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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