Matthias Henze on Second Temple Literature and Messianism

I recently listened to the May 18th episode of The Bible for Normal People which featured an interview with Matthias Henze (PhD, Harvard University) on the subjects of Second Temple Judaism and the concept of the Messiah. This period of Jewish history is, unfortunately, often ignored by conservative readers of the Bible. And because the lens through which they view the New Testament writings is decidedly Nicene and Augustinian, they miss out on all the color, nuance, and diversity to be found in them. Reading through the literature of the Second Temple period helps us to appreciate all of this. As Henze puts it in the interview, 

To get a better understanding…of this Jewish world of Jesus, we need to read beyond the Bible. We need to turn to other Jewish texts of the time of the New Testament in order to get a fuller understanding of this world that the New Testament authors just take for granted.

One of the reasons that I think reading Second Temple texts is so important is because it reveals that, though the Jewish people were in virtual agreement about subjects like monotheism and the importance of the temple and Torah, they were free to disagree on a whole host of other matters. “That Judaism in the first century was far from a monolithic entity is evident from the divisions in Palestinian Judaism,” writes Everett Ferguson.[1] It is within this world that early Christianity emerged, not as a brand-new religious faith, but as a sect of Judaism. As such, it both agreed and disagreed with other Jewish sects. And apparently, one could even be a Pharisee and a Jesus follower! (Philippians 3:5) 

It is also important to read Second Temple literature because of the way those authors speak of messianic expectation. Far from expecting God in human form, the vast majority of Jews anticipated that the Messiah would be some kind of Davidic, conquering monarch who would overthrow the shackles of Gentile (i.e. Roman) dominion. Was this how Jesus’ first followers thought of him? Human, albeit an exalted one? I think so. Or, at least, this is how the Synoptic Gospels understand Jesus. 

[1] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), 480. 

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons

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