The way we think about the Messiah is problematic

BILLIONThe arrival of a newborn is always an occasion for celebration and joy. However, a child’s first Christmas is also an opportunity for family members to pass on their unfulfilled hopes and dreams to the next generation. That baseball bat or that Harvard baseball bat under the tree are subtle hints about the life you want your child to have. Just as people place their expectations on newcomers today, baby Jesus has a lot to live for. For Christians, Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed One of God, the descendant of King David, and the one who will save the world. That’s too much for any of us to handle, but especially babies. These messianic expectations are especially prominent during the Christmas season appearing everywhere from beloved Carols to Christmas books for children. But what does it mean to call Jesus the Messiah? And did Jesus meet society’s expectations?

Even if you think about Christmas more about the tree, Santa Claus, and the present than the anointing or kingship, the image and language of a royal messiah still emerges in the Christmas story. . According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi (sorry, there are no Three Kings in the Gospels) came to meet a “born King of the Jews.” The angels announce the coming of “Christ the Lord” to the shepherds in the Gospel of Luke. The word “Christ”, which to modern readers sounds like a surname, means only “anointed one” and is the Greek version of the Hebrew word “Mashiah” or “anointed”. . From the Hebrew we have the English word “Messiah.” The two themes of royal lineage and savior are found everywhere in the nativity story.

For the Jews of the Common Era, the Messiah (or saviors in some cases) was always present in their minds. At the time the holy land was occupied and controlled by the Roman Empire, and the people struggled with the economic and political dispersion of foreign occupation. Thus, the Jews spoke of a coming anointed One, a Messiah, who was mentioned in the bible and who would free them from their oppressors and usher in a new era of independence. established and flourished. Matthew Novenson, senior lecturer in the New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh and author of two books on Messiism, told the Daily Beast that the Messiah was “a kind of myth, Having a solid foundation in biblical sources, it was helpful for making religious sense of the complex political situation of Judea during the early Roman Empire. ”

However, there are many different thoughts about what the Messiah would be like. Some assert that he will be like King David, a king who will lead a successful military uprising. Others emphasized his prophetic or priestly credentials. Others still, like the inhabitants of Qumran, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, seem to have thought that there would be two saviors. This model mimics the organizational structure of ancient Israel, when the nation was led by both the King and the high priest.

These messiahs, Novenson told me, “are often associated with a number of ancient biblical heroes, especially high priest Aaron and king David.” We can see a similar trend among followers of Jesus: “Our sources about Jesus mostly associate him with King David, or say that he is a descendant of Jesus. David, or he did what David did, or both.” No setup script here. The Messiah is a mythical work that is constantly being re-enacted and reinterpreted. There were other early Christians, Novenson noted, who tried to separate Jesus from David, just as there were ancient Jews who didn’t seem to mind the idea of ​​a messiah. .

However, the childhood stories of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, are preoccupied with messianism because of the stories of ancient kings and heroes. , in general, is fascinated by childhood stories. Just as every Marvel superhero has his or her own “origin story”, so biographies of political leaders, generals, and revolutionaries are also interested in where the great man came from, who raised him and what kind of auspicious events accompanied his birth. In this context, the appearance of a star is not unusual. Dr. Robyn Walsh, an associate professor at the University of Miami, told me that “from the biblical Abraham and Moses, to Alexander the Great and the Roman emperor Augustus, the birth of great leaders, Heroes and founders of cities are often marked by celestial events. Broadly speaking, she said, ancient works of art and propaganda used stars to symbolize the transfer of political power or the “birth” of a new order. Stories of births, quasi-magical events, and stories of influential figures go hand in hand.

Of course, as every practicing Christian knows, Jesus was not Alexander the Great or Augustus. He did not overthrow the Romans or lead a successful revolt. As a result, later generations of Christians (including us) have reinterpreted references to the messiah in the Gospels as spiritual kingship, not earthly rule. literally. This simple fact has led to the development of a particularly problematic interpretation found in modern scholarship, religious writings, and on the web: the idea that the messiah of Christianity is not politics, he spiritual.

For example, a study guide for high school students produced by the BBC, suggest at this idea. It suggests that the term Messiah may not be useful as it can be “confusing[ly]“Suggests ideas of earthly monarchy. It seems that it would be a “mistake” to think of the savior as an earthly political figure.

In addition to this important difference, there arose other sentiments and ideas that opposed the lesson: namely that the Jews could not understand their own scriptures. The argument is that the Jews of Jesus’ day might have predicted a political messiah, but they were fundamentally wrong. Christian website gotquestions.orgFor example, connect this alleged messianic misunderstanding with an even more troubling idea: the Jews’ rejection of Jesus. The website states, “The Jews rejected Jesus because He failed to do what they expected their Messiah to do – destroy evil and all their enemies and establish a eternal kingdom with Israel as the preeminent nation in the world. The prophecies in Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 describe a suffering Messiah who would be persecuted and killed, but the Jews chose to focus on prophecies rather than discussing the future. His glorious victory, not His crucifixion.”

(In danger of becoming a rut, although they are important passages for Christians, we should note that neither is Isaiah 53 neither Psalm 22 refers to a crucified savior. Therefore, it seems unfair to imply that the Jewish interpreters overlooked something. You have to have a suffering savior to read these texts this way.) The bigger problem here is the idea that the Jews rejected Jesus: Jesus Himself and all the others. His first followers were Jews. Historically, the idea that the Jews rejected Jesus was related to dangerous and wrong ideas that the “Jew” was responsible for killing the messiah.

Some Christians go even further and assert that Jewish messianism is not just false or misleading, it is actually ghost. In his work on messianism, Novenson argues that these explanations are not only cruel and pathetic, they are also based on some profound historical flaws. When Christians claim that Jesus is a spiritual savior, they do so because they “take it for granted as the savior of Jesus and say whatever they need to.” said to maintain that axiom. It is because Jesus suffered and because Christians believe that he is the savior that Christians argue about a spiritual savior must suffer.

In fact, Novenson said, “Christian messianic texts are not taxonomically different from Jewish messianic texts.” They depicted Jesus as a political figure. Novenson told me, “The idea of ​​Jesus as a political, not just spiritual, messiah appears in a number of gospel stories and stories (e.g., Mt 10:34:“ I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”), but above all the popular early Christian idea of ​​the coming future (or parousia) of Jesus to execute judgment and rule over the nations. In other words, the early Christians did predicted that Jesus would act as a political messiah, but not yet.

The most obvious example of this, Novenson said, is the book of Revelation, in which Jesus returns and a New Jerusalem descends to earth. There is all to worry about in this Second Coming vision — Revelation describes the genocide and widespread destruction of unbelievers in ways that should be morally relevant to the Churches. devout Christian — but the key point here is that Jesus is at the end of his political days as a savior as they come. Like Wil Gafney, author of the recently published book Women’s Readings for the Whole Church and Hulsey Professor of Hebrew Scripture at Brite Divinity, who writtenThis is the problem with the romanticization of monarchy and Christendom. David, whom we name during our Christmas celebrations, is a lord and a thug. Kingship, Gafney said, “comes with a lot of baggage.” If we want to increase Jesus’ messianic position, it must be for this reason.

Novenson writes in his book Grammar of Messianism, being Christianity has not changed the definition of savior; it just chooses from available ancient Jewish definitions, then adds its own details to the evolving tradition. It is a theme in the tapestry of ancient interpretations of the meaning of the scriptures and the identity of the messiah. “We can see something very similar,” says Novenson, “ happening in other Jewish messianic texts such as Judah Maccabee, Bar Kokhba, or Rabbi Judah the High Priest.” The point of all this is that the celebration of the birth of the Messiah need not invoke inaccurate or counterintuitive ideas about the superiority and difference of Christianity from Judaism. Christianity is not unique in particular. In contrast, our nativity story is completely embedded in the political thought of first-century Judaism. The way we think about the Messiah is problematic


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