Does the notion of a crucified messiah need a historical easter experience?

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by Neil Godfrey

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It is interesting to read in a short section of Paul the Convert Alan F. Segal’s case for Christianity originating in an easter-type of experience of disciples of a historically crucified Jesus.

Having run across so many references to Segal’s book when I was reading about the heavenly ascent mystical experiences among Second Temple Jews and early Christians (blogged about in several posts in the first two weeks of March this year) I knew I could not continue posting along this line until I had read Segal’s book for myself. But this post addresses Segal’s encapsulation of the case that Christianity began when disciples of Jesus grappled with theology to explain his death. (I am aware Segal has only recently passed away, and I by no means intend any of the following post as a criticism of Segal personally. I hope it can be read as an impersonal argument. I find much of value in Segal’s works, including Paul the Convert, and of course in Two Powers, and respect him highly as a scholar.)

Segal’s argument

During the period of Jesus’ ministry some of his followers thought he was the messiah. Segal says only that it is “likely” that some of them did, but his argument depends on some of them certainly thinking so. Segal begins his explanation with this:

Since Jesus died a martyr, expectations of his resurrection would have been normal in sectarian Judaism. [Reference here to Segal’s Rebecca’s Children, pp. 60-67, 78-95]

I am sure there are many detailed arguments in the literature that expand on this particular point. The point that stands out for me, however, is that this statement contradicts the narrative of all four of the canonical gospels. The narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all stress that the disciples of Jesus were not expecting Jesus to be resurrected. According to the gospels Jesus’ followers did not see his death as a martyrdom, but as a failure of their hopes. In the gospels, the followers of Jesus do not see Jesus as a martyr and do not expect his resurrection.

The scholarly construct of Segal’s here is an attempt to rationalize a tale of the miraculous. A miracle such as a crude bodily resurrection as per the literal reading of the gospels is unacceptable historically, so a natural alternative needs to be imagined in its place. Is this not the same rationalization that Old Testament scholars used to suggest to explain the miracle of the crossing of the Red Sea? Two walls of water on either side of the Israelites ready to fall back down on the pursuing Egyptians is not sober history, so alternatives like shallow reedy waters, or massive coincidental tidal movements, were substituted as more “natural” alternatives.

What happens, however, is that instead of saving the original narrative, such “reconstructions” merely destroy it (Thompson, Our Mythic Past). The power of the original narrative lies in the miraculous element. The miraculous is not some hyperbolic extension of a mundane tale. The miraculous is the central meaning of the story.

There is no evidence for Segal’s alternative explanation. The only justification for it can be the assumption that the gospel narratives are the end products of many decades of telling a narrative that started out very differently, and that originated as a naturalistic historical event — something quite unlike the final story in the gospels. But if we read the gospels as a theological tale and just that, a theological tale like the tales of the Exodus or Esther or Tobit or Daniel, etc, then we set aside a host of problems and conjectural explanations for the gospel narrative as we have it.

And if there is no evidence for Segal’s explanation, then his explanation is surely nothing more than conjecture. It is not even a historical hypothesis attempting to explain evidence. Is it not a hypothesis proposed in defiance of the evidence?

Segal continues:

But the idea of a crucified messiah was unique. In such a situation, the Christians only did what other believing Jews did in similar circumstances; they turned to biblical prophecy for elucidation. No messianic text suggested itself as appropriate to the situation. But Ps. 110:1 was exactly apposite: “The Lord says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, ’til I make your enemies your footstool.’ ” This description of the enthronement of a Davidic descendant was now understood as a heavenly enthronement after death and resurrection. Yet nothing in the text makes the death or resurrection part of the narrative inevitable. It must have come from the historical experience of the early Christian community, after they experienced these events. (pp. 56-7, my emphasis)

Segal stresses the association of the messiah concept with the concepts of power and victory in Rebecca’s Children. There may be no earlier notion of a crucified messiah, but the biblical usages of the term certainly do speak of messiah’s who do die (in battle or even murdered).

  • In the case of the ‘messianic’ high priest, it is the death of that ‘messiah’ that liberates certain people who had to flee to other cities as refugees.
  • The messiah Saul died a humiliating death that brought all Israel into mourning.
  • The messiah David is famous for “his” Psalms in which he cries out to God from a position of suffering and being overwhelmed by his enemies. He suffered betrayal by his close advisors and family.
  • King Joash of Judah, another “anointed” (messiah – 2 Ki. 1.32-45) killed a prophet of God and was himself murdered.

It is clearly an oversimplification to suggest that there was no precedent in biblical thought for the notion of a messiah being betrayed and killed. The death of the messiah who was the high priest even proclaimed liberty for certain sinners.

In Rebecca’s Children Segal is also at pains to argue that all of the Old Testament verses that speak of resurrection from the dead, such as we find in Ezekiel and Isaiah, are in fact metaphors for revivals of national fortunes. That may be so, but is it not stretching credulity somewhat to conclude that it was inconceivable that anyone might interpret a metaphor literally at any time? Does it really take a witnessing of a literal resurrection to suddenly say, “Wow, that metaphor of a resurrection can also be imagined as an expression of a literal resurrection!”??

I have posted at length on this blog Levenson’s book expounding on the evidence among some Second Temple Jews for the belief that even Isaac was literally slain by Abraham, and that his blood had an atoning power over the sins of Israel. (The same Jews also explained he was resurrected again almost immediately.)

To suggest that no sectarian Jews could possibly interpreted scriptures to mean a messiah could die and be resurrected unless they truly witnessed their hoped for messiah die and genuinely experienced him alive again is, in the light of the above, surely wishful thinking.

Yet the strangest thing about Segal’s discussion is that in the sentences following what I have quoted above, he refers to the very passages that surely contradict his argument:

Thereafter, Ps. 110:1 could be combined easily with Dan. 7:9-13, the description of the enthronement of the son of man. Dan. 7.9-13 seemed to describe the scene of Christ’s exaltation and ascension, because Jesus could be identified with the son of man, the angelic figure. Further, Dan. 12:2 had promised astral immortality to those who taught wisdom, making plausible while it confirmed the entire set of expectations.

Segal is absolutely right about how Dan. 7.9-13 could be interpreted. Unfortunately, he overlooked Daniel’s own explanation for this image later in the same chapter 7. This son of man vision comes in the train of visions of four beasts. Each beast represents an earthly kingdom. The fourth beast is said then to trample down the saints, wearing them out, persecuting and killing them. (This is a reference to the Maccabean martyrs being worn down by Antiochus Epiphanes of the Seleucid or Syrian empire.) Then after the destruction of the four beasts, each representing an ungodly kingdom, comes one like the son of man, a human figure. Chapter 7 explains that those saints who had been trodden down by the fourth beast will be given the kingdom.

The four beastly kingdoms are succeeded by a “human” or saintly kingdom.

The son of man figure in Daniel is thus an image of a resurrected body of saints who will shine like the stars forever and rule God’s kingdom on earth in place of the tyrannies represented by the wild beasts.

The creative moment among Second Temple Jewish sectarians (e.g. those associated with the Enochian literature) was not in associating Daniel’s son of man figure with death by martyrdom and resurrection, but with a future heavenly man type figure. Or maybe the original author of this image in Daniel thought of the son of man as both an angelic figure as well as representative of the martyred and resurrected saints. I don’t know.

The point is that Segal’s problem — how to explain the notion of a crucified messiah — does not require a literal death of a hoped-for messianic figure, let alone an “easter experience” of some sort. The ingredients were long in the pot just waiting for the right boiling point to be reached.

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Does the notion of a crucified messiah need a historical easter experience?”

  1. “Since Jesus died a martyr, expectations of his resurrection would have been normal in sectarian Judaism.”

    Does he define “normal”? I thought the general consensus was that 1 CE Jews, if they believed in resurrection at all, understood it as an eschatological event, as in John 11:

    (23) Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again.

    (24) Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.

    Did Segal have different sources or did he interpret the NT in his own special way?

  2. Pre 70 Jews did not believe in resurrection at all. Some thought their spirits went straight up to heaven or down below to wherever. There was an immediate decision. It was either judgement or condemnation. This was the view of the prophets.

    The priests thought that their spirits went down below to a waiting place for a time to await a decision.

    Both priests and prophets thought that they started life with two spirits, a spirit of truth and a spirit of darkness.

  3. It’s difficult to find a “resurrection” as in the actual rising of the dead in Jewish scripture; and pagan dying and returning gods (it is argued) have no similarity to Jesus because he physically rose from the dead. But it is possible to trace the early Christian theological progression, starting from a point which did not stress a physical resurrection (the earliest Christian writings are already writing against other communities who did not believe in the physical resurrection – which seems to make them the first) to the later, unique and innovative, absolutely dogmatic affirmation of the risen Christ.

    But is that really what Easter is at all? The ritual of going out and collecting Easter eggs, I think, is based on the older Egyptian practice of going out and hunting for the body of Osiris, which had been cut up and tossed around (I can’t prove it yet, but I think they hunted for eggs also; eggs were a common feature and Isis was said to have given birth to Horus in the form of an egg). If we are celebrating the same customs at the same time, with pretty much the same meaning, does it matter whether Jesus rose in the flesh? Well… yes. But is it likely? Or is it easier to see Christianity as a perversion of an older teaching?


    1. One of the first points of “biblical criticism” I learned that made me sit up and think was learning how the four gospels when laid out chronologically [according to the current conventional wisdom] illustrate the progression towards a bodily resurrection:

      Mark merely has an empty tomb and no resurrection appearance, and this is the sort of indicator that one reads in Greco-Roman stories of Heracles and co — the disappearance of the body was the conventional indicator that the deceased had been taken to join the gods.

      Matthew has a resurrection appearance or two, and in the first one the women hold Jesus by the feet. In the second one Jesus stands on a mountain and some disciples are not even convinced it is Jesus.

      Luke has Jesus vanishing before the eyes of onlookers and appearing mysteriously in the middle of closed rooms, but to persuade disciples he was nonetheless flesh he told them to touch him and watch him eat.

      John then has the famous doubting Thomas scene where Jesus, after having asked his disciples to have a look at his flesh, appears again to require they (or at least one of them) thrust their hands into his side. He then starts a fire on a beach and cooks everyone a meal of fish.

      So even within the gospels themselves we can see an evolution of the idea of the resurrection of the physical body.

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