Jesus the Greaser?

Jesus the Greaser? March 20, 2013

I just saw this image on Facebook:

I may have to show it to my classes in the future.

When the concept of Messiah first comes up, I ask if anyone knows what it means. Usually there is someone who knows that it means “anointed” or “anointed one.”

Then I ask what it means to be anointed. Often there is someone who knows the answer to that question, but not always.

It means to be smeared with oil. And so, while neither Pam nor spray cans existed in the ancient world, what one uses the item in the photo above for today is what “anointed” meant in its most common secular usage. The term was used for things like smearing oil on a baking tray.

I think that the similarity between the Greek word christos and the name Crisco is just a coincidence.

Why is it worth talking about this? Because it helps get at why the fundamentalist appeal – or anyone's appeal – to the “plain meaning” of the text is dubious.

To an ancient Greek, like to a modern reader given a literal translation (rather than the usual transliteration as Messiah or Christ), that Jesus was smeared with oil would be meaningless.

To someone in the 1950s (and perhaps also someone who watched Sha Na Na and Grease in the 1970s), it might seem to be placing Jesus in a particular subculture.

To an ancient Israelite, it would have meant that Jesus was set apart by God for a particular purpose.

And to Jews in the first century, it would have meant that Jesus was being claimed as the fulfillment of expectations that God would restore the kingship and/or high priesthood to its rightful holder.

But even with the latter, Jesus spent a lot of time emphasizing that, while he was the Anointed One, he was not going to be the sort of Messiah his contemporaries were expecting.

When someone says “the text obviously means”, you may have to resist the temptation to laugh and walk away. Instead, ask the obvious question: Obvious to whom? What seems obvious to a modern English-speaking reader will not always be what would seem obvious to an ancient Mediterranean reader, and vice versa. To the extent that modern readers accurately grasp something of the meaning of the term “anointed” in the Bible, it is because at some point they have been informed about the ancient Israelite custom. But modern readers need to be aware that, unless they have made a conscious effort to seek historical contextual information that will allow them to grasp something of what the “plain meaning” might have been for ancient readers, then there is a lot they will be missing, a lot that they will read as modern people in ways that the ancient authors of these texts could not have envisaged or intended.

Most people who say “just read it” may not even realize that what they are saying is “just read it the way I do.” In response, we must insist on reading texts in a manner that the original audience could have understood it, even if the resulting meaning is different than any meaning that would have seemed natural to us reading the text against the backdrop of our own assumptions, language, culture, and historical context.


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  • markmatson

    An interesting use of the word “anoint” occurs in Joseph and Aseneth without any “messianic” overtones. In response to Aseneth’s attempt to kiss him, Joseph asserts that a god-fearing person “who blesses God with his mouth, eats the bread of life, drinks from the cup of immortality, and is anointed with the ointment of incorruption” would certainly never kiss a foreign woman (one who is “anointed with the oinment of destruction”).

    And this is not likely a reference to the eucharist, since it now appears to be pretty much wholly Jewish (perhaps 1st century BCE).

    So did Jews consider regular anointing a part of the distinctives of Judaism in a pluralistic society? Or perhaps self-anointing is ubiquitous, but anointing has the possibility of conveying uncleanness or commonality, and so the anointing was maintained differently than “regular” anointing?

    Interesting use of this in a Judaism (possibly in Egypt) contemporaneous with Jesus. And not :”messianic” but more “regular run of the mill” anointing.

    • Thanks for pointing out that passage! Matthew 6:17 seems like it might support some sort of common practice of anointing that was more for appearance or refreshment than anything ceremonial.

  • “that Jesus was smeared with oil would be meaningless.”

    How about “that Jesus was submerged in water would be meaningless” too? Is it more helpful to use transliteratations of Greek (i.e., “Jesus” was made “Christ” and he was “baptized by ‘John’ the ‘Baptist'”) or of Hebrew (“Yeshua” was made “Messiah”)? How do Bible movie makers need to portray these things so that modern audiences understand the religious significances and not get confused by the meaninglessnesses of oil smearing and of dipping into water?

    The Greek word “Chris*” found in the LXX is just a carry over from other Greek literature showing all kinds of oil smearings. In fact, in LXX Exodus 2:3 the mother of Moses “anoints” the little basket she puts him in. Later in LXX Exodus 29:7, the brother of Moses gets his head “anointed” with oil. And later in LXX Deuteronomy 28:40, there’s a general warning against using oil from the olives from the olive tree to “anoint” one’s head. The word for “christ” is found in each place.

    Long before that Homer has Helen anointing Odysseus in the Odyssey 4:252 –

    Yet when finally I bathed and anointed him in oil,

    then I wrapped around him a sheet and solemnly swore an oath

    not to give him up – not to give Odysseus up – to the Trojans.

    I guess what I’m asking is when words pack religious punches, then do they also have to be robbed of their daily and embodied meanings?

    Here’s another place where these questions, about odd words, have been asked:

    • Thanks for the comment! I don’t think that usage as a technical term always undermines or eliminates a broader usage. My point was more related to the fact that the New Testament reflects a particular usage with specific connotations that a wider audience might not have understood. I didn’t mean to suggest either that the term would not have meant anything to that broader audience, or that the specific connotations of anointing in Judaism would have been incompatible with a broader use.