In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Messianism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Introductory Works
  • Historical Background

Biblical Studies Messianism
David Hamidovic
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0233


Messianism covers the waiting for a savior named “messiah” in numerous contexts. In the majority of cases, a messiah is thought to appear unexpectedly and to solve a desperate problem. The term messianism was unknown in Antiquity; it is instead a term of modern scholarly discourse that is applied from an etic perspective. More precisely, it describes the messianic expectations concerning the emergence of a messiah, a figure of salvation arising in the end of times. Messianism cannot be understood either as a closed system of ideas or as an ideology. Although some motifs recur in many literary sources, the variety of ideas expressed with the use of these motifs makes the expression messianic expectations preferable to the term messianism. In fact, the history of this term sheds important light on trends in the history of scholarship, and also on present understandings of this topic. In general, messianism remains a term that is applied only in describing the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity. With the exception of messianic Jews, messianic expectations remain a major point of difference used to distinguish both religions. While the Jews are awaiting the emergence of a figure of salvation at the end of times (i.e., a messiah), the Christians consider Jesus of Nazareth to be the messiah who already came to earth; his return is expected in the final days (i.e., the Parousia). For historical and theological reasons, the waiting of a messiah in Judaism has been relegated to the background since Late Antiquity, despite the attempts by certain groups even today to revive messianic expectations. By contrast, the notion that Jesus is the Christ (i.e., the Greek term christos, or messiah) remains the central belief in the Christian faith. The study of messianism was for a long time exclusively focused on the messianic characteristics of Jesus and the messianic expectations associated with this figure in the New Testament and the Christian writings. Since the end of the 19th century, many studies have sought to emphasize the originality of these concepts in Christianity. However, a new trend in scholarship has emerged that seeks to understand the messianic expectations of Judaism in association with other figures. This scholarly interest was greatly enhanced by the deciphering of the Qumran manuscripts. Overall, there is a growing scholarly consensus concerning the major elements of messianic expectations in Antiquity. The presentation made here is limited to the very last centuries BCE to the first centuries CE.

General Overviews

From Bousset 1970 to Collins 2010, the overviews attest to a broad shift of focus in scholarship. Because Christianity has always taught that Jesus was the Christ, much attention has been paid to the study of the messiah in Christian writings. Indeed, Bousset 1970 (first published 1913) considers Jesus alone to be a messiah, and Bousset’s study was the most popular handbook for many decades. Mainly after the discoveries of the Qumran manuscripts (1947–1956), more and more studies have turned to examine Jewish expectations of the messiah. Many books have tried to outline a history of the waiting for the messiah on the basis of the occurrences of the word anointed in the Old Testament up until the first Christian writings. Of the works adopting such a focus, de Jonge 1992 and Fabry and Scholtissek 2002 are good examples. Although largely in the same vein, other volumes, such as Charlesworth 1992 and Hogeterp 2009, attempt to be more precise, avoiding the assumption that the history of the idea of a messiah forms a linear line from the Jewish writings to the first Christian documents. Defining a messiah and eschatology are more complex tasks than simply considering the use of the term messiah and speculations concerning the future. Therefore, each close study of relevant references and manuscripts necessarily qualified our understanding of the messiah and messianic expectations. The methodical study Zimmermann 1998 summarizes the discussion on the main Qumran manuscripts dealing with a messiah. The handbook Collins 2010 (first published 1995) gathers the most recent results of these careful studies on early Jewish texts, including Qumran texts, and early Christian documents.

  • Bousset, Wilhelm. Kyrios Christos: A History of Belief in Christ from the Beginnings of Christianity to Irenaeus. Translated by John E. Steely. Nashville: Abingdon, 1970.

    English translation of Kyrios Christos: Geschichte des Christusglaubens von den Anfängen des Christentums bis Irenaeus (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1913). One of the first syntheses on the messianic aspect of the presentation of Jesus in the canonical Gospels up until the Church Fathers at the end of the first century CE.

  • Charlesworth, James H., ed. The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.

    Collection of studies on specific aspects of messianism in early Judaism and early Christianity. This book raised the first issues with the Christian-centered view of scholarship on Jewish messianism.

  • Chester, Andrew. Messiah and Exaltation: Jewish Messianic and Visionary Traditions and New Testament Christology. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2007.

    Examines central issues within Jewish messianic expectations, with specific attention given to exalted figures, and also to central issues within early Christianity, with a discussion of major themes, intermediary figures, and visionary traditions of human transformation.

  • Collins, John J. The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.

    Handbook, first published in 1995, and recently updated (including the bibliography). Collins provides an overview of the royal ideologies of the Hebrew Bible and the messianic expectations of early Judaism. He also examines messianic figures in the Qumran texts and the remaining Jewish Apocryphal literature along with messianic titles and ideas. Some excursuses develop specific issues.

  • de Jonge, Marinus. “Messiah.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 4. Edited by Daniel Noel Freedman, 777–788. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

    Begins with considerations on the term anointed in the Old Testament, where it is never used of an eschatological savior, and then examines how the term is used with agents of divine deliverance in later Jewish writings (200 BCE to 100 CE): a paragraph is devoted to each document.

  • Fabry, Heinz-Josef, and Klaus Scholtissek. Der Messias: Perspektiven des Alten und Neuen Testaments. Würzburg, Germany: Echter, 2002.

    Careful German presentation of sources and figures in early Judaism and early Christianity on messianism. The authors seek to establish points of continuity between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

  • Hogeterp, Albert L. A. Expectations of the End: A Comparative Traditio-Historical Study of Eschatological, Apocalyptic and Messianic Ideas in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004171770.i-572

    Messianism is here embedded in a wider debate about the definition of eschatology, especially in chapter 6. The study is particularly focused on Qumran eschatology and emerging Christianity, including a discussion of resurrection and apocalypticism.

  • Zimmermann, Johannes. Messianische Texte aus Qumran: Königliche, priesterliche und prophetische Messiasvorstellungen in den Schriftfunden von Qumran. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1998.

    Basic overview of the references in the writings from Qumran to the waiting for an eschatological savior/redeemer. One of the interests of the book is the general presentation of each manuscript that is referenced, which helps to contextualize the messianic expectations discussed.

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