Messiah (mâšîah, "the anointed one"): Jewish religious concept, a future savior who will, in some sense, come to restore Israel. Both the nature of the Messiah and the restoration were matters of debate.
After Cyrus the Great had taken Babylon (in 539 BCE), the Jewish elite returned from exile and during the fifth century, the Jews rebuilt the Temple at Jerusalem. They were loyal subjects of the Achaemenid Empire.
However, this peace was not to last for ever. In 337, a Greek-Macedonian army led by king Philip attacked the Persians, and his son Alexander the Great, who inherited the war, brought down the Achaemenid Empire. Judah now became part of the Greek world. To be more precise: after the death of the great conqueror, it became part of the kingdom that one of Alexander's generals, Ptolemy I Soter, had created for himself in Egypt and the Levant. His descendants, the Ptolemies, continued to rule Egypt, but had to defend the Jewish territories against attacks from another Greek kingdom in the old Achaemenid empire: the Seleucid kingdom, which occupied modern Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. In 200, the Seleucids became the new masters of Jerusalem and Judah.
Under the Ptolemaean and Seleucid kings, Judah was exposed to the Greek culture, which was polytheistic and therefore more foreign than the Persian civilization had been. Nonetheless, several cities were rebuilt in Greek fashion and many Jews accepted the Greek way of life. For example, a high-priest named Jesus wanted to be called Jason. He also built a gymnasium and an ephebeion in Jerusalem, Greek institutions that made more than one pious Jew feel uneasy. Even worse, Jewish athletes took part in the Tyrian games, which were organized to honor the god Melqart-Heracles.
All this created great disquiet among the orthodox Jews, who were called Hasidim, "the pious ones". In 168, serious riots broke out when the Jews heard that the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r.175-164) had died during a campaign in Egypt. At the same time, the high-priest Jason and his rival Menelaus started a civil war. Antiochus king sent a peace-enforcing army, which took Jerusalem and built a military settlement. Because the soldiers needed a sanctuary to perform their religious duties, the Jerusalem temple was rededicated to the Olympian Zeus (December 168).
This was more than the Jews could stomach, but the king became even harder in his policy. He was probably influenced by Menelaus, who saw an opportunity to modernize his country and show his loyalty to the king. According to the books of the Maccabees, Antiochus forbade the Jewish religion. The usual offerings were forbidden - pigs had to be sacrificed instead -, circumcision was no longer allowed, scrolls were burnt, and people who still followed Mosaic law were burnt alive.
Many pious Jews joined the revolt of Judas the Maccabaean, who lead a small force against the Seleucid army and defeated it. His enemies were unable to strike back, because they were occupied with a war against the Armenians. After several victories, Judas liberated Jerusalem (165), cleansed the temple - annually celebrated by the Jews at the Hanuka festival - and defeated the Seleucids. The situation normalized when Antiochus IV died at the end of 164; his successor Antiochus V made an end to the persecution. This was not the end of the struggle, however, which came only in 152, when a Seleucid king recognized Judas' brother Jonathan as high-priest. This meant that the independence of Judah was recognized as well. The family of Judas and Jonathan became the new royal dynasty of Judaea, the Hasmonaeans.
Actually, this was not allowed, because the new official did not belong to the Zadokite family, but in the end, the appointment was accepted. (It has been argued, however, that this was the incident that caused the "teacher of righteousness" to leave Jerusalem and organize the sect of Qumran.) The struggle against the Seleucid kings continued in these years, and it lasted until 142 before the war aims - end of the garrison at Jerusalem and end of the tribute - were reached.
The Hasmonaeans founded a dynasty of their own and this was probematic. As high priests, they had to be ritually clean, which did not fit well with their responsibilities as commander. We can read the history of the next century as a tale of increasing disappointment. From 94 until 86, there was a civil war between the Hasmonaean leader - by now calling himself "king" - and the Pharisees; in 63, the Romans put an end to another civil war, this time between two branches of the Hasmonaean dynasty.
Reinventing the Future
As a response to the Jews' disappointment with the Hasmonaeans, messianism relived. The vague concept of an anointed Davidic prince who would come to restore Israel, was a perfect answer to the situation - especially since nobody knew what kind of restoration was to take place: political independence or an end to the Greek cultural influence? The concept was vague and therefore served to unite the Jews.
The following texts were more or less waiting to be discovered:
- Psalms 2 and 20 show us an idealized king, a "son of God", who will defend truth, humility and righteousness by defeating the enemies of Judah. Psalm 110 adds that this king will be "a priest for ever" and will judge the nations.
- The prophet Micah describes a king from the house of David who will restore Israel in a big struggle with Assyria. This king will be born in Bethlehem.
- The prophet known as Second Isaiah predicted an "anointed one" who was to free the Jews from exile and to restore their Temple. He was to inaugurate an age of peace and righteousness.
From the early first century BCE on, these texts were read and reread from a contemporary perspective. They were regarded as texts announcing the coming of a leader who was to defeat the Seleucid enemy. Other biblical texts seemed to fit the same picture, and one of these was the prophecy of Balaam (quoted above). To the best of our knowledge, these lines had never been considered messianic, but from now on, the star and the scepter were to become the Messiah's trademark. We will discuss them below.
Things are complex because messianism is close to another literary genre that is just as speculative: eschatology. Eschatological texts describe the events at the end of times, when God will personally come to restore order in the world. Most texts, like the book of Daniel and 1 Enoch, assume a special revelation that enables the author to speak with some authority about the heavenly world and the Last Judgment.
In these "revealing" or "apocalyptic" texts, much is written in code form. For example, in the book of Daniel - written in 165 BCE - we read about a many-horned beast with iron teeth, which turns out to be Alexander the Great. Antiochus IV is described as one of these horns, one that has eyes and a mouth that speaks boastful words, and takes away the daily offering from the temple (Daniel 7.7-8 and 8.11). Because these images are so strange, they can easily be interpreted in various ways.
Many scholars have treated eschatology and messianism as similar literary genres. There is much to be said for this point of view. In many messianic texts, we read about a beautiful new future world, which will originate after a great change - sometimes a war - in the course of history. Israel will be restored. These elements can also be found in eschatological texts.
On the other hand, there are striking differences. The Messiah merely restores Israel, but in eschatological texts the main actor is God Himself, who puts an end to time and history. It should also be noted that only a few eschatological texts mention of the Messiah. Apocalypticism and messianism are therefore related, sometimes overlapping genres that must be treated separately.
The overlap makes it very difficult to keep focus. However, there are four things that all Messiahs have in common:
- Because the Messiah is anointed, he is either a king, a prophet or a priest.
- The Messiah is a royal person. He is usually called "son of David" or "prince" (nasi).
- The Messiah will restore Israel.
- The Messiah is a human being, but has a very important place in God's salvation plan.
This final point is, of course, one of the points where messianism and christology do not agree, as we will discuss below.
There were many different messianologies and it is not easy to see what types of Messiah were recognized. A factor that makes it even more difficult is that many texts are fragmentary and open to more than one interpretation. Other texts seem to allude to the Messiah but do not mention him, which creates many complications. For example, (almost) every Messiah is the son of David, but is a text about the son of David also a text about the Messiah?
We must be careful, and the best thing to do is: accept only texts that do actually mention the Messiah. This means that texts using motifs like "the son of man" or "branch", or describing the Last Judgment, the new world, new Jerusalem, or new Temple must be kept out of our discussion until later. The motif of the "star and the scepter" (i.e., the prophecy of Balaam), on the other hand, can be accepted as messianic (see below).
It is also preferable to accept only texts that were written between Antiochus' persecution and the end of Judaism as a political force (after the revolt of Bar Kochba) - in other words, we focus on texts that can be dated between 170 BCE and 140 CE. Having made this selection, modern scholars distinguish four types:
- The Messiah as military leader
- The Messiah as sage
- The Messiah as high-priest
- The "prophet like Moses"
We will discuss these concepts in the following parts of this article.