In This Article Messianic Thought and Movements

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Primary Texts

Jewish Studies Messianic Thought and Movements
by
Rebekka Voss
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0032

Introduction

While the focus of this article is on Jewish messianism, messianic concepts, often interrelated, appear in many other religions besides Judaism, such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Modern movements such as socialism and Zionism have commonly been interpreted as secular forms of messianism. Messianism in its broadest sense is the belief in a messiah, redeemer, or savior figure expected by a religion. The Messiah is generally believed to appear at the end of days to introduce an eschatological age of earthly bliss and justice, often following catastrophe (in Judaism called the birth pangs of the Messiah, hevlei mashiah). In the Hebrew Bible, the term “messiah” (mashiah), literally meaning “anointed (one),” denotes kings and priests who were traditionally anointed with oil. Only in postbiblical times, when Israel eventually lost its sovereignty to the Romans, the Messiah became an ideal future king of Israel, descending from the line of David, who would restore the kingdom of Israel, rebuild the Temple, and gather the Jewish people from exile back into its ancestral homeland. His reign, the messianic age (yemot ha-mashi’ah), would be an era of universal peace and abundance. Although the Jewish Messiah is believed to act upon God’s call, in Judaism, unlike in Christianity, the Messiah is a human being; he is not considered to be God or a Son of God. Drawing on biblical roots (especially restorative and utopian images in the prophetic writings), messianic ideas further developed and diversified in the Second Temple period and in rabbinic literature, including such features of the eschatological drama as the resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment, and the world to come (olam ha-ba), with the roles of the messianic herald Elijah, Messiah Son of Joseph, preceding Messiah Son of David. Both in times of peace and conflict, grounding in the exegesis of classical texts, gematria, or astronomy, apocalyptic speculation as to when redemption would come and what the last days would bring has flourished. Through today, spiritual and political messianic movements have played a vital role in Jewish history. While end-time prophets who claimed to pave the way for the Messiah or a person believed to be the long-awaited redeemer himself have attracted many followers, they have also excited opposition from within and outside the Jewish community. This is in part due to the fact that messianism is not a well-defined concept; rather, it has numerous facets, with conflictive ideas existing side by side, being repeatedly reinterpreted. Messianism is not even a universally accepted principle of Judaism for all Jews. There is a long debate on this issue, starting with the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), with some thinkers trying to expunge messianism from Judaism altogether, while others are trying to diminish its scope and to present it as an optional tenet of belief.

General Overviews

The founders of the “Science of Judaism” (Wissenschaft des Judentums) movement in the 19th century had largely marginalized messianism because it did not fit their rational and “enlightened” concept of Judaism and Jewish history. The only exception was the historian Heinrich Graetz (Graetz 1975). While studying messianic movements, however, he equally disdained active messianism as an aberration of the backward masses and ignored the traditional national dimension of a return to Zion. His work thus has to be read with the ideology of a historian of the emancipation in mind. The pioneer of the scholarly study of Jewish messianism was Gershom Scholem (b. 1897–d. 1981), who viewed the messianic idea as a major force in Jewish history. A collection of his writings on messianism can be found in Scholem 1995. While Scholem studied messianism mainly as a manifestation of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah), his contemporary Aaron Aescoly (Aescoly 1987) put Jewish messianic movements into their broader historical context. In his introduction to the second edition of Aescoly’s important book, the author of Idel 1987 adopts this approach, representing the generation of scholarship after Scholem that has increasingly contextualized messianism since the late 1980s. Two other early scholars of messianism are Julius Greenstone (Greenstone 1906) and Abba Silver (Silver 1927). Lenowitz 1998 and Dan 2000 provide the most-recent overviews of messianic thought and movements.

  • Aescoly, Aaron Z. Jewish Messianic Movements: Sources and Documents on Messianism in Jewish History from the Bar-Kokhba Revolt until Recent Times, in Two Volumes. Vol. 1, From the Bar-Kokhba Revolt until the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain. 2d ed. Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1987.

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    Text in Hebrew. Representing an early attempt to put Jewish messianism into its broader political, social, and cultural context, Aescoly’s source collection with its detailed introductory chapters is still a standard survey in Hebrew of messianic thought and movements from Bar Kokhba through the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Published posthumously in 1956. Volume 2 hasn’t been completed.

  • Dan, Joseph. Apocalypse Then and Now. Tel Aviv: Yedioth Ahronoth, 2000.

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    Text in Hebrew. Originally aired (and first published in 1999) as part of the Israel Broadcast University, this enlarged edition of the lectures in Hebrew, by a leading scholar of Jewish mysticism, presents a useful introduction to Jewish messianism and its major occurrences from Antiquity through the 20th century. Includes excerpts from essential primary sources.

  • Graetz, Heinrich. “The Stages in the Evolution of the Messianic Belief.” In The Structure of Jewish History and Other Essays. By Heinrich Graetz, 151–171. Translated and edited by Ismar Schorsch. Moreshet 3. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1975.

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    Heinrich Graetz (b. 1817–d. 1891) was the first to systematically collect sources on messianic movements, in his History of the Jews and other publications, albeit in an often hostile language. Originally published in German in 1864–1865, his shorter essay stresses the universal significance of the messianic hope for an era of universal peace. Republished as recently as 2000 (Düsseldorf: Parerga).

  • Greenstone, Julius H. The Messiah Idea in Jewish History. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1906.

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    First work in English to examine historically the messianic belief in Judaism, from biblical times to the religious reform movements and Zionism of the late 19th century. Book of popular, rather than academic, scholarship. Reprinted as recently as 2010. Available online through the Freimann Collection of the University Library Frankfurt.

  • Idel, Moshe. “Introduction.” In Jewish Messianic Movements: Sources and Documents on Messianism in Jewish History from the Bar-Kokhba Revolt until Recent Times in Two Volumes. Vol. 1, From the Bar-Kokhba Revolt until the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain. 2d ed. By Aaron Z. Aescoly, 9–28. Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1987.

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    A contemporary Israeli scholar of Jewish mysticism, Moshe Idel challenges his teacher Scholem’s influential concept of the major force of Jewish history being essentially internal (i.e., mysticism and messianism). Instead, Idel advances a broader approach, taking into account various factors for messianic excitement. Text in Hebrew.

  • Lenowitz, Harris. The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    Comprehensive survey of Jewish messianic movements from Antiquity through today, offering English translation of extensive excerpts of the original texts. Focuses on messianic personalities such as Jesus of Nazareth, Bar Kokhba, and Shabtai Zevi, among others. Useful as a textbook in the classroom.

  • Scholem, Gershom. The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality. New York: Schocken, 1995.

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    Originally published in 1971, this classic collection represents Scholem’s attempt at synthesis of his interpretation of history, with the connection between mysticism and messianism as a major force. Indispensible collection of classic texts, translated from German and Hebrew. Arthur Hertzberg’s foreword to the 1995 edition offers a concise discussion of Scholem’s vision of history.

  • Silver, Abba H. A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel: From the First through the Seventeenth Centuries. New York: Macmillan, 1927.

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    Silver examines the history of the practice of “calculating the end,” and its methods and impact. Republished as recently as 1978 (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith). Available online through the Freimann Collection of the University Library Frankfurt.

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