Regardless of whether you approach the topic from a mainstream Jewish, Messianic Hebrew or Christian perspective, everyone who supports the idea of a messiah believes that their view of messianism comes directly from the bible, and has stood theologically unchanged and intact from the beginning of time.
In this article, I intend to show that, not only is the modern idea of a messiah not found in the bible – that it is a post-biblical concept – but that what a messiah is and will do has evolved over time, changing to fit in with the political, social and spiritual needs of each successive generation and community. Jewish messianism evolved to help Jews cope with national disasters, and Christian messianism evolved to help them answer the problem of a dead messiah.
Furthermore, I intend to show that Christian messianism has been heavily influenced by ideas from pagan mystery religions. The salvific deaths of god-men are common to pagan mystery religions, such as Mithraism, and have little to do with genuine Jewish ideas of a messiah.
Jewish messianism is the theology of despair, and Christian messianism is an attempt to go one up and out-do pagan salvation figures. Messianism had no part in the original Yahwist religion; it draws attention away from YHWH, and we, as Followers of the Way of YHWH, should seriously think about giving it a wide berth.
WHAT IS MESSIANISM?
Messianism, at least in the Jewish context (which is the main emphasis of this article), is the belief that a divinely chosen king, a direct descendant of King David, will come at some future time to inaugurate Israel’s redemption and revival.
In the Late Second Temple Period – more specifically at the time of the ministry of the Prophet Yeshua` – a messiah was seen as a political warrior figure, a charismatically endowed descendant of David, whom God would raise up to break the yoke of the heathen oppressors of the Jews, restore the Kingdom of Israel, and bring back the Jews of the Diaspora to the land of Israel.
Since this was the most widely circulating view of the messiah at the time (and therefore the one that mattered to ordinary people), this is the definition we use to explain why the prophet Yeshua` was not even close to being a messiah figure, let alone a successful one. Regardless of what anyone might have claimed for him, he did not get rid of the Romans, he did not restore the kingdom of Israel, and he did not bring back any Jewish exiles.
Modern Orthodox messianism goes even further than that of the Second Temple Period. They believe that the messiah will be a God-fearing, pious Jew, who will be a great Torah scholar and a great leader. He will be a direct descendant of King David. When messiah comes, there will be a universal recognition of Torah, and Gentiles will turn to the God of Israel. The exiles will return to Israel, where they will throw off the yoke of their enemies, undergo a spiritual revival, and dedicate themselves to God forever. They will rebuild the Temple, and restore the sacrifices. Truth and justice will emanate from Zion to the nations.
The unfortunate thing about the Orthodox view of messianism, is that the various sects within Orthodoxy differ on the finer details of how to recognise the messiah when he comes, and what exactly he will do. If he doesn’t fit a particular sect’s criteria, then by their definition, he cannot be the messiah. If the Orthodox messiah does come, he will not be able to function, since he will have been crippled and shackled by the definitions of one or more of the Orthodox sects.
Modern Reform and Liberal Jewish movements reject the Orthodox view of messianism, looking forward rather to a “messianic age”, when Israel and all the nations will live in peace and justice. There will not necessarily be any one “messiah”, rather the messianic age may be inaugurated by any number of people under God’s guidance.
This is similar to the Talmidi Jewish view, who look forward to the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God, an age of peace and prosperity for the whole earth. It will be a time when there will be no more war, crime, poverty or hunger.
JEWISH MESSIANISM – ITS STAGES OF DEVELOPMENT
The evolution of Jewish messianic theology is long and complex. Its origin is the Davidic covenant. This covenant began as something simple and straightforward. Unfortunately, as so often happens, people read too much into the words of the covenant, and when their interpretations failed in the light of on-going national events and disasters, rather than re-examine the original covenant, people instead reinterpreted their interpretations. Messianism is therefore a gross corruption and misinterpretation of the Davidic covenant and subsequent prophecies.
The various stages of the evolution of Jewish messianic theology are as follows:
1. The original Davidic covenant (time of David and Solomon):
concerns any Israelite king descended from David who maintains God’s covenants.
2. Post-Solomonic period, and the time of the divided monarchy:
concerns a descendant of David who will restore the united monarchy and David’s empire.
3. The prophecies of Isaiah, pre-exile period:
expresses the belief that the foundation of the Davidic throne will be truth; he will be a king who will rule and judge with justice.
4. The reinterpretation of the Isaiah school, post-Babylonian exile:
the Davidic king will restore and rebuild Jerusalem when the exiles return to Judea.
5. Eschatology of minor prophets:
concerns the metaphorical beliefs in a great Davidic king who will come at the climax of Jewish history.
6. Late Second Temple Period:
the term ‘messiah’ as a stand-alone term is used for the first time, to describe a leader who will free Isael from foreign oppression.
7. The rabbinic period:
the messiah becomes a spiritual figure who will inaugurate Israel’s redemption.
1. The original Davidic covenant – the time of David and Solomon
The term ‘messiah’ is not used as such at this stage. He is simply ‘ha-melekh ha-mashiach’ (the anointed king). The covenant does not prophesy a messiah, but that a descendant of David would always sit on the throne of Israel, and that as long as he kept to God’s laws, Israel as a nation would live in peace.
2. Post-Solomonic period – the divided monarchy
After King Solomon’s death, David’s empire fell apart. Israel lost the surrounding lands David had conquered, and Israel itself divided into the northern kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah. The covenant was re-interpreted, adding the hope that a future king would re-unite the two kingdoms. Many prophetic passages in the bible give voice to this hope – that Israel (metaphorically referred to as “Ephraim”) would be re-united with Judah. Such prophecies are mainly contained in the writings of Jeremiah and the Psalms.
3. The prophecies of Isaiah
The prophet Isaiah probably only wrote chapters 1 to 23 of the book that now bears his name, maybe more. In the period of his prophethood (742-687 BCE), Isaiah came to concentrate on the qualities of a future Davidic king. The foundation of his throne would be justice, and God would bless and guide the king to just rule and judgment. (see Isaiah 11:1-15, 16:5. See also 9:2-8)
The school of Isaiah’s followers composed chapters 40 to 66. The last few chapters (56-66) concentrate on a renewed and restored Jerusalem, rather than on the dynasty of David. The chapters refer purely to a hope in a rebuilt Jerusalem once the exiles return from Babylon. Even though this had nothing to do with a Davidic king, it sowed the seeds of post-biblical eschatology.
5. Eschatology grows
The book of Daniel is a parable, intended to secretly reflect the turbulent events at the time of the Maccabees. Daniel chapters 10-12 present an apocalyptic vsion of the future. While this has nothing to do with a Davidic king, the theme gets taken up by non-biblical writers such as Tobias and Ben Sira.
The non-canonical books of Tabias and Ben Sira expand further on eschatological (end-time / climactic) hopes, and connect the future Davidic king with an imagined “end-time”.
6. Late Second Temple period
The biblical themes of a Davidic king, a united monarchy, a kingdom ruled by justice, and the return of Jewish exiles to Israel, are woven together with the post-biblical apocalypticism and eschatology, to produce the first genuinely “messianic” theology. People begin to believe that a messiah will come to free Israel from her pagan oppressors. At this time, Davidic ancestry can no longer be proved, so messianic claimants have to prove their credentials by what they do (and do it successfully).
At the same time, minor Jewish sects – like the Essenes – put forward other types of messiah: a priest-messiah, a messiah of the house of Joseph, and a messiah of the last days.
7. Rabbinic period
The messiah becomes a Davidic king who will redeem and rule Israel at the climax of human history, and the very instrument by which God’s rule will be etablished. He would defeat Israel’s enemies, restore the exiles to the land, reconcile Israel with God, and introduce a period of spiritual and physical bliss. He is a king, prophet, judge, warrior, and teacher of Torah.
HOW YESHUA` WENT FROM PROPHET TO MESSIAH
The modern Talmidi Jewish community teaches – and firmly believes – that Yeshua` saw himself as a prophet, and nothing more. We feel that the very first Jewish followers of Yeshua` also saw him purely as a prophet.
That would have been that, were it not for the views of the influential sect of the Pharisees. You see, they believed that after the time of the prophet Malakhi, the gift of prophecy had been closed off by God; this therefore meant that there could not possibly be any more prophets. In their view, Yeshua` could not possibly be a prophet, because in their little universe, God wasn’t going to send any more prophets.
They did however, entertain the possibility of a place for a messiah. In other words, they would only listen to Yeshua` if he were the messiah. “Are you the messiah then?” they would ask. “Show us a sign”. After all, they wouldn’t listen to a prophet, but they would listen to a messiah.
Yeshua`, despite the force of his calling, and the urgency of his need to get people to listen to his prophetic message, I believe was not tempted to accept the title of messiah for the sake of convenience.
Unfortunately, some of Yeshua`’s followers, desperate to get people to heed their master’s words, may have succumbed to the Pharisaic need for messianic authority, and probably said, “OK, so he is the messiah – now will you listen?”
A point which is perhaps worth mentioning here, is that, at this time, many men came claiming to be the messiah. It was the easiest way to gain a large following. Unfortunately, because of how the Romans viewed potential messianic uprisings, it was also the easiest way to get large groups of people killed. This is why I believe that Yeshua` felt that messianism served the Jewish people only ill.
Yeshua`’s death dashed all hopes that he might have been the messiah – at least in Jewish eyes. After all, you could only be the messiah if you proved it by your actions, and the messiah was not supposed to die.
Fortunately, I suspect that Ya`aqov the Just (Yeshua`’s ‘brother’) restored the view that Yeshua` was simply a prophet and not the messiah. This is pure conjecture, but I base it on the fact that in Ya`aqov’s letter, there is no mention of any kind of messianism, only the continuance of Yeshua`’s prophetic teachings on social justice. Christian apologists could have doctored the letter when creating “The letter of St James” to include some hint of messianism, but they didn’t. I can only conclude that during Ya`aqov’s reign (32 – 62 CE) as Nasi of the earliest Talmidi Jewish community, very few Followers held Yeshua` to have been the messiah.
However, with the death of Ya`aqov, and the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jewish followers of Yeshua`’s teachings lost power and influence. The stage was set for the teachings and beliefs of Paul of Tarsus to steal the scene. Paul’s Gentile Believers gradully gained ascendence, and Paul was able to completely redefine what a messiah was.
Paul’s Believers came virtually exclusively from Gentiles living outside of the Holy Land. For most Gentiles at that time, what mattered in religion was not kindness and mercy, but what favours you could extract from your gods through ritual appeasements. In such a Gentile environment, a Jewish messiah meant nothing – after all, why would they bother with someone who was supposed to save Jews from foreign oppression? Nor was talk of compassionate and selfless acts going to get very far in a cultural milieu – the Roman Empire – which valued strength and cruelty above all else, and saw compassion as a weakness.
Paul of Tarsus realised that he would have to jettison Yeshua`’s Jewishness and any Jewish relevance in messianism. He would have to completely redefine what a messiah was, if he was ever going to make any kind of headway in Gentile lands.
At that time, pagan mystery religions were very popular throughout the Mediterranean world. Paul soon came to see that he would have to compete on an equal footing with the likes of Mithras, Dionysos/Bacchus and Attis.
To this end, whatever the believers of pagan gods claimed, Paul would have to at least make equal claims for his “Christ Jesus”. Typically, the god-men of pagan mystery religons:
* were gods made man to bring enlightenment to mortal men
* their father was a god, and their mother was a virgin
* were born in a humble cave or cowshed, and visited by shepherds or wise men
* performed many miracles, including raising the dead
* (in the case of Bacchus) turned water into wine at a wedding feast
* were persecuted, and suffered rejection in life
* died a bloody death as a sacrifice for the sins of the world (and in the case of Dionysos, on a cross!)
* were resurrected after death, and ascended into heaven after appearing to their believers
* would grant salvation to their believers with the symbolic drinking of their blood, and the eating of their body
* promised their believers eternal life
* offered their believers the chance to be “born again” through a ritual baptism
* promised to return at the end of time to judge the living and the dead.
If you remove all the Jewish sayings of Yeshua` from the Christian gospels, you are left with a story that is virtually identical to that of the salvation stories of pagan gods.
There was inevitably a long struggle between pagan mystery religions and Christianity. As long as there existed, for example, Mithraists, who could remind Christians that their “Christ” was not unique in any way, shape or form, Christianity would remain frustrated. Pagan writers such as Celsus would chide Christian teachers for their claims of uniqueness for the Christian god-man “Jesus Christ”.
There was no alternative; Christianity had to vigorously eradicate all pagan religion, and once every paganist was gone, Christianity could then put out false propaganda about what pagan religion was like. After the fourth or fifth century CE, Christian claims for the uniqueness of their god-man could go unchallenged.
The Christian notion of a messiah is therefore completely Paul’s invention, without any foundation or basis in Jewish theological thought.
RE-INTERPRETING SO-CALLED “MESSIANIC” PROPHECIES
As I have previously said, so-called “messianic” prophecies contained in the writings of the prophets are expansions and re-interpretations of the Davidic covenant. As we go further and further away in time from when the Davidic covenant was cut (“sworn and sealed”) between God and David, the expectations for the Davidic king became greater – and I believe – more fanciful.
If we are to come to some kind of better understanding of how to deal with these Davidic prophecies, the first thing we have to do is rid ourselves of all beliefs that arose after the biblical period: that the ‘messiah’ himself will inaugurate Israel’s redemption (the bible says that God alone will save Israel, and that the Davidic monarchy is just one of the things that will be established when God’s kingdom is fulfilled); and that the ‘messiah’ is one man (the Davidic covenant refers to a line of kings).
The second thing we have to do is stick to the wording of the covenant. As the situation of the Jewish people got more and more desperate, the ancient Israelites expected more and more from the promised Davidic king. Each successive prophet tried to give people hope by giving a coming Davidic king greater and more fantastic qualities. The tendency was to pay more attention to the prophecies, rather than the original covenant. We have to stop this. We need to interpret prophecy by going back to the original Davidic covenant, rather than interpret the covenant by looking at the prophecies.
Messianism evolved over the centuries as a corruption of the Davidic covenant. After each blow suffered by the Jewish people, the theology of despair invested more and more hope in the ‘messiah’, and less and less in God. Instead of placing their faith in God, messianism puts people’s faith in one man.
Messianism takes belief away from the power of God to redeem and save us from fear and oppression, and gives it to a mere man. Messianism was not part of the original Yahwist religion, and we should treat it with extreme caution, as did the prophet Yeshua` himself:
‘So tell me of this messiah! Whose son is he? You say he’s the son of David, right? So how come David in the spirit of prophesy calls him “Lord”? Because David says in The Psalms, “The Holy One said to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet’.” If then David calls him “Lord”, how can the messiah be his son?’ (SY 172)