Wednesday, July 8, 2009

messianic expectations

After the OT was written, possibly in the third or second century BC, “messiah” became increasingly associated with an eschatological king. There a number of potential reasons for this. First, oppressive Greek and Roman rule gave a longing for a godly ruler of old like David. Second, the Maccabean revolt (167 BC) made the desire for an Israelite king even more pronounced. Unfortunately, the subsequent establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty did not fulfill the longing for a godly king since this line of kings resembled Greek rulers more than the Davidic monarcy (1 Macc 8.17–32; 12.1–23; 13.34–40; 2 Macc 11.16–38; Josephus Ant. 13.249, 374–378; J.W. 1.65, 89–93). Following the Hasmoneans, Herod the Great (37 – 4 BC) was easily one of the most oppressive tyrants seen in Israel. All of this would have given the people of Israel a longing for a king anointed by God—a “Messiah.” In light of repeated historical failures, that hope would have become more and more eschatologically focused. Also, Daniel 9.25–26, one of the most confusing passages in the OT, mentions an “anointed prince” who will come. This cryptic reference could have increased messianic expectations, but it is difficult to know how this passage was interpreted. Still, it is clear that in the third or second century BC there was an increasing expectation of an eschatological messiah.

By the first century AD there were three passages of scripture that were frequently cited to refer to a Messiah. First, Genesis 49.10 was often cited to refer to the “Branch of David” (4Q252 5.1–7). Also, it is explicitly messianic in all four Targums to the Pentateuch. Targums are Aramaic paraphrases and interpretations of the Old Testament. These interpretive paraphrases were written anywhere from 200 BC to AD 700. Still, it is likely they often reflect Jewish interpretations around the time of Jesus. In the New Testament, an explicit connection to Jesus is never made with Genesis 49.10, but Judah does appear in Jesus’ genealogy (Mt 1.3; Lk 3.30) and is connected with the location of Jesus’ birth (Mt 2.5). In addition, the author of Hebrews points out that Jesus is a descendent of Judah (7.14), though it is not connected with his role as Messiah. Jesus as the eschatological messiah in Revelation is referred to as the “lion of the tribe of Judah” (5.5). So, at least John made a roundabout connection to Genesis 49.10. The idea that the Messiah was divine was unique to Christians. This passage was understood to refer to a Messianic figure who would rule as God’s chosen king and this is reflected in Christian teaching about Jesus even if the passage is never explicitly quoted.

The second frequently cited “Messianic” passage of the OT is Numbers 24.17. It too was paraphrased in Messianic terms by the Targums. Not to mention the fact that messianic interpretations of the Numbers passage are found in numerous first century, and earlier, references like the Qumran community and others (T. Jud. 24.1–6; CD 7.20; 1QSb 5.27–28; 1QM 11.4–9; 4Q175 1.9–13; cf. Philos Vit. Mos. 1.52 §290). Also, it is likely that the Jewish historian Josephus is referring to this prophecy when he refers to an oracle that the ruler of the world would come from Israel (JW 6.312–313; cf. JW 3.400–402). The Numbers passage also helps makes sense of the star at Jesus’ birth (Mt 2.2). After the disastrous destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, another revolt against the Romans occurred (AD 135). The leader of the revolt, Simon Bar Kochba, probably gets his name from Numbers text. Simon Bar Kochba means “Simon son of the star.” We also know that Simon was proclaimed, by himself or someone close to him, to be a kingly Messiah (cf. y. Ta‘an 4.5; b. Sanh 93b). Clearly, this was an important prophecy about the Messiah—a kingly figure—that Christians’ connected with Jesus

The third most quoted messianic passage of the OT was Isaiah 11.1–6 which makes reference to the Messiah in the Isaiah Targum. Also, in Qumran literature it is used to refer to the Messiah (1QSb 5.21–26; cf. 4Q285 5.1–6). According to Qumran this would be a warrior king who would arise in the last days to confirm the covenant of the community. Other Jews writings used the passage to refer to the Messiah as well. This messiah is sometimes a priestly ruler (T. Levi 18.7) or an almost angelic warrior (4 Ezra 13.2–10). Paul applies this passage to Jesus (Rom 15.12) as well as other NT writers (Acts 13.23; Rev 5.5; 22.16). Again, it is clear that this passage of scripture was used by Jews with different beliefs to refer to a Messianic figure who rules in and/or is an agent of inaugurating the eschatological kingdom of God.

What exactly the “Messiah” would do depends on the group that cited the passage. For example, the Qumran community mentions two Messiahs, one kingly and one priestly (1QS 9.11; CD 12.23–13.1; 14.19). Jesus refers to himself as Messiah and his disciples seem to understand this primarily in kingly terms (Mt 16.13–16; Mk 8.27–29; Lk 18.20). So, there were certain expectations of the “Messiah” or “anointed one of God” that at least seem to include kingly connotations, but the expectations were somewhat ambiguous. It is at least clear that multiple Jewish groups expected an eschatological ruler and they expected the rule to do what earthly rulers do—make war. The difference between the eschatological ruler and earthly ones was the anointing of Yahweh, which would give them supernatural power to defeat Israel’s enemies. Jesus takes on the title “Messiah” but looks drastically different than the hodge-podge of expectations usually associated with it.


Eric said...

Great blog, keep it up.

Michael DeFazio said...

Do you think this (the fact that Jesus took on the role but transformed it) explains why he chose other passages to indicate his identity and calling? I'm thinking specifically of his use of Isaiah 61 (I think that's it) in Luke 4, as well as the constant veiled "son of Man" allusions to Daniel 7. Glad you're blogging bro.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff man. I'm not sure if this is where you got a lot of the information, but Craig Evans deals with a lot of this material in his article in the Dictionary of New Testament Background.

One idea I've been kicking around, thesis related, is if the reason Jesus appears to have transformed the Jewish concept of Messiah so much is because he was facing off against Israel's actual enemy (spiritual evil/Satan) while they were hoping he would face off against their physical enemies. In most of what you've come across is the expectation that the Messiah would defeat a foreign oppressor?

Unknown said...


I'm glad to be back to it, thanks for the encouragement. I think you're exactly right that Jesus used the title for himself but transformed it. I'll do more with that when I do a post on "jesus the messiah." Specifically, I'm going to look at the use of the title in the Gospels and the epistles asking "what does the title seem to indicate about Jesus' identity and how did people respond." I have my guesses, but I want to save it for when I actually do the work.

Yes, Evans' article was very helpful. He was the one who pointed out the three most significant OT passages quoted by Jewish groups in the first century. I would highly recommend reading the article with the first century documents nearby.

I think Jesus' is attacking the true enemy of Satan, but I think he would have considered Satan's manifestation as Roman oppression and Jewish authorities who collaborated with Rome for power. So, he recognized the enemy in all its forms but chose a way to fight it that would be by God's power not man's.

As far as what I've seen in the other documents there is a mixture. In Qumran the eschatological war would destroy the "kittim" or Romans as well as faithless Israel. For them, everyone who wasn't an Essene was part of "faithless Israel." In the apocalyptic documents the enemies certainly sound like they are "spiritual enemies" but so does Revelation and it certainly has a lot to say about Rome. Part of the problem is that I don't yet have the contextual awareness with these documents that I do with the NT. I'm working on becoming more familiar.

Good stuff guys.

Jared said...

I just wrote a incredibly long response to Eric's question. And then I realized you answered it concisely. Perhaps it would be wise to consider just how thickly Jesus perceived the line between the physical and spiritual enemy/enemies of Israel. To force the logic a little further--the community of the faith in Acts seems to believe that the foils of story are the Jewish leaders who orchestrated Jesus' death. I think your comment about the manifestation of the ultimate enemy is the key--all of us are holistic enough to realize that spiritual intuitions, convictions, etc. have physical products; likewise with the enemy/enemies of God's people.