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

Messiah (15)

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


Messianic expectations

Up till now, we have been studying the messianologies that were common between the Maccabaean revolt and the revolt of Simon ben Kosiba (c.165 BCE - c.140 CE). We have seen that there were several types (military leader; sage; high-priest; 'prophet like Moses') and that several literary motifs could be used to describe the Messiah: for example, Balaam's prophecy, son of David, branch, son of man, and prince.

However, there were clear contradictions. Sometimes, the Messiah is a warrior, sometimes he is a man of peace. Daniel 7:14 describes the triumphant son of man coming with power, but Isaiah 42.3 states that he does not even break a bruised read. Daniel 7:13 has him arriving over the clouds, but Zechariah 9:9 states that he will be riding a donkey.

To make sense of such contradictory messianic notions, the sect at Qumran speculated that there were two or perhaps even three Messiahs (more). A question that we have not systematically explored, is: what was the Messiah expected to do?

To a certain extent, the answer is easy: the Messiah(s) would restore Israel. Adherents of the military messianology expected that the son of David would throw out the Romans and restore Israel politically; others believed that he would give the true interpretation of the law and inaugurate Israel's ethical revival; still others hoped for cultic reforms and a cleaning of the temple by the true high-priest; and there must have been people who combined these expectations.

The age before the coming of the Messiah is usually likened to a stay in the desert; like Moses, the Messiah will lead the faithful into the promised land. Isaiah's appeal to 'prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness' (40.3) was probably understood as messianic, although this is not easy to prove. It is not certain whether 4Q176, which announces that Jerusalem will be comforted, assumes the Messiah's ministry, but Mark 1.2-3 can certainly be interpreted as messianic. Moreover, it is probably no coincidence that Theudas, the Egyptian prophet and an anonymous prophet led their followers through the desert.

The Messiah was expected to sacrifice and worship in the Temple, like the kings of Israel's golden age. At the same time, he was supposed  to restore the twelve tribes.

And on the staff of the prince of the whole community they shall write his name and the names of Israel, Levi and Aaron, together with the names of the twelve tribes according to their genealogy and the names of the twelve chiefs of their tribes.
[War scroll 5.1-2]
Another author who assumes the restoration of the tribes wrote the Psalms of Solomon.
He will gather a holy people whom he will lead in righteousness; and he will judge the tribes of the people that have been made holy by the Lord their God. He will not tolerate unrighteousness even to pause among them, and any person who knows wickedness shall not live with them. For he shall know that they are all childeren of their God. He will distribute them upon the land, according to their tribes. The alien and the foreigner will no longer live near them
[Psalms of Solomon 17.26-28]
The last line means that the pagan Greeks and Romans will no longer live in the land of Israel. However, there are also texts that make it clear that the Messiah has something to offer to the non-Jewish peoples. This idea is very old: it dates back to the late sixth century BCE, when the Temple was rebuilt. In an appendix to the prophecies of Isaiah, God says that
'The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to Him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be His servants, every one who keeps the sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast My covenant - these I will bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on My altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.'
   Thus says the Lord God, Who gathers the outcasts of Israel: 'I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.'
[Isaiah 56.6-8]
The same sentiment was at the same time expressed by Haggai, who calls Zerubbabel 'the desire of all nations' (Haggai 2.7). Needless to say that these texts were later interpreted as referring to the coming of the Messiah. The same happened to the following words, that were meant as a description of the mission of the author who composed the concluding chapters of the book of Isaiah, but were later regarded as a description of the messianic age.
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion - to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
[Isaiah 61.1-3]
Although they were not intended as such, these lines were interpreted as messianic at Qumran and by the first Christians.

So, we see that the Messiah will comfort those who need to be comforted and will restore Israel and its tribes. It is also clear that there will be a new world ruler in the messianic age, but it is not clear whether 'the desire of all nations' will rule the nations (Daniel 7:14; Psalm 72), or is merely inaugurating God's personal rule of the universe (e.g., Isaiah 24:23).

Three remarks must be made at the end of this part of our study of ancient messianism. In the first place, the coming of the Messiah does not necessarily mean the end of times; this is a Christian idea. Of course it has some roots in Jewish thought, but the connection between messianism and apocalypticism (or eschatology) is not a necessary one.

In the second place, not everybody expected the Messiah. In many texts that refer to a brave new world or the Last Judgment, no mention is made of the Messiah (e.g., the oldest portions of the Enoch writings, the Assumption of Moses, the Sybilline Oracles, the Wisdom of Ben Sira, or the first two Books of Maccabees). Probably, the concept was too vague to be really inspiring.

Finally, there were people who started to make calculations about the date of the Messiah's arrival. They are treated here.

We have now treated the current messianologies and messianic expectations in the three centuries between c.165 BCE and c.140 CE. We must now discuss the development of ideas in and after this period.

Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine

Dating the coming of the Messiah
The seventy-seven generations

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