How to recognize a Messiah — should one appear

A neglected 1st century BCE Jewish writing tells us. Written just a few decades before the birth of Jesus, we now know what Jews meant by “a messiah” prior to the Common Era. This important break-through reverses the usual narrative. “Why don’t you believe that Jesus is the messiah?” now becomes: “Why do you think he is?”

Suppose a person were to walk down a street in New York, London, Tel Aviv or Miami claiming to be a messiah, how could we tell if that individual was telling the truth or not?

Many have said they were a messiah or have had followers who have made that claim. Jesus comes quickly to mind, for that he is “the messiah” is a central claim of Christianity. But there have been others: Bar-Kochba, David Koresh (Waco cult), the Rev. Sun Myung Moon (Unification movement), and the highly influential Jewish orthodox leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Are these messiahs? Is any one of them a messiah?

How can decide?

No Biblical Description

What’s a messiah? is a difficult question. The Hebrew Scriptures do not tell us. There are more passages devoted to diagnosing skin diseases than providing criteria for messianic credentials.

The gospels in the Christian Scriptures are equally mystifying, for while they proclaim Jesus to be “the messiah,” they do not tell us how he qualifies as such. In fact, the earliest gospel — the one attributed to Mark — portrays Jesus as shutting down messiah talk.

The Gospel of Mark was written around 70 CE, some forty years after the death of Jesus. Chapter 8 of this writing contains an intriguing passage. Jesus has taken his twelve disciples on a field trip, a 3-day trek from his headquarters, Capernaeum, northwards to Caesarea Philippi. There he asks his students for a report. He wants to find out what people think of him. Jesus and his disciples had spent some time speaking to crowds around the Sea of Galilee. He wants to gauge his impact. It was a time for reflection on his mission.

The disciples reply that some people think of him as a prophet. Others, as Elijah. Still others, they say, think of Jesus as like his cousin, the mysterious and popular John the Baptist. John had been immersing people in the Jordan River in acknowledgement of their repentance and return to Torah living. These are the impressions Jesus had created through his travels and discourses.

Jesus then asks his talmidim for their impressions: who do they think he is. Here Peter blurts out that he is “the messiah.” The Gospel of Mark, written in Greek, says “ho Christos” (the Christ) but Peter would have said Maschiach (messiah).

There we have it: Jesus is “the messiah.” But that’s not where the passage ends. What does not happen is tremendously significant. First, no one to whom Jesus has spoken has placed him in the category of messiah. Prophet and teacher yes, but not messiah. Secondly, there is no ringing endorsement of this insight by the other disciples, no loud applause. Thirdly, there is no attempt by the author of the Gospel of Mark to back up this claim, to explain to us, the reader, what Peter might have meant. Jesus being a messiah is just not on anyone’s radar.

Moreover, Jesus does not endorse Peter’s insight. That’s absolutely astonishing. Jesus immediately tells Peter – none too politely — to shut up, not to speak of him in those terms. Jesus rejects messiah talk and goes on to say that he prefers a different descriptor: “son of man.” This is an amazing turn of events.

If Jesus thinks of himself in terms of this mysterious entity – that is, as a son of man (that is, as a human being) – then, clearly, he has miscommunicated his identity to his followers and his mission needs immediately to be revamped. This strange description comes out of the blue. Nobody – absolutely nobody – thinks of him in these terms. Not Peter, not the disciples, and certainly not the people to whom he had been speaking.

What’s a messiah? What does Peter mean?

False Starts

A later gospel, one attributed to Matthew who writes in the 80’s CE, tries to provide some clues why people might think of Jesus as a messiah. Matthew contends that Jesus has had a virgin birth. Scholars – Christian and Jewish — recognize that this is based on a mistranslation of the Hebrew almah (young woman) into Greek parthenos (biological virgin). Matthew writing in Greek would have used the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 7:14 and so this was the text he had before him. He also misappropriates the passage to refer to some far-off future event rather than as pertaining to an immediate situation, as a sign from God to Ahaz about his political fortunes.

The Gospel of Matthew also talks about Jesus as “coming out of Egypt,” referencing Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt have I called my son”). Clearly the original passage refers to Israel coming out of Egypt at the time of the Exodus. Instead Matthew writes that after the birth of Jesus, the family fled from Bethlehem to Egypt to avoid the wrath of Herod the Great. The late 1st century writing, the Gospel of Luke, however, says that Jesus and his parents (Mary and Joseph) went into Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice in the Temple and then to Nazareth. For the Gospel of Luke there was no flight into Egypt.

Having a virgin birth and coming out of Egypt are not markers of a messiah.

A New Direction

A recently published book, Searching for the Messiah (NY: Pegasus Books) argues that Jesus was not the messiah expected by Judaism and that Jesus knew he was not the messiah. That’s why he closes down messiah-talk. In addition, early Christians knew he wasn’t the messiah. They postulated that Jesus would have to return to do the job he was expected to do, an event that they thought would happen soon. At best, for them, Jesus was a messiah in waiting.

A little-known work written just a few decades before the birth of Jesus clearly identifies the Jewish expectation of a messiah. This is crucial because now we have criteria by which to assess the credentials of anyone claiming to be the Jewish messiah. This ancient document is called The Psalms of Solomon. It’s known to scholars who specialize in Jewish writings outside the Bible. The Psalms of Solomon is a collection of psalms (songs) written after the capture of Jerusalem by Pompey in 63 BCE. So it was penned around the 50s or 40s BCE. It was not written by King Solomon some 900 plus years earlier — it was simply attributed to him, no doubt because of his reputation for great wisdom. (Note that The Psalms of Solomon are not the Psalms of David which are included in the Bible).

Two chapters in this poetic hymnbook give us specific indications what a messiah must do. It’s a powerful, important and neglected writing that sheds valuable light on the Jewish understanding of messiah prior to the Common Era. Searching for the Messiah provides a detailed analysis of this remarkable writing.

The Psalms of Solomon were originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic by a pious Jew living in Jerusalem, an eye-witness to the atrocities he saw in that city. The work exists today in several Syriac and Greek manuscripts. Briefly a messiah must be a Torah-observant king reigning in Jerusalem. Moreover, that individual is to preside over a Torah-observant population and oversee the return of Jews from the Diaspora. It will be a time of universal peace. Moreover, the messiah is a human being, not God, and these world-shattering events are to be brought about through the power of God.

A messiah has nothing to do with a virgin birth or coming out of Egypt. The markers for a messiah are all political, being an actual king reigning in Jerusalem. It involves religion with strict Torah observance.  In messianic times there will be a total geo-political realignment as all the nations of the world experience peace.

Shifting the Narrative

There we have it: a job description.

And it dates from before the Common Era. That’s important: it represents a description that was advanced prior to Christian messianic claims — it’s not a Jewish definition that was created in reaction to those claims. That’s a break-through: we can now use these criteria to assess the messianic claims made by or about any individual.

Instead of Jews being asked why they don’t believe that Jesus is the messiah, we can now retort, on what basis do you think he was? The tables have turned.

About the Author
An award-winning educator, Barrie Wilson, PhD, is Professor Emeritus & Senior Scholar, Religious Studies, York University, Toronto. An investigative historian, he specializes in Early Christianity. Publications include How Jesus Became Christian (2008) awarded the Tanenbaum Prize for History at the Canadian Jewish Book Awards (2009); The Lost Gospel (2014) co-authored with the Emmy-award winning Canadian-Israeli film director and producer Simcha Jacobovici; Paul vs James (2018); Searching for the Messiah (2020). Wilson is a member of Beth-Tzedec Congregation, Toronto.
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