by Neil Godfrey
Before continuing with the second part of my previous post I’ll post here something unexpected that I read last night. Daniel Boyarin is Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture and rhetoric at the University of California whose views on Christian origins are not unanimously welcomed by Christian theologians. I don’t know at this stage what to make of his ideas since I haven’t read them closely enough yet. (I’ve only read criticisms of them so far.) But I quote here a section from his book The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, because it is surely interesting that a Jewish scholar should arrive at such a view:
Boyarin sums up the conventional view of how a crucified Jesus came to be thought of as the Messiah by his followers, and how it was that eventually Isaiah 53′s declaration of the Suffering Servant came to be viewed as a prophecy of the sufferings of Jesus:
To sum up this generally held view: The theology of the suffering of the Messiah was an after-the-fact apologetic response to explain the suffering and ignominy Jesus suffered, since he was deemed by “Christians” to be the Messiah. Christianity, on this view, was initiated by the fact of the crucifixion, which is seen as setting into motion the new religion. Moreover, many who hold this view hold also that Isaiah 53 was distorted by the Christians from its allegedly original meaning, in which it referred to the sufferings of the People of Israel, to explain and account for the shocking fact that the Messiah had been crucified. (p. 132)
The professor pulls no punches in telling readers what he thinks of all this.
This commonplace view has to be rejected completely. The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent, and it remained current among Jews well into the future following that — indeed, well into the early modern period.
At this point he refers readers to an endnote:
See Martin Hengel, “The Effective History of Isaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period,” in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources, ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher, trans. Daniel P. Bailey (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), 137-45, for good arguments to this effect.
Hengel concludes, “The expectation of an eschatological suffering savior figure connected with Isaiah 53 cannot therefore be proven to exist with absolute certainty and in a clearly outlined form in pre-Christian Judaism. Nevertheless, a lot of indices that must be taken seriously in texts of very different provenance suggest that these types of expectations could also have existed at the margins, next to many others.
“This would then explain how a suffering or dying Messiah surfaces in various forms with the Tannaim of the second century C.E., and why Isaiah 53 is clearly interpreted messianically in the Targum and rabbinic texts” (140).
While there are some points in Hengel’s statement that require revision, the Targum is more a counterexample than a supporting text, and for the most part he is spot on. (p. 185, my formatting, italics original)
Boyarin continues with a sideways nod to modern messianic Jews:
The fascinating (and to some, no doubt, uncomfortable) fact is that this tradition was well documented by modern Messianic Jews, who are concerned to demonstrate that their belief in Jesus does not make them un-Jewish. Whether or not one accepts their theology, it remains the case that they have a very strong textual base for the view that the suffering Messiah is based in deeply rooted Jewish texts early and late. Jews, it seems, had no difficulty whatever with understanding a Messiah who would vicariously suffer to redeem the world.
It’s all classical rabbinic midrash, he says:
Once again, what has been allegedly ascribed to Jesus after the fact is, in fact, a piece of entrenched messianic speculation and expectation that was current before Jesus came into the world at all. That the Messiah would suffer and be humiliated was something Jews learned from close reading of the biblical texts, a close reading in precisely the style of classically rabbinic interpretation that has become known as midrash, the concordance of verses and passages from different places in Scripture to derive new narratives, images, and theological ideas. (p. 133)
Christianity was another pathway of Judaism:
Rather than seeing Christianity as a new invention, seeing it as one of the paths that Judaism took — a path as ancient in its sources as the one that rabbinic Jews trod — has a majesty of its own.
If “majesty” sounds a bit strong, understand that Boyarin here is attempting to deflect anticipated criticism that he is denying anything original to the Christians at all.
Many Jews were expecting as much:
Many Jews were expecting the divine-human Messiah, the Son of Man. Many accepted Jesus as that figure, while others did not.
But was not the idea of a suffering messiah a stumbling block to the Jews?
Although there is precious little pre-Christian evidence among Jews for the suffering of the Messiah, there are good reasons to consider this too no stumbling block for the “Jewishness” of the ideas about the Messiah, Jesus as well. . . . [The idea of a suffering messiah] was entirely within the spirit and hermeneutical method of ancient Judaism, and not a scandalous departure from it. (p. 134)
Now that sounds remarkably similar to what I have been suggesting in my discussions on this blog of the works of the Jewish scholar Levenson on The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, Novenson’s Christ Among the Messiahs as well as conclusions I was drawing from Thomas L. Thompson’s publications on the meaning of figures like David in Jewish literature.
How can we know?
This point of the “Jewishness” of the vicarious suffering of the Messiah can be established in two ways:
- first by showing how the Gospels use perfectly traditional, midrashic ways of reasoning to develop these ideas and apply them to Jesus,
- and second, by demonstrating how common the idea of a suffering and dying Messiah was among perfectly “orthodox” rabbinic Jews from the time of the Talmud onward. (my formatting)
But isn’t the Talmud too late to be counted as evidence?
My reasoning is that if this were such a shocking thought, how is it that the rabbis of the Talmud and midrash, only a couple of centuries later, had no difficulty whatever with portraying the Messiah’s vicarious suffering or discovering him in Isaiah 53, just as followers of Jesus had done? (pp. 134-35)
Again there is an endnote:
Hengel, “Effective History,” 133-37, even makes a case that the Septuagint (Jewish Greek translation) to Isaiah (second century B.C.) may already have read the Isaiah passage as referring to the Messiah. (p. 185)