Why write a book advocating the idea that the Hebrew Bible is messianic? Since Jesus told his disciples, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled" (Luke 24:44), it would seem obvious to affirm the messianic nature of the Hebrew Bible. But this is not the case. Although few evangelicals would deny that there are some direct messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, it is becoming increasingly popular to reject the idea that the Hebrew Bible has specific predictions of the Messiah. Instead, evangelical scholarship tends to affirm that the messianic prophecies are merely a form of general promise. Frank Thielman writes that "the difficulty in seeing such texts as references to the Messiah and the circumstances of his life seems to demand some other approach." He then goes on to endorse "promise" as opposed to prediction as the most valid.
Thielman's is not a lone voice. There is a growing movement by evangelicals away from interpreting the Hebrew Bible as a messianic book. In this chapter, I will begin by defining some significant terms, such as what I mean by the word Messiah and the terms historical interpretation and literary interpretation. Then I will attempt to demonstrate the evangelical shift away from interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures as messianic. Having done that, I will present the reasons that it remains crucial to maintain a messianic understanding of the Hebrew Bible.
Since this book is about messianic prophecy, it is imperative to understand the meaning of the word Messiah. Further, since it is about how messianic texts should be interpreted, it is also essential to define the terms historical interpretation and literary interpretation.
The Hebrew word māšîaḥ (mashiach) is commonly and accurately translated as "anointed." It is used 39 times in the Hebrew Bible, generally with another noun, such as "the anointed priest." The word also has a technical meaning, commonly translated as "the Messiah" and defined by W. H. Rose as "a future royal figure sent by God who will bring salvation to God's people and the world and establish a kingdom characterized by features such as peace and justice." It has become somewhat of an accepted scholarly opinion that the technical term "Messiah" (the Anointed One) did not develop until the period of the Second Temple. Even if this is correct, as Rose points out, it is unnecessary "to conclude on this basis that one can speak of messianic expectations properly only after a particular word was used to refer to the person at the center of these expectations."
Alternatively, Walter C. Kaiser Jr. correctly asserts that the Old Testament does indeed use the word "anointed" in its technical sense of "Messiah" at least nine times out of its thirty-nine usages, citing 1 Sam 2:10, 35; Ps 2:2; 20:6; 28:8; 84:9; Hab 3:13; Dan 9:25, 26. I would also add 2 Sam 22:51; 23:1; and Ps 89:51 to Kaiser's list. Moreover, "Messiah" is not the only or most common designation for this future royal figure. Some of the other terms used for this king include "the Branch," "the Holy One," and "the Servant of the Lord." In this work, I am not limiting the discussion of the Messiah only to those passages that use the exact Hebrew term māšîaḥ, but I include all terms and passages relating to that future royal figure as "messianic."
Biblical scholars come at the issue of interpretation from a variety of presuppositions and approaches. While critical scholarship has, by and large, abandoned biblical inspiration and adopted methodologies such as source criticism, form criticism, and tradition history, evangelical scholarship has maintained a commitment to the inspiration and authority of Scripture. In their struggle to determine the meaning of biblical texts, some evangelical scholars have adopted a historical reading of the text that often minimizes direct messianic prophecy. In rejecting this sort of historical interpretation, I do not mean to indicate that there is no historical dimension to a biblical text or that the historical events did not happen. I fully affirm the historicity of Scripture. Rather, throughout this book, what I mean by a historical reading or historical interpretation is biblical interpretation that is constrained to find the referents of Old Testament prophecy within the historical confines of the prophet's own time.
In contrast to the historical interpretation of the Bible, there is a growing movement among some biblical scholars to approach the text of Scripture by focusing not upon how the text developed historically but rather upon its final canonical form. As a result of carefully examining the compositional strategies of the biblical authors themselves and reading Scripture according to its final form and in conjunction with its innerbiblical interpretations, there is a growing tendency to see the Old Testament as an eschatological, messianic text. In my judgment, this method takes a far more literary approach to a text, looking for the meaning of the author's words. As a result, biblical prophetic texts finds their referents in the distant future, with a messianic or eschatological fulfillment. This method of literary interpretation is the approach I am attempting to adopt in this book.
Although evangelical scholarship still recognizes that there is something messianic about the Hebrew Bible, for the most part it sees it as a story that finds its climax in Jesus, not as predictions that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled. As such, it is becoming quite common to state that biblical authors did not have an intentional messianic meaning. For example, noted evangelical Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman III writes, "It is impossible to establish that any passage in its original literary and historical context must or even should be understood as portending a future messianic figure."
Klyne Snodgrass, in his explanation of the New Testament's use of the Old writes, "The early church applied such texts to Jesus because of their conviction about his identity. The conviction about his identity did not derive from the Old Testament. They found Jesus and then saw how the Scriptures fit with him." He goes on to say that it would be better to view Jesus as the climax rather than the fulfillment of the Scriptures.
Larry W. Hurtado posits that out of the postexilic biblical hope for a renewed Davidic monarchy, Jews began to look for "a future agent ('messiah') to be sent by God, usually to restore Israel's independence and righteousness." This expectation did not derive from the predictions of the Hebrew Bible but rather grew out of the hopes of the post-biblical Hellenistic age. He maintains that "recent research suggests, however, that ancient Jewish eschatological expectations of deliverance and sanctification of the elect did not always include the explicit or prominent anticipation of a 'messiah.'"
The minimization of direct prediction is reflected not only by such general statements, but also specific expositions of texts that were previously viewed as directly messianic. For example, evangelical scholar John H. Walton rejects the messianic interpretation of Genesis 3:15, which speaks of the woman's seed striking the head of the serpent and the serpent striking the woman's seed. Although this has long been thought to speak of the Messiah's defeat of the enemy and thus has been considered the first messianic prediction, Walton maintains that the verse only affirms a struggle between good and evil that will "continue unabated." While recognizing that this is not the "traditional interpretation of the passage," he proceeds to ask, "How can we identify a passage as messianic if the Old Testament context offers no such support for such an interpretation either conceptually or textually, and the New Testament suggests no fulfillment connections?"
Deuteronomy 18:15-19, a passage which speaks of a future prophet like Moses, is another example of a passage that has long been held to be directly, or at least progressively messianic, but that in recent years has been rejected as such by evangelical scholars. Daniel I. Block argues that "the literary context of Deut. 18:15 provides no hint whatsoever that Moses' original hearers should have understood his prediction of a prophet like himself either eschatologically or messianically." Nor does he find any support for the messianic interpretation in Moses' epitaph written in Deut 34:10-12 or in the New Testament. Instead, he maintains, "It is preferable to interpret this text primarily as a prediction of either the continued existence of the institution of prophecy or a succession of prophets, rather than as a prediction of an eschatological messianic prophet." Longman concurs with this opinion when he writes, "Deuteronomy 18 understood within its ancient context may be perfectly explainable in terms of the rise of the prophetic movement and prophets like Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, and so on."
Another case where evangelical scholarship seems to have shifted is with Psalm 110, in which David announces, "This is the declaration of the Lord to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand until I make Your enemies Your footstool,'" and that "the Lord has sworn an oath [to "my Lord"] and will not take it back: 'Forever, You are a priest like Melchizedek'" (Ps 110:4). In times past, Delitzsch called this psalm "prophetico-Messianic" and affirmed that "the future Messiah stands objectively before the mind of David." However, evangelical scholar Herbert W. Bateman IV has rejected the idea that David spoke of the future Messiah as his Lord but instead has argued that the psalm is directed to David's son Solomon. He writes, "Thus it seems reasonable that Psalm 110 refers to Solomon's second coronation in 971 b.c. when David abdicated his throne to his son Solomon" and that "David did not speak the psalm to the Messiah, the divine Lord."
Just one more example will suffice to demonstrate this trend of interpretation. One of the most well-known passages about the birth of the divine Messiah is Isa 9:6-7. It describes the birth of the Son of David, announces his throne titles as "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace," and promises that he will rule from the throne of David over an eternal kingdom of justice and peace. Evangelical scholar Paul D. Wegner understands this not as referring to the divine titles of the Son of David but rather as indicating a theophoric name. He states, "The name would then be translated as 'a wonderful planner [is] the mighty God; the Father of eternity [is] a prince of peace [or well-being].'" Although Wegner recognizes that Isaiah is speaking of a future deliverer, he nonetheless alleges that, "This deliverer does not correspond exactly to the later concept of the Messiah which included a restoration of the Davidic dynasty and an eschatological perspective."
Many more examples could have been presented because evangelical scholarship has so readily rejected direct predictions of the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible. In a thoughtful essay, Gordon McConville has articulated the issue at hand. According to McConville, "Modern Old Testament scholarship has been largely informed by the belief that traditional Christian messianic interpretations of Old Testament passages have been exegetically indefensible." He traces this to S. Mowinckel, the Old Testament scholar who argued that the "original meanings had nothing to do with the hope of deliverance by an eschatological Messiah." Mowinckel posited that there was no preexilic messianism in Israel, a claim rejected by some but accepted by many others, including evangelicals. But, as McConville has argued, canonical criticism has "brought new contextual possibilities into interpretation." Could it be that ancient writers and interpreters approached the Scriptures in this canonical way as opposed to the atomistic, nonmessianic readings currently in vogue? If so, it would produce a more messianic approach to the Old Testament. This turn toward a canonical reading of the Hebrew Bible yielding a messianic understanding seems essential in order to remain consistent with the biblical data. Therefore, it is necessary to discuss the reasons a messianic interpretation is so important.
The foremost reason for seeing the Hebrew Bible as a messianic document is that this appears to be the best way to explain the evidence of the Scriptures themselves. James Hamilton observes that the extensive messianic speculation of the intertestamental period, Second Temple Judaism, and the New Testament would indicate that these speculations are rooted in the Hebrew Bible. He sets aside "the possibility that ancient people were stupid, which seems to be an implicit assumption of a good deal of modern scholarship." Instead he hypothesizes that the best explanation for the congruence of all these ancient sources citing the same biblical passages as messianic is that they were all indeed messianic in their intention and meaning. He is accurate in positing "that the OT is a messianic document, written from a messianic perspective, to sustain a messianic hope." This is similar to John Sailhamer's conclusion, when he writes,
The messianic thrust of the OT was the whole reason the books of the Hebrew Bible were written. In other words, the Hebrew Bible was not written as the national literature of Israel. It probably also was not written to the nation of Israel as such. It was rather written, in my opinion, as the expression of the deep-seated messianic hope of a small group of faithful prophets and their followers.
To put it plainly, it appears that the best way of understanding the Bible as a whole is to see the Old Testament as predicting the coming of the Messiah and the New Testament revealing him to be Jesus of Nazareth. A commitment to faithful exegesis of the Hebrew Bible should yield a messianic interpretation.
A second reason for treating the Hebrew Bible as a messianic document is that it provides the most biblical apologetic for Jesus as the Messiah. Without the evidence of the Tanak, it would be impossible to identify Jesus as the Promised One. Consistently, the apostles contended that Jesus of Nazareth was "the Messiah... the One Moses wrote about in the Law (and so did the prophets)" (John 1:41, 45). This was the perspective that they learned from Jesus himself when he said that "everything written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled" (Luke 24:44). Affirming the messianic hope is the apologetic linchpin in the New Testament for proving that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah. For this reason, the apostles, church fathers, the medieval churchmen, biblical theologians, apologists, and missionaries have all recognized the importance of messianic prophecy.
Besides the importance of messianic prophecy as a biblical apologetic, a third reason it is crucial to treat the Hebrew Bible as messianic is that it enables followers of Jesus to have confidence in the Bible as God's inspired Word. The specific fulfillments of the messianic predictions confirm the Bible's claim for itself that it is an inspired book. The Hebrew prophets could not have foretold the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus apart from inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, recognizing the messianic predictions of the Hebrew Bible will strengthen confidence in the Bible as a unified, inspired book that reveals Jesus of Nazareth truly to be the promised Messiah of Israel and of the world.
A fourth reason messianic prophecy is so essential is that it is foundational for identifying Jesus as the true Messiah. When John the Baptist was in prison and struggled with doubts about Jesus, he sent his disciples to Jesus with a question. They asked, "Are you the One who is to come, or should we expect someone else?" (Matt 11:3). Jesus responded (Matt 11:4-5) by referring to His fulfillment of Isaiah's predictions of the Messiah (Isa 35:5-6 and 61:1-4). Foundational to our confidence and salvation in the person and work of Jesus the Messiah is that He indeed did fulfill the words of the prophets. Though contemporary evangelical scholarship continues to recognize Jesus as both Lord and Messiah, they fail to see the importance that Jesus Himself gave to messianic prophecy as proof of His own identity.
In this first chapter I have attempted to demonstrate why messianic prophecy is important to a sound interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and, in fact, the whole Bible. The content of the following chapters is as follows.
Chapter 2 addresses how contemporary interpreters approach the messianic hope in the Hebrew Bible. In order to place this book in context, it is vital to understand the varying attempts to explain how the Hebrew Bible is messianic. While most authors would affirm that the Old Testament is indeed messianic in some way, they would put very little stock in direct messianic prophecy. This chapter describes these differing approaches to interpretation.
Chapter 3 begins to make the case for reading the Hebrew Bible as messianic by adducing text-critical evidence. This is the first of five chapters defending the idea that the Hebrew Bible is indeed messianic and that the prophecies are frequently direct predictions. To begin, it is necessary for interpreters to examine textual criticism because in a number of places the messianic hope is clearer in the variant readings and often these variants with messianic nuances are indeed the better readings. This chapter evaluates eight different readings to show that the messianic reading is the better choice. Hence, biblical interpreters at times will more readily find the Messiah in the critical apparatus.
Chapter 4 examines the innerbiblical evidence for a messianic reading of the Hebrew Bible. It is frequently charged that only the New Testament reads the Old Testament messianically or even that the messianic hope only developed in the inter-testamental period. The purpose of this chapter is to show that even the Hebrew Bible reads itself in a messianic fashion. It accomplishes this by taking three passages from the Pentateuch and examining them innerbiblically. Upon examination, it will become clear that later biblical authors read earlier ones as messianic.
Chapter 5 gathers the canonical evidence for a messianic Old Testament. It shows that the final canonical shape of the Hebrew Bible reveals a messianic understanding of the Hebrew text. This is evident in the final shaping of the Old Testament canon as well as in the books that were included in the canon. It will be seen that the canon was designed to present the messianic hope.
Chapter 6 presents New Testament evidence for a messianic Hebrew Bible. It is frequently asserted that the New Testament teaches that the Old Testament writers did not know that they were writing about the Messiah. Hence, the New Testament writers were adding an inspired interpretation that added a fuller meaning to the Hebrew Scriptures. This chapter examines the words of Jesus and the apostles to show that they also believed that the Old Testament writers actually knew that they were writing about the Messiah.
Chapter 7, titled "Decoding the Hebrew Bible: How the New Testament Reads the Old," studies the variety of ways the New Testament uses the Old. The New Testament largely understands messianic hope in a direct fashion, but not exclusively. It is important to recognize the various methods the New Testament employs to explain the messianic hope of the Hebrew Scriptures. This chapter considers Matthew 2 and its fourfold use (direct, typical, applicational, and summary fulfillments) of the Old Testament as a prototype for the four ways the entire New Testament uses the Hebrew Bible.
Chapter 8 investigates Rashi's influence on biblical interpretation. If the Hebrew Bible is messianic, why have so many abandoned this idea? This chapter studies the great Jewish interpreter Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) and his influence on Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. It explains why interpreters largely abandoned direct prophecy for double fulfillment, typical prophecy, and other non-direct interpretations.
Chapter 9, titled "An Example from the Law: Interpreting Genesis 3:15 as a Messianic Prophecy," is the first of three chapters that studies passages that were viewed as messianic in the past but now are rarely seen that way. Traditionally, Gen 3:15 has been understood as the Protoevangelium or "first gospel." Many now read this passage as a promise of a perpetual conflict between humanity and snakes or good and evil. This chapter makes the case that Gen 3:15 must not be read atomistically but rather within the context of the book of Genesis, the whole Torah, and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. This results in the messianic reading Moses intended.
Chapter 10 studies an example from the prophets, namely, Isa 7:14. Although Isa 52:13-53:12 is assuredly the most significant prophecy of Messiah in the Prophets, evangelical interpreters have generally not abandoned the messianic interpretation of this crucial passage to the degree that they have forsaken others. In contrast, Isaiah 7 has become one of the most controversial prophecies in the entire Hebrew Bible. The difficulties range from the meaning of the word ʿalmāh ("young woman" or "virgin") to its relationship to the context. The direct messianic interpretation has been virtually abandoned. This chapter makes the case for translating ʿalmāh as "virgin" or "maiden" and for a messianic interpretation of the passage.
Chapter 11 considers an example from the book of Psalms, namely, Psalm 110. This psalm is frequently considered an ode written to King David, or if written by him, as directed to some other non-messianic figure. However, reading it in its final canonical shape clearly shows it to be a royal oracle about the future Messiah.
Chapter 12, the final chapter, calls for a return to a messianic interpretation of the Hebrew Bible by reading it with a text-oriented and holistic approach that yields a messianic intent. An approach of this sort will strengthen our understanding of the entire Bible and reaffirm its use in the classical apologetic method of Jesus and the apostles.
For the purpose of full disclosure, I need to reveal why this subject is so significant to me personally. Messianic prophecy was the means God used to bring me to faith in Jesus the Messiah. My parents were Holocaust survivors who raised me in a traditional Jewish home. We were Orthodox in our Jewish beliefs and practices and, as such, I did believe in the future coming of a personal Messiah. Even so, it was not a central issue of my life. However, that changed when my mother announced that she believed in Jesus. This led to my father divorcing her and a radical shift in my life.
I decided to study the messianic prophecies of the Hebrew Bible and prove my mother wrong in attributing their fulfillment to Jesus of Nazareth. Although I was initially quite confident of my opinion, in time I was surprised to see that there was far more credibility to the messiahship of Jesus than I had first anticipated. After dealing with my fears of ostracism from the Jewish community, based on my new conviction that the Scriptures foretold a suffering Messiah who would be rejected by His own people and provide forgiveness through his death and resurrection, I put my trust in Jesus as Messiah and Lord. I became convinced (and remain so) that my faith in the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, who fulfilled the predictions of the Hebrew Bible, is an intrinsically Jewish faith. I would never have made this decision apart from studying messianic prophecy. In fact, apart from messianic prediction and fulfillment, Jesus could not be identified as the Messiah of Israel, and if not that, then He could not be the Messiah of the world. It is for this reason, joined with my commitment to exegetical accuracy, that I believe it is essential to understand the Hebrew Bible as messianic.
Seeing the Old Testament as a messianic text is not merely an issue of differing interpretations. Rather, it is of crucial significance. How messianic prophecy is viewed will ultimately affect the evangelical understanding of the inspiration and interpretation of the Scriptures, the defense of the gospel, and the identification of Jesus as the promised Messiah. Walter Kaiser captured the critical importance of recognizing the messianic hope of the Hebrew Bible: "This issue of the interpretation of the Messiah in the OT could be a defining moment for evangelical scholarship and ultimately for the Church's view of the way we regard Scripture." He adds the reason messianic prophecy is so pivotal: "But if it is not in the OT text, who cares how ingenious later writers are in their ability to reload the OT text with truths that it never claimed or revealed in the first place? The issue is more than hermeneutics; it is the authority and content of revelation itself!"