(This is a follow-on from the previous post.)
So, there I was, a Gentile teenager in pre-Internet days, trying to find out what Jews believed about the Messiah. It wasn’t all that easy, but I was persistent, and I did have the benefit of living in a London suburb, which meant that there were several libraries within easy travelling distance. After a lot of checking out of the religion section in every library I could get to, I found what I was looking for.
I don’t actually remember, at this stage, which book first gave me the information I needed about Jewish Messianic beliefs, or what I found out on the subject from that book and what details I gleaned since then from other sources; I know that I did read about the subject in several different places over the next several years, and have done so since then. So here, for anyone who doesn’t already know it, is what I found out over time about the Messiah and what the idea means in Jewish thought.
‘Messiah’ (or, more accurately, ‘Maschiach’ – ‘Messiah’ is an anglicised version of the Hebrew word) literally means ‘anointed’ or ‘anointed one’. More generally, it was used as a general term for Jewish kings and priests, referring to the fact that they had to be anointed as part of their intiation. (This, it’s worth noting, has caused longstanding confusion over Daniel 9, which twice refers to a Messiah and thus has been understandably interpreted as referring to the Messiah by Christians who don’t realise that the term can actually be used in a much more general sense than that.)
However, of course, the Messiah refers in Jewish thought to someone much more specific; a particular king, of David’s line, prophecied in the Jewish scriptures as ruling over Israel in a miraculous future time when all Israel’s enemies have been defeated and the Jewish people can live in peace and plenty.
Practicing Jews differ on the details of what they believe about the Messiah and about how this age is to come about; for example, over the centuries some have believed that the Messiah will lead the people of Israel into battle in order to defeat enemies, while others have believed that God will defeat all Israel’s enemies by a miracle. However, the one unalterable basic criterion for the position is that you do have to end up ruling over Israel in this miraculous age of peace and plenty, because that’s what the prophecies describe.
By extension, therefore, this wonderful time actually does have to come about. If it doesn’t come about (or if it does and you don’t end up ruling Israel during it; of course, so far the rather obvious absence of such a time coming about has meant that this is a moot point), then, whatever other great things you may or may not have done, you’re not the Messiah. QED.
There have, in fact, been many times throughout history when the Jewish people or a subgroup thereof have pinned their hopes on a particular charismatic or holy figure being the Messiah; and, of course, every time the prophesied wonderland has failed to come about and the followers have been disappointed. Jesus’s time spawned several such, a couple of whom are mentioned by Gamaliel in Acts 5. And Jesus, of course, failed this test like all the rest; he died without the promised land coming to be. Therefore, whatever else Jesus might have been, one thing he was indubitably not was the promised Jewish Messiah.
Which meant the Christians were wrong about that rather fundamental fact; and, by implication, that they might be wrong about other fundamentals of their beliefs as well. Which came as a great relief to me.