The Dying Messiah (refrain)

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by Neil Godfrey

Richard Carrier has posted a fascinating artticle on the pre-Christian Jewish concept of a dying Messiah and showing the nonsense so thoughtlessly repeated even by scholars the originality of Christianity’s idea that a messiah must die in order to offer saving atonement to his people.

Richard’s post is beautifully lengthy exploring much detail from the evidence.

I can’t resist taking this opportunity to refer to the many posts I have also made on this same theme, although they do not explore the same details as Carrier does — listed below.

My posts are for most part based on other scholars who have advanced the same idea, including a Jewish one who sees certain sectarian Second Temple Jewish ideas about Isaac’s offering (apparently thought by some to have been a literal blood sacrifice that atoned for the Jewish people) overlapping with messianism in the time of the Maccabean martyrs — whose blood also had atoning power.

Other posts are based in some measure on the considerable work of Thomas L. Thompson who has written quite a bit on the concept of pre-Christian messianism.

Of significance is the death of the messianic (anointed high priest) having the power to forgive and atone; and the Davidic messiah himself was very often depicted as a figure of suffering and even ultimate rescue from death or near-death.

Carrier refers to Daniel’s messiah being killed. Saul, another messiah, was also killed. The concept of a messiah per se dying — whether the messiah was humanly fallible or a righteous martyr — was very much a part of the thought world of sectors of Judaism at the time of Christianity’s birth.

Carrier sees the history of messianic pretenders arising in the pre-war period as a possible outcome of the Daniel prophecy. Maybe, but I will have to think that through some more. Till now I have tended to argue that there were no such popular messianic expectations until from the time of the Roman war of 66-70 in a series of posts I have yet to complete. (Carriers post might end up prompting me to finish that now so I can think through his arguments some more.)

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here is a list of posts of mine on the same theme — that the idea of a dying messiah was by no means novel to the Jews or original to the Christians.

What might a Davidic Messiah have meant to early Christians?

An Old Testament Messiah Struck Down by God

Old Testament Messiahs as the Raw Material for the New Testament Christ

Could Jews never have imagined a crucified Messiah?

Jewish scriptures as inspiration for a Slain Messiah

The meaning of “Anointed-Messiah-Christ” in the time of Jesus

Midrash and Gospels 3: What some Jewish scholars say (and continuing ‘Midrash Tales of the Messiah’)

Jesus displaces Isaac: midrashic creation of the biblical Jesus . . . (Offering of Isaac . . . #6)

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

Selling the comfort of a crucified-messiah

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “The Dying Messiah (refrain)”

  1. Neil,

    Carrier appears to be persuaded that there was messianic expectation pre-70 CE:

    “It is sometimes denied that Josephus mentions messianic pretenders, because he meticulously avoids the word “messiah” or “Christ” in discussing them, and he doesn’t explicitly link their activities to Jewish messianism. Of course, given his Roman audience, he had a good reason to play this down, and play up the angle that they were only “pretenders” (although one could just as well ask, pretenders to what?). But the literary analysis of Craig Evans (in “Josephus on John the Baptist and Other Jewish Prophets of Deliverance,” in Amy-Jill Levine et al., The Historical Jesus in Context [Princeton University 2006], pp. 55-63) establishes that they certainly understood themselves to be “the messiah,” because they were consciously emulating Joshua, the first anointed conquistador of Palestine, first founder of Israel as the Holy Land, and quintessential model for what the messiah was expected to do and be.”

    I recall a recent post of yours in which you said you were not fully convinced of this. Is this an element of Carrier’s article that you disagree with?

    1. I’m not, of course, answering for Neil, but you bring up interesting points.

      When I was a churchgoer, I remember a carol we used to sing at Christmas:

      O come, O come, Emmanuel
      And ransom captive Israel
      That mourns in lonely exile here
      Until the Son of God appear
      Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
      Shall come to thee, O Israel.

      As Christians we were taught that Jews in the Levant living under Roman rule were all waiting for the messiah. N.B.: There was a universal expectation of the messiah. And we understood “messiah” as a direct reference to the restoration of the Davidic monarchy.

      O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
      Thine own from Satan’s tyranny

      But it seems more likely the savior that people were expecting was a new prophet or a new Joshua, not the new David. Craig Evans’ analysis of Josephus’ list of “rabble-rousers” seem to be emulating Moses, Elijah, or Joshua.

      Many scholars still assume (and I think comes from their Christian upbringing) that the Jews of 1 BCE through 1 CE generally expected the return of The Messiah — a descendant of David, a warrior king who would deliver Israel from her oppressors. Moreover, these scholars believe the idea that “The Messiah” would die a horrible death is an innovation by Christians who tried to make sense of Jesus’ crucifixion.

      Bart Ehrman writes in The New Testament: A Historical Introduction: “In the opinion of most Jews . . . those who proclaim Jesus as the messiah have not only lost touch with their Jewish roots, they have also violated the clear teaching of Scripture.” (pp. 140-141) (Note: Ehrman points out on p. 293 that some Jews envisioned the messiah as a warrior king, others, as an “inspired priest,” while still other saw him as a “cosmic judge.” Still, he’s talking about *the* messiah.)

      The discussions here on Vridar have called into question these widely held assumptions:

      (1) The Jews were waiting for The Messiah.

      (2) The expectation for this “one, true messiah” was practically universal among Jews at the time.

      (3) No Jews had ever expected the messiah to be killed.


    2. John,

      It’s something I have not seen strong evidence for. As Tim says, it is one of those things that is widely accepted in the literature but it’s damn hard finding the evidence — at least I haven’t had much luck. Josephus mentions various persons but they look to me like they are emulating Joshua or Moses. Are these (were they) ever thought of as “messiahs”? What is the evidence?

      I am most influenced by William Scott Green and Thomas L. Thompson who has often also referred to Green’s observation that most scholarship about messianism has tended to look at texts where messianism is not mentioned. Jeffrey Staley then strengthened my doubts with his review of Fitzmyer’s book on messianism. Staley rightly (I think) pointed out that Fitzmyer’s evidence tells us nothing about the beliefs and ideas circulating in “popular culture” of the time.

      In Numbers 27 Moses and the priests laid hands on Joshua to mark him as the successor of Moses but the versions we have — does the LXX say anything different? are there extra-canonical traditions? — don’t as far as I know say he was “anointed”. He was not a messiah as far as I know. But if I’m wrong do tell me.

      I must complete my posts on messianic movements (so called) from Horsley’s book and see what I think after that.

      1. “… does the LXX say anything different? are there extra-canonical traditions?”

        This seems unlikely, given that no such traditions are cited by Robert A. Kraft in his short but helpful essay, “Was There a ‘Messiah-Joshua’ Tradition at the Turn of the Era?”


        The Joshua/Jesus who first confronted Amalek in the pentateuchal tradition is described as an Ephraimite (Nm 13:8). According to Kraft, “the continual warfare between Israel and Amalek and its anticipated eschatological consummation, which we noted already in Justin, are frequent themes in Jewish literature. In fact, it is in connection with this final confrontation between the demonic world (represented by Amalek) and YHWH’s anointed agent that we sometimes find the Rabbinic sources speaking of the ‘dying Messiah’ = Messiah ben-Joseph or Messiah ben-Ephraim! Thus Messiah ben Ephraim fights Amalek, gains the victory, and dies.”

  2. Numbers 27 looks as close to “an annointing” of Joshua as makes no difference, unless the indispensible active ingredient is oil. That isn’t mentioned explicitly; Eleazar merely lays his hands on Joshua, but the passage hits all the “messianic” notes otherwise. But I think we have at least to include Joshua as one of the possible models for messianic identity or expectation.

    I am inclined to believe that the period was one of widespread eschatological aspiration, and that a redeemer figure was a part of that for most Jews if not all. “Davidic” messiahs, in my view, were the favored model for those who envisioned an actual restoration of an autonomous temple state on Biblical lines, with a legitimate king and high priest. The DSS articulate this orientation.

    Then there’s the expectation in 1 Maccabees: “until a prophet shall arise.” This phrase is used twice, once at the rededication of the temple when they store away the stones that had been the burnt sacrifice altar until a prophet shall arise to say what should be done with them, and again at the conformation of Simon Maccabee as high priest and ethnarch. Is this a cynical manipulation of popular expectation of a prophet on the Elijah model, that is, do we have here a bit of Hasmonean propaganda saying, in essence, you will have a Hasmonean king until pigs fly? Either way, it seems certain that the expectation existed. But is this an early development in the direction of Elijah redivivus being the herald of the messiah, and not strictly a messianic idea? Is this evidence of a popular expectation over and against an elite one?

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