Review of Chester, Messiah and Exaltation


Andrew Chester, Messiah and Exaltation: Jewish Messianic and Visionary Traditions and New Testament Christology, WUNT 207. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007. 716pp. ISBN: 978-3-16-149091-0. $215.00. Cloth.

Published in BBR 18.2 (2008), 348-50. 

Encouraged to do so by Martin Hengel, Andrew Chester has revised or expanded several published essays, written three substantial new ones, and given them to us as Messiah and Exaltation. Chapter 1 sets forth the purpose of publishing these essays, which Chester states do not “form a single sustained argument” (2). These essays focus on key ideas regarding Jewish messianism and early Christology. In many ways all of the essays develop ideas first presented in what appears as chapter 5 of this volume. 

In chapter 2, Chester takes up arguments made by Maurice Casey, Richard Bauckham, and Timo Eskola. Casey argues that the Jewish prophet Jesus was only later turned into a Gentile God. Chester gives much more attention to Bauckham and Eskola. Bauckham posits a hard and fast line between the divine identity and other supernatural beings who do not, for instance, receive worship. Chester argues that Bauckham’s explanation of Logos and Wisdom as being included within the divine identity fails, bringing forth and discussing at length evidence that appears to overturn aspects of Bauckham’s argument. Eskola, according to Chester, recapitulates many themes already present in the work of others, such as Hengel, in his presentation of an intriguing Merkabah throne mysticism, which he argues is reflected in such texts as Psalms 110, 16, and 132, 2 Samuel 7, and Acts 2:22–36. For Chester, Eskola begs too many questions (a favorite charge of Chester’s) and insufficiently defines both “Messianism” and “Merkabah mysticism.” Chester summarizes, critiques, and seeks to go beyond these arguments in order to base early Christology primarily on the extraordinary visions experienced both by Christ himself and by his followers. These visions, Chester argues, were the central and shaping forces operating in early Christological thinking. Only once the importance of the visions is established would Chester bring in both the citation of Old Testament Yahweh texts with reference to Christ and the worship of Jesus, but he concedes that the process of theological development cannot be neatly demarcated. 

Chapter 3 examines the themes of “Resurrection, Transformation and Christology” in the OT, extra-biblical, and NT texts. Chester argues that “resurrection can be used to portray individual, national and cosmic transformation.” The NT presents the resurrected Christ as “transformed to take on the divine glory and image” (189), and believers anticipating transformation into the image of Christ. 

Chapter 4 turns to “The Nature and Scope of Messianism.” Chester first discusses the various definitions of messianism before turning to the primary evidence. His treatment of the Hebrew Bible is mainly a review of the works of minimalists such as Pomykala and Karrer and maximalists such as Laato and Horbury. Chester is not overly impressed with the minimalists, and his summaries of Laato and Horbury are nothing short of fascinating, though in Chester’s estimation, Laato begs too many questions and Horbury’s understanding of the messiah is too broad. Chester then undertakes a comprehensive discussion of evidence for messianism in the Qumran texts. He suggests that the evidence for two messiahs at Qumran is limited and “cannot simply be assumed to underlie all of Qumran messianism” (269). Chester then considers Messianism as it relates to the temple and the Torah and concludes with the NT evidence. 

Chapter five is the heart of the volume. This earliest essay contains the main lines of the arguments Chester develops, revises, and even changes through the subsequent essays. The essay is introduced with discussion of the various positions scholars take, followed by treatment of Jewish messianic expectation reflected in second temple writings, which leads into consideration of Jewish mediatorial figures (with which Bauckham took issue in God Crucified, an argument Chester challenges in chapter 2 of the present volume), and Chester concludes this essay looking at Pauline Christology as it relates to Jewish messianic expectation and mediatorial figures. 

Chapter six will be particularly interesting to pre-millennial interpreters. Chester provides a thorough discussion of Eschatology and Messianic Hope. The Jewish evidence of a messianic “golden age” is treated, as are Christian texts, focusing on Revelation, chiliasts and non-chiliasts, Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, 1 and 2 Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp, and the Epistle to Diognetus. Chapter seven treats “Messiah and Temple in the Sibylline Oracles,” chapter eight discusses “Messiah and Torah,” and chapter nine concludes the volume with “The ‘Law of Christ’ and the ‘Law of the Spirit’.” 

These essays are the work of a mature scholar who is thoroughly conversant with the primary and secondary evidence. Chester fairly presents the views of other scholars, summarizing them at length before moving into discussion and critique of the positions with which he agrees or disagrees. This aspect of the volume will benefit anyone interested in messianism. 

The detailed character of the arguments, the wide-ranging scope of the collection, and the massive scholarship involved make it difficult to take issue with particular points in a short review such as this. I submit a few general observations, more in the form of impressions than critiques. The long discussions sometimes yield little payoff or are so technical as to be mainly of interest to those working specifically on, say, “the law of Christ” (chapter 9), yet holding much less interest for those working on primary evidence for messianism in the Hebrew Bible (chapter 4). But, that is the nature of both the vast question of messianism and this particular volume—a collection of essays, which, as the author states at the outset, do not comprise a sustained argument for a thesis. The sometimes unremarkable conclusions to these long discussions reflect Chester’s caution, which is perhaps overly resistant to synthetic summaries. For some, this aspect of Chester’s work will be a mark of the quality of his scholarship, and there can be no disputing its quality. Others, though, will feel that the pendulum has swung too far from the synthesis of messianism presented in Schürer to an overemphasis on its diversity as seen in the minimalists. Chester’s work is moving the pendulum back toward the middle, but it is perhaps only a short step from Chester to Horbury (in spite of Chester’s claim that his view is “altogether different” 283 n. 293), which might make that middle look more and more like Schürer’s synthesis. If Schürer goes too far, it nevertheless seems that there is a core of messianism that holds together its various expressions (as Craig Evans has recently noted in The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments, Eerdmans 2007, 239). 

Chester, in spite of all the qualifications, reservations, and nuances, is no minimalist and helpfully argues that the messianic expectations attested in extra-biblical Jewish literature and the NT can be described as at least “latent” in the Old Testament itself (282–84). Further, he acknowledges Horbury’s point that bringing the various writings of the Old Testament together into the beginnings of the OT canon resulted in them being presented side by side, creating a dynamic interaction between the diverse OT indications of an expected deliverer (279–80). Minimalists may appreciate Chester’s ever present caution, insistence on the value of the texts in their own right, and attempts to qualify the conclusions drawn by maximalists, who may feel that the massive evidence Chester presents, in spite of his attempts to stem its tide with nuance and qualification, inexorably reinforces their position. No one will be convinced by everything here, but the thorough summaries of scholarship and the thoughtful discussion of primary evidence make this volume a valuable contribution.

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