Jews under Roman Rule - W. D. Morrison

The Messianic Hope

In a preceding chapter we have seen „how bitterly Roman domination was hated by the great mass of the Jewish population of Palestine. Administrative oppression has often been set down as the cause of this state of hatred, but it would be more accurate to say that it arose out of the religious convictions of the Jews. It is no doubt easy to point out several instances of harshness in the attitude of the Roman conquerors, but it is also necessary to remember that the Roman officials in many cases showed an unwonted consideration for the susceptibilities of the vassal state. Till the outbreak of the insurrection, which terminated in the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jews suffered far less from internal disorder under Roman rule than in almost any previous period of their national history, and they enjoyed at the same time a greater share of local liberty than had ever fallen to their lot in the flower of the Maccabaean age.

What lay at the root of their detestation of Roman supremacy was not so much its oppressiveness; it consisted in a religious feeling that it was an intolerable sacrilege for Gentile outcasts to pollute the Holy Land, and exercise lordship over the chosen people of Jehovah. As the hatred of the Romans arose from religious rather than political causes, so did the hope of purging the Holy Land of its heathen desecrators have its roots in religious rather than political soil. The futile attempts which had been made at revolt tended to confirm the belief, that the deliverance of Israel was not to be effected by natural but by supernatural means. The hope of being ultimately rescued from Roman rule was based upon the belief that the Jews were Jehovah's chosen race. He had selected theme as His peculiar people from among all the families of the earth. He had entered into a covenant with them, and had solemnly promised them a glorious future if they held aloof from the abominations of the heathen, and remained steadfastly faithful to Him. It was impossible for God to break His word. What was needed was patience. The Gentile domination was only transitory. It was to be looked upon, said many, as a punishment for the Gentile habits of the Sadducees. But the people had almost expiated the sins of their leaders. The end was at hand; the brilliant promises of God would soon be fulfilled. The stranger would be trodden down; Israel would be consoled, and the Messianic kingdom with its centre at Jerusalem would suddenly burst upon the world.

Many traces of a belief in a near approach of the Messianic reign are to be found in the New Testament documents. Simeon believed that he should not taste of death till he had seen the Lord's anointed. Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned as one of those who was waiting for the kingdom of God. Many were inclined to believe that John the Baptist was the promised Messiah, and the nature of the Messianic belief is clearly set forth in the words of disappointment uttered by Christ's disciples after their Master's crucifixion, "we trusted that it had been He which should have redeemed Israel." Among all sections of the multitude the attitude of expectation had risen to a feverish height. Many like the Zealots had waited till they could wait no longer; they took up arms in the conviction that the Messianic era would be hastened, when God saw His people making heroic efforts to deliver themselves.

It will now be our object to look a little more closely at the full scope of the Messianic expectation. While doing so we shall have to bear in mind that this hope did not exist in the popular imagination as a rigidly defined dogma: It was equally permissible to accord it the most colossal proportions, or to hold it with the relative sobriety of the ancient prophets. Still the prevailing tendency of Judaism was to enlarge the dimensions of its glorious expectations, and to embrace the Messianic belief in its most supernatural and transcendent forms.

The current conceptions of the Messianic age are very well reflected in the popular apocalyptic literature of the first century. All of these writings taught the multitude to believe that the day of deliverance was to be preceded by a period of wickedness, calamities, and portents, of the most astounding kind. Religion, it was believed, should fall into decay. Truth and faith should fail and hope should be deceived. At that time fools should increase and the numbers of the wise be brought low. A sudden thirst for wealth should spring up and be accompanied by deeds of robbery and impurity and every evil work. It was also supposed that the peace of the home would be destroyed. Children were to rise up against their parents and parents against their children. In society there was to be an equally fearful outbreak of anarchy and hate, in which the whole social organism would be overturned. "The mean man shall lord it over the honourable, and the petty shall be exalted over the glorious, and the many shall be delivered to the few, and those who were nothing shall lord it over the powerful, and the poor shall abound over the rich, and the impious shall be exalted above heroes, and the wise shall be silent and fools shall speak."

In addition to all these disorders there was to be a terrible outbreak of war, famine, and pestilence; so much so that the dead would lie unburied and be mangled by birds and beasts of prey. Many even conceived that the whole order of nature was to be thrown into confusion as a sign that the Messianic advent was nigh at hand. Bitter water was to become sweet, earthquakes were to shake the solid frame of things; the stars were to forsake their courses; the order of the two great luminaries was to be reversed the moon was to shine by day and the sun by night. According to other predictions, the sun was to suffer eclipse, and those who were looking up for the consolation of Israel should witness terrific battles taking place between horsemen and footmen in the clouds.

As the Messiah could not possibly appear in the midst of such a chaos, it was currently believed that the prophet Elijah should precede him, in order to repair the ruin and disorder into which all things had fallen. The reason why Elijah was so closely connected in the popular mind with this great task is no doubt to be attributed to the belief that he did not share the fate of mortal men by descending into the grave, but was among the select few who were admitted into the abode of the Most High. His work, according to a Jewish tradition, was to be accomplished in the short space of three days, and at the end of that time the Messiah Himself, immediately preceded by Moses, Enoch, and Jeremiah, was to appear.

Before proceeding to describe the Messiah's work it may be as well at this point to consider what were the prevalent conceptions respecting His nature and attributes. It was believed by many that He pre-existed in a state of heavenly bliss before He entered upon His functions in the world. Some understood this pre-existence to mean nothing more than an ideal existence in the purposes of the Divine will, but others believed that it was a real existence, similar in nature to the life of the angels. In the Similitudes in the Book of Enoch, it is said of Him that He was chosen and hid with God before the world, and shall be before Him unto eternity. His countenance is as the appearance of a man, and full of grace like that of the holy angels. But the pre-existence of the Messiah in a heavenly state was not deemed incompatible with a full belief in His humanity. We all expect, says the Jew Trypho, in Justin Martyr's Dialogues, that the Christ will be born as a man from men. His birth was expected to take place either at Jerusalem or Bethlehem, He was to be a descendant of the house of David, He was to be gifted with power and righteousness and wisdom, but He was to live obscurely among the sons of men, in ignorance of His great destiny, till the time came when He should be anointed by Elijah the prophet.

Immediately the Messiah officially appeared, although no one knew whence He came, He was to be opposed by the hostile forces of the heathen, "an innumerable multitude of men assembled from the four winds of heaven." "And it shall come to pass when all nations have heard His voice, each will leave in its own region the war which they have against one another; and there shall be assembled together an innumerable multitude, as thou didst see wishing to come to take Him by storm." The battle between Messiah and His enemies was to take place around Mount Zion, and Ezra in a vision is made to describe the awful nature of the contest. The Messiah "did not lift His hand nor hold a spear or any implement of war, but . . . He sent out of His mouth as it were a wave of fire, and from His lips spirits of flame, and from His tongue He emitted sparks of tempest; and all these were mingled together, waves of fire and spirits of flame and a multitude of tempest. And He fell upon the multitude which was ready for the assault, and burned them all, so that suddenly nothing was perceived of the innumerable multitude, save only dust of ashes and an odour of smoke." According to the Apocalypse of Baruch the armies of the heathen were to be headed by a leader corresponding to the Antichrist of the New Testament. After the destruction of his forces the servants of the Messiah were to bring him bound to Mount Zion, where he was to be put to death.

In the Jewish imagination of the first century the overthrow of the heathen was looked upon as an indispensable preliminary to the establishment of the Messianic kingdom. The great kingdoms of the Gentiles which had come into existence before the Messianic age were mere kingdoms of the world, but the rule which the Messiah was to inaugurate should be the reign of God on earth, and the kingdom should be known as the kingdom of God, or, in other words, as the kingdom of heaven. The Messiah as the direct representative of God among men should stand at the head of this new dominion, and regulate it in accordance with the decrees of the Most High. The scope of the old kingdoms of Israel was mainly limited to the Holy Land; the Messianic kingdom was to take a wider sweep, embracing in its mighty circumference the whole extent of the habitable globe. In the language of the most widely-read prophet of the time, it would extend "over all peoples, nations, and languages," and the Book of Enoch expresses the same thought by figuratively saying that the Messianic kingdom shall include "all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of heaven."

Jerusalem was to be the capital of this world-wide dominion. The city as it stood, it was believed by some, would be elevated to a proud position of political grandeur, and purified by the exclusion of the Gentiles. But this conception was to many minds too tame. The old Jerusalem of pre-Messianic times would perish in the flames, and a supernatural city the new Jerusalem should descend upon Mount Zion from the clouds of heaven. Before Adam's fall this heavenly city had existed in the earthly paradise in which God had placed the first parents of mankind. But after the fatal disobedience of man, the holy city was lifted up into heaven, where it was destined to remain, along with many other treasures, till the advent of the Messianic reign. In the meantime, however, some select spirits, such as Abraham and Moses, had been permitted to gaze for a moment on its celestial glories. "I showed it to my servant Abraham by night between the divisions of the victims. And again I also showed it to Moses on Mount Sinai, when I showed him the image of the tabernacle and all its vessels." The buildings in the new Jerusalem were to be adorned in the most brilliant manner with precious stones, and it was to exceed in size and splendour the most magnificent cities of the world.

In the Messianic era, not only the Jews of Palestine, but the whole of the elect people scattered throughout the world would share in the blessings of this glorious time. The ten tribes which had been carried away captive were to be led back to the Holy Land, and all the Israelites dispersed among the nations were to return to their original home. "I will assemble them all out of the midst of the Gentiles." Even those who had died before the advent of the Messiah were not to be forgotten. They were to be raised from their graves, so as to taste of the delights which would then be showered upon mankind.

Opinions were divided as to the position which the Gentiles should occupy in the Messianic kingdom. Many believed that they would be put under the yoke, and that Israel would tread on their neck. But others thought that in those days the whole heathen world would be converted, that all their eyes would be opened to see what was good, and that the immortal God would rule the world according to one Divine law.

In the expectation of the Jews the Messianic era corresponded in many particulars to the golden age of which the poets of antiquity loved to sing. It was to be a period when nature should display a truly miraculous fruitfulness. At that time manna shall again descend from heaven and the air be filled with fragrant odours. Abundance of wheat and wine and olives shall spring from the fruitful earth. Milk, oil, and honey shall always be plenteous in the homes of men. Multitudes of sheep and oxen shall pasture on the luxuriant grass. The vine which is planted in the earth "shall bear fruit in abundance and of every seed that is sown in it shall one measure bear ten thousand and one measure of olives shall produce presses of oil." "In one vine shall be a thousand branches, and one branch shall produce a thousand bunches and one bunch shall produce a thousand grapes." In that golden era the wild beasts shall lose their ferocity and submit themselves to man. The wolf and the lamb shall eat grass together on the mountains, serpents, scorpions, and other noxious reptiles shall lose their fangs, and carnivorous beasts shall change their nature and pasture like oxen in the fields.

The peace which shall then come over the face of nature shall also be manifested among men. Neither war nor the sound of battle shall vex the earth, and kings shall live in harmony with one another till the end of time. "And judgments and accusations and contentions, and vengeance and blood and passions, and envy and hatred, and whatsoever things are like these, shall go away into condemnation when they have been removed. For these are the things that have filled the world with evils, and on account of these things the life of men has been greatly disturbed." Health and length of days shall follow in the train of peace. "Health shall descend like dew, infirmity shall retire, and anxiety and distress and groaning shall pass away from men." "The children of men shall become older from generation to generation, and from day to day till their lifetime approaches a thousand years. And there shall be none old or weary of life, but they shall all be like children and boys, and shall finish all their days in peace and gladness, and shall live without a Satan or any other evil destroyer being present; for all their days shall be days of blessing and healing." "No man shall die prematurely or without having fulfilled the legitimate end of his being among those men who observe the laws, nor shall such fail to reach the age which God has allotted to the race of man. But the human being proceeding upwards from childhood as it were by the different stages of a ladder, and at the appointed periods of time fulfilling the regularly determined boundaries of each age, will eventually arrive at the last of all, that which is near to death or rather to immortality; being really and truly happy in his old age, leaving behind him a house happy in numerous and virtuous children in his own place.

Many of the Jews believed that the Messianic kingdom would endure forever. This belief was based on the utterances of Old Testament prophecy, and was no doubt greatly popularized in the time of Christ by the saying of Daniel, "His dominion is an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away, and His kingdom that which shall not be destroyed." A similar conviction is expressed in the Sibylline Books, the Psalms of Solomon, and the Book of Jubilees. In the last-mentioned work the following promise is made to Jacob respecting the duration of the Messianic kingdom, "To thy seed will I give the whole earth which is under heaven, and they shall rule as they please over all peoples, and accordingly they shall draw the whole earth to themselves and inherit it forever." How widely spread was the idea of the eternal nature of the Messianic reign is fully seen in the Gospel of St. John, where the people say, "We have heard out of the Law that Christ abideth forever." Side by side with these conceptions there also existed another current of thought which limited the Messianic kingdom to a certain number of years. Some believed it would last till this world of corruption came to an end, but did not venture to predict when that end would be. Others were more definite. On the supposition that a thousand years is reckoned by God as one day, many believed that the Messianic kingdom should endure a thousand years. The calculation of others was based on the time spent by Israel in Egypt, and this limited the Messiah's reign to four hundred years, after which it was supposed that he and all men should die. One rabbi said that the kingdom would last forty years, the time assigned to Israel's wanderings in the wilderness, and another, supporting himself by a passage in Isaiah, was equally confident that this glorious epoch would continue seventy years. But when the Messianic reign came to a termination, all agreed that it would be followed by a general resurrection of the dead and the pronouncing of a final judgment upon men.

It was under the inspiration of these astounding visions, and in order, as they imagined to realize them, that the Jews persisted with such blind tenacity in their hopeless conflict with Rome.