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Messiah (məsīˈə) or Messias (məsīˈəs) [Heb.,=anointed], in Judaism, a man who would be sent by God to restore Israel and reign righteously for all humanity. The idea developed among the Jews especially in their adversity, and such a conception is clearly indicated in Isaiah 9. Messianic expectations generally focused on a kingly figure of the house of David, who would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5.2). However, a second Messianic figure, the Messiah son of Joseph, was said to precede the Messiah son of David, preparing the way for him by combating the enemies of Israel and reuniting the twelve tribes for the return to Jerusalem where he would die in combat with the enemies of God before the final redemption under the Davidic Messiah. Jesus considered himself, and is considered by Christians, to be the promised Messiah to whom the whole Old Testament pointed; the name Christ is Greek for Messiah (Mat. 16.16). The Christian ideal of the Messiah is fundamentally different from the early Jewish conception in the aspect of suffering; the common idea of Jesus' time was that the Messiah should reign in glory as an earthly king, a political figure sent by God, not a savior in the Christian sense. The expectation of the second coming of Jesus is similar to the Jewish belief in the Messianic advent. The idea of a messiah, a redeemer sent by God, is common among many different peoples throughout history and may reflect a universal psychological pattern. Ancient Middle Eastern texts foretell the coming of savior-kings. Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and Confucians believe in the redemption of humanity, or the advent of a golden age, through the arrival of a Holy One. In Islam, the coming of the Mahdi is closely related to the messiah concept. Other peoples also believe in messiah figures; among the Native North Americans, Wovoka is the most famous.


See W. D. Wallis, Messiahs, Their Role in Civilization (1943); J. Klausner, The Messianic Idea in Israel (1955); A. H. Silver, A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel (1955); V. Lanternari, The Religions of the Oppressed: A Study of Modern Messianic Cults (1963); and G. Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism (1971).

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(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Waiting for a Messiah is a universal religious activity found throughout history. Jews and Zoroastrians say he hasn't come yet. Christians and Muslims say he came and no one paid any attention, so he'll be back. Some Native Americans believe a Messiah fashioned after Tecumseh will restore their lost fortunes. There are even those who believe a Messiah is Earth's only hope for survival and look for one to come from outer space.

A Messiah is so much a part of so many religions, especially monotheistic ones, that you have to use the word very carefully because people just assume you're talking about theirs. Whether he's called "Desire of Nations" or "the Son of God," people who believe in a Messiah believe that the divine will enter into history—that the eternal will step into time. Messianic aspirations offer hope: that somehow the world will have a happy ending and be either built anew or restored to a former glory.

In typically anthropocentric thought, the Messiah is always pictured as a human being, usually male, who will take charge and set things right. In essence, he is a benevolent monarch who represents God on Earth and is just like us, but without our shortcomings. To a certain degree, whenever a presidential candidate offers himself as the one who has answers to a set of national problems, he is appealing to people's messianic yearnings. The word itself comes from a Hebrew word that means "anointed." The Greek equivalent is Christos, from which is derived the name "Christ."

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


George Frideric Handel's (1685-1759) Messiah is perhaps the most popular piece of classical music associated with the Christmas season. Two common misconceptions have spread along with its fame. Although many call the work "The Messiah," Handel named his oratorio simply "Messiah." These days most performances of the piece take place around Christmas. Nevertheless, Handel never intended Messiah to be connected with the Christmas season. In fact, he wrote the oratorio in the late summer of 1741 and premiered it around Easter of the following year. Subsequent performances during Handel's lifetime also took place around Easter.

Composition of Messiah

Although he composed the music for Messiah, Handel did not select the biblical texts that make up the libretto. His friend Charles Jennens compiled a collection of biblical verses outlining the birth and death of Jesus and the redemption of humankind. Jennens's compilation delighted and inspired Handel. He sat down to write the music for these texts on August 22, 1741. Composing with lightning speed, he completed the oratorio about three weeks later, on September 14. Some say that Handel once remarked about the work's creation, "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself." The approximately two and one-half hours of music is divided into three parts, often referred to as the "Nativity," "Passion," and "Redemption" sections because of the themes developed in each.

Handel scored Messiah as an oratorio. An oratorio is a long choral work made up of arias, duets, trios, and choruses. Oratorios attempt to tell a story, usually a religious one. The music must convey all, since no dialogue, scenery, or costumes are used. Some experts believe that oratorios evolved out of the medieval mystery plays (seealso Nativity Play). Indeed, early oratorios included dance and dramatic representations, as well as church hymns, and were usually performed in churches. Handel's Messiah differed significantly from the first oratorios written in the early 1600s. Messiah consists of nothing other than music, beautiful and sometimes difficult music. Handel often employed opera singers to perform the challenging solo parts of his oratorios and staged the performances in theaters rather than churches.

First Performance of Messiah

Although the German-born Handel was living and working in London at the time he composed Messiah, the first public performance of the oratorio took place in Dublin, Ireland. Handel brought several principal singers over from England, including noted operatic soprano Signora Avoglio and singer-actress Mrs. Susannah Cibber, who sang the alto parts. He engaged Dublin musicians to present the other solo parts. The choir consisted of singers from both Dublin cathedrals, although the premiere performance took place in a music hall on Fishamble Street. The cantankerous dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, who was none other than Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), the author of Gulliver's Travels, at first refused to permit his choristers to participate in an event held in such a secular setting. Luckily for the audience, and for the history of music, he eventually relented.

In order to increase the number of people who would fit in the available seating, newspaper advertisements kindly requested that ladies who planned to attend refrain from wearing hoops under their skirts. Gentlemen were asked to leave their swords at home. Handel's Messiah premiered on April 13, 1742, and was warmly received. Mrs. Cibber's rendition of "He Was Despised" so moved one member of the audience, Dr. Patrick Delaney, a friend of Jonathan Swift's, that he cried out, "Woman, for this thy sins be forgiven thee!" Delaney may have had some very specific sins in mind since rumors concerning Susannah Cibber's amorous affairs had made her the talk of London. In the days that followed, several Dublin newspapers printed the following review:

On Tuesday last Mr. Handel's Sacred Grand Oratorio, the Messiah, was performed in the New Musick Hall in Fishamble-street; the best Judges allowed it to be the most finished piece of Musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.

The review also praised Handel for donating the proceeds from this performance to three Dublin charities.

Later Performances of Messiah

Encouraged by Dublin's warm reception Handel returned home to London and arranged for performances to take place in that city. London rewarded his best efforts with rejection. Church officials objected to staging a work on a sacred theme in the profane space of a public theater. In spite of these objections, Covent Garden Theater hosted the first London performance of Messiah on March 23, 1743. The audience and the critics responded with indifference. In addition, Handel's friend Jennens, who had supplied the libretto for Messiah, faulted the composer in a letter to a friend. With blind conceit Jennens wrote, "His Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great hast, tho' he said he would be a year about it, & make it the best of all his Compositions. I shall put no more Sacred Works into his hands thus to be abused" (Jacobi, 1982, 41-42).

Apparently, King George II attended one of the early performances of Messiah. Some writers believe this occasion gave birth to the tradition whereby the audience stands during the "Hallelujah" chorus. (Others believe that King George III started this tradition). In any case, one of these kings rose from his seat at this point in the piece. Whether he was reacting to the exuberance of the music or simply attempting to stretch his legs cannot now be determined. In those days etiquette demanded that no one remain seated when the king stood up. As a result, the entire audience rose to its feet, creating a tradition still observed today.

During the decade of the 1740s Handel aired Messiah only a few more times. The work teetered on the edge of obscurity until 1750 when Handel began to perform it in a series of annual concerts to benefit charity. Over the next nine years the work achieved widespread popularity.

Handel's Death

On April 6, 1759, two days before Palm Sunday, Handel conducted what was to be the last performance of his life, a presentation of Messiah at Covent Garden. He collapsed upon leaving the theater and had to be carried home. In the days that followed, Handel passed in and out of consciousness. The elderly composer recognized the seriousness of his condition. In one of his clear moments he expressed his wish to die on Good Friday, as did Jesus, "in the hope of rejoining the good God, my sweet Lord and Savior, on the day of his Resurrection." On Good Friday, April 13, 1759, seventeen years to the day from the premiere performance of Messiah in Dublin, Handel lay dying at his home in London. He passed away quietly sometime between that evening and the following morning.

A few days before his death Handel requested that he be buried in Westminster Abbey and set aside money to pay for his funeral monument. The artist who created the monument depicted the composer at work on one of the arias from Messiah. Visitors to Westminster Abbey may note that the monument dedicated to the composer's memory misspells the word "messiah."

Handel's Personality and Legacy

Although later generations attributed a kind of milktoast piety to the famed composer of Messiah, Handel's friends and contemporaries described him as a somewhat gruff yet amiable man. He rejoiced in the consumption of large quantities of food and drink, earning himself a reputation for gluttony. Stubborn, arrogant, and irritable when it came to the correct interpretation of music, he acquainted many musicians with the rough edge of his tongue. He could, and often did, swear fluently in four languages. On the other hand, Handel possessed an excellent sense of humor combined with a flair for telling funny stories. He won a reputation for honesty in financial dealings, so much so that musicians accepted his occasional IOUs without a qualm. Finally, friends, family, musicians in his employ, and charities all benefited from his generosity.

Although Messiah stands as perhaps the composer's best-known work, Handel himself did not count it as his greatest achievement. He judged the chorus "He Saw the Lovely Youth" from his oratorio Theodora to be far superior to the "Hallelujah" chorus from Messiah. Neither proud nor self-effacing, Handel evaluated his own accomplishments fairly and was capable on occasion of belittling some of his less-distinguished pieces of music. Later composers paid tribute to his brilliance. Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827) once exclaimed "He was the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb." Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), after hearing Messiah for the first time, reportedly exclaimed of Handel, "He was the master of us all."

Further Reading

Barber, David W. Getting a Handel on Messiah. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Sound and Vision, 1994. Buxton, David, and Sue Lyon, eds. Baroque Festival. Volume 4 of The GreatComposers, Their Lives and Times. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1987. Dean, Winton, and Anthony Hicks. The New Grove Handel. New York: W. W. Norton, 1983. ---. "Handel, George Frideric." In Stanley Steele, ed. The New GroveDictionary of Music and Musicians. Volume 8. London, England: Macmillan, 1980. Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. Jacobi, Peter. The Messiah Book. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982. Weinstock, Herbert. Handel. Second edition, revised. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



Christ (from ancient Hebrew mashiah, literally “the anointed one”; in Greek translation, Christos), in a number of religions (above all, Judaism and Christianity) a “savior” sent down by god who is supposed to establish his eternal kingdom.

Concepts of the magic power of anointment with sanctified oil have existed throughout the Middle East since antiquity; anointment was a part of the ritual of the enthronement of a king. In the most ancient books of the Old Testament, the word “messiah” means “king,” or, figuratively, the ideal lord as well as high priest. In the period called the Babylonian captivity (586–538 B.C.; according to most recent data, 587–538 B.C.), the idea of a future king from the family of David arose, inspired by the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah. It is also possible that this idea evolved under the influence of Zoroastrianism, in which there was an image of a future “savior,” the saoshyant, a descendant of Zarathustra.

The concrete identity of the messiah was unclear to the believers; he has been conceived at times as a divine being existing before the beginning of time and identified with the archangel Michael, at other times as the “son of man” who is a human teacher or reformer, and at still other times as a priest who is descended from the mythical priest Melchizedek.

Belief in a messiah occupied an important place in the ideology of the Judean sect of the Essene Qumranites. The founder of the sect, called the Teacher of Righteousness, was evidently understood to be the messiah. In the popular movements against Roman oppression (the Judean Wars of 66–73 and 132–135), the leaders of the revolts (John of Giscala, Simeon Bar Giora, and Bar Kochba) proclaimed themselves messiahs. After the defeat of the Bar Kochba rebellion, belief in the awaited messiah lost its previous importance; however, in subsequent periods of hardship for the popular masses (in the Middle Ages, for example), the leaders of popular movements again represented themselves as messiahs. In contemporary Judaism, belief in a single messiah is without essential significance.

From the very beginning, Christians proclaimed the founder of their religion to be the messiah (the Christ). Jesus was regarded as a descendant of King David, and Jewish messianic terminology was applied to him (“king of the Jews”; Greek kyrios, meaning “lord”; “the son of man”). However, in Christianity the concept of the “messiah” was transferred out of the political and social sphere into the religious and ethical; Christ the messiah is regarded as a savior from original sin and from “the kingdom of Satan” and not as a deliverer from economic and political hardship. Moreover, although Christ the messiah is declared to have already come and offered his life as an atonement for the sins of humanity, Christians at the same time believe in his “second coming” to establish the eternal “kingdom of god” over the whole earth. “Salvation” came more and more clearly to be understood eschatologically—that is, as something that was to occur not in historical time but “at the end of time.”

The concepts of “messiah” and “messianism” are also applied figuratively to awaited future saviors in other religions (particularly Islam, where messianism has a direct Judeo-Christian origin). In Muslim countries messianism has spread in the form of the doctrine of the Mahdi. For example, Muhammad Ahmad, leader of a late 19th-century insurrection in the Sudan against foreign colonizers, proclaimed himself Mahdi (the Mahdi of Sudan).

Messianism in all its forms, while objectively the result of the difficult conditions of the people, encouraged hope only in a divine redeemer and frequently served as a means of distracting the popular masses from actively struggling for their own interests.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


expected leader who will deliver the Jews from their enemies; applied by Christians to Jesus. [O.T., N.T.: Brewer Dictionary, 602]
See: Christ


expected leader sent by God to exalt Israel. [Judaism: Brewer Dictionary]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. Judaism the awaited redeemer of the Jews, to be sent by God to free them
2. Jesus Christ, when regarded in this role
3. an exceptional or hoped for liberator of a country or people
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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