Jesus was Jewish. The Christian message about him is not
In a recent blog in The Times of Israel, a Christian writer attempted to make the case that Christianity is Jewish.[i] While a small subset of Jewish culture of the 1st century CE was the historical context out of which early Christian texts arose,[ii] the theological gap between Christianity and Judaism is much wider than what the writer of the blog presented. This separation occurred early in the historical development of Christianity, and it is evident in passages in Christian Scripture in which Jesus is presented as a deity who also dies for the sins of humanity, thereby transforming him into a divine mediator between G-d and humanity. While these theological concepts were acceptable in the Gentile world of the first century CE, they are contrary to the teachings of the Torah.[iii]
To circumvent this inconvenient truth, Christian interpreters have long maintained that “clear” evidence for Jesus’ supposed divinity and sacrifice for sins can be found within the book of Isaiah, a Jewish prophet of the 8th century BCE. However, when those passages are mistranslated and taken out of context, their application in support of a message contrary to the Torah does not make that message Jewish. To demonstrate this point, below are three passages from the book of Isaiah which have been used to support the Christian view of Jesus. For each passage, the Hebrew text is examined, considering grammatical, literary, and historical evidence. Then the analysis of the Hebrew text is compared to the traditional Christian interpretation of each passage. As will be readily seen below, a careful analysis of each prophetic text reveals a much different understanding than what is promoted in Christian translations and interpretations of those same passages.
Before examining the three passages from Isaiah, it is helpful to consider the authorship and historical context of this Jewish prophecy. Concerning the authorship of the book, biblical scholars are divided. While some believe Isaiah the prophet wrote the entire book in the late 8th century BCE, others maintain the book has three distinct sections[iv] reflecting different time periods, and therefore, there were at least three writers involved in its creation. Concerning the historical context, the book of Isaiah offers prophetic insight into the struggles the nation of Judah experienced from the late 8th century BCE through the 6th century BCE, which included invasions from foreign powers, the time of the exile in Babylon, and the challenges related to the return from the exile. During cyclical periods of invasion and restoration, the people of Judah were either in need of correction due to violations of the Mosaic covenant or in need of encouragement when the times of correction were concluded. With this overview in place, we can now analyze the three passages from Isaiah.
During the reign of Ahaz (the king of Judah from approximately 735 to 720 BCE), a concern arose about the impending invasion of Judah by the nation of Aram, which had formed an alliance with Israel (the ten northern tribes which had broken away from Judah after the reign of King Solomon). Understandably, King Ahaz was very distressed, and the prophet Isaiah tried to comfort him by letting him know that the alliance of Aram and Israel would fail. Hence Judah would not be conquered.
To confirm this prophetic word, Isaiah then stated that HaShem[v] would give Ahaz a sign, which involved the birth of a child:
לָ֠כֵן יִתֵּ֨ן אֲדֹנָ֥י ה֛וּא לָכֶ֖ם א֑וֹת הִנֵּ֣ה הָעַלְמָ֗ה הָרָה֙ וְיֹלֶ֣דֶת בֵּ֔ן וְקָרָ֥את שְׁמ֖וֹ עִמָּ֥נוּ אֵֽל׃
“Therefore, my Lord Himself will give to you a sign. Behold, the young maiden will conceive, and she will bear a son. She will call his name Immanu-el.”[vi]
Shortly after this prophecy was uttered, Isaiah and his wife had a son (Isaiah 8:1-4), and the text indicates that before this boy could utter “my father” or “my mother” the threat posed by Aram and Israel would end, thereby directly connecting the birth of Isaiah’s son to the downfall of Aram and Israel as expressed in Isaiah chapter 7. While the name of Isaiah’s son in 8:3 is different from the name given in 7:14 (most likely due to changing circumstances related to how Judah was eventually saved from the invasion),[vii] both names are symbolic and reflect HaShem’s intervention leading to the demise of enemies of Judah. Furthermore, the issue of both passages is the same. Soon after the son was born, Judah would no longer have to worry about an invasion from Aram and Israel. This prophecy was fulfilled when Assyria conquered Aram and Israel (the northern kingdom) in the 8th century BCE. [viii]
Since the evidence indicates this prophecy has already been fulfilled, it does not seem to have any relevance concerning the Christian message about Jesus. However, when Christians were writing their Scriptures, they usually cited the Greek translation of the Tanakh (called the Septuagint [LXX]) rather than the Hebrew text. So, the author the Gospel of Matthew promoted the idea that Jesus’ conception was a miracle and that he was born of a virgin by citing the LXX version of Isaiah 7:14, which mistranslated the Hebrew word for “young maiden” as “virgin.”[ix]
Regardless of the mistranslation in the Septuagint and the use of the Greek word for “virgin” in the Gospel of Matthew, the historical, grammatical, and literary facts persist when it comes to the Hebrew text and its context. A strong hermeneutical argument can be made that Isaiah 7:14 is a reference to the birth of Isaiah’s son in the 8th century BCE. Therefore, this verse is not a “clear” supporting reference for the Christian view that Jesus was born of a virgin.
Isaiah 9:5 (9:6 in certain English translations)
While the Assyrian invasion saved Judah from the alliance of Aram and Israel, Assyria was not satisfied with conquering those two countries. Eventually Assyria turned its attention to Judah, ushering in a time of darkness, fear, and doubt. However, HaShem promised in the opening of Isaiah 9 that the oppression of Assyria would come to an end, and it is within this context that we encounter the next prophetic “proof-text” that has been frequently cited by Christian theologians.
כִּי־יֶ֣לֶד יֻלַּד־לָ֗נוּ בֵּ֚ן נִתַּן־לָ֔נוּ וַתְּהִ֥י הַמִּשְׂרָ֖ה עַל־שִׁכְמ֑וֹ
וַיִּקְרָ֨א שְׁמ֜וֹ פֶּ֠לֶא יוֹעֵץ֙ אֵ֣ל גִּבּ֔וֹר אֲבִיעַ֖ד שַׂר־שָׁלֽוֹם׃
“For a child was born to us, a son was given to us. And the government was on his shoulder. And he [the son] called His name [G-d’s name] “One who plans wonder, Mighty G-d, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”
Once again, both the plain meaning of the Hebrew and the context of the passage point toward events of the 8th century BCE. The verbs in this passage are past tense verbs,[x] not future, and the context is one referring to the defeat of the Assyrians by HaShem during the reign of Hezekiah, who is the son referred to in the prophecy. When Jerusalem was under siege by Assyria, King Hezekiah prayed[xi] to HaShem who then intervened and saved Jerusalem by supernaturally destroying the Assyrian army.[xii]
So how did this passage become a proof text for the Christian message about Jesus? While this verse is not cited in Christian Scripture, influential early Christian translations of the Hebrew text drastically altered the meaning of the text in Isaiah, to the extent that the son is called “Mighty G-d”, and then Christian theologians used this mistranslation to promote the idea that Jesus was a deity. For example, consider how the verse is translated in the King James Version (published in 1611): “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty G-d, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” As can be seen in this translation, the past tense verbs are changed either to present or future tenses, and the last verb (“called”) is also placed in the passive voice. So, for this prophecy to be applied to Jesus, the past tense active voice verb vayyiqra (“he called”) is turned into a future passive form (“will be called”), and the literary and historical contexts of the passage are completely ignored.
In the final analysis, both the plain meaning of the Hebrew as well as the literary and historical contexts of the verse support the interpretation that Isaiah 9:5 is a reference to the birth of King Hezekiah during whose reign the oppression of Assyria was broken. Therefore, this verse is not a “clear” supporting reference for the Christian view that Jesus is a deity.
Many years after the Assyrian crisis ended, another crisis arose in Judah due to the invasion of the Babylonians. The Babylonians initially invaded Judah in 605 BCE and made Judah into a vassal state. Later, after a rebellion by Judah, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the 1st Temple in approximately 586 BCE, forcing many people of Judah into exile in Babylon. The Jewish people remained in exile until the Persians defeated Babylon in 539 BCE, after which time the exiles were allowed to return to Judah. However, many were reluctant, so they needed to be encouraged to return and rebuild.
Isaiah 53:11-12 occurs in a lengthy section of Isaiah in which the Jewish exiles were told that the time of their punishment has come to an end. It was time to return to Judah.
מֵעֲמַ֤ל נַפְשׁוֹ֙ יִרְאֶ֣ה יִשְׂבָּ֔ע בְּדַעְתּ֗וֹ יַצְדִּ֥יק צַדִּ֛יק עַבְדִּ֖י לָֽרַבִּ֑ים וַעֲוֺנֹתָ֖ם ה֥וּא יִסְבֹּֽל׃
לָכֵ֞ן אֲחַלֶּק־ל֣וֹ בָרַבִּ֗ים וְאֶת־עֲצוּמִים֮ יְחַלֵּ֣ק שָׁלָל֒ תַּ֗חַת אֲשֶׁ֨ר הֶעֱרָ֤ה לַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נַפְשׁ֔וֹ
וְאֶת־פֹּשְׁעִ֖ים נִמְנָ֑ה וְהוּא֙ חֵטְא־רַבִּ֣ים נָשָׂ֔א וְלַפֹּשְׁעִ֖ים יַפְגִּֽיעַ׃
“From the toil of his soul, he will see and be satisfied. By his knowledge, My righteous servant will make righteousness for the many. Certainly, he will bear their punishments. Therefore, I will assign to him a portion with the many, and he will divide the plunder with the strong. Because he poured out his soul unto death, and he was appointed with wrongdoers. But he himself carried away the sin of many and interceded for the wrongdoers.”
While the Christian interpretation of this passage is that Jesus is the servant who dies as an atonement for the sins of others, the evidence in the book of Isaiah indicates the servant is a reference to the Jewish people. Starting in Isaiah chapter 41, the word “servant” is used in numerous verses as a metaphor for the Jewish people,[xiii] who are exalted by HaShem even though they are viewed as an object of derision by others. This theme continues into chapter 53 where the servant is viewed as one who suffers for others, an idea that occurs in the passage being analyzed here. That being the case, the question that arises is: how did the Jewish people suffer for the sins of others?
The answer is found in three major themes of Isaiah 40-55 which include: 1) the Jewish exiles have suffered significantly for sins of their forefathers; 2) their time of suffering has ended; and 3) it was time for them to leave Babylon. Consider, for example, the following passages:
“Comfort, comfort, O My people,” says your G-d. “Speak on the heart of Jerusalem and call out to her, that her hard service has been fulfilled, that her guilt has been satisfied, because she has received from HaShem’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2).
“Certainly I (G-d) am the One who wipes away your wrongdoings for My own sake, and I will not remember your sins. Remind Me! Let us contend together. Declare yourself, so that you may be acquitted. Your first father sinned, and your spokesmen have rebelled against Me” (Isaiah 43:25-27).
“Remember these things, Jacob and Israel, for you are My servant. I have formed you. You are a servant to Me, O Israel, and you will not be forgotten by Me. I have wiped out your wrongdoings like a dark mist and your sins like a cloud. Return to Me, for I have redeemed you” (Isaiah 44:21-22).
“Go out from Babylon! Flee from the Chaldeans! Declare with the sound of joyful shouting and proclaim this! Send it out to the end of the earth and say: “HaShem has redeemed His servant Jacob” (Isaiah 48:20).
“Break forth! Shout joyfully together, O ruins of Jerusalem! For HaShem has comforted His people; He has redeemed Jerusalem. HaShem has uncovered His holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our G-d. Depart, depart, go out from there! Do not touch what is unclean! Go out of the midst of her. Purify yourselves, those who carry the vessels of HaShem” (Isaiah 52:9-11).
Notice the emphasis on how the Jewish people have paid “double” for sins. No third party or later messianic figure took their place in the completion of this punishment and removal of guilt. Jewish people died when Babylon conquered Jerusalem. Jewish people suffered greatly when they were forced into exile. A generation of Jewish children were born in exile, even though they were innocent and did not deserve this punishment. Yet, their survival through this period of suffering made it possible for a new generation to return and rebuild once the time of exile was over.
Hence, the historical, grammatical, and literary evidence point toward the following interpretation of Isaiah 53:11-12, namely: The time of the punishment of HaShem’s servant Jacob came to an end, because the generation of Jewish people who lived through the exile (generation B) paid the price for the sins of the previous generation (generation A), so that the next generation of Jewish people (generation C) could return from exile. Therefore, this passage is not a “clear” supporting reference for the Christian view that Jesus died as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of others.
In closing, I know that Christians have deep convictions about the significance of Jesus in their faith, and I respect their right to believe what is important to them. It is their religion. Furthermore, I know many Christians who follow Jesus’ core Jewish teachings about loving G-d and one’s neighbor.[xiv] They are caring people who seek to make the world a better place, and I wish them well. However, for those who feel the need to make the case that the Christian message about Jesus is “Jewish” because it draws some of its “proof-texts” from the Tanakh, I would encourage them to reconsider the biblical evidence as well as the historical realities. No one likes being misquoted out of context, and that is the essence of Christian interpretation of Jewish prophecy. Once the Christian message declared that a human became both a deity and a sacrifice, it ceased being Jewish. If Jewish prophecies from the Tanakh are mistranslated, misinterpreted, and then misapplied in a theological manner to Jesus, then citing them as “proof” does not make the Christian message about Jesus a Jewish message.
[i] As It Turns Out, Christianity Is Actually Jewish | Aaron David Fruh | The Blogs (timesofisrael.com)
[ii] In the 1st century BCE and early 1st century CE, it appears that a small subset within Jewish culture was heavily influenced by Jewish apocalyptic literature that encouraged the belief that G-d would deliver Israel from Roman oppression by means of a divine intermediary. After the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70, the early Rabbis rejected this literature and its implications, while early Christians accepted it, built upon it, and produced a message that was attractive to Gentiles.
[iii]In the Torah, it is clearly stated that a man cannot be a deity (Numbers 23:19) and that human sacrifice is prohibited (Deuteronomy 12:31).
[iv] Some scholars contend there were different writers for the three main sections of Isaiah, including: Isaiah chapters 1-39 (called 1st Isaiah), chapters 40-55 (called 2nd Isaiah), and chapters 56-66 (called 3rd Isaiah).
[v] “HaShem” is a transliteration of the Hebrew word which means “The Name”, referring to the Divine Name of G-d.
[vi] All English translations of passages from the Tanakh are my translations.
[vii] The symbolic name given for the son in Isaiah 7:14 is immanu-el (“G-d with us”), and in Isaiah 8:3, the symbolic name for the son is maher-shalal-khash-baz (“swift is plunder; spoil hastens”). The reason there is a change in the name is most likely due to the changing circumstance concerning how Judah was delivered from invasion. Initially, the deliverance would have occurred only via HaShem’s intervention (immanu-el), but King Ahaz foolishly made an alliance with Assyria which intervened (maher-shalal-khash-baz). While that alliance brought initial relief for Judah from being attacked by Aram and Israel, it also opened the door for Assyria to eventually attack Judah as well.
[viii] Assyrian conquered Aram in 732 BCE (see 2 Kings 16:9), and Israel (the northern kingdom) in 722 BCE (see 2 Kings 17:6).
[ix] In Isaiah 7:14, the Hebrew word almah means “young maiden”, but in the LXX, the translation choice was “virgin”(parthenos in Greek) which would be an accurate translation of betulah but not almah.
[x] The first two verbs are perfect (qatal) verbs, and the second two are vav-conversive imperfects also known as wayyiqtol verbs.
[xi] King Hezekiah’s prayer can be found in 2 Kings 19:15-19.
[xii] According to 2 Kings 19:35, an angel of HaShem destroyed the army of Assyria. The annals of Assyria agree that Assyria withdrew from Judah at this time, but a different reason was given.
[xiii] The “servant” is identified as the Jewish people in Isaiah 41:8-9; 44:1-2,21; 45:4; 48:20; and 49:3.
[xiv] See the Gospel of Matthew 22:36-40.