New College, University of Edinburgh

The Grammar of Messianism in Recent Discussion

My book The Grammar of Messianism: An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Users (OUP, 2017) has been out for less than a year, so published reviews are only just now beginning to appear. Meanwhile, I have enjoyed some excellent live discussions of the book, including a British New Testament Conference panel with Philip Alexander, James Carleton Paget, and Grant Macaskill and a recent seminar at Lund University with Karin Hedner Zetterholm, Magnus Zetterholm, Samuel Byrskog, and Göran Larsson. Over at OnScript, listeners can stream or download Matt Bates’s lively and wide-ranging interview with me about the book.


The published reviews that have appeared have raised a number of perceptive questions. Max Botner, writing in Journal for the Study of Judaism, objects to my claim that “the predominant early Christian mechanism for maintaining biblical messiah traditions in the face of the suboptimal circumstances of Jesus’s life is the belief in the parousia of Jesus” (Grammar of Messianism, 208). Botner counters, “If we investigate ‘the primary sources to trace the way the words run’ ([Grammar of Messianism,] 276), we inevitably discover a vast array of discourse about a messiah’s enthronement and session at the right hand of God. Such discourse, I would argue, has just as much of a claim to ‘biblical messiah traditions’ and ‘political’ interests as does any statement about Christ’s parousia.”


Nathan Johnson, writing in Princeton Theological Review, asks, “Is it possible to adopt the best of Novenson’s cultural-linguistic approach and still make wider claims? Since Novenson places great emphasis, rightly, on ancient messiah texts as the products of exegesis, one way forward may be to group messiah texts according to the scriptural texts to which they allude… Novenson acknowledges that such a taxonomic approach is not the focus of this book (though he helpfully engages in something like this when tracing out the Nachleben of Jewish messiah traditions in early Christianity), but it may prove one fruitful way forward after the death of the messianic idea.”


The most thorough review to date is a lengthy review essay by N. T. Wright in the Expository Times. Of the many important issues that Wright raises, perhaps the foremost is this: “Novenson is determined to allow the word Christos and its cognates to set the agenda and lead the way, in contrast to the older, perhaps Continental and/or Idealist, notion of ‘real messianism’ which would include some uses and relegate others to ‘spurious’ status. I am not sure that he avoids the opposite trap, which is that one might apparently shrink the subject to explicit uses of the term Christos, thereby screening out those passages where—and one has to be careful how this is said—the idea occurs, or might be thought to occur, even though the word may not.” I cannot respond to Wright’s criticism here, but I do respond to it (and, indirectly, to some of the other points noted above) in a published reply in the same issue of the Expository Times. Tolle lege.


As I write this blog post, there is another review by Stephen Young due out soon on the AAR’s Reading Religion site. And a few months down the road, I am looking forward to an exciting roundtable discussion hosted by Syndicate, with reviews by Aryeh Amihay, Paula Fredriksen, John Gager, Esau McCaulley, and Shayna Sheinfeld. Meanwhile, very interesting research on ancient Jewish messianism proceeds apace, some of it building on, criticizing, improving on, or otherwise engaging with my argument in the book. Readers with an interest in the topic should keep an eye out for Max Botner’s forthcoming book in SNTSMS, Esau McCaulley’s in LNTS, Bernardo Cho’s also in LNTS, Jay Thomas Hewitt’s recent Edinburgh PhD thesis, and Nathan Johnson’s recent Princeton Seminary PhD thesis. I expect to learn from them all.



  • CSCO Team,
  • 24th April 2018


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