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Rabbi Maimonides and Jesus of Nazareth – the Messiah?

Messiah or stumbling block? Famed Medieval Rabbi Maimonides had an opinion about Jesus of Nazareth on this question as well as his lineage, supernatural powers, and a comparison to the Messiah prophecies.

Affectionately known as Rambam in Jewish circles, he brought clarity to Jewish Law with some calling him “the second Moses.” Born in 1135, Moses Ben Maimon, later becoming known as Maimonides, authored Mishneh Torah. Considered a monumental Jewish work, it formulated the 13 principals of Jewish faith.[1]

Two chapters, sometimes called “The Laws Concerning King Moshiach,” focused on Messiah characteristics – what would identify the Messiah and what would disqualify anyone purporting to be the Messiah.[2] Controversial statements to the point they became a victim of the Censor .

King David’s lineage is a key requirement for the Messiah cited in multiple prophecies, by renowned Rabbi Rashi and by Maimonides who went further adding anyone who denies the Messiah is denying the prophets, Moses, and the Scriptures:

“In the future, the Messianic king will arise and renew the Davidic dynasty, restoring it to its initial sovereignty.”

“Anyone who does not believe in him or does not await his coming, denies not only the statements of the other prophets, but those of the Torah and Moses…”

Calling out Balaam’s (Bilaam) prophecy as messianic, unlike Rashi who stopped short, Maimonides explicitly referred to “Mashiach,” Hebrew for the Messiah:

“Reference to Mashiach is also made in the portion of Bilaam who prophesies about two anointed kings: the first anointed king, David, who saved Israel from her oppressors; and the final anointed king who will arise from his descendants and save Israel in the end of days. That passage Numbers 24:17-18 relates:

‘I see it, but not now’ – This refers to David;

‘I perceive it, but not in the near future;” – This refers to the Messianic king;

‘A star shall go forth from Jacob’ – This refers to David;

‘and a staff shall arise in Israel’ – This refers to the Messianic king…

Maimonides then addressed the supernatural powers of performing miracles, wonders, and resurrection of the dead without directly mentioning the Gospels or Jesus of Nazareth:

“One should not presume that the Messianic king must work miracles and wonders, bring about new phenomena in the world, resurrect the dead, or perform other similar deeds. This is definitely not true.”

Paying close attention to what the Rabbi said … his view was that performing supernatural abilities would not definitively distinguish the Messiah; however, he did not deny that such miracles had occurred. Pivoting, he went on to describe characteristics that would identify the Messiah:

“If a king will arise from the House of David who diligently contemplates the Torah and observes its mitzvot as prescribed by the Written Law and the Oral Law as David, his ancestor, will compel all of Israel to walk in (the way of the Torah) and rectify the breaches in its observance, and fight the wars of God, we may, with assurance, consider him Mashiach.”

Next, he described things that would disqualify anyone who might otherwise be viewed as the Messiah. Maimonides pointedly called out Jesus of Nazareth by name:

“If he did not succeed to this degree or was killed, he surely is not the redeemer promised by the Torah. Rather, he should be considered as all the other proper and complete kings of the Davidic dynasty who died. God caused him to arise only to test the many, as Daniel 11:35 states: ‘And some of the wise men will stumble, to try them, to refine, and to clarify until the appointed time, because the set time is in the future.'”

“Jesus of Nazareth who aspired to be the Mashiach and was executed by the court was also alluded to in Daniel’s prophecies, as ibid. 11:14 states: ‘The vulgar among your people shall exalt themselves in an attempt to fulfill the vision, but they shall stumble.'”

“Can there be a greater stumbling block than Christianity?”

With a key requirement to be born into the lineage of David, Maimonides did not disqualify Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah on that basis – and he easily could have, if it were true, using the meticulous Jewish genealogy records maintained in the Temple.[3] Instead, in denouncing “Jesus of Nazareth who aspired to be the Mashiach,” Maimonides acknowledged that Jesus was born in the House of David.[4]

Mishneh Torah launched Maimonides into celebrity status prompting Jews to send letters with questions. His response letters, known as Responses (Responsa or Teshuvot), have become additional important texts of Maimonides’ Scriptural interpretations.[5]

One response to Yeminite Rabbi Jacob al-Fayumi is known as the “Epistle Concerning Yemen.” In it, Maimonides established the “My Servant” parashah of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 as a messianic prophecy by citing Isaiah 52:15 and 53:2 saying the Messiah could be identified by his origins and his wonders:[6]

“What is to be the manner of Messiah’s advent, and where will be the place of his first appearance? 

…there shall rise up one of whom none have known before, and the signs and wonders which they shall see performed by him will be the proofs of his true origin; for the Almighty where he declares to us his mind upon this matter, says, ‘Behold a man whose name is the Branch, and he shall branch forth out of his place’ (Zech. Vi. I2). And Isaiah speaks similarly of the time when he will appear, without his father or mother or family being known, He came up before him, and as a root out of the dry earth, etc.”

“Jesus of Nazareth” as a name broke from traditional Jewish family name association where he would have been called “Jesus ben Joseph,” meaning Jesus son of Joseph.[7] Instead of being known by his family association, he is known for his standalone reputation and image as Jesus of Nazareth devoid of any family association. Moreover, born in the lineage of King David in his home town of Bethlehem, the name of Jesus of “Nazareth” belies his family heritage.

“But the unique phenomenon attending his manifestation is, that all the kings of the earth be thrown in terror at the fame of him – their kingdoms be in consternation, and they themselves will be devising whether to oppose him with arms, or to adopt some different course, confessing, in fact their inability to contend with him or ignore his presence and so confounded at the wonders which they will see him work, that they will lay their hands to their mouth; in the words of Isaiah, when describing the manner in which the kings will hearken to him, At him kings will shut their mouth; for that which had not been told them have they seen, and that which they had not heard they have perceived.

All four Gospels report Jesus performed many wonders and miracles; diligently taught the people of Israel to walk in the way of God; despised and reacted to the exploitations of the Temple and the Scriptures by its keepers. The circumstances of his birth and life are consistent with the Messiah prophecies recognized by both Rabbis and Christian authorities. 

Was Jesus of Nazareth a fulfillment of the Messiah prophecies or merely a stumbling block test sent by God?

REFERENCES:

[1] Maimonides.  Mishneh Torah.  Moznaim Publications.  Jewish year 4937 (1177 AD). Chabad.org.  2015. “Sefer Shoftim” > “Melachim uMilchamot.” <http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/682956/jewish/Mishneh-Torah.htm>  Rich, Tracey R.  “Jewish Beliefs.”  JewFAQ.org. n.d. <http://www.jewfaq.org/beliefs.htm>  “Moses Ben Maimon.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011.  <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/11124-moses-ben-maimon> Furst, Rachel.  “The Mishneh Torah.”  MyJewishLearning.com. 2010.  <http://mobile.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Rabbinics/Halakhah/Medieval/Mishneh_Torah.shtml>  Seeskin, Kenneth.  “Maimonides.”  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006, revised 2017.  <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/maimonides>
[2] Maimonides.  Mishneh Torah.     
[3]  Josephus, Flavius. Against Apion. Book 1 #6-7. The Complete Works of Josephus.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
 [4] Mangel, Nissen. “Responsa.” Publisher:  Kehot Publication Society. 2008. Chabad.org. 2014.  <http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/107783/jewish/Responsa.htm>
 [5] Mangel. “Responsa.” 
 [6] Maimonides, “Letter to the South (Yemen)”. p374.  Neubauer and Driver.  The Fifty-third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters.  <https://books.google.com/books?id=YxdbAAAAQAAJ&pg=PP1&hl=en#v=onepage&q=advent&f=false>
[7] Rich, Tracey R. “Jewish Surnames.” Judaism101. 2011. <http://www.jewfaq.org/jnames.htm>  Weiss, Nelly. “The origin of Jewish family names : morphology and history.” p15. 2002. <https://www.scribd.com/doc/170261214/The-Origin-of-Jewish-Family-Names-Morphology-and-History-ebooKOID>

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