Off the Shelf: Messianic believers in Second Temple times

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Messiah: the noun is connected to the Hebrew verb that means to anoint a person or object with oil. However, the connotations of the term have changed over time. In the early sections of the Bible, it usually referred to a man who was anointed with oil by another person before taking the position of priest or king. However, by Second Temple times, some Jewish groups believed a savior would be anointed by God to help the Jewish people overthrow their Roman oppressors, restoring the independent kingdom of Judah. A subsection of those believed that the person would be a descendant from the line of King David. However, others rejected the idea of a human rescuer, claiming that God alone would be the one to save Israel. Two groups – the Pharisees and the Jewish followers of Jesus – believed in the messianic idea while a group known as the Sadducees rejected it. The Sadducees, who were members of the priestly class, saw a clear and firm difference between humans and the Divine, and the messianic idea muddled the two. These interpretations are just some of the fascinating discussions offered in Israel Knohl’s “The Messiah Confrontation: Pharisees versus Sadducees and the Death of Jesus” (The Jewish Publication Society), which not only looks at these differing ideas, but the one that ultimately cost Jesus his life. 

Knohl studies the development of the messianic idea from the writings of the prophet Isaiah through the Bar Kokhba rebellion. He notes the differences between the prophets of the northern Kingdom of Israel, who were not fond of human kings and saw God as their savior, and the prophets of the southern Kingdom of Judah, who did not reject the ideas of kingship. Knohl believes it was Isaiah who first suggested a savior would come from the line of David and wrote of a mysterious person he called a suffering servant. Knohl notes that “commentators and scholars wonder whether [the suffering messiah] was an actual person from the past (Moses or one of the kings of Judah) or future (a Messiah or Jesus, as is professed in the New Testament), or whether he is a collective figure, representing the people of Israel or the righteous among the people of Israel.” Regardless of what was the original intent of the prophet, his idea has been used to support many differing messianic ideas. 

While the author’s discussion of the history of the two Israelite kingdoms was interesting and well done, the heart of the book is its focus on the differences between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and how those differences affected Jesus. Knohl does an excellent job showing how these two groups developed their ideas, although he does note that no writing of the Sadducees has survived and they seem to have disappeared after the destruction of the Second Temple. 

The Sadducees were the rich, elite group that usually had a good relationship with their Roman rulers. They did not believe in the resurrection of the dead or angels – but were very strict regarding the purity laws. Part of their rejection of a messiah was that they believed in a strict division between heaven and earth: no creature could be part of both worlds. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were a more popular group that believed in what is now known as the Oral Law of the Torah. People followed them because their rituals and prayers expressed the idea that God would save Israel in its time of need. Their ideas included a belief in reward and punishment, an afterlife and a messiah who would come from the house of King David. 

The followers of Jesus, whom Knohl sees as believing in Pharisaic ideas, expected Jesus to follow the messianic idea of a king messiah, but Jesus saw himself as a suffering servant, rather than an earthly ruler. This meant that Israel’s redemption would not come through military might, but through spiritual redemption. The idea that Jesus was somehow a divine servant was considered blasphemy by the Sadducees, who were the ones who arrested and turned Jesus over to the Romans. 

Knohl believes the Pharisees were not the ones who turned on Jesus because they shared similar ideas about messiahs. He also carefully looks at how the trial of Jesus took place and shows how it follows the rules of the Sadducees (for example, a trial taking place at night, something Pharisaic law prohibited). The Pharisees did split with the followers of Jesus later when Paul declared that one need not obey the commandments (the dietary laws, Shabbat, etc.) in order to be accepted into their fellowship. As for the Romans, they believed that Jesus was formenting a military rebellion, something shown by their ridiculing him as the King of the Jews, a title Jesus declined to deny during his trial. 

Knohl notes that the hostility between Christianity and Judaism has been caused by a misunderstanding of the forces behind the trial of Jesus. The author writes, “The trial of Jesus was not a clash of Jewish and Christian doctrines, but a confrontation between two internal Jewish positions – of expecting a Messiah or rejecting the messianic idea – in which Jesus and the Pharisees were on the same side. The Pharisees did disagree with Jesus principally about whether Jesus himself was the Messiah – but historically, for Jews, arguing about who was or wasn’t the Messiah was nothing out of the ordinary.” Knohl notes that the Pharisees did not condemn others listed in Christian works of the time who also claimed to be the Messiah.

A short review cannot do justice to “The Messiah Confrontation,” which gives insights into the tumultuous period when Romans ruled the Kingdom of Judah. Even if readers disagree with Knohl’s ideas as presented here, his work is worth reading for the many insights it offers. It challenges readers to re-evaluate the crisis Judaism faced at the time and better helps them understand the beginnings of what would later be known as rabbinic Judaism.