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.