People didn’t know what to do with Jesus. Some people accepted Him for a while, then turned against Him. Some rejected Him from the beginning. Even those that followed Him to the end didn’t respond well to His execution and didn’t expect His resurrection – despite the fact that they’d been warned.
This is because Jesus came into a world with hundreds of years’ worth of preconceived notions about what He would be. Incorrect preconceived notions.
Jewish ideas about the messiah were drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament) and the post-canonical literature including the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, and they are revealed in the Targums and Talmud.
The messianic idea in the OT.
The picture painted of the messiah in the Old Testament varies from author to author. Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel show a Davidic king who is righteous but not necessarily divine. The messiah appears in certain Psalms as a Davidic king who is probably divine – especially Psalm 45.
The messiah appears in a priestly sense along side the Davidic kingship in Psalm 110. And in Deut 18:15, Moses makes reference to a prophet to come that has been taken as a reference to the messiah since ancient times.
Taken as a whole, the Old Testament paints a picture of the messiah as superhuman, with sufficient power to overcome all his enemies, and as one who will bring peace to God’s people. He would be the savior of the poor and would rule with righteousness and justice forever.
The greatest contrast between the Biblical pictures of the messiah is seen in regard to his mission. In the Psalms (e.g., Psm 2) and in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, he is a mighty king and a conqueror. Isaiah, however, describes him as suffering and despised (e.g., Is 53:3-6), and Zechariah describes him as “lowly and riding on … the foal of a donkey” (Zech 9:9).
Another contrast appears in the messiah’s origin. The Davidic king would undoubtedly be born like any man, have a childhood, and after growing to manhood begin to rule. The Son of Man, however, appears out of the clouds full grown and with divine authority. These contrasts created enough uncertainty in the minds of Jewish writers to allow them to develop the idea of the messiah in different directions.
Besides describing the messiah, the Old Testament also describes his kingdom. The terms “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” do not appear in the Hebrew Scriptures, but the idea is present. The kingdom is often referred to without any mention of the messiah. The messiah is tied to the kingdom in the Scriptures, but the kingdom is not necessarily tied to the messiah – a trait that would reappear in the pseudepigrapha. This kingdom is seen variously in the Old Testament as a potentially earthly golden age and as what could be described as an everlasting heavenly kingdom.
The messianic idea in the apocrypha.
The messiah plays little role in the Jewish apocryphal writings, though they would play an important role in defining “messiah” to the Jews of Jesus’ day in that the apocrypha presented the Jews as “the righteous” and the gentiles as “the heathens.” This distinction became important as other works defined the future kingdom that the messiah would rule as belonging to “the righteous.”
The messianic idea in the pseudepigrapha.
There is great variety in the messianic descriptions, and in the descriptions of his kingdom, in the pseudepigrapha. To quote Scott, “Most Second Commonwealth [i.e., after the Babylonian exile] Jewish eschatology is nationalistic and Torah-centered in its emphasis. But some is primarily concerned with cultic, social, spiritual-moral or cosmic renewal.” As Ladd points out, it is difficult to say to what extent the ideas of the pseudepigrapha were held by the Jewish people, particularly the eschatological ideas, but it is safe to assume that the ideas were at least fairly widely known.
1 Enoch shows differing ideas about the messiah and the messianic kingdom. Early in 1 Enoch, a messiah is not mentioned at all – God will visit the earth to save the righteous and punish the wicked. Here the gentiles will be converted, and all men will be righteous. In the second section, the Son of Man is a heavenly being, both pre-existent and superhuman, who was chosen by God from before the creation of the earth to bring about the Kingdom of God. He is both righteous and a cause of righteousness in God’s people. A universal kingdom is set up on the earth after the wicked are driven off of it. In the third section, God destroys the gentiles who are attacking Israel, sets up His throne in a new Jerusalem and judges evil men and angels. The messiah then appears, the righteous are conformed to his likeness, and the gentiles serve him. In the forth section there is an earthly messianic kingdom followed by the resurrection. Then an endless heavenly kingdom is established. In 1 Enoch taken as a whole, we see the Son of Man equated with the term messiah and called the Son of God.
In Jubilees, no messiah is mentioned, but the Kingdom of God is described: Evil times will precede the kingdom, and then God will return to the sanctuary to dwell forever among Israel – to save the righteous and punish the wicked. The earth will be purified from uncleanness, and all creation will be renewed. After a temporary earthly kingdom, an endless heavenly kingdom will be established.
The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs describes both the Davidic kingly and Levitic priestly messiahs. In this collection of works a general picture is painted of a messiah that will attack both the enemies of Israel and Beliar. Beliar is bound and cast into fire, and then there is a resurrection of the patriarchs and then all men. This is followed by a judgment and an earthly kingdom centered in the new Jerusalem.
The Psalms of Solomon describe the Son of David as a human with an earthly kingdom; God will give him what he needs (e.g., wisdom) to rule in righteousness over the people. He is also described as a military leader who will crush the gentiles and free Israel.
In the apocalyptic literature, the term “Messiah” tends to represent the national/political eschatological figure and “Son of Man” the transcendent, eternal, and universal figure.
The messianic idea in the Targums and Talmud.
The Targums, Aramaic paraphrases of the Old Testament, reveal to us how the teachers of the Law interpreted the Scriptures during the time of Christ. In the “Servant” passages in Isaiah, we see that they applied the sufferings of the Servant to Israel; the messiah was held to be a victorious warrior – they could not accept that the messiah might suffer or die.
The Talmud – Jewish commentaries on the Scriptures and their oral traditions – was written after the time of Christ, and yet it reveals to us some of the varied thought regarding the messiah in the minds of the Jewish leaders. As to his origin, some thought he would first appear in Rome, others said Babylon, and others said Zion. But there was unity in regard to his nature – the Servant of YHWH and the Shepherd of the Old Testament was replaced by a military leader.
The messianic expectations of the Jewish people.
Throughout the history of Israel, there was a sense that everything was part of a divine plan – that history was marching toward the Day of YHWH, the day of His vindication and triumph. Part of that belief was a vision of a Man who would bring about the Kingdom of God. Sometimes this was simply a golden age; during times of foreign rule, it was a hope for earthly independence, but it was also an age when the Law, the temple, and worship of God would return to dominance. Intertestamental eschatology was occasionally personal, but usually it was nationalistic: All Israel would be in the Kingdom – even the Jews of the Diaspora would return – which would extend to all that was promised to Abraham, and the gentiles would witness their triumph.
In Jesus’ day, the signs seemed to indicate that the messiah might appear at any moment to restore Israel. He would end the gentile rule of Israel and bring about the creation of the righteous people that had been envisioned since Ezra’s time.
The variety of ideas about the messiah was assimilated by various groups in different ways. While it would certainly be an overstatement to say that every member of a group held the same view, we can speak in general about certain parties in 1st Century Judaism.
The common people seemed to be looking for a leader of a rebellion and a miracle worker. The poor and oppressed looked for a rescuer to end their subjection and suffering. The terms “Son of Man” and “Messiah” – used for separate messianic concepts in intertestamental literature – were apparently not connected in popular thought – as demonstrated by the fact that Jesus freely used the former but avoided the latter.
The Pharisees were cold and distant toward messianic movements – possibly because they were expecting the Messiah to be like the “Son of Man” of the literature and to come at the head of a divine cataclysm or heavenly army to install the Kingdom. As such, they were not friendly to popular messianic uprisings that could cause Rome to take away what little power they possessed. They expected the messiah to destroy or at least subjugate the gentiles. Their attitude was, according to Edersheim, “abhorrence, not unmingled with contempt, of all Gentile ways, thoughts, and associations.” The Rabbinic view of the Kingdom was the glory of Israel, not salvation for the world.
The Sadducees interpreted the Scriptures very literally, and they focused their attentions on the Torah (i.e., the books of Moses). As a result, they did not believe in a messiah at all – nor did they believe in any other supernatural creature except God. So their reaction to messianic movements would be expected to be even colder than that of the Pharisees as the Sadducees held most of the political power in Israel and therefore had the most to lose if Rome was angered.
Whatever their expectation, everyone thought that the coming of the messiah would bring about a radical transformation in the way things were. Even to the last, the apostles expected that Jesus would restore Israel (Acts 1:6).
Jesus vs the messianic expectations of the Jewish people.
Given the above, it should come as no surprise that Jesus was rejected, misunderstood, and even attacked. The masses were willing to embrace Him, but they were expecting Him to start a revolt at any moment to bring Israel to the glory she was due. They were expecting a deliverer, but not a redeemer, and they had no concept of a suffering messiah (c.f., Matt 16:21-22), so when He was arrested and killed, even His disciples thought it showed He was a fraud (c.f., Luke 24:19-21).
The Pharisees were not expecting a peasant to lead a rebellion; they were doubtless looking for mighty warrior to appear as if out of nowhere to deliver Israel. And so to them Jesus was simply a troublemaker – all the more because He insisted on questioning their teaching and even character at every turn. They would have had no patience with a teaching that there would be gentiles in the Kingdom (e.g., Matt 8:11), nor would they have appreciated His claims to deity.
The Sadducees did not believe in a messiah and would not have cared what Jesus did so long as He did not start anything that could harm them. But the reaction of the masses to a miracle worker claiming to be bringing in the Kingdom of God was too likely to attract unwanted attention from Rome, and so He needed to be stopped (John 11:45-50).
When Jesus arrived on Earth to fulfill God’s plan, He stepped into a world that was primed to reject Him simply because of who He was. He did not come to overturn nations but lives (and occasionally tables). He did not come to tear down Israel’s enemies but the wall between Man and God. And for that He was rejected.
Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, new updated edition, n.p.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.
Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life, updated edition, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994.
George M. Gibson, A History of New Testament Times, Nashville: Cokesbury Press, 1926.
George E. Ladd, “The Kingdom of God in the Jewish Apocryphal Literature, Part 1,” Bibliotheca Sacra 109 (Jan 1952): 55-62.
- “The Kingdom of God in the Jewish Apocryphal Literature, Part 2,” Bibliotheca Sacra 109 (Apr 1952): 164-174.
- “The Kingdom of God in the Jewish Apocryphal Literature, Part 3,” Bibliotheca Sacra 109 (Oct 1952): 318-331.
-, “Part 4, The Kingdom of God in 1 Enoch,” Bibliotheca Sacra 110 (Jan 1953): 32-49.
Richard L. Niswonger, New Testament History, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988.
Max I. Reich, The Messianic Hope of Israel, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1940.
D.S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964.
J. Julius Scott, Jr, “On the Value of Intertestamental Jewish Literature For New Testament Theology,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 23 (Dec 1980): 315-323.