Evidence for Belief in a Suffering Messiah Before Christianity (3)

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by Neil Godfrey

So far we have seen evidence for a pre-Christian belief that the “suffering servant” passages in the Book of Isaiah spoke of a future Messiah in three sources:

  1. Ecclesiasticus,
    • Interpreted the Servant Songs in Isaiah as references to a new coming of Elijah as the messiah.
  2. the Testament of Benjamin,
    • Attributed to a messiah from the tribe of Joseph the atoning death found in Isaiah’s Servant chapters.
  3. and the Parables of Enoch.
    • Describe a messianic figure whose attributes are taken from Isaiah’s Servant passages.

We have dusted off a 1957 book with yellowing pages, The Servant of God, and are following the trail of evidence according to the book’s co-author J. Jeremias. Where I can I have been supplementing the posts with critical information from more recent scholarship.

4. Peshitta

Next witness to take the stand, the Peshitta. The Peshitta is a Syrian translation of the Bible but we are interested in its translation of the Suffering Servant passages in the Book of Isaiah, probably dating from the of)early second century. Jeremias:

The next source which gives us information about the exegesis of ‘ebed texts in late Judaism is the Peshitta; it is probably of pre-Christian origin.257 Peshitta explains Isa. 53 — including the passages about suffering — in a messianic sense.258 This is clear from the passages where Peshitta discloses its understanding of Isa. 53 by deviations from the Heb. text. Thus Peshitta saw in the servant

  • a figure awaited in the future (52.14)
  • who shall ‘cleanse’ many peoples (52.15);
  • this figure is denied (53.2),
  • despised (53.3)
  • and slain (53.5)
  • but exalted by God
  • and (at the last judgement) will convey forgiveness (53.5: healing).

These statements can only refer to the Messiah.259

(Jeremias, 60 f. My formatting and highlighting)

The devil is usually found in the detail so here are the relevant footnotes:

257 P. Kahle, The Cairo Geniza, 1947, 184, 186; also Hegermann, 22-27.
258 Hegermann, 127.
269 Hegermann, ibid.

Unfortunately I have no further information on the “pre-Christian origin” of the Peshitta’s translation of the ‘ebed (Servant) texts in Isaiah. I present Jeremias’s statement “as is”. If anyone has more up to date corrective or confirming information feel free to add it to the comments.

5. The Gospel of Luke 

In one place the N.T. too gives us a piece of evidence for the messianic exegesis of a servant passage in late Judaism. According to Luke 23.35 the άρχοντες mock the Crucified with the words: άλλους εσωσεν, σωσάτω έαυτόν, εΐ οΰτός έστιν όχριστός τοϋ θεοϋ, ό εκλεκτός. For our purpose the point is that it is the Jewish άρχοντες who here describe the Messiah with the title ό εκλεκτός. Christian influence on this formulation is not probable, for as a christological formula ό έκλεκτός appears elsewhere in the N.T. only260 in John 1.34.261 But we are already acquainted with this title from the Eth. En. where, as we have seen, it appears as a pre-Christian Jewish messianic predicate derived from Isa. 42.1 (cf. p. 59).262 Thus in Luke 23.35 we have an echo of the messianic exegesis of Isa. 42.1 in late Judaism. Further let it be noted here, in confirmation of what we have been saying, that also in the N.T. the messianic interpretation of Deut. Isa. servant texts is limited to Isa. 42.1-4,6; 49.6; 52.13-53.12 (cf.p.93).

ὁ ἐκλεκτός = the chosen (one)

(Jeremias, 61 f)

And here are those little devils again:

260 In Luke 9.35 we find the divergent form ό έκλελεγμένος as the (probably original) reading. In the Apostolic Fathers and the apologists ό έκλεκτός is never used for ‘Christ’.

262 Otherwise as such it occurs plainly only in the Apocalypse of Abraham 31.1. Perhaps there belongs here also the expression ב חי רו (of God) which is found in the Habakkuk Commentary in the recently discovered Palestinian texts (The Dead Sea Scrolls, I, op. cit. in n. 69; see plate 57, col. 3, line 4; plate 59, col. 9, line 12), since there, just as in Eth. En. the plural form 10.13) ב חי רי א ל ) also occurs along with it; yet a secure conclusion is not possible, for ב חי רו can be both singular and a defectively written plural. On the other hand Test. B. 11.4: καί έσται έκλεκτός θεοϋ έως τοϋ α’ιώνος (cf. TWNT, IV, 190, 2 f.) certainly belongs to a Christian interpolation, as the state of the text itself shows (11.2b-5), and is related not to Christ but to the Benjamite Paul (Charles, op. cit. in n. 240, 215 f., note on ch. XI).

Five down, five to go.

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


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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Evidence for Belief in a Suffering Messiah Before Christianity (3)”

    1. I can’t imagine many scholars more “mainstream” and “conservative” than Joachim Jeremias was. But if we decide a matter on the basis of how well received a contemporary mainstream scholar becomes by promoting an argument then we succumb to the fallacy of the prevalent proof: https://vridar.org/?s=fallacy+prevalent+proof — and as one of those posts points out, some “contemporary mainstream” biblical scholars do have the miraculous power of turning fallacies into proofs!

    2. Actually you can see several “mainstream contemporary scholars” who do argue a case for pre-Christian Second Temple Jews having a belief (among some of them) in a suffering, even dying, messiah — scroll through the posts archived under messianism here: https://vridar.org/category/religion/messianism/ — One that comes to mind immediately is Daniel Boyarim; but there are others, including some younger ones. What is unusual is that this knowledge is not picked up by apologists and those who tend to stick to their stock answers against “critics” and “outsiders” and who continue to repeat, ignorant of the scholarship being published in their own field, the tired old “fake fact” that prior to Christianity Jews had no notion of a dying or suffering messiah.

  1. Just pointing out that this topic seems to be related to the material in Ascension of Isaiah. So the suffering Messiah may not just have been an anticipated earthly super-hero but rather a mythical celestial being who had alreday done his salvific / suffering work in the heavens in aeons past. Then the “second coming” was hoped by certain Jews to be a first coming on earth, after that original coming of his descending from the higher to to the lower heavens in aeons past. Jewish Angelology then is the arena that somehow blended into Christianity i.e. the adaptation by Jews of the typical beliefs in dying and rising gods. Enter Paul.

  2. The great mythologies are all essentially poetic odes to the Sun as Life and Light Giver as the Sun goes through an ANNUAL Epic struggle with the powers of Death and Darkness, wherein He is apparently killed but, after 3 days, returns to Life again. This Great STORY is told again and again in many different ways in the mythologies of humankind.

    ANNUAL means Each and Every Year. It is the Ever Repeating Story of the CYCLE of Life, Death and New Life.

    Our ancestors were not stupid, just uneducated.

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