You may have read about Lu Ann Ballew, the Tennessee judge who recently changed a 7-month-old baby’s name, Messiah, to Martin. Her ruling was based not on compassion for the poor infant, but on the opinion that “the word Messiah is a title and it is a title that has only been earned by one person, and that one person is Jesus Christ.”
The news has apparently not yet reached the 4th Judicial District of Tennessee that there are other religions in the world besides Christianity — and that one of them, Judaism, not only gave us the word “messiah” but also considers it a title so far unearned by anyone. The appeals court that will probably overthrow Judge Ballew’s decision on constitutional grounds may inform her of this. Here are a few other things it might mention.
“Messiah” comes from the Hebrew mashiah., a noun deriving from the verb mashah., to anoint or coat with oil, salve or pigment. It occurs several dozen times in the Bible, most of them in passages having nothing to do with the eschatological figure that Judaism, and in its wake Christianity, came to call “the Messiah.” In First Temple times, anointing the head of someone with olive oil was a ceremony akin to coronation or ordination that conferred kingship, high priesthood or other honors. Thus, the high priest is sometimes referred to by the Bible as ha-kohen ha-mashiah., “the priest, the anointed one,” and the rebel David, when given a chance to kill Saul, the king who is stalking him, declares, “Perish the thought that I might strike down God’s anointed one [m’shiah. adonai].” Earlier in the book of Samuel, in which these events are related, the Prophet Samuel has “crowned” Saul as Israel’s first king by pouring a vial of oil over him.
The biblical word mashiah. could even refer to non-Israelites. Cyrus, the Persian conqueror of Babylonia who permitted the Judean exiles to return from there to their homeland and rebuild the Temple, is also called God’s “anointed one.” Only in Second Temple times, starting with the second century B.C.E., do we find mashiah. referring to a redeemer sent by God to punish the sinful and redeem the pious in the End of Days. The term occurs in this sense in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in apocryphal works like the Book of Enoch, though it is only one of several to have this meaning.
Even in the New Testament, which was greatly influenced by the apocalyptic atmosphere found in the Scrolls and the Apocrypha, the word is used for Jesus only twice, both times in the Gospel of John. On the first such occasion, the Greek text reads, “Eurékamen ton Messían [We have found the Messiah] ho estin methermeneuómenon Christos [which means, being translated, Christos].” Deriving from the verb chrio, to salve or anoint, christos means “the anointed one” in Greek. Had the baby brought before Judge Ballew been named Christ, she would have been correct in saying that this is a title used exclusively for the Christian savior. But while I wouldn’t give the name Messiah to the child of my worst enemy, Jesus and Christianity clearly don’t own the copyright to it.
Curiously, the name “Messiah” also turns up among Jews, though as a family name, not a first name. There are hundreds of Mashiah.s or Mashiachs in the Israeli telephone directory, and the name is found, spelled in different ways, in other countries, as well. In all likelihood, all Mashiachs descend from one or more families that have been traced back to late 15th- or early 16th-century Spain — specifically, to the region of Galicia, in the country’s far northwest.
Why would a Jewish family in Galicia, an area that never had many Jews and in which there were no messianic movements, have been called Mashiach? The explanation may lie in a quirk of spelling. When the Jews were expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, those of them who preferred to avoid banishment by being baptized were ordered to take Christian-sounding names. One of the largest Jewish communities in Galicia was in the seaport of La Coruña, not far from which was the town of Muxía — Mugía or Mejía in Castilian — in which Jews may have lived, too. A number of Christian families hailing from this town took its name for their own, and there are still Mejías descended from them who bear it.
What does this have to do with Mashiach? Well, the Galician “x” is pronounced “sh” (both the pre-front-vowel “g” and the “j” in 15th-century Spain were pronounced like the “j” in English “jam,” though later they turned into a throaty “h”), and Spanish Jews often failed to pronounce the final consonant of mashiah., which they articulated as “mashia.” It would have been quite natural, then, for a baptized Jewish family or two to have responded to the royal ordinance by taking the name Muxía, Mugía or Mejía while writing it in Hebrew characters as , or Mashiach. If such families later left Spain and lived openly as Jews again — in Venice, for example, which took in many of the Spanish exiles and had, starting from the 17th century, Jewish Mugias, Muggias, Da Mugias and Da Muggias — the name Mashiach might have survived among some of them.
It’s a plausible hypothesis, anyway.
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Can You Name Your Kid ‘Messiah’?