Questioning the Claim of a Pre-Christian Suffering Messiah

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by Neil Godfrey

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)

Rowley further notes that since the above list of purports to identify the Suffering Servant with the Davidic Messiah, we have a logical problem if any pre-Christian Jews were expecting the Messiah son of Joseph to die. The problem arises because the details of the Suffering Servant are said to be matched to the Davidic Messiah and not the dying Messiah from Joseph.

The main problem for Rowley is that the only evidence for a Jewish idea of a Suffering Messiah comes from the second century or later.

Justin’s Dialogue with the Jew Trypho

In the post Rabbinic Traditions that the Messiah was to Suffer? (6) we explored in some detail the evidence of Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho (Trypon) for a pre-Christian Jewish belief in a suffering messiah. The Jew Trypho was said to have had no difficulty with the Christian idea that the messiah was to suffer and die, but he did have a problem with the “cursed” manner of his death, crucifixion.

In response Rowley writes points out that

Justin here is only evidence for the second century A.D. . . . [and it] is doubtful if Trypho could have been sincere in his admissions [that he knew the messiah would be killed], and thinks he had merely run out of arguments. If that is true, his words can certainly not be taken to express the contemporary Jewish positions, let alone those of an earlier age. (69)

The passages used to point to a pre-Christian idea of a dying Messiah son of Joseph:

  • Gen. 49:10; 49:23 ff.
  • Ezek. 21:30 ff.
  • The haggadic interpretation of the sacrifice of Isaac being associated with the Suffering Messiah.

Rowley again acknowledges that “not a few” scholars accept that a Messiah son of Joseph or Ephraim originated in pre-Christian times but he himself cannot accept that position because of the lack of explicit evidence in its favour. Besides, he points out,

even if it were established [that the concept was pre-Christian] it would be irrelevant to the question of the Suffering Servant, since the two conceptions are quite different. (69)

For Rowley, however, the most this evidence can establish is that

the seeds of the idea of the Messiah ben Ephraim are to be found in the Old Testament, and not that there was any formulated doctrine of a second Messiah beside the Davidic. Still less could it establish that the figure of Is. 53 was in any way connected with Ephraim, or that the figure which is said to be referred to in these passages was that of a suffering Messiah.

Later rabbinic ideas saw the Messiah son of Ephraim/Joseph killed while defending Jerusalem in a war against Gog and Magog, with particular reference to the pierced one in Zechariah 12:10.

There is, however, no reference whatever to Ephraim, and no evidence at all that in pre-Christian days this had been related to any idea of a Messiah ben Ephraim. Still less is there any evidence that the Suffering Servant of Is. 53 had anything to do with the Messiah ben Ephraim. For neither in this Servant song nor in the others is there any suggestion of the Servant engaging in warfare, or dying in battle. (71)

The Necessary Evidence for a Suffering Messiah son of Joseph

We saw earlier inferences from the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs that a Messiah son of Joseph would gather the tribes of Israel back to Palestine but be killed in battle against the heathen nations attacking them. But such a messiah, Rowley points out,  does not appear to be the sort of figure we see in Isaiah 53. Rowley refers to another scholar’s view that the Messiah of Ephraim/Joseph grew out of speculation about Isaiah 53 and the messiah “cut off” in Daniel :24-27, but again remarks that the final narrative has little in common with Isaiah 53 and is all post-Christian.

What is wanted, but what has not yet been produced, is clear evidence

(a) that the Messiah ben Ephraim was a formulated conception in pre-Christian days,

(b) that Is. 53 was either then or later associated with the Messiah ben Ephraim,

(c) that the Davidic Messiah was identified with either the Messiah ben Ephraim or with the Suffering Servant in Jewish thought, either in pre-Christian or in post-Christian days, or

(d) that the conception of the Messiah ben Ephraim is a relevant background for the Gospels, which are at pains to connect Jesus with the line of David.

That a suffering deliverer was expected in pre-Christian days may be established from Is. 53, and that the piercing of a sufferer should herald the dawn of the expected age may be established from Zech. 12:10. What remains to be shown, however, is that Jewish thought had been concentrated on these passages in relation to the messianic hope in the way it had been concentrated on the Davidic Messiah, and that there had been any serious integration of these passages along with the others in a single whole. (72)

Messiah in the Book (Similitudes/Parables) of Enoch

Similarly, Jewish ideas of the messiah found in 1 Enoch 90:38 (compare Jeremias’s discussion summed up at A Pre-Christian Jewish Suffering Messiah (2)) are alien to the concepts we read of in Isaiah 53.

Other writers have claimed that in 1 Enoch we have evidence for the bringing together of the three concepts of the Son of Man, the Messiah, and the Suffering Servant. It is undeniable that the terms Son of Man and Anointed One, or Messiah, are found here, and that some of the language of the Servant songs is echoed in this work. It is frequently held that the work has been interpolated, and the references to the Son of Man are regarded as secondary accretions. Even if we give these passages the benefit of the doubt, several questions have to be faced before we can rely on this work to establish the thesis that the three terms had run together before the time of our Lord. (74 f.)

After discussing debates over whether the terms Son of Man, Messiah and Suffering Servant in Enoch refer to a collective people or to an individual (some would say with Enoch himself), even if we accept that they all refer to an individual person,

an equation of the figures indicated with either of the two Messiahs of later Jewish thought is not simple. For this is no Messiah ben David or Messiah ben Ephraim, but rather a transcendental figure who should be the leader and head of the kingdom, the crystallization of the Danielic personification in a concrete person, who should come from above. (76)

Moreover, states Rowley, there is nothing in Enoch’s Son of Man passages to indicate that he is a descendant of David or Joseph, or to indicate that the Son of Man will be killed.

Yes, Rowley concedes, there are some Son of Man passages in Enoch that depict him with the same qualities as found in Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, but again he returns to the same argument we set out at the beginning of this post:

The fact that something is predicated of the one figure which is predicated of the other does not involve the conclusion that the two are to be identified. (78)

Examples of the links:

Common attribute Son of Man in 1 Enoch Davidic Messiah Servant
Endowed with righteousness 46:3
Isaiah 9:6
Isaiah 11:4 f.
Jer. 23:5 f.
Zech. 9:9
Isaiah 42:6
Isaiah 53:11
Chosen 46:3 Psalm 2:6 f.
Psalm 89:28
Isaiah 42:1
To raise up kings and see kings fall down before him. 46:4
62:3, 9
Psalm 2:2 f., 10-12
Psalm 72:10 f.
Psalm 89:28
Isaiah 49:7
Isaiah 52:15

Rowley does not apply the analogy but I don’t think I am going too far in suggesting that he sees arguments making those identifications as succumbing to the same fallacy as the false syllogism that says:

Socrates has two legs;

An emu has two legs;

Therefore Socrates is an emu.

Whether that is a fair criticism of the pre-Christian suffering messiah concept I have not yet thought through.

It is unnecessary to pursue this argument further. None of this goes beyond a certain community of predicates, and none requires the identification of the persons. There is not the slightest suggestion that the Son of Man is of Davidic descent, and in so far as he has appropriated the attributes of the Davidic Messiah he may be said to have supplanted him, as the Messiah ben Levi supplanted the Messiah ben David under the Hasmonaeans, rather than to be identified with him. There is not the slightest suggestion of any suffering of the Son of Man comparable with the suffering which is the most notable feature of the Servant, and the claim that they are to be identified involves the assumption that the conception of the Servant has been as violently transformed as it has in the Targum of Jonathan. (79 f.)

The Evidence of the New Testament

Reading the gospel narratives as historical memories Rowley finds significance in the failure of the disciples of Jesus to connect  the idea of a Son of Man with a Davidic messiah, nor do they associate the Son of Man with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. That the disciples were dismayed when Jesus suffered and was executed is further evidence that there was no Jewish concept of a Suffering Davidic Messiah before Christianity. Of course we may find a number of reasons (that I will not elaborate here) to regard this argument as problematic.

How about just a small, esoteric group of believers?

Joachim Jeremias suggested that the pre-Christian view of a suffering and dying messiah was upheld by a some, by no means all or even many, Second Temple Jewish interpreters.

Rowley finds the same reply applies: there is no explicit or unambiguous evidence for anyone holding this view prior to Christianity.

Jeremias thinks this esoteric view was crushed by anti-Christian polemic. Had this been the case we should have expected the Church to appeal to it, and to preserve the memory of it. Yet it is as completely without trace in the New Testament as in Judaism. If there existed a small group of people who awaited a suffering Messiah, from whom Jesus received the idea, is it not surprising that not one of His disciples should have come from that group? (83)


There is no serious evidence, then, of the bringing together of the concepts of the Suffering Servant and the Davidic Messiah before the Christian era, or of the formulation of the doctrine of the Messiah ben Ephraim at so early a date, and the opinions of the leading authorities in this field cannot be overturned by any tangible evidence. On the other hand, there is tangible and positive evidence in the New Testament which is fatal to such a view. (85)

One more post to conclude this series

Manson, T. W. 1961. The Servant-Messiah. Cambridge University Press. (This is a later edition of the work used by Rowley)

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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One comment

  • A Buddhist
    2019-01-20 15:08:28 GMT+0000 - 15:08 | Permalink

    H. H. Rowley, in referring to Jesus as “our Lord”, reveals his Christian biases. From this perspective, it is not surprizing that he wants to make Jesus’s teachings seem original. If Jesus’s teachings were not original, then he would be less extraordinary – and less worthy, from the Christian perspective, of being called “our Lord”.

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