Prophecy and History
in Relation to the Messiah

The Warburton Lectures for 1880-1884

Alfred Edersheim



And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and
Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou?…He said, I am
the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way
of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias. John 1:19, 23.

These words and, still more, the thoughts, of him who uttered them, seem to transport us into an atmosphere, different from that of the writings to which attention has been called in the two preceding Lectures. In truth, from the Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphic writings to John the Baptist, there is an immense step backward, as well as forward—a retrogression to the Old Testament: yet not merely to rekindle the old light, but to kindle a new one by its flame.

That this may appear more clearly, we shall have to give a more detailed account than in the last Lecture of the Pseudepigraphic writings—describing their character, titles, and general contents.1

1. There cannot, I fear, be any doubt but that many works belonging to this class of literature have perished. It is natural to suppose that writings of this kind would exercise a peculiar fascination on many minds. They were about that future into which we so eagerly peer, and about Israel and its relation to those hateful dominant Gentiles, whose pride was so soon to be laid low. That future belonged to those Jewish readers, who were the ‘elect,’ and it was painted in such wondrous outline, and with such bright colouring. Even the mystical symbolism of the language and imagery was an additional charm. It implied a peculiar knowledge, which would form an inner select circle among the ‘elect,’ who would daily make proselytes, as they unfolded the wonders of their discoveries, or produced a new book—a rare acquisition in those days—or discussed the different interpretations offered.

But of all this literature only the following eight books have remained—none of them (as already stated) in Hebrew or Aramæan, and most of them only in first, or even second translation.

a. Probably the oldest of them is the so-called ‘Book of Enoch,’ numbering 108 chapters. It consists, besides a Prologue and an Epilogue, of five portions, giving an account of the fall of the angels, of Enoch’s rapt journeys through heaven and earth, together with certain apocalyptic portions about the Kingdom of Heaven and the Advent of the Messiah. The oldest part of it is supposed to date from about 150 B.C.; the second oldest from the time of Herod the Great; the date of the others cannot be fixed.

b. ‘The Sibylline Oracles,’ in Greek hexameters, consist in their present form of twelve books. They are full of interpolations—the really ancient portions forming part of the first two books, and the largest part of book 3 (vv 97-807). These sections are deeply imbued with the Messianic spirit. They date from about 140 before our era, while another small portion of the same book is supposed to date from the year 32 B.C.

c. The small collection known as the ‘Psalter of Solomon’ consists of eighteen Psalms, and probably dates from more than half a century before our era. The work, which I regard as fragmentary, breathes ardent Messianic expectancy.

d. ‘Little Genesis,’ or ‘The Book of Jubilees,’ dates probably from about the time of Christ. It is a kind of supplement to the Book of Genesis, and breathes a strong anti-Roman spirit.

e. From about the same time, or a little earlier, dates the so-called ‘Assumption of Moses’—unfortunately only a fragment of twelve chapters. It consists of an historical and an apocalyptic portion, and is strongly anti-Pharisaic in spirit, especially as regards purifications. This is very remarkable; nor is it less interesting to find that this is one of the works from which St. Jude quotes (v 9), the other being the Book of Enoch (vv 14, 15); and even more so, that St. Paul seems to have been familiar with it. His account of the corruptness of the men in ‘the last times’ (2 Tim 3:1-5) so clearly corresponds with that in the ‘Assumption of Moses’2 , that it is difficult to believe the language of the Apostle had not in part been borrowed from it.

f. and g. On the other hand, there are two of the Pseudepigrapha which bear evident reference to the writings of St. Paul. Both of them date after the destruction of Jerusalem; but ‘The Apocalypse of Baruch’ is probably older than 4 Esdras (our apocryphal 2 Esdras). The ‘Apocalypse of Baruch’ is also unfortunately not quite complete. It consists of eighty-seven chapters. Our interest is stirred by noticing how closely some of its teaching runs alongside that of St. Paul—either controversially, as in regard to the doctrine of justification; or conciliatorily and intermediately, as in regard to the consequences of the fall in original guilt; or imitatively, as in regard to the resurrection of the body. If the author of the ‘Apocalypse of Baruch’ must have read the Epistles of St. Paul to the Romans and the First to the Corinthians, the influence of Pauline teaching appears even more strongly, almost exaggeratedly, in the statements of 4 Esdras in regard to the fall and original sin.

h. Lastly among these works, we have to mention the so-called ‘Ascension and Vision of Isaiah,’ describing the martyrdom of the prophet, and containing certain Apocalyptic portions about what he saw in heaven. Although based on an older Jewish document, the book is chiefly of Christian heretical authorship.

2. Such are the monuments left us of the ancient Apocalyptic—or, as from their assumption of spurious authorship it is called, Pseudepigraphic—literature. Its interest is threefold. 1st. Historical. They set before us another direction than either in the Apocrypha or in Hellenism. As previously stated, the Apocrypha are either historical—including the legendary—or else philosophising. They carry us back to the glories of Judaism, or else seek to reconcile it with present thought and philosophy—which, indeed, is the final object of Hellenism. But this Apocalyptic literature represents a quite different tendency. It lays, so to speak, one hand on the Old Testament hope, while with the other it gropes after the fulfilment in that dim future, of which it seeks to pierce the gloom. 2ndly. The Pseudepigrapha are of theological interest, as showing what the Jews before and about the time of Christ—or at least one section of them—were expecting concerning the Messiah and Messianic times. One might indeed long to know something more of the personal views and feelings of yet another class—that represented in New Testament history by such names as Zacharias, Elizabeth, Anna, Simeon, and even Joseph and the Virgin Mother. But beyond the thought that their steadfast gaze was bent on the Eastern sky, where sure prophecy taught them that the Sun of Righteousness would rise, we have not the means of associating with them anything more definite than intense, simple, and receptive expectancy. 3rdly. Yet another, and only in one sense inferior, interest attaches to these writings. We may designate it as exegetical. For, if these books represent the symbolism and the form in which Apocalyptic thoughts presented themselves to a large portion of the Jewish people, it will readily be understood, that knowledge of it must also be of great importance in the study of the Apocalyptic portions of the New Testament—not, indeed, as regards the substance, but the form and imagery of them.

For our present argument, however, we only require to present a general account of the teaching of these writings concerning the Messiah, and the Messianic kingdom. Here we are not obliged to limit our review to such of them as are strictly pre-Christian, since the views on this subject entertained in the first century of our era could not have been materially different from those in the preceding century.3

1. As regards the promise of the Messiah. Here we turn in the first place, and with special interest, to the ‘Sibylline Oracles.’ In the third book of these, which (in such portions as I shall quote from) dates from about 140 B.C., the Messiah is described as ‘the King sent from heaven,’ who would ‘judge every man in blood and splendour of fire.’4 And the vision of Messianic times opens with a reference to ‘the King whom God will send from the Sun.’5 We cannot fail here to perceive a reference to Psalm 72*, especially as we remember that the Greek (LXX) rendering, which must have been present to the Hellenist Sibyl, fully adopted the Messianic application of the passage to a premundane Messiah. We also think of the picture drawn in the prophecies of Isaiah. According to the Sibylline books, King Messiah was not only to come, but He was to be specifically sent of God. He is supermundane, a King and a Judge of superhuman glory and splendour. And, indeed, that a superhuman kingdom, such as the Sibylline Oracles paint,6 should have a superhuman King, seems only a natural and necessary inference. One other remark—though somewhat aside from the subject—must be allowed. If, as certain modern critics contend, the Book of Daniel is not authentic, but dates from Maccabean times and refers to the Maccabees, it may well be asked to what king the Sibylline Oracles point, which certainly date from that period; and what is the relationship between the supposed Maccabean prophecies of the Book of Daniel, and the certainly Messianic anticipations of the undoubted literature of that period?

Even more distinct than the utterances of the Sibylline Oracles are those of the so- called ‘Book of Enoch,’ the oldest portion of which dates, as already stated, from about the year 150 B.C. Our difficulty here is, that a certain class of critics have, although I believe wrongly, assigned a portion of the book, which is full of the most interesting references to the Messiah as ‘the Woman’s Son,’ ‘the Son of Man,’ ‘the Elect,’ ‘the Just One,’ to Christian authorship and interpolation. In order not to occupy any controverted ground, I propose to omit all references to these portions. But even in the admittedly oldest part the Messiah is designated as ‘the Son of God,’7 not, indeed, in the Christian sense of Eternal Sonship, but as indicating superiority over all creatures; and this is further expressed by a symbolic description of the Messiah as He Whom ‘all the beasts of the field and all the fowls of heaven dread, and to Whom they cry at all times.’8

A still more emphatic testimony comes to us from the ‘Psalter of Solomon,’ which dates from more than half a century before Christ. The King who is to reign is described as of the house of David.9 He is the Son of David, Who comes, at a time known only to God, to reign over Israel. He is a righteous King, taught of God. He is Christ the Lord; He is pure from sin, and thus can rule His people, and banish His enemies by His Word. God renders Him strong in the Holy Ghost, wise in council, with might and righteousness. ‘This is the beauty of the King of Israel, Whom God hath chosen to set Him over the house of Israel to rule it.’ And yet we remember that no descendant of David was in view in those dark times.

2. I must be even more brief in my account of the teaching of the Pseudepigrapha about the blessedness which Israel would experience in Messianic days. In the Book of Enoch10 Israel is represented as in the Messianic days coming in carriages, and borne on the wings of the wind from East, and West, and South. Again, the Jewish Sibyl connects these three events: the coming of the Messiah, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the restoration of the Dispersed,11 when all nations would bring their wealth to the house of God.12 The Psalter of Solomon bursts into this strain: ‘Blessed are they who shall live in those days—in the reunion of the tribes which God brings about.’ Then ‘the King, the Son of David,’ having purged Jerusalem and destroyed the heathen, would by His Word gather together a holy people and rule over it with justice, and judge the tribes, allotting to them tribal possessions, when ‘no stranger would any longer dwell among them’ (Psa 17). In the ‘Book of Jubilees’ we are told, that God would gather all Israel ‘from the midst of the heathen, build among them His Sanctuary, and dwell with them.’ That Sanctuary was ‘to be for ever and ever,’ and God would appear in view of every one, and every one would acknowledge that He was ‘the God of Israel, and the Father of all the children of Jacob, and King upon Mount Zion from everlasting to everlasting.’13 We pause for a moment at these words of perhaps a contemporary of Christ, to realise what indignation it must have called forth in the hearts of those who expected all this, when the charge, however false, was spread that He Who professed to be the Messiah, but was really only the carpenter of Nazareth, had actually proposed to destroy the Temple, instead of bestowing upon it eternal glory.

On the utterances of the 4th Book of Esdras it is not necessary to speak at length, as the work forms part of our collection of Apocrypha. This only will we say, that if chapter 13.27-5014 is carefully examined, it will be seen how deeply tinged is the prophetic description which it contains with the teaching of the Gospels and the Words of our Lord concerning ‘the last things’—although, not as He put it, but in a Judaic form. In fact, it seems impossible to avoid the conclusion, that the writer had been acquainted with the Discourses about the ‘Last Things.’ The inference to which this leads as to the date of the Gospels of SS. Matthew and Luke need scarcely be indicated.

3. What has been said about the ‘Last Things’ reminds us of another point connected with the Messianic reign, to which these Pseudepigrapha refer. In common with all Jewish writings, they speak of a period of woe, commonly called the ‘Sorrows of the Messiah.’ This was to precede the Advent of the Christ. But it would not be difficult to point out the essential differences in regard to this between Jewish thinking and the Discourses of Christ on the subject, much misunderstood as they have been.

We can only notice the account given in the Pseudepigrapha of the ‘signs’ which were to usher in the Advent of the Messiah. Among these, the Sibylline Books mention a kind of warfare visibly going on in the air,15 swords in the starlit sky, the falling from it of dust, the extinction of the sun, and the dropping of blood from the rocks. In 4th Esdras16 we find the expression of distinctly Judaic views, although once more tinged by New Testament influence, especially as regards the moral aspect of these ‘signs.’ The Book of Jubilees17 gives a detailed description of the wickedness and physical distress then prevailing upon earth. According to the Sibylline Books,18 when these signs in air and sky would appear most fully, and the unburied bodies that covered the ground were devoured by birds and wild beasts, or swallowed up by the earth, God would send the King Who would put an end to all unrighteousness. After this would the last war against Jerusalem ensue, when God would fight from heaven against the nations, and they ultimately submit themselves to Him.19

Substantially the same views appear in the Book of Enoch expressed in symbolic language.20 We are told that, in the land, now restored to Israel, the Messiah-King would reign in a new Jerusalem, purified from all heathen elements, and transformed. That Jerusalem had been shown to Adam before his fall, but after that withdrawn, as well as Paradise. It had been again shown to Abraham, to Moses, and to Ezra. Its splendour baffled description. As regards the relation of the heathen nations to that kingdom, views differed according to the more or less Judaic standpoint of the writers. In the Book of Jubilees, Israel is promised possession of the whole earth, and ‘rule over all nations according to their pleasure.’ In the ‘Assumption of Moses’ this ascendancy of Israel is conjoined with vengeance upon Rome. On the other hand, in the Sibylline Oracles the nations are represented as, in view of the blessings upon Israel, turning to acknowledge God, when perfect mental enlightenment, absolute righteousness, as well as physical well-being, would prevail under the rule (literal or moral) of the Prophets. This, as we know, was the Hellenist Messianic ideal. Lastly—and this marks another point of divergence from the New Testament—the Pseudepigrapha uniformly represent the Messianic reign as eternal, and not broken by any apostasy. Then would the earth be renewed, and the Resurrection follow. The latter would, at least according to the Apocalypse of Baruch, be under the same conditions in which men had died, so as to prove that it was really a resurrection of the old. Only after that would the transformation of the risen take place—the just appearing in angelic splendour, while the wicked would fade away.

After this brief review, it will, I hope, be admitted that the evidence is complete of the existence of a Messianic hope during the interval between the close of the Canon and the coming of Christ—and this, alike in the Grecian and the Palestinian Jewish world. To say that it had grown out of Old Testament prophecy, and was intertwined with the life of the Jewish people, seems now only a truism. On the other hand, it must also be clear, that the Old Testament Messianic idea had undergone great, I had almost said terrible, modifications. As regards its form of presentation, it had become external and almost ossified. The figurative language of the Prophets had been perverted into a gross literalism, which gave its coloring to the picture of the Messiah and of His kingdom and reign. As regards the substance of the prophetic hope, we remark that there was not any enlargement, nor spiritual development, of the Old and preliminary dispensation, nor yet any reference to the new law to be written in the heart, and to the new spiritual blessings in forgiveness and righteousness. In short, we perceive not any outlook on a new state and condition of things: only an apotheosis of the old. The grand universalism, when all mankind would become children of the Heavenly Father, is lost behind a mere triumph of Judaism, thus giving place to an exclusive and narrow nationalism. Lastly, the moral elements regarding sin, repentance, spiritual preparation, and universal mercy—in short, the distinctively Christian and, we may add, eternal elements, are wanting. Not so did the Old Testament present the Messianic hope; not so could it have presented it as good tidings to all men.

Before proceeding to point to the period of fulfilment in Christ, we may here pause to mark the contrast between the Messianic idea, as presented in almost contemporary literature, and the preaching of the Baptist, and still more, that of the Christ Whom he announced. We think of that herald-voice in the wilderness calling to repentance and spiritual preparation; still more, of the Christ Himself, with the words, ‘Our Father’ ever on His lips; with the deeds of eternal compassion and eternal mercy ever in His life; with the love of absolute self-surrender and self-sacrifice in His death; and we realise this as the meaning and outcome of His Mission—that He has opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers. We think of His world-Mission and of the regeneration of man, and of His teaching to all mankind, whether Jews or Gentiles. We remember that, of the many hopes which He kindled, of the many expectations of which He brought the realisation, He, a Jew and the Jewish Messiah, was only silent on one, but this the only one which occupied His contemporaries—the glorification of Israel, and its exaltation. His kingdom was to be within the soul: of righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. Surely, this Christ, Whom the Gospels present to us—so Jewish, and yet so utterly un-Jewish—this King of Israel and Desire of all nations, was in very truth the fulfilment and the completion of the Old Testament promise—the Sent-of-God—not merely Jeshua, the Carpenter’s Son of Nazareth in Galilee, nor yet the outcome of the Messianic thoughts and expectancy of His time and of its conceptions. And as we realise the essential difference between this Christ of all humanity, Who meets the inmost wishes and the deepest craving of our hearts—and that of the Jewish ideal, we feel that both He and His teaching must have been of God.

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