Messianic Hopes and the Jewish Revolt

E. P. Sanders contended Judaism in the Second Temple period was not a religion of individual salvation (278). God made a covenant with the people of Israel and it is the people who will be preserved. The eschatology of Israel is a national eschatology rather than personal. What “future hopes” are found in the first century, they are hopes which concern the people of Israel as a whole rather than individuals.

Image result for romans monty python gifIt is likely most Jews longed for freedom from Rome. Even the line of Herod, which owed its power to Rome, would have preferred to have independence and self-rule. Rome was and ever-present reality in the politics of first century Palestine and freedom from Roman manipulation would have been the dream of Jews of every class and party. The problem is in defining that freedom: does that mean Rome is destroyed completely? Does that mean Rome rules Palestine but grants near-independence for Israel? Does Israel go back to Hasmonean rule? Would Rome be preferred to the Herodians? Hope for the future therefore ran from storing up arms for a time of revolt to praying quietly God will do something to change things. Some groups did not have much of a future hope (the Sadducees, for example), while others had a rather complex view of the near future, one in which they played a key role (the Essenes, for example).

Sanders observes these hopes were often expressed negatively, in the form of complaints, protests, and insurrections (280). There were people in the first century who were ready to fight Rome given the right circumstances. Josephus describes a “fourth philosophy” which he claims was founded by Judas the Galilean and Zadok the Sadducee in A.D. 6 (Antiq. 18.3-10, War 2.117f). When Archelaus was deposed, Rome sent a prefect to govern Judea. In order to organize and tax more efficiently, a census was ordered. Judas rallied some followers and fought against taxation because it represented foreign rule. His slogan was “no master but God,” a rather spiritual sounding phrase to be sure, but it is not exactly clear how “no master but God” gets worked out in the real world.  This “fourth philosophy” has been a bit of a mystery to historians, sometimes identified with the Zealots who started the war in 66 and were the last survivors of the war at Masada.

At least some of these Zealots were assassins, known as the Sicarii. There are problems with this identification, not the least of which is the 60 years between Judas and the War in which there is nothing said about the fourth philosophy or Zealots. Judas is not identified as a Zealot, and although there is a brief insurgency in 44, the idea of rebellion against Rome is unmentioned until the war actual breaks in 66. These revolutionary movements had one thing in common – they came at a time when the Roman Empire was not able to pay close attention to the back-water province of Judea. In A.D. 6 Archelaus was deposed and there was some question who would succeed him, another Herod or Roman rule. In 66 Nero was in his last days and was becoming more unstable. In 69 there were four emperors and the Roman Empire was distracted. It looked like a revolution might have a chance to succeed.

A more common method of protest for the Jews in this period was passive resistance. There were a number of points in century or so before the war when Jews demonstrated their willingness to die rather than allow something which transgressed their laws. For example, the protest against Pilate when he proposed to put Roman standards up in the Temple (War 2.169-174) and the protests made to Petronius when Caligula demanded his image be placed in the Temple (Antiq. 18.261-278). Nationalistic protests associated with the Temple sometimes erupted during Festivals in Jerusalem.

Between these two extremes (aggressive action against Rome and passive resistance even to death) is the belief that God or his representative will, at some point, intervene in history on behalf of his people. This view is represented in Qumran in the War Rule and in the Psalms of Solomon 17. Psalms of Solomon 17 looks forward to a Davidic messiah who will march on Jerusalem, banish the gentiles from the city, reassemble the tribes of Israel and establish the ideal kingdom (Sanders 285). The War Rule has similar hopes, but the only true Israel which is left is the sectarian community at Qumran. The messiah will lead them into Jerusalem and destroy the sinful Israelites (i.e. non-Qumran Essenes?) as well as the Gentiles.

It is God himself who will strike the blow against Rome, not individual revolutionaries. There were a number of other “messianic pretenders” in the first century who rallied a small number of followers with the hope of overthrowing Rome. The Romans dealt swiftly and violently with each of these leaders, but the hope of an imminent intervention by the Lord never died. Even while the Temple portico is burning a prophet told a crowd to go into the Temple to await help from God (J.W. 6.283, cf. 1.347).

The middle position, “ready to fight but hoping for a miraculous intervention” seems to represent a wide variety of groups including “hardcore calculating revolutionaries” and the more pacifist wing (Sanders 288). Perhaps when the times were not right for revolution and there was nothing to protest, everyone more or less harbored the hopes of this category.

12 thoughts on “Messianic Hopes and the Jewish Revolt

  1. It is interesting to observe how the Messiah was much different than what the Jewish people had expected. Due to their oppression and hostility towards the Roman government, the Jews were more than ready for this Messiah to show up and bring justice to Jerusalem. The more oppressed by the Gentiles that the Jews became, I am sure the greater the expectations were for the Messiah. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:5 Jesus says, “God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth”. A Messiah that was promoting a passive attitude was hardly what the majority of Jewish people were expecting, which is why many doubted that Jesus Christ was the true Messiah.


  2. In analyzing the eventual Jewish revolt against the Romans, I do believe that one of the most overwhelming factors for the revolt, was that foreign rulers indeed were ruling over Judea for an extended amount of time. And while many Jews may have dreamed for an eventual overthrow of Roman autonomy, many Jews questioned as well if a revolt against Rome in totality would do any good in reality (Tomasino, 280-281). In analyzing the overall way the Jews felt, it must have been a very difficult reality to face. To exemplify further, the last time the Jews revolted was in the Maccabean revolt and the Hasmonean Empire came about. The results of that were not good for the Jewish people in all honestly. I wonder if any Jews took this into consideration, when they thought about the overall idea of a revolt against Rome? While it may have been a dream for many of the Jews to rid their beloved nation of foreign rule, at first many of the Jews may have been opposed to the idea. However; based, on a numerous amount of factors such as the heavy tax burden’s, the book of Daniel and being tired of foreign rule, many of the Jewish people obtained the willpower and motivation necessary to indeed rebel against the Romans. Even if numbers and strength may have not been on their side.


    • It certainly is interesting looking into the many factors of the Jewish revolt against the Romans. You made a good point in saying that the Jews had a lot of factors to consider before deciding to make that jump, such as the overall outcome that came from their previous massive revolt, the Maccabean revolt. It is certainly likely that the Jews were ready for change, whether it be from the Messiah or by taking matters into their own hands. In the first century, thee were definitely Jews who were sick and tired of the oppression that they were facing; however, it is true that there may have been several who were not complacent with the given circumstance.


  3. I find it odd that the Jews of all people would have learned not to fight without God’s direct blessing. Their past victories and failures have shown they stand no hope against anything if God is not helping them. If God had said band together and I will give Rome into your hands then Rome would have fallen within a decade or less.
    Even from a human perspective they had to have known they stood no chance against Rome army vs army. Rome was the destroyer of nations, anything that came against them broke and anything they attacked fell. Rome only eventually fell from within.


  4. During the first century of Roman Empire, Jewish messianic expectations ran high. “One factor encouraging these notions was ‘chronomessianism’, the belief that the Scriptures predicted the time of the Messiah’s coming” (Tomasino, p. 292). Specifically, the book of Daniel talks about an exact time frame at which to expect the Messiah. However, the depiction of the Messiah was one of a warrior-king rather than the pacifist Jesus that we see in the New Testament. In reality, the Jews were not under severe persecution and did not face a ton of oppression from Rome. They were just not content with the idea that they were under foreign rule even though God had promised them that, when they were no longer considered an apostate, they would once again become a great nation.


  5. It is easy to see what the expectations of the Jews were concerning the Messiah. They were so caught up in the idea that He was meant to free them as a nation from the rule of Rome. Many of them thought that Jesus would become the king of Israel in a earthly sense and that he would raise an army to fight against Rome. Even Peter may have shared this line of thought for some time. I base this primarily off of Peters actions when Jesus was arrested. I believe it was not until after His resurrection that Peter truly understood Jesus’ mission. It took time for the Jews understand the true nature of Messiah’s mission. Even years after Jesus ascended, there were attempts to rebel against Rome. These people still believed that the Messiah was yet to come and that He would rule just as king David of the old testament did.


  6. Wow that’s extensive. I remember briefly studying / looking over the Sicarii and their distinctive knives that they used. It’s interesting to look back in history and see ‘Jewish zealots’, or as you pointed out, assassins in that sort of culture or systematic belief. In any case, between aggression towards Rome and passive resistance against death, I think an aggressive stance towards Rome would be more likely to succeed. As my grandfather’s pastor so adequately put it once, ‘we are all going to die of something, sometimes it’s war’. When it comes to a civilization like Rome, ‘resisting death’ depending on how advanced your society may be isn’t always likely to succeed. They were pretty adept to torture and killing — just ask Jesus.


  7. I think that it is a good point that the Jewish hopes were for the nation not as much the individual. That is why removing the pagan overlords was so important. The nations of Israel and Judah in the Old Testament were always characterized by their kings. If it was an evil king, he would set up idols. If it was a righteous king, he would tear down idols. Ultimately, they were looking forward to the Davidic rulership to be restored. Because they were convinced that they were now righteous after the exile, the king was bound to be very righteous and the kingdom prosperous.


  8. I wrote about this briefly in my paper, but I will rehash it here. It is interested that the Jewish ideal of the messiah is almost a deus ex machina. They have an expectation of the Messiah coming at the bleakest moment and destroying their enemies, granting them the freedom, independence and justice that they desire. Perhaps this is why so many people rejected the true Messiah, Jesus. He certainly did not fit their ideals of Davidic Warrior King, so they decided to reject him outright.


    • deus ex machina – this is an interesting way to put it, since the messianic expectation is literally God breaking into the story and rescuing his people. (although it is usually dismissed as a poor plot device in modern film-making)


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