Over the years there have been a slew of books that discuss the birth of the Jesus movement. Linguistically speaking, Christianity didn’t exist in the first century. Judaism in the first century was not seen as a single “way.” There were many Judaisms- the Sadducees, the Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, etc. The followers of Jesus are referred to as a “sect” (Acts 24:14;28:22); “the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5). Hence, the first followers of Jesus were considered to be a sect of second temple Judaism. Historians generally look at historical causation and ask what might be the best explanation for a specific event. Skeptics have posited that the birth of our faith does not rely on a miracle such as the resurrection of Jesus.
Traditional Jewish Expectations
One of the Jewish expectations is that the Messiah will enable the Jewish people to dwell securely in the land of Israel (Is.11:11-12; 43:5-6; Jer.23: 5-8; Mic.5:4-6), and usher in a period of worldwide peace. Part of the Messiah’s mission is to put an end to all oppression, suffering and disease (Is.2:1-22; 25:8; 65:25; Mic.4:1-4) and create a pathway for universal worship to the God of Israel (Zeph.3:9; Zech.9:16 ;14:9). Another traditional view is that the Messiah will spread the knowledge of the God of Israel to the surrounding nations (Isa.11:9; 40:5; 52:8).
Even in the Qumran community which predated the time of Jesus thought there were possibly two Messiahs, one priestly and one royal (1QS 9.11; CD 12.22-23; 13. 20-22; 14. 18-19; 19.34-20.1; CD-B 1.10-11; 2.1; 1Q Sa 2. 17-22). (1)
The Davidic Messiah
The term “messiah” which means “anointed one,” is taken from the Hebrew word “masiah” which appears thirty-nine times in the Hebrew Bible. While this term was used for those who were of Davidic kings (Psalm 18:50;89:20; 132:10-17), it is also used of Cyrus in Isa. 45:1. While God promised that Israel would have an earthly king (Gen. 17: 6; 49:6; Deut.17: 14-15), he also promised King David that one of his descendants would rule on his throne forever (2 Sam.7:12-17; 1 Chr.17:7-15; Ps.89:28-37).
The Messiah was called to defeat the oppressive enemies of Israel and enable the Jewish people to help “set up an earthly kingdom that will never be destroyed” (Dan. 2:44). The prophets spoke of a Davidic King who would be unlike any past Davidic king (Is. 9:6-7; 11:1-5; Jer 23:5-6; Mic. 5:2-5). Both Hosea and Ezekiel spoke of the Davidic aspect of the Messiah. While Hosea spoke of a time when the northern tribes of Israel would seek out David, Israel’s king (Hos. 3:5), Ezekiel spoke of a new David who would be a shepherd as well as a prince and a king to Israel (Ezek: 34:23-24; 37:24-25). This king’s function would help restore the Davidic dynasty after the exile.
One of the most important resources that speak to the messianic expectation of the time of Jesus is found in The Psalms of Solomon. The Psalms of Solomon is a group of eighteen psalms that are part of the Pseudepigrapha which is written 200 BC to 200 A.D. Even though these works are not part of the Protestant Canon, they are dated just before or around the time of Jesus. Therefore, they help provide the historian with valuable information about the messianic expectations at the time of Jesus. In it, there are two passages about a righteous, ruling Messiah:
“Taught by God, the Messiah will be a righteous king over the gentile nations. There will be no unrighteousness among them in his days, for all shall be holy and their king shall be the Lord Messiah. He will not rely on horse and rider and bow, nor will he collect gold and silver for war. Nor will he build up hope in a multitude for a day of war. The Lord himself is his king, the hope of the one who has a strong hope in G-d. He shall be compassionate to all the nations, who reverently stand before him. He will strike the earth with the word of his mouth forever; he will bless the Lord’s people with wisdom and happiness. And he himself will be free from sin, in order to rule a great people. He will expose officials and drive out sinners by the strength of his word.” (Psalms of Solomon 17.32-36)
” Lord, you chose David to be king over Israel, and swore to him about his descendants forever, that his kingdom should not fail before you. Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from the gentiles…..to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth…He will gather a holy people who he will lead in righteousness; and he will judge the tribes of his people…He will not tolerate unrighteousness (even) to pause among them, and any person who knows wickedness shall not live with them… And he will purge Jerusalem (and make it) holy as it was from the beginning.” (Psalms of Solomon 18:4,22,26,27,30)
Even though divine sonship appears in the Hebrew Bible with regards to persons or people groups of people such as angels (Gen 6:2; Job 1:6; Dan 3:25), Israel (Ex. 4:22-23; Hos 11;1; Mal. 2:10), the category that has special importance to the Messiah are the kings. It is the king who has a special relationship to God and is called or elected to a specific task as well.
As seen in 2 Samuel 7:12-17, the immediate prophecy is partially fulfilled in David’s son Solomon. However, the word “forever” shows there are future descendants to come. God promised David that his “seed” would establish the kingdom. The New Testament states that Jesus the Messiah, the “seed of David.” Jesus is God’s chosen vessel to restore God’s kingship over mankind (Matt. 1:1; Acts 13:23; Rom. 1:3,4; Rev. 22:16). Therefore, the fulfillment reached its completion in the Messiah, both son of David and the one greater than David ( Psalm 110:1-4). As it says in Luke 1:32-33, “He shall be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end.” In this sense, Jesus is not simply a son of David, but instead, the Son of David.
The Priestly/Prophetic Messiah
There were other figures in the Bible that were anointed such as priests and prophets. There are implicit passages in the Hebrew Bible that discuss a priestly aspect of the Messiah (Hag:1:12-14; 2:2-4; 20-23; Zech:3:6-10;4:2-5,11-14). (2) The priest was anointed in his role as a mediator between God and the Jewish people because of his ability make to make atonement (Lev.4:26;31,35;5:6,10; 14:31).
However, Jesus’ role as a priest goes beyond the function of the priest in the tabernacle. Even though the high priest was consecrated, he was by no means sinless and could not offer up himself for the whole congregation. Given that Israel was called to be a kingdom of priests (Exod. 19:6), it is no surprise to see Jesus’ current messianic work is a priest-advocate (1 Jn. 2:2; Rom. 8:34). Christians hold the position that Jesus’ death put an end for further sacrifice (Heb. 7:27-28; 9:23-26). During Jesus’ earthly ministry, He displayed a priestly element in His authority to forgive sins (Mk. 2:7).
Forgiving sins was a prerogative of God alone (Exod. 34: 6-7; Neh.9:17; Dan. 9:9;) and it was something that was done only in the Temple. So it can be seen that Jesus acts as if He is the Temple in person. In Mark 14:58, it says, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.’
The prophet was to listen to God and then speak God’s words to the people. In His role as a prophet, Jesus did not use the trademark formula, “Thus saith the Lord.” Instead, He spoke in His own authority.
Therefore, it is misguided to limit the role of the Messiah to only one aspect, such as a ruling king. In the words of Craig Evans,
“If we understand “messiah” to mean one who believes himself to be anointed by God in order to play a leading role in the restoration of Israel, a restoration which may or may not involve a Davidic monarchy, then it is correct to speak of anointed kings, anointed prophets, and anointed priests.” (3)
So in regards to Evans comment, we see in the first century that the messianic expectation was by no means monolithic. To read more about this issue, click here. Within the Gospel of John, it can be observed that there is confusion about a crucified Messiah. It says in John 12:34, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?” It is evident that from this verse that Jesus’ audience thought the Messiah was not supposed to die.
Jesus’ crucifixion is attested by all four Gospels. Therefore, it passes the test of multiple attestation. It is also one of the earliest proclamations in the early Messianic Movement (see Acts 2:23; 36; 4:10). It is also recorded early in Paul’s writings (1 Cor.15), and by non-Christian authors Josephus, Ant.18:64; Tacitus, Ann.15.44.3.
Even John Dominic Crossan, one of the founders of the Jesus Seminar even says the following:
“Jesus death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be. For if not follower of Jesus had written anything for one hundred years after his crucifixion, we would still know about him from two authors not among his supporters. Their names are Flavius Josephus and Cornelius Tacitus.” (4)
According to Martin Hengel,
“The social stigma and disgrace associated with crucifixion in the Roman world can hardly be overstated.” (5)
Roman crucifixion was viewed as a punishment for those a lower status- dangerous criminals, slaves, or anyone who caused a threat to Roman order and authority. Given that Jewish nationalism was quite prevalent in the first century, the Romans also used crucifixion as a means to end the uprising of any revolts.
The New Testament writers expanded on the theme in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 to include persons who had been crucified. A quick glance at Paul’s statement in Gal 3:13 confirm this: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE.” Therefore, to say that crucifixion was portrayed in a negative light within Judaism within the first century is an understatement. In other words, anyone who was crucified was assumed not be the Anointed One of God. In the context of the covenant of Israel, the Near Eastern pattern was of both blessing and curse.
The blessing is for those who obey the stipulations of the covenant while the curse is upon those who violate the stipulations. Deuteronomy 27:6 says “ Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.” We see this in the following passage: If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all the commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God. (Deut. 28:1-2) For a Jewish person to be blessed was to being the presence of God and enjoy his presence and all the benefits that this entailed. The blessing was to experience God’s shalom in one’s life. In contrast to blessing, to be cursed was to be outside the presence of God. To be declared “unclean” or defiled meant was an offense to the Jewish people.
Paul commented about the challenge of proclaiming a dying Messiah to his fellow countrymen:
“For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor.1:21-22)
A Dead Messiah and Sheol
It also must also be noted that in light of what Jewish people knew about Sheol (the realm of the dead), a dead Messiah was an absurdity. In the Hebrew Bible, the pictures of the fate of the wicked are presented as consciously suffering in Sheol, or the grave. It is also described as the place that both the righteous and the unrighteous are expected to go upon death (Ps. 89:48). God does no wonders for those that are in Sheol; those that are there cannot praise God. Let’s look at some of these passages:
1. “For there is no mention of You in death; In Sheol who will give You thanks?” (Ps. 6:5).
2. “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise You? Will it declare Your faithfulness?” (Ps. 30:9).
3. “Will You perform wonders for the dead? Will the departed spirits rise and praise You? Selah. Will Your loving-kindness be declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Abaddon?” (Ps. 88:10-11).
4. “The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor do any who go down into silence” (Ps. 115:17).
5. “For Sheol cannot thank You, Death cannot praise You; Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness (Isa. 38:18).” (6)
It can be concluded that any attempt to proclaim a dead Messiah who had been consigned to Sheol would have created a tremendous barrier for a Jewish person in Second Temple Period. Furthermore, a dead Messiah would have extinguished any hopes of the restoration of the Davidic Dynasty.
The question still remains as to whether Jesus’ first followers knew He was going to die. After all, within Judaism, had there even been any belief in a suffering, or atoning Messiah? There are several texts that speak to the possibility of a suffering Messiah (Zech 13:7; Dan 9:26;Tg.Isa.53;T.Benj.3:8;4Q521frgs.9, 24;4Q285 5.4;4 Ezra 7:29-30;2 Bar.30:1). As it says in Isaiah 53:10, “But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand. In order for the Servant to make full expiation, he made his soul an “asham” i.e.,” a propitiatory victim for sin on which the guilt and penalty being laid, ceases to be imputed to us.
Even in The Shottenstein Talmud, a comprehensive Orthodox Jewish commentary that was composed long after the time of Jesus states the following about Isaiah 53:
” They [namely, those sitting with Messiah] were afflicted with tzaraas- as disease whose symptoms include discolored patches on the skin (see Leviticus ch. 13). The Messiah himself is likewise afflicted, as stated in Isaiah (53:4). Indeed, it was our diseases that he bore and our pains that he endured, whereas we considered him plagued (i.e. suffering tzaraas [see 98b, note 39], smitten by God and afflicted. This verse teaches that the diseases that the people ought to have suffered because of their sins are borne instead by the Messiah [with reference to the leading Rabbinic commentaries].” (Tractate Sanhedrin, Talmud Bavli, The Shottenstein Edition (Brooklyn: Mesorah, 1995), vol 3 98a5, emphasis in original).
There are also several expressions of the belief that the death of the righteous will benefit, or even save, God’s people (1 Macc: 6:26-28 17:20-22; T Moses 9-10). But if it is so obvious that Jesus’ mission was to die, then we need to explain why the Gospels record the fact that the disciples were confused about a suffering Messiah:
Second, let’s say the New Testament authors had been reading Isaiah 53 and were not surprised with the announcement by Jesus that he was going to suffer and die. Let’s look at what the Gospels say about this issue. One passage that refers to the crucifixion is John 12:34: “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?”
As we look at a couple of other places in the Gospels, we see a similar theme about the confusion of a suffering Messiah:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you! (Matt 16:21)
He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise. But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it. (Mark 9:31)
We are also left to ponder this comment by Michael Bird:
“If there was a well-known tradition about a suffering or dying Messiah, how could the hopes of the disciples be shattered after Good Friday?” (7)
How has a dying Messiah been received by the Jewish community throughout history? Perhaps a couple of comments can shed some light on this issue:
“Jesus mistake was that he thought he would be the Messiah, but when he was hanged his thought was annulled.” (R. Shimon ben Tzemah Duran (1361-1444)
“We are obligated to believe that a Jewish man will come who will begin to save Israel and will complete the salvation of Israel in that generation. One who completes the task is the one, while the one who does not complete it in that generation but dies or is broken or is taken captive (Exod 22:9) is not the one and was not sent by God.” (R. Phinehas Elijah Hurwtiz of Vilna (1765-1821), Sefer haberit hashalem (Jerusalem, 1990), 521 (8)
It is true that the old saying, “Jesus is just one of several messiah’s in the first century” is not only patently false but also a gross oversimplification. Just because someone leads a messianic revolt does not qualify them as “the Messiah” (notice the capital “M”). Here are some of the figures who claimed royal prerogatives between 4 B.C.E and 68-70 C.E but are not called “the” or “a” Messiah:
1. In Galilee 4 B.C.E.: Judas, son of bandit leader Ezekias (War 2.56;Ant.17.271-72) 2. In Perea 4 B.C.E.: Simon the Herodian slave (War 2.57-59;Ant 17.273-77) 3. In Judea 4 B.C.E.: Athronges, the shepherd (War 2.60-65;Ant 17.278-84) 4. Menahem: grandson of Judas the Galilean (War 2.433-34, 444) 5. Simon, son of Gioras (bar Giora) (War 2.521, 625-54;4.503-10, 529;7.26-36, 154)
So what if Jesus was a failure? Maybe there was another Messiah who would come that would restore the Jewish people to self- rule. Out of the all the messianic movements within Judaism, I will mention some that I believe are rather significant.
Simon bar Giora of Geresa (as mentioned above)
According to Josephus, Simon led a rebellion against the Romans in the spring of 69 C.E. (J.W. 4.9.12 §577). Among the leaders of the rebellion “Simon in particular was regarded with reverence and awe . . . each was quite prepared to take his very own life had he given the order” (J.W. 5.7.3 §309). Finally defeated and for a time in hiding, Simon, dressed in white tunics and a purple mantle, made a dramatic appearance before the Romans on the very spot where the Temple had stood (J.W. 7.1.2 §29). He was placed in chains (J.W. 7.2.2 §36), sent to Italy (J.W. 7.5.3 §118), put on display as part of the victory celebration in Rome (J.W. 7.5.6 §154), and was finally executed (J.W. 7.5.6 §155). (9)
Simon Bar Kochba
Simon Bar Kochba made an open proclamation to be the real Messiah who would take over Rome and enable the Jewish people to regain their self-rule (A.D. 132-135). Even a prominent rabbi called Rabbi Akiba affirmed him as the Messiah. Justin Martyr even noted that Bar Kokhba commanded Christians to be led away to terrible punishment unless they denied Jesus as their Messiah.” (Apology 31.6) Unfortunately, the revolt led by Bar Kochba failed and as a result and both he and rabbi Akiba were slain. Even though it is said that Rabbi Akiba hailed Bar Kokhba as the Messiah, (cf. y. Ta‘an. 4:5), the slaying of Bar Kokhba had nothing to do with any accusation of blasphemy. He did not make the same messianic claims of Jesus by asserting His authority to be the Son of Man, nor did he ever claim to have the authority to forgive sins. According to Jewish law, the claim to be the Messiah was not a criminal, nor capital offense. Therefore, the claim to be the Messiah was not even a blasphemous claim. The war ended in 135 CE. Simon was subsequently remembered as Simon ben-Kozebah (“son of the lie”). (10)
Another messianic figure was Sabbatai Sevi. Sevi was a seventeenth-century Jewish teacher who claimed to be the Messiah and was heralded by a contemporary named Nathan. It is said after Sevi’s death in 1676 that his brother found his tomb empty but full of light. If anything, the Sevi story sounds like it was borrowed from the resurrection story about Jesus.The Sevi story has little historical backing. In contrast to the resurrection claim of Sevi, in the case of Jesus, there are multiple eyewitness appearances after his resurrection (see 1 Cor. 15). What is more ironic is that Sevi later left the Jewish faith for Islam.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Within Judaism, there is a sect called Hasidic Judaism. Within Hasidic Judaism, there are leaders who are called a “tzaddik” which is Hebrew for “righteous men.” A tzaddik is sometimes viewed as a Rebbe which means master, teacher. By the way, in the book of Acts, it was during Stephen’s famous speech that he refers to Jesus as a tzaddik : “Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers.” (Acts 7:52)
Such an example of a present day tzaddik was seen in Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1951-1994), the leader of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidim. Some of the followers of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson think He is the Messiah and that He will come back from the dead (Schneerson died in 1994). Some in the Lubavitcher movement have even asserted that Isaiah 53 can be used as a proof text that the Messiah will rise from the dead. Of course, this has led to great controversy. Some in the Orthodox community have complained that the attempt to portray Schneerson as one who will rise from the dead and return a second time has too much in common with the Christian claim about Jesus.
So after glancing at these issues, what needs to asked is the following:
1. Would there be a Christianity today apart from the resurrection of Jesus? Sure, just because a new religious movement grows doesn’t make a faith true. But given the negative views of crucifixion and a dying Messiah, it seems that the early Christian movement (pre-70 A.D.) should of ended very quickly.
Hence, in light of all the varied messianic expectations and given the failure of messianic revolts, the Christian can echo the comments by scholar C. F.D., Moule in his book, The Phenomenon of the New Testament. Moule affirmed that the actual existence of the Nazarenes, which is an event, called for an explanation. Moule went onto say that the phenomenon was brought about by ‘a most powerful and original mind and a tremendous confirmatory event.’ (11)
In the words of N.T. Wright:
“ If nothing happened to the body of Jesus, I cannot see why any of his explicit or implicit claims should be regarded as true. What is more, I cannot as a historian, see why anyone would have continued to belong to his movement and to regard him as the Messiah. There were several other Messianic or quasi-Messianic movements within a hundred years either side of Jesus. Routinely, they ended with the leader being killed by authorities, or by a rival group. If your Messiah is killed, you conclude that he was not the Messiah. Some of those movements continued to exist; where they did, they took a new leader from the same family (But note: Nobody ever said that James, the brother of Jesus, was the Messiah.) Such groups did not go around saying that their Messiah had been raised from the dead. What is more, I cannot make sense of the whole picture, historically or theologically, unless they were telling the truth.” (12)
2. What led to the a very high Christology pre-70 AD?
To read on see our post called The Resurrection of the Jesus: A Look at The Birth of Christianity and The Birth of Christology
3. Why did the New Testament authors use the category ‘resurrection’ when they had other ways to describe the resurrection of Jesus?
NOTE: See our Resource Page Called Evidence for the Resurrection
Sources: 1. Michael F. Bird, Are You The One To Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 35. Qumran is the site of the ruin about nine miles south of Jericho on the west side of the Dead Sea where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in nearby caves. The Dead Sea Scrolls contains some 800 scrolls with parts or the entirety of every book of the Old Testament except Esther, discovered in the caves near Qumran. 2. Ibid, 40. 3. Craig A. Evans, Noncanonical Writings And New Testament Interpretation. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.1992, 239. 4. J.D. Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. 1994), 45. While it is true that scholars agree that there are some interpolations in Josephus, it should be noted that while the manuscript tradition of Testimonium of Josephus has the interpolations, a solid case can be made that the original passage is accurate- especially the part about Jesus being crucified under Pilate. Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. Tacitus confirmed Jesus died by crucifixion during the reign of Tiberius (14-37 CE), under Pilate’s governship (26-36 CE). 5. See Martin Hengel: Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977). 6. Roy A. Harrisville, Fracture: The Cross as Irreconcilable in the Language and Thought of the Biblical Writers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2006), 17-18. 7. Bird, Are You The One To Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question, 148-160. 8. David Berger, The Rebbe, The Messiah And The Scandal Of Orthodox Difference, (Portland: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. 2001), 21. 9. Evans, Noncanonical Writings And The New Testament Interpretation. Peabody Massachusetts. 1992, 244-245. 10. Ibid. 11. C.F.D. Moule, The Phenomena of the New Testament (London: SCM, 1967, 3, 17) ; cited in Paul W. Barnett. Jesus and the Logic of History (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press. 1997), 18-19. 12. John Dominic Crossan and N.T Wright, The Resurrection of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2006), 71.