Jewish Messianic Expectations (1/4)

The Problem

The word Christ, the Greek form of the Hebrew word Messiah, appears 528 times in the New Testament!  The concept of a messiah is central to the Old Testament[1] It was the Israelites hope for their glorious future.  The messiah is not just central to the Old Testament but it was central to the New Testament also; it is what links the Old and New Testament together.[2]  Galatians 3:24 connects the Old and New Covenant together and shows Christ, the Messiah, as the central subject.  This verse says, “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.”  This passage tells the reader how the Old Testament was there to help bring people to Christ.  Matthew 5:17 says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”  But, as one reads the gospels it is evident that Jesus’ definition of the messiah and the Jews definition of a messiah were different.  Even his disciples did not understand what Jesus’ purpose was.

There are numerous times in the gospels where this is shown clearly.  Matthew 20:20-21 says, “Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.  ‘What is it you want?’ he asked.  She said, ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.’”  In this passage James and John’s mother believed Jesus would have an earthly kingdom and she wanted her sons to rule with Him.  Also, in Acts 1:6 Jesus’ disciples still think that Jesus was going to restore the kingdom of Israel in an earthly form and they asked him if he was going to initiate that process soon.  The disciples did not understand what the job of the messiah was and neither did the Pharisees.  The Pharisees were a sect of the Jews who wanted to crucify Jesus.  If they believed he was a fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the messiah then they would want to honor him, not hang him on a tree.  The “Jews refused the crucified Jesus as the Messiah of Israel because they were waiting for a triumphant Messiah who would come to bring them victory and not abjection.”[3] If we want to understand the debate going on in the gospel and why the Pharisees wanted to crucify Jesus, we have to ask, what were the people in the first century expecting from a messiah and why was Jesus, the true Messiah, so different from their expectations?

     Messianic expectation was not a new proposal in the first century.  The Messianic movement was not an idea that came from Judaism recently, but that it had developed over hundreds of years starting back in the southern monarchy.[4]  An important note when studying the Jewish messianic expectations in the first century is to realize that the term “messiah” has been loaded with 2,000 years of Christian theology.  Brown says that this theology should not be read into the thought of a pre-Christian idea.[5]  Another flaw with studying the messiah is the definition of “messiah” is susceptible to be manipulated, sometimes based upon prejudicial judgments.[6]  So, to study the different ideas of the messiah one needs to look at where, how, and when the ideas were started, developed, and propagated.  Only then can one have a proper understanding of what the first century Jews were expecting from a messiah.

     Before this discussion goes further a simple working definition of the word ‘messiah’ is in order.  As this discussion continues this definition might be modified or changed, but it is important to have a basic understanding of what the Messiah is when talking about his form and function so as not to get confused.  Schiffman defines the messianic idea as the “eventual coming of a redeemer, a descendant of David, who is expected to bring about major changes in the nature of life in this world, changes which include the attainment of such goals as world peace, prosperity, and the elimination of evil and misfortune.”[7]

Isaiah 9:6 is the oldest passage to give a clear picture of what the Messiah would look like.[8]  It says, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  We know from Isaiah 1:1 that Isaiah was a prophet during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.  During the monarchy Messianism was practically non-existent because “everything was as it should be.”[9]  However, as doom and destruction were lurking around the corner and Isaiah was prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem, he looked to a time when things would be set right again.  Isaiah saw this new messiah king would be able to crush opposing kings and set up a peaceful prosperous reign.  Messianism arose in the Southern kingdom and the main evidence is found in the Royal Psalms and the prophet Isaiah (Psalms 2:6ff; 21:9-13; 110:1; 89:19; 137:11ff).[10]  When a Davidic king did not live up to the expectations of Israel’s ever-expanding need, then the nation’s hopes were focused on a “Davidic king yet to come.”[11]


[1] Ronald E. Clements, “The Messianic Hope in the Old Testament,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 43 (1989):  4.

[2] ibid

[3] Andre Chouraqui, “The Messiah of Israel.”  Cross Currents 11 (1961), 335.

[4] Gerhard Kittel, “Messiah,”  Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1964-1976), 9:509.

[5] Raymond E Brown, “The Messianism of Qumran,”  Catholic Biblical Quarterly 19 (1957: 53.

[6] Stanley Isser, “Studies of Ancient Jewish Messianism:  Scholarship and Apologetics,”  Journal of Ecumenical Studies 25 (1988):  60.

[7] Lawrence C. Schiffman, “The Concept of the Messiah in Second Temple and Rabbinic Literature,” Review and Expositor 84 (1987):  235.

[8] Kittel, 9:506.

[9] Edward Riehm, Messianic Prophecy:  Its Origin, Historical Growth, and Relation to New Testament Fulfillment Translated by Lewis A. Muirhead, (Edinburgh:  Morrison and Gibb Limited, 1900), 179.

[10] Kittel, 9:505.

[11] John I. Durham, “The King as ‘Messiah’ in the Psalms,”  Review and Expositor 81 (1995), 430.

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