There has been a recent resurgence of interest in the all but forgotten Talmudic discussion of Mashiach ben Yosef or Messiah son of Joseph. Shockingly the ones leading such discussions are most often not Jews who have spent lifetimes combing pages of Talmud as one might expect, but rather Christians who have stumbled upon the Torah and from the common ground of Torah stretched their arms far enough to reach this little-known figure featured in the Talmudic discourses and debates from before the days of the Great Rambam. Before we talk about who Messiah ben Yosef was, we must first understand what a Mashiach is to the Jewish people. Actually, the first thing we are going to point out to kind of BLOW our Christian readers away is that, as the Tanakh records, the first ‘Christ’ already came LONG before Jesus/ Y’shua! This comes as a shock to many Christians, but indeed, it is true. Christ is a Greek loanword; it means ‘anointed one’ and is a translation of the Hebrew word מָשׁיחַ Maschiach, from which we also get the English word Messiah, a transliteration of Maschiach. So, all three words, Christ, Messiah, and Mashiach mean the same thing, Anointed One.
This anointing was both physical and spiritual. King Saul was a ‘Mashiach,’ though not a very good one as it turned out, thus the anointing literally left him 1. King David was the next Mashiach, much better, he became a sort of archetype for what a Messiah-King could be. Appropriately, Elyone promised that through His bloodline this final King Messiah would come. In fact, every king of Israel and Judah was anointed with the holy anointing oil prescribed in the Torah 2. The word Mashiach, is literally referring to the custom of anointing High priests and Kings of Israel and Judah with a precisely prescribed holy oil. Even the very Pagan, very Persian King Cyrus is referred to in the Scriptures as a Mashiach, literally – anointed one. So by this, we see that in the mind of a devout Jew, the Mashiach is not necessarily ‘divine’ in nature at all. He might not even be Jewish. In fact, every past Mashiach has been just an earthly man, anointed by the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit). In fact, there have been many Jewish Mashiakim over time; this is a historical fact.
The 12th Principle of faith in Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith is, “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Mashiach, and though He tarry, still I await Him every day.” Moses ben Maimon, also called Mamonides or Rambam, was an extremely influential Rabbi from the 12th century and his interpretations and views still heavily permeate Modern Orthodox practice and thought, as does the concept of the Mashiach. Most Christians and Jews can agree this far, that we are all currently awaiting a Messiah/Mashiach, to redeem the righteous and destroy all uncleanness, sin, and death. The only difference being that ‘Messianic Jews3‘ and Christians, believe King Messiah already came once, as the humble lamb and will soon return again to claim his ‘Millenial Kingdom.’ In contrast, Orthodox Jews believe he has never yet come, and so they are awaiting His appearance as the conquering Lion who will destroy all sinners and wickedness and usher in the Olam Ha-Ba (The World to Come) ‘. Notwithstanding the various faith traditions define uncleanness differently, they are nonetheless parallel beliefs.
Christians expect the Messiah to return on the clouds of Heaven in Glory and splendor, while Jews envision a Mashiach coming on more earthly clouds of glory; such as the churning of dust as He rolls across the nations who will have surrounded Israel to destroy it. That is the kind of Messiah Jews want, and it is why so many Jews once believed Simon Bar-Khokba, a militant leader who took back Jerusalem for three years after its destruction, to have been the Mashiach. Having established that, it seems incredible that AFTER His crucifixion so many Jews were won over to believing Y’shua was, in fact, the Mashiach! What made the Jews who were converted on the day of Shavu’ot (or Pentecost as it later became called by Gentile Christians) become believers in this now crucified Messiah? After all, a dead hero must have been a hard sell. Could this concept of a Messiah who returns have originated before His death?
Many Orthodox Jews voice this frustration as a major reason they do not believe Y’shua could have been a Mashiach, “What? He has to come two times? Why couldn’t he do it right the first time?” To be fair, perhaps the same could be said of Elijah. He came once before in the flesh, and yet, each Pesach we prepare Elijah’s cup and his place at the Seder Table awaiting him to return the second time. We can see then, that the concept of a religious figure returning to culminate his work on earth is not alien to Judaism at all and is also reflected in the tradition of a bridegroom coming to betroth his bride before returning home to prepare a place for them to live and after approximately one year returning to escort her home as part of a grand wedding procession.4. Amazingly, we come across this concept of ‘two comings of Messiah’ in Jewish thought not as a modern conjecture, but during the time of the second temple!!!!
“Some Second Temple scholars taught the prevalence of wickedness would be a prelude to the Messianic Age…In their depictions of the Messiah the rabbis formulated the doctrine of Messiah ben Yosef. (son of Joseph) who would precede King-Messiah, Messiah ben David. According to legend, Messiah ben Yosef would engage in battle with Gog and Magog, the enemies of Israel, and be killed. Only after this would Messiah ben David arrive in his glory. With the coming of the second Messiah the dispersion of Israel would cease and all exiles would return from the four corners of the earth.” (Cohn-Sherbok. CJSB, 1993, p. 8825 ‘Two Messiahs’)
The idea of two appearances of a Messiah figure existed before Y’shua did! In the mind of these first believers in Y’shua, it seems likely he was seen as a fulfillment of the Mashiach ben Yosef, that is the Messiah-Redeemer. For them, his ministry of reaching out to the poor and destitute, coupled with his rejection and martyrdom (as with the deaths of almost all the prophets) was evidence of this Messiah-Redeemer role. Still, what caused them to make the leap to also believing he would return as the Mashiach ben David? If the King Messiah was going to resurrect, surely there would be mention of it in the Tanakh, it tells us Eliyahu will return to prepare the way for the Mashiach 6, so surely it would mention that the Mashiach would be coming twice. In fact proponents of the Ben Yosef concept will cite scriptures such as Zechariah 4:14 which describes two prominent figures as “two olive trees,” and then again as“two sons of fresh oil” and verses such as Hosea 6:1-3 which describes someone being ‘torn and stricken then brought back to life on the third day.’ It goes on to compare the coming of this figure to the two distinct seasonal periods of rain in eretz Israel -often translated as “the former and the latter rains.” This is an analogy also repeated by the prophets Joel (2:23) and Jeremiah (5:24). While Christians can quite naturally rectify these two depictions of the Messiah as being the first and second advents of Y’shua 7, the early Rabbis saw these as two distinctly different people, one who would suffer (ben Yosef) and one who would rule (ben David). Two Messiahs or two comings of one Messiah; there is not an irreconcilable difference here.
These two diverse images of Mashiach both arise in the Tanakh itself!! The Tanakh is literally RIDDLED with Messianic Prophecy, and over and over we find evidence in the text that there are two different and distinct portrayals of this figure (or these figures.) An interesting example is found in Isaiah 7, a text commonly used by Christians to assert the immaculate conception of Yeshua- which is NOT what we are going to look at here. Instead, we are going to look at the clear indication that there are two different and distinct figures being described and indeed prophesied here.
So, **** Himself will give you a sign: Behold! The virgin/young woman will conceive and will bring forth a son; and she shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey until he knows to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy shall know to refuse evil and choose the good, the land that you hate will be forsaken before her Kings.” Isaiah 7:14-16
Christians focus intently on the world Almah translated as’ virgin’ in Christian Bibles and ‘a young woman’ in most Tanakhs, but we want to look at the entire verse in context. It is being given as a prophetic sign by Isaiah to King Ahaz, that the enemies fo Israel will be overcome before this child of promise reaches the age of accountability. Now when we compare this to a verse found just one chapter later we read:
And I took faithful witnesses to record for me concerning Maher-shalal-hash Baz, Uriah, the priest and Zechariah, the son of Jeberechiah. And I drew near the prophetess. And she concieved, and bore a son. Then **** said to me, Call his name Maher-shalal-hash Baz (Make haste to the spoil! Hurry to the plunder!) For before the boy knows how to cry My father or My Mother, the riches of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria shall be lifted up before the king of Assyria! Isaiah 8:2-4
The similarities in the wording are too compelling to ignore, ye the name is different. Just a few verses later, Isaiah continues:
And he shall pass though Judah. He shall overflow and go over. He shall reach to the neck; and his wings will be stretching out, filling the breadth of your land, O Immanuel. O peoples, suffer evil, and be broken! And listen, all from the far places of the earth; gird yourselves and be broken! Gird yourself and be broken! Counsel a plan, and it is frustrated, speak a word, and it shall not rise; for El is with Us (Immanuel) Isaiah 8:8-10
The fact is there appear to be two different prophecies being tied up into one here. Jewish Rabbis have long attested that the similarity in the wording between these two adjacent passages, as well as Isaiah’s mention that he brought reliable men to record as witnesses, this prophetic fulfillment, makes it clear this Maher-shal-hash-baz was the son the prophetess borne to him as an immediate fulfillment of this prophecy. Yet Christians and Messianic Jews can easily see here another interesting parallel that shows us this second passage may in fact be referring to yet another child of prophecy who would come not as Judah’s enemies were being destroyed by the King of Assyria as described in 8:2-4 but at a time when JUDAH would be filled “to the neck’ with an enemy force that is not specifically named (See 8:8-10 above). This Immanuel would go on to ”break the wicked people of the earth, ALL FROM THE FAR PLACES OF THE EARTH (that is in Hebrew Eretz which is used to connotate the WHOLE EARTH!) This ties into many other Scriptures such as Micah 5 which also describes a birth, a mighty ruler from ancient/eternal time, and the defeat of Assyria, as well as all the nations (Goyim) It again uses wording in verse 8 that closely parallels the blessing of Jacob over his son, Judah in Genesis 49:8-12. It is uncontested that this blessing is Messianic in nature and that the Messiah will be from the line of Judah. Lending additional perspective is that in passages such as Zechariah 12:3 the final battle in which King Messiah will finally and permanently liberate Jerusalem and the Jewish people at a time when “all the nations of the earth are gathered against her” and during which the remnant of Jacob will have become spread throughout the entire earth. Needless to say, this passage goes on to describe the entire nation of Israel mourning “one whom they pierced…as a firstborn son” which gives Christians fairly strong footing to argue this refers to Yeshua’s crucifixion. Still, there is a strong argument that this ‘one whom they pierced’ was not a single person but is referring more generally to the many Jewish martyrs and prophets.
This second passage also contains the name Immanuel as well as the statement Immanu El which is rendered with the exact same spelling but introduces a space between “is with us” and “El” (Which means Great/Might one in Hebrew and is a title for The Most High. Finally, this name or phrase occurs 3 times in these two chapters. (Isaiah 7:14, 8:8, and 8:10). Jewish mysticism holds that the number three signifies completeness and stability, as represented by the three Patriarchs and the three pilgrimage festivals –Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot (I Kings 17:21;Daniel 6:10). As a final thought to consider is the wording in Isaiah 9:6,
For a Child shall be born unto us, a Son shall be given unto us, and the government is upon his shoulder. And His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Strong EL, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His rule and peace there is no end, upon the throne of David and ove his reign, to establish it and sustain it with right judgements and with righteousness FOREVER! Isaiah 9:6-7
There is also a passage in Zechariah 9 which is particularly thought-compelling, and has been for centuries! In the Talmud, there is a very interesting discussion about this passage. In Sanhedrin 98a it says,
“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi raises a contradiction between two depictions of the coming of the Messiah. It is written: “There came with the clouds of heaven, one like unto a son of man…and there was given him dominion and glory and a kingdom…his dominion is an everlasting dominion” (Daniel 7:13–14). And it is written: “Behold, your king will come to you; he is just and victorious; lowly and riding upon a donkey and upon a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). Rabbi Alexandri explains: If the Jewish people merit redemption, the Messiah will come in a miraculous manner with the clouds of heaven. If they do not merit redemption, the Messiah will come lowly and riding upon a donkey.” (Talmud. Sanhedrin 98a)
In fact, some of the statements made by various great Rabbis over the centuries, many of them recorded in the Talmud are downright breath-taking for a Christian to read! As detailed by Scholar Etan Bar, a native Jewish-Israeli on Oneforisrael.org, the ancient Rabbis long believed the suffering Messiah was the one being referred to in this and other like passages:
“In the Babylonian Talmud it says: It is well according to him who explains that the cause (of the mourning) is the slaying of the Messiah the son of Joseph since that well agrees with Zechariah 12 ”And they shall look upon Me, whom they have pierced; and shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son.” (Sukkah 52a)
Rashi in Sukkah 52 interprets Zechariah’s prophecy and says: “And the land shall mourn in Zechariah’s prophecy who prophesied the future when they will mourn over Messiah son of Joseph who was killed…”
Rabbi Moses Alshech adds in this section: “They shall look unto ME, for they shall lift up their eyes unto Me in perfect repentance, when they see Him whom they have pierced, that is Messiah, the Son of Joseph; He will take upon Himself all the guilt of Israel.” and later adds “because He was willing to bare them upon himself…and we thought He will not take them upon Himself, He is afflicted, smitten by God. But when the time comes to show Himself in all His glory 8, then all will see and understand how big is the power of the sufferer for the generation.” (Bar, 2018)
Whether we understand these Rabbis to be discussing two possible ‘faces’ the Mashiach might wear, two different and distinct Mashiakim, or the same Mashiach in two appearances- we can see that for many hundreds of years Rabbis have seen enough evidence of this dual Messiah concept to midrash about it. This is compelling!
3 – A bit of a misnomer really since all Jews believe in a Messiah- perhaps Hebrew Christians, as they were once known, is a more fitting term?
4 – Malachi 4:5-6
5 – Zechariah/ Z’kharyah 9:8-10
6 – See Malachi 4:5-6
7 – A fact further backed up by the clear statement in Zechariah 2:11 which shows someone saying they will dwell among Israel and that they will then know that HaShem has sent Him, as well as the messianic references in Zechariah 3:9 and the insinuation of a return noted by 4:9
8 – Compare Matthew 24:30