It is crucially important to make something very clear: The great Hebrew prophets were not seers, crystal-ball gazers, or magical diviners. "To prophesy," as the Hebrew language itself indicates, is "to give utterance" to great moral truths, not to deal in end-of-the world scenarios. These towering Jewish teachers spoke to their own generations, to men of high or low position without the least regard for power or rankto all who flouted or perverted the moral law of God. They frequently risked their lives, and often suffered rebuke and privation.
But a strange fate was to overtake the words and pronouncements which these and other Hebrew prophets brought to bear on the events of their own time. Later generations, living under changed and dramatically different circumstances, turned back to these "prophecies" meant for their own time and endowed them with the magical powers of foretelling and prediction. To later generations, these prophecies were quoted as intended not only to foretell distant, unknown future events, but to be "signs" of the wonders God would perform against all manner of evil at the very end of time itself!
A few examples from Isaiah can help us understand how prophets came to be seen as "foretellers" of the distant future, rather than serving as moral prods to the corrupt rulers of their own day. In the eighth pre-Christian century, a prophet known as Isaiah, a native of Jerusalem, was pondering the question of how to save his beloved city, and with her, the entire kingdom of Judah. Isaiah had analyzed the efforts of King Pekah of Israel (in the north) and King Rezin of Aram to force his own kingdom of Judah into a coalition against the expanding Assyrian empire (Isaiah 7-8). He urged his own government not to enter any such alliance, warning that neither Israel nor its Aramean ally would succeed, and both would surely be defeated. Behold, he said, "a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel . . . For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted" (7:14ff).
Jewish scholars are of one mind concerning what it was that Isaiah was trying to achieve. The historical context makes it abundantly clear that he was essentially analyzing the moral and political forces of the world in which he lived, hoping to convince his compatriots to accept his own analysis of the situation, as he understood it. Of course, the prophets used parables, similes, and metaphors; these helped to endow their eloquent public orations with drama and clarity.
Orlinsky describes the moment in this fashion:
Read in this light [Isaiah's parable] the reference to the young woman and her child becomes nothing more than a dramatic measure of time, a warning that before the unborn child will be old enough to know the difference between good and evil, the Lord will bring devastation on Judah's enemies. [Later Gentile Christian generations introduced an additional error, namely, that the pregnant young woman in question was a virgin. The Hebrew word in Isaiah 7:14, almah, means "young woman"even one recently marriednot Virgin.] A similar statement was made by Isaiah in this very connection about his own wife and child, whom he called symbolically Maher-shalal-hash-baz, literally, The spoil speeds, the prey hastes," the double name referring to the two kingdoms of Aram and Israel (Isaiah 8:1-4). Yet when passages of this sort were read in a later and wholly different set of conditions, as Christianity has done, they laid the basis for the common belief that the prophets were foretellers and that their gift was based not merely on their power of analysis of an immediate situation, but that it derived from divine inspiration and implied distant and mystical promises (Harry Orlinsky, Ancient Israel (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1954), p. 157).
Nowhere is such reading of the Prophets led to gross deception as when dealing with the "anointed" of God. Our term is in the English translated as "Messiah". Let us continue our investigation.
The biblical idea of the messiah is, nevertheless, rooted in the primary meaning given to it in the message and teachings of several Hebrew prophets. In' the Bible, a "messiah," literally "the anointed one," was the product of the prophetic belief that after the destruction of the Temple of Solomon (586 B.C.E.), God would restore his people to the land, under the rule of a descendant of the house of David. But the word "messiah" must be understood from its original biblical context. Anyone who was selected by God through his prophets to be the ruler of his people was regarded as "his messiah"the anointed one.
In this way, Saul, Israel's first king, was called "the Lord's anointed," and so were other kings like David and Zedekiah. Even King Cyrus of Persia, whom the Second Isaiah regarded as God's agent for destroying Babylonia and restoring Israel to its land, is called "God's anointed ones (45:1). Always, and in every biblical case, the "anointed one" is a human, not a divine being. This is something the Christian Church has failed to realize! And as for the connection to King David, Bible readers will remember that when the first Babylonian exile was indeed terminated and the people restored to their land, it was Zerubbabel, of the house of David, who led the restoration.
Clearly, from the Hebrew Bible itself, there is no warrant whatever to consider the Jewish idea of a messiah in superhuman terms, or to endow "the anointed one" called "mashiach" with any of the miracle-making attributes which his first Jewish disciples had ascribed to Yeshua of Nazareth. Not a single word in the Hebrew Bible, Jewish scholars maintain, can be brought forward as proof that Yeshua as Messiah was already pointed to, in Hebrew Scripture, long before his own arrival in time. To arrive at that kind of messiaha messiah with a capital "M"who would become the Christian Christ, we have to look elsewhere. This is where it gets interesting.
Having understood now, in general terms, what God promised the Jewish people concerning their "Messiah" to come, let us focus on how a Jewish Messiah became a completely different entity a Gentile Messiah for the Christian Church.
Answer for yourself: Where, then, shall we look to find clues explaining the metamorphosis of a Jewish Messiah into a Gentile Christian Messiah?
The idea of a superhuman, anointed leader is the product of a much later time, and the result of changed circumstances. The view that God would send a Messiah (with a capital "M") at some early or distant future time to intervene directly in defending Israel against its oppressorsor for that matter, to protect all of the righteous against the wickedis a development that occurs only in later rabbinic times, many centuries after the older Hebrew prophets. The trigger for these new views was, in fact, the oppressive, imperial rule of Rome. Seeking desperately to find some comfort and national hope in this difficult time of Roman oppression, Jews began to look for new answers that might mitigate their dark feelings of entrapment in the meshes of an all-powerful, arrogant, and pagan empire of Rome.
In these circumstances, which occurred only a few decades before the beginning of the Christian Era, a number of sects began to sprout within the Jewish community, each with a "formula" intended to serve as a way out of national despair. Many of these "sects" had their own rendition of Messianic salvation for Israel. One thing was common to all these Jewish sects; namely, they all needed and cried out for an imminent salvation from Roman oppression. Until recently, what we knew about the nature of some of these Jewish sects derived principally from the pen of the leading Jewish reporter of his times, the historian Josephus. From him we learn of the existence of at least four such groups: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and "the Fourth Philosophy." This last sect got its unusual name because Josephus described the first three sects as "philosophies," and lacking a name for the last, he merely gave it a number. It should be noted that since Josephus, although a Jew, was writing for Greek readers and often indulged in propaganda rather than straightforward reportagewe should read him with many grains of salt. For example, we must be very skeptical of his description of the Pharisees as Stoics and the Essenes as Pythagoreans. Moreover, it will soon become clear why we must notindeed we can notassume that these four groups of Josephus accounted for all the sects that may have existed. Of them, only two, the Pharisees and Sadducees, are mentioned in the New Testament, or in the Talmud of the rabbis.
Briefly, we can say that the Pharisees comprised the main rabbinical party. They asserted that henceforward, lay teachers, not only the priests, by reason of their learning and piety, could interpret Scripture. The second of these parties was the Sadducees, a priestly sect whose literal interpretation of the Torah-law the Pharisee-rabbis regarded as much too rigid. The latter were liberal, broad-constructionists, when it came to applying the traditional laws to their own times. The Sadducees, according to Talmudic sources, were a conservative, upper-class party of priestly aristocrats who, it is believed, derived their name from that of Zadok, the High Priest in the days of King David. Pharisees, called "perushim," in Hebrew, meaning the "people who set themselves apart from the rest of the community," and therefore since out of the mainstream of society, became the name given to these forerunners of rabbinic Judaism by the Sadducees. This epithet was intended derisively to suggest that the Pharisees were "schismatic," "deviationist," and "separatist." The Pharisees themselves usually referred to their own group as "haverim," or "members of the fellowship"; as "hahamim," the sages or teachers of Israel; or, as scribes, "soferim." From the Sadducees, we have inherited no literature at all, while the Talmud, that vast repository of law and learning which was accumulated from the first century B.C.E. to the sixth century C.E., is the product of the ruling Pharisee-party. As for Josephus' "Fourth Philosophy," we should understand it not as a "philosophy" at all, but as a band of activist "guerrillas," sporadic and loosely organized, whose answer to the oppressiveness of the Romans was more militaristic than spiritual.
But it is the Pharisees who set the stage for two separate, conflicting, and amazing phenomena. They first ensured Jewish survival after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. by expanding Judaism into a world religion, capable of and interested in receiving new converts into the fold. At the same time the "oral law," their Talmudic reinterpretations of biblical laws, created the conditions necessary for a national religion like Judaism to live on, even when its people were dispersed throughout the world, exiled from their beloved Jerusalem and its central sanctuary, the Temple.
It is within the matrix of these Pharisaic teachings that the rabbinic idea of the Messiah emerges, connected in spirit to the older expectations of the prophets, yet altered to a great extent to suit their view of the national crisis facing Israel under Rome. While the biblical prophets stressed the nature of the age called "the End of Days," the Pharisees focused, as well, on the person of their Messiah, who gives The Messianic age" its very name. In their view, although the Messiah may be endowed with special powers, as the future King of Israel, he is a human being; only an agent of God, and never an atoning Savior as Christians later believed. He is expected to attain for Israel the idyllic blessings of the prophets. He is a comforter of his suffering people, Israel. Never is he seen as a suffering, or atoning Messiah. He was to defeat the enemies of Israel, restore his people to the land, reconcile them with God, and introduce a period of universal, spiritual, and physical bliss. He was, indeed, to be many things in one: prophet, comforter, warrior, judge, king, and teacher of Torah! He would appear as the successor of the house of David, to rule his people "at the end of days." Then, at the climax of human history, the Messiah together with his people was to serve as the instrument by which the sovereignty of God was established on earth.
It would be a serious mistake and a grievous misreading of the Pharisees to conclude that they were seized by mystical leaps of faith, or that they had concentrated their spiritual energies on Forcing God's hand" to send a Messiah forthwith, quickly, to put an end to their earthly miseries under Rome. They were much more preoccupied with life on this earth, and in the process, centered their attention on performing mitzvoth, divine commandments, here on earth, as prescribed in the Torah-law of Moses. It was in this essential way that they transformed Judaism into a system of monotheistic ethics. The Talmud, the recorded result of their efforts in this direction, is ample testimony of their dedication to the perfection of man and the building of a just society in this world.
Having understood the above, and understanding that Christianity accepts and teaches a completely different Messiah than the one God promised the Jews, as seen in the Old Testament.
The Christian, in order to uncover the origin of Messianic concepts he accepts today, has to look beyond the Pharisees to the various apocalyptic sects to find the roots for his Messianic beliefs. The Pharisees were indeed innovators, but still in the center of the conservative community life of Second Temple Judaism. The latter apocalyptic sects were on the fringe of Judaism. This is all the more revealing when we understand that Yeshua was a Pharisee and not an apocalyptists that advocated military uprising to bring in the Kingdom of God. To believe as Yeshua believed about the Messiah, one has to separate the beliefs of the Pharisees as over against the Essene apocalyptists concerning the Messiah.
The greatest archaeological excitement of the century, sometimes bordering on commotion, has been about the Essenes, who for so long had been regarded as a quaint and unique Jewish sect, but about whom very little was known. Like the Sadducees, the Essenes, it appeared until a few decades ago, had left the world without a trace; they had no known literature or written record. All of this changed with the discovery in the late 1940s of the now famous "Dead Sea Scrolls."
The Essenes, like other Jewish apocalyptic sects of the time, rooted their basic doctrine in their fervent expectation of the imminence of "the end of days." With its advent, according to Essene writings, evil was to be destroyed and Israel would finally be freed from the "yoke of the nations"freed from its political and military subjugation by Gentile powers. In varying degrees of intensity, all of these sects shared a common belief: either preceding the great event, or during the "final era," God would raise up (some even believed had already raised up) for himself a community of "elect" who were destined to be saved, as a nucleus of the future Israel. For two hundred years, beginning with the first century B.C.E. until the fall of the Temple in 70 C.E., this relatively small but deeply pious sect had split off into a variety of highly organized communitiesnot unlike monastic orderswho had dedicated themselves to living in a state of religious purity to await the great day coming which they believed was soon to occur during their lifetimes.
For decades now, some scholars have been suggesting that since the dominant theme of early Christianity is the "renunciation of life," as part of its messianic expectancy, its connecting link to Judaism, if not its very origin, was to be found in the Essene sect or some variant of it. Indeed, some like Heinrich Graetz, the great nineteenth century Jewish historian, believed that John the Baptist was himself an Esseneor at least deeply influenced by this unusual Jewish sect. He and other similarly minded scholars felt that if we could somehow know more about their beliefs and practices than Josephus had sketchily detailed, we might also find the "missing link" between Pharisaic Judaism and early Christianity. Then, in 1947, ancient Hebrew scrolls, dating to a time very close to the era of John the Baptist and Yeshua, were discovered near the Dead Sea. It was later determined that they were the work of a Jewish sect that dwelled nearby along the shore of the sea at a place called Qumran. Ever since, the sect of the scrolls was called the "Qumran or Dead Sea Sect," and to this quaint group the attention of a host of Jewish and Christian scholars around the world now turned. In their initial excitement, some were even sure that this was the very apocalyptic sect to which John the Baptist belonged, and from whose sectarian teachings he had drawn his repetitive refrain: "Repent now, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!"
This is not the place to delve deeply into the vast new scholarly literature that has been developing around these important archaeological finds. I believe, however, that it will simply no longer do for anyone seriously interested in understanding the origins of the Jewish-Christian schism to mouth old sayings about "the blindness of the Jews" in "rejecting" Yeshua. Let me explain in detail.
We now discover that the models for the first Christians had pre-dated John the Baptist and Yeshua by over a century. These were Jews who lived as a small sectarian community at Qumran, presided over by their chief ruler and priest, their Teacher of Righteousness (or "Righteous Teacher"). They practiced a religious way of life that was already, one hundred and more years before the time of Yeshua, at the farthest fringes of the organized community. It was the sectarian Jews who had "rejected" current Judaism in whole by fleeing to the desert. It was they who established a "substitute" Judaism, not the organized community. It was they who established a "substitute" Messiah; the Messiah that the Christians hold sacred today instead of the Jewish Messiah of the Jewish Scriptures as found in normative Judaism.
They, the Essenes, lived an ascetic life, set apart from other Jews in their Judean desert habitat near the Dead Sea. According to one of their scrolls, "The Manual of Discipline," as scholars now call it, they were apocalyptics who had left the evil priests (Sadducees) in Jerusalem, to dwell together in ritual and ethical purity in the desert, there to await the coming of the Jewish messiah who would "right" all wrongs. Many investigators believe that these Essenes anticipated the arrival of three separate and distinctive messiahs within Dead Sea writings: a priest-messiah, a king-messiah, and a prophet-messiah. They ardently believed in the Torah-law of Moses, regarding themselves as its most pious and pure fulfillers, in contrast to the "wicked priests"the Sadduceeswho administered the cultic ritual in the Jerusalem Temple. As a community, they regarded themselves as constituting "God's elect" who had entered into a "new covenant" to help all of Israel return in purity to the first covenant, the law God gave them at the hand of Moses at Sinai. It was never their intention to do away with the Law or replace the Law of God with grace as we have been told today. The key personality of the sect was their Teacher-Priest. It was he who had led his followers into this new Mosaic covenant, formed them into this religious order, and instructed them in the meaning of the scriptures, adding his own teachings and prophecies. He remained the martyred leader of the order, adored, venerated, and expected to play a part in the messianic age of the future.
Some of the commotion created by the discovery of the sect's scrolls was centered in the mistaken conclusion some scholars had jumped to: they were sure that, at long last, direct evidence had been unearthed of Yeshua, and they loudly trumpeted their belief that Qumran's Teacher of Righteousness was none other than Yeshua himself! When all the clamoring had died down, and especially after dating tests of the documents were made, it became clear that Qumran's Teacher of Righteousness had lived almost a century before the time of Yeshua.
By now, many believe that this teacher may have been Onias the Righteous, who, according to Josephus, was stoned to death in 65 B.C.E. The scrolls refer to the "Wicked Priest" and to the "Man of the Lie," and it is suggested that the "Wicked Priest" referred to the leader of the Sadducees, and the "Man of Lies" to the head of the Pharisees. Both of these larger parties were opposed to Onias, and both seem to have blamed his death on the other. In any event, while other apocalyptic sects had stressed either the kingly or the prophetic attributes of the messiah they anticipated, the Qumranites were essentially geared to the ideal type of the messiah-priest, their Teacher of Righteousness, and believed that either he or one of his progeny would soon lead Israel in the imminent "end of days."
What actually emerges from a careful study of this Dead Sea sect is a clear refutation of the claims of Christianity concerning Israel's "rejection" of Yeshuanot to speak of the recurrent physical and mortal terror which have been inflicted on generations of Jews in the name of those claims. It is wrong to use loaded words like "rejection" when describing the relationship of a far-out messianic sect like the Qumranites to the central Jewish community led by the Pharisees. The Pharisees did not accept the Essene theology. It is as simple as that. Since the people followed the Pharisees, they would neither accept Essene theology in mass. However, neither "totally" rejected the other or read them out of Jewish life. Theirs were simply different religious approaches to the overwhelming Jewish problem of their time: how to survive the Roman oppressor. The Sadducees had remained static, drawing their religious program and inspiration principally from the Temple, which they controlled. The Essene groups, of which the Qumranites, we now know, were an integral part, turned their minds away from this world, and sought to override and transcend the Roman problem, by relying on messianic intervention: peace and well-being for Israel would be achieved with the imminent "end of days." The Pharisees, or scribes, comprised the only party with an essentially pragmatic, this-world view, with a program that was compatible with the looming possibility of a broad and protracted dispersion of the Jews without the imminent intervention of a Messiah who would personally correct Israel's plight.
It was the Pharisees who gave meaning to the synagogue, as a "small sanctuary"one that could survive anywhere in the world, even should the Temple fall or Jerusalem be destroyed. In their academies of Torah-learning, where they assiduously searched and re-searched the enduring and universal applications of Scripture, they set the stage for Judaism as a world religion. There, scholars, later to be known as Rabbis," sought to enlarge the meaning of the older biblical religion of cult and sacrificial altar, and to apply with new and creative spiritual energies the teachings of Moses and of the other Hebrew prophets. Although these Pharisees, like all other religious people, could not live only as rational menthey too, were deeply pious, and sometimes mysticalthey did not eschew the rational. The Pharisees held to a patient messianism: they were unwilling to force God's hand, then and there, to bring an immediate end to human history. This, perhaps, is why the Pharisees regarded fellow Jewsthe mystical Essenes and their like as persons unwilling or incapable of submitting to the day-to-day rational, human quest to overthrow evil and to build by just and ethical means the better world God had commanded as their Jewish duty. For the Pharisees, total and other-worldly absorption into the mystical realms of messianic speculation seemed to be an evasion of religious responsibility. Man needs God, they believed; but God, those Pharisees were bold to proclaim, needed man, as co-creator of the present and future human community. So now you understand the opposing theological conflicts between the Pharisees and the Essenes. It was a conflict over methodology more than it was over substance. Both believed in the coming of a Messiah, but how salvation and redemption was to be achieved lied at the core of the opposition.
What is important for our study is the fact that Christianity adopted the Essenic view of the Messiah over that of the Pharisee position. Such is the division between Judaism and Christianity today.
So now we have it, the "hard" archaeological evidence of the Qumran literature, and are thus able to open up the long-shut book of Essene history and religious thought. As a result, we also have a better fix on the question of the Jewish "rejection" of Yeshua and his Jewish followers, the sect of the "Nazarenes," who may be regarded as proto-Christians. Judaism did not reject Yeshua as Messiah, but as an Essene Messiah...as a Solar Godman. Since this was Gentile Christianity's position, it had to be rejected as well. And we also have the so-called "missing link" between Judaism and Christianity, inscribed in the scrolls of that Essene-like sect, the Qumranites.
Upon analysis, however, the long-sought missing link turns out to be much more than a link; it is also our earliest source of radical Christian departure. Which is to say that several generations before the birth of Yeshua the Essene-Jewish movement which had served as a model, spiritual paradigm, and hope for Israel had already departed far out of the mainstream of Pharisaic Jewish life concerning the Messiah and the methodology of Messianic redemption. Had there been no Pharisees, Judaism would probably have died with the death of the Temple and the loss of Jerusalem. Pharisaic, or more properly, rabbinic Judaism, saved biblical religion for all men, and for all time. It saved the Jews from despair in exile, and from spiritual dehydration in their wide and vast dispersions. If it were not for rabbinic Judaism, the biblical books, prophets, teachings, lawsindeed, the monotheistic inspiration itselfwould probably have become as strange, remote, and unknown to us as all the forgotten religions of the ancient world.
The scroll-discovery is also important as a reminder that the Jews of Qumran, like their fellow Essenes, had opted for a Judaism of another style, one that was not destined to survive within the Jewish world, but which, in effect, did become the cornerstone of the future Christian church. To the majority of Jews in their day, the Essenes and their various off-shoots seemed to have strayed very far from the biblically correct Judaism they were taught by their Pharisee teachers. It turns out, then, that the earliest forerunners of Yeshua and the Nazarenes were themselves fringe sectarian Jews whose philosophy and practice of religion was already regarded as unacceptable by the principal Jewish community, long before Yeshua even arrived on the scene.
With this new knowledge now at hand, it strikes me as willful and prejudiced for many Christians to continue to maintain even today, as they have steadfastly done for almost twenty centuries, that the Jews rejected Yeshua. It was not Yeshua, as such, they refused to follow, but also virtually thousands of their fellow Jews, members of one or another Essene-type sect whose apocalyptic fixations seemed to them excessive, non-rational, and thus unattractive. Yet were it not for Paul, it is possible that the Nazarenes would have remained within the Jewish fold, despite their minority status and their radical messianic claims. After all, there were other small Jewish splinter sects who had also made claims in behalf of a messiah of their own.
Continued in article #2