2016-07-28

Questioning Claims about Messianic Anticipations among Judeans of the Early First Century

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by Neil Godfrey

Let’s take another set of references Richard Carrier cites to support the claim

That Jewish expectations of some kind of messiah in the early Roman Empire were widespread, influential, and very diverse . . . has been well established by experts on ancient messianism.15
Carrier 2014, p. 67
qumran

Qumran caves

I am referencing Carrier because he sets out to explicitly justify this belief that is widely expressed in both scholarly and popular publications about Christian origins, but the view is widespread among scholars and lay people alike.

With respect to the above quotation I have no problem with the statement that messianic views were very diverse in the Second Temple period. But let’s look at the works listed in footnote #15. I set them out as a numbered list:

  1. Stanley Porter (ed.), The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007);
  2. Markus Bockmuehl and James Carleton Paget (eds.), Redemption and Resistance: The Messianic Hopes of Jews and Christians in Antiquity (New York: T. & T. Clark, 2007);
  3. Magnus Zetterholm (ed.), The Messiah in Early Judaism and Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007);
  4. Charlesworth, James. et al. (eds.). Qumran-Messianism: Studies on the Messianic Expectations in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. 1998);
  5. Craig Evans and Peter Flint (eds.), Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1997);
  6. James Charlesworth (ed.), The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992);
  7. Jacob Neusner, Messiah in Context: Israel ‘s History and Destiny in Formative Judaism (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1984);
  8. and Jacob Neusner et al. (eds.), Judaisms and their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
  9. See also C. A. Evans, ‘Messianism’, in Dictionary of New Testament Background (ed. Craig Evans and Stanley Porter; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), pp. 698-707.

Let’s start.

#1 — Stanley Porter (ed.), The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007)

Two chapters are of relevance: “The Messiah in the Qumran Communities” by Al Wolters and “Messianic Ideas in the Apocalyptic and Related Literature of Early Judaism” by Loren T. Stuckenbruck. Neither discusses popular messianic expectations in the Judea of early first century CE. Both discuss the various nuances of what a Messiah meant to various authors but there is no discussion of time-tables or expectations that such figures were eagerly expected to appear at any particular time.

Al Wolters writes

I am struck by a number of points that call for comment. The first is how sparse and ambiguous the evidence is. The Qumran Scrolls speak very little of an eschatological messiah — even of a messianic figure broadly defined — and when they do it is always incidental to other concerns and usually subject to multiple interpretations. In short, it is clear that messianic expectation was not central to the religious worldview of the Qumran sectarians, and what little such expectation there was is hard to pin down. (p. 80 — bolded emphasis is my own in all quotations)

#2 — Markus Bockmuehl and James Carleton Paget (eds.), Redemption and Resistance: The Messianic Hopes of Jews and Christians in Antiquity (New York: T. & T. Clark, 2007)

Chapter 3, “The Herodian Period” by Sean Freyne, addresses our question. Note his second sentence:

It is somewhat of a surprise to discover that in the literature of the period the notion of the messiah is often absent when one might have expected otherwise. (p. 29)

Freyne argues that Rome created conditions likely to ignite messianic reactions but finds very little in the way of messianic pretenders at the apparent time of Jesus. We have discussions of Judas the Galilean who appears to have been active at the turn of the century and others who emerge in the mid first century CE (Theudas and the Egyptian prophet) but is unable to pin anything particularly “messianic” on any of these figures. These figures who are found either side of the time of Jesus were rebels and prophets but there is nothing to lead us to believe they were looked upon as messiahs.

In response to the written evidence from this period,

Dating texts precisely, especially in the case of the writings from the Qumran library, is not easy, yet it is possible to claim that on palaeographic grounds some texts do belong to the Herodian period, and therefore, presumably reflect the discussions and concerns of some circles at least of the time. (p. 40)

Recall that we have already seen that these scant references to a messiah are actually incidental to other interests and are not evidence of a focused messianic hope in the Herodian period. Freyne holds on to threads of evidence (references to messiahs in texts copied around the early first century CE) to argue that messianic hopes were not extinguished during this time. This is about the closest I ever see anyone approaching evidence for the claim that Judea was a sea of frenzied hopes for the imminent appearance of a messianic deliver around the 30s in Judea.

#3 — Magnus Zetterholm (ed.), The Messiah in Early Judaism and Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007)

Section 1 is “Pre-Christian Jewish Messianism: An Overview” by John J. Collins. Recall we examined another discussion of his in the previous post. Here’s how Collins concludes his discussion:

Jewish messianic expectation was never uniform. The hope for the restoration of Davidic kingship was standard, but it is impossible to say how active or important it was at any given time. Moreover, the Davidic genealogy of the future king could be construed broadly, as we have seen in the case of 4 Ezra. There was a trend toward ascribing to the royal messiah a supernatural character, but this was not universally followed. Rather, later Jewish tradition insists on his humanity. Expectations for an eschatological priest or prophet appear occasionally but were never as central as the hope for a “King Messiah.”

Magnus Zetterholm. The Messiah: In Early Judaism and Christianity (Kindle Locations 372-376). Kindle Edition.

#4 — Charlesworth, James. et al. (eds.). Qumran-Messianism: Studies on the Messianic Expectations in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. 1998)

I don’t have access to this book.

#5 — Craig Evans and Peter Flint (eds.), Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1997)

The key chapter here was the focus of my previous post. It is another one by John J. Collins, “The Expectations of the End in the Dead Sea Scrolls”.

#6 — James Charlesworth (ed.), The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992)

Chapter 14 is by Richard Horsley, “‘Messianic’ Figures and Movements in First-Century Palestine”. He makes a significant point about the literary sources we use that I have discussed previously:

Of crucial import for exploration of “messianic” ideas or figures, we can no longer blithely assume that “the Jews” generally in late Second Temple times thought in a certain way. Our evidence for what the ancient Jews were thinking about anything is almost exclusively literary. But nearly all literature from the past was produced by literate people, and most people who were literate in antiquity worked for and were supported by the rulers or other wealthy patrons, and as we now recognize, literature reflects the interests of those who produced it. Of course some of the Palestinian Jewish literature of the late Second Temple Period was different. Literature such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Psalms of Solomon was produced by people discontent with or in reaction to the policies and practices of the ruling elite. But those who were literate and who produced literature were still a tiny fraction of the society. Is there any reason to believe that the extant literature, which was produced by a tiny fraction of the population who occupied a social position very different from the vast majority, reflected the attitudes and ideas of the whole society? (p. 278)

Horsley’s next section is headed

THE RELATIVE UNIMPORTANCE OF A “MESSIAH” OR “MESSIANIC” IDEAS IN LATE SECOND TEMPLE JEWISH LITERATURE

Late Second Temple times refers to the first century CE. The section begins:

There are precious few occurrences of the term “Messiah” in Palestinian Jewish literature in late Second Temple times. That is, we have little or no literary evidence that, let alone how, Palestinian Jews at the time of Jesus were thinking with regard to some sort of “anointed” figure. The relative paucity of the term “Messiah” in Palestinian Jewish literature suggests that expectations of a Messiah were relatively unimportant among literate groups in particular. Even where the term “Messiah” occurs, its usage must be disappointing to those looking for an agent of redemption. In the book of Daniel and the Enoch literature, the term is barely present, and not important; the agents of salvation are primarily God and certain angels. By comparison with its almost complete absence in other literature of the period, the handful of occurrences of “anointed” in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the reference to the anointed Davidic king in Psalms of Solomon 17 stand out prominently. Even then, considering the extensive literature produced by the Qumran community, the term “anointed” occurs relatively infrequently. Many of the key occurrences, moreover, are in phrases (such as “until there shall arise the anointed of Aaron and Israel”) that refer to the time of fulfillment, not to some sort of agent of redemption (e.g., 1QS 9.10-11; CD 12.22-23; 13.20-22; 19.9-11; 20.1). The Aaronide priest and the “anointed of Israel” will preside at the banquet of fulfillment as primi inter pares (1QSa 2.11-22), but they are not portrayed as exercising any particular function as agents of salvation. The Qumran community understood itself predominantly as a new exodus and a new covenant, and its leadership was primarily priestly and scribal. Apparently it imagined virtually no significant function for an anointed royal figure. Almost alone in all of the Jewish literature prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the Psalms of Solomon assign an “anointed” king a significant role. Contrary to the old composite construction of “Standard Jewish messianic expectations,” however, this future Davidic king is not a military leader but has strong scribal and sapiential functions.

In the literature of late Second Temple times there appears to be little interest in a “Messiah” or in a future Davidic king. Why? . . . An anointed and/or Davidic king was simply not important, or even present, in their recent historical experience, in the Torah, or in their concerns for and visions of the ideal Israel. The dominant roles and functions of the powerful and/or literate were priestly and scribal-sapiential. (pp. 278-279)

Horsley leaves no room for ambiguity:

There is no evidence . . . that the imperial Davidic ideology was perpetuated or revived in late Second Temple times, although this may be due partly to limited literary remains from this period generally. Without such evidence we cannot use these earlier psalms and prophecies as evidence for later times. Hence the unavoidable conclusion remains that ideas or expectations of a “Messiah” of any sort were not only rare but unimportant among the literate groups in late Second Temple Jewish Palestine. (p. 280)

So much for the chattering classes. What of “Concrete Figures and Movements” at this time? Horsley again:

First-century Jewish Palestine, although fairly simple in its social structure, featured a wide variety of groups and movements. There is little or no evidence that any of these were eschatologically oriented. And most of them had no leadership that could be legitimately labeled as “messiahs.” The ad hoc popular protests that occurred from time to time were neither eschatologically oriented nor apocalyptically inspired, judging from available evidence and comparative material. Josephus, our principal source, mentions no distinctive leadership at all. There is no indication that the Fourth Philosophy in 6 C.E., or the Sicarii, the terrorist group active in the 50s C.E. were eschatologically oriented or apocalyptically inspired. The leadership of both groups was scribal-scholarly, as Josephus says explicitly, and neither prophetic nor royal nor priestly. (p. 280)

There are no figures who could be interpreted as messianic pretenders during the early first century CE when the story of Jesus is set. The nearest we find are references to Theudas and an Egyptian in the 50s. Lena Einhorn, as we posted earlier, argues that the Jesus narrative is based around these figures and deliberately set in the time of the previous generation. Horsley remarks on these figures in a section titled

POPULAR PROPHETS AND PROPHETIC MOVEMENTS

Horsley stresses that fact that these figures were understood to be prophets, false ones of course, but prophets, not messiahs.

. . . The other prophets, such as Theudas and the “Egyptian,” inspired, organized, and led mass movements that were suppressed by Roman troops. These have been labeled “messianic” prophets or “prophetic pretenders to messiahship.” But that label blurs both their distinctive character and their distinctive difference from the movements led by popular kings who might more properly be designated “messianic.” Contrary to suggestions by some and the misleading label “messianic,” there is no overlap or confusion between these two types of movements and their leaders. Our principal source Josephus writes explicitly that Theudas and the “Egyptian” appeared as prophets, not that they assumed some royal posture. Josephus himself shared the (proto-) rabbinic view that the succession of truly inspired prophets ceased after Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, and he apparently avoids the term prophetes in reference to his own and other prophetic activity of which he approves. Thus it is all the more significant that he uses the term in his hostile accounts of the movements led by figures he denigrates as “deceivers” or “charlatans.” (p. 282)

Horsley’s conclusion:

It is becoming increasingly evident that there was little interest in a Messiah, Davidic or otherwise, let alone a Standard messianic expectation, in the diverse Palestinian Jewish literature of late Second Temple times. It could be that, until we attain a far more precise historical sense of groups and expectations in the Jewish Palestine from which “Christianity” and “Judaism” emerged, we should simply drop the concept “Messiah/messianic” altogether. (p. 295)

#7 — Jacob Neusner, Messiah in Context: Israel’s History and Destiny in Formative Judaism (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1984)

I am expecting a copy of this book to arrive in a few weeks. If there is anything new to add I will post about it.

#8 — Jacob Neusner et al. (eds.), Judaisms and their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987)

Shemaryahu Talmon has a chapter titled “Waiting for the Messiah: The Spiritual Universe of the Qumran Covenanters”. Unlike Horsley, Zetterholm and Collins above, Talmon interprets the references to the anointed one or messiah in the scrolls as indicative of a messianic focus, although he speaks about it in relatively generalized terms. There is no suggestion of a group eagerly calculating dates in hopes that the dramatic figure would appear suddenly.

The above survey points up a striking characteristic of the millenarian-messianic idea at Qumran: The expected New Aeon will unfold as an age in which terrestrial-historical experience coalesces with celestial spiritual Utopia. Salvation is viewed as transcendent and imminent at the same time. The New Order to be established by the Anointed is not otherworldly but rather the realization of a divine plan on earth, the consummation of history in history. (p. 131)

A subsequent chapter is by J.H. Charlesworth, “From Jewish Messianology to Christian Christology. Some Caveats and Perspectives”, states:

It is pertinent now to ask, as a logical sequence to our first question, “Is is not true that almost all (first-century Palestinian) Jews expected in the near future a Messiah?” The answer is clearly “no.” (p. 250)

As we have stated, the terminus technicus MShYH – “the Messiah,” “the Anointed One,” or “anointed one” – is found in early Jewish literature only in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. But even in these two collections it is not abundant. Of ninety-six significant documents produced by the Qumran Essenes, the Damascus Document, only 11Q Melchizedek, 4Q Patriarchal Blessings, lQSa, and 1QS contain this technical term. The latter document – the Rule of the Community – furthermore, is preserved partially in a fragment from Cave IV; and it does not contain the famous reference to two Messiahs. Of 65 documents in the Pseudepigrapha many are too late for inclusion in our present quest; yet only a small minority of the remaining early Jewish writings contain explicit references to the Messiah. We have presented and discussed each of these, namely the Psalms of Solomon, the Similitudes of Enoch (which are entwined with intricate thoughts about the Messiah and his other titles), 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch (the authors of the latter two have inherited but not really digested a wide range of traditions regarding the Messiah). In many of the Pseudepigrapha, namely Jubilees, the Testament of Moses, Pseudo-Philo, and the Life of Adam and Eve, the term “the Messiah” is surprisingly and conspicuously absent.

Some early Jews did not look for the coming of a Messiah. They contended that God himself would act; he would punish the gentiles. (p. 250)

Charlesworth does express the common apology for Josephus’s silence with respect to messianic movements that argues that he did not like to remind readers that the Jewish hostility towards Rome was inspired by such an interest. On the other hand we need to keep in mind that there is also the positive argument (expressed above — see Horsley) to explain why Josephus described the movements of the 50s (a generation following that of Jesus) as prophetic rather than messianic. I find the argument less than cogent given that Josephus is quite capable of distinguishing between good and bad prophetic movements; furthermore, he does speak about messianic interests and he ties them in with the later part of the first century when outright warfare was under way. This is quite a different set of circumstances from the period of the early part of the first century CE.

#9 — C. A. Evans, ‘Messianism’, in Dictionary of New Testament Background (ed. Craig Evans and Stanley Porter; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), pp. 698-707.

I consider Craig Evans to be an apologist. His views are certainly very conservative and his article on messianism is essentially an outline of the conventional wisdom that I am contending lacks clear supporting evidence. He writes:

The later usurpation of Israel’s throne by Herod and his successors only fueled these [messianic] hopes. The literature of this time speaks of the appearance of worthy anointed persons through whom the restoration of Israel might take place. These hopes and predictions drew upon passages of Scripture that spoke of anointed persons and upon passages that spoke in more indirect ways of individuals or symbols that lent themselves to eschatological or salvific interpretations. (p. 699)

Qumran messianism was tradi­tional in all major respects. A triumphant, conquering Messiah, who of course would sub­mit himself to Qumran’s understanding of the renewed covenant, was awaited. (p. 703)

These assertions give the impression that the Qumran community was focused on messianic hopes and so contradict the tightly evidence-based argument of the other scholars cited above. Evans quotes the various Qumran passages that appear to refer to a messiah and basically claims that these quotations are evidence of the “messianic hopes” of that community. Likewise with other literature referencing an anointed one. We have seen how superficial such an interpretation is after reading the closer studies of the previous scholars. Evans is reading into the data the conclusions he believes a priori that they ought to support. He is making the same assumptions about the evidence that most scholars seem to do, and that specialists like Collins and Horsley and others demonstrate are unwarranted.

But not even Evans goes so far as to argue explicitly that the evidence testifies to an anticipation that the messiah might appear at any moment or according to any kind of time-table derived from Daniel.

This post has been a response to Carrier’s assertion

That Jewish expectations of some kind of messiah in the early Roman Empire were widespread, influential, and very diverse . . . has been well established by experts on ancient messianism.15

So far it looks as if the “experts on messianism” cited in the footnote by no means “well establish” the commonly assumed belief that “Jewish expectations of some kind of messiah in the early Roman Empire were widespread [and] influential”. They were certainly “very diverse” but that’s another series of posts altogether.

In a future post I hope to address some of Carrier’s specific arguments.


Carrier, Richard. 2014. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.

Charlesworth, J.H. 1987. “From Jewish Messianology to Christian Christology. Some Caveats and Perspectives.” In Judaisms and their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era, edited by Jacob Neusner et al., 225-264. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Collins, John J. 2007. “Pre-Christian Jewish Messianism: An Overview” In The Messiah in Early Judaism and Christianity, edited by Magnus Zetterholm, 1-20. Minneapolis: Fortress 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.

Evans, C.A. 2000. “Messianism.” In Dictionary of New Testament Background, edited by Craig Evans and Stanley Porter, 698-707. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Stuckenbruck, Loren T. 2007. “Messianic Ideas in the Apocalyptic and Related Literature of Early Judaism” In The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments, edited by Stanley Porter, 90-113. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.

Freyne, Sean. 2007. “The Herodian Period.” In Redemption and Resistance: The Messianic Hopes of Jews and Christians in Antiquity, edited by Markus Bockmuehl and James Carleton Paget, 29-43. New York: T. & T. Clark.

Horsley, Richard. 1992. “‘Messianic’ Figures and Movements in First-Century Palestine.” In The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity, edited by James H. Charlesworth, 276-295. Minneapolis; Fortress Press.

Talmon, Shemaryahu. 1987. “Waiting for the Messiah: The Spiritual Universe of the Qumran Covenanters.” In Judaisms and their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era, edited by Jacob Neusner et al., 111-137. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wolters, Al. 2007. “The Messiah in the Qumran Communities” In The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments, edited by Stanley Porter, 75-89. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.


 

4 Comments

  • 2016-07-28 09:37:11 UTC - 09:37 | Permalink

    Hello Neil:

    You wrote:#4 — Charlesworth, James. et al. (eds.). Qumran-Messianism: Studies on the Messianic Expectations in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. 1998)
    I don’t have access to this book

    Unfortunately, [according to World Cat] only four libraries in the U.S., two in Canada, and six in Europe have this book… Perhaps, some of your readers can assist you…

    Sincerely, Michael Alter

  • 2016-07-28 10:38:42 UTC - 10:38 | Permalink

    More and more, I think Ory was onto something when he claimed Christianity was not originally messianic; it only claimed to have been so well after the fact — after the failed Jewish messianic movements of the second century.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2016-07-28 11:51:16 UTC - 11:51 | Permalink

    I have now caught up with the Dictionary of New Testament Background, #9 in the list, and have added the following to the post:

    I consider Craig Evans to be an apologist. His views are certainly very conservative and his article on messianism is essentially an outline of the conventional wisdom that I am contending lacks clear supporting evidence. He writes:

    The later usurpation of Israel’s throne by Herod and his successors only fueled these [messianic] hopes. The literature of this time speaks of the appearance of worthy anointed persons through whom the restoration of Israel might take place. These hopes and predictions drew upon passages of Scripture that spoke of anointed persons and upon passages that spoke in more indirect ways of individuals or symbols that lent themselves to eschatological or salvific interpretations. (p. 699)

    Qumran messianism was tradi­tional in all major respects. A triumphant, conquering Messiah, who of course would sub­mit himself to Qumran’s understanding of the renewed covenant, was awaited. (p. 703)

    These assertions give the impression that the Qumran community was focused on messianic hopes and so contradict the tightly evidence-based argument of the other scholars cited above. Evans quotes the various Qumran passages that appear to refer to a messiah and basically claims that these quotations are evidence of the “messianic hopes” of that community. Likewise with other literature referencing an anointed one. We have seen how superficial such an interpretation is after reading the closer studies of the previous scholars. Evans is reading into the data the conclusions he believes a priori that they ought to support. He is making the same assumptions about the evidence that most scholars seem to do, and that specialists like Collins and Horsley and others demonstrate are unwarranted.

    But not even Evans goes so far as to argue explicitly that the evidence testifies to an anticipation that the messiah might appear at any moment or according to any kind of time-table derived from Daniel.

  • Christine Veazey
    2016-07-29 20:37:45 UTC - 20:37 | Permalink

    Having studied what is available of Mandaean literature on the internet, studied their so-called Gnostic religion and artwork, and comparing Christian words and their words, there is no doubt in my mind that Christian words do not reflect their religion. The Mandaeans are descendants of John the Baptist and they do not recognize Jesus. In fact, he is referred t was an evil priest who stole the secrets. At this time they are a highly secret sect. They will share the Ginza Rba but not the secrets.

    It is my educated opinion that in the first century John the Baptist’s group would have been equally as secretive. Within their own group a few would have known who their teacher was, and would have known many of his former lifetimes with the help of their divination skills, but they wouldn’t have advertised who he was. This information was acquired in some way by an opposing faction. John wouldn’t have said he was the Messiah. Since this information wouldn’t have been shared, it would have been forced out of some of John’s close friends who he had educated in divination and healing and the structure of the universe. I believe their mindset was that, if they were to give up secrets, they would have done so in a limited and incomplete fashion in order to protect the world.

    Here is an example of a word change which is a concept change…When a soul reaches a certain high level, that soul is responsible for the earth and its inhabitants. That teacher soul is an actual parent because it births worlds. So, the Lord’s prayer (which is not actually a prayer)…”Our father, who art in heaven,” would be more accurately understood within oneself that he or she is a parent nurturing earth’s inhabitants, giving them life from the worlds of light. These worlds of light reside in the heavens and are not physical worlds. They are ether, they are accessible to the mind, they are our mind, they are the source, we created the worlds of light with the information we put into those worlds, and in low periods of the world we can lift ourselves and the world up again by accessing that information. “Our father in the heavens” takes on a new meaning.

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