by David Layman
It all depends what the meaning of "is," is.
Is Jesus the Messiah now? Bloody unlikely. Whether your political rogue du jour is Obama or Palin, politicians lie, the elderly and sick die (panels or no panels), wars arise and end with predictable pace; how long does this ellipsis have to be.........................?
Was Jesus the Messiah 2000 years ago? I suppose it depends who you ask. The Jews didn't think so. Jesus simply didn't meet the job qualifications: execution by the enemies of the Jewish people was not a good way to get this particular job promotion. As Maimonides said a millenium later in Ch. 11 of Hilchos Melachim of his Mishneh Torah, Rabbi Akiva believed that Ben Koziva (Simon bar Kokhba) was the messiah, but once he was killed, realized it was not the case.
The Greek transliteration of mashiach only appears twice in the New Testament. In John 1:41, Andrew told Simon Peter, "We have found the Messiah" and the author quickly paraphrased the term into the Greek equivalent Christos. But Jesus did not affirm the description.
In the next scene, Jesus saw Nathaniel approaching, and called him "an Israelite without any guile." Nathaniel returned the compliment in spades: "you are the son of God! You are the king of Israel!" (Flattery will get you somewhere?) Jesus sarcastically retorts: if you believe because I said I saw you under a fig tree, then you are certainly easy to convince! If "king of Israel" was meant as a periphrasis for mashiach, then Jesus brushed it aside: Nathaniel would see events more powerful than something that would make him believe Jesus was the king of Israel. He would see "heaven opened" and the "the Son of Man" revealed.
In only one case did Jesus directly link himself to the mashiach identification: in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, in John 4. The discussion turned to the religious differences between Jews and Samaritans, and the proper location for worship. Jesus told the woman that, while "salvation is of the Jews," in a future era worship will be neither at Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim, but "in spirit and in truth." The woman responded,when the Messiah comes, he'll straighten out this fight and declare or announce (anangelei) everything. Jesus then said: egô eimi o lalôn soi: "I am (the one) speaking to you." It is not clear that Jesus was saying "I am the Messiah." The Samaritan woman was expecting someone to pronounce the solution to the centuries-old Jewish-Samaritan schism; Jesus said: I am speaking it now.
This redefinition of the messianic identity is nowhere clearer than in the basic text, Matthew 16:16: the Petrine confession, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus most certainly owned this definition, but in so doing was quite clear that the traditional expectations of the Jews had nothing to do with it: "flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven (v. 17 ESV)." (If Peter or Jesus was basing his messianic identity on current expectation then the phrase, "flesh and blood has not revealed this" would have been false.) In no text or tradition did the Jews connect "Son of God" with the Messiah.
So early Christianity quickly redefined Christos as Son of Man (probably a reference to the heavenly son of man in Daniel 7:13) and Son of God. Paul ignored any reference to a messianic identity based upon a genealogical linkage, however hypothetical, to David. Rather, Christ Jesus' divine identity was based on his resurrection from the dead: the gospel was "concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,.... (Romans 1:3-4)" (To understand the Pauline dichotomy between "flesh" and "spirit," see Romans 8.)
The ecumenical creeds (Nicene, Apostles', Athanasian) or Reformation confessions (Augsburg, Heidelberg, Westminster) nowhere declared belief in the messianic identity of Jesus to be an article of faith. Indeed when the Heidelberg Catechism had an opportunity to make the connection, it twice went out of its way to avoid it. In Question 31, "Why is he called CHRIST, that is, the ANOINTED ONE?," it answered that Christ is "ordained by God the Father and anointed with the Holy Spirit." Christ had a three-fold ministry, prophet, priest and king, but the kingly authority (where one would expect some interpretation of his messianic identity) was given a spiritualized explanation: Christ is "governing up by his Word and Spirit and defending and sustaining us in the redemption he has won for us."
So where does the generally held claim that Jesus "was the messiah" arise? The "spiritualized" Christ was the standard view through the Protestant confessions. So when does it become "de-spiritualized"? The short answer appears to be in English empiricism, beginning with Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Hobbes observed that the Jewish kingdom of God was a worldly kingdom. Although he thought that the Jews had rejected the theocratic rule when they asked for a king, Jesus came, as a messiah, to restore that rule. However, such a rule would not be fulfilled until at his second coming. In the meantime, because life was nasty, brutish, and short, men covenanted with each other to chose a sovereign, who constrained the otherwise vicious liberty of men, and thus brought an end to the war of all against all. So for Hobbes, while God, with his messianic vicar Jesus, was in heaven, man ruled on earth. And "man," for Hobbes, was the sovereign king.
Locke seems to have done something similar: calling Jesus "messiah" was shorthand for saying that Jesus was superlative, perhaps quasi-divine, teacher. Certainly both Hobbes and Locke claimed to believe in Christianity. However, as scholars have noted of both men, it was a very strange Christianity. Both were radical empiricists. The continuities between Hobbes and David Hume are obvious and strong (see the first ten chapters or so of Leviathan). Hobbes especially is suspected of having been a closet atheist. Clearly, their belief that "Jesus was the messiah" was not part of a vital Christian faith, a supernatural empowerment by one believed to be the incarnation of God. Rather, for both Hobbes and Locke, the core of Christianity was intellectual assent to certain basic doctrines, most importantly that Jesus was the messiah, and that this assent was expressed by obedience to a basic program of moral law. (For Locke, see pp. xxiii-xxv in the Introduction to the Clarendon Edition of Locke's The Reasonableness of Christianity.)
Therefore, the affirmation, "Jesus was the messiah expected by the Jews," is not contained in the New Testament; is not required by Christian creeds or confessions; originated as an attack upon traditional Christian faith and practice, by trying to make Christianity a moral mode of life in the rationalistically conceived order of the world; and is a tacit denial of any manner of supernatural power in or through Jesus Christ. Perhaps it is long overdue for Christians to drop it.