What “Messiah” meant at the time of Paul and the earliest Christians
Continuing with notes from Christ among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism
We saw in Part 1 that interpreters of Paul have confidently concluded that whatever Paul meant by χριστός he did not mean “messiah”, but modern studies of messianism have shown that the meaning of “messiah” remains an open question.
Understanding what was meant by “messiah” was much simpler throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Jewish and Christian scholars alike took for granted the existence of “the messianic idea” that was widely understood throughout the period of ancient Judaism. The evidence for this idea was not found in every text that made mention of a messiah, but it could be cobbled together by combining motifs from different documents.
So the Christian scholar, Emil Schürer, on the basis of the Apocalypse of Baruch and the fourth Book of Esdras, showed that this messianic idea entailed the following:
- The final ordeal and confusion
- Elijah as precursor
- The coming of the messiah
- The last assault of the hostile powers
- Destruction of hostile powers
- The renewal of Jerusalem
- The gathering of the dispersed
- The kingdom of glory in the holy land
- The renewal of the world
- A general resurrection
- The last judgment, eternal bliss and damnation
Jewish scholarship did not substantially differ, as seen from Joseph Klausner’s list of ingredients that make up the messianic idea:
- The signs of the Messiah
- The birth pangs of the Messiah
- The coming of Elijah
- The trumpet of Messiah
- The ingathering of the exiles
- The reception of proselytes
- The war with Gog and Magog
- The Day of the Messiah
- The renovation of the World to Come
Klausner conceded that no single text sets out this complex of ideas in full, but these points nonetheless are what the disparate texts mean when put together.
In other words, if a literary text lacks some of the pieces, that is the fault of the text, not of the messianic idea. The idea exists prior to and independently of the texts. (p. 37)
The messianic idea psychologized
What is more, in most modern accounts the messianic idea is described in specifically psychological terms: It is the force that animates the pious Jewish hope for redemption, either throughout Jewish history (in Jewish treatments) or at the time of Christ (in Christian treatments).
In this train we find discussions of the messianic idea arising out of a tenacious belief in a better future despite overwhelming troubles facing the present. Some authors have seen this as one of Judaism’s special gifts to the world alongside monotheism and ethical codes. Scholarly study has accordingly been less about the messiah figure than about the religious attitude and ideology that was the backdrop to various beliefs in such a figure.
The messianological vacuum
The concept of the “messianic idea” in Judaism started to unravel at the end of the Second World War with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scholars increasingly argued that the words for “messiah” and “christ” in the Second Temple period “had no fixed content” (De Jonge) and may even have had no special significance or meaning at all (James Charlesworth, Jacob Neusner, William Scott Green). They were labels that could be, and were, applied to a wide variety of persons and things.
The Qumran texts pointed to the depth of the motif of two messiahs — hardly supportive of the idea that a staple of Judaism was a uniform messianic idea. (A. S. van der Woude)
Texts that spoke of messiahs without any eschatological theme and others that addressed eschatology without any reference to a messiah were also drawn to the closer attention of the scholarly consideration. (Morton Smith)
References to a messiah in the Jewish writings of the Persian and Hellenistic periods are so few that one scholar has catalogued many ancient Jewish texts that he calls the “no hope list” — most of the Pseudepigrapha and Apocryphal writings contain no messianic ideas at all or employ terms other than “messiah” or its derivatives. (William Horbury)
“It is impossible to define, and difficult to describe the messianology of the early Jews. . . . There is no script the Messiah is to act out. There is no clear, widely accepted Jewish description of the Messiah. The references to him are frustratingly vague and imprecise.”(Charlesworth, quoted in Novenson, p. 41))
Neusner lays out the methodological rule that there is no messiah at all, nor is there even Judaism: there are only so many Judaisms and so many messiahs. (p. 41)
“In Jewish writings before or during the emergence of Christianity, ‘messiah’ appears neither as an evocative religious symbol nor as a centralizing native cultural category.” In other words, there is no “messianic idea” behind the texts. “Rather, it [“messiah”] is a term of disparity, used in few texts and in diverse ways.” . . . . The word, as a word, is “notable primarily for its indeterminacy.” (William Scott Green quoted in Novenson, p. 41)
This brings me up to date with my own reading of what “messiah” meant in the Second Temple period. I have as an amateur quoted Neusner, Green and Charlesworth in my posts addressing messianism. So it is with particular interest that I have picked up Novenson’s book to read his response to this scholarship.
But Messiah language did mean “something”
Novenson acknowledges the “messiah minimalism” of Woude, Smith, de Jonge, Neusner, Charlewsorth, Green and others has been “an important step forward” — but there is a problem.
What these scholars have really shown, says Novenson, is that in this Second Temple period of Judaism “messiah” did not mean “the messianic idea” that had been largely taken for granted throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But they were wrong to conclude that it had no particular meaning at all. They failed to see what it did mean, says Novenson.
It is not that messiah language does not have meaning, just that its meaning does not consist in the manifestation of a reified messianic idea. (p. 41)
Before exploring the meaning of the term, however, Novenson considers a compromise view put forward by William Horbury.
Horbury argued that despite the paucity of references to “messiah” in the Second Temple documents, Jewish societies nonetheless preserved a strong tradition of a “messianic hope”. This “messianic hope” was not the same as the earlier understanding of the “messianic idea”. So the word “messiah” in the texts of the period are indicators (not of the older “messianic idea” explained at the beginning of this post, but) of a widespread and more general sense of future hope.
Horbury has not convinced most scholars, Novenson informs us. Novenson does think that Horbury is right, however, to distinguish “messianic hope” from the earlier concept of “messianic idea”.
And Novenson takes the argument one step further. He reminds us that words have constant meanings within any society regardless of whether people love or hate, act upon or dismiss, the ideas expressed in the words. (I will not outline the scholarly linguistic arguments here.)
So when John Collins in Judaisms and their Messiahs at the turn of the Christian era speaks of the “messianological vacuum” in the period of the Maccabees and our difficulty in knowing when and to what extent messianic expectations seized the popular imagination from then up until the time of the revolt against Rome, Novenson points out that none of this sociological history is relevant for deciding what the word “messiah” itself meant in the literature.
[I]t does not matter how many Jews were looking for the coming of the messiah; what matters is that members of the linguistic community were able to understand what was meant when someone talked about a messiah. (p. 44)
And again in his conclusion to this section:
Popular hope may have been more or less current at different times and places in early Judaism, but the meaningfulness of the language is independent of the fervency of the popular hope. People could know what the words meant whether or not they shared the sentiment expressed. (p. 47)
The Jewish linguistic communities shared a stock of common linguistic resources. Words took their meanings from these resources.
Novenson will argue that Second Temple Jewish references to the “messiah” regularly (and explicitly) link back to a small subset of passages in the Jewish scriptures, and that it is these passages in the Jewish scriptures that scholars must investigate to understand what the word meant to Jews at this time.
Jewish scriptures as linguistic resources
The scholarly pursuit for an understanding of what “messiah” meant to Second Temple Jews has concentrated on the literature of that time, but Novenson takes us back to the importance of the Jewish scriptures for shaping the concepts and meanings found in this literature. These scriptures have provided the common traditions that have unified the Jews across their wide-ranging linguistic and political settings.
[T]he Jewish scriptures functioned for their readers not only as a corpus of holy books but also as a pool of linguistic resources, a source of ways of speaking about things both sacred and mundane. (p. 48)
And for Novenson this means:
Talk about “messiahs” in early Jewish literature is just such a scripturally derived pattern of speech. (p. 48)
The key question will be which scriptural references for later Jews had special meaning and how Second Temple Jews interpreted those passages.
But first, what do the Jewish scriptures say about the messiah? The word appears thirty-eight times:
- Leviticus 4:3, 5, 16; 6:15
- 1 Samuel 2:10, 35; 12:3, 5; 16:6; 24:7, 11; 26:9, 11, 16, 23
- 2 Samuel 1:14, 16; 19:22; 22:51; 23:1
- Isaiah 45:1
- Habbakuk 3:13
- Psalms 2:2; 18:51; 20:7; 28:8; 84:10; 89:39, 52; 105:15; 132:10, 17
- Lamentations 4:20
- Daniel 9:25, 26
- 1 Chronicles 16:22
- 2 Chronicles 6:42
For the sake of simplicity I will bypass in this post Novenson’s detailed and heavily footnoted discussion of the relative places of the Septuagint and its presumed Hebrew ancestor, and the scriptural concepts (e.g. messiah meaning an anointed one) can long outcast customs that originally gave rise to those concepts (e.g. the practice of anointing kings).
Although there may well have been no “messianic idea” in the Second Temple period, and the days of anointing kings was long past, Jews more than likely very well understood the term “messiah” referred to an anointed person. But that does not mean they would have thought of the word as epitmozing a constellation of other ideological associations that are more familiar to us.
A number of scholars have sharply distinguished between the “messiahs” or “anointed ones” of the Scriptures and the “messiahs” of Judaism and Christianity and insisted that the Hebrew Bible does not use “messiah” as an eschatological title.
In other words, on one popular definition of “messiah,” there is no messiah in the Hebrew Bible. (p. 52)
Novenson wants us to understand, however, that just because we cannot find our idea of what messiah should mean or what we think it meant to Second Temple Jews, we must not overlook the possibility that Jews of that era did find a meaningful understanding of messiah in those scriptures. Modern scholars may analyze those scriptures and conclude that they contain no singular or coherent concept of a messiah, but that does not mean Second Temple Jews analyzed their sacred texts the same way.
In other words, there may not be any messiahs in the Hebrew Bible, but some Jewish authors of the Hellenistic and Roman periods evidently thought there were. (pp. 52-53)
So we find even in general Jewish writings that are not interpretations of scriptures that the word “messiah” appear in syntactical constructions that mirror the use of the word in those scriptures.
The “Creatively Biblical” Messiah texts of Second Temple Judaism
Without delving into the grammatical details, some of the syntactical expressions that appear to be derived from the scriptural references are:
- It appears as a predicate of someone or something: “He/this is the messiah . . . “
- It appears in temporal clauses, usually with a verb of “coming” or “appearing”: “Until the appearing/at the coming of the messiah . . . “
Novenson supplies a number of examples and notes their relevance:
As these several examples show, early Jewish and Christian messiah texts inherited from the Jewish scriptures not only the lexeme “messiah” but also a cluster of conventional syntagms within which to use it. (p. 55)
This is where the 38 scriptural references to messiah influence later writers — at the syntactical level. But at the level of wider meaning of the word “messiah” we find other passages from the Hebrew Bible are used.
The passages we find cited or alluded to at this wider literary level are of particular importance.
We know that many Jewish and Christian writings that speak of a “messiah” do cite scriptural passages (including those without mention of a messiah) at the same time to flesh out what is meant by the term.
The function of these citations and allusions is to clarify what the author intends by “messiah,” given the word’s considerable range of meaning. (p.56)
- Thus the Parables of Enoch characterize the messiah by citing Psalm 2:2 (1 Enoch 48:10); Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6 (1 Enoch 48:4); Daniel 7:9-14 (1 Enoch 46:1).
- 4 Ezra cites Daniel 7:1-14 (4 Ezra 12:11-12) and Genesis 49:9-10 (4 Ezra 12:31-32).
- Acts of the Apostles uses Psalm 2:1-2 (Acts 4:26) and Amos 9:11 (Acts 15:16).
We also have patronymic formulae — messiah son of David, messiah son of Joseph, messiah son of God — which are likewise shorthand allusions to traditions found in the Jewish scriptures.
The important point here is a finding Novenson attributes to Gerbern Oegema:
Gerbern Oegema has made a collation of collations and allusions to scripture in Jewish and Christian messiah texts from 300 B.C.E to 200 C.E. He finds first, that almost all ancient messiah texts cite or allude to one or more earlier source texts; second, that almost all of these earlier source texts are among the Jewish scriptures; and finally, that just a few of these scriptural source texts account for almost all of the later citations and allusions. (p. 57, my emphasis, but at Novenson’s prompting)
Novenson emphasizes that last point:
In other words, not only did the authors of ancient messiah texts find their messiahs in the Jewish scriptures; they found them in the same particular scriptures. (p. 57, my emphasis)
The most frequently cited and alluded-to messiah texts
Note that not one of them contains the word “messiah”!
The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the commander’s staff from between his feet, until that which is his comes; and the obedience of the peoples is his.
A star will go forth from Jacob; and a scepter will rise from Israel; it will shatter the borders of Moab and tear down all the sons of Sheth.
2 Samuel 7:12-13
I will raise up your seed after you, who will come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
A shoot will come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch will grow from his roots. The spirit of YHWH will rest upon him.
On that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, and repair its breached walls, and raise up its ruins, and build it as in the days of old.
I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like a son of man was coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and honor and kingship.
So the rich imagery associated with the messiah in these Second Temple texts is drawn from passages where the word “messiah” is not found.
What is it that these scriptural sources have in common if not the word “messiah” itself?
What this latter set of scriptures have in common is not the word “messiah” but rather the promise, either in oracular or in visionary form, of an indigenous ruler for the Jewish people. (p. 58)
Even in Daniel 7 the central figure, the “one like a son of man”, is a representative of “the people of the holy ones of the Most High” so here, too, the messianic figure is Jewish.
This subset of texts is of particular significance for understanding what the word “messiah” meant in the Hellenistic-Roman era –and thus in the time of Paul.
[D]ifferent interests notwithstanding, the later messiah texts are remarkably consistent in their drawing from this particular of scriptural source texts rather than from others. (p. 58)
The following passages illustrate this — the references to Isaiah 11:1-10 are in italics; messiah is highlighted in bold font.
Psalms of Solomon 17:21-22
See, O Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David . . . in the wisdom of righteousness to drive out the sinners from the inheritance . . . with a rod of iron to break all their substance, to destroy the lawless nations by the word of his mouth [Isa. 11:2, 4] . . . For they shall all be holy, and their king shall be the lord messiah.
1 Enoch 48:10–49:4
[The kings of the earth] have denied the Lord of Spirits and his Anointed One. Blessed be the name of the Lord of Spirits. . . . For the Chosen One has taken his stand in the presence of the Lord of Spirits; and his glory is forever and ever, and his might, to all generations. And in him dwell the spirit of wisdom and the spirit of insight, and the spirit of instruction and might, and the spirit of those who have fallen asleep in righteousness, And he will judge the things that are secret [Isa. 11:2, 3].
Christ became a servant of the circumcision for the sake of God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises to the patriarchs, and for the sake of his mercy, in order that the Gentiles might glorify God. As it is written. . . . The root of Jesse shall come, he who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles hope [Isa. 11:10].
b. Sanh. 93b
Bar Koziba reigned two and a half years. He said to the rabbis, “I am the messiah.” They said to him, “Of the messiah it is written, He smells and judges [Isa. 11:3]. Let us see whether he smells and judges.” When they saw that he was unable to smell and judge, they killed him.
The significance of this for Novenson:
Each of these four very different texts is concerned to say something about a “messiah” and each does so by citing or alluding to one or more parts of Isa 11:1-10. None of these texts is literarily dependent on any of the other three; rather, they are independent witnesses to a convention whereby one talk about a messiah in terms of the Isaianic “shoot from the stump of Jesse.” (p. 60)
Different interpretations natural
That does not mean that they all interpret these core scriptural passages in the same way. They clearly don’t. And that’s understandable. After all, none of the scriptural passages itself expresses an intrinsic messianic meaning. That there are different interpretations is
inconsequential since, in fact, no such uniform system of scriptural exegesis is attested in any ancient literary corpus. (p. 60)
The interesting point is not that the scriptural texts in question received diverse interpretations but rather that such a pool of scriptural texts existed. (p. 60)
That there are different interpretations is
unsurprising given the very diverse social and historical contexts of the respective messiah texts.
- Some are written in Judea
- Others in the Diaspora
- Some date second century B.C.E.
- Others date second century C.E.
- Some favour the temple cult
- Others oppose the temple cult
- Others were written after the destruction of the temple
- Some are Qumranite
- Others Christian
- Others Enochic
- Others mainstream
The Qumranic motif of two messiahs — one of Aaron and another of Israel — is almost certainly related to that community’s opposition to the conflation of the priestly and royal offices by the Hasmonean dynasty.
Every messiah text is also a reflection of the political power structures in which it was composed.
Each one was also shaped by the unique creativity of its author.
Loren Stuckenbruck put his finger on this variation among the texts when he wrote:
“Such a dynamic hope drove their descriptions of eschatological events to be ‘creatively biblical‘ at every turn.” (p. 62, my emphasis)
Creative — because the biblical texts used do not themselves contain a definitive messianic meaning;
Biblical — because in nearly every case the messiah texts do interpet passages in the Bible.
For Novenson this means that there is no single messiah text or subset of such texts that can be taken to represent the messianic idea. It follows, then, that
all such texts should be taken into consideration as evidence of this interpretive practice . . . no one messiah text has a claim to represent “the messianic idea” in its pristine form over against other messiah texts that do so less adequately. Rather, all messiah texts are on a par in this respect since every particular messiah text is just one instance of the use of certain scriptural linguistic resources. (pp. 62-63, my emphasis)
Now this argument goes against the one I have been using for the last few years. I have been influenced by the Neusners and Greens. Accordingly I have been opposed to reading a messiah meaning into a passage that does not contain the word for “messiah” and have been pointing to passages that do speak of a messiah even though there has not been explicit reference to them in the literature I know of (e.g. the anointed high priest in Numbers and Deuteronomy).
Now Novenson is telling me I have been wrong. He does indeed show us that there is a good reason for understanding messiah texts as “creatively biblical” in their use of scriptures that do not contain the word “messiah”. I’d love to have the time to explore Novenson’s thesis, and the work of Gerbern Oegema, critically in depth. Till then I’ll be keeping a lookout for reviews of his work. One thing in particular that attracts me to it is that it appears to be able to explain Paul’s references to “Christ” within a larger framework of Second Temple Judaism rather than as an aberration. And from there it may not be such a huge step towards a significant new understanding of Christian origins, but that’s another story.
So where does this leave us with figuring out what Paul meant by the term? And other early Christians?
It is at just this point . . . that research into messianism bumps up against Pauline scholarship since Paul’s use of nearly three hundred uses of the word “messiah” have been thought not to pass muster as properly messianic. The reason most often given for this problematic conclusion is that Paul, unlike his contemporaries, uses the word χριστός not as a title of office that it is but rather as an empty proper name. This claim warrants considerable scrutiny, which is the task of the next chapter. (p. 63)
It is also the task of the next post in this series.
. . . to be continued
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
- Paul and Jesus: Mirrored Rejections, Deaths and Resurrections - 2021-04-18 02:57:08 GMT+0000
- Paul is Jesus Redivivus in Acts - 2021-04-17 14:04:02 GMT+0000
- John the Baptist in Josephus — What was his baptism? - 2021-04-16 09:27:19 GMT+0000
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!