This is part 3 of my series arguing against the popular notion that the time of Jesus as narrated in the gospels was ablaze with various cults and movements eagerly expecting a messiah to appear as per prophecies or even time-tables found in the Jewish scriptures. My depiction of this supposition as a myth in the title of this post is taken from James H. Charlesworth whom I quote below.
I am focusing on Richard Carrier’s presentation of this view because he goes further than many others by attempting to set out the evidence for this idea. So far I have addressed these passages in Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus:
That Jewish expectations of some kind of messiah in the early Roman Empire were widespread [and] influential . . . has been well established by experts on ancient messianism.15 . . . .
Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism. . . . .
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
(Carrier 2014, pp. 67-68)
We have seen in the previous posts (addressing footnote 18 and footnote 15) that scholars who specialize in the texts in question and who are footnoted by Carrier as his supports do not support the above claim.
I continue now to address four more points made by Carrier that he uses to argue that it is not a myth that the Jews of the early first century CE expected a messiah.
1. Evidence from a thousand years later
And many of [the Qumran] 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, p. 68)
Again we do not find support for the belief that the early first century witnessed a “rash of messianism” here. Citing but one example of a text composed in the mid first century BCE and appearing a millennium later cannot support the view that early first century CE cults were seizing copies of the Qumran community’s texts to fuel imaginations feverishly anticipating the imminent appearance of the messiah. (Moreover, even that text, the Damascus Document, the mention of the messiah is but incidental to other concerns.)
2. Evidence of the Gospels
The Gospels likewise assume (or, depending on how much you trust them, report) that ‘messiah fever’ was so rampant in Judea then that countless people were expecting Elijah to be walking among them, some even believed that Jesus, or John the Baptist, was that very man, risen from the dead, which many Jews believed presaged the imminent coming of a messiah and the ensuing end of the present world order (which many believed had become corrupted beyond human repair), because this had been predicted in Mal. 4.5-6, the very last passage of the traditional OT.21 . . . .
21. See Mk 9.9-13; 8.27-28; 6.14-16; Mt. 17.10-13; 16.13-14; Lk. 9.18-19; 9.7-9.
(Carrier 2014, p. 68)
The synoptic gospels are arguably riddled with anachronisms (e.g. synagogues and regular contact with Pharisees in Galilee) betraying their date of composition in the post 70 CE world. We do have independent evidence in the writings of Josephus for messianic hopes among Judeans at the time of the 66-70 CE war with Rome. Messianic hopes are placed in Bar Kochba seventy years later with another rebellion against Rome. We know from the Mount of Olives prophecy (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21) that the synoptic gospels were written to address the turmoil immediately preceding and following destruction of Judea’s political and religious centres. We know that the evangelists responsible for the gospels created scenarios to demonstrate theological points both about and through Jesus. We also know that crowds are concocted to appear and disappear whenever an evangelist needs them for a narrative function, quite without regard for narrative plausibility.
The gospel narratives require a popular response to a fantastic hero, who can perform all sorts of wonderful miracles, that falls short of recognizing him as a messiah. We have no more justification for assuming the scriptural citations used by Carrier reflect historical plausibility or reality than we do for gospel narratives of the Massacre of the Innocents or bumping into critical Pharisees while nibbling grain in a cornfield or that the Temple in Jerusalem was as small as a small pagan temple so that a single man could to stop all traffic as per Mark 11 or that in the early first century CE steep cliffs were found where they are no longer present (e.g. Nazareth has no steep cliff from which Jesus could have been thrown as per Luke 4 and Gardara is miles from the lake of Galilee and there are no cliffs on the lake’s shore from which pigs could have hurtled themselves as per the exorcism of Legion.)
3. Evidence of the so-called “false messiahs” in Josephus
The only surviving historian of early-first-century Palestine confirms this picture. Josephus records the rise and popularity of several false messiahs in the same general period as Christianity was getting started. He does not explicitly call them messiahs – he probably wanted to avoid reminding his Gentile audience that this was the product of Jewish ideology, and instead claimed it was the product of fringe criminals and ruffians (he likewise catalogues various other rebel bandits and demagogues as well). But the descriptions he provides belie the truth of the matter. As David Rhoads put it, ‘Josephus tends to avoid messianism when he relates the history of the first century’; in fact he deliberately ‘suppressed the religious motivations of the revolutionaries by ascribing [to them] evil and dishonorable intentions’ instead. But their messianic basis remains unmistakable. Scholarly analysis confirms this.22
(Carrier 2014, pp. 68-69)
A careful reading of the sources suggest the opposite picture to the conventional assumptions expressed here by Carrier. To begin, let’s examine the footnoted citations.
Carrier cites Rhoads as quoted by Mendels in Charlesworth’s The Messiah Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity:
22. See D. Mendels, ‘Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities, the ‘Fourth Philosophy’, and the Political Messianism of the First Century CE’, in The Messiah (ed. Charlesworth), pp. 261-75 (quote from Rhoads: p. 261 n . 4)
Consulting Mendels’ chapter one learns that in fact Rhoads argues the contrary to Carrier’s main point: the rebel groups in question did not have messianic expectations:
Two major trends can be discerned in the scholarship of the last fifty years concerning so-called messianic groups in Palestine in the first Century C.E. up to 70. One view . . . put forward by L. I. Levine, D. M. Rhoads, and others, is that all the groups terrorizing the Romans acted separately and that few, if any, had a messianic ideology.
(Mendels 1992, p. 261)
Other viewpoints covered by Mendels in his chapter specifically refer to rebels that operated outside the time-frame of Jesus. For most part they are talking about the Zealots and Sicarii who were active during and immediately preceding the war with Rome towards the end of the first century CE. The one exception is a rebel bandit, Athronges, who took advantage of the death of Herod in 4 BCE and had himself crowned a king. For details see the earlier post, Popular Messianic(?) and Bandit Movements Up To The Time Of Jesus and Beyond – Part 2. Mendels, it so happens, supports the argument I made there that we have no reason of any kind to think that anyone viewed Athronges as a messianic figure. Josephus is very clear that Athronges was only interested in wearing a crown, not in being “anointed” in any special sense, and assertions to the contrary are entirely arguments from silence.
Josephus probably used kingship terminology in a regular hellenistic manner rather than a “messianic” one). In fact, scholars pointing to Josephus’ “silence” draw this conclusion e silentio. (p. 262)
And again in the same chapter:
In some recently published papers, R. A. Horsley argues that the pseudo-kings who emerged after Herod’s death (as well as the later ones) were eventually looked upon as messianic figures. These charlatans may have been associated with the revival of ideas connected with popular kingship found in the Bible; however, we have too little evidence to ascertain whether the obscure pretenders of c. 4 B.C.E. had any messianic visions. They may simply have been pretenders to kingship, so commonly found in the hellenistic world (like Pseudo-Philip, Eunus, and others28). Athronges and Simeon seemed to be eager to imitate Herod the Great, who had no messianic ambitions.29 Moreover, there is no evidence in the surviving sources of a revival of any popular ideology of kingship. Even if the adherents of the pretenders did refer back to the Bible, Horsley has not proved any of the links that may have existed between the pretenders he mentions and this particular ideology. Also, the terminology denoting kingship which many scholars detect in Josephus relating to the pretenders (including Menachem, Simeon Bar Giora, and John of Gischala) is also common in cases where no messianism is involved (Pseudo-Alexander, Archelaus, and others; viz. War 2.26-27; Ant 17.202, 232, 269-84, 324-38).
. . .
28. Josephus does not use descriptions which would associate these pretenders with messianic figures. But even if he would have, this does not mean that they were messianic figures. We can illustrate that easily from Polybius’ description of Pseudo-Philip (36.10.1-2: “As for the false Philip, at first the story seemed utterly inadmissible. Here is a Philip fallen from the skies who appears in Macedonia, making light not only of the Macedonians but of the Romans too. . . .”). and from Diodorus Siculus, when he referred to Eunus (34/3.2.5-16: “There was a certain Syrian slave, belonging to Antigenes of Enna; he was an Apamean by birth and had an aptitude for magic and the working of wonders. He claimed to foretell the future, by divine command, through dreams, . . . he not only gave oracles by means of dreams, but even made a pretence of having waking visions of the gods. . . . Prior to his revolt he used to say that the Syrian goddess appeared to him, saying that he should be king. . . . Thereupon Eunus was chosen king. . . .”). If the latter passages would have appeared in Josephus, we would no doubt have attributed messianic traits to figures who were not messiahs.
29. The Jews did not understand messianism in this way (pace A. Shalit, King Herod [Jerusalem, 1964], pp, 270-73 [Hebrew])
(Mendels 1992, 267-268)
But of whom was Rhoads thinking when he wrote that Josephus
‘tends to avoid messianism when he relates the history of the first century’; in fact he deliberately ‘suppressed the religious motivations of the revolutionaries by ascribing [to them] evil and dishonorable intentions’?
According to Horsley (Bandits, pp. 229 and 243) Rhoads was referring to the Zealots who located themselves in the Jerusalem Temple. This was during the war in the latter half of the first century CE.
Therefore, with respect to Carrier’s remarks linked to footnote 22, it is not the case that the “messianic basis” for any rebel activity prior to the latter half of the first century “remains unmistakable” or that “scholarly analysis confirms this”. Once again, a careful reading of the sources he cites demonstrates the contrary view, that we have no evidence for a “rash of messianism” in the early first century CE.
4. Evidence of the Samaritan, Theudas, the Egyptian and Anonymous
Josephus recounts at least four messianic figures of the early first century, and documents how enormously popular they were, compelling the Romans to mass military action to suppress them.23
. . . .
23. Which may have been a key to Christianity’s success: by avoiding mass territorial action (and focusing instead on spiritual combat), they avoided armed conflict and thus survived by gaining more converts over a wider area than were lost to sporadic persecutions. . . . A non-existent messiah (whose lordship and victory were known only spiritually and thus never a worldly militaristic threat) would thus have an enormous competitive advantage at these earliest stages (see Elements 23-28).
I wholeheartedly agree with Carrier’s explanation in #23 for the success of Christianity. Messianism was indeed a topic of interest to the authors of our canonical gospels. But the evidence as I understand it points to those messianic hopes emerging at the time when Rome’s military might was threatening to destroy Judea or had recently done so.
The evidence for the four messianic figures Carrier speaks about is ambiguous at best, but even so, it places them later than the “early first century CE”. And ambiguity is not sufficient to carry the day given the absence of evidence in other places we would expect it, as we have seen in the earlier discussion of the literature of the time.
1. The Samaritan
Yes, in 36 CE a Samaritan promised to show his followers sacred treasure hidden by Moses on Mount Gerizim, so Josephus informs us. Pilate cut them to shreds before they could begin their ascent.
Helmut Koester, a notable New Testament scholar, like Carrier and so many others, assumed that early first century Jewish peoples were all eagerly awaiting the messiah and that their neighborly rivals were doing likewise. Here is what a specialist in messianism and the texts of the era writes of Koester’s assumption:
The most recent and erudite Introduction to the New Testament is by Professor Helmut Koester. Frequently he seems to assume the myth that Jews expected a Messiah and knew what functions he would perform. In describing the beliefs of the Samaritans, he states “that just like the Jews the Samaritans expected the coming of the Messiah.”8 No discussion is focused on the problem of dating the Samaritan ideas,9 and no proof is offered to support the claim that “Jews expected the coming of a Messiah.”
. . . .
8. H. Koester, Introduction to the New Testament (Hermeneia; Philadelphia, Berlin, 1982),
vol. 1, p. 249.
(Charlesworth 1992, p. 5 — This is the same Charlesworth we quoted in the previous post.)
Similarly from J. D. G. Dunn in the same volume:
Theudas and the Egyptian saw themselves both as “prophet” and as successor to Moses (dividing Jordan, and causing city walls to fall down) . . . Samaritan expectation focused particularly on a prophet figure, but our evidence does not enable us to reach a firm conclusion on whether such a hope was already entertained at the time of Jesus.’
(Dunn 1992, p. 368)
We have surely seen enough by now to realize that we would be wise to exercise caution before leaping into yet another Josephan narrative on the assumption that he is talking about messianic hopes and we know this because he had his reasons for avoiding any mention of messianic hopes in these incidents! We have seen that Josephus saw himself as a prophet and that he derided those he deemed to be false prophets; it is superfluous to introduce unfounded assumptions that he was cryptically talking about messianism.
2 & 3. Theudas & The Egyptian
These figures belong to the 40s and 50s CE, not to the time of Jesus. However, there may be some grounds from which Carrier can salvage his argument in at least a diluted form.
John Collins acknowledges their prophetic claims but also believes that as prophetic figures they can also be classified as messianic persons (Collins 1995, pp. 215f).
Jewish expectations around the turn of the era were not for a generic “messiah,” but for a royal messiah who would be the branch of David, or a priestly messiah or Aaron, or a prophet like Moses. While some permutations and combinations were possible, a prophetic figure does not become a king or a priest by virtue of being a “messiah,” nor does a royal messiah automatically become a priest or prophet. There were different messianic paradigms, not one composite concept of Messiah.
We have seen that the literature produced by the scribes ought not be assumed to reflect the views and moods of the larger population. Collins gets around this this difficulty, however by arguing that the Scriptures were part of the oral culture of the masses, and that therefore messianic hopes could indeed be found among them.
We have seen repeatedly that messianic hopes were rooted in the Scriptures, and the content of these Scriptures was part of the oral culture as well as the scribal culture of ancient Judaism. . . .
The influence of scriptural paradigms is most clearly evident in a number of prophetic figures [Theudas, the Egyptian, the Samaritan and others less well known] who appear in the first century CE. . . .
What is of interest for our present purpose is the intersection of scriptural paradigm and political action.12 In addition to the biblical paradigms of parting the Jordan and causing walls to fall down, it should be noted that these prophets typically led their followers into the wilderness. This might be under stood as a guerrilla tactic, but in the case of the prophets it is better under stood as a reenactment of the Exodus.13 In each case there were immediate social and historical circumstances that led to the agitation, but, at least in the cases of Theudas and the Egyptian, Scripture provided the model for the action. The pattern of prophecy and fulfillment was not merely a scribal exercise among the literate few. It had a direct impact on Jewish history in the Roman period.
(Collins 2010, pp. 215-216)
To my mind Collins’ argument leans towards a “possibly therefore probably” style of thinking. Rebecca Gray, on the other hand, argues that messianic associations ought to be confined to royal pretenders (Gray, 1993, p. 136).
Movements led by prophetic figures of this sort should be distinguished from other types of popular movements known to us from this period [which, note, is from the middle of the first century CE, after the time of Jesus], particularly from those led by figures who claimed to be kings. The distinction between these two quite different types of movements is blurred when the sign prophets are described as “messianic prophets,” as they often are. The term “messianic” is better reserved for those individuals who claimed to be kings or were acclaimed as kings by their followers. Josephus mentions three such individuals from the period immediately following the death of Herod the Great in 4 B.C.E. and two more from the period of the revolt.80
. . . .
80. At the time of the death of Herod: Judas, Simon, and Anthronges (War 2.55-65; Ant. 17.269-85); during the revolt: Menahem the Sicarius (War 2.433-48) and Simon son of Gioras. On these figures, see Horsley, “Popular Messianic Movements” and “Menahem in Jerusalem.”
(Gray 1993, p. 136)
We will see below that there is evidence grounded in Josephus’s writings that gives us good reasons for believing that Josephus saw these figures as false prophets rather than false messiahs.
But even if we do follow Collins here then Carrier’s portrayal of a “rash of messianism” that targeted the “early first century CE” as the predicted date for the appearance of the messiah must be set aside. Messianic expectations involving date-setting from the Book of Daniel requires a royal messiah, a king to overthrow Rome. A prophetic messiah who calls for reformed lives does not really cut the cake.
I repeat here R. A. Horsley’s comments that I posted earlier:
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.”9 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.”
On the basis of Josephus’ general descriptions of several such movements along with his accounts of Theudas, the “Egyptian,” and a Samaritan prophet, we are justified in discerning here a distinctive type of prophet and prophetic movement. That is, these prophets, while also messengers of God, do not simply announce the will of God but (a) lead actions of deliverance (b) involving “revolutionary changes” (c) in accord with God’s “design” and (d) corresponding to one of the great historical formative acts of deliverance led by Moses or Joshua.
(Horsley 1992, p. 282)
And N. A. Dahl
As the first successor of Moses, Joshua is depicted as a charismatic leader and prophet, the shepherd of the congregation (Num 27:15-23). As such, he was a model, not for the Messiah but for Theudas, the Egyptian prophet, and possibly for others who gathered a crowd around themselves in the expectation that God would intervene in such a way that a miraculous crossing of Jordan or the fall of the walls of Jerusalem would inaugurate redemption.
(Dahl 1992, p. 401)
And Robert Karl Gnuse,
Josephus uses prophetic terminology in the description of himself and even the false prophets and marginal figures, and this implies his belief in the continued existence of prophetic activity. Personages such as Theudas (Ant 20.97— 99), the Egyptian (War 2.261—263 = Ant 20.169—172), Jonathan (War 7.437-450 = Life 424-425), and other false prophets are clearly described in prophetic terms and not as political messianic figures. Likewise, positive portrayals are given of the prophetic abilities of Onias (Ant 14.22-24), the Pharisees, Pollion and Samaias (Ant 14.172- 176, 15.3-4, 370), and Jesus son of Ananias (War 6.300-309).
(Gnuse 1996, p. 22)
4. Unnamed Imposter
Carrier argues as follows:
Another (unnamed) ‘impostor’ mentioned by Josephus (‘impostor’ being obvious code for ‘false messiah’-who else would he be pretending to be?) gathered followers and promised them salvation if they followed him into the wilderness – an obvious reference to Moses, and, as Craig Evans shows, this ‘impostor’ created symbolic allusions to the temptation narrative in Exodus, promising rest in the wilderness and deliverance from evil. So just as those who tempted God in the wilderness lost their God-promised rest, those who ritually reversed this behavior could expect to see the restoration of God’s promise. 24 The messianic intentions are evident here.
(Carrier 2014, p. 70)
Rhetorical questions are not arguments. As Daniel Dennett pointed out in another context, they paper over cracks in the argument. Rafael Rodriguez recently criticized Bart Ehrman’s use of rhetorical questions in place of genuine argument. The most obvious answer to the question is the one that is guided by an analysis of what Josephus has to say about himself and others as prophetic figures, contrasting the true and false prophets. To demonstrate the point I quote a few more words from Gnuse:
[Josephus] draws parallels between the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and again in A.D. 70, for he was the prophet of the latter era, as Jeremiah and Ezekiel had been for the former era.
Josephus’ prophetic role as historian merits special attention. . . .
The bold way in which Josephus handles the prophetic material in the biblical material may reflect his self-perception as an inspired historian. For he creatively reformulates prophetic texts and demonstrates a degree of authority over them. . . .
Most significant are the ways in which Josephus portrays past prophetic figures in relationship to himself. His additions to the accounts of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel show interesting similarities to his own life’s experiences. Josephus uses typology to tell his stories, and he projects much into the biblical accounts to demonstrate his parallel experiences as a prophet.
In his speech before the walls of Jerusalem Josephus compares himself directly to Jeremiah (War 5.391-393). . . .
(Gnuse 1996, pp. 26-27)
If we work with the evidence Josephus writes down for us we have a very clear reference point from which to interpret Theudas and the Egyptian. They were false prophets who led their people to doom.
The messianic intentions Carrier declares are not at all evident as a review of the above and previous quotations from the specialist scholars shows. At best there is ambiguity. Certainly not certainty. And that ambiguity only arises after we needlessly introduce unfounded and unnecessary assumptions from our own habits of thought into Josephus’s text.
To be continued.
Carrier, Richard. 2014. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.
Charlesworth, James H. 2009. “Introduction.” In The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity, edited by James H. Charlesworth, 3-35. Minneapolis; Fortress Press.
Collins, J.J., 2010. The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2 ed. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich.
Dahl, N.A. 2009. “Messianic Ideas and the Crucifixion of Jesus.” In The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity, edited by James H. Charlesworth, 382-403. Minneapolis; Fortress Press.
Dunn, J.D.G. 2009. “Messianic Ideas and Their Influence on the Jesus of History.” In The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity, edited by James H. Charlesworth, 365-381. Minneapolis; Fortress Press.
Gnuse, Robert Karl. 1996. Dreams and Dream Reports in the Writings of Josephus: A Traditio-Historical Analysis. Arbeiten Zur Geschichte Des Antiken Judentums Und Des Urchristentums 36. Brill.
Gray, R., 1993. Prophetic Figures in Late Second Temple Jewish Palestine: The Evidence from Josephus. Oxford University Press, New York.
Horsley, R.A.H. 2009. “‘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.
Horsley, Richard A., and John S. Hanson. 1988. Bandits Prophets and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus. San Francisco: Winston Press.
Lendering, Jona. 2016. “Messianic Claimants (03) Athronges.” Accessed July 29. http://www.livius.org/men-mh/messiah/messianic_claimants03.html.
Mendels, D. 2009. “Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities, the ‘Fourth Philosophy,’ and the Political Messianism of the First Century C.E.” In The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity, edited by James H. Charlesworth, 261-275. Minneapolis; Fortress Press.