The Grammar of Messianism

An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Users

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Matthew V. Novenson
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Messianism is a great theme in intellectual history, but the historical roots of the discourse have been obscured by scholarly bias in biblical studies from the mid-19th century to the present. In The Grammar of Messianism: An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Users, Matthew V. Novenson argues that “messiah” is a problematic term and advocates a fresh expedition into primary sources including Deutero-Isaiah, the Parables of Enoch, the Qumran Community Rule, the Gospel of John, the Pseudo-Clementines, and others. He examines messianism as a language game and traces the rise and fall of messianic figures and movements from the 6th century BCE to the 6th century CE. The author analyzes the split in opinions between Judaism and Christianity as he shows how Jesus as a messianic personality is a creative recycling of an archaic manner of speaking about power relations and an ideal political order. His book is a good example of how to employ literary techniques in the interpretation of religious concepts.

Novenson dismisses academic attempts at a messianic typology and instead explicates rabbinical and scriptural lore that employ the terms משׁח, Χρίστος, and other synonyms meaning “anointed” or ritually smeared with oil. He writes, “Definitions of messiah vary from one scholar to the next” (26), and he chronicles how the primitive symbolic gesture to establish sanctity or authority is transmitted into a sophisticated exegetical discourse about the identity and character of an eschatological redeemer. The author investigates the anointing of objects, priests, and kings, and he compared the stories of Zerubbabel and the high priest Joshua, Simon the High Priest Forever (until a trustworthy prophet should arise), Herod the Great, Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of Pantera the Roman Soldier, Shimon bar Kosiba, and R. Judah I the Patriarch (nothing but propaganda) and the Babylonian Exilarch (the greater). He also analyzes different concepts of a dual messiah, from the lineages of David and Joseph, as an Office and a person, and as an Earthly-Heavenly partnership.

Over time, “messiah” etymologically evolved from “anointed” to a divinely appointed chief of humanity and later the embodiment of a god. Although Novenson is reticent to suggest an archetypal category, he argues that a “traditional script” is acted out by a would-be messiah, who rewrites parts of the script according to circumstance and imitates only some of the traits of the model. Thus, early Christians explained the deviance and idiosyncrasies of Jesus as compared to a classical messianic performance. Though some regarded Jesus as a failed Jewish messiah, others argued that functions of redemption that were not fulfilled in his earthly ministry (when Jesus may have been overshadowed, or temporarily possessed, perhaps as a consolation to Gentiles) were not abandoned but instead delayed or postponed. Novenson cogently shows how an expectation of national deliverance from oppression was sublimated into a possibility of individual moral salvation.

Despite the emphasis on associating messianism narrowly with ritual anointing, Novenson gives no attention to the ritual oil itself. This is a major oversight. The oil described in Exodus 30:22-33 is not the same oil used to anoint Jesus, described in Mark 14:3-9, Matthew 26:6-13, Luke 7:36-50, and John 12:1-11. The Hebraic recipe is pure myrrh, sweet cinnamon, cassia, and “kaneh bosom” (sometimes translated as calamus, but probably more accurately rendered as cannabis) mixed in olive oil. Its use was strictly regulated.

In contrast, the anointing scene of Jesus features an expensive perfume made from spikenard, which grows only in the Himalayas. Though the Gospels vary in detail, a composite narrative suggests that either two or six days before the Passover festival, in the home of a Pharisee named Simon or Lazarus, a woman or prostitute or Mary brought a twelve-ounce alabaster jar of pure essence of spikenard and either poured it on Jesus’ head or wiped it on his feet, with her hair and some kisses, perhaps while weeping. Then, the disciples were indignant, and scolded her harshly, especially Judas Iscariot, because the perfume could have been sold for a year’s wages to help the poor; alternately or simultaneously, Simon doubted Jesus as a prophet because he allowed a loose lady to touch him. Jesus laments the lack of hospitality and tells a parable of forgiveness, reprimands the disciples’ criticism of her good deed, and promises she will be remembered wherever the good news is truly preached throughout the world. This radical departure from traditional messianism and the profound Christological implications of the sacred anointing oil being sourced from an Indian plant (featured on Pope Francis’ coat of arms) has not yet been adequately analyzed anywhere.

Novenson’s advocacy for close reading is particularly strong in the instance of King Cyrus, who seems to be called in Isaiah 45:1 by the epithet reserved for the eschatological redeemer. However, Novenson shows that the 4th-century Babylonian Talmud preserves a teaching about the prepositional phrases in this verse and determines that instead of Cyrus as “the Chosen One,” YHWH actually complains to his messiah with a lament about the heathen king’s failure to aid the exiles. This explanation is timely as US President Donald Trump has been compared to Cyrus and recently made messianic claims. Mirroring the Talmudic interpretation of Cyrus opposed to divine intent, Trump capped acceptance of refugees at 18,000 despite the recommendation by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom for 95,000 refugees resettled, and this failure to aid refugees was strongly condemned. This is a good, current, real-life example proving Novenson’s thesis about the messianic as an adaptable political idiom.

Novenson surveys and successfully disrupts the discourse about messianism, and his fresh approach suggests new directions for scholarly inquiry on the messianic idea by utilizing methods and techniques from literary studies. Although he avoids positing a typology, there is a strong implicit hint toward how messianism functions and potentially provides perennial creative inspiration. His insightful book may be well supplemented by the chapter on the Messiah in Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism by Howard Schwartz (Oxford, 2004). Upper-level and graduate students as well as senior scholars in literature, religious studies, and theology will find great reward in this inquiry.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Horn is a Public Scholar and the Membership Committee Chairman for the Religion Communicators Council Board of Governors.

Date of Review: 
July 10, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew V. Novenson is senior lecturer in New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh. He has also been a visiting professor at Dartmouth College and Duke University and a visiting research fellow at Durham University. He is the author of Christ among the Messiahs (Oxford University Press, 2012).


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