“The Chosen People Were Not Awaiting the Messiah”

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by Neil Godfrey

One widely held view that I have long questioned is that there were widespread expectations or hopes for a soon-coming messiah around the time of Jesus. One line of evidence often cited in support for this scenario are the scrolls from Qumran. I have posted regularly on the evidence and what various scholars have had to say about it, and now happily (for me) I have found one more scholar who has likewise questioned the prevailing assumption and specifically pointed to the failure of the Qumran scrolls to indicate the existence of messianic fervour or imminent hopes prior to the Jewish War of 66-70 CE. The author speaks of Judahism to distinguish the religious ideas and practices of later (200 CE – 600 CE Judaism).

Three characteristics of the apparently Messianic usage of the Damascus Document are noteworthy. First is the way that this Moshiah – whom one would expect to be central to the discussion – is only mentioned briefly, almost with a passing nod. The concept of Messiah is there, certainly, but the Damascus Document almost says that, really, it’s no big deal. This is very curious indeed. Secondly, there is the matter of the title “Messiah of Aaron and Israel,” or, more accurately, “Anointed One of Aaron and Israel.” This seems to apply directly to a future High Priest, for it is to Aaron that the competing high priestly lines traced their ecclesiastical ancestry. So the future Moshiah will be a High Priest with the proper credentials. This position, that Messiah will be a proper High Priest, is buttressed by a fragment from Qumran Cave No. 11 (again if, and only if one accepts that this document comes from the same belief system as does the Damascus Rule). This fragment is an apocalyptic piece in which Melchizedek is presented as the active agent of God, and Moshiah as the messenger of Melchizedek. Messiah is identified as the man “anointed of the spirit about whom Daniel spoke” (11Q Melchizedek 2:18). The reference almost certainly is to the high priest who is forecast in Daniel’s prophecy of the “seventy weeks.” Thirdly, in what seems to be a related Qumran document, one given the name “Rule of the Community,” or “the Community Rule,” there is a fleeting eschatological reference to the way the religious community in question was to be run “until the prophet comes, and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel” (Rule 9:11). Note the plural. From this many scholars have concluded that not one, but two Messiahs would appear to redeem the righteous. This belief in two Messiahs is injected thence into the Damascus Document, with the assertion that “Messiah of Aaron and Israel” really means Messiahs of Aaron and Israel, and is best differentiated as meaning “Messiah of Aaron” and “Messiah of Israel.”

This is not bad scholarship, but it certainly is confusing eschatology. What, indeed, did the texts in the Qumran library mean when they referred to Messiah? We must remain confused, because the authors of the documents were confused. The concept of Messiah in the Qumran documents is neither central, nor is it very well thought out, and these judgements hold whether one wishes to read the Qumran manuscripts as independent and unrelated items, or as texts that dovetail into one another.

Yet, consider the context in which these Qumran documents were found; in a library that included copies of various complex texts that were basic to the Judahist tradition. These ranged from entire sets of what later became the canonical Hebrew scriptures (save for the Book of Esther) and big and complex volumes, such as the Book of Jubilees and the Book of Enoch. This means that whoever wrote the four Qumran documents I have referred to above, almost certainly knew how to frame complicated and important concepts within the tradition of Judahist religious invention. Yet, despite this knowledge, the concept of Messiah is left so vague as to be almost evanescent. (That we cannot be sure whether the belief was in one or in two Messiahs is vague indeed.)

This leads to a simple conclusion, but one that most biblical scholars – especially those whose background is the Christian tradition – being dead keen to find any Messianic reference, resist: that the concept of Messiah was only of peripheral interest to later Second Temple Judahism.Even if one speculates that future scholarship on the Qumran libraries may produce from the remaining fragments as many as half-a-dozen more possible references to an Anointed One, or Anointed Ones, it still would not shake the basic point. As indicated by the contemporary texts – the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocrypha, and the Pseudepigrapha – Messiah was at most a minor notion in Judahism around the time of Yeshua of Nazareth. The Chosen People were not awaiting the Messiah. (175-76. Italics original. Bolding mine.)

Akenson, Donald Harman. 2001. Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds. New edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Neil Godfrey

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19 thoughts on ““The Chosen People Were Not Awaiting the Messiah””

  1. Neil I am having trouble understanding you on this one. Firstly your conclusion does not seem to be strongly supported by your premises. Let me explain. While we may not see a preoccupation with Messianism in the DSS, do they not reveal the militancy and war-like nature of the sect ? And if so, then coupled with Josephus’ writings about how the Flavian emperor Vespasion or his son Titus wanted to be accepted by the Jews as their Messiah, are these not explained best by a strong and dangerous Jewish Messianic movement ?

    1. What evidence do you have for the “war-like nature of the sect”? Apocalyptic visions don’t mean that readers themselves are war-like.

      I don’t know of any reason to think Vespasian or Titus “wanted to be accepted by the Jews as their Messiah”. Josephus did wink to Vespasian that he was the one to fulfil an ancient prophecy (but he makes no reference to a “messiah”) and that was surely done by Josephus as a survival tactic. Vespasian was from a lower ranking class than had been the previous dynasty of emperors and he launched a massive propaganda campaign to establish his right to the top job, and part of this propaganda he found most useful was the ability to boast (thanks to Josephus) that he was divinely destined by the gods of the East to rule.

      There is no evidence that any of the rebel movements from the mid to late part of the first century (not in the early first century when as even the Roman historian Tacitus noted “all was quiet”) were messianic. I know many people say that the only reason Josephus did not call them messianic was because he wanted to avoid reminders of that movement for various reasons, but that makes no sense to me. Josephus had no problem referring to false prophets and other ne’er do wells and would surely have been happy to remind everyone that previous messianic movements had been misguided and liquidated.

      I have been wanting to do posts on the evidence for the origins of that war for a long time now. There is no reason at all to introduced messianism to explain it, and there is no evidence that messianism was behind it.

  2. Arguably if and when the Messiah came – the chosen ones were on their last chance and failure to recognise him would mean no longer are the chosen ones chosen.

    That is they might not have been expecting who they should have been expecting.

      1. Apologies for the apologetics … I assure you however I was not trolling. This is what I was thinking at the time of the post.

        Surely, there is enough ‘internal evidence’ in the idea of the coming of the Messiah to come when he is least expected?

        When he is least awaited – in other words a prophecy waiting to be fulfilled – dovetailing with the idea of ‘shepherd for the lost flock of Israel’. It is an angle worth entertaining as that would be one of the proofs of said Messiah claimant – that what better time to come when least expected? It makes sense that during strife the Jews were more likely to yearn for a Messiah to come to be liberated, except for those Jews who were already living off the fat the land. Likewise, a community that were living in a pious bubble would very much take everything in their stride. It would be more important for them to be each Messiah like in their own selves. They already spoke in terms of a sense of duality which indicates that they saw themselves as the ones from whom the Messiah would come.

        I also want to thank you for presenting this quote from Harman – it shows that the Essenes/Qumranites were waiting for a Priest Messiah, perhaps unlike their Jewish brethren. Which Messiah Jew or Priest would be the one for Israel?

        1. Surely, there is enough ‘internal evidence’ in the idea of the coming of the Messiah to come when he is least expected?

          I don’t know of any.

          it shows that the Essenes/Qumranites were waiting for a Priest Messiah, perhaps unlike their Jewish brethren

          It does? Many people read Revelation and other NT books and believe Jesus will come one day — but to say that they are living in anticipation of that event, that they comprise a movement with that hope, is simply not justified by the evidence that we know they have copies of the NT in their homes or even that they read them each Sunday.

          Have you read my posts addressing the sources that are often claimed to be evidence for the sort of thing you are suggesting?

  3. Re the messianism in the “sectarian” texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran–the term “sectarian” is a misnomer but intended here without a priori sociological assumptions to refer to a subclass of Qumran texts which share a range of common specific language and dramatis personae both existing and expected, and which I interpret as largely composed at the time of the final generation or so of the texts as a whole, and–most importantly, and against nearly all Qumran scholars on this point–alluding to largely contemporary contexts and the sobriquets to contemporary dramatis personae contemporary to the time of their authors. The absolute dating of the era of composition of these texts and their sobriquet-bearing and messiah-figure expectations is fairly clear and not too controversial: ca. mid 1st century BCE ending ca. second half of 1st BCE. After late 1st BCE there is no evidence or sound reason to suppose even a single literary text found at Qumran was composed. There are a tiny handful of documentary texts bearing 4Q sigla which appear to be of 1st CE date, none found in situ by archaeologists but identified as 4Q by the Bedouin selling the other black-market 4Q texts, and scholarly debates and uncertainty continue concerning assessment of the Qumran provenance of those 4Q documentary texts, and if so, their association with the huge numbers of literary texts found in the caves of and near Qumran, all without exception of composition dates ending late 1st BCE.

    Therefore the argument cited in the excerpt quoted of this post seems to me somewhat weak, since its claimed evidence for 1st century CE is entirely texts from 1st century BCE. The fact is there are 1st BCE Qumran texts with notions of a Davidic warrior figure (always subordinate to a ruling high priest) who is expected but has not yet materialized, who will overthrow the “Kittim” (Romans) militarily, in an eschatology in which the saints will replace the Romans to become world empire. Then–fast forward to 70 CE–there is Josephus’s and Josephus-derivative Roman historians’ testimony to Jewish expectations of a world ruler out of Judea, which reads extremely well as a Josephan Jeremiah-like spin on a Jewish expectation of a Jewish world ruler (i.e. the idea itself, as distinguished from the Vespasian interpretation thereof, was not newly created by Josephus without precedent). The point being that there is Jewish messianism before 1-70 CE and after 1-70 CE, and by default argument for existence of such in between these two ends, 1-70 CE. The negative argument would be that Josephus, though telling of uprisings and ferment in the second procuratorial period of 1st CE, does not say those were associated with messianic expectations. Yet, does that silence outweigh the expectation that magical and eschatological expectations surround ancient charismatic savior figures as a general phenomenon (making the Gospels’ portrayals of such plausible fiction as distinguished from implausible fiction)? But such should not be assumed to be the same as or limited to later hardened Christian definitions of Jesus as Christ, which would be anachronistic in method.

    I think there is a good argument that what Josephus calls the “fourth philosophy”, Sicarii et al, was core anti-Roman messianic, and that the post-War notion of Jesus as “Christ” is an adaptation of pre-70 messianic ideas which were significant. There is separately already an existing scholarly argument and literature arguing that davidic-warrior messianism emerged coeval with and in response to Roman impact on Judea and the region, which separately parallels Josephus’s portrayal of the “fourth philosophy” ideology of the Revolt having originated out of an earlier uprising against Rome. There are issues concerning Josephus’s portrayal of the sects and their ideologies. But the phenomenon of anti-colonial uprisings having messianic and eschatological ideologies seems familiar anthropologically, and on the face of it to make excellent sense in 1st century CE Judea and the Revolt as well, as an overview (I always think of the classic Marvin Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches). So far as I can see, the silence of Josephus making this explicit is the only negative argument. I agree that that silence does call for explanation.

    1. References: 4QpIsaA (4Q163), 4Q285, and 4QFlor for late-end Qumran texts showing Davidic militant-messianic figure (“messiah” in anthropological not etymological sense). Psalms of Solomon 17, a text also believed to be late 1st BCE in composition but not found at Qumran, has an explicit davidic messiah ruling figure which unlike the slightly earlier Qumran texts shows no subordination to priests or a high priest, and reads as anti-Herod. Does the ancient publication of the PssSol collection incl 17 postdate the end of and reflect ideological development postdating the Qumran texts?

      On davidic messianism arising in Jewish texts ca. 1st BCE (as distinguished from being continuous for centuries), in the same era as and arguably in response to the Roman conquest, this is argued in its various aspects by a number of authors, e.g. Casey Elledge, “The Prince of the Congregation: Qumran ‘Messianism’ in the Context of Milhama”, in M. Davis and B. Strawn, eds, Qumran Studies: New Approaches, New Questions (Eerdmans, 2007), 178-207; Johannes Tromp, “The Davidic Messiah in Jewish Eschatology of the First Century BCE”, in J. Scott, ed., Restoration: Old Testament, Christian, and Jewish Perspectives (Brill, 2001), 179-201; and earlier Kenneth Pomykala, The Davidic Dynasty Tradition in Early Judaism: Its History and Significance for Messianism (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995).

      I see now there is an earlier Vridar post from July 28, 2016, “Questioning Claims about messianic anticipations among Judeans of the early first century [CE]” (at https://vridar.org/2016/07/28/questioning-claims-about-messianic-anticipations-among-judeans-of-the-early-first-century/), relevant here which cites a number of scholars questioning whether there was much messianic expectation in the first century CE, and arguing alternatively that significant messianic expectation is not in evidence in texts, and that messianic expectation that is seen in texts (such as PssSol) may not reflect popular thinking at large. The second of these points–a subset of a wider question of how widespread literacy was–I do not see as quite relevant to what is at issue. On the point about absence of significant messianic expectations in texts, that is debatable (e.g. PssSol, 4QpIsaA). The point of Charlesworth quoted in the earlier Vridar post that the word “messiah” is not used in some texts with messianic (in the anthropological sense) figures is also a mostly irrelevant point in my opinion: yes, “messiah” or “anointed” (= “christ”) did not become a terminus technicus for messiah or Davidic messiah until ca. sometime first century CE in texts, but at issue is the anthropological sense, of eschatological expected deliverer figure whether called by a later terminus technicus or not.

      Just my observations. I see that with respect to drawing conclusions for pre-70 first century CE re this much is indirect and uncertain, and that good and interesting questions are being raised here (on vridar).

      1. It’s an ongoing question of interest of mine. As for the silence wrt the term “messiah” and the “anthropological” viewpoint — I will have a look further at one of the references you mention, but I seem to recall a blossoming of references to the term and interest in messianic expectations arising after 70 CE but not before, which to me is suggestive once again.

      2. With respect to the evidence of the gospels for popular messianic expectations, I find it interesting that the Gospel of Matthew’s nativity story seems to assume that there were no such expectations. The public was curious about the arrival of the magi, and Herod had to send off the scribes to find some explanation. It was an event or prophetic fulfilment that had to be prised out of the experts at the time, far from something expected.

        1. I’m inclined to use the gospels as evidence when seen allegorically, mystically and as propaganda but not on face value. That explains Matthew’s context, not as historically accurate but as contrived. Those of us of the view that the NT is basically Roman propaganda then see the gospels as a fraud, downplaying the militancy and ferver of Messianism and rather promoting a pacifistic movement. The DSS and Josephus in my view are key pieces of the NT and Jesus puzzle. I find the NT not only a fraud, but an endlessly fascinating enigma when considering the billions of people who over the last 2 millenia have put their faith in its integrity.

    2. You are right that Akenson’s extrapolation of the evidence to the early first century is entirely an assumption. I should have noticed that and said something.

  4. I’m not sure I agree with Harman’s overall claims here. The Damascus Document and the War Scroll are very much preoccupied with the messiahs (the Priestly of Aaron and the Military of David).

    It is true that the waiting of a messiah wasn’t universal, but among a few it was a big deal. I find it odd that he didn’t address The War Scroll.

    More important, however, Paul never called Jesus a messiah. When we compare Paul’s statements, and those of Hebrews, to that of 11Q Melchizedek, Jesus appears much more like Melchizedek than he does like the Messiah of David.

    1. Akenson does address the War Scroll in the lead up to the section I quoted. I will have to post a fuller account of his argument to try to clarify a few points that have arisen in the comments.

  5. Any researcher of Judaism (learning the Jewish Faith according to the authentic Jews themselves – reads: “orthodox”) knows that there was no messianic expectation for before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and before the Roman exile.

    1. What does, “learning the Jewish Faith according to the authentic Jews themselves – reads: “orthodox”,” mean? What aspect or period of Jewish Faith are you referring to? Late Second Temple Judaism? Openly? or via a later “orthodox” lens??

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