Category Archives: Messianism


2017-04-20

Continuing a case for an early Jewish belief in a slain messiah

by Neil Godfrey

The second of the three earliest references to the slain Messiah ben Joseph is a few lines further on in the same Talmud tractate, Sukkah 52a

Our rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be he, will say to Messiah ben 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 [of the Lord],” etc. “This day I have begotten you. Ask of me and I will give you the nations for your inheritance” (Ps. 2). But when he will see that Messiah ben Joseph is slain, he will say to him, “Lord of the universe, I ask of you only life.”

Here the Messiah from the tribe of Joseph has been slain at some point towards the end time, but there is another Messiah involved in the drama, one who is descended from David who expresses concern over the death of his forerunner. We are not told how or why nor by whom the Messiah ben Joseph was killed. Readers or those who knew of this teaching of the rabbis presumably knew the details so there was no need to spell them out.

Interestingly the Messiah ben David in this passage has not till now made his mark in the end-time drama and in other passages (outside Sukkah 52a) his first act on his appearance is to forgo invitations to ask great things for himself and to request, instead, the resurrection of Messiah ben Joseph. In the Suk 52a, however, it appears that the sight of the dead Messiah ben Joseph stirs the Messiah ben David to ask for eternal life for himself — to which God replies that he already has eternal life (he had been living for ages in Rome unrecognised before the last days).

There are two clues in this passage that date the teaching to some time prior to 200 CE.

  1. The passage is written in Hebrew. See the previous post for the relevance of this: notice the Tannaitic period.
  2. The passage is introduced by the vague reference, “our rabbis taught” — instead of by a specifically named rabbi. Such an anonymous introductory formula is said to be typical of passages deriving from the Tannaitic period (the first two centuries of the current era) or earlier.

The last of the earliest three references to Messiah ben Joseph is from the same tractate, Sukkah 52b:

“And the Lord showed me four craftsmen” (Zech. 2.3). Who are these [four craftsmen]? Rav Hana bar Bizna said in the name of Rav Simeon Hasida: “Messiah ben David, Messiah ben Joseph, Elijah, and the Righteous Priest.”

This passage is not so easy to date on internal evidence though it is recorded as part of the later Aromaic tradition. The initial question is in Aramaic and the “ben” (son of) is Hebrew (rather than the Aramaic “bar”). External evidence helps more, says Mitchell. There are six other places where the “four craftsmen” appear, so let’s see how Mitchell analyses these variants to make an assessment on the date of the origin of the saying.

Note that there are three passages in Hebrew (that is, from the pre 200 CE Tannaitic period) and they all contain the same names in the same form:

  • Elijah
  • The King Messiah
  • Melchizedek
  • The War Messiah

Genesis Rabbah 99:2: “the War Messiah, who will be descended from Joseph;”

Midr. Tanhuma vol. I, p. 103a (§11.3): “in the age to come a War Messiah is going to arise from Joseph;”

Numbers Rabbah 14:1: “the War Messiah who comes from Ephraim;” [Ephraim is a son of Joseph]

Aggadat Bereshit, pereq 63 (A. Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrash [BHM], vol. IV, p. 87 [Leipzig, 1853–1877; photog. repr. Jerusalem, 1967]); “a War Messiah will arise from Joseph;”

Kuntres Acharon §20 to Yalkut Shimoni on the Pentateuch (BHM, vol. VI, p. 81): “a War Messiah is going to arise from Joseph;”

Gen.R. 75:6 applies Moses’ blessing on Joseph (Deut. 33:17) to the War Messiah.

The King Messiah of the early period (in Hebrew, before 200 CE) can be aligned with Messiah ben David that appear in what can be taken on balance as later texts (in Amorite, post 200 CE).

Since in biblical texts (Genesis 14:18-20 and Psalm 110:4) Melchizedek is known to be a priest, we can match the early reference to Melchizedek to the Righteous Priest in the later texts.

See the side box for the evidence that leads us to equate the War Messiah with Messiah ben Joseph.

Mitchell finds three key issues for dating the origin of the above third Messiah son of Joseph reference”: the Righteous Priest, the names in which the tradition is transmitted and the Qumran text 4Q175.

The Righteous Priest 

The prominence given to the Righteous Priest alongside Messiah ben Joseph as one of the Four Craftsmen is an indicator of pre-Christian era origins of the teaching: Mitchell’s argument is as follows.

We saw in The Priestly Messiah and the Royal Messiah the Jewish belief in a Priest Messiah or an end-time priestly deliverer. Biblical passages on Melchizedek and the anointed priestly companion, Joshua ben Jehozadak, to the Davidic prince Zerubbabel in the Book of Zechariah may provide some foundation for a belief in a priestly saviour, but post-biblical writings bring such a figure into sharper focus. Here we are entering the Hasmonean era, the period following the Maccabean revolt, or the Second Temple era.

The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs (see Priestly and Royal Messiahs) sets up a priest messiah from the tribe of Levi as the foremost messianic figure without any rival from the line of David. The Qumran literature (Dead Sea Scrolls) likewise contains passages that promote the priestly messiah, sometimes as superior to the Davidic messiah (1QSa 2.14-20).

If the priestly deliverer was a pre-eminent figure in the Hasmonean era, after Christianity emerged Jewish writings lost interest in him.

 

The priestly Messiah therefore enjoys pre-eminence in Hasmonean times. But at the turn of the era, when Judaism and Christianity diverge, although he is taken up by Christianity and Gnosticism, particularly as Melchizedek, Judaism knows him no more. The only other talmudic reference to Melchizedek, apart from this one in B. Suk. 52b, derogates the priesthood of the Genesis figure (B. Ned. 32b). Later midrashim feature the other “craftsmen” — ben David, ben Joseph and Elijah — with great frequency, but have no place for the priest. . . . 

It therefore seems that the priestly messiah’s popularity rose with the Hasmonean dynasty who, keen to beget messianic acclaim, took Melchizedek’s title “Priest of El Elyon” from Gen. 14:18. But when their power was eclipsed and priestly status fell a century later with the Temple, the Priest Messiah, like his brothers, passed into obscurity, leaving only his former renown lingering among the “Four Craftsmen.” So the Righteous Priest’s presence among the “Four Craftsmen” must date from a time when he was still held in honor, that is, the Temple period. (Mitchell, p. 87f)

Variant source names

The Tannaitic texts cite relatively early names as the conveyors of the tradition. One source dates Rabbi Isaac to around 140 to 165 CE. The Rabbi Eleazar who is named in one of the early texts is dated even earlier, around 80 to 120 CE.

The names listed as sources for the four craftsmen tradition in the later Amoraic texts, Simeon Hasida and Hana bar Bizna, are dated to the late second and early third centuries.

Now the fairly short time-gap between these teachers hardly allows for the divergence between them. The different variants therefore derive from an earlier common source. In that case, we are taken back to the period before Isaac — or Eleazar– and, once again, find ourselves near the Temple era. (p. 88)

Qumran 4Q175 and a Joshua Messiah read more »


2017-04-19

How Early Did Some Jews Believe in a Slain Messiah son of Joseph?

by Neil Godfrey

If you are more interested in

  • why a second messiah in the first place? and
  • why the tribe of Joseph for a second messiah?

skip to the end of this post where I cite one of several explanations.

I don’t know the answer to the question in the title (in part because much depends upon how we define and understand the origins of “Christianity”) but I can present here one argument for the possibility that there was a belief among various Judeans prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE that a future messiah was destined to be killed. (This post goes beyond previous posts addressing messianic-like interpretations of the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53 that we find in Daniel and the Enoch literature and builds upon other earlier posts addressing the evidence in later rabbinic and other Jewish writings.)

We focus here on a 2005 article by David C. Mitchell in Review of Rabbinic Judaism, “Rabbi Dosa and the Rabbis Differ: Messiah Ben Joseph in the Babylonian Talmud“. I find a number of aspects of the article questionable, but nonetheless Mitchell does present a somewhat technical argument in support of the possibility of a pre-Christian belief in a slain messiah.

Recall that in my recent post, Suffering and Dying Messiahs: Typically Jewish Beliefs, we read a Jewish narrative from the early 600s CE describing a Messiah son of Joseph being slain in battle against end-time forces of evil. The earliest surviving reference to the Messiah ben (=son of) Joseph is in the Talmud. If you are like me your first reaction to hearing that will be “How can writings up to several centuries into the Christian era possibly be used as reliable sources for events and ideas in first century Palestine?” But also if you are like me you will be at least open to hearing the case being made. So here it is as I understand it.

 

Talmud: Rabbinic writings made up primarily of two parts, the Mishnah and the Gemara.

The Mishnah purports to be the written collection of oral traditions of rabbinic debates and teachings. The Mishnah was completed around 200 CE.

The Gemara is rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah and is said to have been composed between 200 CE to 450 CE.

There are two broad chronological eras represented in the Talmud: the Tannaitic and the Amoraic.

The Tannaim is identified by Hebrew text and represents ideas prior and up to 200 CE.

The Amoraim is identified by Aramaic text and represents the period subsequent to 200 CE.

In the Mishnah we sometimes read both Hebrew and Aramaic text in the one section. We understand that the Aramaic text has been added by rabbis post 200 CE to fill out or clarify the earlier Hebrew account.

It will help to know some important terms relating to the Talmud. I explain these (hopefully not misleadingly simplified) in the side box.

The earliest known references to Messiah ben Joseph are found in a section (or tractate) called Sukkah. (Scroll through the Talmud page at http://www.halakhah.com to see where it sits in the broader collection.) The Sukkah tractate relates to the Feast of Tabernacles (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sukkot).

I copy the first of these passages, Sukkoth 52a, as Mitchell himself sets it out, with the later Aramaic passages in italics, but I have added bolding to make it clearer:

“And the land shall mourn family by family apart. The family of the house of David apart and their women apart” (Zech. 12:12). They said: Is not this an a fortiori conclusion? In the age to come, when they are busy mourning and no evil inclination rules them, the Torah says, “the men apart and the women apart.” How much more so now when they are busy rejoicing and the evil inclination rules them. What is the cause of this mourning? Rabbi Dosa and the rabbis differ. One says: “For Messiah ben Joseph who is slain;” and the other says: “For the evil inclination which is slain.” It is well according to him who says, “For Messiah ben Joseph who is slain,” for this is what is written, “And they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him like the mourning for an only son” (Zech. 12:10); but according to him who says, “The evil inclination which is slain:” Is this an occasion for mourning? Is it not an occasion for rejoicing rather than weeping?

I understand from Mitchell’s discussion that the highlighted words above are translations of Aramaic text. The remainder is rendered from Hebrew.

Accordingly we have in this section of Mishnah, typically dated prior to 200 CE, later rabbinic additions in Aramaic. But the Aramaic text is quoting references to Messiah ben Joseph that are in Hebrew text.

Mitchell argues that the Aramaic script is the work of Amoraic (post 200 CE) rabbis commenting on a tradition from the Tannaitic era (prior to 200 CE). He disagrees with another scholar (Joseph Klausner) who believed we should interpret the passage as indicating that the tradition of Messiah ben Joseph itself originated some time in the later Tannaitic era (200-450 CE).

Let’s back up a little. Let’s see what light the broader context might be able to shed on the question of dating.

Immediately prior the section mentioning Messiah ben Joseph we read about worshipers at the end of the first day of the Feast going down to the Court of Women at the Temple where a significant change is encountered: read more »


2017-04-16

The Priestly Messiah and the Royal Messiah

by Neil Godfrey

In the previous post we looked at ancient Jewish concepts of multiple messiahs, each with a distinctive role. There was Davidic messiah who for most of existence lives like a destitute vagabond or beggar, despised, rejected and unrecognized in the streets of “Rome”.  Then there was a messiah from the tribe of Joseph who emerged as a warrior to lead Israel in a battle against the ultimate forces of evil but who was killed in that battle. His death was the cue for the Davidic messiah to emerge from obscurity and call upon God for the resurrection of the fallen messiah.

We also saw other messiahs, one from the tribe of Levi or family of Aaron, who was a priest-messiah. Associated with these messiahs was a prophet, Elijah.

We looked at some reasons for believing such ideas were familiar (if not unanimously embraced) by Jews prior to the fall of the Temple in 70 CE. In a future post I will look at additional evidence for assigning such beliefs as early as the period from 200 BCE to 70 CE. I will also address the midrashic processes by which Second Temple era Jews could well have arrived at such characters and scenarios according to Daniel Boyarin.

And most interesting of all, at least for me, I will post on how all of these ideas relate to what we read in the Gospel of Mark about the figure of Jesus and the reason for his crucifixion.

But in this post we will look at other types of messiahs, or at least one other: the priest-messiah and his subordinate companion (political) messiah from Israel or Joseph.  read more »


Suffering and Dying Messiahs: Typically Jewish Beliefs

by Neil Godfrey

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.

Daniel Boyarin

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?):

Martin Hengel

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. read more »


2017-02-03

Myth of popular messianic expectations at the time of Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

I am copying here a post I just submitted on another forum, so with apologies to readers who have already seen this . . . .

This topic is not about “Jewish prophecies of the messiah’s arrival”. It is not about the second century Bar Kochba rebellion. Nor is it even about popular beliefs and attitudes at the time of the 66-73 CE Jewish war.

It is about the historical evidence we have or don’t have (that is the question) for:

  • widespread/popular expectations
  • of the appearance of a messiah figure to liberate Judea from Rome
  • in the early years of the first century, let’s say up to around year 30 CE

I often read and hear scholars and lay people alike saying that Palestine or the Jews generally were strongly anticipating a messianic figure to appear around the time when, lo and behold, Jesus happened to appear. This is so often said in a way that assumes it is a well-known and indisputable fact of history. But some years ago when I started looking for the evidence supporting this claim (I fully expected to find plenty) I found the task was not so easy. What was cited as evidence so often appeared to me to be vague, imprecise, ambiguous at best and very often simply not relevant — not the sort of data that historians usually like to use as foundations for hypotheses.

I have since been reassured that I was not crazy or blind by discovering several reputable scholars who do say as much: that there is scant to no evidence for

  • widespread/popular expectations
  • of the appearance of a messiah figure to liberate Judea from Rome
  • in the early years of the first century, let’s say up to around year 30 CE

I recently set out details of this [absence of] evidence in a series of blog posts responding to Richard Carrier’s arguments and supporting citations attempting to establish a popular messianic “movement” in early first century Palestine.

The details are covered in that series of posts but I will outline them here:

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Yes, there are messianic references found in some of these. But they are in fact very few compared with the total number of scrolls and surviving manuscript fragments. This relative “fewness” does not lead us to think that messianism was a particularly major preoccupation of the sectarians producing or using those scrolls (assuming “sectarians” of some sort were responsible for them).

Moreover, the messianic references that do exist do not, if I recall correctly, give any indication that a messiah was to appear “within a few years/generation” around the early first century (or any specific period). One could write of a doctrinal belief in a messianic future without being hung up about it and getting everyone around enthused to expect it to happen “any day now”.

Besides, one has to ask the extent to which the contents of the DSS throw a light on the beliefs and attitudes of the more general illiterate population.

Other Second Temple writings

The main criticisms — especially relative fewness of the references, and their generalised (nonspecific) character — raised re the DSS also apply here.

Often these writings speak of God himself directly acting in some future day of judgment. We are so accustomed to think of God doing this through a messiah that we sometimes read a messianic figure into these passages. But like the OT books, most prophecies about the “last days” do speak of God directly acting in the world and make no mention of a messianic intermediary.

Besides, is it not a giant leap to impute to the illiterate population at large certain emotional or psychological attitudes towards passages in these texts that attract our attention?

Were not those who read, studied and discussed such texts just a tiny fraction of a percent of a tiny fraction of a percent of the entire population?

The OT books

Much the same criticisms as above apply here, too. read more »


2016-08-02

Questioning Carrier and the Conventional Wisdom on Messianic Expectations

by Neil Godfrey

Here for convenience is an annotated list of the recent posts on “the myth of messianic expectations”.

1. Questioning Carrier and the Common View of a “Rash of Messianism” at the time of Jesus

Carrier’s claim “Palestine in the early first century ce was experiencing a rash of messianism” is introduced. His assertion that “The early first century ce was in their prediction window” is tested against his footnoted authority, “The Expectation of the End in the Dead Sea Scrolls” by John Collins.

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

Carrier’s claim that “That Jewish expectations of some kind of messiah in the early Roman Empire were widespread, influential, and very diverse . . . has been well established by experts on ancient messianism” is tested by examining seven of the nine “experts in messianism” cited by Carrier.

3. Questioning Carrier and the “Myth that the Jews Expected a Messiah” (#3)

An examination of the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gospels and various purported “messianic” figures (the Samaritan, Theudas, the Egyptian and the anonymous “imposter”) in Josephus. Argues that reading what Josephus does say about the prophetic role of these figures, as opposed to what he does not say about their supposed messianic role, has too often been overlooked.

4. Origin of the Myth that the Jews Expected a Messiah

I put Richard Carrier’s arguments on hold to point out what J. H. Charlesworth calls “the myth that Jews expected a Messiah and knew what functions he would perform.” I would even say William Scott Green‘s “Messiah in Judaism: Rethinking the Question” . . . is obligatory reading and discussion for anyone interested in this question.

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

Examines Carrier’s dismissal of Horsley, Freyne and Goodman’s views; shows Carrier inconsistencies in the application of his definition of “messiah”; and surveys Goodman’s analysis of the “ambiguous oracle” in Josephus and messianism in the first Jewish war with Rome, and the evidence for “messianism” between 70 and 132 CE.

6. Questioning Carrier: Was the Book of Daniel Really a “Key Messianic Text”?

Another look at origins of the “myth of messianic expectations” in the “apocalyptic hypothesis”; a companion argument to Green’s discussion in post #4 Origin of the Myth. Considers the evidence used to claim Daniel was a popular messianic text in the early first century. Also refers to evidence for attempts to calculate the time of the arrival of messiah from Daniel’s prophecies.

The posts also stress the difference between apocalypticism and messianism. Apocalyptic literature was for most part unconnected with messianic expectations.

Note, also, that there is no dispute about the existence of a wide variety of messianic concepts. In fact it is the research into these that has been a significant contributor to undermining the conventional view that Second Temple Jews were experiencing messianic fever.

 


2016-08-01

Questioning Carrier: Was the Book of Daniel Really a “Key Messianic Text”?

by Neil Godfrey
Johannes_weiß

Johannes Weiss first proposed the apocalyptic hypothesis in Die Predigt Jesu Reiche Gottes, 1892.

I expect this post will conclude my series challenging Richard Carrier’s arguments in On the Historicity of Jesus attempting to justify the common belief that early first century Judea was patchwork quilt of messianic movements. This belief has been challenged by specialist scholars* (see comment) especially since the 1990s but their work has still to make major inroads among many of the more conservative biblical scholars. We have seen the Christian doctrinal origins of this myth and I discuss another aspect of those doctrinal or ideological presumptions in this post. Carrier explicitly dismissed three names — Horsley, Freyne, Goodman — who are sceptical of the conventional wisdom, but I think this series of posts has shown that there are more than just three names in that camp. Many more than I have cited could also be quoted. Their arguments require serious engagement.

Richard Carrier sets out over forty social, political, religious and cultural background factors that anyone exploring the evidence for Christian origins should keep in mind. This is an excellent introduction to his argument, but there are a few I question. Here is one more:

(a) The pre-Christian book of Daniel was a key messianic text, laying out what would happen and when, partly inspiring much of the very messianic ferver of the age, which by the most obvious (but not originally intended) interpretation predicted the messiah’s arrival in the early first century, even (by some calculations) the very year of 30 ce.

(b) This text was popularly known and widely influential, and was known and regarded as scripture by the early Christians.

(Carrier 2014, p. 83, my formatting and bolding in all quotations)

The current scholarly approach to the origins of Christology has been guided by the apocalyptic hypothesis. The apocalyptic hypothesis is that Jesus proclaimed the imminence of the kingdom of God, a reign or domain ultimately imaginable only in apocalyptic terms. Early Christians somehow associated Jesus himself with the kingdom of God he announced (thinking of him as the king of the kingdom) and thus proclaimed him to be the Messiah. If Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, as the logic seems to have run, it was only natural for early Christians to conclude that he must have been the expected Messiah and that it was therefore right to call him the Christ.

With this hypothesis in place, the field of christological “background” studies has naturally been limited to the search for “messianic” figures in Jewish apocalyptic literature.2

…..

2. A theological pattern has guided a full scholarly quest for evidence of the Jewish “expectation” of “the Messiah” that Jesus “fulfilled.” Because of the apocalyptic hypothesis, privilege has been granted to Jewish apocalyptic literature as the natural context for expressing messianic expectations. The pattern of “promise and fulfillment” allows for discrepancies among “messianic” profiles without calling into question the notion of a fundamental correspondence. Only recently has the failure to establish a commonly held expectation of “the” Messiah led to a questioning of the apocalyptic hypothesis.

(Mack 2009, pp. 192-93)

Part (b) is certainly true. Part (a), no, not so. The apocalyptic book of Daniel was popular but it was not a key messianic text.

The book of Daniel was a well known apocalyptic work but most apocalyptic literature of the day contained no references to a messiah. Apocalypticism and messianism are not synonymous nor even always conjoined. Messiahs were not integral to the apocalyptic genre. It was more common in apocalyptic writings to declare that God himself would act directly, perhaps with the support of his angelic hosts. Very few such texts contain references to a messiah. Even when reading Daniel you need to be careful not to blink lest you miss his single reference to an anointed one (messiah). And even that sole reference, as we learn from the commentaries and to which Carrier himself alludes, is a historical reference to the high priest Onias III. There is nothing eschatological associated with his death.

Yes but, but ….

…. Didn’t the Jews in Jesus day believe that that reference was to a messiah who was soon to appear?

This is where a search through the evidence might yield an answer.

The evidence supporting “this fact”?

According to Carrier there is an abundance of evidence supporting “this fact” — by which he appears to mean both parts (a) and (b) in the above quotation.

This fact [i.e. a+b] is already attested by the many copies and commentaries on Daniel recovered from Qumran,45 46 but it’s evident also in the fact that the Jewish War itself may have been partly a product of it. As at Qumran, the key inspiring text was the messianic timetable described in the book of Daniel (in Dan. 9.23-27). (pp. 83-84) . . . .

. . . .

45. See Carrier, ‘Spiritual Body’, in Empty Tomb (ed. Price and Lowder), pp. 114-15, 132-47, 157, 212 (η. 166). The heavenly ascent narrative known to Ignatius, Irenaeus and Justin Martyr (see Chapter 8, §6) may have alluded to this passage in Zechariah, if this is what is intended by mentioning the lowly state of Jesus’ attire when he enters God’s heavenly court in Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 36.
46. On the numerous copies of Daniel among the Dead Sea Scrolls, including fragments of commentaries on it, see Peter Flint, ‘The Daniel Tradition at Qumran’, in Eschatology (ed. Evans and Flint), pp. 41-60, and F.F. Bruce, ‘The Book of Daniel and the Qumran Community’, in Neotestamentica et semitica; Studies in Honour of Matthew Black (ed. E. Earle Ellis and Max Wilcox; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. 1969). pp. 221-35.

I suspect some oversight at #45 because I am unable to locate a related discussion in Empty Tomb. So on to #46. I don’t have Bruce’s book chapter but I do have Peter Flint’s. Here is his chart setting out the Daniel texts in the Qumran scrolls (p. 43):

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 10.30.22 amNotice what’s missing, apart from any certainty regarding Daniel 9 as explained in the side-box. There is no Daniel 9:24-26. No reference to the anointed one. (We might see a flicker of hope with those few verses from chapter 9 in that table but sadly Flint has this to say about those:

However, the eighth manuscript, 4QDane, may have contained only part of Daniel, since it only preserves material from Daniel’s prayer in chapter 9. If this is the case — which is likely but impossible to prove — 4QDane would not qualify as a copy of the book of Daniel. (Flint 1997. p. 43)

But wait, it may not be lost, because another scroll, 11Q14 or the Melchizedek scroll, has a line that stops short where we would expect to find it, or at least a few words of it: read more »


2016-07-30

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

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.

read more »


Origin of the Myth that the Jews Expected a Messiah

by Neil Godfrey
William Scott Green

William Scott Green

I put Richard Carrier’s arguments on hold in this post in order to point out what another scholar I have not yet cited has had to say about what J. H. Charlesworth calls “the myth that Jews expected a Messiah and knew what functions he would perform.” I would even say William Scott Green‘s opening chapter, “Introduction: Messiah in Judaism: Rethinking the Question”, in Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era, is obligatory reading and discussion for anyone interested in this question.

Green’s chapter helped me identify much of the fallacious reasoning and unfounded assumptions that underpin all efforts I have encountered attempting to prove that Second Temple Jews gave much attention to messianic hopes. What we tend to see in the arguments is, in Green’s words, a form of “proof-texting” carried out to justify one’s a priori assumptions about Second Temple religion and attitudes. Worse, most of the arguments attempting to demonstrate a messianic fever are based on texts where there is no mention of the messiah idea at all and in spite of other clear and explicit statements in the documents to the contrary.

The irony here is that Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, and others who identify the fallacious presumptions scholars bring to their reading of the New Testament epistles fail to see that they share with many of those same scholars the same type of fallacy at the heart of this particular question.

Green’s chapter needs to be read in its entirety, but I single out a few sentences.

The major studies [of the messiah at the turn of the Christian era] have sought to trace the development and transformations of putative messianic belief through an incredible and nearly comprehensive array of ancient literary sources – from its alleged genesis in the Hebrew Bible through the New Testament, rabbinic literature, and beyond – as if all these writings were segments of a linear continuum and were properly comparable. Such work evidently aims to shape a chronological string of supposed messianic references into a plot for a story whose ending is already known; it is a kind of sophisticated proof-texting. This diegetical approach to the question embeds the sources in the context of a hypothetical religion that is fully represented in none of them. It thus privileges what the texts do not say over what they do say.

(Green 1987, p.2)

The term “messiah” has scant and inconsistent use in early Jewish texts. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Pseudepigrapha, and the entire Apocrypha, contain no reference to “the messiah.” Moreover, a messiah is neither essential to the apocalyptic genre nor a prominent feature of ancient apocalyptic writings.

(Green 1987, p.2)

The Myth’s Origins

So what has led to today’s situation where it is taken for granted that

“In the time of Jesus the Jews were awaiting a Messiah.” (Mowinckel, He That Cometh, p. 3)

“from the first century B.C.E., the Messiah was the central figure in the Jewish myth of the future” (Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979), p. xxvii.

“belief in the Messiah [is one of the four] good gifts which the people of Israel have left as an inheritance to the entire world.” (Klausner, Messianic Idea, p. 13)

Green’s explanation for this misguided state of affairs is that the academic study of “the messiah” derived not from an interest in Judaica but rather from “early Christian word-choice, theology, and apologetics.” First, he points to the problem faced: read more »


2016-07-29

Questioning Carrier and the “Myth that the Jews Expected a Messiah” (#3)

by Neil Godfrey
James_H._Charlesworth

James H. Charlesworth criticizes Helmut Koester for assuming “the myth that Jews expected a Messiah and knew what functions he would perform.”

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.

-0-

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.)

-0-

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.)

-0-

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)

read more »


2016-07-28

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

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

Qumran caves

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

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

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

Let’s start.

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

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

Al Wolters writes

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

read more »


2016-07-27

Questioning Carrier and the Common View of a “Rash of Messianism” at the time of Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

It is widely accepted that around the time Jesus is said to have appeared the people of Judea were eagerly anticipating a Messiah to come at any moment and deliver them from their Roman conquerors. I have sought for evidence to support this claim expressed so often in the scholarly land popular literature. To date, data that is used as evidence, in my view, does not support that view — unless one reads into it the interpretation one is looking for.

Though there is much of great value in Richard Carrier’s book, The Historicity of Jesus, I was disappointed to see him repeat what I suspect is an unfounded assumption and to employ an invalid argument in its support. The same applies to Carrier’s predecessor, Earl Doherty. It looks to me as if on this point Christ myth authors have imbibed the common assumptions of mainstream scholars. I use Carrier’s work in this post to illustrate my point. Carrier writes:

(a) Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism. There was an evident clamoring of sects and individu­als to announce they had found the messiah. (b) It is therefore no oddity or accident that this is exactly when Christianity arose. It was yet another messiah cult in the midst of a fad for just such cults. (c) That it among them would alone survive and spread can therefore be the product of natural selection: so many variations of the same theme were being tried, odds are one of them would by chance be successful, hitting all the right notes and dodging all the right bullets. The lucky winner in that contest just happened to be Christianity.16

This element is often denied, or its basis not well understood, so I will pause to establish it before moving on. ‘Messiah’, ‘Son of Man’, ‘the Righ­teous One’, and ‘the Elect [or Chosen] One’ were all popular titles for the expected messiah used by several groups in early-first-century Judaism, as attested, for instance, in the Book of the Parables of Enoch, a Jewish text composed before 70 CE. 17 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 And many of their 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, pp. 67-68

After consulting several of the works Carrier cites in these paragraphs I remain unpersuaded. I will continue to consult the others and post about anything that does change my mind.

Let’s take footnote #18 for now. That’s the cited authority for the claim that early first century sects such as the Qumran community were calculating the time of the messiah’s arrival in “the early first century CE”.

18. See John Collins, ‘The Expectation of the End in the Dead Sea Scrolls’, in Eschatology (ed. Evans and Flint), pp. 74-90 (esp. 76-79, 83).

On pages 76 to 78 John Collins discusses the attempts by the author of the Book of Daniel to set dates for “the end”. This writer was working in the second century BCE at the time of the Maccabee uprising against the Seleucid empire.

On page 78 Collins begins a discussion of the Apocalypse of Weeks in 1 Enoch, explaining that this work, too, was

written about the time of the Maccabean revolt.

Then on page 79 we begin a section titled “The End of Days in the Dead Sea Scrolls”. On page 82 we read:

This “end” was not in the vague and distant future but was expected at a particular time in the sect’s history.

Was this time in “the early first century CE”? No. Collins explains:

It is reasonable to infer, then, that the “end” was expected shortly before the pesher was written. While we do not know the exact date of the pesher, all indicators point to the middle of the first century BCE. 

Then again on the same page (83)

Our other witness to the expectation of an end at a specific time, the Damascus Document, also points to a date towards the middle of the first century BCE.

That’s a couple of generations before the time of Jesus according to canonical writings. It’s also in a quite different political setting.

There’s more. On page 84:
read more »


2016-03-27

Historical Conditions for Popular Messianism — Christian, Muslim and Palestinian

by Neil Godfrey

A number of readers have questioned my own questioning of a popular belief and claim by Richard Carrier that

Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism.

I suggest on the contrary that evidence for popular messianism does not appear until the Jewish War in the latter half of the first century. See post + comment + comment and links within those comments to earlier posts. Certainly popular counter-cultural leaders prior to that time (but still well after the time of Jesus) did not imitate any known Danielic or Davidic notion of a messiah expected to challenge Rome.

In this post I will address some general background information that we have about popular messianic movements. If we are to be good Bayesian thinkers then we need to set out as much background knowledge as we can before we begin. This post will put two or three items on the table for starters. Other background data has been covered to some extent in the above linked “comment(s)” and “post”.

Medieval Messianism

cohnA classic study of popular millennial movements is Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium . After surveying such movements in the Middle Ages Cohn concludes:

They occurred in a world where peasant revolts and urban insurrections were very common and moreover were often successful. . . .

“Revolutionary millenarianism drew its strength from a population living on the margin of society – peasants without land or with too little land even for subsistence; journeymen and unskilled workers living under the continuous threat of unemployment; beggars and vagabonds – in fact from the amorphous mass of people who were not simply poor but who could find no assured and recognized place in society at all. These people lacked the material and emotional support afforded by traditional social groups; their kinship-groups had disintegrated and they were not effectively organized in village communities or in guilds; for them there existed no regular, institutionalized methods of voicing their grievances or pressing their claims. Instead they waited for a propheta to bind them together in a group of their own.

Because these people found themselves in such an exposed and defenceless position they were liable to react very sharply to any disruption of the normal, familiar, pattern of life. Again and again one finds that a particular outbreak of revolutionary millenarianism took place against a background of disaster . . . 

Excerpt From: Cohn, Norman. “The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages.” iBooks. (My own bolded highlighting)

Examples of those camel back-breaking disasters and related messianic movements:

  • Plague –> the First Crusade and the flagellant movements of 1260, 1348-9, 1391 and 1400;
  • Famines –> First and Second Crusades and the popular crusading movements of 1309-20, the flagellant movement of 1296, the movements around Eon and the pseudo-Baldwin;
  • Spectacular rise in prices –> the revolution at Münster.
  • Black Death –> The greatest wave of millenarian excitement, one which swept through the whole of society . . .  and here again it was in the lower social strata that the excitement lasted longest and that it expressed itself in violence and massacre.

Islamic Messianism

read more »


2016-03-24

Carrier, Lataster and Background Knowledge Element 4: A Quibble

by Neil Godfrey
File:Brooklyn Museum - The Magi in the House of Herod (Les rois mages (Wikimedia)

File:Brooklyn Museum – The Magi in the House of Herod (Les rois mages (Wikimedia)

It will be a little while before I set aside the time I would need to prepare a proper review of Richard Carrier’s book, On the Historicity of Jesus, and Raphael Lataster’s Jesus Did Not Exist, but till then I can drop the odd comment on this or that point.

But one thing I can say about Lataster’s book is that it provides an excellent chapter by chapter synopsis of Carrier’s larger work. Most of what Lataster says I agree with so overall I can say I have very little to add. The only point that I don’t recall being made is that I think it would be an excellent idea if Carrier or someone on his behalf re-wrote On the Historicity of Jesus without any of the Bayesian jargon. Perhaps then (we can dream) those academics who appear to have read it will not be able to excuse themselves from the main thrust of its argument by happily lamenting that “Bayes is not their speciality so they can’t comment”. Does anyone know of any critic of Carrier’s book who has actually dealt with the chapters on “Background Knowledge”? What I have seen in the few critical reviews to date are a complete bypassing of this absolutely critical section and a zeroing in on a controversial scriptural interpretation or two. In other words, they are not dealing with the argument at all. If the scriptural interpretations they disagree with are indeed crucial to Carrier’s argument they need to demonstrate that — but none has, as far as I am aware.

A Quibble

Anyway, there is one quibble I do have with one of Carrier’s “Elemental Background Knowledge”.

Element 4: (a) Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism. There was an evident clamoring of sects and individu­als to announce they had found the messiah. (b) It is therefore no oddity or accident that this is exactly when Christianity arose. It was yet another messiah cult in the midst of a fad for just such cults. (c) That it among them would alone survive and spread can therefore be the product of natural selection: so many variations of the same theme were being tried, odds are one of them would by chance be successful, hitting all the right notes and dodging all the right bullets. The lucky winner in that contest just happened to be Christianity.16

This element is often denied, or its basis not well understood, so I will pause to establish it before moving on. (OHJ, p. 67)

I might be one of those who denies it. Lataster supports Carrier, assuring readers that he supports the point well enough with evidence. I am not so sure, however. Though I should say at the outset that I do acknowledge a messianic fervour in the mid to late first century and on into the second century and that the gospel authors (“evangelists”) were influenced by this later development.

The Gospels as Supporting Evidence?

One piece of evidence Carrier cites is in the gospels themselves. There we read that Jews were so eagerly anticipating the Messiah that they could be plausibly portrayed as “seeing” Elijah among them raised from the dead. John the Baptist is also said to have been preaching a messianic message. My problems with Carrier’s argument here are:

  • the scenario of Jews thinking they see Elijah among them is an evangelist’s conceit; a theological foil to the larger theme of Jesus’ identity;
  • John the Baptist in the gospels is another artificial construct conveying the evangelist’s theological message of Jesus superseding the Prophets, and he is quite unlike the John the Baptist found in Josephus — where he is not a messianic preacher.

read more »