How and Where it Shows up in Philosophy, Culture and Religion
"I think the Messianic concept, which is the Jewish offering to mankind, is a great victory. What does it mean? It means that history has a sense, a meaning, a direction; it goes somewhere, and necessarily in a good direction—the Messiah."
—Elie Wiesel, Conversations
What actually is a Messiah, anyway? And who? And why does it matter? Can there be a "messiah concept" without an actual messiah?
These are the four central questions of this book. We have already seen that Muslims have no quandary about this latter question, nor do Christians but for different reasons. But most Jews do, because for them he was emphatically not Jesus. So those who care are still watching and waiting for him.
Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) was a Romanian-born Jew of enormous notoriety and cultural importance in the West. He was a holocaust survivor who became a political activist and author of numerous books and articles. He was a professor of the humanities at Boston University and a sought-after speaker on human rights. In 1986 he won the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as numerous other awards and honorary degrees. Among his 57 books are these two titles that caught my eye: First, Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends; and second, Jewish, Literary, and Moral Perspectives. They seem to be consistent with our subject and the quote above. Take a moment to read it again. As an ethnic Jew representing the Jewish ‘majority opinion’ about Jesus, Wiesel did not agree with Muslims and Christians about the identity of the Messiah. But apparently he did believe in the Messiah concept. This is fascinating to me (Scott). First, it suggests that, whatever one’s religious beliefs, the very idea of Messiah is important. I agree. Second, it states that Messiah was “the Jewish offering to mankind”. Again, I agree, and there can be little dispute about this. But by that he did not mean Jesus, he meant the Messiah of the Hebrew Scriptures who was as yet unidentified but was nevertheless ‘visible’ prophetically to its scripture community, the Jews. For Adam and me, our primary quest will be to explore these propositions and discover the key passages where he appears, whether obvious or obscure; kind of the way archaeologists search for ‘living artifacts’, and assemble them the way paleontologists try to reassemble bones.
Third, I love this part of the quote: “It means that history has a sense, a meaning, a direction; it goes somewhere, and necessarily in a good direction.” With this I agree wholeheartedly! To put it another way, there is a ‘Messiah principle’ operative in the world that ensures its purpose, its meaningfulness, and its progression toward an ultimate happy ending. Yes, just as the beginning of the world was good, so also the final chapter of the world will be good. For people that tend to believe this there are various reasons, not to mention a preference, to believe it. But not everyone does. Wiesel is pointing to a happy ending based on what he calls the “Messiah concept”. Could this be true? We’re ‘banking on it’, as they say. I and millions of others who subscribe to this concept derive great hope therefrom. It’s a huge part of what keeps us going day-by-day and enables us to flourish in life.
However, during the same interview in which Wiesel spoke those optimistic words about the future he went on to say what seems to be the polar opposite:
…At least we would like to think that history is going in that direction. But I think it’s going in the wrong direction. We are heading towards catastrophe. I think the world is going to pieces. I am very pessimistic. Why? Because the world hasn’t been punished yet, and the only punishment that could be adequate is the nuclear destruction of the world.
Personally, I’m not sure how Wiesel reconciles the two halves of his full statement. Depending on his meaning, we may or may not share his view that the world will get worse before it gets better, if it gets better. The Messiah concept does not preclude that, and even assumes it. But let me say very pointedly: This study is primarily of restoration and fulfillment. From our perspective, the Messiah concept is a divine promise that all that is wrong in the world will be set right.
A few years ago I began to think a lot more about this Messiah concept. I don’t mean Jesus per se, I mean the literary ‘mold’ or relief of him in the Hebrew Scriptures and the mysterious unnamed human figure that was formed by it; one for whom most modern-day Jews are still waiting (in theory anyway). It was fascinating to me that all three monotheistic religions have a notion of him, but all different notions. Was Muhammad a messiah-figure? I pondered. Also, what’s the difference, if any, between a prophet and a messiah…and the Messiah? What eventually struck me was that if there have been many prophets but only one Messiah, there must be a fundamental difference. If there is only one of something then it is highly unique, by definition.
In the summer of 2018 my friend Steve Schlichter and I developed a 4-part seminar that we presented in July. We each had two parts: My first part was on some of the reasons people are skeptical about the New Testament or completely reject it, with special attention to the Muslim perspective; in particular, why Muslims believe it has been corrupted, or changed. My second part focused on the Hebrew scriptures, or Tanakh, commonly called the Old Testament by Christians, and sometimes the ‘first testament’. Muslims usually refer to this as the Torah, or Tawrat in Arabic, but technically this term refers only to the first five books, or Pentateuch—the writings of Moses. In principle, Muslims believe in the Tawrat as the “revelations given to Prophet Mousa,” or Moses, because the Qur’an affirms them as such. By the same principle they also believe in the Zaboor (Psalms), or the revelations given to Prophet Dawood (David), and the Injeel, the revelations given to Prophet Isa whom they equate with Jesus of the New Testament. I called my second part “The Messiah Motif” which focused on the Messiah in the Hebrew scriptures—Mashiach in Hebrew, and Al Masih in Arabic. The scope of it was to identify and examine passages speaking of the Messiah. These are called Messianic passages, shared by Jews and Christians alike (but which are largely unknown to Muslims). My preparation for this lecture was both illuminating and exhilarating to me. I had been reasonably familiar with this subject before, but my in-depth study took me much deeper and soon captivated me. As I began to identify them I also compiled a list, not of all of them but a large number. There are hundreds! Some are short and some are long. Some are obviously Messianic and some are more enigmatic; their referent is usually unnamed, for example. But even these can be identified because of their unique descriptors that only make sense as referring to a human figure with epic qualities. The very first one in the Torah is a good example of this. It appears in the third chapter of the first book of the Bible, involving the very first two humans and their first crisis episode. Genesis 3:15 reads as follows:
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.
Following Adam and Eve’s transgression with the forbidden fruit in the garden, here we have God Almighty speaking with the serpent, Satan (Shaytan), the devil himself. In the second stanza God speaks of a “he” who will bruise Satan’s head and whose heel will be bruised by Satan. …Who is “he”? …How and when will he bruise Satan’s head? And for that matter, what kind of man can do that? Finally, in what manner will Satan bruise the man’s heel? Does this imply that the man will not only deliver a wound to Satan but also incur one from him? It does seem so. That is why many students of the Torah understand this somewhat cryptic passage as referring to a great and powerful man of which Messiah seems to be a reasonable candidate. My friend and co-author Adam Simnowitz has written more about this in a later chapter, but I wanted to get you thinking about it now. If this were the only passage like this in the Hebrew scriptures perhaps it would not be enough to form a profile of the Messiah. But it is not. It is the first of many. So we can call it the “inaugural” passage—the first brick in the wall, the first stone in the path, or the first piece of the puzzle of the motif that will begin to form as we continue this quest, an exploration of both literature and revelation.
I had arrived at the ‘front door’ of the Messiah himself, as it were. By that I mean that he himself became the focus of my attention. I approached the subject through the door of the collective gospel, the narratives of Jesus with his revelations, i.e. his teachings and his actions. For Muslims this collection is believed to be ‘lost’ or corrupted. But not for Christians. The New Testament of today’s Bible contains four sequential books called gospels named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in that order, named after their traditional authors. (In all fairness, their true authorship is contested by some scholars as well as by Muslims who may or may not equate them with the Injeel.) I subscribe to their traditional authorship. In any case, these four gospels can be understood as the theological biographies of the person, the works and the teachings of Jesus as they were revealed.
One day a Muslim friend and I launched into the historical question of whether Jesus was crucified, whether he was removed from the cross and placed in a tomb, and whether he rose from the dead, as the gospels all state. First we delved deeply into the details of the gospels’ accounts themselves, with a lot of deliberation about Roman practices in first-century Palestine. It was vigorous and very interesting! It took place over the course of several months, and much of it spilled over into Facebook messaging as was our usual custom. (I am tempted to paste some of our juicier exchanges, but I will resist.) Eventually the course of our discussion led us back in time to the Old Testament, or Hebrew scriptures, as our query then became focused on some of the Messianic passages. After all, Muslims universally affirm the Messiah because, as I have said, there are 11 references to the Messiah in the Qur’an, even though none of them define the notion of Messiah. But it is specific about his identity: He is Issa—Jesus. In contrast, the Hebrew scriptures describe and define him, abundantly, but never actually name him. Isn’t that interesting? (Of course, part of the reason for that is the Qur’an describes him in the past tense, from the future looking back through six centuries of history; but the Bible speaks of him in the future tense from a time well before he would appear. The multiple Hebrew prophets who wrote of him as far back as Moses were doing so without any knowledge of him besides revelation. So, from the former we can know who he is but almost nothing else. And from the latter (alone) we cannot identify him without the New Testament, but we can know a lot about him. From the Tanakh we can form an enormously detailed composite of him, or what we are also calling a “Messianic Motif”. Simply put, a motif is a dominant idea, pattern, or distinctive feature, especially in literature, art, and even in religion and culture. Remember this—we’ll come back to it a lot.
“There can be only one.”
Many people see symbols or ‘motifs’ of the messiah in culture, even pop culture. Take this tagline for example. It comes from a movie I saw a long time ago with my wife and we really enjoyed, called “Highlander” (1986). It was about a class of immortal warrior-heroes that served humanity (except some that were evil) by fighting for goodness and defending the weak. If you have even a nebulous understanding of the biblical Jewish Messiah or ‘Messiah concept’ then you know it involves this kind of heroism. In the movie, there were multiple such immortals scattered around the world, but there could ultimately “be only one”. So, oddly, whenever they encountered each other they were supposed to engage in mortal combat. They each had to try to kill each other by decapitation until eventually only one remained who would receive supreme power. Fortunately, the Highlander eventually won the day because the alternative would have been pretty dismal for the world. In this sense the immortals resembled some of the Greek gods. But in the sense of singularity the Highlander resembled the Jewish Messiah. In Jewish history there were lots of prophets, heroes and ‘messiah figures’, but there would be only one true Messiah (though certainly not because multiple messiahs had to go around killing each other). In the Hebrew Scriptures we can surmise this from the apparent singularity of messianic passages like Genesis 3:15 above, and many others. Logically, this would be true for Islam and Christianity too because they share most of the same historical figures. One thing we will see is that they always refer to a singular ‘he’ or ‘I’, never a plural ‘they’ or ‘we’. Whomever the Messiah would emerge as, he would not only be a single person, he would also be singular in role and function. The title alone demonstrates this. If there is only one true Messiah then he must be in a class all his own. He may also belong to other categories that are less unique, such as human being, Jew, and even prophet, but in some respect he must belong to a singular category in which he is absolutely unique, like the king of a country, or the president of the United States, for example. Any given country can only have one, so his office is unique in that country while he occupies it. But the offices of king and president themselves are hardly unique. There have been many kings over the millennia and there are still 26 kings in 43 countries. The concept of president is a much younger one but there still have been many. In the U.S. alone there have been 45, and there are currently hundreds of presidents in the world. This is true for many other kinds of heads of state. If there were to be a new one called “Super Master” or something, that might be considered a unique office, but he or she would still be a head of state per se, or perhaps an emperor, which is hardly a unique category. There have been many.
Let’s apply this to the category of prophet. If you believe in prophets then you believe there have been many of them throughout history. Dozens at least. Jews and Christians believe there have been hundreds but less than 50 that can be named. Muslims believe there have been 124,000. So, by the same principle prophet is not a unique category, even though a particular prophet may have been singular in his place and time, e.g. the only one, or one of only a few, the first or the last one, or may have some other distinction. But only if there had been only one prophet ever would it approximate the category of Messiah. In the three monotheistic religions there has only ever been one. The Qur’an has the most easily affirmed position on this because it has the most rudimentary presentation of the Messiah, as we have seen: He was one man seen from the perspective of the past. But through the lens of the Bible’s Old Testament the question is much more layered and complex. Still, a solid case can be made for his singularity, and I should think the New Testament is self-evident about him. Therefore, the Messiah is both singular and unique. Although he was also a prophet, his role and function were utterly set apart. There was no mold for him, nor was there a job description, because there had never been a Messiah before. Oh, wait! Yes, there was a job description—contained in various parts of the Hebrew Scripture. That’s what we want to explore, and part of it has been presented already. Another, longer part will be introduced soon. For now, let’s explore the psychology of the Messiah, and the sociology of a world that wants one.
Ironically, there is another bit of culture that has been dubbed the “Messiah Complex”, when somebody believes it is their job to save the world. A scaled-down version, I suppose, is when they feel a responsibility to rescue, say, the Western world, or their country, their city, or even their family. I just did a quick Google search for “Messiah Complex” and got two interesting hits. One was a 2013 livestreamed comedy act written and performed by Russell Brand at London’s Apollo. I did not see it, but I recall the striking promo image. Back in 2013 it must have captured my attention in various places. In retrospect, I think I wondered if it was supposed to be a picture of Jesus or not, but now I understand that it was Brand himself probably trying to get exactly that kind of reaction from passersby.
Here’s what the Denver Post had to say about it:
Again and again [Brand] cleverly ties together his outrageous theories and belief systems, blowing them up with a beautiful smile (and foul language), then going deeper and circling back, making us think while laughing. His seemingly scattershot rant is actually organized around a group of heroes: Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Ghandi and Jesus Christ. Not only does Brand skewer society’s craving for icons and divine wisdom. He knocks religious institutions in particular. [Sardonic gasp here.]
On one note, it’s hardly surprising to see Jesus in the list. Would any list of Messiah figures be complete without him? Also, it’s TRUE: Society does crave icons, or heroes. And why is that? Brand can mock this craving all he wants, but I doubt he is above it. Could it be that we actually need great people and exemplars in the world? Could it be that a kind of hero-recognition code has been ‘pre-installed’ into our collective psyche that even spawns some of them? I mean, not that it would be unjustified—there are an awful lot of disturbing maladies and crises in the world. Who does not (openly or secretly) yearn for a Superman or a Wonder Woman, or a whole team of heroes like the Avengers? And isn’t that why the recent Marvel Avengers series and other superhero movies have been so wildly successful and seem never stop being popular? (The glaring thing, of course, is that the world’s problems are too big and too numerous even for them.) We are desperate for great Humanitarians and lots of ordinary ones too. We rightly crave them and we should all want to become one. Humanity is in no position to disparage people who want to do great good for the world and have the means to do it. On the other hand, an actualized “messiah complex’ can produce a dangerous kind of person if not tempered by love, humility, compassion, etc. Not everybody is qualified to be a “messiah”. Actually very few.
Speaking of which, let’s consider another would-be messiah from the Marvel universe—the fascinating X-Men. As far as I can tell, theirs is a completely different kind of reality in which generally ‘good’ mutations proliferate humanity and create a parallel subspecies of mutants, some good, which we think of as heroes, like Wolverine who was prominent in every film and even had two of his own movies, including the finale, “Logan”. But some mutants were villain-like such as Magneto, who like others started out good and became evil. If any of the mutants had a messiah-complex it was Magneto who saw himself as the supreme ‘savior’ of all mutant-dom. With his enormous powers over all things metal, he saw it as his mission to defend other, weaker mutants against the dominant race of humans who were bent on annihilating them, an ever-present threat. But in doing so he was not opposed to slaughtering humans and other mutants that got in his way. Ultimately, Magneto was defeated by the X-Men and later joined forces with them as the world’s mutants were systematically hunted down to near-extinction. So apparently he was actually not their savior. But deep in the annals of this X-verse there would yet be a mutant messiah!
Now, while I do enjoy the X-Men I am hardly a devotee, so I would not have known this on my own. Another simple Google search revealed a so-called ‘crossover storyline’ called “X-Men: Messiah Complex” that was never made into a movie (2007-8). Apparently, during a time when mutants were on the verge of extinction, a mutant child was born who would one-day rescue the future generations of mutants. The X-Men knew that because they detected a ‘mutant activation’ and then discovered that other groups of mutants had already been fighting for possession of the child. The problem was that they did not know its whereabouts. With their very survival in the balance they launched their frantic search. But the bad guys also knew about the savior-child and were searching for it as well. And why, do you suppose? …to offer him their loyalty? Of course not. They wanted to destroy it. (Does that sound familiar? Well, it should. About 2000 years ago there was an ancient near-Eastern people anticipating a messiah-child, who also had evil enemies who wanted to find and kill him. But since they couldn’t—for an angel had warned his parents to take him to another country—they killed all the male children 2 and under in the village instead.) And so the race was on. Which group could find the X-child first was the epic struggle of this storyline. The world needed a messiah, desperately.
I weave in this story because it is another example of what we have been talking about thus far: There is a human condition we call a “messiah complex” and some people have it. There is also a kind of reverse messiah complex, if you will, in which people recognize their need for heroes and messiah figures and seek them out. And there is one, at least in this story. But stories do not emerge in a cultural vacuum, they reflect culture and the deepest yearnings of human beings. They are built on real-world archetypes, problems and motifs. With the monumental problems that our world has, and has always had, why should we be surprised to find a near-universal longing for—and celebration of—a messiah motif embedded in humanity’s art and literature, history, politics, and pop-culture. It is exactly what we should expect.
 There is a category of ethnic and professing Jews that does believe in Jesus as Messiah who self-identify as Messianic Jews.
 See The Gifts of the Jews, by Thomas Cahill
 The Bible’s creation story states that as God was creating, five times he “saw that it was good.” (Gen. 1:4,10,12,18, 31)
 Qur’an, Surahs 3:45, 4:157, 4:172, 5:17, 5:72-73, 5:75, 9:30-31
 Gospel of Matthew 2:16-18, New Testament, Bible