The word messiah comes from Hebrew/Aramaic mashiach, meaning “anointed one.” The Greek equivalent is christos, which likewise derives from the word “to anoint,” chri. In the first century, “Messiah” and “Christ” were virtually synonymous (John 1:41).
messianic expectations in the second temple period
In the second temple period (516 BC–AD 70), messiah generally designated the right to rule. Second temple texts indicate the lack of a uniform concept of messiah in ancient Judaism. At times, expectations centered on a messianic age rather than a specific figure (Isa. 2:1–5; Mic. 4:1–5). Some thought of the messiah as a heavenly being akin to the enigmatic figure mentioned in Daniel 7:13. Others, like the Samaritans, thought of the messiah primarily as a teacher (John 4:25). Most, however, conceived of the coming figure as priest, prophet, or king (or a combination of these).
The expectation of a priestly messiah is found in the Qumran community, which most likely traced its origin to the rejection of the corrupt high priesthood at the Jerusalem temple by a group of priests in the mid–second century BC. Some of the Qumran writings (the Dead Sea Scrolls) pit the founder of the community, the Teacher of Righteousness, against the Wicked Priest. In addition to conceiving of the messiah in royal terms, therefore, the Qumran covenanters thought of him as a priestly figure, a “messiah of Aaron,” though on the whole the community was primarily concerned with ritual purity, not messianic expectation.
More common was the expectation of a future prophet. When John the Baptist appeared, priests and Levites asked if he was Elijah or the Prophet (John 1:21, 24). The expectation of Elijah was rooted in God’s promise to “send . . . Elijah the prophet” (Mal. 4:5). When Jesus fed the five thousand, people surmised that He was “indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14; see also 7:40; Deut. 18:15, 18). Associated with this was the expectation that the coming Messiah would perform signs and wonders as Moses did at the exodus (John 6:30–31; 7:31). At the triumphal entry, the crowds exclaimed, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee” (Matt. 21:11, 46).