This is a common title for Jesus dating to at least to the first century of the common era, since the letter to the Romans was written about 56 A.D.
The original Greek word used was Christos, which means “anointed.” This, in turn, is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew word, mashiach, which we know better as “Messiah,” but which also means “anointed.”
In Jewish tradition, the mashiach figure is a longed-for leader, a person sent from God to rule over the people of Israel. Some scholars say the Messiah image was a relatively late development in Jewish tradition, one that was very prominent around the time of Jesus but that cannot be found directly stated in the Torah, the first five books of the Jewish Scriptures. Instead, the Messiah figure is more clearly seen in later Jewish writings, especially in the prophets — Micah, Hosea, Zephaniah, Zechariah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Jeremiah and, of course, Isaiah. It is from Isaiah that our first readings for each Sunday of Advent come this year.
However, in many ways, the promise of the Messiah — or a Messiah-like figure appointed by God — can be seen in the earliest Scriptures, such as at the appointment of Saul as the king of Israel in Dt (17:15) and in the promise of Jacob (Dt 49:10) to his son, Judah, that the scepter of leadership would never leave his tribe. (King David, who followed Saul, was descended from Judah.)
The coming of the Messiah, called the start of the Messianic Age in Jewish tradition, is known as acharit ha-yamim, the End of Days. The End of Days, according to Jewish tradition, will usher in Olam-ha-ba, “the world to come.” While this term can refer to the afterlife, it also traditionally refers to the time when the Messiah will reign. This time will see the Mashiach anointed king of the world to come.
This Sunday, our reading from Isaiah speaks of the “days to come” when “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain. … All nations shall stream toward it.” This gives us some idea of how Jews envisioned the Messianic age: a time when all people will know God, when there will be peace over the land, and Jerusalem and the Temple will be the central place. In many ways, this vision corresponds to our Christian belief of what will take place at Jesus’ next Advent — the Second Coming.
Today — as in Jesus’ day — the Messiah was longed for, hoped for and believed in.
To get a better idea of how Jews of Jesus’ time envisioned the Messiah, we can look at what Jewish tradition even today says of that longed-for Messiah. According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, a well-known author and lecturer on Judaism, the Messiah will have at least these five traits:
- Be a descendant of King David;
- Rule over the land of Israel;
- Gather the Jews into Israel from all corners of the earth;
- Restore them to full observance of Torah law, and;
- Bring peace to the whole world.
Early Christians — and we too today — saw “Jesus, who is called the Christ” (Mt 1:16) as fulfilling these traits, but in a way not envisioned before.
Why was Jesus something new? Because there are other traits which Jews to this day believe the Mashiach will possess that do not seem to fit Jesus: such as being a military and/or a political leader, and being completely human — not human and divine as Christians know Jesus to be. Remember that even Jesus’ followers wanted him to be a military leader (Lk 22:38) and understood, only after the resurrection, that Jesus was God’s divine son.
Most importantly, Jews do not believe that anyone claiming to be the Messiah could be killed, and certainly not in such a humiliating way. This is probably one of the greatest difficulties that Jews have with calling Jesus the Messiah.
And it shows us why the resurrection was so central to Jesus’ followers and their realization that he was the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God — the one who ruled even over death and will rule for all eternity.
Sources: The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism; The Catholic Encyclopedia; jewishvirtuallibrary.org; Judaism 101 at jewfaq.org; The New Jerome Biblical Commentary.