Jewish Testimony: Virgin’s Son from David’s Line?

We saw the Jewish origins of the Christmas story in the Brit Chadasha, as well as that of ‘Christ’ in Tanakh.  But what about the controversial questions about descent from David and the ’virgin birth’ which the Brit Chadasha asserted so clearly.

We know that the Tanakh, through the pen of Isaiah, with the image of Branch from a stump, had predicted that the Messiah would come from David’s line.

Was Yeshua really from the line of David?

The Brit Chadasha’s claim of this prophecy’s fulfillment can perceived to be open to bias.  Levi wrote what he did because he wanted us to see a fulfillment of this prophecy in Yeshua.  But who is to say that he didn’t just make it up to get a ‘fulfillment’?  Many of us just leave the question there and either believe or not based on our own biases.  But hold the verdict!  The case has not been fully heard. Accepted Jewish sources from this period have more evidence to bring out.

Distinguished scholar F.F. Bruce’s work Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament. (1974  215pp) identified and analyzed Jewish Rabbinical references to Yeshua in the Talmud and Mishnah.  He noted the following rabbinical comments about Yeshua:

Ulla said: Would you believe that any defence would have been so zealously sought for him (i.e. Jesus)?  He was a deceiver and the All-merciful says: ‘You shall not spare him neither shall you conceal him’[Deut 13:9]  It was different with Jesus for he was near to the kingship” 

Ibid p.56

FF Bruce makes this remark about that rabbinical statement

The portrayal is that they were trying to find a defence for him (an apologetic note against Christians is detected here).  Why would they try to defend one with such crimes?  Because he was ‘near to the kingship’ i.e. of David. 

Ibid p.57

So, hostile Jewish rabbis did not dispute the Gospel writers’ contention that Yeshua really was in the line of David.  Though they did not accept his overall claim to ‘Messiah’ and they opposed the Gospel claims about him, they still affirmed that Yeshua descended from David’s royal line.  The Brit Chadasha did not simply make that up to get a ‘fulfillment’.   Hostile witnesses agree on this point.

Born of a Virgin?

Now there is always a possibility of this royal lineage being true ‘by chance’.  But born of a virgin?!  There is no possibility of this happening ‘by chance’.  It is either: a misunderstanding, a made-up fraud, or a Divine Happening – no other option exists.

Luke and Levi quite clearly state that Mary conceived Yeshua while she was a virgin.  And Levi ups the ante by quoting and claiming that this was a clear fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah (ca 750 BCE) which said:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel(i.e. ‘God with us’)

Isaiah 7:14 (and quoted in Matthew 1:23 as a fulfillment)
Historical TImeline with Isaiah and other writers of Tanakh
Historical TImeline with Isaiah and other writers of Tanakh

Virgin or Young Woman

Here some plausible natural explanations come to mind.  The Hebrew (הָעַלְמָ֗ה transliterated haalmah) which was translated ‘virgin’ above could also mean ‘young maiden’, i.e. a young unmarried woman.  Perhaps that is all that Isaiah ever meant to say, way back in 750 BCE.  Given some pious ‘need’ by Levi and Luke to venerate Yeshua they misunderstood Isaiah to mean ‘virgin’ when he really meant ‘young woman’.  Given the untimely (yet convenient for ‘prophecy’) pregnancy of Mary before her marriage it neatly developed into a ‘divine fulfillment’ centerpiece in Yeshua’s birth story.

Witness of the Septuagint

Many have recounted some such explanation over the years, and on the one hand one can’t refute this explanation – after all proofs about being a virgin or not are difficult if not impossible to frame.  But, for a fact, the story is not this simple.  The Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Tanakh published by Jewish scholars long before Yeshua was born (more on Septuagint here), provides a window into Jewish understanding of Isaiah 7:14

How did these Jewish rabbis translate Isaiah 7:14 from the Hebrew?  Did they translate it as ‘young woman’ or ‘virgin’? 

The Septuagint (The Jewish scholarly translation from 250 – 150 BCE) has ‘virgin’

The Septuagint renders it unequivocally and categorically as παρθένος (transliterated parthenos), meaning ‘virgin’.  In other words, leading Jewish rabbis around 250 BCE understood Isaiah’s prophecy to mean ‘virgin’, not ‘young woman’ – over two hundred years before Yeshua came on the scene.  The Gospel writers or early Christians did not invent this concept.  It was Jewish long before Yeshua’s birth.

So why did the leading Jewish scholars back then side with such a seemingly ridiculous and far-fetched prediction that a virgin would have a son. If you think it is because they were superstitious and unscientific in that day then think again.  People in that era were farmers.  They knew all about how breeding worked.  Hundreds of years before the Septuagint Abraham and Sarah knew that after menopause kicked in childbearing was impossible.  Scholars in 250 BCE did not know about the periodic table of elements or the complete electro-magnetic spectrum, but they knew how animals and people reproduced. They would have known it was naturalistically impossible to have a virgin birth.  But they did not retreat, they did not hedge their bets and make it ‘young woman’ in the Septuagint.  No, they inked it in black and white that a virgin would have a son.

Mary’s Context

Now consider the fulfillment part of this story.  Though it cannot be proven that Mary was a virgin, she was remarkably in the only and very brief stage of life where it could still remain an open question.  The simple fact of Yeshua having an older sibling would disprove the virgin birth. This was an age of large families.  Families with ten children were not uncommon.  Given that, what was the chance that Yeshua would be the oldest child? Around a 1 in 10 chance.  In other words, a 90% probability existed that the ‘fulfillment’ could have been dismissed by the simple fact of Yeshua having an older sibling. But against the odds he didn’t.

And if Mary had become pregnant before her engagement she would have had to fend for herself – if she had been allowed to live. It is a striking coincidence that this birth happens while betrothed but still unmarried.

It is these remarkable and unlikely set of ‘coincidences’ which make the virgin explanation impossible to disprove that strike me.  These coincidences exhibit a sense of balance and timing as if a Mind were arranging events with plan and intent.

Rabbinical witnesses again

If Mary had married or had children before Yeshua’s birth then hostile witnesses would surely have pointed that out.  Instead it seems that, once again, they defer to the gospel writers on this point.  FF Bruce notes this as he explains how the rabbinical writings refer to Yeshua:

Jesus is referred to in rabbinical literature as Jesus ben Pantera or Ben Pandira.  This might mean ‘the son of the panther’.  The most probable explanation is that it is a corruption of parthenos, the Greek word for ‘virgin’ and arose from Christian references to him as a son of a virgin

Ibid p 57-58

As hostile witnesses they did not disprove the virgin claim, they resorted to mocking it, playing on Mary’s status as unmarried but pregnant.

Today, as in Yeshua’s time, there exists hostility to Yeshua and the claims of the gospel.  Then, as now, there was animosity to him.  But, back then they were also witnesses, and as hostile witnesses they did not refute some basic points that they should have easily been able to, had these points been made up or been in error.

Maybe there is something to the Brit Chadasha’s claim that Yeshua was a Virgin’s son from David’s line.

Jewish Roots of Christmas

Christmas has distinction as the premier global festival, celebrated by nations around the world, except by the people who birthed the tradition – the Jews.  Nations celebrate Christmas in diverse ways across the globe but music and song always form the core of its celebration.  And Jews have been among those who have richly contributed to Christmas music.  From Jewish composers Irving Berlin’sA White Christmas’, Mel Torme’s ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ or Walter Kent’s “I’ll be home for Christmas”, Jewish musical genius has made its contribution to Christmas celebrations the world over.

The Jewish Birth Story – better than Santa

Beyond the music, the food, the decorations, and festivities, Christmas celebrates the birth of a boy – a Jewish boy.  In fact, almost all the characters making up the drama of this boy’s birth are Jewish.  One of the two writers who recorded the story was also Jewish – a Levite even.

Jesus Birth Story is Rich with Imagery

And the intrigue, suspense and celebration surrounding the birth of this Jewish baby, recorded by a Jewish Levite, make the subordinate Christmas add-ons like Santa Claus, the North Pole, and elves in Santa’s workshop pale in comparison.

Levi, also known as Matthew, wanted us to know for certain that the baby boy he wrote about was Jewish.  So he opened his narrative with this sentence, the first sentence in the Brit Chadasha.

This is an account of the origin of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham

Matthew 1:1

Not only a son of Abraham as are all Jews, but also a descendant of the legendary King David!  What other theme could evoke greater expectancy?  Certainly not Santa.

Jesus’ Birth Recounted

What were the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth?  Matthew tells us in striking detail.

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. 

Matthew 1:18-25

Luke’s Details of Jesus’ Birth

Humble Shepherds come to see the King

Luke, another Gospel writer, elaborates on the events of Jesus’ birth with this account:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. 

Luke 2:1-20

The Visit of the Wise Men to Bethlehem

Usually included in the Nativity story is the visit of the Wise Men, which Matthew picks up for us:

2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

The Escape to Egypt

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

Matthew 2:1-18
The Magi from afar come to see the King

Herod in the Christmas Plot

This Herod who ruthlessly tried to take the life of the baby Jesus is Herod the Great. He leaves his imprint in Israel still today, visible in the ruins at the Temple Mount, Masada and Caesarea.  Christmas tells a tale of a tyrannical ruler determined to stamp out any challengers. It is a story of a desperate flight to save one’s life, a merciless killing of innocents. This parallels what so many Jews around the world today and through history have similarly experienced.   

Messiah Controversies steal Christmas

But it is not so much the perils in the Christmas story that evoke Jewish resonance, but also the controversies.  After all, the themes used by Matthew in recounting the Christmas Nativity Story are decidedly Jewish.  Matthew reaches back to the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah to give meaning to the events he records.  He uses the Jewish title ‘Messiah’ to describe the birth of the baby Jesus. 

This brings us to the nub of the issue.  Though Christmas has decidedly Jewish roots, the prevailing Jewish view is that the controversy surrounding the status of this Jew has been settled by his brethren to the negative.  That is, Jews have decided that Jesus was not the Messiah – case closed.  Perhaps Gentiles came to the opposite conclusion but Jews universally rejected the idea of Jesus as Messiah. Thus Jews also had to discard Christmas.  As the Grinch stole Christmas the force of this logic has stolen Christmas from many.

But what if …?

But perhaps one can reverse the order of investigation.  Leave aside Jesus’ Messiahship to simply explore questions arising from the Christmas story. Does Jewish tradition say anything about the Christmas themes of virgin birth and David’s line?  In fact, accepted Jewish writings provide valuable insight to these Christmas story questions.  As the (Jewish) shepherds decided to check for themselves when they heard the unbelievable angelic message of the baby’s birth in Bethlehem, so we too can examine for ourselves a Jewish perspective on these Jewish questions.  If nothing else, perhaps with this understanding we can, like Mary, ‘ponder these things in our hearts’ and greet one another with a ‘Merry Christmas’.

We look at these sources, what they say, and what it means here.   

The Branch: Named hundreds of years before his birth

We saw how Isaiah began the prophetic theme of The Branch.  A ‘he’ from the fallen dynasty of David, possessing wisdom and power was coming.  Jeremiah followed up by stating that this Branch would be known as Adonai (the Lord) himself.

Zechariah continues The Branch

Zechariah returned after the Babylonian exile to rebuild the Temple
Zechariah returned after the Babylonian exile to rebuild the Temple

Zechariah lived 520 BC, just after the Jewish people returned to Jerusalem from their first exile.  At that time, they were rebuilding their destroyed temple.  The High Priest then was a man named Joshua, and he was re-starting the work of the priests. Zechariah, the prophet, was partnering with his colleague Joshua, the High Priest, (and Zerubbabel the political leader) in leading the Jewish people. Here is what G-d – through Zechariah- said about this Joshua:

‘”Listen O High Priest Joshua and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant the Branch.” …, says the LORD Almighty, “and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day”.’

(Zechariah 3:8-9)

The Branch!  Started by Isaiah 200 years beforehand, continued by Jeremiah 60 years earlier, Zechariah develops ‘The Branch’ further.  The Branch is now also called ‘my servant’ (the Servant of Adonai).  In some way Zechariah’s colleague, the High Priest Joshua in Jerusalem at 520BCE, was symbolic of this coming Branch.  But how? It says that in ‘a single day’ the sins will be removed by the LORD. How would that happen?

The Branch: Uniting Priest & King

To understand we need to know that the roles of Priest and King were strictly separated in the First Temple Period. None of the Davidic Kings could be priests, and the priests could not be kings. The priest’s role was to mediate between G-d and man by offering animal sacrifices to G-d for atonement of sins, and the King’s job was to rule with justice. Both were crucial; both were distinct. This separation of role was cemented in that priests could only be Levites descended from Aaron, while the kings were from David’s line within the tribe of Judah. Yet Zechariah wrote that in the future:

‘The word of the LORD came to me: “…Take the silver and gold and make a crown, and set it on the head of the high priest Joshua. Tell him this is what the LORD Almighty says, ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the LORD… and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two’’

(Zechariah 6:9-13)

Here, against all previous rules, the high priest Joshua in 520 BCE was to put on the kingly crown symbolically as the Branch. (Remember that Joshua was ‘symbolic of things to come’). Joshua the High Priest, in putting on the kingly crown, foresaw a future uniting of King and Priest into one person – a priest on the King’s throne.  Furthermore, Zechariah prophesied that ‘Joshua’ was the name of the Branch. What did that mean?

The name ‘Joshua’ is the name ‘Jesus’

To understand we need to review the history of the Tanakh’s translation. The original Hebrew Tanakh was translated into Greek in 250 BCE by Jewish rabbis and is today known as the Septuagint or LXX.  Still widely used, we saw how ‘Christ’ was first used in the LXX and we now follow that same analysis through the Masoretic Hebrew and the Greek Septuagint for ‘Joshua’

Hebrew & Greek roots of 'Joshua' and 'Jesus' in the Bible
Hebrew & Greek roots of ‘Joshua’ and ‘Jesus’ in the Bible. Both come from the Hebrew name יְהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ

You can see that Joshua is an English transliteration of the original Hebrew name ‘Yhowshuwa’ (יְהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ).  Quadrant #1 shows the Hebrew ‘Joshua’ (יְהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ) as it was first written.  It is transliterated to ‘Joshua’ in English (#1=> #3). ‘Yhowshuwa’ (יְהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ) in Hebrew is the same as Joshua in English.  

יְהוֹשֻׁ֥עַ = Joshua (= Branch) in Hebrew-English Interlinear Masoretic Text

When the LXX was translated Hebrew to Greek in 250 BCE (יְהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ) was transliterated to Iesous (#1 => #2). ‘Yhowshuwa’ (יְהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ) in Hebrew is the same as Iesous (Ἰησοῦ) in Greek.

LXX Greek-English Interlinear of Zechariah 6:11-12: Ιησού=Joshua

When the Greek is translated to English, Iesous is transliterated to ‘Jesus’ (#2 => #3).  Iesous (Ἰησοῦ) in Greek is the same as Jesus in English.

Brit Chadasha Greek-English Interlinear: Ιησού = Jesus

Jesus was called Yhowshuwa (יְהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ) in Hebrew, but in the Greek Brit Chadasha his name was written as ‘Iesous’ – identical to how the Greek Tanakh LXX wrote that name. When the Brit Chadasha is translated from Greek to English (#2 => #3) ‘Iesous’ is transliterated to the familiar ‘Jesus’.  So the name ‘Jesus’ = ‘Joshua’, with ‘Jesus’ going through an intermediate Greek step, and ‘Joshua’ coming directly from the Hebrew.  Both Jesus of Nazareth, and Joshua the High Priest of 520BCE had the same name, יְהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ in their native Hebrew. In Greek, both were called ‘Iesous’

Is Jesus of Nazareth the Branch?

Is this a prediction, made in 520 BCE, that the name of the coming Branch would be, in English terms, ‘Jesus’, pointing directly to Jesus of Nazareth?

Jesus of Nazareth is well-known outside the gospels.  The Jewish Talmud, Josephus and all other historical writers about Jesus, both friendly and hostile, always referred to him as ‘Jesus’ (Iesous) or ‘Christ’, so his name was not invented in the Gospels.  But Zechariah predicted this name 500 years before he lived.

Jesus of Nazareth is ‘from the stump of Jesse’ since Jesse and David were his ancestors. Jesus possessed wisdom and understanding to a degree that sets him apart from others.  His shrewdness, poise and insight portrayed in the Brit Chadasha continue to impress both critics and followers.  His power through miracles in the gospels is undeniable. One may choose not to believe them; but one cannot ignore them.  Jesus fits the quality of possessing exceptional wisdom and power that Isaiah predicted would one day come from this Branch.

Now think of the life of Jesus of Nazareth in the gospels. He claimed to be a king – The King in fact. This is what ‘Christ‘ means.  But what he did while on earth was actually priestly. The priest’s job was to offer acceptable sacrifices to G-d on behalf of the Jewish people.  The death of Jesus in the Brit Chadasha was significant in that, it also, was an offering to God, on our behalf. The sins of the land were thus literally removed ‘in a single day’ as Zechariah had predicted – the day Jesus died and paid for all sins. In his death he fulfilled the requirements as Priest, even while he is mostly known as ‘The Christ’ or The King.  Thus, as Zechariah prophesied, he did bring the two roles together.

But this is the view of Jesus’ death taken in the Brit Chadasha. Does the Tanakh support the same point-of-view?  We explore this by following up on the related theme that Zechariah above equated with the Branch – that of the Servant.

The Sign of the Branch: The Dead Stump reborn – in Messiah

We learned that both the terms ‘Messiah’ and ‘Christ’ originate in the Tanakh and that they are equivalent titles.  The use of this title ’Messiah’ to signify a coming ruler, a ‘Son of God’, in Psalm 2 opened the door for related themes that later books in the Tanakh developed.  Isaiah (750 BCE) initiated this with the Branch of the Lord.

Isaiah and the Branch

Historical TImeline with Isaiah and other writers of Tanakh
Historical TImeline with Isaiah and other writers of Tanakh

Isaiah wrote in the First Temple Period during the Davidic dynasty. In his day (ca 750 BCE) the dynasty and the kingdom was corrupt. Isaiah pleaded that the Kings return back to G-d with the practice and spirit of the Mosaic Law.  But Isaiah knew that Israel would not repent, and so he also prophesied that she would be destroyed and the royal dynasty would end.  Isaiah chapter 3 details this coming judgment.  But then the book changes its tone and foresees:

In that day the Branch of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of the survivors in Israel. (Isaiah 4:2)

He does not give much detail about this coming Branch, but a little further on, he explains what he foresaw with a specific metaphor, or image, of the royal dynasty – picturing it like a great tree. This tree had at its root Jesse, the father of King David. On Jesse the Dynasty was started with David, and from his successor, Solomon, the tree continued to grow and develop.

David’s Royal Dynasty pictured as a Tree from Jesse (father of David)

First a Tree … then a Stump … then a Branch

Isaiah wrote that this ‘tree’ would soon be cut down, reducing it to a stump. Here is how he pictured this ‘tree’, which then he turned into the riddle of a stump and Branch:

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him–the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge.” (Isaiah 11:1-2)

Dynasty pictured as a Stump of Jesse
David’s Dynasty pictured as a Stump of Jesse

The cutting down of this ‘tree’ happened about 150 years after Isaiah, in 586 BCE, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and dragged its people and king to Babylon (the red period in the timeline above). Jesse was the father of King David, and so was the root of David’s Dynasty. The ‘stump of Jesse’ was therefore a metaphor to the coming shattering of David’s dynasty.

The Branch: A coming ‘him’ from David possessing wisdom

A 'him' pictured as a shoot from the stump
A ‘him’ pictured as a shoot from the dead stump of Jesse

But this prophecy also looked further into the future than just the cutting down of the kings. Isaiah predicted that though the ‘stump’ would look dead (as stumps do), one day in the further future a shoot, known as the Branch, would emerge from that stump, just like shoots can sprout from tree stumps. This Branch is referred to as a ‘him’ so Isaiah is talking about a specific man, coming from the line of David after the dynasty would be cut down. This man would have such qualities of wisdom, power, and knowledge it would be as if the very Spirit of G-d would be resting on him.  This was a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah, using the theme of ‘Branch’.

Jeremiah and The Branch

Jeremiah in Historical Timeline with other writers of Tanakh
Jeremiah in Historical Timeline with other writers of Tanakh

Like a signpost laid down by Isaiah in history, it was only the first in a series of signposts that developed this theme of the coming ‘Branch’.  Jeremiah, living about 150 years after Isaiah, when David’s dynasty was being cut down before his very eyes wrote:

“The days are coming,” says Adonai
when I will raise a righteous Branch for David.
He will reign as king and succeed,
he will do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Y’hudah will be saved,
Isra’el will live in safety,
and the name given to him will be
Adonai Tzidkenu [Adonai our righteousness] (Jeremiah23:5-6)

The Branch: ADONAI our Righteousness

What will this Branch be called? He would be called the ADONAI who will also be ‘our’ (that is – us humans) Righteousness. As we saw with Abraham, the problem for humans is that we are ‘corrupt’, and so we need ‘righteousness’.  In naming the Branch Adonai our Righteousness, Jeremiah hints that people in his future would get needed ‘righteousness’ from the LORD – ADONAI himself.  But how would this be done?  Zechariah provides the answer as he develops this theme of the Coming Branch further, prophesying even the name of the Messiah – which we look at here.

Where does ‘Messiah’ come from?

The anticipation of a coming ruler ‘Messiah’ is central to conventional Jewish thought.  But where does the idea and the term ‘Messiah’ come from?  What is the relationship between ‘Messiah’ and ‘Christ’?  Is ‘Christ’ simply some sort of Christian term or idea?  It turns out that all these words have their origins in the Tanakh and in how it was translated thousands of years ago.  Here we look at where these words come from and what the Tanakh says about Messiah.  But first we survey the Torah on this Coming One.

Messiah in Torah

This Coming One is first introduced in the Torah (though without using the term ‘Messiah’).  In fact, the Messianic promise of a Coming One was first given back in the Garden of Eden.  At this early date, the promise of His victory in conflict is simply outlined.  But later, when the patriarch Jacob blessed his twelve sons before his death he foresaw a coming ruler.  In blessing Judah, Jacob said:

“Judah, your brothers will praise you;
your hand will be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons will bow down to you.
You are a lion’s cub, Judah;
you return from the prey, my son.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down,
like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
10 The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet.
until he to whom it belongs shall come
and the obedience of the nations shall be his.  (Genesis 49:8-10)

Since the other sons of Jacob (i.e. the other Israelite tribes) would ‘bow down’ to Judah, and Judah would have ‘the scepter’ (symbolic of rule), this oracle promised a monarchy coming from the tribe of Judah – which was fulfilled when David came to the throne.  But the prophecy also looked further into the future.  Paradoxically, it predicted that rule would not depart from Judah until a ‘he’ comes – someone who has a right to the “ruler’s staff” (This ‘he’ is called שִׁילֹה literally ‘he whose it is’ or Shiloh). When the ‘he’ who has the right to rule finally comes, then rule will be removed from Judah!  This ‘he’ will also get ‘the obedience of the nations’  (so it is not about David).  Once again, as with G-d’s covenant with Abram, the nations are in sight, foreseeing that the nations will be ‘his’.

The later prophetic books in the Tanakh describe this coming one using the title ‘Messiah’ but that word does not appear in all translations.  To understand why, we need to touch on the history of Bible translation.

Translation vs. Transliteration

Known as transliteration, translators sometimes choose to translate by similar sound rather than by meaning. For example, ‘shalom’ is a transliteration from the Hebrew שלום which means ‘peace’. Translators can bring שלום into English as either ‘shalom’ (by transliteration of sound) or ‘peace’ (by translation of meaning).   For the Tanakh, translators had to decide whether words (especially names and titles) should be translated by meaning or through transliteration (by similar sound).  There is no hard rule; sometimes it is better to translate and other times one transliterates.

The Septuagint

The Tanakh was first translated into Greek between 250 – 132 BCE and this translation is known as the Septuagint (or LXX).  The Babylonian Talmud says that 70 rabbis translated this work in Alexandria, Egypt at the request of Ptolemy II.  Thus the Septuagint was an early translation work by Jewish scholars for Greek-speaking Jews of the diaspora and Gentiles who had an interest in the prophetic writings.

Translation & Transliteration in the Septuagint

The figure below shows this translation process and how it impacts modern-day Bibles

The translation flow from original to modern-day Bible
The translation flow from original to modern-day Bible

The original Hebrew Tanakh is shown in quadrant #1 and is available today as the Masoretic Text. The Greek Septuagint is in quadrant #2. The bottom half (#3) shows a modern language Bible (e.g. English). Because the Septuagint was a Hebrew-to-Greek translation the figure displays a blue arrow going from quadrant #1 to #2. For all steps (#1->#2, #1->#3, #2->#3) translators decided on transliteration or translation of names and titles as explained above, illustrated by labeling transliterate and translate around the arrows.

After the Septuagint was completed and used across the Jewish Diaspora in the Greco-Roman world, the Greek Brit Chadasha was written.  This was key in the development of the term ‘Messiah’.  Since the Brit Chadasha was written in Greek and had many quotations from the Tanakh it used the Greek Septuagint, rather than the Masoretic Hebrew, for its source of quotes.  This is illustrated in the next figure.

Brit Chadasha in the historical flow of language and translation
Brit Chadasha in the historical flow of language and translation

Messiah and Christ from the Bible

Now we focus on the word ‘Messiah’, following the historical process explained above.

‘Messiah’ comes from in the Bible
Where does ‘Christ’ and ‘Messiah’ come from in the Bible?

The original Hebrew title in the Tanakh was ‘mashiyach’ (משיח) which is defined as an ‘anointed or consecrated’ person.  Priests and kings in the First Temple Period were anointed (ceremonially rubbed with oil) before they took office, thus they were mashiyach.  But prophecies in the Tanakh predicted a specific mashiyach, anointed by G-d, who was coming. When the Septuagint was developed in 250 BCE, the rabbis chose a Greek word with a similar meaning, Χριστός (sounds like Christos, which came from chrio, which meant to rub ceremonially with oil).  Therefore the rabbis brought the original Hebrew ‘mashiyach’ into the Greek Septuagint through translating the word Christos by its meaning (not transliterated by sound). The Jewish writers of the Brit Chadasha understood Yeshua of Nazareth to be this person prophesied in the Tanakh, but since they wrote in Greek they used the Greek word Christos from the Septuagint, not ‘mashiyach’.

For modern-language Bibles (like English), the Tanakh was translated directly from Hebrew (#1 to #3).  Some translators chose to translate by meaning into variations of Anointed/Anointed One, and others transliterated by sound to Messiah.  So we can interchange Anointed with Messiah since they both come from the same Hebrew word ‘mashiyach’ (משיח) – one by transliteration and the other by meaning.  Similarly, Christos came via translation from the same Hebrew word ‘Mashiyach’ (#1 to #2).  This was then transliterated by similar sound from Greek to modern languages like English to make the term ‘Christ’ (#2 to #3).  So ‘Christ’ is a very specific title rooted in the Hebrew Tanakh, derived first by translation from Hebrew to Greek, and then by transliteration from Greek to modern languages.  It is the same as Messiah.

To summarize,

‘Christ’=’Messiah’=’Anointed One’=משיח

which was a specific prophetic title in the Tanakh.

Messiah in Psalms

Now we are ready to see where ‘Messiah’ comes in the Tanakh.  Psalm 2, penned by King David about 1000 B.C.E., introduces Messiah in this way:

The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us break their chains
and throw off their shackles.” (Psalm 2:2-3)

We can interchange this ‘Anointed’ with ‘Messiah’, or ‘Christ’.  What can we learn about this Messiah?  The Psalm continues.

The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger
and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
“I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.”

I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have become your father.
Ask me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.
You will break them with a rod of iron;
you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”

10 Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
12 Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2: 4-12)

We see here that Adonai calls the Anointed/Messiah ‘my son’.  G-d identifies His Messiah as ‘His son’.  This is therefore where the term ‘Son of God’ originates and is thus another equivalent term for ‘Messiah’.

Jews have historically been known to be waiting for their Messiah (or Christ). Why?  Because the Tanakh prophesied that He would come.

The Messiah anticipated in 1st Century

Herod the Great and Messiah

Below is the reaction of Herod the Great (4 BCE) when the Magi from the East came looking for the Messiah, part of the Nativity story. Notice, ‘the’ precedes Messiah.

When King Herod heard of this he became very agitated, and so did everyone else in Yerushalayim.

He called together all the head cohanim and Torah-teachers of the people and asked them, “Where will the Messiah be born?”  (Matthew 2:3-4)

The idea of ‘the Messiah’ was accepted between Herod and his religious advisors –and is used here without referring specifically to Yeshua. Why? Because Jews had been reading Psalm 2 for hundreds of years before Herod the Great was born.

Messiah and Son of God.

At his trial, Yeshua is brought before the High Priest who asks him:

The cohen hagadol said to him, “I put you under oath! By the living God, tell us if you are the Mashiach, the Son of God!” (Matthew 26:63)

We see by how the question is phrased that the Jewish High Priest effortlessly inferred ‘Son of God’ from Messiah.  Where did he get the idea that ‘Son of God’ is an extension of Messiah?  From Psalm 2.

Messiah in Tanakh: Specified like a lock-n-key system

The fact that the Tanakh explicitly predicts a coming Messiah makes it stand unique across the vast sea of literature that has been produced through history. It is like a lock.  Locks are designed in a certain shape so that only a specific ‘key’ that matches the lock can unlock it. In this way the Tanakh is a ‘lock’ with specifications that become more and more precise through the prophetic passages.  (Already we have seen some in Abraham’s sacrifice, Adam’s beginning, and Moses’ Passover).  This raises a very Jewish question: Is Yeshua the matching ‘key’ that unlocks the Tanakh?  We continue to explore this question later, but for now reflect on the paradox of the prophecy that Jacob gave to Judah.  Judah continued in self-rule (albeit under Roman supervision) in the land of Israel until shortly after the coming of Yeshua.  Forty years later the Roman legions destroyed Jerusalem and sent the Jews into worldwide exile – destined to live under the rule of other nations as Moses had foreseen.  All this while ‘the nations’ orbited into Yeshua’s teaching as per Jacob’s oracle.  A two-sided, synchronized fit between the ‘lock’ of that short prophecy and the ‘key’ of Yeshua.  Perhaps the question is worth looking into.

The way to do so is to examine how the prophets of Nevi’im and Ketuvim (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, Daniel etc.) specified the details forming the ‘lock’ for the Messiah.  These specifications have implications for us living 2500+ years later.  We take that up next.