Search Results for: vespasian propaganda


2019-01-23

If we are going to move the Gospel of Mark to the second century . . . .

by Neil Godfrey
Bronze head of Hadrian found in the River Thames in London. Now in the British Museum. – Wikipedia

When we settle on a date for the composition of the Gospel of Mark soon after 70 CE and the destruction of the Temple by the armies of Vespasian and Titus, then it is only natural that we will want to study the lives and times of Vespasian and Titus. Perhaps the most significant political development that formed the backdrop of the generation that was the first to hear and reflect upon the Gospel of Mark was the dynamic thrust of Vespasian’s propaganda machine to demonstrate to the world that he was the rightful new emperor (burying in the hype the uncomfortable fact of his lowly and foreign origins), and a major plank of his propaganda efforts was the building up of the conquest of Judea into a major victory against a significant eastern threat to the empire.

Against such a backdrop our understanding of the Gospel of Mark as a counterimperial narrative, and our interpretation of the procession of Jesus to the cross as a mock-triumph.

If we prefer to see the Gospel being written at a time of persecutions, or at least fear and threat of persecution, then we may wish to place it in the 90s when and where some see the introduction of the Jewish synagogue curse being directed at Christians and where we may further see Domitian’s revival of the imperial cult.

But if we are toying with placing the Gospel in the second century, what we focus on then will depend how far into the second century we are prepared to go.

If we are working on the suggestions that our evangelist (let’s place him in Rome) was incorporating into his narrative some of what he had heard read in Josephus’s Antiquities, then we can place him anywhere in the mid and late 90s or early 100s. (We may prefer to settle on that date if we are persuaded by a reference found in Justin’s writings — let’s say as early as the 130s — that “memoirs of the apostles” spoke about Jesus nicknaming James and John “Sons of Thunder”, a detail found only in our Gospel of Mark.)

We may prefer to opt for a date closer to the mid century, let’s say later 130s or around 140s, if we think the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark 13 makes best sense as a reference to Hadrian’s efforts to set up a pagan temple complete with statue of Jupiter on the site of the old Jewish temple and to Bar Kochba’s “messianic” war supported by the rabbi Akiba.

If we are going to explore where different threads end up by placing the gospel so “late” then another background worth studying is Hadrian’s rule more generally. Hadrian was renowned for more than crushing the the Bar Kochba rebellion. More generally Hadrian promoted himself as a restorer and even second founder of the Roman empire itself. In the beginning of his reign he promoted himself as the god Mars and then in the later years he presented himself (through coins, for example) as the new Romulus, founder of the original Rome. Romulus was also believed to have been the son of the god Mars. Hadrian loved to travel, but he was doing more than site-seeing. He was presenting himself as a second founder of major cities such as Athens. Temples and monuments and processions and such pomp drove home his message about both himself and what he was doing in his restoring of the Empire and the Pax Romana. The imperial cult became especially important. People were expected to turn up and demonstrate their piety when his image was entering a city. When he entered a city or a temple he did so as a god manifesting himself to his subjects. He even identified himself with Jupiter himself, the head god of the pantheon. As Jupiter ruled Olympus, so the emperor, an embodiment of Jupiter, ruled the “world”.

We can look for the time period where we find the most bits of the puzzle seeming to fit and settle on that for the date of the earliest gospel. But such a method will always remain open to question. We need to do more than simply look for pieces that fit, or more likely look for ways to fit as many pieces as possible. Remember our ever-present bane of confirmation bias.

 

 


2018-11-30

Is Josephus Evidence that a Messianic Movement caused the Jewish War?

by Neil Godfrey

A historian specializing in the study of Josephus, Steve Mason, presents a case that the war that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple was not prompted by any messianic movement among the people of Judaea. Rather, Mason suggests that the prophecy of a ruler to come out of the east and rule the entire world was a product of hindsight and that there is little reason to think that there was a “messianic movement” propelling the Jews to rebel against Rome.

I can’t hope to cover the full argument set out by Mason in A history of the Jewish War, AD 66-74 in a single post but I will try to hit some key points from pages 111 to 130 here.

To begin. It is a misunderstanding to think that we can read the works of Josephus as if they were a chronicle of facts happily shedding light on the background to the rise of Christianity.

History as Tragedy

To get the most reliable data from Josephus we need to study his works in the context of other historical writings of his day. In that context it is evident that Josephus is writing a “tragic history” — a narrative that he presents as a tragedy, a form of narrative with which his Greco-Roman audience was familiar. As a tragedy Josephus seeks to elicit tears of sympathy from his audience by using all of his rhetorical skills to portray graphic suffering and misfortune. In War Josephus opens with the proud Herod whose hubris is brought low by the misfortunes that follow. The audience knows how the story ends and knowing that only adds to their awareness of the tragedy in each scene. The irony of temple slaughter at Passover time would have been as clear to Roman as to Jewish readers: Passover was known to have been the festival of liberation.

A tragedy needs villains and Josephus fills his narrative with an abundance of “robbers” or “bandits” who polluted the temple, just as per Jeremiah 7:11 said they would.

Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?

Josephus was in good literary company since we find the same motif being drafted by the Roman historian Tacitus when narrating the destruction of the central temple in Rome:

Thus the Capitoline temple, its doors locked, was burned to the ground undefended and unplundered. This was the most lamentable and appalling disaster in the whole history of the Roman commonwealth. Though no foreign enemy threatened, though we enjoyed the favour of heaven as far as our failings permitted, the sanctuary of Jupiter Best and Greatest solemnly founded by our fathers as a symbol of our imperial destiny . . . was now, thanks to the infatuation of our leaders, suffering utter destruction. (Hist. 3.72 — I am using my Penguin translation and not the one used by Mason)

Josephus blends Jewish and Greek literary motifs in his tragic narration (Mason, pp. 114-121). A stock motif in tragic narrative were omens of imminent disaster and ambiguous prophecies that would mislead the hapless victims.

Tragedy’s Stock Omens and Prophecies

A motif that was virtually universal in ancient historiography was that a change of ruler should be preceded by omens and prophecies. We see it in the history of Tacitus describing the ascent of Vespasian (I quote from LacusCurtius, Histories, Book 2.78- the extract is not quoted by Mason): read more »


2018-11-29

Did the Roman Emperors Use Josephus to Help Pacify the Jews?

by Neil Godfrey

The Caesar’s Messiah myth proponents appear to involve Josephus in some sort of conspiracy to pacify the Jews. Their primary method, according to their view, is that Josephus was involved in the creation of the Christian religion as a kind of pacifist-messiah cult to replace their traditional supposedly militaristic messiah cult said to be found in their Scriptures.

I recently had a difference of opinion with Joseph Atwill, author of Caesar’s Messiah, over whether Josephus’s history of the Jewish War was an “official” history. I had written that it was not an “official” history in the sense that it was commissioned or ordered to be written and vetted by the emperor. (The claim I was responding to was that “Josephus was employed to write the official history” and that is quite simply incorrect.) Joseph Atwill was nevertheless right to correct me insofar as I should have added that the emperor Titus, Vespasian’s son, at least did like Josephus’s history and ordered it published, at least according to Josephus’s own account. In his Life or autobiography Josephus boasted about his history of the Jewish War:

Now the emperor Titus was so desirous that the knowledge of these affairs should be taken from these books alone, that he subscribed his own hand to them, and ordered that they should be published; and for king Agrippa, he wrote me sixty-two letters, and attested to the truth of what I had therein delivered…

Why would Titus have done that if the Caesar’s Messiah theory of Atwill is correct and that history of the war apparently exposed the “truth” behind the gospels, that Jesus was a pacifist foil to Titus the conqueror?

Yet there were many other historians writing about that war at the time and Josephus compares his work with theirs:

Yet persons with no first-hand knowledge, accepting baseless and inconsistent stories on hearsay, have written garbled accounts of it; while those of eyewitnesses have been falsified either to flatter the Romans or to vilify the Jews, eulogy or abuse being substituted for factual record. . . .

Yet the writers I have in mind claim to be writing history, though beside getting all their facts wrong they seem to me to miss their target altogether. For they wish to establish the greatness of the Romans while all the time disparaging and deriding the actions of the Jews. But I do not see how men can prove themselves great by overcoming feeble opponents! Again they are not impressed by the length of the war, the vastness of the Roman forces which endured such hardships, and the genius of their commanders, whose strenuous endeavours before Jerusalem will bring them little glory if the difficulties they overcame are belittled.

However it is not my intention to counter the champions of the Romans by exaggerating the heroism of my own countrymen: I will state the facts accurately and impartially.

Josephus is telling readers what they would have expected to hear about other historians of the time, that they wrote flattering propaganda extolling the power and all-round superiority of the Romans while deriding the weakness and ineptness of their enemies, the Jews. Josephus, on the other hand, did point out certain failings of the Roman soldiers and the courage of his own countrymen. His own Judaeans, he writes, gave the Romans their money’s worth in order to win their victory.

The question must be asked, then, why did Titus, according to Josephus, prefer his work rather than one of the many other historians of the day? Why would Titus have ordered more widely disseminated a work that did not ostensibly flatter the Romans or denigrate the Jews?

I think Steve Mason in his study of the Jewish war gives a cogent answer to that question:

Why, then, might Titus have promoted Josephus’ work?

Titus was reportedly a man of the arts and letters (Suetonius, Tit. 3.2). Pliny’s dedication of his Natural History declares Titus an excellent judge of literature, with unmatched ability in oratory, letters, and poetic composition.226 Granted Pliny’s hyperbole, such interests might suffice to explain some level of support for his protege turned author Josephus. Titus recognized quality when he saw it, and might have preferred Josephus’ obviously knowledgeable account to the thin agitprop of the Flavianist hacks.227

Second, the obvious independence of Josephus’ War could have been useful. After all, Christians would exploit Josephus’ work precisely because it was so clearly Judaean that it could not be suspected of bias toward them (Chapter 1).

Third, after the war it was in the rulers’ interest to rehabilitate Judaeans, the dominant and traditionally stabilizing ethnos of southern Syria (Chapter 4). Would not such a mature political analysis by one of the region’s prominent aristocrats, written from realist premises, help everyone to settle down? Titus’ endorsement and broader dissemination of Josephus’ War could help to tamp down lingering hostilities and unproductive reprisals as in Alexandria and Antioch (cf. Ant. 12.122-24).

(Mason, pp. 129-130)

That to me sounds more likely than the Caesar’s Messiah hypothesis. Josephus was as prepared to point out failings of the Roman armies at times as well as the courage of his own people against them. read more »


2018-11-26

Telling lies for Jesus mythicism

by Neil Godfrey
[Josephus] was employed to write the official history that we have. The other histories from this period have been destroyed ruthlessly by the Romans. Josephus tells us this in very chilling passages how the Romans exerted complete control of the literature of this period. There were alternative histories of the Jewish war written, while the Romans rounded up the writers of those histories and executed them. They rounded up all the copies of those histories and destroyed them. That is to say they ruthlessly wiped out any alternative history, so that the only history we have is written by Josephus.” — Dr Rod Blackhirst, Lecturer in Religious Studies, La Trobe University

On my shelf I have a book titled Telling Lies for God by I.R. Plimer. I was a bit disappointed in it when I read it because I thought it was itself misrepresenting some of the apologist arguments and could have had more credibility by not sometimes garnishing the facts at hand.

Not long ago I took up a request to engage with a video on youtube, Caesar’s Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Christianity. The presentation contains so many exaggerations and falsehoods that it would take me forever to address in detail, but I did tackle some of them here and here. Some of the contributors interviewed, namely Dr Robert and Timothy Freke, did not make any extravagant claims, but others did — namely Joseph Atwill, Rob Blackhirst, John Hudson and D.M. Murdock/Acharya S.

One point I have not yet addressed in depth, however, and that is the claim I placed in the quotation box at the top of this post, the one made near the video’s beginning by Dr Rob Blackhirst. To fast forward to the conclusion, I am astonished that a serious academic employed at a bona fide university could mouth such total fabrication. Not a word of what is quoted is true, but that’s what he claimed for the “benefit” of viewers of the video.

Point #1. Josephus’s history of the Jewish war is not an “official history”. It was Josephus’s personal history that did not have to be submitted for approval to the emperor or his agents.

Point #2. We have no record to substantiate the claim that “other histories from this period [the period of Josephus in the time of Vespasian and Titus] have been destroyed ruthlessly” — or leave off the “ruthlessly” and just say “destroyed”. There is absolutely nothing in the sources that permits Rob Blackhirst to make that claim.

Point #3. Alternative histories were written? Romans rounded up their authors and executed them? These claims are absolute fabrication. There is not a shred of evidence in our records that any such things ever happened.

Not quite. There is another series of false claims from about the 17th minute. We hear the following: read more »


2018-11-25

Conclusion of feedback on the Atwill-Murdock video about the Roman Conspiracy to invent Christianity

by Neil Godfrey

In the previous post we ended with the Video’s fabricated claim that

12. Josephus tells us Romans rounded up writers of alternate histories and executed them. Only the official history of Josephus was to survive. All the copies of those alternate histories were destroyed.

This assertion is entirely fiction. There is no evidence for any of these claims, as far as I am aware, and I have read reasonably widely on literature in the time of the Flavian emperors. The history Josephus wrote was not an “official” history somehow “approved by” the authorities, either. It is quite unlikely that the Flavian emperor’s ever read or heard a reading of Josephus’s work. They had other propaganda and administrative issues to take up their time.

Other extravagant claims in the video are that the Roman authorities seized the holy books of the Jews from the temple, somehow implying that such an action was targeted at reducing the Jewish belief in a messianic leader to come and free them from the Romans. That, we saw, was also a misleading claim since the Jews held many other copies of the Scriptures and they probably never even read the actual copy deposited in the Temple to begin with. It was there as a sacred relic. Besides, belief in an imminent messiah, even if it existed (and we linked to evidence there was no such disturbing movement at that time) would not be quelled by removing texts from a mostly illiterate population. Josephus and other sources that inform us about the Jewish War and Roman military concerns inform us of other reasons for the Jewish was that had nothing to do with a so-called “messianic movement”. The video’s claims or inferences that the Flavian emperors (Vespasian and Titus) were confronted by widespread and regular Jewish uprisings are simply not true.

13. At one point we hear on the video: “All of the Roman Flavian historians record that Vespasian and family was the Christ.

I don’t know the basis for that claim but I know of not a single ancient historian that said the Vespasian family were “the Christ”. Josephus said there was a prophecy that a world ruler would come from Judea and that’s all there is. Josephus did not tell us the actual source for that claim, but it was a timely one to make to ensure his survival and to assist Vespasian in establishing his status as a rightful emperor. He used the propaganda to declare that he was a fulfillment of an ancient prophecy from the east, but the notion of a Jewish “christ” or “messiah” was alien and meaningless to him.

14. The video presentation points out that the Roman emperors and their bureaucracy were dedicated to enforcing the Roman imperial cult, so that the emperor was to be worshiped as a god. read more »


2018-10-27

Why and when “Mark” wrote the first gospel: a new explanation

by Neil Godfrey

We have another argument (I don’t mean evidence-free speculation) for when and why somebody sat down and wrote the first gospel, the one we know as the Gospel According to Saint Mark. I’m going to have to set several of these arguments (beginning with William Wrede and on up through Burton Mack, Dennis MacDonald, and most recently till now R.G. Price) and set all their key points of argument out in a table and compare.

I will try here to set out the main gist of Adam Winn’s case.

He begins with the date of its composition because on the relative date hangs his whole thesis. It was written, he believes, not soon prior to but after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Justifications for after and not before:

Some scholars say the gospel was written just prior to the destruction of the temple and point to some specific details in Jesus’ prophecy not being literally fulfilled; so “Mark” (I’ll call the author Mark henceforth for convenience) was recording a tradition that Jesus did predict the temple’s destruction.

Winn objects on two grounds:

  1. an overly literal emphasis on a reading of the prophecy (e.g. not one stone left standing on another) misses the nature and point of apocalyptic prophecies. They are never meant to be read strictly literally but for overall fearful impact;
  2. even if Jesus did predict the temple’s destruction it would be irrelevant to the question of whether Mark wrote before or after its fulfillment. In fact, it would be risky for the author to record it before the event because he could not have known if it was going to happen and he would know he could eventually lose the confidence of his audience if it didn’t. (Even during the siege of Jerusalem itself it was not clear that the Temple would finally be destroyed.) It is more likely that Mark wrote after the prophecy had been fulfilled when the prophecy would be vindicated among readers.

But there is a stronger positive argument Winn uses.

Winn sets out the arguments and evidence for the gospel being written in Rome and primarily for a gentile audience. I won’t repeat all of the details here. That’s point one.

Point two. We can know from Paul’s letters to gentile Christians that the temple of Jerusalem was simply not a thing in the everyday consciousness of gentile Christians. It was not discussed. It was not important for their beliefs. It never arose in Paul’s conversations with them. Yet — in the gospel of Mark there are several chapters given to addressing the temple, its authorities, its fate and theirs. From the time Jesus enters Jerusalem and is welcomed by “the people” through to his trial the temple, its destruction, and the demise of the authorities of that temple, is constantly before us. Even Jesus’ debates with the leaders are debates with those who bear responsibility for the temple’s doom, and those debates are concluded with a parable pointing to their bloody end.

So why? Why does Mark devote so much of his narrative to the fate of the temple and those responsible for its end in a gospel written to gentiles who heretofore had not thought much about the temple at all? It presumably had no theological significance for them. So why?

Theology of Victory

The answer, suggests Winn, lies in the propaganda the emperor Vespasian was so masterfully spreading throughout the empire after his and his son Titus’s victory in 70 CE. (I have written about this propaganda effort of Vespasian’s before so won’t go into details now.) In effect, we can say that Roman emperors ruled by divine right that was passed on through natural succession. But when the system broke down and a new leader arose through military conquest (as had Augustus before him) then the assumption was that the gods had given a special display of “virtue” or courage and manliness and strength to become the rightful ruler.

Vespasian not only defeated the last rival for the imperial chair but promoted his victory in Judea as a massive triumph, even declaring (falsely) that he had been the first to conquer that region. He displayed his greatness through this victory in statues, buildings, monuments of various kinds, and with stories spread of his miraculous powers (he healed the blind and restored a crippled man’s hand) and divine-scale beneficence (he fed a hungry Rome from his own largesse in Alexandria, Egypt). There were other miracles and wonderful acts that I won’t list here at this time.

So what had happened? Vespasian had overthrown the god of the Jews! To prove it all the loot from the temple was now in Rome. Jewish captives were marched by their hundreds in his triumphal procession. The temple of the Jews was destroyed and that proved that Vespasian’s gods had been more powerful, had subjected the god the Christians had looked to.

Suddenly the temple, now destroyed, became a problem for many Christians. This is the inference that Adam Winn draws. If Christians were not popular before this time then one can imagine pagans concerned for their souls trying to bring them back to normalcy by taunting them over the fate of the Jewish god.

And so Mark got to work. A story needed to be created to assure the flock that all was not lost, but that Jesus, the Son of God, really was more powerful and had in fact turned the tables on these ignorant fools boasting in their victory.

I have many things to write about and will add more to this post in due course.


Winn, Adam. 2018. Reading Mark’s Christology Under Caesar: Jesus the Messiah and Roman Imperial Ideology. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.


 


2016-08-16

How the Roman World Received the News of Jerusalem’s Destruction

by Neil Godfrey

Just as I finished reading Steve Mason’s A History of the Jewish War, AD 66-74 an article Why Did Vespasian and Titus Destroy Jerusalem? by David Gurevich appeared in TheTorah.com (h/t Jim Davila’s PaleoJudaica). Gurevich’s views make an interesting comparison with Mason’s.

Both align with the view that the emperor Vespasian presented the destruction of Jerusalem as a major victory against a most significant threat to the Roman imperium in the East so that both he himself and his successor son Titus would be feted as the preservers of Roman glory and even as the ones who expanded her empire. The year 69 is infamous as the “Year of the Four Emperors”, being blighted by civil war in the wake of Nero’s suicide, and since Vespasian was from a social class lower than the aristocracy he was not the obvious choice for the one who would restore order and stability to the empire. But by presenting his and his son’s destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, and by his subsequent establishment of Judea as a brand new province, Vespasian was able to present himself as not only the restorer of a stable peace but even as the pair who expanded Roman power and grandeur.

In reality ….. well, let’s not dwell upon the reality at this moment of the excitement of restoration of peace and expanding imperial fame.

Before CNN, Al-Jazeera and Twitter emperors relayed their messages through public displays, monumental constructions and coinage.

Public Displays:

Triumphal marches through the city of Rome were not awarded for the mere police-duty of bringing a few wild dogs to heel. But if such a police-duty could be presented as something much more than that, as even an expansion of imperial boundaries and the defeat of an existential threat from the barbaric Orient, then one would have to be supra-human to resist such a temptation. Triumphal processions displayed graphic images of the mighty Roman armies destroying the cities, homes and persons of the aliens; they displayed the vast wealth of treasures captured; and the displayed prisoners, including the enemy leader who was doomed to be executed at the end of the Triumph.

triumph

Monuments: read more »


2016-07-30

How Do You Spot a Messiah? — Myth of Jewish Messianic Expectations continued

by Neil Godfrey

I continue to examine the arguments mounted in favour of the view that Jewish messianic expectations at the time of the founding of what became Christianity as set out by Richard Carrier.

Even ‘John the Baptist’ (at least as depicted in the Gospels) was a mes­sianic figure (e.g. Jn 1.20; Lk. 3.15), or otherwise telling everyone the messiah would arrive in his lifetime (Mt. 3.1-12; Mk 1.1-8; Lk. 3.1-20; Jn 1.15- 28). And he was enormously popular (the Gospels and Acts claim so, and Josephus confirms it), thus further exemplifying the trend of the time. This messianic Baptist cult may even have influenced or spawned Christianity itself (see Element 33). The cult of Simon Magus might likewise have been promoting its own messiah. Acts certainly depicts Simon Magus as a mes­sianic pretender (Acts 8.9-11), again with enormous popularity, just like the others in Josephus. The historicity of this Simon has been questioned, but the historicity of his worship as a divine being has not.26 If the biblical account of him reflects the truth (of the historical man or the celestial demi­god he once was) he would be another example confirming the same trend. (Carrier 2014, p. 71)

Previous posts have alerted us by now to the flaws in appealing to the New Testament for supporting evidence that the NT was itself a product of one of many messianic movements in the early first century CE. Once again we see the proclivity to find messianic underlays in any figure who happens to be popular or speaks of the future, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Two of the scholars I have quoted in previous posts are Richard Horsley. and Sean Freyne. Their works are included in the volumes that Carrier himself cited as supports by specialists in this field for the common view about messianic expectations. So how does Carrier respond to their views?

Horsley still insists these are not messianic movements, but that assertion depends on an implausibly specific definition of ‘messiah’ (or an excessively irrational denial of obvious inferences): see my discussion of definitions (§3). Similarly in Sean Freyne, ‘The Herodian Period’, in Redemption and Resistance (ed. Bockmuehl and Paget), pp. 29-43: like Horsley, Freyne is only skeptical in respect to an over-restrictive definition of ‘messiah’: whereas given my definition, his evidence completely confirms my conclusion. The same can be said of Martin Goodman, ‘Messianism and Politics in the Land of Israel, 66-135 C.E.’ in Redemption and Resistance (ed. Bockmuehl and Paget), pp. 149-57.

That is, with a little unfortunate muddying of the waters and an appeal to overly-restrictive definitions and obvious inferences. As for inferences, what we have seen in this series so far is that all the evidence for messianic movements has been inferential from data that is anything but obvious. Recall Geza Vermes made the same claim, that “obviously” such and such would have been interpreted in a certain way, but then proceeded to set out four other possible interpretations!

Carrier supplies his own definition of what he means by messiah and to my mind it is no different at all from what Horsley and Freyne themselves accept. The problem is not in an “overly restrictive definition” but in an overly-liberal approach to seeing messiahs in the writings even when no mention of such a figure is present. As we saw, for example, with the rebel Athronges at the time of Herod’s death, we read twice of his interest in wearing a crown but nothing at all about an anointing. An attentive reading of Josephus’s description demonstrates that Athronges is emulating Herod as a king and there are no hints of any messianic pretensions. And so forth for all the other figures, as we have discussed in previous posts.

To be clear, here is Carrier’s definition of messiah:

I shall mean by messiah (the Hebrew word of which ‘Christ’ is a translation) any man in fact, myth, or prophecy who is (a) anointed by the Hebrew God to (b) play a part in God’s plan to liberate his Chosen People from their oppressors and (c) restore or institute God’s true religion. This means ‘anointed’ in any sense then understood (literally, figuratively, cosmically or symbolically), ‘liberate’ in any sense then claimed (physically or spiritually), ‘oppressors’ in any sense then identified (whoever or whatever they may be) and ‘religion’ in the fullest sense (cult, mores, sacred knowledge, and the resulting social order)— and I specify only ‘play a part’, not necessarily bring to fruition. All Jewish kings and high priests were, of course, ‘messiahs’ in the basic sense of being anointed to represent God. But here I shall mean a messiah conforming to (a) through (c). Yet I do not assume there must be only one messiah of that kind. Neither did the Jews . . .

I’ve seen some scholars question or deny that the Jews had any prior notion of a messiah before the advent of Christianity. But such a denial is accomplished only by proposing an implausibly hyper-specific definition of ‘messiah’, then showing no such thing was previously imagined, and concluding ‘the Jews had no prior notion of a messiah’. This is a textbook fallacy of equivocation: start with a term defined one way, then end with the same term defined in a completely different way, often without noticing a switch has been made. To avoid this, I shall stick to my minimal definition, since I am certain anyone meeting criteria (a), (b) and (c) would have been regarded by at least some ancient Jews or Judaizers as a messiah. I attach no other baggage to the term— no particular eschatology or scheme of liberation. Jews of antiquity were clearly quite flexible in all such details, as everyone agrees . . .

(Carrier 2014, pp. 60-61)

I doubt that Horsley, Freyne or Goodman would have any problem with that definition. Forget quibbles over semantics and precise meanings. The problem is that Carrier’s definition itself is thrown to the winds when looking for evidence of popular fervour for the appearance of a messiah as defined by Carrier with the result that the de facto definition becomes “anyone who commands a popular following”. Even if the context and details described point to a quite non-messianic figure (on the basis of Carrier’s definition) it does not matter.

In other words, even though Carrier insists that a messianic figure must be defined by “a through c”, if a figure conforms only to b and/or c then the most essential component, a, the anointing, is assumed to have been present. Of course it is the most essential detail that we should look for first.

Martin Goodman
Martin Goodman

Carrier does not name the scholars who “deny that the Jews had any prior notion of a messiah before the advent of Christianity”. Even Carrier concedes that messiahs were common enough in Jewish ontologies as kings and priests; and as I have demonstrated in my previous posts scholars such as Horsley and Freyne, far from denying the Jews any pre-Christian notion of a messiah, do indeed address the references to messiahs in the inter-testamental writings.

Since Carrier introduces another name I did not cover in earlier posts, Martin Goodman, I think this is a good time to quote some of his article that Carrier finds objectionable. The chapter is titled “Messianism and Politics in the Land of Israel, 66-135 C.E.” I did not use it earlier because as we can see it applies to the late first century and early second.

Goodman seeks to answer the question

how many Jews in Judaea shared … beliefs about the imminent arrival of the messiah, and what impact such beliefs had on the political actions which led Judaean Jews into two disastrous wars against Rome, in 66-70 C.E. and 132-5 C.E.

Goodman responds to William Horbury (Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ) as one of the more influential exponents of the idea that

  • Jews of Jesus’ day were waiting for a messiah;
  • this expectation was so strong that it was a significant factor in leading to the war with Rome;
  • and the reasons the evidence for these two beliefs is so scanty are
    • the sources have been lost with time
    • and Jewish authors (esp Josephus) suppressed the evidence of messianic hopes among their people.

read more »


2011-11-14

Sifting fact from fiction in Josephus: John the Baptist as a case study

by Neil Godfrey
Palace of Machaerus
Machaerus: According to Josephus it was controlled by Herod's enemy but the same Josephus? says Herod still used it as his own! Image by thiery49 via Flickr

The Jewish historian Josephus writes about both genuine historical persons and events and mythical characters and events as if they are all equally historical. Adam and Vespasian, the siege of Jerusalem and the last stand at Masada, are all documented in a single work of ancient historiography.

Is there some method or rule that can be applied to help us decide when Josephus is telling us something that is “a true historical memory” and when he is passing on complete fiction?

Is Genre the answer?

We cannot use genre as an absolute rule. Genre can offer us some sort of guide to the intentions of the author. But Josephus is no better than Herodotus or the historical books of the Jewish Bible when it comes to freely mixing mythical accounts and historical memory within the same ostensibly historiographical scrolls. Genre can deceive the unwary. The myth of Masada has long been accepted as “historical fact” largely because it forms a literary and ideologically aesthetic conclusion to the demonstrably historical report of the siege and fall of Jerusalem. Some information used by Josephus is known without any doubt to be historical because it is independently witnessed by both archaeological remains and external — “controlling” — literary witnesses. But archaeology has also given us reason to believe that the numbers of sieges and conquests of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the sixth century was doubled for literary-theological reasons. read more »


2011-07-12

Jesus out-spitting the emperor

by Neil Godfrey

An interesting thing happened to me while I was on my way to write this post this evening. (I was intending to expand on the discussion relating to another post but now have something much more interesting to write about.) I saw a reference online to a scholarly article that was suggesting that Mark’s account of Jesus’ healing the blind man by spitting on him may have been written in response to the rumour circulating that Vespasian had not long before performed the same miracle by spitting. Was Mark drawing the readers’ attention to a contrast between Vespasian using the miracle to declare his universal authority and Jesus using it to lead into his message about humble service?

Eric Eve of Oxford had the article published in New Testament Studies in 2008, titled “Spit in your eye: the blind man of Bethsaida and the blind man of Alexandria“.

Eric Eve knows scholars have offered multiple reasons to consider the story a fiction: read more »