What kind of Messiah was Jesus?
Recently for a seminary class I had to describe the difference between “the Maccabean hope in a Messiah and Jesus’ fulfillment of that hope.”
Maccabean hope on first glance would appear to be a hope in military power. This poem at the beginning of 1 Maccabees 3, for example, extols Judas for his might (NETS translation):
And he spread glory to his people and put on a breastplate like a giant and strapped on his war instruments.
And he conducted battles, protecting the camp by the sword.
And he resembled a lion in his works and was like a whelp roaring in the hunt.
And seeking out the lawless, he persecuted them and burned up those who disturbed his people.
And the lawless drew back for fear of him, and all the workers of lawlessness were disturbed, and salvation was successful by his hand.
1 Maccabees closes similarly, in 16:23-24:
The rest of the acts of John and his wars and the brave deeds that he did, and the building of the walls that he completed, and his achievements, are written in the annals of his high priesthood, from the time that he became high priest after his father.
It is difficult not to read Maccabees as, in some sense, a narrative of one war after another. There was a Maccabean respect for leaders/priests who would lead them in battle. Certainly, then, the expectation of a Messiah would have been affected by this. “Maccabean hope” would have called for a Messiah to be a Jewish freedom fighter—in the militaristic sense of the word.
However, I think there is another, perhaps fuller way of understanding “Maccabean hope in a Messiah” that honors the author of 1 Maccabees and that book on its own terms. While a Maccabean hope certainly expected military might from a Messiah, Mattathias and his sons above all valued upholding the law. Their military resistance flowed from and was a result of that desire to keep the law.
1 Macc. 2:27 has, “And Mattathias cried out in the city with a loud voice, saying, Let everyone who is zealous in the law and is upholding the covenant follow me’” (my emphasis, from the NETS again). Only having established zealousness in the law did Mattathias and his family wage their series of wars. (Although these few verses are preceded in 2:24 by Mattathias killing a Judean man who was making a sacrifice that was not in accordance with the law!)
So, to try to read 1 Maccabees on its own terms, Maccabean hope in a Messiah must have been hope in a Messiah who was “zealous in the law” and who was “upholding the covenant.” Christians believe that Jesus was the perfect fulfillment of the law. But the descendants of the faithful Hasidim mentioned in Maccabees did not see it that way.
As I recently read through 1 Maccabees, I was surprised by how much anti-Gentile language and imagery there is in the book. In the institution of Hannukah at the end of 1 Macc. 4, to take just one example, there is a sense of fortifying the temple against the Gentile enemies.
I can appreciate the need for protection and purity–especially given how the temple had been profaned previously. This was truly a matter of life and death for God’s chosen people, physically and spiritually. But I wanted to say to the Maccabees’ author and the Maccabean family: With all due respect, what about all those verses in the prophets and other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures that say things like “nations will stream to your light” and “all nations will be blessed through you“?
Law-abiding Jews who were influenced by 1 Maccabees seem to have been expecting a Messiah who would clear the temple of the nations/Gentiles, as Judas Maccabeus did. Instead, Jesus reminded the Jewish people of their own Scriptures that said the temple was to be a house of prayer “for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7).
What kind of Messiah was he, then?
Jesus fulfilled his role as Messiah by being a conqueror, but not in an earthly, militaristic way. He fulfilled the law, but did not uphold it in a manner many had hoped for. And he drew all nations to himself, but in a way that angered anti-Gentile, exclusivist Jews.
A zealous Jewish freedom fighter? Yes. But not like Maccabees.