The NY Times reports the death of the grand rabbi of a Hasidic Jewish sect. Without actually using the term messiah, the article notes that "[i]n Hasidism, a mystical brand of Orthodox Judaism, the grand rabbi is revered as a kinglike link to God, holding vast sway over members' lives." The Times article reminded me that many members of another Hasidic sect, the Lubavitchers, regarded their late rabbi, known simply as The Rebbe, as the Mashiach, or the Jewish Messiah. Wikipedia provides a list of other Jewish messiah claimants, as well as a very readable general article about Jewish views of the Messiah.
Recall the scene in the last part of Acts chapter 5: Peter and the other apostles proclaim to the Sanhedrin that God has raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him to his right hand as Prince and Savior. At this, the council members become furious and want to put the Apostles to death. But Gamaliel, a respected rabbi, has the Apostles taken out of the room so that he can address the Sanhedrin in executive session, so to speak. He reminds his audience that the Apostles' messianic claim about Jesus was nothing new: Others had made similar claims for themselves, and had led fatally-unsuccessful revolts against the Roman conquerors. So (Gamaliel says), let's not put these guys to death; let's just wait and see what happens to them. That cools down the Sanhedrin hotheads enough that they let the Apostles go with "just" a flogging. After that, "[d]ay after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, [the Apostles] never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah" (Acts 5.42).
Evidently, at that time the Apostles believed Jesus to be the Messiah, in the classic Jewish sense of the term: [REVISED:] The Anointed One, a king designated by God who would bring the whole world to the LORD and restore Israel to its rightful place in God's service. Jesus being dead, the Apostles added the detail that Jesus was seated at God's right hand, whence he would imminently return to carry out his Messiah duties.
(Notably, not once does Acts recount that the Apostles ever proclaimed Jesus to be God incarnate.)
You mistate the Jewish criteria for a potential Messiah (Moshiach). The followers of a teacher (particularly in a Hassidic sect) may regard their teacher as a potential Messiah, or they may not, individually. The Lubavitchers have ample numbers of both types, something which is causing stress within the group today. However, none of the modern Hassidic Rebbe's has revealed himself as a Messiah, a necessary step for his actually assuming kingship. Moreover, a Jewish Messiah is different from a Christian Messiah, the Jewish Messiah does not become G-d (G-d is one) but rather is connected to G-d, and by being connected to a Messiah or a tzadik (a person of high spiritual evolution) opportunities exist for a closer connection with G-d.
False messiahs have caused great pain in Jewish history from Bar Kochba forwards (and from a Jewish point of view, Jesus is another false messiah) but perhaps none more than the tragic era of Sabbatai Sevi, who was a kabbahlistic master and ultimately converted to Islam. As a result of him, Jewish culture was divided for centuries on the issue of allow mysticism into normative Jewish studies. Many of the schisms within observant Judaism today that we see trace their pain back to Sabbatai Sevi.
Posted by: Doug Tygar | April 26, 2006 at 05:27 AM
Doug, my point is precisely that we have good reason to question whether the Apostles — the men who actually worked with Jesus during his lifetime and purportedly knew him the best — regarded him as God, or whether instead Jesus's deity was invented later by (unknown) church fathers who never knew the man.
That's useful information about Sabbatai Sevi, about whom I remember reading something before but couldn't remember the name.
Thanks for stopping by.
Posted by: D. C. | April 26, 2006 at 05:36 AM
I don;t think the Wikipedia article could be taken as an accurate representation of what a 1st C. jew wold expect of a Messiah. A lot of the stuff I read there seemed to (a) postdate the 1st C. and (2) be largely a reaction to Christian claims for Jesus.
Posted by: ruidh | April 26, 2006 at 10:31 AM