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Yeshua in Context » Background to Gospels, Josephus, Messiah » Josephus on the Messiah Concept

Josephus on the Messiah Concept

Israel went to war with Rome starting in 66 CE. It all started when some Greeks sacrificed birds outside a synagogue and the Romans did nothing about it. The chief priests in Jerusalem ceased offering sacrifices in honor of Caesar and a bitter war resulted, ending in Jerusalem and the Temple in ruins and a vast number of Jews and Romans dead.

Josephus, a Galilean general, captured by the Romans, who became a collaborator with the Romans though always a defender of the greatness of his people, explains in a famous passage in The Jewish War (also called Bellum Judaicum or BJ for short) what one of the root causes of the war was. It was a concept of a Jewish ruler who would actually rule the world:

But their chief inducement to go to war was a equivocal oracle also found in their sacred writings, announcing that at that time a man from their country would become the ruler of the world.
Bellum Judaicum 6.312-313, G.A. Williamson translation, Penguin Books, 1959.

John J. Collins says of this passage:

Josephus . . . also claims that messianic expectation was a significant factor in the outbreak of the revolt against Rome . . . Josephus held that the oracle really referred to Vespasian, who was proclaimed emperor while still in Judea (The Messiah in Early Judaism and Christianity, pg. 19).

What oracle from the Hebrew Bible did Josephus likely mean? N.T. Wright thinks it was Daniel 2, in which Daniel explains a vision of four successive empires and then a fifth kingdom which breaks all others “in those days,” a kingdom which will never end (Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, pg. 304). In another passage (Antiquities 10.203-210), Josephus alters the vision of Daniel to hide the fact that it might refer to Rome being destroyed. He points out that iron is stronger than gold, silver, or bronze (a compliment to Rome) and says he will not bother to interpret the meaning of the stone that breaks all the kingdoms since that deals with the future and not the present.

So, to summarize some important points we learn from Josephus about the messianic concept:

(1) Daniel 2 suggested to many Jews that their time was the time when the world ruler from Israel would emerge (i.e., Messiah).

(2) The belief in this emerging Jewish king of the world (Messiah) was a large part of the motivation for the Jewish Revolt.

(3) How does this relate to the possibility of a strong “Messiah concept” in the lifetime of Yeshua? It shows that a generation after Yeshua, there was a strong messianic concept. This is evidence, though admittedly not proof, that similar concepts abounded in Yeshua’s time a generation earlier.

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Filed under: Background to Gospels, Josephus, Messiah

3 Responses to "Josephus on the Messiah Concept"

  1. Derek,
    Great write-up! I wish we had an additional high level source from the time to compliment Josephus and thus get a deeper look into the The Messianic concept. Great points in the write up!

  2. Bill Meyer says:

    A few comments here:

    1) The Zealots.
    Acts 1:13 And when they came in, they went up into the upper room where they were staying: both Kĕpha and Ya‛aqoḇ and Yoḥanan and Andri, Philip and T’oma, Bartholomi and Mattithyahu, Ya‛aqoḇ the son of Alphai and Shim‛on the Zealot, and Yehuḏah the son of Ya‛aqoḇ.

    Some of Yeshua’s followers was Zealots.

    2) The Qumram community / Essenes and the War Scrolls.
    In the timeperiod – and they wanted War.

    3) The Sicarii.
    Matt 10:4 Shim‛on the Kena‛anite, and Yehuḏah from Qerioth, who did also deliver Him up.
    Some state that it could be translated as Yehuḏah the Sicarii.

  3. yeshuain says:

    Hey, Bill. Many think the “zealot” reference in the New Testament might mean something other that the Zealot party mentioned in Josephus. There is too little evidence of an organized resistance party in the period of the gospels.

    The Qumranites looked for a war, but were not prepared to fight it.

    Very doubtful that Judas was of the Sicarii.

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