The Evolution of Some Messiah Legends
The Jewish people have been called the People of the Book, and rightly so. While the lives of so many Jewish people have been spent trying to explain the Torah, it is the Torah that explains the life of the Jewish people. This is seen not only in Jewish history, customs and tradition, but also in Jewish folklore. One can trace various themes and motifs from biblical material through the apocryphal and talmudic material to the various midrashic tales on into kabbalistic literature, and later into folk literature and Hasidic tales.
Two contemporary Jewish scholars, Joseph Klausner and Gershom Scholem, point out the evolutionary nature of the messianic idea. Yet they emphasize the historical and theological aspects over the literary aspect of this evolution. Scholem, for example, breaks down the messianic literature into three theological categories: conservative, restorative and Utopian.1 He sees these categories or “forces” at work in the development of messianic literature as being dependent on the historical situation of the Jewish people.
Joseph Klausner, in his monumental work The Messianic Idea in Israel, also seeks to trace the development of that idea through various biblical and apocryphal writings. By his own admission, however, he only goes as far as the Mishna.2 As such, his emphasis remains theological and historical. One author who does pick up on the idea of the literary evolution of messianic thought is Raphael Patai. In his compendium, The Messiah Texts, Patai points this out when speaking of some of the more unusual legends about Messiah.
While the dominant messianic view in the minds and literature of the Jewish people involves a great leader and problem-solver who will appear and make all things right, there remains a great deal of material that would paint a different picture. These are the legends concerning a beggar Messiah, a leper Messiah and a suffering Messiah.
Consider the example of the leprous Messiah. In one legend, the Ba’al Shem Tov (the founder of Hasidism) meets the Messiah: “And, behold, in the ruined house lived an old man, a leper; from head to foot there was no hale spot on his body, he was so full of wounds and boils.”3 The Ba’al Shem Tov turns aside to spend time alone with this wretched-looking person and demonstrates a reverence and love for him. When queried about this rather unusual encounter, he explains, “…as it is known, there is a Messiah in every generation in this world, in reality, clothed in a body.…And behold, that old man was ready to be our true Messiah.”4
On the surface that legend seems somewhat outlandish when compared with the popular understanding of the Messiah. Yet it seems very possible that its author was merely seeking to reflect a picture of the Messiah that had evolved in Jewish literature through the years. Earlier, in the talmudic period, it was written about the Messiah, “The Leprous of the House of Study is his name, as it is said, Verily, he hath borne our diseases, and our pains—he carried them, and we thought him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.…”5
The Talmud, then, brings us back to the biblical kernel from which the legend evolved, the passage in Isaiah 53:4-6. In this much disputed text, the Servant of the Lord is seen to be suffering for the sins of the people. “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
It is interesting that in today’s rabbinic-versus-Christian disputation of that Isaiah passage, the rabbis interpret the suffering Servant as the people of Israel. Yet it seems obvious that Isaiah 53 was the source for many Jewish legends concerning a suffering Messiah.
Besides the Ba’al Shem Tov story of the leprous Messiah, there is another story that indicates a Messiah who is suffering and afflicted: Rabbi Y’hoshua ben Levi has the opportunity to ask Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?” Elijah says, “Go ask him yourself.” “And where does he sit?” Rabbi Y’hoshua ben Levi asks. Elijah answers, “At the entrance of the City (Rome).” “And what are his marks?” “His marks are that he sits among the poor who suffer of diseases, and while all of them unwind and rewind (the bandages of all their wounds) at once, he unwinds and rewinds them one by one.…”6 This picture of a downtrodden Messiah who sits winding and unwinding his bandages seems to be a part of the same chain that produced the concept of a leprous Messiah.
In another story, Zerubbabel is also said to have seen the Messiah sitting near the marketplace of Rome. The Messiah again is described as a “wounded and despised man.”7 Those words also echo the biblical text.
The legends echo not only the suffering of the Messiah, but also the idea of a vicarious suffering for the sins of the people. In one legend Messiah is given a choice as to whether or not he will suffer on behalf of Israel. He answers, “Master of the Worlds! With gladness in my soul and with joy in my heart I accept it, so that not a single one of Israel should perish; and not only those who will be alive should be saved in my days, but even the dead who have died from the days of Adam, the first man, until now. And not only they, but even the stillborn should be saved in my days; and not only the stillborn, but even those to whose creation you gave thought but who were not created. This is what I want, this is what I accept!”8
It may be argued that this is a reflection of Christian thinking that crept into Judaism. While there are definite parallels, it should be noted that the Hebrew Scripture texts again appear to be the source for those legends.
Another legend that seems to parallel the idea of a diseased and impoverished Messiah is that of the beggar Messiah: “Once a poor beggar came to the city of Dinor for the holy Sabbath, and that poor man was the Messiah.”9 In the story, the beggar Messiah is harassed so much by boys in the community that he cannot even pray. Eventually the rabbi drives him away from the Sabbath celebration. When later the rabbi finds out that the beggar was really the Messiah, he runs and looks for him, but it is too late. He has ascended in a pillar of fire.
Again, there are a number of allusions here to biblical texts. One initially remembers the stories of Elijah and Elisha. Elisha was teased and harassed by a group of young boys; Elijah ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire propelled by a whirlwind. We can also hear echoes of the Suffering Servant passage, “He is despised and rejected of men…” (Isaiah 53:3). In Zechariah 9:9 the king who is to come (Messiah) will be lowly or humble, riding on a donkey. Perhaps this passage, too, is a source for the legend of the beggar Messiah.
Whatever may have been the reasons for the development of these various legends, we may conclude that they do reflect an understanding derived from earlier Bible literature. In some pictures they have a kingly Messiah who is patterned after King David, and in others they have a suffering Messiah reflecting other biblical texts. The contrasting pictures of the Messiah seem to have given rise to yet another Messiah legend, that of Messiah ben Joseph, as contrasted to Messiah ben David.
Messiah ben Joseph, also called Ephraim, serves a different function than Messiah ben David. This Messiah actually dies in battle but is then raised from the dead. An 11th century legend records, “And when Messiah ben Joseph and all the people with him will dwell in Jerusalem, Armilus will hear their tiding and will come…and will defeat Messiah ben Joseph.…And he will slay Messiah ben Joseph.…When Messiah ben Joseph is killed, his body will remain cast out (in the streets) for forty days…until Messiah ben David comes and brings him back to life, as commanded by the Lord.”10
Now instead of one Messiah, we have two. This also seems far removed from a popular understanding of Messiah. How is it that two Messiahs developed? Again Klausner fails to see any literary connection in terms of the development, viewing it as an attempt to deal with a character difference based on an historical evolution. He writes, “It seems to me that the idea of a twofold Messiah inevitably arose from the conception of the twofold character of the essentially single Messiah.…Throughout the earlier periods of the messianic idea, Israel’s best minds thought of the Messiah as a king and a warrior.…In direct contrast to this view…was another widespread conception…(of) a spiritual and ethical Messiah.”11 So Klausner sees the two Messiahs as an expression of historical evolution of thought based on different roles or characters.
I believe Raphael Patai more adequately points out that these legends are again a literary evolution based on, and reflecting biblical texts: “It would seem that…the death of Messiah was envisaged, perhaps as a development of the Suffering Servant motif.”12 Again we have another allusion to this central Messiah passage of Isaiah 53.
Patai also points out Daniel 9:26 where the Messiah is supposed to die. Several centuries later we have a passage of apocryphal writings reflecting this same idea: “My Son the Messiah shall die…” (4 Ezra 7:27-30). Later, the Talmud, commenting on the biblical passage, “And the land shall mourn” (Zechariah 12:12), poses the question, “What is the reason of this mourning?” Rabbi Dosa answers, “They will mourn over the Messiah who will be slain” (B Suk 52a).
One can hardly ignore this chain of literary development that is so clearly duplicated in other examples of Jewish folklore. What was briefly mentioned in the biblical texts became entrenched in the apocryphal writings and embellished in the Talmud and subsequent midrashic literature, until an elaborate legend was brought forth. This is the process of literary evolution.
There is, perhaps, one more step in this evolutionary process that I like to call the mysticising of the legend. It occurs in numerous Hasidic and Kabbalistic tales. Perhaps the best example is by R. Nachman of Bratzlav. In his mystical story The Lost Princess, Nachman seems to sublimate much of the idea of the Suffering Servant Messiah. A king loses his daughter, and his minister volunteers to go and search for her. For many years he endures hardship, suffering and perils. At last the minister succeeds in returning the princess to the king, and sadness turns to great joy.13
Nachman’s stories always seem to leave a great deal of room for speculative interpretation. Rabbi Nathan, Nachman’s disciple, interprets the story as the king representing God, the princess representing both the Shechinah (glory of God) and the people of Israel, and the minister being every man in Israel. But as Patai points out, “He [the minister] also bears unmistakable similarity to the Messiah,”14 and again, “[he] resembles to some extent the biblical suffering servant.…”15
There is much work yet to be done in this area of messianic legends. I believe that a literary approach to messianic ideas and their evolution will produce a twofold benefit. It will not only shed light on how Jewish folklore has come about, but it may also help us to understand how those earlier biblical passages were understood by the people in their own times.
- Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), 3.
- Joseph Klausner, The Messianic Idea in Israel (New York: MacMillan Company, 1955), 5.
- Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts (New York: Avon Books, 1979), 31.
- B. Sanhedrin 98b.
- Sefer, Zerubbabel, BhM 2:54-55.
- Pes. Rab., 161a-b.
- Sofer, Sippure Yaaqov, 35-36.
- Hai Gaon, Responsum.
- Klausner, Op. Cit., 493-494.
- Patai, Op. Cit., 166.
- Howard Schwartz, Elijah’s Violin and Other Jewish Fairy Tales (New York: Harper and Row, 1983), 210.
- Patai, Op. Cit., 107.
Executive Director, Missionary
David Brickner is executive director of Jews for Jesus. David oversees the world-wide ministry from its headquarters in San Francisco. David received his Master’s degree in Missiology with a concentration in Jewish Evangelism and Judaic Studies from the Fuller School of World Mission. He has authored several books, and has been interviewed on national television shows such as Larry King Live. David’s daughter Ilana is a graduate of Biola. His son Isaac is on the missionary staff of Jews for Jesus. Isaac and his wife Shaina have one daughter, Nora, and a son, Levy, which makes David part of the grandparent club, a membership he is very proud of. See more here.