Why didn’t the Jews in Christ’s time recognize him as the Messiah?

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“Why didn’t the Jews in Christ’s time recognize him as the Messiah?” Ensign, Apr. 1991, 53–55

Why didn’t the Jews in Christ’s time recognize him as the Messiah?

Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Irvine (California) LDS Institute Director. I think that their blindness was a result of several factors, including “looking beyond the mark” and not hearkening “to the voice of the Spirit.” (Jacob 4:14; D&C 84:47.)

Another important factor was that the Old Testament passages relating to Christ’s divinity were misinterpreted in a variety of ways by different groups. Hence, there was not a clear and precise picture of what to expect in the Messiah. Even Jesus’ own disciples struggled to understand his mission and divine origin.

Confusion about three aspects of the Messiah seems to have created this lack of clarity: confusion about how the word messiah applied to Jesus, confusion about the mission of the Messiah, and, most important, confusion about the Messiah’s parentage.

Crucial teachings that could have cleared up this confusion appear to have been lost to the Jews of Christ’s time. Even today—among Christians themselves—there are differences of opinion as to Christ’s true parentage and mission. Although these teachings are discussed somewhat in the New Testament, only through reading the Book of Mormon and Latter-day scripture can we fully comprehend the nature and mission of the Messiah.

Confusion about how the word messiah applied to Jesus stems from the fact that the term is derived from Mashiyach, a Hebrew word meaning “anointed.” Those consecrated to God in ancient Israel—high priests (see Lev. 4:3), kings (see 1 Sam. 2:4), and prophets (see 1 Kgs. 19:16)—were anointed by having olive oil poured over them. They were thus considered “messiahs.”

The mission of these anointed servants was clear, but during the six centuries preceding the birth of Jesus, there was a general confusion about the mission of a Savior Messiah. Other specially anointed servants had been mortal men anointed to serve God. Many assumed the Savior Messiah would be the same. In fact, at times, different groups of Jews expected many different Messiahs: a Messiah ben Joseph, a descendant of Ephraim; a Messiah ben Levi, a descendant of Aaron; and a Messiah ben David, a descendant of Judah. Thus, when Christ was born, the Jews weren’t necessarily expecting a single Messiah with the specific mission of spiritual redemption.1

Also confusing for the Jews was the Messiah’s relationship to God. Because the sacred writings they had were both incomplete and unclear in this regard, the Jews did not expect that the Messiah would be God’s literal Son.

In ancient Israel, the idea of being God’s son often referred to the children of Israel and to the king metaphorically. Surprisingly, only three passages in the Old Testament, found in the books of Psalms and Isaiah, allude to the Savior Messiah being the Son of God. And even these passages have been translated and interpreted in such a way as to make them unclear.

The first allusion, in Psalms, reads, “I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.” (Ps. 2:7.) Jewish commentary placed this statement in the context of the promise given to David that, after his death, Solomon would sit on his throne: “I will be his father,” says the Lord, “and he shall be my son.” (2 Sam. 7:14.) It was explained that the phrase, “this day have I begotten thee,” should be understood figuratively, not literally: “the King was begotten of God as His servant to guide the destinies of His people,” writes one author.2 Thus, many Jews anticipated a Davidic Messiah, a descendant of King David, whose sonship with God was not literal.

The next two passages come from Isaiah. The first begins, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isa. 7:14.) In using the word virgin, the King James Version deviates from the Hebrew text and turns to the Greek Old Testament word parthenos, meaning virgin. But a Jewish translation renders this passage, “Assuredly, my Lord will give you a sign of His own accord! Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son. Let her name him Immanuel.”3 (Italics added.) It is obvious that Isa. 7:14 can be translated and interpreted in different ways, including the use of either the words young woman or the word virgin. It is possible that the Jews simply “missed the mark” or refused to admit the alternate interpretation that would have prepared them to accept a child born of a virgin.

The second passage from Isaiah is also rendered differently in a Jewish version. The King James Version reads, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” (Isa. 9:6.) I. W. Slotki translates the name as “Wonderful in counsel is God the Mighty, the Everlasting Father, the Ruler of Peace,” and adds, “The child will bear these significant names in order to recall to the people the message which they embodied.”4 The child, then, was not expected to be God, but simply to be called after these titles to remind the people who they were and who God was.

The Jews understood these passages to mean that the individual mentioned in each passage would have a metaphorical relationship with God—that he would be an anointed “servant-son.” For this reason, then, Jesus’ claim to be the literal son of God—an idea not extant in Jewish tradition—outraged them. It was a claim far more offensive than the claim of Messiahship. For Jewish leaders, Jesus’ claim of literal sonship was blasphemous.

When Caiaphas, the high priest, questioned Jesus and received Christ’s affirmation that he was the Messiah, the claim only gave them a reason to send Christ to the Romans for judgment. Others had claimed messiahship before and had not been arrested and charged. But Jesus gave the Jewish leaders a much graver offense—an offense that would enable them to convict him under Jewish law. That offense was the capital crime of blasphemy—in this case, claiming to be the Son of God. Had Jesus denied his literal Sonship, the Jewish rulers could have brought only political charges against him.

The Book of Mormon clarifies Jesus’ Messiahship in several ways. It gives inspired commentary, restores important Messianic scriptures, and provides a context for other Old Testament Messianic prophecies.

It may have been that Lehi, like his contemporaries, understood the mission of the Savior Messiah only in the context of traditional Jewish teachings. But after reading an unknown book shown to him by an angel, he learned the true nature of the Savior Messiah and his mission, since the book “manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah.” (1 Ne. 1:19.) Nephi was moved by his father’s revelations and wanted to know more about the things his father had taught. Exactly what he wanted to know is not specifically indicated. But Nephi learns, perhaps for the first time, that the Savior Messiah would be the literal Son of God. (See 1 Ne. 11:15–21.)

Abinadi refers to the established tradition in carrying to King Noah a message similar to the prophetic teachings in the Old Testament. He challenges the king and his court to return to God’s law and repent, yet he does not enrage them. However, when he announces that the Savior Messiah would be God’s literal son, he receives a death sentence. (See Mosiah 15:1–2, Mosiah 17:6–8.) Perhaps the Jews sought Lehi’s life for a similar reason when he taught them “plainly of the coming of a Messiah” after he, too, had come to know the Savior Messiah through the revelations of the Spirit. (See 1 Ne. 1:19–20.)

It is quite possible that some Old Testament Messianic passages that clarified the role of the Savior Messiah had been deleted from the text; other passages were variously misinterpreted because ancient Israel rejected both the plain teachings of the prophets regarding the Messiah and the prophets who taught plainly of him. The New Testament disciple Stephen may have had this in mind when he said, “Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One.” (Acts 7:52.)

That a knowledge of Jesus’ literal sonship to God existed before the ministry of Jesus is clearly detailed in restored scripture. The restoration of pre-New Testament teachings as found in the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, and the Joseph Smith Translation reveals the great knowledge that the biblical record once contained. It is tragic that such teachings were either lost or rejected, for when Jesus came, most who heard him did not recognize him as the Messiah. Assuming that the Savior Messiah would be no more than a mortal man “anointed” with God’s Spirit, they failed to recognize the incomparable blessing of having the divine Son of God in their midst.