The Dying Messiah Before Christianity

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by Neil Godfrey

Nicholas Covington has posted a worth-reading article on SkepticinkThe Dying Messiah: A Problem for Jesus Myth Theory?  Nicholas is responding to a regular argument of Professor McGrath’s for the existence of a historical Jesus. McGrath, as many of us know, and as Nicholas sums up, argues as follows:

(1) There is no evidence of a belief in a dying messiah prior to Christianity, therefore

(2) Before Christianity emerged, no one believed in a dying messiah.

(3) Out of all the possible explanations we might offer for this apparent innovation of the early Christians, the best explanation is that Christians came up with the idea as a response to the unexpected pre-mature death of Jesus, because a belief in a dying messiah looks like an ad-hoc rationalization (no one had expected a dying messiah previously and it otherwise seems precluded by Jewish beliefs).

Therefore, Jesus existed. 

Nicholas Covington’s response:

In this post, I will demonstrate that there are credible, recent, non-mythicist scholars who believe McGrath’s first premise is false. I will follow this with some other considerations that render McGrath’s argument doubtful in other respects.

Of special value in the blogpost is the bibliography that includes online links to various sources. I won’t steal his thunder by repeating them here. To me the work of Hengel and the Septuagint version of Isaiah 53 are especially telling. I have some reservations about the reference to Israel Knohl, however. I have read so much for an against his hypothesis and am no longer confident the extant evidence supports his interpretation. I am open to further reviews, though.

Meanwhile, on a somewhat related topic, Professor McGrath appears to have caught up with the case for many Jews (pre-Christian) believing in a sacrificed and resurrected Isaac and he wonders how such an idea might have weaved itself into Christianity in some form. I posted him links to my own reviews of scholarly works on this subject — Huizenga – 4 posts and for Levenson 10 posts — that I hope he finds useful.

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17 thoughts on “The Dying Messiah Before Christianity”

  1. It is a seemingly circular logical argument even accepting the first premise.
    Here is how one would state it:

    1) Proposition A is unprecedented.
    2) There are [let’s say] 5 possible explanations as to why Proposition A
    has no precedent.
    3) Of the five possible explanations, the best is that Proposition A is true.
    Therefore, Proposition A is true.

    That is very close to the argument, as you have presented it here, even accepting premise 1. These arguments are always rationalizations, because the evidence is inadequate.

    1. Forgive the off topic comment/question, but I am working towards understanding
      inductive/deductive logic. Is McGrath’s argument ( atleast as it is paraphrased in
      the original post by Covington, Vridar and your comment ) inductive or deductive?

      Also, if “the evidence is inadequate” does that mean the proposition is unfalsifiable?

      I am very suspicious about the use of the word “Messiah” in terms of it’s basic
      meaning, so I am not sure if a proposition can be “true” or “false” to begin with
      in regards to logically defining messianic attributes.

      1. Perhaps to frustrate you even more there is this snippet from David Hackett Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies, p. x

        The logic of historical thought is not a formal logic of deductive
        It is not a symmetrical structure of Aristotelian syllogisms, or
        Ramean dialectics, or Boolean equations. Nor is it precisely an inductive
        , like that of Mill or Keynes or Carnap. It consists neither in inductive
        reasoning from the particular to the general, nor in deductive
        reasoning from the general to the particular.

        Instead, it is a process of
        adductive reasoning in the simple sense of adducing answers to specific
        questions, so that a satisfactory explanatory “fit” is obtained. The answers
        may be general or particular, as the questions may require. History is, in
        short, a problem-solving discipline. A historian is someone (anyone)
        who asks an open-ended question about past events and answers it with
        selected facts which are arranged in the form of an explanatory paradigm.
        These questions and answers are fitted to each other by a complex process
        of mutual adjustment.

        The resultant explanatory paradigm may
        take many different forms: a statistical generalization, or a narrative,
        or a causal model, or a motivational model, or a collectivized groupcomposition
        model, or maybe an analogy. Most commonly it consists
        not in any one of these components but in a combination of them.
        Always, it is articulated in the form of a reasoned argument.

        Alternatively you may prefer The Logic of Historical Explanation by Clayton Roberts.

        Someone more skilled and experienced in logic than I am might well disagree but it seems to be that if we were to come down on the either side of the inductive/deductive fence then we might rephrase the reasoning thus:

        1. There are no instances of A that would lead us to believe that people believed in messiahs could die by definition. (Forget the examples of dying messiahs like the High Priest or Saul and Daniel’s of course. Not even Bible professors can hope to know everything about the Bible.)

        That is, by inductive reasoning (from silence) McGrath has formulated what we might call something of a general rule, which is . . .

        2. No-one believed in a dying messiah before Christianity.

        From this rule he attempts to explain a new instance (i.e. deductively)

        3. The new instance forced people to disbelieve the rule. The rule touched the new instance and was shattered just like anyone touching the ark of the covenant would be struck dead. Ergo, the new particular instance proves God exists and Jesus died and was resurrected.

        But the more I think about it the more I think I can see a way to argue the opposite, too. Return to Fischer above! 🙂

        1. Neil, this takes us far from the original language from McGrath, as quoted in your post. The language is in the form of three numbered statements followed by a conclusion, “Therefore. . .” and the proposition, “Jesus existed.” This is the language of syllogism, so all of that effusion from Fischer is immaterial, inasmuch as Fischer is simply making a general point that historical discourse is not confined to logical arguments and syllogisms, which is perfectly true. But all discourse, whether historical, literary-critical, philosophical, must be fair. And when someone posits their argument in the language of a syllogism, it is fair to use the logic of the syllogism to question its validity. I think Pete makes a good point, and it struck me also when I first read the post, that the key to the first premise is in the reference to a dying “Messiah.” It would not be necessary to have a prototype of a dying “Messiah” in order to create a myth; any sort of dying god myth might do, or even a story like the Bacchae, where the “Zeus-begotten” deity survives, but someone else dies in service of the religious truth. In answer to the question about induction and deduction, syllogistic argument is generally deductive, but its main purpose is to demonstrate how the conclusion inevitably follows from the premises. I don’t see that in the example from McGrath.

          1. I certainly don’t wish to be unfair to McGrath’s argument; I had the idea that Nicholas’s syllogistic summary was his own since I don’t know that McGrath himself has expressed his argument as such a neat syllogism. I do admit guilt with my quip about his argument proving the existence of God. I was trying to explore what I understand is MG’s argument (via N’s summary) in terms of Pete’s question. It appears on the basis of your comment that I failed badly on a number of levels.

          2. @Clarke, thanks for your contribution as well.

            In the process of understanding classical logic, I have come
            across the term “language game” and how it relates to the
            context of propositions, valid or sound premises, and the
            validity or soundness of an argument itself. In this case, I
            use the word “context” as linked to our discussion about
            theological/Christological pre-suppositions.

            At this point in my development, I see how apologetics is a
            language game, so I agree that McGrath’s argument has to
            be taken in that context. Other types of scholars might not
            critique his argument in that framework; I am not sure yet if
            Christology really deserves to be a valid context in terms of
            how “context” is a collection of justifiable axioms which serve
            common sense about distinctly real events.

        2. @Neil. I appreciate the inclusion of that passage about fallacious historical
          paradigms. I think it, and your commentary, have addressed my question.

          Adductive arguments are on my “to study” list. Fischer appears to tell me
          that creating models from historical data may chronically be prone to fallacy
          in regards to conclusions because “adducing answers to specific questions
          to fit explanations” appears to be hiding the conclusion inside a premise.

          If I decide to work up a standard logical structure of my own which uses
          “messiah” as a propositional subject, I will make sure to firmly root the
          argument in it’s basic meaning, “anointed”, which to me is “chosen by God”.

          I am not sure tenured academics, beholden to a “guild”, are able to critique
          fundamental axioms; it would be like a diamond trader publically declaring
          that diamonds are junk.

  2. “In this post, I will demonstrate that there are credible, recent, non-mythicist scholars who believe McGrath’s first premise is false. ”

    Well, I know of at least one mythicist scholar who believes McGrath’s first premise is false, but the evidence he gives, of course, can not ever be as valid as non-mythicist scholars. Sigh.

  3. Hi,

    “I have some reservations about the reference to Israel Knohl, however. I have read so much for an against his hypothesis and am no longer confident the extant evidence supports his interpretation.”

    You may be thinking of Knohl’s work on “The Vision of Gabriel.” His work there, though tantalizing, is indeed very speculative. However, the book of his that I referenced drew on material from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the evidence there provides a strong cumulative case for a dying messiah, especially when you read David Mitchell’s arguments for the same conclusion.

    “To me the work of Hengel and the Septuagint version of Isaiah 53 are especially telling.”

    I agree completely. Isaiah 53 is easily read as speaking about one figure. Some ancient Jews “chopped the chapter up” and applied different verses to different figures, but the fact that it is so easy to read it as referring to just a single person, indeed, a *messianic* person, makes it very plausible that someone in the ancient world would have done just this.

    Responding to Gingerbaker:
    “Well, I know of at least one mythicist scholar who believes McGrath’s first premise is false, but the evidence he gives, of course, can not ever be as valid as non-mythicist scholars. Sigh.”

    I lean towards mythicism myself, so of course I didn’t mean to imply the work of any mythicist was not credible. I just wanted to show McGrath that there are non-mythicist scholars who reject his premise, because you know McGrath: if it comes from a mythicist he will simply say that the mythicist only maintains his position because of a bias, an inescapable need to reject an argument for a historical Jesus, and McGrath will ignore any valid argument that the person has to offer. I wanted to meet McGrath on his own turf here and show him some scholarship that he could not find an easy way to dismiss. I shouldn’t have to do that, because arguments should always be evaluated on their own merits, but at the same time I think those of us on the mythicist-leaning side of the fence ought to bend over backwards to meet the highest and most stringent demands our opponents offer, if only to shake them out of their dogmatic slumbers and realize that mythicism deserves a hearing.

    1. Perhaps you are right about Knohl and I was being misled by criticisms of his other work. I should edit the post.

      I have posted many times about scholarship that can clearly support a mythicist view although it is produced by a range of conservative and liberal scholars, all “historicists”. All those posts were highly valued if this blog’s regular inclusion in the “Top 10 Biblioblogs” was any guide. Even James McGrath could discuss some such issues with warm cordiality. But the moment the guild saw I was leaning towards mythicism this blog was expelled from “polite society”.

      I am pretty stunned that James McGrath appears not to have fully realized until only very recently that there was a Jewish belief in the death and resurrection (and atoning blood) of Isaac before Jesus. Biblical scholars continue to amaze me with their ignorance of some fundamentals even within their own field let alone outside it — as Tim has also pointed out in various posts (e.g. ignorance of the real nature of the Documentary Hypothesis and Wrede’s “Messianic Secret”.) Meeting McGrath on his own turf is something I’ve tried a few times but with me hsi reaction has been to distort what he reads to find some way to protect his guild and kick mythicists. I really hope you have better luck.

    1. Others can probably address this more comprehensively than I.

      I think that pre-Christian Jewish belief in a dying & rising messiah is not an argument against Christianity in general (I don’t think you’ll find a whole lot of any arguments against Christianity in general on this site in general). Rather, it’s an argument against a particular train of thought used by some apologists, to wit an argument against the idea of “the impossible faith.”

      1. Agreed. Further, such a belief would take away something of the uniqueness of “the Christ event”. It’s that “uniqueness” (and the OT scriptures were supposedly only understood in the light of that event) that is the special claim of Christianity.

      2. That’s not how any Apologists I’ve read do it. Maybe Lewis did, he was a very counter productive Apologist.

        All the ones I read make a clear point out of how it’s all in the Torah, you just need to know how to find it.

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