THE FIRST CENTURY CONCEPT OF MESSIAH
R. Akiba saw something that convinced him to proclaim Simeon ben Kosiba the Messiah. What was it? The Talmud does not tell us. We can, however, determine what others at the time were expecting the Messiah to be and do. Then we can judge how ben Kosiba fit into those expectations.
In the first and second centuries, there was widespread anticipation of and desire for the appearance of Messiah. There was also a wide range of understandings of who Messiah would be and what he would do. The different expectations were derived from, or tied to, many different verses of Scripture, interpreted in many different ways.
"Yet the figure of the messiah that emerges from the literature written after the Roman conquest of Palestine takes two different shapes. First, there is the political figure of Messiah the son of David; and, second, there is the transcendental messiah, who is dissociated from any physical kingship."1
The prevailing concepts of Messiah varied in their degree of emphasis upon the political and the transcendental. There were different mixes of expected changes that Messiah would bring in government, righteousness, and Torah. There were different expectations concerning changes in the natural order that would be brought with supernatural signs and wonders.
The major sources for identifying the prevailing concepts of Messiah are the Apocalyptic/Pseudepigraphical works, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Talmud, and the New Testament. The various Judaisms of the time produced a variety of expectations.
Historical hindsight tends to focus a spotlight on the "winners," and relegate the "losers" to obscurity. That, however, gives us a distorted view of the conditions at the time. Some groups that faded into obscurity later were very significant in their day.
As James Charlesworth notes: "...the Pseudepigrapha is a major source for understanding the intertestamental period. These writings can no longer be discarded as documents from a fringe group of heterodox Jews. They must be recognized as containing many important ideas, concepts, expressions, and dreams that permeated the fabric of Hellenistic Judaism."2
To some extent, we can approach the material topically, while remembering that most people do not usually divide and categorize their own thoughts. Nor do they usually examine their array of beliefs - especially apocalyptic ones - to insure that they are clearly defined, consistent, or well-founded. We simply want to know what the beliefs were, not whether or not they make sense to us.
The "Psalms of Solomon" contain a variety of Messianic references. "They attest a belief in afterlife (3:12; 13:11; 14:3; 14:13; 16:1-3), but the primary focus of the eschatology is on the restoration of Jerusalem, which will be brought about by the Davidic messiah. The Psalms were written in the wake of Pompey's conquest of Jerusalem in 63 B.C....Because of their general theology the Psalms are usually ascribed to Pharisaic circles.
"The portrait of the messiah echoes the language of the canonical Psalms (especially Psalm 2) and Isaiah. He will at once subdue and save the nations."3
The seventeenth Psalm of Solomon "mentions that the son of David shall be ruler over Israel and will 'destroy the unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from gentiles who trampled her to destruction; in wisdom and in righteousness to drive out the sinners from the inheritance...to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth.' He will also gather the holy people and 'will distribute them upon the land according to their tribes.' It is not accidental that this son of David is later associated with God himself as the Messiah (17:21-46)."4
Similar views are expressed in 2 Baruch and in 4 Ezra, written during the second half of the first century.5 The destruction of the wicked, the purging of Israel, and the bringing in of the righteous kingdom are all part of the envisioned endtime scenario which God brings about through Messiah. Messiah would destroy the unrighteous Gentiles, purify Jerusalem, deliver the remnant of Israel, and restore the Davidic kingdom.6
The Similitudes of Enoch focus on Messiah, the 'Chosen One,' 'the Son of Man.' "Righteousness is rather an attitude of rejecting this world and having faith in the Lord of Spirits and the Son of Man. Faith here involves both belief in the existence of the Lord of Spirits and the Son of Man and trust and dependence on them for salvation....
"In short, the human community of the elect and the righteous stands in very close association with the angelic world and will ultimately be merged with it. The righteous, elect 'Son of Man' figure is directly related to both the human and the heavenly righteous."7
Messiah is seen as the bridge between heaven and earth. He brings the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven to the earth. He brings God's salvation.
"Salvation" ([vy, h[wvy) is actually a title of the Messiah in different Jewish writings of the time. It appears as such in "Jubilees," the Hymns of the Qumran community, the "Damascus Document," and in fragments like 4Q Florilegium. It is also found in rabbinic writings in the Talmudic tractate Berakoth and in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.8
The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs speak of two Messiahs, one of whom is a priest.9 There are scriptures that speak of Messiah as a priest, most notably in this case, Zechariah 6:13. "It is he who will build the temple of the LORD, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two."
Whether one or two Messiahs are expected, his priestly function is to put away sin. His kingly function is to establish the rule of righteousness in the earth. The eighteenth Psalm of Solomon suggests two comings of Messiah: "May God cleanse Israel in the day of mercy and blessing, in the day of election when he brings back His Messiah."10
Messiah will bring cleansing from sin to Israel, which will bring the people back to God's Law. 2 Baruch speaks of the inclusion of Gentiles who observe God's law, and the exclusion of Jews who do not.11
In the "Rule of the Community" and other scrolls from Qumran, Messiah is presented as the final interpreter of God's Torah.12 To some extent, this same role had also appeared in 1 Maccabees.13
The finalized written form of the Talmud belongs to the third, fourth, and fifth centuries. That causes some difficulties in using it, and later rabbinic documents, for understanding first and second century Messianic expectations. Without doubt, it contains first century material, but it is not always easy, or even possible, to determine which material that is.
Appendix R looks at those aspects of the Talmudic portrayal of Messiah that seem to embody a response to the failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Here we simply note that the Rabbis also portrayed Messiah as the Interpreter of the Law. "The Holy One, blessed be He, will sit in Paradise and give instruction (vrwd), and all the righteous will sit before him and all the hosts (lit. family) of Heaven will stand on his right and the sun, and stars on His left; and the Holy One, blessed be he, interprets (vrwd) to them the grounds of a new Torah (hvdj hrwt) which the Holy One, blessed be He, will give to them by the hand of King Messiah."14 This new Torah that Messiah brings is related to the Torah at Sinai, but different in some respects.
The Midrashim are written several centuries later, but they ascribe their views to Talmudic times. In the Midrash on Psalms, we are told that Torah will change in the days of Messiah. Unclean animals will be declared clean, but "some of the demands of the Law would be even more severe: thus marital relations would become stricter."15
Perhaps the most radical declaration of all is found in the Midrash on Ecclesiastes. "The Torah which a man learns in this world is vanity in comparison with the Torah of the Messiah."16 The reasoning would seem to be that all things in this age are but form and appearance compared to the substance of the Messianic age and the kingdom of God on earth. According to the Rabbis, "In the days of the Messiah, bastards...will be pure."17
There is also the later equation of the new Torah that Messiah brings with the Oral Torah: "and this is the great hope (vouchsafed to the Jews) in Exile...for all is for good in order to (allow them) to merit the light of the Messiah and the Oral Torah which will be revealed through him."18
Messiah upholds Torah or brings a new Torah.19 In any case, when he comes, he is to be obeyed. "Come and hear: Unto him ye shall hearken, even if he tells you, Transgress any of all the commandments of the Torah as in the case, for instance, of Elijah on Mount Carmel, obey him in every respect in accordance with the needs of the hour!"20
"The literature of Judaism evidences an expectation that in the Messianic Age the spirit of prophecy would be restored and prophetic figures would be prominent in the life of the nation....The inclusion of Deut. 18.18f. in the testimonia fragment discovered at Qumran indicates that in certain circles, at least, the appearance of a prophet 'like unto' Moses was an important feature in messianic expectations."21
The concluding words of Torah, which were understood to refer to the promised Messiah, emphasize the supernatural nature of the ministry of Moses. "Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, who did all those miraculous signs and wonders the LORD sent him to do in Egypt to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel."22
In addition to bringing changes in the Torah, Messiah's coming was believed by some to be eternal, and to bring changes in nature. "And wild beasts shall come from the forest and minister unto men, And asps and dragons shall come forth from their holes to submit themselves to a little child. "And women shall no longer then have pain when they bear, Nor shall they suffer torment when they yield the fruit of the womb.'"23
Different scenarios present Messiah as a supernatural being. There is an eschatology "... presumed throughout 4 Ezra. First, the signs will come, then 'the hidden city' (presumably the heavenly Jerusalem) and the messiah will be revealed. ...The manner in which he slays his enemies with the breath of his mouth is paralleled in Revelation 19 ('the sword of his mouth') and evidently reflects apocalyptic traditions that were current at the end of the first century. In the interpretation the 'man' is explicitly identified as the messiah. He will gather the ten lost tribes."24
One of the Dead Sea Scrolls, referring to Isaiah 61:1, says that, "The heavens and the earth will obey His Messiah...he will release the captives, make the blind see, and raise up the downtrodden...he will heal the sick, resurrect the dead, and announce glad tidings to the poor."25
Fragments from Qumran refer to the 'Son of God' and the 'Son of the Most High.'26 The term "Son of God" appears in fifteen different texts from early Judaism. "The first group of texts dates from the second or early-first century B.C.E....In the second group are three documents that date from the late-first century B.C.E....In the third group are three documents from the first century C.E....In the final group are four documents that refer to an ideal person in Israel's history as God's son; they can be dated sometime around 100 C.E., give or take a quarter of a century...."27
In another text from Qumran, "we are told that the heavens and the earth shall obey (or serve) 'his Messiah'."28 In the Similitudes of Enoch, Messiah is presented as a supernatural being. "As Sjoberg has remarked, he is not a man, at least not in the usual sense of the word, but is rather a heavenly being."29 Common Messianic Expectation Evidenced in the Gospels
In whatever form they circulated, the gospels were part of the mix of first and early second century concepts of the Messiah. They formed the faith of some Jews and probably influenced other Jews who did not believe in Jesus as Messiah. Most of the New Testament Messianic teachings appear in other earlier or later Jewish works.
Perhaps the major exception is the belief in the death of Messiah as atonement for the sins of Israel and the world. However, even that could be included in the concept of Messiah as "salvation;" or in the cleansing from sin that his coming - sometimes understood to be a second coming after his death - was to bring.
"2 Baruch presupposes an eschatological scenario similar to 4 Ezra. after a period of time (unspecified here) the messiah will 'return in glory.' This presumably corresponds to the death of the messiah in 4 Ezra, although it is characteristically put in a more positive way. The resurrection and judgment follow."30
Inasmuch as the New Testament presents the view of Jews who believe they have found their Messiah, most of it cannot properly be said to be expectation, for it is after the fact. The gospels themselves point this out: "At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him."31
On another occasion, "He said to them, 'How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?' And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself."32 The disciples did not expect or even understand these things beforehand.
There is also evidence in the gospels of various, though sometimes conflicting, popular Messianic expectations. These need to be considered as part of the first century Messianic expectations.
It was believed that the Scriptures presented a picture of Messiah.33 Some people believed his origin was unknown,34 others believed that he was descended from David and came from Bethlehem, David's hometown.35 His reign would be preceded by the coming of Elijah.36 Elijah and/or Messiah would call Israel to a baptism, signifying cleansing and a new life.37
Messiah was expected to sit upon David's throne as king, and bring deliverance for Israel.38 Messiah would establish a new government for Israel,39 which would bring the rule of God on earth.40 This new kingdom would be inaugurated by a sifting judgment, and characterized by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.41 It would in some way be universal, opening the eyes of the Gentiles to the true God.42
Messiah would perform miracles.43 He would have supernatural knowledge,44 and prophesy.45 Messiah was seen as the Son of Man prophesied in Daniel 7.46 Messiah was expected to be "the Holy One of God."47 In a unique sense, he was to be the son of God.48 Messiah was expected, as the son of God, His Chosen One, to have supernatural power to save and deliver himself and others.49 He was expected to live forever, and, therefore, his kingdom was to be an eternal kingdom.50
We now have an overview of the common first and second century Messianic expectations. We will later examine what Akiba saw that convinced him to proclaim Bar Kokhba the Messiah.
1. Mendels, P.225
2. James H. Charlesworth, "The Concept of the Messiah in the Pseudepigrapha," in ANRW, Pp.194-5 Government
3. Collins, P.114
4. Mendels, P.227
5. "Important and rich concepts of the Messiah are found in 2 Baruch which was written sometime during the second half of the first century A.D....In chapter 72, it is said that the Messiah shall summon all the nations; he shall spare those who have not oppressed or known Israel; but he shall slay those who have ruled over her." Charlesworth, Pp.200-201 4 Ezra 12:31-34: "And as for the lion whom you saw rousing up out of the forest and roaring and speaking to the eagle and reproving him for his unrighteousness, and as for all his words that you have heard, this is the Messiah whom the Most High has kept until the end of days; who will arise from the posterity of David, and will come and speak to them; he will denounce them for their ungodliness and for their wickedness, and will cast up before them their contemptuous dealings. For first he will set them living before his judgement seat, and when he has reproved them, then he will destroy them. But he will deliver in mercy the remnant of my people, those who have been saved throughout my borders, and he will make them joyful until the end comes, the day of judgment, of which I spoke to you at the beginning." Ibid., P.204
6. 1 Enoch 44,4-5 tells us that, "this Son of Man whom thou hast seen shall raise up the kings and the mighty from their seats and the strong from their thrones. And shall loosen the reins of the strong, and break the teeth of the sinners. And he shall put down the kings from their thrones and kingdoms, because they do not extol and praise Him." (Gruenwald, P.114) "And in the days preceding the ministry of Jesus, the idea of the Messiah as God's deliverer in the eschatological consummation was becoming fixed in the expectations of many." (Longenecker, Christology, P.64) Righteousness
7. Collins, Pp.146,148. "The Similitudes, then, are exceptional among the Jewish apocalypses in focusing attention on a single figure, who is designated as the 'Chosen One' or 'that Son of Man,' or even 'messiah' (48:10; 52:4)." (ibid., P.147)
8. "'Salvation' ([vy, h[wvy) appears as a messianic title in other portions of Jewish literature as well. Jubilees, in speaking of the expectations associated with the tribe of Judah, says: 'In thee shall be the Help of Jacob, and in thee be found the Salvation of Israel.' [Jub.31.19] The Hymns of the Qumran community tell of waiting 'for Salvation to bloom and for a Shoot to grow up to give shelter with might'. [[1QH 7.18f]] The Damascus Document assures the faithful that a 'book of remembrance' [cf. Mal.3:16] is being written for them 'until Salvation and Righteousness be revealed', [CDC 20.20 (9.43)] and that they 'shall see his Salvation'. [CDC 20.34 (9.54)] In the comment on II Sam. 7.14 in 4Q Florilegium where the Davidic Messiah is identified as the 'son' in question, Amos 9.11 is quoted in substantiation and applied to 'him who will arise to bring salvation to Israel' - thus equating 'sonship', the 'Scion of David', and the One 'who will arise to bring salvation to Israel'. The rabbis, too, seem to have appreciated this equation, for in commenting on Gen. 49.11 and Zech. 9.9 - two passages considered by them to be messianically related - 'Salvation' and 'Messiah' are employed interchangeably in the tractate Berakoth. [Ber.56b,57a] This identification is continued in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Testament of Dan 5.10 reads: 'And there shall arise unto you from the tribe of Judah and of Levi the Salvation of the Lord, and he shall make war against Beliar'; and the Test. Naph. 8.3; Test. Gad 8.1, and Test. Jos. 19.11 exhort the people to 'honour' and 'be united to' Levi and Judah, 'for from them shall arise the Salvation of Israel'." (Longenecker, Christology, Pp.100-101)
9. "...In their final form the Testaments envisage one messiah, who is associated with both Levi and Judah and is evidently identified as Christ. Since the messiah is associated with both these tribes and they are both singled out for leadership, it is probable that the Testaments adapt an earlier Jewish expectation of two messiahs. The main parallel for such a conception is found in the Qumran scrolls, which speak of messiahs from Aaron and Israel." (Collins, P.112)
10. cited in Charlesworth, P.199 Torah
11. "2 Baruch goes beyond 4 Ezra in clarifying the composition of the people who will benefit from the messiah. The criterion is not ethnicity but observance of the law. Proselytes are included, apostates are not. 2 Baruch envisages fulfillment of the covenantal promises, but in the process the covenantal people must be redefined. Conversion to Judaism is still a prerequisited for salvation, but the promises do not apply to all Jews." (Collins, P.175)
12. "The Master (maskil) [who] shall instruct and teach all the Sons of Light..." 1QS 3.13 in James H. Charlesworth, "Reinterpreting John: How the Dead Sea Scrolls Have Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Gospel of John," Bible Review, Feb.1993, P.21 "In CD 7:18-20, however, the interpreter is identified with the star of Balaam's oracle, the scepter is the 'prince of the whole congregation,' and the allusion is most probably messianic. In 4QFlor 1:11-12 the Interpreter is clearly messianic: the 'Branch of David' will arise with the Interpreter of the Law in Zion at the end of days. 'Interpreter of the Law,' then can refer to a figure of the past or to a messiah, or even in 1QS 6 to a present figure in the community. This ambiguous usage becomes intelligible if we bear in mind that the scrolls are concerned with functions and institutitons rather than with personalities." Collins, P.126
13. Concerning the defiled altar stones: "So they took down the altar, and deposited the stones in the temple mountain, in a suitable place, until a prophet should come and declare what should be done with them." (1Mac.4:46)
14. Yalqut on Is.26 in Davies, P.74
15. "The Lord permits the forbidden (Ps.146:7) [A.V. and R.V. 'looses the prisoner'; the word 'forbidden' is got by a pun]. What does this mean? Some say that in the time to come all the animals which are unclean in this world God will declare to be clean, as they were in days before Noah. And why did God forbid them [i.e., make them unclean]? To see who would accept his bidding and who would not; but in the time to come he will permit all that He has forbidden." (Mid. Teh. 146:7 in W.D. Davies, Torah in the Messianic Age and/or the Age to Come, 1952, P.58 cf. ibid.. P.59)
16. Eccl.Rab. 11:7
17. Kid.72b in Berkovits, P.29
18. Peri Zadik V, p.39b in Elman, P.23
19. "In the J. Hag. II, 2 we are told: At first there was no controversy in Israel except over the laying on of the hands alone. But Shammai and Hillel arose and made them four... When the disciples of the School of Hillel increased, and they did not study sufficiently under their masters (lit., 'did not sufficiently minister to their masters'), the controversies in Israel increased, and they became divided into two companies, the one declaring unclean, the other declaring clean. And (the Torah) will not again return to its (uncontroversial) place until the son of David (i.e., the Messiah) will come." (Hag., p.105 n.1)
20. Yeb.90b The Supernatural
21. Richard N. Longenecker, The Christology of Early Jewish Christianity, Alec R. Allenson Inc., Naperville, IL, Pp.32,33. Also on p.33: "Ideas regarding the exact nature of this prophetic activity, however, were often loose and mixed; and there were differences concerning the identity of the expected figure or figures. I Maccabees 4.46 and 14.41, for instance, speak rather indefinitely of 'a faithful prophet' who should 'come' or 'arise'. Attention in Sir. 48.10f. and Genesis Rabbah 71:9 and 99.11 is centred upon Elijah as the coming prophet who would inaugurate the final age and be God's restorer. In other passages, notably IV Ezra 6.26 and 7.28, all the men taken from the earth without dying - Enoch and Elijah, later Moses, and possibly Ezra, Baruch, and Jeremiah - are expected to accompany the Messiah and to have prophetic functions in the establishment of the eschatological period of salvation. And on P.35: "For, as Cullmann points out, the acclamation of Jesus as a prophet is not the same as the attribution of the honorific title rabbi; in days when the restoration of prophecy was viewed as signalling the beginning of the last days, such an acclamation was fraught with eschatological significance." O.Cullmann, Christology of the New Testament, pp. 13-15
22. Dt. 34:10-12
23. Charlesworth in ANRW, Pp.201-202
24. 4Ezra in Collins,P.162
25. 4Q521, Neil Asher Silberman, "Searching for Jesus," Archaelogy, Nov-Dec. 1994, P.31
26. 4Q246 and 4Q521 in Charlesworth, "Reinterpreting John," P.22
27. Charlesworth, Jesus Within Judaism, Pp.149-151
28. 4Q521 in Charlesworth, "Reinterpreting John," P.22
29. Collins,P.149 Common Messianic Expectation Evidenced in the Gospels
30. Collins, P.175 cf. Charlesworth in ANRW, P.200: "[W]e have an intriguing idea in [2 Baruch] 30:1-2: "And it shall come to pass after these things, when the time of the advent of the Messiah is fulfilled, that He shall return in glory. Then all who have fallen asleep in hope of Him shall rise again."
31. John 12:16
32. Luke 24:25-27
33. John 1:45
34. John 7:27
35. John 7:41-42, cf. Matt. 2:1-6; Mic.5:2
36. Matt. 17:10; cf. Mal.4:5
37. cf.John 1:24-25
38. Matt. 22:42-44; cf. Ps.110
39. cf. Matt. 20:20-21
40. Matt. 21:9
41. cf. Matt. 3:11-12
42. cf. Luke 2:26-32; John 4:42
43. cf. Matt. 9:27-28; 15:22; 20:30-33 John 7:31 Matt. 11:2-5
44. John 4:25,29 cf. John 1:48-49
45. Matt. 26:67-68
46. Matt. 26:64; cf. John 12:34
47. cf. John 6:69
48. cf. Matt. 16:16 Matt. 26:63
49. cf.Matt. 27:39-27:42; Luke 23:35,42
50. cf. John 12:34
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