Much New Testament scholarship has come to think that Paul did not believe Jesus was the Messiah in any sense that his contemporary Jews would have understood the word Messiah. Many Pauline scholars have concluded that for the bulk of Paul’s 270 references to Christ (Greek for Messiah) the word meant little more than a personal name, and certainly not the traditional Messiah of Jewish national aspirations.
Matthew Novenson (Christ among the Messiahs) argues otherwise. The previous posts in this series have sketched his arguments that Paul used the term Christ, not as a personal name nor as a title of office, but as an honorific comparable the honorifics applied to Hellenistic kings and Roman generals and emperors:
- Epiphanes [God Manifest]
- Soter [Saviour]
- Africanus [conqueror of Africa]
- Augustus [Venerable]
. . . . χριστός in Paul is best conceived neither as a sense-less proper name nor as a title of office but rather as an honorific, a word that can function as a stand-in for a personal name but part of whose function is to retain its supernominal associations. Consequently, we ought not to imagine Paul habitually writing χριστός as if it signified nothing, then occasionally recalling its scriptural associations and subtly redeploying it. We ought rather to think of Paul using the honorific throughout his letters and occasionally, for reasons of context, clarifying one of more aspects of how he means the term. (p. 138)
If follows that Novenson argues that Paul’s use of the word Christ (χριστός) is entirely consistent with what it meant among Jews of his day — a world-conquering and liberating Hebrew “Messiah”. Paul has not done away with the traditional messianic idea. Rather, Paul relies upon the same core Scriptural texts that other Jews likewise regarded as foundational to their understanding of who and what the Messiah was. I repeat here from Part 2 those half dozen central texts, none of which, interestingly, contains the word “messiah”. See part 2 for the explanation of why these texts are known to be central for Jewish concepts and discussions about the meaning of the 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.
In this post I begin to look at some of the passages in Paul’s letters where Novenson finds Paul clarifying his use of the term χριστός/messiah. Novenson attempts to show through these passages that Paul’s use of the term is no different from what we would expect to find in any other Jewish or Christian text that we consider “a messiah text”.
Galatians 3:16 “Abraham’s Seed, Which Is Christ”
Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. (Gal. 3:16)
But contrast the passage in Genesis that Paul is referencing (Genesis 13:14-17):
And the Lord said unto Abram, after that Lot was separated from him, Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward:
For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.
And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered.
Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee.
How could Paul possibly have misunderstood the plain message in Genesis that “seed”, though singular, collectively referred to the multitudes of Abraham’s descendants who were to inherit the land? How could he possibly have interpreted even its singular meaning referring to Abraham’s son Isaac as somehow a prophecy of Christ or the Messiah?
None of this makes logical sense to us. Paul’s interpretation of the promises in Genesis is clearly wrong.
Maybe so, Novenson would say, but all of that is beside the point:
Most Pauline scriptural interpretation and indeed most early Jewish and Christian scriptural interpretation can be called “mistaken” in this sense, but early Jewish and Christian scriptural interpretation had a kind of logic of its own, a set of “rules of the game” by which ancient interpreters proceeded and which they found compelling. This is not to say that Paul’s interpretation of [seed] in Gen 13:15 is not an “interested” one or that his contemporaries would have agreed with it. It is the case, though, that Paul’s contemporaries would have recognized what he was doing. (p. 140, my highlighting)
So what was Paul doing and what does this have to do with his understanding of Jesus being a messiah according to the traditional Jewish understanding of messiah?
The principle Paul appears to be following is to allow scriptures to interpret other scriptures where they share a common phrase, a technique that we find explicit in the later Talmudic writings. (This is, I suggest, even similar to the way many cult and other fundamentalist churches interpret scriptures today. It’s a kind of mantic or even tarot reading approach to the scriptures. “Let scripture interpret scripture” is the motto.)
So compare Genesis 17:7 and 2 Samuel 7:12 (the Greek is of course the text known to Paul):
And I will establish my covenant between me and you [Abraham] and your seed after you in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you, and to your seed after you.
And when your [David‘s] days be fulfilled, and you shall sleep with your fathers, I will set up [same Greek verb as “will establish” in Genesis 17] your seed after you, which shall proceed out of your bowels, and I will establish his kingdom.
There are a number of similarities of phrase and thought across these two passages. “Your seed (singular)” is a common motif in the promises to Abraham as found in Genesis, but is only rarely found apart from that context. That is until we come to David and God’s promises to him. The promise in 2 Samuel 7:12 is repeated in Psalm 89: 3-4 and 1 Chron 17:10-14.
Because of the confluence of these factors, Paul is able to read the scriptures in such a way that the seed of Abraham actually is the seed of David, the Christ. In other words, there is a very particular logic to Paul’s choice of the word χριστός here. For Paul, “Abraham’s seed” may be Jesus, but it is not “Jesus”. Rather, it is “Christ”. (p. 142)
This is not to say that Paul’s Jewish contemporaries would have all agreed with his interpretation. Many no doubt disagreed. But they would have known and understood what Paul was doing by making this interpretation. There would have been no disagreement about the meanings of the words or concept of messiah itself.
Paul is not saying that Jesus is the seed of Abraham by way of some sort of contrast to the concept of being of the seed of David. It is not a matter of being either the seed of one or of the other. He is not suggesting that for the Gentiles Jesus is the seed of Abraham but for the Jews the seed of David. No. Jesus is the Messiah in accord with the normal Jewish understanding of the promises about the Messiah. But in addition, other passages that speak of Jesus relate to Jesus as that Messiah. The promise to Abraham is interpreted through the messianic promise to David.
In Galatians 3, however, Paul . . . actually interprets the Abrahamic promises through David, as it were. (p. 139)
1 Corinthians 15:20-28 “When He Hands Over the Kingdom to God”
20 But now hath Christ been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of them that are asleep.
21 For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; then they that are Christ’s, at his coming.
24 Then cometh the end, when he shall deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have abolished all rule and all authority and power.
25 For he must reign, till he hath put all his enemies under his feet. [Compare Psalm 110 below]
26 The last enemy that shall be abolished is death.
27 For, He put all things in subjection under his feet [Compare Psalm 8 below]. But when he saith, All things are put in subjection, it is evident that he is excepted who did subject all things unto him.
28 And when all things have been subjected unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subjected to him that did subject all things unto him, that God may be all in all.
Compare the messianic passage of Daniel 7:27
Their kingdom and authority and majesty, and the rule of all the kingdoms under heaven, He gave to the holy people of the Most High, to rule an eternal kingdom, and all authorities were subjected to them and obeyed them.
The words underlined are the same words in the Greek in both Daniel and Paul’s letter.
Here Christ (as per the Messiah) is God’s appointed one designated to conquer all powers hostile to God in this age and to continue to rule as God’s agent until everything is accomplished. The imagery is directly from the apocalyptic and messianic text of Daniel.
Paul is not arguing that Jesus is the Messiah or Christ, but his argument that the general resurrection hangs upon Christ’s own resurrection and reign hangs upon the assumption that Jesus is indeed this figure of Jewish expectation.
This is why Paul turns to justifying this messianic presentation of Christ by quoting Psalms 110 and 8. These Psalms are brought together in Paul’s thinking by their common image of things being put in subjection “beneath one’s feet”.
Of David. A psalm. The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” (Psalm 110:1 — or 109 in LXX)
[For the end, concerning the wine-presses, a Psalm of David.] . . . . You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: (Psalm 8:intro and verse 6)
The two Psalms are associated in Paul’s thinking here because they are both said to be by David and both speak of subjecting all beneath one’s feet.
Psalm 110, however, is about the messianic ruler subjecting all enemies beneath his feet. Psalm 8 is a praise to God for placing all other creatures in subjection to mankind.
But in Paul’s thinking they are both messianic psalms — in particular in that they are by and about David.
Paul’s argument about the resurrection is predicated upon Jesus being the Messiah according to all that the basic idea of Messiah meant to his fellow Jews. He is the one who fulfils the prophecy of Daniel 7, who as God’s delegate conquers all enemies and initiates the general resurrection.
The Jews of Paul’s day would have recognized that Paul was presenting Jesus as the Messiah of common understanding. Certainly Jews would have debated Paul’s specifics (as they did with their many messianic speculations) but they would all have recognized that his concept of Messiah/Christ was all of one with the other Jewish messianic texts that have been left for us from the Second Temple period.
. . . to be continued
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