Sunday, May 25, 2014

Messianic Expectations

Contrary to popular Christian folklore, religious Jews did not always expect a Messiah and even today the notion of a Messiah does not dominate Jewish faith. Most of the biblical texts used to suggest otherwise have been re-read by Christians to prove to themselves that Jesus was the expected Messiah.

But it just ain't so. At least not necessarily.

The need for a Messiah did not arise in the thinking of the Chosen People until the period of decline and fall of the two kingdoms that led to the Babylonian Captivity. Things got so bad from the point of view of the just, or Mosaic-law abiding, believer that it was thought that God had to intervene more forcefully and thoroughly with a superpatriarch, superjudge, superking, superpriest, superprophet ... ta-da! ... a Messiah.

The prophets describe elements of what could be a Messiah, as the end-of-time (or eschatological) prophecies in Daniel suggest.

The word Messiah in the Hebrew Bible is Mashiach. It means “anointed one.”

I always wondered, what is all this business of anointing about? Why would anyone be anointed? Why would this be at all significant?

Anointing is the smearing perfumed oil, milk, water, melted butter or other substances. This was first used to heal or offer relief to the sick. Probably because it did the trick of soothing in some way, it became a valued process used to show honor, and later ritually, to show reverence in religious ceremonies. Kings and priests were anointed.

But why? Because, unlike what the Anglican hymn says of England as a new Jerusalem, the land of the biblical peoples was decidedly not “a green and verdant land.” Indeed, England knew no word for “anointed” until it borrowed the term from the French in the 14th century, for religious purposes.

It was semidesert, an arid land with a few irrigated fertile areas adjacent to major waterways, such as the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates and Jordan rivers. In such a climate your skin dried easily and cracked unless it was kept moist and oily, which was the physical effect of anointing.

The substances used for anointing were not easily available, thus only used for the sick or the very privileged. Today, instead of calling a Messiah the Anointed One, we might say have chosen the Smartphoned One, or whatever privilege we think matches.

Make no mistake about it, the Messiah was supposed to be Superman (as the TV series had it “strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men!”) but one who set right all wrongs for all time.

The great Spanish rabbi Moses Maimonides, writing in the Middle Ages, declared that the Messiah would be someone who would
  • be descended from King David;
  • study the Torah (or divine law) and be occupied with its commands;
  • “impel all of Israel” to follow the Torah;
  • “fight God's wars” until he succeeded and “built the Holy Temple in its proper place” and gathered the lost tribes; and
  • “mend the entire world to worship the Lord together.”
No one would confuse such a personage with a marginal woodworker from the hinterlands executed as a common criminal for disturbing the peace. Yet few would dispute that Maimonides knew his Bible. Therein lies the scandal, to Jews, of saying that Jesus was the Messiah.

However, Isaiah speaks of an unnamed figure referred to by biblical scholars as “the suffering servant,” often thought to be a Messianic figure. This set of images involves redemption through suffering, closer to the manner of one Yehoshua ben Yosif from Nazareth, aka Jesus the Christ.

All of which brings us, in this post today, to the Greek for Messiah, Kristos. The classical Greek Χριστός ( transliterated Kristós, and in Latin, Christus) meant “covered in oil” or “anointed,” a literal translation. The word appears in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible, believed to be completed by 132 BCE.

In the New Testament, the gospel of Matthew ends the genealogy of Jesus with the man himself, “Jesus, who is called Christ” (1:16). This alone should make clear that Christ was not Jesus’ family name, but a title given him by followers long after he walked the Earth like you and me.

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