02.03.09 Messianic Expectations. There was an intense expectation throughout the ancient world that a messiah would come at any moment and bring political freedom. People had a wide variety of opinions of the messiah, like who he would be, and what he would do. However, since he was expected to come as a political leader who would overthrow the Romans and usher in an era of peace and prosperity, he was not seen as any kind of a divine figure. Hence, in this context, messiah is spelled with a lower case “m” whereas the divine Jesus is referred to as the “Messiah.”
The Jews had great difficulty understanding the prophecies of some of their prophets since they appeared to be in conflict. Most notable were those prophecies that described the messiah both as a suffering servant, and as a victorious king. In their thinking, a victorious king would not be one who suffered. Note, for example, the differences between Daniel 7:13-14 and Zechariah 9:9-10.
13 I continued watching in the night visions,
and I saw One like a son of man
coming with the clouds of heaven.
He approached the Ancient of Days
and was escorted before Him.
14 He was given authority to rule,
and glory, and a kingdom;
so that those of every people,
nation, and the Law
should serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that will not pass away,
and His kingdom is one
that will not be destroyed.
9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout in triumph, Daughter Jerusalem!
Look, your King is coming to you;
He is righteous and victorious,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
10 I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the horse from Jerusalem.
The bow of war will be removed,
and He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His dominion will extend from sea to sea,
from the Euphrates River
to the ends of the earth.
The first part of each passage is especially challenging. In Daniel 7:13, the messianic figure comes with clouds of heaven while the counterpart in Zechariah 9:9 portrays him riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. Each of these sections is clearly about a leader who would have a dynamic effect upon the people. While Christians today have the advantage of recognizing the differences between the first and second comings of Christ, the first century Jews were unaware of God’s divine plan and, therefore, could not explain the apparent biblical difficulties.
Adding to the mystery, Zechariah 12:10, describes the messiah as one who would suffer. In their thinking, one who would be victorious over all of Judaea’s enemies could not be made to endure agony. Therefore, they apparently ignored passages such as:
And I will pour out on the house of David
and the inhabitants of Jerusalem
a spirit of grace and supplication.
They will look on me,
the one they have pierced,
and they will mourn for him
as one mourns for an only child,
and grieve bitterly for him
as one grieves for a firstborn.
Zechariah 12:10 NIV (1984)
Other challenging passages in the Hebrew Bible are found in the book of Psalms and pertain to the Gentiles coming to God (Ps. 22:27ff; 36:7ff et. al). The common first century belief was that because the Gentiles had sinned for so many centuries, they would never come to God nor would God want them. This belief was enhanced by the repeated statement that God said that the Jews were “His Chosen People.” Hence, there was no need for their salvation (they already were saved), and the Gentiles, not being among the Chosen People were therefore forever damned. Little wonder then, that the temple area known as the Court of the Gentiles was turned into a market place. Yet, as will be shown later, some Gentiles did convert to the Jewish faith.
These passages illustrate the messianic problems with which the Jews were grappling. In essence, they shut their eyes to those writings that predicted the sufferings of the Messiah. The disciples had difficulty believing Jesus would suffer on the cross and die. The Essenes, on the other hand, thought they resolved the problem by teaching that there would be two messiahs ruling together (see 02.01.06).
The rise of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and his Hitler-like tortures in the early second century B.C., led to a new form of literature known as apocalyptic writings. There was considerable debate in the Jewish communities as to whether these books were genuinely divinely inspired or simply creative penmanship. Therefore, it is not surprising to see that there were various opinions among the common people. While scholars still debate what various people groups believed, what is known is that nobody expected a messiah like Jesus. Apocalyptic writers created various themes and stories of the future events of the victorious messiah but nearly all of them rejected the concept of a suffering messiah. The victorious messiah concept was popular during times of oppression; first by the Greeks, then their own leaders, followed by the Romans. Most of the expectations follow these lines of thought even though there were about as many variations as there were Jews:
- According to the Apocalypse of Baruch 48:41, the people would realize the coming of the Messiah by the calamities that would fall upon humanity such as wars and famines. Even nature would experience cataclysmic upheavals. Today orthodox Jews call this time the “Time of Jacob’s Troubles” and Christians call it the “Tribulation.”
- The Messiah could not come to the world unannounced; therefore, he will send Elijah who will announce His arrival. According to a second century B.C. Jewish writer by the name of Jesus ben Sirach,
You who were taken up in a whirlwind of fire,
in a chariot with fine horses of fire;
you who are ready at the appointed time, it is written
to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury,
to turn the heart of the father to the son,
and restore the tribes of Jacob.
Ben Sirach 48:9-10
- The Jews attempted to connect Elijah with the coming judgments, resurrection, and the end of the world. When he would come, he would settle the major controversies of the first century, including
- Settle family issues and bring estranged families together.
- Settle issues of what is clean and unclean – a major issue of contention between various religious sects.
- Settle property disputes.
- Announce the coming of the messiah (small “m’ because they did not know that the Messiah would be Deity)
- The messiah would provoke a coalition of evil men whose identities remain unclear. Apocalyptic writers mentioned them in Enoch 90; and the Apocalypse of Baruch 40. While they simply described these as evil, Christians identified them as those who would be a part of the Antichrist.
- In the final battle between good and evil, those who are evil will be destroyed. However, the identity of the destroyer is somewhat unclear. Some Jews felt it would be God Himself according to a book known as the Assumption of Moses (10:7) while a majority felt it would be the Messiah as found in the Apocalypse of Baruch (39:7ff).
- Once the wicked would be destroyed, the messiah would establish his messianic kingdom and rule from Jerusalem. This would necessitate that all forms of evil, idols, and wickedness be purged from the city, while instituting pure worship according to the Torah. This new era would be considered the Kingdom of God. The nation would enjoy peace, joy, prosperity, and a close relationship with God.
- The messianic age would not be eternal, but endure for a thousand years after which there would be another transformation.
- At the end of the millennium, those who had died would be raised from the grave and would in fact be restored to their physical bodies.
- The opinions of the final judgment have a wider spectrum. Some believed that the wicked would be destroyed at this point and Yahweh Himself would be the judge, while others believed it would be the Son of Man who in reality was seen as an angel of the Lord (Enoch 69:27). Scholars disagree as to when the book of Enoch was written. Most believe that the earliest part was written about 300 B.C. but the chapters 37-71 were written in the first century B.C., or possibly in the Christian era. Critics believe that any resemblance to Christian theology might be the result of Christian interpolation. Concerning the final judgment, the wicked will be thrown into Gehenna (hell) while the righteous will spend eternity with our Lord in heaven.
- The Essenes hardly agreed with anyone else. They had great difficulty reconciling the prophetic passage of the suffering servant with those of the victorious king. They questioned how a suffering servant could be a victorious king. Therefore, they concluded there would have to be two messiahs (see 02.01.06).
- In addition to the books mentioned above that made mention or an allusion to a messiah, are the following:
- Psalms of Solomon (40-30 B.C.)
- Tobit (3rd century B.C.)
- Wisdom of Solomon (1st century B.C.)
- Jubilees (2nd century B.C.)
The expectations were at a fever pitch. Furthermore, the Jews remembered very well the overwhelming victories God had given them during the Maccabean Revolt. The Essenes and the Zealots believed, as did many others that the Messiah would be like a glorified Judas Maccabee and bring a greater victory over Roman domination and oppression.
To the Pharisees, the messiah would be one who would institute the holiness, purity, and truthfulness of the Torah to all the Jewish people, and purge the effects of Hellenism from the culture. The Sadducees were the only ones who failed to believe in the coming of a messiah, and if there was one coming, they feared he would take control of the temple, which was the source of their power and wealth. The Romans had distrust for anyone who called himself a messiah. The Jews seemed to produce a messiah every ten or fifteen years, much to the dismay of the Sadducees and Romans. Into this caldron of severe social tensions and messianic expectations, Jesus came to bring life and hope to all humanity. Little wonder then, that Jesus was careful to articulate His identity. All three groups had thoughts about a messiah, but had not believed their messiah would be God in human form, which is why a lower case “m” is used for this term.
Most Jewish peasants were downtrodden, depressed, enslaved, and discouraged with the corrupt religious leadership and merciless Romans. Therefore, hope and interest skyrocketed when Jesus began doing miracles. He was surrounded by competing religious groups such as the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Schools of Hillel and Shammai, the Sadducees, and the unknown community/ies that produced the Pseudepigrapha books such as 4 Esdras, Baruch, and the Psalms of Solomon. In keeping with Jewish traditions, each group had a keen interest in solidarity and distinctiveness. Each promoted its own agenda of righteousness as superior to other groups and shunned any challenges for change. But none could speak or perform miracles as Jesus did.
The messianic expectations among Jews and Gentiles were at a fever pitch in the early first century. Men would spend their evenings in the synagogue debating various subjects such as this messianic problem. The Apostle Paul said that in the fullness of time Jesus came to this earth (Gal. 4:4). If anything, his words were an understatement.
Among the Zealots, who were nationalistic, there was an opinion that during the war with the Romans, their messiah would come and save them from final destruction. He would then destroy the Gentile enemies and rule the entire world. This opinion was summed up by Josephus as it was the prevailing opinion of the Zealots during the First Revolt that began in A.D. 66. The historian said,
But now, what did most elevate them in undertaking this war, was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how, “about that time, one of their country should become governor of the habitable earth.”
Josephus, Wars 6.5.4 (312)
Finally, it has often been said as a point of humor that if you want three or four opinions on something, ask a Jew. There were many Jewish sects in ancient Israel and not all would have agreed with the above 10-point list. But a vast majority would have agreed with the following expectations:
- The messiah will be a warrior king who will destroy the Romans
- The messiah will come for all Jews.
- The messiah will come only for the Jews.
Those who failed to accept Jesus as their Messiah, such as Judas Iscariot, did so essentially for those three reasons.
. See 12.03.01.Q1 “What ‘Messianic problems’ did the Jewish leaders have with Jesus?” and 12.03.01.A “Chart of Key Points of the Messianic Problems.” See also 02.03.09 “Messianic Expectations”; 05.04.02.Q1 “What were the Jewish expectations of the Messiah?” and Appendix 25: “False Prophets, Rebels, Significant Events, and Rebellions that Impacted the First Century Jewish World.”
. See Metzger, The Apocrypha of the Old Testament. 193.
. Ben Sirach and Tobit belong to a classification of extra-biblical books known as the Apocrypha. These two literary works reflect the opinions of many Jewish people. See 02.02.03 “Apocrypha” for more information. The reader is reminded that quotations from non-biblical sources are not to be understood as being of equal authority with the biblical narratives. See 01.02.04.
. Barclay, “John.” 1:78.
. The Assumption of Moses is a/k/a the Testament of Moses. Some scholars believe this book could have been written during the lifetime of Jesus. However, it appears to be of little academic value. Silver, A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel. Boston: Beacon Hill. 7.
. These books should not be considered equal to the Bible, but are listed because some first century Jewish people considered them important.
. Silver, A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel. Boston: Beacon Hill. 5. See also 02.02.01.V for more information on this subject.
. The Psalms were written between the year 40-30 BC, although some scholars place the time period between 60 and 30 B.C. See Cosby, Interpreting Biblical Literature. 285. It may also have been used as liturgy according to Moseley, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church. 104.
. Charry, By the Renewing. 61.