An English adaptation of the Hebrew word mashiah, which means “anointed with oil.”
Technically, the messiah is a figure in Jewish tradition. He will come in the future to restore the glories of Israel at the end of time and establish peace among the nations. Christians claim that the messiah has already come in the person of JESUS. In fact, the word CHRIST—and thus the name for the religion—derives from the Greek word for “anointed with oil.”
More loosely, messiah refers to any religious figure who will come and rescue a group of people from situations of suffering and usher in a golden age. The Mahdi of ISLAM fits this description. He will come at the end of time to reestablish order and faith in GOD when all around has become chaos. Similar figures, more or less messianic,
include the future incarnation of the Hindu god VISHNU known as Kalki; the BUDDHA who is to come known as Maitreya; and many religious leaders among colonized peoples in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The word “messiah” is not used in the Hebrew BIBLE (Old Testament) in any of these ways. Instead, the word refers to people who have received a special office through a RITUAL of anointing. It refers especially to priests and kings. The Hebrew Bible does contain passages that envision a future golden age. But none of the visionary passages connect this restoration with a figure called the messiah.
ISAIAH comes closest to doing so. He calls Cyrus, the king of Persia, YHWH’s (“the Lord’s”) messiah (Isaiah 45.1). That is because, acting on YHWH’s behalf, Cyrus had conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews to return home.
A little before the time of Jesus, the idea of a messiah was joined to expectations of a future bliss coming at the end of time. Jews began to look for many messiahs. Some of them were priestly in nature; some were kingly. A community connected with the DEAD SEA SCROLLS seems to have expected two messiahs, one of each kind.
In this climate the early followers of Jesus proclaimed that he was the messiah. They combined the idea that the messiah will come at the end of time with a notion that the messiah had already come. They also separated the ideal of the messiah from the nationalist aspirations of the Jewish people. Very early on CHRISTIANITY became a movement among non-Jews rather than Jews.
With the destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.) and the failure of Bar Kokhba’s revolt (135 C.E.) expectations of a messiah grew within JUDAISM. These expectations addressed the life of an excluded and persecuted minority. Not only did Moses Maimonides (1135–1204) list belief in a coming messiah as one of the 13 beliefs that all Jews shared; messiahs often actually came. The most famous was Shabbatai Zvi (1626–76). He
proclaimed himself the messiah and gained a large following among Jews in Turkey. Some of his followers refused to abandon their belief in him even when, under pressure, he committed the unpardonable sin of converting to ISLAM.
The experience of such false messiahs had its effect. Today many Jews downplay any expectations that a messiah will come. But some, such as Abraham Kook (1865–1935), have connected ZIONISM with messianism. And shortly before RABBI Moses Menachem Schneersohn, the leader of the Lubavitch Hasidic community, died in New York in 1994, many of his followers expected that he was the messiah.
- Wim Beuken, Seán Freyne, and Anton Weiler, ed., Messianism through History (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1993);
- Richard S. Hess and M. Daniel Carroll R., ed., Israel’s Messiah in the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2003);
- Jerry Rabow, Fifty Jewish Messiahs: The Untold Life Stories of Fifty Jewish Messiahs since Jesus and How They Changed the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Worlds (New York: Gefen Pub. House, 2002).