Heb. mashiah, "anointed with oil"

Someone anointed and so marked as a holy person. In the Hebrew Bible, the term messiah is most commonly applied to priests, or kings. There are no references to an eschatological figure called the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, mashiah is replaced by the secular Greek term christos ("oiled"), leading to the English "Christ." The term later becomes associated with the coming king and savior in some postbiblical Jewish texts and throughout Christian literature. More recently, the term messiah has been extended to refer to saviors outside the Jewish or Christian traditions, although this modern usage is frequently softened by using an adjectival form, e.g., "messianic figure."

The Messiah and Judiasm

In Judaism, the Messiah is the eschatological redeemer of the Jewish people and, secondarily, of all humanity. The coming of the Messiah means an end to the exile and a time when all the Jews will be gathered to the Promised Land. The coming of the Messiah will mean the end to this world and the beginning of the final age.

The original concept of the Messiah in Ancient Judaism did not always have such a eschatological and redemptive sense. The first doctrine of the Messiah in Jewish thought emerges during the period of Roman rule over Palestine. In the Hebrew Bible, the "Lord's anointed" is never an eschatological figure and "Messiah" usually refers to an anointed king of the descendants of David. The prophets promise a restoration of the Davidic monarchy, but they do not see this in a deep metahistorical or miraculous sense, but simply by a literal change in government.

During the Second Temple period, political hopes for a return to Davidic rule grew into a more complex belief in a redemptive figure. Jewish apocalyptists and the Qumran sect exhibited strong messianic tendencies, with a mixture of political and more miraculous themes. Jesus of Nazareth became a redemptive figure for some Jews, both in the land of Israel and the diaspora. The razing of the Second Temple in 70 increased messianic fevor, as did the failed Bar Kokhba rebellion against Rome in 135. After exile and banishment from the land of Israel became a hard historical reality hopes for a miraculous return to Davidic monarchy were raised to heightened levels and start to take on deeper meanings.

Rabbinic Judaism has many different teachings on the Messiah and the signs of the messianic age. In the Mishnah, there is little focus on the Messiah as redeemer. The Talmuds, talks more of the "days of the Messiah" and the epoch of the "birth pangs of the Messiah" than of an individual Messiah. They discribe the messianic age as being marked by an end of exile, an ingathering of the dispersed Jewish people to the land of Israel, and political independence under a Davidic descendant. Depending on the tradition, the messianic age will be brought about either through a gradual improvement of the human condition or through a cataclysm. There is also, in one tradition, two kinds of messianic figures: the Messiah son of Joseph (or Ephraim), who is the harbinger of the messianic age and is fated to die, and the Messiah son of David, the redeeming Messiah (see the Babylonian Talmud Sukka 52a).

When Christianity, with its competing messianic claims arouse the specifics of the Messiah were further elaborated to separate Jewish beliefs from Christian beliefs connected to Jesus. This led to a rabbinic doctrine on the Messiah which emphasized the catastrophic eschatolgical aspects of messianic beliefs. Jewish mystics also stressed a spiritual dimension to the Messiah, who in addition to restoring political power would end spiritual exile from God.

Most modern liberal Jewish religious movements (Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist) downplay the role of messianism, or express it in terms of moral and spiritual salvation. World events like the Nazi genocide in Europe and the creation of the State of Israel have prompted a reevaluation of the role of messianism in contemporary Judaism. Some Jews see Israel as the "beginning of the flowering of our redemption." while Ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to regard the establishment of a modern nation-state negatively as "forcing God's hand".

Christianity and The Messiah

"Christ", the Greek translation of Messiah, is the common title for Jesus among Christians. Christ is often treated like a surname, it really is more of a title, Jesus the King, bearing the sense of his being the eschatological savior who will rule the new world order, and expressing the belief that he is the fullfillment of the biblical prophets' promises.

Source: The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion.