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There’s more in the Bible on how to diagnose skin diseases than how to identify a messiah

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The Netflix Messiah series raises a fundamental question: what is a messiah?

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Netflix’s January series Messiah has it all: intrigue, mystery, strange characters, and a plot that unfolds in the backdrop of Middle Eastern and American settings. It begins with a charismatic Arabic-speaking preacher saving Damascus via a seemingly miraculous sandstorm – leaving us to wonder, how did he do that?

This curious person then leads two thousand Syrian Palestinians towards the border with Israel. His followers call him Al-Masih (the Messiah) but even they aren’t sure of his real identity. Venturing onto Israeli soil simply by cutting through some barbed wire, al-Masih is arrested, but mysteriously escapes from an Israeli prison – no one knows how. A no-nonsense CIA agent flies to Israel, hot on the trail of this potentially explosive figure.

The scene quickly shifts to a Texas preacher with a dysfunctional family, a huge debt and a dwindling congregation. Why Texas? What’s this pastor got to do with anything? Then we are transported back to the mysterious al-Masih who is on Temple Mount. Addressing a group of Muslims near the Dome of the Rock, he asks if anyone would step forward and have his or her soul weighed before God. Israeli police break up the crowd. An Arab boy appears to be killed by gun fire but is miraculously revived by this amazing miracle worker.

Who are all these individuals from Syria, Israel and Texas? How are they connected? What are we to make of all this? And who is al-Masih really?

So begins Messiah. According to Rotten Tomatoes, audiences rated it 88 per cent; critics, only 46 per cent. A remarkable disparity; why the appeal amongst “ordinary” viewers? What is it that they find so intriguing?

Christians, of course, claim that Jesus is “the messiah” and wait patiently for him to return to finish the job. The Book of Acts in the Christian Scriptures has a remarkable exchange between Jesus’ disciples and the Jesus whom they take to have been resurrected. Rather than asking the most expected questions – What is the afterlife like? Who’s there? Who’s not there? How did you spend your time? – they simply inquire, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

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Christians in the 1st century CE clearly expected Jesus to return to establish an independent Jewish kingdom. The Book of Acts was written around 100 CE, some 70 years after Jesus’ execution by the Romans. Whoever wrote this book knew that Jesus had not returned as quickly as some had hoped … and, after the debacle of 70 CE, no independent Jewish kingdom was at all in sight. The Temple had been destroyed and, according to Josephus, over a million Jews had been killed in Jerusalem alone. So, when Jesus will return, and how he can be considered a messiah without having completed his mission, remain perennial Christian questions.

Jews pray daily for the messiah’s appearance. Muslims, too, look forward to a messianic era. Hindus believe in a periodic world renewal, when evil grows too great and goodness must be restored. So many of the world’s great religions put forward a messianic dream of better times. Often this hope emerges during times of great stress and anxiety, times such as ours. Where’s messiah when we need him most?  That’s often the cry during dire circumstances when the world seems to spin out of control and evil appears to dominate.

The mysterious figure in Netflix’s Messiah is an enigmatic individual. He’s positioned as Muslim. He also seems to perform miracles.

What is a Messiah?

The Netflix Messiah series raises a fundamental question: what is a messiah? What do we look for in such an individual? How do we tell if someone is a genuine messiah? What’s the job description? Without a definition, how can we tell a true messiah from a false one? Is al-Masih a messiah? Is Jesus? What about Waco cult leader David Koresh? Is Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson the messiah as some of his followers maintain?

There’s no easy definition of what constitutes a messiah. For one thing, the Bible doesn’t tell us. There is no book or chapter in any of the ancient writings that describes a messiah. Contrast this with being a prophet; there is a criterion by which we can discern who is a true prophet: whether or not his prophecy is actualized. But a messiah? There’s more in the Bible on how to diagnose skin diseases than how to identify a messiah (Leviticus 13, 14).

Is a messiah a teacher? A prophet? A miracle worker? An activist? Political operative? Holy man? Healer? Saviour? All of the above? 

Messiah Season 1 Official Trailer (Netflix)

King David was the prototypical messiah. He was, after all, “messiah’d,” that is, smeared with oil. Messiahs are “anointed” – that’s the root meaning of mashiach. In David’s case, he was messiah’d as king. Priests and prophets are also said to be messiahs, and, oddly enough, so, too was Cyrus, the non-Jewish king of Persia. Josephus in the 1st century CE thought that Vespasian, soon to become Roman emperor, was the messiah. So there’s a leadership dimension to being a messiah, typically that of a king or ruler. But is there more to being a messiah than the political requirement?

King David was both an adulterer and complicit in a murder. Remember the Bathsheba affair. David seduced her and engineered her husband’s death, an act that changed the course of history with the birth of their son, Solomon. So clearly a messiah is not a perfect being, just a flawed, ordinary human being who fails, repents, and is chosen by God for a mission. The Dead Sea Scroll Community around the turn of the Common Era looked forward to two messiahs: one a king, one a priest –the job being too difficult for one individual to handle. So how does a messiah differ from either a king or a priest? What’s the added dimension?

The mysterious figure in Netflix’s Messiah is an enigmatic individual. He’s positioned as Muslim. He seems to perform miracles – restoring a boy who has been shot, creating a dust storm, and, at the end of Season 1, reviving a person from a plane crash. And he seems to engage in long-distance travel with ease, showing up on the doorsteps of the Texan preacher’s wooden church after having escaped from the clutches of an Israeli prison.

Could he be the messiah? Is this his first appearance? Or is he the returning Jesus, as Christians might expect, although he appears to be Muslim and not Jewish?  Is this what either Jews or Christians expect the messiah to be? Or is he a con artist? Perhaps al-Masih is blank canvass that allows his followers to read into him whatever they wish.

The people in the series all expect al-Masih to do something, but what? No one seems to know. Something dramatic is anticipated, but nothing materializes. Al-Masih continues to be a remote individual somehow disconnected from the events swirling around him.

The show challenges our own understanding of a messiah, and gives us a lot to think about.

An award-winning teacher, Barrie Wilson PhD is Professor Emeritus & Senior Scholar, Humanities and Religious Studies, York University. He has taught courses on Introduction to the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Early Christianity, Jesus and Paul. His bestselling book, How Jesus Became Christian (2008) received the Joseph and Faye Tanenbaum Prize for History at the 2009 Canadian Jewish Book Awards. Appearances on several episodes of The Naked Archeologist followed along with many documentaries. Appropriate for these turbulent times, his new book – Searching for the Messiah — will be published in Canada and the USA in August. Barrie is a member of Beth-Tzedec Congregation, Toronto.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

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