The Hidden Messiah

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by Neil Godfrey

Just another mild-mannered reporter

Tim recently cited a few of my old posts in which I draw attention to evidence that Jewish ideas about the Messiah were far more varied in the Second Temple era than commonly supposed. Another variant I have not covered in any of those posts was “the hidden messiah”, the view that the messiah was thought to have been born and waiting somewhere in the wings, unrecognized, until the critical moment when God would bring him to the fore to answer a climactic hour of need.

In other posts I have addressed Jewish writings of the seventh century (CE, late antiquity) positing a messiah who was born a while back but was being kept hidden by God for “the right time”. But what I am interested in here is the Jewish idea that the messiah was born incognito and living somewhere on earth unrecognized. Not even he himself knew he was to become the messiah.

I refer to William Wrede’s discussion of “the hidden Messiah in Judaism” in The Messianic Secret. Wrede is addressing the possibility that the author of the Gospel of Mark knew of an existing idea that the messiah would live for a time on earth without anyone being aware of his true identity.

The first witness Wrede calls upon is Justin and his “Dialogue with Trypho” (written early to mid second century).

The idea is clearly expressed in Justin. Trypho the Jew says in the Dialogue, ch. 8:

But even if the Christ has already been born and lives somewhere (kai esti pou) he is unknown, and does not even know himself. Nor does he have any sort of power until Elias has come, and anointed him and revealed him to everybody.

Similarly in ch. 110 Justin cites as a Jewish idea the notion that even if the messiah had come nobody would know who he is but that they would rather learn this only when he is made manifest and appears in glory, hotan emphanes kai endoxos genetai.

(Wrede, p. 213)

That is, Superman has not yet appeared but a few people in Smallville, Kansas, know a Clark Kent who is an entirely ordinary nobody.

Wrede points out a similar idea in the Gospel of John:

A related idea is presupposed by the Gospel of John when in 7.27 the Jews say “When the Christ appears no-one will know where he comes from.” The hiddenness of his origin appears as a characteristic of the messiah. 

(Wrede, p. 214)

So we can conclude that the idea was known as early as the time the Gospel of John was being put together.

How much earlier? Wrede warns that Jewish ideas and speculations would have been influenced by Christian beliefs, but one must ask how likely it is that the Jews would have moved their ideas in the direction of accommodating Christian ones.

It appears, then, that at the time the gospels were being composed some Jews did hold a notion that the messiah was possibly alive somewhere, hidden, not recognized (yet) as the messiah.

(Does Mark’s claim that there would be false claims that the Messiah was to be found “there” or “over here” tie in with such an idea? Mark 13:21 — “At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it…”)

Wrede, William. 1971. The Messianic Secret: Das Messiasgeheimnis in Den Evangelien. Translated by J. C. G. Greig. First Edition edition. Cambridge: James Clarke.

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10 thoughts on “The Hidden Messiah”

  1. And the god of that world will stretch forth his hand against the Son, and they will crucify Him on a tree, and will slay Him not knowing who He is. And thus His descent, as you will see, will be hidden even from the
    heavens, so that it will not be known who He is. (Ascension of Isaiah-9:14-15)
    Maimonides, the renowned Jewish sage, says, Similarly, Isaiah referring to the arrival of the Messiah implies that neither his father nor mother, nor his kith nor kin will be known, “For he will shoot up right forth as a sapling, and as a root out of the dry ground.” (Epistle to Yemen, 17) I think the original conception of Jesus was precisely this, the hidden unknown one who was also crucified as unknown. This was the Jesus of Paul and the first Christians. Only later appeared a life and career for the crucified one, that is the gospels, to counter heresies, create liturgy for the church and satisfy the curiosity of the next generation of believers. These writings and these ideas were unknown to Paul and his generation.

  2. You might be interested in the book “Tree of Souls” which is an encyclopedia of Jewish myths and legends drawn primarily from Medeval sources. Under “myths of the messiah” there is a myth that the messiah was imprisoned underneath the city of Rome.

  3. So it seems for me that photo-ortodox idea of messiah lays somewhere in between hidden idea (represented in some way by Mark) and full glory. That version, that had prevailed at the end, maybe because it was good for preaching. Both to Jews familiar with hidden concept (synoptic Jesus kept low profile for most of his life), and to those who liked it more glorious way (for them there is Palm Sunday, resurrection, Tabor picnic and stuff).

    Maybe gospel verses such as “No one lights a lamp and hides..”. (Lk 8, 16) came from some of ancient polemics on that topic.

  4. I’ve recently begun to believe that in trying to explain the origins of Christianity and the Jesus narrative, the model of the “hidden messiah” is perhaps more promising than the mythicist model of Doherty and Carrier.

    The mythicist position is built on some very slender foundations, after all: Carrier in his book really proposes two: (1) Plutarch on Isis & Osiris and (2) his speculative reconstruction of the Ascension of Isaiah. The first is tangential at best, the second is, well, speculative, so it may be correct and it may not; it may explain everything but, such are the variations of belief on such subjects, it may prove nothing.

    But one of the crucial elements of the Ascension of Isaiah is the notion of the Christ being incognito; at each level in his descent from earth, his higher nature is disguised – he makes himself like the form of the denizens of each lower level, and this is crucial to the plot: none of the lower level angels know that he is a being from above. And this clearly ties in to the “hidden messiah” notion that you have discussed above.

    If the messianic narrative was that the messiah was expected to come to EARTH rather than a heavenly realm, and suffer in secret, completely unrecognized as the higher being he was, then it is conceivable that people of the 1st century CE might come to the conclusion (possibly by chronological calculations derived from the Book of Daniel,) that this earthly visitation had indeed already happened, unbeknownst to anyone, hiding in plain sight. If people came to believe that, one can easily see how theories about precisely when and where these events had happened and precisely who he had been, might easily arise. Narratives might easily develop around these theories.

    One of my big problems with the Mythicist model is that it requires some sort of conceptual revolution before we arrive at the canonical gospels: people who had originally believed that Jesus existed on a purely heavenly level then completely switched and argued that he existed on an earthly level. The Incognito model doesn’t require this volte-face: the previously unidentified messiah simply could be identified as a certain X, who lived in a certain time in a particular place. The narratives told about him might have been derived wholly from prophetic literature, or might have been partly based on the life of a real person or persons, or simply linked to the name of an actual person. And one can also see how one could end up with more than one retrospective contender for the role. Some might have argued that John the Baptist, killed by Herod, was him; a narrative arose about a certain Jesus (real or invented) executed by Pilate, as in the Gospels; another candidate was a Jesus of the previous century (real or invented), executed in the time of Alexander Jannaeus, as suggested in Talmudic sources. And this model might explain the vagueness of Paul’s letters about the life of Jesus every bit as well as the mythicist model – the vagueness arising because no-one knew for sure where and when those events (derived from prophetic literature) had happened, rather than because they had taken place in a higher realm. Perhaps, for Paul, actually identifying who the Son had been on earth really wasn’t important at all; what mattered was that he was coming back in his undisguised form soon, to finish his business.

    Well, it’s a theory, no?

      1. Sorry for the delay in replying but I don’t know G A Wells. What was his theory?

        To summarise me own: a fringe eschatological theory arose that the Messiah must first come down to earth incognito, where he would be killed. He would then return to heaven and would make his return at the Eschaton (from Daniel). Chronological calculations (again from Daniel) suggested to some that the first element had already happened and that the final act was imminent. Adherents to this apocalyptic scenario then theorized who the incognito messiah had been, and various candidates arose – John the Baptist was the most famous candidate, but a Jesus “Ben Pandera” killed in Alexander Jannaeus’ time was another … and another Jesus killed in Pilate’s time yet another. Fanciful stories grew, particularly around the latter…. etc etc

        1. G A Wells (I refer here to the mythicist G A Wells, before his later conversion to a minimal historicism) thought that Paul believed in a Jesus died in incognito on the earth in the undefinite ancestral past and in an undefinite place. But I see that your previous comment has already answered my question: you think that Paul thought that (the his mythical) Jesus descended to earth and was killed in incognito *in the recent past* (because so the calculations from Daniel etc suggested to him et others before him). While Wells placed the Jesus of Paul in an undefinite past.

          I know that the principal objection raised against your mythicist version is that, if the crucifixion was seen as a recent event, then it was necessarily a Roman crucifixion, so the crucified Jesus had to be more probably a real historical person. This is the reason because Carrier places the crucifixion in heaven.

          1. Sorry Giuseppe, I don’t quite understand your last paragraph, but it sounds like you are saying that Carrier rejects “my” version because he is trying to avoid a historical Jesus, and that he places the crucifixion in heaven to achieve that end. I’m sure he’d argue that this isn’t his motivation at all.

            I believe that the vast majority of Jews with a mythology of any sort of crucified Messiah would have believed that these events had happened on earth, not in the lower realm of the heavens. Whether that was recent or not so recent may not have been that important. Paul himself may have been completely uninterested in precisely when it happened; what mattered was that it HAD happened at some point, and the finale would happen soon. If I tend to think he though it had happened recently, is that there is a sense of urgency… he talks as if there is something imminent, which might suggest that he thought the earthly death had itself been recent. But thinking that doesn’t mean he had any known individual in mind. For me the vagueness in his references to these events, which Carrier explain as being because it happened in heaven, was simply because Paul didn’t know to whom it had happened, or when.

            And I should also have added that the “Jesus-killed-by-Pilate” story need not have been based on a specific person at all: it might have been original a sort of narrative, (aiming to fill the incognito narrative vacuum) that arose from the assumption that the killed Messiah must have been not long before Paul. This suggested a chronology: he must’ve been around the time of Pilate. Indeed he would have been a contemporary of the Jerusalem leaders of the “Impending-Return” people. Hang on, they must have been his actual associates!! Once the scenario became attached to a named historical character, or characters, the theoretical Messiah began to take shape as Jesus the Nazarene, with particular apostles, etc etc. “I must have happened something like this” becomes “This is what happened”.

            My main beef with the Carrier/Doherty scenario is that I don’t buy the beg rift implied in the shift from from the initial belief in “Jesus crucified in Heaven” to “Jesus crucified on Earth”. My theory is simply a change from “Unknown Messiah killed on Earth” to “Jesus killed on Earth” – it simply puts specifics of identity, and chronology to the previously indeterminate (but still earthly) events. I think this is an easy, plausible development, not a problematic change of theological direction.

            1. I understand you point.

              But my point was that if Paul thought that the crucifixion (even if mythical) was recent, then it had to be a Roman crucifixion and not more a demonic crucifixion.

              Some historicists thought that if the crucifixion is Roman (in the mind of Paul), then it cannot be eo ipso a mythical crucifixion.

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