Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament

(Martin Pitts) #1

I was wondering how Old Testament Scripture was determined to be a messianic prophecy before the days of the New Testament. There are some the I can understand like in Isaiah, but others like Psalm 22 specifically got me curious how the Rabbis knew how they spoke of the messiah.

(Jimmy Sellers) #2

I have had similar thoughts and to that end I have been reading Jacob Neusner for more info and what I found has been a bit surprising.
This will not be the answer but I think that this will move you along with your study. I will share what I have found.
If we think of Judaism as a religion that at its core was driven by the idea of an eschatological Messiah then according to Neusner we would be doing this based on assumptions. Not all Jews were looking for Messiah, those that were found him in Jesus. Most notable of these was Paul. This confirmed what I have always suspected.He says this about those assumptions: (emphasis is mine)

But recent research suggests that these assumptions need qualification. Judaism’s scripture, the Hebrew Bible, contains no doctrine of an eschatological redeemer and does not use the term “messiah” to refer to one. Postbiblical Jewish texts—the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, the writings of Philo and Josephus—use the term “messiah” infrequently and inconsistently. On their basis, there is no reason to think that the Jews of first century Palestine were anticipating a messiah. The idea of the messiah is barely present in the Mishnah, the foundational document of Rabbinic Judaism. A key reason for the unclarity about the messiah in these texts is that the Temple-centered religion practiced in Jerusalem and described in Scripture, which dominated ancient Judaism and is the basis of all other forms of Judaism, provides no religious role for a savior. God alone is Israel’s—and therefore humanity’s—redeemer. In this religion, living according to God’s design—ethically and ritually—maintains Israel’s relationship with God, including the forgiveness of sin. “Levitical religion,” as we might call it, offers no religious function for a messiah that is not already covered in some other way.
Neusner, J., Avery-Peck, A. J., & Green, W. S. (Eds.). (2000). In The encyclopedia of Judaism (Vol. 2–5, pp. 875–2183). Leiden; Boston; Köln: Brill.

So from the beginning the Levitical system established a system of sanctification by holy living with no end in site. There was no narrative just a history of events/tasks that had no end in site. Here is another excerpt. Note the idea of death and what to about it.

Levitical religion is a religion of distinctions. It maps out a system of categories—usually binary opposites such as clean/unclean, fit/unfit, holy/profane—in which everything that matters has its place. A major distinction is the absolute distinction between the living and the dead. The two states must not be confused or conjoined. The priests have no funerary responsibilities and are forbidden to come in contact with dead human bodies, which are regarded as a source of uncleanness. But, in levitical religion human death is religiously insignificant. It is a fact, and there is no effort to transcend it or triumph over it.

Neusner, J., Avery-Peck, A. J., & Green, W. S. (Eds.). (2000). In The encyclopedia of Judaism (Vol. 2, p. 877). Leiden; Boston; Köln: Brill.

Moving on if we look at the Bible we would assume that the idea of a King was baked into Israel and that this idea drove the politics of prosperity and the desire to keep it this way. I found this excerpt interesting:

Continued foreign domination of the Jews in the land of Israel generated a de facto distinction between religion and politics that effectively removed the king from the realm of religion. For example, in the Bible, the Israelite king has no role in divine worship and is not responsible for the fall of rain. Moreover the cult is developed in the desert, not in a state. This literary strategy keeps the cult far from royalty and separates the issue of holiness from the question of Israel’s sovereignty. A people rather than a polity, the Bible’s Israel is bound together by its relationship to the cult, not to the throne. This clearly is an effort by the priestly authorities to focus Israel’s relation to God around the cult rather than the state. Nothing in the cultic structure or narrative encourages the development of either monarchy or sovereignty.
Neusner, J., Avery-Peck, A. J., & Green, W. S. (Eds.). (2000). In The encyclopedia of Judaism (Vol. 2, p. 876). Leiden; Boston; Köln: Brill.

In a later book he wrote this when discussing the idea of the Old Testament and New Testament as it would be understood by Jews. I found it interesting that he pointed out that it was Christianity that connected the life of Jesus as the fulfillment of the OT not any Rabbinic teachings.

The difference is important. When Christians say “Old Testament,” it is because they believe there is a “New Testament,” which completes and fulfills the old. They see the religion of ancient Israel as insufficient, referring as it does to a messiah who, by the end of the story, still has not yet come. More importantly, they understand in the life and teachings of Jesus the fulfillment of the “Old Testament” prophecies. In other words, Christianity in nearly all its forms takes over the Hebrew Scriptures and supplies them with a vast interpretation based upon the life of Jesus, whom they call Christ, or messiah. This is commonly known.
Neusner, J. (2006). Between Time and Eternity: The Essentials of Judaism (pp. 7–8). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

To contrast that in the next paragraph he says this:

What is not widely known is that, from the first century onward, Judaism took the same view of the Hebrew Scriptures. It concurred in the view that the ancient writings of Israel contained in the Tanakh presented only part of the story. The other part, Judaism held, was contained in the other Torah—in addition to the written Torah revealed in ancient times—taught in their own day by rabbis.
Neusner, J. (2006). Between Time and Eternity: The Essentials of Judaism (p. 8). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

This is just a toe deep in to a very deep and wide lake of thought. I have a difficult time trying to process verses like Psalm 22 from the POV of a post exilc Israelite, when I read it I see Jesus.

Maybe this will at least point you in the right direction.