Jewish scriptures as inspiration for a Slain Messiah

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by Neil Godfrey

Was it possible for Second Temple Jews to have imagined a Messiah who is unjustly killed solely by reading their Scriptures?

The Apostles in Acts are said to have preached Christ out of the Scriptures. Paul, and even other epistle writers, claim that their gospel was revealed to them through the scriptures and/or through the spirit of God — not oral tradition or personal encounters.

Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, 26but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him . . . (Romans 16:25-26)

the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. (Colossians 1:26)

My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ (Colossians 2:2)

the mystery of Christ, 5which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. (Ephesians 3:5)

and at his appointed season he brought his word to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Savior, (Titus 1:3)

Although one often hears it said that no first-century Jews were expecting a humiliated and crucified Messiah, the evidence one can read in the Jewish Scriptures surely suggests otherwise. Given the diversity of religious ideas we are led to understand blanketed the Second Temple era, and given the nature of the few scriptural passages that specifically and literally refer to “anointing” or “anointed” (=messiah), we would be very courageous to bet that no sects had such an idea.

Look at Psalm 2.2 for starters

The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together,
Against the LORD and against His Anointed [=Messiah]

Now the rest of the Psalm goes on to recount God laughing at those plotting rulers and assuring his Messianic Son (whom he has begotten that day) that he will give him victory over his enemies.

Nonetheless, we do have passage that presents a clear threat to the Messiah, and one from kings and rulers.

It is surely not too much of a leap for any reader familiar with these scriptures, and the Psalms in particular, to let their mind wander to other psalms where David or God’s son is promised deliverance and exaltation over his enemies, but only after first being brought face to face with death itself. One finds similar motifs within Isaiah, where the servant of God (Israel – Isa.49.3, who is also God’s son – Exod.4.22 and Hos 11.1) is humiliated, despised, struck down, only to rise again in victory over his foes – Isa. 49 ff.

In Isaiah 11 we even read that such a son is, at least figuratively, a son of David. And in Isaiah 53 we find the same word to describe the “delivering up” of the Servant to humiliation as we find in Paul’s 1 Corinthians 11:23 statement that Christ was “delivered up” on the night of the Last Supper (Doherty, p. 86).

But it wasn’t all suffering and exaltation for the Messiah. Isaiah 61.1 informs readers that the one anointed (a messiah) is to preach the good news.

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me,
Because the LORD has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound

And this Isaiah passage cannot help but lead readers of this book to companion passages where one reads of the lame being healed, the blind being restored to sight, such as Isaiah 35

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.
Then the lame shall leap like a deer,

And the tongue of the dumb sing.

And so the messiah will perform such miracles?

If we look at the career of kings who are said to have been “anointed” (messiahs) we find a similar mixed pattern.

Hazael (anointed 1 Ki 19.15) and Jehu (anointed 2 Ki 9.1-6) brought conquest and judgment upon those whom God sought to punish.

Saul (anointed 1 Sa. 9.10) also delivered Israel from her enemies for a time, but then was himself slain for his sin.

Joash of Judah (anointed 2 Ki. 1.32-45) likewise was chosen by God to save the Davidic line, but was also murdered for his subsequent sin against God’s prophet, Zechariah.

And we know the stories of David (anointed 1 Sa. 16.1, 13) and Solomon (anointed 1 Ki. 1.32-45) well enough. Both chosen by God, but both failed their God and suffered in different ways. David, in particular, had to flee from his kingdom, climbing the Mount of Olives in his own desperate straits and trusting in God for deliverance.

But these are all past human kings. If I were looking for a Messiah in the Scriptures who would be the Messiah of all Messiahs and bring in the age of God, would I not be guided by each of these, but also be open to something even greater than all that had preceded? If past messiahs broke physical kingdoms and ruled geographical areas for limited times, would not we want the final messiah to go one better and smash the powers that ruled all those kingdoms, and to take charge of them? I know, I’m jumping way ahead of the story, here.

This is only a  mind game, and we might think it’s too easy in retrospect to imagine how anyone might interpret the passages back then. But that’s why I am taking as my starting point only those passages that specifically mention the word for Messiah — the exact word that might trigger the imagination of an ancient Jew.

But how might at least some Jews have interpreted the following from Daniel? Are any at all likely to have played with its ambiguity? Daniel 9:25-26

Know therefore and understand,
from the going forth of the command
To restore and build Jerusalem
Until Messiah the Prince,
There shall be
seven weeks and sixty-two weeks;
The street shall be built again, and the wall,
Even in troublesome times.

And after the sixty-two weeks
Messiah shall be cut off, but not for Himself;
And the people of the prince who is to come
Shall destroy the city and the sanctuary.
The end of it shall be with a flood,
And till the end of the war desolations are determined.

Cut off, but not for himself? Other Messiahs were cut off but that was because of their own sins. Others were reduced to the very point of death, also as a result of their sins, though God delivered them for their faith in him.

Is it at all possible that any Jews could have speculated on the possibility of a Messiah who was threatened, humiliated, suffered, even killed, but who rose victorious over his enemies nonetheless? And is it at all possible that any Jews could imagine such a figure demonstrating his powers over demons, healing the sick to prove this power, preaching good news of liberty and a new spiritual kingdom of God to replace the old?

Is it really very hard to conceive that we can find the raw materials in familiar books that might generate such speculative ideas?

Well, we do know that at least some Jews did entertain the notion of a messiah who would die just prior to the final judgment of God when all would be resurrected. 2 Esdras or 4 Ezra 7:26-35, written some time after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce posed this thought:

[26] For behold, the time will come, when the signs which I have foretold to you will come to pass, that the city which now is not seen shall appear, and the land which now is hidden shall be disclosed.
[27] And every one who has been delivered from the evils that I have foretold shall see my wonders.
[28] For my son the Messiah shall be revealed with those who are with him, and those who remain shall rejoice four hundred years.
[29] And after these years my son the Messiah shall die, and all who draw human breath.
[30] And the world shall be turned back to primeval silence for seven days, as it was at the first beginnings; so that no one shall be left.
[31] And after seven days the world, which is not yet awake, shall be roused, and that which is corruptible shall perish.
[32] And the earth shall give up those who are asleep in it, and the dust those who dwell silently in it; and the chambers shall give up the souls which have been committed to them.
[33] And the Most High shall be revealed upon the seat of judgment, and compassion shall pass away, and patience shall be withdrawn;
[34] but only judgment shall remain, truth shall stand, and faithfulness shall grow strong.
[35] And recompense shall follow, and the reward shall be manifested; righteous deeds shall awake, and unrighteous deeds shall not sleep.

Looks like some Jews, in the wake of the loss of their temple, anticipated a future messiah at the end of days, or at least 400 years and one week before the general resurrection.

What may or may not be interesting about this passage is that this messiah appears to have been kept behind the scenes until the time comes for his revelation. This is the same idea that we find in the earlier Jewish writing of the Son of Man in 1 Enoch 62:4-7

4 Then shall pain come upon them as on a woman in travail,
[And she has pain in bringing forth]
When her child enters the mouth of the womb,
And she has pain in bringing forth.

And one portion of them shall look on the other,
And they shall be terrified,
And they shall be downcast of countenance,
And pain shall seize them,
When they see that Son of Man Sitting on the throne of his glory.

6 And the kings and the mighty and all who possess the earth shall bless and glorify and extol him who rules over all, who was hidden.

7 For from the beginning the Son of Man was hidden,
And the Most High preserved him in the presence of His might,
And revealed him to the elect.

As Doherty remarks, (and I am indebted to his discussion for some sections of this post), there are scholars who think this later section of Enoch’s Similitudes is a Christian composition.

While preparing this post I came across a 1968 article in New Testament Studies (14, pp. 565-7) by F. H. Borsch that argues that “they will see” as used in 1 Enoch here is more likely to have been original to this Enochian passage than copied from Mark or Matthew.

(The whole line appears to be a creative “pesher” from Dan. 7:13 (Son of man coming), Ps. 110:1 (Sitting at God’s right hand), and Zech. 12:10 (they will see the one they pierced).)

Mark 14:62 uses the same phrase we see above in Enoch:

“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Borsch reasons that “they will see” more naturally and completely draws its meaning in Enoch from the detail that the Son of Man was hidden — and at the right time revealed. If so, the argument tilts in favour of  Mark copying from Enoch, as opposed to a later Christian adapting Mark or Matthew into Enoch.

Very little is absolutely certain.

But I think it is certain that we do find very little of a biographical  interest in a recently earthly and historical life of Christ in the epistles, but we do find at least the raw materials in Jewish scriptures that give the basic shape to a Messiah who ruled over the powers of the earth, preached a good news of liberation, healed the lame and blind, was opposed by kings and rulers, was delivered up to humiliation and even death, but not for himself, and was vindicated by God immediately afterwards.

I could as well have repeated what I wrote earlier about the messianic functions of the priests (largely drawn from Thompson’s discussion of messiahs), and the concept of the (hight priestly) messiah’s death having atoning, and liberating, significance — but will instead just include a link to that here.

Now none of this is new, of course. Christians have been pointing to these Old Testament “prophecies” ever since Christianity began. What Doherty argues — and I have used large slices of Doherty’s argument above, but have also mixed in some of my own ingredients (i.e. the kings of Judah, the Borsch article, Daniel 9, the basic slant of argument) — is that the process was the reverse from the orthodox view. Rather than Christians seeking to rationalize past events in the light of scriptures, they found Christ revealed to them in the scriptures. And the point of this post is to emphasize that even the invention of a crucified — or certainly martyred — messiah is not beyond plausibility.

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Neil Godfrey

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43 thoughts on “Jewish scriptures as inspiration for a Slain Messiah”

  1. So, early christians went for the jackpot – an everlasting, spiritual, messiah figure instead of a temporary historical messiah. This does not, however, negate the possibility that some Jews did view a historical figure in a messeanic light -during the historical time frame indicated in the NT.
    That, after all, is the name of the Jewish messianic game, its fundamental component. A historical messiah figure. Transforming that idea into a spiritual messiah concept, into the everylasting messiah concept, is what the early christians did. And as your post indicates, the materials were already there within the OT – but they were there alongside the literal messiah idea.

    Two messiah concepts, if you like. A literal historical figure plus a spiritual messiah figure. Obviously, no human messiah figure is going to last forever…..Jewish history, OT history, demonstrates how the literal concept has been applied to various earlier figures. Bottom line is that it was little more than an accolade. No historical figure being able to deliver lasting benefits. Hence, in time, the realization that ‘salvation’ needed to be seen in a more intellectual/spiritual context. And is that not what we have in the NT? The pseudo-historical Jesus figure of the gospels – and Paul’s spiritual Christ construct. The question is not is Jesus historical or not – that question can easily be dismissed; no evidence. What cannot be so easily dismissed is the possibility that a historical figure was deemed to be, by those early christians, an inspirational, meaningful, figure in relationship to their prophetic understanding.

    1. Do you think your views bring us back to those who say that if there ever was any historical Jesus he has been so overlaid with myth that any recovery of the original is now impossible? But if that is the case, then is not all the evidence available actually pointing to a mythical creation?

      But you probably know me well enough by now to know I am not black and white about these things. I don’t even see the “spiritual messiah figure” as a single idea that had a neat evolution along a well mapped trajectory or up a nice simple tree with maybe a handful of wayward branches. I suspect the real significance of little oddities like the passage in 4 Ezra is that these are indicators of a once many branched and twigged shrub of developments of ideas.

      1. The argument re the overlay with myth, is the type of argument often seen re ancient historical figures. After death they become mythologized. I don’t think this is the case with the Jesus mythology. The historical figure, the inspirational figure, the messiah figure (however interpreted)is only a very small part of the Jesus mythology. In other words, the Jesus mythology is more complex….

        The crucifixion, the dying and rising god mythology, is something that would have no relevance to a historical messiah figure. Literal messiah figures are ‘salvation’ figures within their life or their specific role. So, that’s an add on that would not be connected with a historical messiah figure. It’s really theology anyway, and Jews were not in the habit of turning men into gods…

        Within the Jesus mythology there are basically two types of characters seen – the earlier cynic sage and the later apocalyptic prophet. Two very contradictory characteristics that indicate that the Jesus mythology is a fusion – not simply, as in a specific historical figures, a creation that is a mythologizing of one historical figure. We have instead the Gentle Jesus that has been fused with an endtime apocalyptic prophet. Thus, a mix – a mix of elements that could never be traced back to one historical man.

        The reason I keep on about an inspirational historical figure is not to equate such a figure with the gospel Jesus – that’s impossible – but to keep the Jewish perspective in view. Early Jewish Christians were not going to let go of reality – no pie in the sky cosmic christ of Paul would be able to shake their grounding in real world prophetic reality – historical fulfillment – however subjective such an exercise that might be. Sure, once the new ‘sprout’ is seen to be growning from that ancient Jewish tree – then, full sail ahead….

        Of course, it’s all interpretation – and not all Jews joined the new party – but for any Jew to join the new growing spiritual comprehension – that basic requirement, a literal, historical fulfillment of OT messianic prophecies, would have had to be in place.

        The historical figure is incidental to christianity today. Christianity has no need for such a figure. But Jewish Christians did. And if its early christian origins we seek – its the Jewish perspective that can provide the road forward…

        And that it was so – well, we do have the gospels….

  2. I have no particular doubts that the mainstream popular conception of God’s Annointed would be a kingly figure of the Davidic line who would establish a very literal Kingdom of God that would rule over the Nations, a retributive figure in the temporal sphere. However, it seems clear that this was not what was at issue in any of the literary, elite conceptions of the Hellenistic and Greco-Roman periods. The problem was always the dissonance between the Jews’ status as the Chosen of the Most High God and their lowly state as a client people, the punching-bag of Empire after Empire. In the popular imagination, surely God would remedy this via a military-political leader. But for the elites immersed in the literary tradition and fully aware of the reality of Israel/Judaea’s political position, no such remedy was even possible (or desirable, given the excesses of the Hasmonean state). So the classic reversal of Apocalyptic: the first shall be last, the last shall be first, and the Kingdom of God is a Way in the (figurative, literary) Wilderness, not a temporal political ideal.

  3. I should add (and this is quite apart from the comments above that I may address later) that my post is nothing more than an attempt to point to possibility and plausibility of the idea of a slain messiah emerging from the Jewish scriptures among at least some Second Temple sectarians. (Levinson’s more cogent arguments about the direction of some sects concerning the atoning value of the blood of a slain and resurrected Isaac is also, of course, significant, I think anyway.)

    That is, my post is an attempt to address head on the very widespread idea that Jews generally were (almost necessarily) expecting nothing more than a conquering king to deliver them from Rome – and, of course, the implications of this idea so widely used in relation to Christian origins.

    Hope to respond to some of the specifics in the comments above in another post or future comment.


  4. Is “all the evidence available” hypothetical reconstructions of what people may have thought? Let us not forget that the Jesus Myth is not that there is so much myth attached to Jesus that we can’t figure out who this person really was, but that their is no person, that the founding character of Christianity, the Jesus, is a spirit being like an angel. Or, possibly that the this spirit being did have an earthly life, but the earthly life is a fiction. The Jesus myth idea is not that there was a preacher that was rather obscure and later people made up stories of him coming back from the dead, healing people and being the incarnation of some aspect of God. That is pretty much Orthodox Christianity (though they credit the stories a bit more credibility than most would allow).

  5. Mikelioso, this is a constant problem and I think it points to a significant divergence of opinion simply based on definition. A character who is literary can still be based on a person. Sherlock Holmes was based on a professor of medicine, Wonder Woman was based on the creator’s wife, Popeye was based on a real sailor man … and so on. If the believers in a historical Jesus believe in a historical Sherlock, a historical Diana of Themiscyra, a historical Paul Bunyan and so on, then I suppose Jesus fits right in that group.

    However, if you are more rigorous and suggest that, while all literary creations are to some degree based on real persons (the author if nobody else), the tell-tale marks of a myth (miracles predominating the narrative, supernatural relatives, interactions with long-dead Hebrew prophets as a primary part of the narrative, resurrection of the dead occurring routinely as part of the narrative and as its apex) suggest that the character is at best based on small details of one or more living people, but bears no real relationship to those people.

    This is why historical Jesus studies are so plagued with internecine difficulty — because the primary indisputable data seems so irreconcilable. So to create a “historical Jesus” one must jettison giant parts of the narratives we have (the gospels). What is left over after the ballast has been dropped are the parts that a particular historian considers the “historical core”, but of course it varies dramatically from historian to historian and the primary evidence is lacking so agreement is minimal.

    1. EVAN:

      Exactly. And what is the “criteria” that decides what is ballast to toss overboard and “historical core” to keep? “Criteria”! Not evidence, but argument. And criteria, of course, is subjective and often contradictory. Hence some “historians” will say the temple action or baptism of Jesus is “historical” on the basis of criteria A, but it is just as plausible to argue that criteria B is a reason to exclude it.

      I cannot recall where I saw it now, but I recently noticed (McGrath, I think) someone saying that they could establish the strong probability of something being done by Jesus, “and by corollary” that meant they could establish his “existence”! That is simply bananas. That sort of “methodology”, as Steven Carr has pointed out often enough, can prove Harry Potter is historical.


      I see nothing in Paul’s Christ that might be uniquely based on any particular person in mind. Born of a woman? Seed of David? These are hardly distinguishing personality traits.

      Paul’s (and the other epistle authors’) Christ is known through the Scriptures and /or Spirit.

      The idea that Christians were resented by Jews because of the “idea of the cross” is also without much warrant. Paul makes that claim in one of his letters, but is he not giving his own spin on why his Christians are persecuted? Is there not other evidence in Galatians and Acts to indicate that Paul’s Christians were rejected by their fellow Jews because of disputes over the uniquely distinguishing marks of being a Jew — law observance?

      Paul’s spin is to say that that is ultimately because of “the cross”, but I don’t know that that’s how other Jews would have interpreted it.


      You may be right. But I don’t want to give up exploring the Christ/Logos/heavenlyMan type figures and their analogs in the apocalyptic writings of the Second Temple Period and the potential directions they take us first. 🙂

      1. Neil, It’s not a case of one or the other – both! For the sake of spreading the spiritual message, the historical roots get put on the back burner. Look at it this way – there is no mind without a body. Paul’s spiritual construct can be taken any which way – Doherty’s way or just symbolism, figurative, intellectual interpretations etc. But that ‘fancy’ stuff does not replace the realities on the ground – the historical evidence of our bodily existence. A reality that the gospel story, albeit a pseudo-historical story, has endeavored to capture and retain…No ‘pure’ gnoticism for those early christians. Jewish Christians would not give up on terra firma….

      2. I am not arguing against your view. I don’t know that I can. But I don’t know how it might be proved, either. But I know I have not studied the details that you have. So I must remain open minded to the possibility. Where I think we differ is on our thoughts about what the earliest Christians would have found more persuasive. I still don’t know if to think of the earliest Christians as lower or upper class. “Strict” Jewish or Hellenistic-Jewish — or even what “Judaism” was in the first century. (Thompson, for example, in his study of “messiah” in Jewish literature sees no conflict between what NT scholars separate between the cynic-like Jesus and the apocalyptic-Jesus: the literature pertaining to both is all part of a single whole throughout the ancient Middle East — just two sides of the same myth.) If Paul really was very early, then it does appear, does it not, that his Christians really were as much motivated and turned on by a “spirit entity” or Heavenly Man as Stoics were by the idea of Reason.

  6. “suggest that the character is at best based on small details of one or more living people, but bears no real relationship to those people.” And one of those people would be a man named Jesus that Paul thinks is now a divinity? If the writers see themselves or their heroes in a subject, would anyone be exempt? All our images of people are distorted to a degree. We see parts of the real them and parts of others. The notion that there is a lot of myth attached to Jesus does not mean the that Paul or his colleagues created the character as a mystical person, only that they and others mythologized him which is different. There are many about whom false information is common place.

    This debate is interesting in that it also raises questions of identity. How much real Jesus would invalidate the Jesus Myth theory? How little correlation could there be between a person and the Jesus of folklore before we say there was no such person? And would even such a situation satisfy the Jesus Myth’s criteria? The Mythical Jesus is not based on the notion that we know nothing about Jesus but that we know something, that he is a mythical construction. So even there people are discussing what they know about this person or thing.

    Too much time and not enough information exist to definitively condemn of validate the ideas of mythic vs. historical Jesus’. Currently nearly all we can say about Jesus is held only within a degree of probability. We can be sure he was(whatever he was) important to Christianity. What else? We have no direct or primary proof of his existence? true. Proof that this was formulated a myth? Not that I believe all odds are equal, we know that we don’t give equal probability to all possible solutions.

    Relating to the specifics of the article, it is possible that Jews had many opinions on the nature of the messiah, we know Christians had an alternate messiah view to what the folks who backed Bar Kochba thought, the question is what led to their way of thinking and was it unique to them? Were Christians the first to see the suffering servant in the prophecies, or even a crucified messiah? Its is possible that they were not, but we only have a little evidence but we need not think that this was a novel idea till then. How wide spread is matter we are more familiar with. The lack of clear evidence for the position out side the Christians is known, as is Paul’s lament that the Jew’s think his crucified Christ, is a stumbling block, an obstacle they can’t get around. He thinks they need a sign, some wonder. He may be underestimating his position and it’s acceptability, but it doesn’t appear many Jews of the total got involved in the Christian enterprise. His listing of the prophecies that speak of Jesus is usually vague and say little of anything that the Christ must die for sins, though he suggest there is.

    Mind you Jewish groups long identified themselves as the righteous few, but it is not the superior ethics or holiness that make them unpopular with the mass of Jews but the idea of the cross. Why is that such a revolting thing, is it because the cross represents the subjugation of Judea to Rome? Or is it because what lowly criminals are executed on? If it were because of it’s association somehow with pagan Gods, then why doesn’t he think Greeks like any more than Jews did? We can’t discount it being someones expectation, nor does seem to be a common expectation.

  7. I think the historical camp are right in not wanting to give up on a historical core to the gospel Jesus story. But they are wrong in believing that the historical core is Jesus from Nazareth, mother Mary, father Joseph, crucified by Pilate. Removing the mythological elements does not leave behind this bare bones Jesus. It leaves nothing of the gospel Jesus behind. The historical core has to be something other than the assumed historical Jesus. Such a figure, minus all the extras, is meaningless for theology and meaningless for a historical investigation.

    If anything can be salvaged from the gospel story it is only the historical details of a time and place. Its that history that can show some light on early christian origins. The length of that time period is not from the supposed birth of Jesus just prior to 4 bc. The time slot runs from Herod the Great becoming King of the Jews, in Rome in 40 bc, to the 15th year of Tiberius in 29/30 ce, a 70 year period. Or, using the gospel of John with its 3 year ministry, to around 33 ce – which is 70 years from the siege of Jerusalem by Herod the Great in 37 bc.

    This is no overnight wonder worker storyline – it’s a long historical period which gave rise to prophetic intepretations, expectations etc – resulting in, as we know today, a new spiritual movement called christianity. Albeit involving a mythological storyline with a character that has some dim colouring of the actual historical, Jewish, figure that was deemed relevant to the expectations of some Jews. (Hasmoneans to my way of thinking…)

  8. Just a thought on the cynic sage and apocalyptic types re the gospel Jesus. Although these two types are within that storyline – it could simply be the result of a fusion, a mix, of the characters that have been called upon for some local color….

    I suppose one can widen out the messiah concept to include both types. Although I don’t see the justification for doing so. OT history, surely, has the king of the Jews and the prophets as two distinct categories. Sure, the Hasmoneans mixed up the kingly role and the priestly role – as in a type re Melchizedek – but if prophets were to tell it like it is, to admonish etc – then their role would not be a rulership role but a role that watches the ruling class re its performance etc…Warnings, whistleblowing, toe the line or else….Thus the need for these two categories to remain seperate ie Justice and Government…

    As to being able to prove that such and such a historical character was *the* character that inspired the pre-Paul movement – all that is needed is the ability to be able to point to such a historical figure, or figures, and say – that’s the model that was used. Gospel writers, as any writer, have called upon what they know, the people they know or the people they know about – and taken local color for their characterization. I did read somewhere that characters that are built up in this way come across as more ‘real’ than characters that are completely drawn from scratch, from the writers imagination

    1. I’m thinking of the “messianic” motifs throughout ancient mid-east literature that do combine the conquering and avenging warrior with one who restores the ethical ideals. We may see the same in OT messianic figures, such as David. Whereas many scholars have tended to see a clear distinction between the two, a scholar like Thompson does challenge us to question that division. Is not Jesus in the gospels entering Galilee where he casts out/judges/torments the real rules of the age before their time, demonstrates his power exalted power over all as God’s viceroy, and restores/teaches the “law going out from Zion” — the reversal of fortunes and godly precepts at the same time? He does all the things prophesied of the messianic age — healing the lame and blind, etc. (At the pinnacle of his (Davidic) power he is cast down, but only to be exalted and vindicated again.)

      That’s the sort of thing I’m thinking of when I suggest there may not have been any initial separate traditions — one cynic and the other apocalyptic.

      I’m not suggesting that there was always only one messiah like concept among early Christians. I sense something missing, however, in the [Q]-Cynic Jesus tradition-type argument, that’s all.

  9. Neil, “I see nothing in Paul’s Christ that might be uniquely based on any particular person in mind.” I don’t doubt your inability to see since it is a willful position, I know you are aware that Paul says more about this Jesus than his being born of a woman and seed of David.

    I think our comments are a bit out of order, but I think I explain that we are of course only dealing with Paul’s opinion of the matter. I had wondered if his use of Cross as a stumbling block meant not so much the mode of execution, but his gospel of forgiveness by way of the execution is what is bothering the Jews. His cross essential empties the Law of it’s power to make one righteous. But the same cross is also foolishness to Greeks and I don’t think his Hellenistic audience was much offended by any degrading of the power of some collection of oriental customs to make one just in the eyes of God. Paul seems to think it is the crucification and not the implications of it regarding forgiveness of sins that is the sticking point. Though it is very possible that educated or even the simply less spiritually motivated Greeks would have frowned on all the mystery religions as head in the clouds stuff. So even if Paul were preaching Attis or Dionysus he would have got a lot of doors slammed in his face. The importance is not the validity of Paul’s comment, which is hard for us to judge from now(we can hardly survey the religions ideals of his time) but that Paul thought it.

    1. Willful position?? I hope not. I simply don’t see any traits in Paul’s (or even the gospels’) Jesus that suggest themselves as being particular to any identifiable personality. I only see traits in Paul and the Gospels that are either generic or pastiched from OT motifs.

  10. The part about Jesus being the brother of James, one of the leaders of the movement would I think be a more distinguishing feature. By not addressing but instead throwing out features in common with nearly every Jew of Paul’s time was a bit weak dodge. Of course the OT comparisons are only convincing to those who are into to that sort of thing, as also the alternate explanations for the brother of Jesus bit and so on. Generally these arguments can make anything into anything else and every book can be based on the old Testament. It seems like a lot of propping up for a hypothesis. I mean it may all pan out, you know relativity seemed to ask us to look at time in a way that seemed contradictory to common sense understanding of it, but it ultimately made the certain aspects of physics more explainable. We currently have a good model for understanding the origin of Christianity in a person who was crucified, but maybe a new model will give us a better picture. So far though I haven’t seen any compelling evidence to support it and the implications of the theory causes more problems than it solves. We have to explain Paul’s references to the Lord’s brothers in some way, his insistence that the Lord is as human as he is, the recentness of the Lords action, the lack of Paul’s explaining this myth in his letters, the elimination of the original form of Christianity so soon into it’s development despite its initial diversity of ideas, the Josephus mentions, and so on. I mean a clever person can find an explanation for every thing to fit the theory, but so many special cases really make this sort of thing suspect.

    1. But Paul doesn’t say Jesus and James were brothers. Not even James said he was a brother of Jesus.

      You write: “Of course the OT comparisons are only convincing to those who are into to that sort of thing, . . . Generally these arguments can make anything into anything else and every book can be based on the old Testament.”

      Not so at all. The authors of the studies that I have used in this blog and others I’ve seen all spell out very specific criteria and/or make very specific comparison that go well beyond the general and coincidental. Can you give me exceptions, or any illustrations that prove your assertion about such parallels in the literature being applicable to “anything”? But I think we’ve covered this in earlier discussions.

  11. I think it would require a special handling of the phrase to get any thing other than James is Jesus brother out of I saw none of the other apostles- only James the Lord’s brother. Sure brother might not mean brother and Lord might be someone other than Jesus but seeing how Paul uses the words cannot support any such position. It is only sensible to do so if in fact Paul knew that James was not really Jesus brother, for which their is no evidence. I could spend time doing OT parallels to E.T. or Grapes of Wrath, but it wouldn’t be any more convincing to you than such theories concerning the OT/NT have been to me. if you could direct me to the one or one of the ones you have in mind, I could examine it in detail. It has been awhile since I’ve looked into one since the few I looked at were so unpromising as to not get me exited for new developments in that area.

    1. Just to add minor points to C.J. O’Brien’s points below, a few other details are discussed at http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/05/02/applying-sound-historical-methodology-to-james-the-brother-of-the-lord/

      Lord would normally be taken as a reference to God if it were not for our tendency to read gospel narratives back into Paul. This is circular reasoning.

      (Besides, there is every reason to believe that the brothers of Jesus in the gospels are a literary fabrication anyway — using the criteria of mainstream scholars themselves, as I explain in the linked post.)

      As for parallels, you are poo-poohing much serious mainstream scholarship with your cavalier dismissals.

      See, for example, 3 mainstream scholars’ criteria for literary borrowing: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2007/09/20/3-criteria-lists-for-literary-borrowing/

      More specifically, see on the feeding of the 5000 both

  12. Paul also uses “Brothers of the Lord” generically, indicating that there is a proto-Christian group in Jerusalem so known. “James the Just” is one of these, probably their leader, and so is known as a Brother of the Lord. “The Brother of the Lord” just doesn’t have to be taken as a biological brother of a certain person, and I suspect that the interpretation of Paul meaning such arose under the influence of the later tradition found in Acts among other writings (and quite possibly retrojected into Josephus by a copyist) that identified the figure of James with the “brother” of Jesus mentioned in passing in Mark (who is among the hostile family members in Nazareth accusing Jesus of being out of his mind). Ultimately, in Paul, the usage depends on a single article and whether it is definite or indefinite. Surely a tenuous string from which to hang a historical fact.

  13. Lord would normally be taken as a reference to God if it were not for our tendency to read gospel narratives back into Paul.

    Yep. As in the supposed reference by Paul to “The Lord’s” teaching on divorce, one of the favored proof-texts for historicists. But it’s better understood as a reference to Malachi 2:16.

    1. To be fair, I should also note that in Galatians in particular the author or redactor or copyist does indeed a few times use the expression the “Lord Jesus Christ”. It is a sign of mental laziness, perhaps, that so many seem to hang the whole historicist position on this one verse. Some add one or two more verses. Their arguments in effect amount to the same sort of “proof-texting” that they rightly condemn in the unscholarly religious tracts. Like the authors of such religious tracts, this proof-texting offers them an easy escape from engaging in the richness of the arguments for mythicism.

      It is interesting that religious tract authors, in addition to proof-texting, will often be seen to make condescending remarks about “scholars” who supposedly avoid the “plain meaning” of texts with all their learning.

      Seen this way, those who use the proof-text argument for historicism are not coming from an intellectually consistent position.

  14. My mention of the James, brother of the Lord, is not to offer a proof text but only to point out an obvious oversight in a listing of the things Paul said about Jesus that might apply to a particular person. No particular text or line of text can prove anything but can make some possibilities more likely than others. Certainly we cannot say that a text means this or that and simply dismiss parts of the text that say otherwise as irrelevant. Any text may have meant one thing originally and then have been edited to express something else, but to say we can assume this sort of thing without presenting an argument for it would make discussing the meanings of text pointless. Someone may have added in the brother of the Lord bit to make Paul agree with Mark but is hardly evidence that that is so or that James is not “the Lord’s” brother.

    C.J, you are absolutely incorrect, what indication is there of a proto-Christian group called brothers of the Lord? That that would be the if “brothers of the Lord” were used generically and not to specify men who shared the same mother/or father with Jesus? And why are they Proto-Christian?

    “Lord would normally be taken as a reference to God if it were not for our tendency to read gospel narratives back into Paul.” It would not be normal to do so if we are reading Paul, which we are. Most of the times Paul uses Lord it seems to be a title that Jesus has, when Paul refers to God, he most frequently uses Theos, translated God. Most often when Paul uses Lord to mean God, it is when he is quoting from scripture, where the Greek editions used kurio for YHWH. In genral, a use of Lord in Paul is most likely a reference to Jesus. Occasional in Paul’s odd use of scripture a reference to the Lord meaning God will be applied to Jesus as well. In this instance I think that brothers of the Lord or Lords brother means God’s brother, is most unlikely. This I think also goes for Malachi 2:16/1 Corinthians 6:17. “To the unmarried I give this command,(not, I but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband” is hardly a quote of “I hate divorce”, says the LORD, God of Israel,…” we can get the command from the statement sure, but it is not clear that this is what Paul has in his mind. If it were then Paul more likely would quote the passage or say this is God’s command. This is further supported by v.25 he uses “command from the Lord” in the same sentence that he uses Lord in his favorite way, as a title for Jesus. look at the way the words Lord and Christ and God are used in v.17-24. The slave with faith in the Lord are the Lord’s freed people but the free when called are Christ slaves. Is this verse saying that God has the freed people and Christ has slaves or that the Lord Christ that the slave is free in the Lord Christ and all are the lord Christ slaves? Also v. 17, the Lord has assigned you the situation that God calls you in. Assigning the situation is not a parallel of of being called. You are not called to be married to an unbeliever, that is the situation you are called in. The reference to God’s commands in v.19 I don’t think is a reference to the specific command on divorce in v. 10 or Paul’s command of believers to stay with their non believing spouses, but to the whole corpus of God’s will for human action, because ultimately, Christ the Lord is only here to do God’s will. Finally, could not a Mythical Christ also give commands? I’m not sure why Christ mythers feel the need to explain this particular text any how.

  15. Back to literary borrowing, I am aware of the borrowing of the feeding of the masses from Elijah tales, and am sure there are a few others beyond those clearly labeled, he did this to fulfill prophecy x. Some comparisons that have been made I’m less sure of. For instance the walking on water and/or calming the sea as a version of the parting of the sea by Moses. Sure they both involve water and in some cases some walking, but I find the parallel weak. It could easily be a borrowing of any person in the old testament who does nature miracles, given the Elijah parallel for our loaves and fishes, I would recommend the floating ax head or better yet, his striking the river with his cloak and and the waters part (from Jesus to Elijah to Moses, a double borrowing!) but the miracle is so different from the others that this was just some odd incident conjured up by those wanting to emphasis his magic power and not necessarily looking at any specific biblical personage or event. Other Gospel events are even harder to find a precursor for; exorcising demons? BSing with Pilate?

    1. You originally wrote:

      I could spend time doing OT parallels to E.T. or Grapes of Wrath, but it wouldn’t be any more convincing to you than such theories concerning the OT/NT have been to me. if you could direct me to the one or one of the ones you have in mind, I could examine it in detail. It has been awhile since I’ve looked into one since the few I looked at were so unpromising as to not get me exited for new developments in that area.

      So I gave you one. But you seem to suggest it is a one-off unique case, and you still hold to your argument by making up others that I have never heard anyone suggest are literary borrowings. I know of no arguments that the Pilate trial or demon exorcisms are based on OT literary templates. So your rebuttal strikes me as a classic straw man.

      Or perhaps you mention these as examples of “refutation” because you are of the impression that I am arguing every detail in the gospels is copied from an OT story. If so, I have never argued that, though I do argue for something close to it. Some parts of the gospel narratives are based on what was a common ancient literary device known technically as mimesis. It was a form of imitation of older texts, but imitation that demonstrated the superiority of the newly created character to his prototype in the older literature. Other parts of the gospel narratives are directly inspired by verses and statements about God or the messianic age in the OT. Some passages are so patched together with OT phrases and allusions to OT verses that there is little room to doubt that the author was weaving these passages together to create his story.

      As for your walking on water/calming the sea examples, are you drawing on scholarly discussions about these? I do not recognize any argument that says either is sourced from an OT story on the basis of involvement of water and walking.

  16. What are some of the other borrowings? If you like just give me a couple of book titles that discuss the subject. I had thought you position was that all of Mark was dependent on source material in the OT.
    When you say some parts are based in mimesis, do you mean those are the parts with OT borrowings or one part is OT borrowing and another part is mimesis? Are there some parts you consider to be original fiction or is it all derivative of other works? For instance if the calming of the storm is not a allusion to a OT story, is it an allusion to another work or a story someone thought of involving common themes, magic, weather, order from chaos, etc? Understanding you conception of what makes up a book like Mark would help understand some of your other arguments, as it seems based on a sort of alternate world from the one I use as a background for understanding concepts.

  17. I have already given you what you are asking for. Have a look at the first of the links I sent in an earlier post. Allison’s typology of the New Moses is a good place to start.

    Mimesis and OT borrowing are not mutually exclusive. Mimesis is a form of borrowing. Authors do not borrow just because they are lazy or unimaginative and can’t think of new scenarios for themselves. They are basing their stories on other stories well-known to their audiences, and the audiences are expected to make the connections, and see how the new protagonist in the new story is superior to his “template” in the older story. This is not something unique to gospel authors. NT authors were merely falling into line with the literary fashions of the times.

  18. Before going thought the long process of looking into Dale Allison’s book, would I find anything radical here? The descriptions of Allison’s works seem to have him as a Historicist, so how derived could he consider the Gospels to be? If he argues a lot of the Gospels reflect the OT in some way, is that at all surprising? Of course that hurts their value as records of events, but it doesn’t make them void of factual content. Presenting the last days of Julius Caesar as a tragic play requires some editing of details and manipulation of facts, but still leaves with a relatively good idea of what happened to Caesar, more detailed if less accurate than what could be gathered from archeology.

    1. I don’t know what you mean by radical. All of the arguments I have read for literary borrowings in the gospels are from those who, as far as I know, believe in the historical Jesus. You seem to be wanting to assess an argument beforehand by whether or not you will like the results to which it might lead, or what other views are of those making the argument.

  19. No I just don’t want to order a book though the library to find I’m already familiar with the contents. While I’m not sure of the specifics of her work, the broad outline seems familiar and not any thing I disagree with. I’ve read work describing how the sermon on the mount for example is Matthew’s way of presenting Jesus as a new Moses. There are several other examples some I agree with others that are not so clear giving me the impression that the authors were drawing from a wide network of source materials. Attempts to shoe horn everything into some grand allegorical scheme have so far been unsatisfactory.

  20. Doherty makes an interesting point when he compares Phillipians 1:14 which contains the phrase “brothers in the Lord” to the 1 Corinthians 9:5 which contains the phrase “brothers of the Lord”.

    In Phillipians it is obvious that Paul is referring to the “brotherhood” of Christ and not blood relatives of Jesus-(brothers in the Lord). So, how much weight can we realistically give to a change in prepositions from “in the Lord” to “of the Lord”?

    Also I’m reminded of John 7:5 which states that “even his brothers did not believe in him.” I think that Mark also makes an allusion to Jesus’ family not beleiving in him.
    So if Jesus’ own relatives had to be “converted”, where’s that story?

    1. Yes, the “James, brother of the Lord” argument has always struck me as one of those simplistic ‘prooftexting’ arguments. Sure the most natural way for us to read it is as a statement that James is a physical brother, no doubt. But that one reading flies in the face of heaps of other data. Add to that the manuscript evidence, and we find we are dealing with readings that are very very late indeed, and given that we know for a fact that manuscripts changed very quickly, and we have a very weak argument indeed– at least when we position that one verse against the logic of so much of the rest of the NT epistles.

      And as you infer, the argument does hang on reading the later gospel narratives back into it. One can quite soundly argue that even the references to Jesus’ brethren are a theological foil — to set Jesus in the tradition of prophets and “men of God” like David and Joseph who were outcasts even from their families. Once the foundations are removed from that story, we have nothing left. James is mentioned in Acts and another epistle, and in neither of those is there a hint of a sibling relationship with Jesus.

  21. Kilo Papa, I think we can gather from Philippians that the brothers in the Lord is the whole community, not just just those in his audience that are part of the Brother Hood of the Lord. The use in 1 Corinthians suggest a smaller group than the Christian community in genral since his other examples are the apostles and Cephas. That it is a small group is not only indicated by the others that the brothers are placed between, but that the argument is for the right to bring along a wife and also to get free food and and other support. Paul, I don’t think, is arguing that he and Barnabas are the only Christians expected to work for a living, just the only elite Christians expected to do so. I think to use the phrase here as to be a group of non related spiritual brothers on par with the apostles and Cephas does require “heaps of other data”.

  22. Let’s see now, we have a group of men who are blood related to the savior of humankind, who are involved in the missionary movement with Paul and the other apostles, and there’s not a single word about their lives or work in the entire 1st century of Christian writings?
    Apparently these men must have headed off into the same sunset as Mary Magdalene,Joseph of Arimathea and the majority of the other gospel figures.
    I don’t think that it’s impossible that these men may actually have been blood brothers of Jesus, but if they were I think it begs the question of their complete absence in the early Christian record and
    makes it curious that the later gospels would not only fail to mention this rather interesting detail but actually deny that Jesus’ brothers even “beleived” in him.

  23. Larry Hurtado has another excellent blog post about ‘Jesus’ Cry From the Cross: Towards a First-Century Understanding of the Intertextual Relationship between Psalm 22 and the Narrative of Mark’s Gospel’

    The book shows how much the idea of a Righteous Sufferer was built into lots of first century Judaism.

    1. There’s something else going on there, too, with people misunderstanding Eloi as Elijah. I’m intrigued by Burton Mack’s discussion (following Philipp Vielhauer) about the three crucial narrative points in GMark:

      1. Beginning — Baptism — John the Baptist as Elijah — Jesus hears the proclamation, “Thou art my beloved Son…”

      2. Middle — Transfiguration — Elijah appears with Moses — Jesus’ inner circle of disciples hears: “This is my beloved Son…”

      3. End — Crucifixion — People think Jesus is crying for Elijah’s help — Everyone hears John Wayne say, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

      1. Without denying the core of Veilhauer’s/Mack’s argument, I am intrigued in particular that Elijah only makes an “appearance” at the end here through misunderstanding. It is an illusory appearance. The crowd thought they glimpsed him but they were wrong. The public remain unaware of Jesus’ identity to the last: the centurion’s statement has been argued to be an ironic scoffing. The world remained ignorant until, as Jesus implied in the drama, after his resurrection.

        And the inclusio that we have at either end of the gospel is thus:

        Beginning —

        John the Baptist, identified by his clothing as pertaining to the Old, in the wilderness, proclaiming the future appearance of the One to Come, with everyone coming to him.

        Closing —

        The young man (dressed in baptismal garb), identified by his clothing as pertaining to the new life, in the tomb, proclaiming the future appearance of the Christ, with devotees fleeing from him.

        If there is a threefold proclamation of Jesus as king after the pattern of the Egyptian myth (V/M) I wonder if it is intended as lost irony. Jesus’ activity, his kingship, was only recognized and witnessed in the spirit realm (only dimly for a moment in the physical) — Compare the reverse Roman Triumph scene of Jesus’ procession from the Praetorium to the cross on the “Capitol/Place of the Skull”. http://vridar.wordpress.com/2009/07/03/recognizing-the-triumphant-conqueror-in-marks-crucifixion-scene/

        ETA: I almost forgot the original point — it is of course all literary artifice. But I have come to take that for granted now.

  24. Neil:

    Sorry for the late post, but I’ve been reading from the beginning of your blog. Very interesting and rewarding. Thanks for your — and other contributors’ — efforts.

    What do you make of Luke 24:21-27 when Jesus tells the two men all about how a suffering and dying messiah was foretold in scripture? Proof of later, adaptive theology? Redaction?


    1. You scare me. I have forgotten so much of what I once wrote — even this post — and fear to check. 🙂

      At the moment I am preparing a new post on the origin of the names of the parents of John the Baptist and Jesus. The post is based on Spong’s and Goulder’s efforts, but in preparing it I have been reminded of Thomas L. Thompson’s discussion in “The Mythic Past” (also published as “The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past”) and am now struck how similar the two arguments are.

      The author of Luke had no thought of writing “history” as we know it. He was searching for meaning and found it in the narratives of the Jewish scriptures. The meaning of the Christ crucified was found in the Psalms, Isaiah, Zechariah, and such. The point of the narrative was to express these OT meanings for the crucifixion. The narrative itself was shaped by these OT signs into what God revealed about the crucifixion.

      Spong believes that this is how the Gospels were originally understood — in their Jewish interpretative contexts. It was subsequent anti-Jewish inheritors of these Gospels who took them literally.

      The passage you refer to in Luke was not an alien insertion. It explained how the whole gospel itself was put together.

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