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Over the centuries, many people have claimed to be, or have been touted as, the Moshiach. Here are my thoughts on who the Messiah is and how his atonement works.
The age-old discussions of Yeshua’s claims to being Moshiach are disected elsewhere in much more detail than I care to go into in these pages. I really don’t think that rehashing passages from the Tanakh and talking about prophecies that he did or did not fulfill is as productive as some people would like to think. Also, since my goal is not to convince as much as it is to provide information, I will only take a small amount of space to discuss Isaiah 53, since that is the one passage that causes the biggest uproar.
The majority of my discussion will actually be quotations of pertinent sayings from the Mishnah, Gemarah, midrashim, and other rabbinic soures and my commentaries on those quotes. What the rabbis said about Messiah is sometimes much more informative than what the Scriptures say, especially considering the diversity of opinions on valid interpretations for specific passages.
Table of Contents
One of the most oft-disputed passages in the Tanakh is Isaiah 53. Christians have, for centuries, claimed that it speaks about the Messiah, but Jews have, in recent centuries, become very outspoken against that claim. Before we take a look at what the rabbis have traditionally said about the passage, let’s take a look at the text of Isaiah 52:12-53:12 (from the Jewish Publication Society, 1917 edition):
52:12 For ye shall not go out in haste, neither shall ye go by flight; for the Lord will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rearward.
13 Behold, My servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.
14 According as many were appalled at thee--so marred was his visage unlike that of a man, and his form unlike that of the sons of men--
15 So shall he startle many nations, kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them shall they see, and that which they had not heard shall they perceive.
53:1 ‘Who would have believed our report? And to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he shot up right forth as a sapling, and as a root out of a dry ground; he had no form nor comeliness, that we should look upon him, nor beauty that we should delight in him.
3 He was despised, and forsaken of men, a man of pains, and acquainted with disease, and as one from whom men hide their face: he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried; whereas we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed.
6 All we like sheep did go astray, we turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath made to light on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, though he humbled himself and opened not his mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before her shearers is dumb; yea, he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away, and with his generation who did reason? for he was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due.
9 And they made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich his tomb; although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.’
10 Yet it pleased the Lord to crush him by disease; to see if his soul would offer itself in restitution, that he might see his seed, prolong his days, and that the purpose of the Lord might prosper by his hand:
11 Of the travail of his soul he shall see to the full, even My servant, who by his knowledge did justify the Righteous One to the many, and their iniquities he did bear.
12 Therefore will I divide him a portion among the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the mighty; because he bared his soul unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
The common argument made by Jewish apologists today is that the “suffering servant” described in this passage is a reference to the Jewish nation. There are quite a few holes in that theory; however, the biggest hole is the plain fact that the suffering servant has been attributed as a claim to Moshiach by Jewish rabbis for centuries. Only in the last 50 to 100 years has it been disputed. Let’s take a look:
Targum Jonathan (4th Century) gives the introduction on Isa. 52:13: “Behold, my servant the Messiah...”
Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b: Rav said: The world was created only on David’s account. Samuel said: On Moses account; R. Johanan said: For the sake of the Messiah. What is his [the Messiah’s] name? - The Rabbis said: His name is “the leper scholar,” as it is written, Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of G-d, and afflicted.
Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b: Messiah... what is his name? The Rabbis say, “the leprous one”; those of the house of the Rabbi say: “Cholaja” (the sickly), for it says, “Surely he has borne our sicknesses” etc. (Isa. 53:4).
Maimonides (1135-1204) wrote to Rabbi Jacob Alfajumi: Likewise said Isaiah that He (Messiah) would appear without acknowledging a father or mother: “He grew up before him as a tender plant and as a root out of a dry ground” etc. (Isa.53:2).
Rabbi Moses Alschech (1508-1600) says: Our Rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the Messiah, and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view.
Abrabanel (1437-1508) says: This is also the opinion of our own learned men in the majority of their Midrashim.
Rabbi Yafeth Ben Ali (second half of the 10th Century): As for myself, I am inclined to regard it as alluding to the Messiah.
Abraham Farissol (1451-1526) says: In this chapter there seem to be considerable resemblances and allusions to the work of HaMoshiach and to the events which are asserted to have happened to Him, so that no other prophecy is to be found the gist and subject of which can be so immediately applied to Him.
Gersonides (1288-1344) on Devarim 18:18: In fact Messiah is such a prophet, as it is stated in the Midrash on the verse, “Behold, my servant shall prosper...” (Isaiah 52:13).
Yalkut Schimeon (ascribed to Rabbi Simeon Kara, 12th Century) says on Zech.4:7: He (the king Messiah) is greater than the patriarchs, as it is said, “My servant shall be high, and lifted up, and lofty exceedingly” (Isa. 52:13).
Tanchuma: Rabbi Nachman says: The Word “man” in the passage, “Every man a head of the house of his father” (Num.1,4), refers to the Messiah, the son of David, as it is written, “Behold the man whose name is Zemach” (the Branch) where Jonathan interprets, “Behold the man Messiah” (Zech.6:12); and so it is said, “A man of pains and known to sickness” (Isa. 53:3).
Pesiqta Rabbati (ca.845) on Isa. 61:10: The world-fathers (patriarchs) will one day in the month of Nisan arise and say to (the Messiah): “Ephraim, our righteous Anointed, although we are your grandparents, yet you are greater than we, for you have borne the sins of our children, as it says: But surely he has borne our sicknesses and carried our pains; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of G-d and afflicted. But he was pierced because of our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was laid upon him and through his wounds we are healed”(Isa.53:4-5).
Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai (2nd Century), Zohar, part II, page 212a and part III, page 218a, Amsterdam Ed.: There is in the garden of Eden a palace called: “The palace of the sons of sickness.” This palace the Messiah enters, and summons every sickness, every pain, and every chastisement of Israel: they all come and rest upon Him. And were it not that He had thus lightened them off Israel, and taken them upon Himself, there had been no man able to bear Israel’s chastisement for the transgression of the law; this is that which is written, “Surely our sicknesses he has carried.” (Isa. 53:4) As they tell Him (the Messiah) of the misery of Israel in their captivity, and of those wicked ones among them who are not attentive to know their L-rd, He lifts up His voice and weeps for their wickedness; and so it is written, “He was wounded for our transgressions.” (Isa.53:5)
Midrash on Ruth 2:14: He is speaking of the King Messiah “Come hither,” i.e. Draw near to the throne; “eat of the bread,” i.e., The bread of the kingdom. This refers to the chastisements, as it is said, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.” (Isa. 53:5)
Rabbi Elijah de Vidas (16th Century): The meaning of “He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities” is, that since the Messiah bears our iniquities which produce the effect of His being bruised, it follows that whoever will not admit that Messiah thus suffers for our iniquities must endure and suffer for them himself.
Sifre: Rabbi Jose the Galilean said, “Come and learn the merits of the King Messiah and the reward of the Just - from the first man who received but one commandment, a prohibition, and transgressed it. Consider how many deaths were inflicted upon himself, upon his own generation, and upon those who followed them, till the end of all generations. Which attribute is greater, the attribute of goodness, or the attribute of vengeance?” He answered, “The attribute of goodness is greater, and the attribute of vengeance is the less.” - “How much more then, will the King Messiah, who endures affliction and pains for the transgressions (as it is written, ‘He was wounded,’ etc.), justify all generations. This is the meaning of the word, ‘And the L-rd made the iniquity of us all to meet upon Him’” (Isa. 53:6).
Rabbi Eleazer Kalir (9th Century) is credited with writing the following Yom Kippur Musaf prayer, although there is some evidence that it dates back to the first century C.E.: Our righteous Messiah has departed from us. Horror has seized us and we have no one to justify us. He has borne our transgressions and the yoke of our iniquities, and is wounded because of our transgressions. He bore our sins upon His shoulders that we may find pardon for our iniquity. We shall be healed by His wounds, at the time when the Eternal will recreate Him a new creature. Oh bring Him up from the circle of the earth, raise Him up from Seir, that we may hear Him the second time.
Rabbi Moses, “The Preacher” (11th Century) wrote in his commentary on Genesis (page 660): From the beginning G-d has made a covenant with the Messiah and told Him, “My righteous Messiah, those who are entrusted to you, their sins will bring you into a heavy yoke” ... And He answered, “I gladly accept all these agonies in order that not one of Israel should be lost.” Immediately, the Messiah accepted all agonies with love, as it is written: “He was oppressed and he was afflicted.”
Pesiqta (on Isa. 61:10): Great oppressions were laid upon You, as it says: “By oppression and judgement he was taken away; but who considered in his time, that he was cut off out of the land of the living, that he was stricken because of the sins of our children” (Isa. 53:8), as it says: “But the LORD has laid on him the guilt of us all”. (Isa.53:6)
I don’t think that much in the way of conclusions is necessary for this section. The rabbis very obviously connected Isaiah 53 to the Moshiach, and they show multiple times that the Moshiach definitely suffers. For what or whom does he suffer? Apparently for the people.
Atonement Through a Tzaddik’s Death
Why would the Moshiach need to suffer for the people? I believe that his suffering, death, and resurrection provide atonement. Take a look at the above quotes again. Many of those sources explicitly state that the King Messiah brings justification through his suffering. There are also other sources that point to the Messiah as one who brings atonement to the people.
Many Jewish apologists would say to me at this point that Judaism does not believe that the death of any righteous man can provide atonement. Again, let’s go back to the rabbis.
- On the binding of Issac, from “The Little Midrash Says—The Book of Beraishis”
- Song of Songs Rabbah 1:14:1
- Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut - The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), p. 151 n. 5
- Talmud, Mo’ed Katan 28a
...As a result of this principle, suffering and pain may be imposed on a tzaddik as an atonement for his entire generation. This tzaddik must then accept this suffering with love for the benefit of his generation, just as he accepts the suffering imposed upon him for his own sake. In doing so, he benefits his generation by atoning for it, and at the same time is himself elevated to a very great degree. For a tzaddik such as this is made into one of the leaders in the Community of the World to Come, as discussed earlier. Such suffering also includes cases where a tzaddik suffers because his entire generation deserves great punishments, bordering on annihilation, but is spared via the tzaddik’s suffering. In atoning for his generation through his suffering, this tzaddik saves these people in this world and also greatly benefits them in the World to Come. In addition, there is a special, higher type of suffering that comes to a tzaddik who is even greater and more highly perfected than the ones discussed above. This suffering comes to provide the help necessary to bring about the chain of events leading to the ultimate perfection of mankind as a whole....
According to the original Plan, the sequence of worldly events required that man undergo at least some suffering before both he and the world could attain perfection. This was required by the very fact that one of the basic concepts of man’s predicament was that G-d should hold back His Light and hide His Presence, as discussed earlier. This became all the more necessary as a result of the corruption and spiritual damage caused by man's many sins, which held the good back even more and caused G-d’s Presence to become all the more hidden. The world and everything in it are therefore in a degraded evil state, and require that G-d’s unfathomable wisdom bring about numerous chains of events to achieve their rectification.
Among the most important elements of this sequence is the requirement that man be punished for his wickedness until the Attribute of Justice is satisfied. G-d arranged matters, however, so that select perfect individuals could rectify things for others, as discuss earlier. The Attribute of Justice therefore relates to them rather than to the rest of the world in general.
Individuals such as these, however, are themselves perfect, and are therefore worthy only of good. The only reason they suffer is because of others, and the Attribute of Justice must therefore be as satisfied with a small amount of suffering on their part as with a large amount on the part of those who actually sinned.
Beyond that, the merit and power of these tzaddikim is also increased because of such suffering, and this gives them even greater ability to rectify the damage of others. They can therefore not only rectify their own generation, but can also correct all the spiritual damage done from the beginning, from the time of the very first sinners.
- Derech Hashem (“The Way of God”) by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (early 18th century)
- Dead Sea Scrolls, 4Q541, Column 4
- Zohar, Section 1, Page 65a
- Zohar, Section 3, Page 56b
- Zohar, Section 3, Pages 218a-b
- Zohar, Section 3, Page 231a
- 4 Maccabees 6:26-28
- Talmud, Berachot 62b
- Talmud, Mo'ed Katan 28a
- Exodus Rabbah 35:4
- Talmud, Berachot 62b
- Rabbi Max Landsberg (1845-1928) - “Akedah,” Jewish Encyclopedia
As you can see, the death of a righteous person being accepted as an atonement for the people is a common thought of the sages. Especially, connections between the death of Yitzchak and atonement are widely addressed. If Yitzchak’s death as a tzaddik is accepted as atonement, then—kal v’chomer—how much more so should Moshiach’s death be considered atoning?
Messiah to Rise from the Dead
So, what about the idea that the Messiah will rise from the dead? Is that a common belief of the sages? Let’s take a look at five references:
1.) The Zohar in Parshat Balak (page 203b) states that the Moshiach will have to “die” i.e. go to a higher spiritual level, and return again with the new level he has attained.
2.) The Abarbanel in his book “Yeshuot Moshicho” (Part 2, topic 2, chapter 1) says that:
...the Moshiach will have to die in order to purify the generation and he will wait in a spiritual state in “heaven” until he rises from the dead, as it says in the Talmud Sanhedrin [98b].
3.) Mysteries of R. Shim’on ben Yohai (Midrash, date uncertain). From “The Suffering Servant of Isaiah”, by Driver & Neubauer, page 32:
And Armilaus will join battle with Messiah, the son of Ephraim, in the East gate...; and Messiah, the son of Ephraim, will die there, and Israel will mourn for him. And afterwards the Holy One will reveal to them Messiah, the son of David, whom Israel will desire to stone, saying, Thou speakest falsely; already is the Messiah slain, and there is non other Messiah to stand up (after him): and so they will despise him, as it is written, “Despised and forlorn of men;” but he will turn and hide himself from them, according to the words, “Like one hiding his face from us.”
4.) Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a
R. Johanan also said: The son of David will come only in a generation that is either altogether righteous or altogether wicked. “in a generation that is altogether righteous,” — as it is written, Thy people also shall be all righteous: they shall inherit the land for ever. “Or altogether wicked,” — as it is written, And he saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor; and it is written, For mine own sake, even for mine own sake, will I do it.
5.) Talmud, Sukkah 52a
Our Rabbis taught, The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to the Messiah, the son of David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days!), “Ask of me anything, and I will give it to thee,” as it is said, “I will tell of the decree etc. this day have I begotten thee, ask of me and I will give the nations for thy inheritance.” But when he will see that the Messiah the son of Joseph is slain, he will say to Him, “Lord of the Universe, I ask of Thee only the gift of life.” “As to life,” He would answer him, “Your father David has already prophesied this concerning you,” as it is said, “He asked life of thee, thou gavest it him, [even length of days for ever and ever].”
There is a lot of evidence in the writings of the sages supporting the concept of the Messiah suffering, dying, and being resurrected from the dead, with his death being applied as an atonement for the people. Yes, these ideas have been taught by Christianity for centuries, and yes, they have been expanded in some respects regarding Yeshua. However, the core teachings are still very Jewish. The basic beliefs about the work of Messiah go a long way back in our tradition, and we must remember their origins in order to truly understand who the Messiah is.
I hope that these quotes have given you reason to pause and ponder the question of Moshiach. Take a few minutes and read them over again. Look them up in context, and compare them to other quotes and teachings.
It is my personal belief that Yeshua of Natzeret is the Moshiach. This belief is a conscious, daily decision on my part. Yes, it is based on faith; however, that faith is backed up by facts, logic, and reasoning—on information like that given above.
I believe with complete faith in the coming of Moshiach, and even though he may delay, nevertheless I anticipate every day that he will come.
- Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith, number 12