The Meaning of "Messiah"  

I think everyone will agree that the word "Messiah" is an important word.  Like many important biblical words, it means different things to different groups.  I don't know about you, but just knowing that it means different things to different denominations, churches, congregations, and cults isn't good enough!  I want to know what it meant to Jesus and fellow Judeans in the first century.

 The word "Messiah" is an English form of the Latin word Messias, borrowed from the Greek word MESSIAS that is an adaptation of the Aramaic meshiha and a translation of the Hebrew word HAMAShIACh - "the Anointed [King]."  In the New Testament HAMAShIACh is usually translated into Greek as CHRISTOS, which has been transliterated into English by the word "Christ."  Therefore, the word "Christ" in Jesus' culture and lifetime carried the primary meaning of "The King of Israel."

In Israel, anointment conferred upon the king the "spirit of Yahweh."  This meant that the king had Yahweh's support, strength, and wisdom through the "spirit."  Even though there were other "anointed" figures in Israel - priests, prophets, lepers - they did not receive the "spirit of Yahweh."

The human king absorbed divine attributes through unction (a phenomenon attested nowhere else).  The king was also called the "Son of God" and only the king called Yahweh "my Father."  Other Jews, on the other hand, were called the "sons of God" and they used the phrase "our Father."

Jews of Jesus' time were expecting and hoping for a "Messiah." A common belief was that he would be a charismatically endowed descendant of David who would rise up and break the yoke of Roman rule.  The Jewish world of the first century wasn't looking for a supernatural figure or an angel; they expected a flesh and blood human being anointed with the "spirit of Yahweh."  Their major problem was not "waiting" for the Messiah to appear; it was trying to determine which messianic contender was the "real" Messiah.

In the Second Temple period there was a greater variety of messianic figures than either before or after that period.  Some of their names appear in Acts 5:36-37.  One such messianic figure was Judas the Galilean, founder of the Zealots, who apparently transferred his claim to messiahship to his son.  Josephus (Wars 2:444-448) states that Judas' son, Menahem, was murdered in the Temple, being "arrayed in royal robes."

The most important historical messianic figure, other than Jesus, was Bar Kokhba.  He never called himself the "Messiah," but many others did.  He led the last major rebellion against Rome, which began in 132 CE and ended in the complete defeat of the Jewish people.  After Bar Kokhba there would be no Jewish government in the land until 1948 CE when modern Israel was established.


Biblical Heritage Center, Inc.
Editors: Jim Myers & Ike Tennison

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