In the last post we looked at the prophecy in Daniel 9 which predicted both the destruction of Jerusalem and the second Jewish temple hundreds of years in advance, and the coming of the Messiah before that. Since the part about Jerusalem was fulfilled, it stands to reason that the coming of the Messiah was also fulfilled. But how can we know if it was?
Two additional passages from the Old Testament, written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, give additional clues. In Isaiah 40-53, there are a series of four poems which refer to an unnamed Servant of the Lord. In Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the suffering of the Servant is described in detail. It includes phrases such as, “he was despised and forsaken of men” (53:3), “he was pierced through for our transgressions” (53:5), and, “his grave was assigned with wicked men, yet he was with a rich man in his death” (53:9). It is almost impossible to read this passage without being stuck by the similarities to Jesus’ passion and death.
Before the time of Jesus, Jewish interpreters believed that Isaiah 53 was about the Messiah. In fact, many still do. Today, however, some say that it isn’t about an individual at all. They say that the Servant is the nation of Israel, and the suffering described is metaphorical rather than literal. The problem is that some parts of it don’t make sense if it’s talking about the Jewish nation. For example, in 53:6 it says, “all of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way, but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on him.” If the Servant is the nation of Israel, then to whom does the “all of us” refer? It would imply that the nation of Israel was without sin, yet the rest of the book of Isaiah (not to mention the rest of the Old Testament) is incompatible with that. There are other passages in Isaiah in which the Servant simply cannot be referring to the nation of Israel. The most straightforward interpretation is that it refers to an individual, and someone other than Isaiah.
Someone might ask, what if the followers of Jesus made up stories about him to fit with Isaiah 53? Most of the striking similarities between Isaiah 53 and Jesus are due to the fact that he was publicly flogged and executed by crucifixion. The followers of Jesus didn’t make that up. Even ancient non-Christian historians such as Tacitus, Lucian, and Josephus say that Jesus was crucified. The descriptions in the Gospels are consistent with what the Romans did to victims of crucifixion.
Isaiah 53 isn’t the only place in the Old Testament that sounds a lot like Jesus’ passion and death. Psalm 22 also contains a vivid description that sounds like how Jesus died, including things like people staring at him and mocking him, his bones being out of joint, being so thirsty that his tongue sticks to his jaw, and even people gambling for his clothes as the Roman soldiers were reported to have done. One important caveat, though, is that there is a verse in Psalm 22 about having his feet and hands pierced. That verse, however, is not in the original Hebrew text but only in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. But even without that, Psalm 22 reads much like an account of Jesus’ death. And like Isaiah 53, most of the parallels are due to Jesus’ being crucified, which is not something that the followers of Jesus invented. Even casting lots for the victim’s spoils was a common practice for Roman soldiers.
Did anyone before the time of Jesus think that Psalm 22 was about the Messiah? Yes, there are Jewish writings which say this. It should also be pointed out that if Psalm 22 was merely about the hardships that David faced, it’s very exaggerated. If it’s about Jesus, on the other hand, it sounds very literal in all of its descriptions. Is it just a coincidence that the hyperbolic description of David sounds like someone being crucified, and another coincidence that some Jews believed it was a messianic prophecy? These Old Testament passages sound so much like Jesus that it’s uncanny; too uncanny to fit with just anyone, and too similar to explain as coincidence.
In the final post in this series, we will look at one more set of clues about the identity of the Servant.