Fun with the Bible: The Use of the Word Messiah/Christ/Mashiach/Savior in the Bible, Judaism and Christianity

Oh boy is this a loaded term, and once again we get the pleasure of such a fascinating topic thanks to Kay, who was wondering about the various usages, meanings and importance ascribed to this word.

The Word Messiah as it Was Meant to Be

Let me start by saying that the word messiah did not begin with what today one would call messianic inclinations. That is, the messiah was never about some wonderful, future savior in ancient Judaism (which we should really be calling the ancient Israelite religion, since Judaism would have come from the descendants of Judea and we’re really talking about the entire area’s religion before it was just Judea). In any case, “messiah” literally meant anointed and referred to the king who was anointed into his position with oil.

You may recall such a scene in the New Testament book of Mark (14:3-9) when an old woman comes and pours nice oil on Jesus’ head. Though Jesus speaks of this as a preparation for burial, Mark’s understanding of his quality as Savior was not particularly developed, and a story like this later became prized for its value of equating Jesus with the long-awaited Davidic king. Speaking of this, David himself is anointed by Samuel (I Samuel 16), and other kings are anointed too. It was an important ritual act to signify that someone had been chosen by God.

Cyrus as Messiah

The reference to Cyrus as God’s anointed one is made by Isaiah (45:1), and makes good sense when we think about what Cyrus had done (notably, Cyrus is the ONLY non-Israelite to ever be referred to by this term). After the Babylonians’ destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and decades of Babylonian captivity, Cyrus, King of Persia, decrees that the people of Judea be allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple to their God. It would certainly seem that a benevolent and wonderful act like that could only come from a person that God himself had wanted anointed as king. (As a side note, my cat’s name is Cyrus, both because of this biblical story and because Herodotus seemed to me to describe this same king Cyrus as a mischievous fellow).

It is in the book of Daniel (9:25-26) that the term mashiach nagid (the great messiah) is used, and it is thought that this is a reference to Cyrus for the wonderful thing he did for the Jews. However, bear in mind that Daniel is not a prophecy. Though it purports to come from a captive in King Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian court in the sixth century, Daniel was written in the middle of the Jewish revolt against the Greek king Antichus IV (c. 167). That’s why he is able to so accurately run through the history of the Ancient Middle East’s rulers that affect the Jews, and get increasingly specific as he describes what goes on between the Greek kings that lead up to the war of his day.

Think about Cyrus’ motivation for allowing the Jews to return to their land after he conquered the Babylonian Empire and found so many subject peoples. It wasn’t just the Jews. Cyrus was a wise statesman and realized that if he conquered the Babylonians and let all of the people they had conquered go home, they would love him and do what he says (tribute, baby). Moreover, if they rebuild their temples and pray to their gods they will pray on behalf of him, his health, wealth, and success. And that’s exactly what Cyrus asked everyone to do.

Waiting for the Messiah

So after the use of this word in these various contexts and after the Jews returned to Judea, there was no more Davidic line of kings ruling over the people in the same way that there had always been, but looking back to the time of David filled the Jews with pride and longing because it was when they were strongest, unified and their religion and homeland were the least ‘corrupted’ with outsiders (or so they thought through the lens of their backward gazing). In any case, they looked back and desperately wanted independence and their Davidic king (a king who descended from the line of David, in case that hasn’t been clear), and as this person was always mashiach, anointed, they looked forward to a time when God would give them back their anointed one. And thus begins (in an overly simplistic fashion, mind you) the beginning and longing for a Messiah that would come and free the people.

In the centuries hugging the year zero – particularly after the Romans took over the region – every person and his brother claimed to be the messiah: sent from God to rescue the people. People also claimed to be prophets at this time – in unusual abundance.

And no, to answer a question previously posed, prophets and messiahs are not the same thing. Prophets brought a message from God and the Messiah was not a messenger but a savior – the person sent to do the dirty work. He didn’t have words to deliver but a better life for the people. That idea wasn’t otherworldly in Judaism (too much, at least). It was literally about getting the king back and having independence. Jewish messianic aspirations were not always about ending this world or the world-to-come – that’s the result of two millenia of Christian influence.

Christianity and the Messiah

However, when Jesus came and was believed to be the long-awaited descendant of the Davidic line, jubilation erupted among some. His death, though, put a damper on people’s spirits (no pun intended) because they believed that he would restore the line and rescue them from the Romans. When that didn’t happen, the idea of Jesus as the anointed one was used in different ways, most successfully by Pauline Christianity who made the rest (an insanely complicated) history. Thus, Jesus was the Messiah, and when that saving was not able to be earthly salvation (the Judean kingdom), it was transformed into the other-worldly salvation of Christianity. And now Christians still await the Messiah – Jesus’ return – to bring those end of days and the good times.

Khristos, the Greek word from which we get Christ, is the term used to refer to Jesus in the language that Paul’s Christianity spread through the Greek-speaking world. That’s why that word become the popular one.


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7 Responses

  1. WOW!!!! Jay—you did an amazing job with such a complicated topic. Thanks for such a clear as well as informative post.

    “kingdom”—-The concept of Utopia in which good has won over evil and everyone lives in peace, brotherhood, and harmony is a very appealing vision. Zorastrian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and somewhat in Buddhism and some Shamanistic beliefs all have this hope. Maybe it is something embedded in our unconscious.

    Quran–Though the christian concept of Messiah/utopia has influenced muslim tradition—the Quran does not have this concept—-apparently—we go straight to judgement day! — which is why the use of the term “Masih” for Prophet Jesus(pbuh) is puzzling. It seems to me, that the term “masih” (Quran) fits best when interpreted according to the original Jewish understanding as “God’s chosen”. If we assume that “free-will” dictates that a Prophet is chosen because his heart is open to the message of his own free will, then Prophet Jesus(pbuh) would be a Prophet that did not have that choice as he was a prophet from birth and he never got the chance to excercise his “free-will” on the issue. —–There is a story in the Quran of how baby Prophet Jesus(pbuh) is able to speak and defends his mother when some people accuse her of bad behaviour because she had a baby. —–indicating that even as an infant he was fully aware. (The infancy gospel of thomas (apocrypha) has an interesting version of Young Jesus—the part about the birds is also mentioned in the Quran)

    Messianic kingdom —According to Judaism, the child’s religious designation is inherited from the Mother (—Jewish mother=Jewish child) According to the Quran, Prophet Jesus(pbuh) did not have a father —either earthly or heavenly. Would this have effected the “Davidic line” understanding of Messiah? or would Mary’s lineage have sufficed? (note—it is interesting that in Islam, an adopted child cannot inherit the lineage of the adoptee father — Prophet Muhammed(pbuh) adopted a child (former slave) as his son but could not give him his name.)

    The (later)Christian Messiah concept is very complicated. It seems to me that there are two understandings of Messiah—One, as a saviour/salvation from sin and the other has(2nd?) Jesus fighting “antichrist” and establishing God’s kingdom. But if this were to “fit”—the “crucifixtion/salvation” would have to be a pre-determined event—that is, the jews/romans would simply have been tools (human instrumentalities) that would make a pre-determined event happen?(unlike the story of Jonah)—and does this mean that Jesus Christ (according to later christianity) could not have been meant for the Jewish people either as king or Prophet because there could not be “salvation” without crucifixtion? –or could there? (–the Paulinean /Augustinean concept of “original sin” with salvation through crucifixtion?) also, since christians are already “saved” (salvation/crucifixtion) I presume a “kingdom” is not needed for this purpose …… so …does judgement day have any significance for christians?

    Does(later) Judaism have a non-messianic version of Judgement day? (I think Isrealite religion was not concerned with this concept originally but may have adopted it after 2nd temple?) (It is my understanding that the Midrash has some concepts of the world being created and destroyed many times —Bereisht Raba—- similar concept in Quran also)

    ……………………………….hello hug to Cyrus…………….

  2. If we assume that “free-will” dictates that a Prophet is chosen because his heart is open to the message of his own free will…

    I’ve never thought that any of the prophets (pbut) had the “free will” to become a Prophet or not. I’ve always thought that each and every Prophet was chosen by Allah (swt) to be either a nabi and/or rasul. (Apparently Wikipedia agrees with me. 😉 )

  3. I’m glad all this talk about Messiah has stirred up so much! It’s a great topic. I will have to say, though, that in Judaism there is also no free-will associated with prophecy. If we look closely at those throughout the Hebrew Bible who became prophets we will notice that being a prophet is something seemingly random to us and dictated solely by God’s choosing as to whom gets his message. Indeed, think of Jonah, who resisted accepting God’s demand and suffered until he did. But we can talk more later about how one becomes a prophet and why later. Onto the meat and potatoes, which are your questions.

    As for two ideas of Messiah in Christianity, I’m not entirely sure that’s the case. I think it may be better to look at it as a development from one to the other and at one time a certain understanding dominated the other. That doesn’t mean, however, that the ideas were separate in the minds of Christians. They always considered Jesus to be the bringer of both things.

    I think it’s fascinating that you bring up the predetermination of the crucifixion. You are spot on! The crucifixion does have to be a predetermined event in Christian theology and indeed, Jesus himself acknowledges and accepts his impending death (in the gospels) and Paul even speaks of it as if it absolutely had to happen. What’s important to remember when you asked your follow up question (does that mean that Jesus could never have been intended as the Jewish Messiah-King?) is that the gospels and the Pauline letters were written after Jesus’ death by people who had no contact with Jesus himself. Mark was four degrees of separation from Jesus, Matthew five (based on Mark), Luke five and John anywhere from 5-8 depending on where you’re reading. Paul was closer in time to Jesus (the 50s of the first century) but he didn’t know Jesus.

    My point is that telling a story with predetermined events is VERY EASY when you already know the outcome of those events and are a product of the development of theology since those events! Indeed, the crucifixion was portrayed as predetermined because only through suffering could Jesus save us and only through accepting him will we be saved and therefore never suffer again. It all had to happen.

    The interesting element of that is how the Romans and Jews and all those involved in the story are hated and persecuted for centuries for their ancestors’ part in the story yet without them the story could never have happened and salvation never have been accessible.

    However, a Christian “kingdom” is absolutely essential, especially considering the vast differentiation between Christian beliefs. Just because you believe/act right, etc., doesn’t mean you’re saved according to every Christian and as we can all attest – suffering doesn’t really end. That means that Jesus must return and bring the salvation by bringing the kingdom. Christian salvation as the “kingdom” arose and developed because Jesus died (not planned though made planned later) and did not bring the immediate kingdom (which would have been sufficient salvation) as Jewish messianism had hoped for (not that there weren’t more complicated forms of messianism, but we’re speaking generally here). Thus, Jews rejected Jesus later precisely because their Messiah couldn’t possibly die because that was not bringing the earthly kingdom that their salvation required and Christianity ran with it and said he’s coming back to bring the kingdom to earth and all of us who believe right now that this will happen are going to get to chill in the kingdom and the rest of you can go to Hell. Literally!

    Judaism’s Judgment Day and its messianic tendencies are not necessarily intertwined – at least they weren’t always, or as I said with Christianity’s two ideas of messianism, it’s better to see them as developments where at any given time one could be the more important and emphasized element.

    Was that clear? Did I answer all of your questions? Are there more? This is fun!

  4. JDsg—Thanks for the links—I appreciate it.

    Prophet/Free-will — I agree that a person cannot simply declare themselves to be a Prophet. (I mean—in the Quranic definition of Prophet) I also agree that God would have to actively choose someone in order to give revelation/guidance/wisdom. However, I think that those prophets who have received prophethood later in life would have to have been worthy of their own accord first in order to “qualify”. For example, Prophets Abraham, Moses, Muhammed (pbut) did spend time in spiritual contemplation before being “chosen”. One can argue that they were spiritually inclined because God was guiding them—yet, still, there would nevertheless have been an element of free-will in that the person would have to “consent” to be guided—If they had chosen to close their hearts—they could not have understood the message. In the case of Prophet Jesus(pbuh)—He was a Prophet from birth. —This difference may or may not explain the use of the term “Masih” for Prophet Jesus(pbuh) ? —–Ofcourse, there is also the “other” explanation—Islamic tradition says Prophet Jesus will come back and fight Dajjal (Good versus Evil)……
    (note—Zorastrinanism- Spenta Mainyu=Good versus Angra Mainyu = Bad)

    I am comfortable with the translation of “Masih” as “Christ” as in “annointed” ……but it is interesting to speculate……Do you have any theories/ideas on “Masih Isa” (pbuh)?

  5. To someone unfamiliar with christianity—its wonderful diversity does create a hurdle in understanding its doctrines.—Your explanations are a big help. —-So, (according to christian theology)—are christians “saved”, “not saved” or “Half-saved”?(different degrees of salvation?) Crucifixtion would be neccessary for salvation from “original sin”? and salvation through “Kingdom” is somehow related to an idea of “chosenness” perhaps? I am not sure I understand how the Kingdom doctrine fits theologically—but it may have been useful politically? There seems to be an interesting tension in how Christianity seems to use Judaism to validate itself and at the same time create an opposition to it. Its almost as if two brothers are rivals and yet the younger needs the older?.

    Hebrew Bible/Prophets—I did notice that the language of the Torah creates a sense of the Power (omnipotent, omnicient) of God yet at the same time also gives the sense of the unfathomable. That God is somewhat beyond human understanding?
    (I had been reading the story of Rebbeca, Isaac and their two sons Esau and Jacob.—and you cannot help but ask the question—Why?!)
    Do you think the Torah is an expression of our relationship with God (seen through human eyes) as opposed to an explanation of God’s relationship with us?

    Jonah-(Quran–Prophet Yunus(pbuh). You make a valid point. —-Could this also show that God may choose—yet he also allows a level of free-will to prevail—in that a Prophet has to also be willing? I will have to refresh my memory of the details of the story—-but so far, there are many interesting points to think about!

    Judaism—I agree that when a religion has been around as long as Judaism—its development is critical to its full understanding. –and doing this with others is far more fun than slogging through research on your own!!!

  6. Theories on Masih Isa for me would extend to the fact that even though the Muslim conception of Jesus is not as the Son of God, Muslim ideas of Jesus are still influenced by a Christian understanding of Jesus as more than a prophet. I think this appellation makes that status clear. I did not know that in Muslim tradition Jesus was also supposed to come back and fight Dajjal, but with that tidbit in mind (thank you!) I feel as though such suspicions are confirmed.

    I’m glad you like the interplay of Judaism and Christianity, especially in these earlier developmental years, because it is an important point that the religions we see today are not what they were in biblical times, ancient times, or even the first 500 years of the Common Era. They were developing; and yes, the struggle for identity and more while using each other is a central and key element of that development and the religions that resulted. It’s absolutely my favorite area of religious studies.

    Christians, salvation and crucifixion: Christians who, most simply put, believe in Jesus, are saved. Now, that salvation does not have earthly consequences (other than a greater sense of internal peace and calm, perhaps and the ‘ability’ to have Jesus as a guiding force in one’s life, however you want to interpret that – carefully, I hope!). It has consequences for the afterlife, which is why we designate Christianity as an otherworldly religion (that is, it is concerned primarily with life being good after this one, not this life being good). Jesus was born perfect – no original sin. The rest of us suffered from original sin (though the Bible does not actually use such terms or have any idea like this – it’s extrapolated). Christians are saved by believing in Jesus and his crucifixion – by simply having faith that he is who they believe he is (whether Messiah, Son of God, God Himself, whatever). Jesus’ suffering atones for their original sin and by believing in what happened to him and what he did for us he will forgive us our sins (Christianity is all about atonement) and thus, save us. That salvation comes in two ways: a. Heaven, which is our reward when we die for believing in Jesus, and b. The Kingdom that Jesus will bring one day.

    And yes, the kingdom does have excellent political purposes. Indeed, Christianity is wisely political (though it started out beautifully counter-culture). It is a religion for the underprivileged by nature, because it immediately acknowledges that this life totally sucks, explains that simply by saying we’re being punished for original sin (nothing we necessarily did ourselves – why do bad things happen to good people?), and provides a solution that is so easy to accomplish you’d seem stupid not to (believe in Jesus) for which one is promised vast rewards for eternity (Heaven/the Kingdom) so long as s/he holds on a little longer until death. Pretty brilliant, I think.

    Your question about the Torah – whoa! I’m not sure how I can answer that other than to possibly disappoint with my totally mundane response. God is expressed in a lot of ways in the Torah because the Torah has a lot of human authors (min. of 4 in the Torah itself but obviously a few dozen more throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible). These many people had differing conceptions of God and were from different places at different times (many of which can be picked out and explained) and when you have that many people expressing their ideas of God, you get a lot of ideas. I think your last sentence is key, and I’d like to put it this way if I may (it’s my favorite way to put it). Genesis 1:27 says, “God created humankind in his image.” To whatever degree that may or may not be true (and just for the record this means that God looks like man – think Zeus rather than invisible and everywhere) I’d like to say that God is as much made in our image as we may be in His, particularly as it concerns the Torah.

    And the short answer for why Jacob and Rachel are tricking Esau is the same reason that in the Bible the older son never inherits and all the matriarchs are barren until God decides otherwise. It is a continual demonstration that God is in control of everything and that He can bend the ways of the world if He wants (primogeniture, women giving birth when they’re young). Moreover, it emphasizes the line of the Israelites by showing the reader that they have been specifically created and orchestrated by God because He made sure they came about and inherited what He wanted them to because He has the power to do that and to divide – or redivide – up the land as He sees fit. Though the goal of the Torah is to give the laws (it’s a lawbook first and foremost), those laws are embedded in a narrative, the goal of which is to show how the Israelites became a people (combine those two and you get, The Israelites’ relationship with God), and the point of how they became a people is that God wanted it so and can make that happen however he pleases.

    And don’t forget that certain authors of the Bible are huge on retribution because equal retribution is a demonstration of justice and that the world works the way it should. Jacob may be tricking his father but later his sons will trick him by telling him that his favorite son, Joseph, has been killed. Call it karma if you want, but the Bible works very methodically.

    Regarding Jonah, I simply consider it the most outstanding example of how a prophet has no free-will whatsoever (in the Bible at least) and how he is entirely chosen by God, sometimes unwillingly, to deliver a message. Definitely read that story when you get a chance (the biblical version) and try Ezekiel’s early chapters too and notice his unwillingness. I wish I had some old notes with me because I remember a brief discussion on the mind of the prophet (as in, whether he had to be receptive somehow) and I’d love to share that detail now.

    Happy Thanksgiving to anyone who celebrates!

  7. Happy Thanksgiving to you too.

    Christianity—You have a way with words Jay! Your explanations make sense. This must be “mainstream” christianity? (I hope). I have a few stupid questions–hope you don’t mind — Are there two interpretations of “kingdom” –one in heaven and one on earth? or is your reference related to an earthly one only?–if so, do christians in heaven participate in an earthly kingdom or do they remain in heaven?
    The Roman Catholic church has something called catechism that lays out and explains the doctrines of the church–sort of like tafsir (Quran) and midrash /mishneh (Torah). I have managed to read only a few–those that intersect with the themes of the Quran –such as ccc2307 to 2314 which is called the “just war” doctrine. —With regards to “salvation” —ccc839 to 843 are great because they are very inclusive and talk of non-christian salvation. (these are a modern development)

    Torah–I had not realized about the 4 authors–but I did know that the Torah was harmonized from several versions–and about the two ideas/expressions of God related to the names Elohim and Yahweh.–did I get that right?( —I know what you mean about notes—mine are a complete mess!!!!)

    Islam and Christianity—-Yes, it did have a huge influence on muslim thought/tradition but mostly from the early eastern christian tradition. (Gnosticism also had an influence). Muslim “tradition” is about the stories, ideas, legends/myths among muslims that are apart from the Quran. (this is an important distinction for a muslim).
    Today there is probably not much difference in doctrine between eastern and western christianity, but in the early years there was. for example—some of the eastern churches used a gospel harmony—creating a single gospel. Some of them did not interpret the story of Adam and Eve as “original sin” believing instead that the punishment/consequence was the advent of mortality/death for mankind.
    (note—the Quran refers to the bible as ‘injil” which is translated as “evangel” -(greek) or gospel — singular. –which has led some scholars to speculate this may be a reference to the eastern bible…..this distinction does not impact the meaning of the Quran—its only interesting speculation.)

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