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The One Who Is to Come

by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J.

Eerdmans, 224 pages, $18

Joseph Fitzmyer is one of the leading biblical scholars of the past generation. He came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, during the same era as Roland Murphy and Raymond Brown, and it is not unfair to say that under the leadership of these three men the community of Catholic scholars finally began to make major contributions to biblical scholarship. All three were distinguished churchmen who spent a good part of their careers making the work of academic biblical study understandable. Murphy and Brown have now passed away, but Fr. Fitzmyer continues to produce publications of considerable quality.

Fitzmyer has distinguished himself with his mastery of both the Semitic background of the New Testament and its reception in the Greco-Roman world. His editions of the Aramaic inscriptions from Sefire and the Genesis Apocryphon from Qumran, for instance, are still recognized as the standard treatments of these texts. Given this set of skills, it is hard to imagine a better scholar to tackle”as he does in his latest work, The One Who Is to Come ”the vexed problem of Jewish messianic expectations in the generations just prior to the birth of Jesus.

The problem is one of historical anachronism: What beliefs can we determine that people held, before the birth of Jesus, about the coming messiah”when the coming of Jesus and the rise of Christianity so transformed all those beliefs? It is a very old methodological principle that the historian must learn again and again: What comes after does not always follow from what came before.

And so for the Christian claim that Jesus was the suffering messiah, long expected in the Sacred Scriptures. After the rise of the early Church and its claims to fulfill the hopes of the Jewish people, it was simply presumed that the coming of Jesus could easily be plugged into a pre-existent Jewish matrix. Modern biblical scholarship has seriously challenged that presumption. The idea of a suffering messiah is difficult to trace in the Hebrew Scriptures, and even the notion that a single, royal messianic figure was expected is not easy to locate.

This is sometimes an alarming detail for Christian readers. It would seem to indicate that the Old and New Testaments are not organically related. But if one stops to ponder the matter more deeply, one can find evidence even in the New Testament to support it. For there is something radically new about the child that was born to Mary and Joseph.

When Jesus tells the disciples that as Israel’s messiah he will die on a cross, they are, to a person, aghast. Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him for what he believes to be utter nonsense (Mark 8:32). Jesus, in turn, puts Peter in his place (“Get behind me, Satan!”).

Even after the resurrection, Jesus must take the disciples aside and show them how all the events that have transpired in his life were predicted in the Scriptures. Without his special instruction, we are led to believe, they would not have made the connections.

In his current book, Fitzmyer goes through all the Old Testament writers to see just what they envision regarding the messiah. He begins with a consideration of the term itself. Our English word comes from a Hebrew root ( mashiah ) that means “one who is anointed” ( Christos in Greek also means “anointed one”). At its origin, the term has no eschatological ramifications”it is entirely grounded in the rite of induction for a priest or king to his respective office. But in common usage the term messiah has always referred to an ideal royal figure who is expected to come.

For Fitzmyer, messiah means an anointed agent of God, royal or priestly, who will appear at the end of time to assist in the redemption of Israel. Having established this definition, he turns to the Old Testament itself to survey its contents.

Throughout the bulk of this corpus he finds no unambiguous references to a messianic agent who was to come, except in the Book of Daniel. In the famous vision of the seventy weeks of years, near the close of the ninth chapter, is found the first clear reference to the expectation of a messianic redeemer figure. This portion of the book, according to a consensus among scholars, originated in the second century B.C. in the wake of the horrible political crisis occasioned by the Seleucid devastation of the city of Jerusalem. The idea of a messiah, in the narrow terms Fitzmyer has supplied us, is very late in coming.

But once the idea is on the scene, it begins to assume an important role in Jewish literature. The Dead Sea Scrolls are one place to turn to see how popular the idea had become. Given that Fitzmyer has spent much of his career working on these texts, his discussion of the evidence from Qumran is exemplary.

What emerges from this material is a number of different notions of who this messiah would be. In the end we learn that the Jewish matrix out of which Jesus emerged offered a wide variety of construals.

All in all, The One Who Is to Come offers a representative catalogue of the principal texts and a judicious exposition of them. But a couple of matters were left out, and they might have altered considerably the conclusions of Fitzmyer’s work.

The first concerns the way in which Israel’s canonical Scriptures might have been read in the time of Jesus. Consider two of the famous prophecies of Isaiah. One is found in chapter 9: “For a child has been born to us, a son has been given to us; upon his shoulder dominion has settled; one has named him Wonderful Counselor, Warrior God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The other is found two chapters later. It begins: “A shoot shall come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a sprout shall bloom from his roots,” and it ends with a glorious prophecy of the peaceable kingdom in which the wolf shall lie down with the lamb and the leopard with the kid and a mere babe shall frolic beside the viper’s den.

Fitzmyer is certainly right to assert that these texts may not have been meant messianically when the eighth-century prophet wrote them down, but were they still heard in a non-messianic way in the second or first centuries before the advent of Christ?

This strikes me as highly unlikely. Brevard Childs and Christopher Seitz have spent much of their careers working on the problem of how the final canonical form of the book of Isaiah recontextualized older prophecies, but Fitzmyer provides not a single reference to their work. One would have liked to have seen an account of how Israel’s Scriptures might have been heard in this period alongside his account of how they were heard.

A second point concerns Fitzmyer’s narrow definition of messiah . There is a certain gain from hewing to a narrow approach on this matter. Among other things, it shows us just why the disciples in the New Testament were so surprised by Jesus’ death and resurrection. There were no clear maps for this in the Old Testament. But by the same token, we need to make sense of the figure of Jesus in his post-Easter glory. This is the man who teaches the disciples at the close of Luke’s Gospel about the need to suffer death and then be raised. If we broaden our definition of messiah to include “the elect one of Israel” and “the beloved son,” then we have ample evidence of the necessity of suffering in the Old Testament.

In the end, a New Testament scholar has a two-pronged responsibility: to show how the figure of Jesus is a new thing in the history of Israel”and also to show how that new thing stands in continuity with the Israel’s past. In The One Who Is to Come , Joseph Fitzmyer has done an admirable job with the former but stumbled badly over the latter.

Gary A. Anderson is professor of Old Testament at the University of Notre Dame.