“Christ” is probably the most frequently used—and least understood—word in the Bible. The term “Christ” (Greek christos) is equivalent to “messiah” (Hebrew mashiah), which literally means “anointed.” It was first used for a reigning monarch: David, for example, spoke of King Saul as “Yahweh’s messiah.” Eventually the term came to refer to God’s agent who would liberate the oppressed and introduce a new era, the Reign of God. What does archaeology tell us about ancient Jewish understanding of messianic figures? And how would a “messiah” be received by contemporaneous people?

Biblical Archaeology Society editors have hand-selected a special collection of articles that highlight diverse ancient and Biblical characterizations of messianic figures. Explore ancient inscriptions, Hebrew Bible depictions and new understandings of the New Testament.

Scroll down to read a summary of these articles.


In “A New Dead Sea Scroll in Stone?” Ada Yardeni published a stunning discovery for the first time in English. The script dates to the turn of the era—just like a Dead Sea Scroll. The inked writing is laid out in prepared columns—just like a Dead Sea Scroll. The text contains Bible-like prophecies—just like some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But this document isn’t a “scroll” at all—it’s a stone slab! In the follow-up “The Messiah Son of Joseph,” Israel Knohl shows what this discovery teaches us about the Jewish origins of a suffering Messiah and resurrection on the third day.

In “Cyrus the Messiah,” Lisbeth S. Fried examines why this non-Jewish king of Persia was referred to as “messiah,” or “anointed one” in the Hebrew Bible. He is the only foreigner in the Bible to be thus identified; the prophet known as Second Isaiah bestowed this honor.

In “The Role of the Messiah,” Bernhard W. Anderson shows that the Bible does not use “Christ” or “Messiah” to mean a divine being, but instead to the function an agent of God plays in bringing the kingdom that is to come on earth as in heaven.

Finally, in “Mary, Simeon or Anna: Who First Recognized Jesus as Messiah?” Ben Witherington III takes a look at the birth of Jesus in Luke. Luke’s Christmas story is full of surprising reversals of fortunes and roles, in which outsiders become more intimate associates than family members, and in which women play a more active role than men.

These five articles, compiled from Biblical Archaeology Review and Bible Review, provide a historical, religious and archaeological framework through which we can better understand the terms “Christ,” “messiah” and “anointed one.”


A New Dead Sea Scroll in Stone?
Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2008 By Ada Yardeni

IF it were written on leather (and smaller) I would say it was another Dead Sea Scroll fragment—but it isn’t. It is written on gray-colored stone! And it is 3 feet high and 1 foot wide! Otherwise, it strongly resembles in many respects what we have come to expect from fragmentary Dead Sea Scrolls. […]

The Messiah Son of Joseph
Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2008 By Israel Knohl

A new inscription, recently published in BAR for the first time in English,a may hold the key to unlocking a new understanding of some of the history of Christian and Jewish messianism. Written on a stone 3 feet tall, the new text has many of the characteristics of a fragmentary Dead Sea Scroll, including […]

Cyrus the Messiah
Bible Review, October 2003 By Lisbeth S. Fried

The Persian emperor Cyrus is honored as the only foreigner in the Bible to be identified as the “messiah” or “anointed one” of YHWH, the Israelite God.1 Isaiah tells us that YHWH spoke “to his messiah, to Cyrus, whom I [YHWH] took by his right hand to subdue nations before him” (Isaiah 45:1). The […]

Mary, Simeon or Anna
Bible Review, Winter 2005 By Ben Witherington III

Being first to hear doesn’t always mean being first to understand. In Luke’s birth narrative, Mary is the first to be told that Jesus will be the messiah. Luke adds that she “treasures the words” the angel Gabriel speaks to her. But Mary is also puzzled by the divine message; she is “perplexed” when the […]


The Role of the Messiah
Bible Review, October 1995 By Bernhard W. Anderson

“Christ” is probably the most frequently used—and least understood—word in the Bible. Many use it unthinkingly as an expletive; others assume it is the second name of the founder of Christianity; some take it to mean God manifest in the flesh, a divine being. But how is “Christ” used in the Bible? The term […]