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Messiah in the Semitic Literature

The Influence of Semitic Literature on the New Testament

The theme of the coming of the Messiah and the Messianic Kingdom has been very vital for the Jewish society and its literature. The theme runs throughout the Old Testament and can also be traced in more than convincing way in other Jewish literature, which is often called as the Pseudepigrapha, due to its attributed authorship to gain acceptance. This theme has been very central to the Christian teaching as the Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah and in him the Messianic kingdom is realized. But we must also remember that the Jews, who are the original inheritors of the TaNaK, still lives in the expectation of the Messiah.

In the book of Jubilees (31:18-19; 23:26-31), Isaac blesses Judah and says that one of his sons will become the prince of Israel. Though no active role of this prince is mentioned, some authors consider it as the earliest instance of the establishment of the kingdom of Messiah.

II Baruch points towards the establishment of the kingdom of Messiah at the end of the sphere of corruption. This kingdom is not eternal, but a temporal one. At the close of this temporary kingdom the Messiah will return to heaven and the righteous shall rise to a blessed life, 30:1.[1] Messiah will also be a judge (40:1), he will summon all nations, and slay some and spare some (72:2). The book also refers to Messiah as the lightning shone exceedingly so as to illuminate the whole earth (53:9). This might be well reflecting on the coming of the son of man as in Matt. 24:27.

Probably the I Enoch had a great impact on the Messianic expectations and doctrines found in the New Testament. The Messianic kingdom in I Enoch is both sensuous like that of this world (1-36), and also spiritual and blissful as that of the other world (91-104). The parables in the book apply different titles to Messiah which is later taken up in the New Testament. These are ‘Christ’ or ‘the Anointed One’ (48:10; 52:4), ‘the Righteous One’ (38:2; 53:6), ‘the Elect One’ (40:5; 45:3–4; 49:2, 4; 51:3, 5), and ‘the Son of Man’ (46:2, 3, 4; 48:2; 62: 5, 7, 9, 14; 63:11, etc.) These titles are used for Jesus throughout the New Testament. Thus we can see that the I Enoch has greatly influenced the New Testament.

In 4 Ezra, we see that the Messianic age is to follow the Messianic woes (4:56–5:13 a, 6:11–28). This is an apocalyptic writing which sees that the Messianic heralds would appear, though apparently no sign of a Messiah is said about in this. The political understanding of Messiah is also a prominent theme in this book. Wickedness is concentrated in godless imperial Rome1 and the judgment will be effected when Rome is destroyed by the Lion of Judah, i. e. the Messiah … who shall spring front the seed of David (12:32).[2] But this political understanding is rather in juridical terms than in kingship. Messiah was described primarily as acting in legal terms rather than in military ones; his coming as king was not expected. [3] The author also uses the title Son of Man while describing his visions. This text would be a translation of either, בן or עבד. בן would refer to a Jewish titling of the Messiah as “son of God” while עבד would invoke the “servant” language about him. Just like in 2 Baruch, the heavenly pre-existence of Messiah is discussed in this book too (cf. 12:32; 14:9; 2 Bar. 30:1). The Psalms of Solomon sees the Messiah as the anointed of the Lord (17:36). He gathers the dispersed of Israel (17:28-31), judges the tribes (17:48), and pure them from sin (17:41).

The Testament of Judah also speaks of the various qualities of Messiah in detail. The chapter 24 of the book is as follows.

1And after these things shall a star arise to you from Jacob in peace, and a man shall arise [from my seed], like the sun of righteousness, walking with the sons of men in meekness and righteousness; and no sin shall be found in him. 2And the heavens shall be opened unto him, to pour out the spirit, (even) the blessing of the Holy Father; 3And He shall pour out the spirit of grace upon you; and ye shall be unto Him sons in truth, and ye shall walk in His commandments first and last. 4[This Branch of God Most High, And this Fountain giving life unto all.] 5Then shall the sceptre of my kingdom shine forth; and from your root shall arise a stem; 6and from it shall grow a rod of righteousness to the Gentiles, to judge and to save all that call upon the Lord.

The Testament of Joseph is another book where the Messianic coming is said very clearly as we see in the New Testament. The chapter 19, verses 8 and 9 read as follows. “8And I saw that [from Judah was born] a virgin [wearing a linen garment, and from her] was born a lamb, [without spot]; and…9 And because of him the angels and men rejoiced, and all the land.”

Messiah is thus seen in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs as the one who comes from Judah (Test. Judah 24:5–6) and Levi (Test. Reuben 6.7-12). He was to be free from sin (T. Jud. 24:1); to walk in meekness and righteousness (T. Jud. 24:1); to establish a new priesthood under a new name (T. Lev. 8:14), and also be a mediator for the Gentiles (T. Lev. 8:14, emended); likewise he was to be a prophet of the Most High (T. Lev. 8:15); to be a king over all the nation (T. Reub. 6:11, 12; T. Lev. 8:14); to war against Israel’s national enemies and against Beliar and the powers of wickedness (T. Reub. 6:12; T. Lev. 18:12; T. Dan 5:10), and deliver the captives taken by him, even the souls of the saints (T. Dan 5:11); to open Paradise to the righteous (T. Lev. 18:10; T. Dan 5:12), and give the saints to eat of the tree of life (T. Lev. 18:11). Moreover, he should give the faithful power to tread upon evil spirits and bind Beliar (18:12), who should be cast into the fire (T. Jud. 25:3), and sin should come to an end (T. Lev. 18:9).[4]

In the Old Testament also we find that the theme of Messiah is a very well developed one. Genesis 3:15 speaks of the seed of the women, which is then understood to be a prophecy about Messiah. Again in Genesis 49:10, the Seed of Judah and the kingship of the Messiah is mentioned. The Deuteronomic promise of a prophet like Moses is also concerning the Messiah (Deut. 18:15–19). In the book of Prophets also we find many occurrence of the Messianic prophecy. He will be born of a young woman (virgin) (Is. 7:1–17) He will be from the stump of Jesse (Is. 11:1-2) and the Herald of the King (Is 42:1-6). He will be the servant (Is. 49:1-13; 50:4-9) who will be suffering (Is. 52:13-53:12). He will be Messiah the King (Jer. 23:5–6), born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). He will come riding on a donkey (Zech. 9:9–10). He will be the Good Shepherd (Zech. 13:7).

The above study puts sufficient light on the New Testament understanding of Jesus as Messiah. It is to the above mentioned view of Messiah that Jesus came. T Jewish people of Jesus’ time were expecting a Messiah. But it was not a suffering servant as Isaiah had prophesized. But it was the kingly Messiah who would free them from the clutches of the Romans. Sure the Semitic writings of the time had an influence on them. The New Testament writers have also taken up various elements from these Semitic writings to address the issue of Jesus being presented as the Messiah. The effect of these writings are therefore clear when Jesus is proclaimed as the Son of Man, Son of God, the anointed, the suffering servant, the shoot of Jesse, the King of Israel, the Redeemer, the Good Shepherd, etc. Because though these titles, the New Testament writers could easily explain Jesus as the expected Messiah.

In our context too, it is important for us to know the culture and use it to explain our faith. Every religious experience has its own value. Therefore, the study of the culture and the writings will bring us to the ground reality that every religion speaks of the same reality. While Judaism has been expecting the coming of Messiah and his kingdom, Hindus are expecting the return of Ramrajya. In the history of mankind, whenever there were oppressions of the poor, there have always been some people who raise their voice against them. They have always become the Messiah in their lives. Therefore, as Semitic writings correctly put it, the kingdom of Messiah may be a temporary one, but it is the same with this corrupt world. The Son of Man will overcome this and establish the kingdom.

As a Christian, when I reflect on this theme, I understand that Messiah is a gift as well as a challenge to my faith. I have been saved and now part of the messianic kingdom. I now have the responsibility to realize it in my personal life and the community where I belong.


[1]Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament ( ed. Robert Henry Charles;Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004), 2:479.

2 Cf. the ‘Beast’ of the Johannine Apocalypse.

3Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (ed. Robert Henry Charles;Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004), 2:558.

4Michael E. Stone and Frank Moore Cross, Fourth Ezra: A Commentary on the Book of Fourth Ezra (, Hermeneia–a critical and historical commentary on the Bible Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 41.

5Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (ed. Robert Henry Charles; Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004), 2:294.

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