Messianic Ideas and the Messiah
What did the Jewish people of Jesus’ day believe about the Messiah? What Messianic preconceptions greeted Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God and the Messiah of Israel? Answering these questions is similar to answering the question, What do Christians believe about salvation? In other words, professing Christians may give many answers, depending on the brand of Christianity to which they belong. So it was with the many brands of Judaism in Jesus’ day. There was no one idea about what the Messiah would be like. Many are surprised to learn that the Jewish community of the first century was divided into a number of sects and groups, each with its own version of Judaism. Jesus encountered most, if not all, of these groups in His ministry. Each group also had its own particular view of what the promised Messiah would be like.
Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian who wrote at the end of the first century A.D., mentioned four main philosophies of Judaism prevalent in his day.* Modern research has revealed that there were probably many more strands of thought, creating an even richer mosaic among the Jewish community than we ever realized.* This article confines itself to the four main groups mentioned by Josephus and focuses on what each group believed about the Messiah. Then Jesus’ own message about His Messiahship is compared and contrasted with these Messianic ideas.
The Pharisees were the custodians of the oral law. They placed great emphasis on the traditions that were handed down to them through the years. Their vision of Israel’s future deliverer could be described as something of a military Messiah. Based on writings like the Apocalypse of Baruch and the rabbinic sources, the following Messianic scenario was envisioned by the Pharisees: (1) A great period of trouble for Israel will transpire, referred to as the “Birth Pangs of the Messiah.” (2) Elijah will appear as a forerunner, announcing the coming of the Messiah, (3) Messiah, always a man and not the Son of God, will appear as a physical deliverer of Israel from her troubles. (4) Messiah will lead Israel to victory in battle against the hostile forces of Gog and Magog. (5) Jerusalem will be renovated, and the remaining dispersed of Israel will be regathered to Israel. (6) The Messianic Kingdom of glory will center in Jerusalem and Israel marked by peace and prosperity. (7) A general resurrection will take place, although some sources place the resurrection of the Jews at the beginning of the Messianic reign.
Later rabbis introduced the idea of two Messiahs: (1) the son of Joseph, who would die in battle with Gog and Magog; and (2) the son of David, who would lead Israel to victory and peace. This dual concept of Messiah did not exist, however, until at least the second century A.D. and probably arose as a response to Christian preaching about a suffering Messiah.
The Sadducees, the other main Jewish sect and often bitter rivals of the Pharisees, put great emphasis on the written law, the Torah, which comprised the first five books of Moses. They disagreed with the Pharisaic emphasis on the oral law. We know from Josephus and the New Testament (Acts 23:6–8) that the Sadducees did not believe in angels or the resurrection. They tended to be from the wealthier strata of society and were often members of the priestly families. They controlled the Temple ritual and the leadership of the Sanhedrin, or ruling council of the Jewish people.
It is difficult to determine clearly what the Sadducees believed about the Messiah, since we have no writings today that they produced. From what we know about them, however, it is probable that they had no Messianic doctrine at all. Since they denied the resurrection, other eschatological ideas like the Messiah would have been rejected by them as well. Furthermore, since Rome granted the Sadducees a privileged position as leaders in the Temple and Sanhedrin, any notions of a Messianic deliverer who would defeat the Romans would have posed a threat to their own privileged position. Caiaphas, a Sadducee and high priest, expressed this concern in John 11:47–50: “Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? For this man doeth many miracles. If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him; and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.”
The Essenes were an ascetic group who withdrew to the wilderness and rejected the corrupt Temple leadership. They awaited the final judgment in which their enemies would be destroyed. Most scholars believe that the settlement at Qumran, which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, was a group of Essenes. Some of those writings (e.g., The Manual of Discipline and the Testimonia) reveal that the Essenes had a rather detailed and fascinating concept of the Messiah. They looked forward to the advents of a great prophet, a great priest, and a great prince. These three figures would usher in the Messianic age for which they were making preparation.* This concept of three Messiahs expresses the three offices of the Old Testament theocracy—prophet, priest, and king. While the Essenes correctly discerned that these three anointed ones provided the pattern of the Messiah’s work, they failed to see that one Messiah would combine all three offices in Himself!
The Zealots. The last main group among the Jewish community of Jesus’ day was the Zealots. Actually, they were not so much a religious sect as a group of freedom fighters. They strongly resisted Roman occupation and often attacked Roman soldiers and Jewish collaborators in guerrilla-type operations. Simon, one of Jesus’ disciples, had been a member of this terrorist group before he learned that Jesus’ power was greater than the sword (Lk. 6:15). The founder of the Zealots—Judas of Gamla—was a Pharisee, so the Messianic concepts of the Zealots were undoubtedly also along the lines of a military Messiah. Since this concept agrees with their hatred of Roman occupation, we can see how they believed that the Messiah would come primarily to deliver Israel from her hated enemies. The Zealots, however, added a different twist to this scenario. The Pharisees were willing to wait for God to intervene in human history in His own time. The Zealots, however, were quite zealous to hasten the Messiah’s coming by their own military efforts toward Roman defeat! It was the actions of these hotheads that precipitated the war with Rome and the subsequent fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
We should not assume, however, that all the Jewish people of Jesus’ day fit neatly into one of these sects. The vast majority of the common people had no clearly defined Messianic concept, although most were probably influenced to a degree by the Pharisees. Consider the statement by the two disciples whom Jesus encountered on the way to Emmaus, “But we hoped that it had been he who should have redeemed Israel; and, besides all this, today is the third day since these things were done” (Lk 24:21). They had hoped for a physical redemption, which Jesus’ suffering and death obviously had not secured for them.
Against the background of this variety of Messianic ideas, Jesus proclaimed His identity with the suffering servant of Isaiah—“For even the Son of man came, not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). To people under the yoke of foreign oppressors, the idea of a royal Messiah who would bash the heads of the oppressors had great appeal. Jesus reminded the Jewish people that there were also many prophecies of a Messiah who must first suffer an atoning death before He defeated Israel’s enemies.
A Hebrew-Christian scholar has remarked, “It must be admitted that in the popular sense Jesus is not the Messiah as conceived by Jewish tradition. The unique position accorded to Him in the New Testament is contrary (in some ways) to all Jewish views. Though Jesus was the Son of David (Rom. 1:3), the Fulfiller of Prophecy (John 1:45) and the Redeemer of Israel (Luke 1:68-ff), yet He did not fit easily into any Jewish preconceived Messianic expectations. In other words Messiahship was transformed under the impact of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.”*
While it is true that many of Jesus’ first followers came from the common people of his day (cp. Mk. 12:37; Jn. 7:47–49; Acts 4:13), we also read about Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots among His disciples (cp. Jn. 19:38–39; Acts 6:7; 15:5; Lk. 6:15). While Jesus’ message cut across the grain of their Messianic preconceptions, it also carried the power to transform their ideas to the biblical teaching that the Messiah must suffer first before He reigns. This is what Jesus did for those two disappointed disciples on the road to Emmaus: “Then he said unto them, O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them, in all the scriptures, the things concerning himself” (Lk. 24:25–27). This is a hard truth for many Jewish people—then and now—to comprehend. But to those who are willing to put aside human traditions for God’s prophetic Word, this message brings a liberating freedom that cannot be compared to political freedom. “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the children of God, even to them that believe on his name” (Jn. 1:12).