In two previous posts I outlined how the word “Christ” changed in its reference over the course of the books of the New Testament and those of the Old. The big-picture sweep of that change goes like this:
So in the Old Testament Christ (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Mashiach), with its literal meaning of “anointed one,” mainly referred to kings – sometimes specific kings, like David or Solomon or even Cyrus of Persia; sometimes any king of David’s line; and rarely, with much mystery, to a particular figure who would come in the unspecified future and set everything to rights.
But by the time we get to the Gospel accounts, the reference of the term Christ has obviously narrowed from this broad OT usage. At this point, whenever anybody uses this word he or she is consciously referring to that mysterious Coming One, on whom all of Israel’s hope seems to depend for defeating the Roman overlords and reestablishing the Davidic monarchy in the Land. Those who interact with Jesus, both enemies and friends, must contend with his claim to the title and decide if he is the one who fits the bill. As we advance into the Epistles in our Bibles, we see that Christian believers, at least, have made that judgment in the affirmative: for now the word Christ is used as a shorthand name-title for Jesus, who, they assert, has powerfully proven himself worthy of it.
The question I want to consider in this post is how the word Christ (or Messiah) gained this specific, exciting meaning in the Gospels, given the rarity of the term itself being used in the OT to describe what a special Coming One would be or do. How had the people in Jesus’ day gotten to the point where they all agreed (in its broad outlines, at least) on a job description for THE Christ? They must have had some idea in their minds already of what to expect, before they could connect the dots and decide whether Jesus matched that expectation. So where did their mental “Wanted” poster come from? How did they get from “king” to “Expected One”?
Apparently, it was sometime during the centuries in between the end of the OT and the beginning of the events described in the Gospels, this “Intertestamental Period” of about 400 years (see the lavender bar on the timeline above), that the word Christos or Mashiach began to take on that full-fledged, pregnant meaning, so that when people wrote or spoke the word they were consciously referring to that Expected Figure, the Jewish Messiah. That’s when this idea seems to have congealed in history around the term, during this time when the Jews labored under so many oppressive conquering regimes.
And for the most part, the first-century idea of the Christ or Jewish Messiah wasn’t tied to the word Mashiach or Christos, but was an amalgam of different descriptions and expectations found throughout the Scriptures. I invite you to listen to my 2015 talk “Traces of the Christ” to hear a creative rendering of this big sweep of messianic expectation in the Hebrew Scriptures, narrated as if Jesus were “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets” to explain himself to his despondent disciples on the road to Emmaus. Here’s just a sketch of some of the things he might have told them, giving them a picture of the Messiah from the Old Testament:
- In the Garden we learned that the Coming One was to be a human being who would suffer but have the victory;
- from Abraham’s time and Jacob’s and Judah’s, that he would be Jewish, and royalty, and a blessing to many nations;
- from Moses’ day, that he would be a prophet who would speak the very words of God;
- from David’s story that he would be of this particular kingly line;
- from Isaiah, that he would bring forgiveness through suffering.*
Remember, too, that by Jesus’ day, whatever had been the biblical expectation of the Christ had become encrusted with folk legend and popular yearnings for a powerful political and military leader — maybe somebody like Judas Maccabeus and his brother Simon, who for an all-too-brief time had managed to restore to Israel an independent monarchy about 160 years before Jesus. This event is fresh in the people’s historical imagination by Jesus’ day; and it turns out that, even for Jesus’ followers, unless someone set those imaginings aside and were steeped in the words of the Scriptures instead, they might well miss seeing how Jesus fit the bill for the Lord’s Christ – and so the seeming end of his story would be especially shocking for them.
The key piece that people tended to miss was Isaiah’s, this idea that the Expected One, THE Christ, would be a king who would suffer. But for those who grasped this crucial element of the Messiah’s job description – usually after the fact, with some help from Jesus himself or his messengers – the details of Jesus’ story clicked into place and revealed his worthiness to bear the title. And this is, ultimately, the Christian confession: that Jesus of Nazareth truly did meet all of the scriptural requirements, even the ones that had dropped off the popular radar.
*The verses that supply these ideas are, respectively: Gen. 3:15; 17:6; 49:10; Deut. 18:18; 2 Sam. 7:13; and Is. 53:5. Note that this list of messianic references is representative, not comprehensive.
Parts of this post were adapted from my 2015 talk “Traces of the Christ.”
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