Four Images of the Messiah

IV. Christian Context


A. Introduction: Four Images

In his book, "The Scepter and the Star," John J. Collins proposed four Messiah images that were popular around the Common Era. They were:

1. Davidic King-Warrior

Those who found comfort with this image expected a military leader who would lead a popular uprising, destroying Roman occupying forces in their wake.

2. Teacher of Righteousness

This title derived from the Essenes in the Dead Sea Scrolls (predominately in the Damascus Document). Some controversy exists among scholars if the figure was a specific person or a archetype. In either case, many saw the Messiah as the true interpreter of the Torah. In first century Judaism, both in Palestine and in the Diaspora, many conflicting voices claim legitimacy in the application of the Law to daily life. Those, like the Essences, sought a new authority to show them the righteous way to live out the duties of Judaism and, thus, the right way to God.

3. High Priest

Others, especially the Essene community at Qumran, yearned for a high priest who would restore pure worship in the Temple. They considered the leadership at the holy site corrupt since it collaborated with Rome and looked out for its own interests over that of the people.

4. The Son of Man

Unlike the first three images who rose up from among the people, this image from Daniel 7:13-14 described a heavenly figure sent by God to the faithful. In other words, the initiative of this figure was divine, not human. This unknown person would arrive on the Day of YHWH to partake in the Final Judgment.

These four images provided points of reference, not self contained portrays packed with their own ideology. Individuals, even communities, could mix and match these images, but gravitated towards one to stand out. These images provided us with framework to investigate how early disciples saw Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ.

B. Jesus as the Davidic Warrior-King

Early Christians rejected Jesus as the military liberator. Only two incidents exist in the Gospels that point to that image: one Jesus claimed, the other where the leaders used the image against him. On the one hand, he entered Jerusalem on a donkey to bring universal peace, in a clear reference to Zechariah 9:9-10 (Mt 21:1-11, Lk 19:28-40, Jn 12:12-16). On the other hand, Pilate condemned him on a trumped up charge of treason, at the behest of the religious leaders. He suffered on the cross under the charge "King of the Jews," a cynical description of one who failed in his kingly aspirations, according to non-Christians. True, St. Paul wrote Jesus became the Christ through his death and Resurrection (Rom 1:3-4), but this understanding was without parallel in other Jewish circles.

C. Jesus as the Teacher of Righteousness

1. Messenger, Message and Power

The ideal teacher has the qualities of personal integrity, coherent content and dynamic delivery. First century Jews shared these expectations, but they yearned for a closer relationship with YHWH in his Kingdom. They looked forward to the coming of a Messiah who would show them the way. They would accept nothing less than God's man delivering God's message with God's power.

2. God's Man with God's Power

The people were amazed by his teaching, for he was teaching they as having authority, not as the scribes had.

Mark 1:22 (with a reference to Lk 4:31 and Mt 7:29)

As the popularity of the Baptist can attest, the contemporaries of Jesus yearned for a teaching Messiah to prepare them for the Kingdom. The Spirit would anoint this man with God's message and God's power, as described in Isaiah 61:1-2; he could also raise people from the dead. The gospels portrayed Jesus as a charismatic teacher with power, producing both healing and controversy.

Let's consider the status of Jesus as teacher and folk healer. The gospels created an impression that teaching corresponded with healing, but what was the relationship between the two? In John 3:2, Nicodemus came to him, seeking understanding.

"Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who came from God. For, no one has the power to perform these signs that you do unless God is with him."

The evangelist John called the miracles of Jesus "signs." While all signs did not involve healing, the signs resulted in faith (Jn 2:1-11, Jn 4:46-54, Jn 5:1-18, Jn 6:16-24, Jn 9:1-7, Jn 11:1-45); miracles gave credence to his message. In John 4:48, he told the man seeking a healing for his son:

"Unless all of you see signs and wonders, you will not ever believe!"

Most scholars date John late in the first century CE, even into the first decade of the second century. However, in Mark which scholars date much earlier, the order of healing and message was reversed; the Good News created the conditions for the healing. In Mark 1:21-28. he cast a demon from a man in a synagogue on the Sabbath and the congregation reacted in awe.

Everyone was amazed that they discussed it among themselves, saying "What is this? A new teaching with authority! He orders unclean spirits and even they obey him!" Reports about Jesus immediately went out everywhere, all over the countryside of Galilee.

Mark 1:27-28

In 1:27, the exorcism came from the power of his teaching; his preaching did not stem from his command over demons. His reputation spread because he proclaimed God's Good News which inherently got results. The message of Jesus (his kerygma) was the basis for his power (his charisms).

3. The Title of Teacher

Jesus was called "Teacher" 66 times in the gospels: 13 times for the Hebrew "rabbi," twice for the Aramaic "rabbouni" and 46 times for the Greek "didaskalos." If we narrow our search to Marks' gospel, the passages employing the title "Teacher" find parallels in Matthew and Luke. It was used four times in miracle stories.

a. The exorcism on the Sabbath (Mark 1:21 with a reference to Lk 4:31-37)

b. When messengers tried to dissuade Jairus to seek a miracle, since his daughter had died (Mk 5:35 and Lk 8:49 with a reference to Mt 9:18-26).

c. Another exorcism on the Sabbath (Mark 9:17 and Lk 9:38 with a reference to Mt 17:14-18)

d. The calming of the sea during a storm (Mk 4:38 with a reference to Mt 8:18, 23-27 and Lk 8:22-25)

In the Feeding of the 5000, Mark 6:34 and Luke 9:11 presented Jesus teaching the people before the miracle; we must note all four gospels recorded this event. Only one use of the title came the "Q" source, verses found in common with Matthew and Lk, but not in Mark. In Matthew 12:38, some in the crowd addressed Jesus as "Teacher" when they sought a sign; he replied with the sign of Jonah, one preaching repentance to an evil generation (Mt 12:39 and Lk 11:30).

The uses of the term "Teacher" in Mark and their parallels in Matthew and Luke represent 22 of the 66 times listed in the Gospels. Mark only recorded five accounts of teaching or the term "Teacher" with miracles out of the 18 miracle passages.

4. God's Man, God's Message, God's Power

Early Christians saw Jesus as the Messiah in the image of the Teacher of Righteousness. They held he fulfilled Isaiah 61 not only with an anointing of the Spirit, not only by proclaiming the Good News, not only by healing by God's power, but by being an agent of the end times; he rose from the dead. This belief differentiated him from every other person claiming some spiritual message or power, either in pagan culture or within Judaism. Not only that, he created a community of disciples that would carry on his kerygma and his charisms by pouring the Spirit upon them. Unlike other holy men, charlatans or magicians in first century CE, the Church acted like an extension of the Risen Christ on earth, for it was an assembly of Spirit-gifted individuals using their charisms for the expressed purpose of spreading kerygma. They believed Jesus of Nazareth was God's man with God's message using God's power; they experienced intimate communion with that man who conquered death in and through his message by sharing in his power.

D. Son of Man, Son of God

New Testament authors employed the terms "Son of Man" and "Son of God" to express the triangle of relationships between the believer, Jesus and God the Father. In the Gospels, Jesus called himself "the Son of Man" to address his mission, but referred to his unique position before YHWH as the "Son." The letters from St. Paul, 1 John and the gospel of John emphasized that relationship by calling him, the "Son of God." The writings also spoke to the place the believer had before the Father only in terms of their intimacy with Christ. Indeed, the love shared between the Son and the Father became a model for the relationship of God and his people, as well as that between disciples and their Savior.

In the Old Testament, the phrase "son of man" appeared 93 times in Ezekiel and 14 times in other books. The phrase generally meant "humanity" or one representing humanity. In this sense, the term was generic, for it had only the indefinite article attached to it ("a son of man") or lacked an article altogether. In Ezekiel, YHWH addressed the prophet as "son of man" to contrast his status from his Maker. In other words, the phrase "son of man" separated humanity from divinity, emphasizing the gulf between the two. Indeed, the Hebrew for "son of man" was "ben Adam," son of Adam, a generic term applicable to every human being. Daniel's vision changed that meaning from the "every man" to the heavenly man coming in glory.

In the New Testament, the term "the Son of Man" was used 85 times, mostly in the four Gospels, almost always by Jesus as a self-identifying title. Mark employed the title eleven times that found their way in Matthew; eight of those verses found their way in Luke. Four of those titles in Mark referred to his Passion and Resurrection (Mk 9:9, 31; 10:33, 45); two verses quoted Daniel 7:13 (Mk 13:26, Mk 14:62) The "Q" source account for twenty of those references, ten each for Matthew and Luke. Of those shared verses, ten (five each) made reference to the Son of Man coming in glory (Lk 12:10,40; Lk 17:24, 26, 30; Mt 12:32, 40; Mt 24:27, 37, Mt 24:44). The passages from Mark (along with Matthew and Luke) and the Q source (Matthew and Luke only) account for over one third of those 85 times. Clearly, early Christians held Jesus himself somehow connected his suffering, death and resurrection with the Final Judgment in his title, "the Son of Man."

For Jews, the phrase "son of God" had a generic sense, meaning the pious (Psalm 82:6). It had a collective sense for the nation of Israel (Exodus 4:22; Hosea 11:1). It also extended the image of that virtue to an ideal King, whether David or one of his descendants (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 89:26-28). Psalm 2:7 vaguely equated the title with the Messiah; the apocryphal books Enoch and 2 Esdras made that connection explicit (Enoch 105:2; 2 Esdras 7:28-29, 14:9).

The term "Son of God" was a phrase used by early Christians for Jesus, 37 times in the New Testament, 22 times in the Gospels alone. The phrase gained popularity in books written late in the apostolic era or towards the end of the first century CE: eight times for John's gospel (ca. 90-100 CE), four times in Hebrews (ca, 70 AD) and seven times 1 John (ca 90-100 CE). Mark employed the term four times, three instances at key moments: the title to his gospel (Mk 1:1), Caiaphas' question to Jesus during his trial (Mk 14:61-22 with Mt 24:63-64) and the centurion's act of faith at the crucifixion (Mk 15:39 with Mt 27:54). The only instances from the "Q" source occurred at the Temptation when Satan addressed Jesus (Mt 4:3, 6; Lk 4:3, 9); these reflected two exorcisms when the demons tried to control his power through use of the title (Mk 3:11 with Lk 4:41; Mt 8:29). In the post apostolic period, use of the term acted as a critical point, either defining the faith of the believer or challenging that faith.

Beyond the title, Mark's gospel and the Pauline letters expressed a unique relationship between Jesus and the God he called "Father." Twice in Mark's gospel, a heavenly voice called him "my Son," at his baptism (Mk 1:11) and at the Transfiguration (Mk 9:7). St. Paul built his theology on the intimacy Jesus had with his Father as one of a Son. The apostle preached God the Father sent Jesus Christ into the world (Rom 8:3, Gal 4:4) as the Son of God (2 Cor 1:19); Paul proclaimed Good News about the Son (Rom 1:9). The closeness between the Father and the Son became a model for the believer's faith. The Father reconciled the world to himself through the death of his Son (Rom 5:10, Rom 8:32), so that, by the power of the Spirit, the faithful became God's adopted children (Gal 4:6) because they shared fellowship with "his Son" (1 Cor 9:16); as children, believers could call upon God as "Abba," Father (Rom 8:15, Gal 4:6). Indeed, the apostle defined the One the Christians worshiped as "the God and Father of the/our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom 1:7, 15:6, 1 Cor 1:3 , 2 Cor 1:2, 11:31, Gal 1:3, Philippians 1:2, Philemon 3).

Towards the end of the first century CE, belief in the pre-existence of the Son came to the fore, especially in John's gospel. The Johannine text inferred "the Son" was the pre-existent Logos (Jn 1:18). This raised Jesus to the level of the Father, for he referred to himself as "I AM," (Jn 4:26; Jn 6:20; Jn 6:35; Jn 6:41; Jn 6:48; Jn 6:51; Jn 7:28; Jn 7:29; Jn 7:33; Jn 7:34; Jn 7:36; Jn 8:12; Jn 8:16; Jn 8:18; Jn 8:23 (twice); Jn 8:24; Jn 8:28; Jn 8:58; Jn 9:5; Jn 10:7; Jn 10:9; Jn 10:11; Jn 10:14; Jn 10:36; Jn 11:25; Jn 12:26; Jn 13:13; Jn 13:19; Jn 13:33; Jn 14:3; Jn 14:6; Jn 14:9; Jn 15:1; Jn 15:5; Jn 16:32; Jn 17:11; Jn 17:14; Jn 17:16; Jn 17:24; Jn 18:5; Jn 18:6; Jn 18:8; Jn 18:37; Jn 19:21) a term that hearkened back to the self-describing name YHWH revealed to Moses (Exodus 3:14). He also spoke about his unique status as "Son," especially in context his power to raise the dead (Jn 5:19-26; Jn 6:40). In response, disciples witnessed to him as the "Son" (Jn 3:35-36) or as the "Son of God" (Jn 1:34, Jn 1:49; Jn 11:27). The seeds of pre-existence in the inter-Testamental books found a fuller development in John.

Apocalyptic literature shifted the meanings of "son of man" and "son of God" from the generic pious human in the terrestrial realm to the heavenly figure coming in glory. Christian sources identified Jesus of Nazareth in that later sense, but added a twist. They held Jesus was Daniel's "Son of Man" only through his death and resurrection; his Passion and risen glory made him the "Son of God." As disciples of a Lord they claimed rose from the dead, they rooted their relationship with the God the Father with, through and in Christ.

E. The High Priest

The Christian notion of a priestly Messiah did not develop until the late apostolic to post apostolic eras. It found its full voice in the letter to the Hebrews.

We can divide Hebrews into five parts, but only the first two concern us: his place in creation (1:1-4:13) and his heavenly priesthood (4:14-10:18). The first four chapters heavily depend upon Daniel's "Son of Man" image, for Christ possessed divine attributes (Heb 1:1-3), standing above the angels in the hierarchy of creation (Heb 1:1-14). Yet, he made himself lower than the angels, so he could live and die for all people, thus making universal salvation possible (Heb 2:5-18).

9 But, we see Jesus, "(for a) short (time) having been made lower than the angels," by the passion of (his) death "having been crowned in glory and honor," so that by the grace of God he might taste death for all.

Notice, Jesus came down from the heavenly realm to serve humanity as a brother and, so, receive glory from his Father and his disciples for destroying death. (Heb 2:9) His death acted as a hinge point between Daniel's image and that of High Priest Messiah. When he died, he atoned for the sins of the people (Heb 2:17-18).

17 Wherefore he was obligated (by God) to be like to the brethren in every way, so that he might become a merciful and trustworthy high priest, (giving) things to God for the expiation of sins for the people. 18 For in what he suffered, being tempted, he is able to help those being tempted.

Through his self-sacrifice, he ascended into heaven to intercede for all humanity (Heb 4:14-16).

14 Having, then, a great high priest having gone throughout the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, we should hold onto our confession (about Jesus). 15 For we do not have a High Priest not able to empathize with our weaknesses, but having been tempted in every (way), in the same way (we are), (but) without sin. 16 We can come, then, with boldness to the throne of grace, so that we might receive mercy, and we might find grace in timely help.

Because his sacrificed differed from that of the Temple priests, his priesthood was different. They descended from Aaron; he stood in the eternal line of Melchizedek. (Heb 5:6-10)

6 Just as (God) also said in another (Psalm), "YOU (are) a PRIEST into the (final) age, according to the rank of Melchizedek," 7 who in the days of HIS flesh, having offered both requests and prayers to the (One) having the power to save HIM from death with loud shouts and tears, and having been heard (by God) for (HIS) reverence, 8 and indeed being (his) SON, HE learned obedience from what he suffered, 9 and having been finished (with perfection), HE became to all obeying HIM the cause of eternal salvation, 10 having been addressed by God 'HIGH PRIEST according to the rank of Melchizedek.'

Once the author established the parallel between Jesus and Melchizedek, he fleshed out the superiority of Christ's place over that of Aaronic priests. Melchizedek ruled as king and offered worship as priest, so he stood above Abraham and his descendants; he remained a priest forever (Heb 7:1-10). Because of his self-sacrifice and risen life, Christ possessed an eternal priesthood, in the line of Melchizedek. He offered worship before the throne of God with an indestructible, permanent life, far superior to the temporal service the Temple priests, who were weak from sin and faced death as all people do (Heb 7:15-22). Christ, the sinless One, made the perfect sacrifice for the forgiveness of all sin throughout time.

As the Risen Lord who ascended into glory, Christ served in the perfect sanctuary with a new covenant.

11 Christ, having arrived (as) high priest of the good (events) that have happened into the greater and more complete tent, not handmade, this is not of this creation, 12 not through the blood of goats and calves but through his own blood, entered the Holy (place) once and for all, having found eternal redemption. 13 For if sprinkling the base with the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of (sacrificed) heifers sanctifies towards the "cleansing" of the flesh, 14 how much more the blood of Christ, who, through the eternal Spirit, offered himself without fault, will cleanse our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

15 This (man) is the mediator of (the) new covenant, so that, as (his) death happened for the redemption from the transgressions of the first covenant, (those) having been called (by God) might receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.

Hebrews 9:11-15

Notice that with the perfect sacrifice and the eternal high priest came the ideal sanctuary, unlike the Temple, "which was an imitation and a shadow of the heavenly (place of) worship, just as Moses was warned (by God) as he intended to complete the (tabernacle) tent, for (God ) said, 'See (you) do all things according to pattern being shown to you on the mountain.'" (Heb 8:5) In other words, the Temple was superfluous, especially to the Jewish Christians, ejected from the synagogues and coming under the critical eye of the pagans. Indeed, the author wrote the letter as an exhortation to these disciples not to abandon the faith.

F. Summary

Early Christians focused upon two Messianic images for Jesus: the Teacher of Righteous and Daniel's "Son of Man." The saw him as God's man with the divine message and divine power. They also held he was the heavenly Son who came to earth to suffer, then rise from the dead; so, they invoked the apocalyptic theme of resurrection as central to their faith. Late in the apostolic era, they developed the notion of Jesus as the High Priest, but only in the context of the "Son of Man" image; they saw the Passion and Resurrection as the definite sacrifice by the ultimate high priest. The Davidic Warrior-King was almost nonexistent. Believers traced the linage for Jesus of Nazareth from David only to gain legitimacy, not to claim any military role for him; indeed, the gospel title "Son of David" many times referred to Jesus' role as a wise teacher with power, a "Solomon" figure. So, we return to the first two images, Jesus as the righteous teacher and the Son sent by God to fulfill the divine will on earth.


Collins, John J.. The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1995. Print.