Half a shekel and 2 unlikely messiahs

Students of religion and politics have had a mountain of material to consider recently. One particularly notable theme is the use of Christian/biblical language by the Trump administration and its supporters.

One noteworthy example emerged in the spring of 2017 when allusions to Donald Trump as a messianic figure began to circulate both mainstream and social media. For many, this appeared strange and provocative language. Within Christian tradition, the Hebrew word ‘messiah’ (מָשִׁיחַ – mashiach) , which literally means ‘anointed’ or ‘anointed one’ (rendered in Greek as χριστός – christos), has primarily come to denote the specific figure of Jesus Christ, with its allied associations of sonship, moral perfection and divinity. Consequently, any attempts to attribute messianic status to Donald Trump could be viewed as inappropriate and even blasphemous. Nevertheless, certain religious groups have continued to refer to him in this way. This is particularly interesting as it occurs against a backdrop of an increase in use of religious (Judeo-Christian) language to articulate and justify policy decisions (see earlier post – Weaponising Romans 13), suggesting a closer convergence between religious and political spheres than we have seen in recent history.

Although, many of the Christian leaders who support Trump specifically avoid using the term ‘messiah’ when speaking of him, they frequently refer to him as being anointed by God to lead the nation. This is exemplified by evangelist Paula White‘s comments recorded in 2017:

…whether people like him or not, he has been raised up by God, because God says that He raises up and places all people in places of authority.

Paula White

The image below (sometimes in a more parodical form) was posted frequently on social media in 2017 following Trump’s inauguration.

Jesus and Trump meme (2017) Source: https://imgflip.com/memetemplate/91527982/Trump-n-Jesus

In 2018, during the celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the modern state of Israel, Donald Trump was more overtly referenced in terms of holding a messianic office. Some groups in Israel began to explicitly align him with another, just as unlikely, messianic figure, Cyrus the Great, illustrating the difference in the way Jewish and Christian traditions use the term ‘Messiah.’* It also serves to demonstrate how much this title has (and through much of history continued to be) embedded within the political landscape.

Half Shekel Coin

‘Half shekel’ Temple coin bearing the images of Cyrus the Great and Donald Trump. Image: Mikdash Education Centre.

In 2017 the Mikdash Educational Centre minted a half shekel coin upon which the profile of Donald Trump overlay that of the Persian ruler, Cyrus the Great, sometimes also known as Cyrus the Elder (660-530 BCE). Its creators stated that it had been produced to celebrate and

“announce the ‘Trump-Balfour-Cyrus declaration’, to express we are part of a historical and divine process towards the recognition of all mankind [sic] of the historical role of Jerusalem.”

Mikdash Educational Centre

For some Jews, the 70th year following the establishment of modern Israel is particularly significant, citing Jeremiah 29:10 (Jeremiah’s ‘letter to the exiles in Babylon’).

For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place.

Jeremiah 29:10 (NRSV)

This text is referenced on the coin.

The connection between Cyrus the Great and Donald Trump was further strengthened by a speech given by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who specifically linked Trump with other key figures in Israel’s history.

I want to tell you that the Jewish people have a long memory, so we remember the proclamation of the great king, Cyrus the Great, the Persian king 2,500 years ago. He proclaimed that the Jewish exiles in Babylon could come back and rebuild our Temple in Jerusalem. We remember a hundred years ago, Lord Balfour, who issued the Balfour Proclamation that recognized the rights of the Jewish people in our ancestral homeland. We remember 70 years ago, President Harry S. Truman was the first leader to recognize the Jewish state. And we remember how a few weeks ago, President Donald J. Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Mr. President, this will be remembered by our people through the ages.

Benjamin Netanyahu 05/03/2018, reported in Times of Israel

A further coin is currently in production that also uses this same image.

Second Cyrus-Trump coin, designed by Aharon Shevo. Image: Mikdash Education Centre

Both coins draw upon texts from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). The inscription on the proposed coin reads: “And he charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem”. This is a text that can be found in Ezra 1 (and has parallel in 2 Chronicle 36:23).

The text is significant because Ezra, possibly written a hundred years after Cyrus’ reign, recounts how the Emperor Cyrus was instructed by God to release the Israelites from their exile in Persia and let them return to their homeland to reestablish the nation of Israel and to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple.

Cyrus the messiah

Cyrus holds an interesting if ambiguous place in history. He is credited as establishing the Achaemenid empire that lasted for nearly 200 years and, at its peak, was the largest ever known.

Achaemenid empire territory (522 B -486 BC), the cross road between the the ancient civilizations and surrounded by six seas. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Achaemenid-empire-territory-522-B-486-BC-the-cross-road-between-the-the-ancient_fig2_297453087 [accessed 11 Mar, 2019]

Cyrus deposed his grandfather, the Median king Astyages, in 550 BCE, from which he inherited a substantial legacy that included wealth and territories (principally located around the Iranian plateau). Amongst these were included the Israelite and Judahite exiles, taken captive from earlier Assyrian and Babylonian campaigns. Having established himself on the throne, Cyrus then embarked on various assaults to the west, defeating Croesus of Lydia (western Turkey) before turning to Babylon itself.

We are then told, in Ezra, that under the instruction of God, Cyrus releases the Israelite and Judahite captives and allows them to return to their former land to reestablish themselves as a nation.

1 In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished [Jer 29:10], the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared:

2 ‘Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. 3 Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem; 4 and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill-offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.’

Ezra 1 (NRSV)

While Ezra is clear in conveying the divine mandate behind Cyrus’ actions, with the implication that he had been specifically chosen (or anointed) to carry out this task, the text makes no overt reference to Cyrus as a mashiach/messiah. However, the exilic writer, deutero-Isaiah (45:1), does:

1 Thus says the Lord to his anointed [מָשִׁיחַmashiach], to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
and the gates shall not be closed:
2 I will go before you
and level the mountains,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
3 I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.

Isaiah 45 (NRSV)

Although the term ‘messiah’ is frequently used within the Hebrew Bible to refer to people who were appointed for particular tasks (whether priestly or prophetic), this is the only instance where the title was given to someone who was not of Hebrew birth. It is also important to note that the title refers to a person’s role/activity rather than a statement/endorsement of their moral and spiritual standing (although this could, at times, be inferred) – this is where it significantly departs from its use within the Christian tradition.

Divine mandate or political calculation?

Relief of Cyrus. Illustration from “Illustrerad verldshistoria utgifven av E. Wallis. volume I”.

What might have been the reasons behind Cyrus’ decision to let the Israelites return and why might he have so readily (by some at least) to have been viewed as an instrument of God?

Cyrus’ own religious beliefs are unclear. It is generally assumed that, as a Persian, he would have followed the Persian religion. Problems with chronologies mean that it is uncertain whether this would have been the chief god Ahuramazda, head of the traditional Persian pantheon of gods or the monotheism of the prophet Zoroaster (who appropriated Ahuramazda).** Whatever the case, whether mono or polytheistic, it is clear, however, is that these traditional Persian religion did not play a large part in Cyrus’ politics.

Cyrus is in fact more famous for his (apparent) religious tolerance than his espousal to a particular religion. Generally Cyrus enjoys a fairly good reputation and has often been applauded for his progressive and enlightened attitude (even early writers, like Herodotus, sang his praises). However, there might be a more calculating element in his use of religion – particularly the religions of the people that he had subjugated.

A good example of this strategy can be found in the ‘Cyrus Cylinder’, a clay cylinder detailing in cuneiform his ‘liberation’ of Babylon.

The Cyrus Cylinder, dating from 539 BC. This document is a propaganda one of Cyrus II in order to show his legitimacy to rule in Babylonia. Source: https://www.ancient.eu/image/216/cyrus-cylinder/

Cyrus’ employment of the chief Babylonian deity, Marduk, is instructive. The cylinder provides an account of how Cyrus had been specifically sought out by Marduk and assigned the role of freeing Babylon from the tyrannical rule of the apostate king Nabonidus.

[12] [Marduk] searched everywhere and then he took a righteous king, his favorite, by the hand, he called out his name: Cyrus, king of Anšan; he pronounced his name to be king all over the world.
[13] … And [Cyrus] shepherded with justice and righteousness all the black-headed people,
[14] over whom he had given him victory. Marduk, the great lord, guardian of his people, looked with gladness upon his good deeds and upright heart.

Cyrus Cylinder (lines 12-14)

This is an extremely astute political move. Before Cyrus’ assault, the Babylonian king Nabonidus had attempted depose Marduk as head of the Babylonian pantheon and, in his stead, to elevate Sen, the moon god, to that position. This had particularly alienated and enraged the elites (aristocracy and cultic priests) and appears to have been, at least partly, responsible for unrest among the general population.

Cyrus’ use of – and deliberate self-identification with – the Marduk cult enabled him to portray himself to his conquered people not as despot, but as their saviour and, furthermore, the champion of their god and religion!

When we read the biblical accounts (particularly Isaiah and Ezra) in the light of the Cyrus Cylinder, the language they use has a distinctly familiar ring to it. Unfortunately, we do not have any Persian records that directly refer to the release and return of the exiles to Israel. This, together with archaeological evidence that much of the restoration work occurred after Cyrus’ reign (possibly under Darius), suggests that the return from exile occurred a lot later.Consequently, it cannot be determined whether Cyrus employed YHWH in similar way to his use of Marduk, or whether the Israelite writers simply perceived his actions through this theological lens. It certainly would not hurt the fledgling Israel’s case to remind the more despotic later Persian rulers (like Darius) that the rebuilding of their nation had originally been sanctioned by the great Cyrus. Furthermore, for those trying to negotiate the re-emergence of Israel as a state while remaining under the domination of the Persian empire, this narrative would also help to assuage fears of Persian interference for those within Israel’s borders (God was ultimately in control).

Trump, the new Cyrus?

It is always highly problematic to try and draw direct parallels from history, but the use and deployment of Christian language, symbolism and imagery by Donald Trump and his supporters suggests a fairly close pattern with that played out in 6th century Babylonia. Both Trump and his Christian supporters appear to be keen to establish a narrative in which he is presented as the one who is the restorer and champion of the nations ‘true’ religion and its values. Various strategies suggest that there is a deliberate attempt to create a closer association between Trump, as a person (not just his policies), and a particular religious message.

The signing of Bibles by Donald Trump is particularly interesting. It first must be noted that previous presidents have also signed Bibles and that, from video footage, the signing of the Bibles did not appear to be instigated by Trump (as some social media comments suggests), but that the Bibles were offered to him for his autograph. Nevertheless, what is clear is that Donald Trump appears happy to place his signature on them.

One way of reading this is that here Trump is implicitly endorsing the values that are attributed to the Bible by its owners. It also identifies him with the narrative sweep (and its key figures) expressed in (or read into) those texts. Whether intended or not, there is an implication of, not just endorsing, but Trump becoming part of message found within the Bible.  In this respect, it works in a way that is comparable to the Cyrus Cylinder in 6th century Babylon: ‘Where your previous leader failed you, I am appointed to restore and champion of that in which you believe.’ But – and this is crucial for the Cyrus Cylinder – it is also a reminder of who is ‘boss’. The Cyrus Cylinder was after all primarily not theology, but a statement of empire politics. It was a marker of conquest. To put it another way, this is the theology of colonialism.

Bibles signed by Donald Trump at Opelika, Southern, Baptist church in Alabama (08/03/19). Facebook post. 10/03/2019

This type of religio-political narrative is powerful. As in 6th century Babylon, it is a story that is extremely attractive to those alienated by the changes with a particular religious discourse (the apparent loss of – or threat to – the ‘old religion’). Similarly, it also has a direct appeal to those power-bases (religious and political) who previously were aligned to the ‘old’ systems and who now perceive themselves as being dis-empowered or even disenfranchised from those spheres of power and/or social influence.

Cyrus cannot be viewed as unique. Many ancient conquerors adopted this same strategy. They were pragmatists. It made sense to win over the priests who often had the ear of the elite as well as the support (generally!) of the populace. Greece and Rome follow this pragmatic pattern. And so too – it seems – does Trump.

Religious language is potent, especially when it becomes aligned with a particular political ideology. In the light of the current environment and the complexities of different religious traditions, it will be interesting to monitor how this will develop in the future.

One last point

Incidentally, Cyrus the Great would be very familiar with the idea of having his image minted on a coin. Following his defeat of the Lydian king Croesus (of legendary wealth), in modern Turkey in 546 BCE, coins were issued that celebrated his victory.

Stater coin, thought to have been minted c.550BCE, bearing image of Cyrus (lion) defeating Croesus, king of Lydia. Image: https://www.ngccoin.com/news/article/3510/ancient-coins/


**It should be noted that the definition of mashiac within modern Judaism is also fairly plastic. It would therefore be incorrect to suggest that all modern Jews share exactly the same views and expectations.

*For those interested in the debate surrounding Cyrus’ religious and political background, there is a lively and accessible article by Sidney Dean (2019) ‘Enlightenment or Calculation’ Ancient History. 20 (Feb/Mar). 14-18.

For those with JSTOR accounts you can read more about this in Lisbeth S Fried’s HTR article ‘Cyrus the Messiah? The Historical Background to Isaiah 45:1‘. For a shorter article by her, go to the SBL’s Bible Odyssey page ‘Cyrus the Messiah‘.

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