Tisha B’Av, which starts Wednesday evening, is a time of profound sorrow for us, commemorating the destruction of two great centers of worship. The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians; the Second Temple, by the Romans in 70. The Temple in Jerusalem was the hub of national life. It was the primary religious establishment, the most important tourist attraction and a major commercial center. Pilgrims would arrive in Jerusalem three times a year to celebrate the great festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot. The Temple was the focus of religious and political life.
The destruction of the Temple, however, represents a key dividing point between Judaism and Christianity.
For Christians the Temple’s demise appears to be a time of triumph. The gospels in the Christian scriptures say Jesus predicted the destruction of the Second Temple, the implication being that it was justly deserved. For these writers, the destruction of the Temple was symbolic of the demise of Judaism and its replacement by the Christian church. The 2nd century Gospel of Peter placed the blame for the destruction of the Temple, not on the Romans but squarely on the Jewish people for their role in having Jesus crucified. Thus the linkage is made explicit: the Temple’s demise is tied to Jewish complicity regarding the death of Jesus. For these early Christians, it was retribution, divine payback.
This Christian contention regarding the destruction of the Temple represents a very strange belief. If Jesus were who his followers said he was – the long sought messiah — why would he advocate the Temple’s destruction? Why would he endorse such a catastrophic event? Destroying the Temple is not on messiah’s “to do” list. A messiah was supposed to preserve and purify Temple worship.
Moreover, if Jesus were the messiah, where is the great age of world peace and prosperity that the messiah was supposed to usher in? Social conditions in the Middle East were much worse after the death of Jesus, not better. The Jewish war against Rome in the 60s saw thousands butchered in the Galilee and, according to Josephus, over 1.1 million killed in Jerusalem. Was this the messianic era? Some 20 or 30 years after the death of Jesus, nobody was buying the “good times ahead” message. There was no ideal Kingdom of God on the horizon.
This linkage tying the destruction of the Temple to Jewish complicity in the death of Jesus serves to undermine the Christian claim that Jesus is the messiah. It just doesn’t fit with what we’d expect of a messiah.
If advocating the destruction of the Temple is not what we’d expect of a messiah, what, then, is a messiah supposed to do?
Searching for the Messiah
My upcoming book — Searching for the Messiah (NY: Pegasus/Simon & Schuster. August 2020) — focuses on one fundamental question. What’s a messiah? What’s the job description? If we can’t determine that, then how can we evaluate anybody’s claim that so-and-so is a messiah. Is Jesus a messiah? Is Bar-Kochba? Is David Koresh, the leader of the Waco cult? Is Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson?
Searching for the Messiah explores the evolution of the concept of messiah from the Bible to Batman, with many stops along the way. How did the idea of messiah evolve? How is King David, adulterer and murderer, the prototypical messiah? What about savior figures such as Joseph, Esther and Judith? What about End-time scenarios when the world is to be perfected?
Surprisingly, there is not one book of the Bible, not one chapter, devoted to defining a messiah. That’s curious. More attention is paid to diagnosing and treating skin diseases than to the topic of messiah. Many Christians scour the Hebrew scriptures looking for messianic “prophecies.” These seem contrived and passages are pulled out of context in a misleading way. There is no ‘virgin’ in Isaiah 7:14 that would lead one to put forward a virgin birth requirement for a messiah. That’s the Gospel of Matthew’s invention, using a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible that translated “almah” (Hebrew for a young woman) as “parthenos” (a Greek word for someone who is a biological virgin).
Isaiah 49:3 proclaims Israel as the Suffering Servant of God, a community given a new mandate after the dreadful experience of the Babylonian Exile, a nation destined to be a light to the nations. The Suffering Servant is Israel, not, as the gospels proclaim, Jesus. Nor is Jesus God’s son who comes out of Egypt – that’s Israel (Hosea 11:1). These are all misappropriations.
Messiah – the Job Description
In Searching for the Messiah, I analyse a much-neglected ancient and mysterians manuscript known today only to a handful of specialists. It was composed by a pious Jew in Jerusalem just after 63 BCE. He had witnessed the atrocities committed by Pompey’s army – rape, murder, famine, desecration of the Temple. He’s devastated and, in his grief, the unknown author of this important manuscript writes 18 psalms.
Composed originally in Aramaic or Hebrew, the writing survives today in a few Syriac and Greek manuscripts. The few scholars who know of this work dub it, “Psalms of Solomon.” That’s a misnomer — of course this wise ancient monarch who lived nine centuries earlier could not have been the author of a 1st century BCE writing.
Two of the psalms develop the idea of messiah. This important writing helps to firmly root the pre-Christian expectation of what a messiah must do in order to qualify. It gives us the messianic agenda at a crucial time in history. The messiah must be king in Jerusalem presiding over an era of world peace. Jews from the Diaspora will return. The messiah and the whole country will be Torah-observant. Temple worship will be purified. Other countries will honor the Jewish nation. Those are some of the markers of the messianic era.
So now we know what Jews expected of a messiah, prior to Christian times. That’s vital to assessing Christian claims that Jesus is one.
Christians often ask Jews, “why don’t you accept Jesus as messiah?” Now the question can be turned, “Why do you say that Jesus is the messiah? What’s the evidence?” How does Jesus – or anyone else for that matter – measure up to the criteria for being a messiah?
Jesus does not pass the Messiah test
Based on what we now recognize as the Jewish understanding of a messiah prior to the Common Era, we can discern that Jesus did not qualify.
First of all, no one who knew him well thought of him as a messiah. Chapter 8 of the Gospel of Mark tells us how Jesus takes his disciples on a field trip north of Capernaeum to Caesarea Philippi. There he asks them for a report: what do people think of him? It’s a request for audience reaction: what do the crowds who have heard him speak understand him to be. His disciples indicate that some think of him as a prophet like Elijah or like the charismatic John the Baptist. That’s it: those are the categories into which people to whom Jesus had been speaking around the Sea of Galilee place him: prophet, preacher. No one — absolutely no one — thinks of him as a messiah. That just wasn’t the impression he was making.
Second, Jesus rejects the view that he is the messiah. When Jesus asks his disciples a second question, what they think of him, only Peter blurts out that he is “the messiah.” No one else concurs. But, most surprisingly, Jesus immediately and harshly shuts him down. Within seconds of Peter’s utterance, Jesus closes off messiah-talk. That’s significant. According to the gospel of Mark, being messiah is emphatically not a title he favors.
Thirdly, moments before he dies, Jesus asks God why he has forsaken him (Matthew 27:46). In effect, with time running out, Jesus questions God about why the Kingdom of God he has promised his followers as imminent hasn’t come about. A messiah has to bring about a better world. Jesus, close to death, recognizes that this has not happened.
Finally, Jesus’ earliest followers knew he was not the messiah. We know this because they put forward the idea that he’d have to return to complete the task. This represents a desperate theological maneuver, one designed to save the view that Jesus is messiah. Led by Jesus’ brother, James, this group expected Jesus to establish an independent Jewish kingdom (Book of Acts 1:6). This was a clear recognition that they knew he had not done what a messiah ought to do during his lifetime. Their belief sets forth a two-stage messianic model whereby the potential messiah has to return to complete the required task. A two-stage messianic operation is not the Jewish understanding, however.
In spite of all this, Christians claim that Jesus was the messiah. How did that come about? And what do they understand by that claim?
Enter Paul, a person who never met Jesus and who comes on the scene in the mid 30s, several years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Claiming to have had a mystical experience, Paul introduces the notion of Jesus as “Christ” (Christos in Greek).
Ironically Paul was one of the most influential Jews who ever lived. For one thing, he rejected Torah observance. For him that phase of history had come to an end. He also reinterpreted the idea of messiah, not with reference to prior Jewish thought but in light of the Graeco-Roman mystery cults familiar to his audience. For Paul, Jesus is the cosmic Christ. He’s a pre-existing being who, as a divine-human, enters human history as an atonement. That’s a very different notion from that of a messiah.
Just how different the idea of Christos is from Mashiach is explored in Searching for the Messiah.
Paul pulled early Christianity in a vastly different direction from Jesus’ first followers under James and, in time, his views prevailed as his movement attracted Gentiles, not Jews. James’ Torah-observant group vanished in time, although there were 10 Jewish leaders of this movement up until the time of the Bar-Kochba revolt.
So, no, a messiah is not one who destroys the Temple.
But now we know what he must do.