A Crucified Messiah
COVERED IN THIS POST:
- Jesus and David Koresh
- Was a crucified criminal believed to be the messiah?
- Ehrman’s “story” of a resurrection
- A story missing in Q and the epistles
- The actual picture in the epistles
- Did Jews invent a crucified messiah?
- Did Jews anticipate a suffering messiah?
- The sources and nature of Paul’s new messiah
- Ehrman’s summary of his evidence with summary responses
* * * * *
The Crucified Messiah
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 164-174)
Jesus as an ancient David Koresh
At the end of our last instalment, Bart Ehrman told of putting a question to his university students:
What if I told you that David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, attacked and killed some years ago in Texas by the FBI as a dangerous rebel, was really God’s Chosen one, the Lord of all? (DJE? p. 163)
He was making the point that for the followers of Jesus to declare that a man who had just been executed as a rebel was really God’s prophesied messiah would indeed have been equivalent to survivors of the Branch Davidians making a similar declaration of David Koresh today.
Ehrman is now faced with a major challenge. He must answer the question: How could any Jew judge a man who fulfilled none of the expectations the nation held about the messiah, a man whom society would have regarded as a “crucified criminal,” ignominiously despatched by the very overlords he was supposed to overthrow, to be the fulfillment of all those prophecies in scripture about God’s agent for Israel’s salvation?
The traditional Christian answer and Ehrman’s “story” substitute
Ask that question of an evangelical Christian today and you will get a stock answer: the actual resurrection of Jesus convinced his followers that he was God’s Son and Messiah. I suppose if I had been around at that time and saw a dead man walk, I too would have let that override whatever negative reaction I had to seeing him die on the cross. But Ehrman hasn’t allowed himself that option. And yet, he appeals to much the same thing, just a weaker version of it.
If it is hard to imagine Jews inventing the idea of a crucified messiah, where did the idea come from? It came from historical realities. There really was a man Jesus. Some of the things he said and possibly did made some of his followers wonder if he could be the messiah. Eventually they became convinced: he must be the messiah. But then he ran afoul of the authorities, who had him arrested, put on trial, and condemned to execution. He was crucified. This, of course, radically disconfirmed everything his followers had thought and hoped since he obviously was the furthest thing from the messiah. But then something else happened. Some of them began to say that God had intervened and brought him back from the dead. The story caught on, and some (or all—we don’t know) of his closest followers came to think that in fact he had been raised. This reconfirmed in a big way the hopes that had been so severely dashed by his crucifixion. For his reinspirited followers, Jesus truly is the one favored by God. So he is the messiah. But he is a different kind of messiah than anyone expected. God had a different plan from the beginning. He planned to save Israel not by a powerful royal messiah but by a crucified messiah. (DJE? p. 164)
So now instead of an actual resurrection, with followers seeing Jesus again in the flesh and placing their hands upon him to confirm that he was indeed alive, Ehrman posits a “story” of a resurrection which “caught on.” I’m not so sure that I myself, back then, would have been convinced by a ‘story.’ It hasn’t got quite the same force as actually seeing the dead live, right in front of you. Maybe getting a sworn assurance from someone else who actually did see the dead man alive again might have substituted. But a ‘story’? And what did that story say? That he had actually been seen in the flesh? Or that he had been taken up to heaven immediately, leaving no witnesses behind? Was it a resurrection in flesh, or one in spirit? Did the story offer any proof? Ehrman does not say.
Searching for Ehrman’s “story”
Let’s see if there is any evidence for this scenario in the early record. We can start with the collection of sayings known as Q. Ehrman believes this hypothetical document existed (as do I). Majority mainstream scholarship regards it as the earliest witness to the historical Jesus’ words and deeds. Is there any sign of such a ‘story’ in Q? Scholars have not even been able to uncover a reference to Jesus’ death, let alone a reputed resurrection. (Luke/Q 14:27 does not refer to Jesus’ own cross, and is probably simply a proverb about the perils of discipleship.)
Certainly there is no sign that the movement was in disarray after a crucifixion, and if a ‘story’ arose and began to circulate to convince people that Jesus was an unorthodox messiah, Q gives no hint of it. The very subject of the messiah, the very term itself, is missing in Q. We can’t even be sure that the Jesus figure who eventually shows up in Q is identified with the apocalyptic judge the sect expected, the Son of Man.
In the epistles?
What about the epistolary record? Ehrman may have in mind the “seeings” of the risen Christ listed in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7. That’s not really a story. They seem to be visionary experiences, or simply convictions of Christ’s presence, with Paul himself sharing in the identical thing. His appeal “Did I not see Jesus our Lord?” in 9:1 also ranks his own experience in a common category with those of the others. But here, too, as well as in the epistles generally, there is no dimension of an initial disillusionment at the crucifixion followed by a reversal through witnessing a dead man returning or even through a belief in his resurrection in spirit.
Moreover, there is not a trace in the entire body of epistles of a disjunction between traditional messianic expectations and what Jesus actually delivered. The Jewish authorities, or non-believers generally, never challenge a Christian apostle like Paul on the basis of Jesus’ failure to live up to expectations of what the messiah would accomplish. The epistle writers are silent on any such issue. Moreover, if the crucifixion would indeed have left Christians open to ridicule in their claims about Jesus, surely apostles like Paul would at least have tried to compensate by playing up commendable teachings by him, his powerful miracles, his prophecies of the future—whether authentic or not.
Ehrman’s picture points up the very thing that is missing from all the epistles. If the crucial issue at the start of Christianity was: How could this crucified man have been the messiah?, then there would have been no possibility that apostles like Paul could abandon all interest in the human man and focus exclusively on the heavenly Christ. “Faith” would have had as its central focus and starting point the faith that the man Jesus had really been God’s son and messiah, with all the attendant arguments about that man to justify such an unorthodox belief. The point is never raised anywhere in the epistles.
The epistles fail to support Ehrman’s picture
It almost goes without saying that the epistles’ presentation of a Son who is known through scripture, one who lay undisclosed in God’s secret plan for long generations, bears no relationship whatever to Ehrman’s crucified man who failed to live up to messianic expectations and required a recasting of what God’s plan and the nature of the messiah had really been. Yes, those expectations do surface in one respect. Paul gives us a glimpse of them in 1 Corinthians 1:18-24: a ‘crucified messiah’ is a stumbling-block and a folly. But no argument ever surfaces about a crucified human being and what his former followers have made of him. There is no appeal to his innocence, no justification by virtue of what he had done in his life. And no argument justifying his deification, which the Jews could not have failed to condemn.
And what is the ‘different Jesus’ set up against Paul’s “Christ crucified” whom Paul’s rivals are championing? Paul is arguing the fact of his Jesus “having been crucified,” not some interpretation of it which others disagree with. Could his rivals be preaching a non-crucified Jesus? Not if the Jesus common to them both had lived in history and had actually been nailed to a cross. But they could if both views were derived from scripture.
In fact, in 2 Corinthians 11:4, Paul’s Jesus and the “another Jesus” his rivals preach are said to be products of the spirit, i.e., they are known through revelation. These other “apostles of the Christ,” no doubt equally dependent on scripture and influenced by contemporary philosophy and popular religion, seem to be going about telling of a Jesus who was not crucified, one who was a Revealer Son (an advance on the old idea of personified Wisdom), bestowing knowledge of God which itself enabled salvation.
Inventing a crucified messiah
Ehrman thinks to deliver the coup de grace:
Since no one would have made up the idea of a crucified messiah, Jesus must really have existed, must really have raised messianic expectations, and must really have been crucified. No Jew would have invented him. (DJE? p. 164) [Incidentally, compare Ehrman’s “really” language—which would be rendered in Greek as “alēthōs”—with that of Ignatius in his own declaration that a human Jesus had really lived on earth. Here neither one is talking about docetism.]
No Jew would have invented him? But under Ehrman’s scenario, that is precisely what they did. The followers of Jesus, whom Ehrman regards as a human man and not the messiah, turned their crucified master into the messiah, crucifixion and all. In other words, out of that human non-messiah who died on a cross, those Jews invented a crucified messiah. Out of an executed criminal whose mission (whatever it was) had failed, in the face of a hostile establishment and a scornful population with all of the stigmas attached to such an accursed fate for the fledgling movement’s leader, those followers did not do what we might expect would be the natural thing and simply disband and accept that their master had not been what they had hoped. Instead they recast their entire concept of the messiah to accommodate what had happened to him. Again, they invented a crucified messiah out of a human man. They did what Ehrman declares no Jew would ever have done.
Still, I would opt for believing that Ehrman is right. No Jew ever would have invented a messiah out of a crucified human being, one who had not come close to fulfilling messianic expectations.
I also find hard to believe Ehrman’s suggestion that Jesus’ followers before his death had become convinced he was the messiah. On what basis? A few laudable teachings? Ehrman, as one who rejects supernaturalism, cannot even postulate that his historical Jesus had actually performed powerful miracles (note that he hedges with “things he said and possibly did”) which might have raised his followers’ messianic hopes. Would a man who actually did nothing extraordinary have been interpreted by his followers as being God’s very messiah promised in scripture? If any faint suspicion in that direction had arisen, it would surely have been smothered for good and all by his crucifixion.
But that is not what happened at the movement’s genesis. Other forces were operating to come up with the crucified Christ which Paul believed in and preached. It was the invention of a crucified messiah of a much different sort and from a much different direction.
The source of Paul’s messiah
Paul had that Son revealed to him by God (Galatians 1:16). He found a gospel by God about him in the prophets (Romans 1:2). Scripture told of his death, burial and rising (1 Corinthians 15:3-4 when read in light of Galatians 1:11-12). The concept of joining oneself to a divine savior had a precedent in the mystery cults, and in the linking of nations to angelic overseers in Judaism. The principle of paradigmatic parallelism, wherein a heavenly figure served as a counterpart to devotees on earth, sharing qualities and conferring guarantees, had been a development in both Jewish sectarian thinking and pagan salvation theory. And of course, a suffering messiah subsequently coming to life again fit into the same general category as the long Near Eastern tradition of dying and rising gods.
That was the type of invention of a crucified messiah which did occur, and Jews were quite capable of doing it, thank you very much.
A suffering messiah
Ehrman stresses the fact that even simply a “suffering” messiah was never anticipated by the Jews. Thus, mythicists are wrong to suggest that the earliest Christians merely made up their mythical suffering messiah, no matter what the sources and influences. But the more Ehrman insists that Jews could never have countenanced such a figure, the deeper a hole he digs for himself, because he must maintain that there were Jews at the beginning of the movement who did accept such a thing, who did create, out of the suffering crucified master they followed, a suffering crucified messiah. Since he does not postulate an actual resurrection which could have impelled those Jews to go so dramatically against their traditional expectations and mindsets, Ehrman is left with insufficient fuel to launch his own scenario into orbit.
Ehrman assures us that not even Isaiah 53, which definitely presents some kind of suffering (and perhaps even dying) figure, was interpreted by any Jewish commentator with a messianic association. As for believing that the crucified Jesus had been a part of God, as Paul clearly did, that God could be executed, Ehrman simply states that the earliest Christians did not believe such a thing. (He says he will defend that position later in the book.)
We do not have a shred of evidence to suggest that any Jews prior to the birth of Christianity anticipated that there would be a future messiah who would be killed for sins—or killed at all—let alone one who would be unceremoniously destroyed by the enemies of the Jews, tortured and crucified in full public view. This was the opposite of what Jews thought the messiah would be. Then where did the idea of a crucified messiah come from? It was not made up out of thin air. It came from people who believed Jesus was the messiah but who knew full well that he had been crucified. (DJE? p. 170)
It is at this point that Ehrman appeals to the passage I discussed earlier: 1 Corinthians 1:23, with its “Christ crucified” as a “stumbling block.” But not only do we have a group of Jews after Jesus’ death who supposedly did not regard it as a stumbling block, we have the Jew Paul himself who—even though he had not been a follower of Jesus with any preconceived notions about him (quite the opposite!)—simply ‘changed his mind’ and readily adopted Jesus as a crucified messiah. Not only Paul but—to judge by the rapid spread of Christianity with the inclusion of many Jews in the ranks of the converts—countless other Jews who had never even heard of the crucified man back in Judea, let alone had been his followers, readily adopted a crucified messiah.
If we look at the hole that Ehrman has dug for himself over a Jewish anathema regarding a crucified messiah, it is impossible to reconcile all this supposed Jewish acceptance of that very thing.
The new messiah
How, then, do we resolve all these contradictions and incompatibilities? By adopting the mythicist viewpoint: that no early Christians followed a human Jesus, regarded him as the messiah, and thus did not have to go against their principles and expectations by coming up with the idea that he was a new type of messiah.
The actual “new type of messiah” was the spiritual heavenly one that Paul and others found in scripture, putting him together out of discrete pieces with no doubt a heavy dependence on Isaiah 53. This was a messiah who had given himself in a sacrificial redemption. They could well have been influenced by the salvation cults of the Greek mysteries, with their dying and rising gods. The concept of suffering and redeeming saviors was in the air around them. Pagans joined popular religions which granted eternal life to those who linked themselves with those dying and rising gods. Some Jews, already heavily influenced by Hellenistic culture since the time of Alexander, wanted in on the action; they searched scripture for signs of their own God’s similar plan of salvation and imagined they received revelation about it from him. The Son and Logos concept was also in the air, the idea of subordinate divine entities who filled intermediary roles, channels to and from the highest God. Jewish cosmology reinforced by Platonic philosophy gave them a heavenly world where counterpart figures and their relationships with humans created parallels and paradigms. Pauline soteriology and christology has clear links with all these precedents.
But this new heavenly messiah did indeed possess a conquering dimension, one quite prominent in certain parts of the record, and even in Paul. Through his sacrifice Christ conquered the demon spirits (see 1 Cor. 2:6-8, Col. 2:15, Ascension of Isaiah 10:12-13, etc.) Those spirits were regarded as greater enemies to human welfare than the Romans (cf. Eph. 6:12), even barring access to heaven. This new heavenly conqueror reunited a universe divided by the demons (cf. Eph. 1:10). These “rulers of this age” were indeed passing away.
Yes, a great many Jews did not like the idea of a crucified messiah, whether earthly or heavenly. But what they would have liked far less was the idea that a man had been deified. And as we can see from the epistles, no one was objecting to any such blasphemy, even in the face of a faith which presented its Christ Jesus as a heavenly figure, a veritable emanation of God who shared in his nature and was his agent, not just in salvation, but in creating and sustaining the universe. The religious establishment no doubt did not approve of a subordinate deity beside the One God, which is probably why they persecuted the new cult, but this objection would hardly have been on the same level as disapproving of a man’s promotion to part of the Godhead. (We will deal later with the scholarly trend to de-deify the historical Jesus in the eyes of those who supposedly began the movement.)
In the concluding pages of this chapter, and of his case for the “evidence of an historical Jesus,” Ehrman summarizes the arguments he has made. Let’s have him remind us of some of those arguments, to which I will append a few of my own summaries:
The evidence is abundant and varied. Among the Gospels we have numerous independent accounts that attest to Jesus’s life, at least seven of them from within a hundred years of the traditional date of his death. (DJE? p. 171)
Well, Ehrman’s concept of “independent” is one which has hardly stood up to examination.
They [the Gospels] are based on written sources—a good number of them—that date much earlier, plausibly in some cases at least to the 50s of the Common Era. . . . They were based on oral traditions that had been in circulation year after year among the followers of Jesus. . . . some of them, however, can be located in Jesus’s homeland, Palestine, where they originally circulated in Aramaic. It appears that some, probably many, of them go back to the 30s CE. (DJE? p. 171)
No case has been made to support pre-Markan written sources other than Q, which had nothing to say about a messiah, or a death and resurrection. Nor is there any actual evidence of oral traditions being transmitted, and certainly not in the earliest extant record, the epistles.
The reality is that every single author who mentions Jesus—pagan, Christian, or Jewish—was fully convinced that he at least lived. Even the enemies of the Jesus movement thought so; among their many slurs against the religion, his non-existence is never one of them. . . . It is the view of all of our authors, for example, the authors of the epistles written both before and after Mark, whose views are based not on a reading of the Gospels but on traditions completely independent of Mark. . . . It is the view of the first century books or letters of 1 Clement, l Peter, l John, Hebrews—you name it. (DJE? pp. 171-172)
One’s enemies can hardly be expected to deny a claim one has not made. And by the time that claim was being made, no one was in a position to be able to dispute it. As for claiming that all those first century epistles held the view that an historical Jesus had lived, Ehrman has simply read that into texts which are far from making such a thing clear. If anything, they show the opposite. (Ehrman’s basis for including 1 John is not from anything the epistle says, but because it is erroneously assumed that the Gospel of John was written previous to it and its content must therefore have been known to the epistle writer.)
There is no doubt that Paul knew that Jesus existed. He mentions Jesus’s birth, his Jewish heritage, his descent from David, his brothers, his ministry to Jews, his twelve disciples, several of his teachings, his Last Supper, and most important for Paul, his crucifixion. (DJE? p. 172)
Almost all of those “mentions” by Paul are problematic, and all of them have been dealt with by mythicism. Besides, they pale in number to the host of indicators in the epistles that their authors do not know of any Jesus who lived on earth. As for Paul mentioning Jesus’ crucifixion, to simply assume that this must automatically mean a crucifixion of a human man on earth is naive apologetics of the crudest sort.
Paul indicates that he received some of these traditions from those who came before him, and it is relatively easy to determine when. (DJE? p. 172)
Well, no he does not. Paul never states that he received any of what he preaches through a human source, and occasionally specifically declares the opposite. None of his “words of the Lord” can be identified as traditions of a human Jesus; and his language suggests otherwise.
And it is also the view of the book of Acts, which preserves very primitive traditions in many of its speeches, traditions that appear to date from the earliest years of the Christian movement, even before the followers of Jesus maintained that he was the Son of God for his entire life or even just from his baptism; according to these traditions, he became the son of God at his resurrection. This is the earliest Christology of them all, probably that of the original followers of Jesus, and so stems from the earliest Palestinian Christian communities. (DJE? p. 172)
It is difficult to see how an Acts written well into the second century, which is fast becoming the favored dating, could have preserved untouched traditions from a century earlier. Rather, those ‘primitive’ views of Jesus reflect, not some pristine pre-epistolary phase, but the world of the Gospels with their more mundane christology arising out of the Q background. Nor is it clear that Acts advocates that Jesus became son of God at his resurrection (which would be at odds with the Gospel of Luke, presumably by the same author, or at least by a later editor of Luke). In fact, Ehrman has himself previously identified that christology as something to be found in the epistles, though there he has misinterpreted it.
Paul claims to have visited with Jesus’s closest disciple, Peter, and with his brother James three years after his conversion, that is, around 35 -36 CE. Much of what Paul has to say about Jesus, therefore, stems from the same early layer of tradition that we can trace, completely independently, in the Gospels. (DJE? p. 172)
Such correspondence is only achieved by begging the question. Even though Paul never mentions receiving any information about Jesus from Peter and James (and in fact seems keen to deny such a thing), Ehrman simply assumes that this is what they must have talked about. And since he already thinks to have identified early historical Jesus traditions preceding the Gospels, such a conversation between Paul and the two Jerusalem pillars provides him with corroboration for those alleged traditions, and vice-versa. One assumption is used to support another assumption, and all go round in circles.
Paul was personally acquainted, as I’ve pointed out, with Peter and James. Peter was Jesus’s closest confidant throughout his public ministry, and James was his actual brother. Paul knew them for decades, starting in the mid 30s CE. It is hard to imagine how Jesus could have been made up. Paul knew his best friend and his brother. (DJE? p. 173)
Another howling case of begging the question.
The single greatest obstacle Christians had when trying to convert Jews was precisely their claim that Jesus had been executed. They would not have made that part up. They had to deal with it and devise a special, previously unheard of theology to account for it. And so what they invented was not a person named Jesus but rather the idea of a suffering messiah. (DJE? p. 173)
That obstacle only shows up in the second century, after the historical Jesus idea had begun to circulate and some Christians were preaching a crucified man (though not most of the second century apologists, who had no human Logos at all, crucified or otherwise). Paul, as I’ve pointed out, did not identify the “crucified messiah” who was a stumbling block to Jews as an earthly man. But they did “make that part up.” They made up their crucified messiah because they wanted a dying and rising god in a Jewish version who would confer salvation, and because they thought they could perceive such an entity within scripture, aided by divine revelation. Some had even imagined they experienced an epiphany of him.
This was a markedly different concept of messiah, and those holding it did not need to buck traditional expectations of a conquering hero who would send the Romans to hell. This messiah acted in an entirely different world, he was of an entirely different nature. His invention was not designed to accommodate a problematic historical event. Ehrman has failed to identify a single indicator in the epistolary record which would illuminate such a claim. And it certainly is not to be found in Q, which is the only other pre-Gospel source we can confidently identify, although parts of the Gospel of Thomas may be contemporary with Q—while having no crucified messiah either.
The rest of Ehrman’s pre-Gospel sources seem to be a figment of his imagination.
. . . to be continued