Where Does It Say the Messiah Has to Die?

We will explore in an in-depth manner the theological question of Psalm 22 in the section dealing with whether or not Christians have taken biblical passages out of context (click here). The section instead will explore the overall issue from more of an analytical perspective.

For I know that the idea of the “Suffering Messiah” is not something that is comfortable to discuss – especially within Judaism. Modern Judaism has taught the world to consider the Messiah as either an esoteric concept that the Jewish people could bring into the world either through good works (Tikkun Olam) as the quotes below show or that the Messiah will come and “kick butt” and bring peace to the world (see previous section discussions).

“The Messiah doesn’t connote that some entity, deity or event will suddenly arrive and change the circumstances in our lives … That’s a notion of childhood wish fulfillment.” – Ruth Messenger (former president of American Jewish World Services)

“The concept of a messiah is a general … notion that we are partners in making the world better, in moving the world forward. The Messiah is a progress, participation, suiting up and showing up for life.” – Mayim Bialik (actress, author, PhD in neuroscience, mother and founder of Grok Nation)

“For most Jews, the messianic idea has receded; its not on the top of the agenda, and they don’t see history as inexorably moving to that day.” – Samuel  Heilman (sociologist and biographer on the life of Menachem Schneerson

However, two great Jewish artists understood the power of suffering (and its connection to the Messiah and Messianic idea) in Biblical Jewish life and theology. For while neither the artist Marc Chagall nor the writer Chaim Potok were believers in Jesus when they died; however, they both utilized the death of Jesus to illustrate the depth of suffering even while using Jewish symbolism to do it.

Chagall’s 1938 White Crucifixion (click here to see a copy of the painting) is a masterpiece of historical angst and pathos and I have a print copy hanging on my living room wall as well.

Chaim Potok in his work My Name is Asher Lev explored the spiritual pathos of the cross as a descriptor of suffering when a young Hasidic artist seeks to illustrate the emotional and spiritual suffering being experienced by both he and his mother. Potok describes the journey he took in writing the work with these words:

In the eyes of most Jews, crucifixion instantaneously triggers images of rivers of Jewish blood because of the thousands upon thousands of Jews who died all down through the centuries on account of the charge that they participated in the slaying of Jesus. Asher Lev knows no other symbol can give full expression to the feelings that he has about his mother’s long torment….That’s precisely what Asher Lev does. He takes the aesthetic mold, the crucifixion, a central theme in Western art, and into it he pours his feelings for what he, and his mother, are experiencing. Out of this comes his two Brooklyn crucifixions. Shago by the way, does the same thing when he depicted the suffering of Russian Jews. There is simply no other equally poignant theme in Western art that an artist can use to depict torment…. Please understand this. Asher Lev remains an observant Jew. He has not broken any Jewish law by painting that crucifixion. According to Jewish law you can paint all the crucifixions you want as long as you don’t paint them for purposes of worship. Asher Lev has crossed an invisible aesthetic line, as he well knows. His community just simply cannot come to terms with one of its members involved in this kind of activity, and Asher Lev pays the price and is asked by the leader of that community to leave. (http://potok.lasierra.edu/Potok.unique.html)

Please understand a couple of unique concepts that are important here to examine. First, Christians do not worship the cross either despite rumors to the contrary – even while we understand the legacy of iconography in our historical past. We value and cherish the cross upon which Jesus died but the pieces of wood are not worthy of worship but only the person who died for our sins is…

Second, and this has always puzzled me as a reader of every Potok work, is there really no other symbolic theme in the Jewish lexicon of suffering that could stand-in for a Jewish artist? Why the cross unless there is a sub-conscious recognition that suffering for the sins and failings and errors of others really is significant on a cosmic and eternal level. Could that be it? I wish I could ask him and I wonder what he thinks now…

For both Potok and Chagall used spiritual suffering and redemption as a central character in many of their other works. For, indeed, Jesus is the fulfillment of redemption and the fulfillment of Jewish (not Christian) prophecy (read more about Psalm 22 in the next section) regarding the Jewish Messiah. The rest of the world is just blessed to be able to come along for the redemptive journey.

Still not convinced…? Do you still believe that I am straining a gnat and swallowing a whole load of camel stuff? Well …have you ever heard of Messiah ben Joseph and Messiah ben Joseph in Jewish thought and that this concept existed from before the days of Jesus? Let’s talk about that concept now…


During what is unfortunately called the “intertestamental period” by some (I prefer the “Silent Period” because I view Scripture as just long one continuum of God’s relational story with humanity), there arose a view called the Two Messiah View. This view states that there were to be two Messiahs for the Jewish people – one to suffer (Messiah ben Joseph) and one to reign (Messiah ben David).

In the Dead Sea Scrolls, we find a lot of information about what certain Jewish people were thinking about the Messiah during the “Silent Period” (circa 450 to 6/4 BCE). The Essenes expected a Messianic figure to arise and there are differing opinions as to whether there were two or one and this depends on one’s translation of passages from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Two interesting works one might want to read are Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (Michael Wise, Martin Abegg and Edward Cook) and The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered (Michael Wise and Robert Eisenman).

Additionally, one segment of the Dead Sea Scrolls (11Q13) tie the Messiah to Daniel 9:26 (the verse about him being cut off – but read more about that idea in the next section) and his relation to the mystical figure of Melchizedek which is something we do not cover on this website … but we could and perhaps even should because Paul does throughout the book of Hebrews. The point being made is that the Dead Sea Scrolls which were written BEFORE Jesus appeared form in human form understood that the Messiah would suffer/die/atone for the sins of the people; however, it is not only in the Dead Sea Scrolls. There is also a tantalizing hint of this message in the Talmud as well. Honest!

Suffering Messiah in the Talmud…?

The Talmud is tantalizing in that it is revelatory when sometimes it doesn’t want to be about Jesus. The Talmud is also often frustrating for me because it gets so close to being right but just misses the whole truth by “that much.”

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In BT Sukkah 52A, we find the following interesting discussion:

What is the cause of the mourning [mentioned in the last cited verse]? R. Dosa and the Rabbis differ on the point. One explained, The cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, and the other explained, The cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination. It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, [underline added] since that well agrees with the Scripture verse, And they shall look upon me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son;… [Zechariah 12:10]

If that was not interesting enough, in BT Sanhedrin 98B we find a discussion about the name of the Messiah and the there is a gamut of names tossed about by various schools (Shila = Shiloh; Yannai = Yinnon; Haninah = Haninah; Others = Menahem the son of Hezekiah). However, there is an interesting statement at the conclusion of the section which defines the Messiah as the following:

The Rabbis said: His name [the Messiah] is ‘the leper scholar,’ as it is written, Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted.”  [Isaiah 53:4 … HMMM???]

So … what happened? Why has there been this confusion for 2,000 years? There is the FIRST confusion created by the Maccabees and Hanukkah because they were able to defeat the Greeks; therefore, the Jewish people of Jesus’ time wanted a leader to defeat the Romans.

In fact, that is why even the Apostles in Acts 1:6-7 asked Jesus after the Resurrection if now was the time was the Kingdom to come. They were ready for political victory … after the Resurrection. This is why some believe (and with good speculative reason) Judas betrayed Jesus … to force his hand towards a political and not spiritual kingdom as Judas originally came from a group of political zealots who were seeking to expel Rome from the region.

The people were humanly desperate for political liberation and didn’t realize that spiritual liberation was much more eternally necessary and needed than a temporal political victory. They wanted King David (which Jesus will be and we will discuss in the final section of this overarching question) and not the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 which Jesus had to be first.

Second, there has also been good, old Maimonidean confusion for about the last 800 years. Rambam (aka Maimonides) in the Mishneh Toreh did not allow for any type of Messiah except his view of Messiah that is the prevailing view of today. You will not find Sukkah 52A or Sanhedrin 98B discussed as it relates to Maimonidean Talk today. There is no idea of miracles as it relates to the Messiah and the Messiah only looks like Rambam’s description … no deviation allowed.

In other words, no Isaiah 53 or Zechariah 12 allowed and that is why you have never heard that the Messiah feels or cares or loves you. If so, why would you even care about the Messiah today? But He cares for you. In fact, he cared enough about you that he died for your sins. Remember that if you want to talk about any of these issues that the CAFÉ Kehillah Discussion Board is open and we would love to chat.

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