Christ among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism Hardcover – May 1 2012
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"Novenson's argument in this volume appears to be focused, consistent, and overall convincing. His nuanced presentation on the messianic meaning of Paul's Christ language is commendable... I value Novenson's genuine contribution to our understanding of Paul's language." --Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
"Interpreters of Paul have traditionally understood christos in his letters as a mere proper name. Marshalling impressive resources of both classical and Jewish scholarship in this careful, shrewd and ground-breaking work, Matthew Novenson overturns this tradition, demonstrating that christos functioned for Paul as an 'honorific' with clear messianic meaning. This should precipitate a revolution not only in Pauline theology and exegesis but in our understanding of messianic ideas throughout second-temple Judaism."
--The Right Reverend Professor N. T. Wright, Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary's College, University of St. Andrews
"Novenson argues convincingly that christos in Paul's letters means 'messiah,' with the term functioning as an honorific, much like Antiochus Epiphanes or Caesar Augustus. With its historically-rooted solution to the 'name-versus-title' debate, Novenson's study makes a significant contribution to the understanding of messiah language in Paul and in ancient Judaism. This book is a must-read for all interested in the historical and scriptural origins of Christian confession of Jesus as christos."
-- David J. Downs, Associate Professor of New Testament Studies, Fuller Theological Seminary
"In this learned and lucid book, Novenson makes two important claims: when Paul said 'Christ' he meant 'messiah', and Paul's own language testifies to the varieties of messiah language in ancient Judaism. Novenson's arguments are compelling, and make a major contribution to the study of Paul and of ancient Judaism."
--Susan Eastman, Associate Professor of the Practice of Bible and Christian Formation and Director of the Doctor of Theology Program, Duke University
"I expect his full-length study will contribute to overturning the scholarly consensus that Christos is an insignificant proper name in Paul's letters and will also open avenues for further research."--Themelios
"Christ among the Messiahs is a successful project that hopefully will spur many scholars to reconsider the possibility that Christos in Paul is a meaningful term. If they do, and I think they should, then we are likely to see a spate of new investigations into Paul's messiah Christology and, more broadly, into the complexity of messianic language in ancient Judaism. Should that development bear fruit, we will have Novenson, among others, to thank for it."--H-Net Reviews
About the Author
Matthew V. Novenson is a teaching Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at North Carolina State University.
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I must confess my ignorance in Pauline studies. I am yet to achieve a position of familiarity with the problems in Pauline exegesis, let alone the answers. So I was naturally engaged when Novenson's state the current "Christ language" quandary. Simply put, scholars are in controversy over Paul's use of the term "Christ". Some contend that it was merely another proper name for Jesus, just a blank signifier that carried no connotations. A name with no content besides it's personal referent to Jesus. On the other hand, others, representing a significantly smaller tribe, have argued that Paul employs "Christ" as a title, endowed with all of the connotative content entailed. Thus for these scholars, Paul truly understands Christ as the "Messiah". For example, N.T. Wright, actually translates Christos as "Messiah" in his translation of the New Testament. In this account, Paul's writing is an example of Ancient Jewish Messiah language, contra the former view. If the significance of this debate is not yet grasped, the matter at hand is decisive in determining whether Messiah is truly a Christological category for the Apostle.
Chapter 1 recounts the story of scholarship which has led to the two views stated above. Novenson, beginning with F. C. Baur and the history of religions school, traces the history of research on Pauline "Christ" usage. Of far-reaching continual influence has been Nils Dahl short essay on the topic. Many have left Dahl's philological criteria for determining whether Christ is a name or title untouched. Not only the criteria, but the matter for which the criteria is devised is of great importance. The assumption has been long held that Paul had two possible ways to employ "Christ", as I stated above, it is a title, or it is a name. Scholarship for the last century can be divided into one of these two sides. The majority view is that it is only a name, however, significant dissenters have been found in Richard Hays, N.T. Wright and William Horbury. This history of scholarship sets the stage for Novenson's truly game-changing study.
Chapter 2 discusses Messiah language as it is situated in 2nd Temple culture. Many years of scholarship have assumed a basic understanding of what the expected Messiah was like for Ancient Jews. However, Novenson rightly contends that this assumption is without grounds. Recent studies in 2nd Temple Messiah language have shown that their was no uniform conception of the Messiah. Against folks like Schürer, there was not a uniform script of which the Messiah was to act out. Rather their many understandings of Messiah. Thus, when scholarship claims that Paul could not have used Messiah to mean what other Jews meant by Messiah, they are certainly missing the point. According to Novenson, Paul should be understood as an instance of Messiah language amongst other instances - but I'm getting ahead of myself. While Novenson grants that their was no consensus, and even states that their was not necessarily a consensual messianic hope, he does contend that their was a messianic idea. In other words, Messiah language should be understood as first a linguistic phenomenon, rather than a psychological one. Whether ancient Jews had messianic hopes is not the main issue, rather, what counts is that they had language with which to articulate the messianic hope when it did arise. Novenson's demonstrates that this language was found in a surprisingly limited pool of texts from the Jewish Scriptures, namely, Gen 49:10, Num 24:17, 2 Sam 7:12-13, Isa 11:1-2, Amos 9:11, and Daniel 7:13-14. While these texts were not interpreted the same way in each community, they were often drawn from as a linguistic source for the diverse set of communities. Thus, Paul has a right to be viewed as one example of interpretation of Messiah language in Ancient Judaism.
Chapter 3 knocks down the false contention that Christ is either title or name for Paul. Novenson demonstrates convincingly that their were other such designations available to Paul, namely honorifics, which were used both in the Jewish and Hellenistic world. Essentially an honorific, which he later defines as "a word that can function as a stand-in for a personal but part of whose function is to retain its supernominal associations" (138). It has parallels with Antiochus Epiphanes. "Epiphanes" being the honorific. This particular designation seems to square nicely with the diverse ways in which Paul uses Christ syntactically - something that cannot be said for the other theories.
Chapter 4 addresses Dahl's criteria, and, very convincingly shows its weakness. Future scholarship will be unable to appeal to Dahl without first hacking their way through Novenson's impressive retort. After dealing with Dahl, handedly, Novenson moves on to consider what we can glean of Paul's Messiah use through some of his particular Christ phrases. He considers, "in Christ", "The People of Christ", and "The faith of Christ", and he finds them all insufficient to determine how Paul intends to use "Christ". Quoting James Barr approvingly, Novenson states "The question of meaning, then, 'has to be settled at the sentence level, that is, by the things the writers say, and not by the words they say them with'" (135).
Thus, chapter 5 deals with nine representative Pauline passages. Six of them argue for a messianic force in Paul's use of Christ, offensively. The last three argue against certain scholarship that raise particular passages as evidence of Paul's rejection of the messianic category of Paul. The arguments employed will not be recounted here, however, they often have to deal with recourse to the linguistic pool that Paul was drawing from - the Jewish Scriptures. Noveson shows convincingly, in my view, that Paul intended Jesus to be understood as the "Christ".
He concludes by considering implication of his work for future scholarship. The major results of his work, naturally, address two areas: (1) Pauline exegesis, and (2) Ancient Jewish Messiah studies. In the first area, Novenson calls for consideration of the place Messiahship held in Paul's Christology (now granted that it does hold some place), and regarding the second area, Novenson correctly beckons scholars to consider Paul as a very helpful instance of Messiah language, invaluable for those studying Ancient Jewish Messiah texts.
In summary, I am very impressed by Novenson's work. I am sure I have failed in representing his work, I make no claim to exhaustive recounting of his argument. However, I can say confidently that Novenson's monograph is both compelling and engaging. He has challenged the consensus, and in my view, he has won. I hope he gains a large reading. Many future scholars well be indebted to Novenson for the work he has done here. This is an excellent example of top-notch scholarship. I look forward to future works by Edinburgh's Matthew Novenson.
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Persuasively argued, patient, and a model of good scholarship, this work should be read by all interested in early Christian origins.
Novenson begins in Chapter 1 by providing an overview of the history of scholarship on χριστός in Paul. Starting with F. C. Bauer who saw emphatically messianic connotations, he covers the major German scholars of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule that sought to liberate Christianity out of Judaism and left us the legacy of a nonmessianic Christ. He takes us through the postwar turn and the paradigm shift from the hellenizer Paul to the Jewish Paul, from W. D. Davies’s influence on that shift to his student E. P. Sanders’s disagreement in seeing Paul’s christology as a κύριος Christology as opposed to a χριστός Christology. He concludes with the post-Sanders big hitters of Lloyd Gaston and his antisupersessionist interpretation, Martin Hengel’s reinforcement of Nils Dahl’s approach, and N. T. Wright’s view that χριστός in Paul means “messiah.” Interestingly, while most of the literature follows Davies and Sanders in reading Paul in Jewish terms, on the meaning of χριστός the religionsgeschichtliche thesis prevails.
Chapter 2 surveys scholarship on the meaningfulness of messiah language in ancient Judaism, starting with the near axiomatic status of the existence of “the messianic idea” (with Emil Schürer and Joseph Klausner representing the Jewish and Christian sides, respectively) through the disintegration of the messianic idea in Jewish studies that began with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. What post-DSS scholars have shown is that “the extant messiah texts from the period do not warrant any form of the older idealistic paradigm of the messianic idea in Judaism. It is not that messiah language does not have meaning, just that its meaning does not consist in the manifestation of a reified messianic idea” (41). Despite mediating voices like William Horbury, the majority view remains the minimalist one that sees messiah language in ancient Judaism as meaningless. Novenson here posits the importance of distinguishing between the linguistic phenomenon of messianic language on the one hand and the psychological and social phenomena of messianic hope and messianism, respectively, on the other. On the basis of this distinction, Novenson investigates the Jewish Scriptures as linguistic resources for ancient messiah language. He then shows how the linguistic dynamic is at work both at the syntactical and literary level – “early Jewish and Christian messiah texts inherited from th Jewish scriptures not only the lexeme ‘messiah’ but also a cluster of conventional syntagms within which to use it…most early Jewish and Christian messiah texts also make explicit citation of or allusion to one or more scriptural source texts” (55).
Next, because of the importance of the question of whether Paul used χριστός as a title or proper name in discussions of the messiahship of Jesus in Paul, Novenson examines the onomastic possibilities that would have been available to ancient users of messiah language. Against both the majority that Paul used χριστός as a name and the minority view that Paul used it as a title, Novenson contends that it’s not quite either. He points out and dismantles two faulty assumptions upon which the question of whether Paul used χριστός as a name or title is built: 1) that titles communicate significant information about the bearer whereas proper names do not; and 2) that name and title are the only onomastic categories available to Paul. Against the first he demonstrates that both names and titles in actual use have connotative value, and against the second he illuminates a variety of naming conventions for second or alternative names in the ancient Graeco-Roman as well as Jewish worlds (e.g. patronyms, geography, sectarian affiliation, honorifics, etc.). After the survey of onomastic conventions, Novenson cogently argues for the honorific as the onomastic category for Paul’s use of χριστός.
"Honorifics, which are amply attested in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, were typically borne by rulers. An Honorific was taken by or bestowed upon its bearer, usually in connection with military exploits or accession to power, not given at birth. It was formally a common noun or adjective (e.g. hammer, star, savior, manifest, august, anointed), not a proper name. In actual use, it could occur in combination with the bearer’s proper name or stand in for that proper name" (95).
In the penultimate chapter, before getting to the heart of the issue by investigating Pauline passages that directly bear upon the matter of what he means by calling Jesus χριστός, Novenson first looks at a few key Christ phrases in Paul. He proceeds by interacting one-by-one with the four negative philological observations put forth by Nils Dahl in his 1953 essay “The Messiahship of Jesus in Paul”:
"In the Pauline letters Christos is never a general term but always a designation for the one Christ, Jesus.
Christos is never used as a predicate; Paul never says, “Jesus is the Christ,” or the like.
A genitive is never added; Paul does not say “the Christ of God.”
The form Iesous ho Christos is not found in the earliest text of the epistles"
(as cited in Novenson p. 98)
Novenson demonstrates that these philological features that have been used exclude the possibility of messiahship in Paul’s use of χριστός do not actually do so. However, he points out an important converse: neither do these philological criteria prove messianism in Paul in the few instances where they are met. This is because “linguistic communication actually takes place not at the level of letters and words but at the level of sentences and paragraphs” (135). The study concludes by looking at nine passages in which Paul’s use of χριστός indicate the range of meaning within which he uses the term: Gal 3:16; 1 Cor 15:20-28; 2 Cor 1:21-22; Rom 9:1-5; Rom 15:3,9; Rom 17:7-12; 1 Cor 1:23; 2 Cor 5:16-17; and Rom 1:3-4. Through examining these passages, Novenson establishes that the writings of Paul does all that we would expect any ancient Jewish or Christian messiah text to do. Furthermore, he shows that Paul does not repudiate messiahship as a theological category and argues that the contours of Paul’s messianism can be traced by noting what scriptures he cites and how he interprets them.
Christ Among the Messiahs is a game-changer on the topic of the messiahship of Jesus in Paul. Novenson has mounted a formidable case against the prevailing scholarly consensus that Paul used χριστός as a proper name without significance. This is a must-read for all interested in Pauline christology and ancient Jewish messianism.
*I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review*