Sunday 12 June 2022

386) The difference between Mashiach then and Mashiach now.

A fragment of Ben Sira as found in the Cairo Geniza

This article attempts to understand whether the idea of the Messiah as it originated in early biblical times, differs from its current conception. I have drawn extensively from the research by Professor Solomon (Shneur Zalman) Zeitlin (1886-1976) considered to have been a leading authority on the Second Temple period.[1]

NOTE TO READER: The Mashiach concept is always a very emotive and sensitive issue. If, like me, you were raised in the belief that Mashiach, as we understand the popularist concept today, has always been part of Judaism since time immemorial, you might find this article disquieting. I am fascinated by the robust approach of scholars (which whom I may, or may not, always agree with) to try and understand the fundamentals of our faith, history and hashkafa  - but I know this approach is not for everyone.

Aharon and his sons the priests

The word Mashiach literally means ‘anointed’. The Torah uses this word to describe Aharon and his sons, the first kohanim (priests) being anointed with oil, together with the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its Kelim (vessels).[2]

וְלָקַחְתָּ֙ אֶת־שֶׁ֣מֶן הַמִּשְׁחָ֔ה וּמָשַׁחְתָּ֥ אֶת־הַמִּשְׁכָּ֖ן וְאֶת־כׇּל־אֲשֶׁר־בּ֑וֹ וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ֥ אֹת֛וֹ וְאֶת־כׇּל־כֵּלָ֖יו וְהָ֥יָה קֹֽדֶשׁ׃

וּמָשַׁחְתָּ֛ אֶת־מִזְבַּ֥ח הָעֹלָ֖ה וְאֶת־כׇּל־כֵּלָ֑יו וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ֙ אֶת־הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ וְהָיָ֥ה הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ קֹ֥דֶשׁ קׇֽדָשִֽׁים׃

וְהִלְבַּשְׁתָּ֙ אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹ֔ן אֵ֖ת בִּגְדֵ֣י הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ וּמָשַׁחְתָּ֥ אֹת֛וֹ וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ֥ אֹת֖וֹ וְכִהֵ֥ן לִֽי׃

You shall take the anointing oil and anoint the Tabernacle and all that is in it to consecrate it and all its furnishings, so that it shall be holy. Then anoint the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils to consecrate the altar, so that the altar shall be most holy… Put the sacral vestments on Aaron, and anoint him and consecrate him, that he may serve Me as priest (Exodus 40:9,10,13).

Kings Saul and David

Later, the prophet Samuel anointed Saul, the first Jewish king:

וַיִּקַּ֨ח שְׁמוּאֵ֜ל אֶת־פַּ֥ךְ הַשֶּׁ֛מֶן וַיִּצֹ֥ק עַל־רֹאשׁ֖וֹ וַיִּשָּׁקֵ֑הוּ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר הֲל֗וֹא כִּֽי־מְשָׁחֲךָ֧ יְהֹוָ֛ה עַל־נַחֲלָת֖וֹ לְנָגִֽיד׃

Samuel took a flask of oil and poured some on Saul’s head and kissed him, and said, “The Lord herewith anoints you ruler over His own people (I Samuel 10:1).

Later still, Samuel anointed David as king:

וַיִּקַּ֨ח שְׁמוּאֵ֜ל אֶת־קֶ֣רֶן הַשֶּׁ֗מֶן וַיִּמְשַׁ֣ח אֹתוֹ֮ בְּקֶ֣רֶב אֶחָיו֒ וַתִּצְלַ֤ח רֽוּחַ־יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־דָּוִ֔ד מֵהַיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא וָמָ֑עְלָה

Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord gripped David from that day on (1 Samuel 16:13).

According to these texts, anointing with oil designates physical objects such as the altar and vessels of the Tabernacle as holy. It also sets individuals aside as holy in the case of the priests, or as a ‘naggid’ (leader) in the case of the kings.

Cyrus, a non-Jewish king

The term Mashiach, however, did not just apply to priests and to the Israelite kings, but it was also used to describe the foreign Persian king Cyrus:

כֹּֽה־אָמַ֣ר יְהֹוָה֮ לִמְשִׁיחוֹ֮ לְכ֣וֹרֶשׁ

Thus said the Lord to Cyrus, His Mashiah (anointed one)…(Isaiah 45:1).

Mashiach is an adjective

All these texts point to the term Mashiach being used as an adjective, not a noun. Mashiach is not a single individual. The term Mashiach (va’yimshach or u’mashachta) refers to a symbolic process and it was a priestly and political designation.

Mashiach becomes a noun

Surprisingly, the first time the word Mashiach is used as a noun (i.e., referring to an individual, a messianic figure to redeem the cosmos) and not just a priest or political leader, is in the late apocalyptic literature and in the New Testament (Zeitlin 1979:101).

The apocalyptic (literally ‘revelation’ in Greek) writings were the prophetical writings that developed during Second Temple times (516 BCE -70 CE) and were not included by the rabbis in the final cannon of the Torah. Many of these apocalyptic writings were popular among millennialist early Christians.

Second Temple period

The practice of anointing priests and kings was not in use during Second Temple times because the anointing process had been abolished. So technically kings and priests were no longer Meshichim. If this was the case, the questions beg as to when and why did the term Mashiach suddenly experience a resurgence in later times? And when and why did that same term Mashiach become a noun, to describe a messianic personality and not just an appointed official?

Zeitlin gives the answer but it is rather unsettling. The early Church Fathers claimed that Jesus was the Messiah and that there were references to him scattered throughout the Jewish Bible. This evoked a reaction from the rabbis who took umbrage to this Christian insinuation and who therefore counter-claimed that the references were, instead, to a Jewish Messiah:

To combat the views of the Church Fathers the rabbis interpreted the same verses as containing prophecies of the Jewish Mashiah (Zeitlin 1979:101).

Zeitlin provides examples:

i) Origen of Alexandria (185-253 CE), an early church theologian, claims that the verse in Genesis 49:10 (“The scepter shall not depart from Judah”) refers to Jesus.[3] The Targum Yonatan responds by interpreting it as referring to a Jewish Mashiach.

ii) The verse in Isaiah 11:1 (“And there shall come forth a shoot of the stock of Jesse”) was interpreted by Justin Martyr (100-165 CE), an early Christian philosopher, as a prophecy referring to Jesus, and as a result:

The rabbis interpreted it as referring to the coming of the Jewish Mashiah (Zeitlin 1979:102).

iii) Chapter 53 of Isaiah the suffering of the servant of G-d is interpreted by the Church Fathers as referring again to Jesus, so in response:

The Targum, according to Jonathan, interpreted this chapter as referring to Mashiah, the Jewish Messiah (Zeitlin 1979:102).

According to Zeitlin, both Christians and Jews used the Bible as a proof text for their different ideologies and:

The Church fathers as well as the rabbis injected their ideas of the messiah into the Biblical passages. However, as we have previously stated, there is no indication anywhere in the Bible of the coming of a personal messiah, natural or supernatural (Zetilin 1979:102).

Dealing with biblical prophecies of a future golden age

So how do we deal with writings in the prophets that seem to indicate a future golden age where there will be peace and no war? Zeitlin explains that there is indeed an expectation of a future peaceful coexistence among humankind, but we must distinguish between a general faithful belief in a better future and not confuse that with “an expectation of a personal messiah” (Zeitlin 1979:103).

We must differentiate between a millennium and a messiah. The Prophet Isaiah, who according to tradition was from the family of David, voiced a longing for a period when a descendant…of David…would rule…That day would be the time of the millennium…Isaiah hoped that a time would come when the Jews would prosper and live in peace as before at the time of Solomon, a descendant of Jesse. Isaiah was a great patriot and nationalist (Zeitlin 1979:103).

Zeitlin goes on to analogize the situation to a descendant of the Bourbon dynasty, for example, hoping for the restoration of the French grandeur as it was in the old days of Louis XIV. Similarly, great times are anticipated by the prophets but it does not depend on a messianic figure. On this reading, on could say “Make Israel Great Again” was essentially what Isaiah was hoping for. With the passage of time, however, this was re-read and re-interpreted through messianic lenses which had become an issue of immense importance in the post-Christian era.

Early writings of the Second Temple period

During the initial stages of the Second Temple period, Jews did not live in messianic tension with supernatural messianic expectations. This is evident, according to Zeitlin, from the literature produced during that early Second Temple period where the word Mashiach is notably in disuse, compared to the previous biblical usages of the term. The word Mashiach does not appear in the apocryphal writings of Ben Sirah, nor in Tobit, Judith, The Wisdom of Solomon and I Maccabees. Even II Maccabees, which speaks of a physical resurrection and the hope that Jews would be reunited in Judaea, does not mention the word Mashiach, and believes that this anticipated utopian state will be brought about by G-d without the need to resort to a Messiah.  

Late writings of the Second Temple period

Yet, significantly, this all changes in the later apocalyptic literature when the term Mashiach begins to appear. The word Mashiach is found in IV Ezra and in the Apocalypsis of Baruch. Here the Mashiach is described as a scion of David who will rule over the Jews and free them from oppression. This Messiah is believed to be a supernatural being yet at the same time a son of David.

The messianic paradox

We have been focussing primarily on works that, while Jewish, are not part of mainstream rabbinic Judaism as these apocryphal works were not officially recognised as belonging to the rabbinic cannon of Torah literature.

This, Zeitlin points out, is exactly the point.

The Mashiach and messianism as we know it today, seems to have originated in a body of late apocryphal writings that are not recognised biblical texts. Herein lies a great irony:

The idea of a supernatural messiah is mentioned only in the apocalyptic books which were considered “outside books,” profane - there had been an edict against reading them - nevertheless the idea of a messiah possessing supernatural power became deeply rooted among Jews, almost an article of faith (Zeitlin 1979:104).

The Mishnaic period

In another article,[4] Zeitlin deals with the reception of the messianic idea in the early rabbinic (Tannaic) period of the Mishna (10 CE -220 CE). He writes that even after the time of Bar Kochba (d. 135 CE) some Jews did not believe in any Messiah. They relied only on G-d to redeem them:

Normative Judaism or Pharisaic [i.e., Rabbinic][5] Judaism still continued to oppose any idea of a Messiah. Rabbi (Judah the prince) who was the leader of normative Judaism composed the Mishne which was to be second in authority to the Bible. He does not mention Messiah[6] – an omission which would be impossible if normative Judaism believed in one…[i]t is a fact that Messiah is not mentioned in the entire Mishne [emphasis is Zelitin’s]…Since Messiah is not mentioned, we have conclusive proof that even after the destruction of the Temple, normative Judaism for a century and a half did not entertain the idea of a Messiah (Zeitlin 1979:512)


Zeitlin continues to show how Jewish belief in a supernatural and mystical Messiah developed further but we will leave that for another study. Of great interest though is the three-phase progression of the early history of the term Messiah as Zeitlin has outlined:

1) The word Mashiach, throughout the entire biblical period simply referred to an individual appointed to a position of priesthood or kingship. Mashiach implied a symbolic anointment with oil for a leadership position. It even applied to vessels in the Sanctuary and had no messianic connotations.

2) This all fell away during the Second Temple period when no anointing took place for priests or kings. In early stages of the Second Temple, even in the secondary or apocryphal literature, the word Mashiach in notably absent.

3) However, only as we near Christian times does the later apocryphal literature reinstate the term Mashiach and with supernatural, mystical and messianic associations. Then the post-Christian writings of the early Church Fathers read messianic innuendos into the classical biblical texts - and rabbinic writers counter those by claiming, anachronistically and retroactively, that they refer to a Jewish Messiah, something the classical texts do not seem to imply at all. And the word Mashiach is then used in its new context as a noun (as we understand the term today) relating to person, and no longer an adjective, as in its original intent relating only to a symbolic process.

[1] Zeitlin, S., 1979, ‘The Origin of the Idea of the Messiah’, in Messianism in the Talmudic Era, Ktav Publishing House, New York, 99-111 (originally published in 1963, in In Time of Harvest, 447-59).

[2] Shemot 40:9-15.

[3] Origen, Against Celsus, B 1, 53.

[4] Zeitlin, S., 1979, ‘The Essenes and Messianic Expectations’, in Messianism in the Talmudic Era, Ktav Publishing House, New York, 503-514 (originally published in 1954, in JQR 45, 83-119).

[5] Parenthesis is mine.

[6] Zeitiln does bring two examples of where Mashiach is mentioned (first chapter of Berachot and last chapter of Sota) but claims that “these passages are later additions after the death of Rabbi Judah [haNasi]” (Zeitlin 1979:512). In the case of Sota, since the name of R. Yehuda haNasi is mentioned, the assumption is that he had already passed away. In the case of Brachot, he compares the text to the parallel version in the Yerushalmi (Palestinian Talmud) and maintains it is also a later insertion.


  1. I think this particular argument of Zeitlin is rather weak:

    > "He does not mention Messiah – an omission which would be impossible if normative Judaism believed in one…[i]t is a fact that Messiah is not mentioned in the entire Mishne [emphasis is Zelitin’s]"

    Well by that standard, there isn't a single mishna that states there is only one God, or that we're required to believe that God created the world. In fact, offhand I'm aware of only one of Rambam's 13 principles that IS mentioned in a mishna (belief in the resurrection of the righteous).
    It's clear that not everything Jews of the period took for granted was included in the mishna.

  2. I take your point. But one could argue that that would be under neutral theological circumstances. Mishnaic times, however, were theologically turbulent and challenging. The Temple had just been destroyed, Bar Kochva pronounced himself as the Messiah. Christianity had their Messiah. There were other messiahs. Rabbis were countering Christological references by their references to a Jewish Messiah. Midrashim were referencing Mashiach. Beraitas refer to Mashiach (Pesachim 54a, Nedarim 39b, Peaschim 5a). And if Zeitlin is correct that the scant references to Mashiach in the actual Mishna are later interpolations, this shows how pressing the topic must have been. It does seem to me that for the editor of the Mishna, the topic of Mashiach was the elephant in a room filled with controversial messianic innuendo, and that these omissions were therefore deliberate. I suppose its like during the early days of Covid, when almost every rabbi wrote and spoke about Mashiach. Those that didn't, omitted to do so intentionally.