(We continue here our series of posts on Michael L. Brown’s fine book, The Real Kosher Jesus: Revealing the Mysteries of the Hidden Messiah. This will be the next to last installment of a four part review, with the other parts also available here on this blog).
In Section One of his book, Dr. Brown described the domesticated, harmless, admirable, and unfortunately martyred Jesus of popular Jewish opinion, and how he was allegedly repackaged by an ideological villain named Saul of Tarsus, who turned this harmless stellar rabbi into a god for merchandising to the Gentile world. In Section Two, of the book, Brown debunked this portrayal of Paul and his message, proving that Paul was actually involved in fulfilling a Jewish prophetic calling—to bring the knowledge of the One True and Living God to the pagans. In that section of his book, Brown presents to us a very kosher Apostle Paul. Now in the Third Section of his book, Brown examines seven aspects of who the Kosher Jesus really is, but this is not simply the domesticated, harmless, admirable, and unfortunately martyred Jesus of popular Jewish opinion. This is something, or Someone much more: but, as Brown ably demonstrates, a truly Jewish, truly biblical, and truly kosher Jesus.
This third section has seven chapters, corresponding to seven “hidden secrets” about Yeshua, Israel’s Messiah. These are chapters nine through sixteen of Brown’s book. Let’s look at four of those now, and the remainder in our next post.
In Chapter Ten, Dr. Brown begins with “The Invisible God Who Can Be Seen.” Brown is an exceedingly bright man who is unafraid of ambiguities where ambiguities exist, and who deals politely with his interlocutors even in highly polemical contexts where emotions and accusations commonly run hot and heavy. He demonstrates that balance here as he dispatches with some common distorted views about and around Yeshua-faith. Did God relocate in Jesus of Nazareth, so that he left heaven and squeezed himself down into a man of about five feet seven or so for thirty-three years in Roman Palestine? Of course not! This is not what the text says, nor is it what it demands. Did people see God whenever they saw Jesus? Not exactly. But did the God of heaven uniquely manifest himself in human form in the person of Yeshua of Nazareth? Yes he did!
On the question of relocation, the Midrash [a rabbinic homiletical commentary] on Psalm *1, when considering the erecting of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the wilderness considers a dilemma: Did God dwell there amidst Israel? Yes! But did he retract his glory which fills heaven and earth in order to do so? No. The situation was not either/or but both/and. Similarly, the question of where was God when Yeshua walked the earth also has a both/and rather than either/or answer. God was in his heaven, in fact, filling heaven and earth, but also “God was in Messiah reconciling the world to himself.” And the New Testament insists on a strong statement of both aspects of the both/and. So we can read in John’s Besorah, “No one has ever seen God” [John 1:18], and also say in the same book, through the lips of Jesus, “Anyone who sees me has seen the Father.” Brown shows how the Torah and Judaism acknowledge and expresse this ambiguity. Here’s another illustration. We read in Exodus both that “no one may see God and live” [33:20], and also that Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu the priest-sons of Aaron], and seventy of the elders of Israel “saw God” and ate and drank in His presence atop Mt Sinai. Similarly, numerous times God’s presence is manifest in a special agent termed “the Angel of the LORD.” Individuals report in these encounters great fear because they judge themselves to have seen God himself.
Most memorable, and well developed by Dr. Brown, is Abraham’s encounter with three visitors who visit his tent on route to the eventual destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. After eating in Abraham’s presence, two of the visitors go on toward Sodom, while, the text reports, “Abraham remained standing before the LORD” [the third visitor]. Reflecting on these encounters in the Tanach, Brown asks, “Did the Lord cease to the God in heaven? Certainly not! Did he cease to be a spirit? Obviously not. But did this infinite Spirit walk among us in fleshly form for a season? Absolutely yes. And did he allow himself to be seen by various people at certain times, although not in his full glory? Without a doubt—if we believe the Jewish Scriptures!”
Out of deference for the incomparability of God, Judaism is understandably uncomfortable with these accounts of the Holy One walking among us, rubbing shoulders with the common folk. One of the ways Judaism deals with the paradox of Divine otherness and these records of embodied Divine visitations is to establish a terminological distance by using the metaphor of the Divine Memra—his Word, God extending His essence into our world while yet preserving a distinction between his extending himself and compromising his personal proximity, revealing himself but not his glory. “Memra”—the Word of the LORD—is a metaphor used to do this the Targums, mostly-Aramaic explanatory paraphrases of Scripture, dating from shortly before and contemporaneous with the time of Yeshua. However, despite the respectful rhetorical distance, nothing can mitigate the startling nature of the texts themselves when one considers them in light of how the New Testament also preserves the tension in references to God and to the Messiah, in the words of the later theologians, a distinction is Person but not in essence.
For example, consider Jacob’s vow in Genesis 28:20-21: “If God will be with me . . . then the LORD will be my God.” The Targum says, “If the Memra [the Word of the LORD] will be with me . . . then the Word of the LORD will be my God.”
There is a close conceptual connection between how the term memra is used in the Targums and how the Newer Testament uses the word logos, and substituting the word memra for the word logos in key Newer Testament texts helps highlight how Jewish the concepts are. “The memra became flesh and tabernacled among us” is a fair translation of John 1:14. And just as the presence of God was manifest in the tabernacle in the wilderness, and still filled the whole earth, so the presence of God was manifest in Yeshua but not exhausted there—God was still also omnipresent. Again, not either/or but both/and.
Those who dispute the Messianic claims of Yeshua of Nazareth commonly allege that the only truly Jewish view of the Messiah is of him being a victorious king ruling over of the earth, and that the idea of a suffering Messiah is a Christian invention. Don’t be fooled or discouraged such an accusation: it’s just not true, and Brown shows us why. In Chapter Ten, “The Secret of the Suffering Messiah,” referring to the writings of Raphael Patai in The Messiah Texts, as well as the writings of Gustav Dalman and the Qumran community that gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as Talmudic and midrashic sources, he demonstrates that the vision of the Messiah as a suffering servant, is a well established view in the Bible, and in classical Jewish sources.
Chapter Eleven, “The Atoning Death and Power of the Righteous,” takes these matters further, examining the Jewish corroboration and basis for alleging that the death of the righteous expiates the sins of others. This too is falsely and widely condemned as a Christian invention. And again, this is just not so, and please, do a little research, as with Brown, or with Daniel Boyarin, whom we recently discussed, and take the trouble to be better informed!
Brown begins this chapter by quoting from Berel Wein, a highly esteemed rabbinic scholar-teacher, whose writings I first encountered with Aish HaTorah, an organization with zero interest in promoting faith in Yeshua as Messiah. Although Brown quote him at greater length, I can only quote briefly here from what Rabbi Wein has to say on this subject:
It was an old Jewish tradition dating back to biblical times that the death of the righteous and innocent served as an expiation for the sins of the nation or the world. . . . [that] the death of the righteous [is] an atonement for the sins of other men.. . . Jews nurtured this classic idea of death as an atonement, and this attitude toward their own tragedies was their constant companion throughout their turbulent exile.
Wein quotes as well from an old and revered midrashic source:
Would the Holy One, Blessed ia He, dispense judgment without justice? We may say that he home God loves will be chastised. For since the day the Holy Temple was destroyed, the righteous are seized by death for the iniquities of the generation. . . .
Of all people, the Jews had occasion to think hard and long about how to reconcile the purposes of God with the suffering and death of the righteous. Brown quotes from the great Solomon Schechter [1847-1915], who reminds us,
The atonement of suffering and death is not limited to the suffering person. Their atoning effect extends to all the generation. This is especially the case with such sufferers as cannot either by reason of the righteous life or by their youth possibly have merited the afflictions which have come upon them. The death of the righteous atones just as well as certain sacrifices [with reference to the Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 28a].
On the basis of passages such as Isaiah 53, it was a small step to move from considering the atoning force of the suffering and death of the righteous to considering the atoning benefit of the suffering and death of Messiah. One case in point is this quotation from the Zohar, a kanbbalistic work that first appeared in Spain in the 13th century, but was attributed to a R. Shimon bar Yochai, of the 2nd century: “As long as Israel dwelt in the Holy Land, the rituals and sacrifices they performed [in the Temple] removed all those diseases from the world; now the Messiah removes them from the children of the world.”
The case Brown makes is not a matter of isolated proof texts from the scattered legacy of Israel. Rather, such quotations as these conclusively refute those who would either dismiss or fail to consider the Messiahship of Yeshua on the basis that the idea of his death having atoning force is an alien intrusion into the spirit of Judaism. Not so.
Finally, the Torah itself makes the connection not only between atonement and the sufferings of the righteous, but between atonement and the death of the High Priest. This comes in the context of discussing the fate of people who were guilty of unwitting manslaughter, and who escaped familial retribution by fleeing to one of the six Cities of Refuge, where they were guaranteed sanctuary. How long were they to remain in those cities? Their entire lives? No. Torah tells us what would set free the person guilty of manslaughter: “he shall live in it [his City of Refuge] until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil’ [Numbers 35]. Contemporary Jewish scholar of great distinction, Jabob Milgrom, of Blessed Memory, wrote that it was the death of the High Priest that atoned for the sin of the manslayers.
In Chapter Twelve, “The Secret of the Priestly Messiah,” Brown strengthens the case for the Messiah being both King and Priest. especially from the Book of Zecharian chapter 3, 4, and 6 and from Psalm 110:4. As a Priest, in the pattern of the High Priest whose death atones for the manslayers in Numbers 35, the Messiah must both make atonement for his people and intercede for them. Referencing the Letter to the Hebrews, Brown outlines how Yeshua does precisely that. But most important for our considerations, he does so while demonstrating that these views are not simply Christian inventions, but developments of lines of thought and expectation found in the Jewish Bible and tradition.
Next posting we will conclude our review of Dr. Michael Brown’s able treatment. Meanwhile, why not do yourself a favor and buy the book, and buy an extra copy to give away? You won’t be sorry.