Is Jesus the Messiah, according to the Qur’an?

You might think there is an easy answer to this question, as the Qur’an on multiple occasions describes Jesus as al-masīḥ (Q 3:45; 4:157; 4:171-172; 5:17; 5:72; 5:75; 9:30-31). Jews are chastised, indeed ‘cursed’, for rejecting and seeking to kill him (Q 2:87;4:157; 5:78).

But is al-masīḥ the same as ‘the Messiah’? The English word ‘Messiah’ derives from the Hebrew māshīaḥ, which means ‘anointed’. The Greek equivalent Christos gave birth to the English term ‘Christ’, hence ‘Jesus Christ’. Is this concept of ‘anointed’ what the Qur’an has in mind?

Neal Robinson (2020, 160) writes:

The Arabic lexicographers regarded al-Masīḥ as a nickname (laqab) and indicated a variety of possible interpretations. Most, however, were of the opinion that it was derived from the Arabic verb masaḥa which elsewhere in the Qur’an means ‘wipe’ or ‘stroke’, but which can also mean ‘anoint’. On this view, Jesus was called al-Masīḥ, because he laid hands on the sick or because he himself was anointed with God’s blessing or with oil like previous prophets. This last suggestion comes closest to the correct solution for there can be little doubt that al-Masīḥ is a loanword derived ultimately from the Hebrew Māshīaḥ, which originally meant ‘anointed’. In the Hebrew Bible it is used with reference to kings, priests, and prophets who were consecrated with anointing oil. By the first century however, it was in widespread use as the title of a future deliverer.

How would Jews have known to expect a Messiah? Because this is an idea that develops in the Old Testament, mostly (arguably entirely) beyond the first five books of the Torah (see below for verses). If the Qur’an is affirming the concept of a Messiah, the most natural conclusion is that it is affirming as prophetic those books that speak of the Messiah. The Qur’an would therefore be affirming more than just the first five books of the Old Testament (the Torah, the Pentateuch). The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in turn gives evidence that the Old Testament we possess today is virtually the same as that of the first century CE.

I consider this to be the most natural understanding, and it will be the basis of what follows. However, to try and Steelman the Muslim position, I can imagine another (although less likely) possibility, which is that although God did not speak through the prophets about the coming of a Messiah, he took note of their (false) prophecies, and decided to fulfil them nonetheless (as an act of grace, one might say). The question still arises, however, which is how would first-century Jews understand Jesus’ role as Messiah?

Who is the Messiah the Jews should have accepted?

The term ‘Messiah’ (māshīaḥ)

A passage doesn’t need to use the term ‘Messiah’ (māshīaḥ) to be considered a messianic prophecy. There are only a few verses that use the term to clearly refer to a coming individual (what we understand by the term ‘Messiah’), which we will discuss shortly.

As for non-messianic usages, the term is used in the Old Testament to describe individuals who are ‘anointed’ (i.e. oil is poured over them) to perform certain tasks, such as to be a prophet (1 Kings 19:16), priest (e.g. Leviticus 4:3), or king (e.g. 1 Samuel 12:2-3).

However, by the New Testament time period, Jews had generally begun expecting a Messiah to refer to an ‘anointed king’. Following the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C.E., and Roman interference from the second century B.C.E., it seems that many Jews were waiting for full sovereignty under a messianic king. However, we will discuss other potential aspects of the Messiah as well.

Individual future māshīaḥs

So when is the term ‘Messiah’ (māshīaḥ) actually used in the Old Testament to describe an individual, portrayed as being in the future? It could be argued that certain Psalms that mention God’s anointed king (e.g. Psalm 2:2; 132:17) are direct predictions of a future messianic figure. For such an interpretation in the Psalms see The Moody Handbook of Messianic Prophecy. I think it is debatable whether they are directly messianic, as opposed to typologically messianic (i.e. they provide ideal models of kingship, which only the Messiah can truly fulfil).

If we look for clear instances of ‘Messiah’ being applied directly to future individuals (or at least individuals portrayed as future; issues of dating are another discussion), then we have only a few instances. The term is applied to the gentile ruler Cyrus in Isaiah 45:1, through whom God will act to allow his people back from exile. The term is also used twice in Daniel 9:25-26:

25 Know therefore and understand: from the time that the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the time of an anointed prince [māshīaḥ], there shall be seven weeks; and for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with streets and moat, but in a troubled time. 26 After the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one [māshīaḥ] shall be cut off and shall have nothing, and the troops of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. (NRSV, here and for all Bible references, unless otherwise stated. Emphasis added)

There is a debate regarding how one translates and connects vv. 25 and 26, for which I refer the reader to the discussion by Michael L. Brown (2003) in Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Volume 3: Messianic prophecies, under the subheadings ‘4.20. Christian translations of Daniel 9:24–27 divide the seventy weeks incorrectly, and the dates have no relation to the times of Jesus.’ and ‘4.21. Daniel 9:24–27 speaks of two anointed ones.’

Some conservative Christian commentators think that the ‘most holy’ (qodesh qodashim) that is ‘anointed’ (li-mshōaḥ) in the previous verse (v. 24) refers to a ‘messiah’, an ‘anointed person’. The mainstream understanding, however, is that a holy object or place is being referred to here. I will not delve into this issue here.

Depending upon how one translates and connects vv. 25-26, there are either one or two anointed figures. We are not told much about the messiah in v. 25; perhaps the author expects the audience to understand certain features of this messiah from other biblical passages (see below). In v. 26, the messiah is said to be ‘cut off’ (yikkārēṯ), a Hebrew term that can refer to people being killed (e.g. Genesis 9:11; Obadiah 1:9). The term is often used to describe a lineage that will or will not come to an end (e.g. 2 Samuel 3:29). It is also used in a legal context, to describe the ‘cutting off’ of certain transgressors from the Israelite community (e.g. Leviticus 17:14); whether this refers to execution, banishment from the community, or judgement by God, I do not know.

Traditionally Christians have mostly understood Daniel 9:25-26 to refer to the ‘cutting of’ or ‘killing’ of Jesus by the Romans in 30 C.E., and then the destruction of Jerusalem in v. 26., carried out by the Romans in 70 CE. Note that Jesus himself (Matthew 24:15; Luke 21:20) links the destruction of Jerusalem and its desolation in 70 CE with Daniel 9:26-27; given that he repeatedly predicts his own death (to give just one example, Matthew 16:21), he could well be seeing himself as the ‘cut off messiah’.

This is especially so if one believes the prophetic timetable described in Daniel 9:24-27 fits the chronology between when ‘the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem’ until Jesus. Michael Brown (2003, ch. 4.20.) is right to highlight that we cannot be too dogmatic here, although he stresses that the broad picture of the death of an anointed one before the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. fits Jesus well. But as Gleason Archer (cited in Brown, ch. 4.20.) notes, if one counts the first sixty-nine weeks of years from the decree of Artaxerxes (457 B.C.E.), we come up to exactly 27 C.E., the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus could then be ‘cut off’ halfway through that final week. The reader should do his own investigation of this text, but one can hopefully see why Christians find it compelling.

For those interested in a non-evangelical perspective, Newsom & Breed (2014, p. 306) say ‘The anointed one who is cut off is almost certainly to be identified as the high priest Onias III’ in the second century B.C.E., as described in 2 Maccabees. John J. Collins & Collins (1993, 356) agree:

Modern critics generally recognize here a reference to the murder of the high priest Onias III, recorded in 2 Macc 4:23–28, in about 171 B.C.E. (see also Dan 11:22). Traditional Christian exegesis saw here a reference to the death of Christ. Rashi referred it to the death of Agrippa, Pseudo-Saadia to the end of the priestly line.[Footnote – ‘Jerome implies that Jews referred this passage to the death of the messiah, but this cannot be substantiated from Jewish sources; Braverman, Jerome’s Commentary on Daniel, 106–7. C. C. Torrey (“The Messiah Son of Ephraim,” JBL 66 [1947] 268–72) suggested that the figure in question was the Messiah ben-Ephraim.]

Bravermann (106) himself writes: ‘The Hebrew tradition cited by Jerome in his Commentary on Daniel 9:24-27 is the longest one in this book, and one of the longest in all his works. Unfortunately it can not be found, in toto, in extent rabbinic literature. Several parts of it, however, are quite well known, as will soon be demonstrated.’ Bravermann also points out that Jerome admits to providing a “paraphrase, in order to bring out the sense more clearly.’ It is not clear that Bravermann is quite as clear in totally rejecting Jerome’s tradition as Collins & Collins, even if he does advise caution for the reasons mentioned above.

To try and find some agreement, while evangelicals (agreeing with Jesus’ chronology), the Jewish scholar Rashi and mainstream scholars disagree about who Daniel 9:25-26 refers to, they all interpret yikkārēṯ to refer to the killing of an individual.

Messianic passages that don’t use the term ‘messiah’

As we have mentioned above, by the time of the New Testament, many Jews were expecting a coming Jewish king, the Messiah. There are passages that they would have seen as ‘messianic’, not because they use the term ‘Messiah’, but because they refer to a future (anointed) king. Here are a couple of examples:

23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken. (Ezekiel 34:23-24)

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” (Jeremiah 23:5-6)

For a discussion of these verses, see Greenberg, M. (2008, 759-760) and Lundbom, J. R. (2008, 172). Jeremiah 23:5 is explicitly identified as the Messiah in the Targum (Levey, 1974, 68).

Was Jesus a messianic king, according to the Qur’an?

Given that the Qur’an thinks Jesus was the Messiah, and given that the Messiah in Jesus’ day was generally understood to be a coming king, does Jesus actually fulfill this role?

Both Christians and Muslims must contend with the fact that the Jewish people as a whole, or at least the Jewish authorities, rejected Jesus, and attempted to have him put to death. Christians believe Jesus was crucified, resurrected, and raised to heaven. Muslims, based on the common interpretation of Q 4:157, typically believe Jesus was not crucified but was raised bodily to heaven. Neither Muslim nor Christian can affirm the typical Jewish messianic belief that the Messiah would come and immediately rule as king in a literal sense (for this typical belief, cf. b. Sanhedrin 98b-98a; for an exception, Bockmuehl, 1992, 168 claims that ‘Pesiqta deRab Kahana 5:8 speaks of the Messiah being hidden for a time after his first appearance’). Christians claim that Christ is spiritually ruling from heaven, and will literally return to rule over believing Jews and all mankind (whether this is in a ‘millenial’ kingdom, or in the heavenly state, is a debate for another day). Muslims also believe that Jesus will return at the end:

Narrated Abu Huraira:

Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said, “The Hour will not be established until the son of Mary (i.e. Jesus) descends amongst you as a just ruler, he will break the cross, kill the pigs, and abolish the Jizya tax. Money will be in abundance so that nobody will accept it (as charitable gifts). (Sahih al-Bukhari 2476. Text and translation from sunnah.com)

Perhaps this is, similar to Christian belief, the fulfilment of Jesus’ messianic role. Or perhaps Jesus was a potential Messiah, but that the Jews forfeited the privilege of messianic rule and the overthrow of Roman rule, because they rejected him (Q 4:157; 17:4-8). Q 17:8 holds out the prospect that the Jews could reenter God’s graces if they repent; perhaps this would include messianic rule?

A suffering Messiah

As we have mentioned, the Qur’an calls Jesus the Messiah, and expect him to be accepted as such by the Jews. This term in its historical context refers to a coming figure, expected on the basis of Old Testament passages. Unless we say that God humours Jewish expectations of a Messiah and fulfills them (and expects Jews to adhere to them), even though God did not promise them, then the Qur’an is implicitly validating Old Testament messianic prophecies.

But here is the problem. The description of the Messiah in the Old Testament is often incompatible with Muslim understandings of Jesus. If we look to the Old Testament for what it says about coming figure(s), then we must accept features about these prophecies that are incompatible with Islam. Otherwise, how were Jews at the time of Jesus supposed to know what prophecies to accept and what to reject?

We have already mentioned the ‘cut off anointed one’ of Daniel 9:26. We will discuss other Old Testament passages below, along with a snapshot of how Jews and Christians have interpreted them. But before we highlight those texts, we will discuss Jewish views that cannot easily be tied to a particular biblical passage.

Suffering messiah in the Dead Sea Scrolls community?

M. N. A. Bockmuehl (1992, 167) helpfully refers us to ‘J. Starcky’s remarks on the abuse of the priestly Messiah in 4QAhA: Revue Biblique 70 (1963) 492′. As this article is in French, we will not make use of it. But, to go to the source in question, in Fragment 9, Column 1 of 4QAhA (4Q541 (4QapocrLevib? ar) 4QApocryphon of Levi (?) ar) we read:

1 […] … […] the sons of his generation […] … […]
2 […] his [wi]sdom. And he will atone for all the children of his generation, and he will be sent to all the children of
3 his [people]. His word is like the word of the heavens, and his teaching, according to the will of God. His eternal sun will shine
4 and its fire will burn in all the ends of the earth; above the darkness it will shine. Then, darkness will vanish
5 [fr]om the earth, and gloom from the dry land. They will utter many words against him, and an abundance of
6 [lie]s; they will fabricate fables against him, and utter every kind of disparagement against him. His generation will be evil and changed
7 [and …] will be, and its position of deceit and of violence. [And] the people will go astray in his days and they will be bewildered (Garcı́a Martı́nez, F., & Tigchelaar, E. J. C. 1997–1998. Vol. 2 p. 1081. Logos edition. Emphasis added)

Whether this is a minor parallel to the idea of a rejected and suffering Messiah figure below, I will leave to the reader to decide.

Suffering messiah in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho?

Bockmuehl (1992, 168) also notes that ‘Interestingly, Trypho the Jew concedes in Dial. 89 and 90 (cf. 68) that the Messiah was to suffer according to the Scriptures—though not to be crucified.’ Supposedly in Dial. 89 Trypho (Donaldson & Coxe, eds., 1885, 244) says:

It is quite clear, indeed, that the Scriptures announce that Christ had to suffer; but we wish to learn if you can prove it to us whether it was by the suffering cursed in the law.” (Emphasis added)

We will consider Dial. 90 later on, as it seems to be alluding to Isaiah 53. I write that Trypho ‘Supposedly’ said these things, as it is debatable to what extent Justin is putting words in the mouth of Trypho, or to what extent he is recording genuine Jewish positions and arguments against Christianity.

Suffering messiah in the Babylonian Talmud?

Although the Babylonian Talmud is compiled centuries after Jesus, it nonetheless shows what Jews have at certain times thought about the Messiah. Bockmuehl (1992, 168) points out passages that speak of the suffering of the Messiah (the surrounding contexts clarify that the Messiah is being spoken of):

And R. Alexandri said, “The use of the words ‘for quick understanding’ indicates that he loaded him down with good deeds and suffering as a mill [which uses the same letters] is loaded down.” (b. Sanhedrin 93b, I.46, T. Neusner, J., ed., 2011, Vol. 16, 498. Emphasis added)

I. Rabbis said, “His name is ‘the leper of the school house,’ as it is written, ‘Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted’ (Is. 53:4).” (b. Sanhedrin 98b, I.108, I. Neusner, J., ed., 2011, Vol. 16, 528.)

A suffering Messiah in Daniel

We have discussed Daniel 9:25-26 above under the heading ‘Individual future māshīaḥs‘.

A suffering Messiah in Isaiah

13 See, my servant shall prosper;
    he shall be exalted and lifted up,
    and shall be very high.
14 Just as there were many who were astonished at him
    —so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
    and his form beyond that of mortals—
15 so he shall startle many nations;
    kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which had not been told them they shall see,
    and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
53:1 Who has believed what we have heard?
    And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
    and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
    a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities
    and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
    struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
    and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
    Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people.
They made his grave with the wicked
    and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
    and there was no deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
    he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
11     Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
    The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
    and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
    and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
    and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
    and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 52:13-53:12)

When first-century Jews read the scripture to find out more details about a predicted coming figure, one of the passages they turned to was this passage in Isaiah (Acts 8:26-40; 1 Peter 2:24-25). The passage (especially. v. 7) is probably alluded to by the Jewish figure Trypho (as portrayed by Justin Martyr):

“Bring us on, then,” said [Trypho], “by the Scriptures, that we may also be persuaded by you; for we know that He should suffer and be led as a sheep. But prove to us whether He must be crucified and die so disgracefully and so dishonourably by the death cursed in the law. For we cannot bring ourselves even to think of this.” (Donaldson & Coxe, eds., 1885, 244. Emphasis added)

As cautioned above (‘Suffering Messiah in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho?‘), it is not clear to what extent Trypho’s words reflect real Jewish positions, or whether Justin Martyr is being inaccurate in portraying his dialogue partner.

M. Bockmuehl (1992, 168) points out the following passage in the Talmud, discussing the Messiah, which cites Isaiah 53:4:

I. Rabbis said, “His name is ‘the leper of the school house,’ as it is written, ‘Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted’ (Is. 53:4).” (b. Sanhedrin 98b, I.108, I. Neusner, J., ed., 2011, Vol. 16, 528.)

This suffering Servant is no obscure figure within the Book of Isaiah; we have already learned about the enormous significance of God’s Servant (Isaiah 42:1-9; Isaiah 49:1-7). If this figure is not the Messiah, he is similar in stature, if not greater. It’s interesting that the Messiah of Zechariah 3:8 (see below) is also called ‘Servant’, perhaps tying him in with the figure of Isaiah 42, 49, and Isaiah 52:13 (Stallard, 2019, 1241).

Bockmuehl also points us to the (partial) application of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 to the Messiah in the Targum:

52:13: ‘Behold, my servant the messiah will prosper…

53:10: ‘And it was a pleasure before the LORD to refine and purify (דכא) the remnant of his people/to cleanse their soul from sin./They will gaze upon the kingdom of the messiah; they will increase sons and daughters; they will prolong days, and the servants of the law of the LORD will prosper in his pleasure. (Translation from Chilton, 1983, 91. Emphasis added)

As Chilton writes:

The first of these renderings requires no special comment, except to say that its position assures us that this servant song is to be read as a messianic passage, as the use of ‘messiah’ in the second rendering confirms. But the latter is obviously the more striking of the two readings, and it exhibits a feature which is characteristic of 52.13-53.12 in the Targum: ‘the exaltation of the Servant is applied to the messiah, but his sufferings fall in part upon Israel, in part upon the Gentiles.’ [C. R. North, ‘The Servant of the LORD (עבד יהוה)’ in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, (1962) 293]

It is not surprising that some first-century Christians (many of whom were Jews) applied these texts to the Messiah, especially when the texts fit the rejection of Jesus by the Jews (Isaiah 53:1-4), his sacrificial death (Mark 10:45; Matthew 26:26-28), death with the wicked and burial with the rich (Isaiah 53:8-9; cf. Mark 15:27; Luke 23:39-43; Mark 15:42-47), resurrection (Isaiah 53:8-12), and the news about him going out to the nations (Isaiah 52:15). Can Christians be blamed for seeing how close the fit between Isaiah’s description of the Servant, and Jesus? The redemptive suffering for the ‘many’ of v. 12 may have inspired Jesus’ own words in Mark 10:45: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

A suffering Messiah in Zechariah

We can also find a suffering figure in Zechariah:

10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. 11 On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadad-rimmon in the plain of Megiddo. 12 The land shall mourn, each family by itself: the family of the house of David by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Nathan by itself, and their wives by themselves; 13 the family of the house of Levi by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the Shimeites by itself, and their wives by themselves; 14 and all the families that are left, each by itself, and their wives by themselves. 13 “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness. … “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who stands next to me,” declares the Lord of hosts. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered; I will turn my hand against the little ones. (Zechariah 12:10-13:1; 13:7. ESV. Emphasis added)

For Muslims who wish to go to the words of Jesus, it should be noted that Jesus himself applies Zechariah 13:7 to himself:

31 Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ (Matthew 26:31. NRSV)

It should also be noted that Zechariah 12-13 comes shortly after Zechariah 9:9, which describes the coming Messianic king, and which is applied to Jesus (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11). Zechariah 9:9 is identified as the Messiah by R. Joseph in the Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 99A, I.112B, and Bockmuehl (1992, 168) points us to ‘the Messianic use of Zc. 9:9 in b.Ber. 56b, Pirqe deRabbi Eliezer 31 and Yalkut Shimʿoni 575 (435d)’.

Indeed, a Baraita in the Talmud (b. Sukka. 52a, II.3) even records the possibility that the pierced and mourned-for figure in Zechariah 12 is the Messiah ben Joseph:

A. [With regard to “And the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart” (Zech. 12:12),] What was the reason for the mourning [to which reference is made in Zechariah’s statement]?

              B.    R. Dosa and rabbis differed on this matter.

              C.    One said, “It is on account of the Messiah, the son of Joseph, who was killed.”

              D.    And the other said, “It is on account of the evil inclination, which was killed.”

              E.    Now in the view of him who said, “It is on account of the Messiah, the son of Joseph, who was killed,” we can make sense of the following verse of Scripture: “And they shall look on me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for his only son” (Zech. 12:10) (Neusner, J., 2011, Vol. 5b, pp. 213-214. Discovered via Hengel & Bailey, 2004, 77)

According to Stuart (2019, 1286):

The early rabbis saw a reference to Messiah ben Joseph who suffers and dies in Zch 12:10[Footnote – ‘For example, the Babylonian Talmud (Succah 52a). The Targumic Tosefta on Zch 12:10 differs from the Messiah ben Joseph tradition in that it features a Messiah bar Ephraim, but any son of Ephraim is also a son of Joseph. See also the comment on p. 469 in the Artscroll Stone Edition of the Teri Asar.’].

Although Jewish scholars such as Isaac of Troki and Kimchi argued for a reference to slain Israelites rather than a slain Messiah, some of the greatest rabbis like Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Abarvanel, and Alshech preferred a reference to Messiah ben Joseph.[Footnote – ‘Rashi said, “The words, ‘The land shall mourn,’ are found in the prophecy of Zechariah, and he prophesies of the future, that they shall mourn on account of Messiah, the son of Joseph, who shall be slain in the war of Gog and Magog” (A. M’Caul, Rabbi David Kimchi’s Commentary upon the Prophecies of Zechariah, 161). Ibn Ezra said, “All the heathen shall look to me to see what I shall do to those who pierced Messiah, son of Joseph” (Ibn Ezra, quoted in ibid., 158). Abarvanel said, “It is more correct to interpret this passage of Messiah, the son of Joseph, as our rabbis of blessed memory have interpreted in the treatise Succah, for he shall be a mighty man of valour, of the tribe of Joseph, and shall, at first, be captain of the Lord’s host in that war, but in that war shall die” (Abarvanel, quoted in ibid., 158–59). Alshech said, “I will yet do a third thing, and that is, that ‘they shall look unto me,’ for they shall lift up their eyes unto me in perfect repentance, when they see him whom they pierced, that is, Messiah, the Son of Joseph; for our Rabbis, of blessed memory, have said that he will take upon himself all the guilt of Israel, and shall then be slain in the war to make atonement in such manner that it shall be accounted as if Israel had pierced him, for on account of their sin he has died; and, therefore, in order that it may be reckoned to them as perfect atonement, they will repent and look to the blessed One, saying that there is none beside him to forgive those that mourn on account of him who died for their sin: this is the meaning of ‘They shall look upon me’ ” (Alshech quoted in Baron, The Visions and Prophecies of Zechariah, 442).] (Split into two paragraphs to facilitate reading)

Note the chronological connection in the passage; ‘On that day’ (13:1) when they repent and ‘look on me, on him whom they have pierced’, ‘there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness…’ Perhaps this is due purely to repentance; but might this forgiveness flow as a result of the one who was ‘pierced’? This might especially be so when we combine this passage with Isaiah 52-53, where such a link between suffering and forgiveness is explicitly made. The forgiveness of the people on a particular day may also be linked to the Messiah’s priestly role in forgiveness, for which see the discussion of Zechariah 3:9 below.

A priestly Messiah

The suffering of the Messiah can perhaps be connected with his role as priest. In ancient Judaism the priests had the role of offering animal sacrifices to God for the forgiveness of sins; atonement was a priestly role. The conceptual connection between priestly animal sacrifice and the suffering of the Messiah can be seen in Isaiah 53:6-7:

All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.

It was not only early Christians who recognised the priestly role of the Messiah. Jews at Qumran may have believed in a priestly heavenly figure (11QMelch; cf. Fitzmyer, J. A., 2000, 38. See below), and believed in a priestly Messiah of Aaron (1QS 8:5-9, 9:5-7, 9:11; cf. ibid, 82-83). While our scriptural reasoning below may be different from that of Qumran (at least the Dead Sea Scroll passages I have seen appeal to quite different texts), the point remains that the concept of a Messiah was broader than solely that of a king.

A priestly messiah in Zechariah

Again we turn to Zechariah to find out more about the Messiah, specifically his priestly role:

Now listen, Joshua, high priest, you and your colleagues who sit before you! For they are an omen of things to come: I am going to bring my servant the Branch. For on the stone that I have set before Joshua, on a single stone with seven facets, I will engrave its inscription, says the Lord of hosts, and I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day. (Zechariah 3:8-9. Emphasis added)

Note that this passage deals not with a king as a type of the Messiah, but with Joshua the high priest. He and his colleagues are said to be ‘an omen of things to come: I am going to bring my servant the Branch.’ The language of ‘Branch’ (tzemaḥ) is identical to the clearly Davidic Messianic passage of Jeremiah 23:5, 33:15, and is similar to the horticultural kingship (and potentially Messianic) language of Isaiah 11:1. Chilton (1983, 11) says that ‘[t]he initial messianic reading in the Zechariah Targum (3.8) is straightforward’.

Note that in the discussion about the Messiah in Zechariah 3:8-9 there is talk of removing guilt ‘in a single day’; might this be the day of repentance over the one pierced in Zechariah 12-13 (see above), or perhaps the day when the Messiah was himself pierced?

Later on in Zechariah 6:9-14 we read:

The word of the Lord came to me: 10 Collect silver and gold from the exiles—from Heldai, Tobijah, and Jedaiah—who have arrived from Babylon; and go the same day to the house of Josiah son of Zephaniah. 11 Take the silver and gold and make a crown, and set it on the head of the high priest Joshua son of Jehozadak; 12 say to him: Thus says the Lord of hosts: Here is a man whose name is Branch: for he shall branch out in his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord. 13 It is he that shall build the temple of the Lord; he shall bear royal honor, and shall sit upon his throne and rule. There shall be a priest by his throne, with peaceful understanding between the two of them. 14 And the crown shall be in the care of Heldai, Tobijah, Jedaiah, and Josiah son of Zephaniah, as a memorial in the temple of the Lord. (NRSV. Emphasis added)

The same word ‘Branch’ is used in v. 12, as was used in 3:8. In 3:8 it was clarified that Joshua himself was not the branch, but that he and his colleagues were an ‘omen’ of his coming. We may presume that a similar enactment is here taking place, as also suggested by the crown being a ‘memorial’ in the temple (i.e. the crown is not permanently given to Joshua as king; it is a reminder of the coming branch). The Jewish Study Bible (2004, 1256) provides a helpful summary of Jewish approaches to this passage:

Ibn Ezra, Radak, Rashi, and others consider Zerubbabel to be the Branch, and the person for whom the other crown was meant. The Targum, however, reflects a different understanding: “And you shall take silver and gold and make a large crown and set it upon the head of Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. And you shall speak to him, saying, ‘Thus speaks the LORD of hosts, saying, behold, the man whose name is Anointed will be revealed and he shall be raised up, and shall build the temple of the LORD.’ ” (Emphasis added)

We would concur with the Targum that the Branch is indeed the Messiah.

So what can we learn about the Messiah from this passage? This passage stresses the harmony between royal rule and priestly service (vv. 12-13) (for more, see Brown, 2019). Christians see the culmination of this in the Branch himself, who was both king and priest, as in Psalm 110.

A priestly messiah in Psalm 110

Of David. A Psalm.

The Lord says to my lord,
    “Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies your footstool.”

The Lord sends out from Zion
    your mighty scepter.
    Rule in the midst of your foes.
Your people will offer themselves willingly
    on the day you lead your forces
    on the holy mountains.
From the womb of the morning,
    like dew, your youth will come to you.
The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind,
    “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

The Lord is at your right hand;
    he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath.
He will execute judgment among the nations,
    filling them with corpses;
he will shatter heads
    over the wide earth.
He will drink from the stream by the path;
    therefore he will lift up his head. (Emphasis added)

While we have typically refrained from appealing to the Psalms, due to ambiguity over the time period they refer to, this passage is discussed by Jesus himself (v. 1) as describing the Messiah (Mark 12:35-37). According to Rydelnik (2019, 687) ‘both Jewish and Christian sources have long held that Ps 110 is about the Messiah.’ In a footnote he writes:

For a discussion of the messianic interpretation of Psalm 110 in Jewish and Christian sources, see Hay, Glory at the Right Hand, 19–51. Although some Jewish sources identify Abraham as the subject of Ps 110, Midr. Tehillim 18:29 provides the clearest messianic interpretation: “R. Yudan said in the name of R. Hama: In the time to come when the Holy One, blessed be He, seats the Lord Messiah at His right hand, as is said The Lord saith unto my lord: ‘Sit thou at My right hand’ and seats Abraham at His left, Abraham’s face will pale, and he will say to the Lord: ‘My son’s son sits at the right, and I at the left!’ ” According to these sages, Abraham will be shocked at his descendant’s greater glory.

For our purposes, we simply note that the kingly figure of vv. 1-2 (a common theme in the Psalms; e.g. cf. Psalm 2) is said to be a priest in v. 4.

A divine Messiah?

The Jews at the Dead Sea Scrolls community may have believed in an eschatological priestly heavenly figure (11QMelch; cf. Fitzmyer, J. A., 2000, 38). In 11QMelch we read:

And the d[ay of aton]ement is the e[nd of] the tenth [ju]bilee
8 in which atonement shall be made for all the sons of [light and] for the men [of] the lot of Mel[chi]zedek. […] … over [the]m … […] accor[ding to] a[ll] their [wor]ks, for
9 it is the time for the «year of grace» of Melchizedek, and of [his] arm[ies, the nat]ion of the holy ones of God, of the rule of judgment, as is written
10 about him in the songs of David, who said: Ps 82:1 «Elohim will [st]and in the assem[bly of God,] in the midst of the gods he judges». And about him he sai[d: Ps 7:8–9 «And] above [it,]
11 to the heights, return: God will judge the peoples». (Garcı́a Martı́nez, F., & Tigchelaar, E. J. C. 1997–1998. Vol. 2, p. 1207. Emphasis added)

Note the application of Elohim (the standard word for ‘God’) in Psalm 82:1 to Melchizedek. Is Melchizedek literally being called divine? Perhaps, perhaps not. But at the least, he seems to be portrayed as a heavenly being (the second Elohim in v. 1 can be understood, and probably is here in 11QMelch, as a reference to the heavenly council of spiritual beings).

Melchizedek could be considered a messianic figure, with our definition laid out earlier, due to his role in ‘the tenth or last jubilee year, which is given an eschatological interpretation as the year when Melchizedek will bring about release for the sons of light and the men of his lot by expiating their sins.’ (Fitzmyer, 2000, 38).

There are a number of passages in the Old Testament that either naturally suggest, or hint, that the Messiah is divine, which we will now consider.

A divine Messiah in Isaiah 9:6

For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6. NRSV. Emphasis added)

There is debate about whether this is a future messianic figure (the grammar would then be the ‘prophetic perfect’), or whether this is an idealised description of a past Israelite king (e.g. Hezekiah). According to Hindson (2019, 835):

Victor Buksbazen observes that Jewish commentators did not dispute the messianic nature of this prophecy until recent times. He states, “The ancient (first century BC) Aramaic Targum Jonathan paraphrases this passage:

And there was called His name from of old, Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, He who lives forever, the Messiah in whose days peace shall increase. (Emphasis added)

Notice the description in Isaiah 9:6 of this figure as El Gibbor, most naturally translated as Mighty God (as it clearly is in Isaiah 10:21). The other attributes naturally fit God, especially ‘Everlasting Father’.

A divine messiah in Daniel 7:13-14

13 As I watched in the night visions,

I saw one like a human being
    coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
    and was presented before him.
14 To him was given dominion
    and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
    should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
    that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
    that shall never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14. NRSV. Emphasis added)

According to Tanner (2019, 1127) ‘even Jewish expositors—although they reject the identification with Jesus—have historically understood this as a reference to the Messiah’. He later writes: ‘Casey [1979, Son of man: the interpretation and influence of Daniel 7] has found ten references to Dan 7:13–14 in this [rabbinical] literature, at least four of which interpret this figure as Messiah: b. Sanh. 98a; Num. Rab. 13.14; ʾAggadat Bĕrʾēšît 14:3; 23:1; and Midr. Haggadol Gen. 49:10.’

To focus on one example, the Son of Man riding on the clouds (v. 13) is applied to the Messiah by R. Joshua b. Levi in Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 98a, I. 100, E-F, if Israel is worthy:

              E.    “ ‘It is written, “And behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of   heaven” (Dan. 7:13, and it is written, “Behold your king comes to you … lowly and riding upon an ass” (Zech. 9:7). [What is the meaning of the contrast?]

               F.    “ ‘If [the Israelites] have merit, it will be “with the clouds of heaven” (Dan. 7:13), and if they do not have merit, it will be “lowly and riding upon an ass” (Zech. 9:7).’ ” (Neusner, J., 2011, Vol. 16, 524-525. Emphasis added)

Jesus explicitly claimed to be this ‘one like a human being’/’Son of Man’ (bar enash) figure (Mark 14:62), and was met with the charge of blasphemy (Mark 14:63-64). This figure has eternal kingship, and is given the glory and service of all the nations. The Aramaic word here palach (‘serve’) is used to describe service or worship given to a god in Daniel 3:28. Furthermore, this figure is described as ‘coming with the clouds of heaven’. It is worth quoting Collins & Collins (1993, 290) at length:

Central to the quest for a mythological background for the “one like a son of man” is the observation that the entourage of clouds normally denotes divine status in ancient Israel. Thus Emerton wrote, “The act of coming with clouds suggests a theophany of Yahwe himself. If Dan. vii. 13* does not refer to a divine being, then it is the only exception out of about seventy passages in the O.T.” We see in Deut 33:26* that Yahweh “rides the heavens to your help, the clouds in his majesty.” In Ps 104:3* it is he who “makest the clouds thy chariot, who ridest on the wings of the wind,” and in Ps 68:5* he is hailed as “rider on the clouds.”

A divine messiah in Micah 5:2?

Elsewhere we read:

But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will come forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.
His times of coming forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity.” (Micah 5:2. NASB. Emphasis added)

This speaks of a coming king, coming from Bethlehem, the hometown of King David (1 Samuel 16). The Jewish Study Bible (2004, 1213) says that ‘[t]raditional Jewish interpretations of this v. tend to focus on comparisons between the birth pangs of a woman and the hardship of Israel prior to the coming of the Messiah.’ They, therefore, seem to have understood it as messianic. Targum Jonathan does indeed explicitly refer to ‘the Messiah, [who will] exercise dominion over Israel, he whose name was mentioned from before, from the days of creation.’ (Levey, 1974, 93).

This verse could be understood quite literally as saying that the Messiah has eternal origins (‘From the days of eternity’, mi-ymey ʿolam). However mi-ymey ʿolam could be understood as referring to long ago, ‘ancient days’ (NRSV), ‘ancient times’ (NIV), rather than eternity. Perhaps the verse means that he has been prophesied long ago, rather than that he existed long ago.

A divine messiah in Zechariah 12:10?

10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. (Zechariah 12:10. ESV. Emphasis added)

We have discussed above the significance of this verse in speaking of a ‘pierced’ figure, and that some Jewish exegetes have considered this to refer to a messiah.

What is worth pointing out here is that the individual pierced is the LORD himself (‘they look on me’)! Some scholars have wished to adopt the reading ‘they look on him’; a relatively easy change in Hebrew, but one which is textually debatable. As Stuart (2019, 1287-88) writes:

The reading of all the old versions such as the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek versions of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, the Aramaic Targums, Syriac Peshitta, Old Latin Bible, and the Latin Vulgate all support the integrity of “to me.” Generally, if the versions agree on a reading, then that reading is most likely original (i.e., what Zechariah wrote). In fairness, “to him” is found in a number of manuscripts—but merely as a marginal note or a marginal note that eventually invaded the actual text itself.

When we apply the textual critical principles that the ‘harder’ reading is to be preferred, ‘to me’ is theologically harder and more likely authentic, and ‘to him’ an easier reading that could have been made to avoid this theological problem of God being pierced. We cannot be too dogmatic; a scribal accident (waw to yod) could easily have changed ‘pierced him’ to ‘pierced me’, and John 19:37 (quoting this verse) does say ‘him’ (though this may have been to fit the context; cf. Stuart, 2019, 1288). But the reading ‘to me’ is a plausible one, and should be considered as plausible in light of the other passages we are considering that hint at the divinity of the Messiah.

Some scholars point out a perceived inconsistency in the shift from God (‘me’) being pierced to ‘him’; but if we allow the New Testament revelation of the Son as both identifiable with, but also distinct, from God the Father, this makes sense. This passage could also fit with the ambiguity in Old Testament texts concerning the Angel of the LORD, which is in some way distinct from the LORD, but in some way identifiable with him (see here; for a contrary view, see here). This is also the case in Malachi 3, for which see below.

Divine messiah in Malachi 3:1-2?

3 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? (Malachi 3:1-2. NRSV)

We are told that the Lord ‘will suddenly come to his temple’. Who is the ‘messenger to prepare the way before’ the Lord? According to the Gospels, it was John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus (Mark 1:1-3).

It has been difficult to find traditional Jewish sources discussing this verse. I can do no better than to cite the Jewish Study Bible (2004, 1273):

Much of the discussion on the “messianic” tone of Malachi centers on 3:23 and this v. The identity of the messenger in 3:1 has been highly debated. Is My messenger (Heb “malakhi”) Malachi? Or is there at least a pun on the name of the prophet? Is the messenger the angel of the covenant, a zealous, powerful enforcer of the covenant who is like a smelter’s fire and like fuller’s lye (i.e., a purifying, caustic treatment)? Is he Elijah (see v. 23)? Or is Elijah the angel of the covenant? Does the text indicate an expectation of a priestly Messiah? There is a very long history of interpretation on this v., with multiple meanings already in antiquity

Lest Malachi 3 is thought to refer to the Spirit of God coming to be present in the temple, there are two rebuttals: (1) the presence of God’s Spirit in the temple is a blessing, whereas the coming of the Lord will be a challenge to his complaining people (this is the theme of Malachi, including in the next verse), and (2) the coming of the Lord is clarified as the coming of ‘[t]he messenger of the covenant’. The latter is most likely understood as a reference to the Angel of the LORD in the Old Testament, who both seems to be identified as God, but also distinguished from God (see here; Smith, 1984, 328; for a contrary view, see here).

The Messiah and the Gentiles

Finally, Muslims (though not necessarily the Qur’an) like to quote Matthew 15:24, where Jesus says: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (NRSV). This neglects other passages in Matthew that suggest this may have been a time-limited restriction, and that the good news would in fact go out to the gentiles after Jesus’ resurrection (Matthew 2:1-12; 8:5-13; 28:20). This also neglects the Old Testament ideal of Davidic kingship as being for all the world (e.g. Psalm 2). It also neglects what is said about the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 49:

And now the Lord says,
    who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
    and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
    and my God has become my strength—
he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (NRSV. Emphasis added)

Conclusion: is Jesus the Messiah or not?

To summarise, the Qur’an affirms that Jesus is the Messiah, and considers the Jews hard-hearted for having rejected him. Yet when we actually turn to messianic passages in the Old Testament, we find a portrayal of the Messiah that Muslims and/or the Qur’an are reticent to accept: suffering, priestly, divine, and with significance for the gentiles. As for his kingly function, perhaps a Muslim could apply this to Jesus’ second coming.

If our Muslim friends wish to object that the passages above are not in fact messianic prophecies (despite their describing coming individuals of great significance), they must explain how Jews (and early Christians) were meant to know which passages to accept or reject? Can Christians be blamed for seeing these prophecies as confirming their understanding of Jesus, when many of these passages have been accepted as messianic by non-Christian Jews?

Bibliography

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Bockmuehl, Markus N. A. “A ‘Slain Messiah’ in 4q Serekh Milḥamah (4q285)?”. Tyndale Bulletin 43 (1992): 155-69.

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Brown, M. L. (2019). Zechariah 6:9–15: The Royal Priesthood of Messiah. In M. Rydelnik & E. Blum (Eds.), The Moody Handbook of Messianic Prophecy: Studies and Expositions of the Messiah in the Old Testament (Logos edition). Moody Publishers.

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1 thought on “Is Jesus the Messiah, according to the Qur’an?

  1. Ahmed Ismail

    You have hit on a lot of good points but you are still on the periphery looking in and not hiting the bullseye! Jesus (pbh) is the Islamic Messiah and for sure he, in my mind at least, is that Messiah talked about by our Prophet Muhammad (pbh)!
    Was he crucified on the wooden cross and died? NO! Was he crucified in the flesh and rose from the dead? Yes! If you can solve that mystery, you will be more than halfway there! Who would state such a denial of this crucifixion on the cross? The Psalms, Gospel of Luke, Gospel of John, Paul, the Quran and of course Jesus (pbh) himself.
    I don’t blame you if your are still not getting it! The thing that is important is what are you doing with the knowledge you do (think that you) get! For example and this may sound strange but ‘Is it true that what is found in the Gospel of John that John the Baptist (pbh) said; ‘Behold the Lamb of GOD who takes away the sin of the world’ would be found in the Quran? Strange as it may seem, when you study the records as they were meant to be studied, you will find that to be true. Now that is totaly amazing and would seem altogether impossible! Granted that!
    However, just because you don’t see it, does not mean that it is not true? I don’t understand calculus at all, for example. Will I deny that calculus exists? No!
    In order to understand the above mystery, you need to understand the old saying that a rose by any other name smells just as sweet! Failure to recognize this will lead to a failure to understand and that is where you can see the problem that Paul and the author of Hebrews had when they thought that they could feed some of the people ‘meat’ but found out that they couldn’t really understand and had to be kept on a ‘milk’ diet!
    My three books explain it and believe me, it takes more than one book to get it across but the concepts are repeated in the Bible, the Quran and hadith material and if you look at them as alien objects they will become alien to you!
    The best thing for a ‘believer’ to do is to take the words of the ‘headman’ or prophet as in this case to be ironclad and forego the ‘anchorites’ and thier thoughts. As it is applied in the Quran ‘they take their priest and anchorites’ etc. and explained in the hadith with ibn Hatim? being a newly converted Muslim after returning from Syria where he ran away. Then why smile at this if your a Muslim? Why? Would the Muslim convieniently forget the hadith that the Prophet (pbh) stated that ‘you will follow them into the lizzards hole just like them and one of his Companions asked if that applied to doing the same actions as the Jews and Christians and the Prophet (pbh) said: “who else”! So, people are people and there is no need to get into a repulsive discussion of whose car is newer or whose house is bigger? Or as one movie put it: ‘GOD doesn’t like idiots’! And that goes (humouresly) for Jewish, Christian or Muslim ones!!!

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