Messianic Patterns and Possibilities
Who is the Messiah going to be? What will he be like and what will he do? The differences among perspectives of different groups within first century Judaism were very real. It is generally accepted that there was an unreconciled diversity of opinion about the person of the Messiah between groups and even within single groups.
When looking at the personalities identified with the messianic age, there can be as many as four separate individuals: the king of the house of David, the priest of the house of Aaron, the war leader of the house of Joseph, and the prophet representing Elijah as the announcer of the events as they unfold. Probably the single element on which all the expectations agree is that the Messiah or messiahs are paragons of righteousness. They are exemplary in their respect for God and their conformance with the Torah.
David is the person most often mentioned in the various descriptions of the Messiah. This is not surprising, considering his achievements and his character. Most often heard is that the heir of David will have an eternal kingdom, which he will rule with justice and righteousness. In many descriptions, the role of the heir to David is political: he will reestablish the kingdom of the people of Israel on their own land. His kingdom will be a place of endless peace, and he will have many virtues—wisdom, understanding, counsel and might, knowledge, sanctification, fear of the Lord, truth, uprightness.
Where there is a priestly messiah of the house of Aaron, he is also described as perfect in righteousness. He is the Interpreter of the Law, the one through whom the words of the Lord will be revealed, and sometimes he is also mentioned as the one who will judge the earth. He is represented by a star and called the Sun of Righteousness who walks with the children of men in gentleness. He and the heir of David are the ones through whom the Lord can be seen, as they exhibit their living examples of righteousness.
The goal of this paper is to look at first century expectations around the priestly Messiah, the Messiah of Aaron, and to consider whether Jesus was an eligible candidate to fill that particular messianic role.
The Identity of the Messiah of Aaron
Our knowledge of the messianic expectations at the beginning of the first century comes from two sources, the Dead Sea Scrolls and other contemporary writings in the Pseudepigrapha. Both sources base their conceptions on interpretation of scripture. The circulating ideas about the priestly messiah, the Messiah of Aaron, are based on interpretations of an oracle related in the Book of Numbers and a vision which appeared to the prophet Zechariah. These interpretations became part of materials circulated among different groups within Judaism during the Roman occupation. First we will consider the scripture passages on which the interpretations were based and then look at the expectations for the priestly messiah which grew out of them.
The earliest of the dual messianic prophecies appears in the book of Numbers. The oracle of Balaam was most likely originally intended to refer to David himself, since it speaks of a leader to come. After the time of David, this oracle is read back to become a prophecy for the future of later readers. Balaam’s fourth oracle predicts the defeat of the enemies of the people of Israel, and it mentions the one who is coming.
I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near—a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the borderlands of Moab, and the territory of all the Shethites (Num 24:17 NRSV).
Later readers use the allusions to the star and the scepter to make a separation of the description of the one who is to come into two different kinds of messianic roles. One role is political, the person who will defeat the enemies and rule the people. The other role is spiritual, the person who will lead the people in righteousness and faithfulness to the Lord. The first is referred to as the Messiah of Israel, the king, and the second as the Messiah of Aaron, the priest.
The prophets Zechariah and Haggai were active in the first years of the rebuilding of the temple, and the messianic expectations expressed in their prophecies were intended to fit into a time close at hand. The two main players on the scene were Joshua, the high priest of the house of Aaron, and Zerubbabel, the king who is descended from David. In the prophecy of Haggai the people were commanded to rebuild the temple, and the king, the high priest, and the people proceeded to work on the rebuilding.
Within a few months, Zechariah also had a series of visions. In one of Zechariah’s visions, an angel speaks to the high priest Joshua,
Now listen, Joshua, high priest, you and your colleagues who sit before you! For they are an omen of things to come: I am going to bring my servant the Branch. … I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day. (Zech 3:8–9)
The angel explains one part of Zechariah’s vision by saying,
These are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth. (Zech 4:14)
In the vision, Zechariah crowns the two, priest and king, who are to rule together.
Thus says the LORD of hosts: Here is a man whose name is Branch … he shall bear royal honor, and shall sit and rule on his throne. There shall be a priest by his throne, with peaceful understanding between the two of them. (Zech 6:12–13)
This event is the beginning of the understanding of the dual roles of two anointed ones, one a priest and one a king, which is found later in the documents of Qumran. Since Zerubbabel ultimately failed to fulfill the prophecies in his own time, Zechariah’s predictions remained open for interpretation by following generations.
Rule of the Community at Qumran
A clear mention of the expectation of two messiahs occurs in the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Rule of the Community (1QS), the primary guide to life within the Qumran community. This document describes the organization of the community, including the process for joining it, the behavioral expectations of members, and the disciplinary processes for infractions of community policies. Two messiahs are mentioned in connection with the term of effectiveness of the Rule of the Community: the Rule shall be in effect until their coming.
They should not depart from any counsel of the law in order to walk in complete stubbornness of their heart, but instead shall be ruled by the first directives which the men of the Community began to be taught until the prophet comes, and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel. (1QS 9:9–11)
This community expected two messiahs, one priestly and one kingly, to come; and the organization and discipline of the community continue to be in force until their arrival.
The Damascus Covenant (CD) is an alternative and perhaps earlier form of the Rule of the Community, found first in the Genizah in Cairo but then also in copies in the Qumran caves. While the Rule of the Community clearly expects two messiahs, the Messiah of Aaron and the Messiah of Israel, the Damascus Covenant uses a singular word for both kinds of messiah in some places. These passages may indicate a single person expected who will represent both Aaron and Israel.
Those who are faithful to him are the poor ones of the flock. These shall escape in the age of the visitation; but those that remain shall be delivered up to the sword when there comes the messiah of Aaron and Israel. (CD-A 19.9–11)
All of the specified rules and behavior patterns of the covenant are in effect until the point in time which is marked by the arrival of one or both messiahs.
this is the exact interpretation of the regulations by which [they shall be ruled] [until there arises the messiah] of Aaron and Israel. (CD-A 14.17–19)
this is the rule of the assembly [of the ca]mps. Those who walk in them, in the time of wickedness until there arises the messiah of Aaron and Israel, they shall be ten in number as a minimum … (CD-A 12:22–13:1)
The Damascus Covenant uses interpretation of the passage from Numbers to describe the two messiahs who are expected.
the Star is the Interpreter of the law, who will come to Damascus, as it is written: Num 24:13 “A star moves out of Jacob, and a scepter arises out of Israel” The scepter is the prince of the whole congregation and when he arises he will destroy all the sons of Seth. These escaped at the time of the first one’s visitation. (CD-A 7.17–21)
The interpretation of this passage refers specifically to two separate people. The star is the priestly messiah whose role is the interpretation of the law, while the scepter is the kingly messiah whose role is the destruction of sinners.
The Damascus Covenant also includes the interpretation of a passage from Numbers 21. The modern form of the passage is,
Then Israel sang this song: “Spring up, O well!—Sing to it!— the well that the leaders sank, that the nobles of the people dug, with the scepter, with the staff.” (Num 21:17–18)
The interpretation of the passage in the scroll is,
The well is the law. And those who dug it are the converts of Israel … and the staff is the interpreter of the law … the nobles of the people are those who have arrived to dig the well with the staves that the scepter decreed, to walk them throughout the whole age of wickedness, and without which they will not obtain it, until there arises he who teaches justice at the end of days. (CD-A 6:8–11)
In this passage, the people who are ruled by “the scepter” are waiting for the appearance of the priestly messiah, the one who teaches justice and righteousness at the end of days.
Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs
This book, written between 137 and 107 BCE, is a collection of the testaments of the twelve sons of Jacob, with one testament for each of the twelve sons, presented in order of age from the oldest to the youngest. They contain personal stories, good advice, and sometimes prophetic predictions for posterity about the messianic figures to come. This material would have been available and in general circulation at the beginning of the Roman occupation.
Although Ruben is the oldest son, the first born son of Jacob and Leah, the patriarch recommends that his posterity be subject to the children of Levi. He says,
Draw near to Levi in humility of your hearts in order that you may receive a blessing from his mouth. For he will bless Israel and Judah, since it is through him that the Lord has chosen to reign in the presence of all the people. (T. Reu. 6:10–11)
The sons of Levi as the Levitical priesthood are expected to be spiritual leaders of the people, but in this passage the offspring of Levi is also expected to reign as king.
The Testament of Levi refers to the vision of the star and scepter in Numbers 24:17.
And his star shall rise in heaven like a king; kindling the light of knowledge as day is illumined by the sun. (T. Levi 18:3)
Levi identifies star as the priest who provides knowledge and understanding of the law, but who is also like a king in the heavens. In this allusion, he may be combining the kingly and priestly messianic roles into a single person. Levi describes the work of the priestly figure to come.
he shall give the majesty of the Lord to those who are his sons in truth forever. And there shall be no successor for him from generation to generation forever. And in his priesthood the nations shall be multiplied in knowledge on the earth and they shall be illumined by the grace of the Lord, but Israel shall be diminished by her ignorance and darkened by her grief, (T. Levi 18:8–9)
A fragment of the Testament of Levi found among the Dead Sea Scrolls shows that the one who is expected will be a teacher.
His word is like the word of the heavens, and his teaching according to the will of God. His eternal sun will shine and his fire will burn in all the ends of the earth; above the darkness his sun will shine. (4Q541 Testament of Levi, frag. 9.1.3–4)
The Testament of Judah warns the children to stay close to the house of Levi.
And now, children, love Levi so you may endure. Do not be arrogant toward him or you will be wholly destroyed. To me God has given the kingship and to him, the priesthood; and he has subjected the kingship to the priesthood. (T. Jud. 21:1–2)
Judah describes the Messiah to come as one who is completely righteous.
there shall arise for you a Star from Jacob in peace: and a man shall arise from my posterity like the Sun of Righteousness, walking with the sons of men in gentleness and righteousness, and in him will be found no sin. (T. Jud. 24:1)
In this one person, the kingly power is combined with spiritual power.
The Testament of Benjamin also talks about dual roles for the Messiah.
in later times there shall rise up the beloved of the Lord, from the lineage of Judah and Levi, one who does his good pleasure by his mouth, enlightening all the nations with new knowledge. (T. Benj. 11:2)
This passage specifically calls for one person to fulfill both messianic roles, the priestly role of Levi and the kingly role of Judah. The person here is acting as a teacher, and this is a person who combines both hereditary family functions.
The Levitical Ancestry of Jesus
In considering whether Jesus is a potential candidate for the role of priestly Messiah as described in these sources, it is necessary to establish his ancestry. Just as the Messiah of Israel must be a descendant of David, the Messiah of Aaron must come from a priestly family and be a lineal descendant of Aaron.
The two genealogies given in the gospels for Jesus agree in the line of male descent from Abraham through David. The line in Matthew’s gospel then leads from David through his son Nathan in a male line through to Joseph, husband of Mary, while the other in Luke’s gospel leads from David through his son Solomon in a male line through to Joseph. There are a number of problems with these genealogies including inconsistencies in the time periods covered, potential omissions, and so forth. Some have suggested that, since the two genealogies lead to Joseph by different paths, the Lukan genealogy might have been originally intended to refer to the antecedents of Mary, thus justifying Jesus’ descent from David as coming from both parents.
There are several problems with this approach, not the least of which is that the descent in the royal house of David can only pass through the male line, from father to son. According to David Flusser, the writings of the priest Jesus Ben Sirach represent the oldest preserved discussion of the relationship between the descendants of David and those of Aaron. Ben Sirach says,
Just as a covenant was established with David son of Jesse of the tribe of Judah, that the king’s heritage passes only from son to son, so the heritage of Aaron is for his descendants alone (Sir 45:25).
Thus from a genealogical perspective, even if Mary were of the house of David, succession of the royal line could not pass through her to her son.
The narratives in the beginning of Luke’s gospel provide some information about Mary’s family background. Mary’s relative Elizabeth is married to the Levitical priest Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah, served his normal rotation in the temple with his section, and was occasionally assigned to perform service in the sanctuary (Luke 1:5). Elizabeth herself is identified as a daughter of Aaron (Luke 1:5), so this couple is a Levitical family.
Mary’s relationship to Elizabeth is specified by the angel Gabriel in the annunciation to Mary:
And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren (Luke 1:36).
The phrase in Greek which is translated as your relative implies strongly one who is of the same kin, related by blood or, in a wider sense, of the same race. It is a compound word, with a preposition implying some kind of sharing and a root implying race or blood relationship. Common usage at the time included descendants of a common ancestor, relatives in the same family, or members of the same race or people. This is the root of the words genus and genetic in English. Mary is not simply a distant cousin or a relative by marriage of Elizabeth, but a blood relative, a member of the same family with the same ancestry. Since Mary is identified as Elizabeth’s blood relative, Mary must also be a descendant of Aaron.
What makes this blood relationship important, particularly for Mary as a woman, is that descent is treated differently in the house of Aaron from the house of David. In the quotation from Sirach above, it is clear that the Davidic inheritance passes from son to son, but the inheritance among the children of Aaron is less clear. The passage says simply that inheritance of Aaron goes to his seed, but the distinction actually made in this verse is that this inheritance goes to all of his descendants, while the inheritance of David goes only to and through his male children.
As a result, since succession of the priestly family passes through all descendants, including women, Mary’s son can receive the priestly heritage which belongs to her as a child of the house of Aaron. This puts Jesus at his birth squarely in the position of eligibility for the role of priestly Messiah through his mother’s family.
We can only speculate about to what extent Jesus may have been aware of the expectations for the priestly role of the Messiah. We also have no information about his own education and studies. Where John the Baptist was raised and educated “in the wilderness” with a prophetic heritage, we have only a single incident from the childhood of Jesus to show his seeking out teachers in the temple. Jesus demonatrated a deep understanding of and ability to interpret scripture which could easily have been developed by education in priestly circles. Mary would have had the family connections, through Elizabeth and Zechariah, to arrange for education within the temple system for her son, once he showed the interest and inclination.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews was not aware that Jesus was a descendant of Aaron and a recipient of the priestly inheritance. Using only the information available to him, he identified the work of Jesus as priestly work, but he did not have Luke’s family information that linked Jesus to the line of Aaron. He said,
For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests (Heb 7:13–14).
The possibility of a dual descent, decent from the female side, did not occur to this writer, so he connected Jesus to the priesthood through with the messianic prophecy about Melchizedek.
It is even more obvious when another priest arises, resembling Melchizedek, one who has become a priest, not through a legal requirement concerning physical descent, but through the power of an indestructible life (Heb 7:15–16).
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews is a witness to the priestly work of Jesus, even though he does not have enough information to know that Jesus could claim the priesthood through the ordinary line of descent as well.
Jesus avoided any opportunity to make a messianic statement implying that he sought political power. Instead, he claimed only the power to teach—to tell the truth about God, humankind, and what it meant to live a life of righteousness. The work Jesus did in his teaching ministry was a work of interpretation—a reprioritizing and refocusing of the law—which moved it from the culturally dependent way of following the God who belonged to a particular people and culture, to become a guide to living righteously for the people of all nations. This work was the priestly work of the Messiah of Aaron, the work of the righteous Interpreter of the Law.
I expect that Jesus would have been aware of his own family heritage and of the dual roles of the Messiah of Aaron and the Messiah of Israel. While those around him were looking for political liberation, he himself made a priority of his priestly role as Interpreter of the Law. It was a role for which he had the traditional qualification required as a descendant of Aaron.
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