‘Messiah’ comes from Hebrew ‘mashiach’, referring to someone ‘anointed’ with oil, as a sign of being set apart for God’s service. It’s worth noting that the Hebrew Bible makes no reference to ‘the Messiah’. There are many ‘messiahs’, principally the Jewish Kings in the line of David who, like him, were anointed at their coronations. Additionally at coronation time, according to Psalm 2, God ‘said’ to these kings, “You are my son, today I have become your father”. As well as a messiah, each king was also a ‘son of God’, although that did not mean he became a divine being. We easily forget how many ‘messiahs’ and ‘sons of God’ there are in the Hebrew Bible!
How, then, did the idea of ‘the Messiah’ arise? God promised David that one of his ancestors would always occupy the Jewish throne, but after the Babylonian exile, there was no longer any throne for a Davidic ancestor to occupy. Many Jews, however, came to believe that God’s promise would be fulfilled, when he finally intervened to destroy his enemies, raise the dead, and establish Israel as his Kingdom on earth. Crucial to this for many Jews was the Messiah, a ‘King David redivivus’, who would govern that Kingdom on God’s behalf. We can see why, when his followers began claiming that Jesus was the Messiah, this seemed ridiculous to fellow Jews. Far from being a heroic and victorious leader, he’d been a humiliated and crucified ‘loser’, and no Kingdom of God had been established. The followers of Jesus needed to produce ‘answers’.
They began by claiming that God, in a reversal of his ignominious fate, had raised Jesus from the dead. He was therefore not a ‘loser’, but a very special person in the purposes of God. So far so good but, if he was alive again, where was he? The answer was that he’d been ‘taken up’ into heaven to sit at God’s right hand, pending his return. They could then argue that he really was the Messiah, but in a helpfully revised, ‘two-stage’ version. His personal resurrection became “the first fruits” of the promised general resurrection, soon to happen with his second coming when, as ‘heroic and victorious leader’, he would establish God’s Kingdom.
To persuade fellow Jews of any foundations for these claims, they needed to be grounded in the Hebrew Bible, to be “in accordance with the scriptures”, and always in God’s plan. These scriptures had therefore to be trawled, to find promising passages. Particularly productive were Isaiah 53, and Psalm 22.
We should note that the Jews, whose scriptures these were, never regarded them as having any ‘messianic’ reference, nor does the word ‘mashiach’ appear in any of them. Isaiah 53 is one of a series of “servant songs” in which the ‘servant’ is identified as the nation of Israel itself. We can choose to ignore that, however, and decide that the Jewish people failed to see what was ‘plainly revealed’. Reading the Gospel accounts of the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, we can then be amazed at the ‘evidence’ of even small details having been ‘prophesied’ centuries in advance. A few examples are his being “arrested and sentenced and led off to die”; his being “buried with the rich”; the people who “gamble for (his) clothes”; and direct quotes such as “My God, my God why have you abandoned me?” and “You relied on the Lord .. why doesn’t he save you?”.
Any honest assessment of this, however, has to ask the question, was it the ‘digging up’ of that material that determined its appearance in the Gospel stories, on the grounds that, if these were ‘prophecies’ then they must have been fulfilled? We should remind ourselves that the Gospels as not works of history or biography, but of ‘propaganda’ (in a non-pejorative sense) and persuasion.
Was, or is, then, Jesus ‘a’ or ‘the’ Messiah? Any ‘answer’ can be neither fact nor truth, but only opinion or belief. Bible passages must be read carefully and critically. In the case of the Hebrew Bible, I invariably refer to my copy of “The Jewish Study Bible” to see what modern Jewish scholarship has to say about its own scriptures. I regard this not just as a ‘courtesy’ but a necessity. But in any case, we’re dealing with ‘poetic prose’, which should be valued principally for the impact it has on us as such, and for the insights that arise as a result.
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