People

Christ by Max Botner

If I say “Christ,” I can be certain that most of my audience will think of the name Jesus. That’s because many today treat Christ like a last name, allowing them to refer to Jesus as they do their heads of state: May, Macron, Merkel, Putin, and Trump. But, in fact, the word Christ (Greek Christos) is simply the Greek rendering of the Hebrew word for messiah (meshiakh), an ancient priest or king whom YHWH anointed to rule over Israel. There are many “messiahs” throughout the Hebrew Bible, just as there have been many messianic claimants throughout history. Depending on whom you asked, the messiah could be Zerubbabel ben Shealtiel, Jesus of Nazareth, Simon bar Kokhba, or even Herod the Great. While Christians unite in their confession that Jesus is the messiah, messianic expectations in Judaism are widely diverse.

Who is the messiah, and what should he look like?

Monty Python’s Life of Brian tells the story of a man who has the misfortune of being mistaken for the messiah. At one point, an exacerbated Brian confronts his would-be followers, “I am not the messiah!” to which a member of the crowd responds, “I say that you are! And I should know, lord, I’ve followed a few.” Although he continues to insist that he is not the messiah, the hapless Nazarene doth protest too much; as one woman reminds the crowd, “Only the true messiah denies his divinity!” “Well, what sort of chance does that give me?” asks Brian, “Alright, I am the messiah!” to which the crowd responds, “He is! He is the messiah!”

Comical as it may be, this scene aptly illustrates the paradox of messianism. On the one hand, messianism entails a strong sense of how a messiah should look and behave, features that are mediated through idealized traditions about ancient kings and priests. One of the constant themes in Life of Brian, for example, is that the messiah would be an upstart military leader, like a young David (see 1Sam 16:13). On the other hand, messianism negotiates scriptural traditions in light of current experience. The claim “only the true messiah denies his divinity,” for instance, filters messianic expectations through Christian traditions about one particular messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

The intersection of scriptural tradition and empirical experience is at the heart of ancient discourse about messiahs. Early Jesus believers read their scriptures in light of their messiah’s resurrection (see Luke 24:25-27, Luke 24:44-49). For some, Jesus is the son of David whom God raised and enthroned as son of God (Rom 1:3-4; cf. 2Sam 7:12-14; Ps 2:7). For others, it was significant that God anointed him as a priest (Heb 5:1-10; Heb 7:1-9:28). Such claims may be compared to the Qumran sectarians’ ideal of a diarchic political structure—the messiahs of Aaron and Israel—or to the royal claimants mentioned by Josephus (J.W. 2.434; Ant. 17.278) or to the short rule of Simon bar Kokhba, who called himself nasi Israel, “ruler of Israel” (cf. Ezek 34:24; Ezek 37:25). Thus, while messianism is hardly an exercise in scribal fantasy, it does seem to be the case that, if one were so inclined, she could find scriptural warrant to conclude, “He is! He is the messiah!”

When does the son-of-man tradition align with messianic expectations?

Writing during the tumultuous reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanies (ca. 167 BCE), the scribe of Dan 7 narrates his vision of the divine throne room: “I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, so that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed” (Dan 7:13-14). Who is this one like a human being (lit. “like a son of man”)? (Note: In the Hebrew Bible, the Aramaic term bar enash, along with its Hebrew cognate ben adam [see, e.g., Ps 8:5; Ezek 2:1], functions as a generic designation for mortals or descendants of Adam.)    

While scholars dispute the identity of the son-of-man figure, the reception history of Dan 7 strongly points in one direction: he is the messiah. Certainly, this was the conclusion of the early Jesus movement. While we find hints of this motif in letters of Paul (see 1Cor 15:24), Jesus is explicitly identified as Daniel’s son of man in all four canonical gospels as well as in Revelation. Most strikingly, the Synoptic Gospels portray Jesus responding to the high priest’s question, “Are you the messiah?” by interpreting “messiah” to mean the figure mentioned in Dan 7 (Mark 14:61-62 parr.).

Of course, Christian messianism did not have a monopoly on the son-of-man figure. The Babylonian Talmud transmits a tradition in the name of R. Aqiva, wherein the second-century tanna exploits the mention of multiple thrones in Dan 7:9: “One was for him [God] and the other one was for David” (b. Sahn. 38b). While this notion is sharply censured by R. Yose, it may preserve a strand of interpretation that dates back to the first century CE. The Parables of Enoch (1En. 37-71), some form of which many specialists date prior to the composition of the Synoptic Gospels, envisages a son-of-man figure seated on the heavenly throne of Israel’s God (see 1En 62:2, 1En 62:5). Moreover, the late-first century CE scribe “Ezra” espies a son-of-man figure who will arise from the sea and rule over the nations from atop Mount Zion (4Ezra 13). As in the tradition attributed to R. Aqiva, both the Parables of Enoch and 4 Ezra identify this son of man as the “messiah” of Ps 2.     

So, while we may never be able definitively to answer the question of who Daniel’s “one like a son of man” was originally, we can conclude, with relative confidence, when he became the messiah: by the mid-first century CE, at the latest.        

Max Botner, "Christ", n.p. [cited 9 Dec 2019]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/christ

Contributors

botner-max

Max Botner
Assistant Professor of New Testament , Grand Rapids Theological School

Max Botner is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological School in Grand Rapids, MI. He is the author of Jesus Christ as the Son of David in the Gospel of Mark, SNTS 174 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

Christ/messiah is a biblical designation for God’s ordained rulers: kings and priests of the past as well as eschatological redeemer figures.

Did you know…?

  • Ancient Jews disagreed about the messiah’s ancestry. While some insisted that the messiah would be a son of David (e.g., 2Sam 7:12-14), others maintained he would be a descendant of Levi (e.g., Aramaic Levi), while still others were open to anyone—regardless of ancestry—who could defeat the Romans (e.g., bar Kokhba).
  • Contrary to popular opinion, many ancient Jews had little to no interest in a messiah.
  • The Qumran sectarians preferred a system of two messiahs, one in which a royal messiah would be subordinated to a priestly messiah.
  • Messianic titles such as “son of God” and “lord” had wider political resonance in the Greco-Roman world—for example, the most famous son of God in the first century was the Roman emperor.
  • Messiahs went by a variety of biblically derived sobriquets, including: branch (Jer 23:5), ruler (of the congregation) (Ezek 34:24; Ezek 37:25), servant (Isa 42:1; Ezek 34:23), shoot (Isa 11:1), and star (Num 24:17).
  • The most striking use of “messiah” in the Hebrew Bible is an oracle in which Cyrus the Persian is addressed as “his [YHWH’s] messiah” (Isa 45:1). Ironically, some Greek manuscripts confuse “Cyrus” (Greek Kyros) with “lord” (Greek kyrios), which allowed early Christian exegetes to interpret Isa 45:1 as an oracle about Lord Jesus (Kyrios Iēsous).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

Jewish leader who led a revolt against the Romans

The name of Israel's god, but with only the consonants of the name, as spelled in the Hebrew Bible. In antiquity, Jews stopped saying the name as a sign of reverence. Some scholars today use only the consonants to recognize the lost original pronunciation or to respect religious tradition.

governor of Judah in the sixth century BCE mentioned in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and Zechariah.

Concerned with the future final events of the world.

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

An archaeological site on the western shore of the Dead Sea, in modern Israel, where a small group of Jews lived in the last centuries B.C.E. The site was destroyed by the Romans around 70 C.E. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near the site and are believed by most scholars to have belonged to the people living at Qumran.

A description for Jesus locating him in the direct, royal lineage of the ancient Israelite king David.

1Sam 16:13

13Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. ... View more

Luke 24:25-27

25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!26Was it not necessary that the Messiah s ... View more

Luke 24:44-49

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, ... View more

Rom 1:3-4

3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of h ... View more

2Sam 7:12-14

12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will ... View more

Ps 2:7

7I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have begotten you.

Heb 5:1-10

1Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.2He is able to ... View more

Heb 7:1-9:28

Chapter 8Chapter 9

Ezek 34:24

24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

Ezek 37:25

25 They shall live in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, in which your ancestors lived; they and their children and their children's children shall live ... View more

Ruler of the Seleucid Empire from 175 to 164 BCE, he was emperor during the Maccabean Revolt.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

Belonging to the canon of a particular group; texts accepted as a source of authority.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

Not specific; not connected to a particular version.

Tracing the reactions and uses of a given text throughout history.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which share similar literary content.

A collection of rabbinic writings, mostly interpretations of the Hebrew Bible and the Mishnah (another rabbinic collection). There are two Talmuds, the Palestinian and the Babylonian, so called after the region in which each is believed to have been compiled. The Talmuds were likely composed between the third and the sixth centuries C.E.

a rabbinic leader

Dan 7:13-14

13 As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him ... View more

Ps 8:5

5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.

Ezek 2:1

1 He said to me: O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you.

1Cor 15:24

24Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.

Dan 7:9

Judgment before the Ancient One
9As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne,
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of hi ... View more

the people from whom an individual is descended

an early Jewish text

A group of people attending religious services, worshiping.

Relating to the cultures of Greece or Rome.

Textual documents, usually handwritten.

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

2Sam 7:12-14

12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will ... View more

Jer 23:5

The Righteous Branch of David
5The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal ... View more

Ezek 34:24

24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

Ezek 37:25

25 They shall live in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, in which your ancestors lived; they and their children and their children's children shall live ... View more

Isa 42:1

1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.

Ezek 34:23

23I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.

Isa 11:1

The Peaceful Kingdom
1A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

Num 24:17

17I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near—
a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the borderlands of ... View more

Isa 45:1

Cyrus, God's Instrument
1Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their rob ... View more

Isa 45:1

Cyrus, God's Instrument
1Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their rob ... View more

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