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Christ among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism [Hardcover]

Matthew V. Novenson

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Book Description

May 1 2012
Recent scholarship on ancient Judaism, finding only scattered references to messiahs in Hellenistic- and Roman-period texts, has generally concluded that the word ''messiah'' did not mean anything determinate in antiquity. Meanwhile, interpreters of Paul, faced with his several hundred uses of the Greek word for ''messiah,'' have concluded that ''christos'' in Paul does not bear its conventional sense. Against this curious consensus, Matthew Novenson argues in Christ among the Messiahs that language must be taken as evidence for its range of meaning. In other words, early Jewish messiah language is the kind of thing of which Paul's Christ language is an example. Looking at the modern problem of Christ and Paul, Novenson shows how the scholarly discussion of ''christos'' in Paul has often been a cipher for other, more urgent interpretive disputes. He then traces the rise and fall of ''the messianic idea'' in Jewish studies and gives an alternative account of early Jewish messiah language: the convention worked because there existed both an accessible pool of linguistic resources and a community of competent language users. It is commonly objected that the normal rules for understanding ''christos'' in Paul is shown as a Greek honorific, like Epiphanes or Augustus. Focusing on several set phrases that have been taken as evidence that Paul either did or did not use ''christos'' in its conventional sense, Novenson concludes that the question cannot be settled at the level of formal grammar. Examining nine passages in which Paul comments on how he means the word ''christos,'' he shows that they do all that we normally expect any text to do to count as a messiah text. Contrary to much recent research, he argues that Christ language in Paul is itself primary evidence for messiah language in ancient Judaism.

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"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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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Game-Changer: Convincing and Engaging Nov. 30 2013
By Johnny Walker - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
After my last monograph, I was honestly a bit reluctant in approaching my next volume. I am wearied by meticulous arguments ending with minimal pay offs. I can happily say, however, that Matthew Novenson's Christ Among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism was certainly worth the time. I was shocked to learn that this is Novenson's first title - it is executed with great force and eloquence, especially for one who is relatively new to the arena.

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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent work May 30 2013
By Joshua Moon - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
Novenson tackles the old question whether Paul's use of "Christ" stands as a title or a name--that is, whether the older scholarship regarding a "Messianic idea" current in Judaism (thus the title) is right, or the current consensus that sees "Christ" in Paul as little more than a surname. Novenson answers by positing a third way: that Christ stands as an honorific, assumed or attributed (like "Caesar" or "Epiphanes") to mark one out in the ancient world. He establishes the availability of both honorifics as known for great figures in Greek and Semitic literature, and the linguistic repository for "Christ" to have meaning as an honorific in second temple Jewish thought. He then walks us through the uses of "Christ" in Paul's letters to demonstrate (with some finality, in my view) that "Christ" is viewed and applied there as an honorific drawing upon scriptural ideas ("creatively biblical linguistic acts"). The honorific thus has implications for early Christian views of Jesus at the outset of church life.
Persuasively argued, patient, and a model of good scholarship, this work should be read by all interested in early Christian origins.
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