In Martha Himmelfarb's most capable hands, the late antique text Sefer Zerubbabel (hereafter SZ) may finally escape obscurity and receive the attention it deserves.
Himmelfarb and others have published about SZ before, but this is the first full monograph to treat and contextualize SZ, an early seventh-century work that recounts a vivid and powerful vision of the end times. The text, translated and annotated by Himmelfarb in an appendix, opens with Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, praying to God to grant him a vision of the future. God transports him to the capitol of the Roman Empire, where he meets a despised and severely wounded man who introduces himself as the Lord's anointed one. The angel Michael/Metatron then alights on the scene and affirms that this lowly-looking man is the messiah son of David, Menahem ben Ammiel, who has been hidden in exile until the end time. The angel explains further that the eschaton will begin with the arrival of Hephzibah, the mother of the messiah, “armed with a miraculous staff” (2). Only after her successes in battles will another messianic figure come out of hiding, Nehemiah ben Hushiel, a descendant of Joseph who will gather all of Israel in Jerusalem to resume the sacrificial cult. After forty years, Nehemiah will be killed by the Jews’ archenemy Armilos, the spawn of Satan and the statue of a virgin. At this point, the messiah Menahem will himself come out of hiding with Elijah the prophet, and together they will resurrect Nehemiah. After witnessing this miracle, all of Israel will believe in Menahem's messianic status, Hephzibah will hand over her staff to her son, and unity will prevail as Menahem, Nehemiah, and Elijah preside over the general resurrection. Finally, Menhaem will slay Armilos, God himself will participate in battle alongside the other heroes, sacrifices will resume, and a heavenly temple will descend to earth.
Although rich with allusions to the Hebrew Bible, SZ features characters that are today more closely associated with Christianity than with Judaism. One of the major contributions of Himmelfarb's book is her analysis of the evidence for Jewish attraction to and appropriation of ostensibly Christian ideals and hermeneutics. Like recent works by Peter Schäafer and others of the Princeton school, her study participates in the continued scholarly examination of “the ways that never parted” between Judaism and Christianity.
Through a meticulous and rigorous analysis of second temple, rabbinic, and liturgical sources, Himmelfarb contextualizes the sparse but undeniable evidence for Jewish attraction to the idea of suffering and dying messiahs as well as a messianic mother in late antiquity. Where rabbinic sources prove opaque, “SZ allows us a glimpse of messianic hopes of ordinary Jews in the centuries preceding its composition” (145).
Himmelfarb's first chapter focuses on textual criticism, the genre, and the date of SZ. She suggests that the text is best understood as a narrative modeled on biblical prophecy rather than the genre of the apocalypse—an artificial category created by scholars that was unknown to this ancient author. Himmelfarb observes that the author wrote in biblicizing, rather than rabbinic, Hebrew, and looked especially to the prophet Ezekiel for inspiration. Himmelfarb accepts the consensus that this dramatic narrative belongs to the early seventh century CE, when Persian and Christian forces were battling over Jerusalem and Christian losses had briefly ignited Jewish hopes for a new age and the rebuilding of a third temple under Persian rule, evoking the beginning of the second temple's construction under Cyrus.
Himmelfarb's second chapter builds on some of her previous work on the mother of the messiah figure in the Palestinian Talmud, directing our attention to characterization of the Hephzibah and the Virgin icon in the context of the Byzantine age. Himmelfarb argues that rabbinic repulsion may obscure popular Jewish attraction to this figure. She shows that where the sages all but dismiss the mother of the messiah in one tradition, SZ reveals a fuller story which the sages mocked. Indeed, perhaps the most stunning feature of SZ is the figure of Hephzibah, portrayed not as a mother, but as a powerful warrior. Himmelfarb explains that Hephzibah's character is modeled on the imperial use of the icons of the Virgin Mary in Byzantine battles in the early seventh century.
While detailing the Byzantine context, Himmelfarb also deftly maps out the constellation of biblical connotations inherent in appellations like Hephzibah, Menahem b. Ammiel (the messiah son of David), and Nehemiah b. Hushiel (the messiah son of Joseph, or alternately, Ephraim). Rich—and perhaps contradictory—precedents are key to the power of these figures. One is reminded of the Quran's reference to the mother of Jesus as Aaron's sister. This is not a sign of confusion between Miriam and Mary (though their names are the same in Arabic), but a way of ascribing to the latter figure the characteristics of her predecessor. Himmelfarb acknowledges the attraction this messianic mother figure must have held for late antique Jews, but she does not engage in any speculation about the significance of a powerful female figure in ancient Judaism more broadly; she leaves it to readers to imagine the relevance of such a figure to the women and men of late antiquity.
In Chapters 3 and 4 Himmelfarb shows that in ruminating on the messiah as a suffering servant, the author of SZ was not a lone voice crying out in the wilderness: SZ, instead, was part of a larger conversation with many other Late Antique Jews including the rabbis, the oft-neglected liturgical poets, and the Targumists.
In synagogal poetry and rabbinic homily, Jews dwelled on the redemptive suffering of the messiah along the lines of Isaiah 53 (though extant sources suggest that Jews had conflicted feelings about these ruminations). Himmelfarb manages to draw out important moments of uncomfortable silence in rabbinic texts without making arguments from such silence. Readers of Himmelfarb's book will learn that it was not only Christians who speculated about a suffering messiah figure tasked with righting relations between God and his people in late antiquity. Some Jews in the synagogue, too, pondered the “themes of vicarious suffering and atonement that are also central to Christians’ understanding of their messiah,” not seeing it as contradictory to their relationship with God as expressed in the liturgy (97).
Where the author of SZ and the liturgical poets let themselves ponder the wonders of the coming of the messiah, the sages focus on tempering the attraction to such messianic figures, making the messiahs’ arrival contingent on the proper conduct and practices of Jews. This more skeptical attitude may be why both SZ and some homilies in Pesiqta Rabbati describe the sages, in particular, as those who fail to recognize the messiah when he appears.
In chapter 5, Himmelfarb turns to the “Dying Messiah son of Joseph,” a topic that brings her into a contentious area of scholarship about Jesus’ Jewish precedents. Himmelfarb acknowledges the charged discourse in this area of scholarship, but stays above the fray, quickly and expertly reviewing and discarding the arguments for second temple period precedents for such a figure. Extant traditions from Genesis Rabbah and the Babylonian Talmud show that SZ did not invent the idea of the dying messiah son of Joseph, but as the only surviving pre-Islamic text that preserves a full treatment of his life and career, SZ may reveal what the rabbis knew and did not discuss.
Himmelfarb explains that some late antique Jews expected two messiahs. Biblical texts certainly provide precedent for expectations of dual messiahs (an anointed king and prophet), but these passages are not the arrangement that inspired some late antique thinkers. Instead, they juxtaposed a messiah descended from Joseph, usually associated with war, and a messiah descended from David, usually associated with kingship. Himmelfarb suggests that the significance of the messiah son of Joseph derived from his association with the northern kingdom and lost tribes (balancing out the Davidic messiah's association with the southern tribes of Judah), but since this is not explicitly asserted in SZ, she agrees with Israel Yuval that Christians may have influenced Jewish expectations by way of “the example of the Christian messiah, whose human father bore the name Joseph” (116).
A final chapter explores “Sefer Zerubabel after Islam,” pointing to its continued incorporation into medieval texts, noting liturgical poetry that deserves more research, the disappearance of Hephzibah from Jewish thought (apart from an aside in the Zohar), brief allusions to SZ in medieval texts, and its surprisingly large role in the Sabbatean movement in the 17th century.
In Jewish Messiahs in a Christian Empire, Himmelfarb delves into a wide range of topics of great interest to scholars of early Christianity and Judaism, assiduously charting territory in a complicated literary terrain studded with pitfalls and gaps.
Himmelfarb persuasively demonstrates the importance of looking at SZ and liturgical sources to flesh out and offer a counterpoint to rabbinic sources, showing how they illuminate each other and how they all drew on the rich stores of traditions available in late antiquity. We learn that the author of SZ, the paytanim of this era, and the sages all incorporated and responded to inherited Jewish traditions and the Christian Byzantine-Persian context in different ways, but that they were all engaged in the same engrossing conversation.