When sincerely asked, this question is a good one. After all, there have been false Messiahs in Jewish history. Among the most prominent were Bar Kochba and Shabbetai Zevi. Bar Kochba led a revolt against Rome in the years 132-135 C.E.
During this revolt, one of the most famous figures in Jewish history, Rabbi Akiva, proclaimed him to be “King Messiah.” Unfortunately, Bar Kochba, Akiva and thousands of Jews were killed in 135 C.E. when the Romans stormed the stronghold of Betar. Shabbetai Zevi, on the other hand, was a self-proclaimed Messiah. Flourishing in 17th-century Europe, the Shabbatean movement spread among both the common people and the rabbis. But when Shabbetai Zevi was arrested in 1666 by the Sultan of Turkey, he converted to Islam rather than face death. We have been tragically wrong before, so it is not surprising that hard evidence should be sought for believing in Jesus.
The idea of a Messiah is one that is found throughout the Hebrew Bible.
There, the Messiah’s “I.D.” is given to us. Imagine looking up a friend by first locating his country. That would not be enough information, so you would need to ascertain his city, street, and specific number on that street. It would also help if you had a phone number and knew the time at which he would be home.
Similarly, the Bible tells us the “I.D.” of the Messiah. His ethnic background, place of birth, time frame of his arrival and other identifying characteristics are given. These “credentials” enable us to identify the Messiah, and to recognize imposters.
Of course it might be objected that if these “credentials” are so clear, why didn’t most Jewish people believe in Jesus, and why were they so taken in by false Messiahs like Bar Kochba and Shabbetai Zevi?
To understand this, one must realize that by the time of Jesus, the Messianic hope had become greatly politicized in the minds of the people. They were seeking deliverance from the tyranny of Rome. Although the Scripture spoke both of the sufferings and of the victories of the Messiah, the victorious aspect had become uppermost in the minds of the common people because of the Roman domination. This “lopsided” view of the Messiah has stuck with Jewish people, and the politicization of the Messianic hope has continued. Thus the hope of a political rather than a spiritual Messiah contributes to both the acceptance of people such as Bar Kochba, and the rejection of Jesus in his role as a Messiah.
This is not to say that all Jewish people rejected the claims of Jesus. Far from that being the case, all the first followers of Jesus were Jews. In fact, the rabbis of that time period and afterwards were well aware of the many Messianic prophecies which Christians claimed were fulfilled in Jesus. So for instance, although the Talmudic rabbis concurred that Isaiah 53 was a prediction of the Messiah, by medieval times the pressure from those who applied this prophecy to Jesus was so great that Rashi, that greatest medieval Biblical scholar, reinterpreted the chapter and said it referred to the nation of Israel. This interpretation is maintained today by many Jewish scholars, though it only dates back to the Middle Ages.
What, then, are some of the credentials of the Messiah?
Only a few can be listed below; there are many others. All of these passages were recognized by the early rabbis as referring to the Messiah:
- Messiah was to be born at Bethlehem: Micah 5:2 (Micah 5:1 in Hebrew Bible)
- Messiah would be from the tribe of Judah: Genesis 49:10
- Messiah would present himself by riding on an ass: Zechariah 9:9
- Messiah would be tortured to death: Psalm 22:1-31
- Messiah would arrive before the destruction of the Second Temple: Daniel 9:24-27
- Messiah’s life would match a particular description, including suffering, silence at his arrest and trial, death and burial in a rich man’s tomb, and resurrection: Isaiah 52:13-53:12
In detail as to lineage, birthplace, time, and lifestyle, Jesus matched the Messianic expectations of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The record of this fulfillment is to be found in the pages of the New Testament. But several other factors combine to further substantiate the Messiahship of Jesus.
In the first place, he claimed to be the Messiah! When a woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming.” he replied, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:25-26). Naturally, that doesn’t prove anything one way or the other. But if Jesus had never made the claim to be the Messiah, why would we bother to try and prove that he was? His own claim lays the groundwork for the rest of the evidence.
Jesus’ life is in sharp contrast to that of the false Messiahs, and it is a positive demonstration of what we would expect the Messiah to do.
Thus, Jesus worked many miracles of healing, bringing wholeness into people’s lives, forgiving sin and restoring relationships. In contrast with Shabbetai Zevi, for instance, Jesus carried out the Law of Moses as a devout Jew. And in contrast with Bar Kochba, although Jesus also died, he was resurrected!
The resurrection is a third piece of additional evidence, and it is perhaps the most convincing vindication of Jesus’ claims. It is interesting that an Israeli scholar, Pinchas Lapide, has written a book which has attracted no small amount of attention in the Jewish community. The reason is that Lapide has said that the resurrection of Jesus is well within the realm of possibility. After all, he reasoned, the Hebrew Scriptures give a number of accounts of people coming back to life. Why not Jesus as well? Regrettably, Lapide fails to note that the resurrection of Jesus is described in terms that go far beyond the resucitations of the other stories; and, he fails to come to grips with the fact that Jesus predicted his own resurrection, which vindicated his claims to Messiahship.
An assortment of explanations has been offered throughout history to explain away the resurrection as either non-historical (“It never happened.”) or as non-supernatural (“Here’s how it happened.”).
But these explanations have not been successful. Run down the possibilities for yourself and see which makes the best sense. Did the Roman authorities steal the body of Jesus from the tomb? Then why didn’t they produce it when the word started being spread that Jesus was risen? Or maybe the disciples stole it. But could such a fabrication on their part account for the change in their attitude? Three days earlier they were disillusioned, defeated idealists who had hoped that Jesus would bring in a new world order; could a lie which they knew to be a lie, now account for their hope, their boldness in the face of official persecution, and for the high ethical standards they set?
Perhaps Jesus never died: he just fainted on the cross and revived in the tomb.
This idea was popularized in the book The Passover Plot by Hugh Schonfield. Unfortunately the author overlooked the fact that the Romans pierced Jesus’ side, which would have most certainly killed him. Also, there was a contingent of Roman soldiers guarding the tomb as well as a huge stone that blocked its entrance. There was no way that a resuscitated Jesus could have escaped and then convinced hundreds of skeptical eyewitnesses that he had conquered death forever! Or was it all a mass hallucination? It must have been quite a hallucination to be seen by vastly different kinds of people at different times of day in many different places. You might be able to fool one person, but can you fool five hundred who saw him at one time? And unlike the pattern of hallucinations, these appearances of the resurrected Jesus stopped as suddenly as they started, forty days after the resurrection took place.
The only satisfactory explanation is that the resurrection actually occurred, just as the record says. And if that’s the case, it’s a solid reason for accepting the Messiahship of Jesus.
Jesus transforms people’s lives.
Because he provides atonement for sin and reconciliation with God, Jesus brings peace, joy, and purpose into people’s lives. Apart from faith in him, there is no basis for true peace or direction, for as the psalmist says, “Man is estranged from the womb.” That this estrangement is healed by the reconciling ministry of Jesus is the common experience of those who believe in him.
Between the objective evidence of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and the subjective verification in our own lives–we think there’s ample evidence that Jesus was who he claimed to be!