The Grammar of Messianism

I want to extend my congrats to my friend, Matt Novenson’s new book The Grammar of Messianism: An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Users (Oxford University Press, 2017). Matt is a Senior Lecturer at New College, University of Edinburgh and is a well respected Pauline and Christian Origins scholar. But more importantly (to me at least), he’s a great human being. If you are considering doing a Ph.D in Pauline Studies or Christian Origins, Matt needs to be at the top of your list for potential supervisors.

For the release of the book, Matt gave two interviews (here and here) at the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins (New College) blog that gives in depth descriptions about the project.

And then finally here is a description of The Grammar of Messianism, from the OUP site:

Messianism is one of the great themes in intellectual history. But for precisely this reason, because it has done so much important ideological work for the people who have written about it, the historical roots of the discourse itself have been obscured from view. What did it mean to talk about “messiahs” in the ancient world, before the idea of messianismbecame a philosophical juggernaut, dictating the terms for all subsequent discussion of the topic? In this book, Matthew V. Novenson gives 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 kinds of political order: present or future, real or ideal, monarchic or theocratic, dynastic or charismatic, and other variations beside. The early Christians famously seized upon the title “messiah” (in Greek, “Christ”) for their founding hero and thus molded the sense of the term in certain ways, but, Novenson shows, this is nothing other than 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), then we must learn to think in terms not 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 thepossibility and the benefit of thinking of messianism in this way.

Again, congratulations on the release of the book, Matt.

Earthy Signs of Israel’s Restoration

At the end of Hosea, God promises to restore Israel, and he declares his redemptive purposes using the earthy symbols of grain and vine:

They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow;
    they shall flourish like the grain;
they shall blossom like the vine;
    their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon (Hos. 14:7).

The following book, Joel, reverses this earthy restoration with a promise of YHWH’s judgment:

The fields are destroyed,
    the ground mourns,
because the grain is destroyed,
    the wine dries up,
    the oil languishes (Joel 1:10).

Notice that a third earthy element, oil, is added into the mix. We could also add here the sign of water; throughout the Old Testament, water is a sign of judgment in both its excess (e.g. Genesis 6) and its lack, as well as a sign of restoration (e.g. Ezek. 47:1-12). For Israel, then, the earthy signs that they are looking for, the signs that demonstrate that YHWH has renewed them through his Messiah and Spirit, are water, oil, grain, and vine (cf. also Deut. 7:13 for the initial promise of blessing via these elements). Israel’s redemption is pictured as a redemption of the Land, and particularly of those four elements.

When Jesus comes, he comes as Israel’s Anointed – “Messiah” just means “anointed one.” He is anointed both at the beginning of his ministry in baptism and at the end of his ministry, just before his Passion, with oil (Matt. 26:6-13). In other words, Jesus embodies these restorative signs of Israel’s salvation, water and oil, in his Messianic anointing. With respect to the grain and vine, two elements crucial to Israel’s commemorative and formative Passover meal, Jesus embodies these as well, this time in the Last Supper. As he breaks the bread and takes the cup, identifying them as his body and blood, he is taking up the rich symbolism of Israel’s redemptive hope and culminating it in himself. There is now bread to eat, and there is now the fruit of the vine to drink – in Christ. We could also point to the “I AM” statements in John; Jesus is, among other things, Israel’s Bread, Light (associated with oil lamps), Living Water, and Vine.

Jesus, in other words, takes all these earthy symbols of Israel’s redemptive hope upon himself, and fulfills them. Jesus is the fulfillment of all of Israel’s hopes, including its hope of restored Land. By taking these earthy symbols on himself, Jesus is declaring that in him Israel, including the Land itself, is redeemed. All of Israel’s promises, including the Land promises, are fulfilled in the incarnate Son.

But neither Jesus nor the NT stop there with respect to these symbols. These earthy symbols are not only fulfilled in Jesus but also instituted as signs of his Kingdom. Jesus is Israel’s Messiah and King, but he does not isolate the presence of the Kingdom in his person. Instead, through pouring out his Spirit at Pentecost, Jesus spreads his Kingdom from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth via the proclamation of the gospel by his Church. And as his Spirit-filled Church expands, they bring with them signs of the Kingdom, namely the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. These two ordinances are instituted by Christ as signs of the Kingdom because they are signs of Israel’s redemption in him and therefore also signs of Israel’s restoration as YHWH’s people in Christ’s multi-ethnic church.

Jesus’ body and blood – Israel’s redeemed grain and vine – are proclaimed to us in the Supper, and therefore the Supper is a sign of Israel’s redemption. Jesus’ death and resurrection are proclaimed to us in baptism, and therefore our identification with Christ in our submergence into and reemergence out of the waters is a sign of Israel’s redemption. And as we anoint ministers, we anoint them (historically with oil) to minister the Word – the vehicle of Christ’s authority in his Church – to his people. The congregation sits under the kingship of the anointed Christ as anointed ministers proclaim his Scriptures. The Church’s symbols are therefore Israel’s symbols, and thus as the Church worships Christ they are doing so as the renewed and restored Israel, the Israel of God, because they are united to Israel’s Messiah who redeemed Israel in his own flesh.

Saul and the Restoration of Israel

In the Old Testament, Israel becomes divided long before the United Monarchy splits. At the end of Judges (chs. 19-21), a Levite takes a Judahite concubine and spends the night with her in Gibeah, a city which belonged to Benjamin. In a horrifying echo of Sodom and Gomorrah, the men of Benjamin come to rape the Levite, but he gives them his concubine instead. The Levite, who either kills her or finds her dead the next morning, cuts her up into twelve pieces and sends them throughout the land, presumably one piece to each tribe.

After the tribes assemble to decide what to do, they inquire of the LORD at Bethel, and he tells them to go up against Benjamin. Twice they ask, twice God tells them to go into battle against their brothers, and he also makes clear that Judah should be the tribe that leads the charge (20:18). When they ask a third time (reminiscent of Gideon’s obstinacy), God tells them that he has given Benjamin into their hand (Judges 20:28). This phrase, plus the fact that “the whole city [of Gibeah] went up in smoke into heaven” (v. 40), clues readers in on the fact that God has put the ban (herem) on Benjamin. While the Conquest began with a ban on Jericho (Joshua 6), it appears here to be ending with Judah putting the ban on Benjamin.

Of course, in chapter 21, Israel fails at the task given to them and goes back on their oath to refuse marriage of their women to Benjaminite men. As they failed at Ai and elsewhere in Joshua and Judges, so they fail here at the end of the Conquest narrative. The book ends with Israel fractured – seen especially in the division between Judah and Benjamin – and disobedient, because “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25).

The problem persists in 1 Samuel. A Benjaminite, Saul, is appointed as Israel’s first king (1 Samuel 9), because the people want “a king like the nations” (1 Sam. 8:19-20). Saul is by any account a miserable failure; he’s a bad shepherd, priest, prophet, and king. God revokes his kingship in 1 Samuel 15 and instead appoints his own king, David, son of Jesse, from the tribe of Judah. The rest of 1 Samuel consists of another war between Benjamin and Judah, this time with the Benjaminite, Saul, attempting to place the ban on the Judahite, David.

Israel is saved from this conflict in 2 Samuel, when David ascends to the throne over all Israel. Via his coronation by all Israel, whom he calls “his bone and flesh,” David the Judahite heals the division between Judah and Benjamin. His repeated acts of kindness to Saul’s Benjaminite family, seen most strikingly in his treatment of Mephibosheth, only serve to heighten the author’s pointed statement that it is through this king of Judah that Israel has become one nation again.

After David’s and his son Solomon’s death, though, Israel is once again divided. The Southern Kingdom is at odds with the Northern Kingdom. Judah is once again at war with Benjamin and his brothers. This time, the wound remains open. Israel is never again formally or fully one people. They functionally and spiritually remain in exile, lacking a king, a Temple, a land, a rest, and a unified nation.

It is in this context of longing for return from exile that Jesus enters as Israel’s Messiah. YHWH himself comes via the incarnation of God the Son to heal Israel. Jesus calls twelve disciples, reorients Israel’s feasts around himself, and claims authority over Israel’s institutions and places. In this broad sense, Jesus, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, heals Israel. The Davidic King has once again and finally restored the tribes of Jacob.

But the NT authors knew the history of Israel, and Luke specifically does not leave the restoration of Israel to that broad sense. In the book of Acts, Luke wants to communicate that Jesus came, died, rose, and sent his Spirit to heal Israel and thereby heal the world. The culmination of Israel’s healing comes in Saul’s conversion (Acts 9).

Saul is a leader of his Jewish people. Saul is a Benjaminite. Saul persecutes the son of David and his people. Saul wants to enact the ban on the Lion of Judah and his followers. Saul the Benjaminite is once again at war with the son of David, the Judahite.

On the Damascus Road, Judah and Benjamin meet one last time. Given the history of Israel, and given Saul’s own actions to this point, we might expect here for the Judahite king to enact the ban on Saul the Benjaminite. We might expect, in other words, for Jesus, the Lion of Judah, to destroy the Benjaminite who is tormenting true Israel. We might expect for the blinding light to consume Saul and send him up like smoke to heaven. Instead, righteousness and peace, as ever, kiss one another in the Messiah. Jesus, the Davidic king of Judah, conquers Saul the Benjaminite not through physical destruction but through spiritual conversion. Judah and Benjamin are now at peace, as Saul serves the Son of David. Now, because Israel is restored, the gospel can go forth to the Gentiles – which is the story the remainder of Acts tells.

The Damascus Road is a beautiful personal conversion story, to be sure. But it is on a larger scale the conversion and restoration of Israel, as Saul finally bows to David, and as  Benjamin and Judah finally are restored to one another.

Israel and Jesus

NOTE – This post includes a quote from Karl Barth. Here’s the necessary statement about my views on Barth so I can keep my “conservative evangelical Southern Baptist card”: I do not agree with Barth’s views on Scripture’s inerrancy and infallibility, nor do I adopt any form of what some would call his implied universalism.

That being said, this quote is theology at its best. Barth in this chapter of the Dogmatics in Outline is exegeting Jesus’ relation to Israel, and particularly how God’s covenant to redeem the world is promised to Abraham and then realized in Christ. Jesus is Israel’s restoration because he is Israel.

Revelation culminates in the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. He comes out of Israel, born of Mary the Virgin, and yet from above, and so in His glory the Revealer and Consummator of the covenant. Israel is not a sick man who was allowed to recover, but One risen from the dead (80, emphasis mine).

Yes and amen.