Setting the Stage for the Messiah
How’s this for a novel setting? A desert region, sprinkled with mountains. Inhabited by a fiercely religious, yet divided, people. Who have survived centuries of conquest, enslavement, banishment and return. Occupied by one empire, while another lurks just over the horizon. Some advocate collaborating with their conquerors. Others, rising up against them. Many in each camp await one divinely guided to lead the revolution. One predicted by ancient prophecies. How does it end? This savior does arrive. But he defies all expectations.
The Historical Example
Yes, it’s been done. By the likes of Frank Herbert, in the science fiction classic Dune. But also in real life. Particularly in the Islamic world, by numerous self-styled Mahdis. But the historical example whence these come is even older. And like so many Western and Eastern (Christian), and now even non-Christian, paradigms, it goes back to Jesus Christ. What was the religious and political context into which the pre-existent Logos incarnated? Let’s examine that. The following draws heavily upon Maurice Sartre’s 600-page tome, The Middle East under Rome. Particularly chapter four, “The Crises in Judaea from Herod to Bar Kokhba.”
Judaea Longs for Relief
Judaea had been conquered by the Roman Republic some six decades before Christ’s birth. It was incorporated into the Empire by the time 12-year-old Jesus was teaching in the Temple. Four main groups dominated the religious scene. The Pharisees were the most powerful. They were more concerned with upholding the Torah than getting rid of the Romans. The Essenes were not, as sometimes depicted, all monks at Qumran. And all of them saw themselves as “Children of Light” vsx the occupying (and collaborating) “Children of Darkness.” The Sadducees also venerated the Torah. But they were, in effect, secular Jews — rejecting any idea of an afterlife. They also were the most ready to accept Roman rule.
The other major group consisted of the Zealots, polar opposites of the Sadducees. “For them, it was important to hasten the end-time and the coming of the heavenly kingdom through constant resistance to the Romans.” The sub-set called the Sicarii (from sica, “small knife) aimed to hot-wire the apocalypse by killing Romans. However, their assassinations “did not weaken the enemy but led to greater repression, a response they hoped would radicalize the situation and swing a majority to their side.” (Very much how Usama bin Ladin would see the 9/11 attacks, on a much vaster scale.) With the possible exception of the Sadducees, all in Judaea longed for relief from Roman rule — as they had from that of the Greeks before them.
The Coming Messiah
This desire to be left alone by the powerful pagan Gentiles had taken on another dimension. A messianic one, that actually had its origins in the Babylonian Exile some six centuries earlier. By two centuries before Christ, “most Jews had come to include in their vision of the end-time the dual notion of the re-creation of an earthly kingdom and the advance coming of a Messiah.” Many expected David’s Kingdom of Israel to be restored. Whatever form it took, “in the end Yahweh would triumph and the Messiah reign in Jerusalem” and “the golden age would begin.” There were even predictions that this would take place in the fourth decade of the first century AD.
Thus, the Romans faced not only mundane rebellions, but messianic, eschatological ones. Their legions of forts and garrison posts were “meant to repress dissent more than defend against an external enemy” — enemies such as Persia. The historian Josephus wrote of numerous “bandits” at the time. And Galilee, where Jesus spent much of his public ministry, was “the principal center of unrest.” Violent men claiming to be the Messiah bedeviled Herod, his successors, and his Roman overlords. In fact, “unrest was almost constant” between 4 BC (about when Jesus was born) and 66 AD. Some of that can be blamed on the Romans. As when, in 26 AD, prefect Pontius Pilate brought “gilded imperial shields” into Jerusalem. Or when he proposed taxing the Temple treasury to fund a new aqueduct.
So there was plenty of cannon fodder for the “long series of preachers and agitators” who “fed the popular outrage.” Little wonder, then, that Jesus evoked Roman edginess. He’d been preceded by dozens (perhaps hundreds) of wanna-be Judaean militant messiahs. Of course Pilate would ask him “are you a king?” Jesus’ response that “my kingdom is not of this realm” might not have been very reassuring to a Roman official. Why not? Because so many Jewish “rebels” had tried previously to immanentize the eschaton. That is, to violently birth a new order. To make a mystical kingdom mortal. Pilate’s misunderstanding in this regard is understandable. Especially since Christ’s own Apostles were confused. After the Resurrection, they still asked “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?”
The Salvation of Israel and All Humanity
Even His most faithful followers had imbibed the violent messianic elixir. Understandably, since that was the primary ideological drink served for some two centuries to the folks in Judaea. Even the Apostles were too drunk on that to accept Christ’s clear teaching otherwise — at least initially. That the “Son of Man must suffer many things.” To include being rejected by the various Jewish factions’ leadership, killed, and raised to life on the third day. The salvation of Israel, and indeed all humanity, would come through sacred, sacrificial love — not through military or political action. Thus confounding all the eschatological expectations swirling around Judaea when Mary gave birth in that manger. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!
Timothy Furnish holds a Ph.D. in Islamic, World and African history from Ohio State University and a M.A. in Theology from Concordia Seminary. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and, later, civilian consultant to U.S. Special Operations Command. He’s the author of books on the Middle East and Middle-earth, a history professor and sometime media opiner (as, for example, on Fox News Channel’s War Stories: Fighting ISIS). He currently writes for and consults The Stream on International Security matters.