David Solomon explores the evolution of the messianic idea in Jewish history following the Second Temple era. He examines how circumstances and events propelled transformations in messianic thought. With the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE, David traces the emergence of apocalyptic notions fused to Davidic restoration hopes. He then analyses and contrasts two radically different messianic claimants who arose from this milieu – Jesus of Nazareth and Simeon Bar Kokhba.
Apocalyptic Yearnings in Late Second Temple Times
David emphasises the atmosphere of messianic tension permeating Judea in the late Second Temple period. Oppressive Roman rule prevented fulfilment of biblical redemption prophecies. This spurred apocalyptic thinking – a sense of two worlds, the imperfect present and ideal future. The Dead Sea Scrolls reflect these millenarian hopes for divinely ordained transition to a new cosmic age.
David notes scholarly debate on when eschatological expectations welded onto the Davidic messiah idea. But he argues this fusion clearly occurred by the first century BCE, shaping subsequent movements and claimants. With autonomy lost and foreign domination entrenched, only apocalyptic transformation through divine intervention could realise Jewish sovereignty and freedom.
Jesus of Nazareth – Warrior, Healer, King
This milieu generated numerous messianic figures, with Jesus of Nazareth the most impactful. While historical scepticism exists, David focuses on Jesus’ messianism rather than biographical details. He embodied the diverse facets expected of a redeemer – warrior, healer, and ultimately king of Davidic descent. However, Jesus diverged radically in rejecting violence and earthly power.
David provocatively depicts Jesus as a reform rabbi who challenged the oral law. Through his death, Jesus claimed to fulfil Torah commandments, allowing salvation by faith rather than deeds. But Christianity’s offer of individual salvation clashed with Judaism’s demands for social redemption and justice. This fault line ultimately yielded separation.
Simeon Bar Kokhba – Military Messiah
In 132-135 CE, Simeon Bar Kokhba led a rebellion against Roman rule banned central Jewish practices. With rabbinic backing, he was briefly hailed as Messiah for this defence of Judaism. But his movement’s catastrophic defeat saw him rebranded “Bar Koziba” (Son of Deception). The rabbis determined that militaristic messianic adventurism merely delayed true redemption.
David highlights the vast differences between Jesus’ non-violence and Bar Kokhba’s martial messianism. Yet both emerged from Jewish apocalyptic yearnings in this era.
The Dual Messiahs – Polarities Reconciled
In the failure of these claimants, David sees the beginnings of the dual messiah concept developed subsequently – Mashiach ben David and Mashiach ben Yosef. This incorporated both perspectives, with the warrior messiah sacrificing himself to enable the Davidic king’s spiritual dominion.
David concludes that the rabbis thereby created a messianic age distinct from the future world to come. While only God can bring the ultimate redemption, our efforts can bridge the present and future by creating the just, peaceful messianic era. This idea of social transformation remains Judaism’s enduring messianic legacy.
Context and Background
To properly understand this lecture, it helps to have familiarity with the basic chronology and themes of Second Temple era Jewish history that David has explored in previous talks. Key events referenced include:
- The Hasmonean (Maccabee) revolt against Greek rule in 167-160 BCE
- The growing Roman domination of Judea from 63 BCE, replacing Hasmonean autonomy
- The Jewish Great Revolt against Rome (66-73 CE), ending with destruction of the Second Temple
- The failure of Bar Kokhba’s revolt in 135 CE and subsequent Roman prohibitions on central Jewish practices
Familiarity with biblical prophecies and Talmudic teachings regarding messianic expectations provides additional useful background. David’s perspective integrates historical analysis with traditional Jewish conceptual frameworks.
Two radically divergent messianic manifestations emerged from the tumultuous circumstances in the late Second Temple era. The many events of this time influenced theological evolution, shaping the Jewish messianic idea as it entered its next phase. Placing Judaism’s messianism within specific historical settings in context reveals its dynamism as an evolving force throughout Jewish history.
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This talk is the first of a four-part series, The Messianic Idea in Jewish History, presented at Caulfield Shule in 2021.