It’s tempting to begin this review by repeating my introduction to David Mitchell’s Messiah Ben Joseph review. The details of Middle Ages Jewish messianic hope are surprising and fascinating. One particularly influential text of the time is Sefer Zerubbabel (“the book of Zerubbabel”), and so Martha Himmelfarb has devoted an entire book—Jewish Messiahs in a Christian Empire—to it.
Jewish Messiahs in a Christian Empire
Sefer Zerubbabel is a 7th century Jewish document that purportedly records an angelic revelation to the biblical Zerubabbel of events surrounding the arrival of the Messianic kingdom. As a reflection of Jewish Messianic hopes of the period, it is a fascinating text. It reveals preexisting messianic traditions and the influence of Christianity on Jews, as well as influencing the Jewish messianism that followed. According to Himmelfarb, Jewish Messiahs in a Christian Empire is the first monograph devoted to Sefer Zerubabbel.
Among the unique features of Sefer Zerubbabel are the first account of messiah ben Joseph’s life, death and resurrection, a significant role for the Davidic messiah’s mother, the Davidic messiah being described in language drawn from the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, and an eschatological villain called Armilos who is born of the sexual union of Satan and a statue of a virgin. Unique and strange indeed; however, Himmelfarb sensibly provides investigation and explanation for these images.
In Chapter one, Sefer Zerubbabel’s textual history is considered. There are several witnesses to the text, so attempting to reconstruct the original and explain the divergences is the natural place to begin.
In the second through fifth chapters, the different heroes of Sefer Zerubbabel are explored. Chapter two begins with Hephzibah, the mother of the Davidic messiah. Several factors are considered: the name Hephzibah, her role in Sefer Zerubbabel, the potential influence of the Virgin Mary, and precedents in Yerushalami of the messiah’s mother. Last, the statute that births Armilos is considered. While there are several proposals for explaining this strange idea, Himmelfarb suggests it plays as a parody and polemic of the Christian idea of the virgin birth.
Chapters three and four turn to Menahem Ben Ammiel, the Davidic messiah. Considering he is described in terms drawn from Isaiah’s suffering servant (Isaiah 53), this text’s history of messianic interpretation is first examined in chapter three. Chapter four considers other contemporary (7th century) Jewish texts regarding the suffering of the Messiah and any influence that Christianity may have had upon the idea.
Chapter five treats the second messiah, Messiah Ben Joseph. The presence of a dying and rising messiah in rabbinic literature reveals that the idea did not originate with Sefer Zerubabbel. However, Himmelfarb does not find the figure in Second Temple Jewish texts or earlier, unlike some scholars like David Mitchell (see my review).
Finally, chapter six looks further into history to trace the “afterlife” of Sefer Zerubbabel upon Jewish messianism.
As a newcomer to this period, I have little to say by way of critique. Himmelfarb’s writing is clear and her arguments reasonable. The book certainly deals with a subject matter that will be foreign even to those familiar with biblical studies, so most readers should pack a lunch. I am certainly eager to see if David Mitchell chooses to review the book, since Himmelfarb critiques his views quite fervently.
This book is not for the faint of heart. Only those particularly interested in Sefer Zerubbabel, Jewish apocalyptic, or the history of Jewish messianism are likely to enjoy Jewish Messiahs in a Christian Empire. That said, it is a clear, detailed, level-headed, and even fascinating treatment of its subject. What’s more, as the first monograph on Sefer Zerubbabel, it fills an essential gap in scholarship; a noble feat indeed!
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Many thanks to Harvard University Press for providing a review copy.