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Throughout the Hebrew Bible, many individuals are described as ‘anointed’, typically with the task of carrying out God’s will.

As many understand, ‘anointed’ translates to ‘Messiah’. The concept of THE Messiah is central to both Judaic and Christian understanding of a certain figure who will function as a deliverer for God’s people.

However, figures such as Cyrus will also be described as a messiah (Isaiah 45:1), leading [scholars] (see the Cambridge commentary) 1 to distinguish between the OT’s use of an anointed one vs THE anointed one

Daniel 9:25 is a good example of a passage that is interpreted messianically by Christians:

“Know therefore and understand that from the going out of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks. Then for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time.” ‭‭Daniel‬ ‭9‬:‭25‬ ‭ESV‬‬

(note the use of ESV instead of NIV because for some reason the NIV incorrectly translates it as ‘the’ anointed)

So with passages like Daniel in mind (or perhaps any others relevant), what is the difference between ‘an’ anointed and ‘the anointed’?

And, is there a textual justification to interpret references to ‘an’ anointed one messianically rather than merely to a temporary figure in history (like Cyrus) used by God when the ‘an’ or ‘the’ seem to make a big difference?

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    Could you give more detail as to 1, 'Many individuals are described as 'anointed' and 2. 'leading scholars to distinguish' Which 'individuals' and which 'scholars' ?
    – Nigel J
    Feb 13, 2023 at 16:18
  • @NigelJ King David is called anointed, Cyrus is called anointed (see Isaiah mention above). As for the difference between an & the anointed, see the Cambridge commentary linked on bible hub above.
    – ellied
    Feb 14, 2023 at 9:13

3 Answers 3

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Actually, the word, for Messiah, מָשִׁיחַ is used rather sparingly in the OT because it occurs only 39 times. It used of the following people:

  • The king of Israel, 1 Sam 12:3, 5, 16:6, 24:7, 24:11, 26:9,11,16,23; 2 Sam 1:14, 16, 19:22; Lam 4:20; 2 Sam 23:1; 1 Samuel 12:3,5; Ps 20:7, 28:8; Hab 3:13; etc.
  • The high priest of Israel, Lev 4:3,5,16, 6:15, Ps 84:10.
  • King Cyrus, Isa 45:1
  • Messiah-Prince, Dan 9:25, 26

On the last instance, there is no article before either Messiah or Prince. Thus, the title must be regarded as a unique double title applying to the prophesied Jesus Christ as "Messiah-Prince". That is, Jesus was to be:

  • "Messiah", as per his numerous instance of "Christ" (= Heb "Messiah) in the NT
  • High Priest as per Heb 3:1, 4:14, 8:1, etc
  • Prophet as per Acts 3:21-23
  • King as per Luke 1:33, John 1:49, Acts 13:23, Rev 11:15
  • “Lord of Lords” (Rev 17:14, 19:16) and “Lord of All” (Acts 10:36, Rom 10:12, Col 1:15).
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This is a very good question and after reading commentaries on Daniel 9:25 there seems to be some controversy on interpretation. Some commentators have the Messiah in view and personally I would agree with them based on Daniel 9:26.

Now, you ask about some "relevant" examples that would relate to your question. The very best example I would give is the angel of the Lord example in the Old Testament.

The first appearance or mention of the angel of the Lord as the angel of the Lord is at Genesis 16:7. You can read the whole chapter for yourself and you will discover the angel of the Lord multiplies Hagar's descendants at vs10. Later at vs13 Hagar states that the person of the angel of the Lord is God.

Also at Genesis 171-2 the Lord God Almighty (physically" appears to Abraham and God multiplies his descendants. I'm totally convinced that the angel of the Lord (the preincarnate Jesus Christ) is the same being who multiplied Hagar's and Abraham's descendants.

Now to directly address you question. The chief grammatical function of "an" (or a) is to connote a thing NOT previously noted or recognized, while "the" connotes a thing previously noted or recognized.

In the OT the angel of the Lord is mentioned on numerous occasions as the angel of the Lord. At Daniel 6:15-16 the angel Gabriel is named so we know who it is. At 2 Chronicles 32:21 we read in the first sentence, "And the Lord sent "an" angel to destroy every mighty warrior etc. We do not know who this angel is. he's just an angel.

In the Old Testament the last mention of the angel of the Lord is at Zechariah 12:8. The angel of the Lord "NEVER" appears as the angel of the Lord in the New Testament although he is mentioned at Acts 7 when Stephen confronts the Jews and when he is stoned to death at Acts 7:59-60.

The following are verses where "an/a" angel is mentioned or Gabriel or Michael is mentioned by name. Matthew 1:20, 1:24, 2:13, 28:2, Acts 5:19, 8;26, 12:7, 12:11.

To sum up, The function of "an/a" is to connote a thing not previously noted or recognized, while "the" connotes a thing previously noted or recognized. If I were to say, "Yes, that's "THE" one that stole my water bottle," by definition one specific person is identified. Hope this helps.

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Limitation of English

This issue about the article may be more about the limitation of English language rather than accuracy since English forces a dichotomy between definite and indefinite. The use of the definite article "the" indicates that the noun is specific. For example, the sentence "The cat is on the mat" refers to a particular cat and a particular mat. The use of the indefinite article "a/an" indicates that the noun is non-specific. For example, the sentence "I saw a cat on the mat" refers to any cat and any mat.

This translation dichotomy between specific and non-specific nouns is not present in all languages; it is unique to certain modern European languages.

A Christ

To have a more accurate and fair translation, I'd prefer the indefinite "a Christ", or "an anointed one" here (Greek OT, LXX has 41 occurrences of Christ/Χριστός). The traditional English Bibles have rendered it definite. Note, in the old traditional translations "Christ" is still definite since it is used as a title and the phrase ends with that noun: "to go and repayre Ierusalem againe, vnto Christ (or the annointed) prince: there shalbe seuen weakes". Thus, the English translations are forced to either use definite or indefinite article, the same problem has been noted about translating "the law" (Greek Nomos).

Revised Standard Version (RSV) in 1952 departed from the traditional translation to make the "Christ" indefinite, to give a more accurate translation, which has been followed by a modern versions like the ESV, NABRE, NET. To present a specific interpretation as translation would predispose the generations with a narrow text and interpretation. It would create shallow and naive view that there can be no Saviour and Messiah besides Jesus, as a result these naive believers would burst into a fit of rage when one calls the Kings like Alexander the Great, Cyrus or Donald Trump as our Saviour/Christ/Messiah, thereby accusing others of "blasphemy". The ambiguity in the more accurate "a Christ/ an anointed" would also facilitate potential dual fulfilment of the prophecy.

The point about accuracy is nicely described by Claudemiro Francisco Mariottini in Rereading the Biblical Text Searching for Meaning and Understanding · 2013, p. 146

In Daniel 9:25 the word “the” as in “the Messiah is not present in the Hebrew text. Thus, the Hebrew text s talking about “an anointed one” one who could be a priest or a king. However, because the translators of the KJV used the word “Messiah?” with a definite article and a capital letter M, Christians immediately say: “there is only one person who is ‘The Messiah; and that person is Jesus Christ” Thus, readers of the KJV are predisposed by the translation to see Jesus Christ in Daniel 9:25. However, if one adopts the translation of the RSV, the whole idea of the text changes.

‘The RSV reads: “Know therefore and understand that from the going forth of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, prince, there shall be seven weeks. Then for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time.”

E. J. Young, in his commentary on Daniel, follows the translation of the RSV. He translates the words in question: “unto an anointed one, a prince” Now, this is a good translation. But then he inserts this comment: “The fact is that there is only One in history who fully satisfied the two essential requisites of the theocratic king, Jesus who is the Messiah” Now, this is a bad (though some would say good) interpretation and this is the same principle that influenced translations of Daniel 9:25.

In discussing Daniel 9:25, I have not made any reference to date o authorship. This is irrelevant when it comes to the issue of translation. A commentator may inject his theological bias on the interpretation of the text and decide who that anointed one was. However, the translator does not have that luxury. The translator mast follow the intent of the original author and avoid making the decision of who in history fully satsfis the two essentials of leadership mentioned in Daniel 9:25, as the translators of the King James did.

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