Michele Bachmann says she is waiting for God to assemble and anoint her presidential campaign. This is interesting language, very powerful language in fact for Jews and Christians. The term messiah, after all, is from the Jewish mashiah (“the Anointed” [of God], i.e., the “chosen”) and to be anointed, in ancient Israel, was to make one a messiah.
Cella: So, when are you going to announce?
Bachmann: Well I’ve let people know that in June I will be making that decision and quite literally I am asking your listeners now to please pray for me and my husband and my team. We’re in the process of planning an office decision; we’re putting our team together. Ask that the Lord will give us a special anointing on how to put our team together, who those team people will be, that He would bring those people to us. Because it won’t be easy, it will be a very, very difficult fight. But if this is something that the Lord has called us to, He will make a way where there is no way, and so we’re asking for that prayer.
What’s in a messiah, you ask? Like many terms it is problematic. Contrary to what many people may think, despite the origins of our word messianism is not unique to Judaism. In fact, in historical terms we can’t even speak of “Judaism” singular because there were in fact many Judaisms with different ways of life and different worldviews. So not only is there not one Jewish idea (or Christian idea) of what a messiah is but not all ideas of messiahs are Jewish (or Christian).
For example, Islam has its Mahdi (the “right-guided one”), and similar ideas are found in other salvation religions, including Zoroastrianism, which has the Saoshyant (the “future benefactor”) which may have given birth to the idea in Judaism, and Buddhism (the Maitreya: meaning either “the friend” or “the World Unifier”), and also in the Ghost Dance movement of the Plains Indians at the end of the 19th century.
The biggest surprise for Christians may be that the Roman emperor Augustus, in whose reign Jesus was born, was a messiah too, and before Jesus, as an inscription by the Provincial Assembly of Asia from 9 B.C.E. demonstrates, referring to how Augustus became “god manifest,” fulfilling “all the hopes of earlier times” and noting that his birthday “has been for the whole world the beginning of good news (evangelion – recognize that word?) concerning him [therefore let a new era begin from his birth.]”
Not unreasonably, Vittorio Lanternari suggests that “we should use the term ‘messiah’ to designate any being, singular or plural, more or less anthropomorphic, expected by a community as the future savior in a religious context” and this definition fits the eschatological context of first century Judaea.
Michele Bachmann the savior?
It’s not as far-fetched as you might think.
Lanternari notes of messianism that such movements “arise time to time as an answer to a real need for renewal and catharsis resulting from a state of oppression, anxiety, freedom, and conflict at a collective and social level.”
This description certainly fits the bill as far as Tea Party and Christian fundamentalist worldviews are concerned. When messiahs are needed they tend to appear. Jesus was not the first messiah to arise in Roman Palestine. To the Romans who executed him, he was merely the latest in a long string of messiahs.
Messiahs come and they go.
So we must ask ourselves: Does Michele Bachmann mean to imply that God will anoint her? If so, she is making the claim that she is or will be “a” messiah. After all, if God anoints her campaign he is ipso facto anointing her, which has the inevitable result of making her a messiah (hopefully not the messiah).
Historically, the term had a much looser application than its later use would suggest. In ancient Judaism, kings and high priests could be accorded the title (e.g. Daniel 9), though “not in the eschatological, futurist sense of the term,” cautions John J. Collins, and even Cyrus, King of Persia, (a Zoroastrian) was called messiah by the Jews when he returned them from Babylonian captivity to their homeland (Isa 45.1). It is clear then that there are messiahs and there are messiahs, and as Vittorio Lanternari has observed, the term has “changed its meaning in the course of time from a generic to a restricted and individual one.”
The reason is clear, as historian Michael Grant writes: “During the 1st century BC as the Israelites saw less and less prospect of any human being bringing their oppression to an end, it came to be increasingly felt that only a superhuman figure and a superhuman act could be powerful enough to rescue them.” For Jews, this became the one who would redeem Israel, inaugurate the Kingdom of God, and destroy the Gentiles. This idea of a messiah, the “ideal Davidic king” as Collins calls him, “derives from Ps 2:2, which speaks of the subjugation of all the peoples to God’s anointed.”
It is in that restricted and individual sense that we must understand the term now.
Grant’s Judaea Sounds like America in the year 2011, with Muslims, homosexuals, feminists, liberals, pagans and others standing in for those damned Gentiles. And we know (because they tell us all the time) how badly they want us to be subjugated.
For Christians, of course, there is only one messiah: Jesus of Nazareth, often called simply, Jesus Christ, the term “Christ” (Christos) itself being merely the Greek word for messiah and not a surname as some Christians seem to assume. But the Christian messiah is not the Jewish messiah, even though Christianity derives its messianism in part from Judaism.
That there were different ideas about what specifically the messiah would be is acknowledged, as is the fact that ideas about the messiah developed over time, as noted by Lanternari. It would be wrong (not to say misleading) to state that there was simply a thing called “Jewish messianism” and leave it at that, something Collins says would be “to speak ambiguously.” That said, it must be acknowledged that outside of the New Testament, there is no indication that any Jew of the first century expected a messiah who would be slain, cursed, and bring not freedom to Israel but some sort of universal atonement for sins not only to Jews, but to the despised Gentiles.
Collins observes that “The Christian view of Jesus…departed decisively from the Jewish paradigms in many respects” and points out that the Christian use of Psalm 22, 31 and 69 “involved a new line of interpretation…for which there was no precedent in Judaism.” Morton Smith, like Geza Vermes, thinks that too much can be made of messianism, finding in the literature an “embarrassment of messianic riches,” and observing to the Christian exegete who “will probably try to define the object of his interest as ‘the Messiah’ – the one whose coming is to be a major event in the End” that “this brings us to the fact that just as there are messiahs without Ends, so there are Ends without messiahs.”
Of course, nothing in the Bible, Old or New Testament, led us to expect that Michele Bachmann would be anointed messiah.
Of course, it could be that Michele Bachmann just doesn’t know what she’s talking about. It is not, after all, a prerequisite for a Tea Party candidate.
 See Jacob Neusnerm William S. Green, Ernest Frerichs, Ed. Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era (Cambridge University Press, 1997), ix-xiv.
 Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 23-24.
 Vittorio Lanternari, “Messianism: Its Historical Origin and Morphology,” History of Religions 2 (1962), 53.
 Lanternari, (1962), 54.
 John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature (NY: Doubleday, 1995),, 12.
 Lanternari, (1962), 52.
 Michael Grant, Jesus: A Historian’s Review of the Gospels (London, 1997), 97.
 Collins, (1995), 11. This is a common theme and is occurs again and again in the Jewish Bible and is replayed in the intratestamental literature.
 Collins, (1995), 208.
 Collins, (1995), 12.
 Collins, (1995), 208.
 Morton Smith, “What is Implied by the Variety of Messianic Figures?” JBL 78 (1959), 68. See also, idem, “Messiahs: Robbers, Jurists, Prophets, and Magicians,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 44 (1977), 185-195 in which Smith expands upon these ideas to delineate four different types of messiah. Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (NY: Allen Lane, 1997), 67.