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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