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

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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 recent posts I shared Horsley’s presentation of the evidence we have for the 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 the 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

Horsley attempts to persuade readers to accept that, despite the literary evidence for messianic ideas not being related to the wider societal views, the illiterate population nonetheless had “memories” of popular kings embedded in their regular religious rituals.

To my mind that sounds uncomfortably vague. I think of the sorts of images and stories that are associated with religious customs today and try to imagine some of those as “memories” waiting to inspire people to political action. The whole idea sounds quite iffy to me.

But it gets even less substantial, I think. Horsley then proceeds to trace this “memory” that surely existed among the masses by looking at their historical generational link back to the time of the Judges.

Horsley begins by drawing attention to the rebellion by Simon the royal slave in 4 B.C.E. Simon was acclaimed by popular vote to be the rightful king. Then in 68 C.E. Simon bar Giora was acclaimed king by the wider populace. Both of these would-be royal usurpers were said to have had bandit movements loosely associated with them. For Horsley, we should see in these movements not only banditry on the edges of support for these men, but also a more central movement of people imputing to their leaders not only kingship but messianic kingship. That’s an interesting idea, but when I look for Horsley’s evidence he says that we would not have little reason to think that these movements were anything but another form of banditry or political rebellion

had there not been among the Jews a tradition of popular kingship and historical prototypes of a popular “anointed one.” (p. 93)

To describe the way in which the “the social form” of these movements supposedly differed from other rebellions, Horsley does not describe the movements themselves, but turns to ancient biblical history:

The difference in social form can be discerned right in ancient biblical history. (p. 93)

He then proceeds to describe “two significant instances of brigands which were incorporated into Israelite historical traditions” –

  • Abimelech who had hired “a band of worthless fellows” (Judges 9:4),

    Jephthah is a character in the Hebrew Bible's ...
    Image via Wikipedia
  • Jephthah, the illegitimate son who gathered a group of “worthless fellows” (Judges 11:3)

Next was David who also began his career as a brigand leader of 400 malcontents (1 Sam. 22:2).

But how to get from bandits to messiah hopefuls. In Horsley’s description he imagines in the case of David that

banditry became a new kind of movement, a popular messianic movement, more politically conscious and deliberate than banditry. (p. 93)

There is something that in my mind does not sit right with Horsley’s thesis here. Quite apart from the problem I have with

  • tracing such a social movement and “memory” continuously over 1200 years,
  • and the negative portrayal of these movements at this stage in the Bible,
  • and the romantic idea of David’s bandits somehow evolving into “more politically conscious” movements

there is also that niggling problem pointed out by Green and taken up by Thompson:

These arguments [for a general Jewish expectation of the advent of a Messiah around the time of Jesus] . . . appear to suggest that the best way to learn about the messiah in ancient Judaism is to study texts in which there is none. (Green in Judaisms and Their Messiahs . . . p. 6)

Thompson is often found emphasizing that in all the Biblical evidence there is not a single instance of people designating a contemporary king as a “messiah”. The concept is always a projection in literature to a king of another time. It is an ideologically charged word that points to propaganda and theology of authors writing about a past (unhistorical) ideal or a future ideal.

Green could almost have Horsley’s book as one of several in mind when he writes that have seized on any text that might be interpreted as “messianic”, and artificially imposed on this “evidence”

a chronological string of supposed messianic references into a plot for a story whose ending is already known; it is a kind of sophisticated proof-texting. (p. 2)

Green goes so far as to argue that the whole construct of a popular messianic tradition throughout Jewish history up to the time of Jesus has been fundamentally driven by a construct established by the early Church in order to make Jesus’ career sound more reasonable:

The primacy of “the messiah” as a subject of academic study derives not from ancient Jewish preoccupation, but from early Christian word-choice, theology, and apologetics. Early Christians, and particularly the earliest Christian writers, had to establish a discourse that made Jesus’ career reasonable, his unexpected death believable . . . (p. 4)

(Horsley’s book was first published in 1985 and Green’s chapter appeared in 1987.)

So one is particularly sensitive to Horsley suddenly shifting gears after his quite tenuous references to characters in Judges as progenitors of “messianic movements” among the general populace and picking up the conversation by speaking of a need to “better understand these messianic movements” – as if he has established their existence and character out of slivers of hope.

I have discussed William Scott Green’s chapter in full in a post last year, The Myth of a General Messianic Expectation in Jesus’ Time. But I want to cover Horsley’s arguments for the existence of a “dormant”! messianic hope among Jews up to the time of Jesus that was somehow activated like fire-activated seeds by the torments inflicted by Herod.

So next post in this series will look at how Horsley argues for the relevance (and historicity) of popular kingship in ancient Israel.

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Popular Messianic Movements Up To The Time Of Jesus – Part 1”

  1. You said, “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.”

    It doesn’t matter if the OT etc. was historical or not. The people at the time Jesus was supposed to have existed thought it was historical.

    And I come back to a time near that of Jesus. The messianic rule (Vermes gives a mid first century BC date) describes two Messiah’s. The Messiah of Israel was considered second to the Priest Messiah. The Priest Messiah was to come at the head of the whole congregation of Israel at which they would eat the first-fruits of bread and wine. And the Priest was to extend his hand over the common table to bless the meal. This was not just the vain imagining of an ancient writer in a small community at Qumran. It was the law for all such meals where at least ten men are gathered together, anywhere in Israel. The writer was obviously working for the person we normally call the high priest, probably in Jerusalem. Who was to say that the Priest Messiah could not turn into a fighter, or even fulfil the role of king and priest?

  2. It doesn’t matter if the OT etc. was historical or not. The people at the time Jesus was supposed to have existed thought it was historical.

    No. The whole argument of Horsley hangs on the historical factness of a messianic kingship ideology popular among the masses. He has already argued that the few literary indications of a messianic idea are the reserve of the literary elite. Biblical story by definition as written text could only be mediated to masses through those elites. Those elites opposed the popular idea — as I will show Horsley argues in the next post or so.

    Horsley’s argument depends on the masses somehow holding on to their hopes in an ideal kingship across generations — fed partly by the images of the Bible (but remember the Bible is mediate through the elites — something Horsley does not himself really address) — It is a popular “subculture” or popular mindset that lies “dormant” in the minds and hearts of the people for generations that is suddenly ignited into action under Herod.

    I find this a very vague and quite unscientific view of how generations hang on to certain ideas across centuries. It sounds too vague and fudgy for me.

    But Goeff — I will ask you to have the courtesy to stick to the themes of the posts and refrain from repeating in every one or almost every one of them your pet hobbyhorse. I do not express a common point I disagree on in every post on other people’s blogs. That is simply unwelcome and rude. It is not about censorship. It is about etiquette. It gains me and others nothing if I tell them over and over they are closed minded for not discussing my POV then I am simply being a jerk. Respect us all to make our own ways — if most do not accept what we offer than accept it. No need to repeat it to the point of nagging.

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