Not “Christ” but “Messiah”: NT Wright on Translating Christos

Not “Christ” but “Messiah”: NT Wright on Translating Christos November 26, 2013

“The purpose for which the covenant God had called Israel had been accomplished, Paul believed, through Jesus. The entire ‘theology of election’ we have examined in the preceding pages is not set aside. It is brought into fresh focus, rethought, reimagined and reworked around Jesus himself, and particularly around his death, resurrection and enthronement. Christology, in the several senses that word must bear, is the first major lens through which Paul envisages the ancient doctrine of Israel’s election” (815-816).

One of the more interesting features of NT scholarship is a widespread (radical) minimization of “Christ” meaning “Messiah.” Instead of a direct royal perception this term is understood by many scholars to mean a second/last/family name, that is Jesus Christ is little more than Jesus’ name. NT Wright’s work won’t get off the ground until this is critiqued. I want to add that this interpretive approach owes some (not all) of its origin in the de-Judaization of Christianity and to the idea that making Jesus a Jewish Messiah makes Jesus less universally relevant. (The same happened to the word “kingdom” in NT and theological scholarship.)

NT Wright’s response:

  1. Paul’s use of royal passages from the Psalms and Isaiah — and here he points to Romans 1:3-4, where there are clear and loud echoes to 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 2. Inheritance theme in Romans, then Romans 15:1-13 and 1 Cor 15:20-28 (Psalm 110 and 8:6)… Ephesians 1:20-23.
  2. Wisdom theme, a royal house theme (David and Solomon).
  3. Narrative role in Pauline letters, like Galatians, where Jesus’ narrative role is that of Israel’s Messiah: e.g., “seed.” Romans 9:6–10:13.

Then there’s another element, often overlooked, now brought out by Novenson: “For a start, there is the linguistic evidence, set out recently by Matthew Novenson, that Christos is in fact neither a proper name (with denotation but no necessary connotation) nor a ‘title’ as such (with connotation but flexible denotation, as when ‘the King of Spain’ goes on meaning the same thing when one king dies and another succeeds him). It is, rather, an honorific, which shares some features of a ‘title’ but works differently” (824).

Thus: “The Messiah’, then, ho Christos, is for Paul not simply an individual, Jesus of Nazareth, who happens to have acquired a second proper name through the flattening out of the royal title that other early Christians were eager still to affirm. The royal meaning of Christos does not disappear in Paul’s writings. It is present, central and foundational. Though sometimes the word seems to function more or less as a proper name (any word, repeated often enough, can appear to have its surface indentations worn smooth), its connotations are never far beneath the surface and often show clearly through” (824).

Wright’s big point, of course, is that in Jesus we find an “incorporative Messiah,” that is, in Jesus we find someone in whom the identity and vocation of all Israel has been assumed. When one looks at Jesus one sees all Israel, the whole of Israel’s Story, and the plan of God incarnated in one person. Here is how Wright puts it:

Paul, I propose, exploited the notion of ‘Messiahship’ in such a way as to say two things in particular. First, the vocation and destiny of ancient Israel, the people of Abraham, had been brought to its fulfilment in the Messiah, particularly in his death and resurrection. Second, those who believed the gospel, whether Jew or Greek, were likewise to be seen as incorporated into him and thus defined by him, specifically again by his death and resurrection. The full range of Paul’s ‘incorporative’ language can be thoroughly and satisfactorily explained on this hypothesis: that he regarded the people of God and the Messiah of God as so bound up together that what was true of the one was true of the other. And this becomes in turn the vital key to understanding the close and intimate link between ‘incorporation’ and ‘justification’, between ‘participatory’ and ‘forensic’ accounts of Paul’s soteriology – not to mention the themes of salvation history, ‘apocalyptic’ and transformation (826).

This incorporative language, Wright is arguing, is not typical Judaism but more of a revising by Paul’s own belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thus, “Israel” would be raised up in the general resurrection; it happened though only to Jesus (Tom skips Matt 27 but it might have helped a tad); therefore the general resurrection did happen but our resurrection is “in” Jesus. This is the kind of thinking that went on in Paul’s head. Israel’s king was representative and incorporative. He has backed off seeing some of this, as he once did, in other OT and Jewish texts, but he maintains it is taught by Paul — in Romans 3:1-26; Galatians 2:15-4:11, Phlippians 3:2-11.

Also the “in” and “with” Christ passages abound, and they are incorporative.

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