2010-11-26

The Myth of a General Messianic Expectation in Jesus’ Time

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by Neil Godfrey

It is standard practice to classify Jewish messianism as national, ethnic, political and material, and to mark Christian messianism as universal, cosmopolitan, ethical and spiritual. That Jewish anticipation of the messiah’s arrival was unusually keen in first century Palestine and constituted the mise en scène for the emergence of Christianity is a virtual axiom of western history. (p. 1 of Judaisms and Their Messiahs, my emphasis)

But there is little, if any, evidence for this “axiom of western history”!

The opening chapter of Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era, though over 20 years old, appears not to have been read or accepted among theological and other scholars who even now still argue that the generation of Jesus was possessed by expectations of a messianic deliverer. Many such scholars still argue strenuously that some of that generation reinterpreted the life, execution and post mortem psychic experiences of their renowned rabbi, Jesus, as the life, death and resurrection of the long awaited (but spiritual) Messiah. Sometimes even professorial insults will be directed at less learned individuals who dare question, and persist in asking to be shown, the hard evidence for this model.

But professorial insults notwithstanding, William Scott Green (the author of that opening chapter) is several times quoted in relatively recent publications by the renowned Thomas L. Thompson:

These arguments [for a general Jewish expectation of the advent of a Messiah around the time of Jesus] . . . appear to suggest that the best way to learn about the messiah in ancient Judaism is to study texts in which there is none. (Green in Judaisms and Their Messiahs . . . p. 6)

Green continues:

Indeed, the devaluation of empirical textual references and the concomitant emphasis on such terms as “understanding” and “expectation” show that the real object of research is not a figure entitled “messiah” but the religious ideology that purportedly made one possible.

That sounds serious. It suggests that the scholarly enterprise is studying a cause that has no evidential effect. I return to this at the end of the post.

Why the scholarly interest in the question?

How are the following common assertions justified?

From the first century B.C.E. the Messiah was the central figure in the Jewish myth of the future (Patai, The Messiah Texts, 1979)

Belief in the Messiah is one of the four good gifts which the people of Israel have left as an inheritance to the entire world (adapted from Smith, What is Implied by the Variety of Messianic Figures?, 1959)

In the time of Jesus the Jews were awaiting a Messiah (Mowinckel, He That Cometh, 1956)

Green points to the vacuity of these claims when he writes:

One may wonder . . . how so much has come to be written about an allegedly Jewish conception in which so many ancient Jewish texts manifest such little interest. (p. 4)

So what is the reason for the sustained interest despite the apparent absence of evidence for the very existence of the topic in question?

The primacy of “the messiah” as a subject of academic study derives not from ancient Jewish preoccupation, but from early Christian word-choice, theology, and apologetics. Early Christians, and particularly the earliest Christian writers, had to establish a discourse that made Jesus’ career reasonable, his unexpected death believable, and their audacious commitment and new collective life plausible. The New Testament’s gingerly application of multiple titles to Jesus suggests a crisis of classification, the dilemma of a signified without a signifier. (p. 4, my emphasis)

Does this mean that those scholars who argue that Jesus was surely historical on the grounds that no-one would have interpreted his death, and the subsequent experiences of his followers, as indicators that Jesus was the Messiah, — does this mean that such scholars are weaving an argument from apologetics and imagination rather than hard evidence?

But let’s be more specific. What does Green mean here  by “early Christian word-choice”?

What he is referring to here is that, of all the titles used of Jesus, the one title that was appended to his name, as part of his name, was “Christ”. This makes the word “Christ” appear to be an especially important concept worthy of special study.

To be persuaded that the word christos itself was pivotal in shaping later understanding, one need simply imagine the consequences for western history, religion, and theology had, for example, “lord,” “son of man,” or “rabbi” prevailed instead.

The apologetic reason for the significance of the Messiah concept:

. . . New Testament authors, particularly of the gospels of Matthew and Luke, made the Hebrew scriptures into a harbinger of his career, suffering, and death. The “promise-fulfillment” motif, which casts Jesus as a foreseen figure, is perhaps the major achievement of New Testament apologetics. . . . That nearly half of those statements [in Matthew’s gospel] are not predictions, but the prophets’ comments about Israel’s past or their own present, suggests that the fulfillment formulas and their attached verses are strategic devices, the results of post facto choice, rather than remnants of an exegetical heritage. (pp. 4-5, my emphasis)

Green then points to Luke 24 as an explicit pointer to the ideology of this motif. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus had lost hope because the one they had expected to come to Jerusalem as a conquering king was instead crucified. But Jesus rebukes them for their lack of faith and understanding, and explains that all the Scriptures were really speaking about himself. Even the writings of Moses were really about Jesus.

The “promise-fulfillment” motif, along with the genealogies devised by Matthew and Luke, embed Jesus in the Hebrew scriptures and forge an indelible continuity between him (and thus the early Christians) and Israel. The strategy solved the crisis of classification in three ways.

  1. It legitimized Jesus by giving him an Israelite pedigree
  2. It rendered his death intelligible by making it predetermined
  3. It made early Christian community plausible by providing an instant and urgently needed tradition

In this way Christian apologetics led to the still prevalent interpretation of the Jewish scriptures as writings that embed a constant hope and expectation of “the messiah” Jesus, or Jesus Christ.

The model limned by an apologetic use of scripture was accepted by later scholarship as a literary fact and a historical reality, not only of scripture itself, but also of Israelite and Jewish religion. To preserve the model against the challenge of a textual record incongruent to it, scholars have been forced to resort to evasive argument. (p. 6, my emphasis)

Forced to resort to evasive argument? Ouch!

Assumptions, suppositions and sophisticated “proof-texting”

Returning here to my opening quotation.

It is standard practice to classify Jewish messianism as national, ethnic, political and material, and to mark Christian messianism as universal, cosmopolitan, ethical and spiritual. That Jewish anticipation of the messiah’s arrival was unusually keen in first century Palestine and constituted the mise en scene for the emergence of Christianity is a virtual axiom of western history.

There is an error of assumption here underlying the “standard practice” referred to in the first sentence.

[B]y proposing an “essential conflict” between Judaism and Christianity, it construes both religions as invariable monoliths that share a single fixed point of mutual exclusivity. (p. 2)

It is not only mythicists who have observed that the “boundaries between Judaism and Christianity”, so obvious after the latter became well-established in its currently recognizable form, were truly often indiscernible in the early days of Second Temple Judaism and associated movements that eventually emerged as distinctively Christian.

The assumption has been of an essentially monolithic form of Judaism in which “messianism” was a core artery.

In harmony with these suppositions, most scholarship on the messiah has postulated for both Judaism and its Israelite precursor(s) a single, uniform religious pattern in which messianic belief was both decisive and generative. Consequently, scholarly work on the topic has tended to be neither analytical nor interpretive, but crudely historical. The major studies have sought to trace the development and transformations of putative messianic belief through an incredible and nearly comprehensive array of ancient literary sources — from its alleged genesis in the Hebrew Bible through the New Testament, rabbinic literature, and beyond — as if all these writings were segments of a linear continuum and were properly comparable.

What Green is saying here is that scholars have seized on any text — from any Jewish-linked source — that might be interpreted as “messianic”, and artificially imposed on this “evidence”

a chronological string of supposed messianic references into a plot for a story whose ending is already known; it is a kind of sophisticated proof-texting. (p. 2)

So what is the evidence?

According to Green there are 38 references in the Hebrew Bible to a “messiah” (=anointed one). Of these 38 references:

  • 2 apply to the patriarchs
  • 6 to the high priest
  • 1 to Cyrus
  • 29 to the Israelite king (mostly to Saul and then to David or an unnamed Davidic monarch)

In these contexts the term denotes one invested, usually by God, with power and leadership, but never an eschatological figure.

In Daniel the term applies to a murdered high priest. Daniel 9:25-26

Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times.

And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.

No reference is found to the messiah in

Moreover, a messiah is neither essential to the apocalyptic genre nor a prominent feature of ancient apocalyptic writings.

1 and 2 Maccabees: the term is ignored (the idea of a revival of a Davidic dynasty is ‘disdained’ in these)

Jubilees: no mention

Enoch 1-36, 91-104: absence

Assumption of Moses: zilch

2 Enoch: none

Sibylline Oracles: nope

Green notes that Morton Smith remarks of above texts and their silences with respect to the “messiah”:

all of these contain prophetic passages in which some messiah might reasonably have been expected to make an appearance. (p. 3)

Josephus: no reference in his Antiquities and Against Apion

Philo: no

Exceptions proving the rule?

Ben Sira: no interest in a future redeemer; the “messiah” is the Israelite king

Qumran scrolls: two messiahs – one Davidic and the other priestly; neither is necessarily an eschatological figure. The scrolls also apply “messiah” to the prophets.

Psalm of Solomon 17: “the term . . . is neither apocalyptic nor eschatological, the messiah is an idealized, future Davidic king who also exhibits traits of sage and teacher.”

Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71): refers to a transcendent, heavenly figure, not a king. (Other titles in Enoch such as “Son of Man” and “the Chosen One” are far more popular than “messiah”.)

4 Ezra: conflicting pictures — both as dies an unredeeming death before the end time, and announces and executes final judgment.

2 Baruch: 2 of the 5 references to “messiah” apply to a warrior slayer of Israel’s enemies

Mishnah: mostly refers to an anointed (“messiah”) priest

Green quotes Morton Smith again:

Now all this variety in the matter of messianic expectations is merely one detail — though a particularly striking one — of the even greater variety of eschatological expectations current in the two centuries before and after the time of Jesus. To say nothing of mere differences in personnel and program, these expectations run the whole gamut of concepts, from ordinary kingdoms in this world, through forms of this world variously made over and improved, through worlds entirely new and different, to spiritual bliss without any world at all. But the point to be noted is that these contradictory theories evidently flourished side by side in the early rabbinic and Christian and Qumran communities which copied the texts and repeated the sayings. What is more, quite contradictory theories are often preserved side by side in the same document.

The study of a fictive religious ideology, not a historical figure

Indeed, the devaluation of empirical textual references and the concomitant emphasis on such terms as “understanding” and “expectation” show that the real object of research is not a figure entitled “messiah” but the religious ideology that purportedly made one possible.

Green unpacks this a little more:

Thus, the standard works on the topic typically devote less attention to concrete textual references than to discussion of a religious attitude allegedly at the core of Israelite and Jewish experience: the so-called “future hope.”

Green lists three consequences of this scholarly endeavour:

1. “Scholarly” looseness: It enables scholars to collate “an extraordinary number and range of biblical and postbiblical texts under a single ‘messianic’ category and to treat their contents as a species of a genus.” Almost any text that references the future or an idealized figure, or passages that are ambiguous in these concepts, is “an immediate candidate for inclusion.” No matter if the texts do not address eschatology, and no matter if they do not even make a single mention of a “messiah”. (One scholar, Joseph Klausner, is thus able to begin his study of messianism not with David, but with Moses.)

2. The idea of a “future hope” being the primary indicator (even supposedly implicit) of a “messianic text”, scholars trace this idea through the chronological sequence beginning with Israel’s supposed historical experience, continuing through to the development of Judaism, and on towards Christianity and rabbinic Judaism. The idea that the messianic hope itself evolved along this trajectory is “the cornerstone of nearly every major scholarly treatment of the subject”, despite the contradictions and gaps that emerge through attempting to trace messianism along this trajectory.

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct a history of the Messianic movement in Israel and post-exilic Judaism from these scanty passages, many of which cannot be dated with any certainty. There undoubtedly must have been such a movement. This is shown by the examples given and it may also be concluded from the fact that Messianism emerges into the clear light of history in later centuries, not merely as a trend that has just arisen in Judaism, but as a movement with hundreds of years of history behind it. (Hesse, Chrio)

As Green notes, if the evidence is minimal and inconclusive, how can Hesse insist “there must have been” such a movement.

To violate ordinary scholarly principles of evidence and inference with such forced arguments requires powerful external motivations. It would be disingenuous and unhelpful to pretend that a question as significant and sensitive as the messiah has escaped the vagaries of theological interests, both Christian and Jewish. (p. 8)

How much more valid is this of the hostility of Historical Jesus scholars directed against certain mythicists and those who critique the circularity of their methods, and who point out how unlike normal historical studies HJ studies really are, and how HJ scholars handle and evaluate evidence and sources very differently from the way ancient historians and classicists generally treat secular sources.

But Green’s observation also goes far in explaining why HJ scholars can sometimes resort to outright hostility over this very question when engaging those who challenge its validity as an explanation for the origins of Christianity.

3. If messianism is truly indigenous to Judaism, if it is really an identifying piece of Judaism’s DNA, then the inevitable conclusion is that “Judaism was and is constitutionally incapable of success.” If it relies on an external future hope for success and functionality, then it is a religion that is grounded in present existential defeatism. (This is, of course, an argument from the consequence and is not in theory or pure logic untrue. But it is a consequence worth serious consideration.)

Powerful reasons to ditch the idea altogether

Of these reasons Green writes in his concluding paragraph:

Careful word-studies, fresh and disciplined readings of well-known texts, and a new appreciation of ancient writings as social products and cultural constructions have revealed religious worlds of ancient Jews (and Christians) considerably more diversified and complex than was hitherto imagined. The new agenda requires that we reverse the procedures of earlier scholarship. Instead of treating the literary sources as reflections of a preconceived and synthetic Judaism, or as segments of a hypothetical (and, frankly, fictive) uniform and linear tradition, we must employ them as the context out of which a critical description of Jewish religion must be constructed. It is no longer possible to justify the standard, homogenous reading of the varied Jewish writings or to assume that different groups, even within Palestine, shared a single outlook, social experience, or religious expectation simply because they were Jews. . . . As a speculum for the analysis and understanding of early Jewish religious life, the category “messiah” probes less obliquely, and with rather less precision and discernment, than we have come to suppose. (p. 10)


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  • 2010-11-27 00:07:57 UTC - 00:07 | Permalink

    One technique of rhetoric is to find the most simplistic statements of an ideology and attack them in a concrete and woodenly literal manner. Thus, in the passages you cite, we have a sort argument like this:
    1. Religious historians have asserted a preoccupation by 2nd Temple Jews with Messiah.
    2. Reality shows there was no uniform idea connecting Israelite prophecy to a single figure.
    3. Therefore, the idea of Jesus as Christ is not a Jewish concept but a Christian one.

    Yet there are plenty of historians, theologians, and so on expressing more nuanced cases. Richard Horsley notes in Jesus and the Spiral of Violence that popular resistance to Rome should not be confused with “standardized Jewish expectation of a Messiah,” and idea which “did not crystallize until much later (well after the Jewish revolt of 66-70)” (53). N.T. Wright, in Jesus and the Victory of God, develops his case for a general messianism along similarly cautious lines.

    In a diverse and complex world we should not be surprised to find that uniform idea of social change and religious prophecy does not exist. But we should equally realize that when a movement forms around an idea, and we could say that the Jesus-movement had reason to be persuaded something momentous had happened, what was ambiguous before becomes more concrete and specific. Thus:
    1. General ideas of messianism, revolt, and the turning of ages to renew Israel and end the age of exile pervaded the 2nd Temple period.
    2. Jesus emerged as a figure whose life and miracles brought about a certain kind of turning of the ages.
    3. The Jesus-movement understood this turning of the ages as a specification of earlier ideas of a deliverer who brought about the new age (i.e., Messiah).

    Derek Leman

    • Steven Carr
      2010-11-27 01:42:17 UTC - 01:42 | Permalink

      Does this mean that the John 4 passage where Jesus is asked if he is the Messiah is totally unhistorical, as Jesus did not fit the standard Jewish expectations of a Messiah?

    • 2010-11-27 05:34:57 UTC - 05:34 | Permalink

      Derek, your summary of my argument misses the point of my post. Your interpretation of my argument is:

      1. Religious historians have asserted a preoccupation by 2nd Temple Jews with Messiah.
      2. Reality shows there was no uniform idea connecting Israelite prophecy to a single figure.
      3. Therefore, the idea of Jesus as Christ is not a Jewish concept but a Christian one.

      Firstly, as I quote Green in my opening paragraph, the assumption I am addressing has become “an axiom of western history” — so it extends far beyond the cloisters of biblical studies. But yes, it is biblical historians who have sustained the concept.

      Point #2 is critical. No, Green’s (and my) point is not simply that “there was no uniform idea connecting Israelite prophecy to a single figure”, but rather that there is no evidence that there ever was a popular and/or esoteric messianic hope as an integral part of Israelite or Jewish religious belief traceable from “biblical Israel”, through the Second Temple period and into the first century C.E.

      As for point #3, one of the criticisms Green makes of historical assumptions is that it sharply divides Christian and Jewish concepts as if these have always been clearly distinguishable. Your point here reinforces the idea of such a division.

      The point, in short, is that historians (and probably more often) theologians have appeared to think that the best way to understand the concept of messiah is to study texts that make no mention of the messiah. What texts does Horsely use, for example, that address this term? Is any popular political movement or disturbance recorded by Josephus to be considered “messianic” simply because it is Jewish and is described in terms that echo biblical stories or characters?

      If Green’s point — that there is no evidence that there ever was a popular and/or esoteric messianic hope as an integral part of Israelite or Jewish religious belief traceable from “biblical Israel”, through the Second Temple period and into the first century C.E. — is invalid, then why?

      Has Green distorted the evidence in some way to make a misleading or untrue claim?

      The same question has been raised by Staley in a review of Fitzmyer’s study of messianism. From a related post:

      In a review of the most detailed discussions of the idea of the Messiah among Jews of the Second Temple period, The One Who Is to Come by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Jeffrey L. Staley writes:

      There is no serious attempt to place messianism within the broader matrix of social history. There is no interaction with, say, Richard Horsley or John Dominic Crossan’s work on social banditry and peasant movements (Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus; The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant). One might then ask of Fitzmyer what communities he thinks are reflected in his textual study. If, as many have suggested, only 5 percent of the ancient Mediterranean population could read and write, then what segment of the population is reflected in Fitzmyer’s analysis? Is his “history of an idea” representative of Jewish belief at large, or does it represent only a small segment of the population? Does Fitzmyer’s study of the “history of an idea” reflect only the elites’ mental peregrinations, which are largely unrelated to the general masses? And what difference, if any, would his answer to this question make to this “history of an idea”?

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  • 2010-11-27 02:33:55 UTC - 02:33 | Permalink

    Steven:

    I assume you are reacting negatively to my affirmation of Richard Horsley’s statement that there was not yet a standardized Jewish expectation of a Messiah.

    The question you ask me about John 4:25-26 is a good one but hard to answer in a short comment on a blog. It’s not easy to answer briefly because the question “is it historical” must first be qualified with a lot of presuppositions and so on. For example, do I think the John’s account is a verbatim replay of an actual conversation between Jesus and a woman of Samaria? No. It is a story told later about what Jesus said and did. What is the basis of the story? That is a good question. As far as we can tell, there were no witnesses to this story other than Jesus and the woman. So how did the apostles or later community come to know this story? Was the Samaritan woman known, an eyewitness who reported these events? Well, she is not named (based on Baukham’s hypothesis that named characters were eyewitnesses known to the evangelists, my guess is that she was not a reporting eyewitness). So, how did the conversation come to be reported? Did Jesus tell his disciples about it afterward? You see, these are the kinds of questions the “is it history” issue raises.

    But there are more. Like, “how do we know history?” I follow a storied epistemology, one in which we evaluate stories critically, accepting stories as true if they cohere with other stories.

    You see, my comment is already getting long and I’m not that close to answering your question. I will do an inadequate job and suggest a few things:
    (1) If John 4:25-26 is relating an actual conversation that happened, we need not take all the terminology as verbatim reporting.
    (2) It is possible that “Messiah” in these verses is used as a sort of shorthand to describe a more ambiguous conversation about Jesus’ identity.
    (3) At the least we should say that John 4 does not add much historical certainty to our understanding of the Messiah ideas of the first century.
    (4) I have no problem admitting that John 4 is scripture, that it communicates through the Spirit truth about Jesus, that it likely reflects the existence of a group of Samaritans who followed Jesus in the first century after his death, and that the story is true. You see, for me the gospels are more than simply historical documents. But your question was about history.

    Derek Leman

    • 2010-11-27 06:16:11 UTC - 06:16 | Permalink

      If I may interject with a comment related to another study I have been posting on recently . . . .

      Maurice Casey in his recent book, Jesus of Nazareth, insists that this passage “has no historical plausibility at all” (p. 109). His argument? Samaritans did not call their “expected figure” a “messiah/anointed one”. They called him a Taheb, a Restorer. So this is enough evidence for Casey to declare that the Gospel author is fabricating the whole story!

      I actually agree with Casey that the story is fiction. (For one thing, the story resonates with fiction, as Jo-Ann Brant explains, and as I have presented in an older post, Novelistic plot and motifs in John.) But I do not agree with Casey’s reason for arguing it is fiction. To throw out an entire story because it includes a single anachronism that could otherwise be readily explained as the product of the theological interest of both author and readers is surely extreme.

      If a mythicist really did argue like this then critics would have some substance to work with. (I do use anachronisms to question the historicity of the Gospels, but only because the anachronisms (e.g. Pharisees and synagogues filling the Galilee landscape in early first century) are both multiple and integral parts of the plots and settings of the narratives.)

      • mikelioso
        2010-11-27 07:14:02 UTC - 07:14 | Permalink

        I tend to go with the folks at the Jesus Seminar, that no one is going to remember the words of a conversation like this. A person is likely to talk to people, women and Samaritans all the time, but the transcript of such a conversation surviving decades to get recorded is slim. This isn’t just for Jesus, if Suetonius recorded a conversation between Caesar and a gardener i would be apt to dismiss to as a fabrication to illustrate the something the author wants us to know about Caesar.

    • mikelioso
      2010-11-27 07:03:18 UTC - 07:03 | Permalink

      Derek, big mistake and it is better to learn sooner than later, Steven presents arguments like a pull string doll presents conversation. I would advise also caution in regards to admitting things to be “scripture” to much faith clouds reason and leads to mischief.

      • 2010-11-27 08:23:40 UTC - 08:23 | Permalink

        mikelesio:

        LOL, I have no problem putting my cards on the table (re: scripture). Change your word “faith” to “presupposition” and you’ll find we all have them. I hope you don’t buy the myth of objectivity.

        Derek Leman

        • mikelioso
          2010-11-27 08:58:59 UTC - 08:58 | Permalink

          I think if we allow ourselves to think that certain works are God’s word, then we will find our minds are all to willing to find confirmation. We do all have or presuppositions though, and favored hunches. One should be willing to accept the possibility of being wrong however. I do confess that the Christ myth theory is offensive to me in vein that the Shakespeare myth is. it strikes against the possibility of human genius. It takes effort to keep an open mind. Personally, I think a good deal of the Christ myth theorizing comes from the standpoint that some Christ myth must be true. I may buy into the myth of objectivity, but there are few objective observers.

  • 2010-11-27 06:01:05 UTC - 06:01 | Permalink

    Neil:

    Well, you (and Green) just made my job easier. Now all I have to defend is the idea that there was a sort of popular messianic (or even an esoteric messianic) hope in first century Israel traceable from biblical Israel. Thanks for simplifying the task.

    I must misunderstand Green’s point on some level. He cannot be ignorant of the Qumran texts such as Florigelium 1:10-13, 18-19 and Rule of the Congregation 2:11-22 and Rule of the Community 9:8-11 and the Testimonia (see Nickelsburg and Stone, Early Judaism).

    Besides this esoteric messianic hope of a separatist community, how about the uprisings in 4 BCE at Herod’s death? Since messiah is a concept referring to kingship with divine favor at its smallest level, Horsley points out that Josephus repeatedly uses the phrases “aspire to the kingship,” “be acclaimed king,” and “like a king.”

    I don’t have the reference, but Wright in Jesus and the Victory of God points out that Josephus was at pains to deny that Daniel 2 had reference to a messianic turning of ages against Rome. The thought is that he was at pains to deny it because it formed a major background to the revolt.

    And Davidic kingship is certainly a traceable idea through the literature, such as Psalms of Solomon, which, unless I’ve missed some recent studies, is Pharisaic literature from about 60 BCE.

    It could be said that the very specific messianic theology derived about Jesus does not exist whole cloth before the gospels. It cannot be said that the trajectory of texts from the Israelite prophets did not cast messianic shadows into the Second Temple period. So, unless you or I have misunderstood Green, his point is inaccurate.

    I put Joseph Fitzmeyer’s recent book, The One Who Is To Come, on my amazon wish list to further work on this topic thanks to your prodding about it. I appreciate the discussion and your bringing up these points.

    Derek Leman

    • 2010-11-27 06:31:11 UTC - 06:31 | Permalink

      You’ve missed Green’s (and my) point: On what basis do we decide that “aspire to kingship”, “be acclaimed king” and “like a king” point to a popular messianic idea both central to, and centuries old in, Judaism?

      It seems that the very idea of messianism as an integral part of biblical and second Temple Judaism is so embedded in our thinking that we only have to place the words “king” and “Jewish” in the same breath to materialize the concept. There is simply no evidence that political movements in Palestine were any more “messianic” than similar movements among any other peoples.

  • cybrsage
    2010-11-27 06:09:30 UTC - 06:09 | Permalink

    To expect a uniform understanding of who or what the Messiah was to be (by the first century Israelites) is silly. One can easily show that the first century Israelites did not even have a uniform understanding of how the Torah should be followed (hence the different factions). If one is to say there was no expectation of the Messiah simply because not everyone agreed about it at that time, then one must logically also say there was no following of the Torah at that time as well (because not everyone agreed about it at that time).

    Silly line of reasoning.

    • 2010-11-27 06:35:57 UTC - 06:35 | Permalink

      I am not arguing “there was no expectation of the Messiah simply because not everyone agreed about it at that time”. I am arguing — citing Green — that there was no “it” to begin with!

      But the idea that there was such an “it at that time” is so embedded in our cultural awareness that to argue that it did not exist seems to leave some of us failing to comprehend the point being made. These responses underscore the relevance of Green’s point in the opening paragraph.

    • Steven Carr
      2010-11-27 08:42:35 UTC - 08:42 | Permalink

      ‘If one is to say there was no expectation of the Messiah simply because not everyone agreed about it at that time…’

      So Biblical historians are peddling a myth when they say that Jews expected a certain type of Messiah?

  • 2010-11-27 06:50:36 UTC - 06:50 | Permalink

    Neil:

    Fine. Let’s say that the point I transmitted from Horsley about those aspiring to popular kingship in Josephus is not “proof” (whatever proof means).

    BUT . . . you skipped over my references from Qumran (conveniently).

    AND . . . there was no “it” to begin with? No messianic notions swimming about in the general culture? It seems part of the game you are playing is to deny that any textual evidence is real evidence (the gospels are what late first century Jesus-followers thought and do not fit within Judaism, you suggest). So, if various pseudepigrapha, Qumran documents, and the New Testament use messianic concepts and language, that doesn’t count. What other literature would we expect to see it in? Josephus? Well, he did sort of downplay the messianic angle in his complicated rhetorical stance of being both pro-Roman and pro-Israelite. It’s a curious argument from silence that you are making:

    (1) The folks at Qumran read the Hebrew Bible and long before Jesus wrote about messianic figures (Davidic, priestly, and the Prophet).

    (2) Josephus doesn’t have explicit messiah references.

    (3) Oh, there must not have been any concept of messiah amongst common Jews at the time since the notion is lacking in one historian.

    Derek Leman

    • 2010-11-27 12:16:42 UTC - 12:16 | Permalink

      Let’s avoid the inuendo — e.g. “conveniently” and “game you are playing”. (I might add here your assertion on your blog that I am an “avid fan” of certain scholars and your implication that I am motivated by a certain race-based political view.)

      Is it a “curious argument from silence” to say that X does not exist because we can find no evidence for X? By X I mean

      that Jewish anticipation of the messiah’s arrival [as a national, ethnic, political, material event] was unusually keen in first century Palestine and constituted the mise en scène for the emergence of Christianity.

      Are you suggesting that a handful of Qumran texts are indicative of a general popular belief among Jews in the first century?

      You say that I “suggest” that the gospels “do not fit within Judaism”. I do not know what you are reading into my posts, but such a notion is simply not there at all. You can back off if you are attempting to find some anti-semitic motive in anything I write here. (See my series of posts on Levenson among a host of others if you are worried I have any interest in removing Christianity from Jewish influence!) Green is questioning assumptions that have been read into Judaism prior to its rabbinic phase and I am repeating his points here because he answers a question I had long asked:

      Where is this evidence for a general first century Jewish anticipation of a messiah to deliver the Jews from Roman rule that I find is assumed so often?

      “Will actual dialogue happen or just the usual maintaining of intellectual territory that governs most religious discussion?” — from another blog post.

  • mikelioso
    2010-11-27 07:41:16 UTC - 07:41 | Permalink

    I’m having trouble following as well. My first thought after reading the initial exchange between Neil and Derek was that the article was saying that it is a mistake to think that an apocalyptic messiah figure was a generality of first century Judaism, which is the impression one gets from some materials and would be like saying that feature of American Christianity is that Jesus will come and destroy the Antichrist and his U.N. army. It is only true of like 20% of the American public.
    Surely you are not arguing that there was no messianic/apocalyptic thought in early first century Judaism, only that wasn’t integral.
    That others have interpreted some of the rebels of Josephus as “Messianic” doesn’t seem like to much of a stretch beyond evidence. When someone is reported to be doing their rebellion in the context of religious imagery, like Dividing the Jordan or causing the walls of Jerusalem to collapse(interesting the popularity of Joshua imagery with the rebels), it doesn’t seem far fetched to put them in same mode of thought that God was going to free Israel and what not.

    • 2010-11-27 12:27:58 UTC - 12:27 | Permalink

      It is a question of evidence. What reason is there to interpret someone Josephus depicts as acting like a historic Joshua is in any way connected with a national expectation of a “christ” or “messiah”? This is all assumption. There is no evidence. We simply have no reason to think that a few lines of text from indeterminate dates reflected anything more than an esoteric idea of a factional scribal elite.

      • mikelioso
        2010-11-27 13:00:05 UTC - 13:00 | Permalink

        There good assumptions. When you see a statue of a guy holding lightning bolts, we label it Zeus, and if we see a guy on a flying horse slaying a chimera we label it bellephron. Of course it is only inference that leads us to those labels, but it isn’t arbitrary, though in any case we could be wrong. Likewise one might say “Greeks believed that giants lived in the ancient past” but no body has polled them, it could only be that only the writers thought they existed and everyone else had all together different ideas. Historians commonly reconstruct the notions people in the past had from surviving writings. It isn’t proof positive of anything, but it makes some interpretations more likely than others, in this case that someone who plans to throw out the Romans with miraculous powers might have seen his actions in the same light as some groups that believed God was going throw out the Romans. If your position is that other interpretations is possible, that is true. If your position is that there was no popular Messianic belief, state your case.

        • 2010-11-27 13:15:58 UTC - 13:15 | Permalink

          I have stated my case. If it is in error then cite the evidence that refutes it, that is, that informs us of a widespread expectation in the advent of a national/ethnic/earthly/political deliverer. I can see the evidence for it in Bar Kochba. But there is no indication that such an idea ever seized the popular imagination in the time of Jesus, as so many authors (theologians, historians) inform us was the case.

          Your analogy with pagan beliefs in Zeus are comparable to our evidence for Jewish beliefs in Yahweh. That is not in dispute.

          Just pointing to popular uprisings that we find in all cultures and all times proves nothing. Comparing them with Moses links them to possible reenactments of Moses (not a particular type of eschatological messiah), just as children on the 1212 crusade had faith that God would open up the Mediterranean for them to cross just as he had opened up the Red Sea for Moses.

          Let’s constrain our flights of fancy to the evidence.

          • mikelioso
            2010-11-27 14:00:48 UTC - 14:00 | Permalink

            I’m not sure of the scope of any particular religio/nationalistic ideas(whether their were any Marxist in ancient Judea, i don’t know) at any particular time, as now they were probably those who wouldn’t mind a thousand years of Roman rule (generally a good thing!)those who were itching for Independence(hardly a completely positive thing for religious parties) and most who kept their minds on their dinner plates. It seems to be a evolving idea in Judaism linked to ideas about national restoration, judgment days and so forth. How those religio/nationalistic ideas manifested themselves is pretty varied. there seem to be ideas about kings, angels, and my interpret ion of “one like a son of man” from Daniel, the Jewish people as whole. Paul doesn’t think His crucified Christ is a hit with the Jews, but most sects pushing for some kind of Christ probably felt the same way. Your probably right that the concept didn’t fall into a settled form and base in Jewish thought till later.

  • 2010-11-27 07:51:31 UTC - 07:51 | Permalink

    I think this idea began with the belief that there is a Temple in Heaven where the High Priest is the Son of God. That High Priest was annointed for that position by God the Father, thus assuming the title Messiah.

    Then that passage from Daniel (9:25-26) was interpreted to mean that that Priest-Son-Messiah must have descended from the Heaven Temple to a corresponding temple in the Firmament (the New Jerusalem) or on Earth (Jerusalem), so that Daniel’s prophecy could be fulfilled.

    Then this Priest-Son-Messiah figure was fit into the idea that some Messiah would restore the Jewish people to greatness.

  • GakuseiDon
    2010-11-27 08:31:18 UTC - 08:31 | Permalink

    How about Josephus in his Wars? Josephus writes:

    “Now there was then a great number of false prophets suborned by the tyrants to impose on the
    people, who denounced this to them, that they should wait for
    deliverance from God; and this was in order to keep them from
    deserting, and that they might be buoyed up above fear and care
    by such hopes…

    But now, what did the most elevate them in
    undertaking this war, was an ambiguous oracle that was also found
    in their sacred writings, how,” about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.” The Jews
    took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular, and
    many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their
    determination. Now this oracle certainly denoted the government
    of Vespasian, who was appointed emperor in Judea…

    So Vespasian’s good fortune… upon which he considered that he had not
    arrived at the government without Divine Providence, but that a
    righteous kind of fate had brought the empire under his power… After that he related
    those predictions of his (24) which he had then suspected as
    fictions, suggested out of the fear he was in, but which had by
    time been demonstrated to be Divine. “It is a shameful thing
    (said he) that this man [Josephus], who hath foretold my coming to the
    empire beforehand, and been the minister of a Divine
    message to me, should still be retained in the condition of a captive or prisoner.”

    No mention of “Christ”, but I can’t think what else an oracle about “one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth” and an appointment under Divine Providence would be referring to.

    • Steven Carr
      2010-11-27 08:44:54 UTC - 08:44 | Permalink

      SO Josephus shared the general Jewish expectation of a warrior Messiah who would defeat the Romans.

      He just thought that Vespasian was the person who would liberate Jews from the Romans?

      • mikelioso
        2010-11-27 09:23:51 UTC - 09:23 | Permalink

        Why the confusion?
        “But now, what did the most elevate them in
        undertaking this war, was an ambiguous oracle that was also found
        in their sacred writings, how,” about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.” The Jews
        took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular, and
        many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their
        determination.” So Josephus reports the Jews had a prophecy that one of their own would rule the world. It doesn’t seem Josephus joined them in this expectation as he seems to have been against the war from the beginning, so no Josephus did not share “the general Jewish expectation of a warrior Messiah who would defeat the Romans”. His interpretation of this prophecy to Vespasian is in line with the old trick of someone thinking a prophecy is a good omen, but the misunderstanding the vague language and the prophecy really means something else. See the prophecy of Athens needing to seek the safety of wooden walls or or the one where someone receives a prophecy of that their war will cause an empire to fall, but it turns out the empire destroyed is there own(the references slip me now, but if you don’t know what I’m referring to and cant figure it out, I’d be happy to find them for you). Josephus has two purposes in his works, 1. Kiss his Roman masters ass 2. Defend his heritage. Here does both, so the old primacies aren’t false, they just meant Vespasian. I seriously doubt he believes this shit, nor do I think many Jews did, but maybe some gentiles did.
        How did you not figure that out?

      • GakuseiDon
        2010-11-27 10:38:49 UTC - 10:38 | Permalink

        SO Josephus shared the general Jewish expectation of a warrior Messiah who would defeat the Romans.

        Steve, where do you get that from? I can’t see that in the text.

        • Steven Carr
          2010-11-27 17:59:32 UTC - 17:59 | Permalink

          ‘SO Josephus shared the general Jewish expectation of a warrior Messiah who would defeat the Romans.

          Steve, where do you get that from? I can’t see that in the text.’

          So there was no general Jewish expectation of a warrior Messiah who would defeat the Romans? It is not in the text.

          MIKE
          So Josephus reports the Jews had a prophecy that one of their own would rule the world. It doesn’t seem Josephus joined them in this expectation…

          CARR
          How do you get from ‘having a prophecy’ to a general expectation that the Messiah would come soon?

          • GakuseiDon
            2010-11-27 20:22:11 UTC - 20:22 | Permalink

            Steve, you wrote: “So Josephus shared the general Jewish expectation of a warrior Messiah who would defeat the Romans.”

            I think you are simply wrong there. Where do you see that?

            So there was no general Jewish expectation of a warrior Messiah who would defeat the Romans?

            Josephus writes that an oracle “did most elevate” the Jews in undertaking the rebellion against the Romans, so it did seem to affect many of the Jews. This oracle was “found in their sacred writings” and predicted that around that time one of the Jews would “become governor of the habitable earth. The only thing that matches that description is the prophesied Messiah, though Josephus doesn’t use that word. There are quite a few passages in the OT that match:

            Dan 7:13 I saw in the night visions, and, behold, [one] like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.
            Dan 7:14 And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him

          • mikelioso
            2010-11-28 04:29:58 UTC - 04:29 | Permalink

            Inference from evidence. If you find a Roman fort somewhere and some roman coins you can infer that a Roman army was there, not just that someone built a fort and threw some coins on the ground before leaving.

    • 2010-11-27 12:44:43 UTC - 12:44 | Permalink

      The point is addressed in my opening paragraph:

      It is standard practice to classify Jewish messianism as national, ethnic, political and material, and to mark Christian messianism as universal, cosmopolitan, ethical and spiritual. That Jewish anticipation of the messiah’s arrival was unusually keen in first century Palestine and constituted the mise en scène for the emergence of Christianity is a virtual axiom of western history.


      The point is that this practice presents an invalid dichotomy, and the “virtual axion of western history” lacks supporting evidence. There is no indication in Josephus there was some popular or widespread anticipation of a messianic deliverer in the first century.

      The narrative that speaks of having hope in God to deliver them from their enemies hardly suggests this. That motif is common enough among many cultures. The way Josephus introduces the ambiguous oracle does not suggest this, either.

      • GakuseiDon
        2010-11-27 17:34:25 UTC - 17:34 | Permalink

        There is no indication in Josephus there was some popular or widespread anticipation of a messianic deliverer in the first century… The way Josephus introduces the ambiguous oracle does not suggest this, either.

        Really? I’m not sure how else to read it. Josephus writes about an oracle that “about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth” and that “the Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular”. This oracle was “found in their sacred writings”

        Looking at it from the perspective of those Jews who took this prediction to belong to themselves:

        1. ‘Messianic’ Jews knew of an oracle in their sacred writings but didn’t associate it with messianic prophecies. They thought the oracle referred to a Jew who would become governor of the habitable earth, and then a separate Messiah would come.
        2. ‘Messianic’ Jews knew of an oracle in their sacred writings and associated it with messianic prophecies. They thought the oracle referred to the coming Messiah.
        3. They weren’t ‘messianic’ Jews. They just thought that there was an oracle in their sacred writings about a Jew who would become governor of the habitable earth around that time.

        I don’t see much difference between Option 3 and Option 2, to be honest. Option 1 seems overly complicated.

  • 2010-11-27 13:04:00 UTC - 13:04 | Permalink

    Neil:

    I regret my choice of language (“game you are playing”). I was surprised at the extent of your claim. It was derogatory to call your argumentation a game. I apologize.

    As for the race-based politics issue (I didn’t use the term race-based), as you know I refer to your stated enthusiasm about the Copenhagen School. Are you saying I am wrong that the authors of this school have engaged on pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli rhetoric based on the notion that Israel has no historic tie to the Temple Mount?

    Then, you say: Are you suggesting that a handful of Qumran texts are indicative of a general popular belief among Jews in the first century? Well, first, it proves the idea existed and circulated amongst one group at least. Second, we don’t have the writings of the masses (who were illiterate), so I don’t know what sort of evidence you are looking for (you discount the gospels, perhaps dismiss the explanation for Josephus’ preference to avoid messianic language).

    How about this proposition: only the sudden turning up of an audio recording of a popular synagogue sermon from first century Capernaum or the sudden invention of a time machine could falsify Neil Godfrey’s claim that the messiah idea did not exist prior to the gospels?

    Derek Leman

    • 2010-11-27 13:48:26 UTC - 13:48 | Permalink

      Are you saying I am wrong that the authors of this school have engaged on pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli rhetoric . . .

      .

      I am saying that it is slander to link “the Copenhagan school” and scholars like Thompson, Davies, Lemche and Whitelman with anti-semitism.

      There is no doubt that “the idea existed and circulated amongst one group at least”.

      My point is that we have no basis on which to claim that there was a general expectation among Jews of the first century (or earlier, for that matter) for a national/political messiah.

      Any argument that resorts to this as if it were a fact is doing so in the absence of supporting evidence.

      As for the Gospels, no, I do not dismiss their evidence. I discussed the evidence of Matthew’s gospel a little while ago. His birth narrative also argues against the assumption of this widespread belief. The public cannot help the Magi with the expected place of Jesus’ birth. Not even Herod knows. The prophecy can only be dragged out from the dusty shelves by court-appointed scribes. Matthew’s narrative only works on the assumption that Judea was in ignorance of any such birth or advent of a king until the arrival of the astrologers.

      But we know that the early Christians found legitimacy for their gospel narrative by grounding it in the Jewish scriptures. It is from this time that we find in the historical records the emergence of the idea that the Jewish Scriptures are filled with the messianic hope idea. It was early Christianity that turned the “Day of the Lord” into the Day of the Lord’s Messiah.

      • GakuseiDon
        2010-11-27 23:23:58 UTC - 23:23 | Permalink

        My point is that we have no basis on which to claim that there was a general expectation among Jews of the first century (or earlier, for that matter) for a national/political messiah.

        Steven Carr wrote that “So Josephus shared the general Jewish expectation of a warrior Messiah who would defeat the Romans.” Carr correctly points out that Josephus provides support for such an expectation in the First Century, and the oracle encouraged many to rebel against the Romans in that period. However, I think Carr is wrong that Josephus himself shared that expectation.

        • mikelioso
          2010-11-28 04:26:40 UTC - 04:26 | Permalink

          Well played G Don.

  • 2010-11-27 23:23:43 UTC - 23:23 | Permalink

    Neil:

    To be clear, I didn’t say anti-Semitic. It may be that you have a particular sensitivity to this issue and read more into my words. I said anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. I spoke of the involvement of the Copenhagen School in political rhetoric denying that Jews have a historic claim to the land and Temple Mount.

    In the article I will link here, Philip Davies is at pains to deny anti-Semitism, but note that he is frank about his political stance regarding Palestinians and the “injustice” of Jewish claims. Politicized history serving rhetorical ends must be liable to criticism or it should refrain from commenting on political matters. But it won’t do to make strong political statements and then be defensive about the “hurt” that criticism causes. Here is Davies’ article: http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Minimalism.shtml

    I thank you for your pushbacks on the historical reality of messianic concepts and their ambiguity in Second Temple Judaism. I will be working on this issue as a result of our conversation. But I continue to feel you are overstating the case. Your evaluation of the evidence is very strong on one side, an over-corrective in my judgment. I have not denied that your point is true on a much more nuanced level, but you wish to push it to an extreme. The messianic concept is not non-existent or only held by the elite in the first century. Numerous gospel texts assume that the crowds had messianic knowledge (Luke 4:16-30 and the expectations of the synagogue audience about the reading of Isaiah 61, for example). But I concede and so have many others that messianic concepts were vague and diverse and that after the resurrection of Jesus, his followers specified a chain of texts and interpretations that greatly defined messianism ever since.

    Derek Leman

    • 2010-11-28 07:57:30 UTC - 07:57 | Permalink

      “Extreme” is one of those irregular verbs. “I am drawing the logical conclusion; you are taking things to extremes.” But I justify my “logical conclusion” on the grounds that so much of biblical historical scholarship, especially relating to the NT and Jesus, is circular. It is that circularity I am attempting to cut through by singling out the clear evidence and going no further with that than any other evidence will allow.

      I noted your use of “pro-Palestinian” and “anti-Israeli” and that is why I responded with “anti-semitism”. Your choice of language is disingenous in an age when pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli are well-known ciphers for that unmentionable “anti-semitism”. (It is clear that it is not anti-semitic to be opposed to Zionism — many Jews are opposed to it! — but to get around that little problem there are propagandists and lobbyists who loudly interpret any criticism of a state policy with anti-semitism.)

      To equate criticism of a government policy and support for human rights and justice with anti semitism is obscene.

      I have posted on this topic a number of times and suggest further exchanges on this be made on those posts, not this one. (See the list of category topics in the right margin of this blog.)

  • maryhelena
    2010-11-27 23:36:27 UTC - 23:36 | Permalink

    Consider what Josephus had done with Agrippa I.

    Genesis 41: 41-46

    So Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.” Then pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck……Joseph was 30 years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

    Ant book 18 ch.6

    “I think it fit to declare to thee the prediction of the gods. It cannot be that thou shouldst long continue in these bonds; but thou wilt soon be delivered from them, and wilt be promoted to the highest dignity and power, and thou wilt be envied by all……”

    “However, there did not many days pass ere he sent for him to his house, and had him shaved, and made him change his raiment; after which he put a diadem upon his head, and appointed him to be king of the tetrarchy of Philip. He also gave him the tetrarchy of Lysanias, and changed his iron chain for a golden one of equal weight.”

    Daniel 9: 25

    ..to restore and rebuild Jerusalem….

    Ant book 19 ch.7

    “As for the walls of Jerusalem, that were adjoining to the new city [Bezetha], he repaired them at the expense of the public, and built them wider in breadth, and higher in altitude; and he had made them too strong for all human power to demolish, “…….

    Numbers 24:17

    I behold him, but not near;
    A star shall come forth from Jacob,
    A sceptre shall rise from Israel,

    Ant.book 19 ch.8

    …”he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful, and came into the theatre early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good,) that he was a god; and they added, “Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature”.

    Agrippa I died in 44 ce after ruling Judea for 3 years. (Josephus gives him altogether a 7 year rule…….but other questions do arise……). Interestingly, 44 ce is around 490 years from the 20th year of Artaxerxes in 446/445 bc – the year in which Nehemiah goes to Jerusalem to rebuild it’s walls….Nehemiah 1:1-3, 2:1).

    With Josephus having such an interest in Agrippa I – a historical figure some years dead by the time he is giving out his prophecy re Vespasian – it’s little wonder that he can freely re-use the messianic concept for a Roman ruler – after all, he has already played his own hand re Agrippa I. After that, any further applications of the concept are more likely to be attempting a very different agenda.

    • maryhelena
      2010-11-27 23:44:20 UTC - 23:44 | Permalink

      footnote:

      Sure, it may well be a myth that there was a general Messianic expectation pre 70 ce .But surely, it’s the exceptions that we should be considering. After all, we do have the gospel storyline – and the writing of the Jewish historian Josephus. (and not forgetting Slavonic Josephus and it’s account of messianic expectations re the events surrounding 40 bc.)

  • maryhelena
    2010-11-28 01:18:10 UTC - 01:18 | Permalink

    Neil

    More ideas re this ‘Myth of a General Messianic Expectation’ in Jesus’ Time’. Firstly, going strictly by the gospel dating of around 30 ce is of no use, ie no historical HJ. Consequently, the time zone for messianic expectations can be much broader. Secondly, the gospel storyline re either an apocalyptic prophet or a cynic sage character falls at its first hurdle re any messianic claims, ie a nobody carpenter is not going to be considered worth the time of day. Thirdly, as your chart demonstrated, the majority of times this concept has been used in the OT it was applied to Israelite kings.

    That Christian sources have turned the nobody carpenter into a messiah figure is purely a Christian take re messianic ideas. In other words, Christians have transformed the focus of the concept from being a literal physical application to being a spiritual concept. The Jewish concept is related to a flesh and blood figure. A figure that would be seen to be relevant to some particular historical context.

    And as regards present day expectations re a ‘second coming’ of said Christian messiah/saviour figure – well now, how many Christians are waiting for the coming rapture etc. A handful compared to the large numbers of Christians. There is not, as far as I can make out, a general Christian expectation that the ‘second coming’ is around the corner….What we have is a small stream of ‘second coming’ ideas within the general Christian framework. Christianity can get by, as Judaism did, without a general, overall, commitment to ‘second coming’/messiah ideas – well, it has done so for nearly 2000 years….

    The issue is not whether any individual is *the* messiah figure – all that does is highlight someone’s ideas. The issue re Christianity is that someone’s ideas took off. Someone hit it lucky; right time right place for a new intellectual/spiritual era to be ‘born’. The ins and outs of the historical situation re early Christianity may well be fascinating – but that is all it can be – albeit perhaps disappointing for some…..but that’s another story…

    • 2010-11-28 08:28:07 UTC - 08:28 | Permalink

      Thanks for the Josephus citations on Agrippa. Interesting.

      Re your next comment, Green is arguing that the idea that Christian and Jewish messianic concepts are not so sharply divided. There were spiritual or nonearthly concepts of messiah among Jews, too.

      When I was active in some social causes our team did welcome church support and collaboration when it was offered, but as a rule we held out little hope from that quarter. We understood that many Christians would rather pray than do anything. Those who did from time to time do something were those who were less fundamentalist or literalist in their faith. I can imagine the same at work anywhere anytime. Jews and any other people you might name become actively involved in working to change their world when they have shelved expectations of a future time and believe in themselves and their present opportunity.

  • 2010-11-28 07:36:09 UTC - 07:36 | Permalink

    A critical point that I endeavoured to express in my recent posts appears to have been missed. Had I anticipated some of the responses I might have emphasized it more directly.

    De Jonge’s point is central:

    As is well-known there are only remarkably few places where this expression occurs in our period, even if we expand it to include the first century B.C. and the first seventy years of the first century A.D. Even more remarkable, perhaps, is that we hardly find any occurrence of the absolute use of the term “the Messiah”, i.e. without a following genitive or possessive pronoun. This basic fact shows a relative unimportance of the term in the context of Jewish expectations concerning the future, at least in the Jewish sources at our disposal for this period. (pp. 133-4)

    The Gospel concept of a messiah has more in common with the ‘anointed’ priests than with a conquering king, and an argument based largely on Thompson’s book is outlined in Old Testament Messiahs As the Raw Material for NT . . ..

    Old Testament Messiahs tend to get struck down. The messiah priest’s death had a liberating power (as discussed in the post linked above); Saul is metaphorically called the anointed shield of Israel, that is Israel’s messianic protector, at the moment of his death; then there is the messiah in Daniel who is slain.

    The opposing argument is a circular one. It begins with the assertion that it was a widespread and prominent belief that a political-ethnic messiah would one day come and liberate the Jews (as Bar Kochba began to do), and then interprets any expression of political rebellion in Josephus, and any writings in the OT that speak of a golden age following on from a destruction of Israel’s enemies, as evidence of this popular messianic hope.

    The fact is that Josephus says nothing about a messianic hope. This is rationalized to mean that he knew his compatriots had held fast to such a hope but he chose not to say a word about it at any time, not even to criticize the belief. Therefore, whenever we read of Josephus using one word, say “king”, we are justified in understanding that he was hiding what he really meant. This is, to say the least, a questionable argument.

    Yes, there is much evidence in Jewish literature, not only Jewish scriptures, of a general religious idea of a future golden age, much as many religious people today have some belief in a heaven when they die.

    Messiah is a “signifier”, as Green points out, not a “signified”. It could be applied to any role that any group proposed was a special agent of God, whether material or spiritual, heavenly or earthly.

    As Green also implies, if there really were a strong popular belief in a political deliverer to come to save Jews from their enemies, this would have been a psychological debilitating factor that would have rendered them politically supine. This would explain why the term was not applied to any contemporary king before Bar Kochba. It could only be applied once and after the Jews had seen the hope in action, seen the defeat of Romans and liberation of Jewish peoples. As posted most recently, the prophecy legitimizes the past fact; it does not empower to create facts.

  • mikelioso
    2010-11-28 09:00:08 UTC - 09:00 | Permalink

    I doesn’t seem circular to me. You have a lot of text that have these prophecies of restoration, and you have evidence of people justifying there rebellions in religious terms. It doesn’t seem circular to see a link. We don’t know if the rebels Josephus mentions were called messiah by their selves our any one else, but it seems likely that they had some of the prophecies that were current at the time in mind. to argue otherwise suggest another ideology was at work that we don’t have evidence for. The quote from Josephus certainly sounds like the myth of a conquering king messiah, he may be arguing for something else, but we dont have evidence for anything else. It isn’t especially meaningful that Josephus doesn’t say messiah, he also doesn’t quote the oracle or what sacred books it was found in. We can assume it was apart of known Jewish sacred books, we need not speculate that it was the Lost Book of Druids or anything else we might imagine. It is also safe to assume that the would be conquerer took his/her identity from some figure in those Jewish sacred text.

    • 2010-11-28 10:13:31 UTC - 10:13 | Permalink

      “We have evidence of people justifying [their] rebellions in religious terms.”

      — Translation: there is no evidence of a popular messianism in their justifications.

      “It doesn’t seem circular to see a link.”

      — Translation: there is no evidence for a link.

      “We don’t know . . . it seems likely . . . ”

      — Translation: we have no evidence.

      “To argue otherwise [is] to suggest another ideology was at work that we don’t have evidence for.”

      — Translation: If you don’t accept A then you must be arguing for B. That is the false dilemma fallacy. (No, I am simply saying we should accept what we read and not read anything more into it. That is not suggesting some other ideology at work!)

      “The quote from Josephus certainly sounds like the myth of a conquering king messiah.”

      — Translation: The quote from Josephus does not supply us with any evidence for a popular belief that people were hanging on to any more than his quote about the prophecy of Alexander is evidence that Jews at the time were generally seized with anticipation that one day the Syrians would be overthrown by a Greek king.

      “It isn’t especially meaningful that Josephus doesn’t say messiah . . .”

      — Translation: Green should not make a fuss when he observes that “These arguments [for a general Jewish expectation of the advent of a Messiah around the time of Jesus] . . . appear to suggest that the best way to learn about the messiah in ancient Judaism is to study texts in which there is none.

      • mikelioso
        2010-11-28 14:19:37 UTC - 14:19 | Permalink

        I would like to add, that if you think that there is another possibility in here, it is possible, and “In the time of Jesus the Jews were awaiting a Messiah (Mowinckel, He That Cometh, 1956)” may be an overstatement, but that is an old book, the other quotes, are a little vague and it is hard to fault statements that don’t state much. This idea you have that there is no evidence though is quite wrong. One may have another interpretation for the material, but it is still evidence.

        The Sutton Hoo burial might be explained as a Romano British burial, however unlikely, but that wouldn’t negate it as evidence of an Anglo Saxon burial.

        For instance I was just reading a book that mentions some Scythian mummies. of course we don’t know their nationality, we can’t talk to them, but their location and artifacts lets them be labeled as Scythian, not “people found in a area claimed by some writers as Scythian territory with goods possibly of Scythian origin due to similar items being found in assumed Scythian territory’ it is possible they were tourist from Gaul who were buried in imitation Scythian goods and the ancient geographers were wrong about any Scythian being in that area, but since the most reasonable explanation is these are Scythian mummies that what we get printed.

        • 2010-11-28 15:30:44 UTC - 15:30 | Permalink

          What have Scythian mummies and Sutton Hoo to do with the fact that scholars appear to predicate their arguments about Jewish Messianic beliefs, let alone arguments for a popular Jewish embracing of those beliefs, on texts that don’t even mention a Messiah?!

          As for your next comment, #16 below, you sound like you are slipping back into your trolling mode once again.

          If you can actually identify a “coincidence” I am supposedly arguing for, or actually identify a theory I am supposed to be proposing without any evidence, if you really do know of “others too numerous or too trivial to mention”, or if you can provide evidence to refute my argument that biblical “historianss” don’t follow the normal methods nonbiblical historians follow, then kindly provide that information.

          Don’t just punch wildly into the air with all sorts of assertions.

  • mikelioso
    2010-11-28 13:24:34 UTC - 13:24 | Permalink

    You are welcome to your translations, but I don’t see much evidence of of the circular reasoning you assert, nor this idea that biblical historians are doing something that other historians don’t. If these ideas(Green, Thompson, and others to numerous to trivial to be mentioned) aren’t more accepted it seems it is because they are illogical. They seem to hope they can create pin hole of doubt then drive through a truck load of coincidence and unsupported theories.

  • mikelioso
    2010-11-29 09:52:30 UTC - 09:52 | Permalink

    I went and did a bit of research on William Green. The book you use seems to be be rather well received. I only got to read the first 10 pages, but it is referred to a lot, used in class rooms, from a range of scholars ranging from conventional to Christian apologetic. I think I was confused over what the book was promoting as its ideas. Part of that may stem from the line omitted from that page 10 paragraph. where now appears …, Green’s book had

    “The evidence in this book shows that the preoccupation with the messiah was not a uniform or definitive trait, nor, a common reference point, of early Jewish writings or the Jews who produced them.”

    No problem from me, the folks at the Journal of Semitic Studies say here,
    http://jss.oxfordjournals.org/content/XXXV/1/152.extract
    That the thesis is true and has been stated before, but not as enthusiastically, and needs to be stated so to combat recent( in 87) Christian attempts to set the agenda for Jewish studies.

    the line seems to agree with my earlier thoughts that Messianism shared the stage with a lot of other ideas and allows for Josephus’s prophecy inspired rebels. It is hardly unimportant filler. Without it seems to suggest that that Bar Kochba’s Messianism did not exist in the era that Green studies. With it it means that that was only one of many strands of thought at the time.

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