Cyrus the Messiah? The Historical Background to Isaiah 45:1 a
According to Isaiah 45:1, Cyrus is YHWH's anointed, his Messiah: Thus says YHWH to his anointed, to Cyrus whom I took by his right hand. Scholars have long disputed this passage. Many agree with Charles Torrey and argue that all references to Cyrus should be removed as later additions; the prophet himself did not write them. 1 Other scholars assert that the name Cyrus is original, but admonish their readers not to interpret the title “anointed” as more than was intended. The act of anointing simply indicates a commission: Cyrus is to perform the office of king. 2 Still others take a third position and assert that references to Cyrus are central to the theory of history presented in the Book of Isaiah. 3 Cyrus is the promised redeemer of the Jews. Yet, even these scholars argue that Cyrus's anointing confers a temporary office, and does not evoke a permanent relationship; Cyrus has not converted to YHWHism, and the title should not be translated “Messiah.” 4 Some do admit that the anointing does mean the end of the Davidic monarchy, however. What God once did through David, he now does through Cyrus. 5
a This paper has benefited from conversations with Baruch A. Levine, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, John D. W. Watts, David Weisberg, and Lester H. Cole, and from comments by Lloyd M. Barre, Robert Bayer, Gary Beckman, Charles D. Isbell, Victor (A.) Hurowitz, Gene McGarry, the Persian Period Group of SBL, and anonymous reviewers at HTR on earlier drafts. All errors are my own.
1 Charles C. Torrey, The Second Isaiah (New York: Scribner's, 1928) 3–52; idem, “Isaiah 41,” HTR 44 (1951) 121–36; James D. Smart, History and Theology in Second Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 35, 40–66 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964) 115–34; Jurgen van Oorschot, Von Babel zum Zion (New York: de Gruyter, 1993) 88.
2 Christopher R. North, The Second Isaiah (Oxford: Clarendon, 1964) 150; Roger N. Whybray, Isaiah 40–66 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 104; Karl Elliger, Jesaja 40,1–45,7 (BKAT XI/1; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1978) 492; John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34–66 (WBC 25; Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1987) 156; Antti Laato, The Servant of YHWH and Cyrus: A Reinterpretation of the Exilic Messianic Programme in Isaiah 40–55 (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1992); idem, A Star is Rising: The Historical Development of the Old Testament Royal Theology and the Rise of the Jewish Messianic Expectations (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997) 173–85; Hugh G. M. Williamson, “The Messianic Texts in Isaiah 1-39,” in King and Messiah in Israel and the Ancient Near East (ed. J. Day; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998) 238–70; Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000) 353–54.
3 Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40–66 (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969) 10, 159; Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology (trans. D. M. G. Stalker; 2 vols.; United Kingdom: Oliver and Boyd, 1965) 2:238–62; John L. McKenzie, Second Isaiah (AB; Garden City: Doubleday, 1968) lxvi; Antoon Schoors, I Am God Your Saviour: A Form-Critical Study of the Main Genres in Is. XL–LV (VTSup 24; Leiden: Brill, 1973) 270; Rheinhard G. Kratz, Kyros im Deuterojesaja-Buch (Tübingen: Mohr, 1991) 15–17; Peter D. Miscall, Isaiah (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993) 110; Rainer Albertz, A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period (trans. J. Bowden; 2 vols.; OTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994) 2:414; John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah 40–66 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 197.
4 Westermann, Deutero-Isaiah, 160–61; Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40–55 (AB; New York: Doubleday, 2002) 248–49.
5 E.g., Westermann, Deutero-Isaiah, 160–61; Watts, Isaiah 34–66, 156.