The word Messiah—Hebrew for “anointed”—has a complex history. Between Messiah and Christ—Greek for “anointed”—lies a thousand years of evolving expectations. Best to review those before addressing the age-old Christian query: Why don’t Jews, reading the same ancient texts, accept Jesus as “Messiah”?
Scholar Raymond E. Brown cautions that messiahs aren’t the only saviors in Israel’s history. Moses, the judges, Nehemiah and Ezra, even young Queen Esther are identified as savior figures. Anyone divinely appointed for the work of rescue is a savior. Israel’s in need of frequent rescue, so the Bible contains a lot of saviors.
The gallery of saviors gains new candidates in the era of kings. Anointed to lead at God’s command, Judah’s kings are messiahs in a nationalistic sense. They don’t save the world; and they only keep the nation safe for their particular generation. Contrast them with the kings of northern Israel, who are viewed more skeptically. Then recall that southern Judah writes the Bible.
Messianic kingship reaches its height with Judah’s second king, David. His line is endowed with an everlasting, rollover anointing. The salvation coming from David’s house, however, doesn’t extend to the afterlife. Nor is it universal. Davidic kings won’t “save the world”: they’ll keep Judah safe. The problem is, they don’t. Soon after David, Judah is ruled by a string of monarchs who disregard God’s guidance. Two centuries in, the prophet Isaiah views his king Ahaz as gone totally off the rails.
Isaiah reboots messianic hope. While linked to David’s line, the Messiah will be loyal to God and establish justice and peace. Eden-like conditions will be restored. Isaiah upgrades salvation to universal dimensions: all nations have a stake in the coming Messiah. The prophecy adds a sober note: this Messiah will come in humility and go the way of suffering. Other prophets embrace Isaiah’s vision.
Messianism undergoes a third overhaul after Babylonian exile and the monarchy’s extinction. Without kings, can there be a Messiah? Biblical history has a big hole in it between the 5th and 1st centuries B.C. By the time of the gospels, it’s clear that anyone still dreaming of a Messiah wants to see David’s kingdom restored and a better world for Israel ensured. Jesus reaches back into prophecy, embracing the image of a suffering servant who saves much more than a precarious political situation. That’s a Messiah few were waiting for, and perhaps few find attractive today.
Scripture: Genesis 49:9-12; 2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89:20-38; Isaiah 7:10-17; 9:1-6; 11:1-9; 52:13—53:12; Zechariah 9:9-10; Mark 8:27-30; Matthew 2:1-6; John 7:25-31, 40-52
Books: Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus, by Richard Horsely with John Hanson (Harper & Row, 1985)
The Death of the Messiah, From Gethsemane to the Grave, by Raymond E. Brown (Yale University Press, 1998)