Qumran and the Messiah – Part One, The Messianic Apocalypse

I’ve made the connection earlier in this blog between Jesus and early Christianity and the Jubilee, especially in Jesus’ Mission statement. Christianity wasn’t the only form of Judaism that made the connection between messianism and the Jubilee; the idea had been around in Judaism for a while.

To demonstrate various views of the Messiah and his connection to the Jubilee, I want to look at some documents from the Dead Sea Scroll first of all the Messianic Apocalypse (4Q521). The Messianic Apocalypse is dated to the early first century B.C.E. and is made up of 2 fragments, the first one reads:

The heavens and the earth will listen to His Messiah, and none therein will stray from the commandments of the holy ones. Seekers of the Lord, strengthen yourselves in His service! All you hopeful in (your) heart, will you not find the Lord in this? For the Lord will consider the pious (hasidim) and call the righteous by name. Over the poor His spirit will hover and will renew the faithful with His power. And He will glorify the pious on the throne of the eternal Kingdom. He who liberates the captives, restores sight to the blind, straightens the bent (Ps. cxlvi, 7-8). And for ever I will cleave to the hopeful and in His mercy … And the fruit …  will not be delayed for anyone And the Lord will accomplish glorious things which have never been as He …  For He will heal the wounded, and revive the dead and bring good news to the poor (Isa. lxi, 1). … He will lead the uprooted and make the hungry rich …

The messianic age in this fragment is thought of as a time when “The Lord” (Adonai, not YHWH), will fulfill two verses from the Hebrew Bible, Psalms 146:7,8 and Isaiah 61:1. The theme in this fragment is basically a reversal of fortunes for the poor or otherwise unfortunate. The messiah comes, the earth will obey his commandments, the commandments of the holy ones, and then The Lord will reverse the fortunes of the righteous and the poor (who seem to almost be synonymous in this text), and even, the dead, through resurrection.

This fragment represents a hope that, at least some, Jewish people had, that the messiah would come, and through that coming, God would revolutionize not only the social order (liberating captives bringing good news to the poor, making the hungry rich), but even the natural order, (healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind and reviving the dead). If the dating of this text is correct, then it was written during the Hasmonean rule, which means that Judea was not under foreign occupation.

The Hasmonean dynasty started with the rebellion found within the Apocryphal books of first and second Maccabees (as well as in Josephus) against the Greeks. Prior to the rebellion Israel had been ruled over by foreign powers for centuries, from the Babylonians to the Persians to the Greeks, and it was during that time period that eschatological hope along with resurrection became very popular.

However, in the early first century B.C.E. a civil war broke out among the Jews themselves, over sectarian issues surrounding the ritual of the Feast of Tabernacles. The war lasted 6 years and left 50,000 dead, as well as wide spread poverty and horror. Given that background, it’s no wonder that many Jews found themselves attracted to the eschatological strand of Judaism, if it is true that God rewards the righteous then it must be the case that he will, at some point in the future, intervene, and not only change things, but even bring back those who died righteous so that they could also be rewarded.

The God of Israel, unlike the Pagan Gods, was a God of absolute Justice and righteousness, and he was faithful to his covenant with Israel. So if Jews believed this, at a time when those who they saw as righteous were suffering extreme poverty and violence, eschatology was the way to go.

Fast forward a few decades and Israel is one again under the foot of a foreign power, this time the greatest foreign power to ever rule, Rome. It seems however that this Messianic dream never died out, and it in fact more or less didn’t change form, because when we get to Jesus of Nazareth starting his ministry he goes almost the exact same route, Quoting Isaiah 61:1,2 in his starting of his ministry in Nazareth.

However Jesus, unlike the writer of the Messianic Apocalypse, didn’t say that this was something that a future figure would accomplish, but rather he quoted Isaiah 61:1,2 saying it was fulfilled. Then he went around healing, feeding the hungry and declaring the Kingdom of God. We see in Jesus’ teaching a constant theme of a social reversal, this is especially clear in Luke 6:20-26. When we see the crescendo of events, from the captivity in Babylon to the appointing of Herod to rulership by Rome, we can start to see Jesus and early Christianity in its correct context.

The context is subjugation of the righteous by the unrighteous, but the insistence that God will restore Justice, politically, economically, even physically through healing and resurrection. It’s a tradition of resistance. The next post will look at another fragment called the Melchizedek document (11Q13).

Qumran and the Messiah – Part One, The Messianic Apocalypse

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