The figure of the Messiah has been critical to both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism. Christians, by definition, are followers of the Messiah. In tracing the origin of this idea, though, we must draw a distinction between eschatological hopes of a glorious coming age, and the individual figure of the messiah, the Davidic king. In the familiar form of a specific human who would usher in the Last Times, the concept is only really defined during the second century BC. In the decades before Jesus’s birth, the idea was still a work in progress.
As in so much else, the Book of 1 Enoch marks the coming of a new religious sensibility. So familiar do the book’s themes look to us in retrospect – angels, Judgment, the Messiah, the Son of Man – that we easily fail to appreciate just how startling they were in the third and second centuries BC, and what a stark departure they mark from the familiar Old Testament.
The book contains various sections that originally circulated independently, but parts probably date to the third century BC. 1 Enoch includes a classic vision of the end times with a final Judgment, the reward of the blessed and the punishment of sinners. In the later section known as the Parables, the messianic Son of Man is central to these events (cc 37-71: see the collection of essays in Gabriele Boccaccini, ed., Enoch and the Messiah Son of Man, Eerdmans 2007). The image of a messianic king also appears in the Sibylline Oracles, in sections that may well date to the second century.
In the Bible itself, evidence for messianic beliefs comes from Daniel, in sections dating from the Maccabean wars of the 160s BC. In two passages in particular, 7.9-14 and 9.24-27, the book deploys language that has powerfully shaped Christian interpretations of Jesus, and of apocalyptic. We read here of the coming Son of Man, and also of an Anointed One, the prince, who will be “cut off.” This likely refers, though, to a historical individual, namely the High Priest Onias, killed in 171 BC, who was “anointed” by virtue of his priestly role. Obviously, though, the text lends itself to other interpretations.The richest sources for new ideas of the messiah come from the Dead Sea Scrolls, which have revolutionized our view of End Times debates in Jesus’s era. Because that material is so substantial, I will make it the subject of a separate post.
Taking these documents together, we can suggest that the vision of the individual messiah king dates from the Maccabean crisis, or at least received a massive boost from those events. The power of the Maccabeans (Hasmoneans) also affected the messianic idea in other ways, as that dynasty clearly represented a break from the Davidic line. Controversially, in 104 BC, the Hasmonean leader Aristoboulos took the kingship and the royal diadem. Enemies of the Hasmonaeans, and there were many, used Davidic loyalism to express their opposition, and stressed the need for a king-messiah of David’s line. That vision is expressed in the Psalms of Solomon, written c.60 BC.
That Davidic idea continued after the Roman occupation of the land, when it acquired truly subversive associations. Through the first century, the idea of the individual king had become commonplace. We see it in surviving texts like 4 Ezra, and in the many contemporary stories about messianic pretenders and claimants.
And that was the world of Jesus and his first followers.
There’s an excellent recent collection of essays on aspects of Jewish Messianism in David Hamidović, ed., Aux origines des messianismes Juifs (Leiden: Brill, 2013).