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Messiah: The Talmud on Messianic Prophecy

The charge is sometimes made that the New Testament makes improper use of the Hebrew Scriptures, forcing certain passages into service as Messianic prophecies when originally they were not intended to be such. A look at another ancient Jewish writing, the Talmud, sets the record straight and sheds new light on Messianic prophecies.

Of course, whenever three theologians are together, there are four opinions among them. This article is no demonstration that a certain view of a certain Scripture must be held; in fact in reading the Talmud there are very few views that are held without any difference of opinion. The purpose of this is simply to show, with references, that the Messianic interpretations of those who wrote the New Testament were in line with acceptable and traditional thoughts of ancient Judaism.


The Messianic Scriptures

The Talmud related an ancient Jewish approach related to interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures:

“All the prophets prophesied only for the days of the Messiah” – Berachoth 34b

And again

“All the prophets prophesied only in respect of the Messianic era;” – Sanhedrin 99a


Did everyone hold this view? Not necessarily; there is also an opinion that all prophets prophesied on behalf of those who would marry their daughters to scholars. (Just remember how many scholars were involved in writing the Talmud and it makes more sense.) While the comment about scholars was probably intended as humor – actual examples of its application are rare at best – the point is not a unanimous view. Very few views are ever held unanimously. The point is that interpreting all prophesy in light of the Messiah was an accepted ancient Jewish tradition with many examples of its kind.

Reading the Talmud, we see that all kinds of Scriptures are interpreted with Messianic interpretation. The passages considered Messianic included a great many which did not specifically refer to Messiah, and this was considered not just tolerable but also right. When Ruth, ancestress of King David, has leftover grain, this is seen to prefigure the days of the Messiah (Shabbath 113b). Teachings of the meals to eat on the Sabbath are interpreted as having special importance for the Messianic era (Shabbath 118a).

What does this mean? It means that the New Testament usage of the Hebrew Scriptures was true to the traditional methods and interpretive precepts of ancient Judaism. It is therefore legitimate interpretation to read passages such as “Out of Egypt I shall call my son” as Messianic. Likewise, it is legitimate interpretation according to ancient Hebrew practice to read “The maiden shall conceive and bear a child” as Messianic. It is worth remembering that it was the ancient Hebrews who considered it right to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures in light of the Messiah, even when the immediate meaning was not directly about Messiah. This was no late innovation specific to followers of Jesus. More importantly, it was not seen as a distortion of the texts to interpret them in a Messianic light.

Specific Messianic Prophecies

Aside from the vague prefigurings such as Sabbath meals and Ruth’s leftover grain, what are some of the specific things that were expected of the Messiah? Are any passages more directly about the Messiah?

There is an interesting discussion recorded in Sukkah 52a starting with the passage “the land will mourn” (Zechariah 12:12):

“What is the cause of the mourning? — R. Dosa and the Rabbis differ on the point. One explained, The cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, and the other explained, The cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination.”

The question is raised, “It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, since that well agrees with the Scriptural verse, And they shall look upon me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son.” – Sukkah 52a (Scripture referenced is Zechariah 12:10, part of the same passage originally being discussed)

Those who hold to the view of the slaying of the evil inclination also discuss their view. It is interesting to note that, in their discussion, they never object to the idea of the Messiah being slain.

The discussion continues in the same passage of the Talmud:

“Our Rabbis taught, The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to the Messiah, the son of David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days!), ‘Ask of me anything, and I will give it to thee’, as it is said, I will tell of the decree etc. this day have I begotten thee, ask of me and I will give the nations for thy inheritance. But when he will see that the Messiah the son of Joseph is slain, he will say to Him, ‘Lord of the Universe, I ask of Thee only the gift of life’.’As to life’, He would answer him, ‘Your father David has already prophesied this concerning you’, as it is said, He asked life of thee, thou gavest it him.” – Sukkah 52a (Scriptures referenced are Psalm 2:7-8, and Psalm 21:4.)


Another discussion focuses on different views of when and how to look for Messiah’s coming:

“R. Alexandri said: R. Joshua opposed two verses: it is written, And behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven, whilst [elsewhere] it is written, lowly, and riding upon an ass! — if they are meritorious, with the clouds of heaven; if not, lowly and riding upon an ass.” – Sanhedrin 98a (Scriptures referenced are Daniel 7:13 and Zechariah 9:9.)

Few of the conversations are as tightly-focused as this. When looking at passages that are directly Messianic, it is more plain how they apply to Messiah. When we look at secondary interpretations, it becomes less plain. Christians in particular will enjoy reading an ancient discussion on calculating when Messiah will come and how long the earth will endure. One commentator uses the following passage in this discussion of the duration of the world and the coming of the Messiah:

“After two days will he revive us: in the third day, he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight.” – Sanhedrin 97a (Scripture referenced is Hosea 6:2)

The commentator himself, while seeing Messianic implications, does not interpret this in the same way that a modern Christian would. But based on the Messianic view of Scripture, we can see in this passage how Jesus could say that the prophets foretold he would be raised from the dead on the third day.

Conclusion

According to ancient Jewish principles of interpretation, any passage of Scripture might contain a hidden mention of Messiah, and that knowledge should be sought out. In short, the Messianic view of Scripture is valid and directly rooted in accepted practices of ancient Judaism.

7 comments:

Here is a blog which shows how both the New Testament and Hebrew Scriptures are both crucial to the fullfillment of each other.

http://ablebodiedman.blogspot.com/

What do you think ?

Fascinating extract. I am in the process of writing "Putting Jesus on Trial: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John" which draws heavily on the Jewish oral law. What further books would you recommend in that area? I want to make sure there is not something I've overlooked.

Usually, those who attack Christianity are realing attacking their own idea of what Christianity is and teaches rather than what is specifically true about what we believe. Just so they creat the weapons they use in their arguments against it. They say the Jews belived a certain way as if it were fact when it is actually only their preconception or assumption. I think they must have thought this way therefore they did think this way. You simply did what they should have done if they were the scholars they claim to be. You looked to see what was being taught by the Jews before Paul wrote his letters and before the Godpels were committed to writing. Looking for the facts what concept.

Thank you for a well written and reasoned blog posting. I would love to read a more expanded discussion of the Talmud and Messsianic prophecy. Well done.

I'm glad to see the interest in this topic. I've been considering posting more on finds in the Talmud, and (based on the interest) I think I'll do that.

ablebodiedman: I read a few posts on your blog. It seems tightly focused on Jesus' second coming. I wouldn't be too surprised if Jesus returns before I finish typing my reply; but I also wouldn't be too surprised if he waited 7,000 years, or 70,000 years, or whatever time the Father has fixed. Jesus' mention that he himself wasn't given that knowledge makes me skeptical of our own attempts to figure it out before it happens. All the same, God bless in your pursuits.

Robert Sutherland: That sounds like an interesting project. Let us know how it goes. It's hard to know which things to recommend (which won't stop me) but there's a huge volume of material out there. The single most valuable thing is probably the Talmud itself, which is available in an online searchable CD version from judaism.com; a little pricy but it's worth it for serious research, have one myself. There are some good references in Josephus (though you have to read a lot of material to find each nugget), lots more (almost too much) in Alfred Edersheim's works and those are generally available free online now. The series Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus (Michael L. Brown) has some good material, lots of footnotes and references. Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (R. Travers Herford) has lots of worthwhile references; you could get the Talmud references yourself if you bought a Talmud, but this has Midrash references also -- and even for the Talmud references, it has gone to the trouble to organize them, which can be helpful considering the volume of material. One last suggestion: the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel. Why Heschel? I know, he's both modern (not ancient) and Jewish (non-Messianic), but he has some interesting background material. For example, reading his book The Sabbath was an eye-opener to me about Jewish Sabbath traditions as background to understanding Jesus' sabbath controveries. Jesus' take probably *should* have been acceptable considering Jewish traditions on the Sabbath. I'll stop with the references now, but let me know if you'd like more. I can put out your inquiry on the CADRE's internal mailing list and see what other recommendations might come up. Take care & God bless.

biblemike: Always an encourager. Thank you for the kind words.

weekend fisher:

Thank you for the references. I have the Talmud in its entirety, Josephus and Edersheim, Hereford and many others. I'll check out Brown and Heschel.

Do you know if the Yalkut Shimeoni (a medieval text of oral law purporting to be from the early centuries with lots of references to the Messiah was ever translated into English? I haven't found it.

My thesis will be that the gospel accounts of Jesus' controversies, trials and resurrection are substantially historical, though not inerrant. My methodology is a blend of legal, historical and philosophical principles. Standard legal principles of admissiblility: relevance and materiality govern the selection and rejection of sources. Standard legal principles of assessment: weight, credibility and reliability goven the assessment of the gospel evidence. Standard legal principles of judgment: totality, necessity/sufficiency and proof on a balance of proababilities govern the judgment to be drawn from the evidence. Standard philosophical principles of incoherence and impossibility serve as a final check on the historical judgments made. I'm about 380 pages in and expect it to go 500 pages. It will be my second book; the first being "Putting God on Trial: The Biblical Book of Job" (http://www.bookofjob.org)

Robert Sutherland:
LOL I'm sorry for having started out with "make sure you have a Talmud"; not that it's the wrong place to start, but that you're not exactly a starter. My ignorance there, I just hadn't known you. I read over your Job link (scanned! it's huge) and appreciated some of the insights (favote that I came across so far: implications of God speaking to Job from within a whirlwind). On the Yalkut Shimeoni -- haven't found that in English and it's one of those things where I'd wonder, you'd almost have to commission a translation (or find some very, very kind Messianic Jews willing to do it pro bono).

I don't know if you're interested, but I'd be willing to read through your work re: Putting Jesus on Trial. I appreciated what you were doing with Job and I expect it would be (for me) time well spent. If not -- you may have plenty of reviewers -- good luck with it. If you're interested in pursuing that, just drop me an email at anneakim@aol.com (prefer not to use my work address for something like that).

I'll let you know if I hear anything about the Yalkut (your email is on your site; I dropped an email to a Messianic group online to see if I could find out more).

Take care & God bless

weekend fisher,

Jesus said; "But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only." Mt24:36

He also said; "Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come." Mt 24:42

and he said; "Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh." Mt 24:44

So it is the DAY and HOUR which he and the angels do not know however, they do know during which watch he is coming otherwise the entire chapter becomes redundant and his words are said in vain.

Jesus said; "So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled."Mt 24:33-34

There fore the tribulation will start after "ALL" those things are seen and armageddon will finish before the generation which sees "ALL" those things dies.

This now makes the chronological measurements in Daniel Chapter 12 viable. where Daniel is told pretty much the same thing except it comes complete with some timing; " 7And I heard the man clothed in linen, which was upon the waters of the river, when he held up his right hand and his left hand unto heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever that it shall be for a time, times, and an half; and when he shall have accomplished to scatter the power of the holy people, all these things shall be finished."

Therefore the actual timing of the judgement starting can be expected to occur withing a period of about 3 and a half years starting when "ALL" those things are seen.

So Jesus was correct, he did not know the DAY or the HOUR however, he did know when the "WATCH" would start and when it would finish and that the judgement would begin within this period of time and also that sometime within the lifespan of that same generation he would be coming with his angels.


Now Jesus Christs words have not been in vain.

regards

ablebodiedman

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