Matthew Novenson – The Grammar of Messianism

Episode: With its messianic associations, pouring or smearing oil on the head is both foundational and divisive in Judaism and Christianity. Language about oil is—well, sorry—slippery. This is true in ancient contexts as well as modern. For instance, Trypho, a second-century Jew, is reported to have said: “The messiah, if he has indeed come and is somewhere, is incognito; he does not even know himself yet nor does he have any power until Elijah comes and anoints him and makes him manifest to everyone” (Dial. 8.4). Justin Martyr vociferously disagreed.

In this episode, Matt Novenson helps us see that past analysis of “messiah” language has frequently contributed to the slipperiness, so new questions are needed.

Listen in as OnScript host Matthew Bates and Matt Novenson work toward a more firm grip on messianic discourse.

Guest: Matthew V. Novenson is Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh. He has also been visiting professor at Dartmouth College and Duke University Divinity School and visiting research fellow at Durham University. He is the author of the critically acclaimed monograph Christ among the Messiahs (Oxford University Press, 2012), as well as the book that we are highlighting today, The Grammar of Messianism (Oxford University Press, 2017).

The Book: Matthew V. Novenson,The Grammar of Messianism: An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Users (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). Publisher’s description (abridged): What did it mean to talk about “messiahs” in the ancient world, before the idea of messianism became a philosophical juggernaut, dictating the terms for all subsequent discussion of the topic? In this book, Matthew V. Novenson offers a revisionist account of messianism in antiquity. He shows that, for the ancient Jews and Christians who used the term, a messiah was not an article of faith but a manner of speaking. It was a scriptural figure of speech, one among numerous others, useful for thinking about kinds of political order: present or future, real or ideal, monarchic or theocratic, dynastic or charismatic, and other variations besides.

The OnScript Quip (our review): Oil is slippery. Language about oil in Judaism and Christianity is foundational but even harder to grasp: anointing, unction, messiah, Christ. By asking fresh questions, Matthew Novenson has managed to fasten numerous new grips and handles onto our ancient texts. Lucid and authoritative, The Grammar of Messianism is an important study that provides scholars with a more secure purchase on messiah language. — Matthew W. Bates, Quincy University, OnScript

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