Bart Ehrman continues to address the conventional explanation for why Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah in Another Problem with Calling Jesus the Messiah.
That explanation tells us that the Jewish idea of a Messiah or Christ was that he was to be a conquering Davidic King who would overthrow Israel’s enemies and usher in a utopian reign with the Jews as the top nation.
Yet if that were the reason Jesus was not accepted as the Messiah then some interesting questions surface.
Ehrman has pointed to one of these questions without realizing it. He has pointed out that the term “messiah” is nowhere mentioned in connection with the Suffering Servant in the Book of Isaiah as if that should be a decisive point. But nor do we find the word for “messiah” in any of the standard biblical passages that are said to speak of the conquering Davidic messiah. Notice (the list it taken from Matthew Novenson’s study of the term “Christ”):
The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the commander’s staff from between his feet, until that which is his comes; and the obedience of the peoples is his.
A star will go forth from Jacob; and a scepter will rise from Israel; it will shatter the borders of Moab and tear down all the sons of Sheth.
2 Samuel 7:12-13
I will raise up your seed after you, who will come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
A shoot will come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch will grow from his roots. The spirit of YHWH will rest upon him.
On that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, and repair its breached walls, and raise up its ruins, and build it as in the days of old.
I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like a son of man was coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and honor and kingship.
If Isaiah 53’s Suffering Servant passage could not be understood by pre-Christian Jews as “messianic” because the word for “messiah” (= anointed one) nowhere appears there, then why did those same Jews presumably interpret the above passages “messianically”?
In pre-Christian times Jewish “messiahs” (Greek “christs”) died all the time. A passage in Daniel could not be clearer (although understanding its application in history may be obscure):
Daniel 9:26 (Douay-Rheims)
And after sixty-two weeks Christ shall be slain
New International Version
After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death
And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off
King Saul was an “anointed one” who died, as Thomas L. Thompson has shown with reference to 2 Samuel 1:21. The high priest was another anointed one; his death signaled the liberation of those confined to cities of refuge because of manslaughter (Numbers 35:28 and Exodus 29:7).
I have already made passing reference to earlier posts where this topic is discussed in depth. Studies among both Christian and Jewish scholars have demonstrated that pre-Christian messianic ideas were widely varied. And we do indeed have evidence that some pre-Christian Jews did think the messiah would die as an atoning act. After all, if none did think that was a possibility then Christianity had no means to ever get started as a Jewish sect.
Not only did biblical messiahs die, but we know there were Jewish sects who firmly believed in the atoning power of the blood of a human sacrifice. The Maccabean martyrs are the most famous example. The scholarly literature has addressed others, such as the “blood of Isaac”.
I have mentioned one of the questions that surfaces if indeed the reason the Jews rejected Jesus was because he was not a conquering David overthrowing the Romans. The other question that arises if Paul were indeed faced with such an opposition: he nowhere takes on that supposedly conventional view of the messiah and demonstrates why it is wrong or why Jesus is a superior messiah.
Yes, he says the crucified Christ is an offence to some Jews but as Morton Smith has shown, the reason for the offence was that Paul was teaching the crucifixion meant the Law was no longer obligatory.
Yes, Paul speaks of a Christ in weakness but that’s because his Jesus did not perform miracles (contra the Jesus in the subsequent gospel narratives). And as Novenson has argued, Paul’s argument about the nature of the messiah was entirely consistent with what Jews expected of such debates.
Paul, curiously (if we think that Jews could not accept Jesus because he did not overthrow the Romans), does not take up that supposedly dominant understanding of the Messiah and deconstruct it, polemicize against it, or simply address it.