Throughout this series we have explored the various aspects of Messianic thought which would have been current in Judaism at the time of Jesus and the New Testament. In the period c. 150 B.C. to 100 A.D., as we have seen, there was not a single fixed idea of the “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ); rather the term and title could refer to several different conceptions of a Messianic figure. Here, in this concluding article of the series, I will summarize each of the main figure-types which have been discussed, and how they relate to Jesus.
In the Gospel Tradition, especially in the Synoptic Gospels, during the period of his early life and ministry (in Galilee), Jesus is identified primarily with the figure of Anointed Prophet. Indeed, where the title “the Anointed (One)” [o( xristo/$] is used in these passages, it may be that a Prophet was originally in mind. There were three different Prophetic figure-types attested in Jewish writings of the period—(1) Elijah, (2) Moses, and (3) the Anointed herald/prophet of Isaiah 61; for more, cf. Part 2.
- The association of an eschatological/Messianic Prophet with Elijah comes primarily from Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6. The Gospels and early Christian tradition ultimately identified John the Baptist with this Elijah who is to come (o( e)rxome/no$). However, there is some indication that, in the earliest strands of Gospel tradition, Jesus was identified with this figure. The miracles of Jesus seem to reflect the Elijah/Elisha traditions. For the relevant passages, see the discussion in Part 3 and the supplemental note. The most relevant text from Qumran in this regard is 4Q521, which appears to combine aspects of the Elijah-tradition with the Anointed herald of Isaiah 61.
- The Moses-tradition stems directly from the promise in Deuteronomy 18:15-19, regarding the rise of a “Prophet like Moses” (cf. also Deut 34:10ff). By the 1st century B.C., this passage had come to be interpreted in an eschatological sense; the Qumran Community expected the appearance of an end-time Prophet, according to the Moses-tradition. Deut 18:15-19 is applied directly to Jesus in Acts 3:22-23, and there are other associations with Moses in early Christian tradition as well (cf. in Part 3). The Moses-figure emphasizes teaching and instruction in the Law (cf. below).
- It is the Anointed herald of Isaiah 61:1ff that Jesus specifically identifies himself with in the Synoptic Gospels (Luke 4:18-20; 7:19-23 par). There are distinctive Messianic parallels in the Qumran texts 4Q521 and 11QMelch(izedek) [11Q13]. In some ways, this figure combines aspects of the Elijah and Moses types—miracles and teaching/proclamation.
It is perhaps the Transfiguration scene which best illustrates Jesus’ fulfillment of the Anointed Prophet figure, as he stands between Elijah and Moses—the two greatest Prophetic figures of the Old Testament and Israelite history. In many ways, the Transfiguration episode marks the conclusion of the period of Jesus’ (Galilean) ministry, and the beginning of his journey to Jerusalem, according to the Synoptic narrative. It also follows directly after Peter’s confession (“You are the Anointed One…”). In another way, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem fulfills Malachi 3:1, in its original context, where the “Messenger” was not a human prophet, but a Divine/Heavenly being representing YHWH (“the Lord”) himself.
The idea of an eschatological Teacher is especially prominent in the Qumran texts. The leading/founding figure of the Community was called “the Teacher of Righteousness”, and the (priestly) leaders in the Community follow his teaching and example. There was also the expectation for another “Teacher of Righteousness”, a Messianic figure who would appear at the end-time. This figure is likely identical with the “Interpreter of the Law”—the authoritative teaching in the Community being more or less synonymous with instruction in the Torah. The role of this figure overlaps with that of two other Messianic figure-types—the Prophet like Moses, and the Anointed Priest (cf. below). Apart from a number of interesting parallels between the historical Teacher of Righteousness and Jesus, the Gospels clearly record that a fundamental aspect of Jesus’ ministry was his teaching. The best compendium of Jesus’ teaching in the (Synoptic) Gospels is the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7, par Luke 6:20-49), which includes, as a central feature, instruction regarding the Law (Matt 5:17-48), and so also in a number of other passages. Also with Messianic implications is Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom (of God). For more regarding these themes, cf. Parts 4 and 5. Perhaps the most relevant text from Qumran, which offers a Messianic parallel with Jesus, is 4Q541 (see esp. fragment 9).
King (Davidic Ruler)
It was the idea of a future King/Ruler from the line of David, who would appear at the end-time, which came to dominate Messianic thought, eventually becoming synonymous with the title “Anointed One” (Messiah) in Jewish tradition. This figure type ultimately derives from expressions in the Old Testament of God’s covenant with David, and the promise that the kingship will remain with his descendants (2 Sam 7:11-17; Psalms 89, 132; Isa 9:7; 11:1-9, etc), which was transformed during the exile into a future hope and expectation (Jer 23:5-6; 33:14-22; Ezek 34:23-24; 37:24-25). By the 1st century B.C., we find clearly expressed the idea of a coming Davidic Ruler who will subdue and judge the nations (using language from Psalm 2 and Isa 11:1-9) and restore the people of Israel, establishing the Kingdom (of God) on earth. This is best seen in the 17th and 18th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon, but the essential matrix of images and ideas is found in numerous texts from Qumran as well as other Jewish writings from the 1st century B.C./A.D (e.g., 2 Baruch, 2/4 Esdras). For more on the Old Testament and Jewish background, cf. Part 6.
Interestingly, there is some ambiguity in the application of this Messianic figure to Jesus in the Gospels and early Christian tradition. To begin with, it does not appear prominently at all in the Gospel record of the period of Jesus’ ministry (cf. above). Only with the journey to Jerusalem, and specifically, the “Triumphal Entry” into the city, does the idea of Jesus as King and Davidic Ruler come clearly into view. Throughout the Passion narrative, the title “Anointed One” unquestionably refers to a Messianic King, and there are numerous allusions to David (and the Davidic Psalms) in the fabric of the narrative. Ultimately Jesus was executed as “King of the Jews”—that is, for claiming to be a king, though there is little evidence in the Gospels that he ever did so. His responses to the Sanhedrin and Pilate, as they have come down to us, are ambiguous (cf. esp. Lk 23:67ff; Jn 18:33-37), though his answer to the High Priest’s question in Mark 14:60ff would indicate an affirmative claim. Only in the Triumphal Entry scene do we see Jesus in anything like the role of a king, but even there it is the surrounding crowds and the Gospel narrator(s) who make the specific associations with Psalm 118:25-26 and Zech 9:9ff. For more detail on these passages, cf. Part 7.
The idea of Jesus as the Anointed Davidic Ruler and the “Son of David” came to be prominent in the earliest Christian tradition, as expressed in (1) the Infancy narratives, Matt 1-2 and Luke 1-2, and (2) the preaching/proclamation of the Gospel in the book of Acts. Cf. also Romans 1:3, and the discussion in Part 8. Gradually, however, the specific identification began to disappear from Christian tradition; Jesus continued to be thought of as an exalted (Divine) King who would also appear at the end-time to judge the world, but the association with David is not emphasized much in the New Testament writings outside of the Gospels and Acts (cf. 2 Tim 2:8; Rev 3:7; 5:5; 22:16).
The figure of an Anointed Priest is known mainly from the Qumran texts, but is also attested (or implied) in several other Jewish writings of the 1st century B.C./A.D. It would seem that the Qumran Community was originally founded by priests, and that priests continued to serve the primarily leadership role. The historical Teacher of Righteousness was a priest, and doubtless this was understood of the eschatological Teacher/Interpreter as well (cf. above). In several passages, especially in the Community rule documents, we see expressed the idea(l) of dual-leadership, including the eschatological framework of and Anointed Priest along with an Anointed King/Prince. It was the Priest who had priority at Qumran, and this may partly reflect a reaction against the assumption of the High Priesthood by the Hasmonean (Maccabean) rulers in the 2nd century B.C. Several texts also suggest the tradition of a single (Messianic) Priest-King, and, in at least one document (11QMelch [11Q13]), Melchizedek serves as an eschatological and Messianic figure.
There is some evidence for priestly images and symbolism being applied to Jesus in the Gospels and early Christian tradition, but it is relatively slight. Indeed, there are only a handful of passages in the Gospels which could be said to depict Jesus in the role of a priest. The Temple “cleansing” scene, along with several of Jesus’ sayings regarding the Temple, may also be understood in a priestly context. More common is the image of Jesus as a sacrificial offering, especially the Passover Lamb in the Gospel of John (cf. also 1 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 1:19). Only in the Letter to the Hebrews, do we find a developed conception of Jesus as a High Priest, who offers himself (his own blood) as sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people, drawing primarily upon the imagery associated with the Day of Atonement (Lev 16). Hebrews also draws heavily upon the figure of Melchizedek, who probably was understood as a divine/heavenly being, using him as the type or example, establishing the basis for the Priesthood of Jesus. For more on the subject, see throughout Part 9 as well as the supplemental study on Hebrews. In addition to 11QMelch, the text from Qumran which offers the most relevant parallels to Jesus is perhaps 4Q541.
Heavenly Judge/Deliverer (Son of Man)
The last Messianic figure-type is that of Heavenly Deliverer (and Judge), which parallels in many ways the Davidic Ruler type (cf. above); however, it derives from a separate tradition, that of Daniel 7:13-14, and similar thought underlying much of the book of Daniel. There divine/heavenly beings (i.e. Angels) serve in the role of end-time Ruler/Protector of the people of God. Two figures in particular stand out: (1) Michael the archangel (Dan 12:1, etc), and (2) the “one like a son of man” in Dan 7:13-14. On this latter passage, which proved to be so influential on Messianic thought in Judaism and early Christianity, cf. the supplemental study. The book of Daniel had a prominent place in the Qumran Community, and inspired a number of apocalyptic, eschatological “Pseudo-Daniel” texts. The most notable of these is the Aramaic document 4Q246, which was clearly influenced by Daniel 7; it describes the rise of a ruler (usually understood as a Messianic figure), using language and titles that have a remarkable correspondence to those applied to Jesus in Luke 1:32-35. Heavenly beings (Angels), particularly leaders such as Michael and/or the “Prince of Light”, played an important role in the eschatological and identity of the Qumran Community, which viewed itself as the righteous and holy ones on earth, parallel to the Holy Ones in heaven.
Daniel 7:13-14 and the title “Son of Man” were uniquely combined in the sayings and teachings of Jesus as preserved in the Gospel Tradition. On the study of these difficult and complex Son of Man sayings, cf. the supplemental note, as well as my series of Easter season notes. In terms of Jesus as the Messiah, there are three relevant strands of tradition represented by these Son of Man sayings:
- Sayings in which Jesus refers to his suffering, death (and resurrection), where, to some extent, “Son of Man” came to be treated as synonymous with “the Anointed (One)”
- The eschatological sayings of Jesus, where he identifies himself with a divine/heavenly figure (“the Son of Man”) who will appear at the end-time Judgment
- The early Christian tradition of Jesus’ exaltation to heaven (at the right hand of God) following the resurrection
All three of these strands were woven into early Christian thought, and into the Christology of the New Testament. There are only two other writings from 1st century B.C./A.D. which evince a comparable Messianic figure either called “the Son of Man” or drawn clearly from Dan 7:13-14—the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71, early 1st c. A.D.?) and chapters 11-13 of the deutero-canonical 2/4 Esdras (late 1st c. A.D.). The Similitudes provide the closest parallel to Jesus, in that we find blended the idea of a (pre-existent) heavenly being (Son of Man, also called Anointed One, Elect One, Righteous One), and the ascension/exaltation of a human being (the righteous Enoch) to a heavenly position. For more on this subject, cf. Part 10.
The Christian Development of Messianic Thought
Despite the numerous parallels with the Qumran texts and other Jewish writings of the period, there was an altogether unique and original development of Messianic thought in early Christianity, centered on the person of Jesus. This must be seen by a careful study of all the relevant passages, as presented in the articles and notes throughout this series. Here, I would summarize the dynamic according to following points:
- By at least the early 50s A.D., Jesus had come to be identified as the “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ) so completely that it ceased to function as a distinct title and was rather assimilated as part of his name—i.e., “Yeshua Anointed” (Jesus Christ), “Anointed Yeshua” (Christ Jesus), or even simply “Anointed” (Christ).
- Along with this, by the same time (50s A.D.), the association with a specific and traditional Messianic figure-type, especially that of Davidic Ruler, had generally disappeared from Christian thought. Similarly, the two other figure-types attested in the Gospel Tradition—Anointed Prophet, and Son of Man—disappeared almost completely from early Christianity. In particular, the title “Son of Man” virtually does not occur in the New Testament outside of Jesus’ own words in the Gospels.
- Jesus’ identity as Messiah (Anointed One) came to be understood almost entirely in terms of his (sacrificial) death and resurrection. Rather than deliverance of Israel from the wicked nations (i.e. the traditional role of Messianic Ruler/Judge), the imagery is transformed to emphasize salvation from sin (and the Judgment to come). Apart from the possible parallels in the Qumran texts 11Q13 and 4Q541, it is hard to find anything quite like this in Jewish writings of the period. Paul deals extensively with the death of Jesus and its atoning/saving power, but generally without traditional Messianic language and symbolism. Of all the New Testament letters, it is perhaps Hebrews which best preserves these aspects of Messianic thought, though synthesized and expressed in a highly developed Christological framework. There is a similar blending of many Messianic symbols in the book of Revelation as well. For more on Jesus’ death and resurrection, cf. Part 11.
- Jesus’ identity as the Messiah was utterly transformed by the increasing recognition and belief in his pre-existent Deity. Probably the earliest expression of this (by c. 60 A.D.) is the Christ-hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 (cf. also Col 1:15-20), but the idea is found and/or suggested in a number of places in Paul’s letters (cf. also 1 Pet 1:20, etc). Hebrews brings together the (earlier) idea of Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of God following the resurrection, with a belief in his pre-existent position as God’s Son, balancing the two concepts (see esp. Heb 1:1-4; 2:5-18; 5:5-10, etc). The pre-existence of Jesus, and his identity as God’s Son, is most prominent in the Gospel and First Letter of John. The Prologue to the Gospel (Jn 1:1-18) is probably the most sophisticated and developed Christological passage in the New Testament; however, the same basic ideas are expressed throughout the Gospel, especially in the great Discourses of Jesus. The Son of Man sayings in the Gospel of John draw upon the twin aspects of descent (incarnation and sacrificial death) and ascent (glorification through death and resurrection, return to the Father); for more on these sayings, cf. my recent note. For more on Jesus (and the Messiah) as Son of God, cf. Part 12.
Even though much traditional Messianic thought and language, which had once been applied to Jesus, gradually disappeared, or was transformed by the belief and theology of the early Church, the older forms were not entirely forgotten. Nor should they be by believers today. Indeed, a careful study of the Jewish writings of the period, along with an examination of the ways in which the ideas and symbols in them relate to Jesus and the development of the Gospel tradition, can be extremely valuable, providing insight into the New Testament writings and the beliefs of the earliest Christians. This need not change or alter our own beliefs about Jesus; rather, when approached with an open mind and heart, such study will certainly enhance and affirm true belief. It is hoped that this series of article has been, and may continue to be, of benefit of all who seek to study and understand the New Testament and the person of Christ.