Questioning Carrier and the Common View of a “Rash of Messianism” at the time of Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

It is widely accepted that around the time Jesus is said to have appeared the people of Judea were eagerly anticipating a Messiah to come at any moment and deliver them from their Roman conquerors. I have sought for evidence to support this claim expressed so often in the scholarly land popular literature. To date, data that is used as evidence, in my view, does not support that view — unless one reads into it the interpretation one is looking for.

Though there is much of great value in Richard Carrier’s book, The Historicity of Jesus, I was disappointed to see him repeat what I suspect is an unfounded assumption and to employ an invalid argument in its support. The same applies to Carrier’s predecessor, Earl Doherty. It looks to me as if on this point Christ myth authors have imbibed the common assumptions of mainstream scholars. I use Carrier’s work in this post to illustrate my point. Carrier writes:

(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. ‘Messiah’, ‘Son of Man’, ‘the Righ­teous One’, and ‘the Elect [or Chosen] One’ were all popular titles for the expected messiah used by several groups in early-first-century Judaism, as attested, for instance, in the Book of the Parables of Enoch, a Jewish text composed before 70 CE. 17 The Dead Sea Scrolls attest to one or several such cults around that same time. Indeed, messianic apocalypticism was intense at Qumran, where the keepers of the scrolls were already expect­ing the imminent end of the world, and attempting different calculations from the timetable provided in the book of Daniel (see Element 7) to predict when the first messiah would come – and many of their calculations came up ‘soon’. The early first century CE was in their prediction window.18 And many of their texts were used by other cults of the time. A copy of the so-called Damascus Document, for instance, turns up a thousand years later in a stash of Jewish texts at Cairo Geniza.19

Carrier 2014, pp. 67-68

After consulting several of the works Carrier cites in these paragraphs I remain unpersuaded. I will continue to consult the others and post about anything that does change my mind.

Let’s take footnote #18 for now. That’s the cited authority for the claim that early first century sects such as the Qumran community were calculating the time of the messiah’s arrival in “the early first century CE”.

18. See John Collins, ‘The Expectation of the End in the Dead Sea Scrolls’, in Eschatology (ed. Evans and Flint), pp. 74-90 (esp. 76-79, 83).

On pages 76 to 78 John Collins discusses the attempts by the author of the Book of Daniel to set dates for “the end”. This writer was working in the second century BCE at the time of the Maccabee uprising against the Seleucid empire.

On page 78 Collins begins a discussion of the Apocalypse of Weeks in 1 Enoch, explaining that this work, too, was

written about the time of the Maccabean revolt.

Then on page 79 we begin a section titled “The End of Days in the Dead Sea Scrolls”. On page 82 we read:

This “end” was not in the vague and distant future but was expected at a particular time in the sect’s history.

Was this time in “the early first century CE”? No. Collins explains:

It is reasonable to infer, then, that the “end” was expected shortly before the pesher was written. While we do not know the exact date of the pesher, all indicators point to the middle of the first century BCE. 

Then again on the same page (83)

Our other witness to the expectation of an end at a specific time, the Damascus Document, also points to a date towards the middle of the first century BCE.

That’s a couple of generations before the time of Jesus according to canonical writings. It’s also in a quite different political setting.

There’s more. On page 84:

It appears, then, that the Dead Sea sect expected the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy about 40 years after the death of the Teacher. Unfortunately, we do not know when this took place. A date around the end of the second century BCE seems likely, but we must allow a generous margin of error. If the Teacher died about 100 BCE, this would point to an “end” about 60 BCE, which would be highly compatible with the evidence of the Pesher on Habakkuk.

Continuing . . . .

If we then allow 40 years for the career of the Teacher and a further interval of 40 years after his death, we arrive at the conclusion that the “end” was expected about 70 BCE.42 While these suggestions are intriguing, and are not impossible, in my view they are not reliable. While there is evidence for speculation on biblical chronology, such as we find in Demetrius, in such documents as Jubilees and the Aramaic Levi Apocryphon, there is no actual evidence that CD used the chronology of Demetrius. The argument is simply that this chronology would support a popular hypothesis about the origin of the Dead Sea sect. Despite its popularity, however, that hypothesis is far from established fact.43

Were devotees at Qumran attempting to calculate dates from clues in Daniel for the arrival of the messiah? Collins writes on page 85:

I see no evidence that anyone at Qumran ever counted the days, in the manner of the book of Daniel, or that their expectation ever focused on a specific day or year.

The Qumran sect is frequently equated with the Essenes that are described by Josephus and Hippolytus. Collins points out (page 88) that

No ancient account of the Essenes mentions the expectation of Messiahs, nor the prospect of an eschatological war.

So what happened when the possibly expected end did not come about in the middle of the first century BCE? Did they keep revising their dates to then settle on renewed speculation about the early first century CE? On page 89,

The expected “end” forty years after the death of the Teacher came and went. The Qumran community does not seem to have suffered any major disruption, as far as we know. . . . The pesharim, and indeed much of the distinctively sectarian literature, were produced in the early or middle first century BCE. . . . Only the Pesher on Habakkak betrays any anxiety about the delay. The War Scroll continued to be copied in the Roman period, so it appears that eschatological expectation did not cease when the “end” failed to materialize. This should not surprise us. The book of Daniel had offered far more specific calculations of an “end” than anything found at Qumran. These dates also passed without event.

And finally, page 90:

The Qumran community survived for more than a century after its attempt to calculate the end in the mid-first century BCE had failed. The prolonged vitality of the sects eschatological expectations was due in some part to their evasiveness. They were not tied to a very specific sequence of events, or to a specific date of fulfillment. They were fluid enough to allow for some adaptation. Moreover, the members of the community believed that they were already experiencing some of the blessings of the end time in their community life, where they believed they shared in the fellowship of the angels.

So we have one BCE scroll that continued to be copied into the Roman period as evidence that the Qumran community was feverishly expecting the messiah any day on that early first century CE period. (I have to ask, Does it follow that Christians today are on the whole functioning at messianic fever pitch because Bibles containing messianic promises continue to be printed and read today?)

Notice also that the War Scroll supplies no evidence of expectations tied to a particular date or date range. The contrary, in fact.

I know, that’s only one of Carrier’s supporting citations. I’ll look at some more in future posts. Of course I am more than willing to examine supporting references cited by any other author for this popular view as well.

Carrier, Richard. 2014. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.

Collins, John J. 1997. “The Expectation of the End in the Dead Sea Scrolls.” In Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, edited by  Craig Evan and Peter W. Flint, 74-90. Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans.


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14 thoughts on “Questioning Carrier and the Common View of a “Rash of Messianism” at the time of Jesus”

  1. What do you think of Reza Aslan’s contention that Jesus and his movement were in the tradition of Jewish Zealots? He names a number of others in the half century before Jesus. These seem to have been Robin Hood type characters, more political than religious, with perhaps some brigandage mixed in. Jesus’ championing of the poor outsiders against the rich establishment, does not seem to get sufficient recognition from those who are focused on the “messiah” narrative.

  2. I thought the reason that everybody just assumes messianic expectation was widespread in the first century CE, is that Josephus seems to say that such an expectation was widespread enough to “cause” the Jewish war. Thus, in Jewish War, Book 6, Chapter 5, section 4:

    But now, what did the most elevate them [the Jewish rebels] in undertaking this war, was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how,” about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.” The Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular, and many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their determination.

    1. Yes, and I have tried to make it clear throughout this series of posts that I am addressing the pre-war situation in Judea, pre-war by some decades. But notice, further, that Josephus does not even in this situation depict the scenario advanced by the common assumption. The war came first, and when someone mentioned a prophecy then they thought, wow, that’s interesting, and some kept repeating it for encouragement in their struggle. That’s not the sort of widespread feverish anticipation that we are told was extant prior to and at the time of Jesus and right through to the war.

      1. Hi Neil,

        Actually what Josephus wrote was that the messianic hope was what did the “most to induce the Jews to start this war.” (War 6.313)

        Would you mind providing the citations for your claims that Josephus wrote that “the war came first” followed by someone who “mentioned a prophecy’ to which someone else “thought, wow, that is interesting” which caused “some to keep repeating it for encouragement in their struggle.”



        1. I have discussed this in my more recent post: http://vridar.org/2016/07/30/how-do-you-spot-a-messiah-myth-of-jewish-messianic-expectations-continued/

          I don’t know if Josephus explicitly said that the Jews “started” the war because of the prophecy. I haven’t checked the Greek. My reading of an English translation left room for doubt — that they were encouraged by the prophecy in their taking up of their struggle against the Romans were were embarked on a military campaign against them. That’s how I have always understood the passage, even prior to the understanding of Jewish expectations that are the topic of these posts.

          Which Jews actually defied Rome and how?– it was the leadership, yes? Is Josephus really saying that the leadership were inspired to declare independence from Rome because of the prophecy?

          If so, then are we to imagine those leaders spreading the prophecy among the masses so they got excited enough to support their rebellion?

          Even so, we are talking about a time immediately preceding the war, not a time extending back through various movements to the time of Jesus.

          I have always thought of the war period being associated with messianic hopes, and perhaps even the period immediately prior to the war. But only yesterday did I read Martin Goodman’s chapter that led me to realize we cannot even be sure about that.

          1. Hi Neil,

            The only historians I am aware of that commented upon the Jews’ relationship to their messianic prophecies specifically claimed that a great percentage of the population were influenced by them.

            “There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated for men coming from Judaea to rule the world. This prediction, referring to the emperor of Rome -as afterwards appeared from the event- the people of Judaea took to themselves.” (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian 4.5)

            “The majority [of the Jews] were convinced that the ancient scriptures of their priests alluded to the present as the very time when the Orient would triumph and from Judaea would go forth men destined to rule the world. This mysterious prophecy really referred to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, true to the selfish ambitions of mankind, thought that this exalted destiny was reserved for them, and not even their calamities opened their eyes to the truth.” (Tacitus, Histories 5.13)

            Are there any citations indicating that only Jewish leaders were influenced by the prophecies?



            1. Have you seen my recent post discussing Goodman’s take on this prophecy and its record in Suetonius and Tacitus? I linked to it in the previous comment.

  3. Thanks for your reply.

    I haven’t read enough of Josephus to know if “undertaking this war” means (1) “while undertaking this war” or (2) “deciding to undertake/launch/provoke this war”, but I guess it could mean (1) the war came first. I had assumed (2).

    After reading Einhorn I agree that “at the time of Jesus” does indeed seem wrong, but Josephus could perhaps be compatible with “widespread anticipation” in the 50s and 60s.

    1. If you have a chance to read the subsequent posts in this series you will see that even the interpretation of various movements in the middle of the first century CE as being messianic is questionable.

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