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Messiah Figures

Throughout the first century, there were quite a few figures who were messiahs or healers or prophets, people with similarities to Jesus; all kinds of different people. Some of them arose at times of conflict and they would be a military leader who would shake off Rome. Others were more prophetic figures, perhaps healers too. Some people took their followers out into the wilderness and they would promise them some kind of sign by God that would signal the end of time.

And of course, there’s John the Baptist who was shortly before the time of Jesus, who was taking people out into the wilderness and baptizing them as a sign of being part of a new community.

So they’re all very different, they’re all very different from one another and they’re all very different from Jesus himself. So, I don’t think there’s a clear blueprint of what a messiah figure is going to be like. There’s just lots and lots of people who are acclaimed or hailed by people as being some kind of a leader, some kind of liberator, somebody who perhaps, is going to shake off Rome and inaugurate a great golden age.

I think what made Jesus distinctive from the others is that his prophecies came true or at least that there was something that happened. The others, the others were killed, I mean, routinely. Most of the messianic leaders, most of the prophets within this period suffered some kind of fate; most of the time the Romans came and killed them. That happened to Jesus too, but of course, what made his story distinctive was that it had an aftermath. That wasn’t the end; Christian followers of Jesus claimed that he’d been risen from the dead; and so they started to say that the death wasn’t the end of it and that the prophecies hadn’t just come to an end with Jesus’ death, but they were about to be realized by, first of all, the resurrection and then by the hope of a return from Jesus at some unspecified time in the future. So, all of this great fervor and energy that was with Jesus during his lifetime was now channeled into this hope, an expectation that he was going to come back soon. So, I think Jesus’ movement was very different from the others for that main reason that the proclamation of the resurrection meant that he could move past the being executed and his movement then gained momentum.

  • Helen K. Bond

    Helen K. Bond is Professor of Christian Origins and Head of the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. She is interested in all aspects of the first-century Jewish world and the emergence of earliest Christianity. Her publications include Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation (Cambridge University Press, 1998), Caiaphas: Friend of Rome and Judge of Jesus? (Westminster John Knox, 2004), and The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury, 2012). She has just finished a book on Mark as the first biographer of Jesus to be published by Eerdmans in 2020.