II.  Whence Comes Messianism?

            We should now adumbrate some of the origins and development of ideas about “the messiah.”  Inasmuch as David and other kings of Israel, the high priest and later all priests, and perhaps some prophets were anointed, the word is appropriately applied to them.  These characters and Cyrus do act as instruments of God’s rule and salvation.  However, some scholars would not include these people as objects of messianism since these people were not eschatological figures.  What cannot be denied is that these figures supply an important foundation for later “messianism.”

            During the exile, there seems to have been some hope for Davidic-line restoration.  It has been suggested that such hope waned over time.  In the early post-exilic community, hopes for the restoration of the Davidic monarchy were realized in Zerubbabel (see Zechariah 4.6-10).  Zerubbabel failed to live up to the high expectations of Zechariah and others.  With the king’s demise, some fervor for the house of David seems also to have been lost.  Moreover, with the ascension of a priestly leadership, focus on a Davidic sort of anointed king could not be sustained.  The twin messiahs we find in the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) and the priestly messiah we find in other texts most likely can be traced to this period.

            The Maccabean Revolt against the Hellenization program of the Seleucid Antiochus Epiphanes IV likely prompted a renewed nationalism that included hopes for a messiah.  The eschatology that developed through apocalypticism provided a suitable womb in which embryonic messianism could gestate.

 III.  Messiahs in Early Jewish Literature

            Having provided some general background on early Jewish messianism, we might present some specific descriptions of messiahs.  The reader is cautioned from the outset that there are different interpretations of the relevant passages and that there are different, sometimes-opposing descriptions of the messiah within a corpus, viz., DSS or Enoch, or even a (probably composite) document, e.g., 2 Baruch.

            The Psalms of Solomon presents the messiah as an idealized, future Davidic king who acts as sage and teacher.  Though PssSol calls the messiah a king, the text also affirms God, not the messiah, as the eternal king (perhaps in response to the Hasmoneans who labeled themselves kings).  This messiah will not conquer with the sword, but with his word, will condemn sinners, will inaugurate a new age, and establish a permanent kingdom of peace.

            Chapters 7 and 12 of 4 Ezra describe the messiah who seems human inasmuch as he is a descendent of David, yet superhuman inasmuch as he arises out of the sea.  (The Similitudes of Enoch also present a messiah who is a transcendent, heavenly figure.) Like the messiah of PssSol, he will not be a military leader.  This messiah dies before the eschaton:  he is revealed (7.28), inaugurates the messianic age, and dies (7.28-29), yet also executes final judgment.  While the messiah will condemn sinners (in one passage), judgment occurs after the messiah dies.  This messiah’s kingdom is finite; in fact, his time seems not to be the start of a new age, but is sandwiched between two ages.  He appears only after the eschatological city and land are disclosed.  The reader will note the many apparent contradictions in our review of the messiah in 4 Ezra.  I am more comfortable with suggesting that different views of the messiah were ultimately brought together—not too neatly—in this one document, than in trying to reconcile the differences.  Increasingly, scholars seem prepared to admit the problems such as this, rather than attempting to smooth them over.

In 2 Baruch, the messiah is primarily a warrior, the slayer of Israel’s enemies (see esp. 40, 72).  He is human.  In 2 Baruch 36-40, there is a finite messianic kingdom; in 73-74, the kingdom he ushers in is eschatological and eternal.

            We chance the dangers of generalizing from a literary corpus composed over at least two centuries by treating the DSS broadly here.  A majority of scholars seems to believe that the Scrolls most often and most clearly speak of two messiahs:  the messiah of Aaron (priestly) and of Israel (royal?).  Still, some texts may identify these two as one.  Neither appears to have an important job:  the advent of these figures will be a Heilsgeschichte marker.  The current age of evil, the time of the reign of Beliah, when Torah is not observed, will end with the coming of the twin messiahs.

            There are a few things that these messiahs actively do.  First, they join with the eschatological prophet in settling debates over Torah. Also, at the eschatological meal the messiahs will presided, with the messiah of Aaron outranking the messiah of Israel.

            We might pick up here the debate with Scholem.  Neither first-century Christianity nor “Judaism” was homogeneous, nor were their messianic ideas.  Jesus’ followers could not likely produce a checklist of the messiah’s characteristics so that they could identify Jesus as the christos.  Davidic (4 Ezra 12.32), non-Davidic, king, non-king, military, pacifist (4 Ezra 13.38), eternal, mortal, from Bethlehem, from hidden origins, judge, non-judge:  these diverse features describe the messiahs of pre-second-century CE Jewish texts, and they represent part of a range of messiahs.

Secondary Sources Cited

Charlesworth, James H., ed.  The Messiah.  Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity.  Minneapolis:  Fortress, 1992.

Crossan, John Dominic.  The Historical Jesus:  The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant Jew. San Francisco:  HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.

Klausner, Joseph.  The Messianic Idea of Israel.  London:  Allen & Unwin, 1956.

Neusner, Jacob, et al., eds.  Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Roberts, J. J. M.  “The Old Testament’s Contribution to Messianic Expectations.”  In The Messiah:  Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity, ed. James H. Charlesworth, 39-51.  Minneapolis:  Fortress, 1992.

Scholem, Gershom.  The Messianic Idea and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality.  New York:  Schocken, 1971.

Tabor, James D.  “The Signs of the Messiah:  4Q521:  Parallels between a New Dead Sea Scrolls Fragment and the Early New Testament Gospel.”  The Jewish Roman World of Jesus (1998)  Available online at http://www.uncc.edu/jdtabor/4q521.html

Before being hyperlinked and slightly edited, the above essay was 1/3 of my written doctoral examination in early Judaism under Dr. Robert Wright at Temple University on Wednesday, August 28, 1996.