What’s a Messiah?

Suppose a person were to walk down a street in Jerusalem, or Miami or London, claiming to be a messiah — how could we tell if that individual was a genuine messiah? What’s the job description for a messiah?

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 of the Waco cult, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification movement, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. How can we tell if these are actual messiahs unless we know what a messiah must do?

No Biblical Description

What’s a messiah? That’s a difficult question, for the Hebrew Scriptures do not tell us what’s a messiah. There are more passages devoted to diagnosing skin diseases and dressing the high priest correctly than providing criteria for identifying who is, and who is not, a messiah.

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. The earliest gospel, for instance, the one attributed to Mark, portrays Jesus as closing down messiah talk.

The Gospel of Mark was written around 70CE, 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, ordinary people from around the Sea of Galilee to whom he had been speaking. The disciples reply that some think of him as a prophet, others as Elijah, and still others as being like his cousin, the mysterious but charismatic John the Baptist. These are the impressions Jesus has 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, say “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. Secondly, there is no ringing endorsement of this insight by the other disciples, no loud applause. Thirdly, Jesus does not endorse Peter’s insight and tells him not too politely, to shut up, not to speak of him in those terms. And finally Jesus goes on to say that he prefers a different descriptor, that of “son of man.”

In fact, if Jesus thinks of himself in terms of this mysterious entity – that is, as a son of man (i.e. as a human being) – then, clearly, he has miscommunicated his identity to his followers and his mission needs to be revamped. This strange description comes out of the blue.

So what’s a messiah? How can we tell a genuine one from a false one?

False Starts

A later gospel, one attributed to Matthew, 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.

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 (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.

A writing published just a few decades before the birth of Jesus identifies the Jewish expectation of a messiah. This is crucial because now we have criteria by which to measure any claimant. This writing, called The Psalms of Solomon, was written after the capture of Jerusalem by Pompey in 63 BCE, so around the 50s or 40s BCE. (It was not written by King Solomon some 900 plus years earlier; it was attributed to him, likely because of his great wisdom).

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 writing. 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 writing 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. The messiah is a human being, not God, and these world-shattering events are to be brought about through the power of God. It is a total geo-political realignment.

There we have it: a job description. Now for the first time we can establish the Jewish concept of messiah as it existed prior to the Common Era.

There is, of course, more to the story. There are other details and the prophet Zechariah adds that in the messianic era the whole world will go up to Jerusalem to observe Succoth.

Paul, a man who never knew the Jesus of history, changed the concept of messiah. Searching for the Messiah outlines the contrast between a Christos (Christ) and a Mashiach (Messiah) and probes the reasons why Paul changed the idea.

Searching for the Messiah also examines Jesus’ teachings in his famous parables of the Kingdom of God – if he didn’t believe he himself was the messiah, what then did he teach? As international reviewers note, the conclusion of the book is shocking and surprising.

Shifting the Narrative

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.

An award-winning educator, Barrie Wilson, PhD, is Professor Emeritus & Senior Scholar, Religious Studies, York University, Toronto. An historian, he specializes in Early Christianity. Wilson’s new book – Searching for the Messiah (NY: Pegasus/Simon&Schuster) – has just been released to rave reviews from scholars in the U.S.A., Canada and Israel. This ground-breaking historical investigation probes the idea of messiah from the Bible to Batman, with many stops in-between.

About the Author
An award-winning teacher, Barrie Wilson PhD is Professor Emeritus, Religious Studies, York University, Toronto. An historian, Barrie specializes in early Christianity. His best-selling book How Jesus Became Christian (2008) received the Tanenbaum Prize for History at the 2009 Canadian Jewish Book Awards. The Lost Gospel, co-authored with Simcha Jacobovici, appeared in 2014. Appropriate for these turbulent times, his new book -- Searching for the Messiah -- will be published in August 2020. Barrie is a member of Beth-Tzedec Congregation, Toronto.
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