Religious Beliefs

What is a Messiah and how has belief in a coming Messiah played out in Jewish history?

Mashiach is a Hebrew word that means “anointed one” (christos is the Greek equivalent). Anointing is an ancient Jewish ritual first used to consecrate the priesthood and later to elevate Saul and David to kingly office. Expectation of the coming of a Messiah arose in Jewish tradition especially during and after the Babylonian Exile. Bereft of both Temple and monarchy, Jews longed for a restoration of their former estate under the guidance of a descendant of David. For the next several centuries various notions developed as to how one would recognize the Messiah when he appeared, but tradition did not arrive at a consensus. The Essene community evidently looked forward to two Messiahs, one with spiritual power and the other with political power.

Protracted Roman occupation of Israel two thousand years ago gave rise to renewed messianic expectation. One community of belief, now called Christianity, crystallized around Jesus, convinced that he had all the necessary qualifications. Even so, the New Testament gives evidence of mixed opinions as to how people would know with certainty that Jesus was the Messiah. For Jews, messianic expectation did not end with Jesus. A century later many Jews acclaimed Bar Kochba as Messiah and rallied in support of his revolt, but the Romans quelled the uprising in 135 when they laid siege to the famous Dead Sea stronghold called Masada. Several significant claimants to messiahship have appeared since then, especially under Muslim rule and in medieval Europe, including David Menachem Alroy (twelfth century Kurdistan), David Reuveni (d. c. 1538), Solomon Molcho (1500-1532), Shabbetai Zevi (1626-1676), and his successor in the movement, Jacob Frank (1726-1791). Some subcommunities of extremely Orthodox Jews have even more recently looked upon local leaders as Messiahs. For the majority of Jews today, messianic expectation remains a minor article of faith at most. Reform theology has spiritualized the concept, teaching that the advent of the Messiah is a purely personal event rather than one that will usher in a new age.


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