How Do People Respond to the Killing of Their Messiah?

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by Neil Godfrey

Entrance into an excavated cave used by Bar Kokhba’s rebels, Khirbet Midras — From Wikipedia

We know the story of how Christianity started. The scholarly explanation is essentially a paraphrase of the narratives we read in the Gospels and Acts. The disciples had been fully expecting Jesus to take charge and begin to drive out the Romans when he went to Jerusalem so were dismayed when he let himself by captured and crucified instead. Something happened in the ensuing days, something inexplicable, or at least beyond historical inquiry: the disciples came to believe that Jesus was still alive and were accordingly inspired to preach the good news of Jesus who really was the Christ (Messiah), that he died and rose again, etc.

(Funny that they never say the disciples “came to believe he had been crucified” because according to the gospels they all fled the scene, were not present at his trial and had no better word than the humble witness of a few ladies who claimed to have seen Jesus both crucified and resurrected.)

Anyway, as the conventional explanation goes, the disciples were so confused at first by the demise of their teacher and were struggling to make sense of their subsequent feelings that they delved into the scriptures for answers. How could the one they so believed was the messiah or christ be crucified?

Until then it had been inconceivable for any Jew to interpret those scriptures in a way that produced a messiah destined to suffer and die. The scriptures said the messiah would overthrow Israel’s enemies and establish the rule of God on earth. Nonetheless, the disciples were so moved by their recent trauma that they finally found a way to convince themselves they had been right all along: Jesus really was the Christ and he really did come alive again after his crucifixion. So cogent were their explanations of the scriptures that many others who heard them preach also believed.

Such a radical reinterpretation of the messiah and the scriptural grounds for its support was so scandalous to most other Jews and the Jewish authorities that they gave them a hard time, stoning them, whipping them, martyring them, and so forth. And that’s how Christianity and the New Testament writings were born.

So what do we make of the responses of the followers of another would-be messiah who was killed a century later?

There was a second Jewish rebellion against Rome in the early 130s led by Bar Kochba. Apparently many believed he was the messiah doing just what a messiah was supposed to do — fight Romans. There was a famous rabbi named Akiba (or Akiva) who is said to have even pronounced his messiahship and fulfilment of prophecies from the Pentateuch. But he was killed, too.

Now it happens that at some point (we don’t know when with any precision, but the first signs of it indicate it was some time within the first couple of centuries of the Christian era) a belief in a messiah who was to die in battle emerged among Jews. How do we explain the emergence of belief in a dying messiah among the Jews? Some have suggested the idea grew out of the experiences of the followers of Bar Kochba and was a response to their great disappointment when he failed.

It might be interesting for some to have a look at what a scholar from the Department of Hebrew Literature at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University had to say in an article published in 1975. He is outlining the views of some of his peers. It is interesting to compare the explanations with the conventional one for the emergence of the Christian myth.

J. Klausner categorically rejects the claim that the figure of the Messiah who  would be killed in battle came into being as a result of the exegesis of Zech 12:10 (and other texts), as Dalman, and others, had proposed; in his opinion, it is not through exegesis that important, new ideas or doctrines are created. Nor does he accept the hypothesis of Jacob Levy, that the concept of the Messiah ben Ephraim was created after the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt in order to make it possible to preserve the messianic faith in spite of this disaster and also in order “to save the honour of R. Akiva,” who had publicly proclaimed him the Messiah; by making Bar Kokhba, in the guise of Messiah ben Joseph, the forerunner of the “real” Messiah, his defeat could be accepted without denying his messianic function altogether. Klausner rejects this “rationalistic” view, because “articles of creed” are not created intentionally ad hoc, but originate in “deep inner needs” of the people. Moreover, the disappointment after Bar Kokhba’s defeat was so immense, as to make it inconceivable that the people (or the sages) should have continued to look upon him as a genuine messianic figure; and, indeed, there is no indication that this was the case. . . .  (Heinemann, Joseph. 1975. “The Messiah of Ephraim and the Premature Exodus of the Tribe of Ephraim”. Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 8, No. 1. p. 2)

Does the logic imply that Christianity began because the disciples were less disappointed in Jesus? But would we not expect a lesser disappointment to lead to disciples packing up everything and going back to their former routines?

Or do scholars really expect us to believe that there was some inexplicable “easter event” that was responsible for Christianity?




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25 thoughts on “How Do People Respond to the Killing of Their Messiah?”

  1. Festinger et al in When Prophecy Fails, (1955) shows clearly that beliefs arise ex nihilo. As long as there is sufficient expectation, commitment and logic behind the belief it will prosper. In fact Festinger showed that disappointed prophecies actually make believers more fervent. These conditions were all satisfied in the first Roman-Jewish War, when the political Messiah failed to appear. The sociological and historical evidence both point to the emergence of Christianity at that time, and not before. The firm conviction in the (unwitnessed)coming of the suffering servant (and his salvific acts) at that time explained 1. the destruction of the temple and cessation of the rituals, 2. the delay in the appearance of the political Messiah, and 3. the missionary enthusiasm of apostles to get ready a people fit to welcome the political king. There were more than enough passages which seemed to support this interpretation of events. “As it is written…” became the mantra of the new religion. After that it was only a matter of time before someone (Mark) created a narrative to explain the origins of the belief that common people could understand and relate to.

    1. It’s a good point. I used to belong to a group that survived failure of its prophecies, but different folks responded differently. Not all continued with rationalisations and reinterpretations. I must do some wider reading into the question. Much of Festinger’s study has taken something of a beating over the years, iiuc, but I suspect there won’t be a simple black and white answer at the end of the day.

      1. In my experience, sustained churches prune the hype of prophecy deliberately, they milk it as much as they can while simultaneously repeating “no one knows the day”. They are consciously afraid of the embarrassment of false prophecy but falsehood has always paid all the returns that Christianity has ever given up.

        The success of Christianity is definitely a direct result of the fact that Jesus was not a historical person and any truths he was based on were very different from expectations so that narrative weaving became highly motivated. Christianity couldn’t exist without the constantly churning dissembling revealed in scriptures. Usually legendary figures have two factions: those who want to enforce the narrative and those who want to know the truth. Christianity doesn’t have that, it has Jews versus Gentiles.

  2. I can sense the influence of the Greeks on Christianity.

    You don’t just win when you conquer, but also when your ideology conquers. Socrates took an ethical stance against authority and died for what he believed in, and his ethical message is still with us today. Jesus learned from the example of John the Baptist that taking an ethical stance against authority could get him killed, but he did it any way – and Jesus’ message of loving your neighbor and your enemy is still the ethical paradigm with us today.

      1. Inventing a resurrection story would certainly lend divine clout to the position of ancient ethical idealists working toward creating a better world.

        Consider the “Noble Lie” in Plato’s “Republic” and Euripide’s “Bacchae,” as well as the permission of lying in the Judeo Christian tradition: On the latter, see http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/contra/lie.html

        It may have been an ethical cause the disciples were willing to die for.

        1. And Carrier agrees it is possible that the disciples were willing to die for a hoax. In a recent blog post Carrier wrote:

          “Of course, a case can be made for the apostles dying even for a hoax: all they needed was to believe that the teachings attached to their fabricated claim would make the world a better place, and that making the world a better place was worth dying for. Even godless Marxists voluntarily died by the millions for such a motive. So the notion that no one would, is simply false.” – see Carrier’s full post at: http://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/12263

          1. Well for the resurrection claims to be a hoax, that would require an earthly Jesus dying and staying dead. Which would contradict Carrier’s cosmic-Jesus-dying-in-outer-space, so I’m not sure why he’s even prattling on about this.

            Carrier also accepts the Corinthian creed as genuine Paul, so perhaps he can explain exactly how Paul benefited from propagating a hoax about Jesus appearing to all those other disciples & brethren who must therefore have known Him when He was a mortal man on Earth.

            1. A hoax does not require an earthly Jesus dying and staying dead, that could have been part of the hoax, but even if there were someone coincidentally named Jesus who died, that person is essentially the basis on which the mythical Jesus was built.

              While Paul is undoubtedly the origin of Christianity as we know it, we don’t know what Christianity was really like before he came along while the supposed apostles who actually instigated the hoax were running things. Paul did nothing more than consolidate power over a movement of crazy people.

              1. And the “noble lie” theory of Christian origins is as old as the religion itself (see Matthew 28:11-15).

                It is also (questionably) attributed to Pope Pious X, quoted in John Bale, Acta Romanorum Pontificum “For on a time when a cardinall Bembus did move a question out of the Gospell, the Pope gave him a very contemptuous answer saying: All ages can testifie enough howe profitable that fable of Christe hath ben to us and our companie.” Whether Pope Pious actually said this or not, it still shows the “noble lie” theory of Christian origins was definitely present in history.

                The permission of lying under special circumstances would not separate the Hebrew and Christian scriptures from other ancient spiritualities. It would actually put them all very much in line.

                The justification of lying hypothesis is very interesting. It resonates with much in spirituality … even shamanism …where the neophyte is taken in with ‘magic’ to attract their attention and then is taken to the Truth… and the understanding that what they initially through was magic was simply deception … and the recognition of how early they were deceived.

                Justified lying occurs a lot in ancient spirituality. Confucius, in the ‘Analects,’ indicates “The Governor of She said to Confucius, ‘In our village we have an example of a straight person. When the father stole a sheep, the son gave evidence against him.’ Confucius answered, ‘In our village those who are straight are quite different. Fathers cover up for their sons, and sons cover up for their fathers. In such behaviour is straightness to be found as a matter of course.’ (13.18)” .

                This is also true of the Code of Manu. Roger Berkowitz says of the Manu based society, that its division of society into four castes, each with its own particular obligations and rights, is a desired end because it reflects the natural order of society. He says ‘“The order of castes, the highest, the most dominant Gesetz, is only the sanction of a natural-order, natural legal- positing of the first rank, over which no willfulness, no ‘modern idea’ has power. It is nature, not Manu or the Brahmin legislators, that divides the predominantly intellectual from those who are predominantly physically or temperamentally strong, and both of these from the mediocre, who are extraordinary in neither intellect nor strength. The ancient Indian caste system is an artifice, a Holy Lie—but it is a lie that serves natural end.’

                Similarly, we see the permission of lying in Islam. In the Pro-Muslim book ‘The Spirit of Islam,’ Afif A. Tabbarah writes, concerning the mandates of Muhammed, ‘Lying is not always bad, to be sure; there are times when telling a lie is more profitable and better for the general welfare, and for the settlement of conciliation among people, than telling the truth. To this effect, the Prophet Muhammed says: ‘He is not a false person who (through lies) settles conciliation among people, supports good or says what is good.’

              2. One of the big themes I outline in the blog post is the connection between the New Testament and Euripides’ Bacchae.

                The key verse from the Bacchae seems to be when Cadmus says “Even if this man (Dionysus) be no God, as you think, still say that he is.  Be guilty of a splendid fraud, declaring him to be the son of Semele, for this will make it seem she is the mother of a God, and will confer honor on all our race.”

                Imagine my surprise when I found out today that Dr. Dennis R. MacDonald just published a book called:
                “The Dionysian Gospel: The Fourth Gospel and Euripides (2017).” https://www.amazon.ca/Dionysian-Gospel-Fourth-Euripides-ebook/dp/B06Y5ZTGNQ/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1495826664&sr=8-4&keywords=dennis+macdonald


          2. Now reading through Lataster’s “Jesus Did Not Exist,” I see Lataster also takes the possibility seriously that the religion really got going by the institution of a “noble lie” about the risen Jesus. Lataster writes “Jesus crucifixion and resurrection could also easily be seen as a Platonic ‘noble lie,’ cleverly incorporating Jewish and Pagan elements (Lataster, JDNE, 76).”

            1. And Carrier adds some useful data about the “Noble Lie theory of Christian origins” in the comment section of a recent blog post. Carrier wrote:

              “I agree it’s an intriguing argument. Especially since the idea was well known in that period: it’s the entire basis of the argument in Plato’s Republic, one of his most popular and well-known dialogues all throughout antiquity, and the Medieval Catholic Church very definitely engineered itself along the very lines described there. As does the modern Neocon movement, indeed explicitly, as Strauss argued religions are false but the public must never be told that, so all leaders must profess to be religious, so as to control the masses, exactly what Plato said…and just as he thought he was describing something noble but in fact something nightmarish, so also the neocons don’t realize how horrifying their worldview is.” Carrier, http://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/12263

  3. “no better word than the humble witness of a few ladies who claimed to have seen Jesus both crucified and resurrected”… Not even that, according to Mark.

  4. Mainstream scholarship assumes Jesus was believed to be Messish first, then deified. What if it was the other way around? Jesus as hidden divinity doing miracles had more support in the gospels thsn messishship. The messiahship claim is very thin. Jesus even tells people not to say that.

  5. I can think of two examples off the top of my head of people who were believed to be the Messiah who continue(d) to have followers after their death: Sabbatai Zevi and Menachem Schneerson.

    While he wasn’t slain, Sabbatai Zevi continued to have followers up to the 20th century CE after his conversion to Islam and death.

    “Despite their conversion to Islam, the Sabbateans secretly remained close to Judaism and continued to practice Jewish rituals covertly. They recognized Sabbatai Zevi (1626–1676) as the Jewish Messiah, observed certain commandments with similarities to those in Judaism, and prayed in Hebrew and later in Ladino. They also observed rituals celebrating important events in Zevi’s life and interpreted Zevi’s conversion in a Kabbalistic way.”



    “Some of the messianists were so caught up with their hope, that they interpreted each new erosion in the Rebbe’s [Schneerson’s] health, and ultimately his very death, as stages in the messianic process. They cited various midrashic statements to fuel their ecstasy as to the imminent revelation of the Messiah, and some of them drank and toasted l’chaim and danced before and during the funeral – an act that shocked many admirers of Schneerson across the Jewish world.


    1. So they preserved the memory of “the historical Sabbatai Zevi”, I believe.

      That leads to the next question: why did the disciples of Jesus not do the same? Believing in his resurrection and eventual return at the end of days need not have made any difference to preserving the memory of his historical self.

  6. Now that I refresh my memory (I haven’t thought about these guys in years), Abu Isa was slain and had followers after his death (Isawites).

    The Jewish Encyclopedia notes:

    “Persian founder of a Jewish sect and “herald of the Messiah”; lived at the time of the Ommiad calif ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (684-705). He was of low origin, “a plain tailor”; and his adherents relate that “though he could neither read nor write, yet he wrote books without any assistance” (“J. Q. R.” vii. 705).

    Abu ‘Isa asserted that the coming of the Messiah was to be preceded by five messengers, of whom he himself was the last—the Messiah’s herald (“rasul”), summoner (“da’i”), and prophet, whom the Lord had sanctified. In a colloquy with the Lord, the mission was entrusted to Abu ‘Isa (so he claimed) of delivering the Jews from the rule of the Gentiles, and of making them politically independent. According to one source, he did not confine himself to being the herald, but declared that he himself was the Messiah. Probably he took this further step only after he had gained followers in his position of herald; and it is even possible that the claim to Messiahship was not made by Abu’Isa, but was only ascribed to him by later adherents.

    In any case he found many followers among the Jews of Persia, and raised a revolt against the calif; so that the latter sent an army against him. The decisive battle was fought at Rai (the ancient Rhagæ), and resulted in the death of Abu ‘Isa and in the complete defeat of his adherents …

    At the time of Al-Ḳirḳisani (about 930) the sect survived in Damascus only, and numbered not more than twenty persons.”


    And David Alroy:

    “David Alroy led an uprising against Seljuk Sultan Muktafi and called upon the oppressed Jewish community to follow him to Jerusalem, where he would be their king and free the Jews from the hands of the Muslims.

    Alroy recruited supporters in the mountains of Chaftan, and sent letters to Mosul, Baghdad, and other towns, proclaiming his divine mission. He was born Menahem ben Solomon, but adopted the name “David Alroy” (“Alroy” possibly meaning “the inspired one”) when he began claiming to be the Messiah.

    He was able to convince many Jewish people to join him and Alroy soon found himself with a considerable following. He resolved to attack the citadel of his native town, Amadiya, and directed his supporters to assemble in that city, with swords and other weapons concealed under their robes, and to give, as a pretext for their presence, their desire to study the Talmud.

    What followed is uncertain, for the sources of the life of Alroy each tell a different tale in which events are interwoven with legend. It is believed that Alroy and his deluded followers were defeated, and Alroy was put to death. Despite Alroy’s death, Jewish communities in Iran, particularly in Tabriz, Khoy and Maragheh continued to regard David Alroy as their messiah according to mathematician and historian Al-Samawal al-Maghribi.


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