Jewish Literature that Helps us Understand the Messianic Names
Apart from the Bible, Jewish literature from 300 BC onward frequently talks about the Messiah (the Christ). The most important works come from a turbulent period in Jewish history.
Israel returned from exile in Babylon in the sixth century BC. In 332 BC Alexander the Great conquered Judea and it remained under Greek rule until a Jewish family called the Maccabees led an uprising. The Maccabean heros succeeded in overthrowing the occupying Greeks in 164 BC.
In 63 BC, the Roman Emperor Pompey subdued Judea and later installed Herod the Great as king. Herod’s sons continued to rule Jewish territory by Roman appointment during the time of Jesus.
In AD 73, three years after the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem as a punishment for continued Jewish uprisings, the famous Masada siege occurred. Nine hundred and sixty Jews resisted Roman legions. The Romans finally managed to storm the fortress only to be shocked by the scene of a mass suicide. A later uprising (AD 132-5) followed Emperor Hadrian’s less-than-diplomatic attempt to build a temple to Jupiter in Jerusalem, and ban circumcision. Simeon bar Kosiba led that rebellion. The uprising fanned the messianic flames back to a brief fury that ended in the punitive dispersion of Jews throughout the Roman Empire.
Jewish literature from the period gives us some idea of Messianic expectations and how those expectations developed and diverged. There are several sources:
Greek translations of the Hebrew Old Testament were made from the 3rd century BC until 132 BC. The Septuagint is an important source of clues about the Jewish thinking underlying some of the Greek words that our New Testament uses.
The Apocrypha (composed from 200 – 100 BC). Found in Catholic Bibles but considered non-canonical by many churches.
The Pseudepigrapha (most of it written 110 BC – AD 130). The collection is called Pseudepigrapha because most books bear the name of Old Testament celebrities (Baruch, Moses, Enoch etc.).
The Dead Sea Scrolls (100 BC), a diverse collection of works hidden by nationalists before the Romans overran their stronghold at Qumran. Although it is not clear who collected and hid them, the scrolls were important to them. Many scrolls feature entire books or include quotations from the Pseudepigrapha, Apocrypha, or Old Testament. Some scrolls rephrase or comment on Scriptures and are evidence that certain passages were interpreted messianically.
The Psalms of Solomon (dated 70-40 BC because they mention Pompey’s conquest of Jerusalem in 63 BC and celebrate his death in 48 BC).
Flavius Josephus wrote on Jewish history in his Antiquities of the Jews and Jewish War beginning with Genesis and ending about AD 73. Although he shows some bias, he provides fascinating insights into the tensions of the time and some of the expectations attached to the Messiah.
Ideas expressed in Jewish literature of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, both Christian and rabbinic. The Mishnah (literally ‘repetition’) is a record of the rabbinic debates that established detailed applications of Jewish Law (Torah). Some of Jesus’ teaching reflects the debates going on while He was alive. The Targums are Aramaic paraphrases of the Hebrew Scriptures, including some interpretations. These may have been current in early versions and oral teachings around the time of Jesus. The writing of rabbinical works continued for centuries so it is important to know the date of composition; the earliest works are most relevant to our theme.
A word of caution—although some of the literature (like the Pseudepigrapha) was readily available at the time, we do not know how many people actually read the works. Ideas contained in the Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other works may reflect the philosophy of tiny minorities; we do not know how widespread the ideas were. We cannot assume that particular messianic expectations or meanings associated with messianic names were typical of the period.
Popular usage of messianic names is one thing, in the end, what really matters is how the Bible itself uses messianic names and reveals the true Messiah who bears the names—Jesus Christ.