Jesus still provocative after all these years

By  Fr. Murray Watson, Catholic Register Special
  • September 25, 2007

{mosimage}The One Who Is To Come  by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. (Wm B. Eerdmans, 183 pages, softcover, $22.99).

Of the distinguished trio of Catholic scholars (Raymond Brown, Roland Murphy and Joseph Fitzmyer) who edited both the Jerome Biblical Commentary (1968) and its successor, the New Jerome (1990), today Fitzmyer is the sole survivor, and unquestionably the éminence grise of Catholic exegetes. Almost 87 years old, Fr. Fitzmyer remains one of the most formidable scholarly minds in the field of Scripture, an expert in ancient Aramaic and Hebrew, a specialist in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the author of dozens of books on the Bible.

In his latest book, Fitzmyer tackles one of the most important, and one of the most vexed, questions in biblical studies, and in Jewish-Christian relations — the relationship of our varied understandings of the messiah to the text of Scripture itself.

So much has been written on this it would seem a new contribution is almost redundant. And yet, Fitzmyer attacks this issue with insight, precision and rigour. His knowledge of the relevant scholarly literature is nothing short of encyclopedic — challenging Jews and Christians to rethink centuries-old assumptions about what the Bible does, and does not, say. His primary argument is that the vast majority of the biblical texts traditionally seen as messianic did not, in fact, have any messianic sense in their original literary and historical context. They acquired such a veneer only through much later interpretation.

Fitzmyer begins with an in-depth study of scriptural passages (especially in the Pentateuch and the Prophets). With a careful analysis of their Hebrew text and their probable historical situation, he concludes that almost all these texts refer either to a present king (before the Babylonian exile), or to a hoped-for future royal figure (after the exile, when the Davidic line faded out).

He is careful in his reading. “The Messiah” is to be distinguished from a more generic “messianic hope for the future,” and from the dream of eventual restoration of the Davidic monarchy. There are, of course, overlaps in terms of the visions they express, but these should not, he argues, be conflated. Indeed, many of the so-called messianic texts never mention the word messiah at all.

{sa 0802840132}There are a variety of “anointed ones” spoken of in the Old Testament — but they are primarily rulers (and, in a few cases, priests or prophets). The concept of messiah, he argues, does not begin to really take shape until perhaps the second or third centuries before Christ. And so the book of Daniel — one of the last of the Old Testament books — is one of the few where such references can properly be understood in terms of the ideal future ruler and anointed agent of God who will bring salvation, peace and prosperity at the end of times.

Fitzmyer continues with a review of other Jewish literature from the centuries immediately before Jesus, the so-called apocryphal or extrabiblical writings, in which the idea of a personal, idealized messiah gradually becomes more pronounced and defined. In these writings, images from Hebrew Scriptures are often combined and expanded upon to express the hope of a new and greater David who would be a heaven-sent ruler capable of bringing peace, ruling with integrity and inaugurating a golden age of restoration for the Jewish people.

For a Christian, it is fascinating to read these largely pre-Christian texts (such as parts of I Enoch), and to see the development of a picture which seems largely familiar — uniting titles such as “Righteous One,” “Son of God,” “Son of Man” and “Messiah.” The Dead Sea Scrolls are one of Fitzmyer’s particular areas of expertise, and he devotes the largest single portion of the book to a very careful analysis of Scrolls texts which refer to a messiah — or, perhaps surprisingly for Christians, to messiahs (both a priestly and a royal messiah).

Discoveries at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were uncovered, have highlighted the fervour and diversity of messianic expectation in some Palestinian Jewish groups in the era around Jesus’ birth and ministry. This messianic instinct is further confirmed in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) which was also made in these centuries, in which some Hebrew texts received a more subtly messianic interpretation when they were translated into Greek. Nevertheless, Fitzmyer argues the concept of the Messiah was always stronger in the Holy Land than in the diaspora. It is a fascinating study to see how the idea gradually takes shape in Judaism, and becomes more and more refined, especially in light of the Jewish subservience to Greek, Syrian and Roman overlords in those centuries.

Fitzmyer’s chapter on the New Testament concept of Messiah is, somewhat surprisingly, the shortest. But it helps us understand the ways in which the earliest Christian writings have taken up these earlier Jewish motifs and applied them to Jesus of Nazareth in specific ways. Fitzmyer helps us understand to what degree the New Testament builds upon already-current concepts which, in light of resurrection faith, are seen as fulfilled in Jesus, for whom the title Messiah (Greek Christos) becomes effectively a second name. The New Testament authors’ messianic reading of many Old Testament passages largely corresponds to earlier trends in Judaism — with the exception of the idea of a suffering and dying Messiah, which Fitzmyer points out as uniquely Christian and conditioned by the historical facts of Jesus’ passion and death.

Fitzmyer concludes with a review of the many post-Christian rabbinic texts which speak about the messiah — His identity and attributes, the time of His coming and His expected actions. For Christians, it is amazing to study the ways in which Christian and Jewish faith intersect — and deviate — in this important area.

Fitzmyer’s book is a masterpiece of scholarship, the fruit of an entire career spent studying the Bible and its cultural and linguistic background. This book’s less than 200 pages are a rich mine of careful, thoughtful examination of a controversial but central issue for Jews and Christians, especially in this era of interreligious dialogue. With a sure hand, Fitzmyer leads us systematically through all the relevant primary and secondary literature, challenging our assumptions and opening up for many a world of previously unknown ancient writings.

It is, however, a dense and sometimes difficult book for the average reader, liberally peppered with Hebrew and Greek (for which he generally provides English translations). For those willing to persevere, it is a tour de force of historical-critical study, summoning us to return to the human authors’ originally intended meanings.  

If there was one disappointment, it was simply that Fitzmyer chose to remain on the level of objective scholarship — never showing his hand in terms of personal faith beyond his scholarly conclusions. For a Christian, the original meaning of the Old Testament, though absolutely fundamental, can never remain the sole valid interpretation. Indeed, our faith in the Bible’s inspiration means we must allow for other layers of meaning intended by God, but perhaps not intended or understood by the original writers.

After more than 2,000 years, discussion of the Messiah has lost none of its fascination — and Fitzmyer provides us with a provocative impetus that will rekindle that ancient debate in this new century and new millennium.

(Watson normally teaches Scripture at St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ont., but he is back in Dublin finishing his doctorate this fall.)

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