In this series, I attempt to assess Second-Temple-era Jewish messianic expectation. See all parts in the series.
It was more or less a case of déjà vu: Once again, an external power had come to rule the land promised to the Israelites, this time in 332 BCE by a Macdeonian general who would establish Greek language and thought in the region, irrevocably changing the landscape of Jewish culture. It had been just over two centuries since malevolent foreign overlords had abused the Hebrews—most recently, the Assyrians in northern Israel and the Babylonians in southern Judah—and until Alexander the Great, the region had seen something of a renaissance under Persian lordship. King Cyrus of Persia famously reinstated the Hebrews to their land, saying, “’The Lord is the God of heaven. He has given me all of the kingdoms on earth. He has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any one of his people among you can go up to Jerusalem. And may the Lord your God be with you.’”1 He sent the ex-patriots home with the sacred vessels for the Temple and initiated the Second Temple period, a time of renewal after centuries of exile and subjugation.
Cyrus, then, is a restorative character in the story of the Jewish people; he brought them out of exile and back to their home. In fact, he is looked on as a messiah figure, identified in Isaiah 45 as God’s “anointed”—a Hebrew word used to describe him is mashiah.2 This is then translated to us as “messiah”, a word so closely identified with Jesus of Nazareth that its meaning is relatively obscured by that one association.
In fact, the word usually refers to mortal prophets3, kings4, and priests5 who are called to serve God in their day. Early Jewish Christians accepted Jesus as the supreme anointed one because in him they saw a surprising eschatological fulfillment and culmination of these three key scriptural messianic roles into a single prophet-priest-king.
In order to fairly assess Jewish expectations regarding a promised messiah, we must first approach messiahship as Second Temple Jews might have. Indeed, the impulse in Christian thought is often to reverse-engineer references to any messiah at all to refer to Jesus, thus not taking any care as to the actual shape of messianic expectation. That is to say, if we are to assess why early Jewish Christians chose to follow Jesus, we must first set Jesus aside for a time.
1 Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 1984. 2 Chonicles 36:23
2 Isaiah 45:1
3 2 Samuel 1:14, 2 Samuel 12:7, 1 Kings 19:15
4 1 Kings 19:16, Isaiah 61:1
5 Leviticus 4:3