Symposium Introduction


Aryeh Amihay
James Carleton Paget
Paula Fredriksen
John G. Gager
Esau McCaulley




Messianism is one of the great themes in intellectual history. But because it has done so much important ideological work for the people who have written about it, the historical roots of the discourse have been obscured from view. What did it mean to talk about “messiahs” in the ancient world, before the idea of messianism became a philosophical juggernaut, dictating the terms for all subsequent discussion of the topic? In this book, Matthew V. Novenson offers a revisionist account of messianism in antiquity. He shows that, for the ancient Jews and Christians who used the term, a messiah was not an article of faith but a manner of speaking. It was a scriptural figure of speech, one among numerous others, useful for thinking about kinds of political order: present or future, real or ideal, monarchic or theocratic, dynastic or charismatic, and other variations besides. The early Christians famously seized upon the title “messiah” (in Greek, “Christ”) for their founding hero and molded the sense of the term in certain ways; but, Novenson shows, this is just what all ancient messiah texts do, each in its own way. If we hope to understand the ancient texts about messiahs (from Deutero-Isaiah to the Parables of Enoch, from the Qumran Community Rule to the Gospel of John, from the Pseudo-Clementines to Sefer Zerubbabel), we must learn to think not in terms of a world-historical idea but of a language game, of so many creative reuses of an archaic Israelite idiom. In The Grammar of Messianism, Novenson demonstrates the possibility and the benefit of thinking of messianism in this way.


Reviews and Endorsements

“combine[s] a close engagement with an impressive array of scholarship and its history, exegetical rigour, and attention to a wide range of primary sources, with a clarity of argument and style.” — Judith M. Lieu, Theology

“Matthew Novenson’s study of ancient messianism is revisionary as well as elegantly simple [and] has enormous implications for understanding the Jewish origins of Christianity and a variety of New Testament texts.” –Grant Wacker, Christian Century

“Matthew Novenson deconstructs and de-mystifies ‘the messianic idea,’ a ghost of nineteenth century scholarship on ancient Judaism and early Christianity, by focusing on the way inherited scriptures were used in new social contexts. In the process, he injects a healthy dose of historical realism into a subject that has often suffered from vagueness. This is an important contribution to the study of Judaism and Christian origins.” –John J. Collins, Holmes Professor of Old Testament, Yale University

“The import of the term ‘messiah’ lies not in whom it names, urges Matthew Novenson, but in how it works. By attending to various projects of scriptural interpretation, from ancient texts through to the modern scholarship on them, he offers his reader a fresh conceptualization of an entire area of biblical research. Both in its scope and in its aims, The Grammar of Messianism is an outstanding accomplishment.” –Paula Fredriksen, author of From Jesus to Christ

“In this powerfully argued book, Matthew Novenson offers a fresh approach to the study of ancient Jewish and Christian messianism, urging us to jettison the concept of the ‘messianic idea’ that has dominated much of scholarly discussion and to replace it with an understanding of messianism as an interpretive tradition, and then demonstrating how fruitful this approach can be.” –Martha Himmelfarb, author of Jewish Messiahs in a Christian Empire: A History of the Book of Zerubbabel

Let us notify you when this symposium starts!