Q. Who predicted for the Jews that a Messiah would be coming and what is his purpose? Is there a timeline given for the arrival of this Messiah? How are they going to determine if he is genuine or an imposter?

A. The word "messiah" simply means "anointed," and refers to the Biblical concept of anointed kings. In its Hebrew Biblical use, the word has no eschatological connotations, and simply appears to mean that God will let scions of the House of David rule until the end of time (see 2 Samuel 7). After the collapse of the second temple, however, it appears that certain mythological dimensions were added to this figure, he was to come to liberate the Jews from the yoke of Roman tyranny. In the light of certain apocryphal books, such as 2 Esdras, and selective readings of later books of the Bible, the Jews began to ascribe mythical dimensions to this expected being. But all were to be in accordance with Moses' directive in Deuteronomy 13: that no matter what miracles one performed, he was to be killed if his teachings departed from that of Moses.

When Jesus came, he did not fulfill the expectations of the masses. To his detractors, he did not give supremacy to Jewish law, but mixed with the gentiles. His parentage too was something of concern. To those who accepted him, how could he die, when the expectation was that he would rule a thousand years? The Qur’an accepts Jesus as Messiah, for in Islam, all Messiah means was that this person would be from the priestly family (hence the address to Mary as "sister of Aaron), and recall the people to that which they had left off doing. This is precisely what Jesus did. When he disappeared, or it was made to appear that he had died on the cross, his followers could not deal with this departure from legend, and therefore reinterpreted scripture according to their wiles. And when Paul came, he brought in Mithraic deviations, elevating Jesus to divinity -- a tenet that Jesus the Jew would have found horribly at deviance from the teachings he had brought.

There is no time line for the Messiah to come. Now Jesus was not successful in overthrowing Roman rule, so for the Jews too, he could not be the Messiah. In Islam, messiah-ship has to do with God's guidance, and Jesus did this. He also, according to the Qur’an, predicted the Prophet Muhammad's coming. Now from a totally academic viewpoint, Islam has to accept the idea of Jesus’ messiah-ship: if it does not, then the Messiah is still to come, and since the Prophet Muhammad's authority rests in Jesus’ prophecy among other things, you can see the connection. The Qur’anic accounts of Jesus’ miracles, and his strong condemnations of the divinity ascribed to him, are the Quran's reconciliation with Deuteronomy 13: to show he was indeed the Messiah. For the Jews, after the rejection and long wait, many reinterpreted the term to mean that of "an age" -- an age when Jews would recapture the land given to them by God (see Qur’an 5:20). This controversy exists between them today, in that there are some Jews who insist on a human Messiah, and feel that the taking over of the Holy Land by force of Jewish arms was to seek to speed up what God has written. For more information, I would suggest the particularly informative article on Messiah in the Encyclopedia Judaica.

Posted April 8, 2002