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.

Summary

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Fun with the Bible: The Many Interpretations of Deuteronomy 18:15

How We Arrived at This Topic

Last week, on Quran Read-A-Long Kay asked, What do the passages of Deuteronomy 18: 15-18 refer to? (there are different English versions of this passage and not all versions use the term “brother”). She also wrote, “There is a passage in Deuteronomy 18 (NIV) 15 to 18-15 says “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must listen to him.” I don’t know what this passage means to Christians or Jews but the use of the words “from among your brothers” is interesting as from the Muslim perspective—the brotherhood of the sons of Prophet Abraham could possibly give these passages significance.”

The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible translates this verse as, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.”

Now usually I rely heavily upon the NRSV. It’s an excellent, scholarly translation that takes account of the most ancient Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and even sometimes Latin (the Vulgate) texts of the Bible in order to render the most accurate translation possible. It eschews translations that are misleadingly theological in nature; where discrepancies in the ancient texts exist, it footnotes those differences.

Kay has raised the issue of what exactly this verse means, and more importantly, to whom it means such things. Briefly, I’d like to say what it means to each religion and then comment on the interpretation itself.

Christians and Jews: Different Interpretations – How Strange!

For Christians, the meaning here is abundantly clear: this prophet raised up from among your own people is Jesus. How could it be anyone else? A prophet comparable to Moses, an Israelite, etc. Definitely the J-Man.

For the Jews, this isn’t anyone in particular. It wouldn’t be far fetched to say that this is a reference to the future messiah, but no such word is used and it certainly wasn’t written with that in mind. For the Jews, this could be any of the prophets that came in a long line of prophets after Moses. “Like me” doesn’t necessarily mean in extreme quality, as one who speaks face to face with God, but only “a prophet, like me.” This is simply, ‘be prepared for more prophets because you said that you wanted prophecy to know what God wants so be on the lookout.’ This coincides perfectly with the fact that the verse can also be translated acceptably with all of the references to “prophet” in the plural, as in “The Lord your God will raise up prophets for you like me from among your own people; you shall heed such prophets.”

At the same time, it warns that such prophets will only come from among your own people, that is, the Israelites. This would have been quite a warning for Jews when it came to Mohammed. He was not from among their people. He was an Arab, a notably different people, though Semitic, that exists in the Bible. So, in some sense, for the Israelites/Jews, this verse is cautionary against someone like Mohammed bringing revelation from God because he couldn’t possibly be a prophet.

From A Muslim Perspective

And that, of course, brings us to a Muslim perspective on this verse and the translation of the verse itself. The word used for “your own people” is achichah, which is a plural possessive of the Hebrew word, ach, whose most immediate and obvious translation is “brother.” It’s a curious place to use the word. Of course, ach can also be translated as “kinsman” or “friend,” hence the natural leap to “your own people.” Few would question the reach. However, rather than use a word like am (nation), in which case the meaning would be pretty blatant (though, notably, still not exclude Jesus), the text uses the word ach which even when translated otherwise, still has the connotation of brother.

It is this that makes Kay’s translation from the NIV so valid and the subsequent Muslim outlook on this verse so viable. She has pointed out, quite rightly, that Isaac and Ishmael were brothers. Thus, with the Israelites/Jews descending from Isaac and the Arabs descending from Ishmael, these two tribes are in fact, brother-tribes, or in a sense, kinsman. Thus, a line in the Bible that could acceptably be translated as foreshadowing the rise of a prophet like Moses (a big-time prophet) that comes from among your brothers, could quite easily be seen as a reference to Mohammed for Muslims.

The Historical-Critical Take

Where do I stand? I think that all of these interpretations, from a religious perspective, take into account the possible and appropriate translations of this verse, and therefore are equally viable depending on the perspective of where you’re sitting. I study these things because of the many fascinating and possible interpretations, what they reveal about each religion individually and the ways that they theologically interact with one another.

However, I also know that the book of Deuteronomy was written in the middle of the seventh century BCE and that this line has been written retrospectively. What this line is really doing is letting the future readers of this book know that Moses knew that there would be more prophets to come. Seeing as how the last five hundred years of Israelite history had been littered with prophets, this was a good way of showing Moses’ knowledge and verifying the legitimacy of prophecy.

It is possible that this line also ensured the exclusion of certain people who had been coming around Judea in these tough times claiming to be prophets (remember that the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires were taking over the known world at this time and people were claiming prophetic powers all over the place and there needed to be a way to discern who was legit and who was full of it – similar to what happened in Jesus’ time with the Romans). In this way, the writer of these lines used a word that would intentionally exclude all non-Judeans from possibly offering true prophecies so that his readers would have some criteria by which to discern legitimacy.

Later on, Christians and Muslims and Jews in their own ways, could look back at this line and see it as a way of foreseeing Jesus or Mohammed or whomever else – which, religiously, is fine – but reading it in the context of its historical circumstances can also help us understand what it’s doing here.

Summary

I would like to point out that interpreting this verse as Jews and Arabs being brother-tribes and kinsman, as long as no proselytizing efforts accompany the gesture, is an awesome way to look at this verse from a modern perspective. It’s a shame that more people aren’t focusing on this relationship, like Kay is. A brotherhood, kinsman perspective can sometimes help to reduce tensions and make people think a little harder about why the hatred is necessary.

What do you think? Anything to add? Questions?

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Quran Day: The Cow 47-59 Recounts Exodus and God’s Relationship with the Israelites

Though there are an endless number of things to say about these verses, I’m going to go with two in particular: the first is the events recounted in Exodus and recalled here and the second is this notion of remembering.

What Comes from Exodus

Verse 49 begins a list of things that happened to the Israelites in the second book of the Bible, Exodus, the one that begins with the Israelites’ enslavement. God recounts how He saved the children of Israel from Egypt, parted the sea to aid their escape, communed with Moses, and how the Israelites made a calf, how God gave Moses the Book and Discernment (which I believe means the Bible and Prophecy, though instead of prophecy perhaps wisdom and [juris]prudence), how God sent manna and quails, etc.

Another hot topic in these sections is the Israelites’ disobedience (and they were so unruly between Egypt and Canaan that it’s a wonder they got anything – worse than bratty children in the backseat of a car!), and God’s continual mercy as he forgave them and still allowed them to go forward.

The Actual Bible in the Bible…and Then in the Quran

I would like to point out three things though. First, how it says that God gave Moses the Book. As I take this to mean the Bible, I must say that according to the Five Books of Moses, this didn’t happen. God didn’t give Moses a book (to read about Moses’ biblical authorship and the specifics of Deuteronomy’s mention of this, click HERE). Now, of course, this isn’t too important because the inherited tradition is that God did give Moses the Bible (or at least the beginning of it) so we’ll move on.

My Trouble with Verse 58

The second thing is verse 58, the one part of the events recounted (which admittedly seem to extend outside of Exodus), that I don’t understand or at least can’t match up to anything in the Bible. I don’t remember God ever saying that or anything like it to the Israelites, but perhaps it’s the Quran’s way of saying that God gave the Israelites every chance to go to Heaven (this great city?) and that they just had to do it a certain way and as the following verses showed, they just kept sinning and perverting God’s word.

It is fascinating that God tells the Israelites to repent in these verses because repentance and forgiveness by God were concepts entirely absent from ancient Israelite religion (that is, the religion reflected in Genesis, Exodus-Deuteronomy). I believe that forgiveness and repentance are very important concepts in Islam and so it’s interesting that in recounting ancient Israelite history, the Quran has God emphasizing the importance of repentance to the Israelites, though the concept was never there and doesn’t exist in that part of the Bible, beyond basic apologizing after the Golden Calf incident, but certainly not as a theological emphasis or doctrinal necessity.

Finally, though a quick summary, I would like to say that for the most part this section captures the gist of the Old Testament. God did the Israelites a lot of favors from Egypt forward, the Israelites treated God poorly and were totally ungrateful, and then throughout the Prophets the Israelites are accused, like verse 59 here, of perverting the word of God and being sinners. Thus, retribution was sent, ultimately for the Jews in the form of the Babylonian Exile.

Remembrance

The last thing I want to mention is the way many of these verses start, emphasizing “Remember.” This makes me think of the Passover holiday celebrated by Jews that is designed to make Jews remember the many things that God did for them. Jews recount the events so that they never forget what they owe God. That feeling, though obviously in brief, seems echoed here based on the interweaving of God’s great actions, mercy and forgiveness.

What do these verses make you think about? What can you add to our understanding of these verses? Is there any part of the summary of ancient Israelite history that you have trouble placing as a biblically recounted event?

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The Cow 47-59

47. Remember, O Children of Israel, the favors I bestowed on you, and made you exalted among the nations of the world. 48. Take heed of the day when no man will be useful to man in the least, when no intercession matter nor ransom avail, nor help reach them. 49. Remember, We saved you from the Pharaoh’s people who wronged and oppressed you and slew your sons but spared your women: In this was a great favor from your Lord. 50. Remember, We parted the sea and saved you, and drowned the men of Pharaoh before your very eyes. 51. Yet, remember, as We communed with Moses for forty nights you took the calf in his absence (and worshiped it), and you did wrong. 52. Even so, We pardoned you that you may be grateful. 53. Remember, We gave Moses the Book and Discernment of falsehood and truth, that you may be guided. 54. Remember, Moses said: “My people, by taking this calf you have done yourselves harm, so now turn to your Creator in repentance, and kill your pride, which is better with your Lord.” And (the Lord) softened towards you, for He is all-forgiving and merciful. 55. Remember, when you said to Moses: “We shall not believe in you until we see God face to face,” lightening struck you as you looked. 56. Even then We revived you after you had become senseless that you might give thanks; 57. And made the cloud spread shade over you, and sent for you manna and quails that you may eat of the good things We have made for you. No harm was done to Us, they only harmed themselves. 58. And remember, We said to you: “Enter this city, eat wherever you like, as much as you please, but pass through the gates in humility and say: ‘May our sins be forgiven.'” We shall forgive your trespasses and give those who do good abundance. 59. But the wicked changed and perverted the word We had spoken to a word distorted, and We sent from heaven retribution on the wicked, for they disobeyed.

19 Ways to Enjoy Life a Little More

I thought I’d change it up a bit today and share something with you that made me laugh. My favorite was definitely number 7 and any of you who knows the spirit of this blog will understand why. Here’s a list of 19 things that might help you enjoy life a bit more. Sure, they’re not all great, but the execution of one or two could be pretty special.

1. At Lunch Time, Sit in Your Parked Car with Sunglasses on and point a Hair Dryer at Passing Cars. See If They Slow Down.

2. Page Yourself Over The Intercom. Don’t Disguise Your Voice.

3. Every Time Someone Asks You To Do Something, Ask If They Want Fries with that.

4. Put Your Garbage Can On Your Desk And Label It ‘In.’

5. Put Decaf In The Coffee Maker For 3 Weeks. Once everyone has gotten over Their Caffeine Addictions, Switch to Espresso.

6. In The Memo Field Of All Your Checks, Write ‘For Smuggling Diamonds’.

7. Finish All Your sentences with ‘In Accordance With the Prophecy.’

8. Don t use any punctuation.

9. As Often As Possible, Skip Rather Than Walk.

10. Order a Diet Water whenever you go out to eat…use a serious face.

11. Specify That Your Drive-through Order Is ‘To Go.’

12. Sing Along At The Opera.

13. Go To A Poetry Recital And Ask Why The Poems Don’t Rhyme.

14. Put Mosquito Netting around Your Work Area And Play tropical Sounds All Day.

15. Five Days In Advance, Tell Your Friends You Can’t Attend Their Party Because You’re not in the Mood.

16. Have Your Coworkers Address You by Your Wrestling Name, Rock Bottom.

17. When The Money Comes Out of The ATM, Scream ‘I Won!, I Won!’

18. When Leaving The Zoo, Start Running Towards The Parking lot, Yelling, ‘Run For Your Lives, They’re Loose!!’

19. Tell Your Children Over Dinner. ‘Due To The Economy, We Are Going To Have To Let One Of You Go.’

Which one’s your favorite? Do you have any you’d like to add to the list?

In the News: Left Behind….Mentally Speaking, that is

It is no new observation on my part to point out http://www.youvebeenleftbehind.com, a site that promises to send out emails to the loved ones of those who disappear at the Rapture for believing properly in Jesus (for more on this go to http://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/2008/06/service-lets-yo.html). Of course, this service will cost you a nominal fee. Now, I’m guessing that those taken at the Rapture don’t just want to brag that they played the whole Jesus-card properly; they want their friends and family to take note and take this opportunity to repent and become good believing Christians so that when Jesus really comes they can bounce before things get ugly.

Okay, I classify all of this under the giant rubric of belief – and it’s totally acceptable. Who would I be to knock faith, to disagree with it or to challenge it. It’s faith: inherently, none of those things really work with faith anyway. What I do disagree with, though, are a few other things about the whole predicted Rapture/Apocalypse/Jesus’ return extravaganza. Let’s start with an example: the year 2000, what people thought was the Millennium (though it was really 2001).

People said that Jesus was coming back, that the world was going to end, and the lesser believers amongst them freaked out about the technological Y2K possibilities. What did I do at this time? I offered to take bets – as many bets as I could. You had a prediction, I said, I will bet you absolutely anything that your prediction won’t materialize. I wasn’t asking people to renounce their religions if I was right and nothing happened; I was just asking for, say, ten dollars. If someone challenged that, if he were right he could not collect (presuming of course that he would be gone or busy attending to Jesus since he would have been here), I reassured him that my eternity in Hell would be ample enough punishment (though if the Rapture ever happened I’d be one of the first on board to a life with Jesus).

So what am I driving at here because it’s not mocking Christians or mocking Jesus? In fact, I love Jesus. He’s probably my favorite historical character  (tied, perhaps, with Buddha and Louis XVI). Jesus was amazing – you don’t have to believe in his divinity to know that. So, what I’m getting at is prophecy, and in particular, when prophecy fails. In fact, there’s a fascinating book called When Prophecy Fails (available now through Amazon.com by visiting http://www.thezenofsouthpark.com). It is about a modern group whose leaders make predictions that obviously prove false – they thought the group would be rescued by UFOs. The inevitability of all prophecy of this nature (end of the world) failing is obvious, but the question becomes, just like after the year 2000, what do people do when they’re proven wrong, as the passing of the predicted date obviously shows them to have been? Well, they make excuses and keep on believing. It’s a fascinating phenomenon that this book details through a case study, and Christian predictions about the Apocalypse and Jesus’ coming are the quintessential example.

People have been predicting Jesus’ second coming from the moment he ‘left.’ And guess what – they’ve always been wrong. Always. And I’ll take any bet about it. This brings me to the point of prophecy. The prophecies that predicted Jesus’ return were speaking in the immediate sense. They never expected people to reinterpret what they said to make the time longer and longer. Every reinterpretation confirms who wrong these predictions were. So what is prophecy in the Bible?

Prophecy, in the Bible, is meant for a specific time and place, and that time and place is the prophet’s time and place. When Isaiah spoke to the people about being bad and on the edge of destruction (or about wonderful futures) he did it to persuade them to change their behavior and bring a new, better situation about – or be punished. Prophets had a message for their own age. Peoples’ attempts for centuries to reinterpret those predictions for their own times are foolish and misguided. They were messages to other people. Of course, the lessons can still be valuable (i.e. be a good person) and transcend time and place – that’s what’s made them continually applicable – but that doesn’t mean that the prophetic prediction was really talking about now – it was a threat to the people back then.

I look at the messages of South Park in a similar way. Though they will resonate as true for generations to come, they are messages for the people of our time, exhorting us to change our ways, think differently or behave differently – just like those biblical prophets delivered. To call Trey and Matt prophets would be ridiculous, but I am drawing a comparison between who their message was for and what can be done with it. It is for us now, to change our ways, but it can be used later as a means of saying, South Park said the Vatican would be destroyed if priests didn’t stop molesting children (last night’s episode – 608, Red Hot Catholic Love) and I’m still waiting for it to happen. They didn’t say it would be destroyed – they just created a wild scenario to demonstrate how important change right now is. Prophecy worked the same way. If you’d like to read more on this check out my essay under Bonus Material at http://www.thezenofsouthpark.com.

In short, when someone tells you that the world is ending and Jesus is coming, ask what they’ll give you if they’re wrong – maybe they’ll sing a different tune or at least you can get a free meal out of it.

Do you think that the Rapture is coming? When? Do you believe in prophecy or think I’m an idiot for what I’ve said? Tell me why – I’d love to hear and know what you think and why.

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