Was it possible for Second Temple Jews to have imagined a Messiah who is unjustly killed solely by reading their Scriptures?
The Apostles in Acts are said to have preached Christ out of the Scriptures. Paul, and even other epistle writers, claim that their gospel was revealed to them through the scriptures and/or through the spirit of God — not oral tradition or personal encounters.
Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, 26but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him . . . (Romans 16:25-26)
the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. (Colossians 1:26)
My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ (Colossians 2:2)
the mystery of Christ, 5which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. (Ephesians 3:5)
and at his appointed season he brought his word to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Savior, (Titus 1:3)
Although one often hears it said that no first-century Jews were expecting a humiliated and crucified Messiah, the evidence one can read in the Jewish Scriptures surely suggests otherwise. Given the diversity of religious ideas we are led to understand blanketed the Second Temple era, and given the nature of the few scriptural passages that specifically and literally refer to “anointing” or “anointed” (=messiah), we would be very courageous to bet that no sects had such an idea.
Look at Psalm 2.2 for starters
The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together,
Against the LORD and against His Anointed [=Messiah]
Now the rest of the Psalm goes on to recount God laughing at those plotting rulers and assuring his Messianic Son (whom he has begotten that day) that he will give him victory over his enemies.
Nonetheless, we do have passage that presents a clear threat to the Messiah, and one from kings and rulers.
It is surely not too much of a leap for any reader familiar with these scriptures, and the Psalms in particular, to let their mind wander to other psalms where David or God’s son is promised deliverance and exaltation over his enemies, but only after first being brought face to face with death itself. One finds similar motifs within Isaiah, where the servant of God (Israel – Isa.49.3, who is also God’s son – Exod.4.22 and Hos 11.1) is humiliated, despised, struck down, only to rise again in victory over his foes – Isa. 49 ff.
In Isaiah 11 we even read that such a son is, at least figuratively, a son of David. And in Isaiah 53 we find the same word to describe the “delivering up” of the Servant to humiliation as we find in Paul’s 1 Corinthians 11:23 statement that Christ was “delivered up” on the night of the Last Supper (Doherty, p. 86).
But it wasn’t all suffering and exaltation for the Messiah. Isaiah 61.1 informs readers that the one anointed (a messiah) is to preach the good news.
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me,
Because the LORD has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound
And this Isaiah passage cannot help but lead readers of this book to companion passages where one reads of the lame being healed, the blind being restored to sight, such as Isaiah 35
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.
Then the lame shall leap like a deer,
And the tongue of the dumb sing.
And so the messiah will perform such miracles?
If we look at the career of kings who are said to have been “anointed” (messiahs) we find a similar mixed pattern.
Hazael (anointed 1 Ki 19.15) and Jehu (anointed 2 Ki 9.1-6) brought conquest and judgment upon those whom God sought to punish.
Saul (anointed 1 Sa. 9.10) also delivered Israel from her enemies for a time, but then was himself slain for his sin.
Joash of Judah (anointed 2 Ki. 1.32-45) likewise was chosen by God to save the Davidic line, but was also murdered for his subsequent sin against God’s prophet, Zechariah.
And we know the stories of David (anointed 1 Sa. 16.1, 13) and Solomon (anointed 1 Ki. 1.32-45) well enough. Both chosen by God, but both failed their God and suffered in different ways. David, in particular, had to flee from his kingdom, climbing the Mount of Olives in his own desperate straits and trusting in God for deliverance.
But these are all past human kings. If I were looking for a Messiah in the Scriptures who would be the Messiah of all Messiahs and bring in the age of God, would I not be guided by each of these, but also be open to something even greater than all that had preceded? If past messiahs broke physical kingdoms and ruled geographical areas for limited times, would not we want the final messiah to go one better and smash the powers that ruled all those kingdoms, and to take charge of them? I know, I’m jumping way ahead of the story, here.
This is only a mind game, and we might think it’s too easy in retrospect to imagine how anyone might interpret the passages back then. But that’s why I am taking as my starting point only those passages that specifically mention the word for Messiah — the exact word that might trigger the imagination of an ancient Jew.
But how might at least some Jews have interpreted the following from Daniel? Are any at all likely to have played with its ambiguity? Daniel 9:25-26
Know therefore and understand,
That from the going forth of the command
To restore and build Jerusalem
Until Messiah the Prince,
There shall be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks;
The street shall be built again, and the wall,
Even in troublesome times.
And after the 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 end of it shall be with a flood,
And till the end of the war desolations are determined.
Cut off, but not for himself? Other Messiahs were cut off but that was because of their own sins. Others were reduced to the very point of death, also as a result of their sins, though God delivered them for their faith in him.
Is it at all possible that any Jews could have speculated on the possibility of a Messiah who was threatened, humiliated, suffered, even killed, but who rose victorious over his enemies nonetheless? And is it at all possible that any Jews could imagine such a figure demonstrating his powers over demons, healing the sick to prove this power, preaching good news of liberty and a new spiritual kingdom of God to replace the old?
Is it really very hard to conceive that we can find the raw materials in familiar books that might generate such speculative ideas?
Well, we do know that at least some Jews did entertain the notion of a messiah who would die just prior to the final judgment of God when all would be resurrected. 2 Esdras or 4 Ezra 7:26-35, written some time after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce posed this thought:
 For behold, the time will come, when the signs which I have foretold to you will come to pass, that the city which now is not seen shall appear, and the land which now is hidden shall be disclosed.
 And every one who has been delivered from the evils that I have foretold shall see my wonders.
 For my son the Messiah shall be revealed with those who are with him, and those who remain shall rejoice four hundred years.
 And after these years my son the Messiah shall die, and all who draw human breath.
 And the world shall be turned back to primeval silence for seven days, as it was at the first beginnings; so that no one shall be left.
 And after seven days the world, which is not yet awake, shall be roused, and that which is corruptible shall perish.
 And the earth shall give up those who are asleep in it, and the dust those who dwell silently in it; and the chambers shall give up the souls which have been committed to them.
 And the Most High shall be revealed upon the seat of judgment, and compassion shall pass away, and patience shall be withdrawn;
 but only judgment shall remain, truth shall stand, and faithfulness shall grow strong.
 And recompense shall follow, and the reward shall be manifested; righteous deeds shall awake, and unrighteous deeds shall not sleep.
Looks like some Jews, in the wake of the loss of their temple, anticipated a future messiah at the end of days, or at least 400 years and one week before the general resurrection.
What may or may not be interesting about this passage is that this messiah appears to have been kept behind the scenes until the time comes for his revelation. This is the same idea that we find in the earlier Jewish writing of the Son of Man in 1 Enoch 62:4-7
4 Then shall pain come upon them as on a woman in travail,
[And she has pain in bringing forth]
When her child enters the mouth of the womb,
And she has pain in bringing forth.
And one portion of them shall look on the other,
And they shall be terrified,
And they shall be downcast of countenance,
And pain shall seize them,
When they see that Son of Man Sitting on the throne of his glory.
6 And the kings and the mighty and all who possess the earth shall bless and glorify and extol him who rules over all, who was hidden.
7 For from the beginning the Son of Man was hidden,
And the Most High preserved him in the presence of His might,
And revealed him to the elect.
As Doherty remarks, (and I am indebted to his discussion for some sections of this post), there are scholars who think this later section of Enoch’s Similitudes is a Christian composition.
While preparing this post I came across a 1968 article in New Testament Studies (14, pp. 565-7) by F. H. Borsch that argues that “they will see” as used in 1 Enoch here is more likely to have been original to this Enochian passage than copied from Mark or Matthew.
Mark 14:62 uses the same phrase we see above in Enoch:
“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Borsch reasons that “they will see” more naturally and completely draws its meaning in Enoch from the detail that the Son of Man was hidden — and at the right time revealed. If so, the argument tilts in favour of Mark copying from Enoch, as opposed to a later Christian adapting Mark or Matthew into Enoch.
Very little is absolutely certain.
But I think it is certain that we do find very little of a biographical interest in a recently earthly and historical life of Christ in the epistles, but we do find at least the raw materials in Jewish scriptures that give the basic shape to a Messiah who ruled over the powers of the earth, preached a good news of liberation, healed the lame and blind, was opposed by kings and rulers, was delivered up to humiliation and even death, but not for himself, and was vindicated by God immediately afterwards.
I could as well have repeated what I wrote earlier about the messianic functions of the priests (largely drawn from Thompson’s discussion of messiahs), and the concept of the (hight priestly) messiah’s death having atoning, and liberating, significance — but will instead just include a link to that here.
Now none of this is new, of course. Christians have been pointing to these Old Testament “prophecies” ever since Christianity began. What Doherty argues — and I have used large slices of Doherty’s argument above, but have also mixed in some of my own ingredients (i.e. the kings of Judah, the Borsch article, Daniel 9, the basic slant of argument) — is that the process was the reverse from the orthodox view. Rather than Christians seeking to rationalize past events in the light of scriptures, they found Christ revealed to them in the scriptures. And the point of this post is to emphasize that even the invention of a crucified — or certainly martyred — messiah is not beyond plausibility.
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
- Imagining an Alternative to Human Rights - 2022-08-09 13:17:59 GMT+0000
- “Some Underlying Tradition” — a review of Writing With Scripture, part 10 - 2022-08-06 14:23:27 GMT+0000
- How (and Why) Jewish Scriptures are used in Mark’s Passion Narrative — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 9 - 2022-08-05 18:30:35 GMT+0000
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!