Iesous Christos, Pars Prima
Messianism Between Jews and Christians, Ancient and New
Once more, the Copts are among the best of Christians, this time for celebrating Transfiguration on the 19th rather than the 6th of August, and so giving me a chance to write something on it. But what I find myself struck by, in fact, is the twofold linkage that the Transfiguration effects between Theophany, and the Baptism in the Jordan, on the one hand, and the Crucifixion on the other. Scripturally, the first link is rather clear. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, for instance, the Transfiguration follows on the heels of the Petrine confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matt 16:16), which comes to him by divine apocalypse (16:17). Christ’s answer to Peter is the skandalon of the cross (16:24-28), which leads us into the Transfiguration scene in 17:1-13, where these words, that Christ is God’s “Son,” are repeated (17:5), this time by God, and in repetition of what God has already said at Christ’s baptism (3:17).
And yet the Transfiguration also obviously looks forward to the crucifixion, in part because it follows on Christ’s first prediction of the Passion—the Synoptic Gospels are clarifying for Peter and for the reader the true nature of the one who goes to Golgotha—and in part because the next time Jesus will be recognized as Son of God is at the crucifixion (27:54). In St. Luke’s Gospel, the connection is made explicitly: on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah speak of his exodos, his “departure” or perhaps more literally “exodus,” which he will accomplish at Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). It is this second theme that Byzantine hymnography picks up on with regard to the Transfiguration:
Upon the mountain Thou wert transfigured, and Thy disciples beheld Thy glory as far as they were able, O Christ our God; so that when they would see Thee crucified they might understand that Thy Passion was deliberate, and declare to the world that in truth Thou art the Father’s radiance.1
In manifesting Christ’s divinity, the Transfiguration manifests the volition that takes him to the Cross: this is the point that the Byzantine Liturgy wants its worshipers to understand.
Yet I think there is a more basic point to the whole scene that we either miss or misunderstand through familiarity. I mean the sense in which, for the Evangelist, the Transfiguration is part of what makes Jesus christos, that is, “anointed one.” In point of fact, each of these three scenes in linked together in the Synoptic Gospels—Baptism, Transfiguration, and Crucifixion—are all about the revelation of Jesus’ messianic identity, which is another way of saying that they are part of what makes Jesus messiah.
Part of the reason we miss this is, of course, because most contemporary Christians are fairly misinformed about ancient Jewish messianism.2 Mashiach (משיח) and christos (χριστός) both mean “anointed,” and their significance to Early Judaism is layered and complex. In the ancient Near East generally, several public offices were acquired through anointing, whence its use for the inauguration of kings, priests, and sometimes prophets.3 It seems to be the case that Davidic kings were believed to be divinized human beings through the ritual of anointing, and thereafter performed a cultic function in the worship of ancient Israel and Judah in a similar way to that of other ancient Near Eastern divine monarchs. Some parts of the Hebrew Bible preserve the memory of this sacral kingship in ancient Israel, while others grate against it; this is part and parcel, it seems, of more general dissension between royal, Priestly, and Deuteronomistic viewpoints in the preexilic period.
When the Northern Kingdom fell to Assyria in 722 BCE and then, later, the Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians, who destroyed the Temple and took the nobility into exile in 586, the monarchy fell with it. Despite a possible revival as a local satrapy under Zerubbabel ben Shealtiel, there was never again a Davidic king, but there was still an anointed messiah among the Judean exiles and returnees in the form of the high priest, who subsequently came to function as ethnarch and to assume the sacral qualities of the Davidic kingship. Where previously the monarch was thought of as a kind of divine incarnation through anointing, this was now the property of the high priest, who was thought of as a human theophany through his divinization in the course of the liturgical cult. This non-monarchical form of sacral leadership acquired a political function when the Hasmoneans established an independent state and claimed the title of king, melekh (מלך) or basileus (βασιλεῦς), under Aristoboulos I.4 The Hasmoneans were succeeded by one of their in-laws, the converted Idumaean Herod the Great, who, for all of his violence and wanton vice, had arguably one of the longest, most stable, and most successful reigns of any Judean monarch (40 - 4 BCE).5 The Herods did not assume the mantle of the high priesthood, though they did certainly have a heavy hand in the sale and resale of the office, in continuity with perceived corruption of the Hasmonean marriage of priesthood and crown.
It is really during this period that talk of a or the messiah(s), in the sense in which we are traditionally familiar with it, becomes important: as what Matthew Novenson calls a “political idiom” for a revolutionary figure or figures, born or made,6 present or absent,7 whose advent is royal, priestly, and/or prophetic in character. Sometimes, drawing on the texts of sacral kingship to construct this figure, Early Jewish scribes identified these figures with preexistent angelic and/or divine beings.8 Thus not all early Jews believed in messiahs; of those who did, they might believe in singular or plural messiahs; human and/or extrahuman messiahs; royal, priestly, and or prophetic messiahs. Some Jews preferred the heavenly messianic figure of Daniel 7:9-14, the Parables of Enoch, and the Messianic Apocalypse,9 who functions as an eschatologiacl judge and ruler, while others preferred a messianic figure like, say, that of Psalms of Solomon 17, a Davidic monarch who drives out gentile oppressors from embattled Israel.
Within this picture fits the Jesus of history and his shadow, the historical Jesus, which scholars find cast vaguely in the Pauline epistolary corpus but deeply upon the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of St. John. Scholars broadly agree on four points with respect to the historical Jesus: he really existed; he was a faithful, first-century Palestinian Jew;10 he was an apocalyptic prophet, proclaiming the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God and the restoration of Israel;11 and he was crucified by the Romans under the titulus of “King of the Jews.”12 The challenge of the historical Jesus for scholars is trying to explain how his itinerant ministry of preaching, which is narrativized mainly in Galilee in the Synoptics and mainly in Judea in St. John’s Gospel, eventuated in his crucifixion. Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God, his mission to bring about sufficient repentance (תשובה; μετανοία) to avoid punishment and merit the eschatological divine rule, and his call for public acceptance of his halakhic interpretation of the Torah—largely in the context of the synagogue13—do not strike contemporary scholars as particularly problematic to Roman eyes. As scholars have noted since William Wrede, moreover, the Synoptic Jesus avoids the political spotlight through public avoidance of predication as משיח or χριστός, “messiah,”14 possibly witnessing to the fact that Jesus did not think of himself as such, at the maximal end of the spectrum, but minimally that he did not find it a useful means of self-identification. When Jesus does seem to broach the possibility of messianic self-identification, it is by his speaking of the “Son of Man,” at least in the view of the Evangelists, as a means of speaking about himself. If the historical Jesus did mean himself by this term, and he also intended to evoke Son of Man not merely as an Aramaism for “human” but as the figure of Daniel 7:9-14, the Parables of Enoch, the Messianic Apocalypse, and so forth, then the historical Jesus did think of himself as a messiah, at least as identifiable with a textual figure who is called a messiah and understood to be one in some of those texts. But notably, the heavenly messianic figure of the Son of Man, while he has assimilated some of the traits of the Davidic messiah in Parables, at least, is not in his original appearances a Davidide king: the “Son of Man” coexists and competes with the “Son of God”/“Son of David” model of messianism, and the Gospels preserve both the early movement’s assertion that Jesus was a Davidide and his public perception as one together with Jesus’ own seeming personal disdain for Davidic messianism (Mk 12:35-36). In brief, Jesus did not go around saying, “I’m the messiah”; when other people begin to speak of him as messiah, he tries his hardest to shut them up, whether by fiat or by miracle; and when he does speak of himself in messianic terms, at least in the Gospels, it is through the not-immediately-obvious filter of Son of Man language and allusive prophecy. When Jesus tells the disciples, for instance, that in the regeneration (παλιγγενεσία) of the world, when the Son of Man sits on his throne of glory, and the apostles will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel, it seems incomprehensible that the enthroned Son of Man presiding over them is not himself Jesus (Matt 19:28). But that role for himself is not the point to which Jesus’ prophecy itself draws attention; the point is in fact the reward that awaits the apostles themselves in olam habah.
Regardless of whether Jesus publicly identified in such a way that would have aroused echoes of sedition for the Romans, it seems highly probable that Jesus was thought of as a or “the” messiah by large number of Jews during his lifetime, particularly during the last week of his life in Jerusalem for Passover.15 His crucifixion, a death reserved for seditionists but not applied likewise to his followers, as Fredriksen notes, probably implies a Roman and hierocratic awareness that Jesus himself was not the direct, explicit origin of the messianic fervor that surrounded him at this climax of his prophetic career. And yet his death is clearly a Roman response to precisely the messianic hope Jesus represented for at least some in Jerusalem (if the Gospels are to be believed, a great many of them): it is a crushing imperial mockery of the notion that there would in fact be any “King of the Jews” other than a Roman client like Herod Antipas.
The Transfiguration is, literarily speaking, an attempt to undermine the external significance of this event by suggesting that Jesus’ divine messianic identity, confessed by Peter, renders his Passion voluntary. Yet the Synoptic construction of Jesus’ life by the triad of Baptism, Transfiguration, and Crucifixion, the three moments at which he is confessed as Son of God and is messianized, so to speak, is already the product of a way of reading his life from the conviction that he is the messiah. So to properly appreciate the significance of the feast, we will have to ask: why is it that Jesus’ followers came to believe that he was the messiah after his death?
There are at least two answers to this question. The first is a broad appeal to the Resurrection; the second is the more complex reading of the Resurrection in continuity with the facts of Jesus’ life, in the evolving context of first-century Judaism.
Tacked onto or around the academic portrait of the historical Jesus is the repeatedly reported, though diversely narrativized and theorized, event of Jesus’ postmortem apparition alive, characterized by his earliest followers as resurrection (ἀνάστασις) from the dead.16 As I have written elsewhere, it is the existential acceptance of this apostolic experience of the risen Jesus, as both faith and manner of living, that makes someone a Christian. But that it should do so is not immediately obvious, since resurrection alone does not a Christ make. That is to say, Early Judaism knew of several options for deified individuals—especially deified prophets who suffered during their lifetimes—who were not messianic in character. It is of course notable that this is exactly what is going on in the Transfiguration scene itself: Moses and Elijah, two deified human beings in Early Jewish thought (but not messiahs!), appear not so much as some kind of lazy symbolism of “the Law and the Prophets” witnessing to Jesus, but as precedent prophets who suffered as martyrs before entering into glory. In theory—and as has been suggested by modern Jewish thinkers engaged with Christianity like Pinchas Lapide and Shmuley Boteach—Jesus’ resurrection and ascension could well be understood to make him simply a deified prophet like Moses and Elijah, without the need for construal as a messiah. Why then the messianic identity?
Continuandum in Parte Secunda.
Ἐπὶ τοῦ ὄρους μετεμορφώθης, καὶ ὡς ἐχώρουν οἱ Μαθηταί σου τὴν δόξαν σου, Χριστὲ ὁ Θεὸς ἐθεάσαντο, ἵνα ὅταν σε ἴδωσι σταυρούμενον, τὸ μὲν πάθος νοήσωσιν ἑκούσιον, τῷ δὲ κόσμῳ κηρυξωσιν, ὅτι σὺ ὑπάρχεις ἀληθῶς, τοῦ Πατρὸς τὸ ἀπαύγασμα.
The best introduction is Matthew V. Novenson, The Grammar of Messianism: An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Users (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
Novenson, The Grammar of Messianism, 34-64.
For an overview of this period, see John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow, eds., Early Judaism: A Comprehensive Overview (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).
See Chris Seeman and Adam Kolman Marshak, “Jewish History from Alexander to Hadrian,” in Early Judaism, ed. John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow, 50-51.
Novenson, The Grammar of Messianism, 65-113.
Novenson, The Grammar of Messianism, 114-160.
See John J. and Adelo Yarbro Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature (Grand Rapids: Eermans, 2008).
See Peter Schafer, Two Gods in Heaven: Jewish Concepts of God in Antiquity, trans. Allison Brown (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), 17-68.
See, classically, E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985); Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (New York: Vintage, 1999); Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2009); more recently, see also Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2021).
As Fredriksen notes, this is in actually the primary fact that we can know about Jesus. See Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, 21-31.
This is Jordan Ryan’s thesis. See Jordan J. Ryan, The Role of the Synagogue in the Aims of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017).
William Wrede, Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien: Zugleich ein Beitrag zum Verstandnis des Markusevangeliums (Gotingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1901).
See Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, 299-327.
See Dale Allison’s just released The Resurrection of Jesus: Apologetics, Polemics, History (London: T&T Clark, 2021).