The Way We Think About the Messiah is Very Problematic


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The arrival of a newborn is always an occasion for celebration and joy. A child’s first Christmas, however, is also an opportunity for family members to project their hopes and unfulfilled dreams onto the next generation. That Harvard onesie or baseball bat under the tree, are not-so-subtle hints about the life you want for your child. Just as people heap expectations on new arrivals today, baby Jesus had a lot to live up to. For Christians, Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one of God, a descendent of King David, and the one who would save the world. That’s a lot for any of us to shoulder, but especially an infant. These messianic expectations are particularly prominent during the Christmas season popping up everywhere from beloved Carols to children’s Christmas books. But what does it mean to call Jesus the Messiah? And did Jesus live up to society’s expectations?

Even if you think of Christmas as more about the tree, Santa, and present than anointing or kingship, the imagery and language of a royal messiah ripples through the Christmas story. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi (sorry, there aren’t Three Kings in the Gospels) come to see the one “born King of the Jews.” The angels proclaim the arrival of “Christ the Lord” to the shepherds in the Gospel of Luke. The word “Christ,” which to modern readers seems like a family name, just means “anointed one” and is the Greek version of the Hebrew word “Mashiah” or “anointed.” It’s from the Hebrew that we get the English word “Messiah.” The twin themes of royal lineage and messiahship are found everywhere in the Nativity story.

For Jews who lived at the turn of the Common Era, the Messiah (or messiahs in some instances) was very much on their minds. At the time the holy land was occupied and controlled by the Roman Empire, and people wrestled with the economic and political ramifications of foreign occupation. As a result, Jews spoke about a coming anointed one, a Messiah, who was spoken of in scripture and who would liberate them from their oppressors and usher in a new era of independence and flourishing. Matthew Novenson, Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh, and author of two books on Messianism, told the Daily Beast that the Messiah was “a kind of mythology, that had a solid foundation in scriptural sources, that was useful for making religious sense of Judea’s complicated political situation in the early Roman Empire.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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