This is part 3 of my series arguing against the popular notion that the time of Jesus as narrated in the gospels was ablaze with various cults and movements eagerly expecting a messiah to appear as per prophecies or even time-tables found in the Jewish scriptures. My depiction of this supposition as a myth in the title of this post is taken from James H. Charlesworth whom I quote below.
I am focusing on Richard Carrier’s presentation of this view because he goes further than many others by attempting to set out the evidence for this idea. So far I have addressed these passages in Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus:
That Jewish expectations of some kind of messiah in the early Roman Empire were widespread [and] influential . . . has been well established by experts on ancient messianism.15 . . . .
Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism. . . . .
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
(Carrier 2014, pp. 67-68)
We have seen in the previous posts (addressing footnote 18 and footnote 15) that scholars who specialize in the texts in question and who are footnoted by Carrier as his supports do not support the above claim.
I continue now to address four more points made by Carrier that he uses to argue that it is not a myth that the Jews of the early first century CE expected a messiah.
1. Evidence from a thousand years later
And many of [the Qumran] 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, p. 68)
Again we do not find support for the belief that the early first century witnessed a “rash of messianism” here. Citing but one example of a text composed in the mid first century BCE and appearing a millennium later cannot support the view that early first century CE cults were seizing copies of the Qumran community’s texts to fuel imaginations feverishly anticipating the imminent appearance of the messiah. (Moreover, even that text, the Damascus Document, the mention of the messiah is but incidental to other concerns.)
2. Evidence of the Gospels
The Gospels likewise assume (or, depending on how much you trust them, report) that ‘messiah fever’ was so rampant in Judea then that countless people were expecting Elijah to be walking among them, some even believed that Jesus, or John the Baptist, was that very man, risen from the dead, which many Jews believed presaged the imminent coming of a messiah and the ensuing end of the present world order (which many believed had become corrupted beyond human repair), because this had been predicted in Mal. 4.5-6, the very last passage of the traditional OT.21 . . . .
21. See Mk 9.9-13; 8.27-28; 6.14-16; Mt. 17.10-13; 16.13-14; Lk. 9.18-19; 9.7-9.
(Carrier 2014, p. 68)
The synoptic gospels are arguably riddled with anachronisms (e.g. synagogues and regular contact with Pharisees in Galilee) betraying their date of composition in the post 70 CE world. We do have independent evidence in the writings of Josephus for messianic hopes among Judeans at the time of the 66-70 CE war with Rome. Messianic hopes are placed in Bar Kochba seventy years later with another rebellion against Rome. We know from the Mount of Olives prophecy (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21) that the synoptic gospels were written to address the turmoil immediately preceding and following destruction of Judea’s political and religious centres. We know that the evangelists responsible for the gospels created scenarios to demonstrate theological points both about and through Jesus. We also know that crowds are concocted to appear and disappear whenever an evangelist needs them for a narrative function, quite without regard for narrative plausibility.
The gospel narratives require a popular response to a fantastic hero, who can perform all sorts of wonderful miracles, that falls short of recognizing him as a messiah. We have no more justification for assuming the scriptural citations used by Carrier reflect historical plausibility or reality than we do for gospel narratives of the Massacre of the Innocents or bumping into critical Pharisees while nibbling grain in a cornfield or that the Temple in Jerusalem was as small as a small pagan temple so that a single man could to stop all traffic as per Mark 11 or that in the early first century CE steep cliffs were found where they are no longer present (e.g. Nazareth has no steep cliff from which Jesus could have been thrown as per Luke 4 and Gardara is miles from the lake of Galilee and there are no cliffs on the lake’s shore from which pigs could have hurtled themselves as per the exorcism of Legion.)
3. Evidence of the so-called “false messiahs” in Josephus
The only surviving historian of early-first-century Palestine confirms this picture. Josephus records the rise and popularity of several false messiahs in the same general period as Christianity was getting started. He does not explicitly call them messiahs – he probably wanted to avoid reminding his Gentile audience that this was the product of Jewish ideology, and instead claimed it was the product of fringe criminals and ruffians (he likewise catalogues various other rebel bandits and demagogues as well). But the descriptions he provides belie the truth of the matter. As David Rhoads put it, ‘Josephus tends to avoid messianism when he relates the history of the first century’; in fact he deliberately ‘suppressed the religious motivations of the revolutionaries by ascribing [to them] evil and dishonorable intentions’ instead. But their messianic basis remains unmistakable. Scholarly analysis confirms this.22
(Carrier 2014, pp. 68-69)
A careful reading of the sources suggest the opposite picture to the conventional assumptions expressed here by Carrier. To begin, let’s examine the footnoted citations.
Carrier cites Rhoads as quoted by Mendels in Charlesworth’s The Messiah Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity:
22. See D. Mendels, ‘Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities, the ‘Fourth Philosophy’, and the Political Messianism of the First Century CE’, in The Messiah (ed. Charlesworth), pp. 261-75 (quote from Rhoads: p. 261 n . 4)
Consulting Mendels’ chapter one learns that in fact Rhoads argues the contrary to Carrier’s main point: the rebel groups in question did not have messianic expectations:
Two major trends can be discerned in the scholarship of the last fifty years concerning so-called messianic groups in Palestine in the first Century C.E. up to 70. One view . . . put forward by L. I. Levine, D. M. Rhoads, and others, is that all the groups terrorizing the Romans acted separately and that few, if any, had a messianic ideology.
(Mendels 1992, p. 261)