Prophecy and History
in Relation to the Messiah

The Warburton Lectures for 1880-1884

Alfred Edersheim



And now I stand here…for the hope of the promise made of God
unto our fathers; unto which promise our twelve tribes,
earnestly seeking God night and day, hope to attain. Acts 26:6.

It were a serious mistake to infer from the post-canonic literature, which we call the Apocrypha—the leading characteristics and contents of which have been briefly sketched in the previous Lecture—that the Messianic idea had died out in Israel after the close of the Old Testament Canon, or even that it had not existed, and indeed, constituted the very life of the nation. It is true that the Apocrypha preserve silence about the Person of the Messiah. But this, not because the Messianic idea was ignored, but because it was apprehended and presented in another form. It was now no longer the Person of the Messiah, but the Messianic times, which engaged the expectancy of the people. This, perhaps, partly from want of real faith in such a Person; partly, to avoid what might issue in politically dangerous movements. In part it may also have been due to the outward condition of Israel, alike in Palestine and in ’the Dispersion.’ The hope of the people may, in the pride of self-consciousness, have perhaps rested the more eagerly on the rapt visions of Israel’s future, as presented by the Prophets, that it stood in such felt painful contrast to a present, which depended on only brute material force, but could in no way be vindicated from the Divine, or absolute, point of view. But chiefly it also arose from this, that the altered aspect of Messianic expectancy was in accordance with the Hellenist spirit, which some of the Apocrypha represent, and from which scarcely any of them are wholly free. But, for all this change of form, the Messianic hope itself burned none the less brightly that it was concentrated on the Messianic times, when Israel’s enemies would be vanquished, and Israel’s day of glory arise—and when, so far as this was possible, Israel’s blessings would be shared by the nations, although in vassalage to the chosen people. I have called attention to the marked anti-heathen element in the Apocrypha. In measure, it was also necessarily an anti-Gentile element, and it gave its colouring to the Messianic idea. The Messiah was no longer a Prince of peace and the Reconciler of the world. The Messianic times were still those of ‘the kingdom’—but of one of conquest, of the reinstatement and triumph of Israel, and of the subjection of the Gentile world. And the more we consider the condition of things, the less shall we wonder that a people which had grown unspiritual should, in the pride of their religious superiority, have no longer dwelt on the Messianic aspect so constantly presented by the Prophets, and, instead of it, accentuated that prophetic future which they now interpreted as belonging to Israel after the flesh, not to the world. The difference between the Messianic hope of the Old Testament and of the later time was that between the utterances of inspired men who spoke the message of God, and uninspired men who spoke of it with the feelings of personal injury burning in their hearts, and the thoughts of the times dominating and moulding the expression of their views. It was still ‘the kingdom’—but Judaic, not universalistic: the beginning of that, which was afterwards developed by Rabbinism to all its sequences.

Thus viewed, the Messianic idea underlies all the Apocrypha. Nay, it is found, though in highly elevated, not materialistic, form, even in the extreme representative of Hellenism—Philo—as much as in the utterances of the most bigoted Rabbis. In their realistic mode of viewing, and their Oriental manner of expressing, it, the Rabbis said, that in Messianic days the wheat would grow in Palestine to the height of palm-trees, and that a Jerusalem would rise with walls of gold and precious stones, and in which all manner of jewels would be strewed about for the use of every Israelite; that this new Jerusalem would be wide as all Palestine, and Palestine as all the world, while the Holy City would be the capital of all nations. But, after all, the underlying idea—although in a materialistic form, suited to their standpoint and training—was the same which, not only the Apocrypha (Tob. 13:16-18), but Philo wished, in elevated and philosophic manner, to convey when he described that future, in which all Israel—or perhaps all who owned Israel’s Law—would be suddenly converted to virtue. Upon this their masters, ashamed to hold those in bondage who were so much better than themselves, would release them. Then would all the banished be freed in one day, and, as by one impulse, ‘the dispersed’ throughout the world would assemble, and return to Palestine, led by a Divine, superhuman apparition, invisible to others, but visible to themselves. In Palestine the waste places and the wilderness would be inhabited, and the barren land transformed into fruitfulness.1 And in another treatise,2 Philo speaks of that happy time in a manner peculiar to himself. The happier moral condition of man would ultimately affect the wild beasts, which, relinquishing their solitary habits, would first become gregarious; then, imitating the domestic animals, gradually come to respect man as their master, nay, become as affectionate and cheerful as ‘Maltese dogs.’ This is evidently an anticipation of the literal fulfilment of the Isaiah prophecy about the wolf and the lamb dwelling together. All this would react on the condition of man. There would be universal peace through the subdual of all enemies—of some in supernatural manner, anticipated in a realistic form (by divinely sent swarms of hornets)—and extraordinary wealth, health, and vigour would be the boon of Messianic times. Thus, strictly viewed, there was really not an absolute gulf between the realism of the Rabbis and the most advanced of philosophising Hellenists. And, indeed, it might be argued that the Rabbis had only intended to make use of symbolic language, but meant no more by it than Philo—although it seems difficult to suppose that, in the expectancy of the unlettered masses, the descriptions of the Messianic bliss would be taken otherwise than literally. And such was the spell of the Messianic idea, such the hold it had upon the genius and life of the Jewish nation, that—as we have seen—even so unscrupulously selfish a writer as Josephus could not suppress an reference to it—and this, in works intended for his Roman masters.

And how could it be otherwise? The Jew must cease to be a Jew—in any other than the negative sense of opposition to other creeds—if he gives up the Messianic hope which is the central idea of his religion. In this aspect of it, the Messianic application of Genesis 49:10 seems a priori established and incontestable. The sceptre could not depart from Judah, nor the staff of command from between his feet before, nor yet could they remain after, the willing obedience of the nations to God. The particular must then give place to the general; the national to the universal. This, and nothing else, is of God. We have followed the history of the great promise through its stages of inception, presentation, and development, till it had reached its largest circumference, when the kingdom of God was shown to be the world-monarchy, with outlook upon the Great Throne, the judgment of the Ancient of Days, and the coming of the Son of Man. Then the period of promise had run its course, and merged into that of expectancy.

That period really commenced with the Babylonish captivity. It seems difficult fully to realise the changes wrought during its course. In the round numbers of prophetic language, we call it the seventy years’ captivity. But it was both of longer and shorter duration than this. From the deportation of the ten tribes, after the destruction of Samaria in 721 B.C., one hundred and eighty-five years elapsed to the decree of Cyrus, about 536 B.C. The first taking of Jerusalem by the Chaldees and the deportation of Joiachim and of a number of the Jews took place in 598 B.C., that is, sixty-two years before the decree of Cyrus; the second taking of Jerusalem, the death of Zedekiah, and the second deportation of Jews, in 588, that is, fifty-two years before the decree of Cyrus; and, lastly, the final deportation of the Jews dates from the year 584 B.C., or forty-eight years before Cyrus. But even as regards the longest of these periods, that of sixty-two years, the change which Israel underwent seems disproportionate to the time—especially as we remember that, with the cessation of the Temple-services, the main institutions of the Mosaic religion had become impossible. We can only conjecture that the exiles from Judah may have found in the land of their captivity new religious institutions, which had been established, or at least commenced, by the earlier exiles under prophetic direction, and that these institutions proved capable of adaptation to the religious wants of the people. At the same time the former temptations to idolatry were not only removed by the Exile, but the new circumstances in which Israel found themselves, the sufferings of banishment, and the longing for their own land and the services of their beautiful Sanctuary, which would be kindled, together with what they witnessed around—all this would crush and wholly remove any leaning towards that great national sin, which had brought on them such Divine judgment. This course of things seems at least much more likely than the theory that the Jews, who were deported in a state of idolatrous apostacy, had derived from Babylon so many entirely new elements of their religion. If a real change, and not a revival of the old, had taken place, we should have expected it in another direction; and post exilian Judaism would have been very different from that rigid Monotheism and purism which we find alike in the Pentateuch and in the practice of those who returned into Palestine.

But, in the nature of them, these can be only conjectures. For silence and darkness rest upon the period of the Exile. The bands of exiles disappear in the vast Assyrian empire, and though we hear echoes of the prophets’ voices from the banks of its rivers, and distant dirges of psalmody from harps that had been hung on their willows, we know absolutely nothing of the people itself. When after the dark night morning once more breaks, we perceive, as the mist gradually lifts from valley and hillside, new forms and scenes. Only a small part of the nation—and that chiefly the poorest and least advanced, though religiously the most earnest—has returned, and on those who have remained behind, the mist has again fallen for a time. And they who have returned seem quite other than those who had gone into exile. Not only has every trace of idolatry disappeared, but a fresh, and almost a formative, religious activity has sprung up. The Canon of Scripture is revised and completed; the old institutions are adapted to the new circumstances. Yet so far from any alteration even in the letter of the old, it is developed to the uttermost, and enforced with a rigour that knows no mercy. And a new national life has also commenced—not under the rule of the house of David, to which, despite the intenseness of national feeling, it bore no longer any relationship. This new life fundamentally differed, in one aspect, from that before the Exile, when, speaking generally, religion was dominated by political considerations, whereas political considerations were now dominated by religion. That which then opened was, if I may make the comparison, a kind of Old Testament Puritan period, or rather a Judæan Covenanter period: so truly does history repeat itself in its fundamental tendencies. Those early ‘Nationalists,’ who resisted the foreigner, and ultimately gathered around the Judæan Martel—the ‘hammer of God’—Judas the Maccabee, were the Chasidim, or ‘pious ones.’ Intensely religious, intensely Judæan also, they forsook the Maccabees when the religious element receded behind the political, even though the latter was Judæan. And increasingly they went into opposition to their Jewish rulers, till, at last, forsaking or despairing of the national aspect of their cause, they became only a religious party,—the Pharisees. But, after this religious secession, there still remained a strictly ‘Nationalist’ party. Its adherents obeyed, indeed, the religious direction and ordinances of the Pharisees, but they refused to be confined within the bounds of a purely religious sect, and cherished other and wider aims. It is true that this party afterwards, when driven to bay, ran into wild excesses, and during the last siege of Jerusalem into a kind of fanatical Robespierreism. Josephus, through whose representations, or rather misrepresentations, we chiefly know them, was utterly incapable of sympathising with their loftier ideas, and he denounced them as robbers and sicarii. Still, they represented, although in grievously perverted form, much of what was noblest in the national and religious aspirations of Israel. Of this there is evidence even in the circumstance, that in the immediate family circle of our Lord, and among His earliest followers, there were those who had belonged to the nationalist party. Thus to some at least, perhaps to many, in Palestine the nationalist direction was, what Hellenism afterwards became to so many in the West: a schoolmaster unto Christ. We recall here the name of Simon Zelotes, the Cananean, who evidently had been a member of the Nationalist party; and that of Jude, the brother of our Lord, in so far as his general epistle contains one, or more probably two, quotations from that class of writings known as the Pseudepigrapha, which seem to be, in one direction, closely connected with the nationalist movement, or rather with the spirit which underlay it.

To this class of religious literature, and to the tendencies which it represents, viewed in connection with the history of Israel, our attention must now be directed,—in the present Lecture, in only a general manner. The Pseudepigraphic writings represent a peculiar phase in Jewish religious thinking. They express the Messianic hope in its intensest, as well as its most external—I had almost said, realistic—form. They differ in their direction from Pharisaism with its worship of the letter, as issuing in Traditionalism and Rabbinism, as widely, as from the reaction against it in rationalising and supercilious Sadduceeism. Nor have they anything in common with the partly mystical, partly Parsee direction of Essenism, which, in one aspect of it, might almost be designated as a Judæan Stoicism. But the element most closely kindred to the Pseudepigraphic writings is that which is presented by the nationalist movement; perhaps we might rather have said, in the nationalist direction. For its deepest underlying thought was, that Palestine was the land of God, and Israel the people of God; that Jehovah, and Jehovah alone, was King; that His was the sole universal kingdom, against which those outside Israel were in high-handed rebellion. All else—even their excesses—were their inferences from this fundamental position. It will be perceived that this thought lies very close to that idea which formed the foundation of our Lord’s teaching and mission—the kingdom of God; or, to put it more specifically, the sole Kingship of our Father in Heaven. Only, the Nationalists of Palestine, like the Roundheads or the Scottish Covenanters of our own history, would have made it an outward reality by means of the sword, and have upheld it by the sword. They would have hewn its way through all opposition, and, if need were, written their own formula of that kingdom in letters of blood on the eternal rocks of history and in the inmost shrine of their sanctuary. But, according to the Word of the Lord, which, in this respect also, is significant in regard to this movement: taking the sword, they perished by the sword. Not so did the God-sent Christ understand, nor yet would He so establish the kingdom of His Father in Heaven. Christ was King—but as meek and lowly, and as, symbolically, making His Royal entry into Jerusalem riding on an ass, the foal of an ass. In view of the opposition of a hostile world, He also must found His kingdom in blood—but in His own Blood, which His enemies shed; not in theirs, which He shed. He also must conquer all enemies, and subdue them to His kingdom; yet not by outward means, but by the moral power of the Truth, and by the constraining influence of His Spirit, working inward and willing submission. His kingdom was not of this world; therefore did His followers not fight for it. The true kingdom of God was within: it was righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. Such was the Christ, as presented in the Gospels.

We pause to mark the historical contact with—and in this, all the more, the contrast to—the men and parties of His time. In its highest aspirations, the Nationalist movement stood perhaps nearest to the fundamental thought of Christ’s mission. Yet, as regards the direction and expression of that thought, it was in absolute contrast to Him. Similarly, His teaching embraced, in its absolute reverence for, and implicit obedience to, the Law, all that was ideally and potentially highest in the direction of Pharisaism. Yet it was in fundamental opposition to the false and unspiritual direction of the Pharisees, in their worship of the letter and bondage of externalism. Or, to pass to the other pole—wide as were the sympathies of Christ, and absolute as was the emancipation from the rule of man, and the liberty of the individual, which He proclaimed, yet His were principles of positive freedom in inward subjection to God, not of mere opposition and negation, such as found expression in the gainsaying, the indifferentism, and the superciliousness of the Sadducees. And, again, in the guardianship of the Sanctuary of the Soul, in its consecration to God, in the avoidance of all that defiled it, or hindered its aspirations and communing with God, in contempt of the world and renunciation of its attractions, Christ touched all that was true and high in Essenism. Yet He was at infinite distance from its foreign and heathen elements, its mysticism, and depreciation of matter, associated as this was with materialistic views of the soul and of all good. His was another way to purity and God-fellowship than theirs; His, other views of the body and of matter: not its contempt, but its God-consecration. And as we thus view the historical Christ—the unlettered carpenter’s Son from far-off Nazareth—it is surely impossible not to recognise the transcendent greatness of that contest for the ideal which He sustained, untainted by the thoughts of His time, uninfluenced by its motives and ambitions, undeterred by its threats and torture—pure, holy, and spiritual. And so all ages look up to the absolute light, the infinite loneliness, the unspeakable grandeur of His Divine Majesty.

But to the Nationalist, as we have learned to know him, every embodiment, every outward manifestation of what contravened his deepest idea and highest ideal, was absolutely intolerable. What business had the Roman in Palestine; how dared the idolater profane by his presence the sacred soil that was God’s; how could he claim to rule the people, whose sole King was the Jehovah of the mighty Arm and outstretched Hand, that erst had cloven the sea, and Whose breath would subdue nations under Him? Even to admit it as a fact, nay, to tolerate it, was an act of unfaithfulness to God, of deep unbelief, of apostacy. So patriotism and religion—both in abnormal forms—mingled. They whetted their daggers to the sound of psalms, and sharpened their swords to the martial music of prophetic utterances, which to them seemed only denunciations and imprecations on the enemy. And they laid them down to dream in those Apocalyptic visions, which form the subject-matter of so much in the Pseudepigraphic writings.

To be sure, these were the visions of Latter-Day Prophets, not the deeds of the men of action. But the Nationalists sought, in their own rough way, to translate them into history. Yet they contained much besides that which these men heard in them. For, in some respect, the nationalist idea had burned deep into the soul of the Jewish people. In one sense, every true Jew was a Nationalist, and could not help being such, so long as he was a Jew. Nay, it clung to him with all the instincts of centuries of descent, and hereditary disposition; with all the remembrances of his upbringing and surroundings; and with all the latent enthusiasm of his Eastern and Jewish nature—and that, even if he tried to shake off his Judaism. We see it in that knotty problem, which gave every Jew a pang of conscience: whether it was lawful to pay tribute unto Cæsar; we hear it in the proud answer with which they would fain have silenced themselves as well as Christ: ‘We be Abraham’s children, and have not been in bondage to any man.’ Nay, so mighty was it, that St. Paul, appealing from argument to the irrepressible voice of the heart, could, in a Roman assembly and in presence of the Procurator himself, appeal to that Romanised voluptuary, Agrippa, and his un-Jewish sister Berenice, in such words as these concerning the great common hope: ‘King Agrippa, believest thou the Scriptures? I know that thou believest!’

It was this deeper appeal to the Scriptures, or rather to the great Messianic hope contained in them, which in these Apocalyptic Pseudepigrapha presented an element, that found a response in many that were quiet in Israel, and also in some measure kept before their minds the great hope of the future, as so-called Millenarian books do in our generation. Just as many a one must have listened to the stern preaching of the Puritan in his conventicle, or of the Covenanter on the hill-side, who yet would not have sent a Roundhead to battle nor a claymore to the field—even although their hearts might beat faster, and their cheeks flush, at the tale of their deeds; so were there many in Israel—under the shadow of its glorious Temple, in the lonely towns of the Judæan wilderness, and in the far-off places of Galilee—to whom these Apocalyptic visions would bring thoughts, remembrances, hopes of the Messiah and the Messianic Day: of Israel’s deliverance, of God’s reign, and of the conversion of the world. And all the more dangerous might such thoughts become from their conjunction with Nationalist aims and deeds. Thus we can perceive a new meaning in, and an absolute and pressing need for, the warnings contained in the last Discourses of Jesus about the danger of false Christs. And so the Nationalists, in the frenzy of their despair, plunged with the one hand the dagger in the hearts of supposed ‘trimmers,’ ‘backsliders,’ and secret enemies of God—whose very existence and presence among them turned aside the interposition of the Lord—while they lifted the other hand on high, appealing to, and expecting at every moment, the visible help of the God of Israel, Who would rive the heavens, and in some terrible catastrophe annihilate the enemy in the very hour of his triumph and pride. But mark the contrast. In the same hour did the Disciples, who so well knew how stedfastly to believe and calmly to die, warned and directed by Christ, withdraw from the doomed City to the quietness and retirement of Pella. And there and then, in the orderly course of God’s trackless Providence, was that effected which, if it had been done immediately after the Death of Christ, would have been a violent and dangerous disruption; but which was now a peaceful, natural, and necessary separation of the Church of the New Testament from the ancient Synagogue. And this also was of God—and is to us evidential of the Mission of His Christ.

What has been stated will in measure explain the object and the subject-matter of the so-called Pseudepigraphic writings. They take up, and further develop in a peculiar direction, the predictions of the Old Testament; they present them in visions of the future, shaped in that peculiar imagery and language which we call Apocalyptic; and they do so, not as the outcome of the inferences or speculations of their writers, but as bringing direct communications from Heaven, connected with such names as Enoch, Moses, Isaiah, Baruch, or Solomon. This, however, with notable exceptions; since perhaps the most interesting of these books is that which embodies the so-called Sibylline Oracles.

This describes one aspect of these writings. Another, is their intensely Jewish character—not merely as setting forth the advantages and the future bliss of Israel, but in their references to the nations of the world: either hortatory, we might almost call it missionary, or else denunciatory; sometimes scornful, but always triumphant in tone. There are other tendencies, and of a party character, in these writings—mostly, as it seems to me, in opposition to the Pharisaic direction. Some of them are certainly of Hellenist origin—that is, they were the work not only of Western Jews, but are the outcome of Hellenist thought. But even those which may be regarded as springing from the soil of Palestine, have not a Pharisaic cast. On the contrary, they all breathe, more or less, the new spirit. This is very remarkable, and further bears witness to what has already been stated as important in the study of the origines of Christianity: that, with all its parade and pomp of Messianic assertion, Traditionalism and Rabbinism had no heart for, and very little sympathy with, the great Messianic hope of Israel. Theirs was another and, in many respects, antagonistic direction, in which the Messiah could only bear the part of a political deliverer. Yet another noteworthy point, of a different character, may here be mentioned. All the canonical books of the Old Testament have come down to us in Hebrew or Chaldee. But, as in the case of the Apocrypha, none of the Pseudepigraphic writings have been preserved in that language, although some of them were no doubt written in the tongue of Palestine. We have them either in the Greek, or else in Ethiopic, in Latin, or other version. This also forms a line of demarcation, not to be quite ignored by those who would dispute the canonicity of some of the Old Testament writings.

The Pseudepigraphic writings cover the period from about 170 before, to about 90 after Christ. Those preserved to us are eight in number: The Book of Enoch, the Sibylline Oracles, the Psalter of Solomon, Little Genesis, 4th Esdras (our 2nd Esdras), the Ascension and Vision of Isaiah, the Assumption of Moses, and the Apocalypse of Baruch. Although, in their present form, some of them contain interpolated portions of a much later date, they are all deeply interesting and instructive. For, first, they give us an insight into the thoughts and expectations of the time—away from Pharisaism, Sadduceeism, and Essenism. Secondly, they present to us the continuance of the great Messianic hope. If certain of the Apocrypha, such as the story of the Maccabees or of Judith, would to the old Jewish world have been what Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’ is to many of us, some of those visions of Israel and of the kingdom may have been eagerly read in Israel as a kind of apocalyptic ‘Pilgrim’s Progress.’ We can imagine a Nationalist poring, with burning cheeks, over these visions and predictions; or some in the far-off lands of the Dispersion dwelling with intense delight on what presented such a blessed contrast to all they saw, and were constrained to experience, in the heathen world around. But our thoughts ever recur to those quiet, deeply pious ones on Palestine’s sacred soil, who may have thought with rapt anticipation of the prophetic truths which these works recalled, and the happy possibilities which they suggested. We know that an Apostle quotes from two of these writings—the Book of Enoch (Jude v 14,15) and the Assumption of Moses (Jude v 9). And it awakens a scarcely less deep interest to find, that such of the Pseudepigraphic writings as date after Christ bear evident mark of St. Paul’s influence, and this, notwithstanding their own decided anti-Christian tendency.

But what, above all else, appeals to us, is the picture of the messiah and of the Messianic kingdom which these works present. To this our attention must next be directed—as also to the relation which the Pseudepigrapha bear, on the one hand, to the prophecies of the Old Testament, and, on the other, to the reality, as first heralded by the Baptist, and then fully set forth in Christ.

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