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.
Some of the latter prophets—Isaiah, 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.
For the most part, it was believed that the coming of the Messiah depended on the meritorious activity of the Jews, though according to one rabbinic source, if God felt the time had come for redemption, then God would impose a ruler so wicked that Israel would repent, thus becoming righteous enough to merit salvation.
In medieval times, Maimonides canonized belief in the Messiah as one of his Thirteen Principles of Faith. He was vigorous in his assertion that the messianic age would not be a miraculous time; the Messiah would be a political ruler who would die and be succeeded by his sons.
Messianism was intricately linked with medieval mysticism as well. Isaac Luria‘s theology focused on tikkun olam, the healing of the world, which, when completed, would bring the Messiah. According to Gershom Scholem, the spread of Lurianic kabbalah paved the way for the most tragic messianic movement in Jewish history: the 17th-century movement of Shabbatai Zevi.
In addition, Moshe Idel has recently highlighted the attempt by individual mystics to achieve messianic consciousness. Mystics, like Abraham Abulafia, didn’t just try to bring the Messiah, they tried to become the Messiah.
Messianism is still a prominent theme in modern Judaism, though many contemporary Jews have rejected belief in an individual Messiah. Zionism has many messianic undertones in its focus on national redemption, and in the last decade, messianic fervor has fermented amongst the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidim, some of whom claim that their late leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is in fact the Messiah. These Hasidim believe that the “Rebbe,” as Schneerson is known, will be resurrected (or that he isn’t truly “dead”) and will return to fulfill the messianic work he began during his lifetime. Many people, both outside and within the Chabad movement, have repudiated this notion of a resurrected Jewish Messiah.