- What did Paul — or any of the earliest Christians — mean when they called Jesus “Christ”? I mean before the Gospels were written.
- If the idea of Christ for earliest Christians and Jews of their day meant a conquering Davidic king, how do we explain why early Christians referred to Jesus as “Christ” and “seed of David” if he was crucified?
- Did not Paul apply the term Christ to Jesus as a personal name, not as a title? If so, did Paul have his own idiosyncratic view of what Christ meant, if anything, other than a name?
- If Jews at the time of the Jewish revolt (66-70 ce) were expecting a Messiah who would rise up out of Judea and rule the world (as indicated in Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius), did Paul and other early Christians share this same view with application to Jesus?
- Did Paul “de-messianize a hitherto-messianic Jesus movement” and turn a Jewish cult into a religion that came to stand in opposition to Judaism?
These questions are addressed and answered by Matthew V. Novenson in his recently published Christ among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism. Matthew Novenson is a lecturer in New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh. He had earlier addressed aspects of them briefly in a 2009 JBL article, The Jewish Messiahs, the Pauline Christ, and the Gentile Question.
The Problem Stated
Novenson sets out the problem in his introduction:
The problem can be stated simply: Scholars of ancient Judaism, finding only a few diverse references to “messiahs” in Hellenistic- and Roman-period Jewish literature, have concluded that the word did not mean anything determinate [that is, it did not convey, for example, the idea of troubles in the last-days, with an Elijah precursor, a coming to overthrow enemies, establish the kingdom of God, etc] in that period [it was merely a word for anyone/thing “anointed”].
Meanwhile, Pauline interpreters, faced with Paul’s several hundred uses of the Greek word for “messiah,” have concluded that Paul said it but did not mean it, that χριστός in Paul does not bear any of its conventional senses.
To summarize the majority view: “Messiah” did not mean anything determinate in the period in question, and Paul, at any rate, cannot have meant whatever it is that “messiah” did not mean. (pp. 1-2, my formatting)
Novenson finds John Collins’ statement of the problem particularly pointed:
On the Christian side, we have had the astonishing claim that Paul, the earliest Christian writer, did not regard Jesus as the messiah. The ecumenical intentions of such a claim are transparent and honorable, but also misguided since the claim is so plainly false. Jesus is called Christos, anointed, the Greek equivalent of messiah, 270 times in the Pauline corpus. If this is not ample testimony that Paul regarded Jesus as messiah, then words have no meaning. (p. 2)
Novenson’s book argues that for Paul Jesus was the “messiah” in more than just name. But if so, what did the term “messiah” mean to Paul? Novenson will argue that Paul really did understand the word “messiah” in the same sense as other Jews of his day understood the term:
To rephrase my thesis from this perspective: Christ language in Paul is actually an invaluable example of messiah language in ancient Judaism. (p. 3)
Definitions and Concepts
Novenson limits his study of Paul’s understanding of χριστός to the seven letters generally accepted as authentic: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon.
He speaks of “messiah texts” and “messiah language” as distinct from “messianism”. Thus his argument addresses the meaning of messiah language in our texts, what the term itself meant, and not the real or hypothetical existence of social movements anticipating a messiah.
How does Novenson view the other Jewish texts of the period, then, by comparison with their uses of the term “messiah” with Paul’s uses? Novenson follows Geza Vermes in arguing that “for a historical understanding, the age old distinction between the New Testament and its Jewish background should be abolished and the former looked at deliberately as part of the larger whole.”
The other Jewish texts of the period are best conceived neither as backgrounds to Paul nor as parallels to Paul but rather as other instances of the ancient Judaism of which Paul, too, was an instance. More specifically, χριστός in Paul’s letters is itself an instance of messiah language in ancient Judaism. It is best interpreted as a member of a species, and the whole species stands to be better understood as a result of its being so interpreted. (p. 9)
The period of Jewish literature Novenson covers for Paul’s context extends from the time of the Maccabean revolt (160s B.C.E.) through to the Bar Kokhba revolt (130s C.E.).
The Modern Problem of Christ and the Messiahs
I’d love to see the various histories of scholarly ideas made more accessible to general readers. Such exposure would surely help more of us understand where our current thinking stands in the larger scheme of things and hopefully remind us that “the current wisdom” is probably yet one more stepping stone in an ongoing quest for understanding. Stubborn dogmatism would vanish overnight! Rainbows would appear, flowers blossom, the crocodile will lay down with the dingo, the leopard will lose its spots, and a little tyke will tweak their noses.
Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860)
[Paul] saw in the death of Christ the purification of the Messianic idea from all the sensuous elements which cleaved to it in Judaism, and its elevation to the truly spiritual consciousness where Christ comes to be recognised as . . . the absolute principle of the spiritual life.
That is, for Baur, Paul was purging the concept of the Jewish Messiah from all of its Jewish trappings of an earthly religion and transforming it into an entirely spiritual concept as the focus of a new religion opposed to Judaism. Paul in effect was said to “liberate” Christianity from Judaism by turning the Jewish “Messiah” idea into a “higher” and more spiritual concept, “Christ”.
Baur based his view on what he regarded as only four genuine Pauline epistles: Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians and Romans. These four epistles, moreover, contained interpolations expressing what Baur considered an anti-Pauline view of Christ.
The German religionsgeschichtliche Schule
Baur laid out the direction for subsequent generations of interpreters of Paul. He was particularly influential on the German religionsgeschichtliche Schule that also became a strong influence throughout England and the United States.
These thinkers stressed the Hellenistic elements of Paul’s thought and downplayed Jewish aspects. One way of achieving this was to argue that Paul was able to appeal to Gentiles by abandoning the Jewish “messiah” Christology and replacing it with a Lord (κύριος) Christology.
William Wrede (1859-1906)
As part of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule Wrede likewise believed that Paul rejected the “ordinary [Jewish] conception of a Messiah” as too worldly and racially limited. Paul, Wrede argued, created a metaphysical concept of Christ — a divine figure who was above all mankind yet for all mankind. Thus for Paul the Messiah was no longer a Jewish Messiah but a Saviour of the world. Paul’s religion was thus not a Jewish faith but an entirely new faith.
Adolf Deissmann (1866-1937)
For Deissmann Judaism held the idea of a “dogmatic Messiah” who was tied firmly to Judea or Palestine itself. Before Paul Christianity clung to the same messianic idea with respect to Jesus.
Paul introduced the notion of a Christ mysticism, a spiritual Christ who transcended ethnic and geographic limitations.
Wilhelm Bousset (1865-1920)
Bousset represents “the high-water mark” of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule. On Paul’s Christ concept he wrote in Kyrios Christos:
The personal Christ piety of the apostle Paul arose on this foundation of the Kyrios faith and the Kyrios cultus in the Hellenistic primitive Christian communities . . . .
In the Christ piety of Paul there now sounds one entirely new note, and it becomes the dominant: the intense feeling of personal belonging and of spiritual relationship with the exalted Lord. (my emphasis)
Novenson will argue against this. He will argue that Paul’s concept of Christ was part and parcel with how his Jewish contemporaries understood the meaning of messiah.
Bousset introduced a theme that has remained a commonplace in scholarship up to the present day: that with the writings of Paul we are witnessing the change from Christ being used as an honorific title to becoming a proper name. With Paul we find the old titles that dominated the earliest Christian community references to Jesus fast disappearing.
So while Christ became a proper name (no longer a title) there was a new title that was applied to Jesus by Paul and that came to dominate in gentile Christianity ever afterwards — κύριος, Lord. Paul transformed Jesus from being “a messiah” into a Lord. Christ was robbed of all its messianic significance and reduced to a proper name. Jesus Christ was the name of the Lord.
Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965)
Schweitzer was a critic of Bousset’s understanding of Paul’s Christology. For Schweitzer, the centre of Paul’s thought was “Being in Christ” — a mystical concept for a mystical eschatology. Though such a concept lent itself to subsequent Hellenisation, Schweitzer argued that Paul drew this idea from Judaism’s late Second Temple apocalypses.
That is, Paul’s “in Christ” concept corresponded with the christs of the Jewish apocalypses. These apocalypses introduced the belief in a preordained union of the elect to both with one another and with the messiah in the messianic kingdom.
Up until the Second World War, however, Schweitzer’s views failed to overthrow the influence of Bousset.
Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976)
For Bultmann Paul was the touchstone of Hellenistic Christianity. In explaining, therefore, Romans 1:3 in which Paul spoke of Jesus as being the “seed of David”, he commented that “the title is of no importance to him.” Paul’s use of it “is evidently due to a handed-down formula” that does not reflect the apostle’s own view.
Bultmann, heir of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule, regarded Paul’s Christianity as thoroughly Hellenistic, and saw Paul as describing Christ’s death in terms analogous to the deaths of divinities in mystery cults.
Relevance of the above history to today’s views
Novenson concludes from his survey of the scholarship from Baur up to the time of the Second World War:
Despite the passage of a century, this notion — that the messiah of Judaism is narrow and limited, the Christ of Paul universal and inclusive — continues to influence many. The anti-Semitic excesses of the school of thought have been roundly rejected, but the basic shape of the argument persists in mainstream Pauline scholarship. (p. 19)
Since the Second World War there have been serious rivals to this view.
* * *
W. D. Davies (1911-2001)
In 1948 W. D. Davies published Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology, a work that
helped move Pauline research down a decidedly Judaism-oriented path that has continued on to this day. (p. 20)
For Davies, Paul’s views were traceable to rabbinic parallels and there was no need to look to non-Jewish sources for their origin. Paul was a Jewish thinker, not a Hellenistic one, according to Davies.
Far from rejecting Judaism, Paul was said to have discovered its true meaning and fulfillment in what became the new religion of Christianity. For Paul, Jesus was the Messiah of Jewish expectation ushering in the Messianic age — except that he did it by means of transvaluing, not rejecting, traditional Judaism.
The influence of W. D. Davies re-emerges later in the form of his student, E. P. Sanders.
Nils Dahl (1911-2001)
Dahl wrote a short essay (The Messiahship of Jesus in Paul) in 1953 revisiting Bousset’s question as to whether Paul used the term “Christ” as a title or a proper name. Dahl came down in favour of Bousset’s conclusion — that Paul uses Christ as a proper name — on the basis of four negative philological reasons:
- it is never a general term;
- it is never a predicate of the verb ‘to be’ (e.g. Jesus is Christ);
- it never takes a genitive modifier (e.g. Christ of God);
- and it characteristically lacks the definite article (e.g. a/the Christ).
But he concluded with an important qualifier:
This does not exclude the possibility that the name ‘Christ’ bears a fullness of meaning. However, the messiahship of Jesus is not stressed. (p. 21)
Dahl thus initiated a German trend through the 1950s and 1960s of deciding by means of grammatical criteria whether Paul meant ‘Christ’ as a title or a proper name.
Novenson will argue that Dahl’s grammatical criteria are insufficient for understandings Paul’s thought.
Hans Conzelmann (1915-1989)
Conzelmann followed Dahl’s grammatical lead and suggested that a “title” could be identified if it came with a definite article and appeared as the subject of a sentence.
Oscar Cullmann (1902-1999)
Cullmann, likewise in Dahl’s train, used word order to determine Paul’s meaning. So when Paul spoke of Jesus Christ he was using Christ as a proper name. Other times he would invert the order and write Christ Jesus, thus reminding us that he was nonetheless still aware of the real meaning of the word.
Werner Kramer (1930- )
Kramer rebutted the philological arguments above and insisted that in every case Paul used Christ as a proper name. Jesus and Christ were interchangeable. Though χριστός was originally drawn from the Septuagint, by the time it had reached Paul it had been stripped of all conventional meaning.
The influence of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule is seen once again surfacing in Kramer’s insistence that Paul was only formerly a Jew and that his Christianity was thoroughly gentile, stripped of Jewish associations.
E. P. Sanders (1937- )
Sanders’ landmark 1977 publication was Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion. Part of Sanders’ intention with this work was
to destroy the view of Rabbinic Judaism which is still prevalent in much, perhaps most, New Testament scholarship.
A major accomplishment of this book has been the demolition of the view among many scholars that Judaism was a “salvation by legalism” religion. This was achieved in part through references to the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Sanders believed a weakness in his teacher’s (W. D. Davies) argument was his reliance upon piecemeal parallels of motifs of thought between rabbinic Judaism and Paul’s thought.
Sanders proposes instead a wholesale comparison of patterns of religion, the essence of Paulinism with the essence of Palestinian Judaism. (p. 23)
Sanders also disagreed with Davies on the importance of Jesus’s Messiaship in Paul’s thought. For Davies, the messiahship of Jesus was the centre of Paul’s religion and its main point of contention with Judaism. Paul viewed Jesus as the true spiritual fulfillment of the Jewish messiah.
Although Sanders agreed with Davies’ point that Paul believed Jesus was indeed the Messiah, he parted company with Davies over how important this was to Paul. Sanders did not see this idea as central to Paul’s belief system at all. For Sanders,
Paul’s principal conviction as not that Jesus as the Messiah had come, but that God had appointed Jesus Christ as Lord and that he would resurrect or transform those who were members of him by virtue of believing in him.
Thus Sanders is returning very close to Bousset’s thinking here. He is arguing that Paul rejected a χριστός christology in favour of a κύριος [Lord] christology.
But now, Novenson points out, Sanders has left us without any understanding of why Paul should ever refer to Jesus as Christ at all.
His teacher, W. D. Davies, had argued for a logical progression by which Paul may have come to his views of Jesus as the Messiah — he interpreted Jesus’ status as the spiritual fulfillment of the Jewish messiah. But Davies had arrived at his view by drawing parallels between elements of Paul’s thought and rabbinic Judaism.
Sanders, on the other hand, had rejected Davies’ method and zeroed in on the different essences of the totality of the two religious ideas, but that left him with a Christianity that was simply different from Judaism without any coherent connection to it. In other words, Sanders simply argued that the reason Paul faulted Judaism was because “it is not Christianity.”
In other words, whereas Davies proposes an inner Jewish logic whereby Paul might have come to his peculiar views, Sanders simply posits that Paul represents an altogether different religion. By doing so, he avoids the logical snares involved in drawing parallels, but he also leaves Paul strangely untethered to his native religious context and fails to explain why Paul should refer to Jesus as χριστός at all. (p. 24, my emphasis)
* * *
Since Paul and Palestinian Judaism scholarly studies on Paul’s christology and understanding of “christ” have fanned into different directions.
RR controversially claimed that Christology virtually by definition implied an attack on the Jewish religion and the Jews, that “anti-Judaism is the left hand of Christology.”
Argued against RR that Paul alone among the NT writers had “no left hand.” Paul’s Christology made no claim on the Jews so was not anti-Jewish. Gaston returned to Dahl’s and Kramer’s view that for Paul “Christ” was only a name and not a title. Jesus is not the climax of God’s dealing with Israel but only the fulfillment of God’s promises to the gentiles.
Novenson points to a “remarkable irony” here. Whereas Baur a century earlier had argued that
if Paul had a messiah Christology, he would have been a philo-Semite, which Baur could not abide. More than a century later, Gaston reasons that, if Paul had had a messiah Christology, he would have been an anti-Semite, which Gaston cannot abide. Baur and Gaston agree, then, on the historical point that Paul did not believe that Jesus was the messiah, but for exactly opposite theological reasons. (p. 26)
Updated Dahl’s philological arguments.
N. T. Wright
Argues Paul believed Jesus was the Messiah, but that Messiah means “the one in whom the people of God are summed up.”
Paul writes “messiah” but deliberately changes its meaning to downplay what it truly meant to the Jews: this is to avoid embarrassment over the delay in the parousia and to respect political sensitivities associated with the potentially political term.
Agrees with Chester in that Paul changed (or downplayed) the meaning of the word, but MZ argues a different reason for this: Paul was seeking to prevent his gentile converts from Judaizing, so felt it inappropriate to present his converts (many of whom had previously been familiar with Judaism) with a Jewish messiah.
Disagrees with Chester: believes Paul embraces the full Jewish meaning of “messiah”.
Paul did embrace the Jewish messiahship of Jesus and it was this that explains other Pauline themes like persecution of believers in the Diaspora synagogues and the rationale for the gentile mission.
Adela Yarbro Collins
Also argues that Paul believed in the messiahship of Jesus. She interprets the philological arguments in the opposite direction from others:
Paul’s unornamented use of the word suggests not that he was defusing or de-emphasizing the idea but rather that he assumed it. (p. 30)
On the above three, Novenson comments:
The contributions of Zeller, Fredriksen, and Collins show that, appearances notwithstanding, the majority interpretation does not follow necessarily from the Pauline evidence; other interpretations are possible and perhaps even preferable. (pp. 30-31)
Paul saw Jesus as the messiah (Jewish) but, since he chose to delay his coming and judgment upon the world, Paul concludes that this delay must be emphasized. That is, the focus of Paul’s interest is not Jesus’ messiahship but the delay in which he forgoes his messianic prerogatives. So the all-important act was Jesus dying and being vindicated in his resurrection.
And this brings us down to the author of the book under discussion, Matthew V. Novenson. So now we know where he fits in with the history of the scholarship on this question.
* * *
An ironic position
At the present time, scholarly scholarly opinion on χριστός in Paul is an ironic position. While most of the major monographs, commentaries, and theologies of Paul now follow Davies and Sanders in reading Paul in primarily “Jewish” rather than “Hellenistic” terms, on the question of the meaning of χριστός they nevertheless perpetuate the old religionsgeschichtliche thesis that Paul is revising, transcending, or otherwise moving beyond the messianic faith of the earliest Jesus movement. (p. 32, my emphasis)
So for all the diversity of the Christological theses abounding, they all share one point in common:
Whatever Paul’s Christology is, it is not messianic.
Behind the diversity of opinions, however, rests one common presupposition:
Pauline interpreters think they know what messiah Christology would look like, and they are certain that Paul’s Christology does not look like that.
It is this point that Novenson tackles in his book. He continues by way of introduction:
This is actually very curious, however, since the last sixty years in Jewish studies have witnessed a dramatic breakdown in consensus about what messiah Christology would look like and indeed whether it existed at all in the first century C.E.
As a result, the two subfields of research are like ships passing in the night.
When scholars of early Judaism have cast about for any instances of the word “messiah” in Hellenistic and Roman period literature find an unparalleled cache of such instances in the letters of Paul, New Testament scholars reply that Paul says it but does not mean it, that for him χριστός means “Christ,” not “messiah.”
It is an open question, however, what “messiah” itself means. (pp. 32-33, my formatting)
And that is the question that Matthew Novenson sets out to discuss in Christ among the Messiahs.
. . . to be continued.
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