Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Richard S. Hess and M. Daniel Carroll R., eds., Israel's Messiah in the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 2003).  Pp. 192.  Paper, US$19.99.  ISBN 0801026113.

            This book represents the fruit of a conference held at Denver Seminary on February 2-3, 2001. The organizing principle behind the conference’s discussions emerges from a quick glance at the table of contents: for each of four subdivisions of the title topic, a leading evangelical Christian scholar was asked to present a substantial paper. Then one or two shorter responses followed. The presentation of the materials here follows the same pattern.

            Thus Daniel Block addresses himself to the Hebrew Bible with, “My Servant David: Ancient Israel’s Vision of the Messiah.” Responses are offered by J. Daniel Hays and M. Daniel Carroll R.  Craig A. Evans engages the Qumran materials with, “The Messiah in the Dead Sea Scrolls,” to which Richard S. Hess responds.  Craig L. Blomberg investigates, “Messiah in the New Testament,” with a reaction by William W. Klein. Finally, in a paper perhaps less expected in a volume of this sort, Gerardo A. Alfaro Gonzalez offers, “Jesus’ Messianism: A Proposal and an Assessment from Latin America,” upon which Karen Jobes then reflects. Indexes of biblical and other ancient writings, and of modern authors, complete the volume.

            Of the three major textual essays Block’s is the most evidently confessional, guided more by theology than by historical method. This statement is not a criticism, merely an observation; different sorts of readers will react to Block’s theological lense in different ways, depending on the questions each is hoping to find help in answering. The effect of his approach is to give the issues involved in understanding ancient Israel’s messianic thought a predictable teleology: Jesus was always the telos or goal, and any ideas held by Jews or ancient Hebrews that were not contributory to this end are outside the pale. Further, only a Christological reading of the given Hebrew Bible passages is considered. The undoubted fact that most ancient Jewish readers of the Hebrew Scriptures will have found this reading of their texts alien is not allowed to intrude, since, as it were, the correct answer is now known. One can almost hear a shadowy Luther nodding his agreement: nur was Christum treibet. Yet even fellow believers will probably find Block’s major thesis hard to swallow. He asks us to believe that all of the so-called messianic portions of the Hebrew Bible have in their view a Davidide—even the Suffering Servant portions of Isaiah. His interlocutors rightly express skepticism.

            Evans' assessment of the Qumran writings is workmanlike and detailed, possessed of a certain methodological elegance—yet simultaneously suffering from a fundamental oversight. The elegance inheres in Evans' conscientious attempt to differentiate within the Qumran corpus between sectarian (i.e., writings connected to the Teacher of Righteousness and his followers) and non-sectarian writings. His focus becomes the sectarian writings, because it is here that Evans finds the most evidence for messianic ideas. His approach recognizes some of the advances of modern Qumran research and is thereby a major step forward from analysis such as Ringgren’s The Faith of Qumran. On the deficit side, Evans does not consider the possibility of development within the sectarian corpus. The texts are read together in essentially fundamentalist fashion, as though lacking any historical dimension, as though all of the authors will have agreed in all essentials and meant the same things by all key terms. In the process Evans fails to consider the earliest evidence for sectarian thinking, the “Teacher Hymns,” those portions of the Hodayot that consensus assigns to the very founder of the sectarian movement. These writings are redolent with echoes of messianic passages (as Jews of the time thought) from the Prophets, especially Isaiah.

            The best of the major textual essays, because it is the most nuanced, is Blomberg’s. In relatively short compass he surveys all of the New Testament, underlining in the process the very considerable variation found therein with respect to Christology. Indeed, Blomberg’s treatment lies ill at ease within the same binding as Block’s. How could such variation in Christian thought about Jesus the Messiah have arisen, one wonders, if understanding of the biblical background were ever as monolithic as Block would urge?

            Ultimately, of course, the reader will have to decide whose way of thinking has the better of it. Israel’s Messiah in the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls affords a fair portrait of the variety of thinking on the topic that exists today within the evangelical spectrum. Perhaps that will be its greatest contribution. Not very much here is new, and what is new is not always good. Moreover, what is not here—dimensions from social anthropology or insight into eschatological figures from the history of religions—is badly missed. In an earlier day I would have awarded this book the famous “gentleman’s C.” In today’s climate, I suppose a B would be the equivalent; for an A, the place to begin remains the ten-year old volume edited by James Charlesworth, The Messiah.

Michael O. Wise
Northwestern College