It will be a little while before I set aside the time I would need to prepare a proper review of Richard Carrier’s book, On the Historicity of Jesus, and Raphael Lataster’s Jesus Did Not Exist, but till then I can drop the odd comment on this or that point.
But one thing I can say about Lataster’s book is that it provides an excellent chapter by chapter synopsis of Carrier’s larger work. Most of what Lataster says I agree with so overall I can say I have very little to add. The only point that I don’t recall being made is that I think it would be an excellent idea if Carrier or someone on his behalf re-wrote On the Historicity of Jesus without any of the Bayesian jargon. Perhaps then (we can dream) those academics who appear to have read it will not be able to excuse themselves from the main thrust of its argument by happily lamenting that “Bayes is not their speciality so they can’t comment”. Does anyone know of any critic of Carrier’s book who has actually dealt with the chapters on “Background Knowledge”? What I have seen in the few critical reviews to date are a complete bypassing of this absolutely critical section and a zeroing in on a controversial scriptural interpretation or two. In other words, they are not dealing with the argument at all. If the scriptural interpretations they disagree with are indeed crucial to Carrier’s argument they need to demonstrate that — but none has, as far as I am aware.
Anyway, there is one quibble I do have with one of Carrier’s “Elemental Background Knowledge”.
Element 4: (a) Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism. There was an evident clamoring of sects and individuals to announce they had found the messiah. (b) It is therefore no oddity or accident that this is exactly when Christianity arose. It was yet another messiah cult in the midst of a fad for just such cults. (c) That it among them would alone survive and spread can therefore be the product of natural selection: so many variations of the same theme were being tried, odds are one of them would by chance be successful, hitting all the right notes and dodging all the right bullets. The lucky winner in that contest just happened to be Christianity.16
This element is often denied, or its basis not well understood, so I will pause to establish it before moving on. (OHJ, p. 67)
I might be one of those who denies it. Lataster supports Carrier, assuring readers that he supports the point well enough with evidence. I am not so sure, however. Though I should say at the outset that I do acknowledge a messianic fervour in the mid to late first century and on into the second century and that the gospel authors (“evangelists”) were influenced by this later development.
The Gospels as Supporting Evidence?
One piece of evidence Carrier cites is in the gospels themselves. There we read that Jews were so eagerly anticipating the Messiah that they could be plausibly portrayed as “seeing” Elijah among them raised from the dead. John the Baptist is also said to have been preaching a messianic message. My problems with Carrier’s argument here are:
- the scenario of Jews thinking they see Elijah among them is an evangelist’s conceit; a theological foil to the larger theme of Jesus’ identity;
- John the Baptist in the gospels is another artificial construct conveying the evangelist’s theological message of Jesus superseding the Prophets, and he is quite unlike the John the Baptist found in Josephus — where he is not a messianic preacher.
The gospels also contain evidence, I think, against the notion of a popular messianic expectation in the early first century. The Gospel of Matthew suggests that the people of Jerusalem from the Herod down to the street rabble had no idea what the Magi were looking for when they arrived to see a messianic king. Only the priests knew and they had to be consulted to find out what all this had to do with them and their little part of the world. That doesn’t sound to me like everyone knew about, let alone eagerly awaiting, the fulfilment of the prophecies.
The Gospels are anachronistically projecting messianic hopes of the end of the century back into the early first century.
Texts and Popular Passions
Carrier also points to the Parables of Enoch and the Dead Sea Scrolls as evidence of popular messianic fever. Again, I am afraid I don’t see it. I am currently in the middle of another book on messianic movements — those in the Islamic world from the eighth to the twenty-first centuries — and can’t avoid some comparisons. One message is clear: the mere existence of messianic or apocalyptic writings in sacred or scholarly texts does not of itself point to a popular enthusiasm for those texts. Doctrinal beliefs or indications on the record can exist without an ardent belief that those passages are about to be fulfilled any day very soon. They can be quite academic, or theological. In the Islamic world when such teachings were taken up with popular and eager anticipation that they were about to come to pass they were the talk of active, often violent, political movements.
The Sequence of the Available Evidence
Yet Carrier rightly says that any political action motivated by such messianism would have been quickly squashed by the Romans. Therefore, he concludes, messianic movements were more likely to survive if they embraced nonviolence. The problem here, of course, is that we simply have no evidence for such non-violent groups eagerly anticipating the Messiah — until…. See page 72 of OHJ where Carrier explains:
It is reasonable to infer that once the literal, militaristic versions of this idea had been seen to fail (or indeed to be impossible, given the unstoppable might of the legions), it would not be unthinkable to adapt the same idea to being freed from the slavery not of the Romans or the corrupt Jewish elite, but the slavery of invisible demons (and death itself) instead. Anyone who took that step would essentially end up with a movement like Christianity ….
Here I can agree. But where is the evidence for these violent or at least political active messianic hopefuls? They only seem to appear with any certainty as such from the mid to later first century. That’s after the time Jesus was supposed to have lived. Carrier cites four such apparently messianic pretenders but they all appear after the first decades of the first century. They appear to be signs of social distress because they are followed by the outbreak of the war against Rome. One can well imagine non-violent messianic movements arising after the bloodshed of all of these activities but that brings us to post 70 CE and the time when the gospels are being written. Carrier’s scenario about quietist movements emerging after bloodshed makes sense, but the evidence we have tells us that this development took place in the late first century.
We have more. The political expression of messianic hopes continued after 70 CE with widespread uprisings of Jews early second century and again in the 130s. There is some evidence that the “pacifist” messianists, the Christians who believed in a Messiah who was opposed to taking up the sword at that time, were persecuted as traitors.
Back to the early first century and we find in Paul’s writings attacks on false messiahs or on beliefs in them — but no indication that any of these false messiahs were defined by political opposition to Rome.
The evidence we have, as I understand it, points to esoteric or “academic” beliefs in a future Messiah as early as the first decades of the first century. It is not until the lead up to war and the war itself that we find evidence of messianic hopes expressed in ways such popular beliefs are usually expressed — politically. It is in the wake of the failure of these movements that Christianity took on the stance of being challenged by false-messiahs — from around 70 CE and beyond.
I am open to being persuaded otherwise and I welcome attempts to do so. Till then, however, this is one quibble I have with both Carrier and Lataster.
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26 thoughts on “Carrier, Lataster and Background Knowledge Element 4: A Quibble”
I agree. I think to say flatly that there was “rash of messianism” requires more evidence. Lately, I’ve been critically reading Ehrman’s memory book, so maybe I’m a bit more sensitive right now to this “must’ve” method of argument. We need to question all these assumptions. And we certainly need to recognize the counter-evidence and lack of evidence for presumed attitudes, beliefs, processes, and events in the first century CE.
One other detail I forgot to mention: Fervent movements don’t have generations of staying power. They die out as a consequence of disillusionment, of the next generation just not being able to maintain the excitement, of a more relaxed alternative interpretation.
I find it hard to imagine a single group (e.g. Qumran) maintaining apocalyptic zeal across generations. As one popular movement fizzles out another group somewhere else might take up a more energetic cause, and so on. We expect to find some hints of energetic alternative movements in the historical record. Josephus’s list of 4 such movements fits this expectation. I think if there had been others in addition to these four from an earlier time we should expect some evidence of at least one of them. What we have from earlier times (as per Horsley) are bandits and bandit gangs.
Emotional commitment like “hope” and “anticipation” needs constant stimulus to survive. How does this work merely on the basis that a text can be interpreted as indicating “sometime in this or the next generation” we might see something dramatic from heaven? Stimulus comes from events around us. Popular messianism needs regular stimulus for its maintenance.
A quiet messianic movement that maintains a strong hope across generations seems a most unlikely beast to me.
You said “A quiet messianic movement that maintains a strong hope across generations seems a most unlikely beast to me.”
I understand why you say this but the Jewish concept of a Messiah was one who would overthrow the oppressive regime (Babylonian,Greek or Roman), re-establish the Kingdom of Judah and usher in a golden age. This belief was simmering amongst a proportion of the Aramaic speaking Jews since the Babylonian exile. As each new potential Messiah emerged there was always hope that this would be the one. They had a very simple test to determine if someone was a messiah. If he succeeded in overthrowing the regime, he was a messiah. For example. When Cyrus conquered Babylon (539 BCE) and allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem he was deemed to be a messiah. An anointed one.
“1 Thus saith Jehovah to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him, and I will loose the loins of kings; to open the doors before him, and the gates shall not be shut:” Isiah 45:1
There is no evidence that prior to late first century that “the Jewish concept of a Messiah was one who would overthrow the oppressive regime (Babylonian,Greek or Roman)”. That is a popular assumption for which we have no evidence.
We have no evidence that this belief was “simmering” among any Jews prior to the first century, nor even that there was “a Babylonian exile”.
The example of Cyrus actually contradicts the above assumptions and supports the Josephan view that an “anointed one” would come from the earthly pagan ruling power — e.g. Vespasian — not overthrow it. Such an image was a popular trope among absolute rulers throughout the ancient Mediterranean and “Near East”.
See, for explanation, Novenson’s analysis of the messianic concept among Jews up to the Second Temple era: http://vridar.org/category/book-reviews-notes/novenson-christ-among-messiahs/.
There is firm archaeological evidence for “a Babylonian exile”. The “Jehoiachin’s rations tablets” date from that time: they describe food rations paid to captives and craftsmen who lived in and around Babylon. On at least two different tablets, it mentions the “sons of the Judean king”, and also the king himself (Jeconiah) is mentioned.
One an argue over the extent of the exile (proportion of the population), but that the royal family (and probably other high ranking officials) were in Babylon is firmly established by these extra-biblical sources.
There is no dispute over the Babylonian conquering of Jerusalem and the transfer of some of the population. But that’s not the same thing at all as “the Babylonian Exile” of bible myth.
There is solid archaeological evidence for the Babylonian exile. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, cuneiform documents were unearthed in Iraq. They ended up in the antiques market, but they were collected in the hands of a private collector, David Sofer who made them available for investigation. (Documents of Judean Exiles and West Semites in Babylonia in the Collection of David Sofer (CUSAS 28: Bethesda: CDL Press, 2014) by Laurie E. Pearce (Berkeley) and Cornelia Wunsch (London)).
Each document catalogues when and where it was written and by whom, providing scholars with an unprecedented view into the day-to-day life of Judean exiles in Babylonia, as well as a geography of where the refugees were resettled. The earliest in the collection, from 572 BCE, mentions the town of Al-Yahudu — “Jerusalem” — a village of transplants from Judea. The documents show that Jews not only lived in Al-Yahudu, but also in a dozen other cities over several generations.
Interesting. Will follow up. But you did not comment on my previous point. No-one is doubting the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and deportation of some of the population. Rather, the issue in my mind is as follows:
Thanks Neil, for the extensive reply. Evidence (archaeological and scriptural) from the last decade or so has shed a different light on the Babylonian exile.
Contrary to your expectation, it was the Babylonian policy to exile and re-settle around Babylon the leading classes from their conquered lands; they were not looking for slaves, nor were they maltreating the exiles. On the contrary, since they ‘harvested’ the best people, they encouraged them to take active part in Babylonian society.
Many exiles maintained their ethnic identities around Babylon, not only the Israelites. (Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: A Textbook on History and Religion: K.L. Noll).
I also think the ‘romantic picture’ misses the point of the Babylonian exile. It is not about sin and repentance: these are Christian concepts, and these are not recognised in the usual sense in the OT. The exile was a punishment for violating the Covenant; when the Israelites were ready to behave in accordance with the covenant, they could return home.
Where they met those who had not been exiled, and a conflict arose, probably not only about property rights, but also about religious views that had evolved in captivity.
I have yet to read the book but in the meanwhile other inquiries I have made inform me that nothing has changed. The texts have been known for some time and in fact support the thesis that many/most Jews did not return to Palestine after the decree of Cyrus. They may have thrown some light on the living conditions of the deportees, however. As I have tried to clarify, there is no dispute that Babylon captured Jerusalem and deported some of its population. But the idea that Jews in exile were pining to return to Palestine to worship their God there again in the Temple is unsupported.
In future I must be sure to clarify what I mean by “the myth of Babylonian exile”.
Interesting points, but I guess it is still quite probable there were such movements around the time of Jesus?
Regarding: “A quiet messianic movement that maintains a strong hope across generations seems a most unlikely beast to me.”
What about something like the Jehovah’s Witness?
A minor quibble is that when Carrier uses the Gospels and Josephus to support this point in the background information then strictly speaking those parts of the Gospels or Josephus are no longer evidence but background information.
What evidence do we have for such a phenomenon being “probable” at that time? None that I know of. Jehovah’s Witnesses are an example of my point. The fervent expectation met with disappointment and so was reinterpreted to be a heavenly event instead and members do not live the same radicalised life-choices that their ancestors followed. JW’s are an example of where the messianic hope becomes a matter of doctrine rather than daily real-life anticipation, perhaps. I am thinking of my own old church. After the failure of our prophesied date we still taught the “end of the world” but it was far more an academic idea or simply one of our many doctrines. Our main thrust was to carry on doing the things we needed to do to succeed here on earth.
I can see your point, though. I may have spoken in terms that are a little “too strong”. But not false, either, I think.
I agree Jehovahs Witness today for the most part don’t expect Armageddon in their lifetime and even if they do, then it’s properly in a different way than they expect other future events. However many of them were selling houses and giving up their jobs as late as 1975 during their last big prophetic push. If that counts that’s almost 100 years since their beginning (not that I think Jehovahs witness are a good model of early Christianity!).
Regarding messianic movements, I simply thought that few things are completely new, especially ideas which has had such a staying power as messianic movements. That might be an argument for them having been around before they became widely documented. I think it’s a good point that it’s not something which we can know for sure.
Yes, the apocalyptic texts are always around and preserved and no doubt discussed among the literate elites, but popular messianism is something else again. The latter addresses the tendency to “see a messiah” in every other figure striking an unconventional pose. (slight exaggeration but only slight)
The irony is that I think if we stick with the evidence in hand we have a stronger case for the late first century creation (not inheritance) of gospel narratives.
I think my lack of knowledge about the period is showing. I was thinking that “messianism” in your OP was referring to a more generic and smaller scale phenomena, like the expectations of some modern day Evangelics that we are living in the end times and a their tendency to interpret historical events in that framework (for instance that the creation of Israel fulfill biblical prophecy or that every democratic president is the Antichrist).
Agreed that it is easy to confuse the issue with modern evangelicals. What I’m addressing is the common claim that there was widespread expectation among the general populace of Judea of the imminent advent of “the messiah” who would overthrow the Roman power. The evidence that this was the way things were back then in the early first century (time of Jesus) is based on the OT and extra canonical writings such as the Wisdom of Solomon. It is also argued that the time-line in the Book of Daniel would have led people to have expected a messiah to arise around the time of Jesus.
I have three problems with these arguments:
1. Often those Jewish writings do not speak of a messiah coming to overthrow the alien power ruling the Jews. Rather, they speak of God bringing about their destruction and ushering in a new age. Messianic interpretations are read into them.
2. The same prophecies were surely not read by most Jews who were illiterate. They may have heard of them from the educated but we have no evidence at all that they discussed them in their spare time and applied them to their own day and were anxiously awaiting a messiah to come and kick out the Romans. The only evidence we have of disturbances around the time of Jesus and prior to that time are bandits roaming and terrorizing the rich and certain locals.
3. When we do see inferences of messianic claimants in the evidence it comes well after the time of Jesus and is based around Joshua and Moses figures and gives no hint of applications of the themes in the Book of Daniel.
Presumably some members of the elite literate class discussed such writings along with other topics in those same books. But again, we have no evidence that they were taking these passages and interpreting them in a way that led them to realistically and emotionally expect God to send someone to overthrow Rome.
It’s possible that they did but we have no evidence that they did. If we have evidence of bandit activity and then later evidence of would-be imitators of Joshua I would expect that some evidence should also exist for popular messianic expectation prior to the middle of the first century. But as far as I am aware it doesn’t exist.
I can certainly understand conflicts among Jewish factions and ruling interests generating popular unrest and then when these tensions break out in rebellion against Rome then certainly, we do see inferences throughout this period of messianic hopes among some groups.
It is after the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of its temple that we finally for the first time have much more explicit evidence of a popular messianic movement — the Bar Kokhba revolt.
Interesting, I think, that messianic hopes appear to arise on a massive scale only after the destruction of the Temple and with Hadrian’s attempt to replace it with Temple to Zeus. One can readily see the application of the Book of Daniel in that situation.
But back-tracking just a little. — The evidence we have allows for the gospels to have been written soon after the 70 CE destruction of the Temple. The first gospel, Mark, is rich with allusions to the Book of Daniel. It is the destruction of the Temple that seems to have elicited explicit interest in messianic prophecies derived from the Book of Daniel.
Prior to that time (but well after the time of Jesus) there do appear to be popular liberation movements of sorts and there are hints that these may have been messianic in nature but they do not appear to have been associated with the Temple — hence the Book of Daniel appears not to have been of interest. These movements were centred around Samaria, the River Jordan and the wilderness.
The Book of Daniel becomes relevant with the destruction of the Temple. That’s when the first gospel was written and written with many allusions to Daniel. Popular messianism, from what I can recall — I am open to being corrected, of course — in the time of Jesus did not exist, and when it did emerge it did not relate to the Book of Daniel according to the evidence. That association came later with the destruction of the Temple.
This ‘messianic fervor’ idea does seem to be one of those assumptions which are widely believed and repeated, and I think it is important to thoroughly examine the basis for such a claim before relying too heavily on it.
Maybe there has often been in human societies a desire for a man on a white horse to get them out of a mess (political) and/or a supernatural hero to do much the same (religious). For some “messiah” idea probably combined both.
There is deep-rooted in western mythologies the notion of a cosmic combat between a divine hero and an evil reptile, including “Judeo-Christianity”, and subsequently from Arthur to Adolf.
No doubt. But that doesn’t tell us if there was a popular expectation of a messiah in early first century Judea or not.
How would we find out, one way or another? Do the Dead Sea Scrolls and other stories of would-be messiahs contribute anything, if relevant Christian literature or any indicative references in non-Christian literature are themselves ruled out as totally fictional, totally belated, or totally interpolated?
We can’t. We learn to live with not knowing. We just accept what we can infer reasonably from the evidence available in full awareness of all its limitations and we go no further. That’s how ancient history is.
Though interestingly I do notice in a book I am reading on Islamic apocalyptic literature that since 2003 there has been a boom in all sorts of wild “messianic” type expectations in the Islamic world with one very notable exception: Palestine.
What that tells me is that we see yet again a rash of popular hopes arising when situations radically change for the worse. But where things continue on as normal (even if that normal is an ongoing multigenerational occupation) realism sets in and despite all the prophecies in the classical sacred texts that invite believers to exercise their imaginations that just does not happen. Same same for generation upon generation and no sudden apocalyptic fervour. Sudden changes in the status quo with a great power barging in and changing everything — apocalyptic and messianic expectations flourish. I suspect the Jewish messianism began with the outbreak of the Jewish-Roman War.
I shall download your articles on messiahs/bandits when I get printer ink after Easter.
I still think there is a connection between the Seventy Sevens of Daniel and the birth and execution of Jesus in the NT, with added astronomical signs.
Apocalyptic movements do indeed arise when social quiescence changes to conflict or confusion; and jolly old Jerusalem is the obvious focus for the “Abrahamic Faith” tradition. See e.g. studies by Norman Cohn, Eugen Weber, &c.
The Al Murabitun sect associated with our Norwich masjid entertains views on the Antichrist of the Last Days that could “make yer flesh creep”.
Needless to say, I loved both Carrier’s and Lataster’s books.
You bring up an interesting post, and I am open to being persuaded otherwise as well; but maybe I can chime in here.
Stop me if I’m missing the point, but FWIW, though Carrier only mentions four here, there were several more he could have brought up. For instance, in the new book (“Jesus: Mything in Action”) I discuss several more messianic movements from the early first century on; figures like those you’ve touched on above, and also:
– Josephus’ “The Egyptian” (Jewish War 2.xiii.5)
– Judas of Galilee and Theudas the Magician (cf. Jewish War 2.viii.1; Antiquities 18.i.1)
– Athronges the Shepherd (Jewish War 2.iv.3; Antiquities 17.278–284)
– Simon of Peraea (Jewish War 2.57-59; Antiquities 17.x.7); also mentioned by Tacitus in Histories 5.9.2)
– The Sicarii messiah (Antiquities 20.viii.10)
– “The Taheb” (An otherwise unnamed Samaritan messiah in Antiquities 18.iv.2–3), Jonathan the Weaver (Jewish War 7.xi.1–3)
– Simon bar-Giora who rousted another wanna-be messiah, the Zealot John of Gischala (Jewish War, books IV, V, & VII).
So it seems we do have evidence that there were indeed many such movements (and Josephus tells us he only mentions a few)and most if not all seem to have gotten their juice from the endless re-booting of failed prophecies like Daniel’s (itself a re-boot of Jeremiah’s failed prophecy) which keep advancing the messianic goalposts forward. I agree with you that “A quiet messianic movement that maintains a strong hope across generations” seems unlikely, but the re-occurring apocalypticism we have in the first century seems to me something on par with the volcanic action that continues to create new Hawaiian islands in a chain…
(And at the risk of going off down a different rabbit hole, there are still other figures of more questionable historicity, like “Simon Magus” and “Apollonius of Tyana,” – and lesser folk figures whose stories nonetheless seem to have influenced Mark’s original gospel, like Carabas and the mad prophet Yeshua ben Hananiah/Jesus ben-Ananias)
I have addressed many of the case studies you cite in another post @ Popular Messianic Movements Up To The Time Of Jesus – Part 1 and Popular Messianic(?) and Bandit Movements Up To The Time Of Jesus and Beyond – Part 2.
In clear cases where we have a political movements backing a messianic claimant we see that those movements scatter when the claimant is killed. So when we see something else happening (where the death of the leader only results in further violence, not less — the death of the leader does not lead to demoralisation) then I think it is reasonable to suspect we are looking at something other than a “messianic movement”.
I worry that too often we tend to immediately assume any rebel movement in Judea must have been in some sense motivated by messianism — no evidence, just assumption.
The evidence for the emergence of a messiah figure destined to overthrow Rome coincides with the outbreak of the first Jewish War. Tacitus and Suetonius and Josephus all make this link. But notice that not one of these testimonies links that hope with a particular leader. It is as if there is a hope that from out of the war will emerge a figure as yet unknown or unrecognized — until he suddenly turns the tide. Thus Vespasian.
We often read that Josephus spoke of a series of rebellions but was too shy to explicitly identify them as would-be messianic hopefuls. He was trying to dissociate Judaism from such nonsense, we are told. Maybe there is something I have failed to appreciate here, but Josephus is not at all shy to tell the world just how nasty and horrible and wicked and deserving of death were whole factions of Jews.
Nor was he at all reluctant to actually tell his readers that many of his people really were swept up by hopes in a fulfilled prophecy after all — he just says they failed to see the fulfilment would be Vespasian. So he has no problem identifying false prophetic hopes as another hysterical black mark against his rebellious people.
This also further adds to my suspicion that it the messianic hope at the outbreak and throughout the war was not settled upon any one particular individual (or rival leaders) — but that people were believing one such figure would emerge as the messiah at the critical juncture. No doubt some had their eyes on certain leaders in their midst, and some no doubt were “pretty sure” they would come good — but the prophetic fulfilment was to be revealed at the time that ruler led his army beyond Jerusalem and over the entire world, conquering all.
Now all of that makes sense to me in the context of extreme stress in the build up to war and during the war itself.
I see no evidence for such popular hopes in the early part of the first century.
Judas the Galilean was a tax rebel who wanted freedom from Roman rule. I see no reason to think of him as anything more — no doubt similar to many other people in many other regions under Roman rule at some time.
I suspect a bit of circularity in our thinking when we presume him to be a messianic pretender.