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Numerous miracles and theophanies in the New Testament make clear the Christ was perceived to be divine. A range of epithets were used across the books, such as "Son of the Living God" Matthew 16:16, as well as the beautiful and famous words of John 1:1.

What I would like to explore is: as miraculous as it all was, some components of the pre-existing requirements of the "messianic prophecy" were not fulfilled. Clearly, Christianity and Judaism are distinct, but the New Testament transpires in a Jewish setting nonetheless. Let us not forget that the disciples themselves were Jewish. The requirements of how to recognize the messiah seem to date back over 2,500 years. The Old Testament as well as portions of other books, such as the Book of Zephaniah enumerate the principal prerequisites (not exhaustive):

  • A male descendant of the Jewish King David
  • Human (no hypostasis)
  • A great military and political leader
  • Able to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem
  • Ruler over humanity

So perhaps it's less about whether or not Christ could do these things, presumably he could. It's more about, given that he did not or was not, the disciples adapted their understanding of what the messiah really is without needing those things in the above list for affirmation.

Question

Given the geographic and socio-religious context placing the events of the New Testament in an ancient Israel deeply steeped in traditional/Rabbinical teachings, what evidence do we have (scriptural, scholarly, or otherwise) to help us understand how or why the disciples were able to accept Christ as Messiah while not undertaking the rigorous check-the-box exercise that they were most likely at least familiar with?

Note: The context and translation accuracy from/into Koine Greek for Μεσσίας is relevant here, but for simplicity's sake we can speak in generalities as there seems to be plenty of references to Christ as the Messiah throughout the New Testament or at least hinting at as in the case of John 1:19.

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    I would suggest that more focus is required, something more specific that can generate definite answers. It seems very vague to me, at present and very generalised. Also, the question does not seem to appreciate that prophecy was made of a coming revelation that was supernatural against a background of predictions of unfolding (but natural) history. One has to be aware of the intertwining of both in order to grasp the necessarily spiritual interpretation of what was being envisaged - a New Testament and an heavenly kingdom far above what was instituted as a mere example in Israel.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 21, 2023 at 8:16
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    The question would benefit from explicitly listing the relevant verses from Zephaniah so that they can be addressed as the disciples would have understood them rather than as how this question has summarized them. Jun 21, 2023 at 13:15

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The idea of the disciples doing a "check-the-box exercise" when Jesus began his ministry, in order to decide if they would believe him to be the foretold Messiah, did not seem to even enter their heads. This, despite them having been brought up to know the Hebrew scriptures, and to be aware of rabbinic teachings/traditions. The Greek scriptures provide the answer to how the disciples' view of the Messiah developed.

First, they were alerted to the nearness of the expected Messiah by the preaching and baptism of John the Baptist. As foretold in the Hebrew scriptures, he came to prepare the way for Messiah. John clearly declared the one upon whom the Spirit descended to be both the Lamb of God (sin-bearing) and the Son of God. Being so prepared, the disciples were able to recognize the Christ of God.

Second, this recognition was triggered by meeting Jesus, even for the first time. Consider the instant response of two of John's disciples who immediately left John to follow Jesus. One of those two was Andrew, who found his brother Simon and said, "We have found the Messias". Simon and Philip likewise instantly began to follow Jesus. Then, when they brought Nathaniel to Jesus, Nathaniel was so staggered that Jesus had seen him sitting under a fig tree before Philip even asked him to come to Jesus, he declared, "Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel!" All of this is in the first chapter of John's gospel. None of them did a "check-the-box" exercise before deciding whether to follow Jesus as the Messiah, or not!

Of course, as they followed Jesus during his few short years of ministry, they were looking for those amazing things to be evidenced, and they saw miracles galore, even to the raising of the dead; they heard his exposition of the Hebrew scriptures and how he warned them about the 'leaven' of their religious leaders. Yet Jesus kept warning people not to say he was the Messiah. Even John the Baptist developed doubts due to Jesus not appearing to do what many expected him to do. Two of John's disciples came to Jesus asking, "Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?" (Mat.11:1-11)

When Jesus walked on the stormy waters towards the boat the disciples were in, Peter went to meet him, walking on the water till his faith faltered. But when the two of them got into the boat, the wind instantly ceased "Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, 'Of a truth thou art the Son of God'." (Mat.14:24-33).

Ah, but when God's revealing of Christ happened, then they understood things they could never otherwise have understood. Consider how Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was. Peter replied without hesitation, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God", and Jesus said God the Father had revealed that to him (Mat.16:13-17).

But there was no way Jesus' followers could understand why he did not instantly establish a Kingdom on Earth, using political power, because they did not grasp the time scale and the scope of God's purposes. That was why, at Jesus' crucifixion, they were defeated and frightened. That was why the two disciples on the road to Emmaus said to the risen Christ (their eyes being kept from beholding him as such), "But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel". And Jesus rebuked them: "O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken." He started at Moses and all the prophets, expounding to them what the scriptures actually said about himself. Clearly, their grasp had been inadequate - deficient, even. The meaning had to be revealed to them, and when Jesus broke bread and prayed, then they realised this was the resurrected Christ, who then vanished instantly from their sight (Lk ch.24).

Wrong preconceptions were preventing them understanding. Divine revelation gave them the understanding. So, after Christ's resurrection, the jumbled jigsaw pieces suddenly fell into place, and they got heaven's perspective of the Messiah, what he would do, how he would do it, and when he would complete the task. The last book of the Bible gave the revelation of such future details.

That is how the disciples' view of the Messiah developed. The reason why so many people do not see Christ as the Messiah is that they have not first been prepared to receive the good news of Jesus; they are not humbly repentant and looking for Christ to deliver them from the kingdom of Satan into the Kingdom of God, which is not of this world, Jesus said. Nor is it to be restricted to the nation of Israel, as even the Hebrew scriptures foretold all nations of the Earth would be blessed (due to Abraham's faith) and the Gentiles brought into the new covenant of grace. But first century disciples had their vision clouded by narrow, limited understanding. The Son, and the Father, have to reveal the reality of Messiah to those who look to Christ in faith.

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At the time in question there was no Old Testament canon, nor were rabbinical teachings codified. Many scriptures circulated that did make it into the OT. Among these were many messianic prophecies, and no one could possibly check all the boxes, as the OP puts it.

Even among the now-recognized messianic prophecies, there were many difficulties. For example, would the messiah be born as a human being or would he come on the clouds as in the Book of Daniel? Christians decided that coming on the clouds referred to the Second Advent, but Jews had no such concept. The educated classes almost universally rejected Jesus, and he was accepted first among the fishermen of the Galilean backwaters. Thus Jesus said in Luke 10:21:

I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for doing so was well pleasing in Your sight.

One question was: would the Messiah be a son of David, or a son of Aaron? The prophet Zechariah predicted two "anointed ones," and the Essenes were preparing for a priestly messiah as well as a kingly one, based on Zech. 4:

1 Then I said to him, “What are these two olive trees on the right of the lampstand and on its left?” ...13 So he answered me, saying, “Do you not know what these are?” And I said, “No, my lord.” 14 Then he said, “These are the two anointed ones, who are standing by the Lord of the whole earth.”

The fact that John the Baptist was the son of a priest may account for the reason that in Luke 3:15 we hear:

Now while the people were in a state of expectation and they all were thinking carefully in their hearts about John, whether he himself perhaps was the Christ.

Since we can rule out Jesus as the "Messiah son of Aaron" those who saw him as a candidate must look at the "Son of David" prophecies: someone who could liberate Israel and restore the throne of David. For these criteria, the proof was in the pudding. Jesus was not descended from David physically but if he could restore Israel that might not matter. (Jews widely accepted the messianic claims of Bar Kochba and Shabbetai Zevi with no such "checked box.")

As things turned out, Jesus did not live long enough for his disciples to know if he might succeed as the Jewish messiah. The Gospels tell us that he taught them that he intended to be crucified, but they also report that his followers apparently forgot this.

Behold, two men suddenly stood near them in gleaming clothing; 5 and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men [angels] said to them, “Why are you seeking the living One among the dead? 6 He is not here, but He has risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, 7 saying that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise from the dead.” 8 And they remembered His words. (Luke 24:4-8)

Clearly the disciples whom Jesus met on the road to Emmaus, in the same chapter of Luke, were disillusioned that Jesus did not check the key messianic box:

One of them, named Cleopas, answered and said to Him, “Are You possibly the only one living near Jerusalem who does not know about the things that happened here in these days?” 19 And He said to them, “What sort of things?” And they said to Him, “Those about Jesus the Nazarene, who proved to be a prophet mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people, 20 and how the chief priests and our rulers handed Him over to be sentenced to death, and crucified Him. 21 But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel.

To conclude: the disciples were indeed trying to check some of the boxes. But the messianic task was a work in progress. When he was crucified long before he had a chance to restore the throne of David, they mourned deeply and some were severely disillusioned. Eventually, they came to believe that he intended this from the beginning. His kingdom was "not of this world." His mission was to die that they and all humankind might live. He was not merely a human being but the pre-existent Son of God. His throne would be established at the Second Coming when he would arrive with the clouds of heaven as Daniel predicted. And then, all of the boxes would be checked.

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  • Sabbatai Zevi is an interesting case. I had just learned about him last year and discovered there is no book on him that is less than 500 pages. Your point on keeping in mind that the Jewish 'canon' was amorphous was also helpful for me. Thanks. Jun 26, 2023 at 0:50
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OP: why the disciples were able to accept Christ as Messiah while not undertaking the rigorous check-the-box exercise that they were most likely at least familiar with?

The Gospels are filled with examples of "check the box" and the process from their "all in" acceptance to "all out" rejection and then back to "all in".

The other thing to keep in mind is there are many scriptures besides Zephania to be understood in this process.

One last thing that ties with all of scripture is that the idea of one permanent visitation versus the two that are currently going on is a conundrum for those who are stuck on the sole idea that Messiah was only a conquering King, rather than understanding Messiah as Suffering Servant.

Check the Box

But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. Mt 1:20 re Isa 7:14

And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Mt 2:6 re Mic 5:2

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, Lk 4:18 re Isa 11:2

I could go on, but their "checking the boxes" led to 3 1/2 years of close attendance to Christ's ministry. The problem was they only thought in terms of Kingship.

All In

Then Simon Peter having a sword drew it, and smote the high priest's servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant's name was Malchus. Jn 18:10

And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough. Lk 22:38

They were "all in", willing to die for their beliefs. But they were seeing their King, and so He was, but not grasping the Suffering Servant requirement.

All Out

And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly. Mt 26:75

Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him. Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed [that the body was missing]. For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead. Jn 20:2, 8-9

They were done. Still concerned, but thought the Messiahship was sunk.

All In

Upon His proving He is the resurrected Servant and King, they were again all in, yet, the idea lingered.

When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? Acts 1:6

We might surmise that the apostles wondered about the same question as the OP, saying Jesus you fulfilled the Suffering Servant prophecies, although we expected Messiah to fulfill the King prophecies first and perhaps only, but now that You have risen from the dead, is it time for the full fulfillment of all prophecy?

And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. Acts 1:7

Ok, and they continued all in.

These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren. Acts 1:14

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Acts 2:1, 4

Subsequent to the New Testament record, Christian tradition shows the disciples spreading out from Jerusalem to Samaria to the ends of the earth.

So, to answer the OP, this is the pattern of their thinking from the beginning of Christ's ministry to His ascension to Pentecost and thereafter.

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