Yeshua the Anointed: Suffering and Death of the Messiah

One final topic remains to be discussed in this series, in light of Jesus’ death—the idea of that the Messiah would suffer and be put to death. This was of vital importance to the early Christian understanding of Jesus as the Messiah, and appears to have been an entirely original Christian development of Messianic thought and belief. However, given the centrality of Jesus’ death in the early Gospel proclamation, to his identity as the “Anointed One”, as well as to the Christology of the New Testament as a whole, it is worth examining this aspect in relation to Messianic expectation of the period.

Fundamental to the Gospel Tradition are the three Passion predictions by Jesus, the first of which begins “it is necessary [dei=] for the Son of Man to suffer many things…” (Mark 8:31 par). In these, and other similar sayings by Jesus, he uses the expression “the Son of Man” in referring to himself; however, in Luke 24:26, 46, after the resurrection, this changes and “the Anointed (One) [o( xristo/$]” is used instead. Luke’s version of the 3rd Passion prediction includes the important addition—”all the (thing)s written through the Foretellers {Prophets} (regarding) the Son of Man will be completed”. This is the first occurrence in the Synoptic Tradition of the theme that Jesus’ death and resurrection has been foretold and/or prefigured in Scripture. It is found again (by Jesus) in Mark 9:13; 14:21, 49 pars; Matt 26:54; Luke 22:37, as well as being implied by the citations from Scripture in the Passion narrative—Mark 12:10; 14:27 pars; Matt 27:9-10; John 13:18; 15:25; 17:12; 19:24, 28, 36-37; 20:9; cf. also Mark 14:34 par and John 2:22. This becomes an important element of the early Christian witness, as recorded in Luke-Acts—cf. Luke 24:25-27, 44-49; Acts 1:16, 20; 3:18-24; 8:32-35; 10:39-43; 13:29-37; 17:2-3; 26:22-23.

The Scriptural Evidence

Where exactly was it foretold that the “Anointed One” (Messiah) would suffer and be put to death? We are not told which Scriptures Jesus “opened up” to his disciples (Lk 24:25-27, 44-46ff), but in an earlier note I provided a list of the most relevant candidates, based on evidence from the New Testament and early Christian tradition. It must be admitted, however, that it is difficult to find passages which clearly refer to the suffering and/or death of a Messianic figure. The only conceivable passage which actually uses the term “Anointed (one)” [j^yv!m*] is Daniel 9:26, where it is said that “(the) anointed (one) will be cut off and (there will be) nothing/no-one for him”. I have discussed this reference as part of a detailed note on Dan 9:24-27. It is by no means certain that j^yv!m* in vv. 25-26 denotes a Messiah as typically understood (cf. the introduction to this series for a definition); it is better to read it in the general sense of the person (king and/or high priest) who is serving as leader of the (Israelite/Jewish) people. However, there can be no doubt that, by the 1st century A.D., the prophecy of Dan 9:20-27 was being interpreted in an eschatological and Messianic sense (cf. the Qumran text 11QMelch [11Q13]), and that early Christians certainly would have applied it to Jesus, particularly in light of the allusion to Dan 9:27 in the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus (Mark 13:14 par), even though the passage is not otherwise attested in the New Testament writings (but cf. 2 Thess 2:1-12). I find only two other Scriptures which could fairly be understood as referring to a Messianic figure:

  • Zechariah 12:10, interpreted as referring to the death (crucifixion) of Jesus in John 19:37; Rev 1:7, and see also Matthew’s version of the Son of Man saying in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus (Matt 24:30). In the original context, however, it is by no means clear that this refers to anything like a Messianic figure; also that he was “stabbed/pierced” (rqd) more likely refers to someone slain by the sword, i.e. in battle, etc. Cf. below on the later Jewish tradition.
  • Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the famous “Suffering Servant” passage, which early on was interpreted by believers as referring to the suffering and death of Jesus, cf. the famous episode recorded in Acts 8:32-35 (and note the interesting critical question by the Ethiopian official in v. 34). In the Gospels, it is cited directly only at Matt 8:17, in the context of Jesus’ miracles, not his death; however, the Isaian passage likely influenced the way that the Passion narrative was told and understood, corresponding (rather clearly) in certain details to Isa 53:3-9. The identity of this Servant figure in Isaiah, in terms of its original context, continues to be debated by scholars and commentators.

It should be pointed out that neither of these passages appears to have been used or cited in the texts from Qumran; the surviving portions of the Commentary (pesher) on Isaiah do not cover 52:13-53:12. Nor would there seem to be any evidence for these Scriptures being interpreted in a Messianic sense prior to their use in the New Testament. as noted, there is an allusion to Dan 9:25 in 11QMelch, but with no suggestion of a Messianic figure suffering or dying; rather, it is the people who suffer, being held captive by the forces of wickedness (Belial), waiting for the announcement of salvation and deliverance by the “Anointed” One.

Jewish Tradition

Indeed, as most commentators today will admit, there does not appear to be any evidence for a suffering/dying Messiah in Jewish tradition before the time of Jesus and the New Testament writings. The earliest witness is probably to be found in the Dialogue with Trypho by Justin Martyr (mid-2nd century A.D.): §68, 90.1 (alluding to Isa 53:7), cf. also 36.1, 39.7. Scholars are, however, skeptical regarding the extent to which this (quasi-)fictional “Trypho” accurately represents Jewish thought of the period. The theme is not really attested in Jewish writings until the later Rabbinic period (cf. the references in Strack-Billerbeck II.273-299), where two Messiahs are distinguished—a Messiah ben-David, and a Messiah ben-Joseph (or ben-Ephraim). In some passages the Messiah ben-David is said to suffer, but he does not die; it is the Messiah ben-Joseph who is said to die (cf. Fitzmyer, pp. 1565-6). In the Babylonian Talmud (b. Sukkah 52), Zechariah 12:10 is interpreted as referring to the death of Messiah ben-Joseph, who is killed in battle. It has been suggested that this tradition is related to the defeat and death of the quasi-Messianic leader Bar-Kokhba during the second Jewish Revolt (132-135 A.D.), cf. Collins, p. 126. In the Aramaic Targum (Pseudo-)Jonathan, the ‘Suffering Servant’ of Isa 52:13-53:12 is given a Messianic interpretation, though in such a way, it would seem, as to contrast with the typical Christian understanding—the sufferings of the Messiah represent the suffering of Israel. For more on this subject, cf. J. Klausner, The Messianic Idea in Israel (Allen and Unwin: 1956), esp. pages 483-501.

Occasionally, scholars have suggested that the idea of suffering/dying Messiah figure may be found (or at least implied) in several of the Qumran texts, e.g.:

  • 4Q285—In fragment 5, line 4 the text (partially restored) reads: […dywd j]mx hduh aycn wtymhw, which was originally understood by some scholars as “they will put to death the Prince of the Congregation, the Branc[h of David…]”. However, today there is virtually unanimous agreement that this is incorrect, and that it should be rendered “the Prince of the Congregation, the Branc[h of David] will put him to death…”. In other words, it is not the Messianic figure who is put to death, but rather he is the one who puts to death the leader of the Kittim—this is the most natural identification based on the context. The Kittim represent the (wicked) nations, and typically serves as a cipher for the Roman Empire. This text is now considered to be part of the War Scroll (1QM, 4QM); the passage in fragment 5 provides an interpretation of Isaiah 10:34-11:1ff (cf. 4QpIsa [4Q161] 8-10:2-9).
  • 4Q541—This text seems to refer to a Priestly figure. In fragment 9, it is said that “he will atone for all the children of his generation…”, which could easily be interpreted from a Christian standpoint; however, this does not reflect the sacrificial death of a Messiah, but rather the work of an ideal eschatological/Messianic Priest. It is primarily his word and teaching which “will burn in all the ends of the earth…” and cause darkness to “vanish from the earth”. Lines 5-7 indicate suffering of a sort, in terms of lying and disparaging opposition to his teaching. This very likely reflects the history and experience of the Qumran Community. There is a difficult and obscure section in fragment 24, which has been translated (as one of several possible renderings) “…do not afflict the weak by wasting or hanging… [Let] not the nail approach him” (cf. Collins, p. 125). It has been suggested that “the nail” is a reference to crucifixion, but even if this is correct, the passage scarcely refers to the crucifixion of a Messiah.
  • A number of “Thanksgiving Hymns” (Hodayot) are thought to have been composed by, or written from the standpoint of, the Teacher of Righteousness, and possibly describe sufferings that he experienced (cf. 1QH 7:10; 8:26-27, 35-36; 9). These hymns are written using a style and language similar to that of the Old Testament Psalmist; given that a number of OT Psalms were understood by Christians as Messianic, interpreted and applied to Jesus’ suffering and death (esp. Pss 22, 41, 69), it is not surprising that commentators might interpret the hymns in a similar manner in relation to the Teacher of Righteousness. Several other texts speak of persecution and opposition to the Teacher (and the Community), especially by the “Wicked Priest” and the “Man of the Lie”.

Outside of the New Testament, the only passage from the 1st century B.C./A.D. which refers to the Messiah dying is 2/4 Esdras 7:28-29. The core of this deutero-canonical text (chaps. 3-14) is Jewish, dating from the late 1st century A.D. However, there is no indication whatever that the Messiah suffers or is put to death; it seems to be a natural death, along with a return to heaven following his 400-year reign on earth (cf. also 2 Baruch 30:1). After his departure, there will be seven days of silence, followed by the resurrection and Last Judgment (vv. 30-43). There is, perhaps, a general parallel to Jesus, in his ascension (and subsequent return), and to the idea of a Messianic Kingdom on earth (Rev 20:1-6).

Somewhat more common in Jewish writings of the period is the idea that the sufferings of the righteous have a vicarious aspect, which may bring salvation and atonement to the people. This is expressed in passages such as 2 Maccabees 7:37-38; 4 Maccabees 7:27-30; 17:19-22; among the passages from the Qumran texts that might be cited, note 1QS 5:6; 8:3f, 10; 9:4 (cf. H. Anderson, “4 Maccabees”, OTP 2:539). Messianic figures are often depicted as representatives or types of the righteous on earth, with roots going back into the Old Testament and ancient Israelite tradition, where the Anointed King (or Priest), who represents the people, and the righteous of Israel collectively, could both be referred to as God’s “Son”. Note also the precise parallel between the “Son of Man” and the people of God in Daniel 7:13ff, which proved to be so influential on Messianic thought. In the Similitudes of Enoch (1 En 37-71), the Messianic and heavenly Son of Man (also called the Righteous One), is the archetype for the righteous on earth.

Evidence from Jesus and the Gospel

If there were any doubt that the idea of a suffering/dying Messiah was generally unknown in the time of Jesus, one needs to look no further than the New Testament itself. I note the following evidence from the Gospels:

  • Peter’s reaction to the first Passion prediction by Jesus
  • Passages which indicate that the disciples did not understand that Jesus (the Son of Man, Messiah) had to suffer and die and then rise from the dead—Mark 9:32; Lk 9:45; 18:34; Jn 2:21-22; 12:16; 20:9
  • The confusion expressed by Jesus’ audience in John 12:33-34—note especially the expectation that the Anointed One (Messiah) will remain “into the Age” (i.e. forever).
  • Other passages in John which show confusion regarding the idea that Jesus must go away—Jn 8:21ff; 14:1-5; 16:16-19.
  • The taunts leveled at Jesus while on the cross, implying that the Messiah would not be allowed (or would not allow himself) to die that way—Mark 15:29-32 par; Matt 27:43; Luke 23:39ff.

More important is the way that Jesus emphasizes repeatedly, that was necessary for the Messiah (Jesus, the Son of Man) to suffer and die, and that this was foretold in the Scriptures—Mark 8:31 par; Mark 9:13; 14:21, 49 pars; Matt 26:54; Luke 22:37; 24:26, 46. The disciples do not seem to have been aware of this; even after the resurrection, they do not seem to have understood or expected it (Lk 24:19-25; Jn 20:9, etc), until Jesus himself explains it to them, “opening up” the Scriptures (and their minds). The two key passages are Luke 24:25-27 and 24:44-49:

“…all the things which the Foretellers spoke—was it not necessary (for) the Anointed (One) to suffer and to come into his honor/glory?” And beginning from Moshe and from all the Foretellers, he explained to them throughout the (thing)s about him in all the Writings. (24:25-27)
…and they said, “Was our heart not (set) on fire [in us] as he spoke with us on the way, as he opened the Writings through to us?” (v. 32)

…”it is necessary to be fulfilled all the (thing)s written about me in the Law of Moshe, and the Foretellers {Prophets} and Odes {Psalms} .” Then he opened their mind through to put together [i.e. understand] the Writings; and he said to them, “Thus it has been written (that it was necessary for) the Anointed (One) to suffer and to stand up out of the dead on the third day…” (24:44-46)

The idea that the Messiah would suffer, die and rise again was so unusual that it required special explanation (and revelation) by Jesus, with examination of the Scriptures in the light of his teaching. We find much the same dynamic at work in the book of Acts—the death of the Messiah had to be emphasized specially, and demonstrated from the Scriptures. The key references are Acts 3:18-24; 8:32-35; 10:39-43; 13:29-37; 17:2-3; 26:22-23. Moreover, it can be fairly well inferred that this would have been central to the instances where the early Christians are recorded as arguing and demonstrating that Jesus is the Anointed One (Acts 2:36; 5:42; 8:5; 9:22; 17:3; 18:5, 28). So contrary would the suffering and death (crucifixion) of the Messiah have been to the expectation of Jews at the time that it absolutely required a good deal of explanation and proof that the idea could be found in Scripture.

References above marked “Collins” are to J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature (Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL]: 1995).
References marked “Fitzmyer” are to J. A. Fitzmyer’s Commentary on Luke in the Anchor Bible [AB], Volume 28A (1985).
References marked “OTP” are to The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. by J. H. Charlesworth, 2 volumes (Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL]: 1983, 1985).

Leave a Reply