Catastrophic Messianism?

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.

Catastrophic messianism?

The Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in 1947, but for many reasons - the quantity of work being the most important- publication was a slow process. In 1991, the official embargo on the texts from Cave 4 was lifted and in the next decade, many discoveries were announced. Among the newly published texts from the fourth cave were several fragments that help us understand the badly damaged last part of the Thanksgiving-scroll from Cave 1.

This scroll, also known as Hodayot, belonged to the first discoveries at Qumran and was published as early as 1954. It is a collection of hymns in which someone tells about troubles he has, with the help and love of God, been able to overcome. Modern scholars have identified the author with the Teacher of righteousness, the founder of the Qumran sect. A possible objection is that in much Jewish poetry the "I" of the text represents the community; on the other hand, the problems described in the Thanksgiving-scroll are too specific and too detailed to be completely fictional. Consequently, we may assume that it is a kind of spiritual autobiography, similar to the Confessions of the famous Christian author Augustine of Hippo (354-430).

On the Thanksgiving-scroll, the hymns of the Teacher of righteousness are followed by a sequel: two hymns in the first person, composed by an author who tried to write in the same spirit. These additional hymns, written in the first century BCE, have already fallen victim to vandalism in Antiquity and were almost unreadable. Three newly discovered fragments from Cave 4, however, contain the same text and enable us to reconstruct the two additional hymns. This reconstruction was published in 1996 by Esther Eshel, who called it "the self-glorification hymn". The text of the first additional hymn, which still contains lacunas, can be read as follows.

I shall be reckoned with the angels, my dwelling is in the holy council. Who [...] and who has been despised like me? And who has been rejected of men like me? And who compares to me in enduring evil? No teaching compares to my teaching. For I sit [...] in heaven. Who is like me among the angels? Who could cut off my words? And who could measure the flow of my lips? Who can associate with me and thus compare with my judgment? I am the beloved of the King, a companion of the holy ones and none can accompany me. And to my glory none can compare, for I [...]. Neither with gold I will crown myself, nor with refined gold [...]note

The line in italics is a quote from Isaiah 53, the "Song of the suffering servant". This is one of the most mysterious, shocking and touching poems from the ancient world. It deals with an innocent man who is despised, maltreated, deported "like a lamb to the slaughter", murdered and assigned a grave with the wicked. All this the suffering servant did voluntarily, bearing the sin of many others.

The first Christians used this poem to explain why their Messiah had received a similar treatment, and many scholars have argued that the use of Isaiah 53 marks the moment where messianology and christology started to differ and Christianity became an independent religious movement. As we will see in an instant, this is exaggerated.

The second additional hymn is even more damaged than the first one, but contains the word "Messiah".

Rejoice, you righteous among the angels [...] in the holy dwelling, hymn [...] proclaim the sound of a ringing cry [...] in eternal joy, without [...] to establish the horn of His Messiah [...] to make known his power in might.note

The big question is whether the poetic I of the first hymn is the Messiah. Other identifications have been proposed -the archangel Michael, a composite figure, the Jewish people- but there are too many problems with these identifications. We must therefore conclude that the two additional hymns were written by someone who believed that the Teacher of righteousness was in heaven, where he sat higher than the angels.

It is possible that (some of) the members of the sect believed that their teacher would one day come to judge the nations. This turned the Teacher of righteousness into one of the actors in the eschatological drama, and explains why the sectarian texts can use the title "seeker of the law" for both the founder of the sect and an eschatological figu:note they are one and the same.

If this interpretation of the two additional hymns is correct, we can be certain that Isaiah 53 was used a century before Jesus Christ to explain the failure of another Messiah. The idea that the dead Messiah was sitting in heaven next to God, where he would one day judge mankind, is therefore older than Christianity. This sublimation of a failure is sometimes called "catastrophic messianism".

It should be stressed that the idea that there was a catastrophic messianology remains, at the moment, an interesting hypothesis that explains many things, but demands additional prove.