What might a Davidic Messiah have meant to early Christians?

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by Neil Godfrey

king David from Chludov Psalter
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The metaphor of the messiah . . . is used neither as a direct reference to any contemporary, historical king nor to any known historical expectations before Bar Kochba (c. 135 CE). (Messiah Myth, Thompson, p.291; SJOT, 15.1 2001, p.58.)

Those scholars who repeat that there was popular Jewish anticipation of a Messiah to emerge as a contemporary, historical leader in their own time — any time before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE — do not cite evidence that actually supports this assertion. Thompson likes to remind readers of W. S. Green’s observation that biblical scholars have tended to form their understanding of the concept of the Messiah — and their (unsupported) belief that the term refers to contemporary Israelite kings — by studying texts where the word does not appear.

But at the same time there is no doubt that David was depicted as a once-upon-a-time messianic figure as well as an author of psalms.

So what do we read about the career of David as an anointed (messianic) one? In the Psalms attributed to him he cries out to God as one forsaken and persecuted. (Pss 18, 142). In Psalm 22 he cries out in pious agony, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

David’s career is one of fleeing from persecution. He is the chosen and pious, righteous sufferer. His persecution is a badge of his honour, not shame, in the eyes of all who look to him as a model of piety.

He is betrayed by his closest followers, and ascends the Mount of Olives to pray in his darkest hour.

He prepares for the building of the future temple after his death.

If early Christians ever thought to apply the Davidic motifs to Jesus, they surely did so with remarkable precision. David may have ruled a temporal kingdom, but Jesus demonstrated his power over the invisible rulers of the entire world. Even though ruler over the princes of this world, he was still betrayed, deserted and denied by his closest followers. He ascended the Mount of Olives in prayer at his darkest hour.

And he suffered the injustice that the righteous have always proverbially suffered, even crying out with David, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

But as in the Psalms God delivered David from the depths and pits of hell to exalt him in vindication before his enemies, so did God deliver and exalt Jesus. What was the suffering of humiliation in the eyes of his enemies, has always been the badge of honour in the eyes of God and devotees.

And none of this should be surprising. Even in Daniel we read of a prophecy of the Messiah to be killed, “but not for himself”, with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple to follow. Daniel 9:26

And after sixty-two weeks
Messiah shall be cut off, but not for himself;
And the people of the prince who is to come
Shall destroy the city and the sanctuary

The Gospel of Mark is replete with allusions to Daniel, especially in the latter part of his gospel (compare Mark 13’s references with references in Mark 11-16). His Olivet Prophecy (chapter 13) links the demise of Jesus with the destruction of the Temple that is set to happen 40 years after his crucifixion.

Daniel also speaks of the Son of Man being given an eternal kingdom — after the saints are persecuted (killed) — and the Son of Man is said to represent those same saints (Daniel 7). See also Intimations of the Death of the Son of Man in Daniel.

There is nothing implicit in the image of a “Davidic Messiah” that contradicts anything written of Jesus in the Gospels. Indeed, the author of Mark could well have had the Messiah David, and the Son of Man and Messiah of Daniel, in mind, when he drew on the career of David, and even his cry of dereliction on the cross, to flesh out his life of Jesus.

The suggestion, as many scholars seem to make, that Christian expectation of a Davidic Messiah precluded the possibility of any expectation of a humiliated and persecuted, even crucified, figure, is without any evidential support. Indeed, the evidence that does exist supports the very notion of a pious martyr finally vindicated by God.

Next project (or a soon coming one) will be to go through Talmon’s own discussion also affirming that the Biblical references to Messiah — even the Gospel ones — are literary metaphorical expressions and not indicators of literal historical expectations. (I will be using a chapter from a book that McGrath once advised me to read to see the evidence for such an historical expectation, and that I have so far failed to see anywhere — even in that book. (For a hint of what is to come, see a review of Fitzmyer’s work on the Messiah in Responding to standard arguments.)



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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “What might a Davidic Messiah have meant to early Christians?”

  1. Robert Price has some interesting observations on Thompson’s The Messiah Myth.

    “Thompson simply dismisses the notion that the messianic motifs in which the gospels are steeped reflect the apocalyptic expectations either of early Christians or of contemporary Jews. No, they all “understood” the various prophecies and miracle stories of both Testaments as utopian fictions and allegories of piety. Thompson fairly sneers at the imagined bumbling of Albert Schweitzer, foolish enough to try to discern the outlines of an eschatologically deluded Jesus from Matthew and Mark. How could anyone, before modern numbskulls, have so grossly misread the biblical, messianic tradition as to imagine that the Kingdom of God might actually dawn in fury and blessing? No, surely they knew better than literalist moderns. And then along comes Simon bar-Kochba! He seems to have taken it all too literally! But why should we assume the train jumped the track with the Son of the Star? Rabbi Akiba certainly shared his perspective, and presumably he was a fairly sharp-eyed student of scripture—as traditionally read. And if Bar-Kochba believed in a literal messianism, starring himself, why cannot a historical Jesus have seen himself in the same light a century before? Not that he did, but it is not clear why we ought to rule out the possibility….

    “In the end, I gather Thompson is saying, a la Bruno Bauer, that someone in the Hellenistic period saw the need for a fictive ego-ideal/personal savior and invented Jesus to play that role. Nor does such a theory seem unlikely to me. But I could wish for a good bit more than hints from Thompson, who has forgotten much more of the relevant data than I will ever learn. For instance, I need Thompson, if I am to understand his work, to explain how the propaganda mythemes of ancient sacred kings became isolated from any actual king or would-be king and became the basis of a complete fiction, whether David or Jesus.”


    It might well suit some mythicists arguments that Jewish messianic ideas were not relevant, had no significance, for early Christian writers. However, we are facing two realities – the gospel storyline re the Jesus figure and messianic expectations – and the Bar-Kochba story. It’s not a question of how great were the number of people who ascribed to any particular messianic idea – it’s the plain fact that messianic ideas are bound up with Jewish ‘salvation’ history – a context from within the gospel Jesus story has sprung.

    From Wikipedia: on the Jewish figure of Akiva ben Joseph.

    “The part which Akiva is said to have taken in the Bar Kokba revolt cannot be historically determined. The only established fact concerning his connection with Bar Kokba is that the venerable teacher regarded the patriot as the promised Jewish Messiah (Yer. Ta’anit, iv. 68d)”

    All a mythicist position does is to deny the historical existence of the gospel’ crucified carpenter Jesus. The gospel story is not the beginning of the Christian story, the Christian origin story. And nor is Paul (whoever he is…). Paul says others preceded him. Thus, Paul is Step 2. Step 3 is the gospel story. And Step 1? That is the ninety nine dollar question! And that Step 1 could well be an inspirational historical figure who, to some people, fitted into a messianic role. A Messianic role that later, after the death of the historical figure, came to be the basis for a re-interpretation – a spiritual messianic figure. In other words, the literal messianic concept was later transformed into a spiritual concept. But to do that, to make any sense out of a purely spiritual construct – it needed to have a foothold in reality, a foothold in historical reality.

    Arguing, debating, over whether or not Jesus of Nazareth was historical is simply dealing with Step 3, the end product. It’s putting the cart before the horse. It’s history we should be after. Herodian history – herodian history which takes one face to face with Josephus: A Jewish prophet who has intermingled his interest in prophetic interpretations and his dream interpretations with the Herodian history of the time period relevant to the NT.

  2. As much as I like so much of Price’s works, I do sometimes wonder if he has misunderstood or not quite grasped Thompson’s point. I may well be wrong, and I have no difficulty being prepared to learn otherwise. But to date I have not been convinced by Price’s criticisms. His criticisms have certainly, however, propelled me to re-read and re-examine Thompson’s arguments more closely.

    With respect to the particular quotation of Price’s that you open with, my understanding is that Yes, the Gospel authors certainly DO speak of Jesus as an “expected or promised messiah”. I have no argument with Price on this starting point. But I tend to side with Thompson that this expectation/promise is a literary or mythical motif centuries old by the time the gospels came to be written. It is no more a report or evidence of historical expectations among Jews than it was among Babylonians — whose literature addressed the same concept.

    My reading of Fitzmyer (and his reviewers) and S. Talmon et al, whom Thompson cites in support of his position, also to date have persuaded me — that there is no evidence among Jews before 70 ce of any popular expectation of a real historical messianic figure to enter the scene to change history.

    The Price passage you quote suggests no reason for any shift in perspective from the time of Christ to the time of Bar Kochba. I disagree. The destruction of Jerusalem plausibly explains many shifts in Jewish perspectives. We have evidence of such shifts from this time. And it is only after this time that we find the first evidence of a literal historical contemporary figure ever being assigned with literal messianic expectations.

    ETA: You might recall in my earlier posts on the Matthew birth narrative, the logic of the plot hangs on the idea of the Jews (both leaders and public generally) having no prior notion of a literal historical expectation of an imminent messiah. The wise men Herod consults present it all as newly discovered news, and the public learn of it all for the first time. This is surely a case of Matthew “historicizing” a myth for literary effect.

    1. Sure, the events of 70 ce would have had a great influence upon Jewish ideas re interpreting the OT and it’s messianic ideas. Granted, ideas re a literal ‘saviour’ figure are not confined to Judaism.

      However, working from what we do have, the gospel storyline, messianic ideas were being entertained by some people. Messianic ideas that have been – even if not fully understood at the time – placed within a specific historical timeframe. Even if the gospel writing is placed post 70 ce, all it would indicate is that a specific earlier time period had been found to have been relevant regarding messianic ideas. What led the NT writers to pick that particular timeframe as having relevance for messianic ideas is the the question. Yes, one can say its just an arbitrary choice of dating – or one can try and look at that particular historical time period for some indication of what could have led the gospel writers to use it.

      Whatever it was that they found in that earlier historical time period – has proved to be the catalyst for a christian, universial, spiritual movement. Which, if you think about it, is what the Jewish Messiah concept is all about: It is not only Israel that is to be ‘saved’ the Jewish Messiah is a figure for peace, prosperity, and righteousness to all humanity. (Isaiah 2).

      Indeed, Jewish ideas still relate to a coming one. The christian idea is that the coming one has already come. History indicates that an end did come to Jerusalem and it’s temple in 70 ce. The NT speaks of a spiritual temple etc – seeing christian ideas as a fulfillment, a spiritualizing, of the literal temple. That’s the root of the christian idea – the Jewish Messiah came and inaugurated a new spiritual dispensation.

      The issue is not over the gospel Jesus figure – that storyline is simply Stage 3, a retelling, a spiritualizing, of a historical event. A historical happening that led the early christians to come to the idea that the Jewish Messiah had come. How, where and when exactly is a question for history. All it needed for early christians to transform literal messianic ideas into spiritual messianic ideas, was for them to preceive that such a figure had come – and that with the fall of the Jerusalem temple, that a new comprehension of the Jewish Messiah concept was needed in order to move into a new ‘spiritual’ world view. Not a failed Jewish Messiah but a Jewish Messiah figure that inspired ideas of ‘salvation’ in an intellectual sense instead of a fleating temporary literal sense.

      Anyway, Neil, another way to look at things…

      1. I agree with just about everything you say. The messianic idea was certainly attributed to Jesus, no question. And I certainly think this idea preceded the Jewish war of 66-70. But though I often read that the Jews were anticipating a historical figure to emerge as their messiah before that war, I have not seen any clear evidence to support this claim. Insofar as the gospels describe a past messiah figure, in this they follow Jewish literature that also describes past messianic kings. Insofar as the gospels describe messianic acts by Jesus (setting free the captives, exalting the lowly, debasing the exalted, restoring life and peace by his conquests of (spiritual) enemies), they are following the traditional literature of the Middle East (Jewish and nonJewish) of describing messianic acts of a saviour and shepherd king. As a heavenly ruler, having overseen the destruction of Jerusalem, he remains the transcendent messianic figure of all in his spiritual kingdom. But is there any evidence — S. Talmon and others say there is none — for this widely understood literary metaphor to be applied to anticipation of a Jewish contemporary historical person before 70 (or even 130’s)?

        Sure there were hopefuls to become king of Jerusalem before 70, and some people are reported to have attempted to imitate the acts of Moses or Joshua. Some scholars say these are messianic claimants, but I have not seen any evidence for those claims apart from their own indirect inferences.

        (I am open on the question, and I don’t want to sound like I’m defending Thompson against Price etc. I see much to question in Thompson’s arguments; but I am not convinced of all of Price’s crticisms of Thompson, either. There is still much I do not understand.)

      2. Neil wrote:

        “But is there any evidence — S. Talmon and others say there is none — for this widely understood literary metaphor to be applied to anticipation of a Jewish contemporary historical person before 70 (or even 130′s)?”

        But what could that evidence possibly be? A NT writer saying outright, point blank, that so and so historical figure is the historical figure that early Christians believed to have some relevance as a Jewish Messiah figure. The NT is not about honouring a historical figure, however much such a figure might have fitted into some interpretation of Daniel. That would have kept Christian ideas bound tight to Judaism. It’s a rebirth scenario that early Christians were developing. A transformation process. Any historical individual that they recognised as being relevant to messianic ideas, would only be the beginning of the Christian transformation process. From a literal to a spiritual messiah figure. The transformation of the messiah concept did not require that the historical figure that motivated, inspired, this new development, to himself be part and parcel of the spiritual messiah concept. The historical figure, in actual fact, would be a distraction to the whole new rebirth scenario. Thus, Stage I in the origin story of Christianity, would need to be left in limbo; in time to fade away as the rebirth, transformation process got under way. Paul being Stage 2 and the gospels Stage 3.

        So, from a Christian perspective, the emphasis became completely upon the new creation, the Jesus of Nazareth gospel figure.

        From a Jewish perspective? Was there a historical figure, pre 70 ce that was in some sense considered to be a messiah figure. Rabbinic literature, according to Stephen Huller, says that, yes, there was such a figure, King Agrippa. Josephus, not fitting into Stephen’s theory – so Josephus gets short -shift here!. Is there some point in this rabbinic view that could aid an investigation into early Christian origins? I think there is. The problem resolves around just who King Agrippa was – which one, if Josephus says there were two – and why the mystery…

        What does seem to be historical is the fact that a King Agrippa did rule Jerusalem (length of time under dispute re Stephen Huller’ theory) and during that time the whole territory of Herod the Great was restored, plus some extras. Herod the Great established a Herodian/Hasmonean bloodline. However, contrary to Stephen Huller’ theory, I don’t see any Jewish interest in any Herodian/Hasmonean ever being considered to be a Messiah figure, a ‘true’ King of the Jews. The stigma of Herod’s siege of Jerusalem in 37 bc and its terrible slaughter of innocent people; old and young children not even spared, would taint any Herodeian/Hasmonean heir.

        So, who was the King Agrippa that rabbinic literature, seemingly, indicates was viewed as a messiah figure? I think there are clues in Josephus. There are indications there that Mariamne I, the wife Herod the Great took after his siege of Jerusalem in 37 bc, already had a son. A Hasmonean son. (too involved to go into here…) This son of Mariamne I, was, I think, at some stage in all the Herodian intrigues, adopted by Herod the Great. And it is this son that became King Agrippa the Great – King of the Jews, the Hasmonean King of the Jews, and thus a restoration of the Hasmonean Kingdom of Judea. A ‘true’ Jewish messiah figure.

        (Gaius Octavius Thurinus, was adopted posthumously by his great-uncle Gaius Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Tiberius was adopted by Augustus, by which act he officially became a Julian, bearing the name Tiberius Julius Caesar).

        Of course, everything is context related – and in this case, a Hasmonean messiah figure could have been the catalyst that inspired, after 70 ce, the transformation of the Jewish messiah concept into a spiritual, Christian, concept.

        Which basically means that I don’t think ‘Paul’ got it all out of his head…

  3. There are the quotes from Josephus and Tacitus which suggested that the Jews were expecting a Messiah in the First Century CE. From here:


    What did the most to induce the Jews to start this war, was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how, about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth. The Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular, and many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their determination. Now this oracle certainly denoted the government of Vespasian, who was appointed emperor in Judea. (Flavius Josephus, Jewish War 6.312-313)


    The majority [of the Jews] were convinced that the ancient scriptures of their priests alluded to the present as the very time when the Orient would triumph and from Judaea would go forth men destined to rule the world. This mysterious prophecy really referred to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, true to the selfish ambitions of mankind, thought that this exalted destiny was reserved for them, and not even their calamities opened their eyes to the truth. (Tacitus, Histories 5.13)

  4. We know the evidence. It is the interpretation of it that is in question, and the period it relates to. It is easy to read more into it than it in fact says, especially through a particular translation. There is no question of literature expressing the ideals of a messianic age. What we need to note in some passages in this debate is what they do not say as well as what they do say.

  5. Are there other non-anonymous folks reading this blog? I tend to see anonymous folks commenting on the blog. I am interested in meeting others, that are interested in the subjects that Neil and Stephan Huller write about. Feel free to email me if you also have a blog that you write at.

    Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com

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