“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21). This is the first passion prediction in the Gospel of Matthew. It occurs after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (16:16). Our Lord goes on to predict His passion two more times before He arrives at Jerusalem and Holy Week (Matthew 17:22-23; 20:18-19), and the last of these is the most specific: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day” (Matthew 20:18-19).
In spite of this preparation, when the events finally arrive the disciples are totally unprepared for it. They are not ready for his death and they do not expect his resurrection. It is puzzling. After all the disciples believe He is the Son of God and Jesus does many miraculous things such as even raising the dead. So why don’t Jesus’ multiple predictions of His death and resurrection register with them?
There are probably several reasons, and some of them have to do with the basic struggle against sin and unbelief. However, when we consider the historical setting of first century A.D. Judaism it is not hard to recognize one very significant reason. They do not understand because of the way Jesus contradicts expectations that Jews of this time had about the Messiah.
I. Old Testament background
The disciples believe that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah in Hebrew, which means “anointed one”). The Old Testament provides the foundation for understanding the Messiah. We find there that the Messiah is the fulfillment of God’s promise that David will never lack a descendant on the throne (2 Sam 7:12-16; 1 Chr 17:11-14; cf. Jer 33:17; Ps 89:3-4, 34-36; 132:10-12). This Davidic descendant is Yahweh’s “son” (2 Sa 7:14; Ps 2:7) and the Messiah (Ps 2:2) is the one who subdues and possesses the nations (2:8-12; cf. Ps 72:8-17; 110:1).
Isa 11:1-9 provides a remarkable description of the Messiah and it would exert a great influence on later messianic contemplation. The Messiah is described as a descendant of David and the one upon whom the Spirit rests in a unique way (Isa 11:1-2). He will rule and judge righteously (Isa 11:3-5), and he will destroy the wicked: “He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (11:4). His impact extends beyond humanity as he brings peace to creation itself (11:6-9).
This same figure is also clearly described in verses that don’t actually include the term “Messiah.” Jeremiah says that God will raise up for David a righteous Branch (צֶמַח צַדִּיק), and tells of how he shall reign as king and deal wisely, executing justice and righteousness in the land. (cf. Jer 33:15; “Branch” Zech 3:8; 6:12). Ezekiel says that Yahweh will raise up his servant David (34:23; 37:24-25) who is a prince (נָשִׂיא) (34:24; 37:25) and will be their shepherd (34:23; 37:24). He will deliver them from the nations (34:27-29). In the same way Zechariah describes how this one will bring peace and will rule “from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zech 9:9-10).
A Jew living in the second temple period (fifth century B.C. to first century A.D.) who looked to God’s Word found a fairly clear impression about what the Messiah would look like. The Davidic Messiah was the warrior king who would destroy the enemies of Israel and institute an era of unending (cosmic) peace and righteousness.
When we consider Jewish messianic expectation in the second temple period, it is necessary to immediately emphasize that we are really talking about expectations. Earlier scholarship had believed there was a fixed system of messianic belief and expectation. They created a messianic synthesis from later texts and viewed the first century A.D. through that lens. However more recent scholarship has demonstrated that there was no one messianic belief. A range of beliefs were present in second temple Judaism at the same time. In fact, we can identify five of them.
II. No messianic expectation
The first belief will probably surprise us. It appears that some Jews had no messianic expectation. There is virtually no extant evidence that indicates the presence of messianism from the early fifth to the late second century BC. Considering the sporadic nature of available texts, we can ask whether the absence of evidence means that there was an absence of messianic expectation. Surely there must have been people like Simeon and Anna. No doubt there were. But at the same time we cannot dismiss the fact that nobody talked about it in the texts we have and so it seems unlikely that it was a pressing hope or expectation among those who produced these texts. This probability is strengthened when we note that the appearance of evidence for messianic expectation corresponds to the rise of Hasmonean rule (164-63 BC), as individuals who did not descend from David (and never made any such claim) began to rule an independent Israel after the revolt against the Seleucids.
III. Davidic King
The second belief was the expectation of a Davidic king. The Psalms of Solomon (post 63 BC) ask God to raise up a son of David to rule Israel and “to purge Jerusalem from Gentiles … to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar; to shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth” (17:22-23). This Messiah (17:32; 18:5, 7) will reign as king in a just and righteous rule.
He will purge Jerusalem and make it holy (17:30) even as He judges the peoples and nations (17:29) and “will have the gentile nations serving him under his yoke” (17:30). Rather striking from a Christian perspective is the assertion that the Messiah will be free from sin (17:35). The Psalms of Solomon is usually viewed as reaction to both Hasmonean rule and Pompey’s conquest of Palestine in 63 BC. It is easy to see how it reflects the basic orientation of the Old Testament.
A very similar, though far more eschatologically orientated expectation, is found at Qumran. The Damascus Document (CD) says that “Messiah of Aaron and Israel” will appear at the end of days (12:23; 14:19; 19:10 [B]; 20:1) and inaugurate the eschaton. The text 4Q285 (related to the War Scroll) mentions Isa 11:1 and then adds how the Branch of David (cf. Ez 34:24; 37:25) and the Prince of the Congregation (cf. Ez 34:24; 37:25) will go into battle. Florigelium (4QFlor) uses 2 Sa 7:12-14 and identifies David’s offspring in this text as the Branch of David who will arise to save Israel (4QFlor 1-13)
The Damascus Document CD 7:19 (A) also quotes Num 24:17 and describes the scepter in the verse as the prince of the whole congregation who arises to destroy the sons of Seth. At Qumran a Davidic king was expected who would slay the wicked and the nations in an eschatological war, and usher in an era of peace and justice.
IV. Priestly Messiah
The third belief was the expectation of a second Messiah who would be a priest.
The Damascus Document (CD) says that the “Messiah of Aaron and Israel” will appear at the end of days (12:23; 14:19; 19:10 [B]; 20:1) It was noted by scholars that linguistically it was possible to read this as two messiahs. This reading was confirmed when the Community Rule (1QS) was discovered which explicitly referred to the “Messiahs of Aaron and Israel” (9:11). In 1QS the priestly messiah plays a more central role in the eschatological war and banquet (he takes the bread and wine before the Messiah of Israel; 1QSa2:17-22).
If we ask regarding the basis for this expectation, we first note that priests were anointed in the Old Testament (Lev. 4:3, 5, etc.). In the post-exilic book of Zechariah there is a reference to “two sons of oil” (Zech 4:11-12). Though this is a challenging text, it may have played a role. There is diffuse evidence that such a belief was present in Judaism (though some of it is quite problematic). In Jubilees 31:11-20 (second century B.C.) both Levi and Judah are singled out for a blessing and Levi is blessed first.
Aramaic Levi (a precursor to the Testament of Levi in Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs) seems to attribute messianic functions to Levi. Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (which is laced with Christian interpolations) has two messianic figures in T. Levi 18 and T. Judah 24. This appears to be a pattern that developed in the post-exilic period when a high priest was present but there was no king as Israel was ruled by foreign powers. Though it may have existed elsewhere, the one place where have certain and clear evidence for this belief is Qumran. Binary messianism of priest and king (Aaron and Israel) is usually taken to be the norm at Qumran, and is the most distinctive feature of Qumran messianism.
V. Prophetic Messiah
The fourth belief was the expectation of a prophetic Messiah. There are several Old Testament texts that speak about an eschatological prophet or invite this understanding. In Deut 18:15 Moses describes himself as a prophet and says that the Lord will raise up for them a prophet like him from among Israel. The Pentateuch ends by noting that such a prophet had not yet arisen (Deut 34:10-12). Mal 3:1 states, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” and then Mal 4:5 adds, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” However, apart from Sirach 48:10 (which says that Elijah will calm God’s wrath and turn the heart of parents to their children), Malachi’s prophecies were rarely cited in the Hellenistic period. Expectation of this Elijah existed, but we do not have evidence that it was widespread.
Unlike kings and priests, prophets were not usually anointed. However, Yahweh did tell Elijah to anoint Elisha (1 Ki 19:6). This provided a precedent for describing a prophet as an “anointed one” (a messiah). Sirach 48:8 says, “You anointed kings to inflict retribution, and prophets to succeed you.” The Dead Sea Scrolls also call prophets “anointed ones” (CD 2:12; 6:1; 1QM 11:7). A most intriguing piece of evidence from Qumran is 4Q251 (fragment 2 ii). It begins by saying “heaven and earth will obey his messiah” (1). Then it goes on to state “The Lord will do as he s[aid] for he will heal the wounded, give life to the dead and preach good news to the poor” (11-12) (cf. Isa 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”). The parallel with Isa 61:1 and habit of calling prophets “messiahs” seems to indicate that the messiah of line 1 is the anointed eschatological prophet.
We have seen that Moses spoke of how God would raise up a prophet like him (Deut 18:15). This may provide the background for a number of figures who have been described in scholarship as “sign prophets.” Josephus recounts a series “false prophets” (also called “charlatans” and “impostors”) who showed up in Israel. Theudas at the time of Fadus promised to part the Jordan River (Ant. 20.97-98). There were individuals at the time of Felix who led people into wilderness promising tokens of deliverance (Ant. 20:167-168). An Egyptian at the time of Felix promised to make the walls of Jerusalem fall (Ant. 20.169-171). Finally, an individual at the time Festus told people to come into wilderness where he would give them rest (Ant. 20.188). All of these figures promised some kind of recapitulation of God’s mighty action in the exodus. They appear to have anticipated some kind of eschatological redemption. Nothing in Josephus’ account indicates they claimed to be “messianic.” However, Josephus has his own agenda because of the way he had “prophesied” about his captor and patron Vespasian. It is entirely possible that these individuals considered themselves to be anointed by the Spirit in the manner described by Isa 61.
VI. Heavenly Messiah
The fifth belief was the expectation of a heavenly Messiah. The Old Testament background for this is Dan 7:13, “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man (כְּבַר אֱנָשׁ ), and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.” The Similtudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-41) (first century AD) contains numerous references to “son of Man” (46:3; 48:2; 62:5, etc.). This same figure is also called “Chosen One” (39:6, 40:5; 45:3, 4, etc.), “Righteous One” (38:2; 53:6) and “Anointed One” (48:10; 52:4). In these texts “son of Man” is not yet a title. At the same time the “son of Man”/Messiah is clearly divine. He is pre-existent (48:3; 62:7), sits on God’s throne (61:1; 62:5) and is the object of worship (48:5; 62:9). He is a powerful figure who judges fallen angels (55:4), angels (61:8), kings (62:3ff) and removes kings from their thrones (46:4-5).
This same expectation is found in two documents that date to the end of the first century AD after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. 4 Ezra (post-70 AD) suggests that “my son the Messiah” is pre-existent (7:28). This Messiah reigns for 400 years and then dies (7:29-33). After seven days of primeval silence the resurrection occurs (7:31-32). In the Eagle vision (ch. 11) and the Man from the Sea vision (ch 13) we learn that the Messiah descends from David, and will defeat Rome and those who oppose him. The Man from the Sea vision has strong parallels to Dan ch. 7. If we ask how the Messiah can be pre-existent and also descend from David, we find the only answer to be that apocalyptic literature is not known for its logical consistency.
In 2 Baruch the Messiah is pre-existent (29:3). He initiates a messianic interregnum of abundance (29:3-8). When the time of the Messiah has been fulfilled he returns to God with glory and then the resurrection occurs (30:1-5). We learn that the Messiah will destroy the fourth evil kingdom (ch 39). This figure judges kings and nations, and protects his people (ch 40; 70:9-73:7).
VII. A historical example
We have a historical example of what this messianic expectation could look like in the Bar Kochba revolt (132-135 AD). Simon Bar Kosiba led a revolt that was prompted by Hadrian’s plan to make Jerusalem into pagan city (Aelia Capitolina), his ban on circumcision and also perhaps by economic factors. We learn that Rabbi Akiba explained Num 24:17’s “a star (kochba) shall go forth from Jacob” as “Kosiba goes forth from Jacob” and hailed him as, “This is the King Messiah” (jTacanit 68d).
We do not know for certain whether Simon Bar Kosiba consider himself to be the Messiah. Some coins minted by the revolt bear a star and documents and coins call him “prince of Israel” (which had a long history as messianic title). The Romans eventually put down the revolt in action that produced heavy loss of life for both sides. Simon was killed in a last stand. Instead of calling him Bar Kochba (“son of the star”), later Jewish tradition calls him “Bar Koziba” (“son of the lie”) as a false messiah.
VIII. The paradox of Jesus the Christ
While there is great diversity in these expectations, they share some significant common themes that were true in first century AD Judaism. First, the Messiah was an eschatological figure. Second, the Messiah was expected to triumph over all opposition on behalf of Israel or God’s elect, and to inaugurate peace and justice for God’s people. Third, it was very easy for Jews in the first century AD to recognize a false messiah. This status became apparent when the Romans killed him. The fact was clearer still if the Romans captured and crucified him since in this time period the curse of Deut. 21:23 was applied to individuals who were crucified (cf. Gal 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’”).
Therefore, when Jesus predicted that he would suffer and die by crucifixion it contradicted all of the basic assumptions that first century AD Judaism held about the Messiah. The paradox of Jesus the Christ is that the Davidic Messiah and the Suffering Servant of Isa ch 53 are the same individual. There was nothing in the expectation of this time that would have led his hearers to connect these two (cf. 1 Pet 1:10-12). It was only when the death and resurrection had been accomplished and Jesus Christ revealed this to his disciples (cf. Luke 24:13-27, 44-49) that this could be understood.
The unity of these two roles was found in the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism (Matt 3:17) (explicitly described as an “anointing” in Acts 10:38). In chapter one Matthew has demonstrated that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of David. Now, God puts his Spirit upon the shoot from the stump of Jesus as Isa 11:1-2 had described. Yet at the same time, in doing so, he identifies Jesus as the Servant in fulfillment of the words, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him” (Isaiah 42:1 ESV) (cf. Matt 12:18).
The unity of roles also existed because of the manner in which both Israel and the Messiah were God’s son. God had described Israel as his son in Exo 4:22 and had called the Messiah his son in 2 Sa 7:14. Jesus is not just God’s “son” in an adopted sense but in fact is God’s Son in the full ontological sense of the Holy Trinity. As the Davidic Messiah (the Christ), he is God’s Son. Yet he is also God’s Son in that he is Israel reduced to One. Matthew explicitly makes this point when he quotes Hos 11:1 (a text which speaks about Israel) and applies it to Jesus’ presence in Egypt: “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matthew 2:15). Just as Israel is the Servant (Isa 41:8), so also Jesus the Christ is the Servant who goes to the cross as the suffering Servant of Isaiah chapter 53 and fulfils the words: “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
At the same time, as the resurrected Lord who will return in glory on the Last Day he is the fulfillment of the mighty description found in Isa ch. 11. He is the One who will judge righteously and destroy the wicked (Isa 11:3-5). He is the One who brings the cosmic peace of the renewed creation (Isa 11:6-8; cf. Matt 19:28). He brings the day when, “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).