ow did a Jew in Jesus’ time announce that he was the Messiah? One accomplished this by applying to himself words or phrases from Scripture that were interpreted by members of his community to be references to the coming Messiah. Being interpretations rather than direct references, such messianic allusions are extremely subtle, and easily missed by modern readers of ancient Jewish literature. Claimants certainly did not reveal themselves by simply declaring, “I am the Messiah,” as we moderns might expect. Rather, ancient messianic pretenders, such as, for instance, Bar Kochva, informed contemporaries of their messianic identity by referring to themselves with titles acknowledged to refer to one or more of the exalted figures described in Scripture.
Jesus made bold messianic claims when he spoke. To thoroughly understand these claims, however, we must get into a time machine and travel back in time to a completely different culture, the Jewish culture of first-century Israel. We must acculturate ourselves to the way teachers and disciples in the time of Jesus communicated through allusions to Scripture.
Members of Jewish society in Jesus’ day maintained a high degree of biblical literacy. Consequently, rabbinic teachers and their disciples frequently communicated by using a word or phrase extracted from a passage of Scripture. For example, John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus to ask the question: “Are you ‘the Coming One [ὁ ἐρχόμενος (o erxomenos = הבא]’?” (Matt 11:3 = Luke 7:19), an allusion to Zechariah 9:9 and Malachi 3:1. Jesus responded, “Go tell John…,” etc., an answer that alluded to passages from chapters 29, 35, 42 and 61 of Isaiah.
 Even today a Jew who believes he is the Messiah never says, “I am the Messiah,” but rather, a messianic pretender refers to himself using words or phrases from scripture texts that have been interpreted messianically. ↩
Today when we hear the word “gospel” we tend to think of a message about Jesus that tells people how to “get saved.” But in the ancient world in which Jesus lived the word “gospel” was applied to “good news” of a certain type. When people in the ancient world heard the word “gospel” they understood it to mean a royal proclamation that someone had become king.
Explore this fascinating topic with Joshua Tilton in his new eBook “Jesus’ Gospel.”
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