Christ among the Messiahs — Part 1

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by Neil Godfrey

  • What did Paul — or any of the earliest Christians — mean when they called Jesus “Christ”? I mean before the Gospels were written.
  • If the idea of Christ for earliest Christians and Jews of their day meant a conquering Davidic king, how do we explain why early Christians referred to Jesus as “Christ” and “seed of David” if he was crucified?
  • Did not Paul apply the term Christ to Jesus as a personal name, not as a title? If so, did Paul have his own idiosyncratic view of what Christ meant, if anything, other than a name?
  • If Jews at the time of the Jewish revolt (66-70 ce) were expecting a Messiah who would rise up out of Judea and rule the world (as indicated in Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius), did Paul and other early Christians share this same view with application to Jesus?
  • Did Paul “de-messianize a hitherto-messianic Jesus movement” and turn a Jewish cult into a religion that came to stand in opposition to Judaism?

These questions are addressed and answered by Matthew V. Novenson in his recently published Christ among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism. Matthew Novenson is a lecturer in New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh. He had earlier addressed aspects of them briefly in a 2009 JBL article, The Jewish Messiahs, the Pauline Christ, and the Gentile Question.

The Problem Stated

Novenson sets out the problem in his introduction:

The problem can be stated simply: Scholars of ancient Judaism, finding only a few diverse references to “messiahs” in Hellenistic- and Roman-period Jewish literature, have concluded that the word did not mean anything determinate [that is, it did not convey, for example, the idea of troubles in the last-days, with an Elijah precursor, a coming to overthrow enemies, establish the kingdom of God, etc] in that period [it was merely a word for anyone/thing “anointed”].

Meanwhile, Pauline interpreters, faced with Paul’s several hundred uses of the Greek word for “messiah,” have concluded that Paul said it but did not mean it, that χριστός in Paul does not bear any of its conventional senses.

To summarize the majority view: “Messiah” did not mean anything determinate in the period in question, and Paul, at any rate, cannot have meant whatever it is that “messiah” did not mean. (pp. 1-2, my formatting)

Novenson finds John Collins’ statement of the problem particularly pointed:

On the Christian side, we have had the astonishing claim that Paul, the earliest Christian writer, did not regard Jesus as the messiah. The ecumenical intentions of such a claim are transparent and honorable, but also misguided since the claim is so plainly false. Jesus is called Christos, anointed, the Greek equivalent of messiah, 270 times in the Pauline corpus. If this is not ample testimony that Paul regarded Jesus as messiah, then words have no meaning. (p. 2)

Novenson’s book argues that for Paul Jesus was the “messiah” in more than just name. But if so, what did the term “messiah” mean to Paul? Novenson will argue that Paul really did understand the word “messiah” in the same sense as other Jews of his day understood the term:

To rephrase my thesis from this perspective: Christ language in Paul is actually an invaluable example of messiah language in ancient Judaism. (p. 3)

Definitions and Concepts

Novenson limits his study of Paul’s understanding of χριστός to the seven letters generally accepted as authentic: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon.

He speaks of “messiah texts” and “messiah language” as distinct from “messianism”. Thus his argument addresses the meaning of messiah language in our texts, what the term itself meant, and not the real or hypothetical existence of social movements anticipating a messiah.

How does Novenson view the other Jewish texts of the period, then, by comparison with their uses of the term “messiah” with Paul’s uses? Novenson follows Geza Vermes in arguing that “for a historical understanding, the age old distinction between the New Testament and its Jewish background should be abolished and the former looked at deliberately as part of the larger whole.

The other Jewish texts of the period are best conceived neither as backgrounds to Paul nor as parallels to Paul but rather as other instances of the ancient Judaism of which Paul, too, was an instance. More specifically, χριστός in Paul’s letters is itself an instance of messiah language in ancient Judaism. It is best interpreted as a member of a species, and the whole species stands to be better understood as a result of its being so interpreted. (p. 9)

The period of Jewish literature Novenson covers for Paul’s context extends from the time of the Maccabean revolt (160s B.C.E.) through to the Bar Kokhba revolt (130s C.E.).

The Modern Problem of Christ and the Messiahs

I’d love to see the various histories of scholarly ideas made more accessible to general readers. Such exposure would surely help more of us understand where our current thinking stands in the larger scheme of things and hopefully remind us that “the current wisdom” is probably yet one more stepping stone in an ongoing quest for understanding. Stubborn dogmatism would vanish overnight! Rainbows would appear, flowers blossom, the crocodile will lay down with the dingo, the leopard will lose its spots, and a little tyke will tweak their noses.

Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860)

Baur wrote:

[Paul] saw in the death of Christ the purification of the Messianic idea from all the sensuous elements which cleaved to it in Judaism, and its elevation to the truly spiritual consciousness where Christ comes to be recognised as . . . the absolute principle of the spiritual life.

That is, for Baur, Paul was purging the concept of the Jewish Messiah from all of its Jewish trappings of an earthly religion and transforming it into an entirely spiritual concept as the focus of a new religion opposed to Judaism. Paul in effect was said to “liberate” Christianity from Judaism by turning the Jewish “Messiah” idea into a “higher” and more spiritual concept, “Christ”.

Baur based his view on what he regarded as only four genuine Pauline epistles: Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians and Romans. These four epistles, moreover, contained interpolations expressing what Baur considered an anti-Pauline view of Christ.

The German religionsgeschichtliche Schule

Baur laid out the direction for subsequent generations of interpreters of Paul. He was particularly influential on the German religionsgeschichtliche Schule that also became a strong influence throughout England and the United States.

These thinkers stressed the Hellenistic elements of Paul’s thought and downplayed Jewish aspects. One way of achieving this was to argue that Paul was able to appeal to Gentiles by abandoning the Jewish “messiah” Christology and replacing it with a Lord (κύριος) Christology.

William Wrede (1859-1906)

As part of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule Wrede likewise believed that Paul rejected the “ordinary [Jewish] conception of a Messiah” as too worldly and racially limited. Paul, Wrede argued, created a metaphysical concept of Christ — a divine figure who was above all mankind yet for all mankind. Thus for Paul the Messiah was no longer a Jewish Messiah but a Saviour of the world. Paul’s religion was thus not a Jewish faith but an entirely new faith.

Adolf Deissmann (1866-1937)

For Deissmann Judaism held the idea of a “dogmatic Messiah” who was tied firmly to Judea or Palestine itself. Before Paul Christianity clung to the same messianic idea with respect to Jesus.

Paul introduced the notion of a Christ mysticism, a spiritual Christ who transcended ethnic and geographic limitations.

Wilhelm Bousset (1865-1920)

Bousset represents “the high-water mark” of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule. On Paul’s Christ concept he wrote in Kyrios Christos:

The personal Christ piety of the apostle Paul arose on this foundation of the Kyrios faith and the Kyrios cultus in the Hellenistic primitive Christian communities . . . .

In the Christ piety of Paul there now sounds one entirely new note, and it becomes the dominant: the intense feeling of personal belonging and of spiritual relationship with the exalted Lord. (my emphasis)

Novenson will argue against this. He will argue that Paul’s concept of Christ was part and parcel with how his Jewish contemporaries understood the meaning of messiah.

Bousset introduced a theme that has remained a commonplace in scholarship up to the present day: that with the writings of Paul we are witnessing the change from Christ being used as an honorific title to becoming a proper name. With Paul we find the old titles that dominated the earliest Christian community references to Jesus fast disappearing.

So while Christ became a proper name (no longer a title) there was a new title that was applied to Jesus by Paul and that came to dominate in gentile Christianity ever afterwards — κύριος, Lord. Paul transformed Jesus from being “a messiah” into a Lord. Christ was robbed of all its messianic significance and reduced to a proper name. Jesus Christ was the name of the Lord.

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965)

Schweitzer was a critic of Bousset’s understanding of Paul’s Christology. For Schweitzer, the centre of Paul’s thought was “Being in Christ” — a mystical concept for a mystical eschatology. Though such a concept lent itself to subsequent Hellenisation, Schweitzer argued that Paul drew this idea from Judaism’s late Second Temple apocalypses.

That is, Paul’s “in Christ” concept corresponded with the christs of the Jewish apocalypses. These apocalypses introduced the belief in a preordained union of the elect to both with one another and with the messiah in the messianic kingdom.

Up until the Second World War, however, Schweitzer’s views failed to overthrow the influence of Bousset.

Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976)

For Bultmann Paul was the touchstone of Hellenistic Christianity. In explaining, therefore, Romans 1:3 in which Paul spoke of Jesus as being the “seed of David”, he commented that “the title is of no importance to him.” Paul’s use of it “is evidently due to a handed-down formula” that does not reflect the apostle’s own view.

Bultmann, heir of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule, regarded Paul’s Christianity as thoroughly Hellenistic, and saw Paul as describing Christ’s death in terms analogous to the deaths of divinities in mystery cults.

Relevance of the above history to today’s views

Novenson concludes from his survey of the scholarship from Baur up to the time of the Second World War:

Despite the passage of a century, this notion — that the messiah of Judaism is narrow and limited, the Christ of Paul universal and inclusive — continues to influence many. The anti-Semitic excesses of the school of thought have been roundly rejected, but the basic shape of the argument persists in mainstream Pauline scholarship. (p. 19)

Since the Second World War there have been serious rivals to this view.


* * *

W. D. Davies (1911-2001)

In 1948 W. D. Davies published Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology, a work that

helped move Pauline research down a decidedly Judaism-oriented path that has continued on to this day. (p. 20)

For Davies, Paul’s views were traceable to rabbinic parallels and there was no need to look to non-Jewish sources for their origin. Paul was a Jewish thinker, not a Hellenistic one, according to Davies.

Far from rejecting Judaism, Paul was said to have discovered its true meaning and fulfillment in what became the new religion of Christianity. For Paul, Jesus was the Messiah of Jewish expectation ushering in the Messianic age — except that he did it by means of transvaluing, not rejecting, traditional Judaism.

The influence of W. D. Davies re-emerges later in the form of his student, E. P. Sanders.

Nils Dahl (1911-2001)

Dahl wrote a short essay (The Messiahship of Jesus in Paul) in 1953 revisiting Bousset’s question as to whether Paul used the term “Christ” as a title or a proper name. Dahl came down in favour of Bousset’s conclusion — that Paul uses Christ as a proper name — on the basis of four negative philological reasons:

  1. it is never a general term;
  2. it is never a predicate of the verb ‘to be’ (e.g. Jesus is Christ);
  3. it never takes a genitive modifier (e.g. Christ of God);
  4. and it characteristically lacks the definite article (e.g. a/the Christ).

But he concluded with an important qualifier:

This does not exclude the possibility that the name ‘Christ’ bears a fullness of meaning. However, the messiahship of Jesus is not stressed. (p. 21)

Dahl thus initiated a German trend through the 1950s and 1960s of deciding by means of grammatical criteria whether Paul meant ‘Christ’ as a title or a proper name.

Novenson will argue that Dahl’s grammatical criteria are insufficient for understandings Paul’s thought.

Hans Conzelmann (1915-1989)

Conzelmann followed Dahl’s grammatical lead and suggested that a “title” could be identified if it came with a definite article and appeared as the subject of a sentence.

Oscar Cullmann (1902-1999)

Cullmann, likewise in Dahl’s train, used word order to determine Paul’s meaning. So when Paul spoke of Jesus Christ he was using Christ as a proper name. Other times he would invert the order and write Christ Jesus, thus reminding us that he was nonetheless still aware of the real meaning of the word.

Werner Kramer (1930- )

Kramer rebutted the philological arguments above and insisted that in every case Paul used Christ as a proper name. Jesus and Christ were interchangeable. Though χριστός was originally drawn from the Septuagint, by the time it had reached Paul it had been stripped of all conventional meaning.

The influence of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule is seen once again surfacing in Kramer’s insistence that Paul was only formerly a Jew and that his Christianity was thoroughly gentile, stripped of Jewish associations.

E. P. Sanders (1937- )

Sanders’ landmark 1977 publication was Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion. Part of Sanders’ intention with this work was

to destroy the view of Rabbinic Judaism which is still prevalent in much, perhaps most, New Testament scholarship.

A major accomplishment of this book has been the demolition of the view among many scholars that Judaism was a “salvation by legalism” religion. This was achieved in part through references to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Sanders believed a weakness in his teacher’s (W. D. Davies) argument was his reliance upon piecemeal parallels of motifs of thought between rabbinic Judaism and Paul’s thought.

Sanders proposes instead a wholesale comparison of patterns of religion, the essence of Paulinism with the essence of Palestinian Judaism. (p. 23)

Sanders also disagreed with Davies on the importance of Jesus’s Messiaship in Paul’s thought. For Davies, the messiahship of Jesus was the centre of Paul’s religion and its main point of contention with Judaism. Paul viewed Jesus as the true spiritual fulfillment of the Jewish messiah.

Although Sanders agreed with Davies’ point that Paul believed Jesus was indeed the Messiah, he parted company with Davies over how important this was to Paul. Sanders did not see this idea as central to Paul’s belief system at all. For Sanders,

Paul’s principal conviction as not that Jesus as the Messiah had come, but that God had appointed Jesus Christ as Lord and that he would resurrect or transform those who were members of him by virtue of believing in him.

Thus Sanders is returning very close to Bousset’s thinking here. He is arguing that Paul rejected a χριστός christology in favour of a κύριος [Lord] christology.

But now, Novenson points out, Sanders has left us without any understanding of why Paul should ever refer to Jesus as Christ at all.

His teacher, W. D. Davies, had argued for a logical progression by which Paul may have come to his views of Jesus as the Messiah — he interpreted Jesus’ status as the spiritual fulfillment of the Jewish messiah. But Davies had arrived at his view by drawing parallels between elements of Paul’s thought and rabbinic Judaism.

Sanders, on the other hand, had rejected Davies’ method and zeroed in on the different essences of the totality of the two religious ideas, but that left him with a Christianity that was simply different from Judaism without any coherent connection to it. In other words, Sanders simply argued that the reason Paul faulted Judaism was because “it is not Christianity.”

In other words, whereas Davies proposes an inner Jewish logic whereby Paul might have come to his peculiar views, Sanders simply posits that Paul represents an altogether different religion. By doing so, he avoids the logical snares involved in drawing parallels, but he also leaves Paul strangely untethered to his native religious context and fails to explain why Paul should refer to Jesus as χριστός at all. (p. 24, my emphasis)


* * *

Since Paul and Palestinian Judaism scholarly studies on Paul’s christology and understanding of “christ” have fanned into different directions.

Radford Ruether

RR controversially claimed that Christology virtually by definition implied an attack on the Jewish religion and the Jews, that “anti-Judaism is the left hand of Christology.”

Lloyd Gaston

Argued against RR that Paul alone among the NT writers had “no left hand.” Paul’s Christology made no claim on the Jews so was not anti-Jewish. Gaston returned to Dahl’s and Kramer’s view that for Paul “Christ” was only a name and not a title. Jesus is not the climax of God’s dealing with Israel but only the fulfillment of God’s promises to the gentiles.

Novenson points to a “remarkable irony” here. Whereas Baur a century earlier had argued that

if Paul had a messiah Christology, he would have been a philo-Semite, which Baur could not abide. More than a century later, Gaston reasons that, if Paul had had a messiah Christology, he would have been an anti-Semite, which Gaston cannot abide. Baur and Gaston agree, then, on the historical point that Paul did not believe that Jesus was the messiah, but for exactly opposite theological reasons. (p. 26)

Martin Hengel

Updated Dahl’s philological arguments.

N. T. Wright

Argues Paul believed Jesus was the Messiah, but that Messiah means “the one in whom the people of God are summed up.”

Andrew Chester

Paul writes “messiah” but deliberately changes its meaning to downplay what it truly meant to the Jews: this is to avoid embarrassment over the delay in the parousia and to respect political sensitivities associated with the potentially political term.

Magnus Zetterholm

Agrees with Chester in that Paul changed (or downplayed) the meaning of the word, but MZ argues a different reason for this: Paul was seeking to prevent his gentile converts from Judaizing, so felt it inappropriate to present his converts (many of whom had previously been familiar with Judaism) with a Jewish messiah.

Dieter Zeller

Disagrees with Chester: believes Paul embraces the full Jewish meaning of “messiah”.

Paula Fredriksen

Paul did embrace the Jewish messiahship of Jesus and it was this that explains other Pauline themes like persecution of believers in the Diaspora synagogues and the rationale for the gentile mission.

Adela Yarbro Collins

Also argues that Paul believed in the messiahship of Jesus. She interprets the philological arguments in the opposite direction from others:

Paul’s unornamented use of the word suggests not that he was defusing or de-emphasizing the idea but rather that he assumed it. (p. 30)

On the above three, Novenson comments:

The contributions of Zeller, Fredriksen, and Collins show that, appearances notwithstanding, the majority interpretation does not follow necessarily from the Pauline evidence; other interpretations are possible and perhaps even preferable. (pp. 30-31)

Stanley Stowers

Paul saw Jesus as the messiah (Jewish) but, since he chose to delay his coming and judgment upon the world, Paul concludes that this delay must be emphasized. That is, the focus of Paul’s interest is not Jesus’ messiahship but the delay in which he forgoes his messianic prerogatives. So the all-important act was Jesus dying and being vindicated in his resurrection.


And this brings us down to the author of the book under discussion, Matthew V. Novenson. So now we know where he fits in with the history of the scholarship on this question.


* * *

An ironic position

Novenson concludes:

At the present time, scholarly scholarly opinion on χριστός in Paul is an ironic position. While most of the major monographs, commentaries, and theologies of Paul now follow Davies and Sanders in reading Paul in primarily “Jewish” rather than “Hellenistic” terms, on the question of the meaning of χριστός they nevertheless perpetuate the old religionsgeschichtliche thesis that Paul is revising, transcending, or otherwise moving beyond the messianic faith of the earliest Jesus movement. (p. 32, my emphasis)

So for all the diversity of the Christological theses abounding, they all share one point in common:

Whatever Paul’s Christology is, it is not messianic.

Behind the diversity of opinions, however, rests one common presupposition:

Pauline interpreters think they know what messiah Christology would look like, and they are certain that Paul’s Christology does not look like that.

It is this point that Novenson tackles in his book. He continues by way of introduction:

This is actually very curious, however, since the last sixty years in Jewish studies have witnessed a dramatic breakdown in consensus about what messiah Christology would look like and indeed whether it existed at all in the first century C.E.

As a result, the two subfields of research are like ships passing in the night.

When scholars of early Judaism have cast about for any instances of the word “messiah” in Hellenistic and Roman period literature find an unparalleled cache of such instances in the letters of Paul, New Testament scholars reply that Paul says it but does not mean it, that for him χριστός means “Christ,” not “messiah.”

It is an open question, however, what “messiah” itself means. (pp. 32-33, my formatting)

And that is the question that Matthew Novenson sets out to discuss in Christ among the Messiahs.


. . . to be continued.


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49 thoughts on “Christ among the Messiahs — Part 1”

  1. The Christ Paul fought so hard against was James the Just. I find it hard to understand why scholars and others have such a hard time to see through the veil of christian mythology on this point. Paul was also the reason why some started to see James as the risen Christ.His attack och James on the top of the temple stairs started the rumour that James was dead and yet later seen alive. This event occurred some ten years before the samaritan prophet Joshua was executed by the troops of Pilate on Mount Gerizim. HIs death was by some followers seen as an atonement and in the early years Joshua was never seen as a risen Christ, that title belonged to James the Just until oral tradition started to meld the two together.

  2. 1) Much of Christian/religious scholarship since Davies in 1948, has been distored by an extreme reaction to the Nazi antisemitism of c. 1932-45. However, the extreme emotions of WWII, it is time to suggest, have all but destroyed objectivity on this subject: the real differences between Judaism, and Christianity.

    2) Indeed, the current emphasis on the Jewish side of Christ, say, ignores countless historical and biblical realities. That for example a) Jews hated Christianity, and executed Jesus himself for heresy. While b) Christianity soon separated from Judaism, to become a separate religion in the minds of most. While c) better, more objective scholars noted countless departures from Judaism, in especially Paul. Whose Hellenistic Platonism is obvious to anyone who knows the Theory of Forms; the idea that things here on earth, are just im”perfect” models or “copies” of more ideal forms, paradigms, in “heaven.”

    3) Not only does the current bias for a Wholly Jewish Jesus miss countless important historical facts; there is a practical problem here too. Indeed, if we find that CHristianity is actually a branch of Judaism, then we have a practical problem: why then shouldn’t CHristians immediately convert to Judaism? Since it is the true, real, original religion? Why shouldn’t we all revert, to become Jews?

    4) So where, how, and why, did religious scholarship begin to turn away from cross cultural evidence? Probably the real reason the new post-1948 scholarship began to try to re-tie Christianity to Judaism, was in part due to an emotional reaction against Nazi anti-semitism. But also a) because of perceived logical problems, in asserting ties to the Old Testament, while rejecting Judaism. And b) related to this, the perception that if Christianity was largely influenced by Greco-Roman culture, then that would mean that Christianity was a genuine departure from the Old Testament – and perhaps God himself. Which threatened the validity of Christianity itself.

    So many different factors began to favor the new reconceptualizing of Christianity, and/or Jesus, as being rather more “Jewish” than advanced scholarship had thought.

    5) But in fact? Tons of scholarship found earlier that THere ARE count;less historical, textual, and theological differences, divisions, between Judaism and Christianity. It is just that those countless Christian scholars who now concentrate just on Judeo-Christianity “itself” have, by their very concentration, missed countless interdisciploinary, cross-cultural links in Christ and cHRISTIANITY, to “other” cultures. Especially Greco-Roman culture.

    6) How different was the concept of the “Messiah” from Jewish thought for example? Indeed, the whole concept was quite different. a) IN addition to differences noted above: any savior of Jerusalem, Judah, Israel, in Judaism, was supposed to set up a real, physical, material “kingdom.” NOt just a spiritual quasi-kingdom in a church or in our mind or hopes. Even more? B) More important than just a messiah in any case, was a lord, or God himself; coming down from heaven. Not to die, but to destroy the enemies of Judaism, and set up a real, physical kingdom on earth. Which Jesus did note quite do (Isa. 65-6; Rev. 21). So that if we insist that Jesus was wholly Jewish? Christians must end up asserting that Jesus was therefore a failure. Since no such real, material kingdom was to appear “soon” at all.

    7) Indeed therefore, the whole emphasis, since 1948, on a Wholly Jewish Jesus and/or Christianity, is based on any number of failures and biases in current religious scholarship. Beginning with certain historical biases, preoccupations, of 1948. While the emphasis on a Wholly Jewish Jesus or Christ, also came from certain failings of courage, to face some hard truths. And, it was all also due to some extreme limits, in scholarly Cross-cultural, CONTEXTUAL knowledge. Among other reasons just noted? As the “Classics” declined in popularity, the new religious scholars became incapable of seeing countless cross-cultural ties between Judeo-Christian culture, and Greco-Roman ideas. In particular, they became incapable of seeing the heavy Platonistic, Idealizing/spiritualizing influences in especially, Paul. But even in Jesus “himself,” as commonly pictured.

    As well of course, in the concepts of “Messiah,” and “Christ.”

    But perhaps today? By 2012? Perhaps we have finally recovered from the extreme anti-German polemics of WW II. And from the anti cross-culturalism of the 1950’s. To begin to see again, at last, the huge number of Greco-Roman incluences, in “Christ,” in Jesus, and in Christianity.

  3. Paul could very easily have written just “Jesus” and someone could have come along later and added Christos to it (before or after the word “Jesus”) or replaced the word Jesus with Christos.

    Or, Paul could have written Chrestos and it could have been turned into Christos via the practice of Nomina Sacra.

    Or, Paul could have written Mithras and it could have been turned into Jesus Christ later by an editor.

    Point is, we don’t know what Paul wrote. All we know is his epistles HAVE NOT come down to us in their original form — they have been edited. How much of their content actually goes back to Paul is a mystery.

  4. My position here would be this:

    1) That there were indeed some native Jewish traditions that would allow for something like a dying Messiah or Christ, a christened or anointed one; a tradition of christened martryrs and so forth.

    2) But also? Though we cannot be sure what Paul himself wrote, likely “his” notions of a dying Christ, were ALSO influenced heavily by similar Greco-Roman tales. Tales of fated, dying, “heroes,” from Greek Tragedy. And Greek and Roman tales of heroes dying for god and country.

    It seems likely that the Greco-Roman ideas particularly, helped create the legend of a heroic, dying Christ.

    Today, many Christian scholars try to emphasize a Wholly Jewish Jesus; and they try to minimize the importance of Greco-Roman influences on Christianity. But the history of scholarship narrated above by Neil, properly outlines a long, long scholarly tradition that saw Hellenistic, Platonic, Greco-Roman influences helping to create Christianity. CHristianity being in effect, Hellenized – or specifically Platonic – Judaism. And in that tradition, the death of your hero, made perfect sense: indeed, Greek and Roman culture loved noting better, than tales of the good person, who dies for god and country. A figure that remained popular and central in western culture, to this very day.

    3) And of course, all this multicultural influence, from both Jewish and Hellenisitic culture, tales of martrys, bodies dying, dovetail with dualistic Spirituality too. In effect, Plato fed into Gnosticism, and Christianity spirituality. The common root idea was hierarchial Dualism: the idea of the time was that the whole universe was divided into two things: Matter, vs. Spirit. And that mere physical matter (the “flesh,” the “world,” the Demiurge) was bad; but that fortunately the universe was also filled with better, even immortal, Spirit. So that? Physically dying could be good; in that it freed the better spirit, from the bad physical body; to float up to a better spiritual world, in heaven. In this way, a dying Christ could taken – as he seemed to be in Paul – to represent a kind of spiritual triumph.

    So that in sum? The notion of a dying savior, was not so very, very strange in the culture of Jesus and Paul’s time, as some Historicists and others have asserted. In point of fact, there are at least three major cultural traditions that supported such an idea. There are at least major cultural traditions, that could have been borrowed from, deliberately or accidentally, to help create a legend of Jesus Christ, the crucified Messiah. The martyred hero, dying to save his god and country.

    Therefore? One of of the major inputs that would have been borrowed on in the time of Jesus, to create the legend of a triumphant, dying Christ or Messiah or savior, were Jewish. But two major sources, were just as much or more, from Greco-Roman culture. Which was all around, in the days of the Roman occupation of Jerulsalem. These Greco-Roman models no doubt influenced Paul especially. Paul at times claimed to be a Roman citizen; and Paul he quotes from Plato’s Theory of Forms, and so forth. And his “spirituality,” his notion that a dying Christ represents a kind of triumph, seems clearly to borrow in part, from Platonistic dualism. Creating the central idea: that physically dying, can be a sort of triumph; in that it frees the spirit from the material body. So that the spirit can go up to a better, spiritual place; in Heaven.

    1. “My position here would be this: 1) That there were indeed some native Jewish traditions that would allow for something like a dying Messiah or Christ, a christened or anointed one; a tradition of christened martryrs and so forth.”

      Its called the old Semitic belief in a dying and rising god named BAAL.

      1. That Christianity borrowed from some underground stream of Baal worshippers also explains the Trinity. El, Asherah, Baal — Father, Mother, Son becomes Father, Holy Spirit, Son. Then the ‘orthodox’ reverse the order of Son and Holy Spirit to erase the original feminine gender of the HS and make him a third male person in an all male Trinity. Its clear the Trinity didn’t come from Orthodox Judaism!!! Obviously it came from some latent Baal worshipping Paganism still lurking about.

        1. Is Baal (Persian for “Lord”?) worship Jewish? Or not?

          It seems likely it was slightly external to many core Jewish beliefs. Yet by the time of the Old Testament, there were enough Jews crossing over to worship Baal … that the Old Testament felt it was necessary to warn about it.

          So? There were apparently Baal- worshiping Jews.

          Though eventually conservative Jews rejected this variation on Jewish beliefs, which variation after all was the “true” or “real” or “best” form of Judaism? It might be hard to say. Eventually Baal worship was fairly strongly excluded by what was to become to prevailing strain of Jewish thought. But posts here suggest the possiblity that vestigal traces of it remained, even in the mainstream. And traces it is asserted here, were assimilated even into Christianity.

          1. “Is Baal (Persian for ‘Lord’?) worship Jewish? Or not?”

            Its also a common Hebrew word for Lord or Master. Even though it become outlawed as a title for Deity, it is still used by Jews as a title for people. For example, Baal Shem Tov (“Master of the Good Name”), a very famous rabbi.

            But I think your question “Is Baal worship Jewish?” is basically irrelevant. Judaism is the name of modern religion that basically came into existence with the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the creation of the Talmud. Before that, there was Israelite religion, which existed in two forms, the “Trinitarian” or Polytheistic form that worshiped a triplet of Yahweh/El, Asherah, and Baal, and the Unitarian or purely monotheistic as in God is only one Person form that worshiped only Yahweh. Plus behind these distinctions, there was also the distinction between two forms of the Unitarian version, the official Unitarian religion of the Northern kingdom and the official Unitarian religion of the Southern kingdom. It is the Southern kingdom, Judah, that ultimately won, and its form of Unitarian Yahweh worship, after much modification in the Babylonian Captivity and the Greek and Roman periods, became “Judaism,” while the Northern form after similar modification became “Samaritanism.”

            1. Yes; that’s why I asked the question. To point out that the confusions inherent in the question itself; as you have usefully explicated.

              I am interested in “foreign” influences on Judaism, and Christianity. Especially Hellenistic/Greco Roman influences on Jesus and Paul.

              But in this particular case? My own present hypothesis by the way. is that some Jews in the north were close enough to the Persian empire to worship Perian lords or Baals; which of course was despised and spoken against in the south. And was not considered Judaism in the south, but Samaritanism; mixing Judaism with other (in this case Persian) elements.

              So at this point … I’m currrently interested in Persian influences on Samaritanism. Interestingly? The word “Magi” comes from Persian magus, meaning simply wise men. (Though it is also the root word of our “magician”). The verision of the nativity that has three “Magi” present at the birth of Jesus, may be partial, belated acknowledgement of such influence on early Christianity. While Jesus himself was once asked if he had a demon, or was a “Samaritan”; and he did not respond to the Samaritan question.

              By the way? Aramaic is intimately related to Arabic, and Persian.

              More to the point of this post though, would be to ask THIS question: did Persian or Samaritan or Aramaic or Northern Jewish tradition, have a tradition of martrydom? Specially, of a dying Messiah?

              1. One thing I’ve always wondered is since Nazareth is outside of Judea, i.e. in Galilee, isn’t it technically part of Samaria then or not? Interestingly enough doing a google search on this question just a few minutes ago I learned something I never knew. There were two Bethlehems. Bethlehem in Judea and Bethlehem of Galilee.

                “So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath, that is, Bethlehem, and Jacob set up a pillar upon her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.” (Genesis 35:19-20 RSV)

                “The third lot came up for the tribe of Zebulun, according to its families … Kattath, Nahalal, Shimron, Idalah, and Bethlehem” (Joshua 19:10,15 RSV)

                So we’ve got Bethlehem in Judea, Bethlehem Ephrata. Then we’ve got Bethlehem in Galilee, Bethlehem Zubulon. Interesting isn’t it?

              2. And reading a bit more it seems like each Bethlehem has its own Ramah. Bethlehem in Judea is South of Jeruslaem but about 5 miles North of Jerusalem is a Ramah which is on the border between the North and South kingdoms. Then there is another Ramah by the Sea of Galilee. Lol.

              3. Yes. There is much evidence that Jesus was a SAMARITAN, not just a good Jewish boy. Galilee was quite northern; and subject not only to Greek, but also Samaritan influences, which prevailed in the north. (The north that fell to non-Jewish forces, much earlier than the south?).

                1) And indeed? There are two Bethlehems; and one of them, the one that gets forgotten about, was in the North. And might be considered to be in Samaria at times, or to be Samaritan.

                2) Remember Jesus allowing himself to take water from a Samaritan?

                3) And telling his apostles he had “sources” of sustenance they did not know about?

                4) Then too; remember Jesus telling us that the good Samaritan was a better neighbor, than a priest or rabbi? In the story of the Good Samaritan?

                5) Then again, Jesus is accused of a) having a demon, and b) being a Samaritan. He denies having a demon … but does not deny being a Samaritan.

                So? There is plenty of evidence of multi-cultural influence on Jesus himself, in the Bible. Including not only Greco-Roman influences but also Samaritan influences (which in turn include some Hellenistic influences probably, as well as Baal worship; another dying-and-rising lord?).

                6) Interestingly? A recent English article in Der Speigel notes that comparing Dead Sea texts to current Old Testaments, found at least one significant change: a northern holy site (near Secham?) that had been a major Jewish temple community … was simply airbrushed out.

                It appears that there were many, many northern, “non-Jewish” influences impacting Judism and Jews over and over; including Samaritan influences. Though they were spoken against at times, in the South, in Jerusalem, they were there. Such things were often denied; because of a split between north and south. But we are now beginning to reconstruct some of these influences here and now.

                Northern and specifically Samaritan influences were always nearby, with Jesus. And therefore? We should not just look at “proper” Jewish tradition, to understand Jesus. Specifically, It is quite probable that the notion of the martyrdom of Jesus, the falling and rising lord, might have come in part, from Samaritan influence on Jesus. (Among dozens of other ANE – Ancient Near East – sources).

  5. Chris Palmero has noted a c. 450 BCE usage of myró-christos.
    “Euripides, Cyclops, line 495”. perseus.tufts. [NOW BOLDED]

    [line 495 Chorus] Happy the man who shouts the Bacchic cry, off to the revel, the well-beloved juice of the vine putting the wind in his sails. His arm is around his trusty friend, and he has waiting for him [500] the fresh, young body of his voluptuous mistress upon her bed, and with his locks all gleaming with myrrh

    Musgrave gives a variant spelling for Cyclops [501] μυρόχριστος (myróchristos) in the sense of “anointed”. Other editors give μυρόχριστον (myróchriston). Cf. Musgrave, Samuel, ed (1778). “Cyclops” (in Greek). ΕΥΡΙΠΙΔΟΥ ΤΑ ΣΩΖΟΜΕΝΑ (Euripidou ta sozomena – Euripides the saved) | Euripides, Quae extant omnia (All things extant). England: OUP|Clarendon Press. p. 3:80.

  6. OP quote of Novenson: “When scholars of early Judaism have cast about for any instances of the word “messiah” in Hellenistic and Roman period literature find an unparalleled cache of such instances in the letters of Paul, New Testament scholars reply that Paul says it but does not mean it, that for him χριστός means “Christ,” not “messiah.””

    IMO the use of “Christ” by Paul is a reference to all the appearances of “Second-god (Christ)” RationalWiki in the “Scriptures”.

    1. I thought that “Christ” was the Greek equivalent to “Messiah” in the context of Greeks writing about Judaism and Christianity. Or am I wrong?

        1. While the literal translation of the Hebrew term meshiah ( משׁיח ) means “anointed one,” the term is
          understood to mean a figure (or figures) chosen to fulfill a savior role, and in English becomes
          the term “Messiah.”

          However there was also an expectation of the eternally-sanctioned offices for an anointed priest and an anointed king. For the eternal promise of an anointed king, see 2 Sam. 7:12–16. For the eternal promise of an
          anointed priest, see Exod. 40:12–15.

          1. Does Paul never spell out “christos” ?

            • Bart Willruth (12 March 2022) “PART 2: REASSESSING PAUL’S TIMELINE”. Debunking Christianity.

            Abbreviation == Traditional Spelling == Marcion’s Spelling
            ΧΣ == Χριστός (Christos/Christ) == χρηστός (Chrestos)
            ΙΣ == Ἰησοῦς (Iesous/Jesus) == ΙΣ (IS)
            [W]e don’t know that Marcion actually knew the original intent of Paul using the abbreviations, only that the abbreviations were all he had in his Pauline documents, and he was interpreting them in a vacuum, as did later scribes who spelled out Jesus from IS and chose to fill in the missing letters of XS as Christos rather than Chrestos.

            1. You ask, “Does Paul never spell out “christos”?

              We don’t know. If he did, then some later copyists abbreviated it and no other copyist preserved it. The evidence we have is that ALL copies of old manuscripts, prior to the fourth century, used the abbreviation XS. The overwhelming probability is that Paul’s original manuscripts also used that abbreviation. Later readers and copyists didn’t know the original intent. Some rendered it “chrestos” while others rendered it “christos”. It appears that the earlier interpretation was “chrestos”. In any event, Paul never explained the meaning of his abbreviations and it was left to later users of the text to “divine” his intent, based on their own wishes or expectations.

              1. If New Testament scholars are correct that for Paul, χριστός means “Christ,” not “messiah.” then likely he meant χρηστός (Chrestos); not Χριστός (Christos).

                • Novenson, Matthew V. (2012). “The Modern Problem of Christ and the Messiahs”. Christ among the messiahs : Christ language in Paul and messiah language in ancient Judaism. Oxford University Press. pp. 32–33. ISBN 9780199844579.

                When scholars of early Judaism, who have cast about for any instances of the word “messiah” in Hellenistic— and Roman—period literature, find an unparalleled cache of such instances in the letters of Paul, New Testament scholars reply that Paul says it but does not mean it, that for him χριστός means “Christ,” not “messiah.”

              2. Caesar was well known and characterized by his clementia. However, it was not without conditions. When attacked, Caesar could be ruthless. Clementia was offered to those who surrendered and/or plead for it, in addition to making an oath of loyalty (pistis) to him. Those who refused could expect slaughter. Come to think of it, this sounds a bit like Yahweh.

              3. The evidence we have is that ALL copies of old manuscripts, prior to the fourth century, used the abbreviation…

                Metzger, Bruce M. (17 September 1981). Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introduction to Palaeography. Oxford University Press. p. 36. ISBN 978-0-19-536532-0. In the developed Byzantine usage the fifteen nomina sacra in their nominative and genitive forms are as follows: […] Scholars differ in accounting for the origin and development of the system of nomina sacra.

                If the term δημιουργός (dēmiourgós) provided by Plato in Timaeus 29a in cultic slang jargon became shortened to ιουργός (ΙΟΥΡΓΌΣ) then it may be source for the nomina sacra ΙΣ, i.e. Jesus/ιησοῦς (ΙΗΣΟΥ͂Σ).

            2. It is possible that Justin’s παντὸς πατέρα (every father) implies the same concept as Paul’s πατὴρ πάντων (father of all) i.e. the Greek view of a supreme god as the cosmic father of all.

              Per Willruth, “IS could be filled out IoueS, which we would transliterate Joves, the old Roman name for Jupiter.”

              1. A correspondence of Emperor Hadrian refers to Alexandrian worshippers of Serapis calling themselves Bishops of Christ:

                ‘Egypt, which you commended to me, my dearest Servianus, I have found to be wholly fickle and inconsistent, and continually wafted about by every breath of fame. The worshipers of Serapis (here) are called Christians, and those who are devoted to the god Serapis (I find), call themselves Bishops of Christ.’

                Hadrian to Servianus, 134A.D. (Quoted by Giles, ii p86) http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/serapis.htm

                Interesting that the statue of Serapis in the Serapeum was supposed to have come from Sinope just like Marcion.

                On “Chrestians” vs. “Christians” some claim that Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were great bakers because there is only one letter difference (in US English) between chef and chief.

              2. Mark: The letter which you quote is a late-4th or early-5th century forgery from the Historia Augusta. Wikipedia has sources supporting the following words, which I quote: ”
                A letter of Hadrian written from Egypt to his brother-in-law Servianus is quoted at length (and was accepted as genuine by many authorities well into the 20th century).[108] Servianus is saluted as consul, and Hadrian mentions his (adopted) son Lucius Aelius Caesar: but Hadrian was in Egypt in 130, Servianus’ consulship fell in 134, and Hadrian adopted Aelius in 136.[109][110] The letter is said to have been published by Hadrian’s freedman Phlegon, with the letter’s existence not mentioned anywhere except in the History, in another suspect passage.[111] A passage in the letter dealing with the frivolousness of Egyptian religious beliefs refers to the Patriarch, head of the Jewish community in the Empire. This office only came into being after Hadrian put down the Jewish revolt of 132, and the passage is probably meant in mockery of the powerful late 4th-century Patriarch, Gamaliel.[112]”

    2. https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Evidence_for_the_historical_existence_of_Jesus_Christ#Chrestus.2FChristus

      And all this messianic crap continued on down through the centuries in new iterations. There are chronicles and testimonies attesting to the existence of a messianist hope among the “Tayayê” who marched on Jerusalem in 637-638. MHMD is just another epithet for “the anointed one” and yet like John Frum in a cargo cult it took on a life of it’s own morphing into the most perfect man of all time Muhammad.

      In the beginning, Sidney H. Griffith notes in The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque (2008), when Islam was still being formed out of Christian and Jewish doctrines, the fate of Christians under Muslim rule—some 50 percent of the world’s Christian population then—was tolerable. After all, Muslims were not the majorities everywhere, including in Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine, even though their influence was mounting and pressure on non-Muslims was palpable. Unlike in Rome before the reign of Emperor Constantine, there was no serious persecution of Christians, except, perhaps, in individual cases of apostasy. In fact, Islam was so close to Christianity and Judaism that Christians considered the new Arabian religion a heresy and Muslims as “new Jews.”

      The contempt that so many Muslims feel toward Christianity may very well be an expression of the proverbial narcissism of minor differences. Islam was born in a mostly Christian milieu (Syria-Palestine and later Iraq) and the Islamic world west of Iraq used at one time to be mostly Christian. In the 8th century, such Christians (mostly Jacobites and Nestorians, but there were others, too) used the ancient Aramaic terms Nasraye or Nazarenes to describe themselves and called Jesus Yeshua. In fact, Iraq remained home to a powerful and creative Christianity well into the Middle Ages—Tikrit, birthplace of Saddam Hussein, had a major Christian community.

      To be sure, Abdel al-Malik [who built the Dome of the Rock] had his magnificent structure inscribed with copious statements about the oneness of God and the truth of his praised (Muhammad) messenger—many of which found their way into the Koran—but scholars like Christoph Luxemberg believe that such statements were the expression of an anti-Trinitarian form of Christianity that survived in parts of Mesopotamia until the end of Umayyad rule in 750. The Muhammad in the inscription is a reference to Jesus the praised one, not to the Muhammad of the Muslim siras (biographies) written in the 8th and 9th centuries.

      1. Mark, thanks for the link. I copied parts of that to “Second-god (Christ) §. Paul’s ‘Christ’ or ‘Chrestus'”. RationalWiki.

        Middle Platonism is likely also involved in this whole mess, but it gets no love in Academia.
        • Gaston, Thomas E. (July 2009). “The Influence of Platonism on the Early Apologists”. The Heythrop Journal 50 (4): 573–580. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2265.2008.00448.x

        Scholars sometimes object to the term ‘Middle Platonism’ as being rather loosely defined. The term is used to cover the period between the Old Academy and Plotinus, but Platonists of this period do not conform to a single category. This period has failed to generate much academic interest…

        You may be interested in video lecture #18 by Arthur F. Holmes per “A History of Philosophy” | 18 Middle and Neo-Platonism @ https://youtu.be/Sic5OdUIkgk

        1. Puzzle me this: What was his citizenship status? https://qr.ae/pGVeH7

          One loose thread in the official biography of Jesus Christ, the claim by the Sanhedrin that it lacked authority to execute him. Why didn’t the Sanhedrin execute Jesus after convicting him of blasphemy? The same legal body executed Stephen and James the apparent half brother of Jesus for the same crime. During Roman times, the Sanhedrin lacked authority to execute only one class of Jew–Roman citizens. If Jesus was a citizen while James wasn’t then how did he come to have that status?

          1. Both Galilee and Perea were Incorporated into “Greater Judea” i.e. Provincia Ivdaea, in 44 CE, which already incorporated the regions of Samaria, Idumea, and the eponymous Judea. The regional name Perea is used by Josephus (c. 75 CE) and Pliny the Elder (c. 75 CE) in their geographic descriptions of the regions within the province.

            The Markan author shows a great awareness and interest in the Graeco-Roman city territories surrounding Galilee: Gerasa (Mk 5.1); Tyre and Sidon (7.24-31); Caesarea Philippi (8.27) and the Decapolis (5.20; 7.31), and has Jesus himself traveling into these areas.

            In the Markan story, geography demarcates Jew from Gentile. While at the Gallilee region, Jesus receives Gentiles from the surrounding regions—one of which is Transjordan (Mark 3:8). The Markan author names the Transjordan region by using the same term found in the LXX Book of Isaiah—péran toú Iordánou; not Perea. Notably the Markan author never uses the specific contemporary name for the east bank territory of Herod Antipas, i.e. Perea. The LXX Book of Isaiah term for the Transjordan region is repeated in Mark 10:1, therefore the traditional view of the Perean ministry, which holds that Jesus did not travel beyond the Perean territorial region of Herod Antipas is not supported by the Markan text. It appears that the usage of the term Transjordan in Mark 10:1 is a reference to the Decapolis and other Gentile regions such that Jesus—enroute to Jerusalem—is teaching both Jews and Gentiles per the same literary East/West axis presented previously for the Sea of Galilee ministry.

            • Isaiah 9:1 (LXX 8:23)

            . . . πέραν τοῦ Ιορδάνου Γαλιλαία τῶν ἐθνῶν τὰ μέρη τῆς Ιουδαίας [péran toú Iordánou Galilaía tón ethnón tá méri tís Ioudaías (“beyond the Jordan i.e. Transjordan”, “Galilee of the nations”, and districts of Judaea)]

            • Mark 3:8

            . . . πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου καὶ περὶ Τύρον καὶ Σιδῶνα [péran toú Iordánou kaí perí Týron kaí Sidóna (“beyond the Jordan i.e. Transjordan” and around Tyre and Sidon)]

            I have argued elsewhere that the east-west axis is far more central to the [Markan] narrative than the north-south axis. The hypothesis that Galilee might be terra Christiana should not overshadow what is more obvious, namely, the importance of the western and eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee. In a few words, the Sea of Galilee is even more important than the soil of Galilee. [Svartvik 2014, p. 178.]

            • Svartvik, Jesper (2014). ““East is East and West is West:” The Concept of Torah in Paul and Mark”. In Oda Wischmeyer, David C. Sim, and Ian J. Elmer. Paul and Mark: Comparative Essays Part I. Two Authors at the Beginnings of Christianity. BZNW 198. Berlin: De Gruyter. pp. 157–188. ISBN 978-3-11-027282-6.

              1. After witnessing the Trump cult it is certainly possible!

                “PART 2: REASSESSING PAUL’S TIMELINE by Bart Willruth”

                [Per the clementia of Caesar] To the losing fighters, including Jews, who fought on the side of Pompey in the civil war, he offered clemency (Grace) in return for an oath of loyalty (Pistis) to himself. In fact, Caesar’s clemency was his defining characteristic. As Pliny the Elder wrote, “The most peculiar and deepest trait of Caesar was his royal clementia (gentleness, forgiveness or love of enemies), with which he overcame everyone and brought them to repentance Example of a great soul like no other.”

          1. Mark said: Will RationalWiki ever move to ‘cancel’ someone like Gmirkin

            They could, but the content @https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Draft:Russell_Gmirkin needs to be copy-edited before being moved from [DRAFT] to [MAINSPACE] .

            Cf. “Bart Ehrman”. RationalWiki.

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