Richard Carrier–Thom Stark Debate the Dying Messiah

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by Neil Godfrey

Richard Carrier’s original post, The Dying Messiah (October 2011)

It is frequently claimed, even by experts in the field, that no Jews expected their messiah to be killed, that all of them expected a militarily triumphant übermensch. And therefore Christianity went totally off-book when it came up with the idea that their “failed” messiah was the “real” messiah. But this is actually demonstrably false. Some Jews did expect a dying messiah.

Thom Stark responded: The Death of Richard Carrier’s Dying Messiah, Part 1 (April 2012) and Part 2 (May 2012).

I’ll look at two major pieces of evidence Carrier provides for his thesis and show why they really come to naught, when examined properly.

Richard Carrier has since replied: The Dying Messiah Redux (June 2012)

Last year I made the case that the idea of a “dying messiah” was not wholly anathema to Jews and even already imagined by some before Christianity made a lot of hay out of the idea. I have since made small revisions to that article (The Dying Messiah) to make its claims and evidence clearer. This year, Thom Stark (a seminary graduate) wrote a response (The Death of Richard Carrier’s Dying Messiah). His analysis has changed my opinions on some matters, but ultimately it’s a fail.

I have drawn primarily on the arguments of Thomas L. Thompson to argue in older posts that a dying messiah was certainly not a foreign concept in the Jewish literature. The first messiah, anointed one, ever mentioned, for example, was a high priest whose death liberated certain exiles for inadvertent sin. My ongoing series of what the term “messiah” meant to Jews in Paul’s day — based on Matthew Novenson’s Christ among the Messiahs — will also make relevant contributions to this discussion.

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9 thoughts on “Richard Carrier–Thom Stark Debate the Dying Messiah”

  1. Whether or not Jewish culture embraced a dying Messiah proper? Greco-Roman culture – and indeed, Jewish Maccabean culture (2 Maccabees 7) – did embrace the idea of the MARTYR; the hero dying for his god or country. Indeed, by the time of Jesus, many other Jews had been specifically crucified by Romans before Jesus. And they were seen as martyrs; as good persons whose death represented some kind of moral victory or demonstration.

    This core cultural tradition – of the heroic martyr – could also have fed into/helped to create, a tale of a crucified Jewish hero – like Jesus. Especially when conflated/combined with myths of dying-and-rising gods. Like the vegetative rebirth myth of Persephone; who goes underground, into Hades, for three winter months. To rise up again alive on the surface, in the spring.

    1. Shmuel Shepkaru provides a different take on what constitutes martyrdom in his book Jewish Martyrs in the Pagan and Christian Worlds. In his chapter on “Mythic Martyrs” (p. 6) he includes discussion of Daniel and Maccabees. Details of 2 Macc.7 (to which you refer) begin on page 21.


      From p. 24:

      Without diminishing the martryological characteristics of the brothers’ story, it should be noted that the unusual ordeal is theirs to suffer for their own sins. In contrast to some modern scholastic interpretations, the seven brothers do not symbolize the innocent sacrifices who bring salvation unto others. Missing in this personal exchange is the impersonal salvific motif that would have turned the brothers’ deaths in to vicarious or expiatory sacrifices. As their admission of guilt demonstrates, their actions were not taken on behalf of others nor did they efface the nation’s sins. Had the demise of the seven sons been intended to satisfy God, the following chapter would not have insisted that the community had to make “common supplication,” beseeching God to “be completely reconciled with His servants” (8:29). However, later martyrologists will see in this nebulous narrative a clear reflection of their own salvific desires.

      1. There are many, many parallels between early tales of martyrdom, and the later legend of Jesus, and his crucifixion. And objections to this connection, are easily countered.

        1) Critics of Mythicism constantly assert, that since there are no apparently EXACT mythic precursors to Christianity, then there are in effect no precursors at all. In this case, you are asserting that since the Martydom of 2 Mac, does not EXACTLY copy the martyrdom of Christ, it cannot have contributed to the later legend of Jesus.

        But? Mythographers have long noted, from the earliest days of Structuralist Mythographers – like Vladimir Propp, and Claude Levi Strauss and others – that to establish a relation between one story and another, it is not necessary for the stories to match in every single detail. Just a large number of structural points in common between two or more stories, is enough to establish a likely relationship between them; even when details differ.

        2) Then too? a) (Desperate to defend Judeo-Christian exceptionalism?) apologists like Shepkaru b) in effect, DO seriously minimize the common structural elements. Including first of all, of Martyrdom in both the stories of the Maccabean Revolt. Where 7 brothers are refusing to abandon their Jewish food restrictions and so forth … and are content to be executed, tortured to death, rather than change. And for that matter, c) those who fail to see connections between this story, and that of Jesus, neglect the continuous history of Jewish revolts, from c. 167 BC through 70; that links Maccbean sacrifices to the sacrifice of Jesus. Indeed, Shepkaru gets EVERYTHING wrong. In point of fact d) they brothers admit their “guilt” relative to Roman/occupiers’ laws … but not relative to their own Jewish beliefs. Then too? They e) DO intended to die on behalf of others. First, on behalf of their mother, who urges them to stick to their Jewish ways, even on pain of death. Then too, they die on behalf of serving as a moral example for other Jews.

        3) While indeed? Many “later martyrologists will see in this … narrative a clear reflection of … salvific desires.”

        4) But in any case? It is not necessary to establish bulletproof analogies with Jesus’ martrydom, and Old Testament ideas; since much of Christianity comes from other ANE myths. So that the countless parallels with Greco-Roman tales of heroic martyrs, are just as likely predecessors of the Jesus legend, as other sources. Particularly the story of Socrates seems relevant, say.

        5) Religious, Christian-educated scholars often don’t see these connections with other cultures, besides Jewish culture. In part because they are far too narrowly trained, and culturally prejudiced, to make out such cross-cultural, multicultural influences, as the marked influence of Greco-Roman culture on even the early beliefs of Historical Jesus himself. And his later legend, as the Christ of Faith.

        1. Hello, brettongarcia.

          I’m not one of the ‘Critics of Mythicism’, and I’m not asserting anything about necessity of an EXACT copy of 2 Macc. I was specifically referring to your mention of 2 Maccabees 7 as “the idea of MARTYR; the hero dying for his god or country.” I was reminded of Shmuel Shepkaru’s discussion of this subject, and I offered his book just for consideration of another view.

          Shepkaru was making his point in the chapter I referenced that the brothers were not dying for god or country as an ideal. He was arguing that Jewish martyrdom as an ideal did not belong in the Hellenistic period. It’s not clear to me that the brothers’ intentions were to die on behalf of serving as a moral example for other Jews. I’d be happy to be shown where this specifically is expressed, however. Shepkaru was talking about “later martyrologists” reading “their own salvific desires” into interpretation of this specific story, not about how the story needed to match in every detail as a contribution to a “later legend of Jesus.” He does recognize “martyrological characteristics of the brothers’ story.” And I am in agreement with you that some common structural elements can be seen.

          You seem to have an emotional investment in this issue, which is fine. But I don’t see the necessity of accusing anyone of being desperate to defend Judeo-Christian exceptionalism (certainly not me, and… Shepkaru – I can’t speak for this professor of Judaic History).

          1. Thanks for your response, and your reference to a scholarly text; perhaps I overreacted. I did look over your referenced text briefly.

            In my admittedly VERY hasy reading? Skepkaru seemed to want to make the point that the notion of Martyrdom, did not really come from “Hellenistic” or Greek cultural influences on Judaism and/or Christianity; but from specifically, ROMAN influences.

            I think I can see his distinction; since some scholars see “Hellenism” as referring strictly to Greek influence, and not Roman; and as belonging in the “Hellenistic Period” proper. However, I don’t quite like to make that distinction so pointedly. Since Greek culture was deeply incorporated in Roman culture, by the time of Jesus, and since nd both were heavily intermixed by that time, I tend to include BOTH Greek and Hellenized Roman culture, as “Hellenistic.” While at times, to clarify what I mean, I refer to “Greco-Roman” culture, after all.

            Is the Christian idea of a noble sacrifice, serving as a model, found in the Maccabean texts? There IS a quote in S. referencing the brothers dying to present a model or “noble” ideal to other Jews. May get back to you with it. Probably it can be found in the original text fairly easily too. At present my searching skills have been disabled; due to an unfamiliar new browser. Try searching the word “noble” in Shepkaru’s text?

            In any case to be sure: I many simply disagree with S. on many points (as it appears to my very quick overview of his work to be sure). To me, the purely Greek model of the self-sacrificing hero – the heroes at Marathon; the self-sacrifice of Socrates, etc. – were clearly Greek/Hellenistic models of Martyrdom. And we can see them in Hellenized Judaism (of Philo, etc.); and then joining Roman culture too.And by the way? Some of the first Christian martyrs after Jesus, were Greeks: St. Stephen, etc.. And in some ways, they appear quite comfortable (culturally or conceptually speaking) with Martyrdom. As if it was already a long-familiar concept to them. As indeed it was. Long, long before the martyrdom of Jesus.

            Though I would agree with S. that, we might most usefully concentrate more on Roman culture; since that was the most immediate and pressing foreign influence on Christianity, in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. While of course? The idea of the good Roman solier or citizen, sacrificing his life for his emperor god, and his country? Is absolutely central to the ethos of Rome. And would have been one of many cultural myths, feeding into the legend of Christ, no doubt. In spite of some conservative, OT/Torah, Jewish resistence to assimilation of foreign cultural motiffs.

  2. “The first messiah, anointed one, ever mentioned, for example, was a high priest whose death liberated certain exiles for inadvertent sin.”

    Who was it? And did his death take place in the “sub-lunar realm”? What evidence is there that 1st century Jews expected their messiah would live and die solely in a “sub-lunar realm”?

    1. Who was it? That’s a secret. You have to pass some tests before we divulge the answer to that question.

      Did his death take place in a “sub-lunar realm”? Well, it cerainly took place repeatedly in the region Philo often refers to as an area beneath the moon.

      What evidence is there that 1st century Jews expected their messiah would live and die solely in a “sub-lunar realm”? Absolutey none that I know of. I have never heard of any such notion. What’s your point?

  3. People like Thom Stark are such a tragedy. He clearly isn’t stupid, but Christianity leads him to say incredibly stupid things like “My approach, as I detail in my book, The Human Faces of God, is to read these morally problematic texts as “condemned texts.” They are still scripture. And God still uses them to instruct us, but God uses them as negative instruction. They’re there to challenge us to use critical moral reasoning, and to warn us away from making the same moral mistakes made by so many of our spiritual forebears.”

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