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.
The eschatological king
As we have seen above, between the Maccabaean revolt and the revolt of Simon ben Kosiba (c.165 BCE - c.140 CE), there were several types of messianism: e.g., the military leader, the sage, the high-priest and the "prophet like Moses". These messianologies agreed on two points: the Messiah was to restore Israel and inaugurate an age of peace. To make sense of the contradictory ideas, the sect at Qumran developed the theory that there would be two Messiahs.
After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70, some changes take place. The first of these was, as could be expected, the idea that the Messiah would restore the Temple. This is best documented in the Aramaic translations of the Bible. For example, Targum Isaiah 53.5 states "and the Messiah will build the sanctuary".
More important is the combination of messianism and apocalypticism. Admittedly, this is not a completely novel idea; in the book of Daniel, apocalypticism is combined with the appearance of an "ancient of days" and one who is "like a son of man". In the Christian gospels and the Book of Revelation, the "son of man" is identified with the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. All these texts were written after 70.
It is remarkable that the combination of apocalypticism and messianism can also be found in Jewish texts from the last decades of the first century. The first one is 4 Ezra, which was written in 100 CE. This book describes the signs of the end of the age, the Last Judgment. It also contains a vision of a lion and an eagle, which stand for the Messiah who will defeat the Romans. Christian influence on 4 Ezra can not be excluded, especially since the Messiah is also described as the son of God, a motif that has probably no real antecedents in mainstream Judaism (discussed here).
In parenthesis, it may be noted that 4 Ezra speaks about the Messiah destroying the enemies with a stream of fire, that springs from his mouth.
Behold, when he saw the onrush of the approaching multitude, he neither lifted his hand nor held a spear or any weapon of war; but I saw how he sent forth from his mouth as it were a stream of fire, and from his lips a flaming breath, and from his tongue he shot forth a storm of sparks. All these were mingled together, the stream of fire and the flaming breath and the great storm, and fell on the onrushing multitide which was prepared to fight, and burnt them all up, so that suddenly nothing was seen of the innumerable multitude but only the dust of ashes and the smell of smoke.note[4 Ezra 13.9-11.]
It is tempting to link this with the words of the Christian author Jerome, who wrote about Simon ben Kosiba:
That famed Barchochebas, the instigator of the Jewish uprising, kept fanning a lighted blade of straw in his mouth with puffs of breath so as to give the impression that he was spewing out flames.note[Jerome, Against Rufinus 3.31.]
But let us return to our subject. 2 Baruch seems to be dependent on 4 Ezra and is therefore younger. It is usually dated in the first quarter of the second century. According to the author, the Messiah will appear at the end of times and will defeat Israel's enemies. At the same time, the righteous will be resurrected.
The vocabulary of the Book of similitudes (a part of the First book of Enoch) remains close to Daniel: it speaks often about the "son of man" and uses the word "Messiah" only twice. Unfortunately, it can not be dated with great accuracy, although a date in the first century is very likely. This causes an interesting problem: if it was written before 70, the interpretation of Daniel 7 as both messianic and apocalyptic is first attested in the Enoch-literature; if it was written after 80, the idea is a Christian innovation, first attested in the Gospel of Mark. The author of the present article thinks that it is likely that the Similitudes are the younger text; if they had been written before 70, fragments would have found at Qumran. Moreover, the first texts to combine apocalypticism and messianology are the epistles of Paul, written between 51 and 61, and it may be assumed that the Christian world was open for the messianic interpretation of apocalyptic texts.
The connection between messianism and apocalypticism is perhaps the most important development within messianism. Until then, the Messiah was considered a (special) human being, from now on, he was seen as a superhuman, eschatological king. It is tempting to see Christian influence at this point; as we will see below, the idea that the Messiah had a superhuman status, may have been invented by the Christians.
A new development took place after Simon ben Kosiba's disastrous war against the Romans. Messianic speculations became now suspect. In the Mishna, a very important collection of rabbinical wisdom composed c.200 CE, messianology is almost absent. In later rabbinical writing, Simon's name is changed into Bar Kozeba, "son of the lie". However, scepticism was not something new. Shortly after the destuction of the Temple, the famous rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said:
If you should happen to be holding a sapling in your hand when they tell you that the Messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out and greet the Messiah.note['Avot de rabbi Nathan B 31.]
So, are sources are silent or negative about messianology, it is possible to trace the development of the idea. Not surprisingly, the violent military messianology seems to have disappeared - at least from our sources. However, the idea seems to have been alive in certain illiterate groups: c.700, Abu Isa' could present himself as a military Messiah.
The most extensive discussion of messianism after the second century can be found in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 96b-99a. This is an overview of many rabbinical opinions and diverse points of view, but what the participants have in common is that they believe that the Messiah will be the sage who will teach the correct interpretation of the Law of Moses. A selection of ideas:
- the Messiah will be called Bar Niphile; this is a reference to the "fallen tent" of Daniel 7.13 (nofeler) and the Greek word nephele, "cloud", a reference to the theory that the son of man would be coming over the clouds;
- the age before the coming of the Messiah will be very hard; there will be no teachers, synagogues will be used as brothels and there will be an evil occupant of the land of Israel; some rabbis think that the world has to be completely full of sin before the son of David will appear; the length of this period is estimated at 1000 or 2000 years;
- after this troublesome period, the Jewish sinners will feel true guilt and can truly repent; Israel will be restored by the people's righteousness (and not by the Messiah!);
- the Messiah's name will be Shiloh, Chanina, Yinnon or Menahem.
These ideas are ascribed to several rabbis from the second, third, fourth and fifth centuries. Among the later developments belongs the idea that the Messiah will convert the Christians and Muslims, so that they will become Jews.