There is oftentimes, among Christians especially Evangelical Christians who know their bible like the back of their hand, confusion regarding the rejection of Jesus as Messiah by the Jewish people. “How can they not see the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) as clearly speaking about Jesus?” Or so the thought goes. I myself once held this confusion, and although this is a complicated multifaceted issue, I think a large part of the confusion for Evangelicals has to do with their understanding of Biblical Interpretation or lack thereof. The dominant biblical hermeneutic of today is called the modern Historical Critical method. There are various levels of acceptance of this interpretative method especially in conservative Evangelical circles, but even here it is accepted in its basic form.
In short, the Historical critical method asks the question what did this passage mean in its original context? What did the author mean to convey within the historical circumstances of his time and place? Or as Jewish Hebrew Bible Scholar Benjamin Sommer so aptly says, “The very core of modern biblical criticism consists of an attempt to understand biblical texts as their first audiences understood them in ancient Israel. If we are to see a biblical text as ancient Israelites saw it, we cannot automatically accept classical Jewish or Christian interpretations of the text, since these interpretations were composed centuries or millennia after the texts came into being.”[1]
The primary emphasis of this method is a modern one. As for hundreds, even thousands of years, the spiritual meaning of a text was the primary concern. Although this explanation of pre-modern hermeneutics[2]may be over simplistic, it certainly is, it’s enough to get our heads around at this moment and for the purposes of this paper. The first stage of pre-modern biblical interpretation was what is referred to as Second Temple Hermeneutics (interpretation).[3]Now second temple interpretation is radically different from the modern historical method, and it’s a bit shocking to realize this is how people interpreted sacred scripture for hundreds of years. In Short, this method of interpretation does not rely or even necessarily ask the question of “What did this mean to the original audience and what was the intended meaning of the author?”
They asked a much more relevant question, “What does this mean to me in this moment according to what we are experiencing now as the people of God?” And their interpretations were incredibly creative. Allegorical interpretation, another term for the interpretative methods that came out of this period, made what seemed in the Hebrew Scriptures distant, odd, not about us here in the present; instead familiar, close and relevant to the here and now. As one example[4]we’ll use the 1stcentury Jewish interpretation of the two rocks that Moses struck in the desert.
At the beginning of the desert wanderings Moses struck a rock and water came out and Moses did the same at the end of the forty years of desert wanderings. The question by Jews in the 1stcentury was why were there two rocks? According to the prevailing view of that day there wasn’t. There was just one rock, and it followed them around the desert for forty years as a sort of portable water fountain. Talk about convenient! Most modern interpreters, including Christians, would balk at this as pre-modern mumble jumbo. But not so fast, as funny as this may be to 21stcentury Americans it was taken quite seriously by first century Jews. So much so that it ended up in our Bible. Turn with me to 1 Corinthians 10:1-4. I’ll let you look up the full passage. For our purposes I’ll just quote a small piece. “For they drank from the same spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” Paul, it is well attested, held this prevailing second temple interpretation of the rock in the desert. The rock followed them.The point for us here is that for the early Christians the historical meaning was at best secondary.
In his book Early Biblical Interpretations, the late Rowan A. Greer, an Anglican Scholar, discusses the role of Scripture in the early Church (30-180 C.E.). Citing a number of early Christians, he quotes Ignatius (107 C.E), an early Apostolic Father, from his letter to the Philadelphians in response to possible Jewish Christians stating that the “gospel” must be proven from the Hebrew Scriptures. In other words, for them, the Hebrew Scriptures, which served as the “Bible” of the early church, was their primary authority, and therefore their starting point for interpretation and the lens through which they saw Jesus. What they called their “charters,”, or “ancient records,” depending on the translation.
Ignatius responds, “But to me the charters are Jesus Christ, the inviolable charter is his cross, and death, and resurrection, and the faith which is through him.”[5]Greer states that to Ignatius, the Hebrew Scriptures only embodied authority when read through Jesus, and the message of Jesus, e.g.: the gospel. Greer continues, “If we may take Ignatius view as the one that prevails in the early church, we may conclude that while the Hebrew Scriptures were the Bible of the church, their authority was secondary to that of the Christian Preaching.”[6]In other words Jesus, not the Bible, was the center of their faith, and thus determined how they interpreted the biblical text, this done of course through the inherited second temple method. The Church’s Primary authority was Jesus and what he did (Christian Preaching), and he and his story had “prior authority and must determine the meaning of the Hebrew Scripture.”[7]Said another way, the Bible was to be read and reread in light of Jesus and his story.
So how does this relate to why Jews don’t accept Jesus? Well it relates because it means that when a non-Christian who has been brought up in a culture that asks the historical interpretive question of the text reads the prophecies that Christians attribute not only as prophecies but as prophecies about Jesus they don’t read the text through the second temple interpretative method and more importantly they don’t start with Jesus and read backwards through that Second Temple method. It means when they read a text like Isaiah 53 they don’t see it as a prophecy about a messiah 700 years in the future, but about the suffering that Judah has endured, they see Judah as the suffering servant not a future Messiah.
The story of Jesus is not in the original meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures (the scriptures of the early church); instead the Hebrew Scriptures were commandeered, so to speak, and given a new meaning according to the events and life of Jesus. To say it another way, the early Christians recreated or reread the bible to make it conform to Jesus and his story. For example, the prophecy of Isaiah’s virgin birth in its own historical context is clearly referring to a prophecy that is to take place not 700 years in the future but within the next 5 years! However, in light of the actual event of the virgin birth of Jesus, the early Christians took a text that in its original meaning had nothing to do with Jesus and his life, and reread the text to speak and witness to Jesus, thus giving the text a new meaning, one that conformed to Christian Preaching rather than making Christian preaching conform to scripture.
For Christians, especially the early Christians, we first accept and therefore assume that Jesus is the Messiah, and then we allow the text of Scripture to conform as a witness and servant to Christ. No wonder why Jews don’t see these passages as prophecies about Jesus. Somebody reading this is asking, “Well does this mean the prophecies aren’t really about Jesus then?” Absolutely not! For most of Christian history, and Jewish history, the biblical text has been seen as multifaceted, it can and does have multiple meanings. Is the original meaning of Isaiah 53 as intended by its author about a future Messiah? I don’t think so; I think it’s about the suffering of Judah. But is the Christian meaning about Jesus? Of course! Isaiah 53’s original meaning is for Christians not the primary meaning. What was originally meant by the author is taken up, in a sense by God, through the real events and experiences of Christ, His Incarnation by the Virgin Mary, His miracles, the various aspects of His life, and ultimately His Death and Resurrection and reborn or recreated to have a second and greater meaning, and meaning that conforms to Jesus who is Lord of All including biblical interpretation.
This may seem to undermine the authority and truth of Christianity to those who come from a theological background that teaches that the biblical text can only have one meaning and that that meaning is the original one intended by its author. However, as I have tried to show in a very limited amount of time that the original meaning was not the primary concern of the early Christians or even the authors of the New Testament. Instead for them the primary meaning was what we might call a spiritual meaning. For them Jesus was the unexpected surprise ending to the story of Israel, in fact was the primary authority. In light of their second temple interpretative methods it made sense, and indeed was the only possible course to reread the Hebrew Scripture in light of this surprise Messiah. The biblical interpretation and meaning of any given passage was recreated in light of their current experiences from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. A sort of reading backwards. For them, and this may be hard for Evangelical Christians to shallow, Jesus wasn’t the Messiah because scripture proved He was, but the scriptures came to be about him because He was the Messiah.
This second meaning of Scripture may be new to some of us, but I think its often a point of confusion for Christians on why the Jews don’t accept Jesus. I’ll end with the words of C.S. Lewis on the topic, speaking about Jesus on the road to Emmaus explaining the scriptures to his disciples Lewis comments, “He [Jesus] clearly identified Himself with a figure often mentioned in the Scriptures; appropriated to Himself many passages where a modern scholar might see no such reference. In the predictions, if His Own Passion which He had previously made to the disciples. He was obviously doing the same thing. He accepted-indeed he claimed to be-the second meaning of Scripture.” And indeed, we as Christians can and do say Jesus is Lord of all, including our interpretations of Scripture. But we must not think that Jews who do not first accept the priority and Messiahship of Jesus will also hold the same interpretations of Scripture. It’s best we recognize this and move forward in our relations with the Jewish people knowing a bit more about why they don’t accept Jesus.
Bibliography and Notes
[1]Sommer, Benjamin D. Revelation And Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition. S.l.: Yale University Press, 2015. Pg. 19
The last part of this quote of course may seem like a big and unfamiliar statement. As the point of this paper isn’t to write a book on second temple biblical interpretation I’ll merely refer the reader to the books, “Early Biblical Interpretation” By James Kugel and Rowan Greer, “Inspiration and Incarnation” By Peter Enns, and last not least “How to Read the Bible” By James Kugel.
[2]This is a fancy word that scholars often use to sound really smart. But it just means “the art of interpretation,” and when used in regards to the topic of the bible it means biblical interpretation.
[3]The term Second Temple just means the period between the construction of the second temple in 515 B.C.E and its destruction by the Romans in 70. C.E.
[4]I could supply meaning more examples, but the nature of this paper limits me to one. For more examples read the books I’ve referenced and recommended in the footnotes.
[5]Kugel, James L., and Rowan Allen Greer. Early Biblical Interpretation. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986. Pg. 114.
[6]Ibid. 114
[7]Ibid. 114
Photo by Anton Mislawsky on Unsplash