Questioning Carrier and the Conventional Wisdom on Messianic Expectations

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by Neil Godfrey

Here for convenience is an annotated list of the recent posts on “the myth of messianic expectations”.

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

Carrier’s claim “Palestine in the early first century ce was experiencing a rash of messianism” is introduced. His assertion that “The early first century ce was in their prediction window” is tested against his footnoted authority, “The Expectation of the End in the Dead Sea Scrolls” by John Collins.

2. Questioning Claims about Messianic Anticipations among Judeans of the Early First Century

Carrier’s claim that “That Jewish expectations of some kind of messiah in the early Roman Empire were widespread, influential, and very diverse . . . has been well established by experts on ancient messianism” is tested by examining seven of the nine “experts in messianism” cited by Carrier.

3. Questioning Carrier and the “Myth that the Jews Expected a Messiah” (#3)

An examination of the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gospels and various purported “messianic” figures (the Samaritan, Theudas, the Egyptian and the anonymous “imposter”) in Josephus. Argues that reading what Josephus does say about the prophetic role of these figures, as opposed to what he does not say about their supposed messianic role, has too often been overlooked.

4. Origin of the Myth that the Jews Expected a Messiah

I put Richard Carrier’s arguments on hold to point out what J. H. Charlesworth calls “the myth that Jews expected a Messiah and knew what functions he would perform.” I would even say William Scott Green‘s “Messiah in Judaism: Rethinking the Question” . . . is obligatory reading and discussion for anyone interested in this question.

5. How Do You Spot a Messiah? — Myth of Jewish Messianic Expectations continued

Examines Carrier’s dismissal of Horsley, Freyne and Goodman’s views; shows Carrier inconsistencies in the application of his definition of “messiah”; and surveys Goodman’s analysis of the “ambiguous oracle” in Josephus and messianism in the first Jewish war with Rome, and the evidence for “messianism” between 70 and 132 CE.

6. Questioning Carrier: Was the Book of Daniel Really a “Key Messianic Text”?

Another look at origins of the “myth of messianic expectations” in the “apocalyptic hypothesis”; a companion argument to Green’s discussion in post #4 Origin of the Myth. Considers the evidence used to claim Daniel was a popular messianic text in the early first century. Also refers to evidence for attempts to calculate the time of the arrival of messiah from Daniel’s prophecies.

The posts also stress the difference between apocalypticism and messianism. Apocalyptic literature was for most part unconnected with messianic expectations.

Note, also, that there is no dispute about the existence of a wide variety of messianic concepts. In fact it is the research into these that has been a significant contributor to undermining the conventional view that Second Temple Jews were experiencing messianic fever.


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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “Questioning Carrier and the Conventional Wisdom on Messianic Expectations”

  1. Hello Neil,

    Well, to judge by this summary posting, I can’t fault myself for (mis?)-interpreting that your own sympathies surrounding the idea of messianic expectation in the first century are that messianic expectation was/is a “myth”, IOW that it largely did not exist, or has been vastly exaggerated. It was my intention to raise doubts about that, not specifically about Carrier’s reliance on this or that scholarly specialist. Further to our exchange of e-mails, I think you need to clarify that point, as to where your own views lie and why this series of postings, especially in light of the comment I made in response to the previous posting in this series.


    1. Hi Earl

      A premise of my doubts about the conventional wisdom that Judea was awash with messianic fervour is that the references we find to a messiah/anointed one in the literature of the Second Temple era — including the Parables of Enoch, Odes of Solomon, and the NT itself — does not support that view. In the same way gospel narratives have been read into Paul’s writings so we have tended to read certain assumptions into:

      (a) each reference to “messiah” that we encounter in the literature;
      (b) and “messiahs” into a wide range of figures and activities that make no reference to a messiah or anointed figure.

      My own views have long leaned towards sympathy with the view that we have no evidence for a “rash of messianism” at the time of Jesus.

      I say “sympathies” and “lean to” (rather than make dogmatic assertions) because I am very aware of the tentativeness with which the evidence allows any conclusions to be drawn in this area.

      As you know, after I left religion behind I resolved to never take anything for granted and always try to test claims being made. Early in my “non-believing” studies of the Bible and Christianity I noticed the frequency with which claims were made about messianic expectations with either no evidence or with very scant and debatable evidence. Then when I encountered scholarship that did indeed question the common view I was indeed sympathetic to what I believed was a case made in accordance with a valid handling of the evidence.

  2. The proposition you keep worrying about is something like ‘Judea was awash with messianic fervor and expectation’. Does any attractive account of the origin of the Jesus movement, or whatever we should call it, really need so extreme a proposition for it to work? A bunch of half-baked memes and prophetic tropes are in circulation; they mostly only take concrete form and get systematically developed when there is a real occasion for use of them. The result is ‘messianic fervor about X’, the charismatic focus. It is the nature of emotions that they can only really get going with a particular object, same as the senses do.

    Even in much later eras, it’s pretty clear that even where ostensibly abstract messianic fervor and expectation are propagated – as throughout the life of Menachem Schneerson – it’s really because there is a concrete messiah in view, even if he is acting coy like Schneerson and Mark’s Jesus.

    Nevertheless it’s amazing how far something like the abstract messiah concept that someone like Paul is trying to bolt onto his unpromising Jesus data, is written down explicitly in e.g. Psalms of Solomon 17 , which seems to be dated to the period of Herod.

    1. You are quite correct to point out that the early Christian ideas did not need to be born in the womb of a widespread expectation of the imminent appearance of a Davidic messiah.

      The position I believe I was responding to was the common view of Judea in the early first century, not an extreme position, I hope. It was the one defended by Carrier as the actual situation.

      The Psalm you refer to was, as you say, written in a period of non-Davidic kings and expresses a longing for better days under a God-favoured Davidic king. Its earthly vision is not the same as Paul’s however.

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