Did the Jews before Christ expect a national Messiah?

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by Neil Godfrey

The answer is, I think, no. In this post I quote a few sections from Professor Richard Horsley‘s work Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus.

(Since there is currently a discussion under way at the Freeratio Discussion Board that relates to this question, and since this is a topic I have discussed a few times already, this is a good opportunity to bring out another work I don’t recall using as much as I should have before.)

Horsley notes that common views today about ancient Jewish beliefs about the messiah have been “heavily influenced by western christological doctrine.” (p. 89) That’s never a good sign. Religious bias getting in the way again?

He writes bluntly:

[R]ecent studies have made clear that in pre-Christian times there was no general expectation of “The Messiah.” Far from being uniform, Jewish messianic expectations in the early Roman period were diverse and fluid. It is not even certain that the term messiah was used as a title in any literature of the time. There was no uniform expectation of “the messiah” until well after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., when it became standardized as a result of scholarly rabbinic reflection. In fact, the term is relatively rare in literature prior to, or contemporary with, Jesus. Moreover, the designation messiah is not an essential element in Jewish eschatological expectation. Indeed, a royal figure does not even occur in much of Jewish apocalyptic literature. Thus it is an oversimplification and a historical misconception to say that the Jews expected a “national” or “political” messiah, whereas early Christianity centered around a “spiritual” messiah — statements frequently found in New Testament interpretation. It would thus appear that the supposedly standard Jewish ideas or expectations of the messiah are a flimsy foundation indeed from which to explain early Christian understanding of Jesus. (pp. 90-91, my emphasis)

Davidic King Not Necessarily a Son of David

That is not to say that there was no expectation of some deliverer figure, a royal leader of some sort, among some levels of Jewish society. (p. 91) “At certain levels of Jewish society” — Horsley goes on to clarify that he is thinking of the literate strata of society — there was some anticipation of a royal saviour – a future Davidic King. But that Davidic king, says Horsley, “was not necessarily a son of David.”

Like the title “Messiah,” the explicit term “Son of David” simply does not occur with any frequency in Jewish literature until after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. (p. 91)

Horsley goes on to make the point that ought to be more obvious to anyone who stops to think about it:

In contrast to the care and concern about legitimate descent and genealogy of the priestly and especially high priestly families in Jewish society at this time, it may be seriously doubted that there existed any families whose descent from the house of David could be confirmed.

It doesn’t take very many generations before any Thomas, Diklah and Hur could claim some relationship to the old royal family.

So the concept of a Davidic King was symbolic, not genetic:

The point is that the imagery of a Davidic king symbolized substantively what this agent of God would do: liberate and restore the fortunes of Israel, as had the original David. (p. 91)

Hence the first Jewish leader we know of to claim to be the Davidic Messiah was Bar Kochba who made no claim to being descended from David. The literate elites, says Horsley, may have had biblical references to the “Davidic covenant” in 2 Samuel 7 at the centre of their speculations,

However, we suspect that for the common people, other strands of ancient tradition were more important than the official ideology of kingship. (p. 92)

In connection with this latter thought, what I understand Horsley to be indicating is some of the later leaders of rebel movements (after Jesus) that appeared to mimic Moses or Joshua, for example.

The key thing always to “keep in mind”, Horsley reminds us, is that

we must keep in mind not only that kingship may not have been the only or even primary focus, but also that we are extrapolating from literary evidence which was edited, if not actually produced, by the literate elite. (p. 98)

There is no evidence of a revival of royal messianic hopes

Horsley surveys the generations leading up to and contemporary with Jesus:

It is striking that throughout the whole Hellenizing reform, Antiochean persecution, and Maccabean revolt, there is no evidence of a revival of royal messianic hopes. (p. 101)

The Hasmoneans?

The people and their leaders (e.g., the Hasmoneans Judas and Jonathan) must have been sorely disillusioned with the high priests. . . . Yet instead of reviving royal imagery and titles, the Hasmonean leadership assumed the high priestly role . . . (p. 101)

This, Horsley suggests, surely correctly, that there was more popular interest in the priestly revival than any notion of a royal deliverance at the time.

But there is no question that the biblical promises to David and of a future king were known during the Persian and Hellenistic times (e.g. Sir. 47:11, 22; 1 Macc. 2:57) — even probably by the peasantry, says Horsley. But there’s a but:

Any expectation of a Davidic king, however, was relegated to the dim and distant future, not applied to the immediate political situation. This was true even during the intense distress of the persecution and resultant Maccabean revolt, at which time the apocalyptic “dream-visions” of 1 Enoch 83-90 must have been written. . . . [T]he figure that plays the messianic role of the future ruler does not emerge until after the judgment and the advent of the New Jerusalem, at the very end of the vision (1 Enoch 90:37-38). (p. 102)

Horsley then goes on to examine the conditions that led to the later rise of the tradition of a popular kingship to come. Certain learned groups, such as the Qumran community, he thinks, may have helped prepare the way. But that discussion will have to wait for a future time.

Meanwhile, one scholar, Joseph Fitzmyer, has written a book, The One Who Is to Come, that appears to largely forget Horsley’s advice about the sources of our information about messiahs and Davidic kings, and fails to adequately distinguish between the elites who produced that literature and the general populace. This led one reviewer, Jeffrey Staley, to write the following in which he reminds us of the research of scholars like Horsley

There is no serious attempt to place messianism within the broader matrix of social history. There is no interaction with, say, Richard Horsley or John Dominic Crossan’s work on social banditry and peasant movements (Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus; The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant). One might then ask of Fitzmyer what communities he thinks are reflected in his textual study. If, as many have suggested, only 5 percent of the ancient Mediterranean population could read and write, then what segment of the population is reflected in Fitzmyer’s analysis? Is his “history of an idea” representative of Jewish belief at large, or does it represent only a small segment of the population? Does Fitzmyer’s study of the “history of an idea” reflect only the elites’ mental peregrinations, which are largely unrelated to the general masses? And what difference, if any, would his answer to this question make to this “history of an idea”?

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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “Did the Jews before Christ expect a national Messiah?”

  1. This is fascinating and something that I would immediately wonder is what process took place post 70 so that Bar Kochba could be regarded by some as “the Messiah.”

    1. It will be a little while before I can get to do more from this book, but Horsley’s answer in significant part — and certainly the one I think highly likely — is the defeat of the Jews in the war with Rome. Destruction and all that went with it — now that’s the sort of situation that one expects to produce either utter despair or unrealistic dreams.

  2. The expectation of a national messiah seems to be a basic premise in Bart Ehrman’s argument for the historicity of Jesus, which was given during the question and answer part of his 3/21/11 lecture to the Commonwealth Club. The question Erhman was answering was: “What do you consider the most convincing evidence for the historicity of Jesus?” I hope I have succeeded in accurately transcribing Ehrman’s answer:

    The earliest traditions about Jesus call him the messiah and say that he got crucified. Those two things are incommensurate. Now, they don’t seem incommensurate to people today, because people think the messiah had to get crucified because Jesus was the messiah and got crucified. But the idea of a messiah is a Jewish idea–that there’s going to be some future person sent from God as a savior for the Jewish people. What did Jews think this messiah was going to be like? If they talked about a messiah–well, there are actually different ways of understanding the messiah in the ancient world. Some people thought the messiah would be a great political figure, a warrior who would overthrow the enemy and set up God’s kingdom in Jerusalem–a powerful figure who would overthrow the enemy. Other people thought the messiah was going to be a supernatural figure, who was going to come from heaven to destroy the enemy and set up God’s kingdom. And there are a few other expectations. The one thing all these expectations have in common is that the messiah was going to be a powerful figure who overthrew the enemy. And how did the Christians portray Jesus? Not as somebody who overthrew the enemy, but somebody who got squashed by the enemy–who was tortured to death by the Romans. Now if you want to make up a story about the messiah, would you make up a story that he got squashed by the enemy and got crucified, the lowest form of execution in the empire. No, if you’re going to make up a story about the messiah, you make up a story–well actually he overthrew the Romans and that he’s the king in Jerusalem now. Well, why didn’t they make up that story? Because he wasn’t the king in Jerusalem, and everyone knew he wasn’t the king in Jerusalem. Everybody knew that Jesus got crucified. This is why Christians had the hardest time convincing people that Jesus really was the messiah. Because nobody expected the messiah to be crucified. But he says yah, but doesn’t the Old Testament say that he was abused for our iniquities–wounded for our transgressions, the chastisement for our peace is upon him, by his wounds we were healed, Isaiah 53? Yes, and look at Isaiah 53–read it sometime and ask: does it mention the messiah? In fact, it doesn’t mention the messiah; it’s not referring to the messiah. What about Psalm 22–“my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Yes, it isn’t talking about the messiah. Jews knew this, and Jews read these texts and said look, these aren’t even talking about the messiah. Christians said, yes they are; Jews said no they’re not, and this was the argument. The point is, the idea of Jesus being a Juh–the messiah–is a completely Jewish conception, but the idea that Jesus is crucified cuts completely against the Jewish conception of the messiah, which means if somebody made up the story of Jesus, they would not have made up the story of a crucified.messiah. The reason you get the idea of a Christian crucified messiah is because Christians said Jesus is the messiah, and Christians knew that Jesus got crucified, and Christians concluded, the messiah must be crucified–that’s the logic–but you wouldn’t make it up. If someone wouldn’t make up that story, where does it come from? It comes from there being a person Jesus that got crucified. So I think that is one argument.

    If you listen to the talk, you will find that Ehrman makes a lot of these statements very emphatically. I chose to emphasize the part that seemed most relevant here.

    1. Yet Horsley contradicts Ehrman’s statements here. Horsley points to the evidence pre-70 CE that the idea of a Davidic royal messiah was a remote end-time event for theological dreams, like the ending of our Revelation with God coming down from heaven to build a new earth.

      I have been pushing and searching to find the evidence on which claims like Ehrman’s are based — one encounters them so often — but have come up with nothing.

      I notice my scribblings in Horsley’s book are quite old. Maybe I was prompted to ask the question in the first place quite some time ago after reading him — I can’t remember now.

      The closest “evidence” for a “pre-Jesus expectation” are the rebel movements among Jews preceding the Jewish war. But surely those are symptoms of deeper socio-economic developments after the time of Jesus. We must not confuse them with common bandit problems, either. And rebel movements and banditry were hardly restricted to Jews under the Roman empire. Besides, some of those movements described by Josephus look to me more like mimicry of Joshua or Moses (e.g. expecting the Jordan to part) at least this is what Josephus wanted us to think). The next step in the argument is to say Josephus was too fearful or diplomatic to remind Romans of messianic movements among the Jews, which may have been the case — but his accounts of these movements can hardly be used as positive evidence for that.

      1. But even if it couldn’t be argued that Ehrman’s is all wet on the business about the messiah, I don’t think his argument would be a good one. It seems to me that the whole “if you want to make up a story about the messiah” argument seems rather phony. Recycling a story of a crucifixion is something rather different from just making up a completely new story, and Ehrman knew that, but he also knew that nobody in that particular audience was going to take issue with his argument. The gods Horus, Attis, and Osiris (and many others) had their crucifixion stories, so the idea that crucifixion was the “lowest form of execution in the empire,” if true, seems irrelevant. If it was a common thing for some gods to endure, why would it have been thought to be inappropriate for a messiah?

          1. There happens to be a web page that concerns a book about 16 of them, but the author of the page cautions that the scholarship of the book has been questioned, but that “Six will prove as well as sixteen.” The latter is from the bottom of the page under the discussion of the “Origin of the Belief of the Crucifixion of Gods” in which there is this statement:

            Christian reader, what can you now make of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ but a borrowed legend — at least the story of his being crucified as a God?

  3. It seems that, in the context of messianism, Horsley’s writings may be read as a passionate attack on Martin Hengel (1926-2009) and his work, “Die Zeloten.” According to Horsley, Hengel committed the same sin as Luther:

    “Christian biblical scholars have often used stereotypes of ancient Jewish phenomena as foils for their own preferred Christian nova. For generations the stereotype of Pharisaic or rabbinic ‘works-righteousness’ and self-justification has been used as a foil for the Pauline (= Lutheran) doctrine of ‘justification by faith.’ The supposedly widespread and fanatical ‘Zealot’ movement or ‘Jewish nationalism’ has been used as a foil of violent rebellion over against which Jesus was then portrayed as a sober prophet of nonviolence or even nonresistance. Or the supposedly crudely ‘political’ Jewish messianic expectation has been used as a counterpoise for Jesus as the truly ‘spiritual’ Messiah” (Horsley, “Messianic” Figures and Movements in First-century Palestine, in: J. H. Charlesworth, ed., The Messiah [Minneapolis, 1992]).

    Bart D. Ehrman is probably falling into the same trap as Hengel.

    1. Yet it is the scholars who write within the frameworks of the traditional Christian stereotypes who seem to be the ones in the public eye the most. It was when I discovered this some years back that I was incensed enoiugh to start this blog and to try to do my bit to point out that such publications were not really were the cutting edge scholarship was at.

  4. The word Messiah is still mentioned way back by the Jews,1st Temple and before that, starting with Psalms of King David. and , yes, the Messiah will be from the family of King David. and, yes, Bar Chochba was a huge mistake

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