Exploring the roots of the Messiah

By  Andrea Spatafora, Catholic Register Special
  • October 19, 2007

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Here is an excellent introduction into the concept of the Messiah in the Bible. It allows us to understand how the Christian understanding of Christ is rooted in the Jewish tradition, but goes beyond it. This new Christian understanding was formed by the disciples’ experience of Jesus and His work.

The term messiah is rooted in the faith of Israel, but it took on new meaning in light of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The word in Hebrew simply means consecrated, and  it was used in connection with the consecration rituals of priests and kings. The kingly consecration is particularly important because it features prominently in a number of royal psalms found in the Book of Psalms.

These psalms were composed to celebrate the Davidic monarchy. God had chosen David to be king over Israel, and in His covenant with him God promised that one of David’s descendants would always sit on the throne. God would be a father to the king and the king would be His son. The covenant required that the king govern justly, in fidelity to God’s law. The biblical books reveal, however, that few of the kings were worthy of their calling. Furthermore, David’s dynasty, overthrown by the Babylonians, never again occupied the throne of Israel.

{sa 0802807666}This led to a reinterpretation of the biblical texts by the community of Israel. If God is true then God’s promises were still valid despite the changed political context. This meant they had a deeper significance than their literal meaning. The texts that spoke of the Messiah were not understood to speak about any historical monarch who had reigned over Israel or Judah but about a future figure, a man whom God would raise up to rule Israel with justice. In the prophetic books in particular, there is a growing emphasis on this future expectation.

The expected Messiah, however, took different forms according to the different groups within Judaism. It would appear, for example, that in the Dead Sea Scrolls there are four different types of messiah: a king who would rule over an independent Israel, a priest who would intercede for the people, a prophet anointed to proclaim God’s word and a heavenly being. Nevertheless, what appears to be common to all these understandings is the expectation that the Messiah would be triumphant in establishing God’s rule.

The first Christians turned to the Old Testament for the theological language to explain Jesus Christ. They understood Jesus to be the fulfilment of the messianic prophecies and promises, but at the same time they recognized that the understanding of Jesus was not limited to those prophecies. Jesus was not only God’s anointed — He was also, for example, the Son of Man who had to suffer to bring God’s salvation (Gospel of Mark) and a divine figure, the eternal Word of God made flesh (Gospel of John). Although the messianic language for Jesus is rooted in the Jewish expectations of a Messiah, the Christian faith goes beyond these expectations. God fulfilled His promises in a wonderful, unexpected manner.

The articles in this volume are interesting and thought provoking. The book raises questions about the nature of Scripture and of prophecy in particular, and the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. If the Jewish Scriptures prophesied the coming of the Messiah, how is it that not all of Jesus’ contemporaries recognized that He was the Messiah? The original authors and readers of the Old Testament texts were probably not aware of their messianic significance; however, ongoing salvation history and divine revelation led to a new reading of these texts.

Christ Himself and later His disciples reread the Jewish Scriptures in light of His life, and of His paschal mystery. The disciples’ faith in the resurrected Lord provided the lens through which they reread the Old Testament. They recognized that the texts that spoke of a Messiah were fulfilled by Jesus the Christ.

The Scriptures have two authors — the human authors and the divine author. As Professor Longman states in the first article, “though the human authors ‛spoke better than they knew’ (cf. 1 Pet 1:10-12), there is another Author whose intentions come to perfect fulfilment. If one wants to call this sensus plenior, I have no objection.” The Pontifical Biblical Commission in its document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church defines the fuller sense of Scripture as the spiritual meaning of a text, distinct from the literal sense intended by the human author. The Author of the fuller sense is the Holy Spirit.

This interesting and informative study of the concept of Messiah in the Bible and in the Qumran documents (the Dead Sea Scrolls) traces the development of the understanding of Messiah from its origins during the Israelite monarchy to the early church. The study explains how the early Christians came to speak of Jesus as the Christ.

There are few monarchies in the world today. Especially among the Western nations,  kings and queens no longer enjoy absolute power. In most of today’s democracies, people are no longer familiar or comfortable with the language of royalty. Nevertheless, the concept of messiah, rooted in the experience of monarchy, reminds us that Christ is the universal saviour, the Lord of all.

(Spatafora MSF teaches Scripture in the Faculty of Theology at Saint Paul University in Ottawa.)

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