Judaism and a Dying Messiah



With regards to Isaiah 53 some missionaries will try to imply explicitly or implicitly that ancient or traditional Judaism in some way shares its belief in a Messiah who dies or suffers. I would like to examine if there is any truth to that claim.


First, let us examine the idea of a dying Messiah. We need to clarify what they mean by that. For example Maimonides says:


The main benefit of that time (the Messianic Age) will be that they (Israel) shall have rest from the subjugation of the nations who have prevented us from performing the commandments. Wisdom will be increased as it says “The world shall be filled with knowledge (of HaShem as the water fills the ocean)” (Isaiah 11:9) Wars will cease as it says, “And nation will not lift up sword against other nations.” (Isaiah 2:4) There will be in those days great perfection and we shall merit the life of the world to come. The Messiah will then die and his son will rule in his place and so his grandson…[1]


Maimonides was of the view that the Messianic Age would be similar to the present age, and hence the Messiah after setting things ‘right’ and establishing his kingdom here on earth, would eventually die of old age. This is clearly not the type of dying Messiah the Christians have in mind. They do not just believe that Jesus dies, but that it was a special type of death that was for a certain purpose. It was a premature death. Dying in bed of old age was not part of the plan.


A similar problem exists with regards a popular issue that is brought up, as if it is a support to this idea. This is the Jewish belief of Moshiach ben Yosef. I have written a long article on the subject. In short there are at least three facts about Moshiach ben Yosef that are a problem for Christians who wish to use this:


First, the Messiah who is to come and rule is called Moshiach ben Dovid, but he is a different person from Moshiach ben Yosef in all the ancient Midrashic literature. They live at the same time, and in fact after Moshiach ben Yosef dies, it is Moshiach ben Dovid, acting like the Biblical Elijah and Elisha, who raises Moshiach ben Yosef from the dead.


Second, while Moshiach ben Dovid is required to come, as he is the awaited ruler explicitly promised in the Tenach, it is possible for him to come into his kingdom without Moshiach ben Yosef physically coming.


Finally, Moshiach ben Yosef suffers and dies in the context of his military activities and is a sign of his failure.


Obviously these three conditions make it absurd to claim that the Jewish idea of Moshiach ben Yosef has any relation with the Christian idea of a messiah dying for the sins of the world.


Before looking at the historical evidence supporting this, let’s look at the second claim, used for Isaiah 53, that Judaism believes in a ‘suffering Messiah’. This thesis has similar problems to the ‘dying Messiah’ thesis.


There are a number of Minor Midrashim like Sefer Zerabavel, which describe the horrible suffering that will occur when the Messiah comes, including the death of Moshiach ben Yosef and his later revival by Moshiach ben Dovid. Moshiach ben Dovid is described as living at that time, and being among those who are suffering under the oppression that occurs then, or during the war. This obviously has no relevance to the Christian claims.


There is a second example of the King Messiah suffering. We find this in the Talmud tractate Sanhedrin (98a) where Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi has a vision of the Messiah in heaven suffering BEFORE his coming into this world. Similarly the Zohar[2] in a discussion of the suffering of the righteous describes the suffering of the Messiah in heaven. These are based on the Jewish belief that all souls, including that of the Messiah preexist. Christian belief is that the messiah suffers in this world one time, and not continually in the heavenly realms.


As we see neither of these is helpful as support for the Christian belief that the Messiah needs to come into this world to suffer HERE, in a special way, for the sins of the world. Pre-entry suffering, or living in a time of much suffering does not fit this program.


That there is no support from ancient Judaism is well known and accepted in scholarly circles. I could have chosen from many different objective scholarly works, but let’s take Bart Ehrman’s recent work ‘Did Jesus Exist’ as an example. He reviews the different views of the Messiah in the first century as scholars understand from the source material:


“In all of them the messiah would be a future ruler of the people Israel, leading a real kingdom here on earth. He would be visibly and openly known to be God’s special emissary, the anointed one. And he would be high and mighty, a figure of grandeur and power.”[3]


Quite unlike the picture that Christians want to paint[4]. In fact he goes on to ask: “But weren’t there any Jews who expected the messiah to suffer and die? The short answer is that so far as we can tell, there were not.”[5]


The following paragraph, though a bit long, summarizes the issue so clearly that I feel the need to include it here:


“Before the Christian movement, there were no Jews who thought the messiah was going to suffer. Quite the contrary. The crucified Jesus was not invented, therefore, to provide some kind of mythical fulfillment of Jewish expectation. The single greatest obstacle Christians had when trying to convert Jews was precisely their claim that Jesus had been executed. They would not have made that part up. They had to deal with it and devise a special, previously unheard of theology to account for it. And so what they invented was not a person named Jesus but rather the idea of a suffering messiah. That invention has become so much a part of the standard lingo that Christians today assume it was all part of the original plan of God as mapped out in the Old Testament. But in fact the idea of a suffering messiah cannot be found there. It had to be created….”[6]


We need only look into the Dialogue with Trypho, the work by Justin Martyr, in the mid 2nd century, where he presents his case to a Jew, Trypho, for the belief in Jesus. It is clear that a dying Messiah was NOT part of Trypho’s belief system.[7] That work confirms that Ehrman and other modern scholars were right in their assessment of the Jewish beliefs of the first century.


We see further proof of this in Josephus. He mentions a number of figures who were ‘Messianic’ in his two works, Antiquities of the Jews, and The Jewish War. Suffering and dying was never an accepted part of their program.


In Antiquities we have 6: Book 17 Chapter 10.5-7 – Judas the son of Ezekias; Simon and Athronges; Book 18 Chapter 4.1 – The Samaritan; and Book 20 Chapter 5.1 – Theudas.


In The Jewish War we have 3: Book 2 Chapter 4.2-3 – Simon and Athrongus (same as Antiquities Book 17 Chapter 10.6-7); Book 2 Chapter 17.8-10 – Menahem the son of Judas the Galilean.


Two other figures are sometimes mentioned as possible Messianic figures: Jewish War Book 4 (510) – Simon ben Giora was a military leader in the war and Jewish War Book 6 Chapter 5.3 – Jesus the son of Ananus was more a prophet then a Messianic leader of men.


In all cases they died, and some also suffered, but we do not see that as a required qualification for being considered a Messiah, nor was it something they expected.


This is the same case for every Messianic pretender from that time on, whether Bar Kochbah who was killed, or Shabbtai Tzvi who was imprisoned, or any of the many in between, who had similar fates. They never claimed BEFORE it occurred that part of their mission was to suffer. This even includes the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, who in his lifetime never taught that the Messiah had to die or suffer. In fact a number of those who argued that he was a candidate to be the Messiah when he lived denied outright that there was a possibility he would die.[8]


To close this, we need only look at the evidence from the New Testament itself that verifies what Professor Ehrman said:


Matthew 16:21: From that time forth began Jesus to show unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. 22 Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.


Here we see that Peter was just told that Jesus was the Messiah, and then Jesus starts saying how he is to die. Immediately Peter, who had accepted he was the Messiah, cannot accept this, as it was contrary to what every Jew at that time KNEW.


Likewise in the book of Acts, two Messianic figures are mentioned, both of whom were slain:


Acts 5:36 For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nought. 37 After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed.


Gamliel does not think that either of them could be the Messiah, because he knew of no dying Messiah. He does not say that they will be coming back to finish their job. They died, they were failures, period. That was and is Jewish belief.


What about all the Jewish sources that claim Isaiah 53 is about the Messiah? First, we do not find among those that discuss the simple meaning (pshat) of Isaiah 53 that they claim it has anything to do with the Messiah. Some of these are discussed in articles on my website: http://www.judaismsanswer.com/isaiah53index.htm .


There are a number of commentaries that take a Midrashic/Allegorical approach. But there is little help from them. Wherever the commentary mentions the death of the Messiah it is in reference to the Moshiach ben Yosef. Wherever the commentary contextualizes the suffering it is either pre-birth, or occurs within a war situation during the end-times battles. There is not a single instance that I have found where the context of the suffering could be used to support the Christian theological view of the messiah’s suffering and death in this world. Not one. Moshiach ben Dovid NEVER dies and requires resurrection and he never physically suffers a single time for the sins of the world.


To conclude, the facts are clear: Judaism NEVER believed in a Messiah who would come into this world to suffer and die as the Christians did. A fly has wings but it is not a bird. An eagle has wings but it is not an insect. What differentiates them is so significant that it is not possible to classify them in the same class. So it is with the Jewish and Christian concept of the messiah. As Ehrman says, this is an invention of the Christians in order to explain the unexpected death of Jesus who they believed to be the Messiah.


© Moshe Shulman 2012 http://www.judaismsanswer.com

For more information, questions answered, or help with missionaries you can reach Moshe Shulman at outreach@judaismsanswer.com.


[1]  Rambam; Commentary on the Mishnah Sanhedrin chapter 10 Mishnah 1. Translation mine.

[2]  A more extensive discussion of this passage appears here: http:// http://judaismsanswer.com/zohar.htm

[3]  Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist, Harper One, 2012, page 162-163.

[4]  Although it must be admitted that there are verses in the New Testament which indicates that Jews had such a belief.

[5]  Ehrman op cit, page 165.

[6]  Ibid, page 173

[7]  See chapter 32.1 for one of the many examples of this.

[8]  Interestingly some of them changed their mind when he died, acting in a way quite similar to the early Christians. There is a growing scholarly literature on this subject.