What’s in a name?

At our first gathering of 2007, we picked up on the tail end of our pre-Christmas conversation about Jesus. We began by looking at the terms “Jesus”, “Christ”, Messiah”, “second person of the Trinity” and so on, and wondered if they all have the same referent. We noted that the term “Christ” (of Greek origin, “christos”) and the term “Messiah” (of Hebrew origin, “masiah”) both had the same root meaning in the Biblical text, i.e. “anointed one”. In Greek, prior to the appropriation of the term by the Judeo-Christian tradition, “christos” had no special religious significance. The Hebrew term, in contrast, had a long religious history due to the anointing of kings and so on, as described in the Old Testament narrative.

Although we jokingly observed that “Christ” is sometimes used as if the word is Jesus’ last name, there is actually something to think about here. Just as “John Smith” once had the sense that there was someone named John whose observable characteristic was that he functioned as a smith, then to speak of Jesus Christ might equally suggest that there was someone named Jesus whose observable characteristic was that he functioned as “the anointed one”. This association is not as strange as it sounds; the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels notes that the early church, as exemplified in the Book of Acts, saw three key characteristics associated with the term “christos”, the first of which is as we discussed:

“(1) “Christ” is part of the common, namelike designation of Jesus in early Christian circles; (2) the term was also used as a title when the author wished to make explicit the claim that Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes for God’s redemption; (3) the author shows special concern to insist that Jesus’ crucifixion was predicted in the OT and does not disqualify Jesus from being Messiah….”

Along the line of thought suggested in point (2), we spoke about some of the work of N.T. Wright, who has noted that Jesus functioned in ways that were identified with the ways in which God functioned. For example, Jesus forgave people for their sins – something that only God could do. Jesus reformulated Torah (“you have heard it said……, but I say……”), again, something that only God could do. The question remaining, though, is whether these functions would have identified Jesus in the minds of those observing him as the Messiah (Christ; anointed one) or actually as one functioning as God in the world. The observation that many people of the day were expecting a Messiah of quite different proportions was made and the confusing image of a “Christ crucified” was noted (see point 3 in the dictionary entry cited above).

We noted that the idea of a person being divine was not at all unfamiliar in the day (e.g. Roman emperors claiming divinity). Thus, perhaps recognition of Jesus as Messiah might have been more difficult than we think in retrospect (given his lack of military presence, the degrading nature of the crucifixion, etc.), while recognition of Jesus as divine might have been simpler (at least for non-Hebrews familiar with the idea of people being gods) than we think in retrospect.

Although such issues may seem abstract, we noted that in some churches today we hear people pray to Jesus; in other churches we hear people pray to God, while in yet other churches we might hear a prayer to the Father in the name of the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Are these the same, or are they different?

One point of view suggested that “Jesus” (or perhaps, more specifically, “Jesus of Nazareth”) refers to the person who walked the earth, while the term “second person of the Trinity” refers to the pre-existent and eternal Son within the Godhead who became incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Another point of view identified the term “Christ” – in contemporary usage – with the ongoing presence of the second person of the Trinity in the world today.

While in some sense terms like “Christ”, “Messiah” and so on might have been, at least to a degree, thrust upon Jesus, the term “Son of Man” is one he embraced himself. This is the term used more often than any other (except the name “Jesus”, itself) to refer to Jesus within the Gospels. And, within the Gospels, the term is used only in sayings that are attributed to Jesus (note, however, John 12:34 where the people quote Jesus back at himself, using his phrase and ask him who he is talking about). This background suggests that the term “Son of Man” doesn’t have its origins in some sort of liturgical, confessional pieces of the early church but actually originated from the mouth of Jesus. In some passages it seems clear that there are allusions to Daniel 7 and the coming of a figure “like a son of man” who is given power and dominion by God. In other cases, Jesus uses the expression interchangeably with “I”, “me”, “my”, and so on (e.g. compare Luke 6:22, “… on account of the son of man”, and Matthew 5:11 “….on my account”).

What seems clear is that the Jewish concept of Messiahship was largely an earthly one while the concept of sonship had otherworldly (transcendent0 aspects to it. The appropriation of the latter title by Jesus and his identification, albeit reluctantly, as Messiah/Christ by his followers and then the early church might say something about the risks in identifying Jesus as 100% earthly and as 100% heavenly. Perhaps his vision was that we grasp the tension and live into it. What do you think?

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