In a recent post I explored the progressive development of the title “Christ” over the course of the New Testament books, noting that as events unfolded the role of the term evolved from simply identifying an anticipated Jewish Messiah-figure, THE Christ (in the Gospels), to designating Jesus himself with the shorthand name-title, “Christ” (in the Epistles). If you enjoy tracing the development of ideas, it may interest you to know that the word “Christ” has an even older history in the biblical canon.* Here’s a peek at some of the earliest uses of the word in the Old Testament.
First of all, it’s important to realize that the original meaning of the Greek term christos (and its Hebrew equivalent, mashiach*) is simply “anointed one.” Though we now associate with it ideas like “Son of God” and “Savior,” which Jesus-the-Christ certainly turned out to be, originally it merely conveyed the notion of somebody being anointed for a special purpose. And in the ancient world, that special purpose was usually kingship.* This is kind of another surprise about the word “Christ”; and as it introduces another wrinkle into the progressive history of the meaning of the title, it’s worth taking a look at some of the earliest appearances of the word to get a sense of the historical continuity and discontinuity of its use.
Now, if you’re on your game about the biblical languages, you should be wondering how the Greek title “Christ” could be found in the Hebrew Scriptures at all. Of course it isn’t there; but if you could read Hebrew, you would see the equivalent term mashiach appear occasionally from 1 Samuel through Habakkuk. In our English versions, this is usually translated “the Lord’s anointed,” or “the anointed one.”
Now, about 300 years before Jesus’ time a Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures was developed for the many Greek-speaking Jews scattered around the Mediterranean world. In the Septuagint, as it was eventually named, anytime the translators saw mashiach in the original they replaced it with christos, the same Greek word behind “Christ” in our NT. In the following verses I’ve given you a translation as if reading from that Greek OT text, so you can feel the historical continuity of the word while also gaining an awareness of the discontinuity of what it’s referring to.
I think some of the most fascinating OT uses of the term come in four verses* talking about four different kings in Israel’s history (though not all of them kings of Israel, as we’ll see). First, a statement made by David after he sneakily cuts off a corner of Saul’s robe and then has a crisis of remorse:
David said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s Christ, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the Lord’s Christ.”
David leaves no room to doubt that he considered King Saul (of all people!) to be the Lord’s Christ. Later, during a rocky time in David’s reign, his retainers use the term to describe their own king, who in their perspective has suffered a grave offense from a mud-slinging critic:
“Shall not Shimei be put to death for this, because he cursed the Lord’s Christ?”
Maybe it’s not too much of a surprise for us to hear David designated “the Lord’s Christ,” given his superior status among the kings of Israel; but even here the term retains its generalized meaning, and it is easily applied by David’s son Solomon to himself in a later prayer:
“O Lord God, do not turn away the face of your Christ!”
Most astonishing of all, though, is Isaiah’s use of the word. As he looks down the decades to a time beyond the nation’s pending conquest by Babylon, he envisions a season of restoration, and a kingly benefactor who would return Israel to her land. He begins his prophecy like this:
“Thus says the Lord to his Christ, to Cyrus…”
…adding Cyrus, King of Persia, to the roster of “Christs.”
So apparently there is a difference in the reference of the term “Christ” over the expanse of the biblical story, from Old Testament to New. In our OT, if we recognize “Christ” behind the English translation “the anointed one,” we have to acknowledge that it usually refers to a king; in the Gospels, it very clearly refers to a special Expected One, whose coming will put the world to rights; and in the Epistles, it has a still more specific reference, the God-man Jesus of Nazareth who is now identified by this name-title forever. But how did these changes in the usage of the term occur?
As I noted in my last post on this intriguing topic, the Jews of first-century Palestine, both followers and enemies, were confronted with Jesus’ claims to be the Christ of expectation, and they had to connect the dots between their anticipated Messiah and this particular rabbi before the title could adhere to him as if it were his very name. In other words, they had to have some notion in their minds already of what to expect of THE Christ when he showed up, before they could recognize that Jesus was the one.
But as we have seen above, they couldn’t just unroll their scrolls and find specific verses stating directly that the Mashiach (or, if they were reading their Septuagint, the Christos) was going to do or be one thing or another. The word was in their Scriptures some 38 times, but its reference was slippery: sometimes it referred to one king, sometimes to another; sometimes to any king of David’s line; and sometimes, very rarely, to an ambiguous figure who was to arrive in the unspecified future.
How, then, did the term “Christ” go from being mainly about kings, to bearing the very pregnant sense of a singular Jewish figure that it clearly has in the Gospels? I’ll explore this question for you in a later post!
*If you don’t much like history, this will probably be a pretty dull journal entry.
*From which we derive the word “messiah.”
* We do see examples in the Old Testament of prophets and priests being anointed, but when the term appears in the OT scriptures it’s almost always in the context of a kingship. Interestingly, what we call the “Three Offices” of Jesus – he’s our Prophet, Priest, and King – are all offices of anointing, triply reinforcing that title, “Christ.”
*From 1 Sam. 24:6; 2 Sam. 19:21; 2 Chr. 6:42; and Is. 45:1, respectively; emphasis added.
Portions of this post are taken from my recent talk, “Traces of the Christ.”
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