Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Looking for a Messiah

Although it's not official, I've got a green light to start work on a couple new books, on Jesus this time (this is not my sabbatical work, but on the side).  The first one I've tentatively called The Essential Jesus, although WPH will of course decide the real title if everything progresses. Chapter 1 will be "The Baptism of John," and the first section "Looking for a Messiah."  So here it begins.
I suspect that many of us think that the Jews of Jesus' day were all waiting for the messiah, perhaps even that they expected the messiah to be God come to earth.  We think this way, no doubt, because we find places in the New Testament where a New Testament author hears the Old Testament fulfilled in the life of Jesus on earth. Our hindsight makes it seem obvious that Jesus was the messiah everyone had been waiting for.

But when we look at the history and what Jews were actually writing in the years prior to Jesus, the situation is more complicated. For example, it is not likely at all that any Jews were expecting God to come earth as a human.  In fact, there is only one Jewish text that can be interpreted to mean that a heavenly figure will come to earth as Israel's anointed king (DSS*).  And that is just one interpretation of a fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls. [1] The texts that expect a coming "messianic" figure, they instead expect a human king to show up.

And we should also make it clear that the word "messiah" in itself simply means, "anointed one."  It does not have to refer to a king.  One of the programmatic documents of the Jewish community by the Dead Sea speaks of the "anointed ones" of Aaron and Israel (1QS)--that is, the "messiahs" of Aaron and Israel.  This community apparently looked for the coming of both a priestly messiah to restore the true purity of the temple and a royal messiah to return a proper king to Israel.

Most experts believe these documents belonged to a Jewish group known as the Essenes.  Many of them, it would seem, expected a messiah to come eventually who would be king of Israel.  This would be a human king--an extraordinary man, no doubt, but a completely human one.  It is not clear that a writing called the Psalms of Solomon is Essene (it could also be Pharisee), but it looks to a military king to come who will destroy the Romans and restore Israel's kingdom (Ps. of Sol. 17).

However, the Essenes (and the Pharisees) were only a tiny portion of all the Jews in the world.  Did the ordinary Jew farming his or her land have such thoughts, the "people of the land"?  Certainly there were discontented groups of men who revolted from time to time.  We call them revolutionaries but they were sporadic at the time of Jesus, not organized or belonging to some coherent group.  They did seem to put forward their leaders as potential king figures--completely human figures.

But the high priests and Sadducees were not looking for a messianic king.  They were pretty much in political control anyway, since the Romans ruled through them and their class.  Most Jews at the time of Christ did not even live in Jerusalem.  At the time, far more Jews lived outside of Jerusalem than inside and around it.  These are "Diaspora" or scattered Jews.  More Jews lived in a part of the city of Alexandria than lived in all of Jerusalem.

It is not clear at all that these Diaspora Jews were looking for a figure to arise to restore the political independence of Israel.  Philo, an educated Jew who lived in Alexandria, has virtually nothing to say about a potential king of this sort.  We find only a couple places in his massive writings that might allude to such a king, and we can argue that he only became marginally interested in such things after the emperor Caligula disgraced Israel by trying to set up a statue of himself in the Jerusalem temple.

So, yes, some Jews were hoping that one day God would raise a king up within Israel and that Israel by some means would become free of Roman rule and be independent again.  We can imagine that such fervor rose particularly during times of discontent or transition.  But those Jews who were looking for a messianic king at those times and in those groups were looking for an extraordinary human king who would restore the political independence of Israel.  They were not looking for God to come to earth or for the messiah to be a heavenly being. [2]

[1] The Dead Sea Scrolls were a large collection of scrolls found in some caves at Qumran by the Dead Sea.  They date to the century or so before Christ, and most experts think they belonged to an Essene community that was located there.

[2] And, truth be told, the New Testament authors did not read the Old Testament like a Bible teacher would have you read it today.  They were not wired to try to read the words inductively, using clues from the literary and historical context to figure out the most likely original meaning of the text.  Almost all the passages in which the New Testament authors heard the Spirit speaking about Christ are read in a "spiritual" way.  In other words, most of those passages were not originally predictions about Jesus but "fuller senses" found in the words through the eyes of the Spirit.

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