Book Note | Jewish Messiahs in a Christian Empire: A History of the Book of Zerubbabel

by Jae H. Han in

Martha Himmelfarb. Jewish Messiahs in a Christian Empire: A History of the Book of Zerubbabel. Harvard University Press, 2017.


In her new book Jewish Messiahs in a Christian Empire: A History of the Book of Zerubbabel, Professor Martha Himmelfarb (Department of Religion, Princeton University) reshapes scholarly understandings of late antique Jewish “Messianism” prior to the rise of Islam. Through her careful analysis of the early seventh-century “text” Sefer Zerubbabel and other contemporaneous sources, Himmelfarb draws out evidence for a body of popular traditions about messianic figures circulating among “ordinary Jews” in the late antique Byzantine milieu. Surprisingly, these traditions suggest that Jews were both deeply attracted to and repulsed by Christian descriptions of a suffering and dying Messiah, his mother Mary, and the figure of an “Anti-Christ.” This slim book rewards close reading, and while what follows attempts to capture the contents of her book, to use Himmelfarb’s own words, “it certainly does not adequately convey its texture.” (p. 17)

In Chapter One, Himmelfarb analyzes Sefer Zerubbabel’s context and genre. She first attends to the manuscript witnesses for Sefer Zerubbabel and settles on the version found in Eleazar b. Asher Halevi’s (14th CE) Sefer Hazikhronot, citing “the inclusiveness of its text, not the early date of the manuscript” (p. 15), and includes a new English translation of this manuscript in an appendix to the book. She then argues that Sefer Zerubbabel does not, in fact, fit the genre of “apocalypse” in the manner of the Second Temple era apocalypses. Instead, Sefer Zerubbabel passes itself off as a work of Biblical prophecy, as evidenced by its debt to Ezekiel and its tendency to employ archaic Biblical grammatical forms, including the use of the vav-conversive, -im as the plural ending, uniquely “Biblical” deployment of infinitives, using asher instead of she-, and an attempt to restrict the vocabulary to “Biblical” words. In Himmelfarb’s words, “the author of Sefer Zerubbabel could hardly have set out to write an apocalypse because he would have been unaware of such a literary genre.” (p. 22) Finally, she confirms and extends the scholarly consensus in dating Sefer Zerubbabel to the early decades of the seventh century, prior to the Arab conquests.

In Chapter Two, Himmelfarb focuses on Sefer Zerubbabel’s figure of Hephzibah, the warrior-mother of the Messiah. She argues that the “authors” of Sefer Zerubbabel responded to the Byzantine military deployment of icons and statues of the Virgin Mary by appropriating and fashioning Hephzibah as a militant mother of the Messiah. In exploring early traditions concerning Hephzibah, Himmelfarb first turns to the figure of a negligent mother of the Messiah in the Yerushalmi (y. Ber. 2.4/1-14), and argues that the rabbinic story mocks a more popular positive tradition about the mother of the Messiah. She then discusses Sefer Zerubbabel’s figure of the “Beautiful Statue” – undoubtedly a reference to statues of the Virgin Mary – and its son, Armilos, the Jewish “Anti-Christ,” who “is at once the Christian messiah and the equivalent of the Christian antichrist.” (p. 56) She argues that Sefer Zerubbabel’s depiction of the beautiful statue, who is impregnated by Satan and gives birth to Armilos is in fact a “parody of the narrative of the virgin birth.” (p. 57)

In chapter three, Himmelfarb argues that Sefer Zerubbabel’s depiction of the Davidic Messiah Menahem b. Ammiel as a suffering Messiah is evidence that Jews adopted the Christian identification of the Isaianic “suffering servant” with a messianic figure. To make her case, she first argues that there is very little evidence for “messianic” interpretations for the suffering servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) in the Second Temple period. In fact, the earliest account of a suffering Messiah in Jewish literature, that is, the story of R. Joshua b. Levi meeting the Messiah at the Gates of Rome (b. Sanh. 98a), comes after Christians had already identified the “suffering servant” of Isaiah with a messianic figure. She also suggests that just as the rabbis mocked a popular Jewish tradition regarding the mother of the Messiah, the rabbis attempted to neutralize popular traditions about the imminent arrival of the Messiah by stating that the Messiah will only come when all of Israel obeys God. Finally, she contextualizes Sefer Zerubbabel’s depiction of Menahem b. Ammiel resurrecting Nehemiah b. Hushiel with roughly contemporaneous texts like ps.-Ephrem’s “Sermon on the End,” the Qissa-yi Daniyal, and the piyyutim ’Oto Hayom and Ha‘et lig‘or, ultimately concluding that Jews in the seventh century ascribed significance to the Messiah’s ability to raise the dead. These points demonstrate that Jews were circulating traditions of a suffering Messiah after the Christian “invention” of the motif.

Chapter four explores the trope of the “Suffering Messiah” in the piyyut ’Az milifnei vereishit and in Pesiqta Rabbati (Pisqa 34, 36, and 37), both of which are roughly contemporaneous with Sefer Zerubbabel. Himmelfarb argues that these texts share with Christianity an understanding of the redemptive quality of a suffering Messiah, which are ultimately rooted in the passages on the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. Furthermore, the “authors” of these texts appropriated the redemptive quality of a suffering Messiah independently, which affirms her thesis that many Jews were attracted to the Christian understanding of a suffering and ultimately redemptive Messiah. Sefer Zerubbabel itself, however, lacks an understanding of the redemptive quality of suffering, which reminds us that these texts are constantly negotiating with tradition, not merely transmitting them. Himmelfarb concludes this section by discussing Targum Jonathan’s conspicuous absence of a suffering Messiah in its “translation” of Isaiah 53, which, she argues, ultimately suggests widespread distribution of both Jewish and Christian readings that associate a suffering Messiah with redemption.

In Chapter Five, Himmelfarb discusses the identification of the second Messiah in Sefer Zerubbabel with the Messiah son of Joseph. She first argues against earlier scholars who understood this development as an “internal development that owed nothing to the Christian messianic narrative” (p. 100). Instead, she shows that there is very little evidence for a concept of a “Messiah son of Joseph” in texts from the Second Temple period, and that the concept emerges among Jews only later, likely in interaction with Christian claims of Jesus as the Messiah. Furthermore, the narrative of Sefer Zerubbabel diverges from the Bavli’s account of a Messiah son of Joseph (b. Suk. 52), which makes it likely, again, that the rabbis and the author of Sefer Zerubbabel were both responding to popular Jewish traditions about a second Messiah. Himmelfarb concludes this chapter by emphasizing that while both the ideas of a suffering and a dying Messiah are ultimately rooted in Christian ideas, even “Sefer Zerubbabel is unwilling to attribute suffering, death, and resurrection to a single messianic figure.” (p.119) In so doing, she nicely captures her contention that Jews were both drawn to and repulsed by Christian ideas of the Messiah.

The last chapter deals with the reception of Sefer Zerubbabel. Himmelfarb traces its afterlife through ’Oto Hayom, whose author likely knew Sefer Zerubbabel, Saadya’s Books of Beliefs and Opinions, Hai’s responsum on Redemption, and the Secrets and ‘Atidot of R. Simeon, among other texts. She ultimately concludes with a discussion on the role of Sefer Zerubbabel in the Sabbatian controversy. She notes that as Sefer Zerubbabel traveled through Muslim controlled lands to Europe, some of the figures and tropes that made it so distinctive disappeared. The figures of Hephzibah and of the suffering Messiah Menahem b. Ammiel, for example, drop away relatively soon after the “publication” of Sefer Zerubbabel. The survival of the book itself, therefore, was likely due to its “compelling narrative” rather than to its claim to be “biblical” prophecy.

Himmelfarb’s incisive reading of Sefer Zerubbabel greatly enriches our understanding of Jewish messianism between the Second Temple period and the rise of Islam. By exploring common themes and figures in a wide range of sources, Himmelfarb works “backward” to uncover a vibrant “Judaism” that actively appropriates key elements of the Christian messianic narrative, much to the consternation of the rabbis. As a result, her book fits well with other scholarship that seeks to frame late antique Judaism within an imperial Christian context. Furthermore, her deft employment of piyyutim and other “para-rabbinic” texts like Sefer Eliyyahu and the Secrets of R. Simeon complex is itself an argument demonstrating the rich potential for such texts to chart out alternative historical trajectories for the development of late antique and medieval Judaism.

Jae H. Han is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania 



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