2008-06-06

Could Jews never have imagined a crucified Messiah?

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by Neil Godfrey

This question is often enough presented rhetorically in one form or another as if to settle the question of the historicity of a Jesus whose presence was so inspiring that his followers continued to exalt his status after his death into a divine messiah status. It would be inconceivable that anyone would have completely made up such a story as a crucified messiah, the assertion goes.

I disagree.

If the Jews of the Second Temple period could imagine . . .

  1. their father Isaac saving their nation by his blood,
  2. by offering himself as a willing sacrifice that atoned for the sins of his descendants;
  3. and if they could identify with him as the archtypical martyr so that they could also face death, with hope of a resurrection;
  4. and if their historical narratives spoke of other favoured and beloved only sons, also fated for real or symbolic deaths,

— who were disbelieved and betrayed by their own brethren,

— but only as part of a divine plan to bring them through humiliation into exaltation and authority

. . . if Second Temple Jews (who were by no means as monolithic as they became in rabbinical times) could construct such a saving theology of Isaac and the Beloved Son, then some of them were definitely not far removed from a crucified messiah concept at all.

Not only do we have a plausible matrix for the Jesus theology, but even for the narrative of the blind and failing disciples who from the first gospel accompanied it.

Jon D Levenson, Professor of Jewish Studies, argues that there was a strand of Jewish “theology” that ran just like the above — as I’ve outlined in posts here.

His argument leaves one to ponder how many Jews faced the events of the Jewish War of the first century c.e., and how some may well have been moved to imitate their ancestors who found solace in an Isaac identification in the time of an earlier conflict with the Seleucid monarch. Then imagine how they must have struggled with forging a new theological identity as their Mosaic foundations were torn down stone by stone.

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Neil Godfrey

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