The Messianic Hope (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  January 17, 2011 — 2 Comments

The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic?
By Michael Rydelnik
3.5 Stars (out of 5)

The subtitle of this book, Is the Hebrew Bible – by that he means the Old Testament – Really Messianic seems self-evident to me. Jesus said that the law and the prophets point to him. I see sign-posts pointing to the messiah nearly everywhere I look in the Old Testament. I even see a trinitarian analogy in the opening three verses of the bible, obviously with verse three pointing to the messiah (in keeping with John and Paul’s interpretation).

But none of this is precise enough. The question posed by the subtitle needs to be qualified because, as Rydelnik observes, Evangelical scholarship has abandoned a messianic interpretative approach to the Old Testament in the narrow sense in order to – as Rydelnik judges the landscape – seem more credible to the general or secular academic community.

Scholars have taken an approach to the Old Testament which examines the biblical text based more on it’s historical context and less on it’s spiritual revelation. He quotes disapprovingly of scholars such as John Walton, Tremper Longman III and Larry Hurtado.

For Rydelnik in order for a passage to be messianic, the author of that text must have intended a messianic interpretation. To suggest, as the latter scholars just mentioned do, that biblical passages are later interpreted as messianic by post-exilic Judaism and later by Christians as a result of their circumstances or experiences (such as an encounter with the risen Christ might require someone like Paul to re-approach and re-examine the Hebrew Bible in light of that experience) will just not do. This would suggest that the Hebrew Bible on it’s own merits is not messianic in it’s essence, but only later came to be viewed as messianic.

Rydelnik sets about to prove that it is possible to interpret the Hebrew Bible as a messianic text while maintaining academic credibility, and he does so without appealing to sensus plenior (that there are supposedly two meanings, a surface meaning and a deeper meaning), and even seeking to debunk the sensus plenior approach along the way.

For Rydelnik passages like Genesis 3:15, Isaiah 7:14 and Psalm 110 were each intended by the original authors as pointing to the messiah. He devotes whole chapters to each of these three passages to use them as a case study from each section of the TaNaK (Torah, Prophets, Writings).

Rydelnik’s passion in this subject is of personal significance. As a child raised to Jewish parents his family was suddenly ripped asunder when his mother became a follower of Yeshua. Michael realized that the only way to reunite his parents was to convince his mother that Jesus was not the Jewish Messiah prophesied about in the TaNaK. But his studies rather then disproving Jesus’ claim of messiahship, proved them. Thus Michael followed his mothers footsteps by becoming a follower of Yeshua (Jesus).

The concluding chapter Michael tells how as a teenager he entered a debate with a revered Jew who was well on his ways to earning his doctorate degree. In the debate this educated Jew had an answer for every verse Michael presented as being messianic. The Jew debunked Michael at every turn and the experience was a disastrous failure in Michael’s eyes. Then years later he meets an elderly man who was a Messianic Jew. By way of discussion they learned that the elderly man once witnessed a debate between one of his students and a learned Jew, and even though the learned Jew seemed to have an answer for every passage his student referenced, the teacher confessed that those passages sounded pretty messianic to him.

After the debate the teach began to examine those bible references his student had sourced and became convinced that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. And you guessed it, Michael Rydelnik was that student. So you see, for Michael this is more then just another academic debate. There are serious eternal repercussions to the question, Is the Hebrew Bible Messianic.

Reflections

Perhaps I have been too influenced by scholars like N.T. Wright, John Walton and Tremper Longman III, but I was not convinced by all of Rydelnik’s arguments. I believe the historical context is wildly important to understanding the text, and that this can be done without undermining divine revelation. I also believe that in some cases the New Testament writers did interpret Old Testament texts as messianic in light of Jesus the messiah, even if the original author did not intend what he wrote to be messianic.

I feel for Rydelnik’s passion and personal investation in this discussion but I also believe that there are more ways to show the Old Testament as being messianic then by looking for proof-texts. The problem is that we have been conditioned to look for specific passages here or there which are explicitly messianic, and many have failed to see that the grand story which the bible tells is specifically messianic on a whole.

When Jesus said to Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish people, that he must be born again to be saved and then chastised him for not knowing what he was talking about, I don’t believe Jesus was saying, “hey Nick, look at this verse here, and that one there. See, these are proof-text on the born again experience”. I believe Jesus was saying, “Nick, the whole story of your scriptures speak of the human condition of death and separation from God and the need for reconciliation and resurrection. This entails being ‘born again’. How could you, a teacher of the law, not know this?”

And in that way, I believe the Hebrew Bible is wildly messianic.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Josh

    Hello.
    I recently read and reviewed this book as well. Do you really think the book is simply full of proof texts? True, he looked at specific examples (how can you not), but he also looked at large sections of the OT and looked at his examples IN their proper context when interpreting them. If by “proof-text” you mean he grabbed a bunch of verses, yanked them out of context, and formed an argument based on them, then I disagree with your assessment. Instead, his exegesis of the texts in question is sound and based on the immediate and greater context in which they are found.

  • Marjorie

    I too am puzzled by the proof-texting charge, which as I hear it used (in many places), clearly carries a pejorative ring. But exactly what is meant? If Josh is correct, then Rydelnik didn’t do that. (I read the book twice, so far.) If Josh’s definition is incomplete, I’d like to hear an elaboration. I’m not sure how one makes a case, however, without using examples from the text. Broad generalizations are certainly not an argument. So what should one expect.

    Having read a pretty fair amount of contemporary scholarship, it seems to me that there is a great deal of hanging huge theories on extremely tentative evidence. Longman’s assertion that “It is impossible to establish that any passage in its original literary and historical context must or even should be understood as portending a future messianic figure” (p. 4) seems way overblown. One could just as easily assert the opposite with equal force, so it comes down to the definition of what evidence one accepts and finds convincing. The most convincing voice to me is the Lord’s voice in the New Testament, which carries unmistakable frustration that the religious community of His day failed to recognize Him in light of what they had been told in the Hebrew Scriptures. How do we get around that one without doing a lot of mental gymnastics and huffing and puffing?

    But I digress. What does one take to be “proof-texting”? How does it differ from “evidence”? And, more to the point, how does one discuss specific evidence without citing examples?