The Curious Idea of the "Leper Messiah"

When one studies rabbinic ideas of the Messiah one comes upon a very curious idea: Messiah is a Leper! Where does this idea come from? We'll tell you below, but first consider some of the rabbinic references.

Babylonian Talmud:

"The Messiah --what is his name?...The Rabbis say, The Leper Scholar, as it is said, `surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted...'" (Sanhedrin 98b)

The Talmud also "records" a supposed discourse between the great Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and the prophet Elijah. The rabbi asks "When will the Messiah come?" And "By what sign may I recognize him?" Elijah tells the rabbi to go to the gate of the city where he will find the Messiah sitting among the poor lepers. The Messiah, says the prophet, sits bandaging his leprous sores one at a time, unlike the rest of the sufferers, who bandage them all at once. Why? Because he might be needed at any time and would not want to be delayed. Elijah says he will come "Today, if you will listen to his voice." (Sanhedrin 98a)

There is also a strange story about the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement. One day the rabbi was riding with a young student. He stopped his wagon at the hut of an old leper, horribly affected by the disease. The rabbi climbed down and spent a great deal of time with the poor man. When he returned to the wagon and recommenced his journey, the puzzled student asked the rabbi who it was that the rabbi had visited with. The rabbi replied that in every generation there is a Messiah who will reveal himself if the generation is worthy. The leper he had been meeting with was that Messiah, but the generation was not worthy, so the Messiah would depart. (Quoted in The Messiah Texts, by Raphael Patai, page 31.)

Where did this "Leper Messiah" idea come from? This odd concept must have arisen from the rabbis as they struggled with Isaiah 53. They either saw the Messiah's sufferings as leprosy or split the Messiah in two, one a sufferer and one a conqueror. (See the section on the "Two-Messiahs" theory.) The Hebrew words in Isaiah 53:4, stricken (nagua) and smitten (mukkay) are interpreted as referring to a leprous condition. Either word can refer to being stricken with a disease, yet they need not be understood in that way, much like our English work "stricken" can refer to stricken with disease or just simply stricken, as with a fist. Either way, Jesus was stricken. He was certainly made sick by the Roman floggings and beatings and the tortuous ordeal of crucifixion. He was certainly stricken with the Roman lash. As a leper was despised and rejected of men, so also was the Messiah despised and rejected. And still today there are many who see Jesus as being as repugnant as leprosy and his followers as those who should be isolated and shunned.

To the followers of the Suffering One, his afflictions, described in Isaiah 53, are the agonies of one dying to provide atonement. The lamb being led to slaughter envisioned by Isaiah is described as one punished in the place of his people. Jesus, the true Messiah, came as the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." His crucifixion provided a substitutionary sacrifice adequate to fulfill the punishment we all deserve. Let us praise the God of Israel, our Redeemer, who has provided his Messiah to take the just punishment for his people so that we might be forgiven our sins!


(c) 1997 Fred Klett


To see quotations from ancient rabbinic sources that interpret Isaiah 53 as referring to Messiah click here.

To see why Isaiah 53 cannot refer to Israel, and who it must be, click here.

To learn about the "Two-Messiah" theory of some rabbinic thinkers click here.

To see a list of resources for further study click here.

To learn about how you can develop a relationship with the Suffering Servant.

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