The world we live in is a very different world than the world Jesus of Nazareth was born into.
A king ruled over Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. His name was Herod the Great, and he was a savage man who killed his favorite wife because he thought she was cheating on him. He killed three of his sons because he thought they might try to push him off the throne and steal it for themselves. The gospel of Matthew tells a story of how Herod the Great ordered the murders of all the infant sons in Bethlehem under the age of two, and nobody was surprised to hear this tale, because that’s the kind of man Herod was.
At that time, the entire Jewish world was holding its breath in expectation of a king to be born. And what kind of king were they expecting?
We don’t have to guess, because we know. The great Jewish historian Josephus wrote the story of the Jewish Revolt of AD 66-70, in which Judea and Galilee rose up in revolt against Rome—and very nearly won.
Why did they revolt? Here’s the reason Josephus gives in his famous book Jewish War, Book 6, (312): “But now, what did most elevate them in undertaking this war, was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how, ‘about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.’”
Josephus is talking about the prophet Daniel in the Bible. The “oracle” in question is not actually ambiguous. According to Daniel 9:24-26, there was to be a period of some 483 years “until Messiah the Prince”. While the beginning date of this time period was not known exactly by anyone in the first century, they could count centuries well enough, and they believed very strongly that the time was just about up.
At the time of Jesus, most Jews believed that the Messiah was due, and he would conquer the earth. Which raises a very important question.
What Does “Messiah” Mean?
That raises the question of what people meant by “Messiah.” In Hebrew, the word is “Mashiach,” and it means literally “anointed one.” It was understood to be either a high priest or a king, because both high priests and kings were anointed with olive oil when they took office.
Most Jews in the first century took the prophecy of Daniel to mean that this Mashiach would be an anointed king, a descendant of David, who would take the throne of a reunited Israel, conquer all the world, and rule as king.
Josephus had a different, very weird interpretation. He interpreted “Mashiach” to be the Roman emperor Vespasian, who was acclaimed emperor in the year AD 69 while general of the Roman army that was battling the Jewish rebels. Josephus argued that his Jewish countrymen got things wrong—Mashiach would not be born in Judea, he would merely be living in Judea when he was acclaimed Mashiach.
So far as we know, Josephus was the only Jew who ever said this. He said it because he happened to be getting a pension from Emperor Vespasian. Josephus had been a Jewish general during the Jewish Revolt. Vespasian captured him and meant to kill him, but then Josephus spun a wild tale about how he was a Jewish priest with the gift of prophecy, and he predicted Vespasian would be made emperor. Vespasian decided to wait and see if this panned out. When it did, he made Josephus his interpreter and gave him a pension for life.
This is why Josephus calls Daniel’s oracle “ambiguous.” But there’s no real ambiguity at all. Every other Jew at the time knew perfectly well that Mashiach would be a king, and he would save his people from the iron boot of Rome.
Mashiach would bring “salvation” to Israel, to use the term Jews used at the time. But now that raises another question.
What Does “Salvation” Mean?
If you ask a Christian in twenty-first-century America what “salvation” means, you’ll get a range of answers. Generally, the answers will have something to do with going to heaven when you die.
But if you asked a Jew in first-century Palestine what “salvation” means, you would get a very different range of answers. Generally, the answers would have something to do with crushing the enemies of Israel by raising up an army, going to battle, and killing the lot of them.
The Hebrew Bible is full of stories of salvation.
Moses and Aaron brought salvation to Israel by killing Egyptians.
Joshua saved Israel by killing Canaanites.
Samson saved Israel by killing Philistines.
David saved Israel by killing more Philistines.
Hezekiah saved Israel by killing Assyrians.
The Hebrew prophets don’t say much explicitly about Mashiach, using that exact term. But they do talk a fair bit about a coming king who would be a descendant of David. He would judge the earth. He would rule over the nations. He would gather the scattered tribes of Israel. He would kill his enemies. He would make an end of war. He would bring salvation to his people.
And practically every Jew of the first century believed Mashiach would bring salvation to Israel by raising up an army to defeat Rome and all the other wicked nations. As Josephus says, they went to war with Rome, expecting just such a Mashiach to arise.
Mashiach would be a man like King David. A man of blood.
A Problem for Jesus
From all that we know of Jesus of Nazareth, he was not that kind of man. Try to picture Jesus killing Egyptians like Moses. Or killing Canaanites like Joshua. Or killing Philistines like Samson and David. Or killing Assyrians like Hezekiah.
People debate exactly what kind of person Jesus was, but hardly anybody thinks he was a military leader or had any intention of leading a military revolt.
And that was a problem for Jesus growing up. Because from his very earliest infancy, the stories we read tell how the people all around him believed he would bring “salvation” to his people. And Jesus must have heard these stories.
Note that neither the gospels of Mark nor John say anything about the infancy or childhood of Jesus. Only Matthew and Luke do, and they don’t say terribly much.
What Matthew Says About Baby Jesus
The gospel of Matthew makes quite a bit out of the genealogy of Jesus, showing how it ran from Abraham to David to Jesus, in three sets of 14 generations. (What’s so important about 14? If you add up the Hebrew letters of David’s name, they add up to 14. This is a classic Hebrew game called “gematria,” and when a first-century Jew heard the number 14 and the word David, they knew you were connecting some dots to get from some person to David.) The genealogy in Matthew is connecting dots to get from David the ancient anointed king of Israel to Jesus the new anointed king of Israel. The Mashiach who would bring salvation.
In Matthew 1:21, we read that an angel told Joseph that his fiancee Mary would have a son who would save his people from their sins. Joseph, a good and loyal Jew of the first century, would have heard this as a prophecy that Mary’s son would be a military leader who would bring salvation to his people and erase the ancient sins of idolatry that had caused the Babylonian exile, 600 years before. Because most Jews never returned from that exile. Most Jews were still in exile. But Mashiach would bring the scattered tribes of Israel home, undoing the sins of the forefathers.
In Matthew 2:3, we read that King Herod the Great heard that a child was born to be king of the Jews. Matthew tells how this terrified Herod. Why? Because he, Herod, was already king of the Jews, but he was not a son of David, and he had no plans to conquer the world. The story portrays him as fearing a military leader who would throw him out. Herod was terrified of a Mashiach, a true son of David, and rightly so.
Herod would not be terrified of a good and kind rabbi who healed the sick. That was not his expectation in this story. The story makes clear his expectation—a warrior king.
What Luke Says About Baby Jesus
In Luke 1:29-33, we read the story of Mary meeting the angel Gabriel, who told her she would have a son who would be “Son of the Most High.” That was a classic term in the Hebrew Bible. The anointed king of Israel was called the “son of God.” Every anointed king of Israel was called that. Psalm 2 is the coronation psalm for the king of Israel, and it makes this explicit.
So what Mary heard in this story was that her son to be born would be king of Israel. He would be Mashiach. He would be a conquering hero, who would bring salvation to his people by killing their enemies. That’s the only kind of Mashiach that Mary would ever have heard about while growing up.
Luke 1:68-75 goes on to tell the story of the birth of John the Baptist. John’s father gives an oracle that tells how God would soon bring salvation to Israel and rescue it from her enemies.
The people who heard this oracle would have understood it to mean that the long-promised Mashiach would soon bring a military salvation to Israel.
After Jesus was born, Luke 2:25-32 tells the story of how his parents took him to be dedicated in the Temple, where a devout man of God was deeply moved. This man, Simeon, thanked God that he had seen a glimpse of the salvation of his people.
Anyone who heard this story would have understood Simeon to be saying that this baby Jesus would bring salvation to Israel by military victory.
Great Expectations on Baby Jesus
When we in the twenty-first century hear these stories of Messiah and salvation, we hear them with the meanings of “Messiah” and “salvation” we’ve heard all our lives.
But people in the first century who heard these stories would have heard a very different message. Because they understood “Mashiach” to be a warrior king, and they understood “salvation” to be a military victory over the enemies of Israel.
We don’t know exactly what Mary and Joseph told Jesus. But we can guess how they understood these stories, because Mary and Joseph were good and loyal first-century Jews, longing for freedom from the oppression of Rome. They longed for salvation from their enemies. They hoped for a Mashiach who would destroy those enemies and rule as king on the throne of David. A king like David, who was a man of blood.
And Jesus had four brothers. (For more on them, see my post, The Mysterious Brothers of Jesus.) Those brothers were probably younger than him, and looked up to him. They must have heard the stories Mary and Joseph told of the amazing predictions of what Jesus would do when he became a man. Those brothers must have been extremely proud of their big brother. They must have joined in the great expectations laid on him.
Those would be heavy expectations on any young boy.
They must have been incredibly heavy on a boy like Jesus, who was simply not the kind of person that everyone knew Mashiach must be.
A man of violence.
A man of blood.
A man like his father David.
In time, Jesus changed those heavy expectations laid on him. He changed the meaning of “salvation.” He changed the meaning of “Mashiach.”
But he didn’t do it during his lifetime, as we see by reading Acts 1:6, where his family and disciples ask Jesus, after his death and resurrection, if now was the time when he would restore the kingdom to Israel.
If the disciples and family of Jesus, even after his death and resurrection, still understood salvation in terms of a military victory that restored the kingdom to Israel, we can be pretty sure that none of them understood it before his death.