Part One: A proposed reconstruction of an apocalyptic work from the first century C.E: The Oracle of Hystaspes and Revelation
Scholarly opinion identifies the Oracle of Hystaspes as an apocalyptic work dating to the first century C.E., before the destruction of the Second Temple, most likely composed in Greek in Asia Minor. Like other apocalyptic writings, the Oracle had two parts: a symbolic vision and the interpretation of this vision. However, the Oracle of Hystaspes was not preserved in its entirety. The symbolic vision was used by John of Patmos and inserted into the Book of Revelation; the interpretation of the vision was preserved by the third-century-C.E. Latin author Lactantius in his Divine Institutes. The interpretation of the symbols was placed in the mouth of a young boy - Hystaspes, that is, Vistasp, the king who was Zarathustra's benefactor. The role attributed to Hystaspes in the frame story of the Oracle is indicative of an environment where Iranian traditions were well known and were in use in anti-Roman propaganda. Indeed, the Oracle was forbidden reading throughout the Roman Empire several generations after its composition. Some twenty years ago Prof. David Flusser showed that the Oracle was a Jewish, not a Persian work.
As preserved in Lactantius, the Oracle exhibits the characteristic features of political apocalypse. The symbols and their interpretation reflect the belief that a chain of kingdoms will rule the world, a chain of known and predetermined number and character. The number of worldly kingdoms, according to the Oracle, is ten (a similar number is known from the Fourth Sybil). The Oracle's writer focuses on the end of the chain, the links closest to his own time. He mentions the Seleucid Empire, represented by the numbers 3 and 10, numbers that also symbolize the Seleucid Empire in the book of Daniel. The Seleucid Empire, however, is swiftly conquered by an evil ruler (the next link in the chain). This evil ruler will plunder, kill, change the law, change the name of the kingdom, and will move its seat. The evil ruler is Rome.
Rome is, however, not the final link. Its rule will be followed by that of another kindgdom, whose leader will come from Syria and will kill the first evil ruler. The son of an evil spirit, this second ruler will present himself as the son of God and force people to worship him. This is the anti-Christ who persuades the mob and tries, unsuccessfully, to destroy God's temple.
Our author targets the anti-Christ link, the last in the chain. During this period, a prophet will be sent by God to preach and to bring the people back to God's way. His mission will last for three-and-a-half years, at the end of which the anti-Christ will put the prophet to death. The prophet's body will be left in the street for three days, but on the third day he will be resurrected and return to heaven. Total victory over the anti-Christ will be achieved only after many years of terror, during which those who are faithful to God will be oppressed and will be forced to flee to the desert. Anyone captured will suffer violent death. This horror will end with the descent of a big sword from heaven, followed by the true messiah, the great king. The great king will judge the evildoers, fight the anti-Christ, and kill him at the fifth battle.
This is the outline of the Oracle in brief. I would like to argue here that one component of the Oracle of Hystaspes is missing from Lactantius's book. I believe that the first-century Oracle also included a story about the birth of the Messiah and his escape, immediately after his birth, to God. For a good Christian like Lactantius the baby Messiah's ascent to God contradicted his belief in Jesus' life story; thus he would find it unacceptable.
It is therefore clear why Lactantius did not include a birth story in his book. However, in and of itself, this does not constitute proof for the existence of a birth story in the original version of the Oracle. Proof for the existence of a birth story will be established when: (a) we determine that the Messiah in the Oracle is a human being born of a human mother, and (b) when we identify related works that mention the Messiah's mother and contain elements recounting the Messiah's birth and ascent.
Let us start with the first point: Is the Messiah in the Oracle a human being? To answer this question, we must first take a look at another figure found in the Oracle: the prophet sent by God. As I noted earlier, before his encounter with the Messiah who descends from heaven, the anti-Christ struggles with a prophet sent by God. This prophet has the ability to cause drought and to turn water into blood. Furthermore, fire comes out of his mouth and burns his enemies. Flusser already pointed to the great similarity between the prophet described here and biblical Elijah.
The Oracle's messenger of God is a prophet like Elijah. Or perhaps he is even Elijah himself, as his end resembles that of Elijah in the Book of Kings. Note that, in the Oracle, after a three-and-a-half-year mission, and after lying dead in the street for three days, the prophet ascends to heaven. In the author's world view special human beings ascend to and descend from heaven for periods determined by God. In the Oracle Elijah descends and then ascends from and to heaven (and he might come down again if he follows the scenario found in Seder Olam Rabba: "Ahaziah the son of Ahab reigned two years. In the second year of Ahaziah Elijah was hidden away and is not seen until the Messiah comes. In the days of the Messiah he will be seen and hidden away a second time and will not be seen until Gog will arrive. At present he records the deeds of all generations"). Similarly, the Messiah who descends from heaven could also be a human being. Here I come to my second reason for considering the Messiah in the Oracle a human being. When the Messiah descends he is accompanied by a group of angels; yet, the author nowhere explicitly states that the Messiah is an angel. Furthermore, the need for angelic assistance and the use of a heavenly sword point to the limited powers of the Messiah himself. We should also be aware of the fact that, in the Oracle, the Messiah has no role in any cosmic transformation or heavenly transformation, nor does he change the order of nature.
Thus, the first step of my argument concludes that, like Elijah, the Messiah of the Oracle is a human being who dwells in heaven and is sent to Earth at the End of Days. Thus, we would expect the Oracle to contain some details concerning his arrival in heaven. I now turn to the second part of my argument, which I ground in works related to the Oracle of Hystaspes that include descriptions of the messiah's ascent. We know of works close to our author's time that relate, or hint to, the Messiah's ascent to heaven before his return to save the world. For example, in Slavonic Enoch young Malchizedek is taken to heaven to protect him from the Flood. In Fourth Ezra the Messiah comes out of the sea and goes up to heaven. As I said at the beginning of my talk, I propose that, in the Oracle, the ascent was part of a birth story. I would now like to consider two sources that shed light on this supposition: a story from Yerushalmi Berakhot and Revelation 12.
The story in Yerushalmi Berakhot (5a; with a parallel in Lamentations Rabbah 1.51, to Lam 1:16) tells of a Jew, who upon hearing that the Temple has been destroyed and that a Messiah has been born, decides to search for the baby Messiah. Wandering around as a trader of baby cloth, he arrives at a certain village where he meets the Messiah's mother. While chatting with the mother, he gives her cloth for the baby. During their conversation the mother expresses her wish to strangle her baby. Time passes and upon a second visit to that village, the mother informs the trader that strong winds snatched the baby from her arms.
In the Yerushalmi the baby is in danger. Blaming him for the destruction that has befallen her people, his mother seeks his death. From the mother's point of view, the kidnapping of the baby by the winds is an appropriate punishment. However, a second point of view is found in the story, that of the trader, who believes that the winds carried the baby to God to save him from his mother's threat. This is also the narrator's point of view, as seen from the choice of a unique word that appears only here and one other time in all the Aramaic texts of that period, used to refer to Elijah's ascent to Heaven, the word "alulin" - strong winds.
Scholars have noted the similarity between the story in the Yerushalmi and that of Jesus's birth. But the similarity is only superficial. Jesus was alive and safe in his mother's bosom, whereas in the Yerushalmi the main event is the baby's disappearance. The comparison drawn by the German scholar Eberhard Vischer between Revelation 12 and the Yerushalmi is more instructive.
In Revelation 12 a struggle takes place in heaven between a heavenly mother crowned by stars and between a dragon who removes the celestial stars with its tail. The dragon seeks to swallow the newly-born messiah, but the latter is carried to God. The messiah's mother is saved by the winds and transported to the desert.
The participants in the Yerushalmi are earthly. In Revelation the powers are cosmic: the crowned mother, the dragon, and the archangel Michael and his assistants who fight the dragon and throw him down to earth. If we accept Yarbro-Collins' interpretation of the story, the difference between the Yerushalmi and Revelation diminishes. Pointing to the lack of coherence between the components of chapter 12, Yarbro-Collins argues that this chapter combines two different myths: the story of the baby and the story of Michael and his helpers.
In her study of the origin of the myth of the mother, the dragon, and the baby and the winds, Yarbro-Collins demonstrated that the birth myth here exemplifies the use made of cosmological myths for the purposes of anti-Hellenistic and anti-Roman propaganda. The closest parallels to the myth of the mother and the dragon come from the cosmological myths prevalent in the western part of Asia Minor; the tradition of the pursuit of the goddess Leto by the dragon Python. When Python threatens the pregnant Leto, because he knows that Zeus' offspring Apollo is destined to kill him, Zeus sends the north wind to save Leto. Leto consequently gives birth to Apollo and Artemis, and, ultimately, Apollo kills Python.
According to Yarbro-Collins, originally the myth in Revelation concerning the birth of the child took place on earth, not in heaven. When the myth of the archangel Michael was combined with the myth of the dragon and the woman, heavenly attributes were added to the latter. It seems to me that in the reworking of the myth another change took place: the beast found in the original story (a beast we know from chapters 11 and 13 of Revelation) became a dragon, a more fitting character for heavenly combat.
Thus, the similarity between the Yerushalmi and Revelation chapter 12 is more striking than seems at first sight. In both sources the baby is in danger on earth and is taken to dwell in God's shadow. The idea of combat is found in both stories: a struggle between destruction and salvation. In Revelation the beast-dragon stands as a symbol for Rome, eager to destroy the savior whose existence threatens Rome. In the Yerushalmi the mother intends to destroy the savior because she perceives him as the agent of destruction of her nation.
This consideration of Revelation brings us back to the Oracle of Hystaspes. As Bousset and Flusser have shown, chapters 11 and 13 of Revelation are a reworking of the Oracle of Hystaspes' symbolic vision. Chapter 13, with its two beasts, one worshipping the other, is a reworking of the depiction of two beasts, one in combat with the other, representing the two rival phases in Rome history - the Republic and the Empire. Chapter 11 contains the symbolic description of the prophet's persecution.
I explain the alteration in the symbols in Revelation as compared to Lactantius, at least regarding chapter 13, where two rival beasts turn into one worshiping the other, as follows. Unlike Vistasp-Hystaspes, John of Patmos is a real person who speaks/preaches directly to his audience. Ex-eventus prophesy, predictions concerning a chain of kingdoms supposedly to come in the future, would not have any effect on his addressees who share what he knows. Thus John of Patmos converted the chain to a single picture: one beast worships the other.
It is harder to find an explanation for the reworking of the Oracle in chapter 11, the altering of the persecution of one prophet into the persecution of two prophets. It is perhaps an insertion of a biblical motif; note Zechariah's two messianic figures. Note also that the three days of Hystaspes becomes three-and-a-half days in Revelation, similar to the number in Daniel.
The essential point here is that chapter 12 seemed to both Flusser and Bousset a foreign body, intervening between the two chapters taken from the Oracle. I would like to suggest that chapter 12 as well was taken from the Oracle. As I reconstruct it, in the original Oracle the anti-Christ opposes the helpless baby Messiah and the helpless prophet and will be killed by the powerful Messiah at the End of Days. The argument that the story of the beast-dragon, the baby, and the mother was not known in Jewish tradition cannot be sustained in light of the above-cited story from the Yerushalmi.
Two other sources close to the Oracle of Hystaspes are pertinent to and support my argument. The first is a Jewish apocalypse from circa the fifth century C.E.: Sefer Zerubabel. The textual evidence for this book is extremely confusing and it is difficult to make any definite statement regarding the book. Nonetheless, scholars have noted the existence of similarities between Sefer Zerubabel and the Oracle of Hystaspes. For our investigation, the important point is that all the manuscripts support the existence of a female figure, the mother of the Messiah.
I admit that there is no birth story in Sefer Zerubabel. The author, or the compiler, chose another scheme of salvation in his book, that of a messiah who dwells in the same city to be destroyed by him in the future (as in B. Sanh. 98a). The Messiah's mother does, however, play a significant role.
We must note that the mother' role in Sefer Zerubabel was shaped by the author to fit his worldview of the role of empires in world history. Although Sefer Zerubabel, like the Oracle of Hystaspes and other apocalyptic writings, refers to a chain of world kingdoms, in Sefer Zerubabel the links are not connected, that is, one kingdom does not defeat the other but each kingdom is defeated by the people of Israel. The Messiah's mother, holding a magic scepter, is their leader. The compiler/author of Sefer Zerubabel did not wish to present the people of Israel under foreign rule in their land. Rather, he represented the kingdoms as invaders who are eventually defeated. The Messiah's mother with her magic scepter is a central part of this imaginary scenario.
Thus, we cannot deduce from Sefer Zerubabel the role played by the mother in its source, the Oracle of Hystaspes. I propose that only the role of giving birth was assigned to the woman in the Oracle. Interestingly, in most of the manuscripts of Sefer Zerubabel we find, in addition to the account of the Messiah taken to Rome, the following statement: "This is the Messiah of God… who was born to the House of David and God's wind carried him and hid him in this place until the End of Time." Indeed, according to a medieval midrash, Maase of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi, the messiah is not in Rome but in heaven.
Another source that has affinities to the Oracle of Hystaspes is the Apocalypse of Elijah. In the Apocalypse of Elijah, besides the two prophets, Enoch and Elijah, who descend from heaven and preach to an evil ruler, are killed by him and are subsequently resurrected and preach again, there is a virgin with a parallel role. I submit that a woman is found in the Apocalypse of Elijah because there was a woman in its source. In other words, lacking a reason to invent a female figure, the author included her because she appeared in the source that he reworked.
If my proposed reconstruction is correct, this enables us to isolate several features of early Jewish messianism. First of all, the Oracle provides additional evidence for Elijah's role in the messianic age. Furthermore, not only does Elijah appear, but he also disappears again. He is to suffer, to be killed, undergo resurrection and reascend to heaven. Second, even in a source from a Greek-speaking Diaspora, the Messiah's role is that of a warrior and not of a suffering lamb. Third, the story about the messiah's dwelling in heaven can be viewed as be a solution to a major issue in the first century C.E.: who is the true heir to the House of David? In the Oracle God provides the answer to this question: It is the one chosen by Him who was kept in heaven until the right time. This also points to the prevalence of the notion of a messiah of Davidic descent.
I now move on to the second part of this lecture, proceeding backward in time, to Qumran, where we find a somewhat different picture of the messiah and the messianic role. The Qumranic worldview is complex. To counteract the notion that there are mythic forces who rebel against God, found both in the early parts of First Enoch and in the second part of the book of Daniel, the Qumranites envisioned creation as combined of both good and evil on three levels: cosmic, heavenly, and earthly: "(first level) In a spring of light emanates the nature of truth and from a well of darkness emerges the nature of deceit; (second level) In the hand of the Prince of Lights (is) the dominion of all the Sons of Righteousness;… But in the hand of the Angel of Darkness (is) the dominion of the Sons of Deceit" (Rule of the Community 3.19-21); the sons of righteousness and of deceit represent the third, earthly level.
In this world view, God is the main agent bringing evil to an end. Earthly figures have different and less significant roles. This provides clues as to why the closest parallel to the Oracle of Hystaspes at Qumran, the Pseudo-Danielic text 4Q246, makes no mention of a messiah.
The first part of 4Q246 did not survive. From the first few lines preserved we can deduce that a symbolic vision was shown to a ruler and that he received an elaboration on its content from an earthly speaker. I interpret the first part of the elaboration (columns 1.4-2.3) as referring to the last two links of the chain of kingdoms mentioned before. The Hellenistic kingdom, referred to by the words: מלך אתור [ומ]צרין , the king of Assyria and Egypt, is defeated by Rome. Similar to the description of Antiochus in Daniel, Rome is pictured as rebelling against God: "He will be called son of God, and they will call him son of the Most High" (2.1).
However, as we read in col. 2, lines 4-9, Rome will be defeated by עם אל , the people of God who will rule for eternity. Thus, we find at Qumran a work that is one step earlier (or rather, one link shorter) than the Oracle of Hystaspes, since the Oracle refers both to Rome and to the Roman Empire. However, as I noted, no Messiah appears in 4Q246.
If there is no need for a Messiah to bring the End of Days in this period, it is possible to attribute a different role to the Messiah. In Pesher Melchizedek, the battle with the evil heavenly forces is assigned to a heavenly being, Melchizedek. The Messiah called משיח הרוח , the anointed of the spirit, has no role in bringing salvation. Like many apocalyptic seers, his role is to teach - להשכיל - his people about the coming salvation: "To comfo[rt] the [afflicted]", its interpretation: to [in]struct them in all the ages of the w[orld]" (p. 230).
However, as Collins notes, in the central writings of the Qumran Community (such as Damascus Document and the Rule of the Community) we do find the belief in the coming of two messiahs, the Davidic Messiah and the Priestly Messiah. The portrayal of the Davidic Messiah at Qumran is clear. He is a warrior, who is to lead the forces in the earthly battle of the End of Days, who will judge the nation with the breath of his mouth, and will save Israel. He is called נשיא העדה or צמח דוד.
The second Messiah, the priestly one, is called, as in the War Scroll, כוהן הראש; in Florilegium as well as in the Damascus Document his title is דורש התורה (7.18-21). In the Damascus document, as part of a well-known midrash we also find him referred to as יורה הצדק (6.2-11). The fact that the titles דורש התורה ומורה צדק also serve the Qumranites for describing their leaders in the past creates a certain lack of clarity. The Damascus Document col. 1 mentions מורה צדק as the leader who was sent by God to guide the Community according to God's heart. דורש התורה is the leader sent by God to create the appropriate tools to interpret the Torah, for exploring and deducing the correct halakhot. He is mentioned in the same paragraph which promises the coming of יורה הצדק at the End of Days: "and the מחקק is the interpreter of the Torah of whom Isaiah said: He takes out a tool for his work" (Isa. 54:16).
I argue that there is no expectation in the Community for the return of their past leader. It is important to note that the Damascus Document provides not the name of the leader but his titles (מורה צדק and not מורה הצדק). מורה צדק, דורש התורה are titles for the significant leader who helped the community to build and shape its way in the final generation of evil, and the Qumran Community looks forward to the appearance of a leader at the End of Days who will fill the same role as its leader did in the past. The Community expects a leader with the same features who will help shape the life of the community at the End of Days by giving its members the right tools for learning. There is no expectation for the coming of a legislator (hence there is no expectation for a second Moses) but for a second teacher who will be of priestly origin. As a priestly figure he will also take the main role in the temple to be built by God and will atone for his generation (4Q541).
Do the Qumranic Messiahs and the Oracle's Messiah share any features? As Flusser noted, there is a resemblance between the Oracle's Messiah and the Qumranic Davidic Messiah. Both are warriors; both are apparently from the house of David; both fight the evil forces on earth; and both are expected to kill the leader of the evil forces (according to 4Q285 7 1-5). Furthermore, there is a heavenly sword associated with both. War Scroll column 19 relates the defeat of the Kittim's army during the night by חרבאל (similar to what is related in 2 Kings 19:35): "In the morning [ ] they shall come to the [p]lace of the line [ the mi]ghty men of Kittim, the multitude of Asshur, and the army of all the nations assembled [ ] (the) slain [ ] have fallen there by the sword of God" (War, 19.9-11).
The Qumranic mighty leader, however, has fewer miraculous features than the one from the Oracle. He does not, as far as we know, come down from heaven, nor does he wield the heavenly sword, which is a free agent. Also less miraculous is Qumran's prophet. There are statements at Qumran regarding a prophet who will come together with the two messiahs (1QS 9.11). However, neither dying nor resurrection nor second ascent is attributed to him.
I cannot ignore the existence of a heavenly character from Qumran who is an exalted human being. The speaker in 4Q491 (and related texts) declares that he no longer has human needs and desire; he is among and above angels and holy ones; he is the teacher, who has also suffered from disdain in the past. It is not certain whether this figure should be perceived as a messiah. I tend to think not. In describing his status, the speaker in 4Q491 exemplifies the spiritual condition that is promised to the Maskilim at the End of Days in the Book of Daniel. In Daniel the Maskilim are to become, after the final judgment, like angels, and to achieve a rank that contrasts sharply with their suffering and their humiliating death under Antiochus' decrees. In the Qumran world view the most fitting person to reach the rank of the Maskilim after his death is the leader of the community, מורה הצדק. Coping with the same dilemma as the Maskilim of 'Daniel's' day, of how to explain the humiliation in his lifetime of a highly regarded person, the Community gives a similar answer by envisaging a high stature for their leader in the angelic world.
Does this spiritual ex-leader have any role in the future? It is clear that the heavenly seated human being of 4Q491 is different from the Messiah of the Oracle. Whereas in the Oracle the one from heaven is a warrior whose role is to fight, the role attributed to the speaker of 4Q491 is not to fight but to instruct. It is hard to imagine that this highly elevated spiritual human being would agree to descend to fight the earthly forces as the Oracle's Messiah does. Moreover, as we know, judgment can be carried out in heaven too. The figure of the son of man in the Book of Similitudes comes to mind: in the Similitudes the Danielic son of man plays the role of judge, attributed to God in Daniel 7. While the word משפט does appear in 4Q491, in its context the meaning of law seems more apt than the meaning of judgment. Thus, no future role is ascribed to our speaker.
To conclude: Qumran and the Oracle of Hystaspes point to the strong hold of the belief in the figure of the son of David as a savior, primarily as taking a role on the battlefield. At Qumran the Davidic Messiah is less fantastic than the one in the Oracle and is accompanied by, and subject to, another figure. The priestly, halakhically oriented intellectuals at Qumran ascribed in addition to the promise of the coming of a future priestly teacher. Nonetheless, it is also possible that there was an inner circle at Qumran which had no messianic expectations, or which perhaps only assigned to the messiah a role of teaching and explaining the coming of the End.
This last role, to my mind, was the one assumed by John the Baptist. Jesus' messianic role has no precedent, neither in the Qumran Community nor in Hystaspes. There is, however, one text, 4Q521 (4QMessianic Apocalypse), that portrays a messiah with attributes similar to those of (biblical) Elijah and of Jesus: Heaven and earth obey him; he heals the wounded; and he takes part in the resurrection of the dead. The consensus is that 4Q521 was not written by the Qumranaites who, insofar as we know, did not believe in resurrection. This passage could, however, serve as a portrait of Jesus in his lifetime. Jesus' self-conception could fit the portrayal in the text, and to my mind is close to what Jesus thought of himself. .
A final word. Despite the variety of sources and messianic conceptions discussed today we find in them no expectation for the death and resurrection of any Messiah-neither at Qumran, nor in the Oracle of Hystaspes, nor in fragments or books from outside the Community. To my mind, Jesus' death was an unexpected event, not what Jesus or his followers expected or hoped for.