Were Jews Hoping for a Messiah to Deliver Them from Rome? Raising Doubts

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by Neil Godfrey

My post “The Chosen People Were Not Awaiting the Messiah” led to more diverse comments than I had been expecting and I thought I should cover a little more of Akenson’s grounds for his view that there is no unambiguous evidence for popular messianic expectations as part of the background to the life of Jesus — or anytime between 167 BCE and 70 CE. I was attracted to this aspect of his larger discussion in Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds because it is a view I have addressed several times over the years here. It’s always nice to meet someone who agrees with us. Akenson could be wrong, of course, but I find the balance of evidence (or rather lack of evidence) coupled with what I think is sound analysis leaves me thinking that it is a myth that many Jews were eagerly anticipating a messiah to deliver them from the Romans. (The myth arose, I suspect, as a spin-off from the post 70 CE Christian narrative.)

So here is a fuller account of Akenson’s argument.

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. — William Scott Green

The Messiah concept in the “Old Testament” is a peripheral idea that has no clear relationship with our concept of a future conquering and redeeming saviour figure. “Anointed ones” (translatable as “messiahs”) referred to kings (good and bad ones), to prophets and mortal high priests. Yet scholars have tended to look for some notion of the later Christian and/or rabbinic idea of messiah in other places in the Tanakh where the word is not found. At this point Akenson makes a point and quotes a scholar I have also quoted several times to make the same point:

See the post Origin of the Myth that the Jews Expected a Messiah for a fuller discussion of the quote by Green.

Granted, there are such things as sub-texts and arguments-from-silence, but the forcing of Moshiah into places where the writers did not use the term is surpassing strange. As William Scott Green has noted, this forced exegesis seems to “suggest that the best way to learn about the Messiah in ancient Judaism is to study texts in which there is none.”

But what about the extra-biblical Judean writings between 167 BCE and 70 CE? Apart from the Dead Sea Scrolls there are only two surviving documents that mention the messiah. Of the passages in the Book of Enoch, or in those chapters (37-71 — the Similitudes or Parables) written during this period, Akenson writes

In two places (48:10 and 52:4), the term Messiah is used, but in a strangely subordinate form: as if referring to an archangel rather than to an independent figure. In the first instance, a judgement is announced against those who “have denied the lord of the Spirits and his Messiah,” and in the second, an angel explains to Enoch that at the final judgement Yahweh will cast a number of judgements, which will “happen by authority of his Messiah….” Apparently, in the latter case, Moshiah would not be an active participant in events, but rather, the guarantor of their authenticity.

Of the passage in the Psalms of Solomon,

In the Songs of Solomon, hymns number 17 and 18, there is found praise of “the Lord Messiah,” a future super-king of the Davidic line who will destroy Judah’s enemies and purge Jerusalem. Whether the voice here is closer to old-time classical prophecy or to later Second Temple apocalyptic rhetoric, is open to question. The clear point is that Messiah is a king who will reign in the manner of a powerful and righteous monarch. This is not a piacular or redemptive figure, but an Anointed One, in the same sense that King David was.

In sum, then,

That is all. Moshiah as a proper noun does not appear elsewhere, although the verb form “to anoint” occurs on a few occasions. If Messiah as a concept was central to the thinking of the followers of Yahweh in the late Second Temple era, they found very effective ways to keep this a secret.

So what of the Qumran texts?

There is the War Scroll the term is plural:

By the hands of your Anointed Ones, seers of things appointed, You have told us about the times of the wars of Your hands . . . (War Scroll 11:7, Wise-Abegg-Cook translation)

In the Damascus Document, again it is in the plural and refers to prophets (compare Psalm 105:15):

He taught them through those anointed by the holy spirit, the seers of truth. (CD 2:12)

In the time of destruction of the land the Boundary-Shifters appeared and led Israel astray and the land was devastated, for they had spoken rebellion against the commandments of God through Moses and also through the anointed  of the spirit; and they prophesied falsehood to turn Israel from following God. (CD 5:20-6:1)

Then there is the apocalyptic figure of the Messiah of Aaron and Israel:

Those who follow these statutes in the age of wickedness until the coming of the Messiah of Aaron and Israel shall form groups of at least ten men, by Thousands, Hundreds, Fifties, and Tens. (CD 12:23-13:1)

This is the exact statement of the statutes in which [they shall walk until the coming of the Messia]h of Aaron and Israel who will pardon their iniquity (CD 14:19)

but all the rest will be handed over to the sword when the Messiah of Aaron and of Israel comes, just as it happened during the time of the first punishment (CD 19:10-11)

[the hea]vens and the earth will listen to His Messiah [“anointed one”], and none therein will stray from the commandments of the holy ones.
Seekers of the Lord, strengthen yourselves in His service!
All you hopeful in (your) heart, will you not find the Lord in this?
For the Lord will consider the pious (hasidim) and call the righteous by name.
Over the poor His spirit will hover and will renew the faithful with His power.
And He will glorify the pious on the throne of the eternal Kingdom.
He who liberates the captives, restores sight to the blind, straightens the b[ent]
And f[or] ever I will cleav[ve to the h]opeful and in His mercy…
And the fr[uit…] will not be delayed for anyone.
And the Lord will accomplish glorious things which have never been as [He…]
For He will heal the wounded, and revive the dead and bring good news to the poor
…He will lead the uprooted and knowledge…and smoke (?)

And another reference:

A small fragment found in Cave Four talks of a time when the entire heavens and earth shall listen to Yahweh’s Moshiah and he will honour the devout individual “and call the just by name.” If (and it is a big “if”) this fragment stems from the same belief-system as does the Damascus Document, then that text’s references are to Moshiah redeeming, not the entire Chosen People, but only a fraction, comprised of those individuals who are devout and just, by factional standards.

Akenson comments on the above Damascus Document references (my bolding):

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 te 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. (175)

And here we segue into the main content of the earlier post “The Chosen People Were Not Awaiting the Messiah”

An earlier post making the same point is Myth of popular messianic expectations at the time of Jesus, and I have an anotated list of six still earlier linked posts at Questioning Carrier and the Conventional Wisdom on Messianic Expectations. I discuss in those posts in some depth, I think, each of the Second Temple writings, including Qumran texts, usually claimed to be evidence of a widespread Judean belief or significant messianic movement.

. . .

There is one detail where I do find myself in some slight tension with Akenson in his discussion of Second Temple messianic ideas. At one point he writes:

. . . . the question remains as to whether or not there is any reference in the Tanakh to Messiah, in the sense that Christians later use the concept, to mean a redeemer or saviour both of individual souls and of the righteous as a collective group. No. There are passages that are later re-invented (and quite brilliantly) by the creators of Christianity, but in the Tanakh they do not carry those meanings.

That is sort of true. But a nuance the idea overlooks is that Paul was not “a Christian” but a Second Temple Jew or Judean, in conflict with ideas of other Judeans during the Temple era. (Those who treat Philippians 3:5 as authentically Pauline will see him unquestionably in conflict with the Pharisees.) Imputing atoning and salvific roles to a future or heavenly messianic figure was part and parcel of the kaleidescopic flexibility of Jewish interpretations and debates in that era, according to Novenson in Christ Among the Messiahs.

. . .

One other scenario that is often brought up in this discussion is the various rebels and prophets, including royal claimants, in the Palestine region prior to 70 CE. Our source for these, Josephus, never calls any of them messianic pretenders or false messiahs and it is usually said that he refrained from that reference to avoid offending the Romans who had fought a war presumably initiated by those “messiahs”. I don’t understand that argument. Josephus has no problem speaking of false prophets and surely referring in a derogatory way to false messiahs could not have been problematic to any audience. Further, I have to wonder why Judea would have responded differently from other peoples who from time to time found themselves in conflict with Rome. We think immediately of the Britons who were giving the Romans headaches around the same time.

There is more to the story when we look at what happened in the wake of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE but we can consider those developments another time.

. . .

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

Vermes, Geza, trans. 2004. The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. Revised edition. London: Penguin Classics.

Wise, Michael Owen, Martin G. Abegg, and Edward M. Cook. 2005. The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation. Revised. San Francisco: HarperOne.

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Were Jews Hoping for a Messiah to Deliver Them from Rome? Raising Doubts”

  1. An important point to take from Akenson here is the massive distortion effect of Christianity and to a lesser extent Rabbinical Judaism. Reading things back into the corpus is the regular way of doing things and it is almost impossible for folk to read the texts as they were written BEFORE the later works existed.

    All ‘messiah’ seems to mean is someone appointed or approved of by God (or thinking/saying they are) to do something on behalf of God and Israel that will further God and Israel/’restore’ Israel/bring about ‘The End’. The ‘anointed to do’ seems to be the thing; not the particular ‘doing’. Invention and Re-Invention are the theme of the entirety of ‘Surpassing Wonder’. Of course later concepts have no part in the earlier iterations: they hadn’t been invented yet.

    I note on the previous page to the reference to Songs of Solomon, hymns number 17 and 18 mention of Psalm 105:15 “Do not touch My anointed ones. Do not harm my prophets”, a near equation of prophets/messiahs to counter point Josephos distinguishing the two. Methinks thou doth protest too much. If it waddles, quacks, and swims like a duck… This strikes of nit-pickery. That some flavour of Judahism made these connections is the thing. Minor interest? To whom? There was no ‘normative’ and the ‘victors’ made the canon.

    Are we Christers? This seems only to be disputed if Jesus actully existed in 30AD. If he is solely a fiction it doesn’t matter a jot I would say. What matters much more the sitz im leben of the authors of the fiction. If they had gotten the idea Moshiah was thing in 30AD or wanted to make out it was a thing in 30AD; then it was a thing in 30AD; and whether we are historicist or ahistoricists, apart from the Fundies (and even they are only interested in Bible Jesus; not any notional “real” person), the Jesus that matters is the Jesus of the texts: a literary invention.

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