Four densely argued chapters argue for a coherent and pervasive messianic concept in the Old Testament and subsequent Jewish literature in a way that cuts across recent trends in the field. Horbury's first chapter ("Messianism and the Old Testament") lays out the case for a messianism that grows organically out of the Old Testament materials from earliest times. While not rigid, a coherent messianic myth probably existed from the early monarchy. Far from being an insignificant concept, the 'widespread currency of the unexplained technical term' for 'Messiah' together with fuller designations had spread across several languages by at least the second century BC, coherently referring to a 'rightful ruler of Israel ... the coming Davidic king'. This chapter complements analysis of the textual inventory with attention to 'landmarks in the study of the origins of messianism.' The argument is advanced that the supposed mutual incompatibility between God's unmediated rule and Messiah's rule which has much occupied scholars is a false dichotomy, since the texts show little concern to exclude one while focussing upon the other. The editing of the individual biblical books reflects a messianic preoccupation that encourages finding in the canon a 'coherent series of messianic prophecies'. This circumstance fomented both the reading of still further oracles in this light and greater specificity as the tradition advanced. Such a development of the tradition will have been influenced by forms familiar to Israel's cultural neighbours, as by the presence of 'messianic prototypes' within the Bible itself (Moses, David, et al.).
The second instalment of Horbury's argument ('The Prevalence of Messianism in the Second-Temple Period') maintains the focus on the period during which the biblical materials were edited and collected but allows its attention to move beyond the biblical literature. Horbury contests the view that messianism had all but died out the Roman period in Judea, arguing instead that messianic hope was 'more continuously vigorous and widespread' than the scholarly tradition represented by R.H. Charles and C.H. Dodd would allow. The royalist and Davidic messianism of Chronicles and other late biblical materials is recognised, as is messianic inclination in the Septuagint. Further, the 'relatively non-messianic Apocrypha' are placed alongside 'outspokenly messianic' sections of the LXX and the abundant messianism of Ecclesiasticus, I Maccabees, and others, the silence of the former group being presented as understandable in prose historical narrative, as is true also of the biblical tradition itself. Even when not overtly messianic however, 'hagiographical presentations' in historical narrative 'surround contemporary rulers with a messianic atmosphere', a resource that is then exploited in explicitly messianic manner by prayer and apocalypse. The Qumran materials come into play because messianic expectation appears across the spectrum of that sectarian library. Thus, the literatures of the Second Temple period develop the messianic myth widely and deeply, attesting to the vigorous prevalence of messianism in a period which is often described as silent on the very point.
Even if messianic hope was as widespread as Horbury seeks to demonstrate, it may still have been insufficiently coherent to exert strong influence. The burden of ch. 3 ('The Coherence of Messianism') is to prove that messianic expectation clustered discernibly around the concept of a specifically royal messiah. Indeed, messianism is not so much abstract and notional as it is a reflection upon the real-life kings and rulers whom Jews knew, expectation for a Davidic ruler emerging out of 'the tree-stump of scriptural texts'. Horbury argues for the coherence of messianism from five angles, two of these positive and the rest negative. First, monarchy is central and programmatic, the idea of it being applied to rulers who lived prior to David and to some who were patriarchs, judges, and priests rather than actual kings. Second, the exuberance of non-Jewish ruler-cult was not universally rejected by Jews and, notwithstanding ambiguity as to its appropriateness, may have made its own contribution to Jewish 'praise of their rulers and ... depictions of their messianic king.' Third, the notion of God as sole and exclusive saviour seems not to have been taken by the authors of Second Temple literature as exclusive of human or celestial mediators. Silence as to messianism in 'God alone' passages 'was fully compatible with recognition of the activity of a king or messiah'. Fourth, the literature displays an ability to integrate expressions of angelic and human activity rather than to play the two phenomena off against each other. Biblical literature and its interpreters 'co-ordinate' the two modes of expression in a way which allows for mutual compatibility. Finally, descriptions of angelic figures and their superhuman characteristics occur more frequently in the literature than is often allowed, a phenomenon which depends upon the background of God's lordship over angels and spirits. Indeed, 'the messiah seems often to be envisaged as an embodied spirit'. It is the Jewish idea of a pre-existing messiah which provides the raw material used by Christians in their depiction of the pre-existent Christ, a relationship that renders modern analyses which widely separate the two 'overdrawn'. Horbury's intention is to cite broad swaths of Second Temple literature in order to demonstrate, over against scholarly depictions of a 'chaotically diverse Judaism', that the coherence of the messianic concept was widely held by sects and movements which disagreed on much else.
The book's final chapter ('Messianic Origins of the Cult of Christ') brings the network of previous observations to bear upon the genesis of the Christ cult. A recognisable cult, visible acclamation and hymnody addressed to Christ, goes back to apostolic times. Although the forms of this cult came under non-Jewish influence, it is 'best explained as a development of Jewish messianism'. By relegating Greco-Roman influence to a supportive role, Horbury strongly modifies recent work on messianism by R.E. Brown and E.P. Sanders. At the same time, he is careful to define the generative potency of uniquely Christian experience as secondary to and dependent upon the precedent already established by Jewish messianism. The earliest Jewish Christians were as horrified at idolatry and chary about ruler-cult as their non-Christian compeers, but 'did not regard their Christ-cult as inconsistent with these attitudes.' Praise of Christ and the assignation to him of numerous titles was doubtless shaped and even encouraged by ruler cult and by uniquely Christian experience (such as, acc. to L. Hurtado, visions of the risen Christ); nevertheless this behaviour is best understood as generated in the first instance by the coherent picture of an expected messiah which characterises the biblical literature as well as the belief and practice of Second Temple Judaism.
Horbury's case argues that silences in the literature vis-à-vis messianism are not as loud and less empty than is supposed by the scholarly consensus. This powerful book obliges any student of Jewish and Christian messianism who happens upon such silences to ask whether they veil broad patterns of messianic expectation rather than speak decisively of its absence.