The Making of a Messiah: Did Jesus Claim to be the Messiah and Predict His Suffering and Death?

In my post on “That Other King of the Jews,” I stressed my own conviction that Jesus of Nazareth thought of himself as much more than a teacher, prophet, or healer, but rather that he understood himself to be nothing less than the “one to come,” the Davidic Messiah or King of Israel. For most Christians such a messianic claim by Jesus is self-evident since it lies at the heart of all of our Gospel accounts, which are, as Mark puts things: “The good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”

In contrast, many of my academic colleagues in the field of Christian origins would argue that the identification of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah was one put on Jesus by his followers after his death, as part of their recovery of faith following the unanticipated shock of his crucifixion, not something he claimed himself. According to this understanding the scene in Mark where Jesus is confessed as Christ or Messiah by Peter is projected back into the life of Jesus, implying that he both anticipated his death and understood himself in the role of a “suffering Messiah”:

And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again (Mark 8:27-31).


I have no doubt that various theological interpretations of Jesus were retrospectively projected back on him in our New Testament gospels. I have written extensively on that process of theological “overlay” on this blog over the years. In fact, in my forthcoming book on Paul I argue that all four of our gospels are essentially post-Pauline productions, fundamentally reflecting Paul’s understanding of the “gospel.” However, my own study of the history of “Messianism,” including messiah figures both ancient and modern, I am convinced that the gospels preserve for us a pattern of what I call “Messianic self-identity,” that is applicable to Jesus. In other words, I think we can trace in our sources elements of Jesus’ own messianic self-consciousness.

In this post I want to to consider what I call the “textual dynamics of messianic self-identity.” I realize that is a mouthful but bear with me here, as this subject is quite fascinating and I think we can see some light on this issue if we take all our evidence into account, both ancient and modern.

Running through the various layers and strata of the New Testament Gospel traditions is a complex set of Messianic titles or designations against which the careers of both John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth are tagged and evaluated. In the climatic exchange at Caesarea Philippi, the Markan Jesus puts it most bluntly–”Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27). The possibilities subsequently enumerated appear earlier in Mark, when Herod Antipas hears of the “powers” at work in the career of Jesus and rumor has it that he might be John the Baptizer “raised from the dead,” or Elijah, or one of the prophets of old (Mark 6:14-17). Each of these possibilities are implicitly rejected by Mark as Peter makes his definitive, though at this point, misguided declaration: “You are the Messiah” (see Mark 1:1 where the reader is clued into the mystery of who Jesus is: Jesus Christ [Son of God]). On trial before the high priest, the question is put even more directly: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus answers “I am” but then couples his affirmation with the added declaration: “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (presumably based on a combined reading of Dan 7:13-14, Psalm 110 and possibly Psalm 2). Earlier, when Jesus is glorified on the high mountain, just following Peter’s declaration, the disciples ask, in response to their experience of the “kingdom of God coming with power”–”Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” (Mark 9:11). Jesus implies that the recently executed John the Baptizer is indeed the Elijah to come (based on Malachi 4:5), but was rejected and killed based on what was “written of him” (Mark 9:13).

Similarly, in John’s Gospel, the Baptizer is asked by the Jerusalem religious establishment, “Who are you?” with the suggested possibilities: the Messiah, Elijah, or “the Prophet.” John denies all three and declares himself “the Voice of one crying in the desert,” based on Isaiah 40:3.

Even more striking is the question in the Q source that the imprisoned Baptizer puts to Jesus shortly before his beheading-”Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” (Luke 7:20). In a closely related Q pericope John is declared to be not merely a prophet, but “more than a prophet,” and indeed the Malachi “Messenger” (Malak) whom, as Deutero-Isaiah’s “Voice crying in the desert,” is to “prepare the way of Yahweh” (Luke 7:26-27). This singular and resolute designation, “the one,” implies a cluster of speculative Messianic interpretations of prophetic texts, echoed in strangely parallel ways to Qumran materials, see my post here (e.g. 4Q521, 4Q174, et al.).

What we find then, within these multi-layered Gospel traditions is a whole set of textual “categories” with potential “candidates” measured against the reported career patterns, or “contexts” of a given figure-in this case the work, and particularly the deaths, of both John the Baptizer and Jesus.

For over a hundred years now these materials have presented scholars of the New Testament with a classic form of the proverbial “chicken or the egg” question. Do our Gospel traditions import and impose these textual categories onto the figures of John and Jesus, long after their deaths, as a kind of exegetical or “scribal” enterprise to explain and justify the shocking and wholly unexpected facts of their deaths–the beheading of John and the crucifixion of Jesus. Or is it remotely possible, or even probable, that figures such as John, Jesus, or for that matter, a whole host of late 2nd Temple Jewish Palestinian “messiah” figures might have “anticipated” their suffering and death as part of their mission? The Dead Sea Scrolls give us insight into the life and times of the unnamed “Teacher of Righteousness.” Josephus mentions a string of messianic figures, besides Jesus, including Judas the Galilean, Athronges, Simon the Perean, “the Samaritan,” Theudas, and “the Egyptian.” I would argue that these and others might well have derived their self-identity and also a self-propelled “career pattern” based on a reading of prophetic “messianic” texts.

The vast majority of critical historians dealing with Christian Origins have taken the former position, put so succinctly by Rudolf Bultmann over a generation ago: the scene of Peter’s confession is an Easter story projected backward into Jesus’ lifetime (Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, I: 26). That Jesus himself ever claimed to be the Messiah is considered unlikely, and that he might have resolutely marched to an anticipated ordeal of suffering, and possible death, is categorized as theological apologetics, or perhaps worse, sensationalist romance (e.g., Hugh Schonfield, The Passover Plot). In contrast Albert Schweitzer concludes his Quest for the Historical Jesus with the intriguing conclusion:

The Baptist appears and cries: ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’ Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that he is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and he throws himself upon it and is crushed.

The so-called “third Quest” for the historical Jesus seems hopelessly halted between two opinions (e.g. Crossan, Borg, and Funk vs. Wright, Ehrman, and Fredriksen). The problem is clearly one of method, as we are always working, it seems, though a double veil–that of our own psychology, trying to probe the inaccessible inner psychology of Jesus himself–and that, through the medium of a complex of layered texts, all of which are to a large degree theological, tendentious, apologetic, and propagandistic. Despite prodigious effort and a plethora of sophisticated historical-critical studies published in the past ten years, it seems that by and large we end up with the “Jesus” of our individual methodological presuppositions. Indeed, one wonders, at the opening of the 21st century, whether Bultmann’s cautionary assertion that we could know next to nothing about the “Jesus of history” and everything about the “Christ of faith” has come back to haunt us.

In 1999 I was given two pre-publication book manuscripts to evaluate, one by Michael Wise, The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Christ, the other by Israel Knohl, The Messiah Before Jesus. See my post here on “The Messiah Before Jesus.” As it turned out, both of these scholars, working completely independently, the one completely unaware of the other, had come up with a strikingly similar thesis. Both Wise and Knohl put forth the argument, based on their reading and evaluation of the autobiographical nature of portions of the Thanksgiving Hymns (1QHodayot) and associated texts from Cave 4 (especially 4Q491 “Self-Glorification Hymn”), that the author of these materials had closely identified his mission, role, calling, and career in the light of the Servant Songs of Isaiah, the “Seventy Weeks Prophecy” of Daniel 9, and various Psalms. In other words, what we have documented in the Qumran texts are the textual dynamics of what I am calling “messianic self-identity,” by the leader of the 1st century B.C.E. Qumran community.

Although Wise and Knohl have their sharp differences, both with regard to the dating, as well as the identity of the mysterious Teacher of the community, both of them argue that the ways in which their figure self-consciously appropriates these prophetic texts puts the question of the self-understanding of Jesus in a new light. The point is not merely that somewhere, once upon a time, someone combined the standard messianic texts regarding glorification (Isa 11, Micah 5, and others) with the notion of rejection, suffering, and death (Servant Songs, Daniel, and the Psalms)–but rather that since it happened once, it might happen again. The case is actually much stronger, especially as set forth by Knohl, namely, that Jesus himself, as well as his earliest followers, rose out of the kind of messianic, apocalyptic way of thinking that has its closest parallels in the Qumran materials. In other words, the Jesus movement is best understood, as Robert Eisenman has put it, as a 1st century C.E. revival of at least one branch of the “messianic movement in Palestine” that flourished in the 1st century B.C.E.

To quote Bultman again:

Of course the attempt is made to carry the idea of the suffering Son of Man into Jesus’ own outlook by assuming that Jesus regarded himself as Deutero-Isaiah’s Servant of God who suffers and dies for the sinner, and fused together the two ideas Son of Man and the Servant of God into the single figure of the suffering, dying and rising Son of Man. At the very outset, the misgivings which must be raised as to the historicity of the predictions of the passion speak against this attempt. In addition, the tradition of Jesus’ sayings reveals no trace of consciousness on his part of being the Servant of God of Isaiah 53. The messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 was discovered in the Christian Chruch and even in it not immediately (Theology of the New Testament I: 31.).

This point, shared by the vast majority of scholars doing critical-historical Jesus research, bears a careful reconsideration in the light of the arguments of Wise and Knohl. It is surely possible, and maybe even probable, that Jesus himself appropriated a cluster of prophetic texts in this messianic manner, and the composite he came up with included the notions of rejection, suffering, and death, as well as the more common elements of exaltation and glorification.

My own study of the messianic self-identity of two contemporary Messiahs, namely David Koresh (1993 i nWaco, TX) and Moses Guibbory (1926 in Jerusalem), has both reinforced and clarified the unfolding textual dynamics of such an autobiographical enterprise. The kind of prophetic, or potentially prophetic texts that most readily lend themselves to such a personalized interpretation are those in which the autobiographical “first person” style sets the stage for “third person,” pesher like interpretation. For example, the “I” of Isaiah 48:16; 49:1-7; 50:4-6; 61:1-4 can be combined with the narrative pattern of texts such as Isaiah 42:1-9; 52:13-53:12; Psalm 2 and 110, and Micah 5:2-4.

Draw near to me, hear this: from the beginning I have not spoken in secret, from the time it came to be I have been there. And now the Lord YHVH has sent me and his Spirit (Isaiah 48:16).

Listen to me, O coastlands, and hearken, you peoples from afar. Yahweh called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with Yahweh, and my recompense with my God.” And now Yahweh says, who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the eyes of the Yahweh, and my God has become my strength–he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Thus says Yahweh the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of Yahweh, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you (Isaiah 49:1-7).

The Lord Yahweh has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary. Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord Yahweh has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward. I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting (Isaiah 54:4-6).

There is no denying that our earliest Passion Narrative, now reflected in the Gospel of Mark, clearly builds up the career of Jesus based on a set of prophetic texts such as Zechariah 9:9. Accordingly, the precise historicity of individual episodes remains in dispute. Did Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a colt, or does Mark create this scene based on the prophetic text? However, this uncertainty should by no means lead us to conclude that the inner dynamics of messianic self-identity, based on key prophetic texts and contexts, is unlikely in the case of Jesus of Nazareth.

What really stirs this apocalyptic messianic “pot” of stew is the combination of subjective inward experience and objective, external, historical fact. In other words, the messianic candidate comes to the text to inform his or her self-understanding, as well as launch a messianic career, while at the same time external events, such as Pilate delivering Jesus to be crucified, elucidate the “true” meaning of the texts. This is the heart and core of the pesher method of interpretation as seen in, say, the Habakkuk Pesher (1QpHab). The “chastisement of the Teacher of Righeousness” (IV.10) and the suffering and faith of the followers (VIII. 1-3) both inform inner self-understanding and reinforce, or even “orchestrate,” external events.

Most common in this complex of categories, candidates, and contexts is the notion of a kind of “realized eschatology,” to borrow a phrase from C. H. Dodd. In other words, the hard reality of history is mediated by the imaginative projection of communal or individual self-understanding. The full confirmation of prophetic fulfillment is always “at hand,” just out of reach, but the serendipitous and fortuitous nature of events, as well as the self-conscious activities of the leader and the group, work together to construct a convincing picture. Although the texts themselves act powerfully in this mix, it is the utter conviction of the candidate, set in these historical contexts, that furnishes the apologetic power. With such dynamics at work we truly have “the makings of a Messiah” in ways that can be documented down through history, even into our own time.