If you want to know what the Jewish and Christian writings say about the Messiah, this is the book. It is detailed, comprehensive, and exhaustive in its tracing of the term Messiah from the early Jewish writings to the New Testament and beyond, to the Rabbinic writings until the sixth century C.E. Fr. Fitzmyer clearly states what he is and is not talking about. Such clarity and precision enables the reader to understand not only the texts but also her or his own realistic messianic expectations.
Our English word “Messiah” is from the Greek and the Greek immediately from Aramaic (mesiha) and also the Hebrew—which ultimately is rooted in the Hebrew word for anointed one. It is this Hebrew word for anointed one that shapes the development of Fitzmyer’s argument and conclusion. “Anointed one” becomes by mid second century B. C. E the nub of the idea of Messiah, one chosen by God to lead Israel. As priest and/or prophet, he will bring a kingship inherited from David to conquer Israel’s enemies and, thereby, bring peace to the world. To arrive at this conclusion Fitzmyer traces every treatment of the word and its derivatives in Jewish usage until the end of the sixth century C. E. As a consequence it may be said that the Jewish view of messiah is varied and that it is portrayed by some as an individual and some as the community; some as priest, some as king.. The dominant Jewish belief in a messiah is, according to Fitzmyer, a kingly figure that is to bring deliverance, at once political, economic, and spiritual, to his Jewish people, and, through them, peace, prosperity, and righteousness to everyone.
Christians, named after the Christ (anointed one, messiah), understand him to be Jesus who was born, lived, died, and resurrected many centuries ago. Rooted in the current vision of the Jewish messiah during Jesus’ first thirty years, and a probable claim by him to be Messiah, Christianity views the Messiah quite differently than the Jews. They see the Messiah as Jesus. He is, as the dominant Jewish view expected, anointed by God and Leader of his people. But more, this man anointed by God exercises a spiritual leadership characterized by suffering service: a service that led to his death on the cross which enables all equally to live a life of peace and justice; a service that established a new type of kingdom, the nature of which we are still trying to understand. To top it all off, the Christian messiah, Jesus, is God—certainly beyond the concept of the Jewish messiah.
Is the Christian view of Messiah lacking in Jewish roots? Is it an imaginary construct made by ignorant Jews after their rabbi died? Fitzmyer shows two things: 1) the root of the Christian Messiah is in the Hebrew Scriptures. 2) The Messiah seen in those scriptures by Christians is most times non-existent and seldom more than a hint. Fitzmyer pleads, as every good scholar does, not to read more into the text than is there. In other words, to Christians, do not tell the Jews what their bible says; to Jews, do not tell the Christians who the messiah is.
While it seems so easy for a Christian such as Fitzmyer, to claim the type of messiah as discovered in Jesus, one must also concede to Muslims who believe in al-Mahdi (messiah) the manner and nature of their Messiah and their re-reading of both the Old and New Testaments in the light of the Koran. All three religions seem to be telling the other how to read their own text. Could it be that all three must read each other’s texts through the eyes of the community that birthed them, to discover the true meaning of their own, and, in so doing, as Fitzmyer did so we all may gain a better knowledge of the anointed one, the one who is to come?