Messianism: An Overview

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The term messianism is derived from messiah, a transliteration of the Hebrew mashia ("anointed"), which originally denoted a king whose reign was consecrated by a rite of anointment with oil. In the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament), mashia is always used in reference to the actual king of Israel: Saul (1 Sm. 12:35, 24:711), David (2 Sm. 19:2122), Solomon (2 Chr. 6:42), or the king in general (Ps. 2:2, 18:50, 20:6, 28:8, 84:9, 89:38, 89:51, 132:17). In the intertestamental period, however, the term was applied to the future king, who was expected to restore the kingdom of Israel and save the people from all evil.

At the same time, prophetic oracles referring to an ideal future king, though not using the word messiah, were interpreted as prophecies of this same eschatological figure. These passages include Isaiah 9:16 and 11:19, Micah 5:26, and Zechariah 9:9, and certain of the "royal" psalms, such as Psalms 2, 72, and 110. Precedence for this later conception lies in the royal ideologies of the ancient Near East, where the king played the role of the savior of his people: every new king was expected to bring fertility, wealth, freedom, peace, and happiness to his land. Examples are found both in Egypt and in Mesopotamia. The French scholar Édouard Dhorme, in his book La religion assyro-babylonienne (1910), quoted some texts indicating such expectations under the heading "The Messiah King."


In the Judaism of the intertestamental period, messianic expectations developed in two directions. One was national and political and is most clearly set out in the pseudepigraphic Psalms of Solomon (17 and 18). Here the national Messiah is a descendant of David. He shall rule in wisdom and righteousness; he shall defeat the great powers of the world, liberate his people from foreign rule, and establish a universal kingdom in which the people will live in peace and happiness. The same kingly ideal is expressed in the description of the rule of Simon in 1 Maccabees 14:4, which echoes the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament.

Some apocryphal documents, especially the Testament of Levi, speak also of a priestly messiah, one who is to bring peace and knowledge of God to his people and to the world. The Qumran community even expected two anointed ones, a priest and a king, but very little is known about their functions.

The other line of development is found above all in the Ethiopic Apocalypse of Enoch (1 Enoch) and in 2 Esdras (also called 4 Ezra ). It centers around the term son of man. This term is used in the Old Testament to refer generally to a human being (Psalms 8:5, 80:18 [English version 80:17] and several times, addressing the prophet, in Ezekiel ). In the vision recorded in Daniel 7, the term is used in verse 13 with reference to a "man-like being," which, in contrast to the usual four animals representing the four great powers of the ancient world, stands for Israel in its prominent role at the last judgment.

In the apocalyptic books mentioned, the son of man is a transcendental figure, more or less divine, preexistent, and at present hidden in heaven. At the end of time he will appear to judge the world in connection with the resurrection of the dead. The pious will be freed from the dominion of the wicked, and he will rule the world forever in peace and righteousness. He is often referred to as "the chosen One" but only occasionally as "the anointed One," that is, the Messiah. Obviously, this interpretation of Daniel 7:13 takes "son of man" to refer to a person and not to an object of comparison. The problem is the extent to which these passages are pre-Christian. 2 Esdras was definitely written after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce, and those parts of 1 Enoch in which references to the son of man occur do not appear among the Aramaic fragments of the same work found at Qumran. On the other hand, the New Testament seems to presuppose this same interpretation of Daniel 7:13.


Early Christianity took many of the Jewish ideas about the Messiah and applied them to Jesus. Messiah was translated into Greek as Christos, that is, Christ, thereby identifying Jesus with Jewish messianic expectations. Matthew interpreted Isaiah 9:1 (EV 9:2), "The people who walk in darkness shall see a great light," as fulfilled in Jesus (Mt. 4:1418). Micah 5:1 (EV 5:2) is quoted to prove that the Messiah should be born in Bethlehem (Mt. 2:6). Zechariah 9:9 is read as a prediction of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem (Mt. 21:5), and if the story related by Matthew is authentic, it must mean that Jesus wanted to proclaim himself as the Messiah. Psalms 2:7 ("You are my son") is quoted or at least alluded to in connection with the baptism of Jesus (Mt. 3:17, Mk. 1:11, Lk. 3:22). (The Jewish Messiah, however, was not regarded as God's son.) Psalms 110:1 is used to prove that the Messiah cannot be the son of David (Mt. 22:44); other parts of Psalm 110 are behind the exposition in Hebrews 5, 6, and 7. However, the New Testament rejects the political messiahship described in the Psalms of Solomon. Jesus refused to be made king (Jn. 6:15); he proclaimed before Pilate: "My kingdom is not of this world" (Jn. 18:26). Despite this, he was accused of pretending to be "the king of the Jews" (Jn. 19:19).

The New Testament, however, although maintaining that the Messiah is the Son of God, also uses the epithet "Son of man." According to the Gospels, Jesus uses it of himself. In a few cases it could possibly mean simply "a human being" or "this man" (Mk. 2:10, Mt. 11:8, and parallels; Mt. 8:20 and parallels). A number of passages refer to the coming of the Son of man at the end of time (Mt. 24:27, 24:37; Lk. 18:18, 18:22, 18:69; Mt. 10:23; Mk. 13:26); these imply the same interpretation of Daniel 7:13 as that implied by 1 Enoch and 2 Esdras but add a new element in that it is Christ who is to come a second time, returning as the judge of the world. A third group of "Son of man" references allude to the suffering and death of Jesus, sometimes also mentioning his resurrection (Mk. 8:31, 9:9, 9:31, 10:33, 14:21, 14:41; Lk. 22:48 and others). These introduce the idea of a suffering messiah, which is not entirely unknown in Jewish messianism but is never linked with the Son of man. (If the latter is sometimes described in terms of the "servant of the Lord," the chapter on the suffering servant, Isaiah 53, is never applied to him.) In the Gospel of John the Son of man is almost always the glorified Lord as king and judge; he is also described as preexistent in heaven (Jn. 1:51, 3:13, 8:28). Hebrews 2:68 applies Psalm 8, in which "son of man" was originally meant as "human being," to Jesus, thus giving the expression an eschatological meaning.

A new feature was introduced in New Testament messianism by the identification of Jesus with the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. Mark 9:12 says that it "was written of the Son of man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt" (cf. Is. 53:3). Acts of the Apostles 8:32 explicitly quotes Isaiah 53:78 as fulfilled in Jesus, and 1 Peter 2:2224 quotes or alludes to parts of Isaiah 53 as referring to him. It would seem that this identification is an original creation of Jesus (or, possibly, of the early church).

Thus, New Testament Christology utilizes a great many traits drawn from Jewish messianism. At the same time, it adds a new dimension: the idea that Jesus, though he has already in person fulfilled the messianic expectations, is to return in order to bring them to their final fulfillment.

Islamic Messianism

Ideas comparable to that of the second coming of Christ are found in Islam, probably owing to Christian influence. While the Qurʾān envisages God as the judge on the Day of Judgment, later Muslim tradition introduces certain preparatory events before that day. Muammad is reported to have said that the last day of the world will be prolonged in order that a ruler of the Prophet's family may defeat all enemies of Islam. This ruler is called the Mahdi, "the rightly guided one." Other traditions say that he will fill the world with justice as it is now filled with wrong, an apparent echo of ancient kingship ideology. Some identify the Mahdi with Jesus (Arab., ʿIsā), who is supposed to appear before the end of the world to defeat al-Dajjāl ("the deceiver"), the false messiah, or antichrist. Such traditions were utilized by founders of new dynasties and other political or religious leaders, especially among the Shīʿah. The last such example was the rebel leader Muammad Amad of Sudan, who from 1883 temporarily held back the British influence in this area.

"Nativistic" Movements

With some justification the concept of messianism is used to describe a number of "nativistic" cults in different parts of the world that have emerged as the result of a clash between colonialist Christianity and native religions. Following Vittorio Lanternari (1965), however, a distinction should be made between messianic and prophetic movements. "The 'messiah,'" he says, "is the awaited savior, the 'prophet' is he who announces the arrival of one who is to come. The prophet himself can be the 'messiah' after he has died and his return is expected as a redeemer, or when the prophet himself, leaning upon an earlier messianic myth, declares himself to be the prophet-messiah" (p. 242n.).

Examples of such movements are known from all parts of the aboriginal world. As early as the sixteenth century, successive waves of Tupi tribes in Brazil moved to the Bahia coast, impelled by a messianic quest for the "land without evil." Another such migration to find the "land of immortality and perpetual rest" is reported to have inspired the Spaniards' idea of El Dorado. Similar migrations took place in later centuries, led by a kind of prophet described as "Man-God" or "Demi-God," that is, local shamans who came to the natives as religious leaders and reincarnations of the great mythical heroes of native tradition and announcing an era of renewal.

The Ghost Dance movement in the western United States was initiated in 1869 by a certain Wodziwob, who had visions through which the Great Spirit announced that a major cataclysm would soon shake the entire world and wipe out the white man. The Indians would come back to life, and the Great Spirit would dwell among them in the heavenly era. Wodziwob's son, Wovoka (John Wilson), established contacts with the Mormons in 1892 and was considered by them to be the Messiah of the Indians and the Son of God.

In the Kongo region in Africa, Simon Kimbangu, who had been raised in the British Baptist Mission, appeared in 1921 as a prophet to his people. His preaching was a combination of Christian and indigenous elements. He prophesied the imminent ousting of the foreign rulers, a new way of life for the Africans, and the coming of a golden age. Both he and his successor, Andre Matswa, expected to return after death as the liberators of their people. Several movements of a similar kind are known from other parts of Africa.

In the early twentieth century, Melanesia and New Guinea saw the emergence of the so-called cargo cults. Common to them all is the belief that a Western ship (or even airplane), manned by whites, will come to bring riches to the natives, while at the same time the dead will return to life and an era of happiness will follow. Some prophets of these cults were regarded as incarnations of spirits.

It would seem that all these movements originated among people under oppression and gave expression to their longing for freedom and better conditions. Obviously, the conditions under which Christianity arose are somewhat comparable.

See Also

Cargo Cults; Kingship, article on Kingship in the Ancient Mediterranean World; Millenarianism; Revival and Renewal.


The standard work for early Jewish messianism is Sigmund Mowinckel's He That Cometh (Oxford, 1956). Briefer, but including the Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts referred to in the article, is my book The Messiah in the Old Testament (London, 1956). A good introduction to the Son of man question is Carsten Colpe's article "Huios Tou Anthrōpou," in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testment, edited by Gerhard Kittel (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1972). See also Rollin Kearns's Vorfragen zur Christologie, 3 vols. (Tübingen, 19781982), and Maurice Casey's Son of Man: The Interpretation and Influence of Daniel 7 (London, 1979). Islamic messianism has been dealt with most recently by Hava Lazarus-Yafeh in her book Some Religious Aspects of Islam (Leiden, 1981), pp. 4857, and by Jan-Olaf Blichfeldt in Early Mahdism (Leiden, 1985). On Islam see also my article "Some Religious Aspects of the Caliphate," in The Sacral Kingship (Leiden, 1959). Edgar Blochet provides some early observations in Le messianisme dans l'hétérodoxie musulmane (Paris, 1903). A comprehensive survey of the millenarian movements is found in Vittorio Lanternari's The Religions of the Oppressed (New York, 1965). Lanternari's book includes a good bibliography.

New Sources

Baigent, Michael, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. The Messianic Legacy. New York, 1986.

Beuken, Wim, Seán Freyne, and Antonius Gerardus Weiler. Messianism through History. London, 1993.

Charlesworth, James H. The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity. Minneapolis, 1992.

Katz, David S., and Richard Henry Popkin. Messianic Revolution: Radical Religious Politics to the End of the Second Millennium. New York, 1999.

Szeminski, Jan. "Last Time the Inca Came Back: Messianism and Nationalism in the Great Rebellion of 17801783." In South and Meso-American Native Spirituality: From the Cult of the Feathered Serpent to the Theology of Liberation. See pages 279299. New York, 1993.

Helmer Ringgren (1987)

Revised Bibliography