The following lecture is available online. It was written by David Berger and Michael Wyschogrod, and presented by Michael Lebovic. For these and other videos, click on the link, or visit Jews for Judaism online.
Let us begin with the fundamental belief that Jesus was, and is, the Messiah. (note – capital M is mine -ed) Since the very word “Christ” means Messiah, this belief lies at the heart of the Christian faith. But how do we go about testing the claim that Jesus was the Messiah? Well, the first thing to remember is that the term “Messiah” gets it's basic meaning from biblical prophecy. It is only because of (such) prophecy that people expected the Messiah in the first place. Any person claiming to be the Messiah must therefore be able to pass a very exacting test: Has he done what the bible expects of a messiah?
We must begin then by taking a look at the bible as a whole. How would the messiah of the Hebrew Bible be described by someone who had just read the text for the first time, without any knowledge of Judaism or Christianity? If our hypothetical friend were a perceptive reader, his first observation would be that the word “messiah” simply refers to any king or high priest, who was anointed with oil in the custom of ancient Israel. There is however a rather special king from the house of David, who is described in several biblical passages as the man who will preside over a redeemed and perfected world. Eventually, Jews came to use the word “Messiah” (with a capital M) to refer to that king. And, it is in this context that any man claiming to be “The Messiah” must be judged. In other words, the only way to define “The Messiah” is as a king, who will rule during what we call “The Messianic Age”. The central criteria for identifying the Messiah would therefore be a single question: Has the Messianic Age come? It's only in the context of this question that “The Messiah” means anything. Well, what then does the Bible say about the Messianic Age? Here is a brief description by a famous Christian scholar, G. F. Moore.
The recovery of independance and power, an era of peace and prosperity, of fidelity to God and his law, of justice and fair-dealing and brotherly love among men, and of personal rectitude and piety.G. F. Moore, Judaism, II, p. 324
If we think about this sentance for a moment, in light of the last 2,000 years, we will begin to see what enormous obstacles must be overcome if we are to believe in the messianic mission of Jesus. If Jesus is the Messiah, why have suffering and evil continued and even increased in the many centuries since his death? We don't know much about messianic figures in the period between the Hebrew Bible and the lifetime of Jesus. The first century however, was a time when tensions between the Jews and Romans were reaching the boiling point, and we know of at least three or four messiahs during that century. In that sense, Jesus' career was not unique. It reflected a fairly common tendancy in Jewish society at the time. In fact, at least one of the other messiahs was also killed by the Romans. Unlike the other movements, the one started by Jesus survived its founder. The direction that Christianity took differed from what Jesus had in mind.
As we would see, he would protest his designation as 'God' with every fiber of his being. And it's very important to understand how the belief that Jesus was the Messiah survived his death. In light of what was universally understood to be the function of the Messiah, the crucifixion was a terrible and logical and psychological blow to Jesus' followers. The Messiah was supposed to redeem Israel. Bring peace and justice to the world. Make the wolf lie peacefully with the lamb, and see to it – as Isaiah says, in 2:1-4, – “They learn war no more.”
Something, it seemed, had gone terribly wrong. How could the paradox of a crucified Messiah be explained? A story is told about a modern-day rabbi and a Christian missionary which highlights this problem. One of the great rabbis of the last hundred years was riding on the train (in Russia,) and he overheard a conversation between a Christian missionary and some deeply religious, but uneducated Jews. The Jews had just expressed their confidence in the judgement of the ancient Rabbis concerning the Messiah. “In that case,” asked the Christian, “How can you explain the fact that Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Talmudic Rabbis, initially thought that Bar Kokhba, a Jewish revolutionary of the 2nd century, was the Messiah?”
The Jews were taken aback and could find no answer. The Rabbi who had been listening quietly, turned to the Christian and asked, “How do you know that Bark Kokhb wasn't the Messiah?”
“That's obvious!” he replied. “Bar Kokhba was killed without bringing the redemption!”
There can be little doubt that many 1st century Jews, attracted by Jesus' preaching, sadly submitted to the conclusion forced upon them by his death. They had been mistaken. God had not yet chosen to redeem his people. They would have to wait once more, however long it might take, however much their hearts might be aching for the redemption. But for others, this was impossible.
The belief was too strong.
The hurt, too great,
to face the terrible truth.
There simply had to be an explanation.
And, such an explanation was found!
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