Steve Katz on the Messiah
Jewish and Christian Views Compared
Has the Messiah come? How will we know if it happens? And what will it mean to our lives? In his final visit this year, Professor Steve Katz of Boston University helped us to understand the very different answers to these questions given by Judaism and Christianity. And as we came to understand these crucial differences, we gained insight about relationships between ourselves and Christians–as two religions, as two different groups of people, and as individuals.
Perspectives on many aspects of religious life are very different in Judaism and Christianity, as Katz shared with us earlier this year. Previously, we reported on Katz’ teaching that the two religions share a piece of history but are based on very different concepts. In summary, he said that Judaism has its unique and distinctive ideas of covenant, Torah, and tshuvah. Men and women sin, but can do repentance, and God responds to that. Christianity, on the other hand, has a different conception of covenant and Torah and it emphasizes original sin and human depravity; in the face of which, God’s power requires that we throw ourselves on the mercy of God.
In the realm of the Messiah we also have key differences. In order to figure out whether or not the messiah has come, we need to know what we expect the messiah to be. Because the Jewish and Christian notions of this are so different, based on the concepts at the heart of each theology and world view; it is possible for us to pray for the messianic era to begin, while the church confirms that it has already begun.
Broadly speaking, there is no doubt that messianism is an essential idea in the Bible and in Judaism generally. In some sense, it is an answer to the problems of human existence. The Biblical authors were aware that creation is imperfect and there are theological conundrums: How can God be just when there is evil? How can the righteous suffer? In addition, we have the deep question about the future of our lives and the future of our planet. What will happen in the end of time? Does life have a meaning or is it absurd? Is it random? Will we disappear into nothingness or is there something more significant going on in the world and the cosmic order?
To solve many of these problems, the Bible in its late phase and certainly the rabbis felt they had to talk more about this world as we know it. They started to speculate about the world to come and the afterlife and the messianic future.
To better understand this, we need to make a few distinctions.
Messianism VS Salvation
The first and most important, which is really repurcussive, is that Judaism very sharply distinguishes between messianism and salvation. In the Jewish tradition, there is a specific conception of messianism, but the messianic era is not about personal salvation in the sense of saving you from sin. Opening the gates to the afterlife and making it possible to have eternal reward is not the idea of the messianic function.
On Yom Kippur, we repeat the words of Rabbi Akiba in the Gemorah “Before whom, Israel, do you atone? Before your father in heaven.” That is to say that salvation in history, the future of men and women in the world above, has to do with their relationship with the Almighty. The messiah has no role.
On the Christian side, it is exactly the collapse of that distinction, the collapse of that disparity, that is definitive. For the church, messianism is defined largely in terms of opening the gates of heaven; of Jesus as the new Adam, who expiates for original sin. His blood makes salvation possible and therefore the whole messianic drama is redefined.
Secondly, there is a crucial connection between the way that Judaism and Christianity define the human condition. This comes from Judaism’s understanding that people are majestic. Because all people are created in the image of God, they can do things God finds worthy; they can keep the mitzvot.
Judaism’s anthropology doesn’t require a messianic person to lift us out of the muck, who will do for us what we can’t do ourselves. It does not say that we are impotent, powerless and that the Torah only reveals our weakness. It does not require messianic salvation as does Christianity.
Also, in Judaism, when we talk about the world to come, it is not about messianism. In Christianity, messianism and the world to come are combined. The messiah will play a role in opening the gates of heaven and in the future second coming.
Here is what Jewish messianism involves:
First, there is the welfare of the Jewish people.
Second, through the Jewish people there is benefit to all mankind. We see this already in the blessing to Abraham: Those who bless you will be blessed, and those who curse you will be cursed. In other words, the Jewish people will benefit, but everyone else will as well.
Third (and very important), Jewish messianism and Christian messianism always involve the land of Israel. That issue is very much front and center today. The reuniting of Jerusalem in 1967 set off waves of messianic enthusiasm. People went to settle on the west bank as a messianic act.
Even in the United States, there is a Christian in Texas who is growing red heifers for use in the purification ritual which will have to be reintroduced. In fact, leading up to Y2K, there was the fear of messianic cultists, who might blow up the mosques, or do other dramatic acts to force the end of the premessianic world.
There are also forces and ideas which are always in place and they define the broad parameters of the biblical idea and of the rabbinic idea:
Passover Related Concepts
The most important of these messianic elements is the Passover. In the Bible, there are no dates except for Passover. Everything else is dated from that. Passover is the definitive event and Moses is the definitive hero. So it is not surprising that messianism in one sense is always drawing on the idea of the Mosaic paradigm and the Exodus.
There are traditions in rabbinic literature that the messiah is Moses returned; or that the messiah will marry the daughter of Moses, who is usually named Rachel or Rebekah, and who lives over the mythical river Savat Yon.
Also, in the first half of the seder, we were slaves in Egypt and we tell the story. In the second half, we become dramatic messianists. The cup of Elijah is messianic, followed by messianic songs and ending with Had Gadya, which is messianic. God conquers the Angel of Death. That’s messianism.
In addition, Isaiah and Jeremiah are specific in their redemption, in that it is like the redemption from Egypt.
In all these cases, Moses does not redeem you from sin. Moses brings you out of servitude. And he doesn’t open the gates of heaven. Rather, he brings you into the land of Israel.
The Solomonic Davidic Model
The second crucial fact is what we call the Solomonic Davidic model. In the Bible, God doesn’t want a king, but Israel insists. God gives in and David becomes the model of what a king should be. David also confirms that the line of kings be Davidic. Noted Katz, that is very special. So what does it mean to be Solomonic and Davidic?
If you look at the term messiah, moshiach, which means annointed, it appears 38 or 39 times in the Bible (one instance isn’t clear). Six of the references are to the high priest, like Aaron. Once, it refers to either the patriarchs or Israel collectively, once to Cyrus, king of the Meads who allows the Jews to return to Israel in 538, and two references in Daniel which are uncertain. This means that 28 or 29 of the 38 or 39 references are to the kings of Israel. It’s not an accident that the crucifixion is depicted with the notation King of the Jews. There is a tradition of the messiah as king.
What does this mean?
What does it mean to be the king of Israel? First, it does not allow you to cut it off from the national element. The king of Israel is meant to be the exemplar of wisdom and justice. When there is a good king, a paragon of virtue, the state functions properly. When there is a bad king, such as Jeroboam, son of Solomon who introduces idolatry, things go badly.
When the king is unfaithful, things go awry in the community. And the king has to see to it that justice is done, not only preached. In that sense, the king becomes the prince of peace and justice. The phrase that Jesus is the prince of peace is from a rabbinic phrase.
What all this means is that there is a very deep national, political and territorial aspect to Israel‘s notions of the messiah. There is also a very heavy emphasis on Solomon.
We talk about the messiah as the son of David. Solomon was the son of David. But why is Solomon the model? First, he is the wisest of men. Tradition said he could speak to the animals and he knew the language of nature. There were stories such as the two mothers arguing over the baby. Even though Solomon had great weaknesses, it was a time of peace. Solomon built the Temple, and extended the boundaries of the land; and he was seen as wise and just.
Other Biblical Sources
There are two other biblical references that are relevant. These are not crucial for Judaism, but are crucial for Christianity.
The first is chapter 53 of Isaiah, the suffering servant passage. If you don’t examine it carefully, it appears to be the prediction of a messiah who was killed for the sake of others and who saves the world–the suffering servant. This is the most important passage for the church.
The Jewish interpretation of this passage, on the other hand, does not interpret it messianically. Generally, the suffering servant is seen to be the people of Israel. It is also not interpreted vicariously, in the sense of saving others.
A second reference is the tradition connected to the book of Daniel. This does not play in Jewish tradition messianically, although it does play a role mystically. In Christianity it plays a role both messianically and mystically.
The book of Daniel is an odd book. It is the most famous example in the Bible of a book attributed to someone who didn’t write it. Daniel didn’t write the book. It is written in the second century, although the tradition is that it is of the fifth century.
Daniel is a Jew who lives at the court of the king of Persia. People don’t like him. He won’t eat with them. They throw him in the lions’ den.
In this book, there is enormous energy of a visionary kind. In Daniel 7-13, there is a reference: “One like a son of man will come.” In Christianity, that is thought to be Jesus. In Jewish tradition, it is thought to be an angel, Michael (who is suggested in a later passage) or the people of Israel collectively. There is a reference to the word messiah in Daniel, but it’s a reference to the high priest or king, not a messianic figure.
So we have four elements. In the Jewish tradition, two–the Moses/Exodus and the Solomonic/Davidic, are the main ones. The bible makes a great deal of David. Samuel makes him king. His line is referred to as the eternal line of kingship, bringing peace and security, defeating enemies and with a tradition that he will come back.
There are several strange notions related to this in different biblical stories. There is the story of Lot’s daughters, who each have a child by their father after Sodom and Gemorrah are destroyed. One is the father of the Amorites and one the Moabites, which result in the injunction not to marry Moabites. There is the story of Tamar. When she gives birth, one of her twins puts their hand out first, then retreats, confusing the birth order. There is the story of Ruth, the forbidden Moabite woman, who marries Boaz, reuniting the two lines of Lot. These are three stories of sexual impropriety, three stories of younger women chasing older men. Yet each story is about salvation. In another story we hear that Satan is always on guard against the Messiah.
Katz noted that all this material is both remarkable and unfinished. About half the messianic writings talk about a messianic figure; about half a messianic time. In different references, we find different attributes of the messianic era as well.
The Role of the Rabbis
Judaism is the creation of the rabbis, not the Bible, Katz said, pointing out that their context is after 70 C.E. in a time of desolation and exile. What they want to do with the messianic idea is something like Jeremiah and Ezekial did after the destruction of the first Temple; that is, to create a situation in which Israel does not give up hope, does not think life is random, does not think there is no divine providence, does not think there is no punishment or reward. They interpret the destruction and the exile as the fulfillment of the covenant, not its breaking. The curses are the negative part of the covenant, but the covenant is still in operation. That means there are also promises and redemption. All Israel needs to do is do Tshuvah. So Israel goes into exile “like an olive being squeezed to give the best oil.”
The rabbis didn’t sit down and write a systematic book called the Messiah. Rather, they discussed the idea incidentally in places where it seemed to fit what they were talking about. Katz noted that rabbinic literature is a long literature, covering a long time span. We tend to lump it all together, but it begins before the destruction of the Temple and then is codified in the Mishnah and certain Midrashim which were completed about 200 CE. From about 200 to 550 is the period of the Gemorrah. Together they comprise the Talmud. That constitutes five or six centuries of material. Although it may seem easy for us to lump this time period together it is as long as the time from the beginning of the Renaissance until today.
If we actually divide rabbinic literature by time period, we find relatively little about the Messiah until 200. For example, the Pirke Avot talks about the future in terms of the King of Kings redeeming Israel. That’s a fundamental text and there is no mention of the Messiah. The medieval tradition, on the other hand, is very rich in messianic notions.
One of the cental features of the concept is the restorative notion, the idea of the return to paradise. It is as though we want to overturn human history and return to the beginning of time. Maimonides writes in this tradition, as he writes of restoring the kings.
A second idea is more future oriented. The future will be different from the past as the future will be a time of perfect behavior.
A third concept is not about the past or the future, but is apocalyptic. It is about some kind of dramatic intervention that will bring destruction and catastrophe. This concept makes very sharp distinctions between sin and purity, between the children of light and darkness, and includes the notion of war between good and evil. These dramatic ideas are connected with the end of time and are very powerful. We see them in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in the legal writings of the church.
With these explanations, Katz ended his series for this year.