Some Messianic Expectations

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.

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 and that several literary motifs could be used to describe the Messiah. However, there were clear contradictions. Sometimes, the Messiah is a warrior, sometimes he is a man of peace. Daniel 7 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.note

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.note

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."note

The same sentiment was at the same time expressed by Haggai, who calls Zerubbabel "the desire of all nations".note 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.note

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,note or is merely inaugurating God's personal rule of the universe.note

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 Enochic 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 will be dealt with in the next part. After that, we will discuss the development of ideas in and after this period.