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Tradition, Transmission, and

Transformation from
Second Temple Literature
through Judaism and
Christianity in Late Antiquity
Proceedings of the Thirteenth International
Symposium of the Orion Center for the Study of the
Dead Sea Scrolls and Associated Literature
Jointly Sponsored by the Hebrew University Center for
the Study of Christianity, 22–24 February, 2011

Edited by

Menahem Kister, Hillel I. Newman, Michael Segal,


and Ruth A. Clements

LEIDEN | BOSTON
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Associated Literature. International Symposium
(13th : 2011)
 Tradition, transmission, and transformation from Second Temple literature through Judaism and
Christianity in late antiquity : proceedings of the Thirteenth International Symposium of the Orion Center
for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Associated Literature, jointly sponsored by the Hebrew University
Center for the Study of Christianity, 22–24 February, 2011 / by Menahem Kister, Hillel Newman, Michael
Segal, and Ruth A. Clements.
  pages cm. — (Studies on the texts of the desert of Judah, ISSN 0169-9962)
 Includes indexes.
 ISBN 978-90-04-27408-2 (hardback : acid-free paper) — ISBN 978-90-04-29913-9 (e-book) 1. Judaism—
History—Post-exilic period, 586 BC–210 AD—Congresses. 2. Judaism—History—Talmudic period,
10–425—Congresses. 3. Church history—Primitive and early church, ca. 30–600—Congresses.
4. Civilization, Greco-Roman—Congresses. 5. Apocryphal books—Criticism, interpretation, etc.—
Congresses. 6. Rabbinical literature—History and criticism—Congresses. 7. Dead Sea scrolls—Congresses.
I. Kister, Menahem, editor. II. Newman, Hillel, editor. III. Segal, Michael , editor. IV. Clements, Ruth, editor.
V. Title.

 BM176.O75 2015
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Contents

Preface vii
Abbreviations xiii

Parabiblical Traditions and Their Use in the Palaea Historica 1


William Adler

Outsider Impurity: Trajectories of Second Temple Separation Traditions


in Tannaitic Literature 40
Yair Furstenberg

No Angels before the World? A Preexistence Tradition and


Its Transformations from Second Temple Literature to Early Piyyuṭ 69
Yehoshua Granat

Pious Long-Sleepers in Greek, Jewish, and Christian Antiquity 93


Pieter W. van der Horst

Remnants of a Pharisaic Apologetic Source in Josephus and in the


Babylonian Talmud 112
Tal Ilan and Vered Noam

Windy and Fiery Angels: Prerabbinic and Rabbinic Interpretations of


Psalm 104:4 134
Yaakov Kaduri

Hellenistic Jewish Writers and Palestinian Traditions: Early and Late 150


Menahem Kister

The Severus Scroll Variant List in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls 179
Armin Lange

Where is the Lost Ark of the Covenant? The True History


(of the Ancient Traditions) 208
Chaim Milikowsky
vi contents

Satan’s Refusal to Worship Adam: A Jewish Motif and Its Reception in


Syriac Christian Tradition 230
Sergey Minov

Stars of the Messiah 272


Hillel I. Newman

Retelling Biblical Retellings: Epiphanius, the Pseudo-Clementines,


and the Reception-History of Jubilees 304
Annette Yoshiko Reed

Why is “A” Placed Next to “B”? Juxtaposition in the Bible and Beyond 322
Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch

The Reception and Reworking of Abraham Traditions in Armenian 343


Michael E. Stone

Index of Ancient Texts 361


Index of Modern Authors 387
Stars of the Messiah
Hillel I. Newman

Light, both in its purest form and as embodied by heavenly luminaries, exerts
its fascination in the biblical narrative from its opening verses. In Jewish escha-
tological thought of the Second Temple period and beyond, divine light and
celestial bodies also play a role in the imagery and drama of the final redemp-
tion. These themes are too broad to exhaust in a single paper. Here I will focus
on one aspect of the topic: the anticipated appearance of a messianic star or
other attendant divine light at the End of Days. I am interested in examining
not only the literary expressions of this motif in the context of apocalyptic
speculation, but also the manner in which this speculation has generated his-
torical outbreaks of messianic fervor and informed the presentation of astro-
nomical events as realized eschatology. Without ignoring the evolution of
tradition over time, I will trace several paths of continuity in the development
of this motif, extending from Second Temple times to the early Middle Ages.
Let me clarify further the parameters of this paper by mentioning an impor-
tant issue that I will address only tangentially. Some texts use astral language
or imagery as metaphor or symbol with reference to a messiah (Davidic as well
as priestly), but without meaning to suggest that extraordinary astronomical
events will actually take place at the End of Days. The distinction between figu-
rative language and speculation about concrete astronomical phenomena is
often subtle, as both may share the same biblical and exegetical foundations
and employ similar terminology. The boundaries between the two categories
are permeable, and the sense of a given image may be ambiguous. Though
more figurative texts will not be ignored, they do not stand at the center of this
discussion.

Two biblical loci feature prominently (though not always explicitly) in


the sources on messianic stars and light. The first is Balaam’s prophecy in
Num 24:17:

What I see for them is not yet,


What I behold will not be soon:
A star rises from Jacob,

* My thanks to Prof. Rina Talgam, of the Hebrew University Department of the History of Art,
for her assistance with the illustrations for this article.

© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, ���5 | doi ��.��63/9789004299139_012


Stars Of The Messiah 273

A scepter (‫)ׁשבט‬1 comes forth from Israel;


It smashes the brow of Moab,
The foundation of all children of Seth.

The second is a cluster of verses in Isaiah 60, addressed to the city of Jerusalem:

Arise, shine, for your light has dawned;


The Presence of the Lord has shone upon you!
Behold! Darkness shall cover the earth,
And thick clouds the peoples;
But upon you the Lord will shine,
And his presence be seen over you.
And nations shall walk by your light;
Kings, by your shining radiance.2

In what follows we will return repeatedly to these passages.3

1 Messianic Stars in Second Temple Sources

The traces in Second Temple literature of the messianic interpretation of


Balaam’s prophecy in general and Num 24:17 in particular are well known.
I use the term “messianic” loosely in this part of the discussion, to include all
divinely ordained eschatological heroes. It will suffice here to survey the major
sources.4

1  Or: “a meteor” (thus the NJPS version; all biblical translations here follow that version, unless
otherwise stated). See B. A. Levine, Numbers 21–36: A New Translation with Introduction and
Commentary (AB 4A; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 199–202.
2  Isa 60:1–3. Cf. Isa 60:19–20; 62:1.
3  For a selection of other biblical verses taken by exegetes in antiquity to allude to the light of
the Messiah, see W. Horbury, Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ (London: SCM Press,
1998), 92–94, 99.
4  From the abundant bibliography see, for example, J. L. Kugel, Traditions of the Bible: A Guide
to the Bible As It Was at the Start of the Common Era (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
Press, 1998), 803–8, 820–23; K. J. Cathcart, “Numbers 24:17 in Ancient Translations and
Interpretations,” in The Interpretation of the Bible: The International Symposium in Slovenia
(ed. J. Krašovec; JSOTSup 289; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 511–19; The Prestige
of the Pagan Prophet Balaam in Judaism, Early Christianity, and Islam (ed. G. H. van Kooten
and J. van Ruiten; TBN 11; Leiden: Brill, 2008); J. J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: Messianism
in the Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 71–75, 85–90.
274 Newman

Let us begin with the Septuagint’s rendering of the verse: “A star shall rise
out of Jacob, and a man (ἄνθρωπος) shall arise out of Israel.” While the “scepter”
of the prophecy has become explicitly personified and may be taken to refer
to an eschatological figure, the translation with regard to the star is essentially
literal, providing little indication of the translators’ precise understanding of
the image in context.5
The evidence from Qumran is more explicit. According to one manuscript
of the Damascus Document in the Cairo Genizah (CD 7:18–20 [Ms. A]; corrobo-
rated by two Qumran fragments: 4Q266 3 iii 19–22 and 4Q269 5),6 the star of
Num 24:17 is identified with the “interpreter of the Torah” (‫ )דורש התורה‬and
the scepter with the “prince of the whole congregation” (‫)נשיא כל העדה‬. These
are both commonly interpreted as eschatological titles; in the opinion of some
scholars the first refers to a priestly messiah and the second to a royal one.7
The verse is also cited in eschatological contexts in 4Q175 12–13 and 1QM 11:5–6,
though not in a manner that suggests a clear distinction between messianic
figures.8 In any case, nothing indicates that the verse is taken to refer to an
astronomical event.
The religious identity of the authors of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
is still contested, though the fact that the Testaments as we have them contain
both Jewish and Christian material is not. Without resolving these problems,
I note two passages pertaining to our topic. In T. Jud. 24:1 the patriarch declares:
“And after these things a star will arise to you from Jacob in peace, and a man
will arise from my seed like the sun of righteousness, ­walking with the sons

5  For various points of view on the LXX of this verse see W. Horbury, “Monarchy and Messianism
in the Greek Pentateuch,” in The Septuagint and Messianism (ed. M. A. Knibb; BETL 195;
Leuven: Leuven University Press and Peeters, 2006), 121–24; and in the same volume: J. J.
Collins, “Messianism and Exegetical Tradition: The Evidence of the LXX Pentateuch,” 144–47;
M. Rösel, “Jakob, Bileam und der Messias: Messianische Erwartungen in Gen 49 und Num
22–24,” 168–74. Each of these takes issue to some degree with J. Lust, Messianism and the
Septuagint: Collected Essays (ed. K. Hauspie; BETL 178; Leuven: Leuven University Press and
Peeters, 2004), 69–86, 147–50. Lust is inordinately skeptical of any “messianic” reading by the
LXX here.
6  See J. M. Baumgarten, Qumran Cave 4.XIII: The Damascus Document (4Q266–273) (DJD 18;
Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 44 (for 4Q266 3 iii 19–22), 128 (for 4Q269 5).
7  See for example Collins, The Scepter and the Star, 79–91. Note, however, that the “Interpreter
of the Torah” of Qumran features initially as one of the community’s historical leaders.
On this ambiguity see, for example, G. J. Brooke, “The Messiah of Aaron in the Damascus
Document,” RevQ 15 (1991): 224–25.
8  See the literature in n. 4 above; and especially F. García Martínez, “Balaam in the Dead Sea
Scrolls,” in van Kooten and van Ruiten, The Prestige of the Pagan Prophet Balaam, 71–82.
Stars Of The Messiah 275

of men in meekness and righteousness, and no sin whatever will be found


in him.”9 The passage, alluding to a Davidic messiah, appears, together with
subsequent verses, to betray the hand of a Christian author or redactor. It is
not clear if the reference to the star is to be taken literally, but whatever the
author’s original intent, the verse would ultimately have been taken by some
Christian readers to signify the star of the magi in Matthew 2. The Testament of
Levi, on the other hand, tells of an eschatological priest:

And his star will arise in heaven, as a king, lighting up the light of knowl-
edge as by the sun of the day; and he will be magnified in the world until
his assumption. He will shine as the sun on the earth and will remove
all darkness from under heaven, and there will be peace on all the earth.10

In this passage, the star in heaven corresponding to the earthly, eschatological


priest gives the impression of being a genuine celestial body.11 Scholars have
recognized the affinity of these verses to 4Q541 9, which alludes to the univer-
sal sunlight that will accompany a figure who likewise seems to be the escha-
tological priest.12

Before turning to those topics which constitute the major part of this paper,
I would like briefly to take a closer look at the star of the magi in Matt 2:1–12,
perhaps the most famous of messianic stars. I make no pretense of adding
something new to the vast body of scholarship on the subject, but it is impor-
tant for my purposes to highlight several important conclusions.13

9  H. W. Hollander and M. de Jonge, eds., The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: A
Commentary (SVTP 8; Leiden: Brill, 1985), 226–27.
10  T. Levi 18:3–4. Hollander and de Jonge, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, 177–80.
11  It is understood metaphorically, however, by A. Hilhorst, “Biblical Metaphors Taken
Literally,” in Text and Testimony: Essays on New Testament and Apocryphal Literature in
Honour of A. F. J. Klijn (ed. T. Baarda; Kampen: Kok, 1988), 124–25.
12  See Collins, The Scepter and the Star, 99–100; M. Kister, “Wisdom Literature and its
Relation to Other Genres: From Ben Sira to Mysteries,” in Sapiential Perspectives: Wisdom
Literature in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls (ed. J. J. Collins et al.; STDJ 51; Leiden: Brill, 2004),
42–43.
13  I am particularly indebted to W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical
Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew (3 vols.; ICC 26; Edinburgh: T&T
Clark, 1988–1997), 1:224–56; T. Hegedus, Early Christianity and Ancient Astrology (Patristic
Studies 6; New York: Peter Lang, 2007), 201–22; T. Nicklas, “Balaam and the Star of the
Magi,” in van Kooten and van Ruiten, The Prestige of the Pagan Prophet Balaam, 233–46.
276 Newman

The first is astronomical. Given that the appearance of stars and comets is
anticipated in various eschatological scenarios, it is natural that extraordinary
astronomical phenomena such as novas or comets should generate apocalyptic
excitement. Historical examples are not lacking, and we will encounter several
of them below. For hundreds of years historians and astronomers have hypoth-
esized about “scientific” explanations for the star of the nativity. That star, how-
ever, makes a poor candidate for such speculation. For one thing, the problems
and contradictions that beset the chronology of nativity narratives are rife,
so that any suggestion of a dateable comet, nova, or planetary conjunction
inevitably entails making arbitrary choices and doing more than a little vio-
lence to our written sources. For another, much in Matthew’s account suggests
that the narrative draws on extant typology that has fostered the introduction
of a messianic star. It has been recognized, for example, that the opening chap-
ters of Matthew are modeled on the early life of Moses, both as related in the
book of Exodus and as embroidered in postbiblical tradition. In these later
expansions, Pharaoh’s wise men foresee the birth of the savior of the Jews; in
rabbinic tradition the wise men are identified explicitly as astrologers.14 We
must not forget, of course, the star of Balaam. While there is no explicit ref-
erence to Balaam’s prophecy in Matthew itself, interpreters from the second
century till the present make this connection and point to its influence.15 We
should note as well the stamp of Isaiah 60 on the account of the gifts of the
magi in Matt 2:11. As we saw above, the prophet portrays the divine radiance
that will accompany the redemption of Jerusalem. He continues by describing
the riches of the nations which will be borne there by camels: “They shall bear
gold and frankincense, and shall herald the glories of the Lord” (Isa 60:6). In
the context of Matthew, the visit of the magi and their offerings are by impli-
cation the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, which is understood to refer to the
messianic star. We will return below to star of the magi, but in a very different
setting and with some surprising embellishments. This does not exhaust the
topic of messianic light in the New Testament. Particularly important is the

14  See Davies and Allison, Commentary, 190–95 (esp. 195 n. 22); R. D. Aus, Matthew 1–2 and
the Virginal Conception: In Light of Palestinian and Hellenistic Judaic Traditions on the
Birth of Israel’s First Redeemer, Moses (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2004),
15–18. According to a medieval Samaritan tradition, the conception of Moses was marked
by the appearance of a star. See S. J. Miller, The Samaritan Molad Mosheh (New York:
Philosophical Library, 1949), 256–57.
15  For patristic exegesis see G. Dorival, “Un astre se lèvera de Jacob: L’interprétation
ancienne des Nombres 24,17,” Annali di storia dell’esegesi 13/1 (1996): 295–352; J. Leemans,
“‘To Bless with a Mouth Bent on Cursing’: Patristic Interpretations of Balaam (Num
24:17),” in van Kooten and van Ruiten, The Prestige of the Pagan Prophet Balaam, 287–99.
Stars Of The Messiah 277

lamp of the Lamb in Jerusalem according to Rev 21:23, in a chapter rich in allu-
sions to Isaiah 60.16
The following discussion will be organized episodically. First I will examine
Josephus’s report of the stellar omens which preceded the Great Revolt; then
I will turn to the stellar imagery associated with the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Each of
these topics will serve as an occasion to analyze a range of apocalyptic themes.
Finally, I will take a close look at the motif of the messianic star in several
Jewish apocalyptic sources of late antiquity and the Middle Ages.

2 Josephus on Celestial Omens

In his description of the circumstances leading to the outbreak of the Great


Revolt against Rome, Josephus includes a list of portents which the Jews—
imbued, he says, with vain hopes cultivated by false prophets—understood to
be signs of their imminent redemption.17 He writes:

Thus it was that the wretched people were deluded at that time by char-
latans and pretended messengers of the deity. . . . So it was when a star,
resembling a sword, stood over the city (= Jerusalem), and a comet which
continued for a year. So again when, before the revolt and the commotion
that led to war, at the time when the people were assembling for the feast
of unleavened bread, on the eighth of the month Xanthicus (= 8 Nisan),
at the ninth hour of the night, so brilliant a light shone round the altar
and the sanctuary that it seemed to be broad daylight; and this continued
for half an hour. By the inexperienced this was regarded as a good omen,
but by the sacred scribes it was at once interpreted in accordance with
after events.18

16  See D. Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University
Magnes Press, 1988), 454–65; D. E. Aune, Revelation 17–22 (WBC 52C; Nashville: Thomas
Nelson, 1998), 1169–73, 1181. Cf. Luke 1:78–79; 2 Pet 1:19; Rev 2:26–28, 22:16.
17  See the historiographical survey of F. Schmidt, “Signes et prodiges chez Flavius Josèphe
et Tacite (Guerre des Juifs VI, 288–315; Histoires V, 13),” in La Raison des signes: Présages,
rites, destin dans les sociétés de la Méditerranée ancienne (ed. S. Georgoudi et al.; Religions
in the Graeco-Roman World 174; Leiden: Brill, 2012), 253–89. Schmidt notes the scholarly
debate between those who believe Josephus’s description of the omens was appropriated
from Roman models and those who maintain that it should be read as emerging from
within the context of Second Temple Judaism.
18  Jewish War 6:288–291 (trans. H. St. J. Thackeray, Josephus III: The Jewish War, Books IV–VII
[LCL; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1928], 459–61). In the fourth-century
278 Newman

The chronology of these events is obscure. Josephus is generally understood


to mean that the light round the altar and the sanctuary appeared in the days
before the final Passover festival preceding the outbreak of the revolt, i.e.,
in 66 CE.19 Even if this is the case, it is not clear how much time passed—
assuming Josephus’s sequence is chronological—between the appearance
of the “star,” the comet which followed it, and the subsequent Passover fes-
tival. Astronomical calculations might be of some assistance, but Josephus
does not make it easy for us.20 First, though a comet might vaguely resemble
a sword, a star cannot; if Josephus attests to a genuine astronomical event, we
must assume that he uses “star” loosely and actually refers to a comet—an
assumption bolstered by the fact that sword imagery is indeed attested for
comets in other sources and that comets are often understood to be a variety
of star. Second, no comet is ever visible for a full year. Since Josephus lumps
the omens together, it is at least plausible—but not imperative—to suppose
that he describes a sequence of two comets not far removed from Passover of
66 CE. In fact, two comets are known to have to have appeared within that
range: the first from July to September of 65 CE; the second—Halley’s Comet—
from January to April of 66 CE, leading up to Passover. These are attractive
possibilities, though we still lack a satisfactory explanation for the alleged year-
long duration of the second comet.
I am, I confess, inclined towards this astronomical reconstruction of events,
but I do not want to give the impression that what follows is contingent upon
it. In fact, I am much more interested here in Josephus’s literary presentation of
these phenomena—real, “improved,” or imagined. Several details point to the
construction and reception of the memory of these omens along traditional
and ideological lines. First, when we observe a comet (among other celestial
phenomena), we share the experience with other observers around the planet.

Latin translation of Pseudo-Hegesippus 5.44 (Hegesippi qui dicitur historiae libri V [ed.
V. Ussani; CSEL 66; Vienna: Hölder, Pichler, Tempsky, 1932], 391), Josephus’s account has
been conflated: a single sword-like comet appears over the Temple (not the city) for a
year prior to the outbreak of the revolt. This is taken over by the Yosippon (ed. D. Flusser;
Jerusalem; Bialik Institute, 1981), 1:413 (in Hebrew).
19  See D. R. Schwartz, “Portents of Destruction: From Flavian Propaganda to Rabbinic
Theodicy,” in From Despair to Solace: A Memorial Volume for Ziporah Brody z”l on the
Tenth Anniversary of Her Passing (ed. S. T. Brody; Jerusalem: Midreshet Lindenbaum,
2009), 11.
20  For the following astronomical discussion see especially J. T. Ramsey, A Descriptive
Catalogue of Greco–Roman Comets from 500 BC to AD 400 (Syllecta Classica 17; Iowa City:
University of Iowa Press, 2006), 148–58. Cf. W. Horowitz, “Halley’s Comet and Judaean
Revolts Revisited,” CBQ 58 (1996): 456–59.
Stars Of The Messiah 279

For many it will appear “overhead.” Hence the description of a star standing
over the city of Jerusalem tells little about the star or comet (if indeed there
was one), but, apart from indicating the location of certain witnesses, it tells
us a great deal about the belief system shared by those who interpreted it as a
propitious omen.21 Second, comets do not really look like swords; by describ-
ing them as such one betrays a predisposition towards a particular visual inter-
pretation laden with symbolism.22 Third, we should ask what overtones would
be carried by an omen appearing on the verge of Passover.23
The appearance of the star over Jerusalem and the blaze of light around the
altar and the Temple as an omen of salvation naturally bring to mind eschato-
logical imagery harking back to Isaiah 60.24 We will see other examples below
of the spatial connection between the messianic star and Temple. Leaving
aside the sword imagery for a moment, let us first consider the implications of
the Passover setting. Within the Bible itself, the salvation of Israel in the future
is often modeled typologically on the exodus from Egypt.25 In rabbinic and tar-
gumic literature we find the notion that the final redemption, prefigured by the
redemption from Egypt, will take place on Passover. It is possible that already
in Second Temple times some Jews approached this festival with heightened
eschatological anticipation, though explicit evidence from that period for the

21  Josephus does not state unambiguously that the year-long comet appeared over
Jerusalem, but ὑπὲρ τὴν πόλιν may pertain to it as well.
22  For a different brand of symbolic interpretation compare Cyril of Jerusalem’s descrip-
tion of the luminous cross which appeared over Jerusalem in 351 CE. See O. Irshai, “Cyril
of Jerusalem: The Apparition of the Cross and the Jews,” in Contra Judaeos: Ancient and
Medieval Polemics between Christian and Jews (ed. O. Limor and G. Stroumsa; TSAJ 10;
Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1996), 85–104. A similar staurophany is reputed to have taken
place in 363 CE, marking the failure of Julian’s attempt to rebuild the Temple. See J. W.
Drijvers, “The Power of the Cross: Celestial Cross Appearances in the Fourth Century,” in
The Power of Religion in Late Antiquity (ed. A. Cain and N. Lenski; Surrey: Ashgate, 2009),
237–48.
23  Note that the Passover aura is not the final omen recorded by Josephus, who proceeds to
describe others which continued until the Shavuʿot festival.
24  For Isaiah 60 see O. Michel and O. Bauernfeind, Flavius Josephus: De bello Judaico. Der
jüdische Krieg (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1969), 2.2:180–82. Cf.
M. Kister, “Legends of the Destruction of the Second Temple in Avot de-Rabbi Nathan,”
Tarbiz 67 (1998): 521–22 (in Hebrew). Schalit interprets the omens in terms of Num 24:17.
See A. Schalit, “Die Erhebung Vespasians nach Flavius Josephus, Talmud und Midrasch:
Zur Geschichte einer messianischen Prophetie,” ANRW 2:243–46.
25  See M. Fishbane, Biblical Text and Texture: A Literary Reading of Selected Texts (Oxford:
Oneworld, 2003), 121–40.
280 Newman

expectation of the Messiah’s appearance on Passover is admittedly slim.26 In


the New Testament, the Passover of Jesus’s crucifixion is, of course, rich in sote-
riological significance.
It will be helpful at this point to cite a passage from the Divine Institutes of
Lactantius, in which we find a different combination of some of the apocalyp-
tic elements we have just seen in Josephus. Describing the second coming of
Christ, Lactantius writes:

Then, at darkest midnight, the centre of heaven will open, so that the
light of God descending is visible throughout the world like lightening.
The Sibyl has announced this in verse as follows: “When he comes, there
will be lurid fire at black midnight.”27 This is the night that we shall cele-
brate watching for the advent of our king and God. It has a double mean-
ing: on that night he regained life after his passion, and on that night he
will regain his kingship of the earth. . . . Before he descends he will give
the following sign. A sword will suddenly fall from the sky, so that the
just may know that the leader of the holy army is about to descend, and
he will come with angels accompanying him to the centre of the earth,
and in front of him will go an inextinguishable flame, and the virtue of
the angels will put into the hand of the just all that host which besieged
their mountain.28

26  See especially R. Le Déaut, La nuit pascale: Essai sur la signification de la Pâque juive à
partir du Targum d’Exode XII 42 (AnBib 22; Rome: Institut Biblique Pontifical, 1963). Cf.
the critique of C. Leonhard, The Jewish Pesach and the Origins of the Christian Easter:
Open Questions in Current Research (SJ 35; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2006), 317–424. In
favor of an early provenance for the expectation that the final redemption will take place
on Passover see M. Kister, “Legends of the Destruction,” 513 n. 174; note his reference to
Jer 38:8 (LXX) (= MT 31:7). On the connection between such expectations and the date of
the omen in Josephus, see C. Mézange, “Josèphe et la fin des temps,” in Le Temps et les
Temps dans les littératures juives et chrétiennes au tournant de notre ère (ed. C. Grappe and
J.-C. Ingelaere; JSJSup 112; Leiden: Brill, 2006), 215.
27  The passage is not found in the extant Sibylline Oracles. Paul Alexander compares it to the
Oracle of Baalbek on the coming of Christ after the death of Enoch and Elijah: “And then
he who was crucified on the wood of the cross will come from the heavens, like a great
and flashing star, and he will resurrect these two men.” See P. J. Alexander, The Oracle of
Baalbek: The Tiburtine Sibyl in Greek Dress (Washington, D.C.; Dumbarton Oaks, 1967), 22,
29, 116–17; P. F. Beatrice, Anonymi Monophysitae Theosophia: An Attempt at Reconstruction
(VCSup 66; Leiden: Brill, 2001), xviii–xix, 71.
28  Lactantius, Divine Institutes 7.19.2–5. The translation is taken from Lactantius, Divine
Institutes (trans. A. Bowen and P. Garnsey; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2003), 428.
Stars Of The Messiah 281

According to Lactantius, Christ will return to earth on the night of Easter. At


midnight, the center of heaven will open and “the light of God descending”
will illuminate the world like lightening. Before his descent, Christ will send
a sword falling from the sky as a sign. Then he will descend to Jerusalem (“the
centre of the earth”),29 accompanied by an army of angels and preceded by
fire. We recognize some of this, mutatis mutandis, from Josephus’s omens,
which were spread over an uncertain span of time. In both texts we encounter
a heavenly sword as a portent of approaching salvation. Lactantius writes that
the brilliant light of God will appear on Easter—the equivalent of Passover—
though it illuminates the entire world, not merely Jerusalem or the Temple,
as in Josephus.30 Next he says that Christ and his angelic army will descend
to Jerusalem on Easter preceded by fire. Josephus reported the appearance of
celestial soldiers and chariots in the skies of Judea shortly after Passover of
66 CE.31 Though Lactantius is reminiscent of Josephus, nothing suggests that
he is dependent on him. Many have correctly noted the affinity of his descrip-
tion to Revelation 19, but even that is not sufficient to explain all that we find
in his apocalypse, which draws on a broader range of tradition.
Upon closer examination, we find that the sword of Lactantius indeed has
its roots in an early Jewish Passover tradition—one that is attested in Second
Temple literature. In an analysis of the passage in the Divine Institutes, David
Flusser demonstrated the popularity of the motif of the heavenly sword at
the End of Days, bringing numerous examples from texts spanning a period
from Second Temple times to the end of late antiquity, though he failed to
mention Josephus. Yet none of the sources he presented associates the sword
specifically with Passover; some even date its appearance to the month of
Kislev.32 There are, however, other texts which indicate a connection between

See the edition, with commentary, of S. Freund, Laktanz, Divinae institutiones. Buch 7: De
vita beata (Texte und Kommentare 31; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009), 166–67, 489–98.
29  On Jerusalem as the center of the earth see Divine Institutes 7.24.6, where Lactantius also
quotes the Sibyl on the brilliant light of the eschatological city.
30  For the anticipation of the parousia on Easter see Freund, Laktanz, 493–95.
31  Jewish War 6:298. Cf. Tacitus, Histories 5.13.1: “Contending hosts were seen meeting in the
skies, arms flashed and suddenly the Temple was illuminated with fire from the clouds.” See
M. Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism (3 vols.; Jerusalem; Israel Academy
of Sciences and Humanities, 1974–1984), 2:23, 31, 60; Schmidt, “Signes et prodiges chez
Flavius Josèphe et Tacite,” 273–74.
32  Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, 430–33. For the appearance of the sword
in Kislev see Flusser’s references to the Book of Elijah—a Hebrew apocalypse of late
antiquity—and to the liturgical poem, “In Those Days and at That Time,” attributed by
some to Eleazar berabbi Kalir. Freund, Laktanz, 495, hastily dismisses Flusser’s analysis
282 Newman

the divine sword and the first Passover, one of the typological models for the
final redemption. Ironically, it was Flusser himself who elsewhere called atten-
tion to these passages, citing remarks of his teacher Hans Jacob Polotsky, but
without reference to Lactantius.33 Flusser analyzed the obscure midrash in
the Passover Haggadah on Deut 26:8. The verse reads: “The Lord freed us from
Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by
signs and portents.” The Haggadah explains “by an outstretched arm” to mean
“the sword,” bringing as a proof text 1 Chr 21:16: “David looked up and saw the
angel of the Lord standing between heaven and earth, with a drawn sword in
his hand directed against Jerusalem.” Polotsky and Flusser observed that the
notion of the Logos34 bearing the divine sword to smite Egypt on the night of
the Exodus is found already in Wis 18:14–16, which even alludes to the same
verse in Chronicles:

While all things were enveloped in peaceful silence and night was mid-
way through her swift course, your all-powerful Logos, out of the heavens,
from the royal throne, leaped like a relentless warrior into the midst of
the land marked for destruction, bearing your unambiguous decree as a
sharp sword. Standing it filled all things with death; it touched the heav-
ens, yet stood poised upon the earth.35

From this comparison with earlier Jewish materials we learn that Lactantius’s
paschal sword is in effect nothing less than the sword of the first Exodus,

of the sword motif as being derived from what he cavalierly describes as a “spätjüdischen
Tradition.” The parallels he brings from the Sibylline Oracles (3:672–673; 798–799; 4:173–
174) are not as apt as those garnered by Flusser and are not grounds for their dismissal.
Freund correctly notes in this context the omen reported by Josephus.
33  D. Flusser, “Not by Means of an Angel . . .,” Turei Yeshurun 29 (1972): 18–21 (in Hebrew).
34  On the Logos here see M. Kister, “A Contribution to the Interpretation of Ben Sira,” Tarbiz
59 (1990): 364 n. 225 (in Hebrew).
35  D. Winston, The Wisdom of Solomon (AB 43; New York: Doubleday, 1979), 313. Scholars
have noticed the similarity of this passage to Rev 19:13–15, 21, which describes the sword
in the mouth of the Logos (the “king of kings”), who appears with his celestial cavalry
at the End of Days to do battle. The midrash of the Haggadah is found in a different
form in Sifre Num. 115 (Sifre on Numbers and Sifre Zuta [ed. H. S. Horovitz; Leipzig: Fock,
1917), 128) and its parallels. Some regard the tradition in the Haggadah as secondary; see
E. D. Goldschmidt, The Passover Haggadah: Its Sources and History (Jerusalem: Bialik
Institute, 1969), 45 (in Hebrew). Regardless of which came first, it is clear, as Polotsky and
Flusser have shown, that the midrash in the Haggadah is in its own way coherent, and
that its origins must be sought in pre-Destruction tradition.
Stars Of The Messiah 283

r­ eenlisted as an instrument of the final redemption.36 Both the celestial sword


of Lactantius and that of Josephus emerge from the context of eschatological
motifs of Second Temple Judaism.
I have deliberately deferred till now any discussion of Lactantius’s sources.
He himself appeals repeatedly in Book 7 of the Divine Institutes to the Sibylline
Oracles, to Hermes Trismegistus, and—less frequently—to the so-called
Oracles of Hystaspes.37 The extent of his debt to Hystaspes and his faithful-
ness to that putative source is contested by scholars. This debate feeds into
a vicious circle of disagreement over the very nature and unity of the Oracles
of Hystaspes, which by analogy with the Sibylline Oracles are perhaps bet-
ter construed as a literary cluster. There is no agreement over their origins.
They are identified variously as a Persian Zoroastrian work, a syncretistic
Hellenistic–Oriental composition, a Jewish apocryphon, or some combination
of these; there is further evidence of a Christian revision of the earlier text
or texts.38 Flusser argues that large eschatological portions of Book 7 of the
Divine Institutes—including the passage quoted above—were taken virtu-
ally verbatim from Hystaspes, which, he contends, was a Jewish apocalypse of
Second Temple times to which was added a thin Christian veneer.39 Because
of the highly speculative nature of Flusser’s source criticism, I am reluctant to
rely upon his conclusions, though they would be congenial to my argument. To
my mind, the more important contribution of Flusser’s reading of the Divine
Institutes is his demonstration of the indispensability of Jewish sources in
uncovering the tradition history of Lactantius’s eschatology. That is the path
I have pursued here, whatever the degree of dependence—if any—on the
lost book of Hystaspes. Reflecting back on Josephus, we should recognize the
importance of reading his account in aggregate as a collection of omens that

36  Earlier in the same book Lactantius alludes to the paschal typology of the second coming:
“Just as signs were made at the time to warn the Egyptians of the disaster threatening
them, so at the end of time there will be extraordinary portents in every element of the
world so that all the nations may know of the imminence of the end” (Divine Institutes
7.15.6 [trans. Bowen and Garnsey, 422]).
37  On Lactantius’s sources see Freund, Laktanz, 33–71.
38  See the survey of W. Sundermann, “Hystaspes, Oracles of,” in Encyclopaedia Iranica
(London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982–), 12:606–9; P. F. Beatrice, “Le livre d’Hystaspe
aux mains des Chrétiens,” in Les syncrétismes religieux dans le monde méditerranéen
antique (ed. C. Bonnet and A. Motte; Études de Philologie, d’Archéologie et d’Histoire
Anciennes 36; Brussels: Brepols, 1999), 357–82.
39  D. Flusser, “Hystaspes and John of Patmos,” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, 390–
453. For a discussion of Lactantius and Hystaspes, including a critique of Flusser’s thesis,
see Freund, Laktanz, 53–69; Beatrice, “Le livre d’Hystaspe aux mains des Chrétiens.”
284 Newman

has its own coherence within the context of known patterns of apocalyptic
expectation in Second Temple times. These patterns also inform Lactantius’s
source or sources.

3 The Star of Bar Kokhba

With the possible exception of Jesus, no messianic claimant of antiquity was


identified more consistently with a messianic star than Shimʿon b. Kosba (or
Kosiba), popularly known by the epithet attributed to him in patristic litera-
ture: Bar Kokhba, the “Son of the Star.” The earliest Christian testimonies are
almost contemporary with the events themselves. Justin Martyr refers once by
name to Βαρχωχεβας, leader of the then recent Jewish rebellion.40 Eusebius
refers twice more to Bar Kokhba: once in the Ecclesiastical History, where
he apparently draws on a lost account by Ariston of Pella, and once in the
Chronicle, as preserved in Jerome’s translation.41 According to a famous rab-
binic tradition, Rabbi Akiba, the preeminent sage of his generation, identified
Bar Kosba (or rather Bar Kozba, “the liar,” as he was dubbed retroactively in
talmudic literature in light of the failure of the revolt) as the Messiah and saw
in him the fulfillment of Balaam’s prophecy of the eschatological star in Num
24:17: “R. Shimʿon b. Yoḥai (said): My master Akiba interpreted: ‘A star shall
come forth from Jacob’—Kozba shall come forth from Jacob. When R. Akiba
saw Bar Kozba, he would say: ‘This is the messianic king.’ ”42

40  Justin, 1 Apol. 31.6. Justin is quoted by Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 4.8.4. Wishing to dispel any
suspicion that Bar Kokhba’s cause was one of revolutionary messianism, Leo Mildenberg
clutches at straws to cast doubt on the reading of the name of the leader of the revolt in
the Apology; see L. Mildenberg, The Coinage of the Bar Kokhba War (Aarau: Sauerländer,
1984), 79–80. I see no merit to Stefan Beyerle’s assertion that the patristic sources are
fatally unreliable a priori; see S. Beyerle, “‘A Star Shall Come out of Jacob’: A Critical
Evaluation of the Balaam Oracle in the Context of Jewish Revolts in Roman Times,” in
van Kooten and van Ruiten, The Prestige of the Pagan Prophet Balaam, 170 n. 30.
41  Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 4.6.2; for the Chronicle see Die Chronik des Hieronymus (ed. R. Helm;
GCS 47; Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1956), 201. On Eusebius and Ariston of Pella see
A. Carriker, The Library of Eusebius of Caesarea (VCSup 67; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 190–93.
42  Y. Taʿanit 4:8 (68d). Cf. Lam. Rab. 2:4 = Lam. Rab. 2:2 (ed. S. Buber; Vilna: Romm, 1899),
101. Peter Schäfer argues that the attribution of the messianic declaration to Akiba is a
secondary textual development, though he, too, dates the notion itself to the time of the
revolt. See P. Schäfer, Der Bar Kokhba-Aufstand (TSAJ 1; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1981),
168–69; idem, “Bar Kokhba and the Rabbis,” in The Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered: New
Perspectives on the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (ed. P. Schäfer; TSAJ 100; Tübingen:
Stars Of The Messiah 285

Let us examine the passage in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History:

At that time, the leader of the Jews was a man by the name of
Barchochebas, which means “star.” For the rest, he was a murderous man
and a brigand, but according to his epithet, as if before captive slaves (οἷα
ἐπ᾿ ἀνδραπόδων),43 he spoke marvels as a luminary having descended to
them from heaven to shine upon the afflicted (κακουμένοις τε ἐπιλάμψαι).44

According to this account, Bar Kokhba presents himself as a luminous celestial


redeemer who has descended to liberate the Jews, described as captive slaves.
In context, he is a heavenly warrior, come to free the Jews from Roman subju-
gation. We easily recognize here a variation of the motif we encountered in
the Divine Institutes, where Lactantius writes of “the light of God descending”
upon Jerusalem and of Christ the divine warrior leading a band of angels, who
deliver into the hands of the just the enemy who has besieged them.
William Horbury has compared this passage to a later midrash in Pesiqta
Rabbati 36, where towards the end of a lengthy homily on the eschatological
light of Isaiah 60 we read:

Our sages taught:45 When the Messiah is revealed, he will come and
stand on the roof of the Temple and announce to Israel and say to them:
“Humble ones (‫)ענוים‬, the time of your redemption has come.” And should
you not believe it, look at his46 light shining upon you, as it says: “Arise,
shine, for your light has come; the glory of the Lord has shone upon you”
(Isa 60:1); and upon you alone it shines and not on the nations of the
world, as it says: “Behold, darkness will cover the earth and clouds the

Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 3–4; cf. Mildenberg, Coinage of the Bar Kokhba War, 45, 73–76. I
remain unconvinced by Schäfer’s redactional analysis of the passage and his reconstruc-
tion of its textual evolution, but the question of attribution to Akiba is of no consequence
for the present discussion.
43  See K. L. Gaca, “The Andrapodizing of War Captives in Greek Historical Memory,” TAPA
140 (2010): 117–61.
44  Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 4.6.2.
45  Notwithstanding the opening formula, ‫תנו רבנן‬, it is doubtful that this is a genu-
ine Tannaitic tradition. See: J. N. Epstein, Introduction to the Mishnaic Text (2 vols.;
3d ed.; Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2000), 2:883 n. 5 (in Hebrew);
W. Horbury,  Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ (London: SCM Press, 1998), 189 n. 100.
46  Reading ‫ באורו‬of the manuscripts against ‫ באורי‬of Yalqut Shimʿoni.
286 Newman

nations, but upon you the Lord will shine and his glory will be seen upon
you” (Isa 60:2).47

Horbury sees in the astral imagery of both Eusebius and Pesiqta Rabbati inti-
mations of the angelic nature of the Messiah.48 Scholars have observed that
the effulgent Messiah’s announcement of redemption to the “humble ones”
(‫ )ענוים‬in Pesiqta Rabbati alludes to Isa 61:1, the verse immediately following the
extended prophecy on the light of the End of Days:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me as a herald of joy to the humble (‫)לבשר ענוים שלחני‬, to bind
up the wounded of heart, to proclaim release to the captives (‫לקרא לשבוים‬
‫)דרור‬, liberation to the imprisoned.

It seems to me that the nexus of chapters 60 and 61 in Isaiah should likewise be


seen as the biblical inspiration for the Eusebian portrayal of Bar Kokhba as a
stellar messiah who proclaims, as if to captive slaves, that he has come to shine
upon the afflicted.49 This description, as noted above, was probably taken from
Ariston of Pella, but we have no idea who Ariston’s source was.
I would like to draw attention to another element in the passage from Pesiqta
Rabbati. The midrash graphically describes the radiant Messiah standing on
the roof of the Temple, something we have not encountered till now. In light
of this I wish to consider another body of evidence: the iconography of Bar
Kokhba coinage. Silver tetradrachms minted during the revolt bear the image
of what is almost universally identified as the facade of the Jerusalem Temple,
above which may be found one of a number of symbols. Of ­greatest interest to

47  Pesiqta Rabbati 36 (ed. M. Friedmann; Vienna: n.p., 1880), 162a–b = (ed. R. Ulmer; 3 vols.;
Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997–2002), 2:836. See A. Goldberg, Erlösung durch Leiden: Drei
rabbinische Homilien über die Trauernden Zions und den leidenden Messias Efraim (PesR
34, 36, 37) (Frankfurt am Main: Gesellschaft zur Förderung Judaistischer Studien, 1978),
232–35.
48  Horbury, Jewish Messianism, 92. On stars and angels see J. Ben-Dov, Head of All Years:
Astronomy and Calendars at Qumran in Their Ancient Context (STDJ 78; Leiden: Brill,
2008), 27–28; B. H. Reynolds, Between Symbolism and Realism: The Use of Symbolic and
Non-Symbolic Language in Ancient Jewish Apocalypses 333–63 BCE. (JAJSup 8; Göttingen:
Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012), passim.
49  On Isa 61:1–3 see also J. J. Collins, “A Herald of Good Tidings: Isaiah 61:1–3 and Its
Actualization in the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in The Quest for Context and Meaning: Studies
in Biblical Intertextuality in Honor of James A. Sanders (ed. C. A. Evans and S. Talmon;
Biblical Interpretation Series 28; Leiden, Brill, 1997), 225–40.
Stars Of The Messiah 287

Figure 1 Silver tetradrachm of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, 134–135 CE. The Israel Museum,
Jerusalem (IMJ 98.96.15174). Used by permission.

us are those commonly identified as representing stars (see Fig. 1); this identifi-
cation is repudiated, however, by Leo Mildenberg, dean of Bar Kokhba numis-
matists. I turn now to this fundamental problem.
Mildenberg raises several objections to the identification of the coin sym-
bols as stars.50 One argument is that the putative stars are in fact “rosettes,” a
contention based on the false premise that there is a clear-cut iconographic
distinction in antiquity between two discrete symbols: floral rosettes and
celestial stars. This is not the case. There are some “rosettes” whose context
attests unequivocally to their being stars. One of the closest parallels to the

50  Mildenberg, Coinage of the Bar Kokhba War, 43–45; idem, “Bar Kokhba Coins and
Documents,” HSCP 84 (1980): 313–15. He is followed by Y. Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish
Coins (trans. R. Amoils; Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 2001), 152–53, 158.
288 Newman

more elaborate Bar Kokhba rosettes (with or without scare quotes), which are
characterized by alternating spokes and petals, is found in the zodiac mosaic of
the Sepphoris synagogue, where the image is patently stellar, but there are also
earlier examples.51 To demonstrate the alleged distinction between rosettes
and stars, Mildenberg invokes the case of the rosettes adorning temple pedi-
ments in the wall paintings of the synagogue at Dura Europos. This, however,
begs the question. What do those rosettes in fact represent?52 By analogy, one
could cite the numerous Roman coins portraying temples with spiked stars
(or rosette-like stars) on their pediments. The most famous of these bear the

51  See Z. Weiss, The Sepphoris Synagogue: Deciphering an Ancient Message through Its
Archaeological and Socio-Historical Contexts ( Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society and
the Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University, 2005), 111–21. For an earlier example,
note the rosette-like stars in the zodiac of the first-century temple of Bel in Palmyra; see
H. G. Gundel, Zodiakos: Tierkreisbilder im Altertum (Mainz am Rhein: van Zabern, 1992),
104, 219 (no. 45 in the catalogue). See also A. Houghton, “The Seleucid Mint of Mallus and
the Cult Figure of Athena Magarsia,” in Studies in Honor of Leo Mildenberg: Numismatics,
Art History, Archaeology (ed. A. Houghton et al.; Wetteren, Belgium: Editions NR, 1984),
107–9. Rosettes may also function as solar symbols. On the difficulty of interpreting
rosettes, see E. R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco–Roman Period, (13 vols.; New
York: Pantheon Books, 1953–1968), 7:179–98. Mildenberg also objects that the fully devel-
oped rosette appears only on later dies of the Bar Kokhba tetradrachms, before which
time the coins bore what he calls a “cross-rosette.” Assuming, plausibly, that all these
symbols represent the same thing, we still have no cause to dismiss their equivalence
with a star. For the use of a cross to represent a star see for example H. J. W. Drijvers, Cults
and Beliefs at Edessa (Leiden: Brill, 1980), 130, 137 n. 34. Stars with four rays (including the
sidus Iulium) are well documented on ancient coins. Note also the motif of a cross set
in a diadem, found on certain Herodian coins; I suggest that this derives from the pat-
tern of a star set in a diadem found on earlier Hasmonean coinage. For an assessment of
the meaning of the cross (or saltire) and diadem on Herodian coins see D. T. Ariel and
J.-P. Fontanille, The Coins of Herod: A Modern Analysis and Die Classification (AJEC 79;
Leiden: Brill, 2012), 126. Finally, it should be noted that the star/rosette of the Bar Kokhba
tetradrachms is strikingly similar in appearance to the so-called asteriskos, or “little star,”
used as a siglum in contemporary Greek literary papyri. See K. McNamee, Sigla and Select
Marginalia in Greek Literary Papyri (Papyrologica Bruxellensia 26; Brussels: Fondation
Égyptologique Reine Élisabeth, 1992), 11; G. Nocchi Macedo, “Formes et fonctions de
l’astérisque dans les papyrus littéraires grecs et latins,” Segno e Testo 9 (2011): 3–33. As for
the mysterious wavy line appearing over the Temple facade on other coins, it is a design
unto itself—whatever its meaning—and poses no obstacle to a “stellar” reading of the
symbols in question.
52  For a solar interpretation see C. H. Kraeling, The Synagogue (Excavations at Dura Europos,
Final Reports 8.1; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), 236 n. 941.
Stars Of The Messiah 289

image of the temple of Divus Iulius decorated with the sidus Iulium, but there
are later examples as well.53
What really troubles Mildenberg, however, is the very notion that Shimʿon
b. Kosba would have perceived himself or would have been perceived by his
followers as a messianic figure. He casts doubt on the reliability of the name
given to the leader of the revolt in the earliest Christian sources and summar-
ily dismisses all relevant rabbinic evidence as a late invention.54 He argues that
the documentary evidence of Shimʿon b. Kosba’s letters, attesting to his preoc-
cupation with logistics and military affairs, is incompatible with any form of
eschatological leadership. He is captive to a rigid notion of the incompatibility
of earthly authority and messianic charisma.55 Plainly uncomfortable with the
very idea of Jewish apocalypticism, he concludes that Shimʿon b. Kosba had no
messianic aspirations, but was instead “a good Jew.”56
Even allowing for a certain ambiguity of the interpretation of the star/
rosette when viewed in isolation, I contend that there is no mistaking its
meaning within the iconographic context of the Bar Kokhba coins, suspended
over the roof of the Temple. This meaning emerges not only from the literary
sources describing the leader of the revolt (though they are certainly corrobo-
rative), but also from everything we have learned concerning the eschatologi-
cal ­anticipation—or even alleged realization—of a divine light or luminary
over the Temple. The two elements on the silver tetradrachms—the Temple
facade and over it the star/rosette—constitute a single coherent iconographic
tableau.
A striking iconographic parallel to this scheme in a wall painting in the cata-
combs of the Villa Torlonia in Rome deserves special attention (see Fig. 2). The
date of the painting, found on the back wall of an arcosolium in the upper
catacomb, is uncertain; Rutgers is inclined to date it to the years 350–370 CE,

53  For the comparison of these coins with Bar Kokhba coins see P. Romanoff, “Jewish
Symbols on Ancient Jewish Coins,” JQR 33 (1942): 3 n. 11; M. Küchler, “Jesus von Nazaret
und Schimeʿon ben Kosiba: Zwei ‘Könige der Juden’ und ihre Sterne in Texten und auf
Münzen,” in Jesus—Gestalt und Gestaltungen: Rezeptionen des Galiläers in Wissenschaft,
Kirche und Gesellschaft (ed. P. von Gemünden et al.; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht,
2013), 317–45 (esp. 333, 343). Romanoff and Küchler also cite the stars on the coins of
Alexander Jannaeus and Herod the Great as antecedents of Bar Kokhba coinage.
54  See above, nn. 40 and 42.
55  This is a common but inadequate distinction. See the well-taken criticism of Schäfer, “Bar
Kokhba and the Rabbis,” 17–19.
56  Mildenberg, Coinage of the Bar Kokhba War, 45. See the detailed critique in M. Hengel’s
review of Mildenberg in Gnomon 58 (1986): 326–31.
290 Newman

Figure 2 Wall painting in upper catacomb of Villa Torlonia, fourth century. After
N. Zimmermann, Werkstattgruppen römischer Katakombenmalerei
( JACSup 35; Münster, Westfalen: Aschendorff, 2002), Tafel XV, Abb. 73.

though others put it earlier.57 At the center of the painting stands a Torah
shrine. The image is partially damaged, but it is still possible to make out the
schematic portrayal of rolled scrolls seen head on as circles resting on shelves,
common in Diaspora drawings of Torah shrines. It is flanked by several typical
Jewish symbols, including a shofar, palm branch, and citron, but most promi-
nent are two large menorahs, one on either side. Centered above the apex of
the Torah shrine is a star with eight rays; to its left and right appear the sun and
the moon, both partially obscured by dark clouds painted in black and red.58
If there is ambiguity here, it does not pertain to the star, but rather to the
interpretation of the shrine below it. The iconographic significance of what

57  L. Rutgers, The Hidden Heritage of Diaspora Judaism (2d ed.; CBET 20; Leuven: Peeters,
1998), 64–66.
58  See H. W. Beyer and H. Lietzmann, Die jüdische Katakombe der Villa Torlonia in Rom
(Studien zur spätantiken Kunstgeschichte 4; Jüdische Denkmäler 1; Berlin: de Gruyter,
1930), 15–27. An excellent color photograph is found in S. Laderman and Y. Furstenberg,
“Jewish and Christian Imaging of the ‘House of God’: A Fourth-Century Reflection of
Religious and Historical Polemics,” in Interaction between Judaism and Christianity in
History, Religion, Art, and Literature (ed. M. J. H. M. Poorthuis et al.; JCP 17; Leiden: Brill,
2009), Figure 4. Laderman and Furstenberg do not discuss the star.
Stars Of The Messiah 291

seems to be a Torah shrine or ark flanked by menorahs—so common in syna-


gogal and Jewish funerary art—is a well-known scholarly crux. The image is
usually interpreted either as a stereotypic representation of the furnishings of
the synagogue or as a highly stylized picture of the Temple—or both.59 I do not
wish to generalize, but there are reasons to believe that at least the painting in
the catacomb of the Villa Torlonia is meant to evoke the Temple of Jerusalem.
This identification rests on more than just the similarity to the Bar Kokhba
coins. Beyer and Lietzmann indeed note this connection and conclude from it
not only that the shrine of the Villa Torlonia painting represents the Temple,60
but also that by analogy the star above is a messianic symbol.61 No less sig-
nificant than the similarity to the coins, however, is the manner in which the
star suspended over the ark/Temple dominates the overcast sun and moon
on either side.62 I suggest that this scene is inspired by the description of the
eschatological light of Jerusalem in Isa 60:19–20:

No longer shall you need the sun for light by day, nor the shining of the
moon for radiance; for the Lord shall be your light everlasting, your God
shall be your glory. Your sun shall set no more, your moon no more with-
draw; for the Lord shall be a light to you forever, and your days of mourn-
ing shall be ended.63

If this interpretation is correct, then the image also implicitly contains a mes-
sage of comfort to the mourners of the deceased laid to rest just below the wall
painting.64

59  L. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years (2d ed.; New Haven: Yale
University Press, 2005), 232–36.
60  In fact, they take it to represent the heavenly Temple, an unlikely hypothesis given the
other evidence we have seen attesting to the anticipation of divine or messianic light over
earthly Jerusalem at the End of Days.
61  Beyer and Lietzmann, Die jüdische Katakombe, 21–24.
62  Might there also be symbolic significance to the way in which the two menorahs visually
dominate the sun and moon from below?
63  See also Isa 24:23: “Then the moon shall be ashamed, and the sun shall be abashed. For
the Lord of Hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and the Presence will be
revealed to His elders.” On Isa 60:19 in Qumran texts see M. Kister, “A Qumran Fragment
(4Q392 1) and the Conception of Light in ‘Qumran Dualism,’ ” Meghillot 3 (2005): 138–39
(in Hebrew).
64  I cannot agree with the interpretation of the painting proposed by P. Maser, “Darstellungen
des Olam hab-ba in der spätantik-jüdischen Kunst Roms?” in Jenseitsvorstellungen in
Antike und Christentum: Gedenkschrift für Alfred Stuiber (JACSup 9; Münster, Westfalen:
Aschendorff, 1982), 233–34. Maser believes that the image is inspired by Isa 30:26, but
292 Newman

These verses in Isaiah describe the eschatological light of God, but with
the emergence of messianic ideologies, that light came to be associated par-
ticularly with the Messiah himself. Returning to Bar Kokhba, it is important to
stress the validity of the conclusion that Mildenberg sought so vigorously to
avoid: the deliberate iconographic message of the silver tetradrachms confirms
that the leader or leaders of the revolt identified in one form or another with
the eschatological theme of stellar messianism which we have found in our
literary sources.65
In the cases of both Jesus and the omens of 66 CE, I addressed the ques-
tion of independent evidence for contemporary, irregular astronomical events.

he fails to take notice of the deliberate obscuring of the sun and moon. For the same
reason, I am unconvinced by the suggestion of G. Noga-Banai, “Between the Menorot:
New Light on a Fourth-Century Jewish Representative Composition,” Viator 39/2 (2008):
21–48 (esp. 34), who proposes that the star, sun, and moon are introduced, together with
the pair of menorahs, to lend the scene chronometric significance. See also S. Fine, Art
and Judaism in the Greco–Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2005), 127–28. The star of the Villa Torlonia catacomb should
also be compared to numerous representations in early Christian iconography of the
star of the magi and, more generally, to stars in other biblical scenes. On these see R. J.
Pillinger, “Dead Sea Scrolls and Early Christian Art,” in The Dead Sea Scrolls in Context:
Integrating the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Study of Ancient Texts, Languages, and Cultures (ed.
A. Lange et al.; 2 vols.; VTSup 140; Leiden: Brill, 2011), 2:758–59. Dr. Norbert Zimmermann
has kindly drawn my attention in particular to the similarity between the star of the Villa
Torlonia and stars in two paintings in Cubiculum O of the Christian catacomb of the Via
Latina: one of the splitting of the Red Sea, the other of an unidentified figure (perhaps
Balaam) pointing to a star overhead. See N. Zimmermann, Werkstattgruppen römischer
Katakombenmalerei (JACSup 35; Münster, Westfalen: Aschendorff, 2002 ), 105, with fig-
ures 64 and 65 on Plate XII.
65  This conclusion is consistent with the messianic overtones of Bar Kokhba’s title of
choice: nasi. The best discussion of this term remains D. Goodblatt, “The Title Nasiʾ and
the Ideological Background of the Second Revolt,” in The Bar Kokhba Revolt: New Studies
(ed. A. Oppenheimer and U. Rappaport; Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 1984), 113–32 (in
Hebrew). In contrast to the coins, a case can be made that the rosettes which decorated
the lead weights produced by Bar Kokhba’s administration did not carry any eschato-
logical meaning but were merely copied from a Hadrianic model. See A. Kloner, “Lead
Weights of Bar Kokhba’s Administration,” IEJ 40 (1990): 58–67; R. Deutsch, “A Lead
Weight of Hadrian: The Prototype for the Bar Kokhba Weights,” Israel Numismatic
Journal 14 (2000–2002): 125–28. Cf. also the grafitto of a star or pentagram discovered by
Joseph Patrich in a refuge cave in Wadi Suweinit. Patrich dated the find to the Great
Revolt, whereas Hanan Eshel argued that it should be dated to the Bar Kokhba Revolt. See
H. Eshel, “Gleaning of Scrolls from the Judean Desert,” in The Dead Sea Scrolls: Texts and
Context (ed. C. Hempel; STDJ 90; Leiden: Brill, 2010): 77–78.
Stars Of The Messiah 293

What, if anything, do we know of such phenomena at the time of the Bar


Kokhba Revolt?66 The most precise records of astronomical observations from
that period come from the Far East. We have, it turns out, reliable evidence in
Chinese records for the appearance of a suitable comet in January of 132, that is
to say, coinciding roughly with the outbreak of the revolt.67 There was no short-
age of contributing causes to the Bar Kokhba Revolt, and I am not suggesting
that this was one of them, or even that it was a precipitating event that tipped
the scales towards war when all other pieces were in place. I assume the upris-
ing would have taken place with or without a comet. I do suspect, however,
that its appearance at that time contributed to the cultivation of the particular
messianic typology which characterized the public persona of the leader of the
ensuing rebellion.
There was at the time another figure associated with a miraculous star.
Antinous of Bithynia, Hadrian’s young lover, drowned mysteriously in the
Nile in October of 130.68 Following his death—so says Cassius Dio—Hadrian
claimed to have seen a new star in the heavens, which he understood to be
none other than the spirit of Antinous.69 Hadrian deified the dead youth and
established a religious cult in his honor; coins were struck bearing the image
of Antinous, and on some appeared a star signifying his apotheosis.70 We do
not know what Hadrian really observed in the night sky or precisely when he
saw it. The comet of 132 has been suggested as a possibility, though that seems
unlikely since Cassius Dio implies an earlier date.71

66  What follows is a revised version of an argument I first made in a short paper entitled
“The Star of Bar Kokhba,” in New Studies on the Bar Kokhba Revolt (ed. H. Eshel and
B. Zissu; Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University, The Martin [Szusz] Department of Land of Israel
Studies, Jeselsohn Epigraphic Center of Jewish History, 2001), 95–99 (in Hebrew).
67  For the Chinese evidence see Ramsey, A Descriptive Catalogue of Greco–Roman Comets,
165–66. I wish to express my thanks to Prof. Christopher Cullen of the Needham Research
Institute for responding to my queries about the Chinese astronomical records.
68  See R. Lambert, Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous (London: Weidenfeld
and Nicolson, 1984); H. Meyer, Antinoos: Die archäologischen Denkmäler unter
Einbeziehung des numismatischen und epigraphischen Materials sowie der literarischen
Nachrichten (Munich: Fink, 1991); A. R. Birley, Hadrian: The Restless Emperor (London:
Routledge, 1997), 235–58.
69  Cassius Dio, Hist. 69.11.4.
70  Lambert, Beloved and God, 150; Meyer, Antinoos, 137–50. On a bust of Antinous found in
Caesarea Philippi (Banias), see J. F. Wilson, Caesarea Philippi: Banias, the Lost City of Pan
(London: Tauris, 2004), 41.
71  See J. R. Rea, ed., The Oxyrhynchus Papyri (London: Egyptian Exploration Society, 1898–),
63 (1996): 13–14, on POxy 4352; Ramsey, A Descriptive Catalogue of Greco–Roman Comets,
165–66.
294 Newman

We find ourselves faced by two remarkably contrapuntal sets of circumstan-


tial evidence begging to be compared. Each leader of this conflict happened to
be invested to some degree in the same powerful symbol. After Hadrian sent
Antinous to heaven to become a star and a god, Shimʿon b. Kosba descended,
as it were, from his own star as Bar Kokhba to lead a revolt against Rome. We
have no explicit evidence for the consequences of this combination of antago-
nistic events and symbols, but we may pose the question—and wonder. Is this
mere happenstance—coincidental cases of A Star is Born—or do our sources
also betray a touch of Star Wars?72

4 The Year of the Messianic Star and the Star of the Magi, Once Again

There is another Jewish source which apparently dates to the period between
the two Judean revolts and which refers to the anticipation of an eschatologi-
cal, redemptive star that is to descend and punish Rome. In the fifth Sibylline
Oracle we read:

But when, after the fourth year (ἀλλ᾿ ὅταν ἐκ τετράτου ἔτεος), a great star
shines which alone will destroy the whole earth, because of the honor
which they first gave to Poseidon of the sea, a great star will come from
heaven to the wondrous sea and will burn the deep sea and Babylon itself
and the land of Italy, because of which many holy faithful Hebrews and a
true people perished.73

Babylon serves here, as elsewhere, as a transparent epithet for Rome, which


will be destroyed for what it has done to the Jews. The oracle mysteriously dates
this retribution to a time “after the fourth year.” In the opinion of John Collins,
the prophecy alludes to the eschatological heptad of years, the fundamental

72  Newman, “The Star of Bar Kokhba,” 98–99. Cf. the semi-fictional account of E. Speller,
Following Hadrian: A Second-Century Journey through the Roman Empire (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2003), 276. On Hadrian, Antinous, Bar Kokhba and the Warren Cup—a
silver vessel found at Beitar, the final stronghold of the revolt—see H. Eshel, “A Silver
Chalice with Homoerotic Images Discovered in Beitar in 1906,” Jerusalem and the Land of
Israel 8–9 (2013): 233–40 (in Hebrew).
73  Sibylline Oracles 5:155–161. The translation is that of J. J. Collins, OTP 1:397. See also
J. J. Collins, The Sibylline Oracles of Egyptian Judaism (SBLDS 13; Missoula, Mont.: Society
of Biblical Literature, 1974), 89–92. For various opinions on questions of dating, sources,
and redaction see S. Felder, “What is the Fifth Sibylline Oracle?” JSJ 33 (2002): 363–85;
Beyerle, “A Star Shall Come out of Jacob,” 179–88.
Stars Of The Messiah 295

unit of time in Daniel’s calculations of the eschaton. Specifically, Collins takes


the expression to refer to the three-and-one-half years of the dominion of
the Fourth Kingdom (here identified with Rome), after which, according to
Dan 7:25–26, its power will pass to Israel.74 This is a plausible interpretation; in
fact, I hope to show that there are later Jewish sources which essentially cor-
roborate it. It is important to note, however, that four is not really equivalent to
three and a half. The oracle plainly states that the star will appear only after the
fourth year, that is to say in the fifth year, or perhaps later. The eschatological
heptad appears repeatedly in rabbinic literature and in extrarabbinic, Jewish
apocalyptic sources of late antiquity and the Middle Ages, and it is to some of
these that we will turn for comparison and thematic analysis.75
The most important of the Jewish apocalypses of late antiquity, Sefer
Zerubbabel, is generally dated to the seventh century. I have argued elsewhere
that the first recension of the book actually dates to the sixth century and that
the best witnesses to that recension, though occasionally betraying a later
hand, are the editio princeps (Constantinople, 1519) and an unpublished manu-
script in the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York.76 In Sefer Zerubbabel
there are fragmented hints of a seven-year sequence, but there is not a dis-
crete, coherent account of events for each year. While the book has its own
eschatological star, it does not conform to the patterns we have examined till
now. We read of a special star that precedes Hefzibah, mother of the Davidic
Messiah, and lights her way as she marches forth to kill two enemy kings who
threaten Israel. Hefzibah makes her appearance, together with the star, in the
sixth year of the heptad. The narrative invention of the star of Hefzibah is per-
haps inspired by Isa 62:1–4, where we read:

74  Collins, The Sibylline Oracles of Egyptian Judaism, 89; cf. ibid., OTP 1:397 n. m2.
75  There are many different versions of the seven-year scheme of salvation; in each, the
stages of apocalyptic redemption are listed year by year. For references, see D. Sperber,
Masekhet Derekh Eretz Zuta and Perek Hashalom (3d ed.; Jerusalem: Tzur-Ot, 1994), 158–
59 (in Hebrew). There is evidence that at least some Jews expected this final heptad to
coincide with the sabbatical year cycle; see B. Z. Wacholder, “Chronomessianism: The
Timing of Messianic Movements and the Calendar of Sabbatical Cycles,” HUCA 46 (1975):
201–18. Wacholder’s article must be read with caution due to the idiosyncrasy of his chro-
nology for the sabbatical year cycle. My own attempt at chronomessianic speculation
about that cycle in Newman, “The Star of Bar Kokhba,” 97, is best ignored.
76  H. I. Newman, “Dating Sefer Zerubavel: Dehistoricizing and Rehistoricizing a Jewish
Apocalypse of Late Antiquity,” Adamantius 19 (2013): 324–36. The text of the first edi-
tion is reprinted, with occasional errors, in Y. Even-Shemuel, Midreshei Geʾulah (2d ed.;
Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1954), 379–82.
296 Newman

For the sake of Zion I will not be silent; for the sake of Jerusalem I will not
be still, till her victory emerge resplendent and her triumph like a flaming
torch (‫)עד יצא כנגה צדקה וישועתה כלפיד יבער‬. . . . Nevermore shall you be
called “Forsaken,” nor shall your land be called “Desolate”; but you shall
be called Hefzibah (= “I delight in her”), and your land “Espoused.”

In the Secrets of Rabbi Shimʿon b. Yoḥai, a Hebrew apocalypse of the eighth cen-
tury, we find a systematic description of the eschatological heptad:

And this will be your sign, that you will see one week [i.e., of years]: At
its beginning—rain. And in the second (year), arrows of hunger are fired.
And in the third, great famine. And in the fourth, neither famine nor
plenty. And in the fifth, great plenty, and a certain star will rise from the
East with a staff at its head (‫)ובראשו שבט‬, and that is the star of Israel,
as it says: “A star shall come forth from Jacob.” If it lingers, it is to Israel’s
advantage, and then the Messiah Son of David will arise.77

The opening of the passage refers to a Danielic week (‫ )שבוע‬of years, but the
details of the list itself extend only as far as the fifth year. Here, as in the fifth
Sibylline Oracle, the star appears in the fifth year.
The Prayers of R. Shimʿon b. Yoḥai is a composite Jewish apocalypse of con-
tested provenance whose final compilation extends into the period of the
Crusades but which contains earlier material, including the following descrip-
tion of the heptad:

77  The most accessible edition of the text may be found in BHM 3:82, which was copied
from the edition of Salonika, 1743 (this was not the first edition, as is repeatedly claimed
in the scholarly literature; it was in fact copied in turn from the editio princeps, printed
in Ferrara in 1555). For an introduction and translation see J. C. Reeves, Trajectories in
Near Eastern Apocalyptic: A Postrabbinic Jewish Apocalypse Reader (SBLRBS 45; Atlanta:
Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 76–89. I have not followed Reeves’s translation here;
note that he mistakenly understands the text to refer to a sequence of weeks, not a “week”
of years. Remarkably, an eschatological sequence of famine and infertility followed by a
period of fecundity and abundance and finally by the appearance of a star is also found
in an Armenian apocryphon, “The Vision of Enoch the Just.” See J. Issaverdens (trans.),
The Uncanonical Writings of the Old Testament Found in the Armenian Mss. of the Library
of St. Lazarus (Venice: Armenian Monastery of St. Lazarus, 1901), 319: “Then shall appear a
certain star, having a tail toward the east, which means that there shall be more peace in
those parts. And the people of the Jews shall gather together in Mesopotamia and toward
the country of Palestine.” The narrative context and chronology in that text differ, how-
ever, from those of the Jewish sources cited here.
Stars Of The Messiah 297

At the beginning of the one week (of years) there will be no rain. And in
the second (year), arrows of famine. And in the third, there will be great
famine, and there will be no rain. And in the fourth, medium. And in the
fifth there will be great plenty. And in the sixth a certain star will rise from
the East, and at its head will be a staff of fire like a spear (‫ובראשו שבט של‬
‫)אש כמו רומח‬. The nations of the world will say: “This star is ours.” But that
is not so, rather it is Israel’s, as it says: “A star shall come forth from Jacob.”
The time of its shining will be the first watch of the night for two hours,
and it will set (and linger) for fifteen days in the East and turn to the west
and linger for fifteen days, and if for longer—it is good for Israel.78

The passage is similar but not identical to what we saw in the Secrets of Rabbi
Shimʿon b. Yoḥai. What was found there in the fifth year has been split, and here
the messianic star appears in the sixth year. There is also an additional section
describing the reaction of the Gentiles and details of the star’s course.
A short apocalyptic midrash known as Aggadat Hamashiaḥ is incorporated
into the eleventh-century Midrash Lekaḥ Tov of Tuviah b. Eliezer. Its origin is
unknown. There we a find complete heptad with the star in the fifth year:

The week (of years) in which the Son of David arrives—the first year there
is insufficient food. The second, arrows of famine are fired. The third,
great famine. In the fourth, neither famine nor plenty. In the fifth, great
plenty, and a star will rise from the East that is the star of the Messiah;
and it will linger in the East for fifteen days, and if it stays longer, it is
to Israel’s advantage. The sixth, thunder and noises. The seventh, wars.
Following the seventh, expect the Messiah.79

All of this is reminiscent of what we saw in the previous sources.


To these passages we may add one more found in an apocalyptic text pre-
served in a fragment of an unpublished Judeo-Arabic manuscript from the
Cairo Genizah (T–S NS 261.111).80 Though much of the page is missing, from

78  BHM 4:121. See Reeves, Trajectories in Near Eastern Apocalyptic, 89–106 (Reeves again ren-
ders this as a series of weeks). On the anthological character of the text as it has reached
us see E. E. Urbach, “A Midrash of Redemption from the Last Days of the Crusades,” Eretz
Israel 10 (1971): 58–63 (in Hebrew).
79  Pesikta Zutarta (= Midrash Lekaḥ Tov), Balak (Venice, 1546), 58a = BHM 3:141. See Reeves,
Trajectories in Near Eastern Apocalyptic, 144–48.
80  The manuscript has been mistakenly described as containing a “[c]alendrical discussion
concerning a request for rain”; see A. Shivtiel and F. Niessen, eds., Arabic and Judaeo-
Arabic Manuscripts in the Cambridge Genizah Collections: Taylor–Schechter New Series,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 319. Prof. Gideon Bohak, however, has
298 Newman

what remains there is no doubt that it, too, contains a description of the escha-
tological heptad, towards the end of which appears a star that lingers for fif-
teen days in the East and seventeen days in the West.
Let us examine another element in these texts. In the Prayers of R. Shimʿon
b. Yoḥai we encountered the phenomenon of the nations of the world claiming
the messianic star for themselves and saying: “This is our star.” A much more
elaborate version of such a claim by the Gentiles is found in the anthological
Midrash Haggadol on Num 24:19, where, however, it is projected onto the days
of Samuel and David:

“He shall rule from Jacob (‫( ”)וירד מיעקב‬Num 24:19)—At first a star rose
from the East and at its head was a sword (‫)ובראשו חרב‬, and Israel saw it
and they said to one another: “What is this?” The nations of the world
asked the astrologers among them and said to them: “What sort of star is
this?” They told them: “This is the star of Israel, this is the king who shall
arise for them.” When Israel heard that, they approached Samuel the
prophet and said to him: “Give us a king to judge us like all the nations”
(1 Sam 8:5)—just as the nations said. And concerning him [i.e., David] it
says: “A star shall come forth from Jacob” (Num 24:17). Similarly at the end
a star will rise from the East which is the star of the Messiah, as it says:
“He shall rule from Jacob.” R. Yose said: “In the language of the Arameans
they call the East yerd.”81 And it shall linger in the East for fifteen days,
and if it stays longer, it is to Israel’s advantage. From here on, expect the
footsteps of the Messiah.82

correctly identified this as an apocalyptic text (personal communication). Its serial num-
ber in the Friedberg Genizah Project is C 389688/9.
81  The sentence is odd. Midrash Haggadol reads: ‫אמר רבי יוסה בלשון ארמיא קרן למדנחא‬
‫ירד‬. Cf. Y. T. Langermann, Yemenite Midrash: Philosophical Commentaries on the Torah
(New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 175–76.
82  Midrash Haggadol on Num 24:19; see Midrash Haggadol on the Pentateuch (ed.
Z. M. Rabinowitz; Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 1983), 4:431–32. The last portion of the
passage reappears in a Yemenite midrash analyzed by E. Schlossberg, “An Anonymous
Yemenite Midrash on the Torah from the Early Sixteenth Century,” Sidra 18 (2003): 144 (in
Hebrew). The midrash is found in London: British Library Or. 1481 (F5988 in the Institute
of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts of the National Library of Israel). There are errors in
Schlossberg’s transcription of the passage, in his punctuation of the text, and in his identi-
fication of one of the key biblical verses. The next passage in the manuscript attests to the
sighting of a comet, which is taken to be that predicted by our text. On other “messianic”
stars reported by the Jews of Yemen in the seventeenth century, see J. Tobi, The Jews of
Yemen: Studies in their History and Culture (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 51–56.
Stars Of The Messiah 299

There are many points of interest in this passage. Its source is unknown, but it
resembles the late antique Hebrew apocalyptic texts of the sort we saw above.
In it, Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24 is understood to refer to both David
and the Messiah, and the midrash establishes an analogy between the two; this
Davidic interpretation is known from medieval Hebrew sources.83 In some of
the previous texts we saw the star of the Messiah described as a staff or spear,
but here we find ourselves confronted once again by a stellar sword, even if it
is the sword announcing the kingship of David, not of the Messiah. Remarking
on the traces of ancient motifs in this late source, Menahem Kister has already
drawn attention inter alia to the similarity between the sign of the sword and
what Josephus wrote of the omens before the Great Revolt. Kister also points
to the affinity of the interest of the Gentile astrologers in the stellar sword to
that of the magi in the Star of the Nativity.84
How are we to interpret this similarity to the story of the magi? In theory
it could reflect independent use of an ancient topos; but there is, as I hope
to demonstrate, other evidence of a Jewish response in late antiquity to the
Christian story of the magi, and I am inclined to read the passage in Midrash
Haggadol as a similar response.
Commenting on the claim of the Gentiles in the Prayers of R. Shimʿon b.
Yoḥai that “this star is ours,” John Reeves has suggested that this “seems to
reflect the Christian prophecies associated with the ‘star of the magi’ found
in Syriac sources like the Cave of Treasures.”85 This, I believe, is fundamentally
correct, but the most compelling evidence has been missed. Let us return to
the Secrets of Rabbi Shimʿon b. Yoḥai, where we find in the text of the printed
edition: “And in the fifth (year), great plenty, and a certain star will rise from

83  See references in M. M. Kasher, Torah Shelemah (Jerusalem: Beit Torah Shelemah, 1991),
42:140–45 (in Hebrew). Numbers 24:17 was already taken to refer to David and his descen-
dents by the Emperor Julian in his Contra Galilaeos; see Iuliani imperatoris librorum
contra Christianos quae supersunt (ed. K. J. Neumann; Leipzig: Teubner, 1880), 212–13
(261E). Julian sought to refute the interpretation of Christians who associated the verse
with Christ and the star of the magi. See Dorival, “Un astre se lèvera de Jacob,” 340–41;
J. G. Cook, The Interpretation of the Old Testament in Greco–Roman Paganism (STAC 23;
Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 301–2. I have encountered no evidence among Jews of
similar exegesis identifying the star of Balaam with David prior to the medieval Hebrew
sources. I cannot say if the similarity to Julian’s argument is purely coincidental or if it
indicates dependence upon a common tradition.
84  Kister, “Legends of the Destruction,” 522–23.
85  Reeves, Trajectories in Near Eastern Apocalyptic, 97 n. 120.
300 Newman

the East with a staff at its head (‫ ;)ובראשו שבט‬and that is the star of Israel, as it
says: ‘A star shall come forth from Jacob.’ ” If we look in the manuscripts, how-
ever, we find that an important part of the passage has been omitted. In the
Munich manuscript of the Secrets we read:

And in the fifth (year), great plenty, and a certain star will rise from the
East with a staff at its head; and the nations of the world will ascend to
the top of the mountains and say: “This is our star.” But it is rather the star
of Israel, as it says: “A star shall come forth from Israel [sic].”86

A similar reading is also found in other manuscripts.87 This resembles what we


have already seen in the Prayers of R. Shimon b. Yoḥai, with one important addi-
tion: the ascent of the Gentiles to the top (or tops) of the mountains to claim
the star for their savior. This, it turns out, is a key to identifying the pedigree of
the tradition. Mountain climbing at the appearance of the star is not an obvi-
ous response. We do not catch the Jews doing it, and we must wonder where
it comes from.
The most elaborate apocryphal legend of the magi in late antiquity is found,
with variations, in two sources. The first is the Latin Opus imperfectum in
Matthaeum, the work of an Arian author of the mid-fifth century. The second
is the Syriac Chronicle of Zuqnin (once commonly known as the Chronicle of
Pseudo-Dionysius), an eighth-century composition.88 In the Opus imperfectum
we read:

86  München–Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cod. Hebr. 222: ‫ ויצמח כוכב‬,‫ובחמישי שובע גדול‬
,‫ ואומות העולם עולין לראש ההרים ואומ' זה כוכבינו הוא‬,‫אחד ממזרח ובראשו שבט‬
‫ שנ' דרך כוכב מישראל‬,‫ואינו אלא כוכבו של ישראל‬.
87  Thus Oxford–Bodleian Library Heb.d.46/11: ‫ואומות העולם רואין אותו ומנירים (?) ועולים‬
‫לראשי ההרים ואומרים זה הוא כוכבינו‬. Parma–Biblioteca Palatina Cod. Parm. 3122
(= De Rossi 1240; F12284 in the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts), fol. 228b,
has the more plausible reading: ‫“—מודדים‬measure”—in place of ‫ ;מנירים‬the nations
of the world measure the position of the star and thereby determine where to ascend.
Cf. Parma–Biblioteca Palatina Cod. Parm. 2342 (= De Rossi 541; F13218 in the Institute
of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts), fol. 201b. For a transcription of the Parma manu-
scripts by A. Jellinek see I. Desheh, ed., Sefer Yalkut Midrashim: Otzar Midreshei Hazal
(4 vols.; Tzefat: Or Olam, 2007), 4:77.
88  The most recent full length studies of these texts are by B. C. Landau, “The Sages and
the Star Child: An Introduction to the Revelation of the Magi, an Ancient Christian
Apocryphon” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard Divinity School, 2008) (I am grateful to Sergey Minov
for sharing with me a copy of this work); idem, Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of
the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem (New York: HarperCollins, 2010). See the review of
Stars Of The Messiah 301

[T]here was a certain race situated at the beginning of the East next to
the ocean, in whose possession was a certain writing ascribed to Seth
concerning the appearance of this star and the kind of gifts to be offered
it which was considered to have been handed down from fathers to their
sons through generations of studious men. . . . They were called magi in
their own tongue, because they glorified God in silence and unspoken
voice. Year after year, after the threshing harvest, they would ascend on
top of a certain mountain situated there, which was called in their lan-
guage “Mount of Victory.” . . . So they were doing for generations, always
waiting, if perchance in their generation that star of blessedness would
arise, until at last the star appeared to them, descending on top of that
Mount of Victory, containing the form of a small boy and having the
image of the cross above itself.89

The tale in the Chronicle of Zuqnin is much longer, but it will suffice to quote a
short excerpt here:

And those books of hidden mysteries were placed on the Mountain of


Victories in the east of Shir, our country, in a cave, the Cave of Treasures
of the Mysteries of the Life of Silence. And our fathers commanded us
as they also received from their fathers, and they said to us: “Wait for the
light that shines forth to you from the exalted East of the majesty of the
Father, the light that shines forth from on high in the form of a star over
the Mountain of Victories and comes to rest upon a pillar of light within
the Cave of Treasures [of] Hidden Mysteries.”90

Indeed, when the star finally appeared, the magi ascended the Mountain of
Victories to the Cave of Treasures.

Landau’s book by A. Y. Reed in Sino–Platonic Papers 208 (February 2011): 36–54. Reed
is particularly critical of Landau’s assessment of the legend’s origins. She challenges his
early dating and his denial of Eastern influences.
89  Opus imperfectum in Matthaeum, Homily 2 (PG 56:637–38). The translation is taken, with
modifications, from J. A. Kellerman (trans.) and T. C. Oden (ed.), Incomplete Commentary
on Matthew (Opus Imperfectum) (2 vols.; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2010),
1:32.
90  For the Syriac see Landau, “The Sages and the Star Child,” 30 = Chronicon anonymum
Pseudo-Dionysianum vulgo dictum (ed. J.-B. Chabot; 4 vols.; CSCO 91, Scriptores Syri 43;
Louvain: Imprimerie Orientaliste, 1953), 1:59. The translation is that of Landau, Revelation
of the Magi, 38.
302 Newman

According to the Syriac Christian legend, the magi await the appearance
of the star of Christ, which is to be revealed on the Mountain of Victories
in the East;91 at its epiphany they ascend to the Cave of Treasures atop the
­ ountain.92 The legend was incorporated into Jewish eschatological tradi-
m
tion with a polemical twist. The Secrets of Rabbi Shimʿon b. Yoḥai predicts the
advent of the star as a prelude to the coming of the Messiah. When the star
appears in the East, the Gentiles will ascend to the top of the mountains and
claim the star as their own, but they will of course be wrong, for it is the star
of Israel. This thematic confrontation lends credibility to speculation about
literary responses to the star of the magi in some of our other sources, such as
Midrash Haggadol.
Ironically, we have come round full circle to the star of the nativity. Though
it emerged out of Second Temple Judaism, it comes back like so much else as a
Doppelgänger in a battle of competing eschatologies.

5 Conclusions

As I explained at the outset, my purpose in this study has been primarily to


give an account of the role of stars in Jewish eschatology, not as metaphors
or abstractions, but as agents or omens of salvation. I have sought to describe
both the continuity and the transformation of their role over time in apoca-
lyptic speculation and realized eschatology, beginning with Second Temple
Judaism and continuing through late antiquity and beyond. We have been able
to recognize traditional concepts which found their way into new textual and
historical contexts, thereby acquiring new significance. The comparison of
Jewish and Christian sources has revealed shared conceptions, but what they
hold in common leads almost inevitably to confrontation and to competition
for divine validation.

91  In Matt 2:2 the magi report seeing a star ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ. Commentators have noted that
this is better understood as “at its rising,” than “in the East.” See for example Davies and
Allison, Commentary, 236. Nevertheless, in the Latin and Syriac versions and dependent
sources we find it interpreted in the latter sense; that, of course, is how it is taken in
the Chronicle of Zuqnin. It is thus legitimate to draw an analogy between these Christian
sources and the Jewish texts cited above which speak of the appearance of a messianic
star in the East. What that signifies in astronomical terms is a separate question, which
cannot be addressed here.
92  On hypotheses of Zoroastrian inspiration for the notion of the Mountain of Victories see
M. Boyce and F. Grenet, A History of Zoroastrianism (3 vols.; Leiden: Brill, 1991), 3:451–52.
Stars Of The Messiah 303

According to Franz Rosenzweig, “[i]n the innermost narrows of the Jewish


heart there shines the Star of Redemption.”93 Rosenzweig’s star is undoubt-
edly more accessible to modern sensibilities than those I have described here,
but that should not prevent us from appreciating the power of the star of the
Messiah as more than a figure of speech. We are all children of the scientific
revolution, which has demystified the nighttime sky. When we do bother to
look up, city lights blind us to its grandeur. Yet with enough effort, we can imag-
ine the awe of earlier generations that stared into the heavens at night and,
finding them inhabited by angels, searched longingly for the point of light her-
alding redemption.

93  F. Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption (trans. B. E. Galli; Madison: University of Wisconsin
Press, 2005), 434.