O Come Divine Messiah: Messiah Used to Refer to a Political King. One Scripture Scholar Explains How We Got from There to Jesus Christ

By Collins, John J. | U.S. Catholic, December 2017 | Go to article overview

O Come Divine Messiah: Messiah Used to Refer to a Political King. One Scripture Scholar Explains How We Got from There to Jesus Christ


Collins, John J., U.S. Catholic


The story of the Messiah in the Bible is a complicated one. In the earliest biblical texts, the word originally referred to the present king. It later came to refer to some future ruler, then eventually a heavenly redeemer along the lines of the archangel Michael before, in the New Testament, Jesus is born and the mantle of Messiah falls firmly on his shoulders. The word's history is convoluted, and to understand it's necessary to know a little about apocalyptic visions, ancient Near Eastern mythology, and ancient Hebrew.

So why bother? Isn't it enough that Christians today know about Jesus our Messiah? John J. Collins, professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School, firmly disagrees. To understand who the Messiah is for Christians today, he says, we need to know who the Messiah was to the people for whom the Bible was written.

"Biblical texts were all written in particular times and places," says Collins. "They were meant, first of all, to make sense to the people in those times and places." If taken out of their original context, these texts can become distorted and easily misused.

For that reason, Collins says, it's important to recognize how the idea of a messiah developed in a particular time, culture, and religious faith.

What does messiah mean?

It means "anointed one." The term was originally used to refer to the king. There are a couple of stories in the Bible about Samuel anointing Saul or, later on, Elisha anointing Jehu, a king in Northern Israel. In Psalm 2, the king is addressed as "God's anointed."

Over time the word developed the connotation of something in the future--of a time when there is no longer an actual king. To call somebody anointed meant that he had a special role to play, whether or not any anointing oil was used.

How did the word messiah come to mean a future savior figure, as we understand Jesus Christ today?

2 Samuel, Chapter 7 tells the story of God's promise to David that one of his sons would always sit on the throne in Jerusalem.

That promise held good for about 360 years, which maybe is a reasonable approximation of forever. But then the Babylonians came in and put an end to the native kingship in Jerusalem.

The people had a record of a divine promise that something would last forever and had to face the fact that this was actually not the case. This is what gives rise to the hope that God will restore the monarchy, which is to say bring a new messiah, a new anointed king. People's original messianic expectations were the hope for the restoration of the monarchy.

When did people start to understand the future messiah to be the Son of God?

That's bound up with the fact that the king was traditionally thought to be some kind of divine figure.

One of the classic texts for that is Psalm 2. It talks about all the nations that are rising up against the Lord and his anointed, or his messiah. The psalm says, "You are my son. Today, I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage."

This shows the idea that the king was the Son of God. If you're the Son of God, that makes you divine in some sense.

There's this whole mythology of how the king was begotten by God that I think developed from the Egyptians. There's a couple of other passages in Psalms that show this as well. One is Psalm 110: The text, unfortunately, is corrupt, and I think it's because the scribes didn't like the idea that the king was begotten by God. The passage says, "But like the dew, I have begotten you."

Notice, the text doesn't say "adopted." It says "begotten." Of course, when we read it today we say that it's metaphorical. But whether anybody in ancient Jerusalem would have said it's metaphorical is another question. I think they would have taken it quite seriously.

By the time you get to 2 Samuel, Chapter 7, this idea has been downplayed a bit. …

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