The term Messiah, literally "Anointed One," refers to the belief in a religious (and often political) savior figure who inaugurates a new age and overthrows the old world order. In Judaism, a messiah (in Hebrew: Mashiach, מָשִׁיחַ) originally meant any person anointed by a prophet or priest of God, especially a Davidic king. In English today, the word Messiah can denote any person who is regarded as a savior or liberator, although the term is most commonly used to refer to Jesus of Nazareth, who is considered by many to be the anticipated savior of the Jews and of all humankind. Indeed, the word Christ (Χριστός, Christos, in Greek) is a literal translation of the Hebrew mashiach, or "anointed one."
The concept of Messiah is prevalent in several world religions as well as new religious movements. In Islam, Jesus (Isa) is considered to be the Masih, or Messiah, and his eventual return to the Earth is expected along with that of another messianic figure, the Mahdi. In some lineages of Buddhism, Maitreya Buddha is expected to return as a Messiah figure.
Throughout history there have been claimants to the title "messiah." Some of these led their followers into military adventures that ended badly. Others were peaceful, yet because they were not accepted by orthodox authorities of their faith they ended up forming their own sect or even a new religion. Thus Bahá'u'lláh (1817 – 1892) claimed to be the promised one of all religions, and founded the Bahá'í Faith. The Shakers believed their founder Mother Ann Lee, as the bride of Christ, was the female Messiah. The Ahmadiyya religion, considered deviated by mainstream Islam, believes that the Messiah and Mahdi have come in the form of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, India (1835 – 1908). In the Unification Church, Reverend Sun Myung Moon is considered to be the Messiah along with his wife.
Some scholars believe that the concept of the Messiah arose during the Babylonian exile (c. 597 – 538 or c. 586 – 538 B.C.E.) of the Jews when the Jewish concept of a Davidic deliverer was fused with the Zoroastrian idea of the Saoshyant—a teacher who would lead the righteous in the cosmic struggle against evil. The concept of the Messiah developed gradually from early Jewish prophetic times through their exile in Babylon, taking more definite form in the post-exilic period. By the first century B.C.E., Jews interpreted their scriptures to refer specifically to someone appointed by God to deliver them from oppression under the Romans. Christians came to see the scriptures as referring to a spiritual savior, rather than a worldly political savior, specifically identifying Jesus as that Messiah.
One of the earliest of these messianic prophecies was written in the eighth century B.C.E. by the prophet Isaiah, who hoped for a more powerful and righteous ruler than the current occupant of David's throne. It refers to the coming of a new Davidic king who will unite Israel and Judah, conquer the surrounding nations, and enable the return of the Israelites taken into captivity in the Assyrian Empire:
The prophet Jeremiah, who lived roughly a century later than Isaiah but still during a time when Davidic kings occupied the throne, echoed Isaiah's prediction:
"The days are coming," declares the Lord, "when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord [is] Our Righteousness." (Jer. 23:5–6)
Thus, the earliest messianic references, written when Davidic kings still ruled in Judah, look forward to a wise and righteous king arising from David's lineage, a militarily powerful leader who will bring back the citizens of Israel taken captive by Assyria and unite the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah in triumph over their regional enemies.
The prophet Ezekiel, originally a citizen of Judah but writing from exile in Babylon after the dissolution of the Davidic monarchy, was the first to speak of the Messiah in terms of the restoration of the Davidic line:
I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken. (Ezek. 34:22–24)
Interestingly, one of the first uses of the actual term "Messiah" as the savior-liberator of Israel refers to a gentile king: Cyrus of Persia. This prophecy—belonging to "Second Isaiah" and thought to have been included in the Book of Isaiah during the Babylonian exile—portrays Cyrus as a ruler anointed by God to bring the Jews back to their homeland and facilitate the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem:
I am the Lord… who says of Cyrus, "He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, 'Let it be rebuilt,' and of the temple, 'Let its foundations be laid.'" This is what the Lord says to his anointed [italics added], to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of…" (Isa. 44:24–45:1)
The prophecies in Third Isaiah (Isa. 56–66) were written by the first and second generation of settlers who returned from their exile in Babylon to once again rebuild a Jewish society in Jerusalem and Judah (520–480 B.C.E.). They envision a ruler of divine might and wisdom who would not only make Israel/Judah into a powerful regional empire, but even a world power:
Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the arm. Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. (Isa. 60:3–5)
The reign of the Messiah would not only bring peace and prosperity to the Jews, but tremendous benefits to mankind, even restoring the original edenic nature in which humans live for centuries and animals are no longer predatory.
"Never again will there be… an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth… The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent's food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain," says the Lord. (Isa. 65:20–25)
Thus, the concept of the Messiah developed from the idea of a righteous Davidic king who would unite Israel and Judah and conquer their enemies, to a cosmic Prince of Peace who would restore the world into a virtual Garden of Eden. Some scholars believe the Zoroastrian idea of the "Saoshyant"—a leader who will spread divine truth and lead humanity in the final battle against the forces of evil—influenced the messianic ideas of the Babylonian Jews returning from exile.
Writing in this same period, the post-exilic prophets Haggai and Zechariah name a specific messianic candidate. They indicate that Jerusalem's governor, Zerubbabel, a grandson of King Jehoiachin who returned to Jerusalem under Cyrus' sponsorship, may in fact be the Davidic "branch":
"I will take you, my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel," declares the Lord, "and I will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you." (Hag. 2:23)…. "What are you, O mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground. Then he will bring out the capstone to shouts of 'God bless it! God bless it!'" (Zech. 4:7)
These prophets' expectations in Zerubbabel apparently were not completely realized, for although the Temple itself was rebuilt, the dream of his ruling with God's royal authority did not come true. Indeed, no Davidic descendant was ever to occupy the throne again. Several of Zechariah's messianic predictions, however, became important in later years. It was his prophecy which Jesus attempted to fulfill in his "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem (see below). Zechariah also predicted the coming of two "anointed ones," interpreted by the Essenes and others to be a priestly Messiah (a son of Aaron) and a kingly Messiah (son of David):
Zechariah and other prophets also reported a number of apocalyptic visions, continuing a trend begun by Ezekiel that increasingly excited the imagination of the people during this period in connection with the coming of the messianic "Day of the Lord." These visions became a focus for the developing messianic thinking.
The Book of Daniel, with its vision of a supernatural "son of man"—though not included among the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible and considered by most scholars to have been written considerably later—became an important influence on second and first century B.C.E. Jews:
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13–14)
In the period between the writing of the last of the prophetic books and the first century B.C.E., the concept of the Messiah developed considerably, as did the Jewish people's hope in the coming of an anointed deliverer.
The ideals of the books of Isaiah, emphasizing the Messiah as a Prince of Peace and a deliverer of Israel from oppression, represented one strain of thought. Apocalyptic promises of supernatural intervention by prophets such as Zechariah, Joel, and others represented a more other-worldly trend. The apocryphal Book of Enoch, though of disputed authorship and never accepted into the Jewish canon, further demonstrates the apocalyptic trend in Jewish messianic thought. At the same time, it should be remembered that in this period, the scriptures were still read as individual books, not as a collection. The idea of the Messiah does not exist in many of the Biblical books, and faith in the coming of a Messiah was neither uniform nor universal. In terms of intertestamental literature (the Old Testament Apocrypha), the Jewish Encyclopedia points out that "Ecclesiasticus, Judith, Tobit, Baruch, II Maccabees, and the Wisdom of Solomon contain no mention of the Davidic hope."
Reportedly, some Jews saw the Greek ruler Alexander the Great as a messianic figure. The Book of Daniel, on the other hand, has been interpreted by scholars as an anti-Greek tract encouraging Jews to resist the desecration of the Temple by the later Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes. In that context, the successful rebellion of Judah Maccabee was a quasi-messianic event, but hope in the restoration of a glorious Jewish kingdom faded as Judah's Hasmonean successors fell into corruption and collaboration with Roman gentile rulers.
In the first century B.C.E., the Qumran sect reacted against the corruption of both priestly and political authorities, foreseeing the imminent coming of the Day of the Lord in which both an Aaronic and a Davidic Messiah should arise to lead the "children of light" in battle against the gentiles and other "children of darkness." Some among the emerging sect of the Pharisees, meanwhile, hoped in the Messiah as a deliverer along the lines of the Book of Isaiah. Others expected cataclysmic events such as described in the Book of Daniel, I Enoch, and other apocalyptic literature. The Zealots, meanwhile, thought of the Messiah in more strictly military/political terms, believing that whatever God's role in his coming might be, it was incumbent on human beings to resist evil rulers, with violence if necessary.
Such were the messianic hopes that flourished just prior to, during, and after the reign of Herod the Great (37–4 B.C.E.). Ever vigilant against possible threats to his throne, Herod slaughtered 45 members of the Sanhedrin—mostly Sadducees—that had supported the Hasmonean rebel Antigonus, seen by many Jews as a messianic forerunner. Later, Herod put to death several leading Pharisees who declared that the imminent birth of the Messiah would signal the end of Herod's reign. In Christian tradition, Herod also slaughtered the infant boys of Bethlehem in fear that one of them was the Messiah.
The most famous of the several known messianic candidates of the era (see list below), of course, was Jesus of Nazareth. Early rabbinic Judaism continued to develop its ideas of the Messiah in a dialectical and often bitter relationship with the Christians, who sought to prove that the resurrected Jesus was in fact God's anointed one.
After the first century Jewish rebellion against Rome, which led to the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem in 70 C.E., Jewish messianism lived on as Jews hoped desperately, if in vain, for a deliverer from Roman oppression. Another famous messianic claimant was Simon Bar Kochba, who gained the support of the famous Talmudic rabbi Akiva and succeeded in establishing a state independent of Roman rule from approximately 132–135 C.E. His rebellion was eventually crushed at a cost estimated to be as high as half a million Jewish lives. From then on, rabbinic Judaism looked with suspicion on any specific messianic candidate, while still promoting general hope in the future coming of the Messiah.
Rabbinic thought about the Messiah as expressed in the Talmud varies significantly, as the Talmud presents numerous debates and conflicting opinions of the early rabbis. The most authoritative Jewish understanding of the Messiah can be found in the writings of medieval Jewish sage Maimonides. In the Mishneh Torah, his 14-volume compendium of Jewish law, Maimonides writes:
The anointed King is destined to stand up and restore the Davidic Kingdom to its antiquity, to the first sovereignty. He will build the Temple in Jerusalem and gather the strayed ones of Israel together…. Whoever does not believe in him, or whoever does not wait for his coming, not only does he defy the other prophets, but also the Torah and Moses our teacher.
Maimonides stressed that signs and miracles were not necessarily part of the Messiah's task. Rather, it is by the accomplishment of the messianic mission that he shall be known:
Do not imagine that the anointed King must perform miracles and signs and create new things in the world or resurrect the dead and so on. The matter is not so: For Rabbi Akiva was a great scholar of the sages of the Mishnah, and he was the assistant-warrior of the king Bar Kokhba, and claimed that he was the anointed king. He and all the Sages of his generation deemed him the anointed king, until he was killed by sins; only since he was killed, they knew that he was not. The Sages asked [of] him neither a miracle nor a sign…. And if a king shall stand up from among the House of David… [and] if he succeeded and built a Holy Temple in its proper place and gathered the strayed ones of Israel together, this is indeed the anointed one for certain….
Maimonides' pragmatism gave way in the later Middle Ages to a wave of mystical thought based on the Kabbalah, combined with various medieval superstitions and magical thinking. This, together with intense persecution of Jews in Europe, provided a fertile ground for active messianic expectations. One particular messianic figure deserves special mention: Shabbetai Zevi, for he won the allegiance of a very large proportion of European and near-Eastern Jewry. Even his eventual apostasy to Islam did not put an end to messianic hopes in him, as his followers rationalized it as a sacrificial act of tikkun, or restorational healing. Later Shabbataeans were accused of moral outrages born of this doctrine, under which the worst sins allegedly became acts of purification. This phenomenon produced a reaction in normative Judaism against messianic tendencies that persists to this day.
Modern Jews' attitude toward the Messiah can be divided into roughly four categories:
1. Orthodox Judaism today maintains that Jews are obligated to accept Maimonides' 13 Principles of Faith, including an unwavering belief in the coming of the Messiah as traditionally defined.
2. Conservative Judaism takes a more flexible stand. Its statement of principles declares:
3. Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism generally do not accept the idea that there will be a personal Messiah. Many, however, believe in the ideal of a messianic age, the realization of which is the obligation of all Jews. In 1976, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the official body of American Reform rabbis, stated:
4. Many Secular Jews also remain committed to the ideal of the Messiah in their way. Even those who have abandoned formal religion altogether often work for utopian social causes that can be thought of as messianic: Socialism, Zionism, the Green movement, New Age groups, etc.
Judaism has been plagued with a number of "false messiahs," messianic claimants who generated great enthusiasm but whose followers in the end caused considerable damage.
First among them was Simon Bar Kochba, who led the Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire in 132 C.E., establishing an independent Jewish state of Israel which he ruled for three years as Nasi ("prince," or "president") before it was conquered by the Romans in 135 C.E. after a two-year war. Originally named Simon ben Kosiba, he was given the surname Bar Kochba by his contemporary, the Jewish sage Rabbi Akiva. Bar Kochba, Aramaic for "Son of a Star," was a transparent reference to the messianic prophecy of a mighty liberator in Numbers 24:17: "A star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel." The Romans crushed the revolt with scorched-earth tactics; over a half-million Jews were killed, hundreds of thousands more were deported as slaves, Jerusalem was burned to the ground, and Jews were forbidden for a time from living anywhere in Israel, which the Romans renamed "Syria Palestina" or Palestine. After the failure of the revolt, many Jews referred to Bar Kochba as "Simon bar Kozeba" ("Son of the lie").
Shabbatai Zevi (1626 – 1676) was a rabbi and Kabbalist who claimed to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. Enthusiasm for his messiahship created near hysteria in Jewish communities all over Europe. He married a former prostitute and proclaimed that with the advent of the Messiah, people were freed from the restrictions of the Jewish Law. Thus he founded the Jewish Sabbatean movement, which lasted until, imprisoned by the Sultan of Turkey, he converted to Islam. Despite the great disillusionment of millions of Jews, remnants of Sabbateanism survived and inspired the founding of a number of other similar sects, notably the Donmeh in Turkey.
Others who are said, either by themselves or their followers, to be the Jewish Messiah, included:
Christianity emerged in the first century C.E. as a movement among Jews who believed Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah. The very name, "Christian" refers to the Greek word for "Messiah" (Kristos). Although Christians commonly refer to Jesus as "Christ" rather than "Messiah," the two words are synonymous. According to the New Testament, the disciples believed that Jesus was the very Messiah that Jews were expecting. John 1:41–42 says:
Scholars today debate whether Jesus actually considered himself to be the Messiah. He did not use the title as such, but referred to himself as the "son of man," a title that was also used by prophets such as Ezekiel, but could also refer to the apocalyptic figure of Daniel, or simply mean a human being, literally a "son of Adam." In the synoptic Gospels his identity as Messiah is kept secret from the public until his triumphal entry into Jerusalem a few days prior to his death. In that scene, Jesus rides into the city on a donkey to shouts of "Hosanna! Son of David!" (Matt. 21:1–9) in a purposeful fulfillment of Zechariah's messianic prophecy:
Although the Gospels reflect a later theology in which Jesus' rejection and death on the cross are predestined by God, it is likely that during Jesus' life, his disciples thought of his mission in terms similar to the Jewish messianic concept of a political deliver and teacher of righteousness. Luke's gospel shows that after Jesus' crucifixion, the disciples were shocked and disillusioned, having no inkling that Jesus' death was part of his plan, and deeply saddened that he turned out not to be the promised deliverer:
He asked them, "What are you discussing together as you walk along?" They stood still, their faces downcast… "About Jesus of Nazareth," they replied. "He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel." (Luke 24:13–21)
In the Book of Acts, Luke indicates that the disciples continued to hope that the risen Jesus would perform the role Israel's political redeemer rather than primarily a spiritual savior: "So when they met together, they asked him, 'Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?'" (Acts 1:6)
In the book of Matthew, Jesus asked Peter who he thought Jesus was, and Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven." He continued to say about Peter, "On this rock I will build my church." (Matt. 14–18) While scholars debate whether this was a later addition to the text, it is taken by Western Christianity as the source of Peter's authority of the Church that became headquartered at Vatican City in Rome.
Eventually the Christian concept of the Messiah grew into something fundamentally different from the Jewish concept. Rather than being primarily a deliverer of the people of Israel from political oppression, in Christian theology, the Christ/Messiah serves four main functions:
In developing these doctrines, Christians came to interpret several passages of the Old Testament very differently from Jews. For example:
The debate between Christians and Jews about the nature of the Messiah in the first two centuries C.E. created a sharp division in the theology of these two groups, so much so that many synagogues expelled Jews who affirmed Jesus, and Christian bishops forbade their congregations to have anything to do with Jews. Christians exalted their Messiah to the status of a divinity, while Jews considered such ideas blasphemous, rejecting messianic apocalypticism to affirm that the Messiah, though an agent of God, was in essence no different from other humans.
Christianity has had fewer significant claimants for the title of Second Coming of Christ as compared with Judaism because of the widespread belief that Jesus himself will return in a supernatural manner, "on the clouds of heaven." (Matt. 24:30–31) Instead, Christian messianic enthusiasm has tended to focus on predictions of the dates of his return. William Miller, a nineteenth-century American evangelist, predicted his return on October 22, 1984; tens of thousands sold their earthly possessions and journeyed to the site of his predicted descent, only to face the "Great Disappointment" when he did not appear. The Millerite movement would spawn the mainstream Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Other Christian movements, notably the Jehovah's Witnesses, have set various dates, which have come and gone.
Some people have claimed themselves, or been proclaimed by others, to be the second coming of Jesus, or a new Messiah still under the umbrella of Christianity. At their best, these messianic claimants provide an opening for a righteous and revolutionary spirit to burst forth; at worst, they create small and sometimes violent sects.
Among the brighter lights were Hong Xiuquan, who led the Taiping Rebellion in China; he received revelations that he was Jesus' "younger brother." The Taiping Rebellion mobilized Chinese resentment against European colonial oppression and was an important precursor to the revolutionary politics that led to republican China in 1919 and later the People's Republic of China.
Mother Ann Lee, who founded the Shakers, believed she was the female Christ or the Bride, the perfection of divinity in female form. Her movement taught the absolute equality of men and women and was an important early expression of Christian feminism.
The Unification Church is a contemporary Christian offshoot which proclaims its founder Sun Myung Moon to be the Messiah and Second Coming of Christ. Unificationism's messianic teaching affirms traditional Christian doctrine that Jesus' death on the Cross brought atonement for the sins of humankind. However, it also maintains the traditional Jewish position that the Messianic mission originally was to go much further and completely establish the reign of God on earth. Jesus of Nazareth showed the way to do this—with love, truth, and sacrifice—but he was obstructed from completing fully his Messianic task. Therefore, a human being must come to complete it, and he will be the "second coming" of Christ.
The formal title given to the messianic couple in Unificationism is "True Parents." It is taught that the mission of the Messiah is carried out not by one man but by a couple, a restored Adam and Eve, who as True Parents found a new lineage free from original sin. True Parents will restore the original purpose of creation as it was meant to be in the Garden of Eden, and from this position engraft all humankind to become true sons and daughters of God in the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
Other Christian leaders who claimed themselves, or were proclaimed by others, to be the Messiah include:
In the Holy Qur'an, the scripture of Islam, Isa (Jesus) is recognized as the Messiah as well as a prophet or Messenger of God. However, Muslims staunchly deny that Jesus is the Son of God or that he pre-existed his birth, as the Second Person of the Trinity. On the other hand, they affirm that he was born of the virgin Mary, that he was raised to heaven, and that he will return at the end of days to live out the rest of his natural life. Muslims believe that true prophets are protected by God, who will not allow them to be killed by their enemies or executed. They therefore reject the doctrine that Jesus was crucified and that his death was an atonement for mankind's sins.
The Mahdi is a different person from Jesus/Isa and is a separate messianic figure in Islam. The Mahdi will usher in a new age of peace, and restore a perfect Islamic society. Shi'a and Sunni opinions on the Mahdi differ somewhat, but both sects agree that Jesus was the Messiah, as they understand the term, and that Jesus (not Muhammad) will return to usher in the Last Judgment.
Islamic tradition has a prophecy of the Mahdi, who will come alongside the return of Jesus. Shi'a Islam, with its more developed theology of the Mahdi, has produced the largest number of messianic claimants. The following people claimed to be the Mahdi:
The idea of Messiah can also be found in Buddhism, where the bodhisattva Maitreya plays a similar function as a Messiah. In Buddhist eschatology, the Maitreya is said to be the future Buddha who will eventually appear on earth, achieve complete enlightenment, and teach the pure dharma. He is predicted to be a “world-ruler.” The prophecy of the arrival of Maitreya is found in the canonical literature of all Buddhist sects (Theravāda, Mahāyāna, Tantrayana, Navayana, Purnayana, Triyana, and Vajrayāna) and is accepted by most Buddhists as a statement about an actual event that will take place in the distant future.
It is said that Maitreya’s coming will occur after the teachings of the current Buddha Gautama, the Dharma, are no longer taught and are completely forgotten. In order for the world to realize the coming of Maitreya, a number of conditions must be fulfilled. Gifts should be given to Buddhist monks, moral precepts must be followed, and offerings must be made at shrines. Some of the events foretold at the coming of the second Buddha include an end to death, warfare, famine, and disease, as well as the ushering in of a new society of tolerance and love.
While a number of persons have proclaimed themselves to be Maitreya over the years, none have been officially recognized by the Buddhist sanghas (communities). A particular difficulty faced by any would-be claimant to Maitreya's title is the fact that the Buddha is considered to have made a number of fairly specific predictions regarding the circumstances that would occur prior to Maitreya's coming—such as that the teachings of the Buddha would be completely forgotten, and all of the remaining relics of Sakyamuni Buddha would be gathered in Bodh Gaya and cremated.
Very often Christian or Muslim missionaries in predominantly Buddhist countries link the prophecy of Maitreya to their saviors, such as Christ or Muhammad. Likewise, the Bahá'ís believe that Bahá'u'lláh is also the fulfillment of the prophecy of the appearance of Maitreya.
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