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Messianic claimants (6)



Jesus of Nazareth (30 CE)

Sources: Gospel of Mark, Gospel of Matthew, Gospel of Luke, Gospel of John, Epistles of Paul and comparable letters; Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.63-64; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a-b.

Comment: It is certain that Jesus was, at some stage, called the Messiah. The statement of the gospels is confirmed by Flavius Josephus, who writes:

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of the people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.
[Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18.63-64]
It should be stressed that this is a reconstruction of Josephus' words; our manuscripts are full of interpolations. (Go here for a discussion of the exact wording of this text.) The historical fact that Jesus was called Messiah, lies hidden in the words 'the tribe of Christians, named after him'; Josephus uses the Greek word Christos to translate Messiah. It needs to be stressed that he uses this title only for Jesus of Nazareth. A parallel can be found in the following line:
[The Roman governor] Festus was now dead, and [his successor] Albinus was still upon the road. So [the high priest] Ananus assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of that Jesus who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some of his companions. And when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned. 
[Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 20.200]
Again, we see how Flavius Josephus has no objection to call Jesus 'the Messiah'. There remain three important questions, however. In the first place, we want to know when Jesus earned the title. It may be argued that this was a later invention, after Jesus' death and the experience of his resurrection. To solve this problem, we must find out which elements in the gospels are early Christian elaborations and which elements are historically accurate. The second problem is therefore how we separate the authentic from the inauthentic. As we will see below, there are very  strong indications that Jesus was considered the Messiah before he died. The third and most important question is in what sense he was called the Messiah - as a military leader? as a Moses-like teacher

Scholars usually solve the second question by invoking 'criteria of authenticity', such as embarrassment (some things are too embarrassing for Christians to be invented) and multiple attestation (when independent sources tell the same, it is likely to be authentic). Using criteria like these, we may conclude that many stories about Jesus are late fabrications. The famous story from Matthew about the visit of the Magi is likely to be an invention :

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.' When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where the Messiah should be born. And they said unto him, 'In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: And thou, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah; for out of thee shall come a governor, that shall rule My people Israel.' 
[Matthew 2.1-6
quoting a variant reading of Micah 5.1]
The story, which uses the messianic motive of the star (i.e., Balaam's prophecy), is neither confirmed by other sources nor embarrassing, and seems to be a later addition. The following stories from the gospels, however, can stand the test of literary criticism, and prove that Jesus was seen as the Messiah.
  • Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to the cross as king of the Jews (multiple attestation; embarrassment). The word 'king', which may be a translation of the messianic title Nasi, can be used as a synonym for 'Messiah', as we can observe in the quote from Matthew above.
  • Too many messianic titles are applied to Jesus to be incidental. In several contexts, he is called son of David, son of man, and king.
  • Jesus was -in a way- anointed at Bethany (multiple attestation: Mark 14.3-9 and John 12.1-9).
  • Elements of Jesus behavior are in line with what was expected from the Messiah: he explained the Law of Moses (multiple attestation) and was able to cast out demons (multiple attestation, in one case embarrassment).
  • Jesus wanted to restore Israel - the Messiah's core activity. He did not want his disciples to go to the pagans, but urged them to look  'for the lost sheep of the house of Israel' (Matthew 10.5 and 18.11-14). This is in marked contrast with the first Christians' missionary activity among the pagans and cannot be invented.
  • Jesus regarded his own ministry as the inauguration of the 'kingdom of God' (several stories, all attested in several sources; to a certain extent, these stories are embarrassing, because God did not intervene in human history).
  • Jesus wanted to purify the Temple (multiple attestation; embarrassment), which the Messiah was expected to do. The two most important  stories are Jesus' triumphal entry in Jerusalem (Mark 11.4-11; John 12.12-16) and his attempt to cleanse the sanctuary (Mark 11.15-18 and John 2.13-22). The fact that John places this story as far away from the crucifixion as possible, indicates embarrassment.
It is remarkable that none of these messianic elements belongs to the 'military tradition'. The question 'Messiah - in what sense?' can only be answered in the same way as Josephus did: Jesus was 'a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of the people who receive the truth with pleasure', someone who strove after a spiritual restoration of Israel. But these ideas about a national leader who would liberate the Jews from the Roman occupation can never have been far from the minds of Jesus' contemporaries, and we know that Pontius Pilate was sufficiently alarmed. 

When we read the stories about Jesus, we notice that his followers identify him as the Messiah, but that Jesus consistently responds ambivalently (e.g., Mark 8.27-30, John 7.26-31). This can be a literary device, but it can also be that there were elements in the fashionable messianologies that Jesus did not like.

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