This book contextualizes the messianic claims of Jesus in the Mediterranean world of the first century BCE through the second century CE. Kearney and Zeitz dub the time period between 28 BCE and 135 CE “the soterial age,” a time in which more than two dozen men were identified as messiahs by various religious and political groups. After detailing various prophecies of a savior at this time, the authors point to Jesus as the messianic claimant who best fulfilled the expectations of the age.
Kearney and Zeitz examine the overall trend to search for a savior in this time period and see societies around the Mediterranean turning away from finding their answers in magic (e.g. people seeking power through human sacrifice or sexual rituals) or in philosophy. Instead of magical rituals or philosophy, they say, people increasingly looked to prophecies for hope for the future. Kearney and Zeitz tie the search for a savior to an interest in a range of prophetic sources, from the Delphic oracle and the Sibylline books to prophecies of Zarathustra and those found in the Hebrew Scriptures.
One of the most interesting contributions of the book is its presentation of various messianic claimants of the period. Kearney and Zeitz categorize some claimants as “secular” (i.e. military) and others as “religious.” The book moves quickly over the “secular” group, which is populated by heroes like Simon bar Kochba, to dwell on the “religious” group, which includes such figures as Augustus and Caligula as well as John the Baptist, Jesus, Theudas, Apollonios of Tyana, and others.
In the end, the book points to Jesus as the messianic claimant who best fulfills the expectations of the first and second centuries, even including a chart listing various soteriological expectations and ranking different “messiahs” in terms of how many expectations they meet. The book points to this success in fulfilling expectations as one factor in Christianity’s success in establishing itself as a religion in the Roman Empire.
The last chapters hint that this success—this fulfillment of a basic human desire for salvation—may be an argument for the truth of Christianity. However, the complexity of soterial expectations—and the possible manipulation either of the prophecies of a savior or of a savior’s own story to suit the prophecies—makes it difficult to create a simple argument.
Overall, this book presents a collection of interesting information about the religious atmosphere of the first and second centuries, noting parallels between Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, and other religions of the time. An examination of the materials presented here should lead to other questions and research.