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The Grammar of MessianismAn Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Users$
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Matthew V. Novenson

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780190255022

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190255022.001.0001

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Oil and Power in Ancient Israel

Oil and Power in Ancient Israel

(p.34) 2 Oil and Power in Ancient Israel
The Grammar of Messianism

Matthew V. Novenson

Oxford University Press

When is a messiah not a messiah? The answer, according to much of the past half-century of research, is when it appears in the Hebrew Bible. This post-World War II scholarly axiom—that in the Hebrew Bible we find mundane “anointed ones” but after the Hebrew Bible eschatological “messiahs”—is partly true. To the extent that it rebutted the grand old triumphalist accounts of messianic prophecy, it did a valuable service. But, as an analytical tool, it is virtually useless. In the biblical sources, the discourse of “messiahs”—“anointed persons”—is predicated on a simple symbolic relation between oil and power. The basic but important point is that the ritual smearing of oil on objects and persons was a widely recognized means of conferring sacredness. With the passage of time, early Jewish writers persisted in speaking of “anointed persons” idiomatically, long after the ritual itself had fallen out of practice.

Keywords:   ancient Israel, ancient Near East, anointing, Hebrew Bible, oil, Old Testament, ritual

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