Sunday, December 11, 2005

Messiah: The Talmud on Messianic Prophecy

The charge is sometimes made that the New Testament makes improper use of the Hebrew Scriptures, forcing certain passages into service as Messianic prophecies when originally they were not intended to be such. A look at another ancient Jewish writing, the Talmud, sets the record straight and sheds new light on Messianic prophecies.

Of course, whenever three theologians are together, there are four opinions among them. This article is no demonstration that a certain view of a certain Scripture must be held; in fact in reading the Talmud there are very few views that are held without any difference of opinion. The purpose of this is simply to show, with references, that the Messianic interpretations of those who wrote the New Testament were in line with acceptable and traditional thoughts of ancient Judaism.

The Messianic Scriptures
The Talmud related an ancient Jewish approach related to interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures:

“All the prophets prophesied only for the days of the Messiah” – Berachoth 34b

And again

“All the prophets prophesied only in respect of the Messianic era;” – Sanhedrin 99a

Did everyone hold this view? Not necessarily; there is also an opinion that all prophets prophesied on behalf of those who would marry their daughters to scholars. (Just remember how many scholars were involved in writing the Talmud and it makes more sense.) While the comment about scholars was probably intended as humor – actual examples of its application are rare at best – the point is not a unanimous view. Very few views are ever held unanimously. The point is that interpreting all prophesy in light of the Messiah was an accepted ancient Jewish tradition with many examples of its kind.

Reading the Talmud, we see that all kinds of Scriptures are interpreted with Messianic interpretation. The passages considered Messianic included a great many which did not specifically refer to Messiah, and this was considered not just tolerable but also right. When Ruth, ancestress of King David, has leftover grain, this is seen to prefigure the days of the Messiah (Shabbath 113b). Teachings of the meals to eat on the Sabbath are interpreted as having special importance for the Messianic era (Shabbath 118a).

What does this mean? It means that the New Testament usage of the Hebrew Scriptures was true to the traditional methods and interpretive precepts of ancient Judaism. It is therefore legitimate interpretation to read passages such as “Out of Egypt I shall call my son” as Messianic. Likewise, it is legitimate interpretation according to ancient Hebrew practice to read “The maiden shall conceive and bear a child” as Messianic. It is worth remembering that it was the ancient Hebrews who considered it right to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures in light of the Messiah, even when the immediate meaning was not directly about Messiah. This was no late innovation specific to followers of Jesus. More importantly, it was not seen as a distortion of the texts to interpret them in a Messianic light.

Specific Messianic Prophecies
Aside from the vague prefigurings such as Sabbath meals and Ruth’s leftover grain, what are some of the specific things that were expected of the Messiah? Are any passages more directly about the Messiah?

There is an interesting discussion recorded in Sukkah 52a starting with the passage “the land will mourn” (Zechariah 12:12):

“What is the cause of the mourning? — R. Dosa and the Rabbis differ on the point. One explained, The cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, and the other explained, The cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination.”

The question is raised, “It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, since that well agrees with the Scriptural verse, And they shall look upon me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son.” – Sukkah 52a (Scripture referenced is Zechariah 12:10, part of the same passage originally being discussed)

Those who hold to the view of the slaying of the evil inclination also discuss their view. It is interesting to note that, in their discussion, they never object to the idea of the Messiah being slain.

The discussion continues in the same passage of the Talmud:

“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.” – Sukkah 52a (Scriptures referenced are Psalm 2:7-8, and Psalm 21:4.)

Another discussion focuses on different views of when and how to look for Messiah’s coming:

“R. Alexandri said: R. Joshua opposed two verses: it is written, And behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven, whilst [elsewhere] it is written, lowly, and riding upon an ass! — if they are meritorious, with the clouds of heaven; if not, lowly and riding upon an ass.” – Sanhedrin 98a (Scriptures referenced are Daniel 7:13 and Zechariah 9:9.)

Few of the conversations are as tightly-focused as this. When looking at passages that are directly Messianic, it is more plain how they apply to Messiah. When we look at secondary interpretations, it becomes less plain. Christians in particular will enjoy reading an ancient discussion on calculating when Messiah will come and how long the earth will endure. One commentator uses the following passage in this discussion of the duration of the world and the coming of the Messiah:

“After two days will he revive us: in the third day, he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight.” – Sanhedrin 97a (Scripture referenced is Hosea 6:2)

The commentator himself, while seeing Messianic implications, does not interpret this in the same way that a modern Christian would. But based on the Messianic view of Scripture, we can see in this passage how Jesus could say that the prophets foretold he would be raised from the dead on the third day.

According to ancient Jewish principles of interpretation, any passage of Scripture might contain a hidden mention of Messiah, and that knowledge should be sought out. In short, the Messianic view of Scripture is valid and directly rooted in accepted practices of ancient Judaism.

Originally blogged on CADRE Comments 04/07/2005

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