Continuity — (Digression) — The Would-be Pillar

Having looked at Mark, the concept of "Messiah" should be highlighted for a moment before continuing on in this survey, as it seems to be a guiding idea on the minds of the evangelists who followed GMark in telling the story of Jesus. Ambiguous though it is, it's one of the most repeated motifs. Messiah, the Hebrew word for ‘anointed’ (Mashiach), was a title usually reserved for priests and kings in the Jewish Scriptures; it denoted one who was favored by God in some special way. The word was an adjective. The High Priest is anointed. David is God's anointed. Even Cyrus the Great, a Persian king, is deemed God's anointed at one point in the Bible's narrative.

Paul's epistles regularly refer to Jesus as "Christ," the Greek equivalent of this term, but, given the incongruousness of his Jewish affectations, this title (indeed, for him it is part of Jesus' very name) reflect a different, more-Hellenistic conception there.

The common view is that by the time of the Roman occupation of Judea this concept of God's anointed had acquired a soteriological aspect. We are told that the Jews would come to expect an imminent 'Messiah' (it became by this time a personal noun) who would free God's people from the shameful bondage of foreign rule and who would restore the glory of the old kingdom. There is only a small problem with this common image of messianic expectation in the first century: The Hebrew Scriptures never use the word "messiah" in that noun sense, it is always attached to specific individuals in the adjective sense. Of course, that there should have been a collective yearning for God to come fix things would be no huge surprise. Collective expectation of an ideal future ‘liberator’ could certainly have evolved alongside the evolving scriptures to keep pace with the handicaps that the Judean people kept encountering in their history, so that by the Hellenistic period "Messiah" came to signify a coming agent of salvation who would mark or initiate the end of history and bring about a new era.

Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) in 1947 we had almost no way to gauge this abstract cultural projection of a messianic savior from the standpoint of Second Temple Judaism. The dearth of textual evidence disallowed it. But the DSS were discovered, and they include many examples of at least one near-contemporary sectarian group's thinking about messianism.

There seem to be two general views of messianism represented in the DSS:
  1. One is that the messianic era could be brought about by a slow improvement of the world, at which time God will send his redeemer.
  2. The other is that there would be a catastrophe. God would intervene in history violently (Deus ex machina) and thus redeem his people.

This latter kind of messianism, illustrated in the Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness, is also illustrated in the later Christian canonical book of Revelation. In the DSS text the sectarians imagined their role in a war which would pit them, first against other Jews, and then against all the other nations. It's the whole Gog/Magog thing. The Armageddon thing. After they have finally destroyed everyone everyone else, they will come up to Jerusalem, presumably to share in the messianic era in eternal Utopian bliss. There is some parallel with early Christian thought there, at least with that early eschatological variant of Christianity which bequeathed the Book of Revelation to us. Therefore the DSS do support the fact that this early Christian eschatology demonstrably jibes at least in quality with that of a known, contemporaneous, tributary form of Judaism (albeit a marginal and sectarian one). Some of the ideas that some scholars previously had thought to be un-Jewish elements in some of the Christian texts thus did in fact have precedents and parallels in the ascetic Judaism of the Khirbet Qumran community. The DSS are invaluable to us in this respect.

But then, Revelation has always been a kind of anomaly within the biblical canon. Eusebius, Luther, Spong: all have challenged the canonicity of the ideas in this text —albeit for different reasons. It's safe to say, though, that its messianic apocalypticism is very far removed from the restrained messianism of the Gospel According to Mark, where every mention of Jesus' favored status immediately meets with a shooshing rebuke.

Mark introduces us to a different messianic metaphor, namely the suffering son of God. Here for the first time we have definitive allusions to passages in Isaiah and in Daniel which are interpreted as predictions of a fiture-coming messianic figure. The messianic connotation of the phrase "son of God" is corroborated and paralleled in Pseudo-Daniel (aka Aramaic Apocalypse), one of the DSS. Taking off on Daniel, in this apocryphal text, there is a messianic figure, a "son of God" (bar Elohim in the original Aramaic) highlighted. This would indicate that there were some Jews in the era who clothed their messiannic figure with this familiar designation.

But it is a far cry from Messiah as coming redeemer figure to Messiah as eternal Logos. That was a Christian innovation, not a Judean one. Eventually Christianity would grow to such an extent that its messianic constructs would inform even Talmudic formulations (more a reaction to the evangelical aspect of Christianity than it is a vision arrived at independently of them). As eschatological as the DSS can be in points, nowhere are the messianic figures alluded to there exalted as divine in nature.

I isolated four basic Jewish identifiers back in a previous post in this series. One commenter has called them the "four pillars of Judaism." There are some people that present messianism as another such pillar. But the truth is that we know less than we think we do about this rich cultural metaphor for a general yearning for God's justice.

We do know there was some modicum of apocalypticism in the air.
As an aside: We also know that donning the title of Messiah was not enough to get you killed; plenty of people had been called that before and after Jesus. The difference in his story would have probably entailed his deification—but that's for another post.

Anyway, I think it is wise to highlight the dearth of available evidence and to thus be careful not to overplay the magnitude of this imagined messianic yearning in normative Judaism at the time in question. It's important to keep this in mind as we survey the New Testament looking for implicit and explicit "Judaisms."


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