Jewish Expectations of a Slain Messiah — the Early Evidence

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by Neil Godfrey

This post is a companion to Messiah to be Killed in Pre-Christian Jewish Expectation — the Late Evidence. It’s a topic I have never explored in any depth before but Richard Carrier points to the evidence for anyone interested to follow up for themselves. I learn things when I set them out for others to read also hence these posts.

What are the chances of Christians and Jews independently arriving at their respective scenarios of a messiah as a son of David as well as a messiah as a son of Joseph, with both having to suffer, one of them to die and be resurrected, with a messianic victory at the end — and all extrapolated from same scriptures such as Isaiah 53 and Zechariah 12? (The previous post addressed the likelihood that Jews would have borrowed and adapted such an idea in a way that lent support to Christianity’s beliefs.) The more plausible explanation, Carrier suggests, is that both the Christian and Jewish scenarios grew from a single set of concepts found within Second Temple Judaism. (Carrier discusses an item of possible evidence for such a pre-Christian era strand but I need to do more reading on that before I can know if or how to present it here.)

Alternatively we might think that such a notion was quite easy to arrive at so there was nothing special or unusual about the Christians discovering such ideas in the scriptures as a mere academic exercise. Either way,

Clearly dying messiahs were not anathema. Rabbinical Jews could be just as comfortable with the idea as Christians were. (p. 75)

So what is the pre-Christian evidence listed by Carrier?

The most obvious evidence is well-known to all Christians who have ever taken a serious interest in the Bible. It is, of course, the prophecy of the death of the Messiah in Daniel 9:26.

1. Daniel 9:2, 24-27, cf. 12:1-3, 9-12

9:2. in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, observed in the books the number of the years which was revealed as the word of the Lord to Jeremiah the prophet for the completion of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years. . . . 

9:24. “Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place. 25. So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress.

26. Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined. 27. And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate.” . . . .

12:1 “Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. 2. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. 3. Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. . . . 

12:9 He said, “Go your way, Daniel, for these words are concealed and sealed up until the end time. 10. Many will be purged, purified and refined, but the wicked will act wickedly; and none of the wicked will understand, but those who have insight will understand. 11. From the time that the regular sacrifice is abolished and the abomination of desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days. 12. How blessed is he who keeps waiting and attains to the 1,335 days!

The main reference is Daniel 9:26 but there are hints that this passage may have had a wider interpretation.

I have quoted the wider context of Daniel 9:26 to draw attention to another detail that had not occurred to me until I read Carrier’s book. Carrier points out that “Michael the Great Prince” can here be understood as the identification of the earlier mentioned “Messiah the Prince” in verse 25. The Messiah is to be killed but then the prince is to follow with judgmental fury. Michael the Great Prince does the same things as the Prince who comes following the death of the Messiah. It is quite plausible that some Jews would have interpreted the text to describe not only the death of the messiah but also his resurrection as Michael the avenging prince.

Both Melchizedek and Michael were heavenly high priests in Jewish tradition. We know of this tradition with respect to Melchizedek from the Book of Hebrews and the Qumran text. We see the same role attributed to Michael in the Babylonian Talmud:

30 Shehakim is that in which millstones stand and grind
31 manna for the righteous for it is said: And He commanded the skies [Shehakim] above, and opened the doors of heaven; and He caused manna to rain upon them for food etc.
32 Zebul is that in which [the heavenly] Jerusalem
33 and the Temple and the Altar are built, and Michael, the great Prince,
34 stands and offers up thereon an offering, for it is said: I have surely built Thee a house of habitation [Zebul], a place for Thee to dwell in for ever . . .
(Talmud – Mas. Chagigah 12b)

Fitzmyer further refers to a medieval text that had been raised as evidence prior to his own article:

The medieval writing Yalkut hadash (fol.115, col. 3, n. 19) makes the identification explicit:

mykʾl nqrʾ mlky ṣdq . . . kwhn ʾl ʿlywn šhw khn šl mʿlh. (I have not found an online English translation of Yalkut hadash.)

Fitzmyer comments:

This identification is, then, clear in later Jewish tradition; but is it in the mind of the author of [the Qumran Melchizedek/11QMelch] text? Is it an early tradition which he might be reflecting? It is impossible to answer these questions in my opinion. (p. 255)

A. S. van der Woude who published the fragments of the Qumran Melchizedek text in 1965, however, takes another view:

Did the author of [the Qumran 11QMelch] text consider Melchizedek to be the archangel Michael? Van der Woude inclines to think that he did, because Melchizedek is called [Elohim] and is exalted above the heavenly court . . . [Van der Woude refers to the Jewish traditions above] If the interpretation of van der Woude be correct, then this is the earliest attestation of this identification. (Fitzmyer, pp. 254-55)

Carrier cited Joseph Fitzmyer’s chapter, “Further Light on Melchizedek from Qumran Cave 11” in Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament. The book is fortunately online at bookzz. The above quotations are from that chapter.

Another important text for early Christians was the Wisdom of Solomon. Here we read of a “son of God who is despised, killed, resurrected and crowned as a king in heaven” (Carrier, p. 76).

2. Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-22; 5:1-23

2:12 Therefore let us lie in wait for the righteous; because he is not for our turn, and he is clean contrary to our doings: he upbraideth us with our offending the law, and objecteth to our infamy the transgressings of our education.

2:13 He professeth to have the knowledge of God: and he calleth himself the child of the Lord.

2:14 He was made to reprove our thoughts.

2:15 He is grievous unto us even to behold: for his life is not like other men’s, his ways are of another fashion.

2:16 We are esteemed of him as counterfeits: he abstaineth from our ways as from filthiness: he pronounceth the end of the just to be blessed, and maketh his boast that God is his father.

2:17 Let us see if his words be true: and let us prove what shall happen in the end of him.

2:18 For if the just man be the son of God, he will help him, and deliver him from the hand of his enemies.

2:19 Let us examine him with despitefulness and torture, that we may know his meekness, and prove his patience.

2:20 Let us condemn him with a shameful death: for by his own saying he shall be respected.

2:21 Such things they did imagine, and were deceived: for their own wickedness hath blinded them.

2:22 As for the mysteries of God, they knew them not: neither hoped they for the wages of righteousness, nor discerned a reward for blameless souls.


5:1 Then shall the righteous man stand in great boldness before the face of such as have afflicted him, and made no account of his labours.

5:2 When they see it, they shall be troubled with terrible fear, and shall be amazed at the strangeness of his salvation, so far beyond all that they looked for.

5:3 And they repenting and groaning for anguish of spirit shall say within themselves, This was he, whom we had sometimes in derision, and a proverb of reproach:

5:4 We fools accounted his life madness, and his end to be without honour:

5:5 How is he numbered among the children of God, and his lot is among the saints!

5:6 Therefore have we erred from the way of truth, and the light of righteousness hath not shined unto us, and the sun of righteousness rose not upon us.

5:7 We wearied ourselves in the way of wickedness and destruction: yea, we have gone through deserts, where there lay no way: but as for the way of the Lord, we have not known it.

5:8 What hath pride profited us? or what good hath riches with our vaunting brought us?

5:9 All those things are passed away like a shadow, and as a post that hasted by;

5:10 And as a ship that passeth over the waves of the water, which when it is gone by, the trace thereof cannot be found, neither the pathway of the keel in the waves;

5:11 Or as when a bird hath flown through the air, there is no token of her way to be found, but the light air being beaten with the stroke of her wings and parted with the violent noise and motion of them, is passed through, and therein afterwards no sign where she went is to be found;

5:12 Or like as when an arrow is shot at a mark, it parteth the air, which immediately cometh together again, so that a man cannot know where it went through:

5:13 Even so we in like manner, as soon as we were born, began to draw to our end, and had no sign of virtue to shew; but were consumed in our own wickedness.

5:14 For the hope of the Godly is like dust that is blown away with the wind; like a thin froth that is driven away with the storm; like as the smoke which is dispersed here and there with a tempest, and passeth away as the remembrance of a guest that tarrieth but a day.

5:15 But the righteous live for evermore; their reward also is with the Lord, and the care of them is with the most High.

5:16 Therefore shall they receive a glorious kingdom, and a beautiful crown from the Lord’s hand: for with his right hand shall he cover them, and with his arm shall he protect them.

5:17 He shall take to him his jealousy for complete armour, and make the creature his weapon for the revenge of his enemies.

5:18 He shall put on righteousness as a breastplate, and true judgment instead of an helmet.

5:19 He shall take holiness for an invincible shield.

5:20 His severe wrath shall he sharpen for a sword, and the world shall fight with him against the unwise.

5:21 Then shall the right aiming thunderbolts go abroad; and from the clouds, as from a well drawn bow, shall they fly to the mark.

5:22 And hailstones full of wrath shall be cast as out of a stone bow, and the water of the sea shall rage against them, and the floods shall cruelly drown them.

5:23 Yea, a mighty wind shall stand up against them, and like a storm shall blow them away: thus iniquity shall lay waste the whole earth, and ill dealing shall overthrow the thrones of the mighty.


3. Melchizidek Scroll, 11Q13

The remnants of this pesher scroll from Cave 11 at Qumran appears to link the Servant of Isaiah 52 and 53 with the Messiah who dies in Daniel 9.

Here are key sections from the Gnostic Society Library website:

(…) And concerning what Scripture says, “In this year of Jubilee you shall return, everyone of you, to your property” (Lev. 25;13)

. . . . the interpretation is that it applies to the Last Days and concerns the captives, just as Isaiah said: “To proclaim the Jubilee to the captives” (Isa. 61;1)

. . . Melchizedek . . . will return them to what is rightfully theirs. He will proclaim to them  the Jubilee, thereby releasing them from the debt of all their sins. He shall proclaim this decree in the first week of the jubilee period that follows nine jubilee periods. 

Then the “Day of Atonement” shall  follow after the tenth jubilee period [cf. Daniel 9:24-27, Seventy weeks, or 490 years], when he shall atone for all the Sons of Light, and the people who are predestined to Melchizedek.

. . . For this is the time decreed for the “Year of Melchizedek`s favor”, and by his might he will judge God’s holy ones and so establish a righteous kingdom, as it is written about him in the Songs of David ; “A godlike being has taken his place in  the council of God; in the midst of divine beings he holds judgement” (Ps. 82;1).

Scripture also says about him; “Over it take your seat in the highest heaven; A divine being will judge the peoples” (Ps. 7;7-8) Concerning what scripture says; “How long will you judge unjustly, and show partiality with the wicked? Selah” (Ps. 82;2), the interpretation applies to Belial and the spirits predestined  to him, because all of them have rebelled, turning from God’s precepts and so becoming utterly wicked. Therefore Melchizedek will thoroughly prosecute the vengeance required by God’s statutes. Also, he will deliver all the captives from the power of Belial, and from the  power of all the spirits destined to him. Allied with him will be all the “righteous divine beings(Isa. 61;3).

. . . The visitation is the Day of Salvation that He has decreed through Isaiah the prophet concerning all the captives, inasmuch as Scripture says, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion “Your divine being reigns”.” (Isa. 52;7)

This scripture’s interpretation :

  • the mountains” are the prophets, they who were sent to proclaim God’s truth and to prophesy to all Israel.
  • The messengers” is the Anointed of the spirit*, of whom Daniel spoke; “After the sixty-two weeks, an Anointed shall be cut off” (Dan. 9;26The “messenger who brings good news, who announces Salvation” is the one of whom it is written; “to proclaim the year of the LORD`s favor, the day of the vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (Isa. 61;2This scripture’s interpretation: he is to instruct them about all the periods of history for eternity . . . (dominion) that passes from Belial and returns to the Sons of Light . . . by the judgment of God, just as it is written concerning him; “who says to Zion “Your divine being reigns” (Isa. 52;7)
  • Zion” is the congregation of all the sons of righteousness, who uphold the covenant and turn from walking in the way of the people.
  • Your divine being”  is Melchizedek, who will deliver them from the  power of Belial. Concerning what scripture says, “Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; in the seventh month . . . ” (Lev. 25;9

* See Fitzmyer’s chapter, “Further Light on Melchizedek from Qumran Cave 11” in Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament — online at bookzz — for more nuanced discussion of the original text and alternative possibilities for the translation of “anointed/the anointed” here.  

So some Jews prior to Christianity identified the messenger who brings good tidings in Isaiah with the messiah who dies in Daniel 9. This same figure, called an anointed one or “the” anointed (messiah) dies to atone for sins and deliver the righteous.

Let’s recall that Isaiah passage, too.

Isaiah 52-53

52 . . . 
Free yourself from the chains on your neck,
Daughter Zion, now a captive. . . . 

7 How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!” . . . .

9 Burst into songs of joy together,
you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem. . . . 

13 See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.

14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
and his form marred beyond human likeness—

15 so he will sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.

53 Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

3 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.

5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.

9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.

11 After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.

12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

Richard Carrier provides many more references to current scholarship on the history of Jewish interpretations of this Isaiah passage and the Servant figure of Isaiah that I don’t have access to. I’m looking forward to reading some of these and when I do I may post more details here.


Whatever one makes of the interpretations of the Isaiah passage, the righteous figure in the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Melchizedek pesher, as Carrier notes, one can scarcely deny the plausibility of the idea that some Jews did interpret their writings to mean a messiah figure would die to atone for sins. And if so, there can be little doubt that the same Jews expected another or the same messianic figure to be exalted in the wake of that death and judge the wicked and save the righteous. Or even if one denies that there are any grounds for imagining even the possibility of such a scenario on the basis of the Qumran scroll, Wisdom of Solomon, Isaiah, one is still left with Daniel 9:26.

As for the question of the historicity of Jesus data such as this prompts historicists to argue that such meanings were read back into the texts to explain events that the first disciples of Jesus had experienced. As Carrier points out, however, it is not unreasonable — it is almost certain, in fact — that at least some Jews prior to Christianity did imagine a coming messiah who would die to atone for sins. This does leave open the possibility that a narrative about such a messiah could have been inspired by such views without any reference to real historical events.


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9 thoughts on “Jewish Expectations of a Slain Messiah — the Early Evidence”

  1. Don’t ignore the fact that Moses was a messiah and in the same way he died, so too the Jewish Sages considered that the final messiah would die. This falls in line with Moses’ words that after him another would follow in same as he did.

    Also not to ignore is the title, “Son of Joseph”. Joseph goes through a symbolic death and his father is lied too in regard to his death. The Jewish sages choose the title, “Son of Joseph” because the final messiah will emulate the lives of all previous messiahs. The “Son of Joseph” will suffer as Joseph did is how the Sages considered this.

    Samson was another messiah who died which further establishes the Messianic death theme.

    These are just three references which pre-date the second Temple period and we could come up with more, so are we just to ignore these?

  2. I had trouble making out exactly what Carrier was saying in this section of the book about Daniel.

    From this post:
    Michael the Great Prince does the same things as the Prince who comes following the death of the Messiah.
    and from OHJ p.78:
    it could appear Michael was meant to be the ‘prince’ in Dan. 9.26-27. Because in Dan 12.9-12 Michael is the one doing the things the ‘prince’ does in Dan 9.26-27.

    I read him the same way it seems you are reading it, but this is preposterous, so I wondered if I had misunderstood. The prince that comes after the death of an anointed one in 9:26 destroys the city and the temple and erects the abomination that desolates. The hypothesis is that the Jews were reading Daniel as saying that Michael is going to destroy the Jews and desecrate the temple? What?

    The next problem is that 12:9-12 is describing events before Michael arises. 12:1-3 describes what will happen after Michael arises. Then, in 12:9-12 the angel Daniel has been interacting with throughout the book (not Michael) responds to Daniel’s question in 12:8 by reiterating all the suffering to come before Michael, not after him. Or at least that’s the way I read it.

    Finally, 11:30-31 and 11:45 have already described the events referred to in Daniel 9.
    11:30-31 He shall be enraged and take action against the holy covenant. He shall turn back and pay heed to those who forsake the holy covenant. Forces sent by him shall occupy and profane the temple and fortress. They shall abolish the regular burnt offering and set up the abomination that makes desolate.
    11:45 He shall pitch his palatial tents between the sea and the beautiful holy mountain. Yet he shall come to his end, with no one to help him.

    So the prince to come of 9:26 has already done his thing and already been killed (as in 9:27) before we get to 12:1. That’s also why it seems dubious to read 12:9-12 as describing events after Michael. Is the abomination that desolates to happen twice? Or are we to understand the being leading God’s faithful astray in 11:32 is the angel Michael? Perhaps Chapter 11 is just to be ignored entirely?

    So in summary, this hypothesis only works if there were improbable misreadings of the text and if some Jews thought Michael was going to desecrate the temple. Not likely.

    1. What is an “improbable misreading” in Second Temple Judaism and its fascination with pesher?

      The Gospel of Mark declares Jesus himself said God would destroy the inheritance of the Jews. So why not Michael?

      Some Jews read Genesis in a way that led them to believe Abraham had literally slain his son Isaac on Mount Moriah but that God resurrected him. “Not likely”, but that’s fact.

      If we take the Melchizedek scroll as evidence then the “not likely” identification of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah being equated with the Daniel 9 which appears to be speaking of the restoration of God’s Temple and/or people (despite the slain messiah). A mass of contradictions. But as we saw in posts on Novenson’s book about Christs and the basis of Jewish pesher interpretations of them that’s how the Jews studied their scriptures. Matching words, or even only puns on words in quite different books and completely different contexts, could be the basis of ideological reconstructions.

      1. Hi Neil

        Do you think in any way that Mark managed to sneak Michael in to the narrative?
        I know Mark is pretty good at hiding things under symbols, perhaps he snuck Michael in as a loaf of bread or something 😉
        It would be fascinating to see if Mark did actually hide some O.T reference to Michael somewhere in there, alas I don’t think there is.

        1. I share your doubts. 🙂 I am not aware of any reason Michael would be included. The symbolism in Mark as far as I can discern it delivers theological messages and I don’t know where Michael would fit into any of those — or if there is any distinctively Michael narrative that could be used (or recognizable) anyway.

  3. I’ve always thought that however the whole dying “Messiah” is a red herring.

    It is more logical, and far easier to find, stories of dying heroes. Heroes whose lives almost exactly parallel the details of Jesus. Especially the seven dying sons of God in 2 Mac. 6-7. These are 1) sons of god who are 2) scourged, 3) tortured to death; but who are said to 4) resurrect, 5) to save us all.

    That I suggest is by far the most probable origin of the Jesus story; from a text dating about 100 BC.

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