The Bible Today, edited by Fr. Donald Senior, CP, is always worth reading, The current issue has some fine articles about Messianism written by top scripture scholars. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” Peter says at Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus asks him who people say he is. We may forget that Jesus was not born Jesus Christ; the appellation “Christ” meaning “Messiah” was added later to his name by his followers. Peter wasn’t alone in this declaration: “We have found the Messiah (which means Anointed,” his brother Andrews says. (Jn 1,41)
Jesus came into a Jewish world expecting a Messiah, but what kind of Messiah were they hoping for? Some Jews of the time expected a royal Messiah, the Son of King David. You see that expectation in the Gospel of Matthew which begins by tracing the human origins of Jesus back to David. “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David and Son of Abraham.”
Hope for a Messiah like the warrior King David who would free the land of Israel from its oppressors grew stronger among the Jews after the Roman occupation of Palestine by the Roman general Pompey in 63 BC. It can be seen in some of the Essene writings discovered from Qumran in recent times.
The Gospel of Matthew indicates that ordinary people too were hoping for a kingly messiah at the time of Jesus. “Can this be the son of David,” the crowd says after he cured a man who could not see or speak. (Mt 12,23) “Hosanna to the son of David,” the crowd says as he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. (Mt 21,9) That causes the leaders in Jerusalem to become angry, because a claim like that could fire revolution and they feared what would happen because of it. (Mt 21.15)
Jesus never claims to be a political revolutionary, however. He refuses to fit neatly into that kind of messianic expectation. He will not lead an uprising against the Romans. He’s not John the Baptist come back from the dead. “Jesus is not confined to playing an already fixed role–that of Messiah– but he confers, on the notions of Messiah and salvation, a fullness which could not have been imagined in advance.” (Pontifical Biblical Commission)
If we ask what messianic expectation of his time Jesus comes closest to, we might find it in the hope for a prophetic messiah like Elijah.
Like Elijah, he will speak the truth against the powerful, he will help the poor, he will suffer persecution; he will raise the dead.
Our visit on November 8th to Mount Carmel, long associated with Elijah, will help us place Jesus in the context of his time.