Christ is a transliteration of the Greek christos, which means ‘anointed,’ that is, the Jewish Messiah. As an experiment, when reading the New Testament, substitute ‘Jewish Messiah’ for ‘Christ.’ It will change your understanding.
Detail from “The Disciples Admire the Buildings of the Temple,” a painting by James Tissot in the Collection of the Brooklyn Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (click for larger image)
Was Jesus the expected Jewish Messiah? The primary problem is that Jesus was crucified, executed by the Romans. Nothing in Jewish expectation about the Messiah expected the Messiah to lose, much less be executed by Israel’s enemies.
When the followers of Jesus first used the title Jewish Messiah in reference to Jesus, we do not know. But the earliest writing in the New Testament, 1 Thessalonians, uses the title in the letter’s address:
[From] Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy
To the community of Thessalonians
in God the father and the master Jesus Jewish Messiah.
We learn two important things from this address.
- By the time Paul wrote this letter in 49-51 CE, Anointed/Jewish Messiah had become traditional. Paul is not inventing it.
- ‘Master’ or (traditionally in English translations) ‘Lord’ is a relational term. Master implies slave and master/slave is a fundamental relationship in the Greco-Roman world, even more central than husband/wife. At its heart the Greco-Roman world is a master/slave society. Master (Lord) is frequently applied to God in the Septuagint and to the emperor in the empire. Master defines one’s relation to both as a slave. Since Jesus is a master, the Thessalonians are his slaves, as is Paul. Master is by far Paul’s preferred title for Jesus.
Paul understands and exploits the problematic nature of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. In 1 Corinthians 1 he contrasts the wisdom of God as opposing the wisdom of humans.
God enjoyed by means of the folly (madness, ridiculousness, nonsense) of our announcement (preaching) [of the good news] to save (liberate) those who trust (have confidence, believe) [in that good news].
Because Jews request visible signs (miracles, wonders) and Greeks seek wisdom (knowledge, proof),
but we announce (preach) [the good news of] the Jewish Messiah crucified (executed)—
to the Jews a scandal (stumbling block, outrage) and to the nations (Gentiles) folly (madness, ridiculousness, nonsense). (1 Cor 1:22-3)
Paul leans into the problematic character of Jesus the Jewish Messiah. He acknowledges exactly what the problem is. Jesus was executed, so how could he be the Jewish Messiah? It is folly, nonsense, madness, ridiculous. How is that in any way good news?
Like a Zen koan, Jewish Messiah crucified breaks the grasp of human reason and expectations on how God acts. The person who can look through the contradiction ‘Jesus Jewish Messiah crucified’ to good news will see the world in a new and different way. Paul acknowledges that it is a stumbling block and madness but, like a koan, is the true path to wisdom.
Where does that leave the expert? Where does that leave the scholar? Where does that leave the pundit of this age? Has not God shown the world’s wisdom to be foolish? (1 Cor 1:20 Scholars Version trans)
The gospel writers also were acutely aware of this issue. The Gospel attributed to Mark, the first gospel, written after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, confronts this problem head on. At the story’s midpoint, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do folks say I am?” They reply with a variety of answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets (Mark 8:27-8).
Then Jesus directly questions them: “But who do you say I am?” Peter answers for the group, “You are the Jewish Messiah” (Mark 8:29). From Peter’s and a reader’s perspective, this surely is the correct answer. Afterall, throughout the story’s first half, Jesus heals, casts out demons, and works miracles. These were the very signs expected by Jews. Although when asked by the Pharisees for a sign, Jesus explicitly refused to give one (Mark 8:11-12).
Peter declares that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, the first time this title has appeared in Mark’s gospel since the book’s first line: “The start of the good news of Jesus the Jewish Messiah” (Mark 1:1).
Jesus’ response is startling. He commands them to tell no one. He does not deny it but refuses to allow its broadcast.
The Son of Man
Then Jesus starts ‘to teach’ them about the ‘son of man.’ The shift in verbs is significant. Jesus had last commanded, now he teaches. They are his students (disciples) and will learn something new. The new teaching is: “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes and be killed and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31 NRSVUE). Son of man had occurred twice before in Mark’s gospel. In 2:10, the son of man has authority to forgive sins and in 2:28 the son of man is master of the Sabbath. But here the son of man will suffer, be killed, and rise again.
Paul had not mentioned the resurrection in connection with Jewish Messiah crucified, although it was implied. He focused on the folly of a Jewish Messiah crucified. Mark maintains the problematic character of Jesus the Jewish Messiah but draws attention away from the folly by pointing to the resurrection.
He also lets the Romans off the hook for executing Jesus by shifting the blame to the Jewish authorities, a first move in a long process that will have disastrous results, ending in the holocaust. Writing in the aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, the author has seen the fury of Roman vengeance on the Jews. The author does not mention crucifixion, but puts Jesus’s death in the passive voice—“will be killed.” By whom?
When Peter rejects Jesus’ teaching, Jesus tells him “Get behind me, Satan!” or as we would say, “Go to hell!” Peter has rejected God’s teaching in favor of human teaching, the exact same move that Paul had warned against.
The logic of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi is similar to that of Paul’s Koan in 1 Corinthians, but Paul is more radical. Both are based on the inherent problematic of proclaiming Jesus the Jewish Messiah. Those who early on confessed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah were aware of its problematic nature. Denying or ignoring that problematic risks forgetting the folly of the claim. It further risks the Jewish foundation of Christian belief.