Book Review: The Grammar of Messianism

on Mar 23, 2018 in Updates | 0 comments

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The Grammar of Messianism

Matthew V. Novenson. The Grammar of Messianism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017, 384 pp. $74.00.

Reviewed by Nathan C. Johnson



The debate over how to properly define “messiah” is one of the most complicated in the study of early Judaism and Christian origins. It seems that every scholar has her or his preferred definition and the attendant list of texts in which this definition does or does not apply. Matthew V. Novenson, senior lecturer at Edinburgh University (PhD, PTS ’09), offers a fresh way forward. For Novenson, previous scholarship has worked with the wrong set of questions—namely, how to best define “messiah” and what texts attest to this definition. These inadequate questions have produced equally inadequate results. By contrast, Novenson argues that “messiah” cannot, and indeed should not, be given a single definition in antiquity since words are defined by usage, not abstract or essential meaning. That is, rather than attempting to perfect the definition of “messiah” in antiquity, Novenson instead proposes to examine the multivalence of the term, to examine, not what it should mean, but how it is used.

Novenson begins by deconstructing the concept of the “messianic idea” prevalent in much nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship, wherein all messiah texts “are so many instantiations of a single suprahistorical idea that exists independently of them all” (6). For Novenson, messianism is not a stable concept in the history of ideas; rather, it is better characterized as a language game that centers on the interpretation of Scripture. His study is thus an attempt to show how some played this ancient language game, and how viewing the phenomenon of messianism in this way dissolves many old dilemmas.

In chapter two, Novenson traces the scholarly conversation on the presence or absence of the “messiah” in the Hebrew Bible. Novenson points out the absurdity of the debate – messiah language appears all over the Hebrew Bible, just not in the form of an eschatological messiah, which is what most scholars seek. He concludes that it is rather perverse to judge texts on the basis of what they do not address (eschatological messianism); instead, one can appreciate them for the messiah language they do contain.

Chapter three examines the factors that lead to being acclaimed a messiah (or not), namely, ancestry and merit. Novenson sees the archetype of both “blueblood” and “upstart” messiahs in antique exegetical appropriations of David, who established the royal line in his blood (thus, ancestry) but was himself a heroic upstart who was anointed despite not being in the line of succession (thus, merit).

Chapter four deals with the “messianic vacuum hypothesis” which sought to explain why some texts (or periods) do not refer to the messiah. As in chapter two, he concludes that there nothing is “curious, remarkable, or deficient” about this fact; rather, it is the expectation that creates the problem (116).

In chapter five, “The Quest for the First Messiah,” Novenson rejects proposals for a “Messiah before Jesus” on exegetical and historical grounds, but goes further by undercutting the entire rationale for the quest: finding a Messiah before Jesus is “fundamentally misguided” because it assumes that Jesus of Nazareth’s messiahship requires a precedent. But questers only move the bump around the rug: how would we explain that Messiah? Since early Jesus followers interpreted historical circumstances in light of Israel’s scriptures—like all Jews—there is nothing “unique” to explain, no “missing link” to uncover.

Chapter six seeks to problematize the commonly used “Jewish messiah-Christian messiah” distinction. Some scholars claim that the Jewish messiah is political, public, and national, whereas the Christian messiah is spiritual, private, and universal (192). Novenson decouples these binaries through several counterexamples, and then turns to a more sophisticated version of the distinction in which “the Jewish messiah is a product of mythical tradition, while the Christian messiah is a product of empirical circumstance” (193). Detailed counterexamples show that, in fact, “all ancient messiah texts, Jewish and Christian, find themselves having to manage ideal biblical tradition on the one hand and empirical circumstances on the other” (213).

Chapter seven tackles the issue of the continuation of (Jewish) Messiah Christology in early Christianity. According to Novenson, traces of it did endure in late antiquity, “albeit in sometimes surprising permutations” (223). The chapter convincingly culminates in an example from Pseudo-Clement of how the ghost of messiah language “haunted early Christian Christology” in diverse theological, geographical, temporal locations (262).

The scope of Novenson’s project is ambitious—from ancient near eastern materials and the Hebrew Bible, through the New Testament, Pseudepigrapha, and Dead Sea Scrolls, to the Babylonian Talmud and late antique Christian texts. He covers an impressive amount of ground, and covers it well. Indeed, it is the book’s breadth that makes the cogency of its claim all the more compelling: in texts from the exile to late antiquity, messianism is essentially “an exegetical enterprise” (266), and thus there is “nothing at all special about messianism. It is just a part—a very interesting part to be sure, but no different in kind—of the vast interpretive project of ancient Judaism” (267).

This is certainly a book to be reckoned with, and its proposals, if adopted, would significantly alter the landscape of messiah scholarship. Of first importance is his devastating critique of the messianic idea. But how shall to fill the void left by the messianic idea? Novenson suggests focusing on the “inner-logic of each [messiah] text,” examining how messiah language is used at a text-by-text level. This is a refreshing, ad fontes re-orientation, a corrective against grand unifying theories. Yet, admittedly, scholars are Causabons at heart, searching for that key to all mythologies. Is it possible to adopt the best of Novenson’s cultural-linguistic approach and still make wider claims?

Since Novenson places great emphasis, rightly, on ancient messiah texts as the products of a exegesis, one way forward may be to group messiah texts according to the scriptural texts to which they allude. So, one could examine the wealth of messiah texts that spring from Isaiah 11 (which, incidentally, never even uses the word “messiah”). In this way, we could examine how the implicit “rules” of the language game are played out on the same boards. Would similar reading strategies emerge? And if so, what does this suggest about the fund of traditions behind these messianic interpretations and how these interact with various Sitze im Leben? Novenson acknowledges that such a taxonomic approach is not the focus of this book (though he helpfully engages in something like this when tracing out the Nachleben of Jewish messiah traditions in early Christianity), but it may prove one fruitful way forward after the death of the messianic idea.

In contrast to previous studies that retread the same course, Novenson’s monograph opens up fresh avenues in the study of messianism, and one suspects that many subsequent studies will be in his debt.

Nathan C. Johnson, Ph.D. Candidate, Princeton Theological Seminary