingdoms: the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Syrian Kingdom. These two armies had laid siege to Jerusalem. The Bible relates that the House of David and King Ahaz were gripped with fear. In response these two warring armies, God sent the prophet Isaiah to reassure King Ahaz that divine protection was at hand — the Almighty would protect him, their deliverance was assured, and these two hostile armies would fail in their attempt to subjugate Jerusalem.
It is clear from this chapter that Isaiah’s declaration was a prophecy of the unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem by the two armies of the Kingdoms of Israel and Syria, not a virgin birth more than 700 years later. If we interpret this chapter as referring to Jesus’ birth, what possible comfort and assurance would Ahaz, who was surrounded by two overwhelming military forces, have found in the birth of a child seven centuries later? Both he and his people would be long dead and buried. Such a sign would make little sense. ↩
WHO IS GOD’S SUFFERING SERVANT? THE RABBINIC INTERPRETATION OF ISAIAH 53
Despite strong objections from conservative Christian apologists, the prevailing rabbinic interpretation of Isaiah 53 ascribes the “servant” to the nation of Israel who silently endured unimaginable suffering at the hands of its gentile oppressors. The speakers, in this most-debated chapter, are the stunned kings of nations who will bear witness to the messianic age and the final vindication of the Jewish people following their long and bitter exile. “Who would have believed our report?,” the astonished and contrite world leaders wonder aloud in dazed bewilderment (53:1).
The stimulus for the world’s baffled response contained in this famed cluster of chapters at the end of the Book of Isaiah is the unexpected salvation of Israel. The redemption of God’s people is the central theme in the preceding verse (52:12) where the “you” signifies the Jewish people who are sheltered and delivered by God. Moreover, the “afflicted barren woman” in the following chapter is protected and saved by God, and is also universally recognized as the nation of Israel (54:1).
The well-worn claim frequently advanced by Christian apologists who argue that the noted Jewish commentator, Rashi (1040 CE – 1105 CE), was the first to identify the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 with the nation of Israel is inaccurate and misleading. In fact, Origen, a prominent and influential church father, conceded in the year 248 CE – eight centuries before Rashi was born – that the consensus among the Jews in his time was that Isaiah 53 “bore reference to the whole [Jewish] people, regarded as one individual, and as being in a state of dispersion and suffering, in order that many proselytes might be gained, on account of the dispersion of the Jews among numerous heathen nations.”
The broad consensus among Jewish, and even some Christian commentators, that the “servant” in Isaiah 52-53 refers to the nation of Israel is understandable. Isaiah 53, which is the fourth of four renowned Servant Songs, is umbilically connected to its preceding chapters. The “servant” in each of the three previous Servant Songs is plainly and repeatedly identified as the nation of Israel.
But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off.”
But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen!
Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you; you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.
For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I called you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me.
Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it out to the end of the earth; say, “The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob!”
And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
According to this widespread rabbinic opinion, Isaiah 53 contains a deeply moving narrative which world leaders will cry aloud in the messianic age. The humbled kings of nations (52: 15) will confess that Jewish suffering occurred as a direct result of “our own iniquity,” (53:5) e.g., depraved Jew-hatred, rather than, as they previously thought, the stubborn blindness of the Jews.
The stunned reaction of the world’s nations to the unexpected vindication and redemption of the Jewish nation in the messianic age is a recurring theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.4 Israel’s neighbors will be amazed when their age-old assessment of the Jew is finally proven wrong. Throughout Israel’s long and bitter exile, the nations mistakenly attributed the miserable predicament of the Jew to his stubborn rejection of the world’s religions. In the End of Days, however, the gentiles will discover what was until then unimaginable – the unwavering Jew was, in fact, all this time faithful to the one true God. On the other hand, “We despised and held him of no account” (53:3).
In essence, the final and complete redemption of the Jews, to which the stunned nations will bear witness, contradicts everything Israel’s gentile neighbors had ever previously anticipated, heard, or considered (52:15). “Who would have believed our report?” the kings will ask with their mouths wide open in amazement (53:1). The curtain of blindness is finally lifted when the “holy Arm of the Lord before the eyes of all the nations, all the ends of the earth will witness the salvation of His people” (52:10).
The unanticipated vindication of the Jews in the End of Days, however, will raise nagging, introspective questions for Israel’s neighbors: How then can we explain the Jews’ long-enduring suffering at our own hands? After all, the age-old reasons we contrived to explain away Israel’s agony are clearly no longer valid. Who is to blame for Israel’s miserable existence in exile? In short, why did the servant of God seem to suffer without measure or cause?
Therefore, Isaiah 53:8 concludes with their stunning confession, “for the transgressions of my people [the gentile nations] they [the Jews]were stricken.” The fact that the servant is spoken of in the third person, plural ????? (lamo)illustrates beyond doubt that the servant is a nation rather than a single individual. The rabbinic interpretation of Isaiah 53 fits in seamlessly with its surrounding chapters which all clearly depict the nation of Israel as “despised, afflicted” (54:6-11), and oppressed “without cause” (52:4) at the hands of the gentile nations.
According to the most ancient rabbinic commentaries, the identification of Israel as God’s servant is evident throughout the four Servant Songs. As such, rabbinic sources from the Talmudic period identify the servant of Isaiah 53 in the plain sense as the Jewish people, consistent with the previous three Servant Songs.
For example, commenting on Isaiah 53 the Talmud states:
Rava said in the name of Rav Sachorah who said it in the name of Rav Huna: Whomever the Holy One, blessed is He, desires, He crushes with afflictions as it is stated “And the one whom Hashem desires He crushed with sickness (Isaiah 53:10). Now, one might have thought that this applies even if he does not accept [the afflictions] with love. Scripture therefore states in the continuation of the verse “if his soul acknowledges his guilt” (ibid.)… And if he accepts [the afflictions with love] what is his reward? He will see offspring and live long days. Moreover, he will retain his studies, as it is stated “and the desire of Hashem will succeed in his hand” (ibid.).
(Talmud Berachos 5a)
The ancient Midrash Rabba on Numbers 23 likewise attests that Isaiah 53 refers to the nation of Israel:
“I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey” (Song of Songs 5:1): because the Israelites poured out their soul to die in captivity, as it is said, “Because he poured out his soul to die.”
(Midrash Rabba Isaiah 53:12)
Interestingly, the traditional Church did not completely satisfy the Christian mind with their stock interpretation of Isaiah 53. There is, therefore, a consensus among many modern, liberal Christian commentators which is in accord with this prevailing rabbinic exegesis on this most debated chapter. For example, the commentary of the 11th century Rashi and the 20th century Christian Oxford New English Bible are strikingly similar. Both clearly identify the “suffering servant” in Isaiah 53 as the nation of Israel, who suffered as a humiliated individual at the hands of the gentile nations.
Conservative Christians, on the other hand, strongly argue against the Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53 for a number of expected reasons. Historically, the Church has relentlessly used Isaiah 53 as its most important proof-text in order to demonstrate the veracity of the Gospels. They argue that this chapter proves that Jesus’ death was explicitly prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, the author of the Book of Acts claims that Philip converted an Ethiopian eunuch using Isaiah 53, and the author of Luke, John and I Peter associate Isaiah 53 with Jesus as well. While evangelicals routinely claim that Jesus is alluded to in several hundred verses throughout the Hebrew Bible, there is only a handful of passages in Tanach that the Church insists irrefutably identify Jesus alone as the messiah; Isaiah 53 is chief among these polemical texts.
Consequently, since time immemorial, missionaries fervently used Isaiah 53 to proclaim that the Hebrew prophet Isaiah predicted the advent of Christianity centuries before the birth of Jesus. Accordingly, the traditional Church recoils at the rabbinic interpretation of the fourth Servant Song. Such a monumental concession would require Christendom to abandon one of its most cherished polemical chapters used to defend its own teachings, and a vital part of its textual arsenal used against its elder rival, Judaism.
Besides, the systemic suffering of the Jews plays no essential role in Christian theology. The suffering of Jesus, on the other hand, is the cornerstone of Church doctrine. In fact, widespread Christian teachings throughout history concluded that the suffering of the Jews illustrates the wrongness of their beliefs, while the suffering of Jesus and his followers illustrates the truth and veracity of the Cross. As a result, conservative Christians are unyielding in their rejection of the Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53.
Liberal Christian scholars, on the other hand, are frequently in accord with the classic rabbinic commentaries on Isaiah 53. Unlike their conservative coreligionists, liberal Christians do not use or depend on Church dogma or creedal statements to interpret the Bible. In other words, liberal Christian Bible commentators tend to interpret scripture without any preconceived notion of the correctness of Church teaching. Instead, they apply the same modern hermeneutics used to understand any ancient writings to their interpretation of the Bible. Given that Isaiah’s first three Servant Songs clearly identify Israel as God’s servant, and the surrounding chapters of Isaiah 53 clearly speak of Israel as a suffering and humiliated individual, liberal Christian scholarship frequently ascribes the servant in Isaiah’s fourth Servant Song to the nation of Israel.
Rabbinic commentaries that state Isaiah 53 refers to the messiah
According to rabbinic thought when Isaiah speaks of the “servant,” the prophet is not speaking of all the Jewish people. Rather, the “servant” in these uplifting prophetic hymns refers to the righteous remnant of Israel – the most pious of the nation. The faithful members of Israel who willingly suffer for Heaven’s sake are identified in Tanach as God’s servant. These are the devout that call upon the name of the Lord (43:7), who bear witness to His unity (43:11), and are therefore charged to restore the rest of Jacob (49:5).
“You are my witnesses declares the Lord, and My servant whom I have chosen.”
In essence, God’s “servant” are the cherished few – the faithful who walk in the footsteps of Abraham, whom the Almighty called “My friend.”
“But you, O Israel, My servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you, descendants of Abraham My friend”
Simply put, the Servant Songs address only the believers of Israel who emulate the first patriarch of the Jewish people. As Abraham endured trials and adversity in his walk with God, so too would His servant, the righteous remnant of Israel, endure ordeals and affliction in its sacred path (Isaiah 49:3; 51:21; 54:11; Psalm 44:11-15).
The Hebrew prophet Zephaniah vividly describes in two seminal verses the cherished remnant of Israel in the following manner:
“And I will leave in the midst of thee an afflicted and poor people, and they shall take refuge in the name of the Lord. The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies, neither shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth; for they shall feed and lie down, and none shall make them afraid.”
In rabbinic thought, all of God’s faithful, gentiles included (Zechariah 13:8-9), endure suffering on behalf of God (Isaiah 40:2; Zechariah 1:15). Thus, Jewish leaders of the past, such as Moses and Jeremiah,) Rabbi Akiva, as well as future eschatological figures, such as the messiah ben Joseph and the messiah ben David, are held up in rabbinic literature as individuals who exemplify the “servant” who willingly suffers on behalf of Heaven.
Therefore, when the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) describes the predicament of the messiah as he is waiting to be summoned by God, the rabbis cast him as:
“sitting among other paupers, all of them afflicted with disease. Yet, while all the rest of them tie and untie their bandages all at once, the messiah changes his bandages one at a time, lest he is summoned for the redemption at a moment’s notice.”
While this story may be understood allegorically, its jarring message is clear: The messiah, like other afflicted members of Israel, endures the agony and trials assigned to the faithful. However, unlike the other suffering saints who completely remove all their bandages before patiently replacing them with a fresh dressing, the messiah must methodically replace each bandage, one at a time. In other words, the messiah does not suffer more or less than other servants of God. Rather, according to the Talmud, the messiah is different from other men of God because he must be ready at a moment’s notice to usher in the deliverance of his beleaguered people. Because he is prepared to be summoned for the redemption at all times, he is never in a predicament where his bandages are fully removed.
When Isaiah speaks of the suffering remnant of Israel, the messianic king is, therefore, included. The final heir of David’s throne is an integral member of the pious of Israel. This is, according to rabbinic interpretation, the pshat, or the plain meaning of the text in Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12. Therefore, when both ancient and modern rabbinic commentators expound on the clear meaning of the text, they ascribe the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 to the nation of Israel. Moreover, while Ezekiel warned that the righteous can never suffer or die as a sacrificial atonement for the wicked. The Talmud teaches:
“Whosoever weeps over the [suffering] of the righteous man, all his sins are forgiven.”
(Talmud, Shabbat 105b)
In order to shed much needed light on the famed Servant Songs, numerous rabbinic commentators hold up Jewish heroes as a paradigm of Isaiah 53’s “servant.” Accordingly, while on one hand the Talmud, Zohar, and other ancient rabbinic texts state explicitly that the “servant” of Isaiah 53 refers to the faithful of corporate Jewry, the same sources frequently point to renowned saints of Israel as an archetype of the Suffering Servant. These virtuous individuals include saints such as Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, the messiah the son of Joseph and David – each of them embodies perfect examples of God’s servant, the righteous remnant of Israel.
Bear in mind that the rabbinic commentary on Isaiah 53 is not dualistic or multilateral. Meaning, the sages of old did not suggest that Isaiah 53 refers to either the righteous remnant of Israel, Moses, Jeremiah, or an anointed leader. Rather, the servant in all four Servant Songs are the faithful descendants of Abraham. Isaiah 53 attests to an unprecedented worldwide repentance of all of mankind – a redemptive achievement accomplished by no other saint in history. Therefore, rabbinic commentators tend to lift up the messiah’s name more frequently than the names of other faithful servants of God.
While the bulk of rabbinic commentary seeks to provide the pshat – the principal analysis which illuminates the plain meaning of sacred literature – there is, broadly speaking, a second, and distinct stream of rabbinic commentary which explores the drash. In general terms, the drash delves into the deeply profound, yet often less precise homiletic method of exegesis used to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures. This sacred material is often referred to as midrashic, literally “derived from a drash.”
In Jewish thought, the pshat conveys the foundational understanding of any text in Tanach; this is the commentary which elucidates the clear and basic meaning of a verse. As the sages declare in the Talmud, “A verse cannot depart from its plain meaning.” (Shabbat 63a; Yev. 11b, 24a). Accordingly, the midrashic interpretation of a biblical verse is never intended to nullify, contradict, or injure the natural sense of a text. On the contrary, thepshat always supplies the primary meaning of a passage. Moreover, it is impossible to fully grasp the inspirationalmidrashic commentary without first comprehending the simple meaning of a text.
On the other hand, without the sublime illumination of the Midrash, seminal, seemingly-disconnected principles throughout various regions of Tanach can be challenging to harmonize and fully comprehend. In other words, with only the pshat commentary, Biblical principles when studied independently, can only be understood on a fundamental level.Yet the separate, straightforward commentaries of the pshat may appear incompatible and disjointed from other regions of scripture without the midrashic commentary. Midrashic literature, generally speaking, weaves together and painstakingly merges Judaism’s Written and Oral tradition into a transcendent revelation. Because the Midrash illuminates rabbinic thought to its fullest, holistic expression, it stands out as a vital tool for the student of sacred literature.
Few chapters in Tanach better illustrate the vital role the Midrash plays in expounding Biblical texts than Isaiah 53. The straightforward rabbinic approach to elucidate Isaiah 53 begins by identifying the astonished speakers in Isaiah 53:1-9 and the “Servant” in Isaiah 52:13 and 53:11. The rabbinic annotations, i.e. the pshat, convey the clear and essential commentary. They describe how these passages record the reaction of the astonished and contrite kings of nations when they discover that the faithful members of Israel were always God’s true servant. As mentioned, the identities of the speakers and the servant are evident from the surrounding chapters of Isaiah 53.
The Midrash, however, illuminates a most profound, yet often overlooked central theme of Isaiah 53; never before in history has any servant of God brought about the mass repentance of the gentiles. Whereas the patriarch Abraham redeemed only 70 souls in Haran, the future scion of the House of David will usher in an unprecedented epoch, where gentile kings of nations will repent, as vividly described in the fourth Servant Song. In other words, the messiah will bring about an age when the most important feature of Isaiah 53 will materialize – the worldwide repentance of the gentiles. Whereas Moses drew only a single nation from Egypt into the service of God, the messianic king will redeem the other nations as well. At this epic, redemptive moment in the future all the nations will perceive that Judaism is the only true faith, as it is written:
“For then I will make the peoples pure of speech, so that they all invoke the name of the Lord and serve Him with one accord.”
Thus, in the messianic age, the gentiles will confess aloud the remorseful and repentant words sketched in Isaiah 53. In essence, the sequence of events outlined in the fourth Servant Song will be an unparalleled occasion in history. Never before throughout the annals of time have “the gentiles come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isaiah 60:3).
Consequently, although various rabbinic literature highlights numerous Biblical saints whose lives exemplify the Suffering Servant of Israel in Isaiah 53, the future messiah is held up more frequently and prominently than any other pious Jew in this startling context; for the future anointed Davidic king will usher in this dramatic epoch in which the gentiles will repent, as outlined in Isaiah 53. In other words, the stunning narrative of the fourth Servant Song will be made possible by the reign of the messiah, the foremost member of God’s Suffering Servant, Israel. Only the messiah will accomplish this global achievement in the final redemption, which neither Abraham, Moses, or Jeremiah were able to accomplish. Only the messianic age will spawn worldwide repentance of the nations. Therefore, the rabbis teach,
“My servant shall be high, and lifted up, and lofty exceedingly – he will be higher than Abraham, more exalted than Moses, loftier than the angels."
In short, the messiah will ignite the contrition of Israel’s neighbors as outlined in Isaiah’s fourth Servant Song.
Because of the deeply esoteric and widely elastic nature of midrashic writings, these millennia-old texts are vulnerable to misuse by opponents of the Jewish faith. Isaiah 53 – the chapter in the Bible which has for ages formed one of the principal battlefields between Jews and their Christian opponents – is no exception to this rule.
Under ordinary circumstances, traditional Church apologists regard rabbinic commentaries with sneering derision, casting them at best as damaging to spiritual enlightenment. However, ancient midrashic annotations on Isaiah 53 which can be ripped out of context and portrayed as supportive of Christian teachings are wildly quoted and cheerfully paraded by missionaries with the hope of winning more unclaimed souls to the Cross. The fact that the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53 is not supported by the chapters that surround it, only adds to the Church’s desperate feeding frenzy on these ancient rabbinic texts. It is astonishing that missionaries would use rabbinic texts to support Christian doctrines given that each and every one of the rabbis that they zealously quote utterly rejected the teachings of Christianity.
The most frequently quoted rabbinic text in Christian literature is, without doubt, the second-century Targum Yonatan ben Uziel on Isaiah 53. Although the word “Targum” literally means a “Translation,” the Targum Yonatan ben Uziel is not at all a word-for-word translation of Tanach. Rather, this unique, highly-regarded Aramaic annotation on the Hebrew Scriptures fuses together both drash and pshat – the homiletic and plain meaning of a text – in its running, dynamic commentary on the Prophets. Accordingly, it is the messiah who is raised up as God’s ideal servant in the Targum Yonatan ben Uziel on Isaiah 52:13, yet on the following verse, the Targum identifies the faithful of Israel who suffer vicariously (Isaiah 52:14).
As expected, missionaries selectively quote the Targum Yonatan ben Uziel on Isaiah 52:13, which identifies God’s servant as the messiah.
The Targum’s rendering of Isaiah 52:13 is as follows:
“Behold my servant Messiah shall prosper; he shall be high, and increase, and be exceedingly strong.”
Yet the Targum’s commentary on the following verse, Isaiah 52:14, identifies Israel as the long-suffering and humiliated servant:
“As the house of Israel looked to him during many days, because their countenance was darkened among the peoples, and their complexion (darkened) beyond the sons of men.”
As expected, the commentary of Targum Yonatan ben Uziel on Isaiah 52:14 is nowhere to be found in Christian missionary material. There is not a single Church apologist who quotes the Targum’s elucidation on Isaiah 53:10. For it is upon these words of Isaiah, “He is crushed and made ill,” where the Targum identifies the suffering servant as the nation of Israel who suffers unbearable chastisement in the following commentary:
“But it is the Lord’s good pleasure to refine and cleanse the remnant of His people in order to purify their souls from sin; they shall see the kingdom of the messiah, they shall increase their sons and daughters, they shall prolong their days; and those who perform the Law of the Lord shall prosper in good pleasure.”
Although the above quotation from Targum Yonatan ben Uziel on Isaiah 53:10 is deliberately ignored by Christendom’s missionaries, this two-millennia-old message remains immortal. The nation of Israel, God’s servant, suffered unimaginable torment at the hands of her gentile neighbors so that her sins would be washed away.
“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her: Her term of service is over, her iniquity is expiated; for she has received at the hand of the Lord double for all her sins.”
Simply put, there are 15 verses in the Targum’s annotation on Isaiah 53 (52:13-15 and 53:1-12), yet with surgical precision, missionary conversionist tracts selectively and deliberately ignore almost all of them with the exception of the first verse on Isaiah 52:13. This is a well-worn technique of wielding rabbinic literature as an evangelical sledgehammer, in order to drive home the well-crafted message to unlettered Jews that ancient rabbis concealed the truth that Isaiah 53 is speaking of Jesus, and not the nation of Israel. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.
- Midrash Rabbah (Numbers XXIII.2), Zohar (Genesis & Leviticus), Talmud (Brochos 5a), Rashi, Joseph Kara, Ibn Ezra, Joseph Kimchi, David Kimchi, Nachmanadies, Abarbinbanel, et all
- Ibn Ezra on Isaiah 53 <-
- Origen, Contra Celsum, Chadwick, Henry; Cambridge Press, book 1, chapter 55, page 50
- Isaiah 41:11; Micah 7:15-16; Jeremiah 16:19-20
- Isaiah 41:8-9; 43:10; 44:1; 44:21; 45;4; 48:20; 49:3
- The New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition, page 788-789. See also the Revised Standard Bible, Oxford Study Edition, page 889.
- Acts 8:28-34
- Luke 22:37
- John 12:38
- I Peter 2:22
- The Christian New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition, annotation on Isaiah 52:13-53:12 explains:
The “fourth Servant Song, the Suffering Servant, Israel, the servant of God, has suffered as a humiliated individual. However, the servant endured without complain because it was vicarious suffering (suffering for others). 52:13-15: Nations and kings will be surprised to see the servant exalted. 53:1: The crowds, pagan nations, among whom the servant (Israel) lived, speak here (through verse 9), saying that the significance of Israel’s humiliation and exaltation is hard to believe (page 788-789). See also the Revised Standard Bible, Oxford Study Edition, page 889
Walter Brueggemann Ph.D., Isaiah 40 – 66 (Louisville: Kentucky, 1998), p. 143, states:
“There is no doubt that Isaiah 53 is to be understood in the context of the Isaiah tradition. Insofar as the servant is Israel – a common assumption of Jewish interpretation – we see that the theme of humiliation and exaltation serves the Isaiah rendering of Israel, for Israel in this literature is exactly the humiliated (exiled) people who by the powerful intervention of Yahweh is about to become the exalted (restored) people of Zion. Thus the drama is the drama of Israel and more specifically of Jerusalem, the characteristic subject of this poetry. Second, although it is clear that this poetry does not have Jesus in any first instance on its horizon, it is equally clear that the church, from the outset, has found the poetry a poignant and generative way to consider Jesus, wherein humiliation equals crucifixion and exaltation equals resurrection and ascension.”
- Talmud, Sotah 14a and the Sifri on Deuteronomy 355 applies Isaiah 53:12 to Moses
- Rabbi Sadyah Gaon (tenth century), Oxford Ms. (Poc 32
- Jerusalem Talmud, Shkalim V.I.
- Ezekiel 18:20-23
- Midrash Rabbah (Numbers XXIII.2), Zohar (Genesis & Leviticus), Talmud (Brochos 5a),
- Yalkut, ii, 571 on Zachariah 4:7
DID THE PASSOVER LAMB FORESHADOW THE CRUCIFIXION OF JESUS?
I want to first commend you on your web site which is laid out quite well and has helped me understand more about traditional Jewish thinking on Christ. Although I am a born again Christian, I do not support groups such as the Messianics who sit on the fence regarding Judaism and Christianity. You either follow Judaism or Christianity; you can’t pretend to follow both at the same time. This has led to Jews for Jesus following rabbinic customs that are not a part of the teachings of Christ.
With that said, my question to you is: Why have the Jewish people rejected Jesus as their sacrificial lamb who is the sin bearer for mankind when the atoning blood of Jesus is so ever present in the Paschal lamb in the Book of Exodus. I ask this question because you are a rabbi and profess to believe in the teachings of the Old Testament; so how is it that you do not see the atonement of the blood of the lamb which was placed on the doorposts that first Passover Seder night in Egypt? I look forward to your answer.
Evangelical Christians often draw a comparison between the Paschal Lamb and Jesus, insisting that the former foreshadows the latter. This idea is advanced in the New Testament, particularly in the fourth Gospel, where John portrayed Jesus as the fulfillment of the Passover lamb. Yet how valid a point is this? What is the meaning of this holiday sacrifice? Is there a relationship between this festival offering and atonement for sin?
The Bible relates in Exodus 12:3-13 that as the Jewish people were preparing themselves for the momentous Exodus from Egypt, God commanded them to slaughter a year-old sheep or goat on the 14th day of the first month (Nissan). They were to place its blood on the outside doorposts of their homes. Because Christians insist that the blood of the Paschal lamb foreshadowed the atonement of the blood of Jesus at Calvary, it behooves us to question the soundness of this claim.
The Passover lamb did not atone for sin and accordingly, this idea is nowhere to be found in the Jewish Scriptures. It goes without saying that the notion that the Paschal Lamb is a representation of a crucified savior or an atonement is alien to the teachings of the Torah and is not even mentioned by the first three Gospels.
A mindful study of the Jewish Scriptures reveals that the Paschal Lamb was alluded to long before the Exodus from Egypt. Centuries earlier, Abraham’s faith was tested by God when he commanded him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Genesis 22:7-8 relates that as the two ascended Mount Moriah together, Isaac asked his father, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?” Abraham then replied, “God will see to a lamb for an offering, my son.”
The question that comes to mind is, what happened to that lamb that Abraham promised? A few verses later we find that ram was sacrificed rather than a lamb! Where was the lamb to which Abraham was prophetically referring?
The answer of course is that our father Abraham was prophetically alluding to the Paschal lamb. Just as God tested Abraham’s faith to demonstrate his worthiness to be the father of the chosen people, the young Jewish nation also had to have their faith tested to show their worthiness to participate in the exodus from Egypt, receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, and emerge as the progenitors of the covenant people who would forever be known as “a light to the nations.”
During the period of the Exodus in Ancient Egypt, the lamb was deified and worshiped as a god. By Egyptian law, it was therefore forbidden to harm a lamb in any way; such an act was considered a crime punishable by death.
For this reason, Moses refused Pharaoh’s initial offer that the Jews bring their sacrifice to God while remaining in Egypt, following the third plague of lice. Moses explained to Pharaoh that it would be impossible for his people to sacrifice these animals in this land because the Egyptians would execute us for carrying out this ceremony (Exodus 8:25-26).
The Almighty, therefore, tested the faithfulness of the Jewish people by commanding them to kill Egypt’s cherished god, and place the lamb’s blood on their doorposts, displayed for all of their neighbors to see. Only those Israelites who, like Abraham, demonstrated that they feared nothing but the God of Israel were deemed worthy to have their homes “passed over” during the tenth and final plague.
It is worth noting that the synoptic gospels, i.e. the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, do not associate Jesus with the Paschal Lamb. The Book of John, on the other hand, draws a clear link between the two (John 1:29-34). The synoptic Gospels insist that Jesus was crucified on the first day of Passover – the 15th day of Nissan. Written several decades after the synoptic Gospels, th John’s author accordingly has Jesus crucified on the eve of Passover, the 14th day of Nissan, when the lambs were slaughtered. As a result, the Passover Seder is noticeably absent in John’s Passion Narrative.
Rabbi Tovia Singer
SIN & ATONEMENT
Not being a Jew or a “Jew for Jesus,” I am confused by this “blood sacrifice” argument between the two groups. I am trying to understand. I believe in Christ and am a Christian. I agree with your assessment that the offering the Lord truly wants is a broken heart and contrite spirit full of repentance. I also believe that “blood sacrifice” is not necessary for forgiveness as you have, with excellent Scriptural support, stated very well.
My question is related to your beliefs in the atoning nature of the Messiah. Regardless of whether Jesus is THE Messiah or not, I am surprised that the arguments you present diminish the significance of the Messiah’s role. My Jewish friends have always impressed me with their strong reverence for the Messiah and his role in their future. If I have read you correctly, you do not accept the concept of expiation. Please help me understand.
I am also confused with the use of Ezekiel 18:1-4, 19-23 as proof against the ability of one to atone for another’s sins. This text was Click here to listen to Rabbi Tovia Singer’s fascinating lecture, “Sin and Atonement” not intended to be extrapolated to this point. It was simply as intended: A correction of those in that day who were propagating the idea that the sin of a father will rest upon his children. Ezekiel was dealing with those who teach that the sins of the father rest upon the children because the fall of Adam and Eve caused suffering on their children. It is clearly this false doctrine Ezekiel was trying to destroy.
Any clarification on these issues would be greatly appreciated and hopefully allow me to dispel confusion. I believe in asking the believer what he believes, not going to someone else and getting their “interpretation.” I hope you can appreciate this sincerity.
I have been asked both of your questions by many Christians in the past, although not often with the earnestness and openness that comes across in your letter. You have essentially asked two questions, and I will address each separately.
Regarding your first question, the Bible is clear on the subject of the advent of the messiah.1 It should be noted, however, that although many sections throughout the Jewish Scriptures vividly describe how the world will be forever transformed with the arrival of the Messianic Age, very few discuss the messiah personally. The vast bulk of messianic Scripture in Tanach2 depicts the state of perfection that the world will achieve at the End of Days.
In contrast, parishioners pray to Jesus repeatedly, whom they venerate as God. How frequently is Jesus’ name mentioned during a typical Church service? Probably hundreds of times. Throughout the entire corpus of the Jewish Scriptures, there is not a single instance where we are encouraged to pray to or in the name of the messiah. This stunning, radical contradiction should inspire every parishioner to tremble, wonder, and seek out the truth.
The Tanach is clear that the significance of the messiah himself pales in comparison to the utopian age that his arrival will usher in. In a similar fashion, the status of Moses is overshadowed by the unprecedented events of the Exodus. Although Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, no Jew would even consider praying to or through Moses. Moses’ name is therefore virtually absent from the Passover Haggadah. Why is the lawgiver’s name missing from the Seder liturgy?
Because Judaism draws man’s eyes toward Heaven – the God of Israel. We are inspired by the saintly lives of great men like Abraham and Daniel, but the notion of worshiping them would not cross our minds. We worship the God for whom they were willing to die.
The reason Judaism does not accept the Christian messiah is because Jesus did not fulfill a single messianic prophecy clearly outlined in the Jewish Scriptures. The following is an overview of the central messianic prophecies outlined in the Jewish Scriptures that both Judaism and Christianity agree are messianic:
And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn of war any more.
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together. . . and the sucking child shall play on the hole of the cobra…
Universal Knowledge of God
…for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
No longer shall one teach his neighbor or shall one teach his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know Me, from their smallest to their greatest,” says the Lord…
And the Lord shall be king over all the earth. In that day shall there be one Lord, and His name one.
Resurrection of the Dead
Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust, for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead.
And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
Therefore, prophesy and say to them, “So says the Lord God, ‘Lo! I open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves as My people, and bring you home to the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and lead you up out of your graves as My people.’”
Ingathering of Israel
I will bring thy seed from the east, and gather you from the west. I will say to the north, “Give up,” and to the south, “Keep not back, bring My sons from far, and My daughters from the ends of the earth. (see also, Jeremiah 16:15 23:3; Isaiah 11:12; Zechariah 10:6; Ezekiel 37:21-22)
Building of The Third Temple
…and I will set My Sanctuary in the midst of them forevermore. My temple also shall be with them. Yes, I will be their God and they shall be My people. And the heathen shall know that I, the Lord, do sanctify Israel, when My sanctuary shall be in the midst of them forevermore. (See also 40-48; Isaiah 33:20)
Although fantastic messianic claims have been made by countless individuals and their enthusiastic followers throughout history, not one of these claimants fulfilled any one of the prophecies clearly outlined in the Jewish Scriptures.
When evaluating the claim of Jesus’ messiahship, it is clear that the very opposite events occurred during the period that the Christian religion emerged. For example, during this catastrophic epoch, the dead did not resurrect as Daniel and Isaiah prophesied. Quite the contrary, the Romans slaughtered many hundreds of thousands of Jews during this bitter century. The children of Israel were not gathered from the diaspora two thousand years ago. The Jewish people were exiled from their land and dispersed throughout the Roman Empire during this dark moment in history. Nor did the universal knowledge of God unfold as promised by the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. As a result of the horrific wars with Rome and the dispersion that followed, the knowledge of Torah and its observance decreased. No temple was built in Jerusalem during the first century. The Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 C.E. – its remains, the Wailing Wall, wait with us till this day for the true redemption. Clearly, there is no relationship between what the Bible says about the messiah and what Christendom espouses about Jesus.
With regard to your second question, it is essential for you to understand that the Jewish people do not read their Bible as if it were a mere history book. Those teachings that are inscribed throughout the Jewish Scriptures were not only appropriate for the time they were recorded; rather, its prophecies are indispensable for all generations that would follow. Every edification and instruction of the Torah and the Prophets are as meaningful and timely today as they were the day they were first preached.
Scripture, therefore, provides few dates for reckoning Biblical chronology. While these dates do appear in certain passages in Tanach, one must be careful piecing the time periods together in order to stretch out a contiguous time line.
Moreover, the Bible is entirely silent on what had transpired over the course of many decades during the lives of men like Abraham and Moses. This does not suggest that Abraham did nothing spiritually valuable during those silent years. Rather, only those crucial events that provide eternal teachings and are relevant for all future generations were inscribed in the Bible.
Even the first Christians were well aware of this principle.
In II Timothy 3:16 Paul says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” Bear in mind, at the time that II Timothy was written, the Christian Bible had not yet been written. Chronologically, the letters of Paul were among the earliest books in the New Testament. The author of this Pastoral Epistle was referring only to the Jewish Scriptures.
In the eighteenth chapter of Ezekiel, the prophet was teaching his people a fundamental Biblical principle: A righteous person cannot die vicariously for the sins of the wicked. This alien notion was condemned by Ezekiel. He taught that the belief that the innocent can suffer to atone for the sins of the wicked is pagan, and was to be purged from the mind of the Jewish people. This core tenet of Judaism is conveyed explicitly throughout the eighteenth chapter of the Book of Ezekiel. In verses 18:20-23, the prophet declares that true repentance alone washes the penitent clean of all iniquities; every one of his sins are forgiven in Heaven. This chapter is so clear and unambiguous, there can be no other reading of these passages. Blood-sacrifices or the veneration of a crucified messiah are not mentioned or even hinted throughout Ezekiel’s thorough and inspiring discourse on sin and atonement.
Ezekiel’s teaching is not novel. The Jewish people were warned throughout the Torah never to offer human sacrifices. When Moses offered to have his name removed from the Torah in exchange for the sin that the Jewish people had committed with the Golden Calf, the Almighty abruptly refused Moses’ offer.3 Moses, who was righteous with regard to the golden calf, could not suffer vicariously for the sin of the nation. Rather, only the soul that sinned would endure judgment.
As Ezekiel explains chapters later,
Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?’ 12 “Therefore, son of man, say to your countrymen, ‘The righteousness of the righteous man will not save him when he disobeys, and the wickedness of the wicked man will not cause him to fall when he turns from it. The righteous man, if he sins, will not be allowed to live because of his former righteousness.’” (Ezekiel 33:11-12)
Regarding your comment on the sin in the Garden of Eden, the consequences of the fall of Adam and Eve are not to be appended to Ezekiel’s 18th chapter. The first iniquity is not mentioned in these passages. In fact, Ezekiel outlines many of the sins that the wicked routinely commit, and yet not one of them is eating from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. On the contrary, all of the sins outlined in the eighteenth chapter of Ezekiel are those that were never committed in the Garden of Eden. As mentioned above, this monumental chapter is filled with fundamental principles of sin and atonement, and a vigorous rejection of the pagan belief in vicarious atonement.
Finally, I am puzzled by the fact that you have identified yourself as a Christian and yet at the end of your letter you refer to the teaching that the fall of Adam and Eve has affected and caused suffering to their future children as a doctrine that “Ezekiel was trying to destroy.” This comment surprises me because this is a foundational Christian doctrine.
The Church teaches that every person born into this world is infected with the stain of, and is spiritually lost as a result of the Original Sin. Accordingly, Christendom argues that man is incapable of achieving “salvation” through his own initiative. Man’s “totally depravity” is complete. His only hope of salvation is through the Cross. This is the cornerstone of Paul’s theology throughout his Epistles, especially in the Book of Romans.
I agree with your assessment that the doctrine of Original Sin is contrary to the teachings of the prophets. In fact, the Church’s doctrine of Original Sin and Total Depravity has no greater foe than the Prophet Ezekiel.
Thank you for your sincere questions. Happy Chanukah!
Rabbi Tovia Singer
This subject is addressed at length in the letter entitled, The Christian Messiah? (see page 353) ↩
The Hebrew word תנך (Tanach) refers to the entire corpus of the Jewish Scriptures, and is an acronym that stands for the Torah, Prophets, and the Writings. ↩
Exodus 32:31-33. ↩