Book Review: Bateman, Bock and Johnston, Jesus the Messiah

Herbert W. Bateman IV, Darrell L. Bock and Gordon H. Johnston.  Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King.  Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2012. 527 pp. Hb; $36.99. Link.

This book has three distinct sections, one on the Old Testament, the second on the development of messianic prophecy in the intertestamental period, and the third on the New Testament’s use of these prophecies to explain who Jesus was (the Messiah).  Since the three authors are all pre-millennialists, it is no surprise that texts describing a messianic age are understood as describing a future kingdom.  But this book is not the kind of popular dispensationalism of the mid twentieth century. There is little in the book that is “eschatological” nor does the book even approach the issue of the future return of Jesus. As sub-title indicates, this book is interested in the prophecies found in the Old Testament which formed Jewish expectations in the first century.  The goal here is illuminating the claim that Jesus is the Messiah rather than speculating about what a future Messiah might be like. As such, this book is a biblical theology of the Messiah.

Jesus the MessiahHerb Bateman contributes a 19 pages introduction which explains the plan of the book. He is adamant that the method of the book is reading the whole Bible canonically.  This means that the Old Testament provides the foundation for understanding the New Testament. But Bateman is also interested in how others read the Old Testament before the time of Jesus.  These Second Temple “eschatological reflections” are non-revelatory and are human interpretations of the texts surveyed in the first section of the book.  I suspect that this explanation needs to be clearly stated since the published and authors are on the conservative side of Christianity.  Some might protest if Bateman were reading the literature of the Second Temple as if it were on a par with Scripture.  He most certainly does not do this, but he is careful not to give that impression.

Gordon H. Johnston provides seven chapters tracing “messianic trajectories” in various sections of the Old Testament. This is the longest section of the book (at 173 pages), covering trajectories in Genesis and Numbers (ch. 1), The Covenant to David (ch. 2), The Royal Psalms (ch. 3), Amos, Hosea and Micah (ch. 4), Isaiah (ch. 5), Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel (ch. 6) and Zechariah (ch. 7).  Johnston’s method is simple. He basically provides a catalog of messianic promises in each particular section, explains the text briefly (a “contextual reading”) then suggests a “canonical reading” for the text.  The second is the more interesting to me since he calls this an “inner-biblical development” of a given text.  Early texts may be expanded by later writers, including “interim developments that temporarily take the original language and motifs in new directions” (51).  This means that royal texts are not static, but are subject to this inner-biblical development.  This is how a text describing a literal king or a literal enthronement can “develop” into a prophecy of the ultimate fulfillment in the eschatological Messiah.

In some cases the text examined refers back and an earlier prophecy and uses to look ahead to the future.  This is especially true of the Branch texts in Zechariah.  The prophet uses motifs from Jeremiah and interprets them in the light of his current situation in order to make some prediction for the future.  This sort of inner-biblical reading sometimes can be faulted because the dates of some of the Old Testament books are uncertain, although this is not a problem for the generally conservative Johnston.

Most inner-biblical developments are found in the New Testament texts; there is less inner-Hebrew Bible developments that I would have expected.  While Johnston’s method is clear in practice, I would have appreciated even a brief chapter describing and defending it, as well as a final summary chapter which could look back over the material as a whole and draw some conclusions.

Bateman’s section of the book includes four chapters treating messianic expectations in the Second Temple Period Judaism. This section of the book is rich in details from the literature of the period, despite the fact that one of the problems Bateman identifies is limited resources for the period.  While this is undoubtedly true for the Persian period, there is a wealth of material from the later Greek period.  He describes most of the intertestamental period as a time of messianic dormancy.  It is not until reactions to the Hasmonean dynasty and the rise of Rome that messianic texts “evoked and inflamed” (237).

Bateman surveys royal and messianic texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls in chapter 9, beginning with the Cairo Damascus Document (CD) and the Rule of the Congregation (1QS).  Chapter 10 covers “Anticipations of the One Called Branch and Prince” in the same literature.  The messianic title “prince of the congregation” appears often in the Dead Sea Scrolls.  In chapter 11, Bateman catalogs references to a coming “son.”  Many of these texts in the Qumran literature are developments from Psalm 2.  Batman also provides a good summary of the phrase in the Psalms of Solomon, 1 Enoch, and 4 Ezra.  The Psalms of Solomon are important for New Testament studies because they appear to come from the Pharisees and date perhaps fifty years before Christ.  Psalm 17 is particularly important for tracing messianic developments. Fourth Ezra post-dates most of the New Testament, probably written in the mid-90’s A.D.

Darrell Bock’s contribution to this book is four chapters covering the New Testament, although he attempts to do so in a non-canonical order. Bock argues that starting with Revelation and the Catholic Epistles and moving to Paul then the Gospels, he can start with the least controversial texts and make fewer assumptions as he proceeds (333). In addition, Bock observes that the earliest church (represented by the earliest documents in the New Testament) already confessed Jesus as Messiah. By working backwards, Bock hopes to arrive in the world of the Historical Jesus and find that the source for the claim that Jesus is the Messiah is Jesus himself. Beginning in Revelation, Bock confines himself to confessions of Jesus as the Christ. This in effect limits his comments to the first five chapters of Revelation.  (Christ also appears in Rev 20, although this is only mentioned in passing). At a mere three pages, this is a very short look at Revelation, given the topic of the book! By limiting the study to explicit confessions of Jesus as Messiah, the rich uses of eschatological and messianic texts drawn from the Hebrew Bible are not included.

Bock covers the idea of Messiah in the Pauline letters in his second chapter. He observes that about 72% of all the New Testament references to Jesus as Christ appear in the Pauline letters. He approaches the letters of Paul chronologically and includes all the letters (Ephesians and the Pastorals are often omitted as post-Pauline). Connections to past texts are not as clear in Paul, although some allusion to Psalm 110 and the Suffering Servant texts are present.  For Paul, the messiah was “not a military power, but a spiritual gifting and a rule from Heaven among those allied to the raised Messiah” (403).  What is remarkable is the lack of explicit hermeneutical texts from Judaism. For Bock, this points toward Jesus as the source for messianic claims.

When Bock turns his attention to the proclamation of the messiah, he begins in Acts (still working backwards chronologically).  Bock argues that Acts works more explicitly with texts, especially the Suffering Servant passages. Peter’s speeches in Acts 2 and 3 are examples of a synthetic reading of messianic texts “drawing on a wide array of older promises” (417). In the Gospels the claim that Jesus is the Messiah is “veiled, then proclaimed” by the gospel writers.  Jesus reveals himself as messiah by what he does more than by what he says (438).  This leads to Bock’s final chapter on the Historical Jesus.   He examines Jesus’ preaching, Peter’s Christological confession and the triumphal entry in detail. In each case there is a clear messianic claim, although Jesus is clear that his role as the Messiah was to suffer.  This use of the Servant Songs in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is unique in the Second Temple Period.  “Jesus unified the (messianic) pieces and showed there was far more” than a single military deliverer (455).

Conclusion.  This book seems to be designed as a textbook for use in a classroom. There are many charts, graphs and maps to illustrate the text.  Some of these sidebars are quite helpful (lists of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha), others strike me as filler.  For example, I am not sure the book is enhanced by the chart on Major Transitions in Paul’s Life (358) or some of the maps (for example, the Persian Empire, p. 224). Both are informative, but they are not particular “on topic.”

Overall I find this a stimulating read, although there is little here that is new.  I find it encouraging that conservative scholars are doing this kind of “biblical theology” and attempting to understand the messianic claims of Jesus and the early church by understanding first the Hebrew Bible and second by reading the literature of the period.  Student and non-scholars will learn a great deal by reading this book.

Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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