What basis did first-century Jews have for being “in expectation” of the Messiah?
In the days of John the Baptizer, “the people were in expectation and all of them were reasoning in their hearts about John, ‘May he perhaps be the Christ?’” (Luke 3:15) Why might the Jews have expected the Messiah to appear at that time? There are a number of reasons.
After Jesus was born, Jehovah’s angel appeared to shepherds who were tending their flocks in the fields near Bethlehem. The angel proclaimed: “Today there was born to you in David’s city a savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:8-11) After that, the angel was joined by “a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God and saying:* ‘Glory in the heights above to God, and on earth peace among men of goodwill.’”—Luke 2:13, 14.
That announcement certainly had a powerful effect on those humble shepherds. They immediately set out for Bethlehem, and when they found Joseph and Mary and the infant Jesus, “they made known the message that they had been told concerning this young child.” As a result, “all who heard were astonished at what the shepherds told them.” (Luke 2:17, 18) The expression “all who heard” implies that the shepherds spoke to others besides Joseph and Mary. Then, as the shepherds returned home, they kept “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.” (Luke 2:20) Those shepherds certainly were not keeping to themselves the good things they had heard about the Christ!
When Mary brought her firstborn son to Jerusalem in order to present him to Jehovah as the Mosaic Law required, the prophetess Anna “began giving thanks to God and speaking about the child to all who were waiting for Jerusalem’s deliverance.” (Luke 2:36-38; Ex. 13:12) Thus, news of the Messiah’s appearance continued to spread.
Later, “astrologers from the East came to Jerusalem, saying: ‘Where is the one born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when we were in the East, and we have come to do obeisance to him.’” (Matt. 2:1, 2) Upon hearing this, “King Herod was agitated, and all Jerusalem with him. On gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” (Matt. 2:3, 4) So a great many people were being put on notice: The future Messiah had arrived!*
Luke 3:15, quoted earlier, indicates that some Jews thought that John the Baptizer might be the Christ. However, John put that notion to rest with the words: “The one coming after me is stronger than I am, whose sandals I am not worthy to take off. That one will baptize you with holy spirit and with fire.” (Matt. 3:11) John’s modest comment would not fail to heighten Messianic expectations.
Could the first-century Jews have calculated the time of the Messiah’s arrival on the basis of the prophecy of the 70 weeks recorded at Daniel 9:24-27? While that possibility cannot be ruled out, it cannot be confirmed. The fact is that there were many conflicting interpretations of the 70 weeks in Jesus’ day, and none come close to our present understanding.*
The Essenes, widely thought to have been a Jewish monastic sect, taught that two Messiahs would appear toward the end of 490 years, but we cannot be certain that the Essenes based their calculations on Daniel’s prophecy. Even if they had done so, it is hard to imagine how the Jews in general would have come to be influenced by the chronology of such a reclusive group.
In the second century C.E., certain Jews believed that the 70 weeks covered the period from the destruction of the first temple in 607 B.C.E. to the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E., while others connected the fulfillment of the prophecy with the Maccabean period of the second century B.C.E. So there was no clear consensus as to how the 70 weeks should be counted.
If the timing of the 70 weeks had been correctly understood in the first century C.E., one would think that the apostles and other first-century Christians would have referred to it as proof that the promised Messiah had arrived right on time in the person of Jesus Christ. However, there is no evidence that the earliest Christians did so.
Another factor is worth noting. Gospel writers often pointed out that certain prophecies found in the Hebrew Scriptures were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. (Matt. 1:22, 23; 2:13-15; 4:13-16) Yet, not one of them connects Jesus’ appearance on earth with the prophecy of the 70 weeks.
In summary: We cannot confirm that people in Jesus’ day correctly understood the prophecy of the 70 weeks. However, the Gospels provide other sound reasons why the people would have been “in expectation” of the Messiah.
The Bible does not say that the angels “sang” at Jesus’ birth.
We might ask, How did the astrologers make the connection between the appearance of the “star” in the East and the birth of the “king of the Jews”? Could it be that they heard news of Jesus’ birth when traveling through Israel?
For our present understanding of the prophecy of the 70 weeks, see Pay Attention to Daniel’s Prophecy! chapter 11.