Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Did Jesus Claim to Be The Messiah?

I’m currently writing an article for a Bible dictionary on the Messiah, and so was recently working on the question of whether Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, when I noticed a curiosity of New Testament scholarship that I had not noticed before. In his article for the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary on “Messiah,” Joseph Fitzmyer raises the question of whether Jesus claimed to be the Messiah:
Did Jesus use the title of himself? It is not easy to answer that question.

After giving several other (highly problematic) reasons for doubting that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, Fitzmyer’s final argument is this:

At his interrogation before the Sanhedrin, when asked whether he is “the Messiah,” he answers in Mark, “I am” (14:62), but in the Matthean parallel, his answer becomes, “You have said so” (Matt. 26:64); and Luke completely rewords the high priest’s question (HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, p. 678)

The exact texts are as follows:

And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him. “You have said so.” (Matt 26:63-64)

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am.” (Mark 14:62)

They said, “If you are the Messiah, tell us.” But he said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe, and if I ask you, you will not answer…” And they all said, “Are you the Son of God, then?” And he said to them, “You say that I am.” (Luke 22:70)

In other words, Fitzmyer is arguing that while in Mark’s account Jesus explicitly identifies himself as Messiah, this evidence has no weight because in Matthew and Luke, he only says: “You have said so.”

Now my question is this: Presupposing the Two-Source Hypothesis, when else do historical Jesus scholars use the later “redactional” alterations of Matthew and Luke to discard the historical information present in Mark’s (supposedly older) account? Shouldn’t scholars be saying, “Yes, Jesus claimed to be the Messiah”—as the most ancient account in Mark tells us—but Matthew and Luke obscured this particular point? Even more to the point, shouldn’t historical Jesus scholars who use the criteria of authenticity be pointing to Mark 14:62 and John 4:25 as a case of multiple independent attestation for the fact that Jesus saw himself as the Messiah? The latter text—which Fitzmyer never even mentions—reads:

The [Samaritan] woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all thing.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” (John 4:25)

As far as I can tell, a strict application here of the criterion of multiple attestation, working under the two-source hypothesis, should lead to the conclusion that Jesus did see himself as Messiah, and explicitly said so on at least two different occasions. So what’s the problem? It seems to me that what’s driving this apparent “difficulty” is the assumption that Jesus did not or could not have claimed to be the Messiah. Scholars like Fitzmyer (or Sanders) seem to have their minds already made up when they turn to the Gospels. Any evidence to contrary is either ignored (as in John) or inconsistently dismissed (as in Mark). Is this sound argumentation? Can anyone give me a good reason for accepting Fitzmyer’s approach (which is certainly not limited to him)?

As many of you may already know, Fitzmyer has just published a new book on the Messiah, entitled, The One Who is To Come (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007). It will be interesting to see what he does with this in this more substantial work.


Halfling.Steve said...

This is unrelated to the post, but I thought you might really enjoy this. Especially after studying the early church fathers this quarter.

To the tune of "Supercalafragalisticexpialadocius" ...

Um diddle diddle um diddle ay
Um diddle diddle um diddle ay

Superchristological and Homoousiosis
Even though the sound of them is something quite atrocious
You can always count on them to anathemize your Gnosis
Superchristological and Homoousiosis

Um diddle diddle um diddle ay
Um diddle diddle um diddle ay

Now Origen and Arius were quite a clever pair.
Immutable divinity make Logos out of air.
But then one day Saint Nicholas gave Arius a slap--
and told them if they can't recant, they ought to shut their trap!

[chorus] Oh, Superchristological and Homoousiosis...

One Prosopon, two Ousia are in one Hypostasis.
At Chalcedon this formula gave our faith its basis.
You can argue that you don't know what this means,
But don't you go and try to say there's a "Physis" in between!

[chorus] Oh, Superchristological and Homoousiosis...

Um diddle diddle um diddle ay
Urn diddle diddle um diddle ay

Now freedom and autonomy are something to be praised,
But when it comes to human sin, these words must be rephrased,
For Pelagius was too confident that we could work it out--
And Augustine said *massa damnata* is what it's all about.

[chorus] Oh, Superchristological and Homoousiosis...

Heresies are arguments that you might find attractive,
But just remember in this case the Church is quite reactive.
So play it safe and memorize these words we sing together,
'Cause in the end you'll find, my friend, that we may live forever.

[chorus] Oh, Superchristological and Homoousiosis
Even though the sound of them is something quite atrocious
You can always count on them to anathematize your Gnosis
Superchristological and Homoousiosis

Lyrics by Dan Idzikowski

Danny Zacharias said...

This is one of those interesting passages that doesn't "fit the mold" - or at least not what I would expect. As the most "Jewish gospel", I would expect Matthew to use a substitution for 'God', instead it is Mark who uses it (blessed). Furthermore, if the Sanhedrin asked him "are you the son of God" I would expect that Mark would be eager to have that in his gospel, as 'son of God' forms a bit of an inclusio in the gospel (the incipit and the roman soldier's confession). Why did he choose 'blessed' instead? Perhaps another source is supplementing this story in Matt/Luke.

Taylor Marshall said...

Pitre writes:
"Now my question is this: Presupposing the Two-Source Hypothesis, when else do historical Jesus scholars use the later “redactional” alterations of Matthew and Luke to discard the historical information present in Mark’s (older) account?"


I think Luke wants to put the words into Pilate's mouth because he is trying to depict Christ as being vindicated by Gentiles. I think Luke (or Matthew) are not trying to undermine Christ's messianic claim, but are trying to bring out a Gentile nuance.

DimBulb said...

"Then Judas, his betrayer said in answer,'surely it is not I, Rabbi?' Jesus answered, 'You have said so.'" (Mt 26:25)

Did our Lord know who his betrayer was?

Jesus response to Judas' doesn't make a lot of sense unless that response was meant as an affirmative. If Jesus didn't know who his betrayer was, then why would he let them ask "one after the other, 'is it I?'" If Jesus' response to Judas must be taken as an affirmation, then isn't it both likely and logical to conclude that his response to the Priest must also be taken in the same way?

dan said...

I suppose that many are uncomfortable with Mk's account because Jesus seems to refuse the title "Messiah" at other points in his mission. Thus, when faced with a (seeming) inconsistency (i.e. how can Jesus both refuse and accept the name "Messiah"?), Fitzmyer & Co. discard or downplay Mk and Jn in favour of Mt and Lk. Of course, there may be certain assumptions that lead them to favour one side of the "inconsistency," but there are surely other assumptions at play in those of us who favour the other side (or who argue that there is no inconsistency at all!).

That said, I was wondering, Dr. Pitre, if you still intended to write a response to my question re: your reading of "lead us not into 'temptation.'" If you do intend to do so, well, great! But if you have since discovered that you are too busy to get around to it, that's fine too.

Grace and peace.

Brant Pitre said...

Hafling Steve,
Funny song. How long did it take you to type that!

Danny, I'm with you. This passage does raise some questions for the Two-Source hypothesis, no doubt, especially when most scholars would never postulate a "Q" trial narrative to explain the Matt/Luke agreement. Perhaps another explanation...?

Taylor, I agree that Luke/Matt are not trying to "undermine" Jesus' messianic claim. His "You have said so" is still an affirmative answer (as DimBulb rightly points out Matt 26:5), although it's certainly more enigmatic. Again, however, for a Two-Source hypothesis, altering Mark's "I am" is passing strange, although solutions have been proposed to it (e.g., assimilating Jesus' answer to his respose to Pilate; cf. Mt 27:11).

Great points, I think you are exactly right about why scholars balk at this passage. However, I would strongly question whether the "inconsistency" is really present in the text. Does Jesus actually ever "refuse" the name Messiah, or does he just silence people (and demons) who would proclaim him Messiah at inopportune times and places, and alllow it in places where it wouldn't matter anyway (like during his trial, only hours before he's crucified, or in Samaria) ? These are certainly not the same thing. Moreover, in a section I did not quote, Fitzmyer says that Jesus' "corrects" Peter's confession of him as Messiah by saying that he is instead the "suffering Son of Man." Where is this "correction" in the text? Where does Jesus say, "No, Peter, you're wrong" (esp. in Matt!). Moreover, what kind of "refusal" would claiming to be the Danielic "Son of Man" instead of the Messiah really constitute, when all the most ancient Jewish interpreations of "son of Man" extant are messianic? (cf. 4 Ezra, 1 Enoch, Rabbis, etc.) In short, I think the inconsistency is more present in the minds of scholars than in the text.

Although I'm willing to be corrected if there is a text in which Jesus actually refuses a messianic ascription.

P.S. As for "lead us not into temptation,"--I plan on getting to it eventually, but am swamped right now with moving, a pregnant wife who could deliver any day now (even tonight!) and some writing deadlines. I promise to do a post on it at some point. Thanks!

bill bannon said...

I hope Fitzmyer includes the below in his new book...note especially color sections:

Mat 11:2 Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples,

Mat 11:3 And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?

Mat 11:4 Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see:

Mat 11:5 The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.

Mat 11:6 And blessed is [he], whosoever shall not be offended in me.

Mat 11:7 And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?

Mat 11:8 But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft [clothing] are in kings' houses.

Mat 11:9 But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet.

Mat 11:10 For this is [he], of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.

Mat 11:11 Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Mat 11:12 And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.

Mat 11:13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John.

dan said...

Dr. Pitre,

For the record, I also think that there is no inconsistency in the way in which the Gospels present Jesus responding the issue of messianic expectation. It makes sense that, if Jesus was redefining the concept of "Messiah," he would be more or less comfortable around the language of messianism as it was employed by various factions in Second Temple Judaism -- a position that, IMHO, Wright argues convincingly.

That said, I also recognise that I bring certain assumptions -- not only assumptions but desires! -- to my reading of the texts. Indeed, it is this issue of looking for what we desire to find that, IMHO, influences our readings of the Gospels. Thus, if Fitzmyer still presented us with the sort of Jesus we wanted to find, we might be more comfortable with his interpretation of the Passion narratives (however, the issue with Fitzmyer, for many, will not only be about the sort of Jesus they want to find, but will also be about the sort of Bible they want to read!).

Grace and peace.

Michael F. Bird said...

I'm writing a two-part article for JSHJ on this very topic! I intend on presenting one or two or thirteen reasons why Jesus claimed to be the Messiah. I can email you what I've done so far if you want to see. I remain amazed that Fitzmyer and Brown both argued that Jesus never made such a claim! Martin Hengel's work on this (+ a bit of NTW) is the best stuff on the topic around.

Anonymous said...

I took one class with Fr. Fitzmyer at CUA on Revelation and he is a meticulous scholar and a very fine man but it seems to me his generational of the the historical-critical method; a milieux which was unquestioned up until very recently.

I would like to think you could get a response from Fr. Fitzmyer much more quickly and directly by calling or emailing him at CUA School of Theology and Religious Studies rather than waiting for his next book to appear. He must be in his eighties now ...

Paul Cat said...

Hey Dr. Brant,

Here is something I turned into Professor Cavadini in the Spring. It isn't scholarly and will never be published, except on my blog, but here is the link any way


It is titled "Christ Never Needed to Say Who He was
Because He Knew Who He Was."

Hope you enjoy it.

Stephen said...

My query is, if Jesus (not his real name since the letter "J" did not exist back then in that language) is in fact God, we never needed a Messiah as understood through the Jewish text at least. I try not to put the cart before the horse through a series of logical paradox. He does not wash away our sins, or we would all be sin free today. It is through the Holy Spirit and acceptance of God without any question in the mind to choose over the god of this world or the GOD of the heavens, for those things of this world are far reaching, engrained within our very mindset. Was not his crucifixion not unlike the symbolic death of our own death to sin? If Jesus was God they are one in the same and they were one since Genesis, so what must change is ourselves. But we have to YADA (know) him, just as the word know in the bible writes, not intellectually but in Spirit. If he always was nad is God, he never died truly in his True State. It is the representation of forgiveness of ourselves imputed through the Spirit as communicated through God Consciousness/Understanding. Did he 'die' for our sins, or because we are Separated In Nature (sin) from him through the whole way back to Eden?..at which point man was removed from Paradise..to feel naked in one's sin is without the fig leaf.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Surely it is of no real consequence to anyone but the Jews as to whether or not Jesus said he was the Messiah given that the "Messiah" is purely a Jewish concept.
For today's Christian's I would have thought it sufficient that he is accepted as the Son of God and that we follow his direction to love God with all our heart and mind, and to love our neighbour as ourself. These directions are commands to take action.
I am not aware that he directed us to spend time wondering if he qualified as the Messiah some 2000 years ago.
It is enough that for today's Christians he is the living Son of God.
I respectfully suggest that following Christ's direction to take action is more vital to our eternal life than arguing about theory. Perhaps we can leave the "Messiah" debate to those to whom it is relevant, namely the Jews. I would make such a response as the answer to the original query that initiated this page. I urge this upon you.