Green Explains a Judaic View of Messiah

May 8, 2001

Judaism was not too busy or blind to realize their redeemer, as some assume, said noted Jewish scholar Dr. William Scott Green at Oklahoma Baptist University in April. The religious tradition didn't have a role for a redeemer to perform in day-to-day life and still doesn't.

At the second annual Schusterman Lecture in Jewish History and Tradition at OBU, Green, dean of The College and Philip S. Bernstein professor of Judaic studies at the University of Rochester, discussed the concept of messiah in Judaism.

"There is probably no religious idea that seems more fundamental to Judaism or that seems more essentially Jewish than the idea of the messiah," said Green.

"Messiah" implies Israel's eschatological redeemer or a redeemer who comes at the end of time.

"It is widely supposed and commonly held that Judaism is a messianic religion and that hope for the messiah's appearance is a major focus of Judaism, is a driving force behind Judaism, and is a major source of energy for Jewish religious belief and Jewish religious behavior," Green said.

To counter that idea, Green questioned what the religious role of a messiah in Judaism might be, or how a messiah would affect and effect the relationship between God and humans.

He also considered Judaism's history as a telling sign of whether or not the hope for a messiah has been a primary driving force of religious activity and behavior.

Investigating these questions, Green said the Hebrew Bible does not use the term "messiah" to refer to an end times redeemer. Post-biblical Jewish texts use the term infrequently and inconsistently and the idea of "messiah" is barely present in the Mishnah.

There is not much textual evidence that Jews of first century Palestine were anticipating a messiah, he said.

So why is there no doctrine in Judaism for the messiah?

The temple-centered religion has no religious function for a messiah to perform that is not already covered in some other way, said Green. Living ethically and ritually, according to God's design maintains Israel's relationship with God, including the forgiveness of sin, he explained.

"I think a key reason for the unclarity about the messiah in these texts is that the temple-centered religion that was practiced in Jerusalem and is described in scripture and which dominated ancient Judaism, and which is basis of all other forms of Judaism practiced from then until now, provides no religious role for a messiah," he said.

Another unclarity in the texts is the definition of a religious messiah as opposed to a political messiah.

"The messiah theme is inextricably bound up with the notion of exile," Green said. "Consequently, the return of the Jews to the land they regard as theirs inevitably has messianic overtones. The question is whether those messianic overtones are religious overtones."

Rabbinic literature contains a range of opinions about what the messiah will do, when the messiah will come, how the messiah will act, and how people will know the messiah when the messiah appears, he said.

"What this tells me is there's not a lot at stake in getting this one right," he said.

Issues central to Judaism are black and white, with no question as to whether believing one way is right or wrong.

"I promise you on the eating of pork, there is not a lot of wild speculation in rabbinic literature - don't do it," he said. "When it comes to the Messiah, you can think whatever you want, more or less. This tells me that this is an ancillary subject."

Christianity sees a consistent biblical message in the New Testament about what the messiah is.

That reading and that theological view never became part of Judaism because the fundamental Judaic system does not have in its structure a role for a Messiah to perform anything religious, he said.

"In levitical religion, there is nothing religious a messiah can do that the altar cannot do," Green said. "A redeemer is religiously unnecessary."

The annual Schusterman Lecture is intended to foster an understanding and appreciation of Jewish culture and tradition among OBU students and faculty and to cultivate awareness of Jewish contributions to religious, ethical and philosophical studies.

The lectureship is made possible by a grant from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation of Tulsa, a philanthropic organization that funds programs to enhance Jewish life in the United States, Israel, and the former Soviet Union.