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Jesus and Israel: the meaning of messiahship

Wright gives an overview of the argument of the third part of the book, which is basically that Jesus applied to himself the three main elements of his teaching about the kingdom of God: the return from exile, the defeat of evil, and the return of YHWH to Zion. Chapter 11 deals with the first of these claims: ‘Jesus saw himself as the leader and focal point of the true, returning-from-exile Israel. He was the king through whose work YHWH was at last restoring his people. He was the Messiah’ (477). Three things need to be said about this first claim: i) the word ‘messiah’ does not refer to a ‘divine or quasi-divine figure’; ii) there is no reason to think that Jesus was incapable of serious and original theological reflection; and iii) to investigate Jesus’ self-understanding is an historical rather than a psychological exercise.

Messiahship in Judaism and early christianity

The concept of messiahship in first-century Judaism is polymorphous, but the royal motif is of particular importance, not least because it is so closely connected with the idea of national restoration. This hope was expressed not only through ‘proof-texts’ but also through symbols and praxis: so the hope included the expectation that the king would both rebuild (or at least refurbish) the temple and defeat Israel’s enemies.

Since, however, Jesus neither rebuilt the temple nor defeated Israel’s name, the historian must ask why Jesus’ followers came to believe that he was the Messiah. This question becomes all the more acute when we consider i) that to announce a messianic movement was to invite trouble from both Rome and the Herodians; and ii) that ‘a messianic movement without a physically present Messiah posed something of an anomaly’ (487).

Jesus’ and kingship: events in Jerusalem

The ensuing discussion of Jesus’ messiahship has two focal points: the titulus on the cross and Jesus’ action in the temple, which most scholars now consider to have been ‘the proximate cause of his death’ (490).

It has already been argued that Jesus’ action in the temple ‘spoke not just of religion but of royalty… not just of cleansing but of judgment’. It was the true Davidic king, not the high priests, who was ultimate ruler of the temple, so the incident was bound to be interpreted as an explicit messianic claim. Wright then demonstrates how this explains a set of ‘royal riddles’, all of which point back to the temple-action: the sayings about the destruction and rebuilding of the temple and about the mountain which is thrown into the sea; the riddle about John the Baptist; the parable of the tenants with the quote from Ps.118:22-23 about the stone which the builders rejected; the saying about paying tribute to Caesar; and the question as to whether the Christ was David’s Lord or David’s son (493-509).

Wright next re-examines Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse in Mark 13 in order to demonstrate how it also provides an explanation of the temple-action in terms of his messiahship.

So closely do they belong together, in fact, that the destruction of the Temple – predicted already in symbolic action, and here in prophetic oracle – is bound up with Jesus’ own vindication, as prophet and also as Messiah. In the eschatological lawcourt scene, he has pitted himself against the Temple. When his prophecy of its destruction comes true, that event will demonstrate that he was indeed the Messiah who had the authority over it. (511)

In order to understand the passage about the coming of the Son of man (Mk.13:24-26), Wright proposes three ‘guiding threads’. First, apocalyptic language must be understood historically. Secondly, Jesus’ allusion to the son of man figure in Daniel 7 must be understood in relation to Jewish interpretations of this text in the first century. Wright argues that there is strong evidence that Jews at the time found in Daniel 2, 7 and 9 in particular a messianic story of vindication and restoration that, to quote Josephus, ‘more than anything else, incited the Jews to revolt’ (514).

The discourse as a whole then works as follows. Jesus has been asked about the destruction of the Temple. His reply has taken the disciples through the coming scenario: great tribulation, false messiahs arising, themselves hauled before magistrates. They need to know both that Jerusalem is to be destroyed and that they must not stand and fight, but must escape while they can. There will then occur the great cataclysmic event which will be at the same time (a) the final judgment on the city that has now come, with awful paradox, to symbolize rebellion against YHWH; (b) the great deliverance promised in the prophets; and (c) the vindication of the prophet who had predicted the downfall, and who had claimed to be embodying in himself all that Jerusalem and the Temple had previously stood for. (515)

The third guiding thread is the assumption that in private he would naturally have spoken less ambiguously about the destruction of the temple ‘in language which made it clear that he regarded Herod’s Temple, and the regime of Caiaphas and his family, as part of the problem, part of the exilic state of the people of YHWH, rather than as part of the solution’ (516).

These three guiding threads lead to a ruthless repudiation of traditional speculation about a heavenly figure who would descend to earth on a cloud:

This monstrosity, much beloved (though for dif­ferent reasons) by both fundamentalists and would-be ‘critical’ scholars, can be left behind, appropriately enough, in the centre of his mythological maze, where he will no doubt continue to lure unwary travellers to a doom consist­ing of endless footnotes and ever-increasing epicycles of hypothetical and unprovable Traditionsgeschichte. The truly ‘apocalyptic’ ‘son of man’ has nothing to do with such a figure. Within the historical world of the first century, Daniel was read as a revolutionary kingdom-of-god text, in which Israel’s true representative(s) would be vindicated after their trial and suffer­ing at the hands of the pagans. Jesus, as part of his prophetic work of announcing the kingdom, aligned himself with the ‘people of the saints of the most high’, that is, with the ‘one like a son of man’. In other words, he regarded himself as the one who summed up Israel’s vocation and destiny in himself. He was the one in and through whom the real ‘return from exile’ would come about, indeed, was already coming about. He was the Messiah. (517)

Wright considers next the messianic implications of the trial narrative and argues that the account moves through four stages on an historically coherent and comprehensible trajectory. There is, first, the ‘false’ accusation regarding Jesus and the temple. Secondly, there is the question of messiahship: Wright reminds us that the term ‘Messiah’ in this context cannot be understood in trinitarian or incarnational terms. Jesus’ response to the high priest, thirdly, is an affirmation both of his messiahship and, by way of reference again to Daniel 7 and to Psalm 110, of his expectation of being vindicated. Wright suggests, moreover, that at this point Caiaphas and his regime have been implicitly recast as the new Antiochus Epiphanes, the fourth beast to Jesus’ Son of man (525-526). The fourth stage, the hardest to understand historically, is the accusation of blasphemy. Four lines of thought point towards the charge: i) Jesus’ opposition to the temple and the high priest; ii) the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God (Mk.14:62), not as a ‘transcendent’ figure but as Israel’s king; iii) the symbolism of clouds, signifying a theophany; and iv) the supposition, presented earlier (439-442), that Jesus was regarded as a ‘false prophet’ who was ‘leading Israel astray’.

Messiahship as the secret of Jesus’ prophetic ministry

In this final section Wright is concerned principally to establish the fact that Jesus was consciously following a ‘messianic programme’, in which in some sense he was claiming to represent Israel himself, not only in Jerusalem but throughout his work (528-538). To this end he examines messianic praxis and sayings in Jesus’ early ministry and the ‘call’ that he received at the time of his baptism.