Did ancient Jews believe the Messiah would arrive in the first century A.D.?
The question this article answers is, “Did ancient Jews believe the Messiah would arrive in the first century A.D.?” Jewish quotes and references are provided that reveal they did believe the Messiah would arrive in the first century.
Micah 5:2 — Messiah To Come In First Century
Among the Old Testament passages that prophesy of the coming of the Messiah, Micah 5:2 is a significant one. It says,
But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.
His goings forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity. Micah 5:2 (NASB)
This passage refers to a person who would be born in the city of Bethlehem Ephrathah. This city is usually just called Bethlehem. It is about 5-6 miles (8-9.7 km) south of Jerusalem, Israel.
Micah refers to Bethlehem as a small city when it says, “Too little to be among the clans of Judah.” We are told that a person will be born in the city and become a ruler in Israel. The prophecy says He existed from “long ago” and “from the days of eternity.” Both statements reveal He would be God. Only God could have existed in eternity past.
The Jewish Study Bible comments that Micah 5:2 refers to the coming of the Messiah. Here is the quote.
Traditional Jewish interpretations of this v. tend to focus on comparisons between the birth pangs of a woman and the hardship of Israel prior to the coming of the Messiah. See the following text: “Rab said: The son of David will not come until the [Roman] power enfolds Israel for nine months, as it is written, Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth: then the remnant of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel. ‘Ulla said: Let him [The Messiah) come, but let me not see him. Rabbah said likewise: Let him come, but let me not see him … Abaye enquired of Rabbah: ‘What is your reason [for not wishing to see him)? Shall we say, because of the birth pangs [preceding the advent] of the Messiah?’ But it has been taught, R. Eleazar’s disciples asked him: ‘What must a man do to be spared the pangs of the Messiah?’ [He answered,] ‘Let him engage in study and benevolence; and you Master do both.’ ” (b. Smr/1. 98b [Soncino ET]).
Notice that the Jewish interpretation of the passage is that the Messiah would arrive after the Roman Empire gained power and dominance over Israel. It is estimated that Rome was a republic about 509 B.C. and became an empire in 27 B.C. History also tells us that when Herod Archelaus began governing in 6 A.D., all of Judah came under direct Roman rule.
Now notice the rabbinic interpretation of Micah 5:2 is that the Messiah would come sometime after Rome had occupied Israel for nine months. Then according to history, the Messiah would come sometime after Rome occupied Israel in 6 A.D. The Messiah would come during the first century.
Then we must notice that Matthew 2:1-6 records that King Herod the Great called the chief priests and scribes and asked where the Messiah would be born. They replied in Bethlehem, and the gospels and early church fathers recorded that He was born in Bethlehem.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: ‘AND YOU, BETHLEHEM, LAND OF JUDAH, ARE BY NO MEANS LEAST AMONG THE LEADERS OF JUDAH; FOR OUT OF YOU SHALL COME FORTH A RULER WHO WILL SHEPHERD MY PEOPLE ISRAEL.’” Matthew 2:1-6 (NASB)
Daniel 9:24-26 — Messiah To Come In First Century
Maybe the most significant prophecy about the Messiah is found in Daniel 9:24-27.
Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place. So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress. Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined. And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate.” Daniel 9:24-27 (NASB)
The early church father Jerome (A.D. 342-420) wrote a Commentary on Daniel 9 in which he discusses the Hebrew or Jewish interpretation of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks (Daniel 9:24-27). In his comments, he discusses various views. Then he summarizes the interpretation of the Jews of Daniel 9:24-27. Here is the first part of his summary of the Jewish view.
As for the view which the Hebrews hold concerning this passage, I shall set it forth summarily and within a brief compass, leaving the credibility of their assertions to those who asserted them. And so let me put it in the form of a paraphrase (paraphrastikds) in order to bring out the sense more clearly. “O Daniel, know that from this day on which I now speak to thee (and that was the first year of the Darius who slew Belshazzar and transferred the Chaldean Empire to the Medes and Persians) unto the seventieth week of years (that is, four hundred and ninety years) the following events shall befall thy people in stages [literally: part by part]. First of all, God shall be appeased by thee in view of the earnest intercession thou hast just offered Him, and sin shall be canceled out and the transgression shall come to an end. For although the city at present lies deserted and the Temple lies destroyed to its very foundations [reading fundamenta for the non-existent frudamenta], so that the nation is plunged into mourning, yet within a fairly short time it shall be restored. And not only shall it come to pass within these seventy weeks that the city shall be rebuilt and the Temple restored, but also the Christ, who is the eternal righteousness, shall be born. (p. 552) And so shall the vision and the prophecy be sealed, with the result that there shall be no more any prophet to be found in Israel, and the Saint of saints shall be anointed.
Jerome tells us the Jews understood the seventy weeks in Daniel 9:24 were 490 years. The conclusion of the Hebrew view of the prophecy is that the Christ or the Messiah will be born after the seventy weeks (490 years). Later he continues summarizing the Jewish interpretation with,
Know therefore that from . . . the nation shall return and Jerusalem shall be restored, there shall be sixty-two weeks numbered unto the time of Christ the Prince and of the perpetual desolation of the Temple; and that there shall also be seven weeks in which the two events shall take place . . . namely that the nation shall return and the street shall be rebuilt by Nehemiah and Ezra. And so at the end of the weeks the decree of God shall be accomplished in distressing times, when the Temple shall again be destroyed, and the city taken captive. For after the sixty-two weeks the Christ shall be slain, and the nation who shall reject Him shall go out of existence”
Here Jerome continued to summarize the Jewish interpretation. His summary is between double quotation marks. Then he makes some comments. Later he refers to the Jewish view about Daniel’s seventy weeks again.
I am also well aware that some of the Jews assert that as for the statement about the single week, (696) “He shall establish a covenant with many (p. 553) for one week,” the division is between the reigns of Vespasian and Hadrian. According to the history of Josephus, Vespasian and Titus concluded peace with the Jews for three years and six month. And the [other] three years and six months are accounted for in Hadrian’s reign, when Jerusalem was completely destroyed and the Jewish nation was massacred in large groups at a time, with the result that they were even expelled from the borders of Judaea. This is what the Hebrews have to say on the subject, paying little attention to the fact that from the first year of Darius, King of the Persians, until the final overthrow of Jerusalem, which befell them under Hadrian, the period involved is a hundred and seventy-four Olympiads or six hundred ninety-six years, which total up to ninety-nine Hebrew weeks plus three years —- that being the time when Barcochebas, the leader of the Jews, was crushed and Jerusalem was demolished to the very ground.
It should be noted that Jerome and the Jews did not understand the seventy weeks of Daniel consistently as literal. Amillennialists do the same today. Some ammellennialists understand the first 69 weeks as pointing to the beginning of Christ’s ministry. Then they divide the remaining week. The first 3.5 years are assigned to the length of Christ’s ministry. Then they say we are living in the remaining 3.5 years, waiting for the second coming of Christ. We know the Jews understood Scripture allegorically too! This is evident in Jerome’s commentary.
In summary, Jerome states the Hebrews believed the sixty-nine weeks of Daniel as the time from the restoration of the city of Jerusalem to the birth of Christ. The last week is concluded in the second century during the reign of Aleius Hadrian (A.D. 118-138). Note that Vespasian reigned in A.D. 69 – 79. This means the Jews believed the Messiah would be born in the first century A.D.
Flavius Josephus — Messiah To Come In First Century
Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37-100), in the Wars of the Jews, writes about the destruction of Jerusalem under the Emperor Vespasian. In Book 2, chapter 6, and paragraph 4, he states,
“That then should their city be taken, as well as their holy house, when once their temple should become foursquare.” 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.” The Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular and many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their determination. Now, this oracle certainly denoted the government of Vespasian, who was appointed emperor in Judea. However, it is not possible for men to avoid fate, although they see it beforehand. But these men interpreted some of these signals according to their own pleasure; and some of them they utterly despised, until their madness was demonstrated, both by the taking of their city, and their own destruction.
The statement, “about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.” is significant since this further affirms the Jewish belief that the sacred writings indicated the Messiah would arrive and rule over all of the earth. This is further corroboration that the Jews expected the Messiah to arrive in the first century A.D.
We have explored two messianic prophecies from the Old Testament (Daniel 9:24-27; Micah 5:2), and a statement made by Flavius Josephus. We discovered that the Jews understood both prophecies indicated the Messiah would appear in the first century. They believed Daniel 9:24-27 pointed to the birth and death of Messiah in the first century A.D. Then when the evidence pointed to Jesus Christ, they rejected the prophecies or reinterpreted them. Yet, both Flavius Josephus and Jerome affirm the ancient Jews did believe the Messiah would arrive in the first century A.D.
The following quote illustrates why the crucifixion of Christ was a stumbling block for Jews (Galatians 3:10-13). It also helps us understand why the Jews rejected Christ as their Messiah. The following quote comes from Justin Martyr (A.D. 110-165) in his dialogue with the Jew, Trypho. Trypho said.
“Be assured that all our nation waits for Christ; and we admit that all the Scriptures which you have quoted refer to Him . . . But whether Christ should be so shamefully crucified, this we are in doubt about. For whosoever is crucified is said in the law to be accursed, so that I am exceedingly incredulous on this point. It is quite clear, indeed, that the Scriptures announce that Christ had to suffer; but we wish to learn if you can prove it to us whether it was by the suffering cursed in the law.”
1. Berlin and Brettle. The Jewish Study Bible. Jewish Publication Society. Oxford Press. 2004. p. 1213.
2. Peter Stearns. The Encyclopedia of World History. Houghton Mifflin Company. Sixth Ed. 2001. p. 83-84. and Fabio Moretti. “The first 100 years of Roman occupation.” Jerusalem Post. June 21, 2017. Also, “Roman Republic.” National Geographic. Online resource.
3. Haensch, Rudolf. “The Roman Provincial Administration.” The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine. 19 August 2010. p. 2. and “Judaea (Roman province).” Wikipedia. 23 October 2021.
4. Translated by Gleason Archer. St. Jerome. Jerome’s Commentary on Daniel. Wipf & Stock. 1958. p. 108.
5. Ibid. pp. 108-109.
6. Ibid. pp. 109-110.
7. Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 743.
8. Justin Martyr. Dialogue With Trypho. 89. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Hendrickson. 1995. vol. 1, p. 244.
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