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Book Review – Christ Among the Messiahs (Matthew Novenson)

Matthew W. Novenson. Christ Among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012 (paperback 2015). 256 pp. $35.00.

MessiahsChrist Among the Messiahs is a revision of Novenson’s dissertation at Princeton Theological Seminary under Beverly Gaventa. Originally published in hardcover three years ago as a typical monograph costing a kidney, it was reprinted a few months ago as an affordable paperback and there was great rejoicing in the biblical studies land. Against the majority view among scholars that “Messiah” did not mean anything determinative in ancient Judaism and the somewhat bewildering corollary that when Paul used χριστός he did not mean it in any of the its (nonexistent) conventional senses, Novenson argues that χριστός in Paul means “messiah” and that “Christ language in Paul is actually an invaluable example of messiah language in ancient Judaism” (3).

Novenson begins in Chapter 1 by providing an overview of the history of scholarship on χριστός in Paul. Starting with F. C. Bauer who saw emphatically messianic connotations, he covers the major German scholars of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule that sought to liberate Christianity out of Judaism and left us the legacy of a nonmessianic Christ. He takes us through the postwar turn and the paradigm shift from the hellenizer Paul to the Jewish Paul, from W. D. Davies’s influence on that shift to his student E. P. Sanders’s disagreement in seeing Paul’s christology as a κύριος Christology as opposed to a χριστός Christology. He concludes with the post-Sanders big hitters of Lloyd Gaston and his antisupersessionist interpretation, Martin Hengel’s reinforcement of Nils Dahl’s approach, and N. T. Wright’s view that χριστός in Paul means “messiah.” Interestingly, while most of the literature follows Davies and Sanders in reading Paul in Jewish terms, on the meaning of χριστός the religionsgeschichtliche thesis prevails.

Chapter 2 surveys scholarship on the meaningfulness of messiah language in ancient Judaism, starting with the near axiomatic status of the existence of “the messianic idea” (with Emil Schürer and Joseph Klausner representing the Jewish and Christian sides, respectively) through the disintegration of the messianic idea in Jewish studies that began with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. What post-DSS scholars have shown is that “the extant messiah texts from the period do not warrant any form of the older idealistic paradigm of the messianic idea in Judaism. It is not that messiah language does not have meaning, just that its meaning does not consist in the manifestation of a reified messianic idea” (41). Despite mediating voices like William Horbury, the majority view remains the minimalist one that sees messiah language in ancient Judaism as meaningless. Novenson here posits the importance of distinguishing between the linguistic phenomenon of messianic language on the one hand and the psychological  and social phenomena of messianic hope and messianism, respectively, on the other. On the basis of this distinction, Novenson investigates the Jewish Scriptures as linguistic resources for ancient messiah language. He then shows how the linguistic dynamic is at work both at the syntactical and literary level – “early Jewish and Christian messiah texts inherited from th Jewish scriptures not only the lexeme ‘messiah’ but also a cluster of conventional syntagms within which to use it…most early Jewish and Christian messiah texts also make explicit citation of or allusion to one or more scriptural source texts” (55).

Next, because of the importance of the question of whether Paul used χριστός as a title or proper name in discussions of the messiahship of Jesus in Paul, Novenson examines the onomastic possibilities that would have been available to ancient users of messiah language. Against both the majority that Paul used χριστός as a name and the minority view that Paul used it as a title, Novenson contends that it’s not quite either. He points out and dismantles two faulty assumptions upon which the question of whether Paul used χριστός as a name or title is built: 1) that titles communicate significant information about the bearer whereas proper names do not; and 2) that name and title are the only onomastic categories available to Paul. Against the first he demonstrates that both names and titles in actual use have connotative value, and against the second he illuminates a variety of naming conventions for second or alternative names in the ancient Graeco-Roman as well as Jewish worlds (e.g. patronyms, geography, sectarian affiliation, honorifics, etc.). After the survey of onomastic conventions, Novenson cogently argues for the honorific as the onomastic category for Paul’s use of χριστός.

Honorifics, which are amply attested in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, were typically borne by rulers. An Honorific was taken by or bestowed upon its bearer, usually in connection with military exploits or accession to power, not given at birth. It was formally a common noun or adjective (e.g. hammer, star, savior, manifest, august, anointed), not a proper name. In actual use, it could occur in combination with the bearer’s proper name or stand in for that proper name.

(p. 95)

In the penultimate chapter, before getting to the heart of the issue by investigating Pauline passages that directly bear upon the matter of what he means by calling Jesus χριστός, Novenson first looks at a few key Christ phrases in Paul. He proceeds by interacting one-by-one with the four negative philological observations put forth by Nils Dahl in his 1953 essay “The Messiahship of Jesus in Paul”:

  1. In the Pauline letters Christos is never a general term but always a designation for the one Christ, Jesus.
  2. Christos is never used as a predicate; Paul never says, “Jesus is the Christ,” or the like.
  3. A genitive is never added; Paul does not say “the Christ of God.”
  4. The form Iesous ho Christos is not found in the earliest text of the epistles.

(as cited in Novenson p. 98)

Novenson demonstrates that these philological features that have been used exclude the possibility of messiahship in Paul’s use of χριστός do not actually do so. However, he points out an important converse: neither do these philological criteria prove messianism in Paul in the few instances where they are met. This is because “linguistic communication actually takes place not at the level of letters and words but at the level of sentences and paragraphs” (135). The study concludes by looking at nine passages in which Paul’s use of χριστός  indicate the range of meaning within which he uses the term: Gal 3:16; 1 Cor 15:20-28; 2 Cor 1:21-22; Rom 9:1-5; Rom 15:3,9; Rom 17:7-12; 1 Cor 1:23; 2 Cor 5:16-17; and Rom 1:3-4. Through examining these passages, Novenson establishes that the writings of Paul does all that we would expect any ancient Jewish or Christian messiah text to do. Furthermore, he shows that Paul does not repudiate messiahship as a theological category and argues that the contours of Paul’s messianism can be traced by noting what scriptures he cites and how he interprets them.

Christ Among the Messiahs is a game-changer on the topic of the messiahship of Jesus in Paul. Novenson has mounted a formidable case against the prevailing scholarly consensus that Paul used χριστός as a proper name without significance. This is a must-read for all interested in Pauline christology and ancient Jewish messianism.

Thanks to Oxford University Press for the review copy!

Purchase: Amazon

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  1. jamesbradfordpate

     /  December 31, 2015

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.


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