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Searching for the Messiah explores how the Gospels got it wrong about Jesus

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The mosaic of Jesus holding up Latin (Vulgate) version of the passage in John 14:6

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Given how much of a mess this world is in – global pandemic, economic tailspins, riots and demonstrations, rampant poverty, rising antisemitism, etc – perhaps the time for a messianic saviour couldn’t be more apt.

Of course, the world’s seen messier times, like world wars, genocides, destruction, and so on. And still, throughout, the Jewish people have held tight to one of Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith, that our messiah will come, at the time of God’s choosing, and begin putting the pieces back together again.

The most famous messiah figure, the Christian Jesus, came from ancient Judea (later to be called Palestine, later to be called Israel). Forty years after his death, Jews looked at their state of affairs to see a destroyed Temple, a million of our people murdered at the hands of the Roman Empire, and Jerusalem completely sacked. Surely, Jews must have asked themselves: why can’t the messiah come now, when we need him most?

Those questions had no answer. However, the questions no first-century Jew would be asking are: What is a Jewish messiah? And as a corollary, what is he supposed to do? They’d know.

The late-first century authors of the Christian holy books, however, used the Jewish tradition of messiah, but to them, he didn’t have to fulfill any prophecies. That is the investigation undertaken by Barrie Wilson in his latest book Searching for the Messiah: Unlocking the “Psalms of Solomon” and Humanity’s Quest for a Savior (Pegasus Books, Aug. 20, 2020. 300 pages, $29).

Wilson turns to a little understood, and generally unknown, first century BCE text, The Psalms of Solomon, to un-spool a fascinating answer: how to identify the Jewish messiah?  

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In its basics, the messiah in Jewish tradition is a maker of global peace, while the Jewish exiled will return to Zion, and the Temple would be rebuilt (in Jewish tradition, messianism was never a two-stage program, as Christians believe.)

Barrie Wilson’s writing is exquisite, as he teaches Biblical history by weaving narrative, with compelling rhythm and pacing; injecting fascinating gems of material, and leading us through his reasoned argumentation.

But, a caveat. With deference to our believing Christian friends, this book isn’t for you. Find strength in your faith. Keep God near and dear to your heart, and follow Jesus. This book is for those who want to critically examine the New Testament’s claims, as Wilson outlines inconsistencies, questionable logic, and problematic phrases.

There are reams of contradictions and misinterpretations in the New Testament, Wilson notes. The Gospel of Mark tells the Christian not to follow the Torah laws, but Matthew says to keep the Torah laws. The Gospels disagree on whom killed Jesus – the Jews or the Romans. Only Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah, while the rest of the New Testament writers don’t regard him as such.

The New Testament writings, Wilson notes, were written in Greek, for Greeks, at least two generations – and in some instances three, four or five generations – after Jesus died. 

Barrie Wilson’s latest book: Searching for the Messiah: Unlocking the “Psalms of Solomon” and Humanity's Quest for a Savior explores how to identify the Jewish messiah

Wilson comes at the work with rigorous study, professional background, and bona fide research. He is Professor Emeritus and Senior Scholar, Humanities and Religious Studies, York University.

He has taught courses on Introduction to the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Early Christianity, Jesus, and Paul. His bestselling book, How Jesus Became Christian (2008) – also a thorough examination of the theological challenges of Christianity – received the Joseph and Faye Tanenbaum Prize for History at the 2009 Canadian Jewish Book Awards.

To Wilson’s mind, the writers of the Gospels presumed, after-the-fact, that Jesus was messiah, and worked backwards to justify it; as though holding a copy of the Torah in one hand, and a quill in the other, marking obscure, often non-related references to point retroactively to the divinity of their message. In contrast, the Jews of Jesus’ time would have intuitively known what to expect, and together, would have instantly recognized who the messiah is, and what he is expected to accomplish in his lifetime. (And would know who is not a messiah, too.)

“[The Gospels] simply twists an ancient text to suit a current agenda. It assumes the conclusion and then works backwards to find possible evidence,” he writes.

Of many examples that he offers is the Gospels’ mistranslation of Isaiah 7’s “virgin” – ie the Virgin Birth – which in the Hebrew is “alma” or woman, not “bethulah”, the word for virgin. Without the virgin birth, a lynchpin doctrine of Christianity fails to pass muster.

The limitations of the book tend to be that there’s little to be found in point-counterpoint, explaining what mainstream Christianity might respond to an apparent mistranslation, or flaw, in the Gospel text. It would have been enlightening to know what the author presumes a Christian might say about these religious challenges.

At times, the book is a bit too deep on the textual analysis, feeling more academic than a  breezy read. But that is offset by the latter chapters, fun exercises in seeing parallels in pop culture superhero films of late, against various “saviour” narratives.  

For those looking to understand more about the theological differences between Judaism and modern Christianity, some of that is explored in Searching for the Messiah. 

Sara Kagan is a writer who lives in Ottawa.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

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