New Testament background: Messiah

While some of the cultural and religious developments between the testaments can be connected to a specific time frame within the second temple period, most gradually unfolded over the course of centuries.  In today’s post, we review a concept that went from being rarely mentioned in the Old Testament to appearing on virtually every page of the New Testament. I am referring to the “Messiah.”messiah

Between the testaments, the concept of the “Messiah” grew and developed significantly. The term “Messiah” was based on the Hebrew word for “anointed one.” In the OT, priests, kings, and prophets could be anointed as a testimony that God had set them apart for that role. Beyond this general concept of anointing leaders, some prophets looked forward to a Davidic king (presumably an “anointed one”) who would lead a restoration of Israel (Psalm 2; Isa 9:6-7; 11:1-10; Jer 23:5-6; 33:14-18; Ezek 34:23-26;37:24-28; Zech 12:7-10).

When we turn to the NT, the term “Messiah” (most often in its Greek form “Christ”) has taken on much more prominence and specificity. In fact, only pointing out one or two specific passages that use the term Messiah/Christ might be misleading since the term is used over 500 times! In addition to increased frequency, the concept of the Messiah has developed. The Messiah as described in the NT is assumed to be God’s chosen leader who would usher in the salvation and judgment of God at the eschatological climax of human history (DNTB, 698-705).

Given the historical and religious context, the development of the concept of Messiah was inevitable. The OT seeds of promise concerning a coming time of judgment and restoration under a Davidic king took root and grew in the soil of the second temple period. Despite a return to the Promised Land, the Jewish people still experienced hardship and oppression from foreign rulers. Even when Israel achieved a few decades of independence, the Hasmoneans meddled with the priesthood and eventually fell into infighting and Hellenization. Many Israelites felt like they were still spiritually in exile (Wright, People of God, 268-271). They increasingly desired a truly righteous Davidic king to usher in a time of greater renewal than what they had experienced—a renewal that matched, in depth and scale, what the prophets had predicted (see Isaiah 65-66; Jer 31). For this reason, the hope for a Messiah took on an increasingly eschatological edge. The Jewish people did not just want a newly anointed Jewish king (the Hasmonean kings proved they were not the answer), they wanted THE promised anointed one(s) who would usher in the eschatological renewal.

The centuries of reflection and growth of these OT seeds produce the ideas about the Messiah that we read about in the NT and in other second temple Jewish literature as well. Like the NT, the Dead Sea scrolls and OT Pseudepigrapha demonstrate a widespread hope in a righteous anointed one (usually a Davidic king, but sometimes a prophet/priest) who would lead Israel into the eschatological age (CD 2:10; 12:23-13:1; Psalms of Solomon 17-18; 1 Enoch 46-71). The NT writers everywhere and often assume that this widespread Jewish hope has been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel writers make the case for this assumption in various ways. John states that the purpose of his Gospel is so that “you may believe that Jesus is the Christ” (John 20:31), and the turning point of both Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospel occurs when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ (Matt 16:16; Mark 8:29). The assumption that Jesus is the Christ runs deep in the epistles. In fact, the name “Jesus” is coupled with the title “Christ” so often that it’s as if “Christ” has become a part of Jesus’ name (BDAG, 1091).

Jesus’ ministry and resurrection undoubtedly convinced the first followers that Jesus was the Messiah and caused them to develop further the concept of Messiah in light of Jesus’ ministry. For example, Jesus’ death connected to the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53, so the first disciples came to understand the Messiah as including this aspect. When readers come across the concept of Messiah in the NT, they are encountering a concept that not only developed in the centuries between the testaments, but a concept that was further developed in light of the person and work of Jesus – the Christ.

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