Messiahs by the Sackful

Messiahs by the Sackful March 29, 2015

Some timely thoughts for Holy Week!

In Jesus Christ Superstar, a mocking Pilate complains that “You Jews produce messiahs by the sackful!” Most popular histories take it for granted that Jewish thought was dominated by the eager expectation of a messiah, who would be an individual man, and the main debate concerned the nature of that role. Would he be a mighty conqueror, a new David? In his weakness and apparent worldly failure, Jesus, we are told, represented a truly odd candidate for messiahship.

In fact, the story is much more complex than this account would suggest. Yes, candidates for messiahship were much in evidence during and after Jesus’s time, culminating in the nationalist leader Simon Bar-Kokhba in the 130s AD. But we should stress how new this focus was historically. As in so much else, the two or three centuries before Jesus’s time witnessed rapid and radical development in the concept of the messiah, an idea far more nuanced than our modern stereotype would suggest.

By way of definition, the word “messiah” stems from the Hebrew “anointed,” which in Greek is rendered christos. In the Jewish context, it implies a human figure who would appear to usher in the end of the present world order to bring in a new era of holiness, justice, and divine rule. Commonly, this person is portrayed as a descendant of David’s line. G.S. Oegema usefully defines “messiah” as “a priestly, royal or otherwise characterized figure, who will play a liberating role at the end of time.”

In terms of chronology, some Old Testament passages in particular are quoted as messianic prophecies. Hebrew prophets were thrilled by the decision of the Persian king Cyrus to allow the Jews to return from Babylon in the 530s, and they lauded him in verses that would later be directly applied to the messiah, and specifically to Jesus. For great prophets like deutero-Isaiah, Cyrus’s actions proved the universal nature of God’s rule, and his ability to use outside peoples and individuals to exercise his will.

In messianic terms, though, we have to be careful in reading such texts, many of which refer to the Jewish people collectively, rather than to a specific individual. Christians tend to read such texts retroactively, seeking prophecies that can be applied to Jesus, while both Jews and Christians assimilate prophecies of coming times of peace and prosperity to a general messianic scheme. Read through the eyes of faith, these can be understood to predict a coming individual messiah on the familiar pattern. Apart from deutero-Isaiah, appropriate texts are easily found in Psalms, Zechariah, and Ezekiel. That is quite different, though, from believing that the writers of particular texts intended such End Times readings.

The Old Testament never uses the word messiah in this sense of a future individual, with the debatable exception of the book of Daniel. (Cyrus himself earns the title in Isaiah 45.1). If we imagine an encounter with a Jewish thinker of c.400 BC, it would not have been easy to convey later meanings of the messianic idea. The Jewish Virtual Library aptly remarks that “One can, therefore, only speak of the biblical pre-history of messianism.”

In the Protestant Old Testament, which closely follows the structure of the Hebrew Bible, the list of books included runs up to around 400 BC, leaving a long historical gap until the opening of the New Testament. During those intervening years, though, ideas about messiahship were developing rapidly. This reflected the powerful interest in apocalyptic and End-Times speculation during the second century BC, which continued with varying degrees of fascination into Jesus’s time.

Possibly, as I will suggest, we also see Persian influences.

It is important to distinguish between eschatological and messianic beliefs. Plenty of Second Temple books look to the End Times as a glorious age of restoration and salvation, a time when Diaspora exiles would return home and all nations would acknowledge Israel’s God. We see this hope, for instance, in Tobit and Sirach or Ecclesiasticus, both from the late third or early second centuries BCE. In neither case, though, is this expectation linked to a specific individual man. Nor do we find this in many of the pseudepigrapha from this period, such as the Assumption of Moses.

If we are looking for a “classic” image of the messiah as a mighty charismatic king who brings in the End Times, then it is chiefly during the second century that such ideas proliferate.

More on that in my next post.


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