home   :    index    :    Judaea    :    Messiah    :    article by Jona Lendering

Messiah (6)

Coin of Bar Kochba, showing the Temple with a star on the roof and the Ark of the Covenant. British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Jona Lendering.
 Coin of Simon ben Kosiba, showing the Temple with the Messianic star on the roof and the Ark of the Covenant inside (British Museum)
The Hebrew word mšah means 'anointed one' and may  indicate Jewish priests, prophets and  kings. During the sixth century BCE, the exiled Jews in Babylonia started to hope for a special Anointed One who was to bring them home; several written prophecies were fulfilled when the Persian king Cyrus the Great did in fact allow them to return. In the second century BCE, the Jews were again suffering from repression, and the old prophecies became relevant again. Some people were looking forward to a military leader who would defeat the Seleucid or Roman enemies and establish an independent Jewish kingdom; others, like the author of the Psalms of Solomon, stated that the Messiah was a charismatic teacher who gave the correct interpretation of Mosaic law, was to restore Israel and would judge mankind. Jesus of Nazareth was considered a Messiah; a century later, Simon bar Kochba. The idea of an eschatological king has been present in Judaism ever since.
The Messianic Psalms
Micah and Isaiah
From Josiah to Cyrus
The Maccabaean revolt
The Messiah as military leader
The Messiah as sage
The Messiah as high-priest
The 'prophet like Moses'
Balaam's prophecy
The 'son of'-titles
Other titles
The two Messiahs of Qumran
Messianic expectations
Catastrophic messianism
The eschatological king
From Messiah to Christ


The Maccabaean revolt

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. After all, the Persian governor, probably a Zoroastrian monotheist, and the high-priest must have agreed on many points.

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.

Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Coin of Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
Antiochus IV Ephiphanes

All this created great disquiet among the orthodox Jews, who were called Chasidim, 'the pious ones'. In 168, serious riots broke out when the Jews heard that the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (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 -they are usually called the Hasidim- joined the revolt of Judas the Maccabaean ('battle hammer'), 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 the 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.

Map of the expansion of Judaea under the Hasmonaean kings. Design Jona Lendering.
The Hasmonaean kingdom

Reinventing messianism

In these years, 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 second 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; from now on, the star and the scepter were to become the Messiah's trademark. We will discuss them below.

There is a possibility that Judas the Maccabaean and -after his death in 161- his brother Jonathan were recognized as Messiahs, but our most important sources, 1 and 2 Maccabees (ironically written in Greek) do not mention this. The reason may be that the Maccabaeans were no descendants of David. They were acceptable as kings, but could never be Messiah. More troublesome was the fact that they did not belong to the Zadokite family that was entitled to the high-priesthood. It is almost certain that Jonathan's occupation of this office was considered scandalous and it is possible that it caused the 'teacher of righteousness' to leave Jerusalem and organize the sect of Qumran.

Nonetheless, the Maccabees/Hasmonaeans brought peace to the country and even though Judas and Jonathan were no Messiahs, our sources speak about them as if they inaugurated a messianic age:

Jonathan made peace in the land, and Israel rejoiced with great joy. For every man sat under his vine or his fig tree, and there was none to fray them, nor was there anyone left in the land to fight against them, because the foreign kings were overthrown in those days. Moreover, he strengthened all those of his people that were brought low; the law he searched out; and every despiser of the law and wicked person he took away. Finally, he adorned the sanctuary and multiplied the vessels of the temple.
[1 Maccabees, 14.11-15]

So, the Maccabaean leaders were probably not recognized as Messiahs, but from their time onwards, messianic speculations were abundant. Old prophecies were remembered, retold and improved. We will discuss the variety of messianologies in the next parts of this article.

Things are complex because messianism is close to another literary genre that is just as speculative: apocalypticism. Apocalyptic texts describe the events at the end of times, when God will personally come to restore order in the world. Most apocalyptic texts, like the book of Daniel and 1 Enoch, assume a special revelation, which enables the author to speak with some authority about the heavenly world and the Last Judgment.

In 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 apocalypticism 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 apocalyptic texts. Besides, there are apocalyptic texts that mention the Messiah (the best-known is the Book of Revelation).

On the other hand, there are striking differences. The Messiah merely restores Israel, but in apocalyptic texts the main actor is God Himself, who puts an end to time and history. It should also be noted that onky a few apocalyptic texts mention of the Messiah. In most cases, there is neither a Messiah in the apocalyptic texts nor an end to history in messianic texts. Apocalypticism and messianism are therefore related, sometimes overlapping genres that must be treated separately.

As already stated, messianic speculation was complex, and the overlap with apocalypticism makes it very difficult to focus on the concepts that became popular after the persecution by Antiochus. However, there are four things that all Messiahs have in common:

  1. Because the Messiah is anointed, he is either a king, a prophet or a priest.
  2. The Messiah is a royal person. He is usually called 'son of David' or 'prince' (nasi).
  3. The Messiah will restore Israel.
  4. 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 (below). 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 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:

  1. The Messiah as military leader
  2. The Messiah as sage
  3. The Messiah as high-priest
  4. The 'prophet like Moses'
We will discuss these concepts in the following parts of this article.

 part seven    :    overview of all articles on Messiah
home   : index    :    Judaea