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by Dr. Keith Megilligan
Messianism thrives on suffering. Abba Hillel Silver
The Jews of history anticipated the coming of the Messiah with various historical “triggers” which set off calculations as to when the Messiah’s return would be or could be expected. In fact, those rabbis and sages of Jewish tradition who entertained such calculations have come to be known as the “calculators.” “These calculators sought, and apparently found, support in the Bible…All the ingenuity of rabbinic method in hermeneutics [the science and art of interpretation] and homiletics [the science and art of preaching] was therefore brought into play, and words, and phrases and letters, vowels, accents and tropes, and all the mystic science of letter and numeral were marshaled into service,” (Abba Hillel Silver). Nonetheless, any calculations regarding the specific hour of the Messiah’s return are found wanting in Jewish writings.
The history of Messianism among the Jews has pre-Christian origins. Both biblical and apocryphal writings are quoted by Jewish writers with claims to Messianic prophecies. But the first century, especially just before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70 AD), “witnessed a remarkable outburst of Messianic emotionalism,” A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel: From the First through the Seventeenth Centuries, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver. A common thread among the surges in Messianic thought and expectation down through the centuries were periods of persecution, suffering and difficulties that impacted the Jewish communities throughout the world. Silver, as quoted above, refers to these melancholic periods as “Messianic emotionalism.” Realistically, though these periods hit various pockets of Jewish communities throughout the world, “Messianic emotionalism” gave Jews hope, even if for a brief period. Their focus was shifted from their stress and difficulties to their promised Messiah and the relief that he would bring them.
From a Christian perspective, this outburst of Messianic prophecies just before the destruction of the Temple is understandable. Those Jews whose heightened expectations for the Messiah’s coming was already at fever pitch because of Roman oppression gained new impetus with the advent of the young rabbi from Nazareth. His preaching, teaching and prophetic insight(s) stirred the crowd with great messianic fervor, and provoked his enemies to have him put to death, John 11:45-53. But not only New Testament texts refer to Jesus’ messianic claim, but Josephus also makes reference to a Messiah in the context of the period of the Millennium being ushered in. So beyond the periods of oppression that spurred Messianic thinking, the concept of Millennium was also part of the “formulaic” thinking that Jews would entertain for the desired coming of the Messiah
From the period of the development of the Talmud to the period of Mohamed (roughly ~200 AD to ~650 AD) there were a variety of rabbis and learned Jewish scholars who believed that the “days of Messiah” had come, were coming, etc. These various men developed various time tables and calculations to arrive at the time for the Messiah. Typically, and this would be true during any period in Jewish history, there would need to be a revision of the time table as successive prognostications would become unfilled and the next generation of rabbis would derive new time parameters. And so it would be for the calculators of any period: from the 7th century into the 17th century.
The calculators were sincerely trying to establish the time and platform for the “days of the Messiah” and as such, their spiritual level of interest would vary according to their personal intensity of spirituality. That being said, the extreme or “profound” portion of the spiritual spectrum was impacted many times by Kabbalism.
Kabbalism has roots that date from the second/third century AD – or the 11th century AD, depending! The reason for the difference is the decision you make as to who wrote the Zohar, a somewhat mystical and “spiritual” commentary on the law. It contains teaching on all the 125 degrees of a spiritual ladder that one might experience in his personal journey in life (more precisely the degrees that one travels back to the origin of one’s soul). The original author (Rabbi Rashbi) wrote the book in the second/third century; the work remained “hidden” for 900 years when it was “rediscovered.” Then in the sixteenth century Rabbi Luria opened up the Zohar and Kabbalic teaching for everyone. Thus, when you consider Kabbalism, you’re pondering the mystical understanding of the law and how it impacts your life. Most Jews would consider Kabbalic thinking outside the framework of normal Jewish teaching. However, many, certainly not all, of Jewish thinkers and authors through the centuries who commented on the “days of Messiah” evidenced mystical if not Kabbalic thought in their teaching.
For example, the thirteenth century became a high water mark of sorts for Messianism. The previous century or two of Jewish history within Europe had been brutal. They were victimized socially, ethnically and racially. They were persecuted at every turn; blamed for everything from economic and social upheaval to the origin of the plague. They fled Western Europe and migrated to Eastern Europe. Their intense suffering encouraged, once again, a renewed quest for the Messiah and the Millennium. Along with this quest was an avid association with Kaballism.
Rationalistic thought was on the way out. Mystical thinking, poetry and Talmudic literature was on the rise, including a considerable launching of Kabbalic thinking. Perhaps the greatest mind in Jewish history, Maimonides, 1135-1204 AD, who was known for his rationalistic thinking, had been dismissed. Replacing him were men known more for philosophical and speculative thinking. “The period is rich in Messianic speculation,” (Silver). Pseudo-messiah’s came to the forefront under the influence of Kabbalic thinking and exegesis: numerical and literal mysticism were prominent. Again, as the Jewish people suffered, their thoughts turned longingly to Messianism. Sadly, whether the calculators used the Scriptures or the Zohar, they not only came to varied conclusions but also left the Jewish communities dissatisfied and confused.
Reformation to Today
As the period of the Reformation opens, Messianism and in particular Millennialism come to the forefront in both Jewish and “protestant” minds. Jews (and Christians) had just witnessed a period of expulsions and suffering (Spain, Portugal and Germany). In Italy living conditions for Jews deteriorated with the advent of ghettos. Since suffering for Jews was again intense in much of Europe, thoughts turned to relief and Messianic hope. Confusion and despair were abundant. Political and religious schisms likewise added to the frustrating populace of many countries. Christianity was going through a split (Catholicism vs. the various reformers considered protesters or protestants). The 16th century was a period of being overrun by followers of Islam. Turmoil: religious, political and national was rampant.
Jewish thought and writers of this period evidenced a belief that with the split of Christendom, the rise of the Turks overrunning Europe and the renewed interest in Millennialism, it “…led many to feel that they were actually living in the period of the great denouement of the Messianic drama,” (Silver).
Together with the instability of Europe came the excitement of the discovery of the New World. This brought with it a renewed fervor of interest in the lost ten tribes of Israel. Perhaps the New World would be the place of the ten tribe’s relocation (!). This concept received serious review by several Jewish writers of the time – however, they squelched the frivolous rumors of such thinking. Instead they pointed back to Palestine (Israel) as the resting place for the lost tribes. Some of that thinking was based upon an examination of Deuteronomy 30:3, where Moses shows that God promises to return the captives back to the Land. Messianic calculators contributed to the prophetic expectations of the time. The primary contributor was Issac Abarbanel who wrote three significant pieces: The Wells of Salvation, The Salvation of His Anointed, and Announcing Salvation. These works were reflections on the book of Daniel, Talmudic Messianic prophecies, and biblical Messianic prophecies (other than Daniel), (Silver). These works stand out as the highlight of Jewish literature and thinking of the 16th century on Messianic and Millennial themes.
Moving to the 17th century brings with it continued Messianic fervor. As Silver writes, “Messianic speculation suffered no abatement in the seventeenth century. This century also witnessed its most tragic consequences.” The year 1648 was the much anticipated year of Messianic climax taught in the Zohar. Rabbis throughout Judaism called for prayers to be recited twice a day by Jews everywhere, “…asking for the restoration of the Kingdom of David and for the remission of the travail pangs of the Messianic times,” (Silver). Accompanying the prayers were pamphlets calling for repentance, anticipating the great day of the coming of the Messiah. All of Europe suffered during the 17th century (30 Years War and Cossack Rebellion are two examples), but the Jews suffered the most. Their communities, peoples and possessions were ravaged. Both the Germanic and Polish Jews suffered greatly. All of this laid open an increasing desire for Messianic and Millennial dreams. The result was that most Jews (especially Polish Jews) turned to the mystical for comfort – the Kabbalah was restored to prominence and everyone began reading it. Messianic hopes were renewed.
There was also a partial theological melding of Jewish and Christian minds in the 17th century. There were certain mystical Jews and Christians who were looking for the Messiah. The former were looking for his first appearing, the latter for his second. But the Christians (those mostly under the influence of mystical writers like Jacob Boehme) were calling for Jews to recognize Christ as their Messiah and look for Him to return. Those who followed Boehme’s teaching were “exceedingly” friendly toward the Jews. From their point of view, “The return of the Jews to the Holy Land and their conversion to the faith in Christ was dogmatically inseparable from the second coming of Christ and the establishment of his kingdom,” (Silver). Jewish and Christian scholars of this time reached out to each other, sharing their mystical and apocalyptic hopes. There were, of course, opposing or at least differing views between the camps: Jews resisting conversion to Christianity and Christians allowing esoteric conclusions to cloud their theology/eschatology. Theme and variation on these patterns have existed down to today.
The Biblical View
So what about today? Where does all this history leave us? To be sure, if you are a biblicist, things like the Zohar or even Talmudic thinking do not appeal to you. If you are a Jew, you still may be on the outside looking in at a Kabbalic view of Judaism and Messianism – too much mysticism. No matter Christian or Jew, messianic and millennial considerations and conclusions need to be founded upon the Word of God.
Rabbi Shmuel Boteach in 1993 wrote, “Contemporary Jewish society treats the concept of Messiah with much apprehension.” Will Varner in 2004, in his book, The Messiah: Revealed, Rejected, Received, wrote, “It is a sad fact to acknowledge that the ‘church’ has often been the biggest barrier between Jesus and Jewish people.” These two men write from opposite ends of the theological spectrum. On the one hand, they each show the conundrum of introducing the biblical Messiah to our Jewish friends. On the other hand, they also speak to the need for clarity on understanding who that Messiah is. While the Christian who loves the Lord, His Word and His people will undoubtedly come to the conclusion that Jesus is indeed the Messiah of Israel (with Scriptural passages like Isaiah 53 for support), his Jewish friends will stumble over that very conclusion.
In recent times, Jewish expectations regarding the coming of Messiah among “religious” (Orthodox) Jews has been increasing. Varner points out that the anticipation of the coming Messiah has been added to the list of mitzvah (good deeds) that Jews should practice: “if performed faithfully, will hasten the coming of the Messiah—that of settling the land of Israel.” Varner demonstrates that the fervor over the establishing of the modern State of Israel has added to this expectancy. Certain “faithful” groups of Jews have settled in the Land promoting the coming of the Messiah. While their desire and teaching is significant, they have failed to see the biblical evidence that Messiah has already come!
There is yet another group of Jews in Israel today who do wait expectantly for the return of the Messiah. As Varner observes, “A generation ago there were only a handful of assemblies in Israel composed of Jewish believers in Yeshua Hamashiach (Jesus the Messiah).” According to Kehila News Israel: Messianic Community News from Israel (2015), there are presently 221 Messianic congregations in Israel.
The question of our Jewish friends accepting Jesus as their Messiah and redeemer is the heart of Jewish evangelism. Though the history of the Jew in anticipation of their Messiah has been marked with suffering (and will continue that way till Messiah returns [cf. Zechariah 12]), there is still hope for individual Jews to receive their Messiah today! Christian, study to show yourself approved in this matter! The hope of eternal life for your Jewish friends is waiting for your witness to them of the marvelous truth that Messiah has come. His name is Jesus!