I’ve been reading a (heavily abridged) edition of Moses Maimonides’ (1138-1204) systematic digest and commentary on the Jewish law, Mishneh Torah, and found his discussion of the Messiah toward the end of particular interest. The Messiah, he says, is not some kind of supernatural figure, but simply a righteous king in the line of David who will reestablish Israel’s sovereignty and freedom from external domination.
Do not think that King Messiah will have to perform signs and wonders, bring anything new into being, revive the dead, or do similar things. It is not so.
If there arise a king from the House of David who meditates on the Torah, occupies himself with the commandments, as did his ancestor David, observes the precepts prescribed in the written and the Oral Law, prevails upon Israel to walk in the way of the Torah and to repair its breaches, and fights the battles of the Lord, it may be assumed that he is the Messiah. If he does these things and succeeds, rebuilds the sanctuary on its site, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is beyond all doubt the Messiah.
Let no one think that in the days of the Messiah any of the laws of nature will be set aside, or any innovation be introduced into creation.
Said the rabbis: “The sole difference between the present and the Messianic days is delivery from servitude to foreign powers.”
The sages and prophets did not long for the days of the Messiah that Israel might exercise dominion over the world, or rule over the heathens, or be exalted by the nations, or that it might eat and drink and rejoice. Their aspiration was that Israel be free to devote itself to the Law and its wisdom, with no one to oppress or disturb it, and thus be worthy of life in the world to come. (Book fourteen, chapters 11 and 12.)
I think it’s safe to say that this is very different from the prevailing Christian view of the “messianic age,” which is usually portrayed in frankly supernaturalistic terms. It’s also worth noting that Maimonides distinguishes the time of the Messiah and “the life of the world to come.” “The world to come” seems to refer to life beyond death, but this is distinct from the reestablishment of Israel under a just and pious king. The time of the Messiah is an entirely this-worldly affair, achieved through the “natural” means of politics, study, and obedience to the Law.
My (admittedly highly incomplete) understanding is that this is by no means the only way of thinking about the Messiah in Judaism, and that there are other, more overtly supernatural views. But Maimonides’ doctrine, in which the messianic age is not eschatological but arrives as a result of human effort rather than direct divine intervention, provides a striking contrast to the common Christian understanding.
UPDATE: Just a few further thoughts on this. I think this discussion highlights how the disagreement between Christianity and Judaism isn’t (just) about who the Messiah is, but what messiahship consists of. If you accept the criteria laid out by Maimonides, it’s obvious that Jesus was not the Messiah, since he was not a king who reestablished the sovereignty of Israel. In calling Jesus the Messiah, Christianity was taking a particular stance on what it meant to be the Messiah–something about which, as I understand it, there was no uniform consensus at the time. And this understanding was shaped by the particular details of Jesus’ life and death–and particularly the belief in his resurrection.
Christians have often talked as thought Jews’ unwillingness to embrace Christ was due to a kind of willful blindness, since he was “clearly” the fulfillment of their messianic hopes. But this dramatically undersells the extent to which the role of the Messiah as understood by Christianity drew on a particular selection and reshaping of ideas floating around at the time. Both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity are ongoing traditions with their own ways of making sense of and appropriating the biblical material, including the idea of the Messiah.