N. T. Wright and Israel’s Representative Messiah

I’m getting ready to speak at a symposium on the theme of Divine Sonship at St Andrews (Scotland). My paper tackles a question raised by N. T. (Tom) Wright’s work on Paul and offers new evidence to support one of Tom’s more controversial claims.[1]

Wright thinks (as a growing number now do) that when Paul uses the word “Christ” he means “Messiah”. Christ is not simply a name (as in “Crispin Fletcher”). It is a title or an honorific that identifies Jesus as Israel’s (royal) messiah (not unlike “Crispin the Arrow Maker”). Wright also contends (more controversially) that Christ and Messiah both refer to a king who is a representative figure; someone who sums up in himself the people of God, Israel, and who as a truly human being is the true Adam. For Wright this helps explain other features of Paul’s theology, such as his language of being “in Christ” and his talk of justification by faith. It is also one feature of Wright’s work that has been less convincing than others, since there seems to be very little real evidence that Jews (and the Bible) thought of the Messiah as such a representative figure. Many Pauline scholars think it is possible to make good sense of Paul’s theology without the representative messiah idea.

One subplot to the main argument of my Jesus Monotheism project will be to argue that Wright is right about the representative connotations of the words “christos” (Greek) and its Hebrew equivalent (mashiach), and that there is good evidence, mostly passed over by scholarship in the twentieth century, that Jews took for granted the notion that the Messiah gathers up in himself a set of stories about the world, humanity and God’s chosen people. At least, this is all true provided we remember that “the Messiah”—the Anointed One—can mean the (true) high priest. There is lots of really obvious evidence—along with some hidden away in less well known or only recently discovered texts—that most of what Wright claims the word “Messiah” meant was indeed taken for granted in the biblical and Jewish understanding of the high priest messiah. I will get to that evidence in Jesus Monotheism volume 3. And it goes with some other evidence, that I will discuss next week in St Andrews, that there were times when the (true) king was also thought of as a representative figure and that God’s people could think of themselves as being “in the king”.

Wright himself has highlighted texts in 2 Samuel (19:41–20:2) and 1 Kings (12:16) where the people talk about having “a share” or “inheritance in the king” and their being “in David,” their representative. In St Andrews I present the evidence for thinking that, between those two texts, the important description of the early years of the reign of king Solomon also describes him as a representative figure. In 1 Kings 3–4 Solomon is a representative of God who makes the Creator truly present to his people and the world. In a sense he is God’s image and likeness; a true Adam.2 And he incorporates the people in such a way that in him, their representative leader, the people find the fulfilment of their own destiny; they get to be the people they were created and called to be. There won’t be time to explore this fully in St Andrews. But, in due course, I will argue that as a part of 1 Kings 3–11—a central text for the overarching conceptual structure of the whole of Genesis-2 Kings (the Primary History)—1 Kings 3–4 is a key witness to the development of a sophisticated biblical understanding of the true (priestly and royal) Messiah’s multifaceted, representative, identity.

[1] N. T. Wright, Paul and the faithfulness of God (Christian origins and the Question of God 4; London: SPCK, 2013).

[2] My argument at this point is indebted to three recent discussions of 1 Kings 3–4:

P. J. Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), pp. 42–52.

G. K. Beale, A New Testament biblical theology: the unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

J. A. Davies, “‘Discerning between Good and Evil’: Solomon as a New Adam in 1 Kings,” Westminster Theological Journal 73 (2011): 39–57.

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