Review of Zetterholm - 'The Messiah in Early Judaism and Christianity'
Winn (Adam)
Source: Review of Biblical Literature 05/2010 - Society of Biblical Literature
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  1. The essays in this edited volume were originally presented at a small conference held at the University of Lund and entitled “Aspects of Messianism in Early Judaism and Christianity.” The volume, edited by Magnus Zetterholm, contains five essays all devoted to the various aspects of Jewish messianism. This review will give a brief overview of each essay, with limited critique being offered where appropriate.
  2. The volume begins with an introduction by Zetterholm, who briefly traces the history of Jewish messianism from its early roots in the exilic period to the present day. He also draws attention to new trends in New Testament scholarship regarding the understanding of Jewish messianism and suggests that such trends might prove fruitful in the continual development of Jewish-Christians relations.
  3. The first essay, John J. Collins’s “Pre-Christian Jewish Messianism: An Overview,” provides a straightforward and helpful history of the Jewish concept of Messiah in the Second Temple period. Collins identifies God’s promise to David in 2 Sam 7, a promise that appeared broken after the Babylonian exile, as the starting point for all messianic thought. He traces this promise through the writings of Israel’s prophet and identifies numerous texts that predict or identify its fulfilment. Yet, Collins concludes that despite these texts, Jewish messianism during the Persian and Greek period was quite minimal. He argues that it is not until the time of the Hasmoneans that messianic thinking became prominent in Jewish writings. He surveys the messianic content of both the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls, noting their significant messianic texts and messianic interpretive trends. He specifically addresses the controversial “Son of God” text in 4Q246 and concludes that the figure identified as “Son of God” should be identified with a messianic figure. He also examines Jewish texts that present the Messiah as a heavenly or supernatural figure (e.g., one like a Son of Man) rather than a human warrior/king. Collins concludes his essay by discussing messianic pretenders that sought to fulfil Jewish messianic expectations. While Collins’s essay presents little in the way of new or fresh ideas, it is a helpful summary of his previous excellent work. Certain details of his essay might find a number of challengers, but his general presentation of the development of Jewish messianic thought should find few.
  4. Adela Yarbro Collins, in “The Messiah as Son of God in the Synoptic Gospels,” examines each Synoptic Gospel’s use of the title and concept “Son of God.” Collins concludes that “Son of God” is a messianic title/concept in Mark, although one redefined by Jesus’ suffering. However, Collins detects tension in Mark’s presentation of Jesus as God’s messianic Son. Collins argues that God’s declaration of Jesus’ divine sonship at his baptism signifies that this event is the beginning of Jesus’ messianic and kingly role. Yet, at the transfiguration, it appears (at least to a Greco-Roman audience) that God’s similar declaration implies Jesus’ divinity. Ultimately, she concludes that Mark’s presentation of Jesus’ divine sonship is ambiguous: he is either a human messiah acting under the power of God’s Spirit, or he is a divine being acting under his own power. She concludes that the presentations of Jesus’ divine sonship in both Matthew and Luke are much less ambiguous. She argues that, while both Matthew and Luke associate Jesus’ divine sonship with his role as Messiah, they also, through their accounts of the virgin birth (and God’s role in that event), offer a presentation of divine sonship that clearly implies his divinity from birth.
  5. In way of critique, I find Collins’s disproportionate treatment of the Synoptic Gospels — she devotes six pages to Mark but only two to both Matthew and Luke — surprising, given that both Matthew and Luke say much more about Jesus’ divine sonship than what is found in their respective birth narratives. I also feel that not all readers will be convinced that both Mark’s transfiguration narrative and Matthew and Luke’s respective birth narratives clearly imply Jesus’ divinity.
  6. The third essay, Magnus Zetterholm’s “Paul and the Missing Messiah,” seeks to explain the lack of emphasis on the concept/title “Messiah” in Pauline literature. Zetterholm begins by arguing that there is in fact a noticeable lack of emphasis on the concept of Messiah in Paul’s letters. Contrary to those who explain this lack of emphasis as a Pauline way of accommodating Gentiles who were unfamiliar with Judaism and Jewish concepts, Zetterholm argues that this lack is rather a Pauline attempt to address Gentiles who were too familiar with Judaism and Jewish concepts! Zetterholm presents evidence that throughout the Greco-Roman world Gentiles were embracing and practicing the Torah — and that they were encouraged to do so by Hellenistic Jews. In light of this evidence, he argues that a large number of Gentile converts to the Christian movement would have been very familiar with Judaism and Jewish concepts. But Zetterholm argues that, while some Jews encouraged Gentiles to practice the Torah without converting to Judaism, other Jews felt strongly that the Torah and Torah observance was restricted to Jews alone. Zetterholm places Paul within this latter group. He argues that Paul strongly desired to maintain two distinct groups of people within the new eschatological people of God: Jews and non-Jews. Paul’s teaching of Gentiles not to observe the Torah must be read in this light. Zetterholm explains the “missing Messiah” in Paul’s letters in light of Paul’s desire for an ethnic distinction between Jews and non-Jews. Paul gives priority to the title/concept of “Lord” rather than “Messiah” in an attempt to draw Gentiles back to their own ethnic world — a world in which their ruler the emperor was addressed as “Lord”.
  7. While Zetterholm’s essay is provocative, there are many points at which it is open to critique. One could begin with the claim of a missing Messiah in Paul’s letters. Can one claim Paul lacked emphasis on the concept of “Messiah” when he uses the word Christ over two hundred times? Some might also challenge Zetterholm’s conclusions regarding Gentile Torah observance. How widespread was the reality of Gentiles observing the Torah, and how many of Paul’s converts were actually doing so? Finally, many will disagree with the conclusion that Paul sought to establish two ethnic communities within the eschatological people of God, in light of passages such as Gal 3:28, Col 3:11, and Eph 2:14–18 (granted that Colossians and Ephesians do at least reflect Pauline thought if not authorship).
  8. The fourth essay, by Karin Hedner Zetterholm and entitled “Elijah and the Messiah as Spokesmen of Rabbinic Ideology,” explores the presentation of Elijah and the Messiah in both the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud. Zetterholm notes that, while both Elijah and the Messiah play a relatively insignificant role in the Mishnah, they play a much more significant role in the Talmud. In the Talmud, Elijah is generally presented as one who has special insight into the coming of the Messiah, for example, the time of his coming and the necessary conditions of his coming. While there are some exceptions, Elijah’s primary message is that the Messiah’s coming is dependent on Jewish adherence to the Torah: with complete Jewish obedience (even for one day!), the Messiah would come. Zetterholm ultimately concludes that both Elijah and the Messiah function as spokesmen of the rabbis and are used by them to motivate Torah observance. Zetterholm’s essay is well-written and erudite. It is largely informative in purpose and scope, and it makes few bold or argumentative claims.
  9. The fifth essay, Jan-Eric Steppa’s “The Reception of Messianism and the Worship of Christ in the Post-apostolic Church,” surveys the reception of and opposition to both messianism and chiliasm in first four centuries of the early church. Steppa demonstrates that early Greco-Roman opposition to Christianity grew out of fear and misunderstanding, but later opposition questioned the legitimacy of the faith’s historical roots and ancestry. The Christian response to such opposition focused on “prooftexts” from Jewish scripture and renewed claims to be the true expression of Abrahamic faith. Steppa then considers chiliasm (millennialism) in the postapostolic church, noting that, while a physical and literal kingdom of Christ was largely affirmed by the church fathers of the first and second centuries, it was vehemently rejected by those in later centuries. Like the fourth essay, this one is primarily informative, leaving little to be said in way of critique.
  10. Ultimately, this book would be highly valuable for undergraduate or graduate students (and perhaps interested laity) as an introduction to Jewish and Christian messianism. The book would be quite suitable for classes in New Testament studies, early and rabbinic Jewish studies, or even early church history. As an advancement in scholarship, the book has less to offer, since it includes only one essay (that of Magnus Zetterholm) that offers what one might consider a truly unique scholarly contribution.


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