Many Christians have come to believe that “Christ” was Jesus’ last name or surname. They so closely associate the words Jesus and Christ that we tend to think they are one and the same, both referring to one historical man who lived two thousand years ago in Palestine. While there is much reason to correlate them, they are not exactly the same.
And, what many may not know, there were many “Christs” who came prior to Jesus, and who were not Jesus, nor do I think they were prefiguring or foreshadowing Jesus. They were the “Christs” in their own right, who came in their own time, who developed what it meant to be a “Christ” or “Messiah” in ancient Israel long before the word was ever applied to Jesus. I think it may be helpful to become acquainted with these “Christs/Messiahs” to better understand who Jesus was.
The word Christ comes from the Greek Christós/Khristós (Χριστός), which was not originally a name, but a title meaning “the anointed one.” Christós is how the Greek Septuagint, the earliest extant Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures from the Hebrew language, translated all 39 instances of the Hebrew word Mašíaḥ (מָשִׁיחַ) or mashiaẖ, mashiach, messias, or messiah. The Hebrew noun mašíaḥ, of course, also meant “anointed one,” from the verb mashah or mashach (משח) “to anoint.” So both the words Christ and Messiah come from the very same roots, one who is “anointed,” or “the anointed.”
What is anointing? Briefly, it was an ancient ritual practice of applying oil to an object or a person as a sign of health and comfort, hospitality, an honorary gesture, in order to consecrate them, to mark them as holy, sacred, or set apart in a special way. And many people were so ritually anointed anciently, and thus became known as the “Anointed,” or Messiah/Christ, at the time. Specifically, they were the people in whom God’s “Spirit” was seen as being present. Below are a few of them.
The “Christs” or “Messiahs” among the Hebrews were primarily in three categories, which is where the “threefold office” comes from:
- High Priests
The first anointing mentioned in the Bible was of Aaron, the brother of Moses, who was also a spokesman for Moses (“prophet”), and the first High Priest of the Israelites. He led the religious sacrifices, and all priestly activities. It is said that Moses received instruction from God to anoint Aaron and his sons to serve in this position:
You shall put them on your brother Aaron, and on his sons with him, and shall anoint (mashach) them and ordain them and consecrate them, so that they may serve me as priests.Exodus 28:41, NRSV
You shall take the anointing (mishchah) oil, and pour it on his head and anoint (mashach) him.Exodus 29:7, NRSV
Interestingly, many other things were also anointed at the same time, including the altar, the tabernacle, the ark, and the laver. All these sacred objects were marked or set apart as sacred by the ritual anointing with oil. So this is where we first learn about anointing. The priests who were anointed became known as “the anointed.” The first use of the term comes in Leviticus:
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If it is the anointed (mashiyach, or messiah/christ) priest who sins, thus bringing guilt on the people, he shall offer for the sin that he has committed a bull of the herd without blemish as a sin offering to the Lord.Leviticus 4:3, NRSV
Similar to these priests, prophets in Israel were routinely anointed, as Elisha was said to be “anointed” as prophet by Elijah, to be his successor (although it is doubted whether there was an actual anointing with oil here, or whether the term had come to denote the one who was to be the prophetic leader of the people, the spiritual leader):
Also you shall anoint (mashach) Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint (mashach) Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place.1 Kings 19:16, NRSV
David later calls prophets “anointed ones.”
saying, “Do not touch my anointed ones (mashiyach, or messiah/christ); do my prophets no harm.”1 Chronicles 16:22, NRSV. Repeated in Psalm 105:15.
As seen in the last example, kings also came to be anointed to serve in their political office. The first king of the Kingdom of Israel and Judah, Saul, was anointed by the prophet Samuel.
Now the day before Saul came, the Lord had revealed to Samuel: “Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint (mashach) him to be ruler over my people Israel.”1 Samuel 9:15-16, NRSV
Saul is later called by David “the Lord’s anointed.”
And he said unto his men, The LORD forbid that I should do this thing unto my master, the LORD’S anointed (mashiyach, or messiah/christ), to stretch forth mine hand against him, seeing he is the anointed (mashiyach, or messiah/christ) of the LORD.1 Samuel 24:6, NRSV
The second king of Israel and Judah, David, was also anointed by the prophet Samuel:
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.”…
Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint (mashach) for me the one whom I name to you.”…
He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint (mashach) him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed (mashach) him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.1 Samuel 16:1, 3, 12-13
This account particularly emphasizes how the anointing was seen as somewhat synonymous with the Spirit of God being present in a person. It seems it is from this anointing of the great Israelite King David that there later emerged a tradition of a future Messiah king that would be a “son of David.”
David’s successor, Solomon, was likewise anointed as king:
So the priest Zadok, the prophet Nathan, and Benaiah son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites, went down and had Solomon ride on King David’s mule, and led him to Gihon. There the priest Zadok took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed (mashach, or messiah/christ) Solomon. Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, “Long live King Solomon!”1 Kings 1:38-39, NRSV
Cyrus the Great
One interesting case of a “Messiah” was Cyrus the Great. He was king of the Achaemenid Empire, and not Jewish. But he was honored by the Jews as a righteous king because the Babylonian captivity of the Jews ended under his reign, and he said that the Jews could return to their homeland, and that the Jewish temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt. For all of this the Jews praised him. Later “Isaiah” wrote that he was the Lord’s “Anointed One” or “Messiah”:
Thus says the Lord to his anointed (mashiyach, or messiah/christ), to Cyrus,Isaiah 45:1-3, NRSV
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
and the gates shall not be closed:
I will go before you
and level the mountains,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
As a side note, these words are replete with other mystical symbols, including the grasping by the right hand, the open doors, the gates not closing, the treasures in darkness, the hidden riches, the secret places, and the direct knowing of God, and a special name.
Cyrus the Great is the only non-Jewish person in the Bible to be called by this title of “Anointed One.” By this time it seems that the title had become somewhat detached from the literal anointing of oil ritual, and was more of an honorary title for the one in whom God’s Spirit was found, who had been inspired by God to do a great work among the people. It is doubtful that Cyrus was ever actually anointed with real oil. He was not anointed, but rather “anointed” as a great spiritual leader, a Messiah/Christ.
These are just some of the many “Christs” or “Messiahs” that came long before Jesus, and who built up the Jewish tradition of what an “Anointed One” means, becoming known as one in whom the Spirit of God was found in abundance, who was deeply inspired by God, perhaps one whose consciousness had been united to God in some way so they did the will of God among humanity. Actually, this identification with Spirit seems to have been closely equated with the “Anointed” title:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,Isaiah 61:1, NRSV
because the Lord has anointed (mashach) me;
This is the scripture from Isaiah that Jesus quoted many centuries later at the beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:17-21), essentially claiming that he was also an “Anointed One” (v21), one who had come in the power of the Spirit (v14). But the only time Jesus was literally anointed with oil, it seems, was when he was in the city of Bethany.
A certain Mary, perhaps Magdalene, anointed Jesus’ head or feet with an ointment of expensive perfume and her tears, and perhaps used her long hair to wipe the ointment. There is debate about the details. James Tissot depicted the event as told in the gospels of Luke and John in the painting shown at the top of this article, The Ointment of the Magdalene (Le parfum de Madeleine), c. 1900. Jesus refers to this anointing as “preparation for his burial,” perhaps alluding to the practice of such perfumed ointments being used on dead bodies for sanitary purposes.
It is insightful the very humble circumstances in which this “anointing” is recorded. There was no high priest or prophet doing this anointing. There was no elaborate religious ritual. There was no royal palace or throne. There were no trumpets, ceremony, regalia, parade or pageantry. It was done in a home, by a woman, perhaps a “sinful” woman (which has been interpreted as a prostitute), in an act of great hospitality and especially love, and in giving of herself without concern for money. Jesus says this act made this woman forgiven of all her sins, and that she was saved.
May we go and likewise “anoint” others with our gifts and love, making them “Christs” and “Messiahs.” In this way we too will have the Spirit on us.
My wife and I recently watched the new television series The Crown which dramatizes the life of Queen Elizabeth II. They show what a modern anointing of a monarch is like in the remaking of her coronation scene (see below). During the actual anointing of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 this was not televised, being considered too sacred an act to put on camera, and so that it would be a “deeply personal experience between The Queen and God.”