Origin of the Myth that the Jews Expected a Messiah

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by Neil Godfrey

William Scott Green
William Scott Green

I put Richard Carrier’s arguments on hold in this post in order to point out what another scholar I have not yet cited has had to say about what J. H. Charlesworth calls “the myth that Jews expected a Messiah and knew what functions he would perform.” I would even say William Scott Green‘s opening chapter, “Introduction: Messiah in Judaism: Rethinking the Question”, in Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era, is obligatory reading and discussion for anyone interested in this question.

Green’s chapter helped me identify much of the fallacious reasoning and unfounded assumptions that underpin all efforts I have encountered attempting to prove that Second Temple Jews gave much attention to messianic hopes. What we tend to see in the arguments is, in Green’s words, a form of “proof-texting” carried out to justify one’s a priori assumptions about Second Temple religion and attitudes. Worse, most of the arguments attempting to demonstrate a messianic fever are based on texts where there is no mention of the messiah idea at all and in spite of other clear and explicit statements in the documents to the contrary.

The irony here is that Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, and others who identify the fallacious presumptions scholars bring to their reading of the New Testament epistles fail to see that they share with many of those same scholars the same type of fallacy at the heart of this particular question.

Green’s chapter needs to be read in its entirety, but I single out a few sentences.

The major studies [of the messiah at the turn of the Christian era] have sought to trace the development and transformations of putative messianic belief through an incredible and nearly comprehensive array of ancient literary sources – from its alleged genesis in the Hebrew Bible through the New Testament, rabbinic literature, and beyond – as if all these writings were segments of a linear continuum and were properly comparable. Such work evidently aims to shape a chronological string of supposed messianic references into a plot for a story whose ending is already known; it is a kind of sophisticated proof-texting. This diegetical approach to the question embeds the sources in the context of a hypothetical religion that is fully represented in none of them. It thus privileges what the texts do not say over what they do say.

(Green 1987, p.2)

The term “messiah” has scant and inconsistent use in early Jewish texts. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Pseudepigrapha, and the entire Apocrypha, contain no reference to “the messiah.” Moreover, a messiah is neither essential to the apocalyptic genre nor a prominent feature of ancient apocalyptic writings.

(Green 1987, p.2)

The Myth’s Origins

So what has led to today’s situation where it is taken for granted that

“In the time of Jesus the Jews were awaiting a Messiah.” (Mowinckel, He That Cometh, p. 3)

“from the first century B.C.E., the Messiah was the central figure in the Jewish myth of the future” (Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979), p. xxvii.

“belief in the Messiah [is one of the four] good gifts which the people of Israel have left as an inheritance to the entire world.” (Klausner, Messianic Idea, p. 13)

Green’s explanation for this misguided state of affairs is that the academic study of “the messiah” derived not from an interest in Judaica but rather from “early Christian word-choice, theology, and apologetics.” First, he points to the problem faced:

Early Christians, and particularly the earliest Christian writers, had to establish a discourse that made Jesus’ career reasonable, his unexpected death believable, and their audacious commitment and new collective life plausible. The New Testament’s gingerly application of multiple titles to Jesus suggests a crisis of classification, the dilemma of a signified without a signifier. The New Testament records various solutions to this problem. Two of them were determinative for the study of the messiah.

(p. 4)

Secondly, the identifies two solutions to the problem in particular.

  1. They gave Jesus a “surname” Christ and this term (=Messiah) acquired a supreme significance. Imagine if they had chosen to name Jesus as Jesus Lord or Jesus Rabbi or Jesus Son of Man instead of Jesus Christ.
  2. The New Testament authors turned the Hebrew Scriptures into the foreshadowing of Jesus Christ‘s career, suffering, death. The promise-fulfillment motif was introduced. Genealogies rooting him to the same scriptures were also introduced.

One may dispute the way Green models these developments and propose alternative explanations but his essential points remain valid.

By naming Jesus christos and depicting him as foretold and expected – “not something brand-new, but something newly restored and fulfilled”21 – early Christian writers . . . situated the messiah’s origin not in the present but in Israelite antiquity and thus established the Hebrew scriptures as a sequence of auguries. Reading scripture became, and to a large extent has remained, an exercise in deciphering and tracing a linear progression of portents. In Gerhard Von Rad’s words,

“The Old Testament can only be read as a book of ever increasing anticipation.”22

Or, as Joachim Becker puts it,

“the Old Testament itself and even the history that lies behind it possess a unique messianic luminosity.”23

. . .  [T]he messiah was rooted in Israel’s past, and his appearance could be tracked and plotted, perhaps even calculated, through time. On the model provided by Matthew and Luke, the messiah emerges not as an abrupt response to a contemporary crisis, but as the ultimate fulfillment of centuries of accumulated hope and intensifying expectation. He is a constant desideratum, an inevitability, an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary figure. In a word, the messiah is the culmination and completion of an ancient Israelite tradition.

(pp. 5-6)

And our cultural heritage has bequeathed to us this traditional Christian way of reading the Jewish Scriptures and the way we understands early “Judaism” itself. (We can begin to appreciate a little more, I trust, why I expressed misgivings in an earlier post about the arguments of a devout Christian scholar like Craig Evans whom Carrier cites frequently.)

So Christian ideology or doctrine has subliminally governed the way we have read the Jewish writings. We have continued to read messianic promises, expectations, hopes, into them.

How Scholarship Sustains the Myth

Green surveys the various relevant texts and concludes:

We have seen that in Jewish writings before or during the emergence of Christianity, “messiah” appears neither as an evocative religious symbol nor as a centralizing native cultural category. Rather, it is a term of disparity, used in few texts and in diverse ways. Not surprisingly, therefore, studies of the messiah in ancient Judaism that employ the inherited model tend to assign little importance to the function or meaning of the term in discrete documents. For example, Franz Hesse’s widely used article asserts that

” . . . none of the Messianic passages in the OT can be exegeted Messianically. Nevertheless, the so-called Messianic understanding is implied in many of the passages, although this is more evident in texts in which the term mashiah is not used.” (Hesse, “Chrio,” p. 504)

That is, if the evidence (in this case, the merely incidental references to messiah) does not support the picture of widespread Jewish messianic expectations, then the scholar is urged to interpret the texts as “implying” the scholar’s assumptions, and to interpret the non-messianic texts as messianic ones.

Nearly a quarter of his study of the use of mashiah in the Hebrew Bible deals with passages in which the term does not appear. Likewise, Geza Vermes acknowledges that the meaning of “messiah” will appear variable

” . . . if each single usage of the term in the Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls and early rabbinic sources is taken into account and accorded equal importance.”

But Vermes doubts the value of such a procedure:

“It would seem more appropriate to bear in mind the difference between the general Messianic expectation of Palestinian Jewry, and the peculiar Messianic speculations characteristic of certain learned and/or esoterical minorities.” (Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew, p. 130)

These arguments, which are representative of a type, appear to suggest that the best way to learn about the messiah in ancient Judaism is to study texts in which there is none.

(p. 6)

Carrier cites Geza Vermes in his argument for messianic expectations. Green’s comment on the Vermes quotation above reads

On the basis of seven passages, drawn from the Psalms of Solomon, the Dead Sea Scrolls, rabbinic literature, and Philo, only four of which employ the term “messiah,” Vermes concludes (p. 134) that

“ancient Jewish prayer and Bible interpretation demonstrate unequivocally that if in the inter-Testamental era a man claimed, or was proclaimed, to be ‘the Messiah’, his listeners would as a matter of course have assumed that he was referring to the Davidic Redeemer. . . .”

He then demonstrates (pp. 135- 40) that at least four non-Davidic understandings also were possible.

The result of these types of arguments is that discussions of the topic

typically devote less attention to concrete textual references than to discussion of a religious attitude allegedly at the core of Israelite and Jewish experience: the so-called “future hope.” (p. 7)

So with this presumption that a “future hope” lies at the core of Second Temple beliefs scholars can “collect an extraordinary number and range of biblical and postbiblical texts under a single “messianic” category and treat their contents as species of a genus.”

Almost any textual reference to the future, or to eternity, or to an idealized figure – to say nothing of verses with unclear temporal limits – is an immediate candidate for inclusion. The absence of eschatology or of the title “messiah” is no barrier. With this rubric, Joseph Klausner could begin his history of the messiah idea in Israel not even with David, but with Moses! (p. 7)

Another consequence brought by Green is that scholars have assumed as an article of faith that the messianic idea can be traced as a single trajectory from Biblical through to Rabbinic times even when the evidence fails to support or even contradicts this scenario. Hesse’s words as quoted by Green pointedly illustrate the problem.

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct a history of the Messianic movement in Israel and post-exilic Judaism from these scanty passages, many of which cannot be dated with any certainty. There undoubtedly must have been such a movement. This is shown by the examples given and it may also be concluded from the fact that Messianism emerges into the clear light of history in later centuries, not merely as a trend that has just arisen in Judaism, but as a movement with hundreds of years of history behind it.(Hesse, “Chrio,” p. 509)

Despite scanty data that cannot be dated with certainty “there must have been” a messianic hope for “hundreds of years” . . . .

Both Christian and Jewish Bias

To violate ordinary scholarly principles of evidence and inference with such forced arguments requires powerful external motivations. It would be disingenuous and unhelpful to pretend that a question as significant and sensitive as the messiah has escaped the vagaries of theological interests, both Christian and Jewish. (p. 8)

See a clear expression of the Christian bias feeding this notion:

We have seen that the messianic prophecies cannot be considered visionary predication of a New Testament fulfillment. In fact, there was not even such a thing as a messianic expectation until the last two centuries B.C. Does this eliminate the traditional picture of messianic expectation? Such a conclusion would contradict one of the most central concerns of the New Testament, which insists with unprecedented frequency, intensity, and unanimity that Christ was proclaimed in advance in the Old Testament. Historical-critical scholarship can never set aside this assertion of the New Testament. We must therefore find an explanation that does justice to both this historical approach and the witness of the New Testament. A synthesis must be sought in which both are preserved. To appeal to the light of faith for this synthesis is not a schizophrenic act of intellectual violence, for revelation and faith go hand in hand with a manifestation of their rationality. . . . The christological actualization of the Old Testament in the New is so commanding that it confronts exegesis with the question of conscience whether the historical-critical methods . . . is in fact a way at all of carrying out the exegesis of the Old Testament as such. (Becker, Messianic Expectation, pp. 93-94)

Is there also a Judaic bias at work? Yes, says Green. The Jewish interest has been to demonstrate that Christianity’s co-option of the messianic idea is but a poor substitute for “the real thing”.

” . . . in the belief in the Messiah of the people of Israel, the political part goes hand in hand with the ethical part, and the nationalistic with the universalistic (Klausner, Messianic Idea, p. 10, his italics)

That is, Christianity merely has the ethical and universalistic elements without their true complements.

Then observe how Jesus fulfilled the “true Jewish” messianic idea:

The Jewish Messianic concept is . . . transformed and lifted up to a wholly other plane. If fact, the Jewish Messiah, as originally conceived, and as most of Jesus’ contemporaries thought of him, was pushed aside and replaced by a new redeemer and mediator of salvation. . . . For Jesus, the Jewish Messianic idea was the temptation of Satan, which he had to reject. The new conception of a saviour, which Jesus created, unites in itself the loftiest elements in both the Jewish and Aryan spirit, and fuses them in a true unity, which is realized in Jesus himself. (Mowinckel, He That Cometh, pp. 449-450)

Other Problems

Green identifies other problems with the view that Jews were obliged to look for redemption and hope in a future messiah. The very idea implies that Judaism or the Israelite and Jewish religions have been failures. Life must wait for fulfillment in some indefinite future. Another problem is that

it uses so little to account for so much. It makes disappointment and defeat the sole cause of both the origination and development, the genesis and crystallization, of messianism. It also requires the postulation of a chronic and endemic religious problem in Judaism, to which the messiah is then portrayed as the necessary and only possible solution. (p. 10)

Green, William Scott. 1987. “Introduction: Messiah in Judaism: Rethinking the Question.” In Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era, edited by Jacob Neusner, William Scott Green and Ernest S. Frerichs, 1-13. Cambridge, Melbourne; Cambridge University Press.



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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Origin of the Myth that the Jews Expected a Messiah”

  1. Christ could have been the messiah in the sense that his atoning death paid the sin debt and reconciled man to God, thereby initiating the end of days as the “first fruits (1 Corinthians 15:23)” of the general resurrection.

  2. “Christ could have been the messiah in the sense that his atoning death paid the sin debt and reconciled man to God”
    The senses of a word are established by its usage. Is that sense apparent in any non-Christian usage of the word?

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