Who Do You Say That I Am?
Exegetical Mysteries, Language Games, and The Grammar of Messianism
In Mark 8:27–29, Jesus poses a question to his disciples while en route to the villages of Caesarea Philippi: “Who do people say that I am?” As they supply various possibilities, none of which suits, he narrows his query: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Christos,” prompting a stern warning to tell no one about him. On the matter of messiahs, Jesus neither confirms nor denies.
Mark’s cultivation of messianic secrecy is nowhere more pronounced than in this exchange; cf. Matthew’s version (16:13–20), in which Jesus heartily affirms Peter’s fuller reply—“You are the Christos, the son of the living God!”—surmising that this information has been revealed to Peter by none other than his own father in heaven before ordering the disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Christos, indeed.
Distinctively Markan though the former exchange may be, a certain coyness seems congenital to any inquiry into messianism as concept or phenomenon. Just as the precision of Christos eludes Peter, so too, Matthew V. Novenson illustrates, has what we call messianism eluded the modern history of research. Whereas Mark and his fellow authors of ancient messiah texts were quite deliberate in their exegetical maneuvers and language games, however, our difficulties arise from being on the wrong side of the looking glass into their worlds, the logic of which we strain to grasp. Or, in light of what Aryeh Amihay calls “the residue” of other texts or interpretations that smudge any one glass, perhaps the better metaphor is a hall of mirrors.
The Grammar of Messianism: An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Users is not the key to the cipher, but a sketch of discursive possibilities and constraints that attended the language of messiah over a broad sweep of time. Novenson is clear about the unfeasibility of capturing all of the ways this discourse operated; instead, he endeavors to show that the relevant primary texts amounted to such a discourse. His contributions are many, not the least of which is his deft parsing of a tangled scholarly history and rival definitions that beg the question not only of what constitutes evidence for ancient messianism, but also, more fundamentally, that there was a supra-historical messianism to seek. The goal, then, is to shift the conversation away from definitional projects in favor of trying to understand how authors of diverse circumstances drew upon “a common set of scriptural source texts to solve a common set of interpretive puzzles (which are themselves generated by the same scriptural sources texts).” “If messianism is a language game,” Novenson explains, “then what I am calling ‘the grammar of messianism’ is the rules of the game: the way messiah language worked for the ancient authors who chose to use it” (14).
As the following essays convey more fully, The Grammar of Messianism tackles problems of great significance to the histories of Judaism and Christianity, including the very notion that Jews and Christians awaited different kinds of messiahs, public versus private, outward versus inner, worldly versus spiritual, arising from mythical tradition versus empirical circumstances. (Spoiler alert: “[‘Christian messianism’] is not at all something separate from or other than Jewish messianism. On the contrary, it is just an exceptionally well-documented instance of the latter” ).
While there is much to commend about Novenson’s book, especially fitting for present purposes is his exhortation to “fresh expeditions” into the terrain he redraws. Heeding this invitation, our symposium features scholars from the fields of ancient Mediterranean religion, biblical studies, New Testament, early Judaism and Christianity, and theology, who engage particular problems or themes in the book while gesturing beyond it. Novenson responds to each in turn with clarification, elaboration, and a sense of constructive possibilities.
In the first essay, James Carleton Paget offers an overview of the book that highlights its principal interventions in the study of ancient messianism. He follows with a series of focused questions that anticipate the ramifications of the Novenson’s preliminary conclusions. Since much of his project is necessarily deconstructive, “What,” Carleton Paget asks, “might be the aim of the research project [Novenson] advocates once the specific, essentializing, dare one say, teleological studies he has dismantled have been abandoned?” Esau McCaulley traces the arc of Novenson’s arguments to home in on what he is trying to say about messianism and the questions already asked of it. McCaulley is equally interested in evaluating the premise that messianism constituted a distinct grammar governing its own series of language games. While the question remains open, he reflects on the book’s methodological utility within the intellectual forum of biblical studies and welcomes the new research that it will undoubtedly stimulate.
The next essays deal in different ways with philological dimensions of The Grammar of Messianism. Aryeh Amihay also probes the Wittgensteinian premise of the book, questioning the limits of “grammar” as a heuristic concept and whether Wittgenstein’s famous “duck-rabbit” drawing isn’t even more apt an analogy for messianic polysemy. Like Novenson, he is attentive to cultural reverberations of messianism and culls references from unlikely sources. Paula Fredriksen takes up the matter of translation to revisit Josephus’s near silence about christoi in an extensive literary corpus replete with stories of first-century charismatic figures. And yet, as Novenson argues, Josephus does write about messianic pretenders, only he does so, as with most other concepts rooted in a Judean idiom, by translating such notions as anointing into a Roman vernacular (e.g., wearing the diadem). Fredriksen brings this argument back around to other writings likely originating from this climate—the letters of Paul and the Gospel of Mark—in order to stress that Jesus’s followers were not alone among Roman-era Jews in joining ancient prophecies with messianic exegesis. Properly situated, she intimates, these sources offer ample sightlines into the character of Jewish messianism in this period.
A final essay by John G. Gager lauds the atypical intellectual lineage of The Grammar of Messianism. What Novenson accomplishes in the book, Gager surmises, owes much to his ability to extricate himself from a Christo-centric body of scholarship on messianism in search of other interlocutors. The effect of his immersion in Jewish scholarship, in particular, is that Novenson gains an outsider’s vantage point. Gager concludes with a question about the place of miracles in the study of messianism, the greatest instance of which may be that a figure as uncanny as Jesus would be hailed as “Christos” or “Messiah” in the first place.
After the Revolution:
Reflections on the Grammar of Messianism
When I first encountered Matthew Novenson’s Christ among the Messiahs (Oxford University Press, 2012), it excited and upset me. I was both excited and upset because his first book addressed a question that had long bothered me in a way that far surpassed my own ability to do the topic justice. It is rare in the study of New Testament to come to a clear conviction that a whole stream of scholarship was wrong. We, as a guild, had gotten something fundamentally wrong in the endless name versus title debate as it relates to the use of Christos to refer to Jesus of Nazareth. Novenson argued rightly, to my mind, that it should be understood along the lines of honorific similar to Caesar Augustus. But beyond that claim about the name, it was clear that this initial book was something of a first draft towards a bigger project, namely reconfiguring our understanding of messianism in Jewish and Christian texts in the first century and beyond.
The Grammar of Messianism, the subject of this reflection, is a kind of sequel or further fleshing out of the ideas that began in Christ among the Messiahs. In what follows, I want to ask a few questions of this second book. What is Novenson trying to say about messianism more broadly? What is he trying to say about the history of research on messianism and the questions we have asked? How does he go about making his case? What are the implications of his proposal if we find his case compelling?
Is Messianism an Idea or a Language Game?
None of us start from scratch. All good research begins as the extension or redirection of a conversation. When, then, has been the focus of conversation about messianism in biblical studies? The first chapter of Grammar, entitled after the messianic idea, attempts to answer that question. Novenson argues that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century studies on messianism focused too narrowly on a messianic idea, which consisted mostly of the vision of a utopian future brought about by a kingly or priestly figure who would usher in a new age.
According to Novenson, the generation of scholars that followed in their wake did two things: (1) they rightly argued that messianism was more diverse in the Second Temple Period than a previous generation had allowed; (2) nonetheless, they maintained a history of ideas approach in the attempt to discern the beginnings of the messianic idea (Novenson 2016: 7–8). Both of these projects have, in his opinion, run their course. We can plot the basic forms of messianism during the Second Temple period. We also know that there is no one original form or idea of messianism from which all others develop.
With these two questions being answered is there anything left to say about messianism? He contends that there is. He argues that we should consider messianism a centuries long dialogue around a core set of biblical texts and tropes related the term Christos and its cognates. In that sense, messianism is a language game that involves both Jews and Christians in the first centuries of the common era. For Novenson, the twists and turns of this language game are much more interesting than the necessary but tired debates of a previous generation.
The Demonstration of a Grammar
The question that needs to be answered is whether his initial premise is correct. The rest of the book is a series of demonstrations that messianism is in fact a part of a language game that has been going on for centuries. In his chapter on oil and power in ancient Israel, Novenson engages scholarly arguments about the presence of messianism in the Hebrew Bible. He notes that an early generation (read 18th to mid 20th century) emphatically argued for the presence of messianism. This idea has given way to the more recent consensus that there is no messianism proper in the Hebrew Bible. Novenson critiques this new consensus by noting that many scholars created a rarified form of messianism based upon their understanding of the messianic idea and then went searching for that messiah only to locate said messiah with varying degrees of success. However, since we created the concept of “full-blown messianism” such an insight is of limited value. He observes, “the supposed late, technical sense of messiah is an entirely artificial construct” (Novenson 2016: 62).
What are the implications of such an insight? This insight is of vital importance because it shows how the lens through which we view the evidence in large part determines what we find. In other words, once the terms of debate or discussion are set it is very difficult for us to muster the imagination to think about issues differently. This chapter challenges us, not simply to think about messianism in the Hebrew Bible differently, but to consider more broadly how a lack of imagination hinders progress in biblical and theological studies.
In the third chapter, entitled “Messiahs Born and Made,” Novenson addresses why some individuals are called messiahs and others are not. it is not because some can claim Davidic lineage while other cannot. There are figures who have no connection to David who are called messiahs. According to Novenson, every writer draws upon motifs drawn from biblical texts associated with the term Christos (messiah) or the biblical legend of David to make their case for a particular individual. When Davidic lineage helped one’s case it was used, when it wasn’t authors made do with what they had. This supported his wider thesis that all the writers of the period were indeed engaged in a language game. It also has some important implications for New Testament claims about Jesus’s Davidic lineage. New Testament writers probably did not make much of it because it was the only way to claim messianic status. Instead, they may have been genuinely believed that Jesus was of Davidic lineage and such lineage supported their claim that Jesus was indeed the messiah.
The most interesting chapter to my mind deals with the issue of the so-called messianic vacuum or the lack of mention of the Messiah in a large swath of Second Temple texts. Here his claim is devastatingly simple. He says, “Why does Plato’s Apology not comment on the theory of forms? Why does Josephus not relate the disputes between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai? Why does the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans not mention the eucharistic meal? . . . To many such questions, the sanest answer is simply that the text is about something else” (158). Stated differently, the so-called absence of messianism in certain texts of the period tell us little about beliefs about messianism during that period. The next chapter does similar work in a different area. He shows that the whole concept of a “first messiah” is misguided and rooted in an idealist model of messiahship that has long been shown to be problematic.
The last two chapters continue along the line set by the first two-thirds of the book. It takes a common scholarly consensus about messianism (Jewish and Christian messianism are totally distinct; messiah Christology disappears in early Christianity), and he shows the support for such ideas to be lacking. He concludes by asking us to return to the primary texts and analyze how and why authors choose the texts that they do and explore the convergences and divergences that we discover in the varied accounts of messianism.
What are we to make of Novenson’s grammar? The first thing I would do is laud its creativity. Often when we encounter a scholarly consensus that we disagree with it is tempting to take the other side. We feel the need to muster the evidence and deconstruct those who hold sway. Sometimes, however, the problem isn’t the scholarship or even the evidence, but the question itself. We need to learn how to foster a form of biblical studies in which students do not merely become proficient at ploughing through monograph after monograph in order to show breadth of learning and the ability to engage different ideas. We need to foster the ability to think. We need to be able to take in the details and keep an eye on the big picture. Second, we need to be aware of how our social locations and theological presuppositions influence both our research outcomes and questions. There were theological and historical reasons for some Christians to want to find a coherent form of messianism for Jesus to fulfill. There were other historical and theological reasons to distance Jesus from Second Temple messianic portrayals. We all bring our baggage to the biblical studies. We might as well be honest about it. Finally, we need to take up the proposal with which the book ends. We need to look at the exegesis of varied authors of messianic texts. If there was one complaint, it was that this book had to do a lot of the work of deconstruction which left little space for more expansive reflection. That is the work of those who will take the conversation from here.
Messiahs Between the Political and the Eschatological
In Walt Whitman’s celebrated cycle “Salut au Monde!”—first published in 1856, as part of Leaves of Grass—he appeals to the Jews among an almost encyclopedic plethora of other nations: “You Jew journeying in your old age through every risk, to stand once on Syrian ground! / You other Jews waiting in all lands for your Messiah!” (song 11). This curious reference of Jews as a nation by an American author in the mid-nineteenth century is hardly the only instance where outsiders intuit this far-reaching implication of Jewish secularism before the Zionist congress would be formed. Mark Twain, George Eliot, and Herman Melville all joined this conversation.1
The conspicuous detail of Whitman’s line is not merely in the categorization of Jews as a nation, but the association of the nation, rather than Judaism as a religious tradition, with the anticipation of the Messiah. Besides the fact that the Messianic expectation was transmitted throughout the generations as a religious idea, Zionism in particular would be at odds with this concept.2 The image of the Jew as a nation in waiting became exemplary for early American patriots, as seen also in a quote from Herman Melville’s “White-Jacket” (1850):
At a period when other nations have but lisped, our deep voice is heard afar. Long enough have we been skeptics with regard to ourselves, and doubted whether, indeed, the political Messiah had come. But he has come in us, if we would but give utterance to his promptings. And let us always remember that with ourselves, almost for the first time in the history of earth, national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy; for we can not do a good to America but we give alms to the world.3
For Melville, just like later Zionists, if the Messiah is to be political, he must be embodied in a collective of humans that redeem themselves. The political Messiah is the opposite of anticipation, which is the hallmark requirement of the religious Messiah.4 With such prominent voices, it is perhaps more than just an ironic coincidence that the Pittsburgh Platform (1885), arguably the earliest religious statement of a Jewish collective in the United States, rejected both Messianic expectation and a national revival.
The tension between the political and eschatological Messiah is at the heart of Matthew Novenson’s enlightening new book, The Grammar of Messianism, as disclosed also in its subtitle: An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Users. The emphasis on the origins of this term as a political one seems to be emphasized precisely because this element is so often forgotten in its afterlives, and perhaps even more so in present day. This choice of the subtitle seems to echo the same reason that Melville uses the adjective “political” to describe his Messiah: knowing his audience does not think of the Messiah as such, the author needs to emphasize that this is indeed his import.
The title of the book stresses the methodology that frames the study as a whole. Philology has long been the primary route of investigation for scholars of ancient Judaism and Christianity. So much of the material and social realities of these traditions are hidden from our view that careful attention to the words left in the writings and the ways they are employed seems justified as one hopes to gain a closer view. The benefits of philology for the historian were beautifully summarized by James Turner:
The creation of the modern discipline of history would pivot on linking archive and narrative: on merging the philologist’s zest for texts with the tale-teller’s love of a good yarn, on yoking the ecclesiastical historian to the civil historian.5
The gradual changes and extensions of semantic uses of a term facilitate tremendous upheavals of thought as traditions continuously reinvent themselves in preparation of a future, but in the name of the past. Tracing these changes with an alert ear, the philological historian is able to envision, if not reconstruct, the ideological turmoil that led to such a shift of nuance in meaning. Dangers of such enterprises were always there, even when philologians were not aware of them. As Tomoko Masuzawa writes:
One driving passion of comparative philology was in the exaltation of a particular grammatical apparatus: inflection. Metaphysically and abstractly imagined rather than historically documented, inflection was construed as a syntactical structure resulting naturally and directly from the innermost spiritual urge of a people (Volk), and as such it was said to attest to the creativity and the spirit of freedom intrinsic to the disposition of those who originated this linguistic form.6
The danger derives from a primarily tautological problem: if words are accepted as the only data historians of religion have, then historians may delude themselves that the written word was all there was. With a breathtaking knowledge of prior literature, Novenson calls for a critical approach to language, perhaps seeking to depart from the classic philological method of the field to one that is informed by theory and is able to engage with meta-language, rather than just language itself. His call, together with the title of the book, cannot but evoke Naphtali Meshel’s linguistic accomplishment in his study The Grammar of Sacrifice.7 Meshel offers a generativist approach to the priestly sacrificial system described in the Torah, discovering a syntax in a system that is essentially nonverbal. Perhaps due to awareness of this study, Novenson makes it clear that he does not plan to follow this route. He declares that his “goal in this book is not to map exhaustively the rules of ancient messiah discourse (to do so would be painfully tedious, even if it were possible), but to show that the relevant primary texts do amount to such a discourse, that messianism is effectively a grammar.”8
The contrast with Meshel’s book persists to beg the question: Meshel finds a grammar in a practice, a performative act (or sets of such acts) executed with tangible objects, and yet suggests to interpret this practice by thinking of the objects and acts as a language with words, the ritual as a whole creating syntactical phrases. Novenson looks at something that is rendered intangible by virtue of the eschatological anticipation, and hence can only be described in words, yet construes the grammatical issues differently. How can such similar titles lead to such differing routes?
A simple answer lies in the broad definition of grammar. Meshel looks at the building blocks of grammar, namely phonology, morphology, and syntax, whereas Novenson considers the subsequent fields still considered part of the study of grammar, semantics and pragmatics. But the problem is not resolved by recognizing choices of focus, for Novenson suggests (in the above quote) that the alternate route would be unfeasible. I suspect that Novenson is correct here, although elsewhere he tries to prove otherwise. Messiah language has been used in diverse and opposing manners by authors with such great differences, it would indeed be impossible to formulate morphological or syntactical rules as to what the term elicits, what may accompany it, what must precede it, and so forth. Curiously, though, the difficulty to establish such rules lies in the semantics and pragmatics of the term.
Novenson opens the final chapter of the book with an example concerning Exodus 40:9–11 and its reception history, demonstrating that part of the problem resides in the use of the root mšḥ as a technical term of anointment, unrelated to a messianic figure, or even a political one. Both semantics and pragmatics could (and should, I believe) clarify these matters quickly enough, for most instances. They could be employed to exclude texts of anointment that do not refer to a Messiah, and to distinguish political messiahs from eschatological ones. After these categories are established, the question is whether they adhere to certain rules concerning the use of messianic language. To provide a helpful example: an English treatise dealing with the concept of right in the sense of a freedom or an entitlement need not address all the texts that use the word “right” when used as a relative direction. If a later reader insists on offering interpretations of a text that mentions “right and left” as referring to human rights, it would teach us something about the later reader, but not about the original text in question. Ancient postbiblical authors indeed insisted on such readings, in their attempts to make every verse relevant to their needs and interests.9 This tenacity yields a linguistic anomaly: using earlier texts that initially had nothing to say about messianism in order to talk about it, postbiblical authors extended messianism discourse beyond an accepted framework of meanings.
Novenson’s book is packed with such examples, and he carefully and shrewdly observes such distinctions and categories. His distinctions between a Messiah who is born as such or who is made to be one is an example of categories that show there is more than one meaning to “messiah” just as there is more than one meaning to “right.” Likewise, he separates the political from the eschatological through the space-time schism, noting the difference between anticipation of one who may never come and the overbearing presence of one who demands submission in the here and now. The residue of ancient Israelite writing and statements by Hellenistic followers of Jesus do not amount to a single discourse, but rather to a jumbled one, in which disparate texts are read through different lenses, with each side claiming they all refer to a shared concept. Disentangling the discourses from one another can be achieved by using the linguistic tools of semantics and pragmatics, but is unlikely to yield a shared language of messianism from these divergent authors.
Novenson offers an illuminating entry from Jerome’s Onomasticon that seeks to standardize these separate streams and unite them into one language: Messias unctus, id est Christus. As Novenson explains, “Jerome gives three Latin lexemes as mutual equivalencies . . . a transliteration from Hebrew; a proper translation from Hebrew or Greek or both; and a transliteration from Greek” (224). The effort to unify these different visions of a Messiah into one is captured linguistically: in order to amalgamate these views into one, there must be a ruling language. Jerome’s efforts will succeed with his audience, but separate streams will remain, from before and after his time.
The problem of signified and signifier, as defined by de Saussure, is tackled in this book with the aid of a later philosopher of language. Following Nils Dahl, Novenson quotes from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations to convey the primary pragmatic problem of Wittgenstein (11–13). Philosophical Investigations is notoriously cryptic, and probably intentionally so: Wittgenstein writes about language and meaning in a way that is aesthetically pleasing but constantly evasive, delivering his argument in form as much as in content. Thoughts and ideas are clear to us in our mind, but the need to transmit these lucid ideas under the limitations of language results in imperfect products:
In the actual use of expressions we make detours, we go by side roads. We see the straight highway before us, but of course we cannot use it, because it is permanently closed. [PI I §426]
This suspicion regarding the efficacy of language is famously expressed—yet no less enigmatic—in the conclusion of his Tractatus: “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.” Wittgenstein is thus helpful in reminding us the dangers of studying language, or in consoling us for not fully accomplishing such an enquiry, but I find him too skeptical to be able to offer a framework for analysis of the kind Novenson seeks, and indeed Wittgenstein is for the most part abandoned later on.
There might yet be, however, one more contribution of Wittgenstein that could illuminate the main problem examined in this book. Another oft-cited passage of Wittgenstein is found in Philosophical Investigations, part 2, where he produces the drawing of the “duck-rabbit” (chapter 11). The ability to see more than one thing in a singular image—or a unified text for that matter—is perhaps the primary cause for the differing uses of messiah language. Wittgenstein also alludes to the difference between an actual rabbit and a drawing of it, similar to Magritte’s Treachery of Images (“ceci n’est pas une pipe”), which would also have an implication to the divide between the political and the eschatological Novenson is tracing. The question is twofold: What are audiences actually seeing, and how do they perceive something which is not as of yet visible?
The lens of language, which Novenson chose for this project, is caught in a tension of the dynamic and the static. People’s concept of what a messiah is and what he can bring about change over time. Political expectations of a national restoration are replaced with personal hopes of individual redemption, only to have those politicized and reimagined as unfolding in a historical process. The significance of Novenson’s study is in the way he traces the variety of embodiments a messiah can have in the minds of various readers, so as to distinguish between a range of traditions, and to show the lingering effects of its origins on its consequent afterlives. Perhaps it is no surprise that this hybrid concept of a religious-political leader who is simultaneously humanoid and divine is so tantalizing. It promises to bring the divine closer to earth, and at the same time to elevate politics from the material to the spiritual, so that “the breath of worldly men cannot depose / The deputy elected by the Lord” (Shakespeare, Richard II, act 3, scene 2).10
See Hilton Obenzinger, American Palestine (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999); Gary Levine, The Merchant of Modernism (New York: Routledge, 2003); Heidi Kaufman, English Origins, Jewish Discourse, and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2009).↩
This was both from a halakhic perspective and a political one, formulated as a question of action and whether the source of redemption is to be divine and extra-historical, or rather a human and historical one. See Aviezer Ravitzky, Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism (trans. Michael Swirsky and Jonathan Chapman; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 1–39; Chaim A. Waxman, “Messianism, Zionism, and the State of Israel,” Modern Judaism 7.2 (1987) 175–92; Julius H. Schoeps, Pioneers of Zionism (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013), 11–49.↩
Herman Melville, White Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War (London: Bentley, 1850), 239.↩
Thus also for Melville himself, who writes in Clarel (1876): “Self-exiled lady, long ago / She prophesied of wizard wars, / And kept a saddled steed in stall / Awaiting some Messiah’s call” (3.15.87–90).↩
James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 23.↩
Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 24. See also her further comments on philology on pp. 147–78.↩
Naphtali S. Meshel, The “Grammar” of Sacrifice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). See also Meshel, “Toward a Grammar of Sacrifice: Hierarchic Patterns in the Israelite Sacrificial System,” JBL 132.3 (2013) 543–67.↩
Matthew Novenson, The Grammar of Messianism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 21.↩
As explained by James Kugel’s outline of the “four assumptions.” See James L. Kugel, Traditions of the Bible (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 14–19.↩
These are the following lines of the ones Novenson chose for the motto of his book, and chosen as a conclusion here as an indication of his stimulating and inspiring study.↩
Lost in Translation
Matthew Novenson on Josephus’s Missing Messiahs
Matthew Novenson accomplishes so much in The Grammar of Messianism (Oxford University Press, 2017). He appeals critically and constructively to a huge and polyglot range of secondary literature on this important topic. He presents fresh readings of the enormous (and no less polyglot) corpora of Jewish, paleo-Christian, and Christian texts. Most importantly and, I think, fruitfully, by thinking with the idea of grammar—how words within a language (and within a language-game) work—Novenson offers a fresh conceptualization of the ideas of “messianism” in all their many modalities. Reading this book is the intellectual equivalent of throwing open a huge window, flooding a dark room with bright light and fresh air.
A particularly bright shaft of light, for me, beamed from pages 138 to 148. In that passage of his book, Novenson examines Josephus’s discussion in the Bellum and in the Antiquities of Judean domestic turmoil in the run-up to the first revolt against Rome. Many historians, of course, have attempted to analyze the causes of the war. Its fundamental causal context was the power vacuum left, after 4 BCE, by the disorienting finale of Herod’s reign. Herod had not only ruled for decades, in brilliant and effective concert with Augustus, with a will of iron. He had also killed off those of his sons who were probably most like himself: intelligent, ruthless, politically ambitious and able. Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip—his three surviving heirs—most likely represented the “B” team. And, as Josephus narrates, one mess followed another until, in 66, most of the country broke out into open revolt.
Who caused the troubles? Josephus, as Novenson explains, presents two distinct casts of characters. One was the “frauds, deceivers, magicians” like Theudas, and “the Egyptian,” or the so-called “signs prophets” (140). The other was the “tyrants” and lêstai or “bandit-kings”—Judah ben Hezekiah, Simon of Perea, Athronges, Menachem ben Yehudah, Simon bar Giora (141). What’s interestingly missing from this double rogues’ gallery in the Bellum, Novenson observes, is the term christos, “messiah” (135).
Christos does appear in the Antiquities, oddly, only with reference to one Jesus of Nazareth. One mention, Ant. 20.200, is oblique, and therefore probably fundamentally reliable. Josephus there talks about Ananus the high priest’s execution of “James the brother of Jesus who was called christos.” The second mention, famously, occurs at 18.63, the Testimonium Flavianum, where Jesus is hymned in terms that would have made Paul proud. (Most scholars posit pious interpolation; and the passage as it now stands occurs in Greek MSS recensions that are all Christian; see Novenson’s remarks, 135–38.) In the best tradition of Silver Blaze historiography, Novenson then asks, Why does the Bellum nowhere mention messiahs? Why doesn’t this dog bark?
Novenson prefaces his answer by first surveying all the places where scholars have compensated for Josephus’s seeming silence. Many of the charismatic prophetic figures have been labeled “[pseudo]-messiahs” by modern historians, though Marinus de Jonge rightly demurred: “The fact remains that we do not find a singe instance of the use of the word ‘anointed’ in connection with these people” (140, citing de Jonge’s 1966 NovTest article). The mission of these men seems to have focused on conjuring “signs of redemption”—parting the Jordan, crumbling the wall circumventing Jerusalem, leading unarmed crowds out into the “desert” of Judea’s hills. These prophets are indeed “charismatic”: their followings were large enough and loud enough to call armed suppression down upon themselves. But why and how should “charismatic” translate immediately into “messianic”? On this point, the scholars seem to want to amend Josephus, to make up for what they think Josephus should have said.
What then about the other category, the bandit kings? Again, alas, Josephus fails to mobilize christos. His language is non-biblical, quotidian, political: these men are just “tyrants” and “brigands”; they want to “seize the diadem”; their followers call them basileus, “king.” This vocabulary, combined with Josephus’s seeming verbal restraint, has prompted many historians to conjecture equally non-biblical, quotidian, political goals and motivations when accounting both for the rebels’ actions and for Josephus’s descriptions. Religious motivations for these militant actors accordingly sink from view. Josephus wrote as he wrote because he himself was blind to apocalyptic strains within Judaism (Momigliano). Or he was stylistically and prudently constrained from using messianic terminology in light of his literary goals as a Hellenistic historian (Rajak). Or he did not want to offend his imperial patrons, and so avoided any language hinting at anti-Roman sympathies (Feldman). Or perhaps his political language simply reflected reality: the war exploded in 66/67 from complex clashes of internecine domestic and inter-ethnic politics (the “realist-regional perspective” of Steve Mason).
All of these observations about his “secular” language, and the accompanying scholarly explanations for it, render all the more mysterious the forthrightly religious root cause of the revolt that Josephus names in book six of the Bellum:
What more than all else incited them to the war was an ambiguous oracle, likewise found in their sacred scriptures, to the effect that, at that time, one from their own country would become ruler of the world. This they understood to mean someone of their own household (Greek: oikeion), and many of their wise men went astray in their interpretation of it. (BJ 6.312–13, translation and emphasis mine).
What Josephus knew, though evidently his countrymen did not, was that the prophecy actually spoke of Vespasian.
The question remains: given this clearly biblical framing—a messianic prophecy—why does Josephus nowhere describe or refer to these various “kings of the Jews” as, specifically, messianic pretenders? Seen from our post-Christian historical vantage, the term “messiah”—christos in Josephus’s Greek—might seem too “religious” an identifier for these eminently political, military figures. Their actions, pragmatic, concerned seizing power, not bringing about the Last Days; opportunity, not scripture, dictated their deeds.
On exactly this point, in four concise, pellucid pages, 144–48, Novenson dissolves this seemingly confounding problem. Josephus does indeed describe and refer to these various “kings of the Jews” as messiahs, he argues. But Josephus does so by translating “the rebels’ native revolutionary rhetoric (‘stars,’ ‘scepters,’ ‘messiahs’) into gentile vernacular (‘diadems,’ ‘kings,’ ‘tyrants’). That is, he translates messiah language into a Roman idiom” (145, emphasis mine). For the same reason that Josephus characterized Pharisees as “Stoics,” in other words, for that reason he referred to these messianic insurgents as “diadem-wearers”: “because that is the term by which his audience will know what he means” (148). And as Josephus notes ruefully in this passage in Book 6, scripture did indeed inform the programs of (at least) some of them.
The point is “that the rebels, too, had an exegesis by which they justified their undertaking” (144). Josephus, writing the Bellum initially in Aramaic, translated more than just his words into Greek. He translated concepts. His literary model was the great classical historian Thucydides. For the purposes of Josephus’s project, a Greek who wore a “diadem,” the ancient crown of ruling authority, was the functional equivalent of a Jew who was “anointed”/christos. The Greek idiom captured the political and military power that is also an aspect of mashiach/ christos, though “diadem” obviously lacks its scriptural resonance. Josephus’s brief notice in BJ 6 about this biblical “oracle” unobtrusively restored it.
Religious and political motivations—combined with the surprise of encouraging circumstances (the power vacuum after Herod’s death; the empire’s deep instability and crisis of power and politics, thanks to Nero, in the early years of the war)—all went into the mix. Indeed, prophecy and politics, for these messiahs as for their followers, formed their own kind of confirming feedback loop.
Though Novenson does not refer in this connection to another early literary product of the war, I will do so here: Jesus’ apocalyptic aria as presented in chapter 13 of Mark’s gospel. In that passage, Mark renders a good synopsis of what Josephus narrates. The destruction of the temple, wars and rumors of war, false messiahs, turmoil and trouble—and then, famously, the reference to apocalyptic themes originating in the Maccabean period and preserved in Daniel:
But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not be—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. . . . And then if anyone says to you, “Look, here is the messiah!” or “Look: there he is!” do not believe them. False messiahs and false prophets will arise . . . to lead astray, if possible, the elect. . . . But in those days, after great tribulation . . . they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. (Mark 13:14–26)
Commentators often note that Mark very likely refers to the Roman troops’ sacrificing to their gods on the ruined temple mount as they crowned their victory in 70 CE. Josephus will report that incident as well (Bellum 6.316). But Daniel’s prophecy probably entered the gospel bloodstream stimulated by another major moment of Roman imperial dysfunction: Caligula’s efforts in 39/40 CE to raise his cult statue of Zeus-Gaius in Jerusalem’s temple. In the earliest letter that we have from Paul, a few years after Caligula’s attempt, we catch echoes of this Danielic framing of Jesus’ impending second—and victoriously messianic—advent (1 Thess 4:13–18). And just a decade or so before the composition of the Bellum, we again hear Paul, looking to Isaiah, venturing exactly the interpretation of biblical prophecy that Josephus, shortly after 70, would so pointedly disavow: “The root of Jesse shall come, he who rises to rule the gentiles” (Rom 15:12; Isa 11:10).
By the time that Caligula attempted his reform of Jerusalem’s cult, and by the time that Titus’s troops later devoured the temple, Jesus of Nazareth was long gone, crucified as part of Pilate’s Passover crowd-control. Yet unlike Josephus, Jesus’ followers, speaking whether Greek or, we may assume, Aramaic, did not hesitate to mobilize the language of militant messianism. Jesus may not have lived as a warrior, but he surely would return as one, accompanied by the sounding of the heavenly trumpet, the archangel’s call, and the celestial defeat of cosmic forces and pagan gods (1 Thess 4:13–18; 1 Cor 15:24–28; Phil 2:10–11). As Novenson’s fine argument in this luminous ten-age passage makes clear, Jesus’s followers were not the only Roman-era Jews consulting ancient prophecies in order to understand the signs of the times, the better to learn when the messiah would, finally, be on his way.
Novenson’s Scholarly Rhetoric
In many ways, Novenson’s The Grammar of Messianism is a cri de coeur. He sets out to correct serious misjudgments and he does it with passion. Others in this volume will treat the large and small of his arguments. Here I want to look at an aspect of his scholarly rhetoric. How does he make his case? Who are his guides? How does he connect with his forebearers?
First, Novenson places himself squarely outside, indeed against, the main line of scholarship, particularly Christian scholarship. That tradition has gone off course by focusing on the “idea” of messianism, which smacks of Christian notions of eternal doctrines. Along with and consequent of this stance, messianism has been turned into something of a universal constant, disconnected from concrete times, places and interpreters. Any decent historian would have recognized this failure long ago—indeed some have—but in the main it has been lost in the fog of Christian doctrine. Novenson is not the first to make this case—Joseph Klausner, in his The Messianic Idea in Israel (English trans. Macmillan, 1955) and Gershom Scholem in his The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (English trans. Schocken, 1971) are prime examples and Novenson gives them full credit.
Second, Novenson’s book reads like a history of scholarship. There is little that has escaped his attention. He is not content merely to cite his many sources. He makes his case in critical dialogue with them. His work is deeply embedded and indebted to the work of his predecessors.
Third, and this is my chief contribution, it is striking to discover who these predecessors are. I have just mentioned the names of Klausner and Scholem, Jewish scholars. But these are just two of the many Jewish scholars, Israeli and otherwise, who form the network of Novenson’s conversation partners. Even a brief glance at his index reveals just how far he has moved from the path of traditional New Testament scholars. These index entries make it clear that he cites Jewish scholarship not just for show. He allows himself to be guided and shaped by it. Have a look at the index and you will see what I mean. How many New Testament scholars cite the works, or take to heart, say, of Jacob Taubes or Moshe Idel, just to cite two cases of the many. Along similar lines, in reaching his goal of tracing the varieties (and the absences) of messianic chatter, he delves into a range of Jewish texts rarely treated by traditional scholars—Philo, yes Philo, on messiah talk and Harry Wolfson’s treatment of Philo. “Wolfson may be mistaken about Philo’s view of the diaspora but his rubric of problem and solution are just right” (135). But in order to be in a position to make this statement, you need to read Wolfson. And he continues, citing the work of Yehoshua Amir, “If we come to Philo in search of messianism and find ourselves disappointed, the fault is ours, not his.”
Two more points. The most eye-opening book I ever read on the New Testament is Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy (Harvard University Press, 1980), based on his Norton lectures at Harvard in 1977–1978. Kermode was no biblical scholar. Far from it. He was a British literary critic, arguably the most important critic of the late twentieth century. He is harsh in his treatment of New Testament scholars. Why is it, he asks, that they spend so much time trying to figure out what the gospels are about—that is, trying to dig up reliable historical facts—and so little time on what or how they wrote. For Kermode, the gospels are novels. He, and they, have little interest in historical facts. They are narratives, fictions, revealing and concealing ultimate truths of human existence. The impact of Kermode’s book on me was shattering. How could I have missed what he reveals? In time I came to understand the reason for my blindness. He saw deeper truths because he stood in a different place. He was an outsider.
The same can be said of Novenson. By immersing himself in Jewish scholarship he has placed himself outside the mainstream of New Testament scholarship and put himself in a position to see things differently. The two go together. How refreshing it is to see him wrestling with figures like Jacob Taubes and Arnaldo Momigliano. If I may be allowed an aside, much the same could be said of classicists like Fergus Millar, Erich Gruen, and my Princeton colleague, Brent Shaw, who came to the study of early Christianity and ancient Judaism as outsiders from the world of classics brought with them distinctive visions of the field.
I cannot sign off without making an observation about messianic miracles. Novenson says little or nothing about them, but he can be forgiven inasmuch as the book is not about miracles. But miracles belong to the study of messianism. The early stories about the figure of Jesus are replete with miracles, all of them of highly dubious believability. But there is one messianic miracle that deserves our special attention. That is, how does it come about, against all odds, that the label of messiah comes to be attached to such an unlikely figure? Given what (little) we can know about him—his birthplace (Nazareth, an obscure village in Galilee), his parentage (with an absentee father), his following (tax collectors, fishermen, women, and sinners) and his ultimate demise (excruciating death by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans)—calling him the messiah must rank as the one undoubted messianic miracle.
James Carleton Paget
The Essence of the Matter?
Matthew Novenson’s book is a thoughtful and learned attack upon what could be termed an idealist approach to messianism, that is the contention that there was a clear idea of messianism against which all others can be measured; or put another way the appearance of the word “messiah” in any one text is a particular instantiation of a single supra-historical idea that exists independently of them all. This view is accepted, so Matthew claims, even by those who advocate the view that there is diversity in such an idea. “For the most part,” he contends, “the modern study of ancient messianism has been organized around an artificial concept, not a corpus of texts, and the result has been a kind of interpretive anarchy” (8).
What he suggests, positively, is at one level a more limited approach to the subject of the messiah than we are used to. Since, as he argues, there is no such thing as messianism, we should restrict any analysis of the subject to places where the word “messiah” and its translation equivalencies are used. Second, when we come to analyze those texts we should do so in the sure knowledge that they are exegetical texts, that is, they are texts which seek to understand the word messiah in relation to a set of other texts, namely the Bible, that they are participating in an interpretive exercise, which as a language game, can be called “the grammar of messianism.” Any one instance of the appearance of the word is, then, to some extent a unique and particular instantiation of the word “messiah.” Messiah texts, then, “represent so many creative reappropriations of an archaic scriptural idiom to talk about matters of contemporary concern to their latter-day authors and audiences” (18).
What follows this methodological discussion is an attempt to show up what broadly might be termed the advantages—certainly, the differences—which such an approach to the phenomenon of messianism will make; or put in a Novensonian way, “The book thus takes the form of a proof, by means of a series of related studies, that in antiquity the messiah was not an article of faith but a manner of speaking” (21).
Novenson begins with a chapter on the use of the messiah in the Hebrew Bible. He attacks the way in which appearances of the word “messiah” in these texts have been contrasted with some supposed later, and idealized, version of the idea to argue for the absence of messianism in the Hebrew Bible. “For the exegete, it is entirely possible and methodologically far preferable to describe the various ancient uses of the word ‘messiah’ and the pertinent differences among them without privileging one as the ostensibly real, proper, strict, fully evolved definition” (63). Such study will show that the non-messianic biblical messiah has far more in common with later appearances of the word than some have thought (the old contrast between a this-worldly anointed figure and a supra-historical figure just doesn’t work). In chapter 3, entitled “Messiahs Born and Made,” Novenson shows, with reference to a variety of sources, that there was no agreed upon understanding of the origins of the messiah. Just as the David stories in the Hebrew Bible gave warrant to a view that the messiah was either born (that is, he was of Davidic origin), or he gained his position as a result of merit, so Christian authors when thinking about Jesus or rabbinic authors when thinking about Bar Kokhba or indeed Rabbi Judah, could engage in this discussion, even discourse, in a variety of ways. Chapter 4 looks at the issue of the presence or absence of the messiah in Jewish texts. Novenson’s thesis here is a simple one. If one follows his view that the messiah is a discourse, a way of talking about a variety of matters, rather than an overriding idea of immense significance, then some people will talk about the messiah and some will not. Attempting to explain the absence, or in fact not accepting it at all is no kind of a response. Discussions of Philo, Josephus, and the Mishnah follow in which some of the difficulties of a scholarly approach which seeks to deal with the absence of the concept is demonstrated. “If messiah language were, as Klausner and his contemporaries thought, ‘the summation of the most exalted hopes . . . of our great and most venerated dreamers,’ then we might well expect to find it everywhere, as they did, and be perplexed when we do not. But it is not that, nor does it need to be. Among ancient Jewish thinkers, talk about an anointed ruler was important for the people for whom it was important, and that is enough” (158–59, emphasis added). Chapter 5 shows up what Novenson, along with many others I imagine, sees as the flawed quest for the first messiah by which he means the origins of the Christian messiah, a quest associated with Michael Wise and Israel Knohl (1 QH 11.1–10; 4Q491; the Hazon Gabriel). Such a quest, Novenson argues, arises precisely from an idealist approach to the concept of messiah—Christians could only arrive at their idea of the messiah if there was a pre-Christian idea equivalent to it. “Early Christian messiah texts yield the particular combination of features they do not because they are unique, but because they do, in their particular way, what all ancient messiah texts do—namely, reinterpret scripture in the light of their own historical circumstances” (185). Such an assumption immediately draws together Jewish and Christian messianism (they are both simply instantiations of a discourse about the term messiah). The next chapter takes this thesis, that is, the view that Jewish and Christian messianism should not be contrasted with each other, further by showing that features of so-called Christian messianism, seen in a sophistic and artificial engagement with scriptural texts to suit the circumstances of Jesus’s life, are equally witnessed in Jewish sources, especially those dealing with Bar Kokhba, and that so-called distinctive Jewish features, seen in a martial messiah, are witnessed in Christian hopes for Jesus’ return. Attempts by Jewish and Christian scholars to draw such distinctions, carried out for reasons which can be as ideologically motivated as they can be the result of careful reading, prove false (or both). In chapter 7, entitled “The Fate of Messiah Christology in Early Christianity,” Novenson shows how contrary to the customary scholarly narrative, retold many times, language to do with the messiah persisted in Christian writing about Jesus, admittedly in transformed states. “The fate of messiah Christology in early Christianity is, in fact, a complicated affair. It did not remain what it had been at the beginning, but neither did it vanish altogether. The ghost of the messianic movement surrounding Jesus of Nazareth haunted early Christian Christology for centuries to follow” (217). Matthew then concludes by repeating in sharper form what he has already said: “There is no messianic idea in the old Idealist sense, but there is messiah haggadah, a mass of legend spun from scriptural source material by ancient Jewish and Christian authors in their various historical contexts” (275). And then in almost appellative style, he finishes with a flourish: “The future of the study of messianism lies not in vain attempts to measure the vigor of the phenomenon, nor in pedantic quarrels over the definition of ‘messiah,’ nor in lightly revised taxonomies of redeemer figures, but rather in fresh expeditions into the primary sources to trace the way the words run, in the exploration, that is, of the grammar of messianism” (276).
Observations and Questions
Matthew Novenson’s important book reflects and builds on trends in modern biblical (and indeed other) scholarship as well as studies on messianism. Its aversion to reification, in this case the reified idea of a messiah, a scepticism, which he had already expressed in his earlier Christ among the Messiahs (Oxford University Press, 2012), reflects tendencies in postmodern discourse, as does his connected disavowal of a narrative of messianism in which, for instance, one idea is seen to supersede another. His insistence upon the need for particularity, in this instance the engagement with particular manifestations of the word “messiah” and the way in which those texts in which the word appears “play” with the word reflects similar general trends in academic study associated with the linguistic turn. More specifically, and as he regularly acknowledges, his book builds upon the observations of other scholars who have studied messianism, whether it be John Collins, and his insistence, along with many others, on the exegetical character of messianic discourse; or William Horbury or Loren Stückenbruck, who have argued in different ways, that Jewish and Christian messianism should be seen together rather than as separate and contrasted entities (and in this assertion, Matthew, as again he admits, reflects more generally the burgeoning school of the ways that never parted); or others, like Jacob Neusner, who have expressed a general scepticism about the idea of messianism (not to mention a heap of observations made by Morton Smith). The book, then, is of its time; but what is interesting is this in a distinctive way. That distinctiveness lies not only in the individual observations it makes about a wide range of texts but in its consistent eschewal of an idealist view of messianism as a starting point for study of the subject, in its insistence on the need simply to study the texts in which the word messiah appears, an aim given in shorthand in the title of the book, The Grammar of Messianism. Emerging from the book, then, is a deconstruction of messianism as an idea and an endorsement of it as a discourse or a way of speaking about the future irrevocably connected with scripture. An acceptance of such a view will reveal the irrelevance of some questions and the greater importance of others. Aligned to this is the belief that from his book will emerge a research program. Matthew, mixing the bold with the humble, believes that this is but the opening salvo of a new approach to the study of messianism, not the last word, to quote him in an interview, but the first.
Many comments could be made but let me restrict myself to a few. Some will intersect with what my colleagues have said or will say:
First, there is, it seems to me, a great advantage in avoiding an examination of messianism which starts with a particular definition and then proceeds to examine a set of texts. There is also great virtue in assuming that any word, in this case, messiah, relies for its meaning on both the way it is used in a particular text and the set of circumstances which have brought about that text. And Matthew, for me at least, succeeds in showing how such an approach has real advantages, not least when it comes to looking at the relationship between Christian and Jewish usages of the term (of which more later). What I wonder about, however, is whether such a particularist approach, pursued in the way Matthew pursues it, can lead his reader to assume that each instantiation of a messianic interpretation, each instance of the use of the word messiah, is in some sense unique; or put differently do interpretations of the word “messiah” not relate to an evolving body of interpretative moves around the word which have preceded that particular interpretation. Philip Alexander, in his response to Matthew’s book and the British New Testament Conference of 2017, mentioned the importance of what he terms “post-biblical” interpretative traditions; and whether one accepts his own reconstruction of those and the kinds of questions they sought to answer, his idea that there was a perhaps unexpressed and broader context in which interpretation of the word messiah occurred surely makes sense. It is not simply that, when considering individual passages which contain the word “messiah,” we have to consider the texts themselves and the context of their use, including also the person they are seeking to identify with the term (whether it be Jesus, Bar Kokhba or Joseph), if that is what they are doing; but it is also the context of the tradition in which that word was read, a tradition which accumulated associations as more people engaged in thinking about the messiah and scripture. In other words, one could argue that Matthew underestimates the collective and connected nature of messianic interpretation in favor of a more fragmented and isolated set of interpretations. After all, as he accepts the view that there is such a thing as messianic exegesis, then one has to allow for a history of exegesis, and the likelihood that interpreters had knowledge of that burgeoning tradition and made use of it. Here Matthew may think that by another route, there enters the ghost of a regrettable German idealist. But I would suggest that: (a) that need not be the case, at least in the way Matthew understands German idealist; and (b) that we do at Qumran and also in the Christian tradition have evidence of the use of the term “messiah” in an unglossed and uninterpreted form (“messiah of Aaron and of Israel”), implying that the word meant something on its own, and that it did so because it had associative meanings. Identifying these is an act of imagination, as Alexander has shown, but it may be a necessary act.
Second, some will want to make much of Novenson’s decision to restrict his discussion to passages which explicitly use the word “messiah.” Some objections may miss Matthew’s point—as he himself has noted, there are those who will say that what he is referring to is the anointed one, not the “messiah.” But this will miss the point he is making. Another objection might be that once one has accepted the role of exegesis in the interpretation of the term, in particular the exploitation of a set of specific scriptural passages (cf. Gen 49:10; Num 24:17; 2 Sam 7:12–13; Isa 11:1–2; Amos 9:11; Dan 7:13–14), then has one not accepted that references to the messiah themselves generated a meta-messianic vocabulary, which also needs to be studied, and which itself widens the purview of messianism?
Third, Novenson’s erudite and authoritative book is, I think, at its best when seeking to minimize the kinds of contrasts that have often been drawn between Jewish and Christian understandings of messianism. This is the real strength, in my opinion, of his non-idealist approach to the subject. He shows how traditional distinctions that are drawn between Jewish and Christian messiahs do not hold, whether these relate to the manner in which scripture is used by either group, or to the kind of messiah which is expected; and his chapter on the persistent interest of Christians in the word “messiah” is a tour de force of erudition and helpfully pertinent observation. It is not, of course, that Matthew is wanting to say that there is no difference between the two but that they can both be located in a recognizable discourse, which at many points, some of them surprising, converge (and here we see the advantage of concentrating on the grammar of messianism). I am happy to accept much of this. But what I wonder about is this: Jews and Christians are portrayed, principally by Christians, but also by others, as differing in their understanding of the term messiah—in part this is related to the way they read the scriptures, what Celsus referred famously to, as the argument about the shadow of an ass (c. Cels. 3.1). But they differed, too, because of their understanding of the messiah even if they sought to argue about this matter using the same texts; or put another way, some form of presupposition about the messiah clashed with the facts of Jesus’ life (as no doubt it did in some instance with other messianic pretenders). Celsus’s Jew makes this point on a number of occasions when he enunciates what the Jewish expectation of the messiah is: “The prophets say that the one who will come will be a great prince, lord of the whole earth and of all nations and armies” (2.29). (Matthew quotes Trypho and Justin disagreeing on this point and simply notes that the idea of a different Jewish and Christian messiah has a long pedigree.) This is not to say that non-Christian Jews had a very specific definition of the term “messiah” but that they possessed a sufficiently clear idea of what that person might be to believe, at least in many instances, that Jesus was not that person. There are legitimate responses to this observation—the very fact that Christians could claim Jesus as the messiah is proof that the idea was sufficiently loose to accommodate such a person with such a narrative—but the role of presupposition in the Jewish-Christian argument about the messiah needs to be considered, not least as this relates to the idea of a messiah.
Fourth, in his book Matthew is keen to undermine the thesis that the idea of the messiah was an overridingly important one, as, for instance, Klausner and others have wanted to argue. Such an attribution of importance to the idea arises, in part, because people believe in this supra-historical idea of the messiah. When it is absent, we need, therefore, to explain its absence. This is central to his chapter on the messianic vacuum, which he entitles “Messiahs Absent and Present.” We should not, Matthew avers, be surprised if some people used the term and others didn’t, just as, for instance, we are not surprised if some people do no talk about menstrual impurity or liturgical prayer or ritual slaughter. To repeat his statement: “It (messianism) is one discourse among many for addressing one social problem among many. . . . Among ancient Jewish thinkers, talk about an anointed ruler was important for the people for whom it was important, and that is enough” (158–59). This, to some extent, elucidates the subtitle of the book, An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Users. Matthew may well be right about the relationship between an idealist view of the messiah and the need felt by some to explain away its absence (or assume its presence). But is he right to think that the messiah is simply one discourse among many? Josephus’s mention in BJ 6 of what appears to have been a messianic oracle implies that it was both understood by many people and reacted to in a vigorous way. Bar Kokhba inspired followers just as Sabbatai Zvi did. Is Matthew engaged here in a possibly, from his perspective, necessary, but misleading, form of reductionism. Has his desire to talk about messianism in the way he has led to his relativization of its importance?
My fifth and final point is simply a question. At the end of the volume Matthew quotes Martin Hengel appearing to agree with him in asserting that there is no messianic idea in Judaism but only messianic haggada. Philip Alexander has seized on Matthew’s approval of this piece of Hengelia to argue that, indirectly at least, Matthew is an advocate of the importance of reading the word “messiah” within the context of a developing, but clearly formed, messianic tradition. I am not as bold, or as well-placed as Prof. Alexander, to argue this case. My interest rather lies in what Matthew goes on to say about what he thinks emerges from the Hengel-related sentence. He talks about a new direction of research, which gives a positive account of what it is that the primary texts about the messiah do, or put differently, of “fresh expeditions into the primary sources to trace the way the words run, . . . the exploration, that is, of the grammar of messianism” (276). My question is simply this: the kind of research whose validity, or at least effectiveness, Matthew has questioned, had clear aims, which we can reconstruct and understand. But what might be the aim of the research project he advocates once the specific, essentializing, dare one say, teleological, studies he has dismantled have been abandoned?
7.16.19 | Matthew Novenson
Response to James Carleton Paget
Many times over the years, I have been saved from ignorance and error by reading James Carleton Paget (on the Testimonium Flavianum, on the Epistle of Barnabas, on so-called Jewish Christianity, and much more), so I am immensely grateful for his taking the time to read and respond to my new book. He gives a fine summary of the argument of the book, chapter by chapter. I might quibble with one or two of his paraphrases of my position, but on the whole it is a careful, accurate account. Carleton Paget then raises a number of challenges in the form of questions, to which I will respond one by one.
First, do I “underestimate the collective and connected nature of messianic interpretation in favour of a more fragmented and isolated set of interpretations?” No, not at all. Of course, underestimation is a relative term; someone could say that I underestimate the connections relative to how he or she estimates them. But I strongly affirm the interconnectedness of ancient messiah texts. In the book, I put it in this way: “What the primary texts suggest is the resilience of literary features of messiah texts from one epoch to subsequent ones. Granted, a certain feature (e.g., a gentile messiah or a suffering messiah) may only come about in the first place because of a certain historical development (e.g., the decree of Cyrus or the crucifixion of Jesus), but ever after that feature remains part of the trove of discursive resources on which the exegetical project draws” (25). Now, we might discuss further exactly what kinds of interconnectedness Carleton Paget and I each want to affirm, but on the general point I think I neither overestimate nor underestimate.
Second, if I grant (as I do) that messiah discourse is exegetical, does it not follow that the scriptural source texts will have generated (what Carleton Paget calls) a meta-messianic vocabulary, which then widens the body of evidence with which we have to do? Yes, absolutely, and I think Carleton Paget’s phrase “meta-messianic vocabulary” is excellent. Indeed, in my 2012 book Christ among the Messiahs, I developed my own argument along these lines, showing how ancient messiah texts take the word “messiah” from one set of scriptural texts and the diverse imagery by which they explain it from a different set of scriptural texts. And in this new book, I supply numerous examples of this dynamic. My methodological decision to try to understand the usage of the word mashiah, christos in particular, so far from excluding meta-messianic vocabulary, actually gives it (what I take to be) its proper linguistic place.
Third, does the social fact of ancient Jewish-Christian debate about the identity of the messiah not imply at least some core presuppositions about “messiah” on each side, respectively? Well, yes, at least by late antiquity, when each religion was seeing attempts to articulate a party line on the issue; in the first and second centuries things are much fuzzier, in my view. What I argue in chapter 6, though, is that the relevant difference (call it a difference of presuppositions, if you like) is that Christians generally assume that the messiah is Jesus, while (non-Christian) Jews generally assume that the messiah is not-Jesus. That’s it. But that is a far more precise claim than the standard one (see Klausner, Scholem, Charlesworth, Fitzmyer) that Christians have a private, inward, heavenly, spiritual messiah, while Jews have a public, outward, earthly, political messiah. That distinction, as I argue in the book, runs right through Jewish messianism itself, not between Judaism and Christianity.
Fourth, has my claim that messiah-talk is “one discourse among many for addressing one social problem among many” led me to relativize its actual (Carleton Paget implies, greater) importance? (He cites Josephus’s “ambiguous oracle” in War 6.312 as evidence of this great importance, but I do not think that that text will bear that weight.) I answer: Absolutely not. If we are inquiring into actual ancient discourse about “messiahs,” which is my methodological premise, then it is incontrovertible that that is one discourse among many for addressing one social problem among many. Now of course, if we stipulate that by “messianism” we mean something extremely broad like “restoration eschatology” or “narrative theology of redemption,” then yes, we would have to say that “messianism” in that artificial sense was more socially important in ancient Judaism than messiah discourse in my sense was. But this brings us around again to the (in my view) tiresome dispute about how we should define “properly messianic,” a dispute which I think is better avoided than re-litigated.
Fifth and finally, Carleton Paget asks, if we were to give up the dominant (and, I suggest, threadbare) approaches to the study of messianism, then what exactly would be the aim of the alternative research program that I advocate? The aim, as I put it in the book, is to understand “the inner logic of each text, why it makes the particular choices it does” (11). Some contributions to such a research program could conceivably do some synthesizing across texts and centuries, as this book does. But I expect that most contributions would be much more targeted, solving particular problems in particular texts by thinking in terms of socio-linguistics rather than the history of ideas. I have in mind things like Martha Himmelfarb’s recent book on Sefer Zerubbabel, Jewish Messiahs in a Christian Empire, or Bernardo Cho’s new book on the temple priests in the Gospel of Mark, or Esau McCaulley’s new book on Abraham’s inheritance in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. And I could point to other examples, too. There is plenty of work to do on this front, and plenty already being done. It just means thinking about the sources rather differently than we have been habituated to do.