Four years ago, I came across an interesting reference in the New Testament to a verse in the Hebrew Bible. At the end of Luke’s narrative of the birth and childhood of Jesus, he writes:
And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.
It’s almost a direct quotation of 1 Sam 2:26. But why would Luke quote this verse here? Why compare the childhood of Jesus to Samuel? The answer to these questions did not come to me until this past semester while taking the Dead Sea Scrolls seminar when my teacher (Dr. Curt Niccum) pointed out a peculiar reference in one of the scrolls.
But before we can get to that scroll reference, a bit of background on the expectation of the messiah in the first century is necessary.
Concepts of Messiah in the 1st Centuries BCE/CE
It appears as though the expectation for a messiah of some sort was nearly ubiquitous in the first centuries BCE/CE among most of the varied sects of Judaism (of which Christianity was one). This usually took the form of a military ruler who would set up the kingdom again. The pattern for such activity had already been set by Judah Maccabee and his successful revolt against pagan enemies, but this time the restoration of Israel (return of the exiles, reinstatement of the land, spiritual revolution, etc) would accompany the military victories. The Messianic hopes of the Essenes (who probably wrote most of the Dead Sea Scrolls) are particularly interesting because of the diversity of opinion within their writings. Within the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), we find the expectation of one messiah, two messiahs, and even no messiahs.
The idea that the Essenes were expecting two messiahs is highly debatable. A few pieces of evidence within the scrolls point to the likelihood of this belief. First, the Damascus Document mentions “the messiahs of Aaron and of Israel.” (notice the plural) However, in other places it mentions “the messiah of Aaron and Israel” (notice the singular) which has led some scholars to question why this disparity exists. Some have suggested that the text is not expecting two messiahs, while others suggest that the idea developed within the community. This latter suggestion seems more plausible and has the most weight behind it. The roots of dual messianism are found in the Torah with the relationship between Moses and Aaron where there are two rulers over Israel – a prophet and priest. A king/priest pair can be found elsewhere in the text in David/Zadok and in Zerubbabel/Joshua (Zechariah’s “two anointed ones,” Zech 4:14). Within the Essene community it appears that at first just one messiah was expected, then two, and then back to one. Why this belief evolved over time is conjecture. Some argue that dissatisfaction with the temple and the priesthood led to the need for a priestly messiah. Others argue that it comes from the need to separate the two offices of king and priest since some of the Hasmoneans (e.g. Alexander Janaeus) abused the powers of their office as king and high priest and therefore profaned the priesthood. Perhaps some people saw Janaeus’ abuses and realized that having both a high priest and king in the same person was a bad idea? Janaeus and his successors certainly abused their powers and would have made it plain to anyone at the time that such a combination is dangerous.
Other messianic expectations find their way into the scrolls. For instance, within the Community Rule (1QS) we find a clear statement of two messiahs without any indication of the belief evolving over time. The War Scroll (1QM) features a final apocalyptic battle between the “Sons of Light” and the “Sons of Darkness,” but the messiah is notably absent (unless he is the “Hero of War” mentioned in Col XII, but this is doubtful). Many other texts only seem to expect one messiah, such as the Messianic Apocalypse (4Q521). This plethora of ideas of the messiah makes it difficult to pin down exactly what the sect responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls believed. Rather, it seems plausible that multiple viewpoints were held in anticipation of the ultimate restoration of Israel, her temple, her people, and her land.
Dual Messianism in the New Testament
Dual messianism shows up within the New Testament in small but discernible ways. For instance, the interaction between John the Baptist (a priest) and Jesus (a Davidic heir) seems to fit the pattern in some ways. The most significant appearance of this view in the NT is found in the Book of Hebrews where Jesus is portrayed as the ultimate high priest. But there are other, less noticeable places where the concept of dual messianism shows up. One such example is in Luke 2:
And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.
As mentioned above, this is a line pulled straight out of the Hebrew Bible, originally written about the boy Samuel.
And the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with the LORD and with men.
-1 Samuel 2:26
So now back to the question that I’ve had for the past four years: why does Luke quote this passage? The New Testament makes very few references to Samuel and prefers to pull its prophetic imagery from Moses, Elijah, and Elisha. So why quote a verse about Samuel growing up? The answer is that Luke is trying to tie together the concept of dual messianism into a single messiah because Samuel was both priest and judge. This is an even more interesting choice because Samuel was an Ephraimite (1 Sam 1:1) and not a Levite, but he wore the linen ephod and ministered before the Lord under Eli (1 Sam 2:18) – something only a priest was allowed to do according to the Torah. Samuel was allowed to do priestly duties without being a priest. So Samuel offers an interesting choice here because he was allowed to be a priest without being born a Levite of the house of Aaron.
And, as it turns out, Luke wasn’t the only person to draw on Samuel in this way. At least one writer of the Dead Sea Scrolls also used this in a similar manner:
David son of Jesse was wise and brilliant like the light of the sun; (he was) a scribe, intelligent and perfect in all his ways before God and men.
-1QPs(a) Col XXVII (Vermes, 313)
David was, of course, the quintesential messianic figure. It was his branch that would sprout again (Isa 11) and rule over Israel. In the above text, the writer of 1QPs(a) is trying to connect David (king) and Samuel (priest) into one figure. The writer is trying to say that David’s incredible intellect allowed him to be a priest just like Samuel. Luke does the exact same thing with his description of Jesus – and I think his first century audience would have caught the reference immediately. Why? Because Luke’s readers already know that Jesus is descended from David (1:27, 32, 69; 2:4, 11) and the quotation of Samuel comes directly after the boy Jesus astounds the teachers in the temple with his keen intellect.
The messianic expectations of the Jews in the first centuries BCE/CE were many and complex. Some expected two messiahs, some expected one, and some expected God to act without an intermediary like a messianic figure. The Gospel writers are telling the story of Jesus and trying to fit the multifaceted messianic expectations of the times into a single person. Luke skillfully draws upon the imagery of the Hebrew Bible to paint a picture of Jesus that fulfills the messianic hopes of those who wanted one messiah and those who wanted two.
Jesus as priestly messiah is important for the imagery of the NT. As mentioned above, it is a central theme in the book of Hebrews, but it is much more than that. Jesus as priest sanctifies us through his death, ministers before the Lord because of his resurrection, and cleanses his people to mitigate the presence of God to the people of the world through our baptism (a priestly washing). As Christmas draws near, and Christians contemplate the coming of Christ into this world, many Christians focus on the birth narrative exclusively. Luke’s remarks at the end of the childhood narrative help us to remember that Christmas is also equally about a boy whose brilliance not only qualifies him for the priesthood but allows his followers to be be a kingdom of priests (1 Pet 2:9) that reveal the face of God to the people of the world.
Collins, John J. The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature (2nd Edition, 2010).
Vermes, Geza. The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English: Seventh Edition (2012).