The third meeting of the Oxford Interfaith Forum Discussion Series met to share different religious views about the Messiah. Two scholars presented historical and biblical traditions from Jewish and Christian perspectives: Dr. Benjamin Sax, Scholar at the Institue for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies (Baltimore, MD), and Rev. Dr. John Goldingay, David Allan Hubbard Professor Emeritus of Old Testament in the School of Theology of Fuller Theological Seminary (Oxford, UK).
Jewish Messiah Perspectives
Dr. Sax opened the session with a description of Jewish Messianism. The Hebrew word for Messiah, meshiach, appears in the Hebrew Bible as an adjective for priests or kings. One example of this is the Persian King Cyrus, who is called Messiah in the writings of Isaiah the Prophet (Is. 45). Dr. Sax pointed out that ideas about Jewish anticipation of a coming Messiah are not necessarily biblical but come from Jewish commentaries. He noted particular influences from Jewish mysticism.
The Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 97a includes a warning about people focusing on the return of a Messiah. The writer explains that even thinking about or discussing the return of a Messiah is a misuse of time and a form of idolatry. Expectations for a Messiah build an imagined image of God and Messiah, which reflects ourselves, humanity, and then Godself.
Jewish theologians heavily denied that Jesus of Nazareth was a Messiah. For example, Joseph Ibn Shem Tov (d. 1480) stated that Jesus and his disciples misinterpreted basic scriptures and argued that there was something suspect about a person who self-professes to be the Messiah.
Other Jewish Messiahs appeared in the mid-17th C. One of the most prominent was Shabbatai Tzvi, who claimed to be the Messiah and was later forced into conversion to Islam. The religious discourse surrounding such proclamations resulted in a reformation of Jewish traditions that freed women and wives from the previously embraced oppression. As a result, a movement arose to identify and draw attention to women prophets in the Bible and the contemporary age. As Jewish Kabbala gained momentum, anticipation for a coming Messiah also increased. Believers held that a Messiah is born in every generation, but that person will only reveal themself when the people of a time are ready. Until that time, they wait.
The Christian Messiah
Rev. Dr. John Goldingay presented on Messiah in Christian Faith. He recognized that this particular time of year immediately precedes the Christian Advent, which is the new year for the Christian calendar. The Christian New Year begins with the anticipation of the birth of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. Dr. Goldingay looked at New Testament scripture that reflected Old Testament ideas.
The first set of scriptures was Matthew 2 and Micah 5:1 – 4 [4:13 – 5:3 NJPS], in which the writer of the Gospel of Matthew draws from Micah’s prophecy about a coming ruler from Bethlehem and applies those words to the birth of Jesus, affirming his position as Messiah.
Then, he looked at Matthew 1 in light of Isaiah 7 & 9. In the first chapter of Matthew, the writer calls Jesus the Messiah (Hb. meshiach), meaning “anointed one.” In the Old Testament, kings and priests hold this title. He then focuses on the virgin birth as evidence of the fulfillment of the prophecy. Goldingay points out how tricky the translation of Isaiah 7.14 is, which he presents in the Common English Bible, “Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel.” He explains that the prophet Isaiah likely meant to communicate a more natural occurrence, that God’s deliverance will come in the next generation, by the time a girl who is now young (a virgin) is grown enough to conceive a baby. That baby comes to term, then will God redeem the people of Israel. Matthew applies this to the immaculate conception. This also explains why many Christian translations of Isaiah emphasize the virgin birth to affirm the Miraculous circumstances surrounding Jesus in the same way that Matthew did. Furthermore, the prophecy in Isaiah 9 that promises hope for the sustaining of justice and peace for all was not yet fulfilled in the life and time of Jesus. Therefore advent continues to hold the promise of a time when the Messiah will return to complete the work of justice on the earth.
Dr. Goldingay concluded by looking at Matthew 11 and 16, in which John the Baptist and the disciples seem a bit confused about the identity of the Messiah. Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man,” which appears to be a point of ambiguity for his followers. In Matt. 11.4-6, Jesus indicates that his identity should be judged according to a trail of life-affirming miracles. The Christian anticipation and belief in Jesus as the Messiah is based upon the idea that he is the Son of the living God (Mt. 16.16), and also that he, like the prophet Jeremiah or the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, is attacked and martyred, but then resurrected and redeemed. These are all held in complex tension for the Christian belief in the Messiah, combined with the hope for the coming of Christ to complete the work begun millennia ago.
The conversation began with a reflection that messiah figures in both Jewish and Christian traditions have had little to no political authority in their spheres of influence. The Messiah existed in the margins of their society. This reality makes it difficult to affirm the identity of a Messiah, especially since ancient records primarily attribute the title to prominent political figures, like Kings (i.e., King Cyrus of Persian is called the Messiah in Is. 45).
There are many modern film portrayals of Jesus of Nazareth, attempting to tell the story of Christ as the Messiah by contextualizing his life in a visual historical setting. As the discussion moved toward an analysis of modern portrayals of Jesus as Messiah, a point was made about the significance of contextualizing the attitudes and teachings of Christ in a contemporary setting. Scripture does no more than this. It presents a divine perspective in a context that could be easily understood by those who received the inspired words. By bringing the life and message of the Messiah into a modern context, as some film portrayals have done, cinema is replicating an ancient method of communicating valuable truths.
Messiah and Talking about Jesus
Even though the discussion was meant to focus more on the concept of Messiah and Messianism, it was inevitable that Jesus of Nazareth was the main topic of conversation. However, the glaring omission of the discussion included an Islamic view. Islam does not necessarily view Jesus as the Messiah but does report to believe in Jesus as a prophet central to faith and divine teachings. In conjunction with this discussion, I have also been re-reading a favorite book from my seminary days entitled The Three Faces of Jesus, which I will report on in further detail soon. Check back here for a link to the follow-up.
The next Oxford interfaith discussion is on The Festival of Light, which is about Hanukkah and keeping the faith through light and warmth in the dark winter months. Register here to sign on and join the conversation. The discussion will feature a two-minute silent reflection on the recent and tragic loss of Katie-Jay Scott and Gabriel Stauring, who served refugees globally through iAct.