It’s not news that Judaism as a whole rejected – and rejects – Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and for good reason. Jesus did not fulfill Jewish messianic expectations. The Jewish Messiah was to inaugurate a heaven on earth, governed from Jerusalem by God; to cause all nations to worship the Jewish god; to put an end to war and spread peace over the earth; to vanquish the Jewish god’s opponents. Obviously Jesus did none of these things. Not only did the world continue as usual after his death, but his own nation fell to Rome two different times, in 70 CE and again in 135 CE. His Jewish followers were persecuted by the Jewish priesthood and his movement only survived by passing into Hellenized Gentile hands, where it evolved into forms that would have been unrecognizable by Jesus and his first followers.
Yet for Christians, Jesus is “the Christ.” This term means “(God’s) anointed one.” It was applied to Jewish kings who received chrism when they were enthroned. As supreme “king,” the Messiah would of course receive the ultimate anointing. One of the earliest Jewish terms applied to Jesus was “Messiah.” Paul brought this title to non-Jewish audiences by constantly referring to Jesus as “the Christ” or “Christ Jesus.” The question here, of course, is how Jesus’ followers could think of him as Messiah when he had never fulfilled that role.
Obviously it was not Jesus’ earthly ministry that earned him the title. Rather it was his resurrection and ascension to heaven at God’s “right hand” that constituted Jesus’ messiahship for his earliest followers. How so?
Jesus’ resurrection/ascension glorified and exalted him to a status which, for those who accepted his posthumous victory, could only be thought of as “messianic.” The mortal Galilean mystic and social reformer they had known, after suffering an ignominious death by crucifixion at the hands of “unclean” Gentiles, was now an angelic being. He was now like the Enochian Metatron – the one who stands near God’s throne. He was now like the mysterious angel Yahoel – who in the Torah was charged with executing divine judgment, and who carried in him the Divine Name. These are exactly the functions ascribed to the “risen, living” Jesus. He would come again to judge the world, and the Divine Name – before all knees must bend – dwelled in him. Moreover, as God’s agent (and like God Himself) Jesus became the object of at least one type of Jewish-sectarian prayer, the Maranatha: “Come, Lord Jesus” – which was a slogan common to both the Jewish and the Pauline Gentile churches. Here Jesus was not seen as God – but as God’s adopted, risen, exalted and glorified/angelic Son, he could now be addressed in prayer. He was seen as a mediator having special access to God’s ear in the heavenly throne room. So: How else – how better – to describe him, but in the highest terms available to the current Judaism? One of these terms was “Messiah,” and his Jewish followers applied it to him.
However, this early Jewish-Christian term describes not an earthly, but a heavenly Messiah. Of course, broadly speaking, the earthly Jesus did fulfill certain very general Messianic capacities: his parables described the here-and-now Kingdom of God; he healed the sick, cast out demons, made the blind to see; he conceived his mission as ministering to “the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” But he did not, as we have seen, fulfill the the essential, the crucial, world-changing messianic functions.
His followers, based on their experience of a Jesus exalted, glorified, and risen, maintained that he only became the Messiah when God vindicated his death, rewarded him with resurrection, and adopted him as a special son ascended to heaven. That is, only “Now,” in the timeless heavenly realm, is Jesus fully the Messiah. Only “Then,” when he returns to execute divine judgment and renew the world, will he be the complete Messiah. As long as he is in heaven, Jesus functions as a kind of “Messiah-Designate.” He will operate fully as Messiah only after he returns as the messianic Judge and World-Reformer.
Contemporary Judaism did not find anything especially messianic in Jesus’ ministry. Nor did it see any reason to accept his resurrection, which after all, was an experience granted to a relative few. So Jesus was not the Jewish Messiah. He was, instead, the Jewish- sectarian, and later on, the Christian Messiah, that is, the Messiah as peculiarly defined by those sectarian Jews (and later Gentiles) who believed that he had been constituted adopted Son-Messiah by his posthumous resurrection, exaltation, ascension and glorification.
Word-clarification on this point could potentially aid the cause of ecumenism. If Christians would admit that their Messiah is Messiah by virtue of a posthumous “enthronement,” rather than during his lifetime being the national/global Messiah of standard Jewish expectation, efforts toward mutual understanding between the two religions might be greatly furthered.