Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.09.60 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.09.60

Matthew V. Novenson, The Grammar of Messianism: An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Users.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xvi, 361.  ISBN 9780190255022.  $78.00.  

Reviewed by D. Clint Burnett, Johnson University (


It has long been axiomatic among nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars of Second Temple Judaism and earliest Christianity that most Second Temple Jews held to some form of “the messianic idea,” i.e., that God would send a messiah to redeem the present age in which Jews lived under foreign domination and usher in a new better one. Although most modern historians have complicated any simplistic attributions of messianic leanings to Second Temple Jews, they still subscribe to vestiges of it and the Ideengeschichte approach to Jewish and early Christian messianism. In this volume, Matthew Novenson marshals an exegetical tour de force with the express purpose of sounding the death knell for the messianic idea in modern scholarship.

His work is not based on new data, but on a new way of perceiving ancient Jewish and early Christian messianic texts, namely unencumbered by the messianic idea and with fresh contextual exegeses of messianic texts that probe their inner logic. He shifts the conversation about messianism from the general to the particular and from the realms of politics and history into that of particular texts, contexts, and exegesis. Adopting Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of language game—the “theory that human language is best conceived not as a set of symbols corresponding to things in the world, but rather as a set of rules for participation in various kinds of discourse” (12)—Novenson claims that words derive their meanings from context. Therefore, scholars must avoid preconceived notions or ideas about what words mean, especially in ancient texts. It is clear that Jewish and Christian authors’ use of messianic language is part of “one great Mediterranean language game” that can be traced to their contextualized interpretations of the Hebrew Bible. In short, Novenson concludes “ancient messiah texts constitute one example . . . of the vast, sprawling ancient Jewish and Christian project of scriptural interpretation” (17). The purpose of this book is to map the rules of this language game or the grammar of messianism. (21).

In the introduction, Novenson describes the most common approach to messiah texts by past scholars. He argues that scholars forced a preconceived definition of a messiah onto messianic texts and labeled any deviations as aberrations: even though most scholars currently focusing on messianism highlight its diversity, they still rely to some degree on aspects of the messianic idea. The result is that the study of messianism is “organized around an artificial concept, not a corpus of texts” (8). Due to differences between the messiah of the earliest Christians, Jesus, and the most common Jewish messiahs, he says scholars too easily elide details into one overarching notion, and misunderstanding original concepts, for example, failing to take early Christian messianism as a form of Jewish messianism (22-24). Novenson’s solution is to read these ancient messiah texts as evidence of a “language game” (12-21), which highlights the diversity of understandings of the term “messiah” and its deployment in ancient Judaism and early Christianity (28-29). His dataset are Jewish and Christian texts dating from the sixth century BCE to the sixth century CE (25) that use the term messiah, either the Hebrew משיח or its equivalents in other ancient Mediterranean languages, e.g., Aramaic (משיחא), Greek (μεσσίας; χριστός), and Latin (Christus; unctus), etc. (29-30). To demonstrate his thesis, Novenson tackles six “classic problems” of ancient messianism, attempting to show that these difficulties disappear with his approach to them (21).

The first chapter addresses the problem of the formal definition of the word messiah. Throughout the history of discussion, there have been two schools of interpretation. The maximalist approach dominated eighteenth to mid-twentieth century scholarship; these scholars found messianism all over the Hebrew Bible, whereby they argued that Second Temple Jews anticipated the coming of a human messiah whom God would send to redeem his people (37-40).1 The minimalist approach defined a messiah more narrowly as a eschatological, redeemer figure. These scholars found little evidence for messianism in the Hebrew Bible (40-42).2 The main problem with both approaches, Novenson argues, is that many Second Temple messianic texts do not conform to preconceived definitions. Novenson’s solution is to return to the root definition of messiah in the Hebrew Bible. A messiah is simply a political figure anointed with water or with oil (46-47) and it is this simple definition, he argues, that Second Temple Jewish and Christian messianic texts adopt (63).

The second chapter tackles the problem of messiahs in ancient sources: how some messiahs are born and others made. Taking several Jewish “messiahs” (anointed leaders) as text cases—Zerubbabel (69-72), the Hasmoneans (72-77), Herod the Great (77-82), Jesus of Nazareth (82-91), Simon bar Kosiba (91-96), and the Jewish Patriarch and Exilarch (96-104)—Novenson points out that some ancient Jewish and Christian texts connect messiahs explicitly to David’s bloodline (e.g., Zerubbabel, Jesus of Nazareth), while others do not (e.g., the Hasmoneans, Herod the Great, and Simon bar Kosiba). Therefore, ancient messiah texts attest to two types, “upstarts” who became messiahs because of their actions and “bluebloods” who possessed Davidic lineage. David, however, functions as an archetype for both because, according to the Hebrew Bible, David himself was both an upstart and the progenitor of a dynasty (105). Thus, Novenson concludes, “For persons who had a plausible claim to Davidic descent, the texts could say: Behold the son of David. And for persons who had no such claim, the texts could say: David did it. Why not our man?” (113).

The third chapter addresses the lack of references to messiahs in certain ancient Jewish texts from 500 to 200 BCE, which past scholars have called the messianic vacuum (119). Attempts have been made to explicate the significance of this absence vis-à-vis the authors’ views of messianism. Novenson points out the logical fallacy of this approach (123) and instead examines the historical contexts of the authors, arguing that there are good, contextual reasons for lack of messianic references in the works of Philo of Alexandria (124-35), Josephus (135-48), and in the Mishnah (148-58). He argues that Philo’s and the Mishnah’s literary program was to expound the Torah, which has little to no references to messiahs in it (126, 157). Josephus’s literary purpose was to mount an apologia for Judaism to non-Jews. In the process, he transforms those individuals whom some Jews probably hailed as messiahs into the vernacular of his audience calling them insurgents (139-46). Therefore, there is no problem with the lack of references to messiahs in Jewish texts and the messianic vacuum is a modern scholarly problem (116).

The fourth chapter tackles the topic of the first messiah, which scholars have searched for, most often to shed light on Jesus of Nazareth and the supposed un-messianic aspects of his messiahship (162-63). Novenson argues that this method presupposes the messianic idea and it is unsustainable from the ancient evidence. This quest must be abandoned because all messianic texts, both Jewish and Christian, reinterpret scripture in the light of historical circumstance (185).

The fifth chapter addresses the problem between the supposed distinctions between Jewish messiahs and Jesus of Nazareth. In reductionist terms, scholars have seen Jewish messiahs as political, focused on outward, external matters, public, national, corporate, natural, and earthly, while Jesus’s messiahship is spiritual, focused on matters of the heart, private, universal, individual, supernatural, and heavenly (192). Novenson notes that there is some validity in these distinctions because of certain New Testament texts. However, he argues that these distinctions result from the experiences of early Christians trying to understand what happened to their messiah Jesus in light of what the Hebrew Bible says about messiahs (193-94). This approach is not unique to Christianity, for all messiah texts “negotiate” the “mythical tradition” with historical circumstance (196-207). Novenson proposes that the supposedly un-messianic portrait of Jesus in the New Testament is not entirely accurate because the earliest Christians put off the more traditional, political aspects of his messiahship to his parousia (208, 210-13). Therefore, he proposes that the earliest Christians did not re-define what the messiah is. They expanded its identity to fit their experiences (209), which means that the problem of a Jewish messiah versus a Christian messiah is a problem modern scholars create (216).

The sixth chapter examines the modern scholarly claim that by the second century CE messianic discourse disappears among Christians. Relying on his earlier work, in which he concluded that “Christ” in Paul’s undisputed letters retained its titular meaning of “anointed,” Novenson proposes that messiah language did not disappear in later Christianity.3 He examines the translations of Christ in Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopic, Arabic, and Slavonic, among the texts of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians, demonstrating that these works do not have one word for the Christian messiah and other for the Jewish messiah (224-32). In fact, Latin, Greek, and Coptic texts show a connection between Christ and the verb “to anoint,” which suggests that while messianic language may have evolved, at least some Christians still worked with the definition of messiah derived from the Hebrew Bible (262).

The final chapter offers further evidence for the grammar of messianism and summarizes his work. Novenson argues that ancient messiah texts, especially those from the fourth century BCE to the sixth century CE, did not “track with contemporary anointing practices.” Rather, these texts adopted an outdated, archaic idiom from the Hebrew Bible to refer to messiahs, which he sees as evidence that messiah texts are part of an exegetical political discourse (266). Like the Persians, Greeks, Romans, and other Mediterranean peoples, the messianic language of ancient Jews and Christians articulated “who is and who should be in charge” (272). Novenson’s takeaway is that the future of the study messianism lies in a fresh engagement with primary sources that is totally divorced from the concept of the messianic idea (276).

Novenson’s overall work is persuasive and its merits too numerous to list in the confines of this review. His detailed attention to and breath of familiarity with primary messianic texts, from Second Isaiah to Sefer Zerubbabel, is impressive. Novenson’s ability to penetrate and to deconstruct scholarly constructs is insightful and perceptive. There are, however, minor points with which some, including myself, would take exception, the biggest of which is his argument that because the Hebrew Bible only records anointings of upstart kings anointing is a symbol of usurpation (105). This statement leaves the impression that rightful political heirs were unanointed. The issue is how to interpret the silence of the Hebrew Bible on the anointing of rightful kings. Long ago, Gerhard von Rod established, to the satisfaction of many, that anointing was an important part of the Judahite enthronement ceremony. It is for this reason that the royal psalms refer to the reigning king as “the anointed one” (Ps 2:2; 18:51; 20:7; 28:8; 84:10; 89:39, 52; 132:10, 17). 4 Novenson’s conclusion seems to be is an overstatement and puts too much weight on the silence of the text. This minor disagreement notwithstanding, Novenson’s conclusion that messiahs are both upstarts and bluebloods is convincing. In sum, Novenson’s work is a must read for anyone focusing on ancient messianism and I anticipate that his approach to ancient messianic texts will lead to further refinement in the study of ancient messianism.


1.   Hengstenberg, Ernst Wilhelm. Christologie des Alten Testaments und Commentar über die messianischen Weissagungen der Propheten. 3 vols. (Berlin: Oehmigke, 1829-1835).
2.   Mowinckel, Sigmund. He That Cometh: The Messiah Concept in the Old Testament and Later Judaism. Translated by G.W. Anderson. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1956).
3.   Novenson, Matthew V. Christ among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
4.   von Rad, Gerhard. “The Royal Ritual in Judah.” Pages 222-31 in The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays. Translated by E.W. Trueman. (London: SCM Press, 1967).

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