Jewish Messiahs in a Christian Empire

A History of the Book of Zerubbabel

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Martha Himmelfarb
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , February
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In a striking new monograph, Martha Himmelfarb offers the first book-length study of the oft-ignored Jewish text, Sefer Zerubbabel. This work, steeped in eschatology and messianism, is an important example of Jewish literary and intellectual activity at the end of the late antique era. With Himmelfarb’s book, it is now finally receiving the scholarly attention it deserves. Himmelfarb’s book, full of compelling close reads, proceeds by contextualizing Sefer Zerubbabel both in relation to the history of Jewish and Christian messianism and in relation to its broader historical context.

The book consists of an introduction, six chapters, a conclusion, and an appendix that features a useful translation of Sefer Zerubbabel into English. After a discussion of the text and context in the first chapter, Himmelfarb spends the bulk of the book (chapters 2-5) discussing figures in Sefer Zerubbabel’s eschatological narrative in relation to their depictions across Jewish literature. Himmelfarb’s work is perhaps most compelling when she demonstrates Sefer Zerubbabel’s deep engagement within its late antique Jewish context. She carefully and fruitfully explicates details in Sefer Zerubbabel, not just in relation to ancient Jewish and Christian apocalypses, but also in relation to rabbinic literature, piyyut, sign texts, and other late antique Jewish sources. In the process, she also offers a compelling case for the utility of a thoughtful investigation into Christian material underlying and manifesting in the work.

A central argument throughout the book concerns the parallels between Sefer Zerubbabel’s messianic scheme and those in rabbinic material. Rather than positing dependence, Himmelfarb argues for “the common debt of Sefer Zerubbabel and the rabbis to a larger body of messianic traditions” (8). More specifically, Himmelfarb suggests that both stem from a broader, “popular” Jewish messianic tradition. In her view, the rabbis were wary of these traditions, whereas Sefer Zerubbabel “embraced them” (115). This suggestion—pregnant with broader implications in the study of Judaism in the Roman, Byzantine, and Sassanian periods—is here invoked to explain both details of the rabbis’ messianic oeuvre and features in Sefer Zerubbabel as well as discrepancies between them. For example, Himmelfarb turns to this argument to explain the Talmud Yerushalmi’s somewhat negative portrayal of the mother of the Messiah as a “sarcastic rabbinic response to a popular Jewish story” (36), compared with Sefer Zerubbabel’s positive account of the same figure (47). The parallels between the image of the suffering messiah in the Talmud Bavli and Sefer Zerubbabel (e.g., 74) are explained in similar terms as well. In so doing, Himmelfarb offers an explanation for how and why Sefer Zerubbabel shares so many features with rabbinic messianic traditions without directly following them. This explanation, however, also raises some unaddressed questions related to the precise character of these popular messianic traditions and how they were transmitted.

By placing Sefer Zerubbabel into its late antique Jewish (and Christian-influenced) context, Himmelfarb’s book enhances our understanding of the Jewish messianism of the time. In illuminating Sefer Zerubbabel with an eye towards all of the relevant texts, moreover, Himmelfarb has forcefully demonstrated that seventh-century Jewish eschatology must not be viewed as anomalous, nor pushed to the periphery as “non-rabbinic.” Her book is a very welcome contribution to our understanding of Jewish messianism in late antiquity, and indeed to our understanding of how Judaism continued its entanglement with Christian ideas well into the early Islamic period. Jewish Messiahs in a Christian Empire can be recommended without reservation to scholars interested in eschatology, messianism, and Judaism in late antiquity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua A. Blachorsky is a doctoral student at the Skirball Department of Hebrew & Judaic Studies at New York University.

Date of Review: 
January 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Martha Himmelfarb is William H. Danforth Professor of Religion at Princeton University.


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