Finding Jesus in the Old Testament

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Jesus and the Ancient Rabbis
In the years since I came to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, I have heard from many rabbis who insist that I am misusing Old Testament Scriptures. They tell me I am stretching the meaning of some passages and finding references to a Messiah where they do not really exist. I also have been told that belief in the Messiah was never a central tenet of Judaism. Some make it sound as if the Messiah's arrival was not really that important.

I beg to differ. And Israel's ancient rabbis felt differently from modern rabbis about the importance of the Messiah. I know this because I have studied their words in the Targums.

The Targums are ancient paraphrases of Old Testament Scriptures. The oldest of them, Targum Onkelos, was completed about 60 years before the birth of Yeshua. And the newest, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, was finished by the end of the seventh century. 

The Targums were written because most Jews could no longer understand or read Hebrew. In Yeshua's time, most of them spoke and wrote in Greek or Aramaic.

Here is Micah 5:2 as recorded in Targum Jonathan, which was completed less than 100 years after Yeshua lived: 

"And you, O Bethlehem Ephrath, you who were too small to be numbered among the thousands in the house of Judah, from you shall come forth before Me the Messiah, to exercise dominion over Israel, He whose name was mentioned from before, from the days of creation.

Consider Genesis 3:15, from Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, written in the seventh century: 

"I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between the offspring of your sons and the offspring of her sons; and it shall be that when the sons of the woman observe the commandments of the Torah, they will direct themselves to smite you on the head, but when they forsake the commandments of the Torah, you will direct yourself to bite them on the heel. However, there is a remedy for them, but no remedy for you. They are destined to make peace in the end, in the days of the King Messiah."

Here is Genesis 49:10 from Targum Onkelos: 

"The transmission of dominion shall not cease from the house of Judah, nor the scribe from his children's children, forever, until the Messiah comes ... whom nations shall obey."

And the Babylonian Talmud, which was completed 500 years after Jesus, offers a commentary on Zechariah 12:10. The verse reads, "They will look on Me, the One they have pierced, and they will mourn for Him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for Him as one grieves for a firstborn son."

The Targum asks, "What is the cause of the mourning?" and answers, "It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Messiah, the son of Joseph."

Finally, the Sanhedrin tractate of the Babylonian Talmud goes as far as to suggest that the world was created for the sake of the Messiah. 

It is obvious from these examples that belief in the Messiah and expectation of His coming was an important part of the faith of many ancient rabbis and their followers.

Jesus, From the Beginning
One more fascinating reference to the Messiah from the Old Testament goes back to the very beginning—when Adam and Eve hid from God after they sinned and heard Him walking in the Garden of Eden during the cool of the day (see Gen. 3). 

The Bible goes on to record a face-to-face conversation between the first humans and their Lord and even says that God "made garments of skin for [them] and clothed them" (Gen. 3:21, NIV). (By the way, this is the first instance of blood being shed to deal with the consequences of sin.)

Targum Onkelos, which was completed within the first four centuries after Jesus lived, says that Adam and Eve heard the Memra of the Lord walking in the Garden. Memra, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia, means "The Word."

It was only when I read the Gospel of John for the first time that I understood what this passage in Genesis is referring to.

John 1:1-3 explains, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him" (NKJV). 

In verse 14 John explains further: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth."

The Word, then, is not just a random statement of some minor aspect of God's character. It is a person who is one with God yet has His own being. This person is Messiah, who walked with God in the Garden of Eden and later came to us in human form to save His people.

It always amazes me to see how the "puzzle pieces" God has scattered in His Word, including in the Old Testament, Scriptures come together to reveal the image of His Son and our Savior, Yeshua.


Jonathan Bernis is president of Jewish Voice Ministries International. He is the founding rabbi of Congregation Shema Yisrael in Rochester, N.Y., and the Messianic Center of St. Petersburg, Russia. This article was adapted from his book, A Rabbi Looks at Jesus of Nazareth (Chosen, a division of Baker Publishing Group). Copyright © 2011. Used by permission.

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