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

Messiah (18)

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 mâšîah 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

Later developments: from Messiah to Christ

As we have seen in the preceding chapters, until the end of the first century CE, there is no evidence that the Messiah was ever considered a superhuman being. This must be stressed, because it is often said that the Messiah was some sort of demi-god; those who say so, define Jewish messianism in terms of Christian theology.

It is likely that the idea that the Messiah was a superhuman being is a Christian innovation. The Gospel of Mark calls Jesus the 'son of God', a title that had probably not been used to describe the Messiah before, and John's Gospel opens with the famous hymn that

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. [...] And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.
[John 1.1-14]
The incarnated Word is of course Jesus of Nazareth, who is, in other words, not only the son of God, but is God. How these conflicting statements -Jesus as God and as son of God, Jesus as divine and human- could be harmonized, was the subject of an intense christological debate that culminated in the discussion on the Creed of Nicaea (325).

For this development is not a single antecedent in the Jewish literature. However, two texts from Qumran suggest otherwise.

  1. 4Q246 seems to describe a 'son of God'. However, as we have already seen, it is not likely that this was a messianic text at all. The title that Mark uses to describe the Messiah, is unique. It may, however be added that the way he used the title is not unique. He describes Jesus seven times as 'son of God' (once in the title of the gospel and six times in other people's mouths) but never in the narrative. The indirect way of using this title can also be found in a romance called Joseph and Aseneth, where Joseph is indirectly called 'son of God'.
  2. The two additional hymns on the Thanksgiving-scroll, written in the last quarter of the first century BCE, can be read as if the Messiah has suffered on earth, has died an is now in heaven, higher than the angels; the Messiah will one day come to judge mankind (go here for discussion). This antedates Christianity with at least half a century, and it is possible that these ideas about a superhuman Messiah have influenced christology. However, contact between the Qumran sect and the disciples of Jesus can not be proven; moreover, the ideas in these two hymns are exceptional.
We may therefore assume that the idea that the Messiah was a superhuman being, is a Christian innovation, although there may be one or two antecedents.

Another innovation is the link between messianism and apocalypticism. In the fifties, this can be found in the epistles of Paul; in the last quarter of the first century in the gospels and in the nineties in the Book of Revelation. It is possible that there was a parallel development in the Jewish world; the Book of similitudes (a part of the First book of Enoch) interprets the apocalyptic Book of Daniel in a messianic way, but we do not known when the Similitudes were composed.

Summarizing, we can say that christology was a revolutionary innovation within messianology. It introduced the superhuman status of the Messiah and the idea that he was one of the actors in the apocalyptic drama. Both ideas may not have been completely new, but if they were already present in Judaism, they were extremely rare.

Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
 home   :    index    :    Judaea    :    Messiah