Evidence of a Suffering Messiah Concept before Christianity (1)

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by Neil Godfrey

When I recently posted Further Evidence of a Pre-Christian Concept of a Suffering Davidic Messiah I was patiently waiting for a certain book to be collected from an off-site library stack. I had two reasons for wanting to read that particular work. The first was from a Mormon scholar, hence slightly dubious, but nonetheless I was curious . . .

Robinson, Stephen E. 1977. “The Apocalypse of Adam.” Brigham Young University Studies 17 (2): 131–53.
Pre-Christian Judaism had a doctrine of a suffering Messiah as Jeremias has shown 21

21 Walter Zimmerli and Joachim Jeremias, The Servant of God, Studies in Biblical Theology, no. 20, (London: SCM Press, 1957), pp. 57ff

And again, this time from an article that seemed somewhat of a turning point in discussions of the Apocalypse of Adam:

MacRae, George W. 1965. “The Coptic Gnostic Apocalypse of Adam.” The Heythrop Journal 6 (1): 27–35.
Böhlig has suggested that in the redeemer-myth that appears here we have a confrontation of Iranian notions of a redeemer and the Jewish idea of the suffering Servant-Messiah which J. Jeremias has shown to have been accepted in pre-Christian Judaism.2

2 Cf. W. Zimmerli and J. Jeremias, The Servant of God, Studies in Biblical Theology 20 (London, 1957), pp. 57 ff. . . .

That settled it. I had to locate Zimmerli and Jeremias’s The Servant of God.

Now that I have it, it is clear that there is too much content for a single post so I’ll write it up here one, maybe two, arguments at a time.

The first piece of evidence given for a pre-Christian Jewish concept of a suffering messiah is found in Ecclesiasticus (also known as Sirach).

(c) Messianic exegesis (Isa. 42.1; 43.10; 49.6; 52.13; 53.11.) Messianic interpretations of certain Deut. Isa. servant passages can most probably be traced back to pre-Christian times (cf. p. 41).

(α) In Ecclus 48.10 one of the three tasks of the returning Elijah (cf. TWNT, II, 93 3,12 ff.) is described as להכין שבטי ישראל; the expression comes from Isa. 49.6 where the ‘ebed receives the mission of להקים ואת־שבטי ןעקב. The restoration of the twelve tribes is a messianic task and its assignment to Elijah must have marked the latter as the coming saviour. But since only a broad allusion to Isa. 49.6 is in question, conclusions about a messianic interpretation of Isa. 49.6 from Ecclus 48.10 alone are not quite secure (but cf. n. 305). In any case it is significant that Ecclus. explained the servant in Isa. 49.6 in an individual sense.

And here is Isaiah 49:6

And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.

For anyone like me who is not familiar with Ecclesiasticus 48:10 here it is in context

1 Then stood up Elijah the prophet as fire, and his word burned like a lamp.
2 He brought a sore famine upon them, and by his zeal he diminished their number.
3 By the word of the Lord he shut up the heaven, and also three times brought down fire.
4 O Elijah, how wast thou honored in thy wondrous deeds! and who may glory like unto thee!
5 Who didst raise up a dead man from death, and his soul from the place of the dead, by the word of the most High:
6 who broughtest kings to destruction, and honorable men from their bed:
7 who heardest the rebuke of the Lord in Sinai, and in Horeb the judgment of vengeance:
8 who anointedst kings to take revenge, and prophets to succeed after him:
9 who wast taken up in a whirlwind of fire, and in a chariot of fiery horses:
10 who wast ordained for reproofs in their times, to pacify the wrath of the Lord’s judgment, before it brake forth into fury, and to turn the heart of the father unto the son,and to restore the tribes of Jacob.

But note the next point:

The pre-Christian Testament of Benjamin is said to draw upon the “suffering servant” passage in Isaiah when it speaks of the future Messiah. And for those readers who (like me) are quick to claim that the Testament of Benjamin is riddled with much later Christian interpolations, do read on….

(β) In the Testament of Benjamin (second or first century B.C.) the patriarch at the beginning puts forward his brother Joseph as a model because he made intercession for his brothers with his father Jacob. In this connexion it is said in Test. B. 3.8 (Armenian):

In thee (Joseph) will the heavenly prophecy be fulfilled which says that the innocent one will be defiled for the sake of the guilty and the sinless one will die for the impious.

The heavenly prophecy must mean Isa. 53. The possibility that Test.B. 3.8 (Armenian) is a Christian interpolation does not come into the question, for nowhere is there ascribed to Jesus descent from the tribe Joseph-Ephraim, but always Davidic descent (cf. υίος Δαυίδ) from the tribe of Judah (Heb. 7.14). Since further the idea of a vicarious atoning death of the patriarch Joseph himself is nowhere else attested, the phrase

‘in thee will the heavenly prophecy be fulfilled’,

probably refers not to Joseph himself but to his posterity (cf. for this type of phrase I Sam. 3.12-14), i.e., the Messiah from the house of Joseph.

In Test. B. 3.8 we have probably the oldest testimony to the expectation of a Messiah from the tribe of Joseph. This passage should therefore be regarded as the oldest witness to the messianic exegesis of Isa. 53 (next to LXX, cf. p. 41).

In summary

We know that many Christians have always interpreted the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah as prophecies of the suffering messiah Jesus. Jeremias’s chapter offers several lines of evidence that before Christianity some Jews likewise interpreted those Isaiah passages messianically. The first two of those arguments are

  1. Ecclesiasticus, a pre-Christian text, suggests that at least one messianic function of an Isaiah servant passage applies to a future appearance of Elijah, presumably as the messiah;
  2. The Testament of Benjamin, another text believed to be pre-Christian in its original form in one surviving manuscript line (Armenian) applies a suffering servant passage in Isaiah to a coming messiah descended from Joseph.

(Two down, eight to go. Then I will need to locate and dig out scholarship that has since, presumably, shown Jeremias’s case to be flawed.)

Zimmerli, Walther and Joachim Jeremias. 1957. The Servant of God. Revised edition. London : SCM Press.


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11 thoughts on “Evidence of a Suffering Messiah Concept before Christianity (1)”

  1. Keep in mind that pseudepigrapha like “The Testament of Benjamin” are highly difficult to date with any accuracy. All we have are texts from medieval times. Dating such things so early (“second or first century BC”) is largely due to apologetics.

    1. Some of us may be interested in how the Testaments were dated. Extract from R.H. Charles’ Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the OT, v.2 – p. 290

      The date of the original Hebrew is not difficult to determine. Thus Reuben (T. Reub. vi. 10-11) admonishes his sons: * Draw ye near to Levi in humbleness of heart, that ye may receive a blessing from his mouth . . . because him hath the Lord chosen to be king over all the nation.’ Here a high- priest who is also king is referred to. Such a combination of officers naturally makes us think of the Maccabean priest-kings of the second century B.C. Moreover, the possibility of doubting this reference is excluded by the words that immediately follow: ‘And bow down before his seed; for on our behalf it shall die in wars visible and invisible and shall be among you an eternal king.’ A similar statement is made in T. Sim. v. 5. Thus the high-priest is not only to be high-priest and civil ruler, but also a warrior. That the Maccabean high-priests are here designed cannot be reasonably doubted. But the identification becomes undeniable as further marks and tokens of this priestly dynasty come to light. Thus it is said that this priesthood shall be called by a new name (T. Lev. viii. 14). Now the Maccabean high-priests were the first Jewish priests to assume the title ‘priests of the Most High God’—the title anciently borne by Melchizedek, and applied to the Maccabean high-pricsts in Jubilees, the Assumption of Moses, Josephus, and the Talmud. A kindred title of the same significance is applied according to a growing body of expositors to Simon the Maccabce in Ps. ex. In due accord with these facts our text (T. Lev. viii. 14) declares that a new name should mark the new priesthood.

      But the praises accorded in this book could not apply to all the Maccabean priest-kings; for, since it was written by a Pharisee, it could not have been composed after the breach arose between John Hyrcanus and the Pharisees towards the close of the second century B.C. Thus the date of composition lies between 153, when Jonathan the Maccabee assumed the high-pricsthood, and the year of the breach of Hyrcanus with the Pharisees. But the limits can be determined more closely. To only one member of the Maccabean dynasty are the prophetic gifts assigned in our text (T. Lev. viii. 15) in conjunction with the functions of kingship and priesthood. Now in all Jewish history the triple offices were ascribed to only one individual, John Hyrcanus. Hence we conclude that the Testaments were written between 137 and 107 B. C. But the limits may be fixed still more definitely. For the text refers most probably to the destruction of Samaria, T. Lev. vi. 11. In that case our book was written between 109 and 107 B.C. (see my edition, pp. 1—liii).

      1. Yes, R.H Charles set the gold standard when it came to constructing plausible-sounding arguments for why these texts are supposedly “early.” But no, they are apologetics just the same. An argument that goes, “Text A refers to something that happened in the first century BC, therefore it dates from the same period” is the classic apologetics two-step. It’s the same rationale used to explain why, for example, the Torah was written in the 10th century (or earlier).

        1. I think this is a tad harsh. What apologetic interest is served by dating the Test. Twelve Patriarchs to circa 100 BCE?

          The Twelve Patriarchs is set around 1900 BC, and it is the anachronisms that give the date away so we know it is not really a genuine Patriarchal work. That is, information that the author can’t help but know (and all he knows) is retrojected into an earlier period. Same with the Hebrew Bible. The story of David is set around 1000 BC, but we can see from the many anachronisms that it really dates from the Persian or later period.

  2. There is strong evidence there were a number of “factions” within Judaism prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. So it’s no surprise there were “competing Messiahs” as well.

    The Books of Enoch are more evidence.

    All we have are probably just hints to the diversity that was Judaism.

    1. The passages being discussed can only ever be evidence for what some of the educated class thought to be “true” or a doctrine. The passages tell us nothing at all about social movements, about popular beliefs and motivations and interests.

      I know there is an all pervasive assumption among many scholars and lay people alike that whenever the topic is raised it is understood that there were popular messianic movements, and especially during the lead up to the war and during the war it is assumed that messianic fever was everywhere. But the only evidence we have for that is one line by Josephus that is best understood as a literary trope rather than a historical datum. Not one of the popular incidents, actions, or leaders’ actions is ever attributed to messianic beliefs but all are well enough explained without resorting to this supposedly widespread belief.

      Among the many taken-for-granted claims that I started studying in order to understand the evidence on which they were based, this particular assumption turned out to a mere skyhook. It survives because of various false convictions about Jewish history and religion that are firmly embedded in our culture.

  3. I think the overall concentration on the usual ” s s ” passages in Isaiah is virtually all christian , so much so that even in those passages there is v little ” suffering ” or, indeed ” servant “. But always learning 🙂

  4. Neil, while you’re waiting for a special book to arrive, I would like to recommend two books by the same author, Tim Callahan. They are “Secret Origins of the Bible” and “Bible Prophecy: failure or fulfillment”. Used copies are very inexpensive. These books are a great joy to read, informative, and thorough.

  5. Hello,

    I don’t know if you are aware of it, but in the new and revised edition of the book “The Servant of God”, the authors have removed the passage about the Testament of Benjamin.
    Nothing is said about this correction but I guess they didn’t consider this text relevant anymore.

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