Multiple Messiahs

“Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Luke 7.20).

Fictional treatments of Jesus commonly show faithful Jews wondering whether he is in fact the Messiah, the One who is to come. The problem, though, is that any conscientious messianic candidate would probably have had to ask for the question to be expanded. Which One? Which Messiah do you mean?

I have written about the complex ideas about the Messiah as they developed rapidly during the second century BC. The Dead Sea Scrolls have revealed much about the sectarian Jewish thought world in this era, and as I wrote,

we see the role of multiple messiahs, as the title was applied both to living or recently dead individuals, and to eschatological figures. At least three figures in the Scrolls generally fit the messianic definition, including a Prophet, a Priest and a King. The Damascus Covenant, for instance, refers to the messiah(s) from Aaron and Israel. Arguably, these figures corresponded to such Old Testament celebrities as Moses (the prophet) and Elijah (the Priest). Broadly, the Scrolls offer a “diarchical” scheme, “dual messianism,” with two key figures, so that the messiah of Aaron is a priestly counterpart to this royal, Davidic messiah. Davidic titles are, though, more common. The Genesis Pesher (4Q252 5:1-4) includes the words, “until the Messiah of Righteousness comes, the Branch of David.”

Nor were these competing ideas necessarily held by disputing factions who differed over which was the real Messiah, the true anointed one. The text 1QS 9,11 (uniquely) speaks of Messiahs, plural: Judgment would last “until the coming of the prophet and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel.” Other texts assume the simultaneous appearance of royal and priestly messiahs, with the king (messiah of Israel) subordinate to the priest.

More recent scholars urge caution in understanding these messianic figures, who are not given as prominent a role in many texts as we might assume: Jewish thinkers of the time were not necessarily obsessed with messianic expectations. But the visions they did have were plural rather than singular.

That discussion obviously raises multiple issues about where that complex world-view emerged, and especially what became of it. In later times, both Jews and Christians knew only one Messiah.

As to source, much writing attributes the dual messiah idea to an interpretation of passages in Zechariah, a book about which I have been posting recently, and especially to chapter four. Zech 4.14, for instance portrays the king and high priest standing side by side, and them both being anointed ones. This linkage is doubly interesting (pardon the pun) in light of the heavy use of other portions of Zechariah by New Testament writers to formulate their picture of Jesus’s last days and his Passion.

I have been reading a good discussion of these questions by Jesper Høgenhaven, “The Book of Zechariah at Qumran,” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 27 (2013) 107-17. Høgenhaven shows how the Zechariah passages were indeed read at Qumran. However, he cites John J. Collins for the view that

there are in the Qumran material “remarkably few references to Zechariah or the early post-exilic situation”. In his view, the notion of two messianic figures in the scrolls is therefore more plausibly explained, not as a result of an ongoing interpretative process with Zechariah as proof-text, but rather as a reaction to the combination of royal and priestly authority by the Hasmonean rulers.

As I have observed in earlier posts, the Hasmonean dynasty ruled from the mid-second through mid-first century BC, combining in their person the kingship and the high priesthood. It was natural then for Jewish thinkers to imagine messiahs likewise fulfilling these roles, to challenge what many saw as a corrupt and arrogant dynasty. In seeking such alternatives, it was natural to turn to the precedent of Moses and Aaron. Perhaps the coming of Roman power in the mid first century BC simplified matters, and allowed the emergence of a single messianic figure to represent the Jewish people against outside occupiers. Hence, two became one.

To that extent, the “dual” theme was deeply inlaid in Jewish thought, without necessarily invoking any specific text or authority.

 

John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star (New York: Doubleday, 1995); Craig A. Evans, “Messiahs,” in: Lawrence H. Schiffman and James C. Vanderkam, eds., Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls I (Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 537-542.

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  • X.M.C.

    Where would John the Baptist fit into all this? He comes from a priestly line, like Elijah he’s a wild man of the desert, and on several occasions in the gospels, he’s explicitly identified with Elijah (Luke 1:17, Matt. 11:14). In John 1, John the Baptist is asked and denies in turn being the messiah, Elijah, and “the prophet”. So is there an expectation that the other roles might still be filled, but perhaps not by THE Messiah? (There is that hymn, though.)

    Also, I’ve never though about Elijah as a priestly figure. A fugitive in the desert just doesn’t seem to fit that bill.

  • philipjenkins

    Truly an excellent question, particularly in suggesting the range of images and expectations at the time. And of course followers of John continued for centuries afterwards, in the Mandaeans and other Jewish-Christian baptist sects.