2016-07-30

How Do You Spot a Messiah? — Myth of Jewish Messianic Expectations continued

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

Martin Goodman

Martin Goodman

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.

Goodman’s conclusion

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.


 

 

35 Comments

  • John MacDonald
    2016-07-30 14:56:59 UTC - 14:56 | Permalink

    Carrier says that:

    “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 . . . ”

    Jesus clearly fits this definition of messiah in the New Testament because he is portrayed as the agent who realizes God’s plan for humanity by paying the sin debt for humanity and, through atonement, erasing the separation gulf between God and man reconciling man to God (and thus bringing about the end of days).

    Perhaps Jesus did view his own death as atoning and hence paying the sin debt and removing the chasm between God and man by reconciling man to God, and hence initiating the end of the age and the onset of the general resurrection. Hence, Jesus’ apocalyptic proclamations may have been the direct result of his view that his own “first fruits” death, through atonement, would reconcile man to God and initiate the end of days.

    • Paxton Marshall
      2016-07-30 17:07:35 UTC - 17:07 | Permalink

      Perhaps, but is there any evidence that Jesus thought he was dying for our sins?

      • John MacDonald
        2016-07-30 17:51:20 UTC - 17:51 | Permalink

        The terrified prayer by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (“take this cup from me”) suggests Jesus knew it was God’s plan for him to die, so it would be reasonable to assume atonement would be the reason for this (why else would God need Jesus to die?). And atonement was associated with Jesus’ death at least as early as the pre Pauline Corinthian creed: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” The reference to “scriptures” implies some Jews of that time felt atonement was prophesized in scriptures.

        • John MacDonald
          2016-07-30 18:25:15 UTC - 18:25 | Permalink

          I would guess that the scripture they thought prophesized atonement was Isaiah 53.

        • Matt Cavanaugh
          2016-07-31 19:55:29 UTC - 19:55 | Permalink

          Unless Jesus hired a stenographer while his apostles slept, his Gethsemane prayer went unheard; thus must be fictionalized.

          • John MacDonald
            2016-08-01 16:29:00 UTC - 16:29 | Permalink

            Just because Jesus was alone in the prayer doesn’t mean Jesus didn’t tell the disciples about it after the fact. The Gethsemane Prayer is a window into what Mark thought of the role of Jesus.

            • Neil Godfrey
              2016-08-01 16:48:39 UTC - 16:48 | Permalink

              The only opportunity Jesus had to tell them afterwards what he said in his prayer and how often and long he prayed and in what position was when he was resurrected.

              • John MacDonald
                2016-08-01 17:47:23 UTC - 17:47 | Permalink

                It is still a window into what Mark thought and wanted to convey about Jesus.

                And there were plenty of opportunities for Jesus to tell one or many disciples about the prayer. The fact that Mark doesn’t record it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

              • Neil Godfrey
                2016-08-01 20:01:23 UTC - 20:01 | Permalink

                These posts are about critical and valid approaches to historical inquiry. Apologetics, and assuming resurrections could be real, and even treating gospel narratives as if they could be true historical records without any supporting evidence, and saying that just because we have no evidence doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happened, — these are all the sorts of things this blog stands against.

              • John MacDonald
                2016-08-01 20:10:30 UTC - 20:10 | Permalink

                @ Neil. I no where say I think miracles or the resurrection are true. I’m an atheist.

              • Paxton Marshall
                2016-08-01 21:12:58 UTC - 21:12 | Permalink

                So you think Jesus thought he was God and was going to die to save people from their sins, but he was deluded?

              • Neil Godfrey
                2016-08-01 20:17:44 UTC - 20:17 | Permalink

                Then I do not understand why you say Jesus had opportunity to tell his disciples about his prayer. But even if you don’t believe in resurrections then it appears you still don’t accept valid methods of critical inquiry.

              • John MacDonald
                2016-08-01 20:29:12 UTC - 20:29 | Permalink

                @ Neil: restricting what we may say Jesus did or did not say or do to what we find explicitly mentioned in the gospels or epistles reflects your own idiosyncratic method, not critical inquiry. Jesus was still with, and conversing with the disciples after his prayer, so he could have told them about it. In fact, this prayer was about something that deeply troubled Jesus (that something horrible was about to happen to him that was part of God’s plan – and that Jesus was petitioning against it), so maybe the disciples already knew about it and suggested to Jesus to pray to God about.

                I guess Jesus never had a bowel movement, since that is never mentioned in the gospels or epistles.

                And the desperate prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane rings true. What theological purpose would be served by inventing a tale of Jesus as terrified, and begging God to be released from God’s plan?

              • Neil Godfrey
                2016-08-01 21:45:54 UTC - 21:45 | Permalink

                Instead of dismissing my method as “idiosyncratic” I ask you to explain in what way it varies from normative historical methods. I mean historical methods, not the methods of theologians who confuse history with theology, as you yourself are doing, in the same tradition as was even spelled out by Dennis Nineham (I have posted about his thoughts here, too.) But first of all I request you outline what you believe my method to be, exactly.

                I have addressed your points quite a few times on this blog. I had thought as a regular commenter you would have read some of those posts so I am surprised you ask such questions again now.

                And how you can call my allowing you to post your ideas is a form of restricting what you are allowed to say is beyond me. Do you always interpret any criticism of your ideas as censorship?

              • John MacDonald
                2016-08-01 22:19:29 UTC - 22:19 | Permalink

                @ Neil: I’m starting to understand why Dr. McGrath repeatedly banned you from his blog. You have an exceedingly high opinion of yourself (without any relevant credentials), and yet you don’t know how to assess whether arguments are strong or not. I don’t see any reason for me to continue blogging here. Bye.

              • Neil Godfrey
                2016-08-01 22:31:44 UTC - 22:31 | Permalink

                Well you accuse me of restricting your views when I allow you to post here but critically engage with your views, and when I ask you to justify your criticisms of me you ban yourself???? Yup, just like McGrath!

              • Neil Godfrey
                2016-08-01 23:19:09 UTC - 23:19 | Permalink

                I’ve been trying to understand your reaction. Yes, I do have some level of confidence in my knowledge of historical methods and practices outside the field of biblical studies, and yes, I have come to learn how biblical scholars do what they call history. And I have also learned that quite a few biblical scholars do not understand the fundamentals of normative historical methods outside their specialist areas, and that their methods really are logically flawed.

                If you consider that to mean I have “a high opinion of myself even though I don’t have qualifications” and at the same time you appear unwilling to engage with my criticisms and arguments, then I fear that it does appear to me that, like some biblical scholars, you yourself are demonstrating an anti-intellectual mind-set.

                Is it easier to attack the character of others than truly take stock of one’s own views and the methods of those one likes for fear that they may be found invalid?

              • Paxton Marshall
                2016-08-02 02:06:55 UTC - 02:06 | Permalink

                John, you’ve been very rude. Whether you agree with Neil or not, he has presented a thoughtful analysis of a question too many people have taken as a given: was there really a widespread expectation of a messiah among the Jews during the time of Jesus (assuming there really was a time of Jesus, or a Jesus at all). Your contribution was interesting as well, but there was no call for rudeness.

            • John MacDonald
              2016-08-01 21:26:43 UTC - 21:26 | Permalink

              @Paxton Marshall:

              I tried to argue something like that, but I think it makes more sense to say the “atoning” business was later added as an interpretation of Jesus’ death, not something Jesus himself thought of his own death. I don’t think Jesus, or even Mark or Paul, thought Jesus was a God I wrote:

              (1). There is good reason to think that atonement was only associated with Jesus’ death after the fact.

              What seems clear from the text of Mark and the desperate prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is that Jesus believed it was God’s plan for Jesus to endure something terrible (perhaps death), and that Jesus petitioned God to change God’s plan. The other point is that “atonement” was associated with Jesus’ death from “at least” a very early point after the fact of Jesus death (by the author of the pre-Pauline Corinthian Creed, who felt atonement was prophesied in scriptures).

              I think what might have happened is that Jesus died, and the disciples returned home to return to the business of their daily lives (they probably would have gathered at the tomb if they thought Jesus was going to be raised), and then a few started having visions (or hallucinations) of the risen Jesus, and they took this to mean that Jesus was the “first fruits (1 Corinthians 15:23)” of the resurrected souls at the end of days. After this, the disciples must have searched scriptures to discover why Jesus’ death would have brought about the end of days, and “discovered” that Jesus’ death must have reconciled man to God through atonement by overcoming the sin debt and hence bringing about the end of days. But this would have been a later interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ death after Jesus died.

              (2) And it makes little sense to think that Jesus thought his death was to be atoning if he desperately questioned God from the cross for abandoning him, and called out for Elijah to come and save him:

              Mark 15:34-38King James Version (KJV)

              34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? 35 And some of them that stood by, when they heard it, said, Behold, he calls Elias. 36 And one ran and filled a sponge full of vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink, saying, Let alone; let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.

              (3) Mark having Jesus identify himself as a fallible human prophet who can’t do miracles in his home town, suggests that Mark didn’t think Jesus was a God:

              4Then Jesus told them, “A prophet is without honor only in his hometown, among his relatives, and in his own household.” 5So He could not perform any miracles there, except to lay His hands on a few of the sick and heal them (Mark 6:5).

              The term Ehrman focuses on to argue Paul thought of Jesus as the Great Angel, as McGrath pointed out to him, just means “messenger,” so there is no reason to think Paul viewed Jesus as a God.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-07-30 20:19:09 UTC - 20:19 | Permalink

      I am not sure I am following, sorry. There is no question about Jesus being worshiped as a Christ or Messiah figure. Recall my series on Novenson: http://vridar.org/category/book-reviews-notes/novenson-christ-among-messiahs/ ; also on Levenson: http://vridar.org/category/book-reviews-notes/levenson-death-res-belov/

      The question being addressed is the socio-political and religious context in which Christianity emerged. I am arguing that there is no evidence that Christianity was one of many cults or movements that were keenly expecting a messiah to arrive soon.

      Christianity appears to have been spawned by revelations, both in visions and directly through a particular interpretation of the Scriptures.

      And notice within Paul’s letters and the Gospel of John that many early Christians believed that Jesus “had come” already, and was not a figure to be suddenly arriving in the future. Even the prophecy put in the mouth of Jesus about his future coming (Mark 13, Matt 24) may well have been considered fulfilled at the time those gospels were written. The authors were using the symbolic language known to the authors of similar writings in Isaiah, Daniel, etc where such language of cosmic catastrophe was clearly symbolic of political change on earth, and not to be understood literally.

      • John MacDonald
        2016-07-30 21:06:21 UTC - 21:06 | Permalink

        I was trying to argue that the reason Jesus was understood as a “messiah” was because it was believed that his atoning death erased the chasm between God and man, reconciling man to God, and hence bringing about the end of days where Jesus was the “first fruits (1 Corinthians 15:23)” of the general resurrection of souls. Just as a traditional messiah was to set up a society according to God’s plan, Jesus the messiah realized God’s plan in the world of overcoming sin through atonement which some Jews must have thought was prophesized in Isaiah 53 (“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES, 1 Cor 15:3-4). Thus there must have been some messianic Jews who thought the victory of God’s plan was to be realized by reconciling man to God, not a military victory (which would have been impossible given the might of the Romans).

        • John MacDonald
          2016-07-30 21:23:21 UTC - 21:23 | Permalink

          Paul thought Jesus’ death/resurrection meant the end of the world was at hand, which is why Paul called the resurrected Jesus the “first fruits” of the general resurrection of souls.

          • John MacDonald
            2016-07-30 21:35:58 UTC - 21:35 | Permalink

            Ehrman says “I think it is usually assumed that the combination of ‘it will be in our lifetimes’ and the injunctions ‘be alert’ ‘be ready’ ‘be awake’ suggest that the end was indeed imminent.”

          • Neil Godfrey
            2016-07-30 21:58:34 UTC - 21:58 | Permalink

            I don’t want to comment at this stage on phrases like “end times” or “end of the world” because it’s a topic I’m still exploring. There are difficulties with the English meanings and implications of those words and what was originally understood by the authors who wrote what we have translated that way. I do know enough to be able to say that in several contexts “last days” etc could mean a very extended, even indefinite time period, and not the physical end of the world.

            Yes, there is much evidence for a wide variety of messianic concepts, including spiritual ones.

            • John MacDonald
              2016-07-30 23:09:52 UTC - 23:09 | Permalink

              It would be odd for Paul to call Christ the “first fruits” of the resurrection harvest if the rest of the harvest wasn’t to happen until thousands of years later. It suggests immediacy to me.

              • Neil Godfrey
                2016-07-30 23:20:16 UTC - 23:20 | Permalink

                Why the thousand years? Immediacy, perhaps, but why the cosmic end of the physical world? What Paul taught (and what is in the original letters as opposed to their canonical versions today) is not so clear cut. There were Christians who believed the end had come and they were living in the last days — however long or indefinitely that period was to be, even through generations. God’s kingdom had come now, they were saved now. Compare the apocalyptic language of Daniel. The Son of Man setting up a kingdom to replace the worldly ones was symbolic of the Maccabees gaining independence. It’s not so clear cut. As I said, I need to do more reading before advancing any certainty on any of it.

              • John MacDonald
                2016-08-01 17:10:19 UTC - 17:10 | Permalink

                On the other hand, there is good reason to think that atonement was only associated with Jesus’ death after the fact.

                What seems clear from the text of Mark and the desperate prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is that Jesus believed it was God’s plan for Jesus to endure something terrible (perhaps death), and that Jesus petitioned God to change God’s plan. The other point is that “atonement” was associated with Jesus’ death from “at least” a very early point after the fact of Jesus death (by the author of the pre-Pauline Corinthian Creed, who felt atonement was prophesied in scriptures).

                I think what might have happened is that Jesus died, and the disciples returned home to return to the business of their daily lives (they probably would have gathered at the tomb if they thought Jesus was going to be raised), and then a few started having visions (or hallucinations) of the risen Jesus, and they took this to mean that Jesus was the “first fruits (1 Corinthians 15:23)” of the resurrected souls at the end of days. After this, the disciples must have searched scriptures to discover why Jesus’ death would have brought about the end of days, and “discovered” that Jesus’ death must have reconciled man to God through atonement by overcoming the sin debt and hence bringing about the end of days. But this would have been a later interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ death after Jesus died.

              • John MacDonald
                2016-08-01 17:18:25 UTC - 17:18 | Permalink

                And it makes little sense to think that Jesus thought his death was to be atoning if he desperately questioned God from the cross for abandoning him, and called out for Elijah to come and save him:

                Mark 15:34-38King James Version (KJV)

                34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? 35 And some of them that stood by, when they heard it, said, Behold, he calls Elias. 36 And one ran and filled a sponge full of vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink, saying, Let alone; let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.

  • Paxton Marshall
    2016-07-30 17:01:52 UTC - 17:01 | Permalink

    This is all fascinating. Xcellent sleuthing. Oracles were important for the Romans, and presumably throughout the Mediterranean world. Anyone making any claim to a special status would have wanted to point to oracles announcing it.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-07-30 20:07:50 UTC - 20:07 | Permalink

      Yes, Vespasian was not from the traditional ruling class, the patricians. He was from a lower order of society, the equestrians, and from Spain, not Rome. He came to power as a consequence of assassinations and military conflicts and needed to promote his (and his family’s) legitimacy to rule.

      • Bob de Jong
        2016-08-03 15:52:54 UTC - 15:52 | Permalink

        I would agree that Vespasian was not from the highest ruling class (the patricians). But he was probably not born in Spain; Suetonius (The Lives of the Caesars) says that “Vespasian was born in the Sabine country, in a small village beyond Reate, called Falacrina”.

        Perhaps you are confounding Vespasian with Trajan, who was (also) not a patrician, and who indeed was born in Spain? Trajan legitimised his claim to be a ruler by having himself adopted by a patrician.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2016-08-03 19:43:27 UTC - 19:43 | Permalink

          Thanks for the correction.

  • Michael Macrossan
    2016-07-31 02:41:15 UTC - 02:41 | Permalink

    You say Carrier ignores his own criterion “(a) anointed by the Hebrew God ..”

    I can’t see how anyone could satisfy that criteria, if the Hebrew God doesn’t exist. And, if the Hebrew God does exist, how would Carrier or anyone know that God had anointed anyone? Do you and he mean “claims to be anointed by the Hebrew God”?

  • 2016-07-31 12:48:06 UTC - 12:48 | Permalink

    I have hand problems, so I can’t type too much, so I won’t give exact quotes from the Bible, but the Hebrew Bible does mention a future king of Israel who is descended from David a few times, even if it does not say “Messiah.” Just because people didn’t write obsessively about the future king of Israel does not mean they didn’t wait for one. Also, they expected this future king of Israel to build the Temple based on quotes in Zechariah and Ezekiel, but the Temple was still standing when Christianity began, so in those days, it was unlikely that Jewish people thought the future king of Israel would show up, I assume.

    I think scholars want proof of everything, and they decide what the proof should be. If Jewish people expected a future king of Israel from David, then they should have done so and so, but they didn’t do that, so they didn’t expect one. How do they know what they should have done? Maybe they expected one, but not at that time. Maybe they didn’t want to follow false messiahs or start messianic movements, but they followed mainstream Hebrew Bible beliefs that there would be a future king of Israel, and they were waiting. Sometimes, I think scholars are like computers that are full of information and rules for everything, but they don’t allow for anything that doesn’t follow their programming.

    Kenneth Greifer

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-07-31 19:12:39 UTC - 19:12 | Permalink

      I think I understand where you are coming from, Kenneth. My experience with scholarship is not that they demand iron-clad proof for everything, but they do attempt to test how we know what we think we know, and to see where the actual evidence points. Humanity has a long history of believing things that have turned out not to be so.

      It is all too easy for people to believe things because others (e.g. churches, priests, politicians, business heads) want them to believe them for their own interests. So what we believe does need to be tested against the evidence.

      The point for me, is, how do we know that the Jews were expecting a messiah? We are certainly told that they were. We read about it. Everyone seems to accept it. But could we all be mistaken? What is the evidence that they did? If we see a promise for a descendant of David in the scriptures, can we really be sure that Jews in Jesus’ day as a whole knew about this and really expected such a person to appear to free them from the Romans? If we have no evidence for this scenario, then is it wrong to put that idea on hold until evidence does turn up?

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