Sunday 19 June 2022

387) The Apocalyptists and the rise of a supernatural Messiah

The small dagger known as a sica.


This article is based on the research by Professor Solomon (Shneur Zalman) Zeitlin (1886-1976) considered to have been a leading authority on the Second Temple period.[1] Although a sequel to the previous article, it can be read independently. We trace the origins of the idea of a supernatural Messiah within Judaism. A supernatural Messiah is only mentioned for the first time in the late Apocalyptic literature[2] of the Second Temple period, and in the New Testament (Zeitlin 1979:103). Both these works of literature are far from normative rabbinic Judaism, so how, then, did the idea of a supernatural Messiah become so entrenched within Judaism? To answer this question, we must look to the political and spiritual conditions during and just after the Second Temple period.

Early Second Temple times – Priesthood vs Royalty

Two Jewish leaders, Joshua and Zerubavel, with vastly opposing ideologies, headed the returning exiles to the Holy Land about fifty years after the First Temple had been destroyed:

·      Joshua was the grandson of Seraiah (שְׂרָיָה) who was the High Priest killed by the Babylonians. Joshua came to embody the faction supporting the institution of Kehunah or priesthood.

·     Zerubavel was the grandson of King Jehoiachin,[3] and he came to represent the Malchut or royal Davidic line.

Two opposing factions began to emerge under the leadership of Joshua and Zerubavel, and the question was to which direction the returning Jews should turn. Do they choose the leadership model of priesthood or kingship? Should the new Israel (Judaea) be run as a theocracy or as a political entity? In the end, Zerubavel, representing kingship, waned and Joshua, representing priesthood was victorious. Israel became a theocracy.

However, not everybody was happy living in a theocracy and many hoped to see the re-establishment of the Davidic royal line. Zeitlin (1979:105) points out that it was mainly the youth and the lower classes that pinned their hopes on a restoration of the monarchy and a continuation of the Davidic king.

The followers of Joshua (son of Yehozadak) were known as the Sadducees (the name deriving from the Zadokite[4] family of high priests). This faction primarily followed the Written Torah (i.e., the Bible) and they did not consider the Oral Torah, or what later became known as rabbinic Judaism, to be binding. Because of their supreme veneration of the Written Torah, they came to view Judaism as being essentially ‘biblical,’ and they considered G-d to be an ‘ethnic’ G-d of the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The followers of Zerubavel, however, believed in the equivalence of the Oral Torah to the Written Torah. They held that the transgression of rabbinic laws was tantamount to the transgression of biblical laws.[5] Their view was not of an ethnic G-d like the Sadducees, but of a universal G-d for all people. The Sadducees called the followers of Zerubavel, Perushim (separatists) = ‘Pharisees”. They were labelled as separatists because they broke away from the ethnicity of the other Judaeans (the Sadducees) who were regarded as the real people of G-d who adhered strictly to G-d’s Written Torah.

The Pharisees did not yield any political force as the power was in the hands of the priests,

 “but they had the confidence of the rank and file of the people” (Zeitlin 1979:106).

This state of affairs led to heightened tensions within that early Judaean community during early Second Temple times:

“During the entire period of the Second Commonwealth the Pharisees stressed the views that one day leadership over the Jews would be vested in a scion of the family of David, and that there would be reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked in the future world” (Zeitlin 1979:106).

One already notices a struggle for ‘everlasting authority’ between these two factions; with the Sadducees relying on the biblical notion of the everlasting priesthood being given to Aharon and his descendants – and the Pharisees (as recorded in 1 Maccabees 2:57) stressing that “[David] inherited the throne of an everlasting kingdom.”

According to Zeitlin (1979:106), it was the Pharisees who at this juncture, began to emphasise and develop further such ideas as the suffering of the righteous, the future world where there would be reward and punishment, and the immortality of the soul.

The Hasmonean period

The balance of power between the priestly Sadducees and the royalist Pharisees was to change during the Hasmonean period (140-37 BCE). The Hasmoneans revolted against the Syrians and displaced the authority of the ruling priestly Zadokite family. The Pharisees were now in ascendancy over the Sadducees.


With the Hasmoneans in power, they then appointed Shimon the Hasmonean as the high priest. He became the ruler of the state with the officially documented proviso that his power was only to be “until a true prophet will arise in Israel’. He was not the king. Judaea was under new control and it was no longer a theocracy.

This, however, created new theological and political tensions because some of the people wanted to revert to a theocratic state where priests had control, just like they had in the past. These people formed a delegation and approached the Roman General Pompey, asking him to abolish the rule of Hasmonean kings and re-establish the old system where the high priest was both the religious and civil leader at the same time. The same thing happened later after Herod’s death when another delegation approached  Augustus Caesar with a similar request.

When the Hasmonean king Jannaeus Alexander took office, the Pharisees (who initially supported the Hasmonean rise to power) opposed him and this resulted in a catastrophic civil war. The Pharisees soon abandoned their political ambition and most of them decided to only involve themselves with religious affairs. This was when the Pharisees (i.e., the rabbis), in general, started becoming “quietists and legalists” (Zeitlin 1979:107). However, there were still groups of Pharisees who wanted to continue to fight for Judaean independence.


In 6 CE, Judaea became a province of Rome. When the Romans started demanding taxes from this province, there was an outcry. A new Jewish opposition was formed, headed by Judas of Galilee. Judas created a corresponding new ideology to the already existing ideologies of the other three groups, the Essenes, Sadducees and Pharisees.  Josephus calls this new group the ‘Fourth philosophy’. This is because he calls each of the three earlier groups (Essenes, Sadducees and Pharisees), ‘philosophies,’ as each is defined by a different ideology. Now there is a fourth ideology or ‘philosophy’ on the scene competing for the attention of the Jewish community.

Josephus describes the ideology of this new Fourth Philosophy as follows:

“These  men agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty and say that God is to be their only ruler and Lord.”

Josephus continues describing the intense need for freedom as expressed by this Fourth Philosophy, which was closely related to the rabbinic Pharisees:

“[Judas] incited his countrymen to revolt, upbraiding them as cowards for consenting to pay tribute to the Romans and tolerating mortal masters after having God for their Lord”

This new group, the Fourth Philosophy, was not averse to violence and they carried out acts of terrorism against the Romans and even against Jews who co-operated with the enemy, considering them traitors. They carried a short dagger, known as a sica, which they used to conceal beneath their cloaks. They used these weapons to assassinate anyone who tried to pursue peace with the Romans. The Fourth Philosophy became known as the Sicarii (Sikari’im).


Josephus mentions a fifth group but he does not name them. Josephus describes them as:

“Deceivers and imposters under pretense of divine inspiration, fostering revolutionary changes…They persuaded the people to act like madmen, and led them out into the desert under the belief that God would give them tokens of deliverance.”[6]

Zeitlin suggests that this fifth group can be called Apocalyptists as they expected some form of (messianic) revelation. Both the Sikari’im and Apocalyptists were the more radical splinter groups of the rabbinic Pharisees, who, as mentioned, were essentially quietists. Both the Skari’im and Apocalyptists wanted independence from the Romans and the Herodean dynasty.

The difference between them was that the Sikari’im believed in violence, terror and murder, while the Apocalyptists were opposed to such violence. Instead, the Apocalyptists spoke of love. Both these Pharisaic splinter groups were radical; the Sikari’im were overtly violent while the Apocalyptists were overtly pacifist. The Apocalyptists preached:

“If one seeketh to do evil unto you, do well unto him and pray for him.”[7]

According to Zeitlin (1979:108):

“[The Apocalyptists] believed that He [God][8] would reestablish Israel under His anointed Mashiach…”

This Messiah was not to be an ordinary human being. The Messiah the Apocalyptists envisioned was a supernatural being. They knew they could never remove the Romans by force so they believed only a supernatural Messiah could save them. This was a novel idea for Judaism (see the previous post) and according to Zeitlin (1979:109):

“[The Apocalyptists] introduced the idea of a supernatural mashiach, who would reveal himself in due time, vanquish the Romans, free Israel, and sit on the throne of his father David. Then the millennium would come, looked forward to by the prophets of old.”

Zeitlin goes on to make an important point. This supernatural Mashiach idea could not have been a construct of rationalist Jews but only of mystical Jews.

Zeitlin (1979:109) writes:

“The Apocalyptists were a mystic religious group…The normative [rabbinic][9] Pharisees opposed both the Sicarii and the Apocalyptists…they maintained that the Apocalyptists were deceiving themselves; that their views were in opposition to the true views of the Pharisees; and hence that the Judaeans would be led astray. The Pharisees believed that God would some day free His people from the Roman yoke, that the kingship would again be in the hands of…a scion of David, but that that king would not possess supernatural power and would not perform miracles. In this view they greatly differed from the Apocalyptists.”

After the destruction of the Temple, and particularly after the persecution following the Bar Kochva revolt, the idea of a supernatural Messiah grew even stronger. This seemed the only way out of such a disaster.

Zeitlin (1979:110-11) summarises and makes the point that:

“Physical revolts ended in catastrophe and they looked for their salvation, redemption, to a supernatural mashiach. Not all the sages, however, shared this view…Belief in a supernatural mashiach, a scion of the family of David, was first brought forth by the Apocalyptic Pharisaic group…[A]fter the destruction of the Second Temple, and particularly after the revolt of Bar Kokba, it gained stimulus and shaped the life of the Jewish people throughout the centuries.”


If Zeitlin is correct, it is noteworthy that the concept of a supernatural Mashiach was originally opposed by the mainstream Pharisees (=rabbis). They regarded it as the proclivity of the break-away radically mystical group, the Apocalyptists. Yet it was to become a cornerstone of future rabbinic Jewry.

Maimonides, however, and his notion of a natural Mashiach and normative messianic age - defined as the natural progression of humankind and history to a more developed state - remains an exception to this phenomenon and may be more in keeping with the original rabbinic principle of the Pharisees [See Kotzk Blog: 226) MASHIACH - A NATURAL OR SUPERNATURAL EVENT?].

[1] Zeitlin, S., 1979, ‘The Origin of the Idea of the Messiah’, in Messianism in the Talmudic Era, Ktav Publishing House, New York, 99-111 (originally published in 1963, in In Time of Harvest, 447-59).

[2] The apocalyptic (literally ‘revelation’ in Greek) writings were the prophetical writings that developed during Second Temple times (516 BCE -70 CE) and were not included by the rabbis in the final canon of the Torah. Many of these apocalyptic writings were popular among millennialist early Christians.

[3] King Jehoiachin (also known as Jeconiah or Coniah) ruled in Judah for three months and ten days before being captured by the Babylonians. He was only eighteen years old when he became king. Jehoiachin’s father was Jehoiakim, who was the son of King Josiah.

[4] Tzadok was the first high priest to serve in the First Temple. The Zadokites retained the high priesthood from the time of Zadok up until the rise of the Hasmoneans.

[5] See Zeitlin, S., 1961, ‘The Pharisees’, Jewish Quarterly Review, 97-129.

[6] Josephus, Jewish War, 7. 8.6-7, 2. 13. 4.

[7] Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs; The Testament of Joseph 18.2.

[8] Parenthesis mine.

[9] Parenthesis is mine.


  1. Reading the Sadducee/Pharisee split back to the first generation of the return to Zion seems rather anachronistic and questionable. Dov Zakheim's book on Nehmiah, Nehemiah: Statesman and Sage presents a much less theocratic early Second Temple era.

  2. Thank you for that perspective. It shows the difference between older and fresher research. I don't think, though, that it changes the general tenor of Zeitlin's contribution regarding the age of the supernatural messiah.