Constructing Jesus and the Gospels: Messianism and Survival post 70 CE

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by Neil Godfrey

Black Elk Speaks
Black Elk Speaks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the previous post we saw how Clarke W. Owens (Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels) drew the inference that the evangelists created the type of Jesus they did because of the impact of the Jewish War.

Just as the Jewish people and their centre of worship had been destroyed through fire and mass crucifixions, and just as many were subsequently finding new hope and a new life in Christianity, so Jesus, the suffering servant who was resurrected, was a personification of the ideal Israel. That would explain why Jesus was depicted as the Temple, destroyed physically but restored spiritually; why he was depicted as an antitype of Israel thrust into the wilderness for forty days; and why hosts of other such allusions were attached to him.

There are additional supports for Owens’ inference.

One of these is the nature of messianism “as a cultural survival tactic”. He writes

Messianism as a cultural survival tactic is attested to as recently as 1889, when the Lakota people . . . were threatened with extinction.

The Jewish people were being threatened with “cultural extinction” with the destruction of the physical and ideological centre of their cult along with the rest of the bloodshed. Owens quotes the 8th, 9th and 10th paragraphs of the Messiah chapter from Black Elk Speaks to

[demonstrate] the same sort of collective, cultural need and motivation described by Spong, Josephus, and other writers who describe or acknowledge the effect on the Jewish War on the First Century Jews.

A book I read many years ago reflects similar social responses to distress, although at a class level rather than a cultural survival one. The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn is a fascinating study of millennial movements among distressed peasantry of Europe through the Middle Ages.

Furthermore, Thomas L. Thompson has shown in The Christ Myth that the messianic ideal was a pervasive theme throughout the Middle Eastern cultures for centuries and right through to the Roman era. Populations were “saved” or “terrorized” by “saviour” and “shepherd” kings (often “god-kings/emperors”) who “debased the mighty” and “exalted the humble” and “restored the worship of the original gods” and generally ushered in a new “golden age”. This is not raised in Owen’s argument at all but I think it adds a little weight to the likelihood that people facing their cultural and physical destruction would readily turn to messianic hopes in the other world when their human saviours turned against them.

Owens quotes a pertinent description of the scenario facing Jews at the time of the Jewish War:

[The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.] changed the face of human history far more dramatically than historians have yet imagined. . . . Indeed, one cannot understand the books of the New Testament unless one understands the violent history of that part of the world in which the Christian movement was first born and against which it was defined. (Spong, Liberating the Gospels, pp. 39-40)

A few pages on Spong expands on this. I wonder if his depiction would better apply to the consequences of the second war in the 130s than to the events of 70, but that’s another question for another time:

This collapse of the Jewish nation and the loss of any national identity for the people of this land meant that generations of Jews were destined to be homeless people, exiled wanderers on the face of the earth. As powerless people who seemed to belong to nowhere, the Jews would be victimized, oppressed, ghettoized, persecuted, tortured, and killed. All of the values by which the Jewish people lived, all of the gifts with which they had once enriched the world, were now dependent on the single goal of survival. So it was that survival, nothing else — just survival — became the highest value and the driving force among the Jew in this long period of homelessness. The only possessions the Jews had that was not destroyed in this disaster was their sacred story, their scriptures, which included the Torah, the writings, and the prophets. If they were to lose their scriptures, then they would no longer know who they were and no power on this earth could have preserved their national identity. Many a nation has, in fact, ceased to exist as a recognizable people in human history when its homeland was conquered. Adaptation and intermarriage have usually marked the survivors [of conquered homelands].

So, following that defeat in the year 70, we find that every other value of the Jewish people was sublimated or put into the service of survival. Survival became the overwhelming and primary agenda of the Jewish people. The sacred scriptures of the Jews became not just their only possession of note but also their chief weapon in their quest to achieve this goal of survival. . . . (p. 45, my bolded emphasis)

Before 70, widely diverse opinions on the scriptures and faith were tolerated in Judaism. After 70, such diversity would have been felt as a threat their self-identity.

The gospels reflect the consequent tensions between Christians and other Jews post 70. Jesus is always in conflict with those loyal to the physical temple and traditions of Moses. Judas was invented to personify those Jews who hated the Christians.

So it was that “some tremendous and powerful moment” must have occurred for all the symbols of Jewish apocalypticism and messianism — the Son of Man, the atoning sacrifice, the Suffering Servant, the three day symbol, images of Armageddon, the paschal lamb, the first day of the Kingdom of God and the end of the old world — to be applied to a single human life and story.

Following the destruction of the Jewish nation and temple, Jews “searched their ancient scriptures seeking to resolve this conflict, to lift the darkness, to ease their sense of defeat and loss” (Spong, p. 301). Spong, of course, believed that the Christians who were doing this believed their Jesus had indeed been crucified earlier under Pilate and they were seeking to explain their experience of the War with their hope in him in mind. But as Owens points out, this searching quest

sounds exactly like what Black Elk describes, but we might recognize that in both cases, the historical defeat and loss belonged to a culture facing its own demise, not to individuals facing the loss of another individual. (my emphasis)

So it was that “some tremendous and powerful moment” must have occurred for all the symbols of Jewish apocalyptic and messianism — the Son of Man, the atoning sacrifice, the Suffering Servant, the three day symbol, images of Armageddon, the paschal lamb, the first day of the Kingdom of God and the end of the old world — to be applied to a single human life and story.

Spong acknowledges that the early Christians were not writing about a literal resurrection of a body from a grave:

It was not a resurrected body emerging from a tomb, but that was the only way they could narrate their conviction that death could not contain him. (Spong. p. 302)

Owens concurs with a caveat:

Just so. And just as the “him” does not refer to a person rising from the grave, so it does not refer to a particular historical person confined to one, but rather to an entire society condemned to masses of graves, and symbolically represented in the most efficient way it could be narrated for liturgical purposes: by creating a midrashic character named “Savior,” or, as we might say, “One who Makes Live.”

I have yet to do much more reading before I can be confident the Gospels were composed for liturgical purposes, but I think that is only a minor point beside the main one explaining how the Gospels came to be composed the way they are.


This post was originally meant to cover the apocalyptic form of the Gospels. That will be the topic of the next post.

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Constructing Jesus and the Gospels: Messianism and Survival post 70 CE”

  1. Neil, Thanks for this excellent post! I had been following the now-extinct BC&H / HAR fora at the Freethought & Rationalism Discussion Board and I would come across assertions (ususlly by one aa5874) that Christianity arose out of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE with nothing to back it up. Now I have a cogent explanation why. Thanks!

    PS I’m slowly catching up on my reading!

  2. Just a thought on what the Jews are supposed to have lost after 70a.d.

    Access to the Temple for sure…but not necessarily access to the rest of the Land…that occurs after the Bar Kochba revolt’s outcome.

    And in between there’s the Kitos War.

    We still have more archaeological evidence and documentary evidence of the Christians closer to the end of the Bar Kochba revolt (Justin Martyr for example)…and Marcion’s (or the Markyone “those of Mark”) view as a response to especially the third and final revolt when things Jewish were pretty much persona-non-grata.

    How would Mark look if more closely tied to the results of the Bar Kockba revolt?

    And would any very early Christian literature in some way factor into the Kitos War, then the Kochba revolt as propaganda to unite the peoples of the Holy Land and diaspora to carry out the two subsequent wars?

  3. The Church tends to bias everything towards 70a.d.

    Yet, once one gets out and looks at information other than the Church’s, then we become aware of Kitos and Bar Kochba.

    We’re told by the Church everything ends with 70a.d.

    Not true.

    For Kitos and then Bar Kochba to happen, there has to be a process bringing about both revolts. Where does early Christian literature factor into this? What idea structures? What information? What propaganda?

    Do even Gnostic Christian early documents have a part to play there? Whether Jewish Gnostic or Gentile Gnostic?

    Do these have a part to play in reaction to both subsequent post-70a.d. revolts?

    What are we missing that the proto-Orthodox/proto-Catholic viewpoint and information obscures?

    There’s also something about Mark being evangelist to Alexandria that needs explaining…every major Christian of note in the early and middle second century is Gnostic Christian. Not until either the late-second or early-third do we find proto-Orthodox/proto-Catholic.

    How does any version of Mark factor into this? And since Kitos happened more in the Jewish Diaspora locations…Libya and Alexandria in particular…how does this Gnostic Alexandrian Christianity factor in as either taking part in Kitos or as a reaction to it?

  4. The Kitos War should probably be factored in more often than it is. Thanks for bringing this up. I have myself wondered if it bears any relation to Simon “the Cyrenian” who bore the cross of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel: http://vridar.org/2006/11/26/a-cyrenius-cyrenian-link-between-josephus-and-mark/

    Turmel has suggested the “man of sin” in 2 Thessalonians (not written by Paul) referred to Bar Kochba: http://vridar.org/2011/05/31/identifying-the-man-of-sin-in-2-thessalonians/

    And Herman Detering does argue that Mark 13 is based upon the events of the Bar Kochba war and Hadrian’s building of the temple to Zeus in Jerusalem: http://vridar.org/2007/02/10/little-apocalypse-and-the-bar-kochba-revolt/

  5. The ideas expressed in this post are very similar to some thoughts of C. B. Smith in this book about the genesis of Gnosticism.
    According this scholar, the phenomenon known as ”Gnosticism” arises in Egypt at early II CE as reaction to violent Roman repression of Jew zealots near there (the Kitos War).

    The logic of these Alexandrine Jews was the following:

    1) ”No nation is punished unless its divinity is also punished togheter with it” (quote from Babilonian Talmud: the evidence of ancestral age of this view is very much)
    2) the Son of YHWH, Israel kata sarka, was punished by Romans.
    3) Therefore, in virtue of 2, the god YHWH was umiliated by Roman Gods (the infamous ”archons of this aeon”).
    4) Therefore the god YHWH is an inferior god.
    5) In order to save the goodness of Trascendence, the True God has nothing to do with the god YHWH Creator of this world.

    And so YHWH became a mere Demiurg.

    The Judeo-Alexandrine Gnosis triggered three strong reactions, in strict temporal order.

    The Jewish reaction:

    1) according the Talmud, the death of Mashiach ben Joseph must prefigure the triumphal arrival of Mashiach ben David.
    2) Therefore the loss of this or that ”Christ” is only a mere prelude to the arrival of True Messiah.

    The marcionite reaction:

    1) Only apparently, the Son of YHWH, Israel kata sarka [=or the Mashiach ben Joseph], was punished by archons of this aeon.
    2) But really was punished the Sof of Another God (=all the humanity freed from this world and his Creator).
    3) Therefore from 1 & 2 follows that the crucifixion of apparent Son of YHWH was an act of justice, but only because necessary in order to save the humanity paying the right price to Demiurg, not because that Son was truely deserving of death.

    The crucifixion of Jesus is symbol of a Christ that disappoints the carnal hopes of Israel kata sarka (simulating it), because he was really the Christ of another God, not of YHWH.

    The proto-orthodox reaction:

    1) the proto-orthodox didn’t like the idea of an evil Demiurg, nor the idea that YHWH was still the exclusive God of Israel.
    2) Therefore the Son of YHWH dies as Old Israel (kata sarka) and rises as New Israel (the Church) among gentiles.

    In short: I would suspect that Clarke W. Owens, with his thesis described in this post by Neil, has limited himself in giving only the later, Proto-Orthodox picture. And yet he is still right in seeing just that picture behind our proto-orthodox Gospels.


  6. Apologies from a long-time lurker for coming out on an older thread, but the inclusion of Black Elk’s story intrigued me and reminded me that ever since I read the series on Asc. Isa.I, I have wondered whether anyone has introduced shamanism into these discussions. Compare Asc. Isa. with the “ascension” of Jack Wilson (Wovoka).

    Shamanism and Cultures Under Threat. Ordinarily, shamanism (the ability to transcend the material world) is treated as an aspect of animism in nonliterate cultures. Thus, Ghost Dancing and Cargo Cults initiated by shamans who have gone to the other world and brought back the secrets of cultural survival and renewal. But was shamanism alive in what are accepted as literate cultures (the late ANE)?

    Consider Plato, the doyen of ancient philosophers, in the guise of a shaman. Of course Plato would never be so vulgar as to claim he’d discovered his Ideal Forms on some midnight ride, but he might say his daemon led him to them.

    Consider the Boxers. Again, coming out of a literate society and yet, in many of their magical beliefs not far removed from the Ghost Dancers.

    Was the author of Asc. Isa. a shaman? Was Paul a shaman? Was Simon Magus a shaman? To what extent were the Jewish masses magical thinkers susceptible to the siren song of shamans? Whatever the authorial intent of the evangelists may have been, was the reception of the Gospels encouraged by some surviving animism in their readers?

    Is anyone aware of discussions along the above lines?

    1. In several studies of the psychology and neurological activity in ecstatic visions/hallucinations associated with early Christians I have read comparisons with shamanism. Comparisons do exist, but I am a long way from my own sources at the moment to be able to easily give specific references — but a few random titles are:

      Paul in Ecstasy by Colleen Shantz

      Morton Smith in the first volume of Cult of Yahweh discusses Eliade’s points on shamanism

      Alan Segal has some references in Paul the Convert iirc.

      There are also journal articles.

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