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Cyrus as Mašiaḥ or Χριστός

Prof. Antonio Panaino (Università di Bologna)


One of the most interesting aspects of the cultural interconnections between Israel and Persia can be found in the story of the Jewish liberation from the Babylonian captivity under the kingdom of Cyrus the Great. His triumph over the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, and the progressive creation of a universal empire changed ancient geopolitics and created a new perception of the political space, in which the limits of the world were perceived as expanded outside of the traditional, ethnoreligious and ethnocultural borders. Thus, despite the fact that we cannot uncritically repeat the ritornello of the “Achaemenid tolerance”, whose reasons and meanings must on the contrary be framed within the prudent definition of an intelligent and prudent politics of govern and alliance with other ethnopolitical subjects, without evoking abstract and unhistorical forms of generosity a priori, the strategy chosen by the Persian king with his open support to the reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem opened the way to a solid and durable cooperation with the Jewish community. It is within this historical context that we must frame the famous sentence through which Deutero-Isaiah 45,1, presents the Persian king a “the Anointed” of the Lord. Despite the various and controversial approaches to this passage, it is evident that at a certain point, even if this was not the true intention of the original redactor (a conclusion which I do not accept, but that some scholars advanced and that we must take into consideration), literally and simply, Cyrus was considered a “Messiah” (mašiaḥ). This interpretation, probably valid already for the times of the Achaemenid Empire, assumed and then continued to play its influence in later times, and it is so that it was received in the Hellenistic and Late Antiquity periods, underpinning new speculations particularly within the Christian ambiance. In this contribution we would like to focus on later interpretations of the messianic role attributed Cyrus, in particular in the legends assuming that he would have sent his Magi to anoint Jesus at Bethlehem. This story, frequently misinterpreted and considered just as anachronistic, is based on the idea of a Translatio Imperii, in which a historical great king of the past paves the way to the universal king of the world, reinterpreting a biblical passage under a new theological and political light.

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