Christ among the Messiahs — Part 6

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by Neil Godfrey

This post continues a study of some of the passages in Paul’s letters that, according to Matthew Novenson, demonstrate that Paul’s use of the term “Christ” is entirely consistent with the understanding of “Messiah” that we would expect to find in any other Jewish text of his day. That is, Paul did not have a radically new conception of the Jewish Messiah that stood in opposition to the very concept among his Jewish contemporaries. Novenson argues that “Christ”, for Paul, is neither a name nor a title, but an honorific (cf. Augustus, Epiphanes, Maccabee, Africanus).

The previous post considered passages from Galatians 3 and 1 Corinthians 15. The next passages discussed are

(1) 2 Corinthians 1:21-22 —

Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

The significance of this passage, Novenson explains, is that it demonstrates Paul’s consciousness of the meaning of “Christ” as “Anointed” — “Christ” is not simply another name-label for Jesus as some have thought. Word-play was a common ancient convention and we see Paul using this here with his verb χρίσας (anointed) following Χριστὸν (Christ);

(2) and Romans 9:1-5 —

I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.

I focus here, however, on those passages that on first reading are less clearly messianic in the orthodox sense.

Romans 15:3, 9 “Your Reproaches Fell on Me . . . I Will Praise Your Name”

For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.” . . .

and that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy, as it is written:

“For this reason I will confess to You among the Gentiles,
And sing to Your name.”

Here we find Paul quoting the Psalms of David as the actual words of Christ. The words of the Davidic Psalm 69:9 (68:10 in the Greek Septuagint) are, according to Paul, the words of Christ himself.

A few verses later Paul declares that the Gentiles will all praise God, but to begin the scriptural exhortations for them to do so he begins with words of Christ himself praising God. Christ speaks in the first person the words of Psalms of David — in the latter instance Psalm 18:49 (17:50 LXX).

The convention of citing psalms of David as words of Christ is actually broadly attested in the New Testament. While Paul is the earliest literary witness to this phenomenon, the association of Jesus with David certainly did not originate with Paul, and the early Christian custom of reading psalms of David as words of Christ is probably pre-Pauline as well. (p. 155)

The likely explanation for this, says Novenson, is the correspondence between David the χριστός and Jesus the χριστός.

Novenson suggests that it was not only the David superscriptions to the Psalms that invited early Christians to single these out as Christ’s words, but an accident of translation was also involved. The Hebrew superscription that said “for the [music] leader” was “invariably” translated in the Greek Psalter as “for the end”. Most of these Psalms are also Psalms of David. This Greek superscription, “for the end”, may have been taken as an eschatological reference, especially since David himself was sometimes seen as an end-time figure (Ezekiel 34:23-34; 37:24-25).

Romans 15:7-12 “The Root of Jesse Who Rises to Rule the Gentiles”

And again, Isaiah says,

The root of Jesse shall [come],
even he who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.

Paul here quotes the Greek Septuagint that departs from what has come down to us in the Hebrew version of Isaiah. In that text Isaiah 11:10 says that the root of Jesse will be “a sign” for the Gentiles, not the ruler of the Gentiles. Further, the Hebrew text says the Gentiles “will seek” him while the LXX says they “will hope” in him. This is significant for Paul’s theme around the “God of hope”.

Note, further, that Paul speaks again here of his commission from God to bring about the fulfilment of this prophecy, to bring about “the obedience of the Gentiles”:

For I will not dare to speak of any of those things which Christ has not accomplished through me, in word and deed, to make the Gentiles obedient (Romans 15:18 — as also in 1:5 and 16:26).

Compare the Davidic Psalm 17 (LXX)

1. [For the end, [a Psalm] of David, the servant of the Lord; [the words] which he spoke to the Lord, [even] the words of this Song, in the day in which the Lord delivered him out the hand of all his enemies, and out the hand of Saul: and he said:]

43-44: Deliver me from the gain sayings of the people: thou shalt make me head of the Gentiles: a people whom I knew not served me, at the hearing of the ear they obeyed me:

50. [God] magnifies the deliverances of his king; and deals mercifully with David his anointed [Christ], and his seed, for ever.

The Psalm concludes with the Gentiles in a state of obedience to the Davidic king of Israel. This is the vision Paul himself is drawing upon for Christ.

The obedience of the Gentiles also figures in Isa 11:13-14 LXX, a passage that follows immediately after the root of Jesse saying that is cited in Rom 15:12.

10 And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall arise to rule over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust, and his rest shall be glorious. 11 And it shall be in that day, [that] the Lord shall again shew his hand, to be zealous for the remnant that is left of the people, which shall be left by the Assyrians, and [that] from Egypt, and from the country of Babylon, and from Ethiopia, and from the Elamites, and from the rising of the sun, and out of Arabia. 12 And he shall lift up a standard [sign] for the nations [Gentiles], and he shall gather the lost ones of Israel, and he shall gather the dispersed of Juda from the four corners of the earth. 13 And the envy of Ephraim shall be taken away, and the enemies of Juda shall perish: Ephraim shall not envy Juda, and Juda shall not afflict Ephraim. 14 And they shall fly in the ships of the Philistines: they shall at the same time spoil the sea, and them [that come] from the east, and Idumea: and they shall lay their hands on Moab first; but the leaders of the Ammonites shall obey them (Final verse is Novenson’s translation)

The leaders of the Ammonites are representative of the nations/gentiles who previously oppressed Israel. Their obedience to the restored Israel is the precursor of the Davidic King’s rule over the Gentiles.

It is striking that the two chapters in the Greek Bible that include references to the [obedience of the gentiles], both of which are specifically messianic textual units (“to David his ‘christ’ and to his seed forever” [Ps 17:51 LXX]; “a scepter from the root of Jesse” [Isa 11:1]), are both cited in the same catena in Romans 15.

Two conclusions follow.

First, in the LXX itself, the [obedience of the gentiles] stands in a particular thematic connection with the rule of the χριστός [Christ]; the Gentiles obey the anointed one.

Second, the confluence of these several texts in Romans 15 is evidence that Paul’s understanding of his commission to bring about the [obedience of the nations/gentiles] (Rom 15:18; cf. 1:15; 16:26) is dependent on his conviction that Jesus is the χριστός spoken of in the scriptural oracles. (p. 160, my formatting)

Paul is drawing upon the common pool of recognized messianic scriptures (see Part 5 for these) and writing of Christ in terms that would have been clearly recognized as messianic by his Jewish contemporaries. In these passages here we see Paul’s understanding of the Messiah being quite consistent with the wider Jewish conceptual understanding of the word. Paul’s discussion thus far are everything we might expect in the general pool of Jewish “messianic texts” during the Second Temple era.

Next (and final) post in this series we look at some passages that have been considered problematic for Novenson’s thesis, such as the “Christ crucified” ones.

. . . . to be continued

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Christ among the Messiahs — Part 6”

  1. Psalm 17 LXX: “1 [For the end, [a Psalm] of David, the servant of the Lord; [the words] which he spoke to the Lord, [even] the words of this Song, in the day in which the Lord delivered him out the hand of all his enemies, and out the hand of Saul…”

    Considering how much liturgical drama the NT writers were able to draw out of the Psalms of David, “God’s Christ,” the beginning here is striking. The Lord delivered his Christ out of the hand of his enemies, including Saul. Could this be the supposed historical context of “Paul” persecuting the Christian church?

  2. Neil,

    I’ve been following your postings on this topic, and I find the discussion fascinating. I do have one quibble, however. It seems as if you have frequently perpetuated the very same thing that Novenson is trying to counter, that is, that “Christ” is being used as a surname for Jesus. Example, your words:

    “Here we find Paul quoting the Psalms of David as the actual words of Christ. The words of the Davidic Psalm 69:9 (68:10 in the Greek Septuagint) are, according to Paul, the words of Christ himself.”

    Here you use “Christ,” back to back as a replacement for “Jesus.” If you are arguing, like Novenson, that “Christ” is a title and honorific, then why don’t you use the definite article with that word, such as, “the Christ,” rather than “Christ”? Leaving out the definite article only perpetuates the confusion.

    Other than this, I commend you for your articles.


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