Gods Agent

Book cover
The One Who Is to Comeby By Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J.Eerdmans. 224p $18 (paperback)

The words “messiah” and “messianism” are often used loosely not only in popular culture but also in religious discourse, even in biblical scholarship. This magisterial study of these terms in the Bible and related ancient sources by a premier biblical scholar of our time brings order and clarity into the understanding and use of what are obviously important words for both Christians and Jews. It takes its title from John the Baptist’s question to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come?” (Matt 11:3; Luke 7:19) and from the classic study of the topic by the Norwegian scholar Sigmund Mowinckel.

Fitzmyer, a Jesuit priest who is professor emeritus of biblical studies at the Catholic University of America and resident at the Jesuit community of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., is one of the most productive and respected biblical scholars of our day. He has been a foremost expert on the Dead Sea scrolls and the Aramaic language, and has written learned commentaries on several New Testament writings for the Anchor Bible series. He has also made important contributions in the areas of biblical hermeneutics and theology. He has served as president of the most prestigious biblical associations and as a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. He was an organizer and editor of, as well as a major contributor to, The Jerome Biblical Commentary (1968) and The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990). At 86 years of age he remains an energetic and admired figure in biblical studies.

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Fitzmyer’s study proceeds from and is guided by a clear and restrictive definition of the term “messiah” as “an eschatological figure, an anointed human agent of God, who was to be sent by Him as a deliverer and was awaited in the end time.” He repeatedly criticizes and warns against excessively elastic (“rubber band”) uses of the word and against mixing it up with distinct concepts such as Servant of the Lord and Son of Man where there is no warrant for doing so.

After defining the term “messiah,” Fitzmyer discusses uses of that word in the Old Testament and other passages often regarded as “messianic,” and focuses on texts that reveal a developing understanding of the Davidic dynasty. Next he considers the pivotal role of Dan 9:25-26 (“the coming of an Anointed One”) in what he regards as the emergence of true messianism, and looks at how key Old Testament passages were interpreted in the Greek Bible (Septuagint). Then he investigates instances of true messianism in extrabiblical writings (especially the Dead Sea scrolls) of the Second Temple period and shows how they provide the context for applying the term “messiah” (Christos in Greek) to Jesus in the New Testament. Finally he explores how the messiah figure was understood in rabbinic Jewish writings, especially the Targums (Aramaic versions of the Hebrew Bible).

This volume combines the methods of philology and historical criticism. It is essentially a textual study of all the pertinent Old Testament, early Jewish, New Testament and rabbinic Jewish texts concerning the Messiah. It provides these texts in their ancient languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Syriac), always accompanied by English translations and concise explications. It adopts a historical method of presentation, moving from the most ancient to the most recent occurrences of “messiah.” It places each text in its historical context and notes carefully what it means and does not mean in that context. It is thus a model of historical-critical biblical study.

Fitzmyer contends that the “anointing” language associated with David and his dynasty provided the background and terminology for the true messianism that emerged in the second century B.C. (or earlier) that can now be glimpsed in the Book of Daniel, the Dead Sea scrolls and other early Jewish texts. This messianism, however, was not uniform, and its variations included the double (priestly and royal) messiahs of several Qumran texts. So when early Christians identified Jesus as the messiah, they did so against a rich Jewish background, while at the same time making an innovation by presenting Jesus as a suffering and spiritual messiah.

The high level of interest in the “King Messiah” in the Jewish Targums (considerably later than the New Testament) serves to illustrate the differences between traditional Jewish and Christian concepts. The dominant Jewish expectation concerned a human kingly figure who was to bring deliverance (political, economic and spiritual) to the Jewish people and thus extend peace, prosperity and righteousness to all humankind. For Christians, Jesus the messiah has already come to bring spiritual deliverance to all peoples through his vicarious death on the cross. Fitzmyer concludes that “the Christian Messiah differs radically from the awaited Jewish Messiah, without whom, however, he would not be known in human history as ‘Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’”

The One Who Is to Come brings clarity to a topic that has often been muddled and confused. Fitzmyer has provided cautious analyses of all the relevant texts and avoided the methodological fallacy of smuggling the meaning of later texts into earlier ones, while allowing for the development of a spiritual sense. Although the book will primarily interest biblical specialists and theologians, it is accessible to all who wish to understand the history and meaning of the term “messiah” in the Bible and related texts. It is a scholarly book by a scholar’s scholar.

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