Monotheism and the Messiah

Abridged from Revolution in Judea: Jesus and the Jewish Resistance by Hyam Maccoby

If the longing for the Messiah had been no more than a desire for political independence it would not have had the power to inspire such extraordinary resistance. In other countries patriotism had produced great heroism against Rome but nothing so prolonged and determined as the Jewish efforts which by this obstinacy and courage aroused the wonder, fear, and hatred of Roman historians. The Messianic ideal arose from the whole "weltanschauung" of the Jewish people which was unique in the ancient world. The Messianic ideal arose out of monotheism.

Monotheism unified human history into a single process tending towards one final aim, the fulfilling of the purposes of God in creating the world. The idea of a Messianic age providing the denouement of the cosmic drama is inherent in monotheism. Polytheism, on the other hand, provided no such cosmic drama. Each nation had its own gods and there was no overriding purpose for mankind.

History, in polytheistic cultures, was regarded as cyclic. Nations like individuals had their life-cycles of youth, maturity, and decline. Even the gods had these life-cycles; and above both gods and men was an inexorable, indifferent Fate. Only the Jews claimed to be in contact with this supreme immortal Fate, claiming also that it was not indifferent to mankind but a loving Father who molded the process of history.

This concept of progress in history towards a final Utopia has been the inspiration of the progressive and utopian tradition in Western culture -- so much so that it is difficult nowadays to visualize the uniqueness of this idea in the ancient world.

As well as being a source of unquenchable optimism, Monotheism was unable to acknowledge defeat. Polytheistic nations could admit that their gods had proved weaker than those of Rome; or could succumb to Roman syncretism by which the undefeated gods were identified with the gods of Rome (e.g., Jupiter/Zeus/Ammon). The Jewish God, the creator of Heaven and Earth, could not submit to such annexation....

When the Jews were in fact defeated it meant not that God had been defeated but that God's people had failed in their mission and must re-dedicate themselves by repentance. This is the meaning of the campaigns of repentance ... which accompanied a Messianic movement...Monotheism began as the religion of a band of runaway slaves; and it expressed their determination not to submit to any oppressive individual or class again.

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