The meaning of “Anointed-Messiah-Christ” in the time of Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

One resolution I made to myself after leaving my experience with religion was never to embrace any argument or account of the world without checking out and testing the evidence for it. One detail I regularly read as if it were an established fact was that around the time of Jesus there was a general expectation among the Jews for a Messiah to appear to deliver them from subjugation to the Romans. I read much, and even asked a few academics specializing in New Testament and early Christian studies, but was never able to pin down a clear piece of evidence that this cultural ethos ever existed before the Jewish War that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in the year 70. I found this mystifying because even the academics I asked appeared to accept that this was the state of mind of “the Jews” generally at the time of Jesus.

The closest a number of scholars came to offering evidence was to point to books I had already read, and/or to refer me to texts such as certain Old Testament writings. I had little success when I responded by asking how we can know that OT texts dominated the minds of Jews throughout Palestine and/or the Diaspora, and in particular from around year 0 to year 30ish or so.

Most of my books are in storage at the moment, but I did grab hold of a copy of a 1966 article by M. De Jonge in Novum Testamentum titled: ‘The Use of the Word “Anointed” in the Time of Jesus”. Though the publication date is ancient, on re-reading it earlier today I found it recalling to mind ideas and arguments expressed in some of the far more recent publications on this topic.

One of these was one relayed by (though not originating with) Thomas L. Thompson, that scholarship has tended to explain the ancient Jewish notion of the Messiah by looking in texts where the word is not found. De Jonge makes a similar observation. One set of works he singles out is Josephus. Scholars regularly “explain” why Josephus does not explicitly call Jewish rebel leaders against Rome “messiah pretenders” by suggesting that Josephus was too sensitive about making well-known Jewish ideas look bad or associating them with anti-Roman rebels. This does not strike me as a strong argument, since Josephus relishes publicizing the errors of a certain type of Jewish subversive or rebel. Sure there was a prophecy, Josephus says, about a universal king to arise out of Judea, but that was fulfilled in the Roman emperor Vespasian. What compelled Josephus to hide his reading public from awareness that rebels of his own race were motivated by a “messianic disease” among anti-Roman riff-raff?

Here are a few remarks by De Jonge worth keeping in mind, I think:

As is well-known there are only remarkably few places where this expression occurs in our period, even if we expand it to include the first century B.C. and the first seventy years of the first century A.D. Even more remarkable, perhaps, is that we hardly find any occurrence of the absolute use of the term “the Messiah”, i.e. without a following genitive or possessive pronoun. This basic fact shows a relative unimportance of the term in the context of Jewish expectations concerning the future, at least in the Jewish sources at our disposal for this period. (pp. 133-4)

De Jonge discusses Psalms 17 and 18 of the Psalms of Solomon since these are where most studies that he knew of began and are generally dated within the second half the first century B.C. (As already mentioned, I do not have my ready reference books with me to check the more recent scholarship on this topic, and I am skipping over most of the detail discussion of evidence relating to Qumran and 1 Enoch and other passages in De Jonge’s article for that reason. If I find the following is also badly out of date then I’ll have to accept that.)

Of the anointed king in Psalm 17 De Jonge observes:

The king expected in Ps. 17 is a national figure using political means and even military power. Yet the main emphasis is laid upon the spiritual aspects of his reign. The description of these culminates in v. 43 which reads: “His words will be more refined than the choices costly gold. In the assemblies he will judge the tribes of the sanctified people, His words will be like the words of the holy ones (i.e. the angels) in the midst of sanctified peoples”.

He is not a typical warrior-king, striving for the mastery of the world; the deliverance of Israel is only a means towards a greater goal, the triumph of God’s righteousness and power as manifested in His Torah, which will then be obeyed by Israel and by the nations. The expected king will be Yahweh’s most obedient servant; he is, we might say, a “scribe-king”.

No promise is made that any particular son of David will rule eternally. There is no promise of a single king ruling forever. What is clearly implied is that God will be ruling forever. History will be totally different with God finally ruling all. All emphasis is on the renewal, not the person or office of a king.

De Jonge concludes his article with the following points:

  • The term “anointed” is restricted to very few instances and is “clearly not an essential designation for any future redeemer.”
  • “In so far as it is used at all, it denotes the special relationship to God of various figures which are expected in God’s future.” No such “anointed” king or high priest or prophet is in existence at the time of writing, so high expectations are placed on a future “anointed”. De Jonge believes there is a tendency to use the term of an expected king. For alternative views see my earlier posts on a Davidic Messiah and one including a review of Fitzmyer’s study on the Messiah.
  • The calling and function of “the anointed” are more important than a particular person. Nothing is said about a single person ruling forever. What is important is that the person brings about a change in history. Israel will have a true prince and/or highpriest (or prophet).
  • “Finally, it should be borne in mind that the expectation of a future redeemer, whether called ‘anointed’ or not, is not an essential part of Jewish eschatological thinking.” What was significant was that God would ultimately work out his loving plan of future salvation for his creation.
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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “The meaning of “Anointed-Messiah-Christ” in the time of Jesus”

  1. If there really was no widespread expectation of a messiah or christ (don’t let McGrath hear you say this- see his smug little youtube video) then why did Jesus (regardless of his historicity) get called the Christ?

    I think I’m missing the point. Does this have anything to do with the question of a historical Jesus?

  2. The first evidence that there was an expectation or hope in the appearance of a political Messiah, at least as far as I have been able to determine, was after the fall of Jerusalem in 70. This was with Bar Kochba in the 130s.

    Until then, the notion of Messiah or an anointed one is very fluid. The idea of applying the label as a title to one who offers primarily a spiritual salvation does not seem out of the ordinary at all.

    A big plank of the historicity argument (as it is expressed in that “smug little youtube video” and subsequently in discussions on this blog, iirc) is that the application of the title to Jesus was so unlikely that the “only plausible explanation” is that he really was such an incredibly marvellous person who had a truly stunning post-mortem impact on his followers. “No other explanation” could account for his being called the Christ. This, of course, is apologetic nonsense. It is opting for the more difficult explanation (the unstated — never dare come close to actually stating it — implication of the role of the spiritual and miraculous in the background, subsumed under “unknowns” with “wink winks” to the believing outsiders) against a truly historical handling of the actual evidence.

    This allows for a growth of a heavenly Messiah idea well before 70 (e.g., possibly in 1 Enoch) and, if there is any logic to the “apologistic” argument it only works — at least if external evidence counts for anything — after the year 70.

  3. Neil:

    Just found your blog and this is your first post I have read. Of course there is a sort of valid point to be made that the term anointed/messiah is not such a big deal in 2nd Temple Jewish literature. But no revolutionary spirit prior to 66 CE? No concept of a destroy the Kittim kingly figure? I mean, Psalms of Solomon? Daniel?

    I recommend Richard Horsley’s Jesus and the Spiral of Violence.

    I’m just saying, I think you’ve overstated the case.

    Derek Leman

    1. Hi Derek,

      If I have overstated the case then I would welcome the evidence I have overlooked, and that for some reason no scholar has offered me yet. If the Psalms of Solomon are that evidence, then (a) what is their link to the popular attitudes among Jews throughout Palestine in the early first century? — Thinking here in particular of criticism against Fitzmyer’s work that I address in one of linked posts in my above post; and (b) what is the rejoinder to De Jonge’s analysis and conclusions about these Psalms (summarized above)?

      If Daniel is the evidence, then again, the same question (a) above applies here, too. Further, (b), is not the only reference to “messiah” in Daniel pertains to a murdered high priest?

      In my next post on this particular topic I hope to be catching up with some of the thoughts of William Scott Green from chapter 1 of Judaisms and their Messiahs.

      Is there specific evidence in Horsley’s book that addresses the term “messiah” and demonstrates popular Jewish interest in its “ism” in the relevant period? I have read his work on bandits, and discussions about Josephus’s account of various popular uprisings, but have not been able to find any clear link in these to an actual “messianism”.

    1. Hi Bob,

      I have run a word search on that file and find 21 uses of the word “messiah” and none for “messianism”. Skimming the contexts where the 21 appeared I did not notice any discussion of the evidence for messianic expectations at the time of Jesus. Can you recommend specific articles in these three volumes?

        1. Horsley’s chapter is typical of scholarly discussions of messianism of the period in that it discusses texts that simply don’t even address the messiah, but assumes, rather, that all these authors had such an idea in mind when they wrote. If they did not mention it in Roman times (e.g. Josephus) they were said to have been displaying sensitivity to their Roman lords; if they did not mention it in earlier times they were said to be simply “assuming” the unstated (c.f. Casey’s and Crossley’s argumentation) or the vagaries of time have left us with all the wrong texts surviving for our perusal.

          I don’t wish to denegrate Horsley. He has produced some excellent work. But here he falls into line with the status quo and appears not to even recognize the difference between evidence-grounded fact and assumption.

    1. No. The title when first applied to Jesus did not need to go through backward somersaults in order to reach him. There was no need for devotees to experience such a mind-bending “historical” shock for them to invert a concept for an earthly conquering Davidic political messiah into an indicator of spiritual supremacy arising out of one crucified as a common criminal.

      A simpler and more plausible explanation is that the label was applied in a context and manner consistent with any one of the prevailing understandings of the word at the time.

      Jesus had the name (Christ) before he was ever translated to a gospel narrative in a parabolic and earthly setting.

  4. God is too abstract to communicate with human beings, so God creates a medium (light, the Word, etc.) to communicate. Eventually the medium becomes a Son, and so God becomes God the Father. In Heaven, just like on Earth, there must be a temple, and so God the Father annoints his Son as the Heavenly Temple’s High Priest, and so the Son is the Messiah.

    At this point, there still is not the idea that this Son-Priest-Messiah will come down to Earth to restore the Jewish nation to greatness.

    Simon Peter goes up to the summit of Mount Hermon and has a vision of this Son-Priest-Messiah, who apparently has descended from Heaven to visit a corresponding temple on the Firmament. Now we have an idea that this Son-Priest-Messiah has descended or is descending or will descend from Heaven to the World (Firmament + Earth).

    Then this idea is mixed in with Daniel’s prophecy that a Messiah will be “cut off” in relation to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.

    Then that idea was mixed it with a newer idea that all of this was prophesized by the Old Testament.

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