Friday, January 28, 2011

When Did Jesus Become the Messiah? (Part 1)

One of the problem in the origins of christology is the question, "When did Jesus become the Messiah?" Scholarship has often assumed that Jesus' life was non-messianic, not only that, but Jesus in fact repudiated the messianic role. His rebuke to Peter in Mk 8.27ff was for calling him the Messiah in the first place, or so it goes at least. The triumphal entry and cleansing of the temple were not originally messianic although messianic layers of meaning were added by the Evangelists later on. The accusation made at the trial that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah was a false charge. So Jesus was not a a messianic claimant, but Christianity became a messianic movement at some point, and the Evangelists read messianism back into his pre-Easter ministry. (For those who want an alternative scheme see my book Are You the One Who is to Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question).

How then did Jesus become known as the Messiah? Well three main schools of thought are around. One view, going back to William Wrede, is that the early church inferred his messiahship from his resurrection. After all, a link is made between the resurrection and Jesus' identity as the Son of David in Rom 1.3-4. Criticism of this view has been brutal. First, how does "resurrection" equal "messiah". We have no example of a figure returning to life and then being called the Messiah. Second, messianic themes are mostly absent from the resurrection narratives. Third, as Johannes Weiss pointed out, only because Jesus' death counted against his messianic claim could his resurrection be proof in favor of it!

Others such as Ferdinand Hahn maintain that Jesus' messiahship was inferred from belief in his future parousia. Acts 3.20-21 is believed to hint in this direction. The concept of messiahship was introduced into the tradition to gave a title to his eschatological role in the denouement. There are problems again here. First, if Jesus' first coming was not messianic, what should necessitate that his second should be? Jesus' identity as Son of Man and Lord were sufficient categories to designate his eschatological role at his parousia. What need is there to make him into a Messiah? Second, one wonders if eschatology is being equated with messianism. But an eschatological agent does not have to be a messianic one.

Third, for many the designation "Messiah" was used to indicate in language popular in some circles that Jesus was a divine agent of some import. I think Maurice Casey takes this view though I need to double check with a re-read of From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God which I don't have on hand. Again, the problem is that there were many ways of indicating someone was a "somebody" in the eschatological storyline without recourse to messianism. What is more, introducing the notion of a crucified messiah would sound a bit like an oxymoron and create heaps of problems in Jewish communities. In fact, the early church had every reason to abandon the designation rather than to keep it. Some authors ranging from the proto-orthodox Epistle of Barnabas to the Nag Hammadi writings show that some Christians did abandon the Son of David/Messiah tradition as too Jewish.

So when did Jesus become the Messiah? For that see part two on Monday!


Danilo Sergio Pallar Lemos said...

Texto real, expressivo, comtundente, que apresenta a realidade Cristocentrica do Evangelho.

uno extranjero y peregrino said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joel Haas said...

Michael, what do you think of J. R. Daniel Kirk's work (Unlocking Romans) in this regard?

Mr Veale said...

In "How Did Christianity Begin?" you point out that some Jewish writers believed that the Kingdom would arrive in stages. (Jubilees 23; 1 Enoch 91v12-17; 1 Corinthians 15 v23-24). This is a very important observation, because it means that we do not have to choose between traditions that remember Jesus proclaiming the Kingdom has arrived, and traditions that remember Jesus proclaiming that the Kingdom was to come. (It seems to me that Psalms of Solomon 17 describes a Kingdom gradually emerging in a messianic context).

It seems arguable (at least) that Jesus believed that he was bringing the Kingdom to earth, but that he would do this in stages. His miracles and parables showed that it had arrived, but that he must return and judge the world for it to arrive in fullness.

This also has the advantage of making the Resurrection completely explicable in the context of Jesus' ministry (with the benefit of hindsight, of course)as an important "stage" in the growth of the Kingdom. The Resurrection narratives too often appear as unexpected postscripts to Jesus' ministry.

Has the importance of your observation been picked up by others, or have you developed it yourself. It seems to cohere nicely with your argument in "The One Who is To Come"


Mr Veale said...

I've a bit of an amateurish interest in Historical Jesus studies. I used to wonder if an historian could argue that Jesus viewed himself as the fulfilment of Israel's hopes and history.
I suppose the counter argument would be that this is reading Matthean "fulfilment" theology (etc) back into the teaching of Jesus.
But I wonder - if Jesus could conceive of himself as "the one who is to come", and if Jewish messianic expectations were quite broad, and if those expectations could include transcendent figures - then maybe I was on to something. Was there an expectation for a figure who would fulfil Israel's history? (You seem to argue this way in AYTOWITC.)

This would also neatly explain the astonishingly early development of "Jesus Worship".


Mr Veale said...

Of course I may be tying eschatological figures and messianic figures too closely together. (But there does seem to be an overlap).


Jeff Doles said...

I think of Peter's preaching to Cornelius, about, "how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him" (Acts 10:38).

The second half of that verse, of course, speaks of His ministry on earth. The anointing with the Holy Spirit and power I understand to be what happened when Jesus was baptized by John ~ the Holy Spirit descended like a dove and the voice of the Father said, "This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." Soon after, Jesus began working healing miracles and deliverances.