The Titles of Jesus: Messiah – Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

July 17, 2012

Samuel Anoints David

The major titles the New Testament applies to Jesus are as follows: Prophet, Suffering Servant, High Priest, Messiah, Son of Man, Lord, Savior, Word, Son of God, and God. Far from being a mere litany of honorifics, these titles actually refer to different aspects of his work and identity. The Swiss New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann, from whom I have drawn this list usefully clusters these titles under four rubrics: Prophet, Suffering Servant, and High Priest refer to the earthly work of Jesus [See previous post]; Messiah and Son of Man refer to the future work of Jesus; Lord and Savior to his present work; and Word, Son of God, and God to his preexistence. In this second selection we will look at the title of Messiah, one that refer to the future work of Jesus.


Jesus the Messiah
As a participial passive adjective in Hebrew, “messiah” means “anointed” and as an adjectival noun it means “the anointed one,” which translates in Greek as “christos.” Originally, the title gained its significance from the ritual of anointing in a coronation ceremony (priests were also anointed, which gives the title a sacerdotal connotation as well). The anointing was done by smearing oil on the head or hands of a king to mark out the monarch (or priest) as having entered a new and permanent status. [ This ritual has continued on to modern times in the anointing of monarchs, as the world saw when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, the first to be televised; and of course priests continue to be anointed in modern times too.]

The reason for oil as the symbolic instrument for anointing stems from its viscosity against water: oil covers the surface in a way that seems to “seal” the watery, less viscous contents below. In other words, anointing is used in ceremonies to denote a definitive change in status from one state of life to another (which is also why those undergoing baptism and confirmation, and not just priests and monarchs, are sealed with oil to denote their new, and irrevocable, status as Christians entering a new state of life).

The Hebrew concept of Messiah, however, added an additional element: because the institution of kingship was understood as divinely instituted, the real anointer was held to be God, who alone granted the federation of the twelve tribes of Israel the concession of having a monarch in place of the loose confederation of chieftains (or “judges” as they are known in traditional translations of the Bible). In fact, the concession was granted reluctantly:

“But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, `Give us a king to govern us.’ And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, `Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me as king over them”
(1 Samuel 8:6-7).

At all events, because of the association of Messiah with kingship and with divine election, any monarch, even a pagan one, could be designated Messiah provided he were of royal status and had been set apart by God to accomplish God’s own providential purposes; this we know because Isaiah called the Persian king Cyrus “Messiah” for his role in allowing the Jews to return from Babylon to Jerusalem in 538 B.C.: “Thus says the Lord to his messiah whom, the Lord says, I have grasped by his right hand, to make the nations bow down before him, … though you do not know me” (Isaiah 45: 1,5).

For that reason, Messiah would seem to denote a title pertaining to Christ’s present work, for a king is meant to reign on earth now and is a role to be filled by human beings currently living. After all, when the king dies, a new one takes over (“The king is dead. Long live the king!”). Nonetheless, this title aptly belongs in that category denoting the future work of Jesus for this reason above all: from the time of the Babylonian captivity Israel had lost its political independence, and thus also the monarchy, and lived, except for brief intervals, under systems of overbearing oppression, especially under the Hellenistic heirs of Alexander the Great (called the Seleucids), and even more under the harsh rod of Rome, whose taxation policies were deeply resented.

Hopes for liberation from such oppression thus had to be focused on the future, when a new king would, like King David of old, expel the oppressors and set up a new kingdom, with foreigners driven out and the Jews free to worship God without fear or favor. Taken in this sense, the title “messiah” would seem to entail a merely political hope.

But by the time of Jesus’ birth, messianic hopes had begun to take on a new and more extreme coloration, one that looked forward to a deeper transformation of conditions, a transformation so radical that only God, and not a mere human and earthly king, could inaugurate it. In this scenario the messianic agent would not be some chosen young shepherd (as David was), who stepped forth to lead his people because of his natural powers of leadership, piety, and military prowess. Now the Messiah would have to be God’s viceroy in a more direct, eschatological sense. In other words, the future work of this Messiah would have to be much more radical than mere military conquest and political liberation — it would have to transform the very conditions of world history that made oppression possible in the first place.

But precisely because the title of Messiah was primarily a Jewish political one (whether in its merely royal or in its more extreme eschatological coloration), this meant that the title could not have the same purchase on the hearers of the gospel in a pagan setting. This makes the title “Christ” somewhat unique among the other titles applied to Jesus, for it soon stopped sounding like a title and began to seem more like part of his name. This is partly because the institution of king had lost much of its significance in the Roman Empire. The Roman emperors might well have acted like kings, but they continued to maintain the fiction that they were ruling in continuity with the outmoded forms of the Roman Republic, which had no kings (the wind “emperor” comes from the Latin word for a military commander, imperator).

But more crucially, “messiah” remained a true title for the Jews of first-century Palestine because, under Roman oppression, they looked forward to a restoration of the kingdom first established by King David. The title “messiah,” in other words, was highly charged politically; indeed it was the title for which the Romans executed Jesus (which we know because the Roman governor of Judea at the time, Pontius Pilate, ordered the charge to be posted on the cross justifying the Nazarene’s execution: “Jesus Christ, King of the Jews”).

For that reason the translation of the Hebrew title Messiah into the Greek term Christos began a process that finally made the term Christ virtually a proper name for Jesus. Such is often the fate of names. For example, someone in the past might well have been known in his village as “James the Baker,” but no one assumes that a James Baker now is especially skilled as a pastry chef, anymore than one assumes that a Geoffrey Wainwright knows how to make wagons. Similarly with the title Christ: it was never a term that had much cachet in a pagan setting, and so in Greek it soon took on the connotations of a proper name. For one thing, the Roman emperors were never anointed upon assuming office, since they wished to maintain republican fictions. For another, anointing with oil was quite a common practice in the Roman Empire for both medicinal and athletic reasons, especially in the gymnasia and baths of the time.

The upshot is that once Jesus became known in the pagan world for his work by other terms more meaningful in a pagan setting, like “Savior,” the title “Christ” gradually became a kind of last name for him.[Even today, some library card catalogues will give at the entry for "Jesus" a directional note saying "see Christ," the way some libraries will say at the entry for Napoleon "see Bonaparte."] In fact, so much had the name “Christ” become virtually his last name that some pagan authors could not be bothered to get it right: as we saw at the outset of this chapter, with Suetonius complaining about the followers of “Chrestus.” And we are not surprised to learn that the term “Christian” to denote the followers of Christ was first coined in a pagan town, Antioch (see Acts 11:26).

Despite this easily discernible move from title to proper name, however, The New Testament recognizes the title “Christ” (or its Hebrew equivalent “Messiah”) of the most significant confessional titles assigned to Jesus. The Gospel of John, for example, concludes with this line: “[This book ] is written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). [This verse concludes chapter 20, with another chapter following, but that seems to have been an Epilogue, which perhaps was written after the "first edition," so to speak, of the Fourth Gospel had already been initially distributed among the community of the Beloved Disciple, which was then supplemented with chapter 21 before it was sent out for the edification of the other churches in the Mediterranean.]

Paul, too, clearly means Christ as a title, for although he often uses the expression “Jesus Christ,” he also interchangeably will say “Christ Jesus” or, more tellingly, “Jesus the Christ.” In other words, the New Testament is saturated in the conviction that Jesus is the Messiah, specifically “anointed” (that is, set apart) by God for redemptive purposes.

Complicating the issue, however, is the most remarkable fact about this title: the apparent diffidence, almost downright reluctance, on the part of Jesus to accept this title. So remarkable is this diffidence that this motif has earned its own moniker in the scholarly community: the so-called “Messianic secret.” Only twice in the entire New Testament is Jesus depicted as accepting the title (and even the second instance is ambiguous): In the first episode, during his interrogation before the High Priest Caiaphas, Jesus is directly asked, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” to which Jesus replied simply, “I am” (Mark 14:62).

The second episode deals with Peter’s profession of faith in Jesus at Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asked his disciples what the people were saying about him, to which Peter finally replied with his own confession: “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29; see the parallels in Luke 9:20, where the confession reads “the Christ of God”; and in Matthew 16:16, where the confession goes: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”). At this point accounts begin to diverge, for in both Mark and Luke, Jesus’ response is only this: “He gave them strict orders not to tell anyone about him.”

In Matthew, however, Jesus seems to accept the appellation, for he then praises Peter for confessing what only the eyes of faith can see; nonetheless, he goes on, after apparently accepting the title, to warn the disciples still to tell no one outside of their select circle about his real identity. [In the Gospel of John there is a scene vaguely similar to the Synoptic depiction of the confession at Caesarea Philippi, when many disciples abandon the cause when they find the obligation to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ too much for their faith, and Jesus asks the twelve if they too wish to go away, to which Peter replies: "Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and have come to see that you are the Holy One of God" (John 6:66-71). But as this passage does not use the specific term "Christ" it is not strictly relevant here.]

Outside of these two instances, Jesus is consistently depicted as deflecting the title of Messiah as somehow inappropriate, despite its clear relevance to his mission and despite the enthusiastic use of the term by the early church (to such an extent that it became the title by which he is best known, albeit in a way that conflates the title with its use as a proper name). The situation is thus most peculiar: the very title that the early church felt best described Jesus is the very one that he seems to have deflected. Why? In short, because of the context: words have not only a certain denotative meaning (the so-called “dictionary meaning”) but also have definite rhetorical implications depending on the life-situation in which they are uttered (the connotative meaning). The noted scholar C. H. Dodd perhaps summarizes best of all the import of the Messianic secret in this lapidary formulation:

The office of Messiah was conceived in various ways, but always it was bound up with the special calling and destiny of Israel as the people of God. From the gospels we gather that Jesus set himself to constitute the new Israel under his own leadership; he nominated its founding members, and admitted them into the new “covenant,” and he laid down its new law. That was his mission. If it did not entirely agree with any of the contemporary ideas of what the Messiah should do, there was no other term available which came near to covering it. He could not deny his mission; he could not disavow the authority that went with it; and therefore, if the question was posed, he could not simply repudiate the title “Messiah.” But it was an embarrassment to him, and he preferred that it should not be used publicly, until at least his hand was forced. In the popular mind Messiahship was associated with the political and military role of the “Son of David.” To play that part was the last thing Jesus desired. Any suggestion that he proposed to do so was a hindrance to his true work and a danger to his cause. His appeal to his people must rest on something other than a debatable claim to Messiahship.
C. H. Dodd, The Founder of Christianity

And yet Mark depicts Jesus as finally and unambiguously accepting the title before Caiaphas. Why? Surely we may at least say this: a title that he would not deny to save his life, and for which he was indeed executed, cannot have been without personal significance for him. But the real question then becomes not the ultimately bootless one, “Did Jesus ever claim in his earthly ministry to be the Messiah?” but rather “What kind of Messiah did he think he was?

For that reason Mark has Jesus adding to his famous “I am” (his admission that he was the Messiah) the additional line, “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62b). Similarly, when the twelve apostles acknowledge Jesus’ Messiahship at Caesarea Philippi, he goes on to instruct them in these words: “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). In other words, in order to understand what Jesus meant by Messiah and how he understood his mission to be characterized by that title, one must first investigate that title by which he most forthrightly designated himself: Son of Man.

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