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!