Messiahs, Midrash and Mythemes — more comparisons with the Gospels

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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.

  • The first part of the story is about the great deeds of the Messiah in this world (The King Messiah could catch catapults with a single knee and hurl them back to kill his enemy. Jesus performs miracles.)
  • This first part of the story is combined with the theme of the Messiah both calling and testing worthy followers (The King Messiah tested his followers by amputating their fingers, but was advised to bring in more followers by accepting only those who could uproot a Lebanon cedar. He thus acquired 200.000 of each. Jesus calls 12 — and 70 — and tested their faith numerous times.)
  • The messiah is accused by the scribes and elders of weakening or destroying the people of Israel (King Messiah is blamed for maiming his followers; Jesus is accused of violating the law and leading the people astray.)
  • He is declared to be the true Messiah according to Biblical prophecy (Rabbi Akiba announced King Messiah was the fulfilment of a passage in Numbers; John the Baptist announced Jesus was the fulfilment of the prophets.)
  • Scepticism is expressed over whether he really is the true Davidic Messiah (Davidic in the sense of being the true spiritual heir of David; Jesus picks up the debate over whether the Messiah is the Son of David.)
  • The scene in both the midrash and the gospels then shifts to a second scene, one that takes up a good half or more of the entire tale — the “last days” of the Messiah.
  • The last days are given formulaic numbers (3 1/2 years in the midrash; 3 days and nights in the gospels, after 3 years or one year)
  • The death of the messiah is directly linked with the destruction of the city (King Messiah death — the death of the righteous man before that — and the fall of Bethar; Jesus’ death is in various ways across the gospels related to the fall of Jerusalem.)
  • The messiah or true saviour is betrayed (The righteous rabbi who is responsible for preventing the capture of the city by his righteousness is betrayed by an apostate traitor and agent of the Roman emperor; Jesus is betrayed by the traitor Judas.)
  • The saviour of the city is likened to a hen sitting on her brood at the same time mourning for the sufferings of the people. (Luke 13:34; Matthew 23:37; and in the midrash: “as long as this hen sits on the hatchlings, on the sackcloth and on the ashes, you cannot conquer it.”)
  • The true saviour in the story is a man of prayer (Jesus on the M0unt of Olives/Gethsemane; Rabbi Eleazar standing praying in the city)
  • The true saviour is a man of sorrows (as above)
  • The true saviour is wrongly believed to pose a risk to the city; it is feared his ongoing presence will bring destruction to the city from the Romans — though ironically it is his death that brings this about.
  • The true saviour is falsely accused before the king or ruler. The true saviour is innocent of the charges.
  • The face to face confrontation of secular and religious leaders involves a question and answer dialogue and a physical assault by the accuser upon the innocent victim.
  • A heavenly sign intrudes at the moment of the death of the true saviour (the divine voice from heaven at the death of Rabbi Eleazar, the signs at the death of Jesus)
  • The death of the true saviour is midrashically linked to passages in Zechariah and Isaiah
  • The death of the messiah is ironically associated with the antithesis of what was expected of the Davidic messiah (King Messiah has his head chopped off and so died as did David’s victim, Goliath. – Hasan-Rokem brings out this particular midrash; Jesus instead of conquering dies like a slave or criminal conquered by Rome.)
  • The Roman ruler expresses scepticism on hearing of the death of the messiah and must have reassurance
  • The death of the messiah is said to be the will of God and fulfilment of prophecy.
  • The destruction of the city (Bethar, Jerusalem) follows as punishment.

Now I know Bar Kochba was historical, but the tale about him in Lamentations Rabbah is not historical. Hasan-Rokem calls it a “historical legend”. Let’s treat both this midrashic tale and the Gospel narratives of the (life and) deaths of their respective messiahs/saviours as consisting of a set of “mythemes”.

To explain “mythemes” here is what I wrote in another post:

If we embrace Lévi-Strauss’s view of myths, then the myths of early Christianity can only be understood and explained as mutations of similar myths in other cultures, and also in earlier Jewish culture. They are not unique. Their constitutional ties with other myths are integral to understanding them. The Christian myths must be understood as myths no different in essence from any other myths if one can identify clear similarities (as in identical “mythemes” — units of mythical stories regardless of their place in each myth) between them. See an example of how this works in the case of the Greek myth of Phrixus and the Jewish myth of Isaac: tag:wajdenbaum-argonauts-of-the-desert

We have all wondered about the strange mix of “same but different” elements across different myths. Serpents appear in many origin myths, but why is the serpent a beneficent creature bestowing wisdom in some myths yet evil (because of the wisdom bestowed) in others? Why do we find a plucked fruit in one myth leading to doom for all mankind, yet in another myth we find a plucked plant in very different scenes offering life but being responsible for death for a hero in another? Lévi-Strauss’s approach begins to make sense of this sort of thing.

I also suspect that the same approach makes sense of the “same but different” myths we find in the Gospels vis-a-vis certain pagan and Jewish myths.

Explaining the “same but different” elements?

That “same but different” feature clearly appears when setting the rabbinic midrash beside the gospels — in the former the messiah is in some ways an analogue of the messiah in the gospels, but in others he is an opposite, and another figure in the midrash in the end takes over the saving qualities of Jesus.

These are the sorts of variations one regularly finds in families of myths. Levi-Strauss saw the development of myths happening in a similar way that languages mutate and change in different directions. The Romance languages are “the same but different”, for example. For more details see the posts linked above.

What this might suggest is that the different tales are the products of closely related peoples sharing very similar types of experiences.

Compare the remarks of Hasan-Rokem about the significance of the roles of Rachel and the mother and the “swaddling infant” and threats of early death in the different messiah birth narratives of the Jews and Christians in my previous post. These motifs relate to powerlessness and suffering. They are joined to the megalomaniacal opposite of one person rising above that helplessness and death and overturning the entire course of history. What sort of situation can we imagine must have led different peoples to generate and pass on such a story?

In the death of the messiah stories we have another set of common motifs. They relate to betrayal of the innocent and righteous one and the unjust all-powerful worldly ruler. That innocent and righteous one was not only unjustly treated — he was the very reason God had preserved his entire nation for so long. His death was the very reason God destroyed a whole people. Again megalomaniacal notions born of utter despair?

Is the common “mytheme” of scepticism among the Roman authority an indication of the conquering power’s lingering suspicions that the revolt is not yet over, that persecution and death must still be pursued? Is the motif a self-assurance that the old is now really dead and only the hope among the survivors is all that is left?

The innocent could never suffer because of any personal wrong. The innocent victim was the only true hope of the entire people. Only treachery could have been responsible for the innocent’s downfall.

God allowed all to happen according to his plan. The very holy books spoke directly of the vindication of those who suffered, and God would bring vengeance to all of “the others” because of their evil treatment of the innocent one.

Is not such a messiah or saviour figure a mere projection of the fantastic, despairing hopes of a people reduced to utter loss and powerlessness? I have not covered here every similar “mytheme” element, but I believe one can identify possible analogues in the experiences of the people who produced each tale.

Were not the early Christians and Jews closely enough related to share common “mythemes” as expressions of their common experiences? Were not their geographical and socio-cultural differences enough to lead their respective creative minds to stitch those common mythemes into variant tales expressing, each in their own way, the very similar despair and hopes they shared?

Those Christian experiences (think of early Jewish-Christians), I suspect, fell upon them with the war and aftermath of 66-70 c.e. — the destruction of much of Jerusalem and the Temple. Rabbinic Judaism was another response to this. Both sought their own ways to reestablish new identities (or preserve or transform whatever they could of the old) with the destruction of their former religious-cultural-ethnic world. Even many in the Diaspora would also have been severely affected, especially with widespread Jewish revolts and persecutions in the aftermath of 70 c.e.

Jewish Christians and rabbinic Jews each responded in different ways to outsiders. Note the emphasis on midrashic interpretations of scriptural passages focusing on attitudes towards enemies and foreigners. (See the previous post for some details.)

I had expected to explore three rabbinic midrashic tales in this post to compare with the Gospel narratives, but this first one took much longer than anticipated. Will cover the last two in a future post some time soon.

Till then, think “minimalism”. An explanation for the origin of the Old Testament narratives has been built around an analysis of their recurring motifs (mythemes?) in story after story, with a historical contextual match sort for in the external evidence.

Thus the themes (from Genesis to 2 Kings) of exile and return, of rightful heir and foreign Canaanite, of the need for separation and holiness in a land of strangers, of leaving Babylon or Egypt and crossing seas and rivers to take possession of a land of promise, of new Israel always replacing the old . . . . these are constant refrains in all the Bible stories. What sort of historical context could have given rise to these all pervasive themes in the literature? We know the archaeology prohibits us from accepting the historicity of the narrative at face value. But the archaeology is consistent with the model of imperial powers (especially Persia) relocating peoples to occupy the area of Palestine (for fortification buffers? economics?), and we have evidence that such mass deportations could be “facilitated” by giving those deportees new identities, assuring them they were “returning” to the “land of their fathers” and “their true gods”. The first province extended from the Nile to the Euphrates, coincidentally the area promised to Abraham. The biblical narrative was the literary result of the work of the elites to establish that new identity, probably believed in by many of those elites themselves.

If that is plausible, why not something similar — or perhaps the converse of that — being behind the Gospel narratives? By converse I mean the loss of land and Temple and a scattering and suffering instead.

Lamentations Rabbah 2:2

Copied from Galit Hasan-Rokem’s Web of Life:

Said R. Yohannan [i.e. the narrator]: “Eighty thousand trumpeters besieged Bethar, each commanding several companies, and Ben Kozbah commanded two hundred thousand men with amputated fingers.

The sages sent word to him: ‘Till when will you go on mutilating the men of Israel?’

Said he: ‘How else shall I test them?’

They answered, ‘Do not enlist anyone who cannot uproot a cedar from Lebanon.’

He sent word that he had done so, and now had two hundred thousand men of one sort and two hundred thousand men of the other.

When going into battle, he said: ‘Lord of the Universe, do not help us, and do not shame us either, as it is written, Hast thou not rejected us, O God? So that thou goest not forth, O God, with our hosts?” (Psalm 60:12).

What was Ben Kozbah’s strength?

They said: ‘When going into battle, he caught the catapults with one of his knees and hurled them back, killing several people.’

Said R. Yohannan: “When R. Akiva [Aqiba] looked at Ben Kozbah he said, ‘There shall come a star out of Jacob’ (Numbers 24:17). ‘A star out of Jacob,’ this refers to king Messiah.”

R. Yohannan b. Torttha said: “Akiva, grass will grow on your cheeks, and still the son of David will not have come.”

For three and a half years, Hadrian besieged Bethar. And R. Eleazar of Modi’in sat wearing sackcloth and ashes and prayed: ‘Lord of the Universe, do not sit in judgment today, do not sit in judgment today!’

As Hadrian could not conquer the city, he considered withdrawing.

A Cuthean [Samaritan] was with him, and he said [to Hadrian]: “Be patient today and I will help you subdue it. But as long as this hen sits on the hatchlings, on the sackcloth and on the ashes, you cannot conquer it.”

After the apostate had said what he said, he entered the city. He found R. Eleazar standing and praying. He pretended to whisper in his ear, and R. Eleazar did not notice him.”

People went and told Ben Kozbah: ‘Your friend [uncle?] asked to surrender the city.’

He sent for the apostate and said to him: ‘What did you say to him?’

He replied: ‘If I tell you, I divulge the king’s [Hadrian’s] secrets, and if I do not, you will kill me. Better you should kill me than the king, and the king’s secrets should not be known.”

Nevertheless, Ben Kozbah still believed that R. Eleazar had intended to surrender the city.

When Eleazar finished praying, Ben Kozbah sent for him and asked: ‘What did the Cuthean say to you?’

Said he: ‘I did not see the man.’

Ben Kozbah kicked him and killed him. A heavenly voice [bat qol] then issued forth and declared: ‘Woe to the worthless shepherd who forsakes the flock! The sword shall be upon his arm, and upon his right eye, his arm shall be dried up, and his right eye shall be darkened’ (Zekhariah 11:17).

Said the Holy One, blessed be He, “You have broken the arm of Israel and blinded its right eye; therefore, Ben Kozbah’s arm will wither and his right eye will dim.’

Forthwith, Bethar was conquered and Ben Kozbah was killed. His head taken to Hadrian, who asked: ‘Who killed him?’

‘A soldier killed him,’ they replied.

Hadrian did not believe them and ordered: ‘Go and bring his body to me.’

They went and brought his body, and found a snake curled on his knees.

Said he: ‘Had his God not slain him, who could have beaten him? To fulfil the verse, ‘unless their Rock had sold them, and the Lord had shut them up’” (Deuteronomy 32:30). – Lamentations Rabbah 2:2

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Neil Godfrey

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