Messiah to be Killed in Pre-Christian Jewish Expectation — the Late Evidence

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

There is no reasonable basis for denying that some pre-Christian Jews would have expected at least one dying messiah, and some could well have expected his death to be an essential atoning death, just as the Christians believed of Jesus. . .

Such a concept was therefore not a Christian novelty wholly against the grain of Jewish thinking, but already exactly what some Jews were thinking — or could easily have thought. (Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 77, 73)

Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin
Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin

What evidence does Richard Carrier cite for this claim?

Part (not all) of his evidence includes, ironically, texts that some assume have no relevance at all. So let’s first of all hear the justification for referring to passages that were written some centuries after the birth of Christianity:

There is no plausible way that Jews would invent interpretations of their scripture that supported and vindicated Christians. They would not invent a Christ with a father named Joseph who dies and is resurrected (as the Talmud does indeed describe). They would not proclaim Isaiah 53 to be about this messiah and admit that Isaiah there had predicted this messiah would die and be resurrected. That was the very biblical passage that Christians were using to prove their case. Moreover, the presentation of this ideology in the Talmud makes no mention of Christianity and gives no evidence of being any kind of polemic or response to it. 

So we have evidence here of a Jewish belief that possibly predates Christian evangelizing, even if that evidence survives only in later sources. (pp. 73-74, my bolding and formatting in all quotations)


1. b. Sanhedrin 98b and 93b

Giddal said in Rab’s name: The Jews are destined to eat [their fill] in the days of the Messiah.

R. Joseph demurred: is this not obvious; who else then should eat — Hilek and Bilek?  —This was said in opposition to R. Hillel, who maintained that there will be no Messiah for Israel, since they have already enjoyed him during the reign of Hezekiah.

Rab said: The world was created only on David’s account. 

Samuel said: On Moses account; 

R. Johanan said: For the sake of the Messiah. What is his [the Messiah’s] name? — The School of R. Shila said: His name is Shiloh, for it is written, until Shiloh come.  The School of R. Yannai said: His name is Yinnon, for it is written, His name shall endure for ever:  e’er the sun was, his name is Yinnon. The School of R. Haninah maintained: His name is Haninah, as it is written, Where I will not give you Haninah.  Others say: His name is Menahem the son of Hezekiah, for it is written, Because Menahem [‘the comforter’], that would relieve my soul, is far The Rabbis said: His name is ‘the leper scholar,’ as it is written, Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted. (b. Sanhedrin 98b)

The passage continues to discuss God raising up a new David in a way that implies such a figure does not have to be a family relation to the original David. One detail that interests me in particular in the above passage is the indication that an earlier version of Isaiah compared the Messiah with a leper. If such a text had been known to the author of the Gospel of Mark we would have a new way of viewing Christ’s healing of the leper.

The Messiah — as it is written, And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge of the fear of the Lord. And shall make him of quick understanding [wa-hariho] in the fear of the Lord. 

R. Alexandri said: This teaches that he loaded him with good deeds and suffering as a mill[is laden]. [This is a play of words on [H] (wa-hariho) and [H] (rehayyim)]. (b. Sanhedrin 93b)


2. b. Sukkoh 52-a-b

Not only Isaiah 53 but also Zechariah 12:10 (the messiah is to be pierced and slain):

And the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart. . . 

What is the cause of the mourning? —

R. Dosa and the Rabbis differ on the point. One explained, The cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, and the other explained, The cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination.

It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, since that well agrees with the Scriptural verse, And they shall look upon me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son; but according to him who explains the cause to be the slaying of the Evil Inclination, is this [it may be objected] an occasion for mourning? Is it not rather an occasion for rejoicing? Why then should they weep? — . . . 

Our Rabbis taught, The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to the Messiah, the son of David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days!), ‘Ask of me anything, and I will give it to thee’, as it is said, I will tell of the decree etc. this day have I begotten thee, ask of me and I will give the nations for thy inheritance. But when he will see that the Messiah the son of Joseph is slain, he will say to Him, ‘Lord of the Universe, I ask of Thee only the gift of life’. ’As to life’, He would answer him, ‘Your father David has already prophesied this concerning you’, as it is said, He asked life of thee, thou gavest it him, [even length of days for ever and ever]. . .

And the Lord showed me four craftsmen. Who are these ‘four craftsmen’? —

R. Hana b. Bizna citing R. Simeon Hasida replied: The Messiah the son of David, the Messiah the son of Joseph, Elijah and the Righteous Priest. (b. Sukkah 52a-b)


3. Apoclypse of Zerubbabel (Sefer Zerubbabel)

The Apocalypse of Zerubbabel from the seventh century prophesies two messiahs, one of David and the other of Joseph. The Messiah son of Joseph will be slain but resurrected when the second messiah (son of David) appears.

Michael, who is (also) Metatron, answered me saying: ‘I am the angel who guided Abraham throughout all the land of Canaan. . . .  As for you, Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, whose name is Jeconiah, ask me and I will tell you what will happen at the End of Days.’

Then he said to me: ‘This is the Messiah of the Lord: (he has) been hidden in this place until the appointed time (for his manifestation). This is the Messiah of the lineage of David, and his name is Menahem ben ‘Amiel. He was born during the reign of David, king of Israel, and a wind bore him up and concealed him in this place, waiting for the time of the end.’ . . . 

Zerubbabel spoke up and said to Metatron and to Michael (sic) the prince: ‘My lord, I want you to tell me when the Messiah of the Lord will come and what will happen after all this!’ 

He said to me, ‘The Lord’s Messiah—Nehemiah ben Hushiel—will come five years after Hephsibah. He will collect all Israel together as one entity and they will remain for years in Jerusalem, (where) the children of Israel will offer sacrifice, and it will be pleasing to the Lord. . . . But in the fifth year of Nehemiah and the gathering together of the ‘holy ones,’ Šērōy the king of Persia will attack Nehemiah ben Hushiel and Israel, and there will be great suffering in Israel. . . .

. . . Then he said to me, ‘This statue is the [wife] of Belial. Satan will come and have intercourse with it, and a son named Armilos [a Hebraicism for Romulus, i.e. Rome?] will emerge from it, [whose name in Greek means] “he will destroy a nation.” He will rule over all (peoples), and his dominion will extend from one end of the earth to the other . . . . He will come against the holy people of the Most High, and with him there will be ten kings wielding great power and force, and he will do battle with the holy ones.  He will prevail over them and will kill the Messiah of the lineage of Joseph, Nehemiah b. Hushiel, and will also kill sixteen righteous ones alongside him. Then they will banish Israel to the desert in three groups. . . . 

He said to me: ‘Menahem b. ‘Amiel will suddenly come on the fourteenth day of the first month . . . Menahem b. ‘Amiel will say to the elders and the sages: “I am the Lord’s Messiah: the Lord has sent me to encourage you and to deliver you from the power of these adversaries!” The elders will scrutinize him and will despise him, for they will see that despicable man garbed in rags, and they will despise him just as you previously did. But then his anger will burn within him, “and he will don garments of vengeance (as his) clothing and will put on a cloak of zealousness” (Isa 59:17b), and he will journey to the gates of Jerusalem. . . . All the elders and children of Israel will come and see that Nehemiah (b. Hushiel) is alive and standing unassisted, (and) immediately they will believe in the Messiah.’ . . . 

On the twenty-first day of the first month, nine hundred and ninety years after the destruction of the Temple, the deliverance of the Lord will take place for Israel. Menahem b. ‘Amiel, Nehemiah b. Hushiel, and Elijah the prophet will come and stand by the Mediterranean Sea and read the prophecy of the Lord. All the bodies of those Israelites who had thrown themselves into the sea while fleeing from their enemies will emerge: a sea-wave will rise up, spread them out, and deposit them alive within the valley of Jehoshaphat near the Wadi Shittim, for there judgment will transpire upon the nations. (Sefer Zerubbabel)

That’s the late evidence. What to make of it?

Next, the textual evidence prior to Christianity . . . . .


The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

20 thoughts on “Messiah to be Killed in Pre-Christian Jewish Expectation — the Late Evidence”

  1. Note that, though Carrier needs the possibility of a messiah ben Joseph to have a coherent position, it doesn’t seem to help him defend it. No one ever thought that the figure was anything but an ordinary figure of prophecy and expectation. Thus for example, Sabbatai’s claim to the title of messiah ben David (the really desirable one!) was met with doubts whether he had been preceded by a bona fide messiah son of Joseph/Ephraim. On a mythicist theory (of the ideas then current), Sabbatai and his enemies would have been making a category mistake.

    Christianity of course unites the figures: first he comes suffering; then later he comes “in glory, to judge the living and the dead”. This unification (or rather refusal to distinguish) could happen apart from, and in advance of, any specific claimant, of course. But the mythicist idea is that it *makes no sense* for anyone to claim such a title; no ‘claimant’ is envisaged. The trouble is that there doesn’t seem to be any evidence for anyone anywhere putting this sort of interpretation on Israelite documents of any kind. Why weren’t e.g. Judas the Galilean or bar Kochba making a category mistake? The mythicist theory involves a strange detour where a mythological description is propheticized and given a fake past claimant; the theory that a teaching that was never anything but an interpretation of Israelite prophecy was given a false past claimant is demonstrably simpler and thus *necessarily* more probable.

  2. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve read much of what Carrier has already written on this topic. His point is that there was not, prior to Christianity, only one interpretation within Jewish communities of alleged messianic prophecies. There were several, and some of them were similar in key respects to what Christians eventually said about Jesus.

    Carrier is responding to the claim that a Jewish sect, which Christianity is conventionally assumed to have begun as, could not have invented a messiah fitting Jesus’ description. His response is: The Jewish founders of Christianity didn’t have to invent their messiah, because such a messiah was not, by that time, a new idea within Judaism.

  3. You might be interested in this:

    “… the language of Plato has been often cited; nor is it easy to conceive of any thing more conclusive and striking than his picture of Socrates advising his pupil to forego the usual sacrifices until a teacher should be sent from on high. In another place, speaking of such an inspired teacher, he represents, with prophetic sagacity and precision, that ‘he must be poor, and void of all qualifications but those of virtue alone; that a wicked world would not bear his instructions and reproofs; and therefore, within three or four years after he began to preach, he would be persecuted, imprisoned, scourged, and at last put to death.’ …”

    John Harris The Great Teacher, page 50.

      1. I can only find this in mid-19th century quotations, and never with a citation. I don’t recall reading it before, and it doesn’t sound like Plato. If it were anywhere I would guess The Laws, but unfortunately that’s a hugely long work one can’t just go browsing through looking for a quotation, especially given that one is searching through probably a different translation than the original quote would have been in…

  4. The righteous/just man in Plato:


    Republic 2.361e – 2.362a:

    “What they will say is this: that such being his disposition the just man will have to endure the lash, the rack, chains, the branding-iron in his eyes, and finally, after every extremity of suffering, he will be crucified, and so will learn his lesson that not to be but to seem just is what we ought to desire …”

      1. That is possibly because of the spread of Hellenic ideas post Alexander? As in the The Bible and Hellenism: Greek Influence on Jewish and Early Christian Literature?

        Of course, the neuroscience could possibly demonstrate why ideas and motifs are common across cultures?

    1. What if the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus never really happened, but were just invented out of literary models from older Greek and Jewish writing? What if this was done because it was thought the world would be a better place if people believed Jesus died for our sins and rose from the grave?

      Plato writes: “What they will say is this: that such being his disposition the just man will have to endure the lash, the rack, chains, the branding-iron in his eyes, and finally, after every extremity of suffering, he will be crucified, and so will learn his lesson that not to be but to seem just is what we ought to desire …” (Republic 2.361e-2.362a). Maybe this passage in Plato’s Republic inspired the crucifixion story in the New Testament in the same way Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, and the Wisdom of Solomon did by way of haggadic midrash. Maybe the crucifixion and resurrection story about Jesus was one of those noble lies Plato spoke of in the Republic (see Republic Book 3, 414e–15c), told because it would make the world a better place if the masses believed it.

      Plato apparently takes the idea of the noble lie from Euripides’ Bacchae, where Cadmus says “Even though this man (Dionysus) be no God, as you say, still say that he is. Be guilty of a splendid fraud, declaring him the son of Semele, for this would make it seem that she was the mother of a god, and it would confer honour on all our race.” Maybe this is why Christians said Jesus was a God.

      “The noble lie” would fit in with Jewish and Christian theology, where lying and deception were allowed if it served the purpose of God (see Exodus 1:18-20, Joshua 2: 4-6, 1 Kings 15:5, 1 Kings 22:23, 2 Kings 8:10, 1 Samuel 21:2, Jeremiah 4:10, John 7: 8-10, 2 Thessalonians 2:11, James 2:25).

      Maybe a better world was a cause the original Christians would die for, even if they knew Jesus never rose from the dead. Paul would have been part of this conspiracy too, because he was never hunted down by his former employers when he deserted and joined the Christians.

      “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful (Lucius Annaeus Seneca)”

      1. I agree that there is abundant evidence for the gospels being influenced by the literature well known in their day. I also agree that the gospels mirror many of the popular tropes found in that wider literary world — the innocent righteous and wise person who suffers unjustly, death and resurrection, etc. I’m less sure that literary artists create religious movements, however. I find it easier to accept that the gospel and related literature were expressions (even if sometimes hidden or symbolic expressions) of the ideas of religious movements.

        The same themes of the suffering innocent, salvation through suffering, etc, are also apparent in other religious movements of the day.

        And that leads me to doubt that there was any deliberate attempt to create a religion for any social purpose. Believing in a Jesus who died for sins was not a radical innovation. Jewish sects already believed in other heroic saviours (earthly and heavenly) whose blood atoned for their sins. Christianity was mirroring classical ideals, too, not creating anything new.

        I’ve expanded on each of these points in previous posts. Happy to point to specific ones if interested.

        The Christianity that emerged victorious was not the same Christianity that was apparently born in the first century. That adds to our difficulties in knowing how best to examine the origins of this religion.

        1. Of course the Jesus story was all lies. Religion has always been all lies. Did Muhammad fly off into the sky on a winged horse, or was somebody lying? Did Apollonius of Tyana do all those miracles, or was somebody lying? Did Joseph Smith find golden plates from heaven, or was somebody lying? Did Jesus do all those miracle and rise from the dead, or was somebody lying?

  5. This isn’t an area that I’m going to pretend knowing much about, but I think Carrier might be working against the trend line of more recent scholarship here, where present-day scholars are more likely than older scholars to consider positive Christian influence on the Talmud and other Jewish writings of late-antiquity and post-antiquity where evidence of such influence is present.

    Remember, rabbinical studies was secularized later than New Testament studies or Biblical studies and to this day remains a far more faith-driven enterprise than the latter; people in rabbinic studies often still use traditional rabbinic forms of argumentation and presuppositions that are invalid in critical scholarship. Such a field would never, ever have allowed for positive Christian influence on the Talmud; everything had to be indigenous Jewish and follow only from traditional rabbinic Jewish methods of reasoning.

    (All that said, I don’t think this point about Isaiah 53 is all that big a deal in Carrier’s scheme; in a probabilistic argument we’re talking a nudging the dial a few percentage points either way.)

    1. Maybe. But I recently was reading that the trend has swung back — more scholars are currently seeing what were once thought to be Christian interpolations may indeed have been original after all. Will make a note of sources when I find these references again. Carrier seems to cite much recent material from the literature, too.

  6. I find interesting how started the Marcion’s Gospel in this reconstruction:

    1:5 And they said, ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?

    The Jews mistakenly believe that Jesus is the talmudic ”Messiah son of Joseph” and then think, threatening him of death, to force him to reveal his true nature messianic preparing the ground to the victorious Messiah ”son of David”. But Jesus, passing (”docetically”) in their midst, is shown not to be the Messiah they expected.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading