Messiahs and Eschatology in Second Temple Judaism

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by Neil Godfrey

Some readers will be interested in what Martin Goodman had to say about Jewish concepts of the Messiah in the Second Temple era. As much as I’m tempted to add my own comments I will restrain myself. I have written enough of my own perspective on this question other times I have addressed “messianic expecations” (as distinct from messianic speculations). I have replaced endnote numbers with citations.

. . . There is no evidence of an agreed coherent eschatology within any ancient Jewish group. It is, however, striking that expectation of some dramatic change in the world was so widespread. Even the philosopher Philo, whose interpretation of the Torah generally focused firmly on the psychological need of the individual worshipper to concentrate on the higher meaning of the laws, still let slip an uncharacteristic hope that God would one day bring to an end ‘the enmity of wild beasts which is activated by natural antipathy’ and produce an age in which nature will be at peace:

When that time comes I believe that bears and lions and panthers and the Indian animals, elephants and tigers, and all others whose vigour and power are invincible, will change their life of solitariness and isolation for one of companionship, and gradually in imitation of the gregarious creatures show themselves tame when brought face to face with mankind … Then too the tribes of scorpions and serpents and the other reptiles will have no use for their venom.

Philo did derive a moral message from the analogy between these wild beasts and the wild beasts within the soul, but it seems likely that this idealized picture, so close to the prophecy in Isaiah of the lion lying down with the lamb, owed more than a little to popular conceptions of the perfect time when the last days arrive. [Philo, On Rewards and Punishments 85, 89-90]

In some Jewish texts the central figure in these events of the last days is called the Messiah, ‘the anointed.’ Some texts, like the Psalms of Solomon, describe the Messiah as a human figure, descended from David:

Behold, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to reign over your servant Israel in the time which you did foresee, O God. Gird him with strength to destroy unrighteous rulers, and purge Jerusalem from the nations who trample her down to destruction … And he will be a righteous king over them, taught by God. There will be no unrighteousness among them in his days, for all shall be holy, and their king shall be the anointed Lord. [Psalms of Solomon 17:21-22, 32]

In other texts, however, the Messiah is described as a supernatural figure, as befits the events in which he is involved. So the author of 2 Baruch, a description of a series of visions alleged to have been experienced by Baruch, amanuensis of the prophet Jeremiah, but in fact composed by a Jew, probably in Hebrew, in the late first century CE and now preserved only in Christian translations into Syriac and Arabic:

And it will happen after these things when the time of the appearance of the Anointed has been fulfilled and he returns with glory, that then all who sleep in hope of him will rise. And it will happen at that time that those treasuries will be opened in which the number of the souls of the righteous were kept, and they will go out and the multitudes of the souls will appear together, in one sole assembly, of one mind … The souls of the wicked, on the contrary, will waste away completely when they shall see all these things. [2 Baruch 30:1-2, 4]

Among the Dead Sea sectarians are to be found varied and conflicting ideas about the nature of the Messiah. Sometimes the scrolls envisage just one royal, Davidic, triumphant Messiah, but sometimes a Messiah of Israel was contrasted to a Messiah of Aaron, who in turn was differentiated from ‘the Prophet’:

They shall depart from none of the counsels of the Law to walk in all the stubbornness of their hearts, but shall be ruled by the first precepts in which the men of the Community began to be instructed until there shall come a prophet and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel. [1QS 9:9-11]

In the Assumption of Moses, an address said to have been delivered by Moses to Joshua just before the former’s death, a description is given of the last days in which no Messiah appears at all. The same is true also of the detailed battle described in the War Rule from Qumran — there victory is achieved not through a royal Messiah but by the intervention of the archangel Michael. The Mishnah, the foundation document of early rabbinic Judaism, has so little to say about the Messiah that it has been described as presenting ‘Judaism without Messiah.’ That is an exaggeration, since in fact a few mentions are found — and the scarcity of messianic references may owe more to the genre of the Mishnah, a compilation of legal opinions, than it does to the wider outlook of those who compiled it. It is hardly surprising that the concept of the Messiah is assumed rather than elaborated in such a work. [Neusner, Jacob. 1987. ‘Mishnah and Messiah.’ In Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era, 265–81]

Despite the eventual emergence of Christianity from late Second Temple Judaism, the figure of the Messiah is either missing or unimportant in many Jewish religious texts of this period. Christian interest in messianism may explain why much more is to be found about the figure of the Messiah at the end of days in the early Jewish literature preserved by Christians than in the Jewish literature of the second and third centuries CE preserved by the rabbis. However, the eschatological emphasis of some of the writings produced by the Dead Sea sect, all of which survive through chance alone, and the appearance in many different Qumran documents of references to a Messiah or to messianic qualities (‘son of David’), demonstrate that messianic speculation was also common among groups of Jews about whom the later Christian tradition was apparently ignorant. What remains significant is the lack of coherence in the picture of the expected Messiah which emerges even from the Jewish writings which Christians used as texts of religious value. One would have expected the early Church to emphasize all the literature they could find which showed Jews to be engrossed in messianic speculation, since the only Jewish group in the first century CE which came to define itself by its devotion to a Messiah was the Christians themselves, whose name “Christians” means “enthusiasts for Christos, Messiah.” The fact that the picture of the Messiah which emerges from all the literature they did preserve is so confused, fragmentary and contradictory indicates that this confusion was indeed standard among Jews. (pp. 199-201)

Goodman’s larger discussion is actually about Jewish eschatology and the above section on messianic views is only a part of that. In conclusion he writes:

Much Jewish eschatology was thus otherworldly, and could be understood by sympathetic Romans as a return to the lost golden age, as when Jews hoped for a time when gentiles will pay homage to the Messiah because they will recognize that God has given him power:

[The Lord] shall have mercy on all the nations who reverently stand before him,

according to the eschatological vision of the author of the Psalms of Solomon in the mid-first century BCE. At other times Jewish expectations for the other nations of the world were more black, particularly in the shadow of recent disaster:

When the nations are troubled and the time of my Anointed comes, he will call all nations, and some of them he will spare, and others he will kill. These things will befall the nations which will be saved by him. Every nation which has not reigned over Israel and which has not trodden down the seed of Jacob will live … All those, now, who have ruled over you, or have known you, will be delivered up to the sword. [2 Baruch 72:2-4, 6] 

But this all lay in the distant future. In any case, some of the eschatological hopes of some Jews included a role for good gentiles, with the prediction that in the end times all humanity would recognize the sovereignty of the Jewish God. Isaiah had long ago written:

It shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow to it. And many people shall go and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths; for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.’

The New Jerusalem for which Jews yearned was a heavenly city only loosely related to that on earth. It would be revealed by God when he deemed fit. In the meantime Jews could only describe visions about its remarkable appearance: the report of an angel’s detailed measurements of the gates, avenues and houses of the eschatological city, found in a first-century CE Aramaic writing of which fragments were discovered in five different caves at Qumran, follows the same pattern as the vision recorded by the prophet Ezekiel many years before. Jews continued to harbour such hopes over the centuries after the end of antiquity during which they lived in peace while they were ruled by other peoples. In principle they could have retained their eschatological expectations while living in peace also under Roman rule. [5Q 15; Ezek. 40-48] (pp. 203-4)

Goodman, Martin. 2007. Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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6 thoughts on “Messiahs and Eschatology in Second Temple Judaism”

  1. Re the Messiah. I encourage you to read Thomas L. Thompson 2005 book “The Messiah Myth”. However, if you haven’t yet read his “The Mythic Past” you will have trouble accepting many of Thompson’s ideas about the Messiah.

    I see eschatology as just another example of Utopian thinking, which means it goes Nowhere.

  2. The concept of the messiah/king who comes to bring peace to all is not unique to Judaism and Christianity. You find the same concepts in Egyptian religion. The book by Thomas L. Thomson that James E. Faubel recommended is a good book that goes into this. Other scholars have pointed out the parallels between the coronation of the Davidic messiah/king and Egyptian coronation hymns.

    “Scripturture and Other Artifacts: Essays on the Bible and Archaeology in Honor of Philip J. King” edited by Philip J. King, Michael David Coogan, J. Cheryl Exum, Lawrence E. Stager:
    “A number of scholars have suggested that Isaiah’s messianic oracles in chapters 9 and 11 were structured as enthronement or coronation hymns celebrating the accession of Hezekiah–or some other king–to the throne. One further body of archaeological evidence is worth noting here which helps to validate this interpretation of the oracles. Over the years a number of Egyptian coronation hymns have been retrieved from several periods. They reveal patterns of content and imagery that can be found reflected in Isaiah’s messianic oracles.”

    “The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David” By Thomas L. Thompson:
    “The frequent references to “the kingdom of God” in the gospels and sayings attributed to Jesus in the controversial gospel of Thomas all point to an earlier tradition: like king David before him, the Jesus of the Bible is an amalgamation of themes from near eastern mythology and traditions of kingship and divinity. The theme of a messiah–a divinely appointed king who restores the world to perfection–is typical of Egyptian and Babylonian royal ideology…”

    “King and Messiah as Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature” by Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins:
    “The invitation to the king to sit at the right hand of the deity, however, has long been recognized as an Egyptian motif, known from the iconography of the New Kingdom. Amenophis III and Haremhab are depicted seated to the right of a deity. The position is not only one of honor, but bespeaks the very close association of the king and the deity. The invitation to the king suggests that at his enthronement he was thought to be seated at the right hand of the deity… That which comes forth at, or from, Dawn is the sun, the primary image for the deity in the Egyptian tradition. The imagery of the Psalm associates the king with the rising sun, with all it’s mythological connotations… The motifs of seating at the right hand and sun-like emergence from the dawn, however, strongly suggest an Egyptian background. It seems reasonably clear that the psalm refers to the begetting of the king. Like Psalm 2, it should be viewed as reflecting a Jerusalemite enthronement ceremony, which was influenced, if only indirectly, by Egyptian mythology about the divine birth of the king… In light of this discussion, it seems very likely that the Jerusalem enthronement ritual was influenced, even if only indirectly, by Egyptian ideas of kingship. At least as a matter
    of court rhetoric, the king was declared to be the son of God, and could be called an elohim, a god. This is not to say that the Judahite and Egyptian conceptions were identical. Most probably, the Israelites took over their conception of kingship from the Canaanite forebears in Jerusalem, and modified it in various ways.

  3. Some Jews did believe in a Messiah never the less, the belief wouldn’t be embedded in Christianity otherwise. It’s overegged, but only because Christanity is one of the two surving Judaisms; the other being Rabbinic Judaism, which similarly overeggs the Pharisees.

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