The Messianic Jesus Makes a Come Back

While his earliest followers should have been convinced by an ignominious death that Jesus was a false-prophet and pseudo-Messiah, they quickly came to the conviction that he was not only the Messiah, but was more than the Messiah, and was now to be identified with Israel's "Lord" in some way.

Essay based on Are You the One Who Is To Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009)

By Michael F. Bird
Highland Theological College
UHI Millennium Institute
August 2009

The claim that Jesus is the Christ (i.e., the Messiah of Israel) was a constituent part of early Christian beliefs and was arguably a significant factor in facilitating a parting of the ways between Jesus-believing groups and several Jewish communities in the first centuries of the Common Era. For instance, one can detect a tone of derision in Justin’s report from Trypho about “this so-called Christ of yours” (DialTryph. 32). In fact, Klaus Berger writes: “The difference between (non-Christian) Judaism and Christianity is sufficiently summarized by the statement ‘Jesus is the Messiah’ (or the ‘last’ messenger of God). At the same time, this is also the key to their [i.e., the Christian’s] particular use of scripture too; that this is always designed to show that Jesus is ‘the Christ’.”1

Yet the claim that Jesus was and “is” the Messiah was also contested and reinterpreted in some Christian circles. In the late second century, the Gospel of Philip depicts “Christ” not as a title bestowed upon a future Judean king but designates him as the quintessential heavenly redeemer (e.g., GosPhil. 56.3-15; 61.27-35; 62.7-17). In the early decades of the second century, the proto-orthodox Epistle of Barnabas also shows an extreme preference for Jesus as the divine “Son of God” as opposed to the “Son of David” with the erroneous Jewish understanding of the title (EpBarn. 10.10-11).

In the later decades of the first century, the Johannine epistles regard confession of Jesus as the Messiah as the litmus test of true discipleship. Such a profession marks out the distinctive identity of followers of Jesus amidst intra-Jewish debates over the limits of Jewish belief and amidst inter-community debates within the Johannine network itself over and against the secessionists (1 Jn 2.22; 3.23-24; 4.2; 5.1-6, 20; 2 Jn 1.7). The canonical Gospels, however, make the messiahship of Jesus central to their narratives. The Gospel of John parades an ensemble of witnesses and signs to reaffirm (to Christians?) or to persuade (Diasporan Jews?) that Jesus is the Messiah (Jn. 20.31). The Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles center on Jesus as the “Lord’s Messiah” and the anointed prophet sent by God to bring salvation to his people in the last days. The Gospel of Matthew emphasizes the messianic credentials of Jesus as the Torah-teaching eschatological deliverer who serves Israel and foreshadows the salvation of the Gentiles. The Gospel of Mark is arguably an apology for the cross-concerned with showing that Jesus is not the Messiah despite the cross, but precisely because of it. In Paul’s letters, while Christos may be a cognomen, Paul has not forfeited all traces of its titular usage. In Romans, he writes of Israel: “Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is the Messiah according to the flesh, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen” (Rom. 9.5). The Pauline Jesus is no cosmic redeemer sent to awaken the divine spark within persons; he is none other than the servant of Israel (see Rom. 15.8).

Prior to Paul, things are a lot more opaque and obscure concerning the christology of our sources. Mark’s redaction of his materials did not impose a messianic grid as much as amplify it as evidenced by Mark’s narration of the passion story. The pre-Markan passion narrative, as far as we can tell, most probably climaxed in the messianic charge against Jesus and ended with the titulus mocking Jesus’ purported regal pretensions. The christology of Q is a much murkier matter again (and I’m increasingly skeptical of both its existence and the ability of interpreters to reconstruct its contents and setting). Even so, going against the grain of scholarship, I am more sanguine about the presence of messianic themes in the double-tradition/Q (delete as preferred) in contrast to many contemporary scholars who regard the entire strata of materials as non-messianic. Most notably, Lk. 7.22/Mt. 11.5 and Lk. 22.28-30/Mt. 19.28 seem pretty “messianic” to me when judged in light of Jewish restoration traditions (e.g., 4Q521 2.1-10).2 In addition, the preaching of the earliest churches seems to have focused on Jesus’ status as “Messiah” and “Lord” (e.g., Acts 2.36; 3.20; Acts 4.26; 1 Thess. 4.16; Rom. 1.3-4; Rev. 11.15).

That brings us to the white elephant in the room. Did the historical Jesus think of himself as the Messiah? For much of the twentieth century the answer to that question was “no.” In fact, Martin Hengel stated that: “Today the unmessianic Jesus has almost become a dogma among many New Testament scholars. One is tempted to describe this phenomenon as ‘non-messianic dogmatics.’”3 Much of this is attributable to the work of William Wrede in the early twentieth century who advocated that belief in Jesus’ messiahship was a Christian creation developed out of their post-Easter faith. Wrede stated:

The view that Jesus only becomes messiah after his death is assuredly not merely an old one, but the oldest of which we have any knowledge. Had the earthly life of Jesus been looked upon from the start as the actual life of the messiah, it would have been only with difficulty that, by way of supplement to this, the idea could have been hit upon of regarding the resurrection as the formal beginning of the messiahship and the appearance in glory as the single coming of the messiah.4

The problems with that perspective are manifold. To begin with, there is nothing about a resurrection that itself would automatically conjure up the issue of messianic identity in the absence of a prior messianic claim by Jesus and apart from messianic hopes among his disciples. The inference of “resurrected” ergo “the Messiah” is a non sequitur. In the words of Johannes Weiss: “Only because his death seemed to be a proof against messiahship, could his resurrection be perceived as a proof in favor of it.”5

But times have changed. By the later part of the twentieth century, we observe historical Jesus studies proceeding with a much greater sensitivity to the diversity and complexity of messianism in the second temple period.6 Also, amidst what is now known as the “Third Quest for the historical Jesus” (which I take to be a loose confederation of scholarship focused on prosecuting the significance of the Jewishness of Jesus),7 there has been a lot more openness to postulating Jesus’ career as messianic in some form. That is by no means unanimous among “third quest” contributors. Geza Vermes portrays Jesus as a charismatic rabbi, Marcus Borg sets Jesus entirely against Jewish nationalism with its messianic figures, and E.P. Sanders can regard Jesus as possessing a regal conception of his own role in the future kingdom but still falling short of making a messianic claim.8 A somewhat middle of the road thesis is that the attachment of messianic hopes to Jesus are definitely pre-Easter but were entertained by Jesus’ followers, perhaps by the crowds in Jerusalem, but not by Jesus himself who appears to have avoided or even renounced the designation “Messiah” (except perhaps at the very end of his life).9 Still, others have tried to place Jesus’ career in a messianic trajectory. Ben Meyer identified Jesus’ career as “performatively messianic.” N.T. Wright detects in Jesus a self-understanding of his own role as the Messiah who brings Israel’s “exile” to an end and embodies the return of YWHW to Zion. Dale C. Allison’s Jesus is an apocalyptic prophet with clear messianic connotations to his own perception of his role in the eschatological dénouement. Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz think that Jesus’ messianism is implied by his mission to restore the twelve tribes Israel and embedded in his own his self-designation as “the human being” who leads Israel into the kingdom.10

In fact, I’m prepared to say that the messianic Jesus is making something of a comeback. There are two publications that might well signify the coming rise of the “messianic Jesus” to scholarly ascendency. First, a recent article by Suzanne Watts Henderson argues that Jesus’ mission was broadly messianic, closely associated with God’s reign, and corporate in thrust. She writes:

In embodying God's dominion unleashed on earth, both Jesus and those who followed him apparently thought they were ushering in the messianic age of God's rule. As messiah, Jesus functioned authoritatively to bridge the chasm between divine and human power, making God's kingdom authority available to those who would trust in God's coming rule. Understood in this light, Jesus' messianic demurral, his messianic death, and his designation as “messiah” in the post-resurrection age make more coherent and contextual sense than is often recognized.11

My recent volume Are You the One Who Is To Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009) represents a book-length attempt to demonstrate the probability that the historical Jesus was indeed a messianic claimant. I summarize the substance of my argument in the concluding chapter:

Jesus’ career centered on several messianic scenarios based upon the themes of victory, temple, and enthronement, and these were related to the socio-political circumstances of Palestine in the first century. His proclamation of the kingdom with its roots in Isaianic material, his entrance and actions in Jerusalem, and his claim to operate as God’s vice-regent are all de facto messianic claims when seen in light of Israel’s sacred traditions.12 The various units that associate Jesus with messianic ideas are rooted in patterns and paradigms from the Hebrew Bible that were often played out in contemporary messianism as well. It overlaps with them and at the same time often exceeds them. Jesus’ own self-designation took an Aramaic idiom and combined it with Dan. 7.13 in order to indicate his role as “the man” who would be vindicated and receive a kingdom. The Isaianic program for Israel’s new exodus included good news being preached to the poor and healings by an anointed one. The coming Kingdom requires a king to act as God’s vice-regent in ruling over a restored Israel. Jesus likened himself to the figures of David and Solomon from Israel’s royal dynasty. Jesus announces himself as “coming” for certain tasks that can be characterized as messianic. Peter’s confession of Jesus at Caesarea-Philippi confirms the pre-Easter belief in Jesus as the Messiah, and it was abruptly redefined by Jesus along the lines of the suffering Son of Man tradition developed from Daniel 7. Jesus was anointed at Bethany which may be a symbolic and oblique gesture affirming his status as the “anointed one.” Jesus’ final week brought an underlying messianic question to the surface through the triumphal entry and episode in the temple which alarmed the Judean authorities about Jesus’ messianic intentions. Jesus was eventually executed on a messianic charge after facing a messianic question at his trial to which he answered enigmatically but positively. The titulus that mocked Jesus as “King of the Jews” is surely historical and stands as the end result of the messianic career of one who considered himself to have been anointed by God for his task. While his earliest followers should have been convinced by an ignominious death that Jesus was a false-prophet and pseudo-Messiah, they quickly came to the conviction that he was not only the Messiah, but was more than the Messiah, and was now to be identified with Israel’s “Lord” in some way.13

I am hoping that these two publications are not merely a single bubble in a wishy-washy bath of academic speculation about Jesus, but perhaps signal the beginning of a vanguard of historical Jesus scholarship that is confident of assigning a deliberate and self-consciousness messianic identity to Jesus.

I’d like to conclude this study by juxtaposing two Jewish scholars and their take on the messianism of Jesus. First, David Flusser asked: “Can one, following the belief of the Church, think that Jesus regarded himself as the Messiah, or must one agree with those who suggest that Jesus’ life was ‘non-messianic’?”14 For Flusser, the answer is “yes.” In contrast, according to Amy-Jill Levine: “Whether Jesus was a or the messiah is another question, and that can be answered only by the voice of faith, not by the voice of the historian.”15 In many ways, this typifies the state of the debate as it stands. Levine and like-minded scholars regard the question of the messianic self-consciousness of Jesus as either unknowable or else they postulate an entirely non-messianic Jesus. Others, such as Flusser, are more willing to detect in the sources evidence that Jesus understood himself as acting out a messianic role. Now I am not a prophet, nor a son of a prophet, but I do work for a non-profit organization, and I prognosticate that the messianic Jesus will be making a bit of a come back. If not to rule the earth for a messianic millennium, perhaps at least he might appear again in the pages of forthcoming scholarship robed with some “messianic” apparel in the interim!


1 Klaus Berger, Theologiegeschichte des Urchristentums (Tübingen/Basel: Francke, 1994), 19.

2 Cf. further E.P. Meadors, Jesus the Messianic Herald of Salvation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997); idem, “The ‘Messianic’ Implications of the Q Material,” JBL 118 (1999), 253-77.

3 Martin Hengel, “Jesus, the Messiah of Israel,” in Studies in Early Christology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), p. 16.

4 William Wrede, The Messianic Secret (trans. J.C.G. Greig; Cambridge: James Clark & Co., 1971), 218.

5 Johannes Weiss, ‚Das Problem der Entstehung des Christentums,“ Archiv für Religionswissenschaft 16 (1913), 470.

6 Cf. recently, Markus Bockmuehl and James Carleton Paget (eds.), Redemption and Resistance: The Messianic Hopes of Jews and Christians in Antiquity (London: T&T Clark, 2007); Magnus Zetterholm (ed.), The Messiah: In Early Judaism and Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007).

7 Michael F. Bird, “Is there really a ‘Third Quest’ for the Historical Jesus?” SBET 4 (2006), 195-219.

8 Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew (London: SCM, 1973); Marcus Borg, Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus. Harrisburg, PA: TPI, 1998; E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (London: SCM, 1985).

9 Cf. e.g., Paul Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (New York: Vintage, 1999); James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).

10 Ben F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus (London: SCM, 1979); N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (COQG, 2; London: SPCK, 1996); Dale C. Allison, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998); Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (trans. J. Bowden; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998).

11 Suzanne Watts Henderson, “Jesus’ Messianic Self-Consciousness Revisited: Christology and Community in Context,” JSHJ 7 (2009): 196-97.

12 Cf. Cynthia Long Westfall, “Messianic Themes of Temple, Enthronement, and Victory in Hebrews and the General Epistles,” in The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments, ed. S.E. Porter (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), pp. 210-29.

13 Bird, Are You the One to Come, 159.

14 David Flusser, with R.S. Nutley, The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 109.

15 Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (San Francisco: Harper One, 2006), 85-86.

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