Around 1000 B.C.E., a king named David came to the throne of Israel, inheriting a kingdom that had been united by his predecessor from the lands conquered by the Jews of the exodus era. He moved his capital from the Judean town of Hebron to the nearby city of Jerusalem, which he conquered from a Canaanite tribe called the Jebusites. Prior to this time, Jerusalem had been the untouchable pearl of the area, perched unassailably atop a hillside, where it easily gained notoriety as a heavenly city, built literally (as far as the ancient Jews were concerned) right beneath the base of heaven.
One can almost imagine the early Jews looking toward Jerusalem from their capital city of Hebron and marveling at its glory, up there on the hillside, illuminated each evening by the long rays of the setting sun. It is little wonder that they wanted it for themselves. King David helped them achieve this goal, and Jerusalem has been at the center of Jewish culture ever since. Its location and mythological aura helped create such New Testament images as the “New Jerusalem” which would “descend from heaven” at the second coming. Jerusalem had been overrun and largely destroyed around 70 C.E., and the writer of Revelation envisioned Jesus returning in glory to earth to re-establish Jerusalem as the city of God.
After King David came to the throne, the kingdom of Israel flourished for another 70 years or so, through the reign of his son Solomon, until geographic differences caused a split which resulted in the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Over the next several hundred years, Judah – with its capital city of Jerusalem – flourished while its northern neighbor struggled and eventually declined. The kingdom of Israel was overrun and ultimately destroyed around 720 B.C.E. by the Assyrians. Judah, however, continued on until roughly 590 B.C.E., when it was overrun in a series of attacks by the Babylonians. The Judeans were deported and sent into exile in Babylon while their kingdom and their capital city of Jerusalem sat in ruins, overrun by foreigners.
The Jews remained in exile for roughly 40-50 years, or two generations. During that time, the first nuggets of the messiah tradition began to develop. The Jews envisioned a son of God arising from the Jewish ranks to return the Jews to Davidic glory. To the ancient Jew, “son of God” did not mean someone who was literally the divine offspring of God. Rather, it was a term used to describe the king of Judah or Israel, that is, God’s “chosen” or “anointed” leader on earth. Many ancient cultures referred to their king as “God’s son.” Thus, the messiah tradition began as one of a mighty, conquering king. Included in this tradition was the idea that this king would be “of the line of David,” as David was the legendary king who had led the united Israel through its golden age.
Around 535 B.C.E., the Persian king Cyrus finally allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. By now, most all the people of the original exile were dead, so those returning were children of the exile, knowing their homeland only through stories and oral traditions.
Unfortunately, when they began arriving back home en masse, they discovered to their horror that the celebrated homeland they had heard about from their parents and grandparents while sitting around the campfires of Babylon was nothing but a toppled, deserted wasteland. Their cities were crumbling and the desert was taking back over. Foreigners occupied their houses and properties, worshipping foreign gods under foreign religious traditions. Hardly the glorious return they had expected and hoped for.
At this point, the messiah traditions began transforming from ideas of a great and powerful king to ideas of a “suffering servant,” a prophet who would raise Israel to newness of life in God. It became a “spiritual” idea rather than a physical one, as there seemed to be no hope for any physical return to glory for Israel.
Into this mindset came an unnamed and unknown prophet whose writings eventually came to be tagged on to the end of the Isaiah scrolls. From Isaiah chapter 40 and onward, a different writer is writing, and this writer’s works (chapter 40 through the end of the book of Isaiah) are known in scholarly circles as “2 Isaiah.” It is within these chapters that the “suffering servant” version of the messianic tradition is described. These are the passages most often quoted in the New Testament, and by modern Christians, when referring to Old Testament prophecies about the messiah. This model stated that the messiah would be a prophet and servant who would suffer for mankind and who, because he was so utterly pure, would take on the sins of the Jewish nation in order to bring about the kingdom of God.
Within a generation or two of the writing of 2 Isaiah, the older versions of messianic traditions began cropping up again. Israelite lands were being rebuilt and reclaimed, and the Jewish nation was slowly but surely returning to glory. The “suffering servant” of 2 Isaiah was more or less forgotten in favor of the older “conquering king” models. The models began taking on an increasingly mythological and fanciful quality, as the Jews began to hope for a king who would ultimately raise the Jewish nation into oneness with God and ultimate control of their lands. This became especially important once the Jewish nation came under the sphere of Roman influence.
Into this Jewish culture came Jesus of Nazareth, an alternate wisdom teacher and faith healer who called his followers into newness of life in God, and presented a major threat to the Jewish power base in Roman-controlled Jerusalem. After Jesus was executed, and his followers were attempting to understand his life against the backdrop of their Jewish heritage and culture, someone, or some group of people, began to see parallels between Jesus’s life and the obscure “suffering servant” messiah talked about in the final chapters of the book of Isaiah.
The mythologies and prophetic connections, including the idea that Jesus was “of the line of David,” began building from there within the mindset of the early Christian community. By the time of the Gospels and most of the other New Testament books, Israel was once again defeated and the Jews dispersed, and this time, there was no going back. No chance of ever returning to glory. This only helped to fuel the belief by many converts that Jesus was the messiah, and that the messiah was not a conquering king, but one who would suffer to bring spiritual glory instead.
The Gospels, of course, tell us that Jesus was recognized during his life as this long-awaited messiah. An early passage in Mark’s account has Jesus ask his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter responds “You are the Christ [that is, the Messiah].” However, it seems absurd to suggest that Peter actually said this, especially so early in Jesus’s ministry. If Peter and the others had recognized messianic prophecies in Jesus so early on, their behavior as described in the Gospels later makes no sense. Their later misunderstandings, denials, and abandonments are nonsensical if they had understood all along that he was the suffering servant messiah, and, as such, must therefore suffer for the glory of humanity. If they had understood this idea during Jesus’s life, they would not have been such bumbling idiots later.
For me, it seems clear that the messianic models were not applied to Jesus until after his death, and after the spiritual awakening that defined the resurrection experience for his followers.