Epistles of Thomas

March 21, 2009

Nickelsburg lecture on the Messiah review

Filed under: New Testament,Old Testament — Thomas @ 14:01
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Wednesday evening brought George W. E. Nickelsburg to Trinity Western University where he lectured on “Were the Jews Expecting the Messiah? And did the First Christians Think He had Come?” There was the small change from the previously announced title to make it specific: “the Messiah” rather than “a messiah.”

Nickelsburg began by summarising the typical presentation of this topic:

The Jews wanted the messiah to come to rescue them from the subjugation of Rome. However, Jesus showed up as a suffering messiah and was crucified. Rome destroyed the temple and Jerusalem in 70. The Jews were expecting the Messiah but missed him because they were looking for the wrong kind of messiah. After the destruction of the centre of Judaism they turned to Torah.

This is something of a strawman but regardless he spent the rest of the lecture deconstructing this view. His conclusion was that the Jews were not expecting the Messiah but different groups had different expectations based on their focus on particular problems and the required solution. Some groups focussed on a Davidic king while others focussed on a king and priest (DSS) while others added a true prophet to the mix.

Christians focus on the absence of prophets between the closing of the Old Testament with Malachi and the arrival of John the Baptiser. However, there were lots of people during this period who claimed to be prophets but their claims were rejected by those who thus labeled this period prophetless. Christians promoted this label and promoted John.

Nickelsburg emphasised that Christians adopted the label of Messiah for Jesus and that the Enoch “son of man” concept governs many New Testament referenes to Daniel 7 where this label originated. Enoch presents the “son of man” as a judge and this was carried over into Christianity. Nickelsburg is an Enoch specialist so I take this with a small grain of salt as scholars tend to over find their specialist concept.

He concluded the lecture by asking why Jews did not accept the Christian proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah. He gives these reasons:

  1. Some awaited a messiah to 0verthrow Rome.
  2. Paul suggests that the crucifixion put some Jews off.
  3. Jesus as Messiah depended on the claims of resurrection and not all believed in the concept (e.g. Sadducees).
  4. Those expecting a prophet would have been put off by his lax approach to Torah.

The Jewish relationship to Torah is where Nickelsburg made his greatest contribution to my thinking on this subject. For Jews the Torah was divine instruction to be heeded but the concept of a messiah was peripheral. The early Church focussed on Jesus as Messiah/Christ and the law was peripheral. The Church dispensed with the necessity to obey Torah and admitted Gentiles into full membership [without circumcision] but still claimed to be the true Israel. Those who rejected Jesus as the Messiah focussed on Torah obedience.

This was quite likely Paul’s position before he met the risen Christ on the road. Torah was more important to him than the claims of these followers of the Way to have found the Messiah. I had a question for Nickelsburg which I was unable to ask due to the lateness of the hour. I will ask it here:

Within the context of Jewish messianic expectation during this period what was it that “sealed the deal” for all those Jews who did accept Jesus as the Messiah (of both Jews and Gentiles)? Was it his life, his crucifixion, his resurrection, his ascension, Holy Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost; all of the above, something else?

I am happy to agree that those who rejected him focussed on Torah (retaining their Jewish identity in that way) but what about the thousands of Jews who did accept Jesus? He doesn’t seem to have met the expecatations of any particular messiah-expectant group. Did they do it in spite of Torah? Did they see him as “fulfilling” Torah? What caused them to give up the marks of circumcision? I’m sure it wasn’t just Paul’s letters!



  1. This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

    Comment by matt — March 30, 2009 @ 10:29 | Reply

    • You’re welcome. Thanks for stopping by!

      Comment by Thomas — April 9, 2009 @ 10:07 | Reply

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