This article is a very short condensation of the extremely complex development of the Messianic thought in Judaism and Christianity until the writing of the NT canonical books. The full description of the varying lines of development and the post-NT developments would require at least a series of articles.
Māšîªḥ and xριστός ‘khristos’, usually Anglicised as ‘Christ’, both mean ‘anointed one’, xριστός being a direct translation of the Hebrew term. This term refers to the ancient rite of anointing a king, priest and later a prophet with specially prepared oil in order to consecrate them. In early Judaism the rite becomes so exclusively connected to the kings that a synonym for a king is ’eṯ-məšîḥa yəhwâ, ‘Anointed of yhwh’. This rite was by no means unique to the Israelite religion, the first mention of the rite is already in the ‘Amarna tablets, most of which date to the reigns of Amenhotep III (1402-1364) and Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV, 1350-1334) and there are Egyptian depictions of gods anointing a worshipper.
Messianism in OT Judaism
In the majority of the OT the messiah figure is always a topical one, expected to save the people from a specific crisis. A typical example of such a topical messiah would be the one at Isa. 9:6-7 who is very obviously a political figure. He is clearly supernatural, but as he is supposed to release the people from foreign oppression – the references to Midian and battlefields – spiritual salvation is not referred to here at all. That this applies as one saviour per one oppression is seen in the saviour judges and the same goes for the Persian king Cyrus (c. 600 BCE or 576–530 BCE), who was not even Jew, but is still called ‘anointed’ at Isa 44:28, if we look at the post-Exilic sources. That the spiritual Messianic idea – which developed in full only in the Christian era – did not develop during the Exile is easily understood when we take into account that the Babylonians let the conquered peoples freely worship their own gods, as the Assyrians had done before them.
In the late tradition the messiah is the hoped-for future king, whose reign would be characterised by everlasting justice, security and peace. The first development of the idea of the universal messiah can be seen only in Daniel, which is indeed the latest book of the OT, dating to 165 BCE. In it the old idea of a god-sent hero was connected with the concept ‘Lord’s Day’ and this gave the basis for the development to the later spiritual Messiah. This concept was further developed Judaism in connection of the Macchabean revolt, which was going on around the writing of Daniel.
Intertestamental development of Messianism in Judaism
Political Messianism was developed to its fullest form during the Intertestamental period, partly in response to the threat to the Hebrew religion by the Hellenizing program of the Seleucid rulers. The very heart of the Jewish religion of that time, the worship of Yahweh in the Temple of Jerusalem had been threatened by introducing ‘heathen’ rites – Antiochus Epiphanes had a pig sacrificed in there – by a powerful foreign rulers. This was worse than conquest and Exile, for now the Temple was ritually impure. So we see the appearance of the priestly messiah, who would rise alongside the Davidic political messiah.
Starting in the second century BCE, Davidic OT texts were reinterpreted as texts announcing the coming of a leader who was to defeat the Seleucid enemy. Even though the leaders of the revolt, Judas and Jonathan the Maccabean were not acknowledged as the two messiahs – they did not descend from the royal Davidic or high-priestly Zadokite lines – they managed to defeat the Seleucids and establish the Hasmonean kingdom. From their time onwards, messianic speculations were rife. Prophecies that could be applied to messiah were recalled, retold and reinterpreted.
The next phase in the development of Messianic thought we have textual evidence for are the Dead Sea Scrolls. Both the political and priestly messiah-figures are present in this corpus. Based on the OT promises by God of David’s throne lasting forever, a new Davidic king was eagerly expected to rise during the last century BCE. There were numerous texts on the Messianic expectation, which also reflects the dissatisfaction with the Hasmonean kings. Many of the DSS Messianic texts date to this era. This Messianism was by no means uniform, but different groups had different concepts of what kind of messiah was to be expected. Even figure of the messiah in the DSS texts varies. Some texts stress two different messiahs, one priestly and the other royal. This can be seen for example in the Midrash on Eschatology, where these figures are called “interpreter of the Law” and “branch of David” (4Q174 III,10–13).
Even though the messianic expectation is mentioned in several DSS texts – for example Community Rule (1QS), The Rule of the Congregation (1QSa), The Damascus Document (CD), The Testimonia (4Q175) and the Midrash on Eschatology (4Q174) – there is not much said about roles and importance of these messianic figures. It appears that Qumran community thought the messiah was not seen primarily as a saviour figure. The Rule of the Congregation appears to place the priestly messiah ahead of the royal messiah at 1QSa II, 11–22. It must be kept in mind, however, that the DSS texts are from different eras, and therefore they cannot be used to determine a uniform Qumranic teaching on the messiahs.
These two messiah-figures, the priestly messiah and the Davidic messiah, were combined by the NT writers in the figure of Jesus. The political aspect – the kingdom of God – had to be moved to the spiritual level, as on the more mundane level it was clearly a failure. The NT references to Jesus as Melchizedek – the priest-king of Salem in Genesis – point to the combination of the priestly and Davidic messiah in the figure of Jesus. As such, Jesus was seen by his followers as the long-awaited messiah, even though his appearance did not fulfil the expectations of late Judaism of the messiah bringing a universal era of peace and justice. The fulfilment of this expectation was deferred by the NT writers to the Second Coming, which was expected by the Gospel writers to occur at the time of the writing. It is also likely that the image of the Messiah as a divine being is a Christian invention, since the OT and Intertestamental era messiahs of Judaism are always clearly humans appointed by God.
The writer of Matthew in particular practically scoured the OT to find anything at all that he could interpret as a prophecy of Jesus, including a few misapplied Psalms. It is obvious that the writer sought to validate the new movement by tying it to the old and established tradition, therefore the OT had to be understood to speak of Jesus as the messiah.
Later NT writers had to cope with the fact that the Second Coming had not occurred, and in these later texts Jesus as the Messiah becomes a more cosmological figure. This is very clear especially in the texts from the Johannine school, which assign Jesus as the co-Creator.
Messianism has kept on developing, as it is a current theological thought in all the OT-related religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The political implications of such development have been always almost negative, starting with the American Religious Right’s concept of the needlessness of Nature conservation, since Jesus is going to return any minute now. Reliance on such ephemeral promises without ever stopping to consider the possibility of the promises being false can be very dangerous.
M. Coogan: The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2008)
W. D. Davies & L. Finkelstein (eds): The Cambridge History of Judaism, vol. 2: The Hellenistic Age (Cambridge 1989)
A. Kuhrt: The Ancient Near East (London 1995)
B. Metzger & M. Coogan (eds): The Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford, 1993)
G. Vermes: The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (London, 2004)