Typologica lectio inexhaustum Veteris Testamenti ostendit contentum.
—Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 129
The combination of Acts 17:2-3 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 has the Apostle Paul arguing that, according to the Scriptures, the Messiah was to suffer, die for the sins of others, and rise from the dead on the third day. Some have objected that, if by “the Scriptures,” one means the extant Hebrew Bible (i.e. the Rabbinic TaN”aKh), they find no references to such therein. So this begs the question, what Scriptures did Paul have in mind?
Unfortunately, there is no extant text recording Paul explaining it, or saying precisely what texts he had in mind. But this raises another question: even if an explanation from Paul did exist, should one expect such to necessarily make sense to all modern minds? It is worth noting that ancient Jews (especially those within the Pharisaical paradigm) approached the Hebrew Bible differently from the way, for example, some 21st century low church Evangelicals do, so, if Paul’s approach was similar at times to that of the former, modern minds whose approach is more like the latter may at times find Paul’s reasoning hard to grasp.
An Ancient Jewish Approach to Scripture
Consider an analogy in this regard: we know from the Babylonian Talmud that there were ancient Jews who interpreted parshat Huqat (i.e. the Torah portion comprising Numbers 19:1-22:1) as teaching that the death of a righteous person can provide atonement for sin. The relevant text reads as follows:
Translation: Rabbi Ami said, why is the death of Miriam joined to the Torah portion of the red heifer? To teach you that just as the red heifer atones, so too the deaths of righteous persons atone.
It is unknown to what extent Paul might have agreed with that particular interpretation, but with the analogy in mind, it is fair to ask: how many modern minds requiring the text to teach only that which is explicit and on the surface would have seen a reference to a human’s death playing a role in atonement in the 19th and 20th chapters of the book of Numbers? The point of the analogy is this: Paul was an ancient Jew, and when ancient Jews said “the Scriptures teach [X],” or “according to the Scriptures, [X],” that did not necessarily mean “the Scriptures explicitly declare [X].”
Whatever the case, while one can only speculate as to what verses Paul might have had in mind, this blog entry will seek to offer a thought experiment of sorts, floating a few ideas (though there cannot be any guarantee that they’d be what Paul would have referenced).
A Messiah Slain, a Messiah Suffering for the Sins of Others
Consider Zechariah 12:12, for starters. If one were to read that verse now, they will not find any explicit reference to the points mentioned above, but, curiously, the Babylonian Talmud records a tradition that the verse refers indirectly to a certain Messiah, son of Joseph, being killed (on a related note, John 19:37 and Revelation 1:7 show that there were New Testament writers who saw the nearby verse at Zechariah 12:10 as referring to Christ).
At this point, some might note that large swaths of Jewish tradition distinguish the Messiah, son of Joseph, from the Messiah, son of David (with the former possibly being an Ephramite?). Interestingly, however, the Zohar states that when Genesis 49:10 refers to a certain m’Hoqeq which comes from between the legs (or feet) of Judah, it refers to the Messiah son of Joseph, thus raising a question: might the Messiah ben Yosef descend from Judah after all?
This raises another question: is it possible that some NT writers (who called Christ the son of Joseph) saw them as a single person? Interestingly, one orthodox Rabbi, Jacob Immanuel Schochet, noted that it is possible a text seemingly referring to an Ephraimite Messiah, like the Pesiqta Rabati, is actually referring to the Davidic Messiah. That’s especially fascinating since the Pesiqta Rabati says this Messianic figure would suffer for the sins of others (and that the 22nd Psalm even alluded to such!).
Also worthy of note, the Talmud records a tradition which applies Isaiah 53 to the Messiah. The collective picture from all this is that, within the paradigm of Jewish interpretation, Scriptural allusions to a dying Messiah, and a Messiah who suffers for the sins of others, are not absurd.
A Question of Timeframes
Beyond that, there are New Testament texts that claim Christ Himself taught that the story of Jonah somehow foreshadowed what would happen to Himself. It’s interesting, therefore, that the Talmud claims Jonah went to Gehinom while physically in the ocean or whale, arguing that the reference to sh’ol in Jonah 2:3 alludes to such. The Septuagint has Jonah praying from Hades, while Acts 2 has Christ going to, but not remaining in, Hades, in between His death and resurrection (moreover, 1 Peter 3:18-20 says Christ went to a place where the souls of those who died in the time of Noah were imprisoned, presumably Hades in light of the text in Acts). All this is worth pondering, as it seems to raise the question of whether Paul himself understood the text in Jonah as containing an allusion to Christ’s death and resurrection (and thus the corresponding timeframes).
One last point worthy of note is that the 6th chapter of Hosea might be plausibly understood as Messianic in scope, when viewed through a Jewish lens. To understand how, one might begin with this interesting question: is the returning of the people in Hosea 3:5 the same as the returning of the people in Hosea 6:1? The same verb is employed, with the only difference being that the former verse has it in the 3rd person, while the latter has it in the 1st person. If those two verses are referring to the same event, it then becomes worth noting that Targum Yonatan treats Hosea 3:5 as referring to the Messiah (ergo, if one verse might be Messianic in scope, so too might the other).
A second, related question could be: is the healing mentioned in Hosea 6:1 related to the healing in Isaiah 53:5? It was already noted that there are ancient Jewish traditions which treat Isaiah 53 as Messianic in scope, therefore, if the healing in Isaiah can be connected to the healing in Hosea, the latter may likewise be open to being considered Messianic in scope.
In short, Hosea 6 having a Messianic application does not seem absurd within the paradigm of ancient Jewish tradition. With that in mind, it is interesting that Targum Yonatan treats the third day in Hosea 6:2 as referring to a yom aHayut, a day of resurrection.
Returning to the New Testament, it should here be noted that Matthew 9:12-13 quotes Jesus as applying Hosea 6 to His own healing of sinners. Such is of interest, again, because Hosea 6:2 contains a cryptic reference to “the third day” (that is to say, if Hosea 6 is Messianic in scope, perhaps the second verse is included within that scope).
Now, admittedly, one cannot be certain which, if any, of the relevant Jewish traditions explored in this entry were also held to by Paul (or how he understood the Biblical texts explored within those traditions). This is, after all, a mere thought experiment. Nonetheless, at this point one should be able to see the following points:
(a) In ancient Jewish thought, it is possible for the TaN”aKh to contain less than obvious references to a Messianic figure suffering for the sins of others.
(b) In ancient Jewish thought, it is possible for the TaN”aKh to contain less than obvious references to a Messianic figure being killed.
(c) In Rabbinic literature (and the Septuagint) Jonah can be understood as going to Sheol/Hades [i.e. the realm of the dead] and then coming back, which is precisely what the New Testament says Jesus did, and the NT also treats the Jonah story’s timeframe as roughly paralleling that of Christ’s time between death and resurrection (i.e. a three day period).
(d) The reference to “the third day” in Hosea 6 can be understood as falling within the context of a Messianic reference (both within the paradigm of Rabbinic thought and Jesus’ own teachings).
In short, if one is reading the OT like a modern hyperliteralist, insisting on only what is explicit and on the surface, then one is not going to find references to what is referred to in Acts 17:2-3 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. However, on the other hand, as was noted, Paul did not necessarily handle Scripture in that way. Paul was an ancient Jew, and thus it is worth noting that within the paradigm of Jewish tradition, the Scriptures cryptically or indirectly referring to things like those listed in Acts and 1 Corinthians is neither absurd nor impossible.
(2) Cf. Talmud Bavli, tractate Sukah 52A.
(3) Zohar, vol. I, 25B, or parshat B’reshit A, para. 234, in the Sulam. See pages 202-203 of the following PDF: http://www.ashlagbaroch.org/Zohar/bereshit_1.pdf
(4) Jacob Immanuel Schochet, Mashiach: The Principle of Mashiach and the Messianic Era in Jewish Law and Tradition, (New York: Sichos in English, 1992), pp. 93-94, no. 2.
(5) The 37th chapter of the Pesiqta Rabati reads as follows:
TRANSLATION: It is taught that in the future the patriarchs of the world will stand in the month of Nisan, and they will say to him, “our righteous Messiah Ephraim, even though we are your fathers, you are better than us, because you suffered for the sins of our children. […] Your strength was dried like pottery. And all this happened to you because of the sins of our children.
Where I have an ellipsis, the text goes through a list of afflictions mentioned in different parts of the Bible. The last affliction in the list, the one I included after the ellipsis, is from Psalm 22:15. In short, if the claim of Schochet (himself a an anit-Christian individual) is accepted, it leads logically to the conclusion that the afflictions in Psalm 22 alluded to the Davidic Messiah (i.e. THE Messiah) suffering for the sins of others.
(6) Cf. Talmud Bavli, tractate Sanhedrin 98B.
(7) Cf. Talmud Bavli, tractate `Eyrubin 19A.
(8) Targum Yonatan to Hosea 6:2 refers to the raising of mitaya, dead in the plural (i.e. multiple persons). While some might be tempted to invoke Matthew 27:52, an alternative approach is to simply note that a Christian is not required to believe all of Rabbinic tradition is required to be accurate. Rather, one can simply engage in the exercise of filtering parts of Rabbinic tradition through a presupposition of Christianity, while assuming that some portions therein can be wrong, and subsequently noting the potential points of contact and agreement. Under such an approach, it is interesting simply that the “third day” of this text, which could plausibly have a Messianic application, was understood to be a day of resurrection (and it may be worth noting that no definite article is employed).
(9) Galatians 4:22-26 makes clear that Paul was willing to go beyond a surface reading of a text. Moreover, the Synoptic Gospels have Christ referring to Scriptural allusions to His betrayal (Mark 14:18-21), arrest (Mark 14:27), death and resurrection (Luke 24:45-46, Matthew 12:40). Perhaps Jesus’ understanding of the Scriptures provide insight into Paul’s own approach to interpreting the Hebrew Bible?