The Messiah

General Etymology and Significance

Across all major denominations, modern Christianity proclaims that Jesus is the “Christ,” (Χριστός, “Christos” in Greek).  The term was used to translate the Hebrew word מָשִׁיחַ (Mašíaḥ, messiah), which designates one who is “anointed.”  This anointing is a reference to a ritual which was performed to consecrate a human being, typically as an important leader.  While many were literally anointed in oil during a ceremony (e.g. David, by Samuel), the term was also used to refer to one who is favored significantly by God.  While most were ethnically Jewish, at least one was not, as the example of Cyrus the Great demonstrates.  He was declared, figuratively (no literal anointing is documented in the scripture), by Isaiah to be God’s messiah.

In the Tanakh, numerous individuals were granted this designation:

  • Aaron and his sons (anointed by Moses to consecrate them as priests, at God’s direction)
  • Saul (anointed by Samuel, to consecrate him as ruler over Israel, at God’s direction)
  • David (anointed by Samuel, to consecrate him as ruler over Israel, at God’s direction)
  • Solomon (anointed by Zadok, to consecrate him as ruler over Israel)
  • Hazael (anointed by Elijah as king over Aram, at God’s direction)
  • Jehu (anointed by Elijah as king over Israel, at God’s direction)
  • Elisha (anointed by Elijah as a prophet, at God’s direction)

And so on.

Eschatological Significance

The term became a reference to a future salvific figure in Judaism during the Rabbinic period.  The Talmud includes numerous discussions of this eschatological figure whose future arrival is inferred principally from the prophecies of Ezekiel and Isaiah who describe a coming king of Israel who will restore the Jewish homeland, return the Jewish people to that homeland, and rebuild the Jewish Temple.  This king will usher in the “messianic era” in which human beings will unite in worship of God, evil and tyranny will be dispensed with, all of the dead will rise again, death will cease, and eternal joy and gladness will reign on earth.

A Brief Critique of the Modern Christian Position

Given this rudimentary introduction, it is probably clear why modern Jews don’t exactly accept the Christian claim that Jesus is this salvific figure.  Jesus failed to meet any of the requirements typically considered to be necessary in order for one to be identified as such.  Modern Christians, of course, await a promised “second coming” of Jesus wherein it is expected that he will meet those requirements (though most modern Christians don’t exactly consider the full ramifications of those various prophecies and their conflicts with typical modern Christian beliefs, such as Heaven; if the dead rise and death is eradicated, with eternal joy and peace on earth, that sorta leaves Heaven out of the picture).

However, as the Christian understanding of his life goes, Jesus is unable to meet one commonly-accepted, critical criterium for his recognition as the eschatological messiah: Jesus is not a descendant of David.  The reason for this, of course, is that Jesus is considered to have been conceived immaculately, and his mother’s lineage is not provided in the scriptures.  Regardless, the Talmud makes clear that such lineage is strictly patrilineal, and Mary’s lineage would not suffice the prophecy according to that understanding.

In fact, the only synoptic gospels which include the story of Mary’s virginity prior to Jesus’ conception (Matthew and Luke) are also the only gospels to specifically establish Joseph’s Davidic lineage, seemingly failing to anticipate the issue.  In addition, the lineages given by those gospels are dramatically incommensurable.  Some fairly elaborate rhetorical gymnastics have been conducted in attempts to reconcile this obvious issue, but as far as I can tell, all require the dismissal of interpretive rigor in favor of desperate speculation.

It seems fairly obvious that the strongest hand is that of the Rabbis; Jesus cannot qualify as the eschatological Messiah in accordance with the Hebrew prophecies on which the concept is based.  To whatever extent this identity is critical to the modern Christian movement, it is a lost cause.

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