I continue to examine the arguments mounted in favour of the view that Jewish messianic expectations at the time of the founding of what became Christianity as set out by Richard Carrier.
Even ‘John the Baptist’ (at least as depicted in the Gospels) was a messianic figure (e.g. Jn 1.20; Lk. 3.15), or otherwise telling everyone the messiah would arrive in his lifetime (Mt. 3.1-12; Mk 1.1-8; Lk. 3.1-20; Jn 1.15- 28). And he was enormously popular (the Gospels and Acts claim so, and Josephus confirms it), thus further exemplifying the trend of the time. This messianic Baptist cult may even have influenced or spawned Christianity itself (see Element 33). The cult of Simon Magus might likewise have been promoting its own messiah. Acts certainly depicts Simon Magus as a messianic pretender (Acts 8.9-11), again with enormous popularity, just like the others in Josephus. The historicity of this Simon has been questioned, but the historicity of his worship as a divine being has not.26 If the biblical account of him reflects the truth (of the historical man or the celestial demigod he once was) he would be another example confirming the same trend. (Carrier 2014, p. 71)
Previous posts have alerted us by now to the flaws in appealing to the New Testament for supporting evidence that the NT was itself a product of one of many messianic movements in the early first century CE. Once again we see the proclivity to find messianic underlays in any figure who happens to be popular or speaks of the future, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
Two of the scholars I have quoted in previous posts are Richard Horsley. and Sean Freyne. Their works are included in the volumes that Carrier himself cited as supports by specialists in this field for the common view about messianic expectations. So how does Carrier respond to their views?
Horsley still insists these are not messianic movements, but that assertion depends on an implausibly specific definition of ‘messiah’ (or an excessively irrational denial of obvious inferences): see my discussion of definitions (§3). Similarly in Sean Freyne, ‘The Herodian Period’, in Redemption and Resistance (ed. Bockmuehl and Paget), pp. 29-43: like Horsley, Freyne is only skeptical in respect to an over-restrictive definition of ‘messiah’: whereas given my definition, his evidence completely confirms my conclusion. The same can be said of Martin Goodman, ‘Messianism and Politics in the Land of Israel, 66-135 C.E.’ in Redemption and Resistance (ed. Bockmuehl and Paget), pp. 149-57.
That is, with a little unfortunate muddying of the waters and an appeal to overly-restrictive definitions and obvious inferences. As for inferences, what we have seen in this series so far is that all the evidence for messianic movements has been inferential from data that is anything but obvious. Recall Geza Vermes made the same claim, that “obviously” such and such would have been interpreted in a certain way, but then proceeded to set out four other possible interpretations!
Carrier supplies his own definition of what he means by messiah and to my mind it is no different at all from what Horsley and Freyne themselves accept. The problem is not in an “overly restrictive definition” but in an overly-liberal approach to seeing messiahs in the writings even when no mention of such a figure is present. As we saw, for example, with the rebel Athronges at the time of Herod’s death, we read twice of his interest in wearing a crown but nothing at all about an anointing. An attentive reading of Josephus’s description demonstrates that Athronges is emulating Herod as a king and there are no hints of any messianic pretensions. And so forth for all the other figures, as we have discussed in previous posts.
To be clear, here is Carrier’s definition of messiah:
I shall mean by messiah (the Hebrew word of which ‘Christ’ is a translation) any man in fact, myth, or prophecy who is (a) anointed by the Hebrew God to (b) play a part in God’s plan to liberate his Chosen People from their oppressors and (c) restore or institute God’s true religion. This means ‘anointed’ in any sense then understood (literally, figuratively, cosmically or symbolically), ‘liberate’ in any sense then claimed (physically or spiritually), ‘oppressors’ in any sense then identified (whoever or whatever they may be) and ‘religion’ in the fullest sense (cult, mores, sacred knowledge, and the resulting social order)— and I specify only ‘play a part’, not necessarily bring to fruition. All Jewish kings and high priests were, of course, ‘messiahs’ in the basic sense of being anointed to represent God. But here I shall mean a messiah conforming to (a) through (c). Yet I do not assume there must be only one messiah of that kind. Neither did the Jews . . .
I’ve seen some scholars question or deny that the Jews had any prior notion of a messiah before the advent of Christianity. But such a denial is accomplished only by proposing an implausibly hyper-specific definition of ‘messiah’, then showing no such thing was previously imagined, and concluding ‘the Jews had no prior notion of a messiah’. This is a textbook fallacy of equivocation: start with a term defined one way, then end with the same term defined in a completely different way, often without noticing a switch has been made. To avoid this, I shall stick to my minimal definition, since I am certain anyone meeting criteria (a), (b) and (c) would have been regarded by at least some ancient Jews or Judaizers as a messiah. I attach no other baggage to the term— no particular eschatology or scheme of liberation. Jews of antiquity were clearly quite flexible in all such details, as everyone agrees . . .
(Carrier 2014, pp. 60-61)
I doubt that Horsley, Freyne or Goodman would have any problem with that definition. Forget quibbles over semantics and precise meanings. The problem is that Carrier’s definition itself is thrown to the winds when looking for evidence of popular fervour for the appearance of a messiah as defined by Carrier with the result that the de facto definition becomes “anyone who commands a popular following”. Even if the context and details described point to a quite non-messianic figure (on the basis of Carrier’s definition) it does not matter.
In other words, even though Carrier insists that a messianic figure must be defined by “a through c”, if a figure conforms only to b and/or c then the most essential component, a, the anointing, is assumed to have been present. Of course it is the most essential detail that we should look for first.
Carrier does not name the scholars who “deny that the Jews had any prior notion of a messiah before the advent of Christianity”. Even Carrier concedes that messiahs were common enough in Jewish ontologies as kings and priests; and as I have demonstrated in my previous posts scholars such as Horsley and Freyne, far from denying the Jews any pre-Christian notion of a messiah, do indeed address the references to messiahs in the inter-testamental writings.
Since Carrier introduces another name I did not cover in earlier posts, Martin Goodman, I think this is a good time to quote some of his article that Carrier finds objectionable. The chapter is titled “Messianism and Politics in the Land of Israel, 66-135 C.E.” I did not use it earlier because as we can see it applies to the late first century and early second.
Goodman seeks to answer the question
how many Jews in Judaea shared … beliefs about the imminent arrival of the messiah, and what impact such beliefs had on the political actions which led Judaean Jews into two disastrous wars against Rome, in 66-70 C.E. and 132-5 C.E.
Goodman responds to William Horbury (Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ) as one of the more influential exponents of the idea that
- Jews of Jesus’ day were waiting for a messiah;
- this expectation was so strong that it was a significant factor in leading to the war with Rome;
- and the reasons the evidence for these two beliefs is so scanty are
- the sources have been lost with time
- and Jewish authors (esp Josephus) suppressed the evidence of messianic hopes among their people.
Here are the points Goodman sets out in favour of believing that messianism was a major contributor to the tensions that erupted in the wars of 66-70 and 132-5:
- Historian Josephus who fought on both sides during the first war wrote that the Jews had been led astray by a prophecy many interpreted to mean a world ruler would emerge from Judea;
- The Talmud contains a passage claiming that during the second war Rabbi Akiba claimed the Jewish leader Simon bar Kochba was the messiah;
- The variety of messianic ideas found in the Dead Sea Scrolls shows us that before the first war “many Jews” did speculate on the nature of the messiah and last days;
- We can assume these sorts of speculations continued after the war because it stands to reason that hopes for heavenly deliverance would intensify after defeat.
That “ambiguous oracle” cited by Josephus
War 6:310ff — Notice the context
Now if any one consider these things, he will find that God takes care of mankind, and by all ways possible foreshows to our race what is for their preservation; but that men perish by those miseries which they madly and voluntarily bring upon themselves;
for the Jews, by demolishing the tower of Antonia, had made their temple four-square, while at the same time they had it written in their sacred oracles, “That then should their city be taken, as well as their holy house, when once their temple should become four-square.”
But now, what did the most elevate them in undertaking this war, was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how,” about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.” The Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular, and many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their determination. Now this oracle certainly denoted the government of Vespasian, who was appointed emperor in Judea.
However, it is not possible for men to avoid fate, although they see it beforehand. But these men interpreted some of these signals according to their own pleasure, and some of them they utterly despised, until their madness was demonstrated, both by the taking of their city and their own destruction.
Josephus: War 6.5.4 312-315
But what more than all else incited them to the war was an ambiguous oracle also found in their sacred writings, that:
“At about that time, one from their country would become ruler of the habitable world.”
This they took to mean one of their own people, and many of the wise men were misled in their interpretation. This oracle, however, in reality signified the government of Vespasian, who was proclaimed Emperor while in Judea.
Goodman’s insight into the context of Josephus’s words is worth noting:
Josephus introduced this oracle into his history as a way of reassuring his readers that ‘God cares for men’ and had provided signs to enable his people – the Jews – to escape destruction, so that the calamity which had befallen them was due to their own folly. The first oracle he cites was one which predicted that the city and the sanctuary would be taken when the Temple became four-square; the messianic oracle was the second and, so Josephus wrote, more significant – although the alleged basis of this oracle in the writings of the Jews was left as unclear as that of the warning not to make the Temple square, for which the scriptural warrant is wholly obscure.
The importance of this messianic oracle in Josephus’ view as an encouragement to the rebels is not in doubt, but there are good reasons to suspect exaggeration.
Can we be sure of the origin of the “ambiguous oracle” when it is set beside another which certainly came from none of the sacred writings with which we are familiar today? And those reasons for Josephus having an interest in exaggerating the importance of this oracle are? . . .
The ‘correct’ interpretation of the oracle which he provided in this passage was of immense importance both for Vespasian, as evidence of divine approval of his remarkable seizure of supreme power in the Roman world despite his lowly origins, and for Josephus, whose release from captivity in 69 C.E. was owed directly to his alleged prophetic revelation two years before that Vespasian would become emperor. This prophecy was much used by the Flavian dynasty in its search for respectability in the Roman world. (Goodman 2007, p. 152)
Goodman proceeds to detail the propaganda use the Flavian dynasty made of this prophecy as we learn from the historians Suetonius and Tacitus.
We can identify, therefore, very strong reasons for Josephus wanting to exaggerate the importance of the messianic oracle, but that opens up more difficulties for the view that messianic movements were a significant contributing cause of the war. Goodman explains:
Josephus’ motives for stressing the messianic oracle are thus clear enough, so it is all the more striking that he did not refer to the ‘incorrect’ interpretation of the oracle by the rebels either in his narrative of the events leading up to the outbreak of the revolt or in the conduct of the war itself. Mentions of messianism are so absent from this detailed history that some have even suggested that Josephus tried to disguise the extent of Jewish messianic hopes from his Roman readers, a rather implausible notion in light of the prominence he allotted to the ‘ambiguous oracle’ in the passage just cited. Josephus wrote a great deal about ‘pseudo-prophets’. ‘deceivers’, and would-be kings, but nothing about ‘pseudo-messiahs’.
Such reticence is particularly striking in Josephus’ rather full description of two leaders of rebellion who might quite plausibly have presented themselves as messianic figures: Menahem son of Judas (leader of the sicarii in Jerusalem in 66 C.E.) and Simon bar Gioras (commander-in-chief of the Jewish forces in the last phase of the siege of Jerusalem). (p. 153)
Often we come by suggestions that Menahem saw himself as a messianic figure. To depart from Goodman for a moment here is Jona Lendering’s interpretation on the livius.org site:
There is no need to doubt whether Menahem claimed to be the Messiah. He was a warrior, entered Jerusalem dressed as a king, quarreled with the high priest (who may have entertained some doubts about Menahem’s claim), and worshipped God in the Temple. We can be positive that Menahem wanted to be the sole ruler of a restored Israel. There are no indications that his rule was regarded as the inauguration of the end of times, but this was, of course, not necessary.
But, replies Goodman,
But Josephus, who despised him, accused him only of a naked desire for power, and it is hard to see why he would not have included in his polemic some reference to his messianic delusions if they were believed to have been part of his self-presentation.
Elsewhere in the same volume Sean Freyne remarks
Menahem is another example of the long opposition to Herodian rule and those who were seen as its representatives throughout the first century C.E. (Freyne, 2007, p. 39)
Similarly with Simon bar Gioras. He, too, was described as nothing more or less than a military commander. It was only after the Temple had been destroyed that Josephus suggests he behaved rather bizarrely as if presenting himself with some supernatural aura, being driven by hunger to emerge from hiding in the tunnels dressed in white and purple. All very strange, but Josephus is hardly a reliable guide to his motivation, as Goodman reminds us.
Carrier’s definition of a messiah did not say, rightly, that it applies to anyone who is an effective military commander and/or who aspires to be king.
Between 70 and 130 CE
After the destruction of the temple it was the most natural and practical thing for Jews to want it rebuilt. Priests were out of work. There was nothing eschatological about such a desire.
In other words, there is little evidence that messianic hopes had any impact on politics or society in Judea between the two wars.
Eusebius some centuries informs us with reference to Hegisippus that Roman emperors in this time attempted to wipe out the Davidic line by hunting down anyone with a claim to Davidic kingship. But once again, there is another perspective to be brought to bear:
These stories are unrecorded by any other source and may simply represent an apologetic emphasis on the Davidic status of Jesus, since the persecution was alleged to have affected relations of Jesus in Galilee, but it would not be wholly surprising if the Flavian dynasty which put such store on its ‘correct’ reading of the messianic oracle made a show of demonstrating the ‘incorrectness’ of the readings customary among those Jews who still believed that one of them would rule the world. On the other hand Roman apprehensions in Judaea and Galilee were not apparently acute, since there is little evidence of any drastic clampdown in Judaea in 115-7, when the uprisings in Cyprus and Cyrene were led by individuals, variously named as Lukuas, Andreas and Artemion . . . (pp. 154-5)
William Horbury argues that these leaders were messianic because of
the suddenness of the outbreak, its savagery, the tenacity of the rebels, the destruction of pagan shrines, and the apparent aim of the rebels to return from exile to the holy land.
Goodman is willing to concede the plausibility of Horbury’s conjecture. Yet there is one group Goodman does identify as most emphatically messianic during this period. They were even said to be named “messiah devotees”, or “Christians”!
The Bar Kochba revolt of 132 CE
For this war we have even less evidence than for the war of 66-70 CE. None of the contemporary evidence “unequivocally suggests eschatological fervour”. Documents and coins from the era lead us to understand the revolt was the work of
pious Jews who wished to keep the Sabbath and the festivals and who were devoted above all to the Temple. . .
In contrast to many of those who led uprisings in the first century by portraying themselves as kings, Bar Kosiba proclaimed himself . . . ‘Prince of Israel’, and stressed on the coins also the authority of a certain. . . ‘Eleazer the Priest’, about whom no traditions survive either in the rabbinic or the Christian stories about Bar Kosiba, so that it is tempting to see his function in the regime simply as representative of the priests and the Temple, for whose restoration, it can reasonably be assumed, the rebels believed themselves to be fighting. (p. 156)
Yes, in later Talmudic tradition we read of Rabbi Akiba proclaiming Bar Kochba the messiah. The same anecdote includes a rejoinder by another rabbi, Yohanan b. Torta, mocking Akiba’s claim. Don’t forget, though, that the Talmud was redacted in the fourth century at the earliest. Yet it has been argued that Akiba’s declaration should be traced back to the time of Bar Kochba, and Justin Martyr who wrote in the 140s knew Bar Kochba had been called the “Son of the Star” — a reference to the Book of Numbers prophecy of a Star to shine from Jacob.
It is clear that messianic beliefs permeated Jewish society in this period as they had done throughout late Second Temple times, but uncertainty about the nature of the messianic age may have prevented hopes for a messiah providing the driving force for political action except in the most extreme circumstances and among self-selected groups, such as the Messianists who constituted the early Church. It is prudent to stress the caution of Yohanan b. Torta as much as the enthusiasm of Akiba: ‘Grass will grow between your jaws and still the son of David will not have come.’ (pp. 156-57)
Goodman says that he is being provocatively minimalist in his interpretation of the evidence in order to provide a counterweight to the maximalism of the Horburys. A minimalist perspective is not a bad thing. It’s good to clear away all the clutter of ambiguities and inferences and to take a cold hard look at what the raw data actually looks like.
Carrier, Richard. 2014. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.
Goodman, Martin. 2007. “Messianism and Politics in the Land of Israel, 66-135 C.E.” In Redemption and Resistance: The Messianic Hopes of Jews and Christians in Antiquity, 149-157. New York: T. & T. Clark.