Is Jesus of Nazareth the Christ (Messiah/anointed one) as claimed in orthodox Christianity?
By Spencer D Gear
At Easter time in some Western countries, the mass media love to seek out historical Jesus’ experts who rattle the theological cage. “Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Messiah,” is hardly an attention grabber for the populace! But this type of statement could get people involved in a discussion: “We have no way of knowing whether Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah or as the Son of God in some special sense” (Marcus Borg 1994:29). A headline for Borg’s challenge could be:
Jesus was no messiah.
Then add this problem: Who believes what the Bible says anyway? Even if the Bible supports orthodox Christianity’s view of Jesus as the Christ/Messiah, what’s the point of promoting this when the Bible is an unreliable document according to many? “Jesus’ burial by his friends was totally fictional and unhistorical”, wrote historical Jesus’ scholar, John Crossan (1994:160).
Another historical Jesus’ expert says that the Gospels “can no longer be viewed as the trustworthy accounts of unique and stupendous historical events at the foundation of the Christian faith. The gospels must now be seen as the result of early Christian mythmaking” (Burton Mack 1993:10). A great newspaper heading for Mack’s view could be:
The mythical Bible: Fantasy at work
Is Jesus the Messiah? David Layman (2009) gave the crass answer, “Bloody unlikely”. Part of his reasoning was:
“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… ‘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'” (Layman 2009).
Is the absence of specific statements about the Messiah in these historic creeds and confessions a stumbling block to the affirmation of Jesus the Christ/Messiah in orthodox Christianity?
One of two main schools of Gnosticism that attacked orthodox Christian doctrines in the first couple of centuries of the Christian era was Cerinthianism, named after Cerinthus (ca A.D. 100), who, according to Irenaeus (Against Heresies 26.1), was educated in the wisdom of Egypt. It is reported that he taught in Asia Minor (Turkey) but no further details are known of his birth location. Some contend that he was a contemporary of the apostle John.
One of the beliefs of the heretical Cerinthians was that “the Christ” came upon Jesus at his baptism, granting him power for ministry but it departed before Christ’s crucifixion. It was only a man who died on the cross and rose again. This theology invalidates the need for Christ’s atoning work (Keathley III n.d.). A current headline for this heresy could be:
Jesus zapped for practical reasons.
Before we can examine the truth or otherwise of the orthodox Christian claim of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ/Messiah, we have to address one main issue: the reliability of the Bible as a document providing the truth about Jesus Christ.
B. Myth or truth: How do we determine if the Bible is true or false historically?
Fortunately, others have done the hard yards for us. Craig Blomberg (1987) wrote that if we wanted to evaluate the historical accuracy of the Gospels, “we assume from the outset that its testimony is reliable and then to consider the force of various objections which might cause a person to change his or her mind”. However, he notes that much critical scholarship “inverts this process altogether by assuming the gospels to be unreliable” (246).
1. How do you prove any historical document to be reliable?
Four criteria are commonly used by historians (based on Blomberg 1987:247):
- “Multiple attestation or forms”. Is the report in more than one Gospel and is there independent testimony outside of the Bible?
- “Palestinian environment or language”. This examines how the Greek text is related to a literal translation of a Jewish original. Or, if events and teaching reflect concepts from first century Palestine, then there is no need to seek a Greek (Hellenistic) church for the origins of the document.
- “Dissimilarity”. This is an unusual criterion which examines the Gospel’s picture of Jesus and how it might differ from some ancient Jewish belief or differ from some things that were happening in early Christianity. “Because Jesus seemed to stand out so much from his contemporaries and because his first followers so easily deviated from his very demanding requirements, this criterion has appealed to many as the most helpful” (Blomberg 1987:247).
- “Coherence”. If material harmonizes with material from the other three criteria, it may be accepted as authentic and reliable.
When we apply these tests to the Bible, what do we find?
“The gospels may be accepted as trustworthy accounts of what Jesus did and said. One cannot hope to prove the accuracy of every detail on purely historical grounds alone; there is simply not enough data available for that. But as investigation proceeds, the evidence becomes sufficient for one to declare that what can be checked is accurate, so that it is entirely proper to believe that what cannot be checked is probably accurate as well” (Blomberg 1987:254)
If the Gospels are given the same close historical investigation as any other documents from history, the Gospels will be shown to be reliable documents. It is to these trustworthy documents that we turn to find the evidence for Jesus of Nazareth’s claims to be the Christ/Messiah.
C. The Bible’s teaching on Jesus the Messiah, the Christ
In everyday language, what are the meanings of Messiah and Christ? How are the terms used in the New Testament?
“Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22 ESV). This verse is in a section of John’s epistles that warns against antichrists who were challenging the church when John wrote this general letter to churches that were being threatened in Asia Minor (Turkey today) towards the end of the first century A.D.
In the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matt. 16:13). Some said he was John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or another one of the prophets. The bold “Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God'” (Matt. 16:16).
At Jesus’ trial before his execution, he appeared before Caiaphas, the high priest, along with the scribes and elders. The chief priests and the whole Council were trying to uncover false testimony against Jesus to give them reason to execute him. Many false witnesses presented their evidence. The high priest asked for Jesus’ response. Matthew records, “But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, ‘I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven'” (Matt. 26:63-64). Jesus admitted that he Himself is “the Christ”.
When Jesus called his first disciples, Andrew told his brother, Simon Peter, “We have found the Messiah (which means Christ)” (John 1:41).
The scene is Jesus at the well with the woman of Samaria who was there to draw some water and Jesus engaged her in conversation. “The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am he'” (John 4:25-26).
Again, Jesus admits to a female stranger that he is the Messiah, the Christ. This is an amazing situation because in the socio-cultural context of the first century Jewish and Greco-Roman world, men not only regarded women negatively but also held them responsible for most sin, especially for sexually temptation. Jesus did not see women this way when he chose to declare to a woman his Messiahship and that he is the Christ.
The circumstances involved the death of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, and Jesus’ raising him from the dead. The Jews tried to console Lazarus’s sisters, Martha and Mary, following Lazarus’s death. Jesus told the sisters and those who had gathered that Lazarus would rise again and that Jesus is the resurrection and the life and those who believe in him, even though they die, continue to live. After Jesus declared that death was not the end, Martha responded: ‘Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world'” (John 11:27).
In the midst of devastating grief, Martha affirmed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
Those Scriptures refer to various circumstances in which Jesus Himself and others support the view that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God. What do these terms mean?
The Greek, christos, translated as “Christ” appears 531 times in the NT, based on the Nestle-Aland 26th edition of the Greek NT (Hurtado 1991:106). The description of Jesus as the “Christ” in the Gospels reflects the Jewish origins of Christianity. Jesus is portrayed as the Christ, the anointed One, the Messianic hope of Israel. But the scriptural references above also present the Christ, the Messiah, as the son of God (eg John 10:36), a phrase that “modern scholarship holds … is used of Jesus … as the Messianic king. But in John 5:18, 10:33, 36 the claim of sonship is clearly intended to denote deity” (Thiessen 1949:142).
Christos had no Greek cultural significance. It is from the ancient Jews that Christians obtain the meaning of “the Christ, the Messiah”. Christos is the NT equivalent of the Hebrew, mashiach, from which “Messiah” is derived, meaning anointed (with oil). For the Jews, the person anointed with oil often referred to somebody appointed to a special office such as king or priest as seen in passages such as Ex. 28:41 (Aaron & his sons); 1 Sam. 9:15-16; 10:1 (Saul); 1 Sam. 16:3, 12-13 (David); and 1 Chron. 29:22 (Zadok and Solomon). These passages indicate that these people were chosen by God and others, to perform a special mission.
Mashiach, in the OT, is used especially for the anointing of the Israelite kings (see 1 Sam. 24:6; 2 Sam. 1:14) but there is an application to God’s Messiah in Dan. 9:25-26:
“Know therefore and understand that from the going out of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, aprince, there shall be seven weeks. Then for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing. And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed”.
This “anointed one”, according to the context in Dan. 9:24 will “bring in everlasting righteousness” or “bring in righteousness of ages”, a righteousness that contrasts with sin (Wood 1973:249). This anointed one could not follow in the steps of the Israelite leaders who historically had led the people into sin, then spiritual renewal, followed by a return to sin. This anointed one would bring in “everlasting righteousness”.
Leon Wood notes that the Hebrew terms “anointed one” and “prince” in Dan. 9:25-26 are “applied to various leaders in the Old Testament, but here they clearly refer to Christ. He is the supreme Messiah and Prince; no one else fits the chronology developed in the text” (1973:251).
There is a special application of “the Anointed” in Psalm 2:2, “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed”. The phrase, “the kings of the earth”, is common one in the Psalms (see also Ps. 76:12; 138:4; 148:11) and refers to rulers of kingdoms that are separate from the kingdom of God.
Many commentators regard the entire second psalm as “typically Messianic”, and apply it to Jesus, while others want to deny this messianic connection.
We conclude that the NT use of the term, “Messiah”, in John 1:41 and 4:25 is associated with Old Testament usage and not simply a reference to the apocryphal Book of Enoch 48:10.
The Christian view of Jesus the Messiah (i.e. the Christ) focuses on the question asked of the disciples by Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 16: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (v. 13). Then he became specific to them: “But who do you say that I am?” (v. 15). Simon Peter’s response was, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). Jesus’ answer was that flesh and blood did not reveal this to Peter but it was revealed by “my Father who is in heaven” (v. 17).
D. Orthodox Christianity’s teaching on Jesus the Messiah, the Christ
“Orthodoxy is a myth” according to the liberal theologian and philosopher of religion, John Hick (1978:ix-x). To the contrary, the view adopted in this article is that orthodox Christianity refers to
“right belief, as opposed to heresy or heterodoxy. The term is not biblical; no secular or Christian writer uses it before the second century…. The word [orthodoxy] expresses the idea that certain statements accurately embody the revealed truth content of Christianity and are therefore in their own nature normative for the universal church” (Packer 1984:808).
As Packer explains, it is rooted in the biblical teaching that the Gospel has “specific factual and theological content” (1 Cor. 15:1-11; Gal. 1:6-9; 1 Tim. 6:3; 2 Tim. 4:3-4) and that there can be no fellowship between those who accept orthodoxy and those who pursue heterodoxy (see 1 John 4:1-3; 2 John 7-11). Orthodox Christian teaching had to be defended in the second century, precipitated by the threat of Gnosticism and other errors affecting the biblical understanding of the Trinity and Christology (Packer 1984:808).
1. Messiah in orthodox theology
Historically, what have been the statements from orthodox theologians and Bible teachers about Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One?
St. Jerome (A.D. 347-420) wrote in his commentary on Daniel 7:13,
“And behold, there came One with the clouds of heaven like unto the Son of man.” He who was described in the dream of Nebuchadnezzar as a rock cut without hands, which also grew to be a large mountain, and which smashed the earthenware, the iron, the bronze, the silver, and the gold is now introduced as the very person of the Son of man, so as to indicate in the case of the Son of God how He took upon Himself human flesh; according to the statement which we read in the Acts of the Apostles: ‘Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up towards heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him going into heaven'(Acts 1:11)”.
Contemporary Reformed theologian, Wayne Grudem, affirms and expands Jerome’s explanation, writing that it is striking that the One who is described as a “son of man” who came “with the clouds of heaven” according to Dan. 7:13-14, refers to
“someone who had heavenly origin and who was given eternal rule over the whole world. The high priests did not miss the point of this passage when Jesus said, ‘Hereafter you will see the Son of man seated on the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven‘ (Matt. 26:46). The reference to Daniel 7:13-14 was unmistakable, and the high priest and his council knew that Jesus was claiming to be the eternal world ruler of heavenly origin spoken of in Daniel’s vision. Immediately they said, ‘He has uttered blasphemy…. He deserves death’ (Matt. 26:65-66)” (Grudem 1994:546, emphasis in original).
The Nicene Creed, representative of one of the most well used doctrinal summaries in Christianity, was developed at the first ecumenical Council of the church at Nicaea in A.D. 325. Part of the Nicene Creed declares this of Christ: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father” (creeds.net).
This creed was a promotion of sound doctrine, developed in response to the crises of the Arian controversy. Arius, a heretic from the Libyan region, taught the deity of Christ but his Christology was that God created Christ and there was a time when Christ did not exist. The Arian anti-Trinitarian doctrine was corrected in the statement of the Nicene Creed, although the words Messiah and anointed are not included. Pertinent to the content of this article, the Nicene Creed declares Jesus as the Christ (which is the meaning of Messiah), the only Son of God. It was not needed to affirm Him as “Messiah” as “Christ” covers that designation.
In his treatise, “On the Trinity”, St. Augustine of Hippo in the early fifth century referred to Acts 10:38 when he stated, “In the Acts of the Apostles it is more plainly written of Him [the Lord Jesus Christ], because God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit. Certainly not with visible oil but with the gift of grace…” (XV.26.46).
Martin Luther, in an anti-Semitic document, “On the Jews and their lies, 1543“, spoke of the Jews having no hope until “they are forced to confess that the Messiah has come, and that he is our Jesus”.
John Calvin, in his commentary on Luke 24:26, wrote, “There is no room to doubt that our Lord discoursed to them [the two on the road to Emmaus] about the office of Messiah, as it is described by the Prophets, that they might not take offense at his death”.
Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) affirmed the orthodox doctrine of Christ as Messiah:
“The word ‘Christ,’ denotes an anointed person, who is called … ‘the Messiah,’ by the Hebrews…. It is proper, that he who was eminently styled ‘the Messiah’ should be anointed with the Holy Spirit, indeed ‘above all his fellows,’ (or those who were partakers of the same blessings,) (Psalm xlv,7)” (Arminius 1977:549)
Another historical Protestant confession, The Westminster Confession of Faith‘s statement (ch. 7), “Of God’s covenant with man“, stated that this covenant
“was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foreshadowing Christ to come, Heb 8:1-10:39 Ro 4:11 Col 2:11,12 1Co 5:7 which were for that time sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, 1Co 10:1-4 Heb 11:13 Joh 8:56 by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament”.
Alfred Edersheim‘s 1500 pages on The life and times of Jesus the Messiah (1971), first published in 1883, set forth the orthodox doctrine that “the Gospels be regarded as four different aspects in which the Evangelists viewed the historical Jesus of Nazareth as the fulfilment of the Divine promise of old, the Messiah of Israel and the Saviour of man” (xi).
The Catholic Encyclopedia‘s article on “Messiah” promotes the orthodox doctrine on Jesus, the Messiah and Saviour:
“For those who, before the Christian dispensation, sought to interpret the ancient prophecies, some single aspect of the Messiah sufficed to fill the whole view. We, in the light of the Christian revelation, see realized and harmonized in Our Lord all the conflicting Messianic hopes, all the visions of the prophets. He is at once the Suffering Servant and the Davidic King, the Judge of mankind and its Saviour, true Son of Man and God with us. On Him is laid the iniquity of us all, and on Him, as God incarnate, rests the Spirit of Jahveh, the Spirit of Wisdom and Understanding, the Spirit of Counsel and Fortitude, the Spirit of Knowledge and Piety, and the Fear of the Lord”.
In contemporary theology, the following are samples of orthodox Messianic statements regarding Jesus.
Reformed theologian, R. C. Sproul, explains that
“the title Christ is so often given to Jesus that people often mistake it for his last name. It is, however, not a name, but a title that refers to his position and work as Messiah. The term Christ comes from the Greek Christos, which is used to translate the Hebrew word for Messiah. Both Christ and Messiah mean ‘Anointed One'” (1992:103).
Arminian theologian, Henry C. Thiessen, in the mid twentieth-century wrote that the “son of man” name “is used prophetically of Christ in Dan. 7:13; cf. Matt. 16:28. That this name was regarded by the Jews as referring to the Messiah is evident from the fact that the high priest rent his garment when Christ applied this prophecy in Daniel to Himself (Matt. 26:64, 65) (Thiessen 1949:302).
Roman Catholic, Rev. Bertrand L. Conway, C.S.P, in his sermon, “Christ the true Messiah“, briefly expounded the Gospel passages that teach the orthodox doctrine of Christ, the Messiah. He “sketched the Gospel witness to the Messiahship of Jesus the Son of God. It is important for us to know it well, in view of the modern denial of the unbeliever, and the Jew”.
Orthodox Christian commentator, H. C. Leupold, regards Psalm 2 as a description of “the ultimate victory of the Lord’s anointed…. This psalm sets forth the basic truth concerning the Messiah and His kingdom” and gives due prominence to the Messianic truth, which looms large in the psalms” (1959:41). Leupold not only regards this psalm as “directly Messianic” but also “from beginning to end [it is] an out-and-out prophecy about the Christ” (42).
There have been heterodox and orthodox promotions regarding Christ, the Messiah, throughout the history of the church. The contemporary denigration of the Messiah is keeping pace with historical statements that date back almost two millennia.
Nevertheless, the orthodox doctrine of the Messiah, from predictive prophecy in the Old Testament, New Testament declaration, and the teaching of orthodoxy throughout church history, has been that Jesus Christ, whose incarnation is associated with the city of Nazareth, is the Messiah, the Anointed One. The Christos (Christ) is the Messiah (based on the Hebrew understanding of mashiach) and he shed his blood for the sins of the world as a vicarious atonement on the Golgotha cross in Jerusalem in approximately A. D. 30.
F. Works consulted
Arminius, J. 1977. The writings of James Arminius, vol. 1. Translated from the Latin by J. Nichols. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.
Blomberg, C. L. 1987. The historical reliability of the Gospels. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press.
Borg, M. J. 1994. Meeting Jesus again for the first time: The historical Jesus and the heart of contemporary faith. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Crossan, J. D. 1994. Jesus: A revolutionary biography. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Edersheim, A. 1971 (one vol. edn.). The life and times of Jesus the Messiah. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Grudem, W. 1994. Systematic theology: An introduction to biblical doctrine. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.
Hick, J. (ed) 1978. The myth of God incarnate. London: SCM.
Hurtado, L. W. 1991. Christ, in Green, J. B; McKnight S. & Marshall I. H. (eds), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 106-117. Downers Grove, Illinois/Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press.
Keathley III, J. H. n.d. The supremacy of the person of Christ (Col. 1:15-18). bible.org, Paul’s letter to the Colossians: An exegetical and devotional commentary. Available at: http://bible.org/seriespage/supremacy-person-christ-col-115-18#P848_264818 [Accessed 1 April 2010].
Layman, D. 2009, Is Jesus the Messiah? First Things (Spengler blogs) 22 August. Available at: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/spengler/2009/08/22/is-jesus-the-messiah/ [Accessed 28 March 2010].
Leupold, H. C. 1959. Exposition of the Psalms. London: Evangelical Press.
Mack, B. L. 1993. The lost gospel: The book of Q & Christian origins. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Packer, J. I. 1984. Orthodoxy, in Elwell, W. A. (ed), Evangelical dictionary of theology, 808. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.
Sproul, R. C. 1992. Essential truths of the Christian faith. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Thiessen, H. C. 1949. Introductory lectures in systematic theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Wood, L. 1973. A commentary on Daniel. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.
Copyright © 2010 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 6 August 2016.