Broadly speaking, messianism refers to any expectation of the appearance of a messiah or messiahs in the end time. Messianism appears in four bodies of literature: Hebrew scripture, extrabiblical works written in the Second Temple period, the New Testament (NT), and the writings of rabbinic Judaism. From the middle of the 19th century until recently scholars have generally held that messianism was only a marginal phenomenon not only in Hebrew scripture but also in the writings produced in Second Temple period. Christianity has been either credited with or blamed for introducing messianism in such a prominent way. In more recent years this traditional understanding of messianism has come under criticism.
Messianism in Hebrew scripture has been approached in two ways. The first approach is to investigate the occurrence of the word messiah, which means “anointed one.” An extreme position would be to limit messianism to passages that mention the word messiah in an eschatological (end-time) context. By this criterion Daniel 9:25–26 would be the only one that qualifies. Other occurrences of the term messiah in the Jewish Bible are more debatable since an eschatological context appears to be absent. It is unclear, for example, whether when David is called “the Lord’s anointed” this qualifies as an eschatological prophecy. The most one can say is that such references may have eschatological overtones. The second approach to messianism is to investigate it from the broader perspective of IsraelPhoenician colonies. Read more ... »’s eschatology. It is undeniable that many passages of Hebrew scripture envision some sort of an end-time agent, whether human or angelic, who will restore Israel and reestablish God’s original order on the earth. Most scholars feel that many of such passages are messianic even though these passages do not mention messiah. The most important messianic figure in Hebrew scripture is a future king in the likeness of David and a descendant of David.
There are basically two scholarly opinions about the origin of messianism. Some believe messianism developed from the pre-exilic practice of venerating Israelite kings as divine agents. S. Mowinckel was the key proponent of this hypothesis. Others believe that either before or during the exile, the Jews borrowed the concept of divine kingship from Egypt or Persia and shaped it into messianism, a form more consistent with Israel’s monotheism.
Whatever the case may be, scholarly consensus points to kingship as the primary matrix of Jewish messianism. The extracanonical Jewish works produced in the Second Temple period refer to the Pseudepigrapha and Apocrypha, Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, and Philo. Although end-time speculations abound in much of these Jewish writings, direct mention of the word messiah is found only in Philo, the Psalms of Solomon, Jubilees, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and 1 Enoch. Of these, 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, technically speaking, lie outside the Second Temple period, and Philo mentions messiah only once in a quotation of Num. 24:7 (LXX). Also 4 Ezra is the only apocryphal writing that mentions the word messiah.
Inasmuch as the Apocrypha was passed down with the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Hebrew scripture, and preserved by the Christians, one might have expected a more overt messianism in it. In other words, the actual occurrences of the word messiah in the Jewish writings of this period are few and far between. The reason may be that during the Hasmonean period, when much of these works were produced, a strong interest in a stable Jewish kingship here and now tended to suppress messianism. By far the most interesting messianic material from this period is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which speak of at least two—royal and priestly—messiahs. This development is due to the fact that in Hebrew scripture not only kings but also the priests, the sanctuary and its contents, and sometimes even the prophets were anointed.
The title most frequently used for Jesus in the NT is “Christ,” which is the Greek translation of messiah (cf. John 1:14). Paul, who uses this title most often, also uses it as a virtual name for Jesus. In Luke, Jesus reads a passage from Isaiah at the beginning of his ministry to refer to himself as the anointed: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). In other words, in the NT messiah is practically synonymous with Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth. But other messianic titles also occur in the NT. The Gospel writers use the titles Son of David and Son of Man in addition to Christ. Hebrews use the title high priest for Jesus. The image of Jesus as the High Priest of God also figures prominently in Revelation. These and other messianic titles of Jesus in the NT share the common notion that Jesus is a suffering messiah.
Rabbinic Judaism certainly knows of the messiah. The word messiah occurs in the Mishnah, the Eighteen Benedictions, the Targums, and the Talmud. Messianism, as a theological idea, however, has had little direct influence on the formation and development of rabbinic Judaism. Notwithstanding, messianic movements have played a vital role in Judaism to this day.
Nearly all messianic materials mention a connection with God’s end-time judgment. The Qumran scrolls are noteworthy in this regard because they not only link together messianism and divine judgment but also develop them into elaborate end-time scenarios. Similarly, 4 Ezra (cf. 12:32) and 2 Baruch (cf. 29:3) mention a messiah in close connection with visions of the end-time judgment, which in the two books is equated in part with the fall of Jerusalem. Jesus and his followers also center their messianic messages on the announcement that the end-time judgment of God has finally arrived. The followers of Jesus, like Paul, who believed that divine judgment had taken place in the death of Jesus, gave Jewish messianism its most notable and lasting expression.
In short, messianism is an apocalyptic phenomenon that tended to become prominent in Jewish and Christian communities that believed themselves to be under divine judgment.
See also Bible translations; Judaism, early; Psalms; Zakkai, Yohanan ben.
Further reading: Charlesworth, James H. The Messiah: Developments in the Earliest Judaism and Christianity. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992; Horbury, William. Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ. LondonABD AL-KARIM SORUSH. Read more ... »: SCM Press, 1998.
P. Richard Choi