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

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by Neil Godfrey

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.


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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “A Pre-Christian Suffering Messiah Idea: Concluding a Case Against”

  1. I was wondering if there’s any evidence that the Israelite kings did death and resurrection/rebirth rituals because we know the Egyptian kings did and some of the other aspects of Egyptian royal rituals ended up in Israelite king coronations such as the king sitting at the right hand of god and comparing the king to the rising sun.

    The only thing in the Hebrew scriptures that I’m aware of being possibly influenced by dying and resurrecting gods/kings is in Hosea. Some scholars like John Day think the death and resurrection imagery in Hosea is influenced by dying and rising gods.

    “Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan” by John Day:
    “I hope to demonstrate that the first clear reference to the literal resurrection of the dead in the Old Testament in Dan. 12.2 is a reinterpretation of the verse in Isa. 26.19 about resurrection, which, I shall argue, refers to restoration after exile, rather than literal life after death. Isaiah 26.19 in turn, I shall argue, is dependent on the death and resurrection imagery in the book of Hosea, especially on a reinterpretation of Hos. 13.14. Finally, the imagery of death and resurrection in Hosea (both in chs. 5-6 and 13-14), which likewise refers to Israel’s exile and restoration, is directly taken over by the prophet from the imagery of the dying and rising fertility god, Baal… However, in arguing that Hosea takes over the image of Baal’s death and resurrection and applies it to Israel, I would not appeal, as some have done, to the reference in Hos. 6.2 to Israel’s resurrection on the third day. Some scholars claim that this was derived from a fertility god.”

    I personally think if there is an influence from a dying and rising god on Hosea it might be Osiris.

    Hosea 6:1:
    “Come, let us return to the LORD. For He has torn us to pieces, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bind us up. After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live in His presence.”

    compare that to:

    “Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt” by Jan Assmann:
    “The four kinds of linen were used in the god’s embalming and burial. In the Ptolemaic Period, the word mrt, “chest” was often understood as ti-mrj, “Egypt.” The “consecration” of the chests was now explained as “leading” (in Egyptian, hrp, which also meant “to consecrate”) the inhabitants of Egypt. In the accompanying spell, for instance, we read:

    Take Egypt, it being united.
    You have bound the Two Lands into a whole.

    The motif of “binding” explains the “cords” wrapped around the chests. The word “Egypt” ( ti-mrj ) is a pun on the word “chest” ( mr.t ).

    I bring you Egypt,
    it being led to Your Majesty.
    The land magnifies the fear of you .

    Instead of “pulling the mw-chcsts for Amun,” the ritual can be called “bringing Egypt to its father Amun.” The four chests can sometimes symbolize the enemies of Egypt…In the context of the Osiris cult, this ritual could also be extended to the limbs of Osiris. The pulling of the four chests symbolized the collecting and uniting of the limbs of Osiris’ body.The Egyptians thus projected the disarticulated body of Osiris onto the multiplicity of the nomes so as to celebrate, in the ritual of uniting the limbs, the unity, the completeness, and the intactness of the land of Egypt. It seems to me to be an error to think that this is merely a variant on the widespread vegetation myth of the dying and rising seed grain. This motif was, of course, a part of the original content of the Osiris myth…On the second level, the limb is explained as the nome and its capital, with the result that the body of Osiris, restored and brought back to life, represents the entirety of the land of Egypt.”

    Either way, between the death and resurrection imagery in Hosea, the suffering servant, and the Davidic messiah, you have Jesus in the Hebrew scriptures.

    1. When we look for patterns and parallels it is often easy to find some. It’s called confirmation bias. There is nothing in the Hosea 6:1 passage that refers to a king and there are many possible explanations behind the 2 days and third day chronology. Assmann’s words are about the treatment of a king’s corpse. There is nothing at all to relate it to the Hosea passage.

      1. Not a king, Israel and Egypt. Israel and Egypt are in pieces and then bound and raised up to god. The imagery in Hosea may be influenced by a dying and rising king/god such as Baal, as some scholars have pointed out. I’m not aware of any dying and resurrecting king in the Hebrew scriptures, or of any evidence of a royal death and rebirth ritual performed by Israelite kings.

        1. I have not looked at Hosea for a long time but before I decide on what the “after two days” and “third day” expressions mean I would want to consult several specialist sources. I’d begin with the scholarly (the larger more technical and detailed ones) bible commentaries. I would not be quick to assume or compare it with any potential parallel until I knew something of what scholars know or question about the manuscripts, the text (any particular problems with it) and how it fits with Hebrew idioms, etc.

          Before comparing it with the Egyptian sources you are using I’d want to know the respective dates those sources, and what evidence there is for any comparable influence from Egypt in the text.

          I’m not being “hyper-sceptical” here. These are the sorts of things we always need to do before being confident of any particular meaning of such a text.

  2. “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.”

    No, not humiliation and rebirth as representatives of a “dying and rising divinity.”

    It’s more than that. There is an undercurrent of reincarnation understanding passing through the Jewish tradition. People knew, since they were diviners, who was who in their former lifetimes, and who was reappearing in the soul’s journey in the present lifetime. There is going to be suffering, depending on what that soul went through in the former lifetime, because that would always influence the direction in the present lifetime (a reliving of the past). However, the Christians built it into an absurd drama and in order to be a true Christian one would have to suffer as did Jesus (or whoever the original Christ was). That’s how Christianity went completely off track.

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