The concept of a “messiah” figure within the Jewish tradition of faith is not a new one. Huston Smith begins his discussion of Jewish messianism with an anecdote about the notion of progress within the West and how those of the Jewish faith greatly influenced the conceptual framework of the idea (Smith 296). Specifically, because Jews have been greatly disadvantaged (historically speaking), their position as underdogs forces an upward-looking perspective on their future (Smith 296). There is nowhere to go but up, so to speak. Bearing this in mind, these hopes and desires for a better future became personified in the mashiah, or messiah, a figure who would usher in a new age of peace (Smith 297).
Of course, the nature and outcome of this new age were and are topics of debate for those of the Jewish faith. Some believed this period of peace would be restorative while others put forth that it would be a utopian time like no other in the history of humanity (Smith 299). Those of the former opinion thought a messiah figure would re-institute something akin to an idealized vision of the Davidic monarchy in which Jews would be endowed with political independence in a land of their own. Those who held the latter opinion envisioned an earthly paradise which had never been achieved. Further, the ways in which this new age would be inaugurated were disagreed upon (Smith 299). Some believed the era would arrive in the same way history had continued along for centuries and others thought the new era would accompany cataclysmic, earth-shattering events. Perhaps the most substantial tension between those expecting a new divine order involved the form and nature of the messiah figure.
“Messiah” comes from mashiah, which means ‘anointed one’ (Smith 297). Given that the kings and high priests of Israel and Judea had traditionally been anointed with oil, the title had at once been an honorific and the phrase indicates the expected redeeming figure who would both deliver the Hebrew people back to their homeland and remove them from the presence of perceived evil-doers. These hopes are reflected in Psalm 5, in which the writer expressed supreme desire to be delivered from godless foes (Van Voorst, 232). There are also allusions to the nature of the messiah in the Hebrew Bible. The account in Isaiah 11:1-9 provides a description of a redeemer and what sort of world he’ll deliver (Van Voorst 232-33). The messiah figure of this verse will usher in a world a “light, peace, joy, and justice” (Van Voorst 232) and will be a fair judge endowed with the wisdom of God. Some believed the messiah figure would be a human agent of God while others were convinced that God would cut out the middle man and intervene directly (Smith 298).
Perhaps the most recognizable person to be assigned the title ‘messiah’ is Jesus of Nazareth, a preacher who lived in the Levant at the beginning of the Common Era. While the primary tenet of Christianity is the notion that Jesus of Nazareth is the messiah in whom one should place their faith in order to achieve spiritual salvation, those of the Jewish faith do not recognize Jesus as a messiah figure. In the years following the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, his followers fully expected the realization of a new kingdom on earth. Not only were those hopes never realized, war and destruction reigned down upon Roman Judea which culminated in the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Additionally, and this is perhaps a superficial concern, many thought the messiah would be a strong military figure (someone akin to Judah Maccabee), not an itinerant preacher who was executed. Further, Jews did not accept the evolving Christian doctrine which stated that the Christ figure was God made flesh and his execution was a sacrifice for all of humanity. In the end, Jesus of Nazareth failed to fit within the philosophical and spiritual mold crafted by centuries of Jewish intellectuals who created a sophisticated and nuanced image of their redeemer based on scripture and accepted revelations. He simply did not completely conform to the established Jewish messianic tradition.
- Smith, H. (1991). The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.
- Van Voorst, R. (2006). Anthology of World Scriptures. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.