Scholars Support Jewish Belief in a Divine Messiah
There is a popular assumption circulated by Jewish leaders and liberal scholars that Judaism has never believed in a divine Messiah. Some argue that Yeshua never claimed to be the Messiah and that his earliest followers never considered him to be G-d.
Understanding the historical background and the role of messiah within Jewish thought, especially during the Second Temple period, is the key to combating this myth. The concept of messiah in Jewish thought was far more complex before the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) than after. Over time, the established Jewish leadership refrained from defining the messiah in exalted terms as this was seen as a cause of the Temple’s destruction and Israel’s dispersion.
The Second Temple Period
During the Second Temple period, however, Jews interpreted and interacted with their scriptures differently than today. The Jewish world maintained varying strains of Judaisms – including radical apocalypticism, messianism and monasticism.
Pluralism influenced the way each group identified with and interpreted their world. There was disagreement over everything – the calendar, lineage of the priesthood, sacrifices, canon, even the primary location of where the ritual observances should take place. This debate extended into concepts and roles of the Messiah.
According to Professor Kathryn Smith, of Azusa Pacific University, “It was extremely common (may I say extremely ‘Jewish’) during this time to write about an exalted agent of G-d with characteristics of the divine and still be a monotheist … Jews were comfortable with the notion of a single, exalted figure, who had all the characteristics of G-d and did all the things that G-d does, who was exalted above all others, present with G-d at creation, but … and this is the most important element … they in no sense thought this was betraying the classical confession, Hear O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is one.”
This idea of a complex unity in relation to G-d allowed for openness in interpretation and understanding. Larry W. Hurtado of the University of Edinburgh says “all evidence indicates, however, that those Jewish [believers] who made such a step remained convinced that they were truly serving the G-d of the Old Testament.”
The idea that the Messiah would be more than a human figure goes back to the last centuries B.C.E. when Biblical passages were interpreted and attributed with messianic significance. We see commentaries, like the Aramaic Targums, that include sections from Daniel, Zechariah, Isaiah, and others. These authors absolutely believed in, and ascribed, an exalted status to the Messiah.
Scholars maintain that by the time of Yeshua, this concept was already firmly established. The Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the most important archaeological discoveries in regard to Biblical research, reflect this development. Those texts describe a highly exalted figure who would even suffer on behalf of the people. They also contain numerous allusions and similarities to phrases and concepts in the New Testament.
Yeshua understood himself to be G-d and this was clear to his disciples as well. Paul wrote in the early years after Yeshua: “It is through his Son that we have redemption, that is, our sins have been forgiven. He is the visible image of the invisible G-d. He is supreme over all creation, because in connection with him were created all things – in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible … He existed before all things, and he holds everything together (Col. 1:14-17).”
The earliest followers of Yeshua made their claims because there existed fertile soil in Jewish circles at the time for an elevated divine Messiah. Although this understanding within Judaism was often stifled following the destruction of the Second Temple, Yeshua’s followers knew that belief in a divine Messiah was indeed Jewish.