Messiah (Heb. משיח mashiaḥ), or more fully, mashiaḥ yhwh, that is, ‘Anointed of YHWH’ was a throne-title of Israelite kings. After the eclipse of Israel’s kingdoms, the hope is expressed in prophetic writings that the line of David will be revived in a righteous king, and after the time of the Old Testament the title comes to be applied to this future deliverer.
Anointing means to pour scented olive oil ritually on a person as a sign of consecration to an office of authority. In ancient Israel kings were anointed (1 Sam 16; 1 Kgs 1:39; 2 Kgs 9:6), and so was the high priest, at least after the end of the kingdoms. See Exod 29:21; Lev 4:3; 8:30; 21:10; the last passage makes it clear that it is only the high priest who is anointed, not ordinary priests. So the high priest is ‘the anointed priest’ (Lev 4:3), and the king is ‘the anointed of YHWH’ (1 Sam 24:6; Ps 2:2). Both of them appear together as the ‘two anointed ones’, literally ‘sons of oil’, in Zech 4:14.
Background and origins
The anointing of the king is associated in the Old Testament with ideas of his distinctive relationship to YHWH, the God of Israel (e.g., Ps 2:2, 6-7), which have a long background history in ancient eastern ideas of righteous rule and divine kingship.
In Egypt, Pharaoh was the firstborn son of the sun-god Ra, born of the sky-goddess, Nut. A pyramid text, from the early third millennium BCE, says,
Recitation by Nut, the greatly beneficent: The king is my eldest son who split open my womb; he is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
In Mesopotamia, the king was divine by adoption or marriage, rather than birth. An inscription of Naram-Sin of Akkad (r. 2254–2218 BCE) proclaims him ‘God of Akkad’ and ‘King of the Universe’ and announces that, at the behest of his people, he became god and husband of Ishtar. Gudea of Lagash (r. 2144–2124 BCE) called himself ‘God of his city’.
The king in Israel
The Israelites shared these ideologies, inclining more to the Mesopotamian than the Egyptian model. In Pss 2:7 and 89:26–27, the king is ‘begotten’ by YHWH and proclaimed as his firstborn son. Israel’s king, on ‘the throne of YHWH’ (1 Chr 29:23), was at the right hand of YHWH (Ps 110:1). And divine sonship is ascribed to the king elsewhere (Isa 9:6; 2 Sam 7:12–14; 1 Chr 17:13). In at least one place, the king of Israel is described as a god: he is (probably) addressed in Ps 45 with the words Your throne, god [elohim], is for ever and ever (verse 6).
The king as the Anointed of the LORD
The title mashiaḥ YHWH may be held to sum up the Israelites’ core beliefs about their king: his oil-anointing marked his anointing by the spirit of YHWH (1 Sam 16:13), by which he was rebegotten as the son of God (Ps 2:6-7). The title appears with Saul (1 Sam 24:6), then rests on David, Solomon, and their descendants, as in Ps 89:20, 38, 51, and Lam 4:20 (Zedekiah). In view of 2 Kgs 9:6 it was probably also applied to the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel, and Isaiah applied it to Cyrus the Persian (Isa 45:1), with some irony, as if to say, ‘Though Israel now has no mashiaḥ, this Persian shall be their deliverer.’
The prophetic hope
After the fall of David’s dynasty in 586 BCE, prophetic texts repeatedly encourage the people with prophecies of a revival of his dynasty, and of a righteous king arising from his line. The king in these prophecies is naturally painted to some extent in the colours of the royal ideology just outlined. Some of the earliest refer to a named contemporary representative of the dynasty, Zerubbabel, governor of Judah under the Persians (Hag 2:20-23; Zech 4). Key texts include Isa 11:1-10; Jer 23:1-6; 33:14-26; Ezek 24:23-24; Mic 5:2-5a; Zech 9:9-10. In most of these the emphasis lies on descent from David, and anointing is not mentioned; the title Messiah is not found in the Old Testament with reference to a future king. Other texts probably originally referred to the current king, or heir to the throne (Isa 7:14; 9:6-7). Texts speaking of ‘the servant of YHWH’ in the latter part of Isaiah (Isa 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 52:13–53:12; compare 61:1-2) may or may not have originally referred to a king.
The idea of Messiah arises
All of these different groups of texts, and many of the royal Psalms, such as Pss 2 and 110 mentioned above, were read of a future king from a fairly early period: they became ‘messianic’; the central figure was seen as ‘the [prospective] anointed of YHWH’, the mashiah. The hope of restoration became associated, mainly through the Psalms, with the conceptions in the old royal ideology. Several of these texts are alluded to in the 1st-century BCE Jewish writing The Psalms of Solomon, 17:21-63, which prays for the coming of ‘the Lord Messiah’ to deliver Jerusalem from the Gentiles and to rule over Israel in righteousness.
Jesus as Messiah
This is the type of messianic expectation which is usually seen as being current at the time of Jesus, but it should be noted that there are many Jewish schemes of eschatology in which there is no Messiah at all. Christians came to see these texts as prophetic of Jesus ‘Christ’: Greek christos means ‘anointed’, so is the equivalent of mashiah. Jesus was also seen as a descendant of David (Matt 1:1-17; Luke 1:26, 32, 69; 2:4; Rom 1:3).
The ‘son of man’
There is another passage which came to be read as offering a different kind of ‘messianic’ hope. The figure ‘like a son of man’ in Daniel’s vision, Dan 7:13-14, is explained in the passage (verse 27) as representing the collective ‘saints, the people of the most high’. But although the Aramaic here (kbar enash) simply means ‘one like a human being’, and in this passage is a symbol rather than a real person, the scene of the younger humanlike (but also godlike) person approaching the ‘ancient of days’ is far older and could have had currency in Israel. It was possible, then, for some readers to take it as a prophecy of an individual deliverer, who could be identified with the Messiah.
Thus in some Jewish writings of the 1st century CE ideas appear of a future deliverer with strongly marked supernatural features, sometimes called ‘Messiah’, partly based on this ‘son of man’ in Daniel 7: e.g., 2 Esd 13; 1 Enoch 37-71; 2 Baruch 29-30, 39-40. The way the title ‘son of man’ is used in the Gospels seems to be associated with this type of expectation (e.g., Mark 14:64). The Jewish writings mentioned are all a little later than the time of Jesus, but there is a minority view that this tradition had already developed before his time (Daniel Boyarin).
A suffering Messiah
Some Jews may have believed the messiah would suffer and die, linking Dan 7 with Isa 53. It cannot be ruled out—but many would not agree—that Christian claims about Jesus being a divine man and dying for the sins of the world were based on ideas current in Judaism, though not held by everyone, before Christian times.
Boyarin, Daniel. The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ. New York: New Press, 2012.
Brisch, N. Religion and Power: Divine Kingship in the Ancient World and Beyond. Chicago: Oriental Institute, 2012.
Day, John, ed. King and Messiah in Israel and the Ancient Near East. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998; London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Mowinckel, S. He That Cometh. Oxford: Blackwell, 1959.