Jewish Messianism

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The belief in a Messiah, a person who will redeem the people Israel and usher in a better, more perfect era–the messianic age–is often thought of as one of Judaism’s defining characteristics.

Interestingly, however, the Bible does not use the word Messiah to refer to an eschatological redeemer. The word Messiah is derived from the Hebrew mashah, to anoint, and in the Bible, refers to a king or priest with a special divine purpose. In fact, Isaiah 45:1 refers to the Persian King Cyrus as God’s anointed, because God caused him to allow the Israelites to return from their exile in Babylonia.afterlife and messiah

Some of the latter prophetsIsaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Zechariah–do discuss a future age that will be marked by unprecedented peace and prosperity and will be ushered in by a descendant of King David. But they do not call this person “Messiah.”

Though messianism is rarely discussed in the Mishnah, it is very much present in the Gemara and Midrash. Here, the redeemer is called “Messiah,” and he is described in a multitude of ways. He is sometimes a military, political figure and other times a being with supernatural abilities. In another fascinating characterization, the Messiah is said to be on earth already, dressed like a blighted beggar, sitting at the gates of Rome, awaiting Jewish repentance.

No discussion of the rabbinic Messiah can ignore the figure of Shimon Bar Kokhba, the leader of the Judean revolt against Rome from the 132-135 CE. According to several rabbinic sources, Rabbi Akiba, the greatest sage of the time, proclaimed that Bar Kokhba was the Messiah.

A second Messiah figure, Messiah ben Joseph, also emerged in rabbinic literature. With the introduction of Messiah ben Joseph, the messianic task was split in two. Messiah ben Joseph will be a military figure who will lead the Jewish people in an apocalyptic battle against Gog and Magog. He will die in this battle, but soon after, true redemption will be ushered in by Messiah ben David.

As for the specifics of the messianic age, as with most theological issues, rabbinic literature has no uniform theory or theology. Generally speaking, the messianic era will be proceeded by Jewish suffering, the “birth pangs” of the Messiah. Afterwards, the exiled Jewish community will return to Israel, the Davidic monarchy will be restored, and all of humanity will recognize the true God. Whether there will be supernatural occurrences is a matter of debate.

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