Daily Archives: 2019-01-20 10:22:45 UTC

A Pre-Christian Suffering Messiah Idea: Concluding a Case Against

For a discussion of the old view of Israelite Kingship and comparison with today’s understanding:

Clines, David. 1975. “The Psalms and the King.” Theological Students’ Fellowship Bulletin 71: 1–6. (Reprinted in On the Way to the Postmodern: Old Testament Essays, 1967–1998, vol. 2 (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 293; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), pp. 687-700.)

The last part of H. H. Rowley’s argument against the views of Joachim Jeremias and others that at least some Second Temple Judaeans held the notion of a Suffering Messiah relates to views that are no longer extant, as far as I am aware, among biblical scholars today. My understanding is that few today continue to hold to the idea that Israel’s kings participated in annual rituals of humiliation and rebirth as representatives of a dying and rising divinity.

If, as was once widely understood, the king of Israel or Judah regularly enacted such a ritual,

This evidence would seem to justify the inference that the concepts of the Davidic Messiah and of the Suffering Servant alike had their roots in the royal cultic rites, though they developed separate elements of those rites. (87)

That is, the separate concepts of Davidic Messiah and Suffering Servant developed their own pathways after the demise of the kingdom and during the periods of Babylonian captivity and Second Temple era.

Rowley next step (along with other scholars) is to posit that these two separate strands of ideology were united in the teachings of Jesus himself. Why with Jesus? Because

There has been no success in all the endeavours made to find previous or contemporary identification of the Messiah with the suffering servant of Yahweh. (87)

Rowley is citing H. Wheeler Robinson, whose complete statement follows:

It is no exaggeration to say that this is the most original and daring of all the characteristic features of the teaching of Jesus, and it led to the most important element in His work. There has been no success in all the endeavours made to find previous or contemporary identification of the Messiah with the suffering servant of Yahweh. The Targum of Jonathan for Isaiah liii. does give a Messianic application to some parts of the chapter, but, by a most artificial ingenuity, ascribes all the suffering to the people, not to its Messiah. This is very significant for the main line of tradition. There is no evidence of a suffering Messiah in previous or contemporary Judaism to explain the conception in the consciousness of Jesus. (Robinson, 199)

“Most original and daring”? Do I detect a confessional bias leading to the conclusion that Jesus owed nothing to distinctive or innovative to any earlier Jewish belief systems?

It seems so.

One may wonder if Rowley’s arguments against the general views of Jeremias and others are influenced by religious faith so that they become very exacting in demanding unambiguous and explicit statements testifying to a pre-Christian suffering messiah view; but one must also concede that the arguments of Jeremias rest most heavily on inference and one’s own assessments of probability.

Postscript: Another point I have not addressed in these posts is raised by critics other than Rowley against the idea of a pre-Christian suffering messiah. That is, making a clear distinction between “suffering” messiah and a “slain” messiah. In sifting through the evidence some scholars would insist that we be careful not to assume that a messiah who is killed is necessarily one who suffers as in experiencing the sorts of torments apparently suggested in Isaiah 53.

I titled this post, “concluding a case against”, not “the” case. If I begin to see that Morna Hooker has added further significant arguments against the views of Jeremias I will post those here, too.

Previous posts in this series:

  1. A Suffering Messiah Before Christianity? — the other side of the question

  2. Questioning the Claim of a Pre-Christian Suffering Messiah

And the series covering Jeremias’s case for a pre-Christian suffering/dying messiah:

Zimmerli & Jeremias: Servant of God (8 posts)

Robinson, H. Wheeler. 1942. Redemption and Revelation: In the Actuality of History. Library of Constructive Theology. London: Nisbet.

Rowley, H. H. 1952. The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays on the Old Testament. London: Lutterworth Press.


Questioning the Claim of a Pre-Christian Suffering Messiah

Gog and Magog attack Jerusalem and kill Messiah ben Joseph

This post follows on from A Suffering Messiah Before Christianity? — the other side of the question. This series sets out the leading arguments (per Morna Hooker and H. H. Rowley) against the claims of some scholars that there existed among pre-Christian Jews a belief that a messiah was to suffer and/or die. So if you liked what you read last month about the pre-Christian ideas of a suffering messiah, take a breather and see if you change your mind after reading the following.

Common attributes of Servant of the Lord and Davidic Messiah

Rowley challenges the significance of one scholar’s table setting out a list of attributes shared by the Suffering Servant of Isaiah and the Davidic Messiah. Before we look at Rowley’s contrary arguments here is the list he cites. It is from an appendix in T. W. Manson’s The Servant-Messiah:

Isa. xlii. 1. “Behold my Servant.” Ezek. xxxiv. 23 f. “My Servant David”; Zech. iii. 8. “I will bring forth my Servant, the Branch.”
Isa. xlii. 1. “I have put my Spirit upon him.” Isa. xi. 2. “The Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him. the Spirit of wisdom, etc.”
Isa. xlii. 3. “He shall bring forth judgement.” Isa. ix. 7. “Of the increase of his government… there shall be no end upon the throne of David… to uphold it with judgement”. Jer. xxiii. 5. “I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and he. shall reign as king … and shall execute judgement.”
Isa. xlii. 6. “I the Lord … will give thee for a covenant of the people.” Ps. Lxxxix. 3. “I have made a covenant with my Chosen … sworn unto David my Servant.” Ezek. xxxiv. 23 f. “I will set up … my Sen-ant David … and I will make with them a covenant of peace.” Cf. xxxvii. 24. 26.
Isa. xlii. 6. “for a light of the Gentiles.” Cf. xlix. 6. Isa. ix. 1-2. “No gloom to her that was in anguish… A great light….”
Isa. xlii. 7. “to bring out the prisoners.” Ezek. xxxiv. 27 (a Davidic passage). “When I have broken the bars and delivered them, etc.”
Isa. xlix. 1. “The Lord hath called me from the womb.” Isa. vii. 14 f. and ix. 6. “Unto us a Child is born.”
Isa. xlix. 2. “He hath made my mouth like a sharp sword.” Isa. xi. 4. “He shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth.”
Isa. xlix. 6. “to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the tribes of Israel.” Jer. xxiii. 8 (.A. Davidic passage). “As the Lord liveth which brought up … the seed of the house of Israel… from all the countries whither I had driven them.”
Isa. xlix. 7. “Him whom man despiseth…. whom the nation abhorreth” Ps. Lxxxix. 50 (The Anointed, God’s Chosen, speaks). “Remember. Lord … how I do bear in my bosom (the reproach of) all the might}· peoples; wherewith thine enemies have reproached. 0 Lord, wherewith they have reproached the footsteps of thine Anointed.”
Isa. xlix. 7. “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall worship.” Cf. lii. 15. “Kings shall shut their mouths at him.” Ps. Lxxxlx. 27. “I will also make him the highest of the kings of the earth”; Lxxii. 10 f., “All kings shall fall down before him”; ii. 10. “Now. therefore, be wise. 0 ye kings…. Kiss the Son.”
Isa. lii.13 — liii.12. The sufferings and reproaches which fall on the Servant. Ps. xviii. 4-6. cxxxii. 1. “David and all his afflictions”; Lxxxix. 38. “Thou hast cast off and abhorred. thou hast been wroth with thine Anointed”; Lxxxix. 41, “He is become a reproach to his neighbours.”
Isa. liii. 2. “He grew up as a tender plant and as a root out of a dry ground.” Isa. xi. 1. “There shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch out of his roots shall bear fruit.” Jer. xxiii.5. “I will raise unto David a righteous Branch.”
Isa. liii. 2. “He has no form … no beauty.” Ps. lxxxix. 44. “Thou hast made his brightness to cease, etc.”
Isa. liii. 6. “All we like sheep have gone astray.” Ezek. xxxiv. 22-24. Jer· xxni· 3-5. Israel, the scattered sheep of God, is to come under the rule of “David, my Servant.”
Isa. liii. 8. “As for his genera tion. who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living?” Ps. lxxxix. 45. “The days of his youth thou hast shortened…”; 47 f., “0 remember how short my time is.”
Isa. liii. 10. “He shall see his seed.” II Sam. vii. 12-16. The promise to David’s house. Ps. lxxxix. 4. “Thy seed will I establish for ever”; 36 f.. “His seed shall endure for ever, etc.”
Isa. liii. 12. “Numbered with the transgressors.” Ps. Lxxxix. 50. Quoted above in the parallel to Isa. xlix. 7.

Rowley acknowledges that there are many points in common but denies that we have here evidence that anyone before the emergence of Christianity went so far as to think that the Suffering Servant was to be identified with the Davidic Messiah. Other biblical figures likewise share some of those attributes: e.g. Moses, Caleb, David, Job, Isaiah, Nebuchadrezzar, Zerubbabel are all designated “Servants of God”; Bezalel, Balaam, Joshua, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, Saul, David are all said to have the Spirit of God; both Israel and Jeremiah were “called from the womb”; Jeremiah, Job, and many Psalmists are known to have suffered — yet none of these others are confused with the Messiah.

All that the evidence collected by Manson establishes is that it was not without reason that the concepts were brought together in the New Testament, and not that they had been already brought together before the time of our Lord. (p. 68)

read more »

A Suffering Messiah Before Christianity? — the other side of the question

H. H. Rowley

Last month I posted an eight part series based on Joachim Jeremias’s 1957 book The Servant of God arguing for a pre-Christian notion among Second Temple Jews of a messiah who was expected to suffer and/or die. This view is not the prevailing one among New Testament scholars today so I want to set out some of the arguments that have been marshalled against Jeremias’s study. Statements like the following led me to think Morna Hooker’s Jesus and the Servant (1959) would be a good place to start:

Jeremias’s argument that the portrait of the messiah in Judaism of this era included the concept of vicarious suffering to expiate the sins of Israel has found little support.9

9. Among the more significant refutations are Morna Hooker, Jesus and the Servant (London: SPCK, 1959); and E. Lohse, Märtyrer und Gottesknecht (FRLANT, 64; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1966).

(Broadhead, 102)

A few decades ago it had become “almost an axiom of… New Testament study that most of the New Testament writers, and probably our Lord himself, were controlled in their Christological thinking by the figure of the Suffering Servant of the Lord.” In this respect the work of J. Jeremias was very influential . . . . Today, however, many scholars are of the opinion that the importance of the idea of the suffering servant for early Christianity has been greatly overrated; moreover, it is difficult to demonstrate that Jesus himself interpreted his destiny in light of this passage from Scripture. This has been shown convincingly by C. K. Barrett in an important contribution to the memorial volume for T. W. Manson and by Μ. D. Hooker in her Jesus and the Servant.

(Jonge, 48)

13 The influence of Isaiah 53 on the NT has been contested famously by Morna D. Hooker, Jesus and the Servant: The Influence of the Servant Concept of Deutero-Isaiah in the New Testament (London: Nisbet, 1959).  

(Jipp, 257)

So I got hold of Morna Hooker’s Jesus and the Servant and very soon read this buck-passing passage:

It is impossible to consider in detail here the arguments which have been brought forward in support of a pre-Christian suffering Messiah. On this question the discussion by Η. H. Rowley in his essay ‘The Suffering Servant and the Davidic Messiah’ (published in The Servant of the Lord and Other , Essays on the Old Testament (1952)) appears to be conclusive.

(Hooker, p. 179 — Interestingly 1952 was the same year Zimmerli and Jeremias’s The Servant of God was first published.)

Accordingly I will post the arguments of H. H. Rowley as an “answer” to the Jeremias series. You can compare and evaluate and decide which case you think is the stronger. read more »