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.
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 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.
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
James H., ed. The Messiah. Developments
in Earliest Judaism and Christianity. Minneapolis:
Crossan, John Dominic. The
Historical Jesus: The Life of a
Mediterranean Peasant Jew. San Francisco:
Joseph. The Messianic Idea of Israel. London:
Allen & Unwin, 1956.
Jacob, et al., eds. Judaisms
and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
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.
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.