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Messianic Figures in the Bible

“Christ” is probably the most frequently used—and least understood—word in the Bible. The term “Christ” (Greek christos) is equivalent to “messiah” (Hebrew mashiah), which literally means “anointed.” It was first used for a reigning monarch: David, for example, spoke of King Saul as “Yahweh’s messiah.” Eventually the term came to refer to God’s agent who would liberate the oppressed and introduce a new era, the Reign of God. What does archaeology tell us about ancient Jewish understanding of messianic figures? And how would a “messiah” be received by contemporaneous people?

Biblical Archaeology Society editors have hand-selected a special collection of articles that highlight diverse ancient and Biblical characterizations of messianic figures. Explore ancient inscriptions, Hebrew Bible depictions and new understandings of the New Testament.

Scroll down to read a summary of these articles.

A New Dead Sea Scroll in Stone?

BAR, Jan/Feb 2008
by Ada Yardeni

The Messiah Son of Joseph

BAR, Sep/Oct 2008
by Israel Knohl

Cyrus the Messiah

Bible Review, Oct 2003
by Lisbeth S. Fried

The Role of the Messiah

Bible Review, Oct 1995
by Bernhard W. Anderson

Mary, Simeon or Anna

Bible Review, Winter 2005
By Ben Witherington, III

In “A New Dead Sea Scroll in Stone?” Ada Yardeni published a stunning discovery for the first time in English. The script dates to the turn of the era—just like a Dead Sea Scroll. The inked writing is laid out in prepared columns—just like a Dead Sea Scroll. The text contains Bible-like prophecies—just like some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But this document isn’t a “scroll” at all—it’s a stone slab! In the follow-up “The Messiah Son of Joseph,” Israel Knohl shows what this discovery teaches us about the Jewish origins of a suffering Messiah and resurrection on the third day.

In “Cyrus the Messiah,” Lisbeth S. Fried examines why this non-Jewish king of Persia was referred to as “messiah,” or “anointed one” in the Hebrew Bible. He is the only foreigner in the Bible to be thus identified; the prophet known as Second Isaiah bestowed this honor.

In “The Role of the Messiah,” Bernhard W. Anderson shows that the Bible does not use “Christ” or “Messiah” to mean a divine being, but instead to the function an agent of God plays in bringing the kingdom that is to come on earth as in heaven.

Finally, in “Mary, Simeon or Anna: Who First Recognized Jesus as Messiah?” Ben Witherington III takes a look at the birth of Jesus in Luke. Luke’s Christmas story is full of surprising reversals of fortunes and roles, in which outsiders become more intimate associates than family members, and in which women play a more active role than men.

These five articles, compiled from Biblical Archaeology Review and Bible Review, provide a historical, religious and archaeological framework through which we can better understand the terms “Christ,” “messiah” and “anointed one.”