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Historical Christology

Chapter I

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Unique among the religious traditions of the world, Judaeo-Christianity is the religion of hope. Its sacred writings from Genesis to the Book of Revelation are eschatological; they always press forward in expectation and recount the past as a presage of the future.

One of the benefits of a science like Comparative Religion is to discover this uniqueness, first among the ancient people of Israel and then among their inheritors, the followers of Jesus Christ.

Two different attitudes towards the Cosmos are implied in any valid comparison between the man in a pagan society like Egypt and Babylonia and the man in the Israel of the prophets. The former found himself indissolubly connected with the Cosmos and the cosmic rhythms, whereas the latter felt that he was only related to History. No doubt the Gentile had a history, too, but only to provide him with the creation of gods and give him a pantheon of supernatural beings and mythical heroes.

For the Gentile, "history" could be repeated indefinitely, in the sense that the myths served as models for worship which not only reenacted periodically the great events of the past; they were a constant reminder that what had taken place would re-occur, and that man was finally subject (as were also the gods) to an impersonal Force that inevitably and inexorably governed the universe in predetermined cyclic repetition.

The forward thrust of Jewish eschatology has a general aspect that covers the gamut of Israel's faith in Yahweh to lead His people through an earthly Promised Land to their final and beyond-this-earthly destiny. Its more particular form, called Messianism, is the historical background of the Christian religion and the foundation for any comprehensive understanding of Christology.

Concept of the Messiah

In Jewish tradition, the Messiah was the person, whether earthly or supernatural, who would be invested with special powers from on high and was destined to appear as the divinely appointed deliverer of his people.

Literally the Hebrew word Mashiah means "Anointed," and was used (in preference to other terms) to designate this Liberator. In the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament (completed before 100 B.C.), it is translated Christos (from chrino = to anoint). Hence the title "Christ" given in the New Testament to Jesus of Nazareth as the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew of the prophets.

Christology, therefore, may rightly be called Messiology because it implies the belief that the Anointed One foretold in the Old Covenant has entered history; that the subject of the Gospel narratives fulfilled in His own person the expectations of Israel.

As normally conceived, the dominant figure of Israel's hopes was the Messiah himself, and it is true that his personality is crucial to a valid interpretation of Jewish history. Yet the Messiah cannot be separated from the society he was expected to form or the new people he was going to lead.

This Messianic society would succeed the theocratic government of Israel and extend to all nations, races and classes of people. Membership in it carried the promise of order and peace in this world and of final beatitude in the next. Priests and teachers from all nations would serve the interests of Yahweh, dispensing an abundance of divine knowledge and a relish for things of the spirit; there would be one sacrifice, offering a clean oblation to the one true God throughout the world. Those who belonged were assured the remission of their sins and an outpouring of divine benediction.

What the prophets foretold in the Scriptures found reflection in the extra-canonical writings of the Hebrews, like the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, in a passage that was written two hundred years before the coming of Christ.

Then shall the Lord raise up a new priest.
And he shall execute a righteous judgment upon the earth for a multitude of days.
And his star shall rise in heaven as of a king.
Lighting up the light of knowledge as the sun the day.
And he shall be magnified in the world.
He shall shine forth as the sun of the earth,
And he shall remove all darkness from under heaven,
And there shall be peace in all the earth.
And the knowledge of the Lord shall be poured forth upon the earth, as the water of the seas.
And he shall give his majesty to his sons in truth for evermore.
And there shall be none to succeed him for all generations forever.
And in his priesthood the Gentiles shall be multiplied in knowledge upon the earth.
And enlightened through the grace of the Lord. [1]

Some latter-day critics of Christianity would have us believe that Jewish Messianism came only as a natural reaction to centuries of oppression and after a millennium of suffering. But the history of Israel tells a different story. Unlike their Gentile contemporaries, the Jews were not bounded by a cyclic determinism that saw no deliverance from the "law of eternal return." Their Messianic aspirations went back to the beginnings of human history and continued with increasing depth through the whole span of God's revelation to His chosen people.

Scholars have variously divided these Messianic predictions, but generally agree that three stages of development are easily defined: the patriarchal period that reaches back to the story of man's creation and fall, up to the last of the great ancestors of Jesus before the Jewish monarchy; the Davidic stage from King David up to the Babylonian Captivity; and the age of the prophets, centering on the Exile and the new mood in Jewish thinking after the return to their native land.

Messianic Development

It is not exactly true to say that the whole Bible, from the beginning, reflects a hope of future deliverance. The expectation is early, but yet only after an event took place that makes the Messianic prophecies meaningful. Not until man had sinned and become estranged from God does the concept of a liberator enter the stream of Jewish thought.

Patriarchal Period. After the sin of Adam and Eve, the tempter was sentenced by the Lord, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your descendants and her descendants. She shall crush your head, but you shall wound her heel." [2] The context suggest that the woman is Eve, who had allowed herself to be seduced but in the future would resist the enemy. Her posterity would also withstand the tempter.

In cursing the serpent, God pointed to a deliverer, and in this sense the Protoevangel (as the Fathers later called it) of Genesis anticipates the great prophets who foretold the coming of the Savior. It was the first Gospel (god= good + spell = tiding). Out of his struggle with evil, man is deeply wounded, symbolized in the expression "you shall wound her heel." But man will retain the friendship of God.

The call of Abraham to leave his home and go to a new land introduced another dimension in the history of Messianism. When men had abandoned God in spite of the deluge, the Lord first ordained that His name be known and honored by one family, and then by its descendants.

The Lord said to Abram: "Leave your land, your relatives and your father's home, for the land that I will show you; and I will make a great nation of you; I will bless you, and make your name so great that it will be used for blessings. I will bless those who bless you, and anyone who curses you, I will curse. Through you shall all the families of the earth invoke blessings on one another." [3]

The relatives of Abraham were polytheists, given to worshipping the stars, and showed special devotion to the moon-god, Sin, who was highly honored in the regions of Ur and Haran. After this first vocation, Abraham's faith would be tried and purified, and passed on to his progeny.

This great promise was repeated, in more explicit terms. "Shall I hide," the Lord asks, "what I am about to do from Abraham, seeing that Abraham is bound to become a great and powerful nation, and through him all the nations of the earth will invoke blessings on one another? No, I will make it known to him, in order that he may give instructions to his sons and his family after him to keep to the way of the Lord by doing what is good and right, so that the Lord may fulfill for Abraham what He promised him." [4]

Here the Messianic promise weaves into the ancient Covenant, where the anticipated blessings from on high are conditioned by man's fidelity to the Lord. At the same time, an appreciation is expected of Abraham's children by their keeping alive the memory of divine goodness promised on condition of obedience to the divine will.

Abraham's son Isaac hears the covenant confirmed, on the occasion of a famine in the land. He is warned by the Lord not to go down to Egypt, but rather "settle in the land that I shall designate to you. If you establish yourself as an immigrant in this land, I will be with you, and bless you. For to you and your descendants I am going to give this whole country, and so fulfill the oath which I made to your father Abraham." Then the testament repeated.

I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, and I will give your descendants this whole country, so that all the nations of the earth will invoke blessings on one another through your descendants – just because Abraham heeded my instructions and kept my charge, my commands, statutes and laws. [5]

Finally the patriarchal Messianism centers on Isaac's son Jacob. He had reached a certain sanctuary on the way to Haran, where he spent the night. During sleep he had a dream in which he saw a ladder set up on the earth, with its top reaching the sky, and angels were ascending and descending on the ladder. Whereupon the Lord stood over him and advanced the Prophecy yet another step.

I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and of Isaac…. Your descendants shall be like the dust on the ground. You shall spread to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south, so that all races of the earth will invoke blessings on one another through you and your descendants. I will be with you, and guard you wherever you go, and bring you back to this land. For I will never forsake you, until I have done what I promised you. [6]

When Jacob woke from his sleep, he exclaimed, "The Lord must surely be in this place," and immediately made a vow to remain faithful to the One who appeared to him.

In the light of later developments, we may note that already in the patriarchal age, the promised Messianic blessings were intended not for the Jews alone but through them for all the nations of the world, symbolized with four points of the compass.

Royal Messianism. The prediction of a royal Messiah begins with the dialogue between the prophet Nathan and King David. Not long before his adultery, David consulted the prophet about building a temple to the Lord. Yahweh rewarded this desire by promising rather to build for David a royal house that would endure forever. By implication, the force of this promise was to bind the family of David to the kingly state of the future Messiah.

The Lord declares to you that He will make you a house. And when your days are finished, and you are laid with your fathers, I will raise up your heir after you, who shall be born of your body. And I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish his kingdom forever….Your house and your kingdom shall be confirmed before me forever. Your throne shall be established forever. [7]

This solemn proclamation meant the legalization of the Covenant. From that time on, the Davidic line became a part to the Covenant. David and his descendants assumed responsibility for its maintenance and the duties it entailed. He was to concentrate in his person the whole people whose unity he safeguarded, and by behaving as a religious monarch would bring his nation the prosperity they desired.

From David onwards, the Messianic theme included the promise that the savior of his people should be born of this seed, thus further refining and focusing the centuries-old prophecies. If material things even before the time of Christ were concomitants and signs of religious values, the Davidic lineage exemplified the principle. Grace took hold of the monarchy, raised its earthly status, and gave it a central part to play in carrying the Covenant into the New Testament

As a result the whole dynasty became conscious of its Messianic vocation. Every king of David's line knew that the day he was enthroned was also the day of his divine adoption. When a new reign began, the psalmists described their expectations of the monarchy, not only for the immediate present but for the distant future.

Perhaps the best known Messianic Psalm is the one cited by the Evangelist Matthew and the author of the letter to the Hebrews.

An oracle of the Lord to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool." The scepter of your strength the Lord sends forth from Sion. Reign in the midst of your enemies. Your people will volunteer freely on your day of war. In holy array, from the womb of dawn, the dew of your youth is yours. The Lord has sworn and He will not retract: "You shall be a priest forever. A Melchisedek, because of me." [8]

Centuries later, on a dramatic occasion when Jesus was being tested by the Pharisees, He asked then what they thought of the Messiah, whose son he was. They spontaneously told Him, "David's." Jesus silenced their denial of His transcendence by asking them again, quoting the above Psalm, "If David calls him (the Messiah) 'Lord," how is he (only) his son?"

The Psalms, therefore, are a mosaic of witnesses to the Messianic anticipation. Whether sung for an investiture [9], for a birthday [l0], at a marriage [ll], or as the cry of a desolate heart [12], they become oracles of an earthly monarchy looking forward to the "Anointed One" whose royalty would surpass the dignity of all worldly kings.

The Exile and After. As Jewish history unrolled, it revealed the kings' inability to remain faithful to the trust placed in them. Israel's prophets boldly criticized the rulers who betrayed their lofty mission; but at same time they upheld the hope that grew keener with every crisis and drew unwarranted comfort from the disappointments of experience.

Isaiah is the great Messianic prophet, whose predictions are imbedded in the Gospels and St. Paul, and whose foresight almost makes him a fifth evangelist

Traditionally the whole book was ascribed to Isaiah, the son of Amos, but critics are inclined to agree that everything after Chapter 36 as well as certain sections before (though canonical) were written by another hand. Since the Exile ended in 538 B.C. and Isaiah died about a hundred years before, it is important to establish the authorship by someone who experienced the Exile.

First Isaiah delivers a solemn oracle to the unworthy King Achaz who had wearied the Lord by his lack of faith: "Behold the young woman (almah) shall conceive and shall bear a son, and she shall name him Emmanuel 'God with us'." [13] The word almah meant a girl of marriageable age, presumably unmarried. Long before the time of Christ, the Septuagint had given he parthenos (the virgin) as equivalent, with no offense to the Jews until the passage was used by Christians as a witness to Christ's messiaship.

Later in the same reference to Emmanuel, Isaiah added a series of attributes to the ideal king that figure prominently in the Christmas liturgy.

For our sakes a child is born, to our race a son is given, whose shoulder will bear the scepter of princely power. What name shall be given him? Peerless among counsellors, the mighty God, Father of the world to come, the Prince of Peace. Ever wider shall his dominion spread, endlessly at peace. He will sit on David's kingly throne to give it lasting foundations of justice and right; so tenderly he loves us, the Lord of hosts. [14]

The most extensive Isaian prophecies, however, cover the famous "Four Songs," that spell out the role of the Servant of the Lord (Ebed Yahweh), who is the same Messiah foretold by David but now in the status of a suffering Victim who offers himself for the sins of mankind.

In the first canticle, the future deliverer is portrayed as a man of rare mildness who is yet strong enough to govern the nations.

Here is my servant, to whom I grant protection, the man of my choice, greatly beloved. My spirit rests upon him, and he will proclaim right order among the Gentiles. He will not be contentious or a lover of faction. None shall hear his voice in the streets. He will not snap the staff that is already crushed, or put out the wick that still smolders; but at last he will establish order unfailingly. Not with sternness, not with violence; to set up right order on earth, that is his mission. He has a law to give; in the far-off islands men wait for it eagerly. [15]

Characteristically, Matthew cites this passage in full when he describes the Savior's meekness in dealing with the envy of the Pharisees. They sought to destroy Him because he healed on the Sabbath, but Jesus retired from their midst rather than expose Himself at the time to their malice or oppose them directly in righteous anger. [16]

The second and third songs recount the divine providence that would surround the Messiah, [17] and the suffering he was to endure as a willing victim of God's justice. [18] St. Paul draws on both prophecies to delineate the work of the Redeemer.

However, the most extensive and detailed anticipation of the Messiah as Ebed Yahweh, the Suffering Servant who would expiate the sins of his people, spans more than a full chapter in Isaiah (52:13-53:12).

Lo! My servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted, and lifted up, and shall be very high. As many were amazed at him. - So marred was his appearance beyond that of a man, and his form beyond that of the sons of men – so shall he startle many nations.
On account of him kings shall shut their mouths; for what has not been told them shall they see, and what they have not heard shall they contemplate.
"Who could have believed what we heard? And the might of the Lord – to whom was it being revealed? For he grew up like a sapling before us, like a root out of dry ground. He had no form or charm, that we should look upon him, no beauty, that we should admire him. He was despised, and avoided by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with pain; and like one from whom men hide their faces. He was despised, and we esteemed him not." [19]

So far the prediction of the Messiah's suffering, partly physical but mainly moral. The Servant of Yahweh was to be disgraced and despised by his own people. Then follows a concept that was not new in Judaic eschatology, but never so clearly expressed as in Deutero-lsaiah: that the savior of Israel would undergo pain and humiliation as an act of voluntary sacrifice; that he would be at once priest (who offers) and victim (who is offered), not for his own sins but for the infidelity of a sinful mankind.

"Yet it was our pains that he bore, our sorrows that he carried; while we accounted him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. He was wounded for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and through his stripes we were healed. All we like sheep had gone astray. We had turned everyone to his own wax; and the Lord made to light upon him the guilt of us all." [20]

The essence of a true sacrifice is the willingness with which something precious is offered to God; and the more free and uncomplaining the oblation, the more perfect the holocaust. Isaiah pre-describes the generosity of Christ's sacrifice of Himself in a passage that has become classic in Christian worship literature.

"When he was oppressed, he humbled himself, and opened not his mouth; like a sheep that is led to the slaughter, or like a ewe that is dumb before her shearers, he opened not his mouth. Through violence in judgment was he taken away, and who gave though to his fate – how he was cut off from the land of the living, for our transgressions was stricken to death? They made his grave with the wicked, his tomb with evildoers; although he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth." [21]

The auto-sacrifice of the Messiah would not be in vain. Comparable to the pain he was to endure would be the glory in its wake. Again the idea was not foreign to Jewish theology, but only obscurely understood until Isaiah – and the Isaian fulfillment in the New Covenant: that suffering is not only punitive for sin, but also (and principally) remedial, and pain is meant to be undergone not only by the sinner for his own offences against God, but also (and principally) has a vicarious dimension that is the keystone of the Messianic prophecies.

Yet the Lord saw fit to crush him with pain, so that when he makes himself a guilt-offering, he shall see posterity, shall prolong his life, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. The fruit of his suffering shall he see, and be satisfied.

Through his affliction shall my servant, the Righteous One, bring righteousness to many, and he shall bear their guilt. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and with the strong shall he share the spoil: because he poured out his life-blood to the utmost, and was numbered with the transgressors, while he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. [22]

Locked up in these verses of Isaiah is the whole of Soteriology, with its implications of Christ saving the word through His voluntary acceptance of pain, of a Mediator who stands between a just God and a sinful human race to intercede as the priest of His people.

Isaiah was supported by two other prophets, Daniel and Jeremiah, who added new characterizations to the Messianic theme that would unfold with the coming of Christ.

Daniel's contribution is the notion of the "Son of Man," that figures so prominently in the Gospels. The context of the vision is apocalyptic and the writing dates from the second century before the Christian era. As described by Daniel, God is holding a solemn investiture in heaven: He is investing one called the "Son of Man" who advances on the clouds. A common Semitic expression, it entered the Bible in various places (Isaiah 19:1; Psalm 67:5).

This vision is also noteworthy in that it distinguishes between the bulk of the Jewish people and the "Remnant" who would be the spiritual Israel and specially gifted from on high with a new and entirely fresh supernatural blessing from God. Later on, when only a fraction of the Chosen People would accept Jesus as the Messiah, this distinction bears out the parallel streams of tradition about the Anointed One – an earthly liberator from political slavery, and a heavenly savior from subjection to sin.

Then I saw in my dream, how one was riding on the clouds of heaven, that was yet a son of man; came to where the judge sat, crowned with age, and was ushered into his presence. With that, power was given him, and glory, and sovereignty; obey him all must, men of every race and tribe and tongue; such a reign as lasts forever, such power as his the ages cannot diminish. [23]

As interpreted by Christ in the Gospels, Daniel's prophecy envisages a heavenly leader possessing all the qualities (if not the name) of the Messiah. In contrast with the pagan kingdoms described in the same chapter, the holy people of Israel are also personified by a leader, in fact a heaven-sent individual whose kingdom would last beyond measurable time.

The significance of Jeremiah's prophecy is manifold, but lies especially in its weaving two apparently disparate strands into a single theme: that the Messiah would be born of the House of David and yet that his Mission would extend not just to the Jewish people.

"Behold days are coming," is the oracle of the Lord, "when I will raise up for David a righteous shoot; and he shall reign as king with success, doing justice and righteousness in the land. In his days shall .Judah be saved, and Israel shall live in security; and this is the name they shall give him, 'The Lord is our vindicator,'
"Therefore behold, days are coming," is the oracle of the Lord, "when men shall no longer say, 'As the Lord lives, who brought up and led the descendants of the house of Israel from the northland and from all the other lands to which He had driven them, and settled them on their own land'." [24]

In a parallel passage, Jeremiah foresees the Messiah as a prince who will be of the same stock as his people, and "their ruler shall come from the midst of them." But he especially repeats the proverbial consolation of Yahweh to the Jews that, through the Messianic fulfillment, "You shall be my people, and I will be your God." [25]

Three-Fold Anointing

As commonly understood, the Messiah of the prophets was to be at once a king, teacher and priest – and for each divinely-appointed role would be anointed by God.

There is a close correlation among these qualities, and any insight afforded by the Old Testament will help better to know Christ. They correspond to the familiar triad of code, creed and cult, familiar in the history of organized religion.

As king, therefore, the Messiah would enjoy visible transcendence over his people. He would have authority over them, to govern their lives in the society he would found, and with no apologies for limiting their liberty in the pursuit of a common (and greater) good. Yet this royalty was to symbolize a higher transcendence still, anticipated, for example, in the Psalms. More than once in the Old Testament, the "One that is to come," is described in terms that exceed human or created things.

Why do the nations rage, and the people plot in vain? The kings of the earth stand up, and the princes take counsel, against the Lord and against His anointed (Mashijah)? "Let us burst their bonds asunder and cast their cords from us." He that sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord makes sport of them.
Let me tell of the decree of the Lord. He said to me, "You are my son; today have I begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, and the ends of the earth your possession." [26]

Nowhere else in the Old Testament does Yahweh say that a specific person is begotten of God or that the Lord gives him birth. When Jesus was questioning the Pharisees, He settled on this passage to identify Himself as more than Son of David; otherwise why 'should the Messiah be addressed as Lord?

Coupled with such Messianic titles as Emmanuel (God with us) in Isaiah, El Gibbor (Strong God), and equivalent names like "Father of the world to come," and "Prince of peace," the royalty of the Messiah included a divine transcendence which sober scholarship recognizes.

All the prophets of the Old law were preparatory to The Prophet, whose teaching office would surpass theirs even as his mission was to bring the knowledge of God to all nations, while theirs was to instruct the people of Israel.

Where the prophets preceding Christ communicated the ancient Covenant, the Messiah would establish another Testament, at once universal and eternal, and destined to be consummated only in heaven.

Moreover, where other prophets were gifted with some wisdom and understanding, the Messiah would have the fullness of the spirit of God. "Upon him," Isaiah foretold, "shall rest the spirit of Yahweh, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the sprit of counsel and fortitude, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of Yahweh" [27] God's spirit would, therefore, enlighten and strengthen the Messiah as teacher of mankind. He would have wisdom to choose the best means of attaining his purpose; understanding to apply these means with maximum effectiveness; counsel to instruct others and help them to understand; fortitude to remain steadfast in teaching although opposed by his enemies and rejected by those whom he came to save; knowledge of divine mysteries that were hidden from the foundations of the world; and the fear of Yahweh that was the basis for the highest sanctity.

The object of the Messiah's prophetic mission was to proclaim knowledge of God. For centuries before the Christian era, a call to the office of prophet imposed a heavy burden: to teach faith in one true God when all around them was polytheism and idolatry, and to demand obedience to divine precepts that human nature resisted. Consistent with the same mission, the Messiah was to bring new knowledge of God, which Christianity synthesizes in its faith in the Trinity and Incarnation; and new obligations on man's liberty-in response to a higher code of morality.

There is a logical connection between prophecy (as teaching) and the priesthood. A prophet stands midway from God to the people, communicating what God teaches him to teach his fellowmen. As prophet he is a seer whose vision is of divine mysteries and whose task is to require faith in his revelations. A priest is the obverse of prophet. His office is to mediate from the people to God, to make intercession for them to the divine mercy, and offer sacrifice in their name.

Yahweh had solemnly declared to His Anointed One, "You are a priest forever after the manner of Melchizedek." [28] It was left to Christian history to show how Melchizedek typified the Messiah and his sacrifice the oblation of Christ. Melchizedek was both king and priest; his ancestors are nowhere given, suggesting that he owed his priesthood not to natural heredity but to a special act of God; when he "brought out bread and wine," this may at least imply that when he offered sacrifice the sacrificial gifts would have been the objects present. St. Paul dwells at length on the priesthood of Christ anticipated in the priesthood of Melchizedek, mainly because (unlike the Jewish sacerdotium) it did not come by carnal inheritance and would not end in foreseeable time. It was conferred by God and was destined to last forever. [29]

Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life

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