In my previous post I began to discuss the understanding of Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah, in the Gospel of Mark (this is a thread within a thread within a thread – but it doesn’t matter. Each of these posts makes sense on their own). I am trying to show that Mark portrayed Jesus as the Son of God (meaning: the one who was in a particularly close relationship with God who was chosen by God to mediate his will on earth) and the messiah. But he was the Son of God/Messiah whom no one understood. Even his disciples.
What though would it mean for first century Jews to think of someone as the messiah?
Some serious background is necessary. As I pointed out in my previous post, the word Messiah is a Hebrew term (the Greek equivalent is “Christ”) which meant “anointed one.” Why would you call someone the anointed one?
In Jewish circles the term goes back to a kind of royal ideology (i.e., understandings of the kingship) from centuries before Jesus. In the Old Testament, it was first and foremost the king of Israel who was thought to be the “anointed one.” That’s because at the king’s coronation ceremony, he had, as part of the ritual, oil poured on his head to show that he was the one who stood under God’s special favor. He was thus the messiah, the anointed one.
In one of our early narratives about kingship, we are told …
In one of our early narratives about kingship, we are told that the second king of Israel, David was promised by God that he would *always*, forever, have a descendent sitting on the throne of Israel (2 Sam 7:14-16). And for years it was believed that this would be true, that there would always be a Davidic king, an “anointed one,” on the throne. For over four hundred years, in fact, it was true. Descendants of David ruled from Jerusalem over all that time, as God’s anointed ones.
But then in the sixth century BCE, disaster struck. The Babylonians invaded Judea, destroyed Jerusalem, burned the Temple, and removed the Davidic king from the throne.
What were thinkers in Judea to think of that? God had promised that there would always be a king, an anointed one from the line of David on the throne. And now there simply wasn’t one. Some thinkers came to believe that this was a merely temporary state of affairs, a blip in the divine plan. God would still fulfill his promise to David and his people, by restoring a king to the throne of Israel. There would be a future anointed one. I.e., there would be yet again a messiah.
The idea of a messiah then developed into the notion of a *future* king from David’s line who would rule Israel. This figure was not to be divine, except insofar as God would make him his “son” just as he had made David, and Solomon, and other kings his son. People expecting a messiah, then, were expecting a future warrior-king who would drive out the enemies and set up the Davidic kingdom in Jerusalem.
By the days of Jesus, some 600 years after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, different Jewish groups and individuals had different understandings of what this future ruler of Israel would be. My guess is that most Jews were not looking forward to a messiah at all, just as most Jews today aren’t. But some were. And their expectations (as attested in our surviving sources) were diverse.
Some, probably the majority of those expecting a messiah, thought he would be the traditional warrior-politician-king, a human elevated by God to rule over his people. Others maintained that the future messiah would be a great and powerful priest who would rule God’s people by giving them the true interpretation of the law. Yet others thought that the messiah would be more of a cosmic figure, a divine being come on the clouds of heaven to destroy everyone and everything that was opposed to God in order to set up a new scheme of things, a new kingdom here on earth.
Even though these were different kinds of expectation, they had some things in common. Most important, they all saw the messiah as a figure of grandeur and power who would overthrow the enemies of the Jews and establish Israel as a sovereign state in the land, ruling over the people as God’s empowered representative on earth.
With that background, it is easy to see why after the death of Jesus, it was so difficult to convince Jews that he was the messiah. He was just the *opposite* of what the messiah was supposed to be, virtually by definition. Rather than a powerful figure who destroyed God’s enemies, Jesus was a lower class peasant who got on the wrong side of the law and was *squashed* by God’s enemies. The Romans unceremoniously arrested, tried, convicted, tortured, humiliated, and crucified him. THAT’S the messiah???
In the past I’ve tried to explain to my students how most first-century Jews would react to the claim that Jesus was the messiah. It would be like my trying to convince you that David Koresh is the Lord of the Universe. David Koresh??? The Branch Davidian? The guy at Waco who was abusing kids and stockpiling arms, the guy the FBI killed in a raid on his compound? You’re telling me that *he’s* the Lord of the Universe?? What are you, CRAZY???
That’s pretty much what most Jews thought about the Christian claim that Jesus was the messiah. (I always used to get in trouble when I’d use this analogy. At the end of the year I’d have two or three students write on their course evaluations that they couldn’t believe that Ehrman thought that David Koresh was the Lord of the Universe. Ai yai yai….)
It’s no surprise then that Christians did not have lots and lots of Jewish converts to their belief in Jesus. In my next post I’ll be explaining why Christians did believe that Jesus was the messiah – a belief that I think goes back to the Jesus’ own lifetime. In fact, I think that Jesus himself thought he was the messiah.