The Grammar of Messianism

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR

By: Matthew V. Novenson

Messianism is one of those classic topics in Jewish studies that suffers not for lack of attention but rather for confusion surrounding the concept itself. My new book The Grammar of Messianism: An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Users picks up where the classic studies of ancient Jewish messianism leave off. My project is not simply to do what the classic surveys (such as those by Joseph Klausner, Sigmund Mowinckel, Gershom Scholem, and, more recently, John Collins and Joseph Fitzmyer) have done, only a bit more critically or more up-to-date, but rather to ask a different set of questions altogether. I take it that the two questions that have dominated modern research on the subject—first, where is the phenomenon of messianism attested in antiquity? and second, what are the major types of messiah figures represented in the sources?—are more or less settled.

One might get the impression from the secondary literature that these are the only questions worth asking about the primary sources. In fact, however, they represent only the beginning, not the end, of a historical study of early Jewish and Christian messiah texts. Granted that we can sketch a rough timeline of the production of ancient messiah texts and identify a taxonomy of types of messiahs, we are now in a position to ask a whole range of potentially enlightening interpretive questions, especially questions about the inner logic of each text, why it makes the particular choices it does—questions, that is, about the grammar of messianism.

Viewed from this angle, ancient messiah texts constitute one example—an excellent example, in fact—of the vast, sprawling ancient Jewish and Christian project of scriptural interpretation. As the last generation of scholarship, especially, has shown, in antiquity, virtually all Jewish discourse—and, equally, Christian discourse—consisted of scriptural interpretation of one kind or another. As Michael Fishbane has put it, to speak about anything significant was to speak in the language of scripture.

Samuel Anoints David, Dura Europos synagogue, 3rd century (Wikimedia Commons)

Illuminated initial showing Samuel anointing David with Jesse nearby; from British Library Add MS 42131, f. 73r (the "Bedford Psalter and Hours"). Ca. 1414-1422 (Wikimedia Commons)

This is the historical context within which ancient messiah texts become intelligible. They represent so many creative reappropriations of an archaic scriptural idiom to talk about matters of contemporary concern to their latter-day authors and audiences. As Martin Karrer has pointed out, in Judaism of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the actual performance of ritual anointing was associated primarily not with persons (and, in any case, certainly not with kings) but with sacred artifacts, especially the altar and related cultic paraphernalia in the Jerusalem temple. Despite this fact, however, almost without exception Hellenistic- and Roman-period Jewish texts use the language of anointing in a manner that reflects the archaic Israelite practice, not the contemporary one. It is deliberately antiquarian usage; that is precisely the point. Ancient messiah texts interpret, order, and legitimate the present by using the language of the past, which is to say, the scriptures.

My title, The Grammar of Messianism, is not a promise of a survey of terrain, but rather a thesis statement with a suppressed verb. That is to say, my goal in this book is not to map exhaustively the rules of ancient messiah discourse (to do so would be painfully tedious, even if it were possible), but to show that the relevant primary texts do amount to such a discourse, that messianism is effectively a grammar. To this end, each chapter of the book takes up a classic problem in the modern study of ancient messianism—for example, the messianic vacuum hypothesis (i.e., that there are certain conspicuous gaps in the history of messianism), the quest for the first messiah, and the Jewish messiah–Christian messiah distinction, among others—and shows how the problem dissolves when viewed from the revisionist angle advocated here. The book thus takes the form of a proof, by means of a series of related studies, that in antiquity the messiah was not an article of faith but a manner of speaking.


David anointed by Samuel and battle of David and Goliath, folio 7 verso of the Breviary of Philippe le Bel, 1296 (Wikimedia Commons)

Shabbatai Tzvi crowned as the messiah. Amsterdam, 1666. 1901-1906 Jewish Encyclopedia (Wikimedia Commons)

Christ the Saviour (Pantokrator), a 6th-century encaustic icon from Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai. 6th century (Wikimedia Commons)

One key finding of the book is the remarkable resilience of literary features of messiah texts from one epoch to subsequent ones. Granted, a certain feature (for example, a gentile messiah or a suffering messiah) may only come about in the first place because of a certain historical development (in these cases, the decree of Cyrus or the crucifixion of Jesus), but ever after that feature remains part of the trove of discursive resources on which the exegetical project draws. But—this is the main point—the whole thing is an exegetical project, a centuries-long discussion within and between the two religious communities about their common scriptures, their overlapping polities, and what the former has to do with the latter.

When Shakespeare had Richard II say, in the passage comprising the epigraph to the book, “Not all the water in the rough rude sea/Can wash the balm off from an anointed king” (Richard II, act 3, scene 2), he summarized unwittingly the situation of messiah language in antiquity. The use of the lexicon of unction to talk about affairs of state—king and priest, dynasty and coup d’état, past and future, real and ideal—persisted for centuries after the lapse of the Israelite institution whence it originated, becoming a fixture in the literature of ancient Jews and Christians. The future of the study of messianism lies not in vain attempts to measure the vigor of the phenomenon, nor in pedantic quarrels over the definition of “messiah,” nor in lightly revised taxonomies of redeemer figures, but rather in fresh expeditions into the primary sources to trace the way the words run, in the exploration, that is, of the grammar of messianism.

Excerpted and adapted from Matthew V. Novenson, The Grammar of Messianism: An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Users (Oxford University Press)

Matthew V. Novenson is Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh.


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