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The Christian vs. the Jewish Messiah

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.

A Faint-Sung Hero

We are accustomed to thinking of John the Baptist as “the Forerunner,” the one who announced the coming and prepared the way for the person and mission of Jesus Christ.  However, it is clear that at one time Jesus and John were considered to be at least equals, with John sometimes even seen as the superior figure.  The Gospels give some hints of this dynamic.

All the Gospels acknowledge that Jesus came to John to receive John’s “baptism for the remittance of sins.”  It was not the other way around:  Jesus came to John, John did not come to Jesus.  At the very least, this implies that Jesus knew of John’s work, approved of it, and desired to make a public decision in support of John.  It may also imply that John was John’s mentor.

One of the most striking attribtues of early Christianity is its practice of baptism.  Had Jesus not approved of baptism, it is nearly impossible to explain the ritual’s universality among primitive Christian groups.  As the late Morton Smith pointed out, when Christianity is viewed from a baptismal perspective, there is a linear development of baptism starting with John, running through Jesus as a (short) middle term, and ending with Paul.  Therefore it can be said with some probity that Jesus was a conveyer (and developer) of a ritual initiated by John and promulgated by Paul.

The Fourth Gospel (the Gospel according to John) certainly associates Jesus with the Baptizer, particularly in the first three chapters.  It not only brings them into contact, but it says that Jesus began his own baptismal ministry separate from John’s.  Eventually, says the Fourth Gospel, Jesus’ baptizing ministry was winning more followers than John’s.  In apparent response to this, and perhaps out of respect for John, Jesus moved his ministry to another region.

Many of us are aware of the narrative of Baptizer’s death as an anti-Herodian, beheaded by the ruler through the machinations of Herod’s wife and his bored stepdaughter.  Beyond that, and his brief mention as “the Baptizer,”  John is absent from the Gospels and virtually swallowed up by history. But his legacy lives on in Jesus’ own baptismal doctrine (well-attested in John’s nocturnal scene of baptismal dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus), and in Paul’s insistence on the ritual’s centrality for Jesus’ followers.  Even today there remains a baptismal sect, the Mandeans, who count John as one of their major saints.

John’s historical importance in ancient Judean religion was that he successfully set up a rival alternative to current atonement practices.  There were many things a Jew might do in order to succor divine forgiveness, but many of them were associated with the priesthood and Temple in Jerusalem.  The priesthood had by Second Temple times gained hegemony over sacrifice. John’s ritual was free, and open to all who could travel to the place of administration, the Jordan River in southern Judea.  It provided a cheap alternative to the sacrificial system offered at Judaism’s cultic center.

In consequence, John was so popular that his baptism was remembered specifically as “John’s baptism” – a nomenclature which set it apart from the several standard (and sectarian) kinds of baptism available at the time, and which forever ensrhined his name as a great innovator on his people’s behalf.  Jesus himself referred to John as the “greatest-born” human being.  The Baptizer has been obscured by the figures of Jesus and Paul, but without him, Christianity would be missing its foundational sacrament.