Modern Scholars on Pre-Christian Jewish Beliefs in Suffering Messiahs and Atoning Deaths

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by Neil Godfrey

I am currently sharing the evidence for a pre-Christian Jewish beliefs in a suffering servant, even dying, messiah set out by Joachim Jeremias, but in response to a reader’s comment I would like to list here some contemporary scholars who have presented similar or related arguments. I can only list the few whose works I have read and no doubt there are many more I am yet to discover.

In one or two of the linked articles below are citations by a contemporary scholar suggesting that the same evidence we have been reading from Jeremias is not “absolutely conclusive”; others, however, continue to see the evidence as more clear cut.

The first name to come to mind is the prominent Jewish scholar, Daniel Boyarim. Boyarim points out that Jewish ideas of a sacrificed messiah logically have to precede Christianity since the rabbis would never have copied the idea from the Christians.

Martha Himmelfarb discusses pre-Christian interpretations of a dying messiah.
Other scholars such as Jacob Neusner point to similar views but their works can hardly be said to be still “contemporary”.

Thomas L. Thompson, whose thesis on the nonhistoricity of the Genesis patriarchs at first excluded him from academia but has now become a mainstream view, has in various publications argued that

  • the first royal messiah died and David poured out a lament over him
  • the Pentateuchal high priest was an anointed, a messiah, whose death led to the return of certain exiles
  • the Davidic messiah figure is depicted as a pious man who suffers greatly, even faces death, yet is ultimately vindicated

Matthew Novenson in his book, Christ Among the Messiahs, rejects the idea that pre-Christian Jews could only conceive of a conquering royal messiah and argues that Paul, far from being completely at odds with Jewish thought of his day, uses χριστός within the range of conventional Jewish understanding of the Messiah.

Leroy Huizenga agues that the author of the Gospel of Matthew based his Christ figure upon Isaac who was offered as a sacrifice to atone for all the sins of (future) Israel. Some Jews interpreted the Genesis account to mean that Abraham did in fact kill Isaac and shed his blood but then brought him back to life again. His shed blood was to cover the sins of God’s people.

Jon Levinson similarly argues for the centrality of the early Jewish belief in the atoning power of the blood actually shed by Isaac in his sacrifice prior to his return from the dead.

Crispin H.T. Fletcher-Louis points to indicators of an early Jewish belief in a messianic high priest offering a ransom and that one “like a son of man” in Daniel was believed to have been sacrificed to the Ancient of Days and that these interpretations found their way into the gospels.

David C. Mitchell posits the belief that Zechariah 12:10 applied to a future Messiah ben Joseph to come in the last days and be slain at the dawn of the messianic age and that this belief was at extant before the destruction of the temple in 70 CE.

Joshua Jipp has pointed out that the messianic (pre-Christian) Psalms of Solomon 17-18 are based on our canonical Psalm 2 which refers to a royal son of God facing threats to his life by early rulers.

Of course most readers are aware of Richard Carrier and his arguments, similar in some ways to those of Thomas Thompson.

Other posts of relevance, though some of their references are to scholars from around the same time as Jeremias.



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32 thoughts on “Modern Scholars on Pre-Christian Jewish Beliefs in Suffering Messiahs and Atoning Deaths”

    1. I love it when scholars like Ehrman and Hurtado mock one of the foremost scholars of Jewish studies when he challenges their precious assumptions about Jewish ideas beyond the parameters of Christianity. Mocking and sarcasm are not normally considered intellectually valid scholarly rebuttals, however. (Hurtado even confessed to not having heard of Boyarin, asking rhetorically “who is this fellow?”)

      What I am looking for are intellectually honest and professional engagement with the arguments. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m never impressed when established scholars are content to be condescendingly dismissive.

  1. What option is the more probable?

    — That a group of Galilean nobodies were so impressed with their leader who had died that did a 180 degree turnabout on everything their cultural and religious heritage believed about what a messiah would be and do, and convinced other Jews and even gentiles of the same and even to come to worship that man alongside God himself?


    — That Christianity grew out of an application of pre-existing Jewish ideas about messiahs?

    1. If only these probabilities were mutually exclusive.
      The current reductionism that commands Jesus historicism seems to say something like “a group of Galilean nobodies were so impressed with their leader who had died and everything their cultural and religious heritage believed about what a messiah would be and do they convinced other Jews and even gentiles of this valid application of pre-existing Jewish ideas about messiahs thus even to come to worship that man alongside God himself.”

      1. Yes, but of course we have no evidence for such a scenario. That scenario is based on the assumption that the gospel narratives had a historical core. That has to remain an assumption and the method of appealing to that assumption as the basis for our explanation is of course circular.

        On the other hand we can see clear evidence of Christian texts emerging through a rewriting of other Jewish texts.

  2. I’m starting to think actually that the whole idea of crucifixion comes from Paul. If you actually look at Paul is the only epistle writer that talks about the crucifixion of Jesus. Crucifixion is only mentioned in the letters of Paul and in the Gospels and in the Book of Revelation (in a part likely written after the Gospels).

    If crucifixion were really such a central element of the belief system, someone other than Paul would have talked about it. I wish I would have realized this when writing my book.

    But as I say in the book (and others say as well), the Gospel of Mark is clearly based on the letters of Paul. That means that is Paul invented the whole idea of crucifixion, it would have made its way into the Gospel of Mark via “Mark’s” copying from Paul, and then become a whole huge thing, but really there is no evidence that I see that other pre-Gospel Jesus worshipers thought that Jesus had been crucified.

    Hebrews does say that he “endured the cross”, but it is also possible that whoever wrote Hebrews got this idea from Paul, as Hebrews was originally thought to have been written by Paul to begin with. Or its possible that this was meant in some other way. For all the talk about sacrifice and suffering in Hebrews it never explicitly says that Jesus was crucified.

    But the fact that James talks extensively about suffering and never mentions that Jesus suffered or was crucified is quite interesting. So I’m not at all certain that the view that Jesus had even died or suffered was universal among early Jesus worshipers.

    1. If you will pardon my uninformed comment, was there any tradition of non-lethal crucifixion, akin to that that some Christians go through today to honor Jesus? Because a reference in Hebrews, in such a context, to enduring the cross could be a reference to such humiliation/torture that did not cause death.

      1. • Paul and other pre-Gospel authors likely understood that the corpse of Jesus was hung upon a tree or Stauros (σταυρός) upright stake or pole.

        E.g. Schäfer, Peter (2009). Jesus in the Talmud. Princeton University Press. p. 66. ISBN 1-4008-2761-2.

        [Per a halakhic discourse] some details of Jesus’ condemnation and execution are reported: […] Jesus was executed because he practiced sorcery and enticed Israel into idolatry.
        Several of these details can be easily explained against the background of the relevant Mishna in tractate Sanhedrin. There, the standard procedure according to the rabbinic law is explained as follows:

        All who are stoned are also hanged (nitlin) [afterwards] [on a tree]: (these are) the words of R. Eliezer.

        However the Sages said: only the blasphemer (ha-megaddef) and the idolater (ha-‘oved avodah zarah) are hanged.

        NB: References to “Idolatry” may imply “Astrolatry”.

      2. A Buddhist, almost everyone who comments here probably knows Roman culture better than I, but I remember having read that Roman slave-owners routinely temporarily crucified slaves as punishment–nailed them to the rafters for a while, allowing them to survive (if they could) after taking them down. I hope someone familiar with ancient Roman life might respond more definitively to your interesting question.

          1. The basis of my comment is no more an no less than a vague and unreliable memory of something I read somewhere on the internet about Romans temporarily nailing slaves to the ceiling, the rafters, or maybe the walls. I have no idea whether it is true or not. I had hoped someone would know. Details of ancient Roman life are probably common knowledge for many people here, but not for me.

            I did mean to call attention to A Buddhist’s question about nonlethal humiliation/torture. This question in the context of a discussion of the origins of the concept of the crucifixion of Christ is interesting and provocative. I am but a casual onlooker in this field, but I wonder whether A Buddhist’s question to this topic is original and important, whether it could lead to one or more plausible and useful theories on how Christianity originated. For example, was there an early story of some entity, celestial or human, who was crucified for a while but perceived as being so lowly he wasn’t even worth killing?

            1. JBeers: I am deeply honoured that you regard my question as important/provocative. I regard your concept of “some entity, celestial or human, who was crucified for a while but perceived as being so lowly he wasn’t even worth killing” as being interesting. I was thinking that Hebrews may preserve a scenario in which a being is tortured (possibly including non-lethal crucifixion) so that his blood is shed and then he brings the blood to a heavenly temple. Alas, I also am a mere amateur (and busy!) so others with more scholarly knowledge might want to investigate the issue.

              1. Gligic, Sanja (2017). “Torture on Slaves as a Universal Trajectory of Roman and Greek Law” (PDF). iusromanum.eu.

                The only source who describes the modes of torture in Greek law is a scene from Aristophanes’ comedy “The Frogs”: “Arrest my slave and put him to the torture, and if you get your proof, put me to death … you can use any kind of torture you wish: tie him to a ladder, mount him on the wheel, suspend or, whip him. Pile rocks upon him, put vinegar in his nose, whip him with bristles… —(p. 3)

              2. I have just spent a little time unsuccessfully looking for the site where I remember having read the assertion that it was common for Roman slaves to be nailed to the rafters etc. I spent so much time looking w/o success that I now suspect that the alleged phenomenon was probably not common. I cannot rule out that it occurred since I repeatedly read that Romans were generally allowed to do as they pleased in punishing slaves so it could have occurred at least sporadically.

                I did come across a reference not directly pertinent to the search that other people may find useful for other reasons: a treatise on crucifixion:

                Crucifixion in Antiquity by Gunnar Samuelsson (2011)
                ‘GUNNAR SAMUELSSON, born 1966; 1992 Pastor and Missionary Degree; 1997 B.A. and M.Th. at the University of Gothenburg; 2000 Μ. Α.; 2010 ThD; Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the Department of Literature, History of Ideas and Religion, University of Gothenburg.’

                I only skimmed small fragments of it. My superficial glance suggests that the author seems to have dug deep into English, German, Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic, and Latin writings about ‘suspension punishment’ (as he terms it) to come to the conclusion, a conclusion I think I’ve seen here, that the term ‘crucifixion’ could have meant many different things and by no means uniformly resembled what is traditionally believed to have been inflicted on Jesus, such that the Jesus narrative is not necessarily typical. In an odd (to me) ending (by my skimming–don’t hold me to it) he both more or less repeats a recitation of apparent faith in traditional Christian belief but stipulates that his research has not indicated whether the story of the crucifixion was historical fact or whether if so whether Jesus died during crucifixion.


            2. I have found a reference that might be the one behind your memory. It’s from Homer’s Odyssey, not so obscure after all:

              Odysseus of many counsels, answering him, said;
              “I and Telemachos will keep the noble suitors
              within [the] halls, how fierce they ever be;
              turn back you two [bend/tie Melanthius’] feet and hands above
              (to throw [him] into [the] chamber, to tie boards [σανίδας] behind [him]),
              and having tied a twisted rope from him
              going to draw [him] up high, to come near [the] roof beams
              that he, being alive for a long time, may suffer grievous pains.

              Od. 22:170-177

              It is on page 39 of the Gunnar Samuelsson you mention.

              Other references that might be of some use for the more general question:

              Cook, John Granger. 2014. Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck.

              Hengel, Martin. 1977. Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. Fortress Press.

              I have not gone through any of these three books exhaustively, but initially it appears that the rafters punishment was only way of keeping the victims in torment until they were killed. Torture was common as a prelude to crucifixion but I have not yet seen anything to indicate slaves were allowed to live afterwards.

              1. Thank you.

                I hope not to be doing bad things either by draining attention away from A Buddhist’s comments, or in general cluttering the comment section with unwanted digression. However in my futile search for a specific reference I happened upon what looks like a good and **free** source on details of Roman life. One recent review suggests that it is great for dedicated high school students — though detailed it’s not in the slightest a primary reference for scholars. Another indicates that while excellent it it contains some statements that have been proven incorrect since it was written (1903; revised 1932). In any case, any of you don’t have to buy its reprinted book version, and you don’t have to search for it on the internet if you copy and save for future reference –> http://ojcl.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Johnstons-The-Private-Life-of-the-Romans.doc

    2. Some of my earlier posts on Couchoud’s work make this very point: that Paul’s crucified Christ stood at odds with the glorious conquering Christ in Revelation, for example.

    3. Given that “Christians” hold that Jesus died while incarnate in a human body.

      • Paul upon joining the sect that we term “Christians”, held that his “Lord”, the second-god, had died while incarnate in a human body, thus bringing glory to humanity.

      In the context of “Middle Platonism”: “[We] speak a message of [the second-god] among the mature . . . we declare [first-god’s son], a mystery that has been hidden and that [first-god] destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified [to stauros] the Lord of glory.” —(1 Corinthians 2:6-8)

      • Per Paul, Jesus awarded glory to humanity by dying in a manner such that first-god would now do whatever it was that Paul expected him to do.

      So the question is, per Paul: What manner of death brings glory to humanity?
      1. Obedience: even unto death.
      2. Humility: submitting to a shameful post death “stauros”.
      3. …

      1. Fwiw, my understanding is that the death per se of Jesus did not “bring glory to humanity” but that the power of the death of Jesus lay in its being a ransom or atonement to deliver humanity from the death penalty.

        We recall the Ascension of Isaiah, possibly even quoted by Paul when he speaks of “eye and ear hath not seen or heard of the glory etc….” where the function of Jesus was to die in order to go down to Hades and rescue the worthy deceased from there.

        1. • I define “glory” as — getting first-god’s attention.

          Per “Middle Platonism” first-god is remote and often oblivious of humanity. Philo held that second-god (Logos/Jesus) acting as an intermediary for humanity could procure something(s) related to first-god for the benefit of humanity.

          Cf. Hillar, Marian [now bolded]. “Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C.E.—40 C.E.)”. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ISSN 2161-0002.

          Philo believed that man’s final goal and ultimate bliss is in the “knowledge of the true and living God” (Decal. 81; Abr. 58; Praem. 14); “such knowledge is the boundary of happiness and blessedness” (Det. 86). To him, mystic vision allows our soul to see the Divine Logos (Ebr. 152) and achieve a union with God (Deut. 30:19-20; Post. 12).

          IMO, Paul in the context of “Middle Platonism” held that first-god was now focused on humanity since it was now covered in glory by Jesus (like the dust from an exploding Supernova) and thus first-god would now do whatever it was that Paul was talking about in the epistles.

          E.g. first-god’s to-do list per Paul:
          1. Have Jesus prepare new world/heaven for use: CHECK
          2. Send Jesus to Hades and rescue the worthy deceased from there: CHECK
          3. Per this world′s scheduled destruction, send Jesus to rescue the worthy inhabits: PENDING

          1. It’s interesting that Plutarch says Osiris is the logos.

            The Gospel of Thomas and Plato : A Study of the Impact of Platonism on the Fifth Gospel By Ivan Miroshnikov:
            “The double role of Plutarch’s Osiris is determined by his intermediary status: in order to act as an intermediary between the transcendent God and the world, he needs to participate in both transcendence and immanence. The very same double role is ascribed to Logos in Philo: according to Mos. 2.127, the cosmic Logos deals with both “the incorporeal and paradigmatic forms” and the visible objects that imitate these forms. The fact that Philo’s Logos and Plutarch’s Osiris are functionally identical and that Osiris can also be called Logos demonstrates that Philo’s philosophy of Logos was part of a larger Middle Platonist tradition and that this tradition as a whole should be recognized as a possible background for the Johannine Logos.”

            I think reading Plutarch and Philo is very important in order to understand Christian beliefs and stories. I think a lot of the NT stories are allegorical and you can understand the stories better by being familiar with Middle Platonism.

        2. Per the “Psalms of Solomon” sinners are accused of forgetting God (4:21; 14:7), being arrogant, verbose and ostentatious (4:2), angering and provoking God (4:21), committing sin in secret (4:5), living in hypocrisy (4:3, 6, 12), putting on a charade to impress and defraud others (4:7–8, 19–20, 22), breaking the Torah (4:1, 12), being deliberately deceitful and dishonest (4:4, 8–11; 12:1–6; 17:15), condoning and supporting prostitution (4:5), ogling women (4:4), being more lawless and impure than the gentiles (2:12; 4:3; 8:13; 14:6; 15:8), refusing to learn from God’s chastisement (3:9–12) and passing cruel verdicts and harsh sentences (4:1–3).

          IMO per Paul, those who achieve a certain degree of holiness and perfection are rescued (from Hades and the doomed Earth) when first-god directs second-god to implement the “end-times”. Now did Paul actually believe that those rescued/redeemed would be reintegrated into first-god (as did Philo) and then just tell the lower classes the benevolent lie: “You will be given new bodies and a new world/heaven” among other benevolent lies so that they would personally act in a manner resulting in holiness and perfection. Or did he actually believe it himself? We can only speculate.

      2. My point is that it’s not clear that all Christians did believe that Jesus died at all.

        I think it’s possible that the sect of James was worshiping a Jesus that was just a divine heavenly messiah who had never died or suffered, and the whole idea of Jesus being a sacrificial deity comes from Paul himself. I’m not saying I have confidence this is the case, but I think its possibility.

        The problem with mainstream scholarship is they have no sense of tracing ideas to their origins. As Doherty has long pointed out, when mainstream scholars see a claim being made by multiple authors they FIRST assume that it means each of those writers got the same idea from separate sources. Instead, what careful inspection often shows is the exact opposite, not that these ideas come from separate independent sources, but rather that they can all be traced back to the same single source.

        I think it is possible to make the case that the idea of a crucified Jesus can all be traced back to a single source, and that source is Paul.

        The Gospels and later tradition have made it appear that belief that a suffering crucified Jesus was foundational to Christianity, but careful inspection gives reasons to doubt this.

        It’s possible that the Jamesean line of the cult worshiped a triumphant, powerful heavenly Jewish conqueror who upheld the law, while Paul was preaching a mystery religion suffering, dying/rising sacrificial messiah who overturned the law.

        The writer of the Gospel of Mark was a Pauline follower who based his Jesus on the Jesus of Paul, and thus by using Paul’s Jesus as the template for his story, it was Paul’s version of Jesus that became entrenched in the historic view, while James’ Jesus, who never suffered and never died, was forgotten.

        I’m not saying this is what happened, but I think its possible.

        So the point is, that its not clear to be that a suffering messiah is actually foundational to Christianity. Again, it only appears that way due to the back-casting of the Gospels that give a false impression of what early Christianity really was. This to me is the biggest problem in biblical scholarship: it seems that even many highly regarded career biblical scholars haven’t been able to get their head around the idea that the Gospels do not describe the origins of Christianity, they are a fictional narrative that obfuscates the origins of Christianity.

        1. • There is evidence that Christianity was originally a diverse phenomenon.

          Behr, John (2013) [now bolded]. Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity. OUP Oxford. ISBN 978-0-19-166781-7:

          [Walter Bauer claimed] that Christianity was a diverse phenomenon from the beginning, that ‘varieties of Christianity’ arose around the Mediterranean, and that in some places what would later be called ‘heretical’ was initially normative. […] Although some of Bauer’s reconstructions are inaccurate and have been dropped, the idea that Christianity was originally a diverse phenomenon has now been generally accepted. —(pp. 5f)

          • There is evidence that Christians and some Jews worshiped second-god (Logos/Jesus).

          Boyarin, Daniel (2010) [2004]. Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-0384-4.

          I think, that worship in the incarnate Logos is a novum, a “mutation,” . . . introduced by Jesus people, but the belief in an intermediary, a deuteros theos [second-god], and even perhaps binitarian worship was common to them [Jesus people] and other Jews. —(p. 119)

          • The evidence that some “Christians” did believe that Jesus did not die (or had not yet died)—thus being a schism point—is lost.

          Comment by Richard Carrier—23 May 2018—per “Historicity Big and Small: How Historians Try to Rescue Jesus”. Richard Carrier Blogs. (25 April 2018).

          [T]here probably were pre-Christian sects (one of which probably became Christian, by novel revelation) that did revere the archangel Jesus and probably even taught he would be the coming messiah, but had not yet come to the conclusion that he’d died to effect his plans, thus had already initiated the end times timetable. There are hints in the Dead Sea Scrolls that the sect(s) represented there did have some such view (and may even have written up pesher prophecies of that angel’s future planned death). But we don’t know that for sure, we don’t know if the only such sect simply became Christianity, we don’t know if any members of that sect protested the revelation and stuck to the original timetable and thus broke away, we don’t know if there were other sects never impacted by the revelation who continued preaching their own thing. Paul does say there were sects preaching “another Jesus” whom the Christians should shun. So those could have been any of the above, for example.

          Another way to look at it is: the manner of death was too trivial to have a schism over at that point, especially as Paul is so vague about it—and you don’t go vague on a point that’s creating schisms; that’s what creeds are for: to demarcate what’s valid and what’s anathema. So clearly there were no anathemas regarding means of the killing; vagueness would at best mean an intent to “big tent” the movement and unite schisms. Notice that by the time we get to Ignatius, now the manner of death is a schism point built into the creed, indicating that by then there certainly were sects disagreeing (though exactly what they were disagreeing on or why we can only speculate). But that’s almost a hundred years later. But there could well have been sects still revering or expecting the Jesus angel as not having died, and who (like possibly Philo) thought it absurd that he would ever do so, and/or who (like possibly the Qumran sect) thought it was not time yet for it to happen, who were competing with Christian sects. They could be the “other Jesus’s” Paul talks about. But we sadly just don’t know.

          1. • Perhaps evidence that some “Christians” did believe that Jesus did not die.

            Per the Octavius (dialogue) by Marcus Minucius Felix, Earl Doherty notes three false and slanderous attacks made against the “Christian” belief of Minucius Felix:

            • A religion of lust and fornication. They reverence the head of an ass . . . even the genitals of their priests.
            • During initiations they slay and dismember an infant and drink its blood . . . at their ritual feasts they indulge in shameless copulation.
            • Some say that the objects of their worship include a man who suffered death as a criminal.

            Doherty opines that it is peculiar that the allegation of criminal execution on Earth is considered by Minucius Felix to be just as ridiculous as the other allegations.

    4. You may also be thinking of the Didache’s account of the Last Supper. In the Didache it was a thanksgiving meal without any passover or death associations. That looks like more positive evidence for an alternative, and probably earlier, Christian tradition than the silence in other epistles.

  3. Two more names I should have added, or maybe three:

    James Tabor in a September blogpost The Messiah Before Jesus recommends the following titles:

    • Knohl, Isræl. 2002. The Messiah before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Translated by David Maisel. New Ed edition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
    • Wise, Michael Owen. 1999. The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior before Jesus. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
    1. I have posted before on Martin Hengel’s studies and he could have been listed here, too — though strictly speaking he’s no longer a contemporary scholar given that he died in 2009.

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