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Jesus Traditions

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Contents of Jesus Traditions

Messianic Expectation in Judaism, 
Its Reception in the Early Church, and
Return to: Narratives (3)

Messianic Expectation in Judaism

The Messiah was to be a king who would restore the Davidic dynasty and usher in a time of justice and peace; such was the classic expectation in Judaism, rooted in certain texts in the Hebrew prophets (Isaiah 9:6-7; 11:1-10; and elsewhere). It was the custom in ancient Israel for a person to be designated king by having oil poured over his head, or anointed, which is what the term Messiah means (in Hebrew, meshiach); see 1 Samuel 10:1; 16:12-13. Eventually Messiah was used of the ideal king, descended from David

The seeds of messianism were sown in the royal theology, which provided legitimacy to the eleventh century B.C.E. reign of David, first as king of Judah, in the south, and then of the other tribes in the north, as well. Since his coming to power displaced the ruling house of his predecessor, Saul, David took various steps to consolidate his newly launched dynasty, including recovering as his wife one of Saul’s daughters, Michal, and keeping a close eye on surviving members of Saul’s family (2 Samuel 3–5).

It was therefore more than “convenient” when Nathan the prophet, one of David’s close advisers, proclaimed that David’s ruling house was by solemn divine covenant an eternal house, which would never end (2 Samuel 7; echoed in Psalms 89 and 132). This ultimate sanction for his dynasty may well have supplied stability to the hereditary monarchy originating from David (though unhappily it did not discourage his own son, Absalom, from attempting a coup against David). Thus the royal theology functioned in ancient Israel as an ideology, to legitimize a newly-founded dynasty.

In many respects, David’s reign was the golden age of Israel’s history, due in part to his military ability, his own charisma, his popularity and rectitude, his loyalty to Yahweh, and his good luck in coming to the throne during a period of relative international tranquility. His successors on the throne for the next four hundred years—Josiah, being a notable exception— lacked for the most part the qualities which made David worthy of emulation, or cloning.

It is therefore not surprising that even before the end of the dynasty there should be hopes expressed for the coming of the Messiah, God’s anointed, an ideal king, descended from David, who would establish an era of justice and peace, as in Isaiah 9:6-7; 11:1-10 (if in fact these passages are pre-exilic). With the end of the dynasty in 586 B.C.E., the yearning for a restoration became intense in Judaism. This is understandable, in light of the fact that the exilic period brought not only an end to the dynasty, and deportation to a distant land, but the loss of their sovereignty, a sovereignty which would not be restored (except for a brief period under the Maccabees, in the second and first centuries B.C.E.) until the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948.

Beyond these considerations, we should add that the end of the Davidic dynasty also created a theological crisis, as is evident in these lines, filled with both anger and pathos (Psalm 89:34-36, 38-39, 44): 

34 I [the LORD] will not violate my covenant, or alter the word that went forth from my lips.
35 Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David.
36 His line shall continue forever, and his throne endure before me like the sun.
38 But now [says the Psalmist] you have spurned and rejected him; you are full of wrath against your anointed.
39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust.
44 You have removed the scepter from his hand, and hurled his throne to the ground.

The belief in a permanent Davidic dynasty, guaranteed by a solemn promise of the Lord God, had been refuted by history. If God was to be vindicated (to utter a slightly blasphemous phrase, since who would be bold enough to say that God needed vindication?), and his promise realized, it was of the utmost urgency that the Davidic line be restored.


The Reception of Messianism in the Early Church

It is reasonably certain that the early church proclaimed Jesus as meshiach/Messiah/Christ, but it is not too clear what they meant by the title. There is little evidence that early Christians were looking for a political restoration. 

Romans 1:3  Paul, writing in the sixth decade of the first century, seems to think it important to declare that God’s Son “was descended from David according to the flesh,” but neither here nor in any other part of his letters does he make a connection with the restoration of the Davidic monarchy.

Luke 1:31-33  The angel’s announcement to Mary comes closer to suggesting the classic Jewish model of the Messiah: “[The son you bear] will be called the Son of the Most High, and the the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” One may compare also Luke 1:69-71. These texts, coming from the ninth decade of the first century, would have stimulated little political excitement among Christians of the empire, who by this time were more interested in settling quietly into the fabric of Roman society.

Mark 10:35-40  The story of an aggressive move by James and John, who seek preferment in Jesus’ kingdom, may reflect the possible existence in the early church of those who understood his messiahship in terms of restoration of the Davidic monarchy; but the narrative is more about how ambition for high office becomes willingness to suffer with Jesus.

Within the first post-Easter decade or so, “Christ” had become virtually a proper noun. Whether used as name or title, it was applied to one who was acknowledged by these early Christians as savior, as a powerful presence in the midst of the Christian community, and as one who would soon return upon the clouds of glory—none of which would have been associated with classic messianism. There seems to have been no reflection by early believers on the appropriateness of the title for Jesus 


Jesus and Messianic Expectation

Whether his disciples acknowledged Jesus as Messiah during the period of his public activity is uncertain, and it is even more uncertain whether he believed himself called to this vocation. We take the position here that Jesus did not give his followers any encouragement in what he said or did to acknowledge himself as such a leader. Instead, we propose that there are several reasons why he would have found the messianic title incongruous—it suggested too many things that he was not. 

     1. The messianic title was nationalistic, and thus hardly compatible with the generous universalism which was characteristic of his teaching. A glance at Psalm 2 will show how much chauvinistic baggage the messianic notion was carrying.

Psalm 2  1 Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?  2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying,  "Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us."  4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision.  5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,  6 "I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill."  7 I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, "You are my son; today I have begotten you.  8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.  9 You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.  11 Serve the LORD with fear, with trembling 12 kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all who take refuge in him.


     2. The messianic title was too profoundly influenced by the ideology of the Davidic monarchy to be of use to Jesus. This ideology had been effectively refuted by the events of history which brought the supposedly eternal dynasty to a close, at the time of the sixth century B.C.E. exile. 

The messianic notion was mostly ignored by the exilic prophet who wrote Second Isaiah. He lived in a time when the Davidic dynasty had come to a dismal end. Where he does mention David (Isaiah 55:3-5), he abandons monarchic connotations and makes of David a kind of missionary, who would help implement the universalistic program the prophet envisions for Israel!

Or, expressed differently, messianism was already a spent concept by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, as anachronistic and fanciful (in an age when Rome was the unchallenged super power) as the lingering hopes in Scottish hearts of the return of Bonnie Prince Charlie to the throne of Scotland. Unless (as seems most unlikely) Jesus had been willing to embrace the Davidic ideology, it is difficult to understand how he would have found the title at all congenial.      

     3. While we cannot exclude completely the possibility that Jesus was willing to “spiritualize” the messianic title and thus make it acceptable for communicating his self-understanding, we cannot suppose that he would have deluded himself by imagining that the old nationalistic associations of the term would not linger on, to nourish fantasies of a Davidic restoration, or that he would have failed to appreciate that the non-Jewish world would hardly be able to generate much enthusiasm for the notion of a world ruled by a king who was cut from the mold of a tribal leader of old.
     4. We may make allowance for the possibility that we have an authentic tradition in which Jesus offers a rather damaging critique of Davidic kingship.

In Mark 12:35-37, Jesus is represented as relativizing Davidic ancestry as an indispensable requirement for the Messiah: “How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” 

It would be interesting to know if this critique was founded at least in part on his suspicion of the dynastic principle itself. The impression that Jesus was not enthusiastic about the messianic office is reinforced by his noncommittal response to Peter’s messianic declaration (Mark 8:29-33); Jesus does not affirm Peter’s declaration that he is the Messiah, nor does he express approval of Peter for his statement. (Needless to say, this apparent indifference is “corrected” by Matthew [16:15-20], who makes Jesus’ acceptance of the messianic title unmistakable.) 

Does Jesus’ diffidence toward the standard messianic office reflect his clear-headed understanding that what Israel—and humankind—needed was not some tinkering with political governance or another palace coup but a more profound change in human self-understanding and in a person’s relationship to God?

It is even possible to read Mark’s sequence in 8:29-31 as a correction of Peter by Jesus; i.e. Peter acknowledges Jesus as Messiah –> Jesus tells Peter to be quiet about this [ = “Don’t spread false ideas”] –> Jesus explains that the Son of Man must suffer [ = “This is the business I’m really about”]. 


     5. As has already been implied, messianism did not match the character of Jesus’ actions and teachings. From what we can recover of his public activity, we find nothing that points in the direction of messianic ambition:

   •  The tradition represents Jesus as proclaiming, not a Davidic kingdom, but God’s kingdom as present, especially in his healings. 
   •  The tradition represents Jesus as sharing his insights as a wisdom teacher, but saying nothing about social change or regime change. 
   •  The tradition represents him as showing concern for the sick, and for those on the margins of society.
   •  The tradition represents Jesus as recruiting some followers to assist him in this seemingly innocuous work. 
   •  The tradition shows him debating his opponents and defending his teachings and his work. 

So how could Jesus have used the term Messiah of himself, or encouraged his disciples to do so, without causing immense confusion and misunderstanding? 

One can only wonder how the church might have been different, had the title “Christ” not become a proper noun, and Christians not rallied around the messianic concept so persistently—and how different Jewish-Christian relations might have been, had the messiahship of Jesus not become an issue between Jews and Christians.

Return to: Narratives (3)

Revised August 27, 2003


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