Complexity in Early Jewish Messianism
Written by Joshua Brumbach   

Complexity in Early Jewish Messianism

Joshua Brumbach

 "For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have   been made complete, and he is the head over all rule and authority"

 (Col 2: 9-10).

"Yeshua said to her, ‘I Am the Resurrection and the Life!  Whoever puts [their] trust in me will live, even if [they] die; and everyone living and trusting in me will never die.  Do you believe this?'  She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world'"

(John 11:25-27).

 There is a popular assumption in Jewish circles that Judaism has never believed in a divine Messiah.[1]  Some argue that Yeshua himself never claimed to be the Messiah and that his earliest followers would never have considered him to be God.  Professor Israel Knohl of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem comments:

            The main tendency in New Testament scholarship for over a hundred years has been to attempt to resolve these difficulties by denying the historical reality of Jesus' claim to messiahship.  Scholars of this viewpoint maintain that Jesus did not regard himself as the Messiah at all and that his disciples proclaimed him the Messiah after his death.  Jesus, they claim, could not have foreseen his rejection, death, and resurrection, as ‘the idea of a suffering, dying, and rising Messiah or son of Man was unknown to Judaism.'[2]

 But can this view be supported?  To understand the ideology of these earliest disciples, it is incumbent to understand the first-century Jewish world as well as the broader influence of ideas that existed within Ancient Near Eastern thought.  Dietmar Neufeld, of the University of British Columbia, confirms that, "a heavenly, transcendent Messiah was not a unique invention of the Christian community but the outgrowth of reflection that had its roots in Judaism."[3]  The roots of the early Yeshua followers are in the pluralistic Judaisms of the period.  In order to delve into the views of the early "believing" community regarding the person of Yeshua, it is vital to understand the differences between the Jewish world then, and Judaism as it would later become. 

The concept of the Messiah in Jewish thought was far more complex before the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) than after.  Neufeld contends, "contrary to traditional assumptions of a ubiquitous and consistent messianism in early Judaism, numerous recent studies have pointed out that messianism was a fluid and diverse phenomenon."[4]  Over time, for obvious reasons, the established Jewish leadership refrained from defining the messiah in exalted terms, since radical messianism was explained to be a cause to the destruction for the Temple and to Israel's dispersion.  According to Kay Smith, of Azusa Pacific University, "from approximately the 3rd century BCE, to the 2nd century CE, the Jewish world was very pluralistic. During the Second Temple period, Jews interpreted and interacted with their scriptures differently than today."[5]

 During this period we see varying strains within the Jewish world - radical apocalypticism, messianism, monasticism, etc.  Mark Nanos, in his book The Mystery of Romans writes, "Judaism tolerated many different views...This pluralism extended throughout Judaism and blended even the distinctions between Palestinian and Diaspora beliefs and practices so that it is not possible to speak of a monolithic or normative Judaism."[6]  This pluralism influenced the way each group interacted with, and interpreted, the world around them.  There was no one way to be a Jew, or to interpret a particular text.  Concerning this period, scholars cannot say with any kind of certainty, "This is what Jews believed or practiced." There was disagreement over everything - calendar, lineage of the priesthood, sacrifices, canon, even the primary locus of ritual observance.[7]  This complexity extended to Jewish conceptions of the Messiah and other divine agents.  William Horbury asserts that "some biblical redeemer-figures which are often reckoned as angelic rather than messianic in modern study were interpreted messianically in antiquity."[8]  Smith further notes:

It was extremely common (may I say extremely ‘Jewish') during this period to write about an exalted agent of God with characteristics of the divine and still be a monotheist...Jews were comfortable with the notion of a single, exalted figure, who had all the characteristics of God and did all the things that God does, who was exalted above

all others, present with God at creation, but...and this is the most important element...they in no sense thought this was betraying the classical confession, Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.[9]

Thus, belief in divine agents was not viewed as a violation of the belief in "only One God."  The early Jewish followers did not see themselves as practicing idolatry, or worshiping a foreign god by proclaiming Yeshua's divinity.  According Larry Hurtado of the University of Edinburgh, points out that "all evidence indicates, however, that those Jewish [believers] who made such a step remained convinced that they were truly serving the God of the Old Testament."[10]  He adds:

The cultic veneration of Jesus as a divine figure apparently began among Jewish [believers], whose religious background placed great emphasis upon the uniqueness of God.  It is evident that their devotion had its own distinct shape, a kind of binitarian reverence which included both God and the exalted Jesus...apparently they regarded this redefinition not only as legitimate, but, indeed, as something demanded of them.[11]  

 The view that the Messiah would be more than human goes back as far as Isaiah and Jeremiah.  These authors believed in something approximating a divine Messiah:

The idea that the Messiah or the king at the end of days is a figure with divine attributes is already found in the Bible.  The prophet Isaiah used the expression ‘mighty God' in this connection (9.5), and Jeremiah said that the king at the end of days would be called ‘the Lord our righteousness' (23.6).[12] 

Knohl goes on to note that this motif is "connected with the ‘suffering servant' in Isaiah 53...The figure described...combines characteristics of God, [and] the king-Messiah."[13]

The Dead Sea Scrolls reflect this development in messianic understanding.  Texts describe an exalted figure that would suffer and die, only to be resurrected.[14]  This understanding has been brought to the forefront of scholarly debate with the recently published inscription known as "Gabriel's Revelation."[15]  This apocalyptic inscription, written on stone, dates to the late first century BCE, or the early first century CE.[16]  Although some of the text is badly worn and difficult to read, Knohl contends that it refers to a suffering Messiah who is to be resurrected within three days.[17]  This idea seems quite different from the commonly held assumptions about a victorious Messiah Son of David.  According to Knohl, "The new inscription, ‘Gabriel's Revelation,' suggests that this different kind of Messiah was evolving at the turn of the era - different from the Messiah son of David.  Instead of a militant Messiah, it envisions a Messiah who suffered, died, and rose."[18]

Other scholars concur with this assessment.  Hershel Shanks of the Biblical Archaeology Society writes:

"By Jesus' time...the concept of the mashiach had developed beyond that of an earthly messiah who would restore the glory of the kingdom of David.  It also came to mean a divinely sent figure who would return as God's agent and usher in the world to come.  The Dead Sea Scrolls reflect this development...thus...the messiah was already freighted with eschatological content."[19]

The eschatological conception of the Son of God was also extant in Second temple Judaism.  As Shanks puts it, "that divine sonship is present in the Dead Sea Scrolls before Jesus is declared the Son of God should not be surprising."[20]

The early Yeshua followers were convinced that Yeshua was a divine Messiah, and their understanding was based on Jewish understandings.  Paul wrote in the early years after Yeshua: "It is through his Son that we have redemption, that is, our sins have been forgiven.  He is the visible image of the invisible God.  He is supreme over all creation, because in connection with him were created all things - in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible...He existed before all things, and he holds everything together (Col 1:14-17)."

Did Yeshua believe that he was the Messiah?  The Gospels do not record Yeshua using the direct words "I am the Messiah."  Nevertheless, evidence from the Apostolic Writings suggests Yeshua did indeed believe himself to be an elevated divine figure.  One that was not only a wonder working teacher and deliverer, but God incarnate. 

As an example, in the Gospel of John, Yeshua states:  "Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM" (John 8:58).  A declaration points directly to the God of Israel in the Hebrew Bible (specifically Exodus 3:14) and connotes eternal attributes. 

During Chanukah in Jerusalem, Yeshua was approached by a number of worshipers in the Temple, and was asked directly, "How much longer are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us publicly!" (John 10:24).  In response to their inquiry, Yeshua said "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30).  Yeshua indeed saw himself to be a divine Messiah.  This Messiah concept was consistent with views that were circulating in the first-century CE.  The earliest followers of Yeshua were able to make the claims they did because their views were firmly rooted in Jewish soil.  Although this understanding within Judaism would not last long, there was a period in time when belief in a divine Messiah was indeed Jewish.

 

Joshua Brumbach recently relocated to Washington, DC where he and his wife are the founders of Yinon, an organization committed to revitalizing congregations and planting emergent Messianic Jewish communities that inspire young Jews toward a vision of Jewish life that is progressive and engaging, rooted in the enduring legacy of Mashiach.  They are also the creators of Yinon Blog (yinonblog.blogspot.com).  He formerly served as the Assistant Director of the MJTI David Stern Center, and as the Assistant Rabbi of Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue, both in the Los Angeles area.  He is currently completing a MA in Jewish Thought and Mysticism at Towson University.

 


[1] The word "Messiah," or????  mashiach in Hebrew, simply means "Anointed One."

[2] Israel Knohl, The Messiah Before Jesus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 2.

[3]Dietmar Neufeld. "And When That One Comes: Aspects of Johannine Messianism." Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Ed. Graig A. Evans and Peter W. Flint. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), 140. 

[4]Ibid. Neufeld, p. 120.

[5] Kay Silberling Smith, The Messiah of Israel (Unpublished Lecture Notes - Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue, Agoura Hills, CA., 1997).

[6] Mark D. Nanos, The Mystery of Romans (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 42.

[7] This is vividly exemplified with the Qumran community, and to a lesser extent with the early New Testament community.  See further Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 24, 78-79, etc.

[8]William Horbury, Messianism Among Jews and Christians (London: T&T Clark, 2003), 57.

[9] Ibid. Silberling Smith.

[10] Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1998), 14.

[11] Ibid., p. 11.

[12] Ibid. Knohl, p. 84.

[13] Ibid., p. 84.

[14] Ibid., p. 37-50.

[15] Israel Knohl, "The Messiah Son of Joseph." Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2008.

[16] Ibid, p. 58.

[17] Ibid, p. 60-61.

[18] Ibid, p. 62.

[19] Hershel Shanks, The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Random House, 1998), 68-69.

[20] Shanks. Ibid., p. 69.

 
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