The Messiah Son of Ephraim
Charles C. Torrey, PhD.
Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 66, No. 3 (Sep., 1947), pp. 253-277
This important article provides astonishing—and unexpected—insight into the Jewish background of the Christian conception of the slain messiah. I have arbitrarily divided Torrey’s article into five parts. The major points (highlighted in red in the pertinent posts) are as follows:
– Contrary to general belief, there were two expected messiahs (“anointed ones”) in Second Temple Judaism: the Messiah Son of Ephraim, and the Messiah Son of David. The latter is well known, while the former has languished in obscurity since ancient times, suppressed in both Judaism and Christianity. However, Torrey argues that the Christian messianic conception in fact derives from the Messiah Son of Ephraim.
– Since Ephraim was one of Joseph’s two sons, the Messiah Son of Ephraim was also referred to as the Messiah Son of Joseph.
– Joseph and Ephraim were associated with the Northern Kingdom, coterminous with Samaria.
– The Messiah Son of Ephraim suffers and dies.
– The concept of the Millennium derives from the lore surrounding the Messiah Son of Ephaim.
– The Ephraimite Messiah “comes out of the sea” (echoing the ancient Babylonian wisdom figure Oannes).
– He is a warrior messiah.
– He is described also as a “wild ox.”
– The Messiah Son of Ephraim is also known as “Michael.”
– The conception of the Messiah Son of Ephraim led directly to the Christian Messiah, Jesus.
With occasional added footnotes in green. Particularly important passages are in red.
The doctrine of the two Messiahs holds an important place in Jewish theology, more important and more widely attested than is now generally recognized. It is not a theory imperfectly formulated or only temporarily held, but a standard article of faith, early and firmly established and universally accepted.
The doctrine, in substance, is this: there are two eternally appointed Messiahs, divine beings, destined to appear on earth at the end of the present age. The one is the Son of David, whose reign will be eternal (Ez 37:25, John 12:34). The other is the Son of Joseph, more often called Son of Ephraim,1 destined to lead the armies of Israel triumphantly and to reign long and prosperously, but eventually to fall in battle before the walls of Jerusalem.
The long-familiar idea of the rescue of Israel by a prince of David’s line must have taken shape gradually, and its early history is obscure. The title Mešîh, “anointed,” applied to the davidic deliverer, appears first in Second Isaiah (Isa 45:1, where an interpolator has inserted the name “Cyrus”) and (virtually) 61:1, cf. 55:3 f. It was this prophet, unquestionably, who gave to the conception of “The Anointed One” the ethical and spiritual character which it thenceforward retained. Indeed, Second Isaiah may well be called the true founder of the “Messianic” hope.
On the other hand, the prophet draws no firm line between his personified Israel and the individual leader, the scion of David’s house (55:3) whom he also visualizes. His thought is always primarily of his people, but Israel’s ideal representative is kept in sight and the traits of the one are those of the other. The mighty warrior 45:1 ff. or 41:2 (Abraham); the teacher, 50:4; the davidic king, 55:3 ff.; the universal benefactor, 61:1-3; is in each case and in a very true sense Israel personified, the embodiment of the nation at its best. Here the prophet saw more deeply than any of his predecessors. The individual, the Coming One, stands clearly before us in 42:1 ff., in 45:1 ff., in 49:1-6, in 55:3-5, and in 61:1 ff., though the picture readily shades off into that of triumphant Israel.
This Messiah, as depicted by Second Isaiah, appears frequently and distinctly under other conventional designations in the Prophets and the Psalms. Because of the antiquity of the conception and its relative importance, in Hebrew literature “The Messiah” or “His Messiah” (Hab 3:13, Ps 2:2) means ordinarily The Son of David,2 even after the dogma of The Son of Joseph was well established.
The appearance in Israelite theology of a second Messiah is a fact of great interest and importance. It is not at once obvious why there should be two deliverers, of like attributes, each the divine representative of an Israelite tribe. It is at least possible to say with confidence, at the outset, 1. that the conception of the god-man of David’s house gave the pattern for the representative of Ephraim; and 2. that there was a definite and compelling reason for the new doctrine. No ordinary consideration could have led the Jewish scholars to acquiesce in the duplication of attributes and activities which had long been held sacred and unique.
We see the two Messiahs mentioned together, as equals, and of central importance in the Israelite faith, in the Targum to the Song of Songs 4:5: “Your two deliverers, who are destined to set you free, Messiah bar David and Messiah bar Ephraim, are like Moses and Aaron.” The same words occur again in 7:4. The Targum is late,3 but it plainly records here a tenet which is neither new nor the subject of controversy. There are, moreover, many passages less explicit than the above, from a much earlier time, which show the same dogma fully developed and treated as a matter of course.
The Jewish authors of the earlier day were inclined to be reticent in dealing with the subject of these divine champions, contenting themselves with mere allusions. Also, there is a certain subtle influence of the growing Christian heresy which needs to be taken into account.
The rise of the Nazarene [Christian] sect, with its Messiah ben Joseph and its appropriation of the Old Testament prophecies, was most unwelcome to the Jewish doctors. Especially disturbing was the new interpretation of Isaiah, chapter 53, which was claimed as definite prediction of the death of Jesus of Nazareth. During the time in which the Christian heresy was menacing, and for a considerable time thereafter, the Rabbis appear to have left messianic doctrine at one side, as far as this could be done. There had been too much of it. Judaism was strong in oral tradition, however, and though the doctors avoided the subject it was kept in lively memory, so that in later years the doctrine of the Josephite Messiah, especially, came to frequent expression, as will be seen.
G. F. Moore (Judaism, II, 370)4 takes note of the first specific mention of the divine Son of Ephraim in the Jewish literature that has come down to us, namely, in a tradition from the time of Rabbi Dosa ben Archinos, a contemporary of Gamaliel II. Moore evidently thought of the doctrine as comparatively new at that time. He does indeed say: “From the incidental way in which the Josephite Messiah and his death come in, it may be inferred that the notion was not unfamiliar; but it does not appear how commonly it was accepted among the authorities of the time.” I think it will appear in the following pages that the doctrine [of the Josephite messiah] antedated the Christian era by several centuries, and was accepted on all hands.
The new Messiah—however the conception arose—would naturally come from Joseph, next to Judah the foremost of the Israelite tribes (see especially Gen 49:22-26 and Deut 33:13-17), also regularly representing the Northern Kingdom, as Judah represented the Southern (see Am 5:15, Josh 18:5, etc). In Zech 10:6 it is said: “I will strengthen the house of Judah, and I will save the house of Joseph.” Compare Ez 37:16-20, where Judah and Joseph constitute the restored Israel. In the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Judah, chapter 26), Levi is piously given the first place, Judah ranks second, Joseph third etc. It the representative character that is important.
It is an interesting question, and one of no little importance, how this belief in the advent and death of a second Messiah came into being. The question has been variously answered, not without controversy. There seems, indeed, to be good ground for a satisfying answer in the interpretation of chapter 53 of Isaiah, as many Jewish scholars have maintained.
This view is concisely stated in Ferdinand Weber’s Jüdische Theologie, second edition (1897), p. 362:
“According to Isa 53, God’s servant or the Messiah clearly must suffer and die for his people. This could hardly be expected (or only with difficulty) from the Son of David. Hence, another messiah of lesser stature needed to precede him, a messiah through whose death the sins of Israel are expiated and atoned, as well as a messiah who would open the way for both the Kingly Messiah and for his people to attain the kingdom of glory.” [Translation from German by R.S.] 5
This explanation, however, was bound to be stoutly opposed by many of the Jewish theologians. Any mention of Is 53 in connection with messianic doctrine raised a storm signal (see above), aside from the fact that the Rabbis after the first century C. E. were inclined to lay minor stress on all messianic speculation, as “belonging to eschatological hope rather than to formal dogma.” (See especially Weber’s Einleitung, p. XXXVI, also what was said above in criticism of George Foote Moore’s treatment of the subject.) The rise of the belief in an Ephraimite Messiah was now looked upon as a purely theoretical development (“aberration” is Moore’s term for it), and it was variously accounted for.
The explanation which Moore adopts (Judaism, II:371) is an astonishing example. He writes:
How it arose has been much discussed. Its main support, if not its origin, is Obad 18: “The house of Jacob will be fire and the house of Joseph flame, and the house of Esau stubble; and they will set them afire and consume them, and there will be nothing left of the house of Esau, for the Lord says so.” In this verse R. Samuel ben Nahman, a homilist of the earlier part of the third century, found that Esau (Rome) would be delivered only into the hand of a descendant of Joseph.
Now the context of the passage shows, and the commentators agree, that “house of Jacob” means here the Southern Kingdom. Nowack, Die Kleinen Propheten, p. 170, speaks of the “Jakob- (Juda-) Haus.” We have here, then, merely the standing designation of the restored Israelite people as “Judah and Joseph” (see above). So far from the passage being the “main support” of the doctrine of the Ephraimite savior, it certainly has nothing whatever to do with it. The far-fetched and fanciful exegesis of Rabbi Samuel ought not to be resurrected. How anyone could suppose the passage to have been the origin of the dogma of a martyr Messiah, is not easy to see. Nor will many find it easy to believe that the Jews adopted a Messiah Son of Joseph after the Nazarenes had made their claim!
Some Biblical passage or picture, indeed, is to be looked for as the source of this remarkable feature of Jewish eschatology. It would seem to be beyond question that a tenet of such importance, well established in Talmud, Targum, and Midrash, must have its proof texts in canonical Hebrew scripture. Here are two divinely anointed beings, each connected in the closest way with the fate of both Israel and the nations of the world. It is hardly possible to believe that the Rabbis could have adopted and given out this very significant article of faith merely on the basis of speculation, without definite prophetic authority. Many have said this much, yet without venturing to believe that the strange teaching could actually be found in Hebrew scripture. Thus in Christian Biblical Theology the doctrine of the two Messiahs has at present no standing whatever.
Dalman, Schürer, and others have proposed to see in Deut 33:17 the canonical authority for the Rabbinical teaching. (See Schürer, Geschichte II:535 f., and his references to the literature.) The passage in Deuteronomy says of Joseph: “The firstling of his herd, majesty is his, and his horns are the horns of the wild-ox; with them he shall gore the peoples all of them, even the ends of the earth; they are the ten thousands of Ephraim and the thousands of Manasseh.”
The comparison of the patriarch to the wild-ox “goring all the peoples of the earth” led the Rabbinical writers to see here an allusion to the Josephite Messiah. (Jewish Encyclopedia, VIII:512. This material was collected and discussed by Dalman.) It is easy to see how naturally the passage would suggest to Jewish readers the “warrior Messiah”—after the dogma had been long established—but it is very far from giving us information as to the origin of the belief.
There is no suggestion of an individual leader. The picture is of the “hosts” of Ephraim and Manasseh. Two absolutely essential facts are here given no hint: (1) the leader is an Anointed One; (2) he is slain, dying a hero’s death on behalf of his people. Since the verse in Deuteronomy does not touch these necessary features, and neither one of them could be inferred, we must look further. We are brought back inevitably to the picture in Isa 53, defended by Weber and his fellows (see above) as the true source.
There can be no question that the orthodox Jewish doctrine, down to the first century of the present era, saw a “Messiah” in Isa 42:1 and 52:13, and a veritable “death” in 53:9. Even in the anti-Christian Targum of chapter 53, which cuts loose from the Hebrew and eliminates nearly everything that the Christians could use to support their claim, these features are retained. Long before the rise of the troublesome sect there had been deep meditation on this wonderful chapter in Isaiah—it could not have been otherwise. Speculation on the mystery of the martyr Servant must have begun as soon as the Hebrew text was put into circulation.6 Who is this great personage, first characterized in 42:1-4, who will bring forth judgment for the nations, for whose law the far countries wait, who nevertheless will lay down his life in atonement for the sins of Israel?
It is necessary to keep constantly in mind the fact that we are dealing with two Messiahs who resemble each other very closely. Two preexistent beings, kept in reserve for the Last Days; each destined to rescue Israel from hostile nations; each bearing the title “anointed”; each assured of his triumphal reign. Can it always be easy to keep the two separate? There is good reason to believe that the existence of this ambiguity has led to a mistaken interpretation of more than one passage in the later Jewish religious literature.
The first of the following examples appears to give especially good illustration. In certain respects, indeed, it is the most important of all the extant passages which deal with the doctrine of the lesser Messiah.
1. Joseph had two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Their northern territories were the home of the Samaritans who have always upheld the pre-eminence of Joseph among the sons of Israel, not only because the Samaritans claimed descent from Joseph but also because Ephraim received a special blessing from Jacob/Israel in which he was preferred above his older brother Manasseh (Gen 48:8-20).—R.S.
5. “Offenbar muss nach Jes. c. 53 der Knecht Gottes oder der Messias für sein Volk leiden und sterben. Kann man das von dem Sohne Davids nicht oder nur in beschränktem Masse glauben, so muss ein Messias von geringerem Würde ihm vorausgehen, welcher durch seinen Tod die Sünden Israels büssen und sühnen und dem Könige Messias samt seinem Volke den Weg zur Errichtung des Reiches der Herrlichkeit eröffnen werde. Das ist Messias der Sohn Josephs, auch Sohn Ephraims genannt.“
6. The chapter had a message of hope for those who read it. The death of a martyr was held to be in some way an expiatory offering in behalf of his people: see IV Macc 6:29; 17:21. Cf. II Macc 7:37 f. There was also the promise in the last verse of the chapter: “Therefore I give him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong”—naturally suggesting a military triumph.—C.T.