Dr. Richard S. Hess

Old Testament Questions from the desk of Dr. Richard S. Hess

What is the Origin of the Term, Messiah?

Messiah means “anointed one.”  While anointing with oil was common for its health effects, one could be anointed with oil as a ceremonial entrance into kingship.  Kings were anointed with oil as also were priests in the Bible (Gen 29 and Exodus 8-9) and in one other attested example for the installation of the high priestess of the Storm God at 13th century BC Emar.  Thus the “messiah” in most of its references in the Pentateuch refers to the high priest; while in the historical and prophetic books it normally refers to the king.  There is no necessary connection between the messiah and divinity.  Indeed, if you could go back in time to the Israelite Monarchy and ask about the messiah, people would first think of the reigning king in Jerusalem.  He was the messiah.  As the prophecies and psalms connected the messiah with the king in Jerusalem and went on to assign him universal dominion and rule (Psalms 2, 110), this propelled the expectation forward to a time when this would be realized.  Even after the Exile people awaited the return of the messiah as a king in the line of David (2 Samuel 7) who would rule the world justly.

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