So Easter is here again and everybody is mourning the death of Tammuz and rejoicing in the new life to hatch from digested easter bunny eggs. But let’s be serious and respect the meaning of the season. Let’s talk about messiahs, especially suffering and dying ones.
There’s much to write about but I’ll try to keep to just a few highlights. They have a common theme: the idea of a suffering and dying messiah was not uniquely Christian; it was very much a Jewish idea. Let’s begin with the opening lines of Jack Miles‘ Foreword to a little book by Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ:
“Daniel Boyarin,” a prominent conservative rabbi confided to me not long ago, “is one of the two or three greatest rabbinic scholars in the world,” and — dropping his voice a notch — “possibly even the greatest.” The observation was given in confidence because, quite clearly, it troubled the rabbi to think that someone with Boyarin’s views might have truly learned Talmudic grounds for them. As a Christian, let me confide that his views can be equally troubling for Christians who appreciate the equally grounded originality of his reading of our New Testament. . . . .
His achievement is . . . a bold rereading of the rabbis and the evangelists alike, the results of which are so startling that once you — you, Jew, or you, Christian — get what he is up to, you suddenly read even the most familiar passages of your home scripture in a new light. (p. ix)
Now read what Boyarin has to say about the commonplace idea that Christians reinterpreted Jewish scriptures to find in them their suffering messiah, supposedly an idea highly offensive to Jews. He is discussing that famous Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53 (my own formatting and emphasis):
10Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. 11Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
If these verses do indeed refer to the Messiah, they clearly predict his suffering and death to atone for the sins of humans, but the Jews allegedly always interpreted these verses as referring to the suffering of Israel herself and not the Messiah, who would only triumph. To sum up this generally held view: The theology of the suffering of the Messiah was an after-the-fact apologetic response to explain the suffering and ignominy Jesus suffered, since he was deemed by “Christians” to be the Messiah. Christianity, on this view, was initiated by the fact of the crucifixion, which is seen as setting into motion the new religion. Moreover, many who hold this view hold also that Isaiah 53 was distorted by the Christians from its allegedly original meaning, in which it referred to the suffering of the People of Israel, to explain and account for the shocking fact that the Messiah had been crucified.
This commonplace view has to be rejected
This commonplace view has to be rejected completely. The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent, and it remained current among Jews well into the future following that—indeed, well into the early modern period.4 The fascinating (and to some, no doubt, uncomfortable) fact is that this tradition was well documented by modern Messianic Jews, who are concerned to demonstrate that their belief in Jesus does not make them un-Jewish. Whether or not one accepts their theology, it remains the case that they have a very strong textual base for the view that the suffering Messiah is based in deeply rooted Jewish texts early and late. Jews, it seems, had no difficulty whatever with understanding a Messiah who would vicariously suffer to redeem the world. Once again, what has been allegedly ascribed to Jesus after the fact is, in fact, a piece of entrenched messianic speculation and expectation that was current before Jesus came into the world at all. That the Messiah would suffer and be humiliated was something Jews learned from close reading of the biblical texts, a close reading in precisely the style of classically rabbinic interpretation that has become known as midrash, the concordance of verses and passages from different places in Scripture to derive new narratives, images, and theological ideas. (pp. 132-33)
But notice that little detail of an endnote reference in there. What does that say? It’s a call for support from Martin Hengel (whose applicable work I have discussed in How Did Daniel Understand Isaiah’s Suffering Servant?):
4. See Martin Hengel, “The Effective History of Isaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period,” in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources, ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher, trans. Daniel P. Bailey (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), 137-45, for good arguments to this effect. Hengel concludes, “The expectation of an eschatological suffering savior figure connected with Isaiah 53 cannot therefore be proven to exist with absolute certainty and in a clearly outlined form in pre-Christian Judaism. Nevertheless, a lot of indices that must be taken seriously in texts of very different provenance suggest that these types of expectations could also have existed at the margins, next to many others. This would then explain how a suffering or dying Messiah surfaces in various forms with the Tannaim of the second century c.e., and why Isaiah 53 is clearly interpreted messianically in the Targum and rabbinic texts” (140). While there are some points in Hengel’s statement that require revision, the Targum is more a counterexample than a supporting text, and for the most part he is spot on.
So the argument rests on its explanatory power. I won’t repeat here the rabbinic texts Boyarin has in mind since they can be found in my earlier post, Suffering Messiah is a Very Jewish Idea. In that earlier post I also look at the evidence for the developing idea of a suffering messiah, one who identifies with martyrs, in Second Temple era books attributed to Daniel and Enoch.
But don’t think you’re wasting your time by reading a repeat post here. There is much more to add.
When I turned, he touched me, and I saw a man despised (Isa 53:3), severely wounded (Deut 23:2), and in pain (see Isa 53:3).
Now that despised man said to me, “Zerubbabel, what is your business here? Who brought you here?” . . . .
When I heard his words, I took comfort, and my mind was at rest. “Sir,” I asked, “what is the name of this place?”
“This is Rome the Great, in which I am imprisoned,” he said. “Sir, who are you,” I asked, “and what is your name? What are you looking for here? And what are you doing in this place?”
“I am the Lord’s anointed, the son of Hezekiah,” he answered, “and I am jailed until the time of the end.” — Book of Zerrubabel, Himmelfarb
Suffering, Death and Resurrection
We know that a significant number of Jews of late antiquity enjoyed prophetic tales of two messiahs to appear: one would be the son of Joseph who would be killed by some sort of demonic villain or anti-christ figure in one of the end-time battles; another was the messiah son of David. The latter was hidden away in “Rome” (possibly meaning Constantinople) unrecognized, a despised and suffering and pitiful excuse for a vagabond type of person until his destined time, and that time was the death of his junior partner, the messiah son of Joseph. The rejected and pitied messiah son of David would astonish all by rising to the occasion and resurrecting the messiah son of Joseph. There are passing allusions to these figures in some of the Talmudic literature but a full narrative can be read in the “Book of Zerubbabel” that was written around the early 600s CE. Some extracts from that book:
He showed me a marble stone in the shape of a virgin, and its appearance and form were most lovely and beautiful to behold. “This stone is the wife of Belial,” he answered. “Satan will come and lie with it, and a son named Armilos will come forth from it: ‘he will destroy the people,’ . . . He will rule over all, and his dominion will reach from one end of the earth to the other. . . . No one will be able to stand before him. Anyone who does not believe in him, he will slay by the sword, and he will slay many of them. He will attack the people of the holy ones of the Most High (see Dan 7:27), and there will be ten kings with him, with might and great strength. He will make war on the holy ones and destroy them. He will kill the messiah son of Joseph, that is, Nehemiah b. Hushiel, and sixteen righteous men will be killed with him. They will exile Israel to the wilderness . . . .
“This war will take place in the month of Av, and there will be trouble in Israel such as there never was before. They will flee to citadels, mountains, and caves; no one will be able to hide from him. All the nations of the world will go astray after him, except for Israel, who will not believe in him. For forty-one days all Israel will mourn Nehemiah b. Hushiel. His corpse will be thrown down before the gates of Jerusalem and broken, but no wild beast will touch it, nor bird nor animal. Then the children of Israel will cry out to the Lord from great oppression and deep trouble, and the Lord will answer them.” . . . .
Menahem b. Ammiel will come suddenly in the first month, the month of Nisan, on the fourteenth day of the month, and he will stand in the valley of Arbel, which belongs to Joshua b. Jehozadak the priest. . . . Menahem b. Ammiel will say to the elders and sages, I am the Lord’s anointed. The Lord sent me to bring you good tidings and to save you from the hand of these enemies.’ But the elders will look upon him and despise him, for all they will see is a man despised, in worn-out clothes, and they will despise him as you despised him. Then his anger will burn within him and he will put on clothes of vengeance as a garment and wrap himself in a mantle of zeal (see Isa 59:17).
“Then he will go to the gates of Jerusalem, and Elijah the prophet will be with him. They will awaken Nehemiah b. Hushiel and bring him back to life at the gates of Jerusalem. (From Himmelfarb, M, 2017. Jewish Messiahs in a Christian Empire: A History of the Book of Zerubbabel. Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press.)
Suffering and Dying Messiahs So Easy for Jews to Discover, Accept, Expand
Martha Himmelfarb believes such characters and story-lines betray a Christian influence, and one surely has to think the Devil copulating with the stone statue is a mockery of the virgin birth to Mary. The Book of Zerrubabel was not approved by the rabbis, after all. But Daniel Boyarim points out that serious Jews in late antiquity were hardly likely to have deliberately imitated beliefs of the Christians; it is more likely that they developed ideas inherited from their earlier generations. (If we do believe that such Jewish writings were mimicking Christian ones then we are conceding that there is nothing particularly antithetical to Judaism in such ideas; that there is no reason to think that pre-Christian Jews were incapable of evolving the ideas for themselves. See Boyarin’s comment on present day Messianic Jews.)
Rather than seeing Christianity as a new invention, seeing it as one of the paths that Judaism took — a path as ancient in its sources as the one that rabbinic Jews trod — has a majesty of its own. Many Jews were expecting the divine- human Messiah, the Son of Man. Many accepted Jesus as that figure, while others did not. Although there is precious little pre-Christian evidence among Jews for the suffering of the Messiah, there are good reasons to consider this too no stumbling block for the “Jewishness” of the ideas about the Messiah, Jesus as well. Let me make clear I am not claiming that Jesus and his followers contributed nothing new to the story of a suffering and dying Messiah; I am not, of course, denying them their own religious creativity. I am claiming that even this innovation, if indeed they innovated, was entirely within the spirit and hermeneutical method of ancient Judaism, and not a scandalous departure from it.
This point of the “Jewishness” of the vicarious sufferings of the Messiah can be established in two ways:
first by showing how the Gospels use perfectly traditional, midrashic ways of reasoning to develop these ideas and apply them to Jesus, and
second, by demonstrating how common the idea of a suffering and dying Messiah was among perfectly “orthodox” rabbinic Jews from the time of the Talmud and onward.5. Hengel, “Effective History,” 133-37, even makes the case the Septuagint (Jewish Greek translation) to Isaiah (second century B.C.) may already have read the Isaiah passage as referring to the Messiah
My reasoning is that if this were such a shocking thought, how is it that the rabbis of the Talmud and midrash, only a couple of centuries later, had no difficulty whatever with portraying the Messiah’s vicarious suffering or discovering him in Isaiah 53, just as the followers of Jesus had done?5 But I get ahead of myself: first, let us see how close biblical reading in the style of midrash can best explain the passages in Mark that speak of the shaming and death of Jesus. (Boyarin, pp. 133-34, my formatting and bolding)
I’ll leave the remainder of Boyarin’s discussion for another day. Here I want to look further at the suffering messianic idea within Judaic religious ideas.
One inherited view maintained that there would be multiple messiahs — without reference to the messianic or anointed priest — and not only the Messiah of the house of David. We find an allusion to “the slaying of Messiah, the son of Joseph,” for which a prooftext is Zech. 12:10, 12. The statement of Zechariah, “And the land should mourn . . . the family of the house of David apart . . . is understood to refer to the Davidites’ mourning of the slain Messiah of the house of Joseph (B. Suk. 52a). The following, moreover, expresses the same view:
B. SUKKAH 52a
(TRANSLATED BY W. SLOTKI, P. 247)
Our Rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be he, will say to the Messiah, the son of David (may he reveal himself speedily in our days!), “Ask of me anything, and I will give it to you,” as it is said, “I will tell of the decree [etc.], ’this day have I begotten you, ask of me and I will give the nations for your inheritance’ [Ps. 2:7-8].” But when he will see that the Messiah the son of Joseph is slain, he will say to him, “Lord of the Universe, I ask of thee only the gift of life.” “As to life,” he would answer him, “Your father David has already prophesied this concerning you, as it is said, ‘He asked life of thee, thou gavest it him [even length of days for ever and ever]’ [Ps. 21:5].”
(Neusner, pp. 187-88)
Davidic Messiah Can Be a Minor Figure or No Figure At All
Some people insist that the idea of a conquering Davidic messiah to come to deliver the Jews is found “all through the Bible” but that is not true.
In general, the biblical prophets imagined God himself managing the events of the end without a human assistant, but several prophetic passages, most notably Isaiah 11, looked forward to an ideal Davidic king who would rule justly in the end of days. . . . Later in the Second Temple period, close to the turn of the era, some Jewish texts imagine an eschatological high priest alongside a royal messiah, while others envision a messiah more divine than human, though of course the Davidic king of Isaiah 11 is more than merely human in his ability to slay the wicked with the breath of his mouth. . . . Other texts, we should note, continue to make God the true hero of the eschatological drama, either without a messianic assistant at all or with one who plays only a very limited role. (Himmelfarb, p. 4)
It has become increasingly clear that Jewish expectations did not always concentrate on the Davidic Messiah but left room for a plurality of persons who would play a role at the time of salvation or shortly before. In all cases some biblical passage provided the basis or could be used as a warrant for these expectations.
The idea of one such figure, that of an eschatological high priest, “the Anointed of Aaron,” also called “the anointed priest” (?), was based upon the blessing of Levi in Deut 33:8-11 and the promise to Phinehas in Num 25:10-13 (see also ISam 2:35; Mal 2:4-7; Sir 45:23-24). In Qumran texts, “the Anointed of Aaron” ranks higher than “the Anointed of Israel,” but neither of them is a Savior figure, as they were possibly in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs prior to their Christian adaptation. In rabbinic writings the future high priest (or kohen sedek) is simply mentioned.
The expectation of another such person, that of a prophet like Moses, was based upon Deut 18:15-19 and/or upon the expanded text of Ex 20:19-22 in the Samaritan Pentateuch and 4QBibParaph (= 4Q158). In 11QMelch 18-20 the messenger of peace in Isa 52:7 is called “the Anointed of the Spirit” and is probably associated with the prophet like Moses (cf. IQS 9.11 and 4QTestim).
Elijah was still another figure whose coming was expected. The hope for his return was based upon Mal 4:5-6 (cf. 3:1-4; Sir 48:10 and later texts).
One could also mention the expectation of “the Anointed One, the son of Ephraim” or “of Joseph.” However there is no certain evidence before C.E. 135 for such an expectation. Here Deut 33:13 was the main warrant, but other passages, including Zech 12:10, were also applied to him. In this case the translation “Messiah” may be appropriate. The designation “Messiah of War” suggests some—but which?—relation to the priest in Deut 20:2.
The number and functions of “eschatological persons” were open to considerable variation, as were the passages adduced.
For example, the expectation of two leaders, a (Davidic) ruler and a Levitical (Aaronitic) priest must be considered normal (see e.g., Jer 23:5-6; Zech 3:6-8; 4:13-14; 6:9-13). This dual pattern reappears in Qumran writings and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and also at the beginning of the insurrections in C.E. 66 and 132. Other pairs occur in later, mostly rabbinic texts: the Davidic Messiah and Moses or Elijah, Moses and Elijah, or Elijah and Enoch.
The triad consisting of (the) prophet and the Anointed Ones of Aaron and Israel is attested by 4QTestim as well as by IQS 9.11. John 1:20-21 has the Christ, Elijah, and the prophet. TargYer I Ex 40:9-11 relates the royal Messiah, the high priest Elijah and the Messiah from Ephraim to the triad “the kingdom of the house of Judah,” Aaron, and Joshua. In interpretations of Zech 2:3 (ET 1:20) the number was extended to four, who in b.BBat. are identified as the two Messiahs (the Son of David and the Son of Joseph), Elijah, and the high priest, kohen sedek. In most cases, though not all, the warrior Messiah is supposed to fight and to die before the coming of the Davidic Messiah, but there is little evidence that Elijah was considered the precursor of the Messiah, as presupposed in Mk 9.11.
The number of eschatological persons could be diminished as well as increased. In the textual transmission of Zech 6:11-13 the name of Zerubbabel may have been eliminated, but there are traces of the notion of the Davidic “Branch” at his side. The Damascus Document does not mention the eschatological prophet, and the Anointed Ones of Aaron and Israel may have merged and become one person (CD 12.23, etc.). In rabbinic texts, the prophet like Moses plays no independent role; the Messiah was rather considered to be the second redeemer and to be like the first redeemer, Moses. The eschatological high priest could be identified with the returning Elijah, whom some rabbis assumed to be the same person as Phinehas.
The same texts and the same functions may be applied to more than one of the persons to come. For example, the identity of the mebasser of Isa 52:7 was left anonymous by some rabbis while others supposed him to be Elijah or the Messiah. Yet the Melchizedek fragment from Qumran may imply that he is to be identified with the prophet like Moses. In another text, the Balaam oracle (Num 24:17), the “star from Jacob” and the “scepter” (LXX: “man”) might refer to one or two persons.
The expectations were normally derived from scriptural promises and predictions, or supported by passages which were assumed to refer to some person whose coming they announced. Selection, combination, and interpretation of the texts were contingent upon social setting, cultural environment, political structures, historical circumstances, etc. To some degree it is possible to trace the various forms of expectations to specific areas or groups.
The expectation of a Davidic Messiah was contingent upon the recognition of the former and later prophets and the Psalms as sacred Scriptures. Thus Samaritan eschatology included several figures, but no Davidic prince. Even in parts of the Greek diaspora the promises to David and his offspring were of little, if any, importance (see, e.g., Philo). What is more remarkable is that this also seems to be the case in the Jewish-Christian traditions preserved in the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies and Recognitions. This may indicate that there also existed some other Jewish circles whose “messianic ideas” were almost exclusively warranted by the Pentateuch.
(Dahl, pp. 386-87)
Further evidence that the idea of multiple messiahs was far from alien to pre-Christian Judaic systems will be given in the next post.
- Boyarin, D. 2012. The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ. The New Press, NY.
- Dahl, N.A. 1992. “Messianic Ideas and the Crucifixion of Jesus” in J.H. Charlesworth (ed.), The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity. Fortress Press, Minneapolis.
- Himmelfarb, M. 2017. Jewish Messiahs in a Christian Empire: A History of the Book of Zerubbabel. Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass.
- Neusner, J. 1984. Messiah in Context: Israel’s History and Destiny in Formative Judaism. Fortress Press, Philadelphia.