The Flaw in Bart’s Argument for the Jewish Rejection of Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Bart Ehrman continues to address the conventional explanation for why Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah in Another Problem with Calling Jesus the Messiah.

That explanation tells us that the Jewish idea of a Messiah or Christ was that he was to be a conquering Davidic King who would overthrow Israel’s enemies and usher in a utopian reign with the Jews as the top nation.

Yet if that were the reason Jesus was not accepted as the Messiah then some interesting questions surface.

Ehrman has pointed to one of these questions without realizing it. He has pointed out that the term “messiah” is nowhere mentioned in connection with the Suffering Servant in the Book of Isaiah as if that should be a decisive point. But nor do we find the word for “messiah” in any of the standard biblical passages that are said to speak of the conquering Davidic messiah. Notice (the list it taken from Matthew Novenson’s study of the term “Christ”):

Genesis 49:10

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the commander’s staff from between his feet, until that which is his comes; and the obedience of the peoples is his.

Numbers 24:17

A star will go forth from Jacob; and a scepter will rise from Israel; it will shatter the borders of Moab and tear down all the sons of Sheth.

2 Samuel 7:12-13

I will raise up your seed after you, who will come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.

Isaiah 11:1-2

A shoot will come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch will grow from his roots. The spirit of YHWH will rest upon him.

Amos 9:11

On that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, and repair its breached walls, and raise up its ruins, and build it as in the days of old.

Daniel 7:13-14

I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like a son of man was coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and honor and kingship.

If Isaiah 53’s Suffering Servant passage could not be understood by pre-Christian Jews as “messianic” because the word for “messiah” (= anointed one) nowhere appears there, then why did those same Jews presumably interpret the above passages “messianically”?

In pre-Christian times Jewish “messiahs” (Greek “christs”) died all the time. A passage in Daniel could not be clearer (although understanding its application in history may be obscure):

Daniel 9:26 (Douay-Rheims)

And after sixty-two weeks Christ shall be slain

New International Version

After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death

King James

And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off

King Saul was an “anointed one” who died, as Thomas L. Thompson has shown with reference to 2 Samuel 1:21. The high priest was another anointed one; his death signaled the liberation of those confined to cities of refuge because of manslaughter (Numbers 35:28 and Exodus 29:7).

I have already made passing reference to earlier posts where this topic is discussed in depth. Studies among both Christian and Jewish scholars have demonstrated that pre-Christian messianic ideas were widely varied. And we do indeed have evidence that some pre-Christian Jews did think the messiah would die as an atoning act. After all, if none did think that was a possibility then Christianity had no means to ever get started as a Jewish sect.

Not only did biblical messiahs die, but we know there were Jewish sects who firmly believed in the atoning power of the blood of a human sacrifice. The Maccabean martyrs are the most famous example. The scholarly literature has addressed others, such as the “blood of Isaac”.

I have mentioned one of the questions that surfaces if indeed the reason the Jews rejected Jesus was because he was not a conquering David overthrowing the Romans. The other question that arises if Paul were indeed faced with such an opposition: he nowhere takes on that supposedly conventional view of the messiah and demonstrates why it is wrong or why Jesus is a superior messiah.

Yes, he says the crucified Christ is an offence to some Jews but as Morton Smith has shown, the reason for the offence was that Paul was teaching the crucifixion meant the Law was no longer obligatory.

Yes, Paul speaks of a Christ in weakness but that’s because his Jesus did not perform miracles (contra the Jesus in the subsequent gospel narratives). And as Novenson has argued, Paul’s argument about the nature of the messiah was entirely consistent with what Jews expected of such debates.

Paul, curiously (if we think that Jews could not accept Jesus because he did not overthrow the Romans), does not take up that supposedly dominant understanding of the Messiah and deconstruct it, polemicize against it, or simply address it.



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19 thoughts on “The Flaw in Bart’s Argument for the Jewish Rejection of Jesus”

  1. But not all Jews rejected Jesus as Messiah.

    Ehrman has to explain why some Jews believed Jesus was the Messiah, even though he was not a conquering Davidic hero.

    And, as pointed out in the article, Erhman has to explain why 16 chapters of theology in Paul’s Epistles to the Romans nowhere addresses why Jesus failed to be a Messiah.

    ‘…. the Jews rejected Jesus was because he was not a conquering David overthrowing the Romans.’

    And why did the Romans crucify Jesus? Did they think he was claiming to be a Messiah , a conquering Davidic hero?

    And why did Jesus have 12 disciples? Who the hell did they think they were following if Jesus behaved nothing like a Messiah?

  2. Did Jesus die, as a suffering servant? Or did he live as a promised conquering hero, to deliver the promised ideal kingdom?

    Actually, Christianity, with its typical smarmy duplicity or equivocation, tried to have it BOTH ways. It tried to say that 1) our savoir died ( for our sins and so forth). But also that, thanks to being resurrected, 2) he lived on, to deliver the promised kingdom (of the Church).

    Here Christianity got pretty slippery to be sure; trying to have it both ways. But people bought it. Possibly partly because of Isaiah.

    However, the part of Isaiah as quoted above, did not have the key element of resurrection. It did not have the key surreal magical sophistry, that would enable Christianity to pick up its sly two-for-one: its assertion that Jesus both died, but also lived. That unlikely element was found however, in spades, in 2 Mac. 6-7. Where the resurrection of our fully seven dying sons of God, is mentioned three or four times.

    1. I thought the last verse of Isaiah 53 might point to a resurrection: “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, . . .” No?

          1. i’ll be hon est , i don ‘t know what isaiah 53 is saying

            he says that the ss is diseased individual who is despised and rejected. if he is “cut off from the land of the living” then does that mean he is driven into the wilderness or is killed?

            is “led like a lamb…” literal or simile?

            1. It’s not a literature test. We are not asking what the original author meant — though it would be very nice to know for sure — but more importantly for our purposes: how did the various sectarians and religious leaders understood the text prior to Christianity? I’ve added a partial bibliography to help towards answering this at Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity

      1. I think I’ll compromise here, and say that Isaiah contains many elements of the later Jesus or even resurrection. But not anywhere nearly as fully or explicitly as 2 Mac.. Where we hear from a dying son of God (7.22-3), “the King if the world will raise us up to live again” (7.9; 7.23; 7.29; 7.36).

        Probably much of 2 Mac. 6-7 comes after this part of Isaiah. And armed with that precedent, it takes takes themes in Isaiah, and makes them far, far more explicit.

        For its fuller summary of the core lesson of Christianity, a kind of atonement, see 6.27-28, 7.37-38. See also 4 Mac. Which is devoted to expanding this very episode to a full book.

        2 Mac. 6-7, in my theory, becoming thereby the most important predecessor or cause for the gospels.

        1. Identifying someone in the Hebrew scriptures as “the Son of God” doesn’t mean they are literally God’s Son. ‘The Son of God’ might just be a way of saying he is kingly in nature, because the king of Israel was sometimes identified as the ‘Son of God (On this, see Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, 76-77).’

          Understanding the King of Israel as the “son of God,” we read in the Hebrew bible, for instance:

          (1) “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name; and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me (2 Sam. 7:12-14).”

          (2) In Psalm 89, in which the psalmist indicates that David was anointed by God (that is, literally anointed with oil as a sign of God’s special favor; v. 20), he is said to be God’s “firstborn, the highest of the kings of earth (v.27).”

          (3)God says to the king: “You are my son; today I have begotten you (Psalm 2, v. 7)

          1. ‘Identifying someone in the Hebrew scriptures as “the Son of God” doesn’t mean they are literally God’s Son.’

            How do you feel about ‘Brother of the Lord.’? 🙂

          2. In Mac. the sons are identified not by title, but descriptively. And by a clearly Mary-like mother:

            “I do not know how you came into existence in my womb; … it is the Creator who shapes each man’s beginning” 7.22-3.

            Related to this, the first man. Adam, was made by God. So we are in that way all sons of God.

      2. I’m doing pretty good today. I finally got Dr. McGrath to concede Isaiah 53 contributed to the crucifixion narrative in Mark. He wrote that:

        “I am glad I didn’t rush to reply, because you reached the point I was going to make, namely that in some instances it is plausible to view Scripture as the starting point for the whole story, in others it makes better sense as the lens through which actual historical events are being viewed and interpreted. That is crucial. There is nothing implausible about early Christians, confronted with the crucifixion of the man they were convinced was the Davidic anointed one, turning to Isaiah 53 and using it to make sense of what happened. But imagining them starting with Isaiah 53 and then coming up with a crucified Messiah is less plausible by far.”

        Here is the thread for anyone who is interested:http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2015/11/further-history-denialism-from-jerry-coyne.html#dq

        1. “in some instances it is plausible to view Scripture as the starting point for the whole story, in others it makes better sense as the lens through which actual historical events are being viewed and interpreted”

          I would ask the good Doctor how he tells the difference.

  3. Naturally , Bart does not even mention the parts of Paul which state clearly why the Jews rejected Jesus.

    Romans 10

    How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?

    Paul is clear.

    The Jews had never heard of Jesus.

    Christians were then sent to Jews to preach about Jesus.

    After Christians had been sent to preach about Jesus, most of the Jews then rejected Jesus.

    Why doesn’t this even get a mention in Bart’s analysis of why the Jews rejected Jesus?

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