Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The One Who Is to Come (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2007), xvi + 183 pp. + Indices.
For Christians, the subject of Messiah and Messianic prophecies is a very important one. Too often, however, in our ‘christocentric’ hermeneutic we read the Old Testament and see Christ everywhere. In this new book, Fitzmyer tries to stay that tendency by studying the messianic concept as a developing concept throughout Israel’s history.
Fitzmyer defines the technical use of Messiah as “an eschatological figure, an anointedhuman agent of God, who was to be sent by Him as a deliverer and was awaited in the endtime” (1). With this technical concept of Messiah in mind Fitzmyer begins a study of the messianic concept in two parts. First, he examines the messianic concept in the Old Testament (chs. 2-5), then examines it in (roughly chronological order) in other sources: the Septuagint (ch. 6), 2nd Temple Jewish Literature (ch.7), the NT (ch. 8 ) and Mishnah, Targums and other Rabbinic writings (ch.9).
Because of Fitzmyer’s ‘narrow’ understanding of the technical use of Messiah (Heb.: msh) he can survey its uses and claim that “there is never an instance of the verb [msh] denoting the anointing of ‘Messiah’ in the narrow sense” (9) and as to the noun he claims, “in the vast majority of its occurrences, [msh] refers to a reigning king (usually of Israel), contemporary or past” (10). Thus, for example, when looking at the use of ‘Messiah’ in Hannah’s Prayer (1 Sam. 2:10), Fitzmyer claims that this is not a ‘messianic psalm’ but “part of the normal court style, glorifying a son-to-be-reigning king of Israel as the ideal anointed agent of God” (13).
Fitzmyer likewise debunks the messianic claims of such passages as the ‘promise of the Seed’ (Gen. 3), Jacob’s prophecies (Gen. 49) and Balaam’s prophecy (Num. 24). While Fitzmyer recognizes these texts as promises from God, even promises of a future ‘king’ he claims that it “is an unwarranted stretch of interpretation to regard such promises as early instances of ‘messianic prophecies'” (32).
Fitzmyer then turns to passages which he claims, offers a ‘developing understanding’ of the Davidic Dynasty as ‘messianic’ even though ‘messianism’ doesn’t fully emerge yet (33). For example, he looks at the messianic texts of First Isaiah (7:1-9; 8:23-9:6; 11:1-10) and concludes that “The stress in these verses is still on the activity of God, who through the royal figure that has been born will bring about the kind of human society that the prophet Isaiah has always been advocating” (37), but he is hesitant to call this full-blown messianism. Of these passages, Fitzmyer claims that they “may indeed present a picture of ‘the ideal king’ on David’s throne, but that is not yet a picture of ‘the Messiah’ (55). Even though he admits that when Messiah comes he will be the ideal king. It is here that Fitzmyer’s ‘minimalist’ strategy seems to be overdone. These texts which clearly speak of a future ‘ideal king’ and a future deliverer should at the very least be understood as authentic prophecies that develop into the label messianism if they haven’t already (interestingly it is here that Fitzmyer departs from Sigmund Mowinckel, He That Cometh, who he has followed for much of the book).
Finally, with the late text of Daniel 9:25-26 (Fitzmyer dates the final redaction to ca. 165 BC), Fitzmyer admits that “This is the period in the history of Judaism when belief in the coming David develoops into that of a national Messiah” (57).
When Fitzmyer examines the Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew Bible he concludes that its contribution to the growing messianism of Judiaism is “really minimal” (81). But when he turns to other extra-biblical writings of the Second Temple Period, he begins to see ‘messianism’ truly developing. Fitzmyer surveys several Dead Sea Scroll references as well as some of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrepha. Here, in the time period that Fitzmyer is comfortable seeing full blown messianism, he begins to see messianic references which he would have discounted in earlier biblical texts. For example in 4QFlor he notes that the “‘Interpreter of the Law’ is probably another name for the ‘Messiah of Aaron’ (99), he would have dismissed this kind of logic earlier since the term ‘msh’ is not used. Though here, where Fitzmyer thinks messianism developed he sees ample references to Messiah.
When Fitzmyer examines the NT he sees that the NT gives “added Christian meaning” (145) to many of the verses that he previously rejected as being truly messianic. But that it was a development of the Jewish idea of messiah which continued to develop in the Mishnah, the Targums and other Rabbinic writings.
All in all, Fitzmyer’s work is helpful at the very least for its presentation of the texts and interpretations that are at stake when one studies the history of the development of the idea of Messiah. He gives a great overview of the relevant texts. Fitzmyer rightly warns us Christian exegetes against an over-zealous eisegesis that seeks to see Christ in every verse. However, Fitzmyer’s overly minimalist view of Messiah keeps him from seeing that the ‘narrow sense’ of Messiah, as he calls it, is really a flowering of the earlier promises that probably go all the way back to Genesis 3. He draws too much of a distinction between the early promises of a future deliverer, prophet and king and the full blown messianism of a later period.