Old Testament Messiahs as the Raw Material for the New Testament Christ

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by Neil Godfrey

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The idea of a holy anointed one, a messiah that is, who liberated those captive to sin through his death, who represented the pious before God, who was subject even to the wrath of God for the sin of the people, such an idea was arguably a pre-packaged concept among some Jews long before Jesus was ever thought of.

Evolution of an idea or historical reinterpretation of a crucified criminal?

Indeed, the very concept of Jesus Christ as found in Paul’s epistles could quite conceivably have evolved out of the contemplation of passages describing the roles and functions of the priests in their role as “anointed ones” (“messiahs”) in the Jewish scriptures and Sirach.

Levenson has demonstrated the similarity of the Second Temple Jewish view of the atoning death and resurrection of Isaac with the subsequent Christian a figure who atones for the sins of his people by his shed blood.

Thomas L. Thompson looks at several other passages in Jewish Scriptures that foreshadow the explicit Christian concepts of Messiah. He rejects the common (yet unargued) belief that “messiah” was a term that was applied to contemporary historical kings of Israel, noting that in every occurrence of the word in connection with an Israelite king, whether in “story or song”, it is always applied to Israel’s past. And as for “the developing transference of an historical [Messiah] — the king — to a unique and future-oriented, super-terrestrial savior, [S. Talmon] attributes to a ‘second temple period’, which culminates in an idealized figure after 70 AD.”

So what of the concept of messianism around the time Paul and other NT authors are thought to have been writing? What does an exploration of the meaning of “messiah” or “anointed one” in texts known to these authors suggest?

In this post I am focusing on just one cluster of texts out of all the ones Thompson discusses. The following from Thompson’s 2001 Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament article “The Messiah Epithet in the Hebrew Bible“. Much of it is repeated in his later book, The Messiah Myth.

Again, bear in mind that the following is a cameo discussion of a larger article. The themes I address here are linked in the original to a wider constellation of messianic references, in particular in Daniel and Isaiah. Bear also in mind that the following discussion assumes the books of the Pentateuch were composed very late, very likely within the same post Babylonian (even Persian or later) milieu as the composition of the Prophets.

The first witness: Numbers 35:25

So the congregation shall deliver the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall return him to the city of refuge where he had fled, and he shall remain there until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil.

In Daniel we encounter the theme of the messiah bringing in hope at the appointed time; in the Prophets we encounter God’s retribution for sin before he ushers in the merciful restoration with the messianic age. Here, in Numbers, these themes come together and bind the hope of mercy and restoration to the death of God’s messiah (anointed one).

As in the Psalms, we find here that the anointed one, the messiah, is the protection of the sinner who seeks refuge in him. We find a similar theme in Isaiah 40:2. In the Isaiah passage we find the messianic role linked with an end of exile and establishment of a new Israel.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her that her term of service is over; her crime expiated.

The ensuing verses show that this is the messianic time when the exiles are returned through levelled mountains and straightened valleys. Numbers 35 reiterates the messianic theme of exilic return and restoration.

So Numbers 35 presents us with the concept of the death of an anointed one, a messiah, that expiates one from sin.

Second witness: Leviticus 4:1-21

The LORD said to Moses, 2 “Say to the Israelites: ‘When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’s commands-

3 ” ‘If the anointed priest sins, bringing guilt on the people, he must bring to the LORD a young bull without defect as a sin offering for the sin he has committed.  . . . . Then the priest shall burn them on the altar of burnt offering. 11 But the hide of the bull and all its flesh, as well as the head and legs, the inner parts and offal- 12 that is, all the rest of the bull—he must take outside the camp to a place ceremonially clean, where the ashes are thrown, and burn it in a wood fire on the ash heap.

13‘If the whole Israelite community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’s commands, even though the community is unaware of the matter, they are guilty. 14 When they become aware of the sin they committed, the assembly must bring a young bull as a sin offering and present it before the Tent of Meeting. 1516 Then the anointed priest is to take some of the bull’s blood into the Tent of Meeting. . . . . 20 and do with this bull just as he did with the bull for the sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for them, and they will be forgiven. 21 Then he shall take the bull outside the camp and burn it as he burned the first bull. This is the sin offering for the community. The elders of the community are to lay their hands on the bull’s head before the LORD, and the bull shall be slaughtered before the LORD.

Here we learn that if the anointed (messianic) high priest sins, he cannot protect or redeem himself. His sin, or his guilt, falls upon the people he represents. His sin brings guilt on the people. This messiah, as the representative of these people before God, makes expiation for them and they are then forgiven.

Similarly, if the people themselves do sin, then the anointed priest will again mediate for them so they can be ‘saved’ or forgiven.

This central text on the theme of corporate guilt clearly marks the role of the messiah as representative and mediator of the people before God. It also prepares the reader for the role of the messiah as both cause and the one who himself suffers divine wrath.

Third, fourth and fifth witnesses: Leviticus 6:14-22, Exodus 28:36-43, Leviticus 8:10-12


These passages may be seen as etiological stories for how God’s high priestly anointed (=messiah) acquires his transcendent qualities: holiness, eternal or transcendent existence. Here we see how the Yahweh’s messiah can be spoken of as among his holy ones, and why the altar can be considered a place of refuge.

In these etiological tales, the messiah is presented as one dedicated to Yahweh, much as Samuel is in 1 Sam. 1,11 and who, like Samson, becomes closely associated with the somewhat legendary Nazarene tradition.

Sixth and Seventh witnesses: Sirach 45:1-17, 1 Samuel 12:1-5

He raised up also, like Moses in holiness, his brother AARON . . .

For Moses ordained him and anointed him with the holy oil, In a lasting covenant with him and with his family, as permanent as the heavens, That he should serve God in his priesthood and bless his people in his name.

He chose him from all mankind to offer holocausts and choice offerings, To burn sacrifices of sweet odor for a memorial, and to atone for the people of Israel.

He gave to him his laws, and authority to prescribe and to judge: To teach the precepts to his people, and the ritual to the descendants of Israel.

Summarizing the story of Exodus, Sirach “explains the messiah’s function as bound by eternal covenant to offer sacrifice, make atonement, exercise authority and judgement, teach the testimonies and enlighten with the law. He is like Moses and equal to the holy ones.

Here I stand. Testify against me in the presence of the LORD and his anointed.

The Samuel passage is a clear illustration of the mediating function of the messiah (anointed one). Samuel calls upon the divine to act as a guarantors of a solemn oath made in their presence. Not only Yahweh, but also his messiah act as guarantors or Samuel’s oath.

Eighth witness: Exodus 30:22-38

Here we have the unique recipe for making the oil that is used to make the anointed ones (priestly messiahs) holy. It can never be made again. And when it was made it was associated with the spiritually inspired creative power of Bezalel (Exodus 31:1-11). So we have here another etiology: this one of the messiah’s (and Nazarene’s) association with creative power.


So this one set of texts conveys a rich set of data for us to understand the concept of messiah. Once we begin to think these through and tie them in with other passages referring to the messiah, in the Psalms especially, we begin to see well-rounded delineation of the Christ of the New Testament emerging. It would be some time after the emergence of this scripturally ‘revealed’ understanding of the Christ before scriptures were sought for additional details about how such a messiah might be portrayed in a parabolic narrative.

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Old Testament Messiahs as the Raw Material for the New Testament Christ”

  1. Doesn’t Paul tell us as much? Didn’t God reveal his son in Paul, the mystery hidden for long ages past, but revealed through the scriptures?

    Forget the later midrashic dramas, it seems fairly clear, to me, that this is exactly what Paul meant.

    Once we understood the scriptures kata sarka, but no longer. Now we understand the scriptures kata pneuma, etc…

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