Messianic Expectations in 1st Century Judaism

--Documentation From Non-Christian Sources

Last update: 8/6/96
Every now and then I get an email like this one:

I am a Christian freshman at XXX. I really enjoy your homepage, and I have printed out a lot of it to share with friends. One difficulty that I am encountering, and that I wish you would spend some more time on, is the question of whether Jesus was a failure as the Messiah of the Old Testament. I have several friends with whom I have taken up the discussion, and I showed them your answer to the question. However, one girl said that it was untrue that many Jews of Jesus' day saw him as the Messiah. She maintains that Jews of the day were really not expecting a Messiah, and that we Christians in retrospect have interpreted much of the OT as containing prophecies of a Messiah. She even says that the Gospel writers went back and created stories to fulfill "prophecy", such as when Jesus tells the people that the scroll of Isaiah has been fulfilled in him. She has a deep sympathy with the Jews, and seems to think that someone came in and falsely interpreted the Hebrew Bible as having prophecies of a messiah, and then attributing these to Jesus. I would really appreciate it if you would go into more depth on the topic, from the perspective of a first century Jew.

or I read a grossly Procrustean description of some 'normative Judaism' of the 1st century like this one :

Any Jew with a Pharisaic background (which would have been anyone who was a contemporary of Jesus as well as all Jews today) would have understood that the term "Christ" was a term used in a physical sense to denote one who was claiming a political position.
Apart from the seriously mistaken notion that all of Jesus' contemporaries were of Pharisaic background (which seems to be based on James' uncritical use of the fringe-writer Maccoby!), this rather unexciting description of the messianic hope is so out of touch with biblical scholarship of today as to be worthless.

What this nets out to is the popular notion that either:

  1. The 1st century Jew HAD NO expectation of a Messiah-figure; or
  2. The 1st century Jewish expectation was of a purely natural, human-only, regular political leader.

Both of these positions are COMPLETELY mistaken--in the light of the 'HARD' data we have.

What I intend to do in this piece is to demonstrate--from the Jewish non-Christian sources--that not only was there a messianic expectation, but that it varied from group to group. That is, that some considered the Messiah to be a purely natural in-history political leader (albeit more powerful than the Romans), some considered the Messiah to be super-natural/super-angelic, some considered him to be an after-history universal King/Son of God, etc.--and some did not expect one at all.

And, to try to minimize attempted rebuttal, I will try to QUOTE the non-Christian source for the reader's inspection, being SURE to avoid passages that are considered to be Christian interpolations (i.e. 'insertions into the text'). I do not intend to be exhaustive in this. (I will intersperse a string of quotations from contemporary scholars on this issue, just to show how representative MY arguments are.)

Due to the nature of some of these documents (not all of which have been translated into English), some of the citations I will NOT be able to provide the text of (except where an authority has rendered it in some scholarly discussion.)

[The major resource works I am using here are: NWNTI, JTM, BPM, DSST, SS, TM, LTJM, CTM. The citations from the Apocrypha are from CASA or HCSB, the Jewish Pseudepigrapha are from OTP, Dead Sea Scrolls from DSSTQTE et. al., rabbinix from various. The citations of scholarly opinion I have taken MAINLY from authorities that would NOT be considered "conservative" or "evangelical."]

One methodological issue that needs to be brought up here concerns how we will identify 'messianic' passages. If a text describes a future, super-human ruler WITHOUT ascribing Davidic status to him, will that 'disqualify' the passage?! Some actually approach it this way (e.g. TM:11-12), but the image-complex of the messianic figure is FAR too big to be so narrowly approached. So, BPM:100...

It is inappropriate to speak of a Jewish expectation of "the Messiah" at this point because few of the extant late prophecies that shaped Jewish hopes even use the term anointed. The focus on the new David or a descendant of David, moreover, was by no means the only image of Jewish hopes for a revived or eschatological kingship. Some of the scriptural texts most important to the hopes of later generations of Judeans contained no explicit language of "anointed" or "branch (shoot, horn, son) of David." There was rather, for example, a focus on "the scepter" or "a star," as in Gen. 49.10 and Num 24.17 respectively.

So also Evans (NWNTI:239):

Although "messiah" (i.e. "anointed one," from Heb. masah/Gk. chriein) is often understood in terms of the royal "son of David," in reality messianic concepts in late antiquity were quite diverse. If we understand "messiah" to mean one who believes himself to be anointed by God in order to play a leading role in the restoration of Israel, a restoration which may or may not involve the Davidic monarchy, then it is correct to speak of anointed kings, anointed prophets, and anointed priests. ...All of these categories are rooted in biblical and historical precedents.

So, our research will consider passages interpreted messianically in this sense--not look for a rigid linguistic form(!), but rather for an eschatological hope of Israel--that "God would visit His people with salvation" somehow. [I will also EXCLUDE from consideration 'simple' apocalyptic passages (i.e. dealing with the end-times future events) IF there is no data therein concerning a 'messianic individual'.]

One final practical matter...I will create the outline of citations FIRST, and then go back and type in the textual data (in some cases, I have to visit the library--esp. for some of the rabbinical quotes).


The Jewish non-Christian writings that can be used to determine 1st century Jewish thinking are as follows:


Let's look at the source data now...


If we back up and try to generalize about the above data, we note immediately its diversity. The messianic figures range from king to priest to prophet. Indeed, several writers/communities have MULTIPLE messianic figures (e.g. Qumran, Testament of Levi). These figures can range from simple purely-human Davidic kings (e.g. Psalms of Solomon, 2 Baruch, Sibyl 3?) to the transcendent and pre-existent quasi-divine Savior Kings (e.g. I Enoch, Sibyl 5, Testament of Judah) and 'stuff in-between' (e.g. Philo, some of the Qumran materials).

And this variety does not know any geographical boundaries. Palestinian sources are represented (e.g. Psalms of Solomon, Testaments) as well as Hellenistic Judaism (e.g. Philo, Sibyl, LXX). Most of the above materials, however, come from the 'unofficial' Judaism, so to speak. As generally being the writings of specific groups WITHIN Judaism, they cannot speak for the mythical 'mainstream' Judaism. The official documents of rabbinic Judaism, however, not only attest to wide usage of messianic titles and figures, but also demonstrates similar WIDE range of expectations. For example, we can contrast the relatively subdued acceptance of Bar Kochba by Akiba as the 'messiah' (a purely national political leader) with the theological discussion of how the Danielic exalted figure (coming on clouds) could POSSIBLY come on a donkey as well (b. Sanh. 98a).

So, it is very easy to document a wide range of messianic expectation and, judging from the explosion of messianic materials in the period 200 BCE - 200 CE and the wide acceptance of popular messianic leaders, it is very easy to conclude that messianic expectations were widespread.

But can we discern any pattern to it all? Can we make a 'simple to complex' kind of prediction? What does the chronology of these documents suggest?

Let's look at the chronology of the above sources.

  1. Prior to the period 200 BCE - 200 CE, we have the biblical materials. Do we have any reason to believe that THEY were understood messianically BEFORE we get to the FIRST sources we discuss above?

    Actually, yes. We have two pieces of data on how they were interpreted BEFORE our period: (1) the translations (LXX, Samaritan?, and those used at Quman) and (2) any Rabbinical traditions that reach back that far. The LXX data we adduced above indicated messianic understanding of key verses (e.g. Num 24) that had far-reaching effects on even Palestinian understandings, and the massive amount of references to the Messiah in the Targums (67 passages) and the massive number of OT passages interpreted messianically in the rabbinical literature (at least 400!) are STRONG indications that messianic interpretation/understandings were not NEW to the 3rd century BCE!

  2. In the period 200 BCE to Jesus, we see the production of the documents of Qumran (Dual messiahs), I Enoch (pre-existent super-human messiah), Hellenistic Sibyl 3 (earthly, typological king), and Palestinian Psalms of Solomon (earthly Davidic king.) At this stage, Star and Scepter (Gen 49, Num 24) images are heavily used, as is the 'Son of Man' image ( Dan 7). The rich-textured and robust messianism of the rabbinic understandings of the OT (as evidenced in the early strata of the Targums and Rabbinical writings) show up FULLY DEVELOPED in the earliest Jewish literature of the period!

  3. In the period 0-150 CE, we get Hellenistic Philo (universal king), Palestinian 2 Esdras (pre-existent, super-human), Hellenistic Sibyl 5 (transcendent king from heaven), Josephus' documentation of many messianic leaders (both kings and prophets--but typically national earthly kings), and Palestinian 2 Baruch (pre-existent, universal ruler). Again we have a very wide range of expectation and a rather vigorous acceptance of this variety by the people.

  4. After this (i.e. 150 CE), we get the codification of the rabbinical materials and targums--without the slightest downplaying of the messianic themes! (And this in spite of the Roman war!).

    [Now, let me briefly add that IF we factor in ANY of the data from the NT, it will do NOTHING MORE than simply confirm what we already have found! In other words, a messianic context for the words and mission of Jesus are BY FAR AND AWAY NOT a 'Christian construct'!! Indeed, that a group of 1st century Jews could go out in mid 1st century CE and proclaim some galilean peasant to be the Messiah WITHOUT there ALREADY being a "vibrant" context for that, and HAVE ANY SUCCESS AT ALL is absurd! (In other words, they would not have gotten very far if they had had to spend all their time answering the "Huh? what's a 'messiah'?" question! History would have looked QUITE different under that scenario!]

    I guess the answer to our 'any development?' question is a simple "no." The variety, intensity, and pervasiveness of messianic beliefs is obvious at the beginning of our period--these beliefs appear suddenly and elaborately. Indeed, our rabbinic sources (i.e. targum, talmud, and midrash) suggest that they pre-date our period and appear to approach the actual traditional dates of the close of the OT writings (ca. 300 BCE).

    Just as it would be incorrect to affirm that:

    SO ALSO... it is accordingly incorrect to say that :

    What we CAN affirm is that a messianic expectation (broadly considered) was present in the wide range of Jewish groups that produced literature--throughout the time period-- and that for some of them, their expectations for the 'deliverer who shall come forth from Jacob' was intense, theologically-charged, and surprisingly detailed. It was into this world of mixed hopes, pre-conceived categories, and pre-built eschatologies that Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed that 'the Kingdom of God has drawn nigh'...

    Glenn Miller, 3/24/96.

    The Christian ThinkTank...[] (Reference Abbreviations)