Category Archives: Messianism


2012-07-29

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 7

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Part 6 . . . .

The preceding posts have outlined Matthew Novenson’s argument that Paul’s concept of Christ (as expressed throughout his epistles) was entirely consistent with “the formal conventions of ancient Jewish Messiah language” that we would expect in any messianic literature of his era.

There are a few passages, however, that have been used to argue that Paul’s idea of Christ “demurred from, repudiated or even polemicized against” the Jewish theological notion of Messiah. Novenson rejects these interpretations and argues that even in these passages Paul uses χριστός within the range of conventional Jewish understanding of the Messiah.

1 Corinthians 1:23 “We Preach a Crucified Christ”

For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

Recent scholarly interpretation has generally viewed Christ here as “a meaning-less proper name” and hence the common translation as above, “Christ crucified”. An alternative translation that Novenson deploys is “a crucified Christ“. That definitely has a different ring to it. read more »


2012-07-28

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 6

by Neil Godfrey

This post continues a study of some of the passages in Paul’s letters that, according to Matthew Novenson, demonstrate that Paul’s use of the term “Christ” is entirely consistent with the understanding of “Messiah” that we would expect to find in any other Jewish text of his day. That is, Paul did not have a radically new conception of the Jewish Messiah that stood in opposition to the very concept among his Jewish contemporaries. Novenson argues that “Christ”, for Paul, is neither a name nor a title, but an honorific (cf. Augustus, Epiphanes, Maccabee, Africanus).

The previous post considered passages from Galatians 3 and 1 Corinthians 15. The next passages discussed are

(1) 2 Corinthians 1:21-22 –

Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

The significance of this passage, Novenson explains, is that it demonstrates Paul’s consciousness of the meaning of “Christ” as “Anointed” — “Christ” is not simply another name-label for Jesus as some have thought. Word-play was a common ancient convention and we see Paul using this here with his verb χρίσας (anointed) following Χριστὸν (Christ);

(2) and Romans 9:1-5 –

I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.

I focus here, however, on those passages that on first reading are less clearly messianic in the orthodox sense.

Romans 15:3, 9 “Your Reproaches Fell on Me . . . I Will Praise Your Name”

For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.” . . . read more »


2012-07-22

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 5

by Neil Godfrey

Much New Testament scholarship has come to think that Paul did not believe Jesus was the Messiah in any sense that his contemporary Jews would have understood the word Messiah. Many Pauline scholars have concluded that for the bulk of Paul’s 270 references to Christ (Greek for Messiah) the word meant little more than a personal name, and certainly not the traditional Messiah of Jewish national aspirations.

Matthew Novenson (Christ among the Messiahs) argues otherwise. The previous posts in this series have sketched his arguments that Paul used the term Christ, not as a personal name nor as a title of office, but as an honorific comparable the honorifics applied to Hellenistic kings and Roman generals and emperors:

  • Epiphanes [God Manifest]
  • Soter [Saviour]
  • Africanus [conqueror of Africa]
  • Augustus [Venerable]

. . . . χριστός in Paul is best conceived neither as a sense-less proper name nor as a title of office but rather as an honorific, a word that can function as a stand-in for a personal name but part of whose function is to retain its supernominal associations. Consequently, we ought not to imagine Paul habitually writing χριστός as if it signified nothing, then occasionally recalling its scriptural associations and subtly redeploying it. We ought rather to think of Paul using the honorific throughout his letters and occasionally, for reasons of context, clarifying one of more aspects of how he means the term. (p. 138)

If follows that Novenson argues that Paul’s use of the word Christ (χριστός) is entirely consistent with what it meant among Jews of his day — a world-conquering and liberating Hebrew “Messiah”. Paul has not done away with the traditional messianic idea. Rather, Paul relies upon the same core Scriptural texts that other Jews likewise regarded as foundational to their understanding of who and what the Messiah was. I repeat here from Part 2 those half dozen central texts, none of which, interestingly, contains the word “messiah”. See part 2 for the explanation of why these texts are known to be central for Jewish concepts and discussions about the meaning of the Messiah.

Genesis 49:10

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the commander’s staff from between his feet, until that which is his comes; and the obedience of the peoples is his.

Numbers 24:17

A star will go forth from Jacob; and a scepter will rise from Israel; it will shatter the borders of Moab and tear down all the sons of Sheth.

Wenceslas Hollar - King David

Wenceslas Hollar – King David (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2 Samuel 7:12-13

I will raise up your seed after you, who will come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.

Isaiah 11:1-2

A shoot will come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch will grow from his roots. The spirit of YHWH will rest upon him.

Amos 9:11

On that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, and repair its breached walls, and raise up its ruins, and build it as in the days of old.

Daniel 7:13-14

I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like a son of man was coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and honor and kingship.

In this post I begin to look at some of the passages in Paul’s letters where Novenson finds Paul clarifying his use of the term χριστός/messiah. Novenson attempts to show through these passages that Paul’s use of the term is no different from what we would expect to find in any other Jewish or Christian text that we consider “a messiah text”.

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Galatians 3:16 “Abraham’s Seed, Which Is Christ”

Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. (Gal. 3:16)

But contrast the passage in Genesis that Paul is referencing (Genesis 13:14-17): read more »


2012-07-08

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 4

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series on Matthew Novenson’s Christ among the Messiahs . . . .

Before addressing some of the passages in Paul’s letters in order to demonstrate, by reference to earlier posts in this series, that Paul’s concept of Messiah/Christ fell within the framework of the common Jewish understanding of the term, I cover here some well-known phrases Paul uses for Christ — “in Christ”, and his habit of switching the order of its use as in Christ Jesus and Jesus Christ. Novenson examines these common phrases to see if they throw light on what Paul meant by the term “Christ”.

We will see that For Paul, as for his fellow Jews, the “Messiah/Christ” was an anointed, conquering and liberating Israelite king. What was striking about Paul’s concept was the means by which the Messiah would conquer. I think this has implications for the traditional model of Christian origins that argues the earliest Christians turned the concept of Messiah on its head. Followed through, I also think the question has implications for the question of Christian origins itself, but none of that is touched by Novenson, of course, and I am sure Novenson is far more deeply embedded in the conventional wisdoms of Christian origins than I am.

Here is an outline of Novenson’s discussion of what may or may not be gleaned of Paul’s meaning from some short phrases. It is very much an outline only since I avoid the details of the grammatical arguments here.

Paul’s variant terms for Jesus

Paul speaks of “Jesus”, of “Christ”, of “Jesus Christ” and “Christ Jesus”. Scholars have debated the significance of these variations and many have concluded that the “Christ” is simply another name, like “Jesus”, without any particular messianic import that would be recognized by his fellow Jews. Novenson disagrees. Without going into the details of the arguments, there is one memorable analogy Novenson offers that would seem to clinch the argument against Christ and Jesus both being mere names. Julius Caesar was always Julius Caesar, never Caesar Julius. But Jesus Christ could quite comfortably also be Christ Jesus.

The fact that the order of the two terms is interchangeable strongly suggests that it is not a true double name but rather a combination of personal name plus honorific. (p. 134)

“In Christ”

Most scholarship concerning this phrase, Novenson informs us, has been concerned with exploring read more »


2012-06-27

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 3b

by Neil Godfrey

The previous post surveyed the range of arguments over whether Paul uses the word “Christ” (χριστός) as a personal name for Jesus or as a title. The answer to the question has implications for Paul’s Christology and theology. (Did he view Jesus as a messianic figure in the traditional Jewish sense or not?) I also suspect the question has implications for the more radical question of Christian origins (Novenson does not address this broader topic, however) and whether or not the earliest concept of the Christian Christ is compatible with an itinerant Galilean teacher and/or healer, or to what extent, the original Christian Christ figure matched contemporary messianic understandings and how best to account for this match/non-match?

Earlier posts in this series examined how Jews of Paul’s era did understand and write about the “messiah”, and we saw Novenson’s conclusion that the concept revolved around a small subset of texts in the Hebrew Scriptures and a limited range of syntactical expressions.

This post concludes an outline of chapter 3 in Novenson’s Christ among the Messiahs, Names, Titles, and Other Possibilities. Having covered the arguments fueling the debate over whether Paul used χριστός as a name or a title, we conclude here with Novenson’s own argument for how Paul understood and used the word.

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Christ as an Honorific

Novenson does find a naming category that he believes is “just right” for the way Paul uses χριστός. The trouble is the particular category has been hidden beneath a range of other widely varying modern concepts: read more »


2012-06-26

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 3a

by Neil Godfrey

In the previous post we saw how Matthew Novenson in Christ among the Messiahs showed that

there were certain linguistic conventions in Jewish antiquity whereby a speaker or writer could refer meaningfully to the concept of a messiah by alluding to a small but significant group of scriptural texts.

This post looks at the question of discovering what word “messiah” itself meant, or what role a messiah was thought to have, among ancient authors and with special reference to Paul.

One approach to interpretation is to note the frequency with which the word is used. It is significant, says Novenson, that 1 and 2 Maccabees never use messiah language with reference to Judah Maccabee or his brothers, that the Epistle of James uses the word only twice (1:1 and 2:1) and the Gospel of Thomas not at all. Paul’s seven “undisputed” letters contain 270 instances of the word. This total is

more than he uses any other word for Jesus and more than any other ancient Jewish author uses that word. (p. 64)

So was Paul really “the most messianically interested of any ancient Jewish or Christian author”? Did he really mean “messiah” in any traditional Jewish sense or was it mainly a personal name he applied to Jesus?

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The Name-versus-Title Debate

If Paul used the word Christ as a title for Jesus then we may understand Paul as having a messianic Christological view. If he used it only as a personal name, however, then we may conclude that he had no such Christology and the word had no particular or traditional messianic meaning.

Most scholars have come down on the side of the latter argument — that Paul uses Christ as a proper name,

and that consequently the messiahship of Jesus plays little or no role in Paul’s thought . . . It follows, then, that for Paul “the Christian message does not hinge, at least primarily, on the claim that Jesus was or is the Messiah.” In fact, for Paul, “the Messiahship of Jesus is simply not an issue.” (p. 65, quoting MacRae, also Hare, Kramer, Dahl)

A minority of scholars, including N. T. Wright, have taken the contrary view and argued that Paul used the term as a title and that the messiashship of Jesus “lies at the very heart of his theology, ecclesiology, and eschatology.” read more »


2012-06-17

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 2

by Neil Godfrey

What “Messiah” meant at the time of Paul and the earliest Christians

Continuing with notes from Christ among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism

by Matthew V. Novenson

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christamongmessiahsThe messianic idea

We saw in Part 1 that interpreters of Paul have confidently concluded that whatever Paul meant by χριστός he did not mean “messiah”, but modern studies of messianism have shown that the meaning of “messiah” remains an open question.

Understanding what was meant by “messiah” was much simpler throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Jewish and Christian scholars alike took for granted the existence of “the messianic idea” that was widely understood throughout the period of ancient Judaism. The evidence for this idea was not found in every text that made mention of a messiah, but it could be cobbled together by combining motifs from different documents.

So the Christian scholar, Emil Schürer, on the basis of the Apocalypse of Baruch and the fourth Book of Esdras, showed that this messianic idea entailed the following:

  1. The final ordeal and confusion
  2. Elijah as precursor
  3. The coming of the messiah
  4. The last assault of the hostile powers
  5. Destruction of hostile powers
  6. The renewal of Jerusalem
  7. The gathering of the dispersed
  8. The kingdom of glory in the holy land
  9. The renewal of the world
  10. A general resurrection
  11. The last judgment, eternal bliss and damnation

Jewish scholarship did not substantially differ, as seen from Joseph Klausner’s list of ingredients that make up the messianic idea:

  1. The signs of the Messiah
  2. The birth pangs of the Messiah
  3. The coming of Elijah
  4. The trumpet of Messiah
  5. The ingathering of the exiles
  6. The reception of proselytes
  7. The war with Gog and Magog
  8. The Day of the Messiah
  9. The renovation of the World to Come

Klausner conceded that no single text sets out this complex of ideas in full, but these points nonetheless are what the disparate texts mean when put together.

In other words, if a literary text lacks some of the pieces, that is the fault of the text, not of the messianic idea. The idea exists prior to and independently of the texts. (p. 37)

The messianic idea psychologized

What is more, in most modern accounts the messianic idea is described in specifically psychological terms: It is the force that animates the pious Jewish hope for redemption, either throughout Jewish history (in Jewish treatments) or at the time of Christ (in Christian treatments).

In this train we find discussions of the messianic idea arising out of a tenacious belief in a better future despite overwhelming troubles facing the present. Some authors have seen this as one of Judaism’s special gifts to the world alongside monotheism and ethical codes. Scholarly study has accordingly been less about the messiah figure than about the religious attitude and ideology that was the backdrop to various beliefs in such a figure.

The messianological vacuum

The concept of the “messianic idea” in Judaism started to unravel at the end of the Second World War with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scholars increasingly argued that the words for “messiah” and “christ” in the Second Temple period “had no fixed content” (De Jonge) and may even have had no special significance or meaning at all (James Charlesworth, Jacob Neusner, William Scott Green). They were labels that could be, and were, applied to a wide variety of persons and things. read more »


2012-01-31

The First Signs of Christianity: Couchoud continued

by Neil Godfrey

Couchoud thought that John the Baptist epitomized and popularized the Jewish hopes for a coming Judge from Heaven — as shown in my previous post in this series (the entire series is archived here).

Christianity was born of the travail of the days of John. The Baptist gave it two talismans with which to bind souls:

  1. the advent of the Heavenly Man in a universal cataclysm,
  2. and the rite of baptism which allowed the initiates to await, without apprehension, the Coming of the Judge.

(p. 31, my formatting)

At first the teaching spread like wildfire but without John’s name attached to it as its IP owner.

Before long the teaching became enriched with various kinds of additions. First among these additions were new names for the Heavenly Man: Lord, Christ, Jesus.

Lord as a title was derived from Psalm 110:1

The Lord said unto my Lord,

Sit thou at my right hand,

Until I make thine enemies thy footstool.

To whom could this have been addressed? Surely not to the Messiah, the Son of David, waited for by the Pharisees. David would not have called his son “my Lord.” It must have been to the Son of Man who, according to the Revelation of Enoch, was placed on the throne of his glory by God Himself. (p. 31)

Since David as an inspired prophet makes it clear that the Son of Man is enthroned at the right hand of God and calls him Lord. So believers could also call the Son of Man their Lord.

(Note that the title “Son of Man” was used as a Greek expression, too. Think of Christianity as moulded very largely by Greek speakers.)

Christ, Christos, “is a somewhat barbarous translation of the Hebrew word which means consecrated by unction, Messiah.” read more »


2011-12-28

A fallacious argument for Jesus’ historicity

by Neil Godfrey

Dr McGrath in a recycled youtube presentation Did Jesus Exist? argues that Jesus was a historical figure in these words:

The reason that the crucifixion persuades most historians that Jesus was a historical figure is that a crucified messiah was in essence a contradiction in terms. . . .  It needs to be emphasized that we are talking about a dying and rising messiah. And the messianic expectations of Judaism around the time of early Christianity are well documented. And the whole notion of messiah is “anointed one” . . . . and this goes back to the practice of anointing kings and priests in ancient Israel. And in the case of Jesus the connection of the terminology of the term messiah with the claim to his having been descended from David shows they were thinking of a kingly figure. And nothing would have disqualified someone from seriously being considered possibly being the messiah as being executed by the foreign rulers over the Jewish people. That wasn’t what people expected from the messiah. And it makes very little sense to claim that the early Christians invented a figure completely from scratch and called him the messiah and said that he didn’t do the same things that the messiah was expected. Not only did he not conquer the Romans, he was executed by them. He did not institute and bring in the kingdom of god the way the people were expecting, and in fact Christians had to explain this in terms of Jesus returning to finish the task of what was expected of the messiah.

All of this makes much more sense if one says that there was a figure whom the early Christians believed was the messiah and that the early Christians were trying somehow to make sense of those things that don’t seem to fit that belief.

In other words, the argument for the historicity of Jesus is, “No-one would have made it up.” This is in effect an appeal to ignorance. If one cannot imagine (without really trying) why someone would make it up, it must be historical.

The argument as expressed is, however, quite implausible. Stop and think. read more »


2011-10-09

Popular Messianic(?) Movements Up To The Time Of Jesus and Beyond – Part 3

by Neil Godfrey
Samaritan sanctuary, Mount Gerizim

Image via Wikipedia

This continues from Part 2 where I continued discussing what Richard Horsley has to say about popular messianic movements in Israel up to the time of Jesus in Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs. In the last post I covered “social banditry” in Palestine (especially Galilee) and those who were looked upon as rightful kings in the early part of the first century.

What particularly interests me is the evidence that these movements represent popular messianism. Horsley is clear: there is no evidence of popular messianism before the time of Jesus. I have read many assertions that Josephus is describing messianic movements without explicitly describing them as such. But these assertions remind me of William Scott Green’s observation that many scholars have spent a lot of time studying messianism where the word is not found. The first clearest evidence we have of popular messianic hopes relates to the period after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 c.e. When we interpret movements before then as messianic are we guilty of reading later ideas back into an earlier period?

I do not deny that any of these pre-70 movements were messianic. They may have been. But what is the evidence? Are there alternative explanations that may fit the evidence (and the evidence for the origins of popular messianism) more economically?

This post addresses the Samaritan who led followers to Mount Gerazim, Theudas and “the Egyptian”. read more »


2011-10-07

The Dying Messiah (refrain)

by Neil Godfrey

Richard Carrier has posted a fascinating artticle on the pre-Christian Jewish concept of a dying Messiah and showing the nonsense so thoughtlessly repeated even by scholars the originality of Christianity’s idea that a messiah must die in order to offer saving atonement to his people.

Richard’s post is beautifully lengthy exploring much detail from the evidence.

I can’t resist taking this opportunity to refer to the many posts I have also made on this same theme, although they do not explore the same details as Carrier does — listed below.

My posts are for most part based on other scholars who have advanced the same idea, including a Jewish one who sees certain sectarian Second Temple Jewish ideas about Isaac’s offering (apparently thought by some to have been a literal blood sacrifice that atoned for the Jewish people) overlapping with messianism in the time of the Maccabean martyrs — whose blood also had atoning power.

Other posts are based in some measure on the considerable work of Thomas L. Thompson who has written quite a bit on the concept of pre-Christian messianism.

Of significance is the death of the messianic (anointed high priest) having the power to forgive and atone; and the Davidic messiah himself was very often depicted as a figure of suffering and even ultimate rescue from death or near-death.

Carrier refers to Daniel’s messiah being killed. Saul, another messiah, was also killed. The concept of a messiah per se dying — whether the messiah was humanly fallible or a righteous martyr — was very much a part of the thought world of sectors of Judaism at the time of Christianity’s birth.

Carrier sees the history of messianic pretenders arising in the pre-war period as a possible outcome of the Daniel prophecy. Maybe, but I will have to think that through some more. Till now I have tended to argue that there were no such popular messianic expectations until from the time of the Roman war of 66-70 in a series of posts I have yet to complete. (Carriers post might end up prompting me to finish that now so I can think through his arguments some more.)

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here is a list of posts of mine on the same theme — that the idea of a dying messiah was by no means novel to the Jews or original to the Christians. read more »


2011-08-05

Messiahs, Midrash and Mythemes — more comparisons with the Gospels

by Neil Godfrey

6th August: expanded “the trial” comparison into “The face to face confrontation of secular and religious leaders

Comparing other rabbinic midrash with the Gospels

In my previous post I covered Galit Hasan-Rokem’s comparisons of some early Christian and rabbinic midrash. In this post I comment on Hasan-Rokem’s discussions of other tales in the midrash of Lamentations Rabbah and draw my own comparisons with the Gospels.

An image of the French philosopher, Claude Lév...

Claude Lévi-Strauss: Image via Wikipedia

The second rabbinic story of a Messiah discussed by Hasan-Rokem is one about the death of “King Messiah” Bar Kochba. Here the messiah is the villain. (Rabbinic sources subsequently referred to him as Bar Kozeba, Son of Lies.) I think there are a number of interesting plot and motif similarities here, just as there are between the messiah birth narratives of the Christian and rabbinic literature and that were detailed in the previous post. But what makes the overlaps interesting is considering an explanation for them through the constructs of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. If this turns out to be an invalid process, invalidly applied, fair enough. But let’s see what it might possibly suggest till then.

The midrashic tale is found in full (and re-edited) in the last half of the post titled Birth and Death of the Messiah: Two Jewish Midrash Tales (and have since copied it again at the end of this post, too.)

First, the common elements. I can see about 20. Some are more “distinctly defining” attributes that signal a common idea than others: #10 and #17 are surely tell-tale (DNA-linking) ones. read more »


2011-07-30

The Messiah in the Dead Sea Scrolls — how like the Gospel Messiah

by Neil Godfrey

DSS fragment photographed by myself

Corrected and updated -- Neil Godfrey, 1:15 pm 30th July 2011 

Comment by Steven Carr — 2011/07/29

It is interesting to see how mainstream scholars are edging towards mythicist ideas.

http://nearemmaus.com/2011/07/28/the-future-of-historical-jesus-studies/

‘The old idea that exalted epithets such as “Son of God” or “Son of the Most High” applied to Jesus reflect Greco-Roman thinking, rather than Jewish thinking, has been seriously challenged by the Aramaic fragment, 4Q246, in which an eschatological figure is described with these very terms. Moreover, the idea of a Messiah figure, whose appearance brings healing, resurrection of the dead, and good news for the poor—concepts that define the identity and ministry of Jesus—is now attested in 4Q521. Indeed, the idea of a figure who acts in the very place of Yahweh himself, in fulfillment of Isaiah 61 and an expected eschatological jubilee, is attested in 11QMelchizedek.’

Curiously James McGrath claims all Messiah figures were expected to be conquering kings.** (Note by Neil: McGrath has clarified that he is only referring to “Davidic Messiahs” and he does not dispute that there were other messianic notions among the Jews.)

And Mike Wilson is adamant that no Jew could have thought of a figure acting in the very place of Yahweh himself (unless that figure was a crucified criminal, if I understand Mike correctly. )

It is interesting that mainstream scholars claim that mythical eschatological figures, people who never actually existed, are described in the same terms applied to Jesus.

The texts are available online, but for easy reference I copy the relevant ones here, with links to the site sourced:

4Q246

“[X] shall be great upon the earth. [O King all (people) shall] make [peace], and all shall serve [Him. He shall be called the Son of] the [G]reat [God], and by His Name shall He be hailed (as) the Son of God, and they shall call Him Son of the Most High like a shooting star.”

4Q521 read more »


2011-07-24

Popular Messianic Movements Up To The Time Of Jesus – Part 1

by Neil Godfrey
Abimelech was a son of the great judge Gideon ...

Abimelech was a son of the great judge Gideon: Image via Wikipedia

This post surveys the evidence and questions the conclusions of Richard A. Horsley (with John S. Hanson) in Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus (1999) concerning messianic hopes and movements among the common people of Palestine up to the time of Jesus. It is some years since I first read this book, and my own views have since been modified by my studies of the contributions of “minimalism” (mainly through Thompson, Lemche and Davies) to what we can securely know about the history of Palestine in the centuries up to the Christian era. So it is interesting to return to Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs with that new understanding and to read the arguments again through more informed – and more critical – eyes.

In a couple of recents posts I shared Horsley’s presentation of the evidence we have for understanding of literary elites on the concept of “messianism” (and “Davidic messianism”) up to the early first century CE. Horsley rightly stressed the “other-worldly” theological nature of these ideas and how removed they probably were from the masses. While Horsley emphasized that these ideas were unrelated to popular ideologies, I am now embarrassed to have to say I did overstate his position on what the peasant masses did have on their minds. I had allowed by subsequent reading of ‘minimalist’ methodologies to interfere with what I recalled of his argument, and I have to now confess that he really did claim that the masses did have some “dormant” messianic hopes after all that were activated around the time of Jesus. (I will have to return to my earlier posts and re-write a few lines.)

But in my defence I will show in this post that Horsley’s assertion here is comparable to the assertions of scholars who concede that the gospels are so overlaid with myth, theology and literary artifices that they bury from view any historical Jesus, but we have to believe there was a historical Jesus behind it all just the same. Horsley’s evidence for popular messianic hopes supposedly unlike anything we find in the elite literature of the period rests squarely upon the assumption that the Old Testament stories of Judges and Davidic Kings were genuine historical eras. The link Horsley attempts to forge between those times and the period of Jesus is, I will argue, unnatural, speculative and without unequivocal evidence.

The Tradition of Popular Kingship read more »