Rabbi blowing the shofar for Rosh Hashanah

The Messiah in Jewish Thought

Who is he and what is he supposed to do?

by Rich Robinson | August 30 2023

Pretty much anyone who is Jewish has heard the word “messiah” at one point or another, though most Jews probably give it less thought than what to have for lunch next week. At one time, a significant aspect of Judaism, the idea of a messiah has been relegated by most Jewish people to something our grandparents may have believed or to something that the minority of Orthodox Jews still hold on to today.

But what has Judaism actually said about the messiah?

What Is a Messiah, Anyway?

The word itself comes from the Hebrew mashach, meaning “to anoint.” In the Bible, reflective of ancient customs, various individuals were anointed with oil for the task ahead of them.

Priests,” kohanim, were anointed (Exodus 30:30). Frequently, any one of them was called the “anointed priest”—in Hebrew, ha-kohen ha-mashiach (for instance, Leviticus 4:3). Kings were also anointed for their task (1 Samuel 15:17—Saul is anointed; 2 Samuel 2:4—David is anointed). And on rare occasions, prophets could also be anointed (1 Kings 19:16—Elisha is anointed).1

As the fortunes of the Jewish people rose and fell throughout the period of the Hebrew Bible, eventually a hope rose for an ultimate “super-king” who would do what David and his descendants could not: bring in everlasting peace and vanquish the enemies of Israel, leading all the world to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Since kings were anointed for their role, this hoped-for figure became known simply as the mashiach, the “anointed one.”

This individual would be the anointed one.

Note the word “the” in “the mashiach.” There have been many anointed figures in Israel’s history, but this individual would be the anointed one.

Some streams of Judaism looked for an ultimate anointed priest as well who would represent the Jewish people to God and be a bridge between the divine and the human. Yet, the hope was largely placed in a future king, not a priest.

And the way it was phrased was that God would “send” the messiah at some point—or the Messiah with a capital M to indicate the singular uniqueness of this individual.

In Scripture, God promised that He would “send” or “raise up” the Messiah at some point. For example, Jeremiah 30:8–9 promises,

It shall come to pass in that day, declares the Lord of hosts, that I will break his [the oppressor’s] yoke from off your neck, and I will burst your bonds, and foreigners shall no more make a servant of [Israel]. But they shall serve the Lord their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them.

David had long been dead by the time Jeremiah prophesied. But the promise was for a future “super-David” to come.

Some may remember this song from Jewish summer camp: “David Melech Yisrael; Chai, Chai, V’kayam.” This translates to, “David, king of Israel, lives and endures.” How does King David, long dead, live and endure? Some traditions found messianic implications in the song: David is an emblem of the future Messiah.

What Was the Traditional Jewish Idea of the Messiah?

In traditional Jewish teaching represented today especially by Orthodox Judaism, the Messiah would in the first place be human. The Christian idea that the Messiah would be both human and divine is considered unacceptable and un-Jewish. He could even be superhuman, but never divine. He would be a warrior and a victorious conqueror of Israel’s enemies, someone in the mold of the Maccabees of the Hanukkah story.

Second, the Messiah would have a series of tasks to accomplish. He would gather all Jews from around the world to Israel; he would destroy Israel’s foes; he would rebuild the Temple. You actually wouldn’t know who the Messiah was in advance, but if someone ended up accomplishing these things, then in hindsight, we would know that this was the Messiah.

In addition, some have taught that there is potential Messiah in every generation. Someone alive right now could, in theory, be the Messiah. You never know.

Some say that when all Israel observes one Sabbath together, the Messiah will come.

Moreover, there is a strong traditional teaching that Israel must prove itself worthy of the coming of the Messiah. Some say that when all Israel observes one Sabbath together, the Messiah will come. Performance of the 613 mitzvot or “commandments,” as traditionally understood, will make the Jewish people worthy of God’s sending of the Messiah. The delay in his coming is due to Israel’s negligence of God’s commandments.

A fifth thing to note is that the hope of the coming of the Messiah is embedded in traditional Judaism in large part because it was included in Maimonides’ famous Thirteen Articles of Faith. Among those articles is “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and though he tarry [delay], I will wait for him.”

A sixth and final point: one stream of tradition postulated two future Messiahs: Messiah ben Yosef (Messiah son of Joseph) and Messiah ben David (Messiah son of David).

When the sages examined the Scriptures, they saw two apparently conflicting pictures: sometimes the Messiah was a triumphant warrior, but other times he was humble and lowly. Zechariah 9:9–10 is a classic passage that appears to show these two different portraits. One solution was to expect two Messiahs: ben Yosef would suffer and die in a battle, but then ben David, the “classic” Messiah, would come in triumph. The idea of the two Messiahs became one stream of Jewish tradition, though most Jewish teaching today speaks only of a single Messiah who would be a descendant (“son of”) of David.

So Who Believes in the Messiah Anymore?

Your great-grandfather did, probably. The Chabad rabbi in your neighborhood still does. Orthodox Jews, in general, do. But most Jewish people today do not.

When Reform Judaism began in nineteenth-century Germany, it deliberately jettisoned certain key tenets of Jewish teaching. Among those was the hope for a coming Messiah, which was pointedly left out of the synagogue liturgy. Though there has been pushback among Reform Jews to many of the extremes of early Reform, the coming of a Messiah still holds no place in Reform Judaism and some other varieties of Judaism as well. Or at least, it is up to the individual whether they choose to believe in a Messiah or not.

Some have replaced the traditional hope with talk of a “messianic age, a future time of peace and well-being that humanity will bring in through our own efforts. Techno-utopianism could be thought of as envisioning a kind of messianic age, though one not restricted to the Jewish world.

In an interesting twist on things, consider the case of the last rebbe of Chabad or Lubavitcher Hasidism, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994. Before his death, many of his followers intimated strongly that he was the Messiah. When he was rendered speechless due to a stroke in 1992, a verse in Isaiah 53 was applied to his situation: verse 7 says that “he opened not his mouth,” in a chapter that Jewish tradition sometimes applied to the Messiah (though much more often to the people of Israel as a whole).

After his death, some proclaimed that he would rise from the dead; others said that he did indeed rise, but only in an invisible sort of way. It became quite a controversy. But there appears to still be a stream of Lubavitchers who maintain the Messiahship of Schneerson.

How Do Traditional Jewish and Messianic Jewish Ideas of the Messiah Differ?

In contrast to traditional Jewish teaching, Messianic Jews understand the Messiah to be both human and divine. This is based on the understanding of certain passages in the Hebrew Bible (such as Isaiah 9:5, verse 6 in many English translations) and on mysterious incidents that suggest God can simultaneously be God and a human (Genesis 18; 32).

This belief is also based on the life of Jesus. For instance, Jesus did things that are only a prerogative of God (forgiving sins, controlling nature). He sometimes called himself by the divine name “I AM.” And he was understood to be both human and divine by his followers.

Jewish followers of Jesus accorded him worship from a very early date.

The apostle Paul cited verses from the Hebrew Bible about Jesus that in their original context applied to the God of Israel.2 And Jewish followers of Jesus accorded him worship from a very early date.3 Many Jews will object, correctly, that a man can’t become God. But that’s not the Messianic belief. Messianic Jews believe that it’s possible for God to become a man.

A second point relates to the dual portraits of the Messiah found in the Scriptures. Rather than there being two Messiahs (ben Yosef and ben David) or a single Messiah who is only a warrior, Messianic Jews understand that the Messiah will at first come humbly, suffering and dying as an atonement for sin, and only later on return as a triumphant warrior. This is based on the teaching of Jesus as well as certain prophecies he fulfilled like Isaiah 53 and helps explain the two pictures of the Messiah that we find in the Bible.

Third, and most obviously, Messianic Jews and Christians believe Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah that the Scriptures speak of and whom Jews have traditionally hoped for. But this contrasts with the traditional teaching that the Messiah must rebuild the Temple, gather all Jews to Israel, and bring in everlasting peace. Followers of Jesus believe that when he returns, he will indeed bring in peace.

What Do You Say?

We’ve seen that the answer to our main question depends on whom you ask. Who is the Messiah in Judaism? Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews, secular Jews, and Chabad will all provide different answers.

That seems to leave it open to us individually as Jewish people to consider the question for ourselves.

You might not want a Messiah because you think it’s something that only your ancient ancestors believed. Or you might not want a Messiah because you’re “not religious.” But do you want peace? Justice? Reconciliation between people? Don’t we all long for those things?

Supposing Jesus came to bring exactly those. Then isn’t he worth considering?



1 Objects could also be anointed, but we’ll stick to people here.
2 For example, see Philippians 2:10–11 and compare Isaiah 43:23.
3 See books by Larry Hurtado such as How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2005).