Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Musings on Messianic Motifs

My last post on Gabriel's vision rightly prompted a question about what all the fuss was about anyway. Is it threatening to Christianity like many of the media headlines seem to think? I don't think so. If it turns out that Knohl is correct in his reading (an unlikely event in my opinion), then it does nothing except add one more item to the list of the many ways that early Christianity built on its foundation in ancient Judaism.

I don't think it has the "Christianity is a rip-off" effect when we admit that Christianity is rooted in Jewish traditions. The New Testament account combines a number of different, distinct, separate, Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) motifs and applies them to the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Many of these are not overtly messianic but are often read as messianic by Christian interpreters viewing the text through the lens of the New Testament. The motifs of the Suffering Servant from Isa 53, the expected prophet like Moses of Deut 18, the priest like Melchizedek of Ps 110, and the Davidic messiah converged in NT interpretations of Jesus.

The issue of messianic expectation in the Hebrew Bible is complicated. The Hebrew word "messiah" is not consistently used in passages often considered to be messianic. One passage appears to speak of a dying messiah, Dan 9:26. However, the interpretation of the larger passage is difficult and I have a hard time leaping from 1 verse to stating that a dying messiah was expected in Second Temple Judaism. I'm still working through the evidence and the secondary literature on this subject, however.

Before the New Testament, I would argue that they are separate categories, not necessarily all linked to the Davidic messiah idea. In the Rule of the Congregation from Qumran, we have both a priestly and a kingly messiah. I think scholars aren't careful enough in keeping these categories separate. For example, the suffering servant motif is likely employed by Teacher of Righteousness in the Dead Sea Scrolls and applied to himself. I don't think this necessarily means he was attempting to tap into the current of messianic expectation connected to the Davidic or priestly messiahs. Therefore, works like Knohl's The Messiah Before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls are starting off on the wrong foot if they don't show that the expectation of a messiah and the separate motif of the Suffering Servant should be connected.

If a dying, rising, suffering messiah was expected, why does the NT present Jesus's death as a completely unexpected event that "freaked out" the disciples? The reason is that the NT interpretation is an innovation that combines numerous disparate motifs into an interpretive framework that fits the ministry of one and only one person as the messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.


  1. Couldn't "He will crush your head, but you will bruise his heel" from Genesis be interpreted as prophecy of Christ dying, but defeating death?

  2. I think that counts as an example of "viewing the text through the lens of the New Testament." You can argue that "progressive revelation" led eventually to that interpretation and that the Old Testament should be read through the lens of the NT, but that's a different issue, more theological than exegetical. The first step is to focus on what the text from the Hebrew Bible says on its own terms and to its own time. The rest is history of interpretation.