What Does the Old Testament Teach About the Coming Messiah?

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from 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus
by C. Marvin Pate

The Identification of the Messiah in the Old Testament

The Hebrew term behind the English word Messiah means “to anoint” (usually with oil). Throughout the Ancient Near East, the custom of anointing people with oil for special occasions was common. Anointing with oil symbolized purification, but it also symbolized the conferring of power, authority, and honor. Thus, the term Messiah refers to “the Anointed One” or the “One conferred with power, authority, and honor.” The New Testament Greek word is Christos, from which we get the English word Christ. The Greek word carries the same connotation as the Hebrew word, that of “the Anointed One.”

Throughout the prophetic texts of the Old Testament, the promise of future blessings and restoration usually centers around a special person, one who is coming to make all things right. Often this Coming One is described in royal terms. He is the coming righteous and just king, the branch of David, and the Shepherd (royal imagery) who regathers the flock. He is often equated with Yahweh (i.e., the LORD), the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is called Immanuel (God with us), but he is also identified as the Suffering Servant. There are also allusions to the Coming One as prophet and priest.

Thus, in the Old Testament the picture of the Coming One is rather complex, and there is no one central term used to define him. Surprisingly, the specific term Messiah (Anointed One) is used only a handful of times in regard to the future Coming Deliverer (Pss. 2; 110; Dan. 9:25–26; Isa. 61:1), even though the concept is much more common. So in the Old Testament, while it was clear that someone quite special, even divine, was coming to carry out the spectacular works of God, there was no central defining term for what to call him.

It is during Second Temple Judaism (roughly the time between the close of the Old Testament and the coming of Jesus), that the term Messiah became popular among the Jews as the main word for referring to the Coming One predicted by the Old Testament prophets. Unfortunately, however, during this time many of the Jews distorted this term in some regards. Often the term Messiah became tightly associated with Jewish political aspirations of independence from Rome. The term Messiah became disassociated with the concept of the Suffering Servant and with the central concepts of justice and righteousness that had been emphasized in the Old Testament. The Jews wanted a powerful king to lead them to military victory over Rome. Messiah was the word they used for the one that they hoped would deliver them from Roman rule.

As mentioned above, the Greek equivalent term for Messiah is Christos (the Christ). When Jesus enters the scene in Palestine, the Greek term Christ was being used like the Hebrew term Messiah and was likewise associated with numerous misconceptions about a Coming One who was strictly a political, military leader who would defeat the Romans. Thus, when Jesus appears in the New Testament gospels, he is cautious about using the term Christ. Jesus is clear about identifying himself with the Coming One that the Old Testament predicted, and the Gospels have numerous passages where Jesus or the gospel writers point out how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament prophecies about the Coming Deliverer (e.g., Matt. 1:22; 2:5–6, 17–18, 23; 4:14–16; 12:17–21; 13:13–15, 35; 21:4–5; 26:3; see also our references below). Yet, Jesus uses the actual term “Christ” sparingly to avoid furthering the misconceptions associated with the term. The gospel writers—as well as Jesus—do clearly affirm that Jesus is “the Christ,” and they do use the term occasionally, but in general Jesus himself prefers the term “Son of Man.”

However, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, when his ministry could no longer be misunderstood or misconstrued into a political, military rebellion against Rome, the apostles freely use the term Christ, proclaiming clearly that Jesus of Nazareth is “the Christ” of the Old Testament. For example, in Acts 2:36 Peter proclaims, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” In Acts, the apostles proclaim that not only was Jesus the Messiah (Christ) while on earth, but that he is now exalted to the right hand of God and is the reigning messianic king even now, as prophesied by Psalm 110:1, one of the most quoted Old Testament texts in the New Testament.

The identification of Jesus as the Christ became so foundational to the early church, that soon the term Christ became attached to the name Jesus, so that the savior was frequently simply called Jesus Christ. Likewise the early followers of Jesus soon took on the name “Christians.” Paul uses the term Christ over four hundred times in his letters, but most of the time he uses the term as the name of Jesus. As did Jesus and the gospel writers, Paul continues to affirm that Jesus Christ was the Coming One the Old Testament predicted and that he did fulfill all that the Old Testament prophesied.[1]

Old Testament Prophecies and the Life of Christ

There are numerous Old Testament prophecies that pointed to and predicted the coming of the Messiah. Many of these are identified in the New Testament as fulfilled in Jesus Christ. These prophecies can be grouped into ten general categories:

  1. Christ’s Birth. Several aspects relating to Christ’s birth were foretold in the Old Testament. The Old Testament prophesied that Christ would be a descendant of David (cf. Ps. 110:1 with Matt. 22:43–44; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42–43), but also of divine origin (cf. Ps. 40:6–8 with Heb. 10:5–9; Ps. 2:7 with Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5; Isa. 7:14 with Matt. 1:21–23). Micah foretold the place of birth, Bethlehem (cf. Mic. 5:2 with Matt. 2:6; John 7:42). Several Old Testament prophets alluded to the opposition that the Messiah would face at birth, seen in the attempt by Herod to kill all the babies in Bethlehem (cf. Hos. 11:1 with Matt. 2:15; Jer. 31:15 with Matt. 2:16–18). The virginal conception of Christ is referred to in Matthew 1:21–23 as the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14.
  2. Christ’s Forerunner. The Old Testament prophesied that the Messiah would be preceded by a forerunner, fulfilled by John the Baptist (cf. Isa. 40:3–5 with Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4–6; John 1:23; Mal. 3:1 with Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27; Mal. 4:5–6 with Matt. 11:14; 17:12; Mark 9:12–13; Luke 1:17).
  3. Christ’s Ministry. Various aspects of Christ’s ministry were foretold in the Old Testament. The Messiah was to be a prophet (cf. Deut. 18:15–16, 19 with Acts 3:22–23; 7:37; Ps. 69:9 with John 2:17; see also Matt. 21:12– 16; Mark 11:15–17; Luke 19:45–47). Likewise he was identified as the Suffering Servant of the Lord (cf. Isa. 53:4 with Matt. 8:17; Isa. 61:1–2 with Luke 4:18–21; Isa. 53:12 with Luke 22:37; Isa. 53:3–9 with Mark 9:12; Luke 18:32; 24:24–25, 46). The Old Testament also pointed to Jesus’ eternal priesthood (cf. Ps. 110:4 with Heb. 5:6; 7:17, 21). Numerous texts prophesied that the Messiah would be a king (cf. Zech. 9:9 with Matt. 21:5; John 12:14–15; see also 2 Sam. 7:12). Jesus also taught in parables, a messianic fulfillment of Psalm 78:2.
  4. Christ’s Opposition by the Jews. The Old Testament indicated that the Messiah would be opposed and oppressed by his own people (cf. Isa. 6:9–10 with Matt. 13:14–15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; Isa. 53:1; 6:9–10 with John 12:37–41; Ps. 118:22–23 with Matt. 21:42; Mark 12:10–11; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7–18). Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was a part of the motivation for opposition to him by the Jewish leaders, seen in John 2:17 as the fulfillment of Psalm 69:9.
  5. Christ’s Betrayal by Judas. Several Old Testament texts described the betrayal of the Messiah by a close friend (cf. Ps. 41:9 with John 13:18; 17:12; Zech. 11:12–13 with Matt. 27:9–10; see also Ps. 109:8; 69:25 and Acts 1:20).
  6. Christ’s Arrest and Abandonment. The Old Testament prophets declared that the Messiah would be arrested and then abandoned by his friends and supporters (cf. Zech. 13:7 with Matt. 26:30–31; Mark 14:27).
  7. Christ’s Death. The violent death of the Messiah is mentioned in several places in the Old Testament (cf. Ps. 22:18 with John 19:24; Ps. 22:15 with John 19:28; Ps. 34:20; Ex. 12:46; Num. 9:12 with John 19:36; Zech. 12:10 with John 19:32; Isa. 53:7–9 with Luke 18:32; Acts 8:32–35; 1 Cor. 15:3; Deut. 21:23 with Gal. 3:13).
  8. Christ’s Resurrection. The New Testament also identifies several Old Testament texts as pointing to the resurrection of the Messiah (cf. Ps. 16:8–11 with Acts 2:25–28; 2 Sam. 7:12–13 with Luke 18:33; 24:46; Hos. 6:2 with John 2:19–22; 1 Cor. 15:4).
  9. Christ’s Ascension. The Old Testament predicted, not only the suffering of Christ, but also his glorification, seen in his ascension to sit at the right hand of God (cf. Ps. 110:1 with Acts 2:34–35; Ps. 2:7 with Acts 13:33–35; Ps. 68:18 with Eph. 4:8).
  10. Christ’s Return. Jesus’ return in glory to earth is predicted in the Old Testament (cf. Dan. 7:13–14 with Matt. 24:30; Mark 13:26: Luke 21:27; cf. Pss. 2:8; 110:1–3, 5–7).[2]

How Much Messianism Is There in the Old Testament?

With this question one reaches a major hermeneutical debate. Despite the numerous messianic prophecies just mentioned as fulfilled in the life of Jesus the Christ, the modern period has witnessed wide scale rejection of messianic prophecy in the Old Testament. Beginning with Anthony Collins’ two broadsides against messianic prophecy in the Old Testament (Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons for the Christian Religion [1724] and The Scheme of Literal Prophecy Considered [1727])[3] and continuing with the works of Sigmund Mowinckel,[4] the Collins,[5] Joseph Fitzmyer,[6] and others, these authors have argued that the Old Testament verses that are supposedly messianic in scope prove not to be when the original context of the passage is taken into account. Most notoriously, Isaiah 7:14 refers only to God’s deliverance of Israel from the Syro-Ephraimaite collation in 732 BC, not to Jesus as Immanuel.

But a better way of identifying Old Testament messianic prophecies is being suggested today by other biblical scholars and that is to see what Old Testament texts are considered messianic by later interpreters in Second Temple Judaism. This includes the New Testament itself. Regarding the latter, we noted above the numerous Old Testament texts the New Testament, especially the Gospels, considered to be predictive of Jesus Christ. Here we correlate with Michael F. Bird those Old Testament texts perceived to be messianic by Jewish writers in the Second Temple period. Note the following chart:

Table 1. Old Testament Texts and Messianic Interpretations [7]

Genesis 49:104QpIsa frgs. 7–10.iii.25; 4Q252 5.1–7; T.
Jud. 22:1–3; 24.1; LXX; Sib. Or. 5.415; Tg.
Onq.; tg. Neof.; Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 32, 54;
Dial. 52, 120; Clement of Alexandria, Paed.
1.5–6; Irenaeus, Haer. 4.10.2
Numbers 24:171QSb 5.20–29; CD 7.18–20; 1QM 11.6–7;
4Q175 1.9–13; 1QPsj 9–13; Philo, Moses
1.290; Rewards 95; T. Jud 24:5; T. Levi 18.3;
y. Ta’an. 4.5; Tg. Onq.; Justin Martyr, Dial.
106; Irenaeus, Haer. 3.9.2
2 Samuel 7:12–16Pss. 89; 132; Sir. 47:11; 4Q174 2.19–3.11;
4Q246 1.8–9; 2.1; 4Q254 4.2–3; 4Q369 frg. 1
2.6; Pss. Sol. 17.4; 4 Ezra 13:32, 37
Psalm 24Q174 3.10–13; 3.18–19; Pss. Sol. 17.23; 1
En. 48:10; 4 Ezra 13:32, 37, 52
Isaiah 11:1–61QSb 5.22, 25, 26; 4Q161 8, 9, 10, 15–29;
4Q285 5.1–6; 1 En. 62:2; Pss. Sol. 17.24, 29,
36–37; T. Jud. 24:6; T. Levi 18.7; Tg. Isa.;
Matt. 2:23; Acts 13:23; Heb. 7:14; Rev. 5:5;
22:16; Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 32; Dial. 87;
Clement of Alexandria, Paed. 1.7
Isaiah 531 En. 37–70; Tg. Isa.
Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15; Zechariah 6:124Q161 8–10, 15–16, 22; T. Jud. 24:4–6
Daniel 7:9, 13–14Mark 14:61–62; 1 En. 37–70; 4 Ezra 13; b.
Hag. 14a; b. Sanh. 38b; Justin Martyr, Dial.
Amos 9:114Q174 3.10–13


Note also that the above passages and other Second Temple Jewish texts attest to a number of messianic figures, including: Messiah, Son of David, Son of God, Son of Man, the Prophet, Elect One, Prince, Branch, Root, Scepter, Star, Chosen One, Coming One (recall our similar comments above).

Four Responses to the Claim That Old Testament Messianism Is Anachronistic

First, it should be remembered that the Old Testament itself reinterprets earlier texts that place them on a messianic trajectory. For example, 2 Samuel 7:12–16 becomes more messianic in Psalm 89:3–4, 19, while the combination of the “scion” or “branch” of Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15 (cf. Isa. 11:1) with the “servant” of Isaiah 41–53 in Zechariah 3:8 intensifies the messianic hope.[8]

Second, Bird adds to this discussion the following idea: What is more, the editing, collecting, and translation of the Hebrew texts also led to the formation of messianism within the interpretive development of the Old Testament itself. When the Prophets or Psalms are read after the Pentateuch, the pentateuchal prophecies are taken up and continued by another series that expresses the particularity of the Davidic covenant and hope. When heard in the context of the Pentateuch and Prophets, the royal Psalms can readily be understood as oracles of the future
related to Davidic kingship and national restoration (esp. Pss. 89 and 132).[9]

Third, the later messianic reading of the Old Testament can also be seen in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. Bird writes of this:

In Num. 24:7 LXX the translators combine the prophetic oracle “There shall come forth a man” with the reference to “Gog” from Ezek. 38–39, with the result that “there shall come a man out of his seed, and he shall rule over many nations; and his kingdom shall be made higher than Gog, and his kingdom shall be increased.” This is a clear instance of combining the original oracle with exilic hopes for national deliverance from Israel’s archenemy of the last days. And also in Hab. 2:3 LXX we find: “For he will surely come, and will not tarry,” which changes the “it” (i.e., the vision) to a person “he will come” (i.e., a divine agent) in the future. Thus, the messianic interpretation of certain texts in the Second Temple era is merely an extension of what was already happening within the Old Testament itself. The process of the reinterpretation and reapplication of certain texts along royal, messianic, and eschatological lines had long since begun.[10]

Finally, there is something to be said for the fact that the same Old Testament texts are considered messianic by later interpreters. Thus, J. J. M. Roberts argues that if every messianic document had a completely different selection of proof texts, one could grant the capricious nature of their messianic exegesis, but the fact that certain texts kept being recalled for their messianic content is a highly significant feature of Jewish and Christian interpretation.[11]

These four counter-points to the claim that later messianic interpretation of an Old Testament text is anachronistic have much to commend themselves.


This altogether-too-brief treatment of such an immense topic—Old Testament messianism—has at least broached the subject by covering three points. First, we offered an overview of the traditional view of the role of messianism in the Old Testament. Second, then we noted how the New Testament relates Jesus to Old Testament messianic prophecies. Third, we provided a four-fold defense of the traditional reading of messianism in the Old Testament and in Second Temple Judaism. This much debated topic shows no signs of abating in the future, nor should it given its enormous significance.

[1] For this discussion see, “Messiah,” in Danny Hays, Scott Duvall, and C. Marvin Pate, Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 280– 82; now updated as An A to Z Guide to Biblical Prophecy and End Times (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 280–82.

[2] See ibid., 16–17.

[3] These articles are found in J. O’Higgins’, Anthony Collins: The Man and His Works, International Archives of History of Ideas 35 (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1970), 155.

[4] Sigmund Mowinckel, He That Cometh (Nashville: Abingdon, 1954).

[5] John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature, ABRL (New York: Doubleday, 1995) and Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

[6] J. A. Fitzmyer, The One Who Is to Come (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).

[7] Michael F. Bird, Are You the One Who Is to Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 47.

[8] The later Old Testament’s usage of earlier material is a point powerfully made by Michael A. Fishbane’s magisterial work, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985).

[9] Bird, Are You the One Who Is to Come?, 45.

[10] Ibid., 45.

[11] J. J. M. Roberts, “The Old Testament’s Contribution to Messianic Expectations,” in The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity, ed. J. H. Charlesworth (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 39–51.

This post is adapted from 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus by C. Marvin Pate. This title was released on April 27, 2015. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

Answers to critical questions regarding the study of the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith

The conclusions of the quest for the historical Jesus, which casts the majority of Christ’s life as a myth, are a stark contrast to the orthodox view of Christ as presented in the Bible. Pate demonstrates that a critical analysis of the gospel text along with historical and cultural methods of investigation actually point toward an orthodox view of Christ.

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About Author

C. Marvin Pate (PhD, Marquette University) is professor of biblical studies at Ouachita Baptist University. He is the author and editor of numerous works, including Four Views on the Book of Revelation; The Writings of John: A Survey of the Gospel, Epistles, and Apocalypse; Romans (Teach the Text Commentary Series); and From Plato to Jesus.

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