Jewish Messianic Suffering Servant, Amillennialism, Diversity of Scripture and Rabbis

1. Peter B. Dirksen, “The Old Testament Peshitta,” Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 292.

“The sixth chapter of Hegermann’s study on the text of Isa 53…deal[s] with the Peshitta. In a detailed verse by verse investigation of Isa 52:13-53:12 Hegemann is led to the conclusion that the Peshitta is not a Christian translation, and rather reflects a Jewish messianic interpretation. In the Introduction he explicitly refutes Weiss’s interpretation of some Peshitta renderings as typically Christian. To mention one example: in 53:4 Hebrew nagu, ‘stricken’, is rendered in the Peshitta by ketisa, ‘beaten’. Weiss translates ‘cruciatus‘, ‘crucified’, and sees in it a clear Christian interpretation. Hegermann rightly objects that the translation ‘crucified’ is wrong, and that in the NT Peshitta for ‘to crucify’ always another verb is used.”

There is scholarly debate about whether the Peshitta translation of the Hebrew Bible was made by Jews or Christians. The Peshitta is a Bible translation used by Syriac-speaking Christians as early as the fourth century C.E.

Setting aside the question of words, identifying the exact school of a book or translation is not always easy, since there is overlap between Judaism and Christianity. In the case of Isaiah 53, there have been Jews who have applied the Suffering Servant figure to the Messiah. Braude and Neabauer wrote a whole anthology of such interpretations entitled The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters. And Israel Knohl contends that such an application existed in the Dead Sea Scrolls, in his book The Messiah Before Jesus.

The Jews did not always use Isaiah 53 exactly as the Christians did, however. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, for example, applied the suffering parts to the Messiah’s enemies, and the servant part to the Messiah. Certain medieval interpretations envisioned the Messiah coming and suffering before he beat up on Israel’s enemies, but they didn’t think he would die and rise again. As far as Israel Knohl’s idea is concerned, he seems to read the Qumran interpretation of Isaiah 53 to mean that the Messiah will go to heaven after his death and sit close to God. I don’t think that includes a bodily resurrection.

2. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1910) 619.

“After Christianity, contrary to all expectation, triumphed in the Roman empire, and was embraced by the Caesars themselves, the millennial reign, instead of being anxiously awaited and prayed for, began to be dated either from the first appearance of Christ, or from the conversion of Constantine and the downfall of paganism, and to be regarded as realized in the glory of the dominant imperial state-church. Augustin, who himself had formerly entertained chiliastic [millennarian] hopes, framed the new theory which reflected the social change, and was generally accepted. The apocalyptic millennium he understood to be the present reign of Christ in the Catholic church, and the first resurrection, the translation of the martyrs and saints to heaven, where they participate in Christ’s reign [(De Civit. Dei XX.6-10)]. It was consistent with this theory that towards the close of the first millennium of the Christian era there was a wide-spread expectation in Western Europe that the final judgment was at hand.”

I’ve come into more contact with amillennial and post-millennial views since I’ve come to Hebrew Union College–on account of colleagues and my Christian dating site.

I have one problem with the belief that we are in the millennium right now: Revelation 20:3 is clear that Satan will not deceive people during the thousand years of Christ’s reign. He’ll be locked in a pit, after all!

I’ll concede to the amillennialists and post-millennialists that Satan no longer possesses the power that he did before Christ’s coming. When Jesus came, Satan fell like lightning from heaven (Luke 10:18). Paul was opening people’s eyes, turning them from the power of Satan to that of God (Acts 26:18).

But that doesn’t mean that Satan was inoperative in the church age. Paul writes that Satan is the god of this world, who has blinded the minds of unbelievers (II Corinthians 4:4). The author of Ephesians states that the devil was working in the children of disobedience when he wrote his letter (Ephesians 2:2). And who can forget I Peter 5:8: “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (NRSV)? Satan has been deceiving people since the time of Christ. Does that undermine any idea that we’re in the millennium?

At the same time, we should remember that amillennialism and post-millennialism are often tied with preterism, the notion that much of Revelation was fulfilled in the first century C.E. Preterists associate Revelation with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., so maybe they think that the millennium began after that. As far as they’re concerned, of course Satan was deceiving people when Paul wrote: the apocalypse of 70 C.E. had not happened yet!

I don’t know. If Satan really is bound right now, wouldn’t there be less sin? Or at least wouldn’t reality be like that one Twilight Zone episode where John Carradine had Satan in a dungeon: sure, human passions will produce evil without Satan, but Satan is responsible for the catastrophic evil in the world (e.g., the world wars)? I don’t know.

The preterist/amillennialist/post-millennialist position has its appeal, namely, it tries to solve the problem of Christ not returning “quickly,” when he promised to do precisely that (Revelation 22:20). It maintains that Christ coming refers to his judgment, as we see with God’s coming in Genesis 11:7 and Exodus 3:8. For preterists, Christ “came” in the sense that he judged Jerusalem with its destruction in 70 C.E. Then, the millennium began, which is not a literal thousand years, but the long period of time in which Christ reigns over the church. After that time will come the judgment, when God will simultaneously raise up the righteous and the wicked (John 5:29).

According to Schaff, however, the early preterists took the thousand years quite literally, which was why they thought judgment was near when 1000 C.E. came. “It’s now the end of the millennium, and we’re about to hit the Great White Throne judgment,” they thought.

3. H. Loewe, “Introduction,” A Rabbinic Anthology, ed. C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1938) lxviii-lxix.

“And…we read…in the Tanhuma (wayelek, 1f. 338b) that this tradition will take diverse forms, since the minds of men, and consequently their ideas of God, are diverse. But so long as their minds are directed honestly to God, his inspiration will mould their several ideas. All will be produced by the outpouring of His Spirit: there will be no heresy or schism, no heterodoxy, no orthodoxy, ‘The words of the wise are like nails, firmly implanted, all given by one shepherd’ (Eccles. XII.11). This means that ‘though some Rabbis declare unclean and others clean, though some forbid and some permit, all draw their authority from Moses who derived it from the Almighty’ (cp. [436]).”

The Tanhuma dates to the ninth-tenth centuries C.E. This passage makes me think about things I’ve heard about two issues: the diversity of the Bible, and the diversity of the rabbis.

First, the diversity of the Bible. The Bible has a lot of diverse ideas. Some believe in a resurrection from the dead. Others don’t think there really is an afterlife (according to some interpretations). The laws of the Pentateuch differ from one another on certain points. And the Bible has different styles of writing.

Fundamentalists try to harmonize the tensions within the biblical texts. Evangelicals may attempt the same thing, but not all of them rigidly maintain that God spoke every word of Scripture. An Intervarsity leader once told me that the biblical authors were especially close to God, and God inspired them through their unique personalities and writing styles. That seems to be the sort of situation that Loewe describes.

When I was at Harvard, I said that God revealed the diverse ideas of Scripture. My liberal Christian professor wondered why God would do that. For him, if God literally revealed Scripture, then he would undoubtedly give us a neat, consistent document. God wouldn’t give us mixed-signals or contradictory ideas!

Personally, I don’t know what to say about this issue. Who gets more of the credit for what’s in the Bible: humans or God? If a person becomes inspired simply by directing his mind honestly to God, then why should we assume that non-biblical writings are uninspired? What excludes John MacArthur from the biblical canon?

Second, the diversity of the rabbis. There’s a rabbinic idea that God gave the oral Torah at Mount Sinai. But, in the oral Torah, the rabbis disagree amongst themselves about what the halakhah actually is. So did God reveal a self-contradictory oral Torah?

Some believe that God revealed a pristine oral Torah, but it got mixed up in transmission. In this model, the rabbis disagreed because they were trying to recover something that God had once delivered, but which was somewhat lost.

Others maintain that God can be present even in disagreement. They call this an argument for the sake of heaven.

Some view the oral Torah as a human activity of interpreting and applying the written Torah. In this view, the council has the authority to say how the Torah should be kept, even if it doesn’t coincide with what God or Moses meant.

Then there’s the view that all of the disputes were revealed by God at Mount Sinai. One midrash says that even a question a student asks was revealed to Moses by God years before.

Again, we see the same sort of issue that confronts people with the Bible: what was God’s role in inspiration, and what was the human role? Where does God begin and the human end, and vice versa.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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