An award-winning historian of religion examines the role a “messiah” plays in Western culture, from its pre-Christian roots to modern interpretations of a savior.
Over the centuries, people have longed for a messiah, whether a religious figure such as Jesus, a political leader, or even in popular culture. The messianic quest emerges most acutely during difficult times when people experience a sense of powerlessness and desperation. But the concept of a messiah—a savior—has its root in the writings of ancient Judaism and early Christianity, evolving from an anointed leader to universal savior. Wilson turns to a little understood pre-Christian text, “The Psalms of Solomon,” which set the stage for messianic expectation just prior to the birth of Jesus.
Known today only to a handful of scholars—in marked contrast to the “Song of Solomon”—these important pslams were composed not by a King, but by a devout 1st century BCE Jew who witnessed terrible atrocities under brutal Roman rule. This crucial work encourages us to ask: what is a messiah? Who is a messiah? How would we recognized one should he or she appear? And what is a messiah supposed to do?
In his own lifetime, Jesus directed his followers to search for “the messiah within” in his parables. Later, Paul changed the concept of “the messiah,” to “the Christ,” when presenting his message to Gentiles instead of Jews. Jesus was no longer a Jewish messiah but a Hellenistic divine avatar.
In Searching for the Messiah, Wilson reveals how this collective search for messiahs throughout modern human history has been fundamentally flawed. Jesus himself rejected the idea of an external fixer, instead formulating his teachings to focus on the role of the individual, their choices, and their actions.
Searching for the Messiah is revelatory and illuminating work of scholarship that will challenge and inspire.
Wilson (How Jesus Became Christian), professor emeritus of religious studies at York University, Toronto, explores the meaning of messiahship in this entertaining and challenging study. Wilson starts with an apparently simple question: what makes for a messiah? He then explains how this is not such a simple question by digging deep into the Old and New Testaments to demonstrate that though most associate Jesus Christ with "the messiah" this is incorrect. Wilson argues that much of the narrative work done in the New Testament to shape Christ into a messiah figure (such as his miracles and position as a rebel against Judaism) was done long after the original narratives of his life were written in a post-facto attempt to make Christ fit the messiah pattern. He works through a careful, close reading of Hebrew scripture to explore how the idea of a messiah an anointed leader with fairly specific characteristics came about through the anointing of Hebrew kings and priests. In one of the meatiest sections, he examines how messiahship became a global rather than a local concept before ending with a discussion of modern messiah figures: superheroes. Historians and lay readers alike will appreciate Wilson's ingenuity and deep scholarship.