IBRI Research Report No. 6 (1981, 1988)
 

THE NEW TESTAMENT MODEL OF THE MESSIAH

Robert C. Newman
Biblical Theological Seminary
Hatfield, Pennsylvania

Copyright © 1981, 1988 by Robert C. Newman. All rights reserved.
 
 

EDITOR'S NOTE

Although the author is in agreement with the doctrinal statement of IBRI, it does not follow that all of the viewpoints espoused in this paper represent official positions of IBRI. Since one of the purposes of the IBRI report series is to serve as a preprint forum, it is possible that the author has revised some aspects of this work since it was first written. 

ISBN 0-944788-06-8



 

Various people and events are predicted by the Old Testament prophets. None is more intriguing than the promised deliverer who is to come and rescue Israel from its enemies. This person is known both to Jews and Christians as the Messiah.

In the centuries around the beginning of the Christian era, many Jews tried to piece together the scattered Old Testament references to the Messiah in order to figure out who he was, what he would do, when he would come, and such. The situation at that time was rather like that in evangelical Christianity today, where there are lively discussions concerning the time and nature of the events relating to Christ's second coming as pictured in the New Testament.

Fortunately a number of records have survived from antiquity which preserve information about Messianic speculation at that time. The earliest such material is found in the so-called apocalyptic literature -- the Book of Enoch, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Sibylline Oracles, 2 Baruch, and 4 Ezra, to name but a few -- dating from the second century BC to the second century AD.1 The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, a whole library belonging to a Jewish monastic community at Qumran, has added to such material, providing early manuscripts of apocalyptic literature and also discussions and Biblical commentaries from about the time of Jesus.2

Also from the first century AD we have writings by early Christians preserved in the New Testament. According to these records, the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah were applied to one Jesus of Nazareth by Jesus himself and his immediate followers. In the first few centuries following the time of Jesus, the oral traditions and debates of the rabbis concerning Messianic prophecy were written down in the rabbinic literature. The most extensive collection of this literature is the Babylonian Talmud.3

During these centuries the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah functioned as the available ``data'' (if we may borrow some terminology from science), from which were constructed various ``models'' or ``theories,'' each of which attempted to produce a unified picture of the coming Messiah or Messiahs. Several ``apocalyptic models'' were produced, including a ``Qumran model''; there was a ``New Testament model'' or ``Christian model''; and there were several ``rabbinic models'' for the Messiah. In this chapter, we shall compare these models with one another and, most important, with the Old Testament data. We shall see that the New Testament model turns out to be clearly superior to its competitors in fitting the OT data.

In science, whenever two or more models have been proposed to explain some phenomena, researchers try to design a crucial experiment to distinguish between the models, one which will rule out all but one model, or at least demonstrate its clear superiority. In our case, as in any historical investigation, experiments are not possible. Yet we may still seek certain crucial data which perform a similar function. In fact, the Old Testament data concerning the Messiah contains several paradoxes which make it especially difficult to construct a satisfactory model. A model which is able to handle these paradoxes will be clearly superior to those which cannot.

This particular form of argument is important today, since liberal theologians seek to rule out any appeal to fulfilled prophecy as evidence for Christianity. Liberals often charge evangelical Christians with bias, claiming that they ``ransack the Old Testament'' to find passages which may be twisted into predictions of Jesus. Evangelicals, on the other hand, feel the liberal rejection of the miraculous begs the whole question of the truth of Biblical Christianity, which is nothing if it is not miraculous. Any investigation which can carry us back to the time of the coming of Jesus will allow us to experience, to some extent, the impact these prophecies had on the ancients. It will allow us to see another reason why Christianity experienced such astonishing growth at the very time Judaism ceased to be a missionary religion.

We will not prejudice this investigation by examining passages which only the New Testament claims to be Messianic, nor by rejecting passages which modern liberalism has doubted are Messianic. Instead we shall consider only passages which were thought to be Messianic by the ancient rabbis.4
 
 

The Office of the Messiah

The word Messiah is borrowed by English directly from the Hebrew word meaning ``anointed one.'' Similarly Christ is borrowed from the Greek word with the same meaning. The words refer to the practice of ceremonially pouring perfumed olive oil on the head of a person to designate him as God's choice for some important task. In the Old Testament, both the high priest and the king of Israel were anointed when they assumed office. Thus the question naturally arises, ``Is the predicted Messiah to be a king or a priest?''

Apparently, the Jewish sect at Qumran expected two Messiahs. Their Manual of Discipline speaks of the coming of the ``Messiahs of Aaron and Israel.''5 Since the high priest is a descendant of Aaron and the king ruled over all Israel, most scholars think this refers to a king-messiah and a priest-messiah.6 This idea was probably not unique to Qumran, since the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs picture a Messiah from Levi (Aaron's ancestor)7 and a Messiah from Judah (David's ancestor).8

This two-messiah model may seem strange to us, but it is really very reasonable. The Old Testament regulations for Israel kept the priesthood and civil authority strictly separate. Neither Moses, Joshua nor the judges were priests (only Samuel, in a crisis period of Israel's history, comes close). Nor was the kingship given to the descendants of Levi. In fact, when King Uzziah tried to act as priest by burning incense (2 Chron 26:16-21), God struck him with leprosy, stopping his priestly pretensions and effectively ending his kingship as well. Thus the idea that a coming king and coming priest should be separate individuals would be rather deeply ingrained in Jewish thought.

From this perspective it is rather surprising that the New Testament sees the Messiah as a single person who is both king and priest. For instance, Heb 1:8 clearly pictures Jesus as king, while chapters 3 through 10 of the same letter discuss his priestly activity. Seen in the light of the general Old Testament background, this would seem to cut across a carefully laid distinction, almost as though the author of Hebrews was a Gentile unfamiliar with the Old Testament Scripture.

In fact, however, this is one of the paradoxes of the Messianic prophecy of the Old Testament. Though the Old Testament regulations carefully keep the two offices separate, this is probably intended to make the Messiah stand out as the one who combines the two in one person. Psalm 110, recognized as Messianic in pre-Christian times,9 speaks of God establishing someone as ruler (vv 1-3) who is also priest (v 4): ``The LORD has sworn and will not change His mind: `You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.' '' But just because of the strict separation of kingship and priesthood in Israel, it was necessary for the writer of Psalm 110 to go all the way back to Genesis, centuries before Israel became a nation, to find in the mysterious figure of Melchizedek (Genesis 14) an example of a righteous person who is both priest and king!

Here, then, we see that the Qumran model of two Messiahs, though initially most reasonable, has failed to deal with a significant Messianic passage. Because it seems to go against the general tenor of the Old Testament, Psalm 110 was apparently ignored, without considering why God might have kept such a strict separation. In the important question of the office of the Messiah, the New Testament model is clearly superior, solving a significant paradox.
 
 

The Work of the Messiah

As the Messiah is a king, we naturally expect part of his work to be ruling. In this we are not disappointed, as a large number of Old Testament passages speak of the reign of the Messiah.10

We also saw from Psalm 110 that the Messiah is a priest. However, there are few passages which speak explicitly of his priestly activity. Besides Ps 110, there is only the rather difficult revelation given in Zech 6:12-15. The prophet Zechariah, apparently acting out a parable at God's instruction, makes a gold and silver crown from the contributions of Jewish exiles. He places it on the head of Joshua the high priest. Speaking of someone called ``the Branch,'' Zechariah says:

Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the LORD. It is he who will build the temple of the LORD, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two. (Zech 6:12-13)
That Joshua is intended to be the Branch seems unlikely, since Zechariah then removes the crown and places it in the temple as a memorial. This is confirmed by Zech 3:8, where the prophet says: ``Listen, O high priest Joshua and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant, the Branch.''

Though there are few passages which picture Messiah acting as priest, there are a number of prophecies which describe some figure who is to suffer, and whose suffering is to produce unusual results. Psalm 22, for instance, pictures one who suffers unto death but then is delivered. The story of what has happened is to be spread throughout the world and down to future generations. Isaiah 53 speaks of a despised sufferer who bears the sins of others to his grave. Afterwards he is delivered and so exalted that kings are amazed. Zech 12:10-13:9 pictures one who is pierced. As a result, Israel will mourn and then be cleansed from sin. These passages were all understood to refer to the Messiah in ancient rabbinic literature.11 Indeed, in one early rabbinic view, the Messiah is called `` `the leper scholar,' as it is written, `Surely he hath borne our grief, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted.' '' (Isa 53:4)12

By the second century AD, however, the rabbinic model has come to include two Messiahs. These are not a king and priest as at Qumran, but a king and a general. The general is called ``Messiah ben Joseph'' or ``Messiah ben Ephraim.'' He is to appear at the end of the age prior to the king Messiah, called ``Messiah ben David.'' He will lead the return of Israel to Palestine, set up a government and temple worship, but then suffer and die in battle against the Gentile enemies of Israel.13 The suffering passages of Old Testament Messianic prophecy are assigned to himrather than to the king Messiah. In contrast to this rabbinic model, the New Testament applies both the suffering and ruling predictions to one person, Jesus of Nazareth. Isaiah 53 is associated with him about forty times and Psalm 22 about twenty-five times. Zech 12:10 is applied to Jesus twice, in John 19:37 and Rev 1:7.

Who is right? It is noteworthy that Zech 12:10, ``They shall look on me whom they have pierced,'' is explicitly assigned to Messiah ben Joseph by the rabbis.14 But unless one arbitrarily applies the first ``they'' to Israel and the second to the Gentiles (for which there is no support in the context), it looks like the ``pierced one'' has been injured by Israel! This does not fit the rabbinic picture of Messiah ben Joseph (killed by invading Gentiles), but it certainly fits the New Testament model.

Similarly, Isa 53:10, in which God makes the sufferer's ``life a guilt offering,'' fits the New Testament model nicely; the letter to the Hebrews presents Jesus as sacrifice as well as priest. But this whole sacrificial aspect, a central feature of New Testament Christianity, is missing in the Messiah ben Joseph and in the rabbinic outlook in general.
 
 

The Coming of the Messiah

Let us next consider the coming of the Messiah, not when he is to come (the subject of the next chapter) but how he is to come. Although the questions, ``Is he to come as a child or as an adult?'' and ``Is he to come publicly or secretly?'' are of considerable interest, let us further limit our discussion to another aspect, namely, ``Is the Messiah's coming to be one of exaltation or lowliness?''

Naturally, since the Messiah is a king sent from God, one would expect his coming to be glorious. This is the picture we get from Dan 7:13-14:

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
Thus the one receiving a universal, everlasting kingdom is to come ``with the clouds of heaven,'' something like the so-called Shekinah glory of Mt. Sinai, the wilderness wanderings and the temple.15

On the other hand, Zech 9:9 presents a lowly coming:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; / Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: / Behold thy King cometh unto thee; / He is just and having salvation; / Lowly and riding on an ass / And upon a colt the foal of an ass.
Following the rabbinic model mentioned above, one would like to assign this verse, with its lowly coming, to Messiah ben Joseph, but Dan 7:13-14, above, to Messiah ben David. However, Messiah ben Joseph is not a king (since kingship was given to David's descendants, of the tribe of Judah), yet the rider in Zech 9:9 is explicitly called a king. This verse thus presents a serious problem to the rabbinic model.

Two attempts have been made to blunt the force of this difficulty. One is to see Zech 9:9 as actually an exalted coming. When the Persian emperor Shapur jokingly offered to lend the Jews a horse so their Messiah would not have to come on a donkey, Rabbi Samuel retorted, ``Do you have a hundred-colored horse?''16 Samuel thus implies that the Messiah's mount will be no ordinary animal, but something supernatural. This suggestion, however, suffers from the problem that Zech 9:9 explicitly calls the king's coming ``lowly.''

The other attempt was proposed by Rabbi Joshua.17 He suggested that Daniel 7 and Zechariah 9 picture alternative possibilities rather than both actually occurring. If Israel is worthy, the Messiah will come ``with the clouds of heaven.'' If not, he will come ``lowly and riding upon an ass.''

The New Testament, on the other hand, pictures these two comings as real and successive: the Messiah comes first in lowliness, to suffer and die for his people's sins; later, he returns in power to rescue his people, judge his enemies and reign forever. This certainly gives a better fit with the Old Testament data, as there is no indication in the contexts that Daniel 7 and Zechariah 9 are merely alternative possibilities. In fact, the New Testament is able to connect the lowly coming with Messiah's sufferings (as the rabbis cannot) just because the suffering Messiah is the same person as the coming king. He may therefore be designated ``king'' by the prophet (Zech 9:9) even at his lowly coming. Here again, we see the superiority of the New Testament model in handling the paradoxes of the Old Testament data.
 
 

The Nature of the Messiah

Having examined the office, work and coming of the Messiah, let us consider his nature. What sort of being was the Messiah to be?

As the Messiah is frequently called the son of David, it would be most natural to assume the Messiah is purely human. This seems to have been the view of some of the apocalyptic writers18 and of later rabbinic Judaism, where the humanity of the Messiah, perhaps in reaction to Christianity, came to be emphasized to the neglect of any superhuman features. Thus when Rabbi Akiba (2nd cen AD) proposed that one of the thrones in Dan 7:9 should be for God and another for David (a name for the Messiah), he was sharply rebuked by Rabbi Jose the Galilean: ``Akiba, how long wilt thou treat the Divine Presence as profane! Rather, it must mean, one for justice and one for grace.''19 Not even the Messiah was to be placed in such close proximity to God!

Other apocalyptic writers, however, saw the Messiah as more than merely human. For instance, the Assumption of Moses says of the coming Messianic king:

And then His kingdom shall appear through His whole creation. And then the devil shall have an end, and sadness shall be taken away with him. Then the hands of the Angel shall be filled, who is established in the highest, who shall avenge them of their adversaries. For the Heavenly One shall arise from the throne of His kingdom, and shall come out of His holy habitation.20

Here the Messiah seems to be called ``the Angel.'' Similarly, in the book of Enoch, in a passage alluding to Daniel 7:

And then I saw One who had a head of days, and His head was white like wool, and with Him was another being whose countenance had the appearance of a man, and his face was full of graciousness, like one of the holy angels.21
Thus some of the apocalyptic writers saw the Messiah as angelic or as a combination of man and angel.

The New Testament pictures the Messiah as a man, of course, but also as much more than a man. With its doctrine of the virgin birth, the New Testament transcends even the apocalyptic models of an angelic Messiah. The New Testament model appears to be unique in picturing the Messiah as divine.

But in fact the New Testament is not unique at this point. The Old Testament data includes passages which require the New Testament model! For instance, Micah 5:2 says:

But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, >From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity.
Although this passage does not require the deity of the Messiah, it does necessitate his pre-existence. This person will have been active for a very long time (the Hebrew is consistent with either a finite or infinite period), yet he will claim a Judean village, Bethlehem, as his hometown. Apparently the Messiah will be born and yet have existed long before his birth. Some of the rabbis, to avoid this conclusion, picture the Messiah, after having been born in Bethlehem, as waiting incognito for centuries until Israel should be worthy of his coming, meanwhile doing good deeds by bandaging lepers at the gates of Rome!22

That the Messiah should be both son of David and pre-existent is occasionally seen in the apocalyptic literature,23 probably because of Old Testament passages like this. But because no one knew how to reconcile the two ideas, they were not emphasized as they are in the New Testament.

Another such passage is Isa 9:6:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
The next verse makes it clear that this person is the Messiah, for he is to rule forever from the throne of David.

That this person will be born is even clearer here than in Micah 5:2, yet so is his deity. Though strenuous attempts have been made to weaken the titles given this person,24 the conjunction of title, his eternal rule and his pre-existence perfectly fit a being who is both God and man.

This New Testament model, which joins both deity and humanity in one person, also explains some other puzzling problems: (1) how the sufferer of Isaiah 53 can bear the sins of many; (2) how the king of Ps 45:6 can be addressed as God; (3) how the priest-king of Psalm 110 is called ``Lord'' by his father David; and (4) why the death and revival of the sufferer in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 is so important both to Israel and the Gentiles. These are mysteries in the other Messianic models.
 
 

Conclusions

In this chapter, we have seen the superiority of the New Testament model of the Messiah to its competitors in fitting certain paradoxical Old Testament references concerning the office, work, coming and nature of the Messiah. This not only indicates that the God of the Old Testament is the One who controls history and announces ``the end from the beginning,'' but also that the New Testament and its Messiah are the continuation and fulfillment of his revelation to mankind.

This line of argumentation is also important because it presses us to make a choice without waiting ``until all the data is in.'' We should not be surprised that this is so, for we are forced to do this in making most of our decisions in everyday life. No scientific theory, in fact, is ever based on an induction from all the data. We are confronted right now with the Bible's answers to life's crucial questions, with God's demands on us, and with our unwillingness and inability to obey him satisfactorily.

There is yet another point of superiority for the New Testament model of the Messiah. Unlike the other models, it also presents an actual historical figure as candidate for its Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Most historians will concede that this Jesus has had as great an impact on history as any man who has ever lived. Yet this New Testament model is put forward as Jesus' own explanation of his person and work, not just the assessment of later centuries.

Finally, the New Testament, written in the lifetime of people who personally observed Jesus' ministry, reports that he rose from the dead; that he demonstrated himself to be alive to hundreds of men and women who later died rather than renounce their testimony; that he ascended to heaven to await his second coming.

May we not wait for his return before we turn back to him in repentance and trust, so that his suffering two thousand years ago may prevent our suffering for all eternity.
 
 

References

1. English translations of most of these works are found in R. H. Charles, ed., The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910) and in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2 vols. (Garden City: Doubleday, 1983-85).

2. Among many discussions of the Dead Sea scrolls, see F. M. Cross, Jr., The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies, 2nd ed. (Garden City: Doubleday, 1961); William S. LaSor, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972); and G. Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Baltimore: Penguin, 1968). Vermes also gives translations of the writings peculiar to the Qumran sect.

3. The standard English translation is Isidore Epstein, ed., The Babylonian Talmud, 35 vols. (London: Soncino, 1935-52). For aid in exploring this vast collection, I suggest Hermann L. Strack, Introduction to Talmud and Midrash (New York: Atheneum, 1969 reprint) and A. Cohen, Everyman's Talmud (New York: Schocken, 1978 reprint).

4. A convenient discussion of O.T. passages understood by the rabbis as prophetic of the Messiah is provided by Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 2 vols., 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967 reprint), 2: appendix IX.

5. Manual of Discipline 9.10.

6. See the discussion in Millar Burrows, More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Viking, 1958), pp 297-99; and in Vermes, DSS in English, pp 48-49.

7. T. Levi 18:16.

8. T. Judah 24:9.

9. Edersheim, Life and Times, 2:720-21; note also Jesus' remark to the Pharisees in Matt 23:41-46.

10. See the discussion in Edersheim, Life and Times, 2:710-737. Especially significant are Psalm 45, Isaiah 9 and Daniel 7.

11. For Psalm 22, see Edersheim, Life and Times, 2:718; for Isaiah 53, ibid., p 727; for Zechariah 12, ibid., p 736.

12. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b.

13. See the Jewish Encyclopedia, 8:511-512; Encyclopaedia Judaica, 11:1411.

14. Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 52a.

15. For references to this glory of God, see, e.g., Ex 13:21; 14:19ff; 20:21-22; 1 Kings 8:10-13; Ezk 1; 10; 11:22-23; 43:1-7.

16. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a.

17. Ibid.

18. e.g., 4 Ezra 7:29.

19. Babylonian Talmud, Hagiga 14a.

20. Assumption of Moses 10:1-3.

21. 1 Enoch 46:1.

22. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a.

23. 4 Ezra 12:32.

24. The Jewish Publication Society's Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text (1917, 1945) only transliterates the titles in the text, relegating the translation to a footnote where it is handled as a sentence referring to God rather than to the Messiah: ``Wonderful in counsel is God the Mighty, the everlasting Father, the Ruler of peace.'' The New English Bible (1970) translates the phrase 'el gibbor here as ``in battle God-like,'' though elsewhere in that translation it is always rendered ``God Almighty''!
 
 

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