Monday, September 22, 2008

The One Who Is To Come

The October issue of First Things contains a review of Joseph Fitzmyer's new book, The One Who Is To Come. The review is by Gary Anderson, a professor of Old Testament at Notre Dame. As summarized by Anderson, the problem that Fitzmyer addresses is this:
The problem is one of historical anachronism: What beliefs can we determine that people held, before the birth of Jesus, about the coming messiah—when the coming of Jesus and the rise of Christianity so transformed all those beliefs? It is a very old methodological principle that the historian must learn again and again: What comes after does not always follow from what came before.

And so for the Christian claim that Jesus was the suffering messiah, long expected in the Sacred Scriptures. After the rise of the early Church and its claims to fulfill the hopes of the Jewish people, it was simply presumed that the coming of Jesus could easily be plugged into a pre-existent Jewish matrix. Modern biblical scholarship has seriously challenged that presumption. [my emphasis] The idea of a suffering messiah is difficult to trace in the Hebrew Scriptures, and even the notion that a single, royal messianic figure was expected is not easy to locate.

This is sometimes an alarming detail for Christian readers.
How does Fitzmyer's inquiry fare?

Again, as summarized by Anderson:
But in common usage the term messiah has always referred to an ideal royal figure who is expected to come.

For Fitzmyer, messiah means an anointed agent of God, royal or priestly, who will appear at the end of time to assist in the redemption of Israel. Having established this definition, he turns to the Old Testament itself to survey its contents.

Throughout the bulk of this corpus he finds no unambiguous references to a messianic agent who was to come, except in the Book of Daniel. In the famous vision of the seventy weeks of years, near the close of the ninth chapter, is found the first clear reference to the expectation of a messianic redeemer figure. This portion of the book, according to a consensus among scholars, originated in the second century B.C. in the wake of the horrible political crisis occasioned by the Seleucid devastation of the city of Jerusalem. The idea of a messiah, in the narrow terms Fitzmyer has supplied us, is very late in coming.
And, according to Anderson, Fitzmyer leaves matters at that. And for this--Fitzmyer's shirking of his responsibility as a New Testament scholar, as Anderson sees it--Anderson takes Fitzmyer to task:
... a New Testament scholar has a two-pronged responsibility: to show how the figure of Jesus is a new thing in the history of Israel—and also to show how that new thing stands in continuity with the Israel’s past. In The One Who Is to Come, Joseph Fitzmyer has done an admirable job with the former but stumbled badly over the latter.
Now, at first glance, it is difficult to see how Anderson will gain any traction in his critique of Fitzmyer, especially because Anderson does not disagree with Fitzmyer's exegesis in the least. Anderson's critique is twofold.

First, Anderson complains that Fitzmyer failed to take into account "the way in which Israel’s canonical Scriptures might have been read in the time of Jesus." That is, Anderson grants that:
Fitzmyer is certainly right to assert that these texts may not have been meant messianically when the eighth-century prophet wrote them down, but were they still heard in a non-messianic way in the second or first centuries before the advent of Christ?
If we accept that Anderson (and Enns, as we have seen) is correct and that 8th century B.C. Old Testament passages such as Isaiah 9, while not understood messianically when written, came to be understood in a messianic sense the better part of a millennium later in the time of Jesus, we are nevertheless faced with a problematic understanding of scriptural inspiration and of revelation. Assuming that Anderson considers such Old Testament passages to be the product of Divine inspiration we are confronted with the following situation: God inspired Isaiah to author a passage which--as determined by the standards of scholarship that Anderson himself accepts--was not understood in a messianic sense. Many centuries later God inspired Jews (or so we must assume) to give Isaiah 9 a messianic reading--a reading that appears to be a clear misunderstanding of the passage's originally intended meaning. And then Christians came to believe that Jesus fulfilled this misunderstanding of Isaiah, thus proving--what, exactly?

We have all heard that God works in mysterious ways, but it appears that Anderson would have us believe that God works in devious ways. It is very difficult to see how this approach offers either explanatory or persuasive power. Certainly, the picture of God that it presents is at variance with Jesus' understanding of his Father who is a God of Truth. Moreover, it robs revelation of any objective component, for if God inspires a later generation to misunderstand scripture and that misunderstanding is held to be the normative interpretation--in defiance of all critical standards of scholarship--what is the point of a critical, scholarly approach to scripture?

Nevertheless, there is something worth noting in Anderson's approach. For by appealing to Jewish interpretations of scripture, which themselves are not ordinarily considered to have the authority of scripture, Anderson appears to entertain an expansive notion of revelation: by this understanding, revelation has to do with the story and self understanding of a people, and not merely with the compilation of a book. And with this approach I am in full agreement, for it implies that the history of pre-Christian Israel is not merely a collection of books containing coded messages. It may really be accessible to human reason and study. And that is in accord with the Christian understanding of God: that God reveals in a way that is proportioned to the highest powers of the humanity that God himself created. And that highest power is reason.

Anderson's second objection to Fitzmyer is this: "Fitzmyer’s narrow definition of messiah" needs to be expanded. Specifically, Anderson wants to "broaden our definition of messiah to include 'the elect one of Israel' and 'the beloved son.'" If we do that, he says, "then we have ample evidence of the necessity of suffering in the Old Testament."

Now this is an odd line of attack. Anderson had previously noted Fitzmyer's definition of "messiah," (above) and that definition, based as it is on the meaning of the word itself ("anointed") is the definition that is accepted by the generality of scholars. Yet Anderson offers no reason whatsoever for objecting to Fitzmyer's definition, nor any reason for expanding it. My belief is that Anderson's reason for expanding the definition is related to his first point: that by the time of Jesus Jewish interpretation of scripture had assigned messianic meaning to passages that were clearly not understood in that sense when written. In any event, Anderson's motivation is clear:
There is a certain gain from hewing to a narrow approach [i.e., Fitzmyer's "narrow" definition of messiah] on this matter. Among other things, it shows us just why the disciples in the New Testament were so surprised by Jesus’ death and resurrection. There were no clear maps for this in the Old Testament. But by the same token, we need to make sense of the figure of Jesus in his post-Easter glory. This is the man who teaches the disciples at the close of Luke’s Gospel about the need to suffer death and then be raised. If we broaden our definition of messiah to include “the elect one of Israel” and “the beloved son,” then we have ample evidence of the necessity of suffering in the Old Testament.
So, 1) Anderson recognizes that the disciples, in accord with the then current understanding of the term "messiah," were "surprised by Jesus’ death and resurrection." Anderson sees that Fitzmyer's "narrow" definition explains this "surprise" (I would actually say that they were "shocked" or even "traumatized"). But, 2) Anderson can see no way to understand the New Testament passages in which Jesus is reported as telling the disciples that the messiah "must suffer," except by broadening the meaning of messiah beyond any meaning that would have occurred to a contemporary--as evidenced, once again, by the disciples' "surprise." Certainly, this perceived disconnect between the clear meaning of "messiah" and the suffering that Jesus underwent has remained a staple of Jewish anti-Christian polemic to the present day. Paul himself freely acknowledged that Jews in general were scandalized at the idea of broadening the notion of "messiah" in the way Anderson suggests to include a suffering, nay, crucified messiah:

... but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block [skandalon] to Jews and folly to Gentiles (1 Cor 1:22)

I suggest that Anderson needs to reconsider his whole notion of revelation as it applies to the relation between the Old and New Testaments. Anderson is following a model by which God inspired books to be written that could only be understood as coded messages--so much so that their true meaning was sometimes based on what reason tells us is a misunderstanding of the clear meaning of the text! Having laid out the path of salvation in this bizarre code, God then fulfills it--to the utter bafflement and scandal of the very people for whom Paul says it was first intended. And who, after all, could blame the unbelievers by this account?

A better approach, in my view, is to see the history of Israel as a whole, as the preparation of a people that would serve as the vehicle of God's self revelation (in Jesus), not as the compilation of a collection of books containing embedded coded messages. The real point of Israel's history is the preparation of a human environment in which God's self revelation, accomplished by human agency as well as by divine agency, would be able to sustain the seed that became the Church. Such a theory of revelation could address the difficulties that arise from the presumption "that the coming of Jesus could [comment: or should] easily be plugged into a pre-existent Jewish matrix." It would also do justice to the Christian notion of incarnation--of God revealing himself by "taking flesh" rather than dealing in obscure coded messages--and open the way to an understanding of why the messiah had to suffer.

In this last regard, it is noteworthy that while the Gospels attribute this view to Jesus--that the messiah must suffer--at no point does Jesus produce a proof text to settle the point. A crucified messiah was "a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness to Greeks." In other words, a crucial issue from the very birth of the Church. The lack of proof texts suggests that the explanation that Jesus offered to the disciples went beyond simplistic appeals to fulfillment of a coded message in scripture. Certainly Jesus' view of the Jewish writings that have become the Old Testament was more complex than is usually granted, as evidenced by such reported sayings as Jesus' impugning the Mosaic teaching on divorce as non-divine in origin (despite its presence in an "inspired" book) and his charge that the Pharisees transformed human traditions into supposed divine commands. Jesus did not see himself as merely playing out a role that was scripted in coded messages from scripture. He saw his revelation in his life, death and resurrection as radically transformative--as inaugurating a new relationship between man and God.


  1. I appreciate your perspective of Messianic expectations in the OT. Thanks!

  2. Thanks. If you're interested in this area, in addition to Fitzmyer's work you might want to take a look--if you haven't already done so--at John J. Collins' The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature. It's tough sledding, but highly informative. Collins is certainly one the leading authorities on late Second Temple Judaism.