The 10th Testimony for a Dying Messiah Before Christianity (7)

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by Neil Godfrey

Deaths of all but the Servant in Isa 53 were deemed to have some atoning power in the first millennium of rabbinical exegesis

This post cites the tenth and final witness called by Joachim Jeremias in a 1957 book, The Servant of God. Thanks to helpful comments left by some readers I can say that the testimony of this particular #10 witness is disputed by scholars who argue that the rabbis of “Late Antiquity” responsible for interpreting Isaiah 53 were not influenced by any sort of anti-Christian bias. Maybe those critics are right. I hope to address in detail their arguments, either for or against, before the end of January 2019. Jeremias has been numbering his witnesses by the Greek alphabet and this final one therefore is the tenth letter of the Greek alphabet, kappa, or κ.

(κ) From the second century A.D. the history of Jewish exegesis of Isa. 53 is shaped increasingly by the opposition to Christianity.325

325 The rich material concerning the anti-Christian apologetic and polemic of Judaism in the first centuries has not yet been exhaustively dealt with.

In other studies of Jewish writings among biblical scholars (especially since 1967) there appears to have been a trend to undo negative perceptions of the Jewish past (the “rehabilitation of Judas” being one of the more distinctive examples) so I wonder if the “anti-Christian apologetic and polemic of Judaism” in the past has ever been “exhaustively dealt with”. If readers know what I don’t then I trust someone will inform me.

Jeremias outlines what he saw as Jewish efforts to remove earlier messianic associations from Isaiah 53:

This process begins by the avoidance of the description of the Messiah as ‘servant of God’ and ‘the chosen’, which the pseudepigraphic writers had used without embarrassment (cf. p. 50 and n. 262), and also of the title ‘son of man’,326 and ‘Jesus’, which had become a nomen odiosum (cf. TWNT, III, 287,20 ff.). From the end of the second century the apologetic method of changing the text327 and of tendentious interpretation was seized upon in translating Isa. 53, in order to dispose of passages which were of use to Christians in their text proofs. This polemical method is used especially in Targ. Isa. 53 (cf. pp. 66 ff.).

326 As distinct from Eth. En. it is lacking in Slav, and Heb. En. and in the whole of rabbinic literature (S.-B., I, 959; there is also the apparent exception J. Taan. 2, 1 [65b], 60).

327 For an example of the change in the Greek text see p. 65 and for an example of the change of the Aramaic text see n. 296; by the change of יפסיק (Targ. Isa. 53.3) into יפסוק , a statement about suffering is transformed into one about glory.

328 Fischel, 66, n. 67: *Probably the not very frequent use of 42.1 ff.; 50.4 ff., and 52.13 ff. in the Midrash is occasioned by the great significance of these texts in Christian exegesis.’

A similar mode of apologetic is used by R. Simlai (circa A.D. 250), who applies Isa. 53.12 to Moses (see n. 329). As far as possible, however, Isa. 42.1 ff. and 53 are not used at all.328 Indeed, it seems that messianic interpretations of Isa. 53 were excised whenever occasion served; in several instances there is at least a suspicion of this sort (cf. n. 313). These observations are very important for our judgement of late Jewish exegesis of Isa. 53. The widespread conclusion, that the relative infrequency of messianic interpretations of Isa. 53 in late Judaism shows that the latter was not acquainted with the idea of the suffering Messiah, does not do justice to the sources; for it ignores the great part which — very understandably — the debate with Christianity played in this question.

There is a certain silence in the rabbinic literature that Jeremais finds especially telling. In all biblical references to death — whether of an executed criminal, a high priest, the martyrs, the righteous, even children — rabbinic literature in the first thousand years finds a space to associate the death with an atoning power; there is only one exception, Jeremias claims, and that is the death of the servant in Isaiah 53. Such special treatment of Isa. 53 (in contrast to other atoning death interpretations)  appears to suggest an effort to suppress or deny earlier understandings that may have been partly responsible for Christian views. 

The slender amount of evidence is counterbalanced by the fact that there is not to be found a definitely non-messianic exegesis of Isa. 53 in the rabbinic literature of the first millennium A.D.329 This is especially striking when we examine rabbinic statements about the atoning power of death. This idea gains ground extraordinarily in late Judaism. The execution has atoning effect if the criminal has made the expiatory vow (‘May my death expiate all my sins’, see n. 475); every dying person is entreated to say this expiatory vow. Furthermore, late Judaism from pre-Christian times realizes the vicarious expiatory power inherent in the death of the high priest, of martyrs, of the righteous, of the patriarchs, of innocent children. It is astonishing that in this rich material there is no reference to Isa. 53.330 Of this there is only one possible explanation: the connexion of Isa. 53 with the Messiah was from pre-Christian days so firmly and exclusively held by Palestinian Judaism that the application of this chapter to the expiatory death of the righteous was automatically excluded from consideration.331

329 It is very questionable whether in Palestinian Judaism of the first millennium there existed any other exegesis of Isa. 53 except the messianic one (unlike Hellenistic Judaism; cf. p. 53), if one leaves out of account B. Sotah, 14a, where Isa. 53.12 is referred by R. Simlai (circa 250) to Moses’ intercession; for here it is a question of a distortion for apologetic motives (see pp. 56 f.). The passages collected by S.-B. in ‘Isa. 53 in the Older Literature’ (I, 481-5), under the heading B.‘Allusions to the Righteous’ (I, 483, 485), are references to isolated texts torn from their context (see pp. 54 f., 65). The one Midrash text quoted by S.-B. under ‘C. Allusions to the people of Israel’ (1,48 5), Num. R., 13 on 13.2 (anonymous), comes from a Midrash composed in the twelfth century.

330 The sole exception, R. Simlai (circa a.d. 250) is apparent only; seen. 329.

331 I owe this important observation to E. Lohse. In passing we must deal with two objections to our conclusion.

First: is it not implied by the repeated remark of the evangelists that the disciples did not understand the predictions of the passion that the conception of a suffering Messiah was completely unknown to them ? Mark only adds the information about the failure of the disciples to understand to the second account of the prediction of the passion (9.32: οἱ δέ ήγνόουν τό ρήμα, καί έφοβοϋντο αύτον έπερωτησαι). Here it is a question of a more recent variant of the quite different remark of Peter (8.52, in connexion with the first prediction of the passion), the antiquity of which is assured by the sharpness of the rebuke of Jesus denouncing Peter as Satan. But the point is that the disciples’ failure to understand is by no means, in Mark, related solely to the passion of Jesus, but runs like a motif through the whole of Mark’s Gospel (4.13, 40 f.; 6.52:7.18; 8.16-21; 9.32; 10.38);cf. Wrede, Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien, 1901, 93-114. In Mark 6.52 the disciples’ lack of understanding occurs in a remark of the evangelist; 8.16-21 is, quite plainly, by its reference to the doublet of the feeding miracle, recognizable as a piece of literary composition. In Luke the motif is still more distinct (cf. 9.45 with Mark 9.32); he has added 18.34 without the Marcan parallel. Finally, the Gospel of John broadens the motif into a constant misunderstanding of the most far-reaching extent. Parallels in comparative religion make it probable that we have here an epiphany motif (J. Ebeling: ‘Das Messiasgeheimnis und die Botschaft des Marcus-Evangelisten’, ZNW, Beiheft 19,1939, 167 f., 170). If that is correct then historical deductions are illegitimate. But even apart from that the misunderstanding would be intelligible (άγνοεΐν, Mark 9.32, can also mean ‘fail to recognize’), for the passion and death of the Messiah completely contradicted popular expectations.

On this second point Jeremias repeats another argument of his that I have not addressed in these posts: that Hellenistic Judaism was in certain teachings significantly different from Palestinian Judaism. However, my understanding is that publications on the Dead Sea Scrolls since 1957 have undermined that hypothesis of difference between the two Judaisms.

Second: is it not implied in the offence which the Jews found in the preaching of the cross (I Cor. 1.23) that the conception of a suffering Messiah was alien to them? In fact the messianic interpretation of Isa. 53 must have been foreign to Hellenistic Judaism (cf. p. 53). So much more must the manner of the death of Jesus have been offensive and even for Palestinian Judaism this was the real scandal: death on the cross is accursed (Gal. 3.13; Justin, Dial., 90).

(pp. 75 f. my highlighting and linebreaks)

In the next and final post we will sum up the evidence we have seen set out in this last seven posts.

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


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Neil Godfrey

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  • 2018-12-18 16:45:09 UTC - 16:45 | Permalink

    Thanks for having posted all of these, very helpful. FYI, I’m currently analyzing Hebrews and studying Melchizedek. Interestingly, Melchizedek is written about in the Qumran texts, and was apparently viewed by some 1st century BCE Jews as a messianic type figure himself, though not the suffering kind. He was being re-interpreted as a sort or eternal arch-angel, very similar to how Carrier describes his view of the early Jesus.

    An interesting thing about Melchizedek is that he was said in Genesis to be the first priest, and so what we see in Hebrews are essentially references to this Qumran type eternal arch-angel Melchizedek who was the first high priest, juxtaposed with Jesus, whom the author of Hebrews envisions as the last high priest.

    Melchizedek is the alpha, Jesus is the omega. But what is missed in so many discussions of Hebrews by mainstream scholars is the fact that Melchizedek was being worshiped as a figure very similar to the heavenly Jesus in the decades leading up to the rise of Jesus worship. But Jesus was said to be the Son of God, the Logos, who existed from BEFORE Melchizedek. Melchizedek, in this view as I interpret it between the Qumran writings and Hebrews, was failing and this is why Jesus had to step in.

    From what I can piece together it seems that Melchizedek was being viewed as an arch-angel who was supposed to judge the world and bring about salvation, but he was failing in his role, so the Son of God had to descend from high heaven to finish the job that Melchizedek was failing to do. That’s how I’m interpreting Hebrews right now anyway.

    But it’s interesting because Melchizedek wasn’t a suffering messiah, he was a triumphant messiah. It seems that his failing was precisely that he DIDN’T suffer. And this is where Jesus comes in. And so it is possible that the Jesus cult emerged as a rival to the Melchizedek cult, an offshoot to the Melchizedek worshipers of Qumran. This is all speculative at the moment, but this seems to be where the my analysis is leading. Of course I’m still early in to this and have a lot of reading yet to do so I may change my view on this, but it’s kind of how I’m seeing it at the moment.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2018-12-18 19:40:05 UTC - 19:40 | Permalink

      Do you have a bibliography that might be worth sharing?

  • MrHorse
    2018-12-18 20:30:31 UTC - 20:30 | Permalink

    Robert Eisenman has a new book out that may be relevant to the concepts outlined in this excellent series of posts – Breaking the Dead Sea Scrolls Monopoly: A New Interpretation of the Messianic Movement in Palestine, August/September, 2018.

    … In the second part, he will go through the meaning of the Scrolls – why, based on the contents of the Documents themselves and not inaccurate preconceptions, this is actually “The Literature of the Messianic Movement in Palestine” or what the author sometimes alludes to as “Palestinian Christianity”. As such, it is the very opposite of that overseas development of “Normative Christianity” we all know – i.e., “Pauline Christianity” – which developed in Rome and Alexandria and was abominated by these “Messianists” at Qumran. Its progenitor, Paul, will be identified in the book as a descendant of Herod and the personal and absolute “Enemy” of“James the Brother of Jesus,” called “The Just One” and “The Leader of the Movement in Palestine” equivalent to “The Righteous Teacher” in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

    Another potentially relevant book I have come across is Misreading Judas: How Biblical Scholars Missed the Biggest Story of All Time, 2016, by Robert Wahler.

    Wahler claims the relatively recently published ‘Gospel of Judas’ has been misinterpreted and misrepresented. He refers to the gnostic tradition of ‘Mastership succession’ and contends it was inverted in the New Testament ”Betrayal of Christ” canonical Gospels story. He argues that

    “the sacrifice of Judas in the Gospel of Judas reflects an original tradition of self-sacrifice by the Gnostics of the time, which was adopted and inverted by the proto-orthodoxy of the early Pauline church to hide that there was a successor Master: James the Just … The way to read the New Testament is to separate the red-letter quotes of Jesus from the narrative text. Even then, the red-letter needs to be vetted for orthodox corruption with mystic understanding as a control. The red-letter is, for the most part, inspired text; the narrative Gospel author portions are not. The thought of a Master is evident in the quotations of “Christ.” Just who that is remains unknown but is likely to be James himself. The epistles, or letters, can be largely ignored as Pauline propaganda, most of them forged. Paul himself was a maverick Gnostic…* Why is he even consulted? … There are three principle sources of support for Judas as “the sacrifice” and as cover character for the successor James; the Gospel of Judas itself; the Nag Hammadi texts of the Gospel of Thomas, and the Apocalypses and Apocryphon of James; and the New Testament Gospels and Acts.”

    * Wahler here cites Eisenman, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the First Christians (Harper Collins, NY, 1996), 553.

    • MrHorse
      2018-12-18 20:53:25 UTC - 20:53 | Permalink

      The way such literature might have developed may well be reflected in Eva Mroczek’s Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity as discussed here early last year – https://vridar.org/2017/02/08/divine-revelation-not-limited-to-the-bible-canon/

      “In many Second Temple texts, we see an awareness of a literary world that is ancient, varied, and not fully accessible … We see scribes recognizing the authority and divine origin of texts like the Enoch literature, Jubilees, and these patriarchal traditions, which present themselves not as derivative of or dependent on material we now call biblical, but indeed, prior to it. And while specific texts that have come down to us, like the Enochic material, are recognizably used in other literature, early Jewish texts also mention many writings that we cannot identify with any extant texts — writings that may have been lost, like the book of Noah, or were always only imagined, like the heavenly Book of Life. [(pp. 116f.]

      “… in many cases, the later, non canonical work is of the same genre as the scriptural text it is supposed to be interpreting. That is, we have texts that draw on narrative, law, or prophecy we now call scriptural to create new narrative, law, or prophecy.” [p. 120]

      Eva Mroczek Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity

    • 2018-12-18 21:15:15 UTC - 21:15 | Permalink

      Very interesting. I’ll probably get the Dead Sea Scrolls book.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2018-12-18 23:50:44 UTC - 23:50 | Permalink

      Robert Wahler used to be a regular commenter here. One of his last comments in which he expressed his plan not to post here anymore is at https://vridar.org/2012/01/30/john-the-baptist-couchoud/#comment-12587

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