So some Jews did expect a suffering Messiah?

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by Neil Godfrey

“A symbol that Messianic Jews believe was used to identify the first Messianic congregation, led by Yeshua (Jesus)’s brother Jacob in Jerusalem” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before continuing with the second part of my previous post I’ll post here something unexpected that I read last night. Daniel Boyarin is Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture and rhetoric at the University of California whose views on Christian origins are not unanimously welcomed by Christian theologians. I don’t know at this stage what to make of his ideas since I haven’t read them closely enough yet. (I’ve only read criticisms of them so far.) But I quote here a section from his book The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, because it is surely interesting that a Jewish scholar should arrive at such a view:

Boyarin sums up the conventional view of how a crucified Jesus came to be thought of as the Messiah by his followers, and how it was that eventually Isaiah 53’s declaration of the Suffering Servant came to be viewed as a prophecy of the sufferings of Jesus:

To sum up this generally held view: The theology of the suffering of the Messiah was an after-the-fact apologetic response to explain the suffering and ignominy Jesus suffered, since he was deemed by “Christians” to be the Messiah. Christianity, on this view, was initiated by the fact of the crucifixion, which is seen as setting into motion the new religion. Moreover, many who hold this view hold also that Isaiah 53 was distorted by the Christians from its allegedly original meaning, in which it referred to the sufferings of the People of Israel, to explain and account for the shocking fact that the Messiah had been crucified. (p. 132)

The professor pulls no punches in telling readers what he thinks of all this.

This commonplace view has to be rejected completely. The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent, and it remained current among Jews well into the future following that — indeed, well into the early modern period.

At this point he refers readers to an endnote:

See Martin Hengel, “The Effective History of Isaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period,” in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources, ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher, trans. Daniel P. Bailey (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), 137-45, for good arguments to this effect.

Hengel concludes, “The expectation of an eschatological suffering savior figure connected with Isaiah 53 cannot therefore be proven to exist with absolute certainty and in a clearly outlined form in pre-Christian Judaism. Nevertheless, a lot of indices that must be taken seriously in texts of very different provenance suggest that these types of expectations could also have existed at the margins, next to many others.

“This would then explain how a suffering or dying Messiah surfaces in various forms with the Tannaim of the second century C.E., and why Isaiah 53 is clearly interpreted messianically in the Targum and rabbinic texts” (140).

While there are some points in Hengel’s statement that require revision, the Targum is more a counterexample than a supporting text, and for the most part he is spot on. (p. 185, my formatting, italics original)

Boyarin continues with a sideways nod to modern messianic Jews:

The fascinating (and to some, no doubt, uncomfortable) fact is that this tradition was well documented by modern Messianic Jews, who are concerned to demonstrate that their belief in Jesus does not make them un-Jewish. Whether or not one accepts their theology, it remains the case that they have a very strong textual base for the view that the suffering Messiah is based in deeply rooted Jewish texts early and late. Jews, it seems, had no difficulty whatever with understanding a Messiah who would vicariously suffer to redeem the world.

It’s all classical rabbinic midrash, he says:

Once again, what has been allegedly ascribed to Jesus after the fact is, in fact, a piece of entrenched messianic speculation and expectation that was current before Jesus came into the world at all. That the Messiah would suffer and be humiliated was something Jews learned from close reading of the biblical texts, a close reading in precisely the style of classically rabbinic interpretation that has become known as midrash, the concordance of verses and passages from different places in Scripture to derive new narratives, images, and theological ideas. (p. 133)

Christianity was another pathway of Judaism:

Rather than seeing Christianity as a new invention, seeing it as one of the paths that Judaism took — a path as ancient in its sources as the one that rabbinic Jews trod — has a majesty of its own.

If “majesty” sounds a bit strong, understand that Boyarin here is attempting to deflect anticipated criticism that he is denying anything original to the Christians at all.

Many Jews were expecting as much:

Many Jews were expecting the divine-human Messiah, the Son of Man. Many accepted Jesus as that figure, while others did not.

But was not the idea of a suffering messiah a stumbling block to the Jews?

Although there is precious little pre-Christian evidence among Jews for the suffering of the Messiah, there are good reasons to consider this too no stumbling block for the “Jewishness” of the ideas about the Messiah, Jesus as well. . . . [The idea of a suffering messiah] was entirely within the spirit and hermeneutical method of ancient Judaism, and not a scandalous departure from it. (p. 134)

Now that sounds remarkably similar to what I have been suggesting in my discussions on this blog of the works of the Jewish scholar Levenson on The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, Novenson’s Christ Among the Messiahs as well as conclusions I was drawing from Thomas L. Thompson’s publications on the meaning of figures like David in Jewish literature.

How can we know?

This point of the “Jewishness” of the vicarious suffering of the Messiah can be established in two ways:

  • first by showing how the Gospels use perfectly traditional, midrashic ways of reasoning to develop these ideas and apply them to Jesus,
  • and second, by demonstrating how common the idea of a suffering and dying Messiah was among perfectly “orthodox” rabbinic Jews from the time of the Talmud onward. (my formatting)

But isn’t the Talmud too late to be counted as evidence?

My reasoning is that if this were such a shocking thought, how is it that the rabbis of the Talmud and midrash, only a couple of centuries later, had no difficulty whatever with portraying the Messiah’s vicarious suffering or discovering him in Isaiah 53, just as followers of Jesus had done? (pp. 134-35)

Again there is an endnote:

Hengel, “Effective History,” 133-37, even makes a case that the Septuagint (Jewish Greek translation) to Isaiah (second century B.C.) may already have read the Isaiah passage as referring to the Messiah. (p. 185)

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Neil Godfrey

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14 thoughts on “So some Jews did expect a suffering Messiah?”

  1. One point often made is that it if Nazareth did not exist while Jesus was alive, it was rather amazing that Jews just independently decided later to call a place Nazareth,

    And this point is taken as a proof that Nazareth must have existed before Christianity.

    Isn’t it rather amazing that Christians invented the concept of a suffering Messiah – a concept totally alien to Judaism – and then shortly afterwards, Jews decided independently to invent the same concept?

  2. Boyarin is right, yet Torrey already went much further in 1947. He showed that the suffering messiah was an integral element in Second Temple Judaism. (See http://www.mythicistpapers.com/2012/10/02/torrey-part-one-the-slain-messiah/. There were, in fact, two messiahs: the human messiah “Son of Ephraim/Joseph,” and the messiah “Son of David.” The first was the “precursor” who would fight valiantly and die. The second was the divine messiah at the end of days who would come to mete out judgment. This messiah is divine.

  3. fascinating… has anyone read Israel Knowle’s book.. i think it’s called “The Messiah before Jesus”? i have read chunks.. seemed pretty plausible to me but i’d like to know what others think ot his thesis about the pre-Jesus concept of “catastrophic messianism”.

      1. Neil.. you may be thinking of his second book on the Gabriel Stone? i forgot the title.. but the one i have is the book before that.. have u read that one too?

          1. ok.. my bad.. that is the one i have.. .. interesting. my impression was that he showed a possibly soilid precident to the defeated messiah theme.. but i didnt know about the questionable translations…

            1. It’s a long while since I read it so I could well be forgetting things. I think the criticisms I was referring to came from other reviews of the book some time back. I never had the time or means to follow them up at the time. He may well be right, of course. I think (?) that Carrier accepts his argument(?).

              1. fascinating. I would be curious to hear Carrier’s take on it. I think the reason i was confused before was because i know there was a dispute about the translation of the key phrase (that potentially refers to a resurrection after 3 days) on the Gabriel Stone. And he has a whole book on that…so thats what i assumed you were talking about. very interesting stuff. thanks for the feedback.

  4. “My reasoning is that if this were such a shocking thought, how is it that the rabbis of the Talmud and midrash, only a couple of centuries later, had no difficulty whatever with portraying the Messiah’s vicarious suffering or discovering him in Isaiah 53, just as followers of Jesus had done? (pp. 134-35).”

    A suffering Messiah may have not have been a shocking thought to rabbis a couple a centuries after the wars with Rome, but closer to them it was a different story. I once noticed that there is scant discussion of the Messiah in the Mishnah (c. 200 CE), something not surprising given the willingness of the Pharisees to live with Roman rule (and their prominent position because of it). Centuries later it may have okay to talk about it.

    I think the Dead Sea Scrolls sect were more attuned to the idea of the suffering servant, at least in a collective sense, and that this is where the pathway of Christianity started.

  5. I’m thinking of passages like the one at the top of col. 8 of the Community Rule (Vermes):

    “In the Council of the Community there shall be twelve men and three Priests, perfectly versed in all that is revealed of the Law, whose works shall be truth, righteousness, justice, loving kindness, and humility. They shall preserve the faith in the Land with steadfastness and meekness and shall atone for sin by the practice of justice and by suffering the sorrows of affliction.”

    So much in this is relevant to early Christianity that I hardly know where to begin.

    1. This is all consistent with the belief atonement for the nation was accomplished through the suffering of martyrs in the days of the Maccabees. We also have some versions of the Abraham and Isaac story in which Isaac was actually slain as an atoning sacrifice.

      I wonder if we have an anachronistic view of things when we think of rabbis as a monolithic group in the pre-70 era.

      1. “This is all consistent with the belief atonement for the nation was accomplished through the suffering of martyrs in the days of the Maccabees.”

        I wonder how prevalent this belief was in the time of the Maccabees. If I recall correctly, while the first two Maccabee books extol the virtues of martyrdom, only later ones (3 and 4), closer to the time of Christianity, see it as vicarious atonement.

        These later ones are more in keeping with the internal dating of the DSS, which mention Alexander Janneus as living in former times and Pompey’s invasion.

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