As I have been doing for the last few weeks I wanted to go into something a bit deeper than time permitted in class. Specifically, the Zealots and their messianic hopes.
Recall that the Zealots wanted to bring the “Kingdom of God” just was badly as all the other Jewish sects we have studied so far. They all longed for the Messiah to come, except perhaps the Sadducees who were complacent with their Roman-given position of authority. Most Jews (if not all) of the first century were looking for an earthly king as the messiah, and the Zealots of all people were truly convinced that the Messiah would be a warrior king. Sects like the Essenes were looking for two Messiahs, a priestly one of the family line of Aaron, and a King Messiah of the line of David. Interestingly, this is why the New Testament claims that Jesus was both a priest forever of the order of Melchizedek and a king of the line of David. However, the Zealots were looking for the King Messiah and not so much for the Priest Messiah. Maybe I’ll make the “two messiahs” a post in the future.
I have heard one scholar say that the Jews believed the messiah would gradually come to the conclusion that he was indeed the messiah. They thought it wouldn’t be a specific point in time when he realized it, but rather a slow realization. So many leaders of the Jews in the first century found themselves wondering “Is it me? Am I the messiah? Will God use me to free my people from pagan rule?” As Gamaliel says in Acts, there were many would-be messiahs in the first century. Some genuinely thought they were it, some were just using people to get wealth and power (the same is true today in the middle east conflicts regarding radical Islam – some are genuine in their faith, some are just in it for the money and power they can achieve by using people).
Among those who thought they might have been the messiah were two of the people we talked about in class: Hezekiah and his son Judah. Hezekiah (not the same guy as the King Hezekiah 600 years earlier) led a revolt in 45 BC and was captured and killed. Hezekiah’s son, Judah of Gamla led a revolt around 4 AD over the Roman census and therefore the taxes that the census was to ascertain. This was likely the census surrounding Jesus’ birth (since most scholars think Jesus was actually born either 3-4 years before the traditional “1 AD” or 3-4 years after). Judah is specifically mentioned by Gamaliel in Acts 5:37 (as “Judas”). However, the most prominent would-be messiah of the First Jewish-Roman War (66 – 73 AD) was Menahem, the grandson of Hezekiah and son of Judah.
During the war, the various factions of Judaism were fragmented and without a leader which was preventing progress and hurting their chances of winning. Menahem wanted to change that by making himself the leader, but such is not an easy task. His solution was to be crowned and recognized as the messiah at the temple. The other Jews were greatly angered by this and murdered him while he was in the temple, after his procession to be crowned. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia:
“Menahem was a chief leader of the revolt in 66, and was slain on account of his tyranny by rivals in his own party when, surrounded with royal pomp, he went up to the Temple to be crowned (“B. J.” ii. 17, §§ 8-9; comp. ib. § 3 and “Vita,” § 5).”
So Menahem goes from somewhere inside (or outside) of Jerusalem and marches up to the temple to be crowned messiah (and therefore king of the “Age to Come” and of the “Kingdom of God”) where he is killed. Interestingly, Jesus did the exact opposite. He started from the Praetorium, likely the Fortress of Antonia which was adjacently attached to the outer temple walls, and proceeds the opposite way outside of the city where he was killed. Two “messiahs”, same fate (death), two different directions, only one was made king.
Notice the way the world wants to make a messiah: through pomp and regal circumstances to be crowned king at the temple with the cheering crowds.
Notice the way God makes a messiah: through the shame of bearing the sins of the world he was crowned king of the universe by the jeering crowds.
It’s clear to see that Menahem, the would-be messiah got it all wrong, and he paid for it with his life. Jesus got it all right, and he paid for it with his life too. Today we often need to understand the same lesson: don’t turn the messiah into something he’s not. He was exalted as the Messiah not because he triumphed with the sword or with the blessings of men, but because he triumphed with the Spirit and the plan of God. In the same way, you too cannot be like the world or conform to its ways. We are called to give up our own lives in order that we might have eternal life. That doesn’t mean “kill yourself”, but rather, as Paul wrote in Romans 12:1-2:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Peace to you,