Baker Academic

Thursday, January 10, 2013

What Does It Mean to Say that Jesus Was Jewish? (Part 2) - Le Donne

Part one of this series can be found here.

One of the oft repeated caricatures of first-century Judaism is that "they" were expecting a militaristic messiah (notice the monolithic "they" - I put it in quote so that you'd notice, but I thought I'd point it out with a long parenthetical comment as well... how am I doing?).  But the first thing that "they" teach you as a Ph.D. candidate is that there are only a handful of things that you can say with confidence about "most" Jews living in Judea around the time of Jesus.  So before I go further, let me just kick a dead horse: stop saying "the Jews believed..." without qualification. Nothing betrays the inefficacy of historical nuance in most Christian seminaries more than this mistake.  Now to the topic: were most Jews expecting a militaristic messiah?

We we know that some first-century Jews hoped for the end of foreign domination. We know that some (circa first-century) Jews were quite willing to use military force.  We know that many Jews hoped for a messiah.  We know that some Jews hoped for multiple messiahs.  We know that many Jews associated the coming of the messiah in some way with the installation of God's final judgment.  And we know that many Jews held combinations of some and/or all of the above.

So it seems quite possible that some first-century Jewish did expect a militaristic messiah.  The extent to which this belief was held is debatable.  The most commonly cited text supporting the claim that "Jews were expecting a military leader" is a text called the Psalm of Solomon 17 (not to be confused with the half-a-dozen other texts associated with Solomonic authorship... Solomon was quite busy in Second Temple Judaism).  This text is often cited as the earliest use of the title "Son of David" (this isn't true) and this Davidic figure is thought to be a warrior.  In my Historiographical Jesus, I write: page...

I won't go into minutia of translation, but phrases that are often translated from the Greek to convey military strength, may be better translated as wisdom metaphor (buy the book!).  This psalm borrows from Isaiah 11 to describe a weapon coming forth from the mouth of the figure.  It is possible that this figure is able to subdue with the power of his words.

Too often we have assumed that "the Jews expected" Genghis Khan but were flabbergasted at the arrival of Gandhi.  This is just one more way of suggesting that Jesus was "less than" Jewish in his worldview and agenda.  On the contrary, there were other Jewish ideologies contemporary to this period that explored alternatives to violence.  But were these ideologies connected to messianism?  That is a topic for another day.

Our earliest surviving Christian creed tells us that Jesus was born from the "seed of David".  Indeed, it is one of the first things that Jewish Christianity believed about Jesus.  What is the purpose of repeating this phrase if the title "Son of David" only meant one thing to the Jews?

Part three can be found here.


  1. As this site's only self-identified Jewish troll, maybe I can clear this up. We were looking for a Messiah who had a good sense of humor. We didn't have many other "musts" on our checklist, though being good at fund-raising was a plus, and we wanted a guy hip enough to appeal to the youth group.

    Otherwise, from what I can remember, a lot of us were mostly hoping for a Messianic Age, and if we got the Age, we were pretty much ready to accept whoever it was that was in charge of it. That is, with the exception of a few of us, probably more than a few to be honest, but there are some in any crowd if you know what I mean.

    With those caveats, Anthony, you have this essentially correct. I appreciate your writing this, the analysis is really good, and I'll buy your book as soon as the price drops below $30. On this point, would you please tell Chris that I wouldn't pay $100 for a book even if the publisher threw in a set of steak knives.

    1. What if they were really nice steak knives?


    2. I think there's a principled point to make about pricing books so that only research libraries can afford them. But, how nice are we talking about?

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