It is widely accepted that around the time Jesus is said to have appeared the people of Judea were eagerly anticipating a Messiah to come at any moment and deliver them from their Roman conquerors. I have sought for evidence to support this claim expressed so often in the scholarly land popular literature. To date, data that is used as evidence, in my view, does not support that view — unless one reads into it the interpretation one is looking for.
Though there is much of great value in Richard Carrier’s book, The Historicity of Jesus, I was disappointed to see him repeat what I suspect is an unfounded assumption and to employ an invalid argument in its support. The same applies to Carrier’s predecessor, Earl Doherty. It looks to me as if on this point Christ myth authors have imbibed the common assumptions of mainstream scholars. I use Carrier’s work in this post to illustrate my point. Carrier writes:
(a) Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism. There was an evident clamoring of sects and individuals to announce they had found the messiah. (b) It is therefore no oddity or accident that this is exactly when Christianity arose. It was yet another messiah cult in the midst of a fad for just such cults. (c) That it among them would alone survive and spread can therefore be the product of natural selection: so many variations of the same theme were being tried, odds are one of them would by chance be successful, hitting all the right notes and dodging all the right bullets. The lucky winner in that contest just happened to be Christianity.16
This element is often denied, or its basis not well understood, so I will pause to establish it before moving on. ‘Messiah’, ‘Son of Man’, ‘the Righteous One’, and ‘the Elect [or Chosen] One’ were all popular titles for the expected messiah used by several groups in early-first-century Judaism, as attested, for instance, in the Book of the Parables of Enoch, a Jewish text composed before 70 CE. 17 The Dead Sea Scrolls attest to one or several such cults around that same time. Indeed, messianic apocalypticism was intense at Qumran, where the keepers of the scrolls were already expecting the imminent end of the world, and attempting different calculations from the timetable provided in the book of Daniel (see Element 7) to predict when the first messiah would come – and many of their calculations came up ‘soon’. The early first century CE was in their prediction window.18 And many of their texts were used by other cults of the time. A copy of the so-called Damascus Document, for instance, turns up a thousand years later in a stash of Jewish texts at Cairo Geniza.19
Carrier 2014, pp. 67-68
After consulting several of the works Carrier cites in these paragraphs I remain unpersuaded. I will continue to consult the others and post about anything that does change my mind.
Let’s take footnote #18 for now. That’s the cited authority for the claim that early first century sects such as the Qumran community were calculating the time of the messiah’s arrival in “the early first century CE”.
18. See John Collins, ‘The Expectation of the End in the Dead Sea Scrolls’, in Eschatology (ed. Evans and Flint), pp. 74-90 (esp. 76-79, 83).
On pages 76 to 78 John Collins discusses the attempts by the author of the Book of Daniel to set dates for “the end”. This writer was working in the second century BCE at the time of the Maccabee uprising against the Seleucid empire.
On page 78 Collins begins a discussion of the Apocalypse of Weeks in 1 Enoch, explaining that this work, too, was
written about the time of the Maccabean revolt.
Then on page 79 we begin a section titled “The End of Days in the Dead Sea Scrolls”. On page 82 we read:
This “end” was not in the vague and distant future but was expected at a particular time in the sect’s history.
Was this time in “the early first century CE”? No. Collins explains:
It is reasonable to infer, then, that the “end” was expected shortly before the pesher was written. While we do not know the exact date of the pesher, all indicators point to the middle of the first century BCE.
Then again on the same page (83)
Our other witness to the expectation of an end at a specific time, the Damascus Document, also points to a date towards the middle of the first century BCE.
That’s a couple of generations before the time of Jesus according to canonical writings. It’s also in a quite different political setting.
There’s more. On page 84:
It appears, then, that the Dead Sea sect expected the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy about 40 years after the death of the Teacher. Unfortunately, we do not know when this took place. A date around the end of the second century BCE seems likely, but we must allow a generous margin of error. If the Teacher died about 100 BCE, this would point to an “end” about 60 BCE, which would be highly compatible with the evidence of the Pesher on Habakkuk.
Continuing . . . .
If we then allow 40 years for the career of the Teacher and a further interval of 40 years after his death, we arrive at the conclusion that the “end” was expected about 70 BCE.42 While these suggestions are intriguing, and are not impossible, in my view they are not reliable. While there is evidence for speculation on biblical chronology, such as we find in Demetrius, in such documents as Jubilees and the Aramaic Levi Apocryphon, there is no actual evidence that CD used the chronology of Demetrius. The argument is simply that this chronology would support a popular hypothesis about the origin of the Dead Sea sect. Despite its popularity, however, that hypothesis is far from established fact.43
Were devotees at Qumran attempting to calculate dates from clues in Daniel for the arrival of the messiah? Collins writes on page 85:
I see no evidence that anyone at Qumran ever counted the days, in the manner of the book of Daniel, or that their expectation ever focused on a specific day or year.
The Qumran sect is frequently equated with the Essenes that are described by Josephus and Hippolytus. Collins points out (page 88) that
No ancient account of the Essenes mentions the expectation of Messiahs, nor the prospect of an eschatological war.
So what happened when the possibly expected end did not come about in the middle of the first century BCE? Did they keep revising their dates to then settle on renewed speculation about the early first century CE? On page 89,
The expected “end” forty years after the death of the Teacher came and went. The Qumran community does not seem to have suffered any major disruption, as far as we know. . . . The pesharim, and indeed much of the distinctively sectarian literature, were produced in the early or middle first century BCE. . . . Only the Pesher on Habakkak betrays any anxiety about the delay. The War Scroll continued to be copied in the Roman period, so it appears that eschatological expectation did not cease when the “end” failed to materialize. This should not surprise us. The book of Daniel had offered far more specific calculations of an “end” than anything found at Qumran. These dates also passed without event.
And finally, page 90:
The Qumran community survived for more than a century after its attempt to calculate the end in the mid-first century BCE had failed. The prolonged vitality of the sects eschatological expectations was due in some part to their evasiveness. They were not tied to a very specific sequence of events, or to a specific date of fulfillment. They were fluid enough to allow for some adaptation. Moreover, the members of the community believed that they were already experiencing some of the blessings of the end time in their community life, where they believed they shared in the fellowship of the angels.
So we have one BCE scroll that continued to be copied into the Roman period as evidence that the Qumran community was feverishly expecting the messiah any day on that early first century CE period. (I have to ask, Does it follow that Christians today are on the whole functioning at messianic fever pitch because Bibles containing messianic promises continue to be printed and read today?)
Notice also that the War Scroll supplies no evidence of expectations tied to a particular date or date range. The contrary, in fact.
I know, that’s only one of Carrier’s supporting citations. I’ll look at some more in future posts. Of course I am more than willing to examine supporting references cited by any other author for this popular view as well.
Carrier, Richard. 2014. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.
Collins, John J. 1997. “The Expectation of the End in the Dead Sea Scrolls.” In Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, edited by Craig Evan and Peter W. Flint, 74-90. Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans.