Christos, the Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew māšῑaḥ or “messiah” (“anointed”), is Christianity’s designation of choice for Jesus. Used in the Masoretic Text most often to denote Israelite kings, the title came to signify an end-time human redeemer figure within various late– and post–Second Temple apocalyptic traditions (ca. 200 200 C.E.). Within this matrix, the word “Christ” was fastened so firmly and so early onto Jesus of Nazareth that, by mid-first century, Paul could use it as Jesus’s name. Evolving Gentile Christologies eventually filled the term with newer metaphysical meanings, propelling major intra-Christian controversies that even late Roman emperors were powerless to resolve. Yet the Byzantine Christ, like his rabbinic messianic contemporary, retained some features of his earliest Jewish avatar: a figure of divinely sanctioned kingly, thus earthly, authority.

The Jewish Matrix (1): The Bible.

In the Hebrew Bible māšῑaḥ occurs only 39 times, usually to designate the current ruler, whose assumption of office was marked by anointing with oil (e.g., 2 Sam 5:3; 1 Kgs 1:39; Ps 89:20). Less frequently, “anointed one” refers to the holder of priestly office (Lev 4:3, 5, 16); anointing might also signal the investiture of a prophet (1 Kgs 19:16; cf. Isa 61:1). Scripture calls the entire people of Israel “God’s anointed” (Ps 105:15; 1 Chr 16:22); more surprisingly, Isaiah uses the term of Cyrus (r. ca. 558–529 B.C.E.), the Persian ruler who defeated Babylon and permitted the Jewish exiles living there to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the Temple (Isa 45:1; cf. 2 Chr 36:23).

This variety notwithstanding, the biblical māšῑa most often and most specifically refers to the warrior king David (r. ca. 1000–962 B.C.E.) and to the monarchs of his line. David appears in Jewish tradition as the ruler who especially loved God (thus, authorship of Psalms is attributed to him) and who in turn was especially loved by God. Speaking of David and of his sons as God’s own “sons,” God promises them eternal sovereignty. “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors,” God promises David, “I will raise up your offspring after you … and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name [i.e., Solomon’s Temple], and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be my son. … I will not take my steadfast love from him” (2 Sam 7:12–15; cf. Ps 2.7, on God’s “begetting” the king as his son).

The northern kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria (722 B.C.E.); Babylon, destroying Jerusalem and its Temple, ended Davidic rule in the south (586 B.C.E.). These disconfirmations of the divine promise had the effect, however, of amplifying prophetic oracles of its ultimate fulfillment. Thus, Isaiah anticipates a “shoot coming forth from the stump of Jesse” (David’s father): a future king whose reign will be marked by righteousness and peace, when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord,” scattered Israel will be reassembled, and even Gentiles will seek this messianic king (11:1–15). Jeremiah repeats this promise (“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch”), emphasizing the justice and righteousness of the messianic reign (Jer 23:5; cf. 33:17–22). Ezekiel ties the appearance of this future Davidic monarch to the resurrection of the dead (“I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people”) and to the nation’s restoration (“and I will bring you home to the Land,” Ezek 37:12). With the Davidic prince on Israel’s throne “forever” and God’s sanctuary restored, even foreign nations will acknowledge “that I, the Lord, sanctify Israel” (37:24–28).

The Jewish Matrix (2): Apocalyptic Eschatology.

Judeans adapted first to Persian, then (after Alexander the Great, r. 336–323 B.C.E.) to Macedonian rule, alternating between Egypt’s Ptolemies and Syria’s Seleucids. The explosion of hostilities under Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r. ca. 175–164 B.C.E.), his desecration of Jerusalem’s Temple, and the ultimate victory of the Hasmonean family (167–41 B.C.E.) led to a new moment of mitigated Jewish independence, which continued until the death of Herod the Great (4 B.C.E.). Dividing Herod’s kingdom among his three sons, Caesar Augustus ultimately assumed direct responsibility for Judea, ensuring that authority in the province would seesaw unstably between imperial governors and Herod’s heirs. But in the wake of two Judean rebellions, Rome destroyed first the Temple (70 C.E.) and finally the city itself (ending the Bar Kokhba revolt, 135 C.E.). Jewish Jerusalem disappeared; on its ruins, Hadrian (r. 117–138 C.E.) built a pagan city, Aelia Capitolina. The smoke of sacrifice from the old Temple mount ascended to Rome’s high god, Jupiter.

This arc of time between Antiochus and Hadrian, punctuated by disorienting defeats and some no less disorienting victories, describes the period during which the older scriptural paradigms of a coming Davidic king and a restored Temple were altered in response to a grander vision: the expected redemption, at time’s end, not just of Israel but also of the whole world. Certain key elements appear in various sequences and combinations in this apocalyptic literature: the righteous suffer before being vindicated once God’s final kingdom comes; the forces of good (led by an angel or by a messianic figure or by God himself) battle and defeat the forces of evil; Jerusalem and the Temple are restored, renewed, and made beautiful; the 12 tribes of Israel reassemble and return; the dead are raised and judgment is pronounced (again by an angel or God or God’s messiah); the nations, destroying their idols, turn and worship Israel’s God together with Israel; and suffering and injustice cede forever to abiding peace. Nothing in this scenario, save its happy ending, is fixed. Some texts look forward to the coming of a messiah (Psalms of Solomon, 2 Baruch) and some to two messiahs (1QS), some name no messiah (Jubilees, Testament of Moses), and others anticipate the advent of a heavenly figure, such as the Son of Man (Daniel, 2 Esdras; cf. 1 Enoch). Yet where these texts do feature an exalted human, he is a scion of the house of the warrior king David, God’s “son.”

The Jewish Matrix (3): Jesus of Nazareth and the Post-Resurrection Traditions.

Like his mentor John the Baptist before him and like his apostle Paul after him, Jesus of Nazareth called his listeners to repentance in anticipation of the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom. “The time has been completed, the Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent, and trust in the good news!” (Mark 1:15, author’s translation). Later gospels depict Jesus as accompanying—indeed, authorizing—this summons with healings and exorcisms. (Josephus calls them paradoxa, “startling deeds,” Ant. 18.63) Whether Jesus himself ever claimed to be messiah, and if so on what basis, is hard to determine; academic opinion remains divided. He certainly died as if he had: sometime around Passover, perhaps in the year 30, the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate crucified Jesus as an insurrectionist. His cross bore the mocking charge “the King of the Jews” (Mark 15:26; John 19:19). In fear and confusion, Jesus’s followers fled. Yet shortly thereafter, back in Jerusalem, his disciples regrouped. Despite their absolute certainty that Jesus had died, they first perceived, then proclaimed, that he lived again: God, they said, had raised him from the dead (1 Cor 15:3–8; cf. Acts 1:3; 13:31, which suggest that these appearances continued for some time).

The early community’s experiences of Jesus’s resurrection point indisputably to its origins in the eschatological hopes of first-century Judaism. In the person of their executed leader these people saw realized two of the prime promises of the messianic age: the resurrection of the dead and the vindication of the righteous. Jesus’s good news was thereby validated: surely, the Kingdom was at hand. Thus, this community continued Jesus’s mission, preparing Israel for the end that they now knew, on the evidence of his resurrection, must be fast approaching. The eschatological event of the Kingdom’s arrival they connected to another, singular conviction of their own: when the Kingdom came, it would be brought by the raised and returning Christ. Descending to the sound of divine trumpets, leading angelic armies, defeating God’s enemies, raising the dead: when Jesus returned, he would come the way that a messiah was supposed to come (Mark 13:26–30; 1 Cor 15:23–28; 1 Thess 4:17).

As their mission spread out from the Jewish homeland into the synagogues of the western Diaspora, it encountered yet another confirmation of its message: populations of pagans, attached to Diaspora synagogues as god-fearers, committed in Jesus’s name to forswear their native gods—another messianic promise realized. It was this tremendous validation of Jesus’s foundational prophecy that continued to confirm his apostles in their conviction, even as the decades rolled by, that they indeed knew what time it was on God’s clock. “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became convinced,” Paul tells the Gentile community in Rome some 20 years after Jesus’s crucifixion. “The night has advanced, day has drawn near” (Rom 13:11–12, author’s translation). Describing the celestial and terrestrial disturbances that would presage the ingathering of the elect, Mark’s Jesus says (ca. 70 C.E. or later), “This generation will not pass away before all these things occur” (13:30, author’s translation).

The intensity of these apocalyptic convictions encouraged interpretations of Jesus in light of traditional messianic tropes, even as these tropes were interpreted in light of traditions about Jesus. Paul supplies the earliest evidence of this process. He typically identifies Jesus as “Christ”: the term appears more than 140 times in the seven undisputed letters of his extant correspondence. But he nowhere explains why he uses it or why he thinks it fitting until he frames his letter to the Romans. There we find two fleeting, formal declarations of Jesus’s eschatological identity that link him with the broader, biblically based redemptive myth. The first comes in the letter’s introduction, where Paul speaks of “Jesus Christ,” foretold by the prophets, by flesh descended from David and by Holy Spirit, and by the resurrection of the dead designated God’s son (Rom 1:2–4). Presumably Paul means by the latter not Jesus’s own resurrection (despite the RSV translation) but rather the coming general resurrection of which Jesus is “the first fruits” (1 Cor 15:12). As son of David and of God, thus as the exalted and returning initiator of the general resurrection, Jesus is the eschatological Christ. Paul’s second explanation comes near the letter’s close, where he again invokes Jesus’s second coming as the fulfillment of biblical promises, “for whatever was written earlier was for our instruction” (Rom 15:4, author’s translation). These promises, Paul continues, always had a double focus: Israel’s redemption and that of the nations (Rom 15: 8–9; cf. 11:25–26). Citing Isaiah 11:10 (LXX), Paul adds, “The root of Jesse [David’s father] will come, rising to rule the nations; on him the nations will hope” (Rom 15:12). The pagans’ response to the gospel, renouncing their lower gods and forsaking their idols—the particular fruit, as Paul sees it, of his own mission (Rom 1:5–6; cf. Gal 1:16)—identifies Jesus as the end-time christos.

Paul’s eschatology provided Jesus with a messianic future; the later synoptic evangelists, with a messianic past. While Mark’s term of preference for Jesus is “Son of Man” (8:31; 10:33–34), he clearly equates “Christ” with the details of Jesus’s “biography” (1:1), especially in the passion narrative (14:61–62). In different ways Matthew and Luke frame the Markan core of their gospels by embedding Jesus in a long past shaped by biblical prophecies (many in their original context not messianic at all): hence, Jesus’s mother’s virginity (Isa 7:14 [LXX]), his birth in Bethlehem, his flight to Egypt (Matt 1–2), his presentation at the Temple (Luke 2:22–40), and so on. The Davidic traditions generate Jesus’s “biographical” details, and those details—especially his healings, his exorcisms, his parables, and above all his crucifixion—generate the messianic resonance of originally nonmessianic scriptures. This hermeneutical work, in turn, generated a new definition of “messiah”: only he who has suffered, died, and been raised (i.e., Jesus) is the Christ (e.g., Luke 24:26–27, 44–47).

High Christology.

Ancient monotheism, whether pagan, Jewish, or eventually Christian, accommodated a great range of other divinities. In Jewish tradition, God’s word (logos) and wisdom (sophia) literally take on lives of their own, while assorted exalted humans (like Elijah or Enoch) and angelic powers exercise much latitude. Within this context, the high claims made for Jesus by Paul and later by John seem less startling. Both authors claim for Christ a status of divine preexistence (Phil 2:6-7; cf. John 1:1–3, which subtly attributes to the logos both divinity [theos] and a role in creation). Though Jesus is clearly subordinate to God—as son is to father, as logos is to theos—his crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation, and coming glorious Parousia revealed him and would reveal him to be the next most important divine being after God (Phil 2:6).

By the early second century, as the passage of time forced revisions of the earliest movement’s imminent eschatology (e.g., 2 Pet 3:1–15A), versions of Christian revelations circulated among various communities, whether Jewish, mixed, or non-Jewish. Gentile intellectuals, availing themselves of the principles of pagan philosophical paideia, began their attempts to make coherent theological sense of the Christian message and of its patrimony of Hellenistic Jewish texts—the Septuagint especially, as refracted through the lens of Paul’s letters, of different gospels, and of other pseudepigraphical and revelatory texts.

Roman Platonism’s definition of the highest god—that he or it was radically transcendent, absolutely unitary (“one” or “simple”), immaterial, perfect, and therefore utterly changeless—dominated all learned theologies of the period. That god was a poor fit with the active, engaged deity of the Septuagint, which is why Hellenistic Judaism had appealed to God’s angels, his logos, or his sophia as cosmic go-betweens when commenting on the biblical text. (Later, Christian theologians such as Justin and Origen would do the same.) The “higher” God the Father, the more awkward his relationship to the chief divinity portrayed in the biblical texts and the “higher” Christ’s deity rose. For Valentinus (ca. 100–160 C.E.), the Father and the Son resided in an upper pleroma (a heaven above the heavens), far above the god of the Septuagint, who represented the Father’s and Christ’s cosmic opponent. For Justin Martyr (ca. 100–ca. 165), Christ actually was the god of the Septuagint, active in history before his incarnation (Dial. 56; Christ as the heteros theos, “another god”).

Paul, too, had claimed a “high” definition of Jesus Christ, but Paul was no theologian in the ways that these later intellectuals were. His burning eschatology and his literary medium (real letters, not learned treatises) relieved him of the project of coordinating philosophical paideia’s chief concepts—universe (cosmos), divinity (theos), humanity (anthropos), soul or mind (psyche/nous), body (soma), flesh (sarx)—with those of biblical prophecy—divine justice and mercy, sin and repentance, repentance and atonement, atonement and forgiveness, forgiveness and redemption, redemption and the resurrection of the body. But this was precisely the brief of later patristic theologians, whose dependence on late Platonic metaphysics—they had no other option—provided them with the tools they needed to articulate their systems while making that articulation that much harder. How does Christ as “Son” relate to “Father” in terms of his divinity? How does Christ as “divine” relate to “human” in terms of his humanity? How does Christ effect salvation, and how is that salvation defined? And, to complicate matters further, how does the Holy Spirit figure in all of this?

The late second through fifth centuries was a period of perfervid Christological creativity. Most systems, though clearly subordinationist—as indeed was their vocabulary, whether biblical or philosophical—insisted that Christ as divine son was “begotten” (a metaphor drawing on the language of biological descent) rather than “made” (whether through adoption, as at the moment of the Markan Christ’s baptism [Mark 1:9–11], or through creation as the highest of God’s “products”). Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185–ca. 254 C.E.) managed to combine both ideas in ways that preserved God’s metaphysical unity while still providing for genuine distinctions between the divine Father and the truly divine Son. God alone (as Father, Son, and Spirit) was self-existing and absolutely without body; his eternally generated creation, rational beings, had “spiritual” body and were contingent upon God—metaphysically, not temporally—for their existence (Princ. 1.1–4). Jesus’s soul, which was contingent, derived from this latter group; the divine Son, noncontingent, expressed an aspect of the former.

The bitter contest between Arius (ca. 250–336) and Athanasius (ca. 293–373) can be understood as a quarrel over how to interpret Origen. Arius, fearful of Sabellianism (which affirmed God’s oneness by insisting that “Trinity” described divine functions or modes, not “persons”), emphasized Christ’s contingency: he was indeed God but contingent upon God the Father for his existence. Athanasius, reacting to Arius (whose subordinationism was the more traditional view of the two), instead emphasized Christ’s noncontingent, full divinity.

For good and for ill, Constantine (r. 306–337) at this point enters the story. Newly converted to one particular sect of Christianity, the self-proclaimed catholica (as opposed to the churches of Marcion, Valentinus, Montanus, and others whose persecution he immediately pursued: Eusebius, Vit. Const. 64–66), Constantine sought harmony within his chosen church. He convened an episcopal council to settle these Christological disputes at Nicaea in 324. His efforts at consolidation only led to further fracturing as the bishops fell to quarreling with one another, disputing the interpretation of the supposedly consensus statement of the creed. Under his sons, who divided control over the imperium east and west, “orthodoxy” was a matter of location: in general, the west sided with Athanasianism and the east, with Arianism.

Although doctrinal consensus eluded imperial Christianity, a certain visual consensus prevailed in the evolving area of Christian art. Adapting the idioms of empire to Christian proclamation, illuminated gospel manuscripts and the mosaics of baptisteries assimilated the image of the church’s messiah to that of the empire’s king. In these late Roman images, Christ stands erect on his cross, arms outstretched and eyes wide open, robed sumptuously in purple and gold. In an image at Ravenna (Christus Militans, sixth century), for example, a beautiful and beardless young man, dressed as a Roman soldier, holds aloft a banner reading EGO SUM VIA, VERITAS ET VITA (“I am the way, the truth, and the life”): the Johannine Christ as Roman emperor (see John 14:6). Ironically, and intriguingly, the messiah of the rabbis underwent a similar inflection as late Jewish apocalyptic texts (ʾOtot ha-Mashiach, Sefer Zevubbabel) drew on Byzantine imperial themes even as they predicted Rome’s fall and the coming of the new Davidic kingdom. Thus, despite its extended peregrinations through late Second Temple eschatologies and the murkiness of late Roman metaphysics, even the Byzantine māšῑaḥ/messiah/christos continued to resonate with its original biblical meaning of a ruling king.

No such core meaning stabilized the Masoretic Text’s other messianic designation, “Son of God.” Free of its biblical moorings, transmuted from a term of Davidic sovereignty to a term of Christian theology, “Son of God” came to refer to Christ’s divinity and not, as originally, to his human, though special, status as David’s heir. Fifth-century Christian orthodoxy, codified at the Council of Chalcedon (451), asserted that Christ as God’s son was fully divine—equal to God the Father—as well as fully human. Further heated refinements sundered the notional catholica, depending on how one constructed Christ’s humanity and divinity. Did he have a human mind, or was it replaced or effaced by divine logos? Did he have one nature or two natures? If two, were they somehow recombined into a unique amalgam (A + B = C), or were they coalesced with distinction (A + B = AB, the Chalcedonian option)? These breaches were never closed, and the various communities crystallized by these controversies—the Assyrian, Coptic, and Ethiopic churches—exist into the twenty-first century.




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Paula Fredriksen