Mormons are unusal among Christians for being aware of a fairly obscure Jewish tradition to the effect that there was an expectation not of a single messiah, but of two, one the Messiah ben David (ben means “son of,” in this case in the sense of “descendant of”) and the other the Messiah ben Joseph. Mormon interest in the Messiah ben Joseph tradition has focused on various ways in which Joseph Smith can be described as fitting into that tradition. Lots of Mormon writers have written on this topic, including Skousen, Madsen, Tvedtnes, and many more.
The recent publicity regarding the “Dead Sea Scroll in stone,” Hazon Gabriel or “Gabriel’s Revelation,” has brought the topic of the Messiah ben Joseph to the fore once again. The latest issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, which I just received, has an article by Israel Knohl entitled “The Messiah Son of Joseph” exploring this issue.
The locus classicus for this tradition is a passage in the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 52a) and other late literature, such as the seventh century Sefer Zerubabel. So the tradition has appeared to be post-Christian and reflecting an impact of Christianity on Judaism. But there is other literature extant that suggests the roots of the idea are much older. For instance, in Joseph and Asenath, written in the first century BCE or CE, Joseph is described as a “son of God” and as “God’s firstborn son.” And the Testament of Benjamin (from the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs), connects Joseph with the Suffering Servant figure of Isaiah 52-53. Jacob is reported as saying to Joseph:
In you will be fulfilled the heavenly prophecy, which says that the spotless one will be defiled by lawless men and the sinless one will die for the sake of impious men. [Emphasis added]
These texts suggest that the designation of the suffering Messiah as the son of Joseph goes back to the Second Temple period.
Gabriel’s Revelation contains the line: “My servant David, ask of Ephraim that he place the sign….” Unfortunately, we don’t know what the “sign” was supposed to be. But this passage portrays Ephraim as having superior rank to David (who is portrayed here simply in the role of a messenger).
The NT portrays Jesus as the son of David, the Davidic Messiah. Jesus himself, however, never refers to the Messiah as the “son of David,” nor does he claim any link with the Davidic line.
Here Knohl begins to make a fascinating suggestion. I remember learning in seminary that the Jews expected a Messiah who would be a warrior king, who would throw off the yoke of their Roman oppressors. Jesus could not have been further removed from such an image. So why did a substantial minority of Jews of the time accept Jesus as the Messiah?
The warrior image of the Messiah was based on David’s rep as the greatest warrior king of Israelite history. But there was another Messianic tradition–the Messiah ben Joseph tradition. Jesus was himself (perceived to be) a son of a man named Joseph. And the Ephraimite messianic tradition was tied into the Suffering Servant songs of Isaiah; this was a suffering Messiah, which in fact reflects the reality of Jesus’ ministry and death.
Jesus himself publicly refuted the idea that the Messiah is a descendant of David (Mark 12:35-27, Mt. 22:41-46; Luke 20:41-44), quoting Psalm 110 as a prooftext. This has traditionally been understood as asserting that the Messiah is not merely a son of David, but that he has a superior status as the son of God. But reading the passage with the multiple messianic traditions in mind, it does seem plausible that he was asserting the supriority of the Joseph/Ephraimite tradition over the Davidic tradition. He may have been seeking to “lower expectations,” to dissuade people from holding solely to the politically triumphal image of the Messiah in the Davidic tradition. Jesus’ Messiah, like the son of Joseph, involves rather suffering and death.
Thus, Knohl suggests that Jesus may have seen himself as the Messiah Ephraim, the son of Joseph who would suffer and die like the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.