By Caitlin Yoshika Kandil
Today, “messiah” usually brings to mind a personal savior, the end of time, the Kingdom of Heaven—or Jesus Christ. This grand, contemporary understanding, however, hides the word’s humble origins—and its millennia-long evolution.
The word messiah is derived from the Hebrew root mem, shin, chet, meaning to smear, paint or color; to pour oil over the head; or to anoint in a religious service. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, mashiach is used sparingly, typically as a noun or adjective describing a king, priest or prophet who has undergone ritual anointing. In Leviticus, for example, God tells Moses how his people can atone for their sins: “The anointed priest [haCohen haMashiach] shall bring some of the blood of the bull into the Tent of Meeting.” Similarly, in Chronicles, Solomon stands at an altar before his people and prays: “O Lord God, do not reject Your mashiach.”
“Biblically, what it meant for the first thousand years of Judaism was the king,” says Richard Elliott Friedman, professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia—mashiach was a synonym for melech, or king. To illustrate his point, Friedman points to the book of Isaiah, which refers to Cyrus, the non-Jewish Persian king who ruled during the sixth century BCE, as mashiach. The word was also used to denote King David and his dynasty: “And they anointed [yamshachu] David king [melech] over Israel, according to the word of the Lord by the hand of Samuel.”
The term took on new significance with the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE and the Babylonian exile. Without a Temple, no one could be anointed, and without a kingdom, there could be no king. “In the Bible there are promises made to the dynasty of King David, that there will always be a king on the throne,” says Ron Hendel, professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of California, Berkeley. “This creates a problem when there’s no longer a king—what do you do when you read those verses? The assumption then becomes that there will be a king who will be restored to the throne.”
Jewish longing for a future king to restore Israel gave rise to the mashiach as an apocalyptic figure. In the Book of Daniel, which scholars date to the second century BCE, Daniel prays, confessing the sins of his people, and has a vision of a man named Gabriel who says: “From the issuance of the word to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the time of the mashiach is seven weeks; and for sixty-two weeks it will be rebuilt, square and moat, but it will be a time of distress. After those sixty-two weeks the mashiach will disappear and vanish.”
Beliefs about who the Messiah would be—and what he would be like—were diverse. One sect in Qumran, according to the Dead Sea Scrolls—which scholars date between the first and second centuries BCE—proposed the idea that there would be two messiahs—a priestly messiah from the House of Aaron, and a royal messiah from the House of David.
Other Jews came to believe that the anticipated Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth, whose rise—and death—would have a profound effect on the concept of the Messiah. “Early Christians believed Jesus was the Messiah, but he didn’t fit Jewish expectations, so they had to redefine what the Messiah would look like,” says Bart Ehrman, New Testament scholar at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “So the Messiah became someone sent from God to die for the sins of the world and raised from the dead.”
Ehrman says that early Christians found support for their beliefs in some passages of the Hebrew Bible where the word mashiach does not appear. Isaiah, for example, writes of a suffering servant, “wounded because of our transgressions,” who “humbled himself…as a lamb that is led to the slaughter.” Although the word mashiach is not used anywhere in these passages, Christians understood them to be references to Jesus. They also introduced a new term—kristos, or christ, the Greek word meaning “anointed with oil,” and as Ehrman says, “messiah went from being a category to a name.” Christians also added a greater spiritual dimension to the term: According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Jesus was anointed not with oil, but “by the Spirit of the Lord.”
This radical shift in the meaning of the Messiah did not just influence followers of Jesus, says Harris Lenowitz, professor emeritus of languages and literature at the University of Utah. While living in the Ottoman Empire, Jews absorbed Christian and Muslim messianic ideas, which “enormously changed” the way they read the Hebrew Bible. By the 12th century, messianism had become a central tenet of Judaism when Maimonides included the Messiah as one of his Thirteen Principles of Faith. “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nonetheless, I wait every day for his coming,” he wrote. As Maimonides elaborates in his legal work, Mishneh Torah, the Messiah is “destined to stand up and restore the Davidic Kingdom” and “will build the Temple in Jerusalem and gather the strayed ones of Israel together.” Centuries later, after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, Jewish messianism gave birth to the popularization of Kabbalah and a more mystical understanding of the Messiah. For 16th century Kabbalist Isaac Luria, the Messiah was the anchor of his entire cosmology—he will only come when humans have repaired the primordial brokenness of the world.
These “new” narratives did not sit well with post-Enlightenment Jewish thinkers, whose modernizing efforts led to the “near total denigration of the messianic tradition,” according to Peter Fenves, professor of Jewish Studies at Northwestern University. To these thinkers, rebuilding the Davidic Kingdom and the “ingathering of the exiles” was irrational and anti-assimilationist, he says. But later 19th century German Jewish philosophers, such as Hermann Cohen, revived messianism from a modern, rational lens, and argued “messianism was the core of Judaism, not monotheism,” says Fenves. “For Cohen, the messiah is the completion of the world’s historical process of creation, a world order of republican states in harmony with each other.”
Today, Orthodox Judaism embraces Maimonides’s concept of a future messiah from the Davidic line, and its followers offer daily prayers for the conditions that will bring the Messiah. Conservative Judaism says in its Statement of Principles: “We do not know when the Messiah will come, nor whether he will be a charismatic human figure or is a symbol of the redemption of humankind from the evils of the world,” and suggests that individuals should act as if they, personally, are responsible for bringing about the messianic age. Echoing some modern German Jewish philosophers, Reform Judaism has removed the idea of a personal messiah from prayers, substituting it with the concept of a messianic era.
Most people today are largely unaware of the word messiah’s rich history, which in itself, is a lens into the evolution of Judaism, says Richard Elliott Friedman. “It surprises some people,” he continues, “because we all grew up with this idea that it was something else. But it just didn’t mean that.”
MESSIAHS AROUND THE WORLD
Jesus, a Jew, was born in Bethlehem around 4 BCE and became a religious teacher known to perform miracles such as walking on water and healing the blind. His followers believed he was the Messiah prophesied by the Jewish scriptures. On the charge of sedition against the Roman Empire, he was crucified in Jerusalem around 33 CE. Christians traditionally believe that Jesus was resurrected on the third day after his death—a sacrificial atonement for the sins of humankind—and then rose to heaven where he awaits his return to earth, which will usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. Most Christians also believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the second person in the Holy Trinity—the doctrine that defines God as three persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and both human and divine. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus himself remains elusive about who he is. Just before his death, the high priest said to him, “ ‘I order you to tell us under oath before the living God whether you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’ Jesus said to him in reply, ‘You have said so.’”
Muslims consider Jesus (Isa) a prophet in the same line as Abraham and Moses, and one of God’s messengers to the people of Israel. Although the Quran rejects the Christian belief in Jesus’ divinity, it affirms his miraculous birth to Mary, a virgin, and his title of messiah (masih). Instead of dying on the cross, Muslims believe Jesus only seemed to die and was taken directly into Heaven, where he awaits his return before the Day of Judgment, when he will battle the Masih al-Dajjal, the anti-Christ. Some Muslims also believe that a figure called the Mahdiwill return alongside Jesus. Derived from the Arabic root ha, dal, aliph, meaning to lead in the right way or to follow the right course, the Mahdi is not mentioned in the Quran but is one of the central religious tenets of some branches of Shia Islam, which claim the Mahdi has already arrived, but has gone into hiding where he awaits a second coming. The largest group of Shiites, the Twelvers, believe the Mahdi is Muhammad al-Mahdi, born in 869 CE, and the twelfth Imam, or leader in the Shiite community.
In the Buddhist worldview, time is cyclical not linear, so there is no ultimate Day of Judgment or end times for a messiah figure to usher in. Mahayana Buddhism, however, has the concept of a bodhisattva, a person who forgoes the final stage of enlightenment in order to stay on earth and help others attain salvation. Maitreya, abodhisattva whose name is derived from the Sanskrit word for loving kindness, is often considered a messianic figure. In early Buddhist texts, Maitreya is described as a cosmic bodhisattva who in the distant future will become the next Buddha. Until then, he lives in one of the heavenly realms waiting to be born, which some predict will occur when the Buddha’s teachings are in decline. Once he has attained enlightenment and becomes a Buddha, Maitreya will rule over an earthly paradise. Other strands of Buddhism, however, reject the notion of a personal savior. The Lotus Sutra, for example, says that every person possesses Buddha-nature, the potential to attain enlightenment—and therefore doesn’t need to rely on others for salvation.
Like Buddhism, Hinduism has a cyclical concept of time. The world will go through four stages—rising and falling—before it is born again. Most Hindu interpreters believe the world is currently in the Kali Yuga, the final age of darkness, which will end with the coming of Kalki, the tenth and final incarnation of Vishnu, one of the three major Hindu gods, who is considered the preserver and sustainer of life. The scripture Baghavad Purana describes Kalki’s future messianic role: “Lord Kalki, the Lord of the universe, will mount His swift white horse Devadatta and, sword in hand, travel over the earth exhibiting His eight mystic opulences and eight special qualities of Godhead. Displaying His unequaled effulgence and riding with great speed, He will kill by the millions those thieves who have dared dress as kings.”