There’s more in the Bible on how to diagnose skin diseases than how to identify a messiah.
The Netflix series Messiah has it all: intrigue, mystery and strange characters, and a plot that unfolds against Middle Eastern and American settings. It begins with a charismatic Arabic-speaking preacher saving Damascus with a seemingly miraculous sandstorm – leaving us to wonder, how did he do that?
This curious person then leads two thousand Syrian Palestinians towards the border with Israel. His followers call him Al-Masih (the Messiah) but even they aren’t sure of his real identity. Venturing onto Israeli soil simply by cutting through some barbed wire, al-Masih is arrested but he mysteriously escapes from an Israeli prison – no one knows how. A no-nonsense CIA agent flies to Israel hot on the trail of this potentially explosive figure.
The scene quickly shifts to a Texas preacher with a dysfunctional family, a huge debt and a dwindling congregation. Why Texas? What’s this pastor got to do with anything? Then we are transported back to the mysterious al-Masih who is on Temple Mount. Addressing a group of Muslims near the Dome of the Rock, he asks if anyone would step forward and have his or her soul weighed before God. Israeli police break up the crowd. An Arab boy appears to be killed by gun fire but is miraculously brought back to life by this amazing miracle worker.
Who are all these individuals from Syria, Israel and Texas? How are they all connected? What are we to make of all this? And who is al-Masih really?
So begins Netflix’s series, Messiah, released in January. According to Rotten Tomatoes, audiences gave it an 88% rating; critics, only 46%. A remarkable disparity. Why the appeal amongst ordinary viewers? What is it that they find so intriguing?
Christians, of course, claim that Jesus is “the messiah” and wait patiently for him to return to finish the job. The Book of Acts in the Christian Scriptures has a remarkable exchange between Jesus’ disciples and the Jesus whom they take to have been resurrected. Rather than asking the most expected questions – e.g. What is the afterlife like? Who’s there? Who’s not there? How do you spend your time? – they simply inquire, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6).
Christians in the 1st century CE clearly expected Jesus to return to establish an independent Jewish kingdom. The Book of Acts was written around 100 CE, some 70 years after Jesus’ execution by the Romans. Whoever wrote this book knew that Jesus had not returned as quickly as some had hoped … and, after the debacle of 70 CE, no independent Jewish kingdom was at all in sight. The Temple had been destroyed and, according to Josephus, over a million Jews had been killed in Jerusalem alone. So when Jesus will return and how he can be considered a messiah without having completed his mission remain perennial Christian questions.
Jews pray daily for the appearance of messiah. Muslims, too, look forward to a messianic era. Hindus believe in a periodic world renewal, when evil grows too great and goodness has to be restored. So many of the world’s great religions put forward a messianic dream of better times. Often this hope emerges during times of great stress and anxiety, times such as ours. Where’s messiah when we need him most? That’s often the cry during dire circumstances when the world seems to spin out of control and evil appears to dominate.
What is a Messiah?
The Netflix Messiah series raises a fundamental question, what’s a messiah? What do we look for in such an individual? How do we tell if someone is a genuine messiah? What’s the job description? Without a definition, how can we tell a true messiah from a false one? Is al-Masih a messiah? Is Jesus? What about the Waco cult leader David Koresh? Is Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson the messiah as some of his followers maintain?
There’s no easy definition of what constitutes a messiah. For one thing, the Hebrew Bible doesn’t tell us. There is no book or chapter in any of the ancient writings that describes a messiah. Contrast this with being a prophet. There is a criterion by which we can discern who is a true prophet: it has to do with whether or not his prophecy comes true or not. But a messiah? There’s more in the Bible on how to diagnose skin diseases than how to identify a messiah (Leviticus 13, 14).
Is a messiah a teacher? A prophet? A miracle worker? An activist? Political operative? Holy man? Healer? Savior? All of the above?
King David was the prototypical messiah. He was, after all, “messiah’d,” that is, smeared with oil. Messiahs are “anointed” – that’s the root meaning of mashiach. In David’s case, he was messiah’d as king. Priests and prophets are also said to be messiahs, and, oddly enough, so, too was Cyrus, the non-Jewish king of Persia. Josephus in the 1st century CE thought that Vespasian, soon to become Roman emperor, was the messiah. So there’s a leadership dimension to being a messiah, typically that of a king or ruler. But is there more to being a messiah than the political requirement?
King David was both an adulterer and complicit in a murder. Remember the Bathsheba affair. David seduced her and engineered her husband’s death, an act that changed the course of history with the birth of their son, Solomon. So clearly a messiah is not a perfect being, just a flawed ordinary human being who fails and who repents and who is chosen by God for a mission. The Dead Sea Scroll Community around the turn of the Common Era looked forward to two messiahs: one a king, one a priest, the job being too difficult for one individual to handle. So how does a messiah differ from either a king or a priest? What’s the added dimension?
The mysterious figure in Netflix’s Messiah is an enigmatic individual. He’s positioned as Muslim. He seems to perform miracles – restoring a boy who has been shot, creating a dust storm, and, at the end of Season 1, reviving a person from a plane crash. And he seems to engage in long-distance travel with ease, showing up on the doorsteps of the Texan preacher’s wooden church after having escaped from the clutches of an Israeli prison.
Could he be the messiah? Is this his first appearance? Or is he the returning Jesus, as Christians might expect, although he appears to be Muslim and not Jewish? Is this what either Jews or Christians expect the messiah to be? Or is he a con artist? Perhaps al-Masihis blank canvass that allows his followers to read into him whatever they wish.
Searching for the Messiah
The people in Netflix Messiah series all expect al-Masih to do something, but what? No one seems to know. Something dramatic is anticipated, but nothing materializes. Al-Masih continues to be a remote individual somehow disconnected from the events swirling around him.
My new book — Searching for the Messiah (Pegasus/Simon&Schuster) – has just been released to rave reviews from scholars in the U.S.A., Israel and Canada. This ground-breaking historical investigation probes the idea of messiah from the Bible to Batman, with many stops in-between. Searching for the Messiah asks the fundamental question: what is a messiah? How should we recognize one should one appear?
In particular, what was the Jewish expectation of messiah prior to the Common Era? Without that, it is difficult to assess anyone’s messianic claims.
Netflix’s Messiah series challenges our own understanding of a messiah and gives us a lot to think about.
This article originally appeared in TheJ.ca, which covers Jewish news in Canada and worldwide. Reprinted with permission.