Search Results for: william scott green messiah


2019-05-07

Were Jews Hoping for a Messiah to Deliver Them from Rome? Raising Doubts

by Neil Godfrey

My post “The Chosen People Were Not Awaiting the Messiah” led to more diverse comments than I had been expecting and I thought I should cover a little more of Akenson’s grounds for his view that there is no unambiguous evidence for popular messianic expectations as part of the background to the life of Jesus — or anytime between 167 BCE and 70 CE. I was attracted to this aspect of his larger discussion in Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds because it is a view I have addressed several times over the years here. It’s always nice to meet someone who agrees with us. Akenson could be wrong, of course, but I find the balance of evidence (or rather lack of evidence) coupled with what I think is sound analysis leaves me thinking that it is a myth that many Jews were eagerly anticipating a messiah to deliver them from the Romans. (The myth arose, I suspect, as a spin-off from the post 70 CE Christian narrative.)

So here is a fuller account of Akenson’s argument.

These arguments, which are representative of a type, appear to suggest that the best way to learn about the messiah in ancient Judaism is to study texts in which there is none. — William Scott Green

The Messiah concept in the “Old Testament” is a peripheral idea that has no clear relationship with our concept of a future conquering and redeeming saviour figure. “Anointed ones” (translatable as “messiahs”) referred to kings (good and bad ones), to prophets and mortal high priests. Yet scholars have tended to look for some notion of the later Christian and/or rabbinic idea of messiah in other places in the Tanakh where the word is not found. At this point Akenson makes a point and quotes a scholar I have also quoted several times to make the same point:

See the post Origin of the Myth that the Jews Expected a Messiah for a fuller discussion of the quote by Green.

Granted, there are such things as sub-texts and arguments-from-silence, but the forcing of Moshiah into places where the writers did not use the term is surpassing strange. As William Scott Green has noted, this forced exegesis seems to “suggest that the best way to learn about the Messiah in ancient Judaism is to study texts in which there is none.”

But what about the extra-biblical Judean writings between 167 BCE and 70 CE? Apart from the Dead Sea Scrolls there are only two surviving documents that mention the messiah. Of the passages in the Book of Enoch, or in those chapters (37-71 — the Similitudes or Parables) written during this period, Akenson writes

In two places (48:10 and 52:4), the term Messiah is used, but in a strangely subordinate form: as if referring to an archangel rather than to an independent figure. In the first instance, a judgement is announced against those who “have denied the lord of the Spirits and his Messiah,” and in the second, an angel explains to Enoch that at the final judgement Yahweh will cast a number of judgements, which will “happen by authority of his Messiah….” Apparently, in the latter case, Moshiah would not be an active participant in events, but rather, the guarantor of their authenticity.

Of the passage in the Psalms of Solomon,

In the Songs of Solomon, hymns number 17 and 18, there is found praise of “the Lord Messiah,” a future super-king of the Davidic line who will destroy Judah’s enemies and purge Jerusalem. Whether the voice here is closer to old-time classical prophecy or to later Second Temple apocalyptic rhetoric, is open to question. The clear point is that Messiah is a king who will reign in the manner of a powerful and righteous monarch. This is not a piacular or redemptive figure, but an Anointed One, in the same sense that King David was.

In sum, then, read more »


2016-07-30

Origin of the Myth that the Jews Expected a Messiah

by Neil Godfrey
William Scott Green
William Scott Green

I put Richard Carrier’s arguments on hold in this post in order to point out what another scholar I have not yet cited has had to say about what J. H. Charlesworth calls “the myth that Jews expected a Messiah and knew what functions he would perform.” I would even say William Scott Green‘s opening chapter, “Introduction: Messiah in Judaism: Rethinking the Question”, in Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era, is obligatory reading and discussion for anyone interested in this question.

Green’s chapter helped me identify much of the fallacious reasoning and unfounded assumptions that underpin all efforts I have encountered attempting to prove that Second Temple Jews gave much attention to messianic hopes. What we tend to see in the arguments is, in Green’s words, a form of “proof-texting” carried out to justify one’s a priori assumptions about Second Temple religion and attitudes. Worse, most of the arguments attempting to demonstrate a messianic fever are based on texts where there is no mention of the messiah idea at all and in spite of other clear and explicit statements in the documents to the contrary.

The irony here is that Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, and others who identify the fallacious presumptions scholars bring to their reading of the New Testament epistles fail to see that they share with many of those same scholars the same type of fallacy at the heart of this particular question.

Green’s chapter needs to be read in its entirety, but I single out a few sentences.

The major studies [of the messiah at the turn of the Christian era] have sought to trace the development and transformations of putative messianic belief through an incredible and nearly comprehensive array of ancient literary sources – from its alleged genesis in the Hebrew Bible through the New Testament, rabbinic literature, and beyond – as if all these writings were segments of a linear continuum and were properly comparable. Such work evidently aims to shape a chronological string of supposed messianic references into a plot for a story whose ending is already known; it is a kind of sophisticated proof-texting. This diegetical approach to the question embeds the sources in the context of a hypothetical religion that is fully represented in none of them. It thus privileges what the texts do not say over what they do say.

(Green 1987, p.2)

The term “messiah” has scant and inconsistent use in early Jewish texts. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Pseudepigrapha, and the entire Apocrypha, contain no reference to “the messiah.” Moreover, a messiah is neither essential to the apocalyptic genre nor a prominent feature of ancient apocalyptic writings.

(Green 1987, p.2)

The Myth’s Origins

So what has led to today’s situation where it is taken for granted that

“In the time of Jesus the Jews were awaiting a Messiah.” (Mowinckel, He That Cometh, p. 3)

“from the first century B.C.E., the Messiah was the central figure in the Jewish myth of the future” (Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979), p. xxvii.

“belief in the Messiah [is one of the four] good gifts which the people of Israel have left as an inheritance to the entire world.” (Klausner, Messianic Idea, p. 13)

Green’s explanation for this misguided state of affairs is that the academic study of “the messiah” derived not from an interest in Judaica but rather from “early Christian word-choice, theology, and apologetics.” First, he points to the problem faced: read more »


2012-06-17

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 2

by Neil Godfrey

What “Messiah” meant at the time of Paul and the earliest Christians

Continuing with notes from Christ among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism

by Matthew V. Novenson

.

The messianic idea

We saw in Part 1 that interpreters of Paul have confidently concluded that whatever Paul meant by χριστός he did not mean “messiah”, but modern studies of messianism have shown that the meaning of “messiah” remains an open question.

Understanding what was meant by “messiah” was much simpler throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Jewish and Christian scholars alike took for granted the existence of “the messianic idea” that was widely understood throughout the period of ancient Judaism. The evidence for this idea was not found in every text that made mention of a messiah, but it could be cobbled together by combining motifs from different documents.

So the Christian scholar, Emil Schürer, on the basis of the Apocalypse of Baruch and the fourth Book of Esdras, showed that this messianic idea entailed the following:

  1. The final ordeal and confusion
  2. Elijah as precursor
  3. The coming of the messiah
  4. The last assault of the hostile powers
  5. Destruction of hostile powers
  6. The renewal of Jerusalem
  7. The gathering of the dispersed
  8. The kingdom of glory in the holy land
  9. The renewal of the world
  10. A general resurrection
  11. The last judgment, eternal bliss and damnation

Jewish scholarship did not substantially differ, as seen from Joseph Klausner’s list of ingredients that make up the messianic idea:

  1. The signs of the Messiah
  2. The birth pangs of the Messiah
  3. The coming of Elijah
  4. The trumpet of Messiah
  5. The ingathering of the exiles
  6. The reception of proselytes
  7. The war with Gog and Magog
  8. The Day of the Messiah
  9. The renovation of the World to Come

Klausner conceded that no single text sets out this complex of ideas in full, but these points nonetheless are what the disparate texts mean when put together.

In other words, if a literary text lacks some of the pieces, that is the fault of the text, not of the messianic idea. The idea exists prior to and independently of the texts. (p. 37)

The messianic idea psychologized

What is more, in most modern accounts the messianic idea is described in specifically psychological terms: It is the force that animates the pious Jewish hope for redemption, either throughout Jewish history (in Jewish treatments) or at the time of Christ (in Christian treatments).

In this train we find discussions of the messianic idea arising out of a tenacious belief in a better future despite overwhelming troubles facing the present. Some authors have seen this as one of Judaism’s special gifts to the world alongside monotheism and ethical codes. Scholarly study has accordingly been less about the messiah figure than about the religious attitude and ideology that was the backdrop to various beliefs in such a figure.

The messianological vacuum

The concept of the “messianic idea” in Judaism started to unravel at the end of the Second World War with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scholars increasingly argued that the words for “messiah” and “christ” in the Second Temple period “had no fixed content” (De Jonge) and may even have had no special significance or meaning at all (James Charlesworth, Jacob Neusner, William Scott Green). They were labels that could be, and were, applied to a wide variety of persons and things. read more »


2017-02-03

Myth of popular messianic expectations at the time of Jesus

by Neil Godfrey
From http://jewishatheist.tumblr.com/post/32262109582/prayer-messiah-fail

I am copying here a post I just submitted on another forum, so with apologies to readers who have already seen this . . . .

This topic is not about “Jewish prophecies of the messiah’s arrival”. It is not about the second century Bar Kochba rebellion. Nor is it even about popular beliefs and attitudes at the time of the 66-73 CE Jewish war.

It is about the historical evidence we have or don’t have (that is the question) for:

  • widespread/popular expectations
  • of the appearance of a messiah figure to liberate Judea from Rome
  • in the early years of the first century, let’s say up to around year 30 CE

I often read and hear scholars and lay people alike saying that Palestine or the Jews generally were strongly anticipating a messianic figure to appear around the time when, lo and behold, Jesus happened to appear. This is so often said in a way that assumes it is a well-known and indisputable fact of history. But some years ago when I started looking for the evidence supporting this claim (I fully expected to find plenty) I found the task was not so easy. What was cited as evidence so often appeared to me to be vague, imprecise, ambiguous at best and very often simply not relevant — not the sort of data that historians usually like to use as foundations for hypotheses.

I have since been reassured that I was not crazy or blind by discovering several reputable scholars who do say as much: that there is scant to no evidence for

  • widespread/popular expectations
  • of the appearance of a messiah figure to liberate Judea from Rome
  • in the early years of the first century, let’s say up to around year 30 CE

I recently set out details of this [absence of] evidence in a series of blog posts responding to Richard Carrier’s arguments and supporting citations attempting to establish a popular messianic “movement” in early first century Palestine.

The details are covered in that series of posts but I will outline them here:

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Yes, there are messianic references found in some of these. But they are in fact very few compared with the total number of scrolls and surviving manuscript fragments. This relative “fewness” does not lead us to think that messianism was a particularly major preoccupation of the sectarians producing or using those scrolls (assuming “sectarians” of some sort were responsible for them).

Moreover, the messianic references that do exist do not, if I recall correctly, give any indication that a messiah was to appear “within a few years/generation” around the early first century (or any specific period). One could write of a doctrinal belief in a messianic future without being hung up about it and getting everyone around enthused to expect it to happen “any day now”.

Besides, one has to ask the extent to which the contents of the DSS throw a light on the beliefs and attitudes of the more general illiterate population.

Other Second Temple writings

The main criticisms — especially relative fewness of the references, and their generalised (nonspecific) character — raised re the DSS also apply here.

Often these writings speak of God himself directly acting in some future day of judgment. We are so accustomed to think of God doing this through a messiah that we sometimes read a messianic figure into these passages. But like the OT books, most prophecies about the “last days” do speak of God directly acting in the world and make no mention of a messianic intermediary.

Besides, is it not a giant leap to impute to the illiterate population at large certain emotional or psychological attitudes towards passages in these texts that attract our attention?

Were not those who read, studied and discussed such texts just a tiny fraction of a percent of a tiny fraction of a percent of the entire population?

The OT books

Much the same criticisms as above apply here, too. read more »


2016-08-02

Questioning Carrier and the Conventional Wisdom on Messianic Expectations

by Neil Godfrey

Here for convenience is an annotated list of the recent posts on “the myth of messianic expectations”.

1. Questioning Carrier and the Common View of a “Rash of Messianism” at the time of Jesus

Carrier’s claim “Palestine in the early first century ce was experiencing a rash of messianism” is introduced. His assertion that “The early first century ce was in their prediction window” is tested against his footnoted authority, “The Expectation of the End in the Dead Sea Scrolls” by John Collins.

2. Questioning Claims about Messianic Anticipations among Judeans of the Early First Century

Carrier’s claim that “That Jewish expectations of some kind of messiah in the early Roman Empire were widespread, influential, and very diverse . . . has been well established by experts on ancient messianism” is tested by examining seven of the nine “experts in messianism” cited by Carrier.

3. Questioning Carrier and the “Myth that the Jews Expected a Messiah” (#3)

An examination of the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gospels and various purported “messianic” figures (the Samaritan, Theudas, the Egyptian and the anonymous “imposter”) in Josephus. Argues that reading what Josephus does say about the prophetic role of these figures, as opposed to what he does not say about their supposed messianic role, has too often been overlooked.

4. Origin of the Myth that the Jews Expected a Messiah

I put Richard Carrier’s arguments on hold to point out what J. H. Charlesworth calls “the myth that Jews expected a Messiah and knew what functions he would perform.” I would even say William Scott Green‘s “Messiah in Judaism: Rethinking the Question” . . . is obligatory reading and discussion for anyone interested in this question.

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

Examines Carrier’s dismissal of Horsley, Freyne and Goodman’s views; shows Carrier inconsistencies in the application of his definition of “messiah”; and surveys Goodman’s analysis of the “ambiguous oracle” in Josephus and messianism in the first Jewish war with Rome, and the evidence for “messianism” between 70 and 132 CE.

6. Questioning Carrier: Was the Book of Daniel Really a “Key Messianic Text”?

Another look at origins of the “myth of messianic expectations” in the “apocalyptic hypothesis”; a companion argument to Green’s discussion in post #4 Origin of the Myth. Considers the evidence used to claim Daniel was a popular messianic text in the early first century. Also refers to evidence for attempts to calculate the time of the arrival of messiah from Daniel’s prophecies.

The posts also stress the difference between apocalypticism and messianism. Apocalyptic literature was for most part unconnected with messianic expectations.

Note, also, that there is no dispute about the existence of a wide variety of messianic concepts. In fact it is the research into these that has been a significant contributor to undermining the conventional view that Second Temple Jews were experiencing messianic fever.

 


2015-11-09

And now it’s Bart’s turn

by Neil Godfrey

One does expect a little better from someone who makes a living out of biblical studies and even charges audiences for his scholarly wisdom.

There was not a Jew on the planet who thought the messiah was going to be crushed by his enemies — humiliated, tortured, and executed.  That was the *opposite* of what the messiah would do.  To call Jesus the messiah made no sense — i.e., it was nonsense – virtually by definition.  

That’s according to Bart Ehrman in a recent blog post, Jesus and the Messianic Prophecies.

Has Bart Ehrman not yet caught up with the scholarship of a prominent Jew on early Jewish beliefs, Daniel Boyarin?

Suffering Messiah is a Very Jewish Idea

Or worse yet, the even earlier work of a most prominent Christian scholar, Martin Hengel? read more »


2012-04-28

The Facts of the Matter: Carrier 9, Ehrman 1 (my review, part 2)

by Neil Godfrey

Let’s sit down and look at the score sheet. Richard Carrier kicked 11 “errors of fact” at the net of Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist?

Carrier says he could have kicked many more but that it was getting dark and the referee told him he had limited time.

Since beginning to write this post I have learned Richard Carrier has posted his own reply to Ehrman. But I have avoided reading his response so as to continue with my own thoughts for my own “review” of Ehrman’s book.

Here are the “errors of fact” Carrier kicked at Ehrman’s book, in order:

  1. The Priapus Bronze
  2. The Doherty Slander
  3. The Pliny Confusion
  4. The Pilate Error
  5. The “No Records” Debacle
  6. The Tacitus Question
  7. The “Other Jesus” Conundrum
  8. That Dying-and-Rising God Thing
  9. The Baptism Blunder
  10. The Dying Messiah Question
  11. The Matter of Qualifications

Here are the “errors of fact” Ehrman attempted to defend, in order:

  1. The Priapus Bronze, or Cocky Peter (Or: “A Cock and Bull Story”) (in a separate post)
  2. The Matter of Qualifications
  3. The Pilate Error
  4. The Tacitus Question
  5. The Dying and Rising God
  6. The “Other Jesus” Conundrum
  7. “No Roman Records”
  8. The Doherty “Slander”
  9. The Pliny Confusion

That means goalie Ehrman stood there texting on his mobile while two went through uncontested:

  1. The Baptism Blunder
  2. The Dying Messiah Question

Keep in mind that these “Errors of Fact” in Carrier’s critique of Ehrman’s book are not the only, nor even necessarily the most, serious faults in Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? But I cannot cover everything in one post so I deal with these before moving on in a future post to the even more significant errors and fallacies of Ehrman’s work. read more »


2011-10-09

Popular Messianic(?) Movements Up To The Time Of Jesus and Beyond – Part 3

by Neil Godfrey
Samaritan sanctuary, Mount Gerizim
Image via Wikipedia

This continues from Part 2 where I continued discussing what Richard Horsley has to say about popular messianic movements in Israel up to the time of Jesus in Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs. In the last post I covered “social banditry” in Palestine (especially Galilee) and those who were looked upon as rightful kings in the early part of the first century.

What particularly interests me is the evidence that these movements represent popular messianism. Horsley is clear: there is no evidence of popular messianism before the time of Jesus. I have read many assertions that Josephus is describing messianic movements without explicitly describing them as such. But these assertions remind me of William Scott Green’s observation that many scholars have spent a lot of time studying messianism where the word is not found. The first clearest evidence we have of popular messianic hopes relates to the period after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 c.e. When we interpret movements before then as messianic are we guilty of reading later ideas back into an earlier period?

I do not deny that any of these pre-70 movements were messianic. They may have been. But what is the evidence? Are there alternative explanations that may fit the evidence (and the evidence for the origins of popular messianism) more economically?

This post addresses the Samaritan who led followers to Mount Gerazim, Theudas and “the Egyptian”. read more »


2011-07-31

Popular Messianic(?) and Bandit Movements Up To The Time Of Jesus and Beyond – Part 2

by Neil Godfrey
Samuel anoints David, Dura Europos, Syria, Dat...
Samuel anoints David: Image via Wikipedia

This continues from Part 1 where I began discussing what Richard Horsley has to say about popular messianic movements in Israel up to the time of Jesus in Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs. Previous posts addressed the concept of a future messiah among the literate elites. This post considers what Horsley has to say about the way messianic movements among the general populace grew out of the ancient popularity of the institution of kingship. I have only two reservations about Horsley’s argument:

(1) ancient Israelite kingship, especially the stories of popular elections of kings, was mostly biblical myth without historical basis;

(2) Horsley can do no more than assume that there was widespread messianic hope among the masses – he offers “little or no evidence” for this. The primary evidence he does offer is the sudden outburst of rebellions at the death of Herod and again prior to the war with Rome. He believes that such rebellions are evidence that messianic hopes had lain “dormant” in the minds of the people for many generations up to those times.

So the evidence is very thin. In my last post on this topic I referred to William Scott Green’s claim that evidence for messianic hopes up till the Jewish rebellion of 66-70 is not unlike a proof-texting exercise. It has long been assumed there must have been such a hope in order to make sense of “a historical Jesus.”

The Tradition of Popular Kingship? read more »


2011-07-24

Popular Messianic Movements Up To The Time Of Jesus – Part 1

by Neil Godfrey
Abimelech was a son of the great judge Gideon ...
Abimelech was a son of the great judge Gideon: Image via Wikipedia

This post surveys the evidence and questions the conclusions of Richard A. Horsley (with John S. Hanson) in Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus (1999) concerning messianic hopes and movements among the common people of Palestine up to the time of Jesus. It is some years since I first read this book, and my own views have since been modified by my studies of the contributions of “minimalism” (mainly through Thompson, Lemche and Davies) to what we can securely know about the history of Palestine in the centuries up to the Christian era. So it is interesting to return to Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs with that new understanding and to read the arguments again through more informed – and more critical – eyes.

In a couple of recents posts I shared Horsley’s presentation of the evidence we have for understanding of literary elites on the concept of “messianism” (and “Davidic messianism”) up to the early first century CE. Horsley rightly stressed the “other-worldly” theological nature of these ideas and how removed they probably were from the masses. While Horsley emphasized that these ideas were unrelated to popular ideologies, I am now embarrassed to have to say I did overstate his position on what the peasant masses did have on their minds. I had allowed by subsequent reading of ‘minimalist’ methodologies to interfere with what I recalled of his argument, and I have to now confess that he really did claim that the masses did have some “dormant” messianic hopes after all that were activated around the time of Jesus. (I will have to return to my earlier posts and re-write a few lines.)

But in my defence I will show in this post that Horsley’s assertion here is comparable to the assertions of scholars who concede that the gospels are so overlaid with myth, theology and literary artifices that they bury from view any historical Jesus, but we have to believe there was a historical Jesus behind it all just the same. Horsley’s evidence for popular messianic hopes supposedly unlike anything we find in the elite literature of the period rests squarely upon the assumption that the Old Testament stories of Judges and Davidic Kings were genuine historical eras. The link Horsley attempts to forge between those times and the period of Jesus is, I will argue, unnatural, speculative and without unequivocal evidence.

The Tradition of Popular Kingship read more »


2010-11-26

The Myth of a General Messianic Expectation in Jesus’ Time

by Neil Godfrey

It is standard practice to classify Jewish messianism as national, ethnic, political and material, and to mark Christian messianism as universal, cosmopolitan, ethical and spiritual. That Jewish anticipation of the messiah’s arrival was unusually keen in first century Palestine and constituted the mise en scène for the emergence of Christianity is a virtual axiom of western history. (p. 1 of Judaisms and Their Messiahs, my emphasis)

But there is little, if any, evidence for this “axiom of western history”!

The opening chapter of Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era, though over 20 years old, appears not to have been read or accepted among theological and other scholars who even now still argue that the generation of Jesus was possessed by expectations of a messianic deliverer. Many such scholars still argue strenuously that some of that generation reinterpreted the life, execution and post mortem psychic experiences of their renowned rabbi, Jesus, as the life, death and resurrection of the long awaited (but spiritual) Messiah. Sometimes even professorial insults will be directed at less learned individuals who dare question, and persist in asking to be shown, the hard evidence for this model.

But professorial insults notwithstanding, William Scott Green (the author of that opening chapter) is several times quoted in relatively recent publications by the renowned Thomas L. Thompson:

These arguments [for a general Jewish expectation of the advent of a Messiah around the time of Jesus] . . . appear to suggest that the best way to learn about the messiah in ancient Judaism is to study texts in which there is none. (Green in Judaisms and Their Messiahs . . . p. 6)

Green continues: read more »


2010-02-16

Did Jesus exist on youtube? Dismantling the “evidence” presented by James McGrath

by Neil Godfrey

21:20 Feb 16, Edited to add a quote from Mack in a book, edited by Neusner and others . . .

The following is presented by Dr James McGrath on his Did Jesus Exist Youtube video as fundamental evidence for the historical existence of Jesus. It is a standard line, almost a “historicists’ creed”, and it is factually false and and logically fallacious.

The reason that the crucifixion persuades most historians that Jesus was a historical figure is that a crucified messiah was in essence a contradiction in terms. . . .  It needs to be emphasized that we are talking about a dying and rising messiah. And the messianic expectations of Judaism around the time of early Christianity are well documented. And the whole notion of messiah is “anointed one” . . . . and this goes back to the practice of anointing kings and priests in ancient Israel. And in the case of Jesus the connection of the terminology of the term messiah with the claim to his having been descended from David shows they were thinking of a kingly figure. And nothing would have disqualified someone from seriously being considered possibly being the messiah as being executed by the foreign rulers over the Jewish people. That wasn’t what people expected from the messiah. And it makes very little sense to claim that the early Christians invented a figure completely from scratch and called him the messiah and said that he didn’t do the same things that the messiah was expected. Not only did he not conquer the Romans, he was executed by them. He did not institute and bring in the kingdom of god the way the people were expecting, and in fact Christians had to explain this in terms of Jesus returning to finish the task of what was expected of the messiah.

All of this makes much more sense if one says that there was a figure whom the early Christians believed was the messiah and that the early Christians were trying somehow to make sense of those things that don’t seem to fit that belief.

To dismantle this:

The reason that the crucifixion persuades most historians that Jesus was a historical figure is that a crucified messiah was in essence a contradiction in terms. . . .  It needs to be emphasized that we are talking about a dying and rising messiah. And the messianic expectations of Judaism around the time of early Christianity are well documented.

Well documented?

McGrath needs this to be true, since this central argument for historicity of Jesus depends on the Jews generally and deeply holding in a belief of an expectant messiah who was to rule as a new David. So what is the documentation that is apparently so abundant that it can be casually alluded to with a passing comment?

I have addressed the so-called “evidence” — and its complete absence — for such a belief at the time of Jesus in recent posts here and here. (Matthew’s gospel birth narrative is even structured on the assumption that there was no such general belief at that time.)

So it’s time for something a bit different. This time, from William Scott Green in the opening chapter of Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era, edited by Neusner, Green and Frerichs (1987).

The term “messiah” has scant and inconsistent use in early Jewish texts. . . .

The disparate uses . . .  offer little evidence of sustained thought or evolving Judaic reflection about the messiah. . . . . the term is notable primarily for its indeterminacy.

In view of these facts, one may legitimately wonder about the reasons for conceiving “the messiah” as a fundamental and generative component of both Israelite religion and early Judaism. One may wonder about the justification for the assertion that “from the first century B.C.E., the Messiah was the central figure in the Jewish myth of the future,” . . . . or for the widespread assumption that “In the time of Jesus the Jews were awaiting a Messiah.” One may wonder, in other words, how so much has come to be written about an allegedly Jewish conception in with so many ancient Jewish texts manifest such little interest. (pp. 2-4)

And there is another comment on this so-called “well documented” evidence for the expectation of a Davidic messiah at the time of Jesus. This one from chapter two in the same book, authored by Burton L. Mack:

Jacob Neusner has challenged a long tradition of scholarship by the addition of a single letter to the magical word messiah. Messiahs it now is. And the singular notion of “the” messiah is disclosed for what it always has been — a scholarly assumption generated by the desire to clarify Christian origins. (p. 15)

Should we not expect doctors who make definitive statements for the general public, and in an area of their speciality, to speak with an authority based on evidence and knowledge? Why are the public told in this video that a certain idea important for making the historicist case is “well documented”? Can any academic specialist in the area detail the evidence that Neusner, Mack and Green (and Fitzmyer from an earlier discussion here) have all missed?

Back to McGrath’s historicist case:

And nothing would have disqualified someone from seriously being considered possibly being the messiah as being executed by the foreign rulers over the Jewish people. That wasn’t what people expected from the messiah. And it makes very little sense to claim that the early Christians invented a figure completely from scratch and called him the messiah and said that he didn’t do the same things that the messiah was expected

Just one detail missing here. Only one. (Recently at work we had to laugh when we were trying to rationalize performance statistics, and in the process discovered a typo — someone had accidentally omitted a “1” that should have been included at the beginning of a 5 digit number. 19,500 should have been 119,500. I joke that we were only out by “1” — a mere detail.)

But James has effectively removed this one from the discussion by his preliminary remarks about the resurrection. The resurrection, being a supernatural event, is said to be off-limits from naturalistic historical enquiry. But historians can talk about the crucifixion.

This is how the presumption of historicism is made to prove itself. But the fact is that the early Christians spoke of the death and resurrection of Jesus; it was a two-sided singular event with the resurrection making sense of – being the very reason for – the crucifixion.

The historicist attempt to take this belief apart to understand it does not throw light on this belief. It’s like Douglas Adam‘s attempt to understand how a cat works by taking it apart — the first thing he has is a nonworking cat.

The obvious flaw in this argument (that no-one would have made up from scratch the idea of a messiah who had been crucified) is that the belief was NOT that a messiah had been crucified, but that a messiah had overcome crucifixion by the resurrection. The messiah did not do what the so-called Jewish messiah was supposedly expected to do, true. The Christian messiah did even greater things than the Jewish “Davidic” messiah! Jesus was greater than Moses, Elijah, Solomon and David. The Christian messiah conquered the spiritual kingdoms that ruled this world. This was a principle message of the first gospel, Mark. It’s hardly a negative concept. The idea of a greater spiritual realm and activity that surpassed and paled the hopes of the mere physical was nothing novel.

Scholars have written of the socio-psychological dynamics that may underlie the story of the possession of man by “Legion” (a demonic Roman army) and how Jesus cast Legion out and into suicidal pigs, an emblem of the 10th Legion occupying Palestine.

We know the attraction that paradoxes had among ancient philosophers and religious ideas. We also know the theme of paradoxical reversal was deeply embedded in the thought of the texts of the Hebrew scriptures. Mark’s gospel itself is riddled with such riddles and paradoxes. The blind see. The called flee. Food in abundance comes from a lack of food in a wilderness. Those who know Jesus best are the ones who fail to recognize him. Forsaking the world is the way to inherit the world. Death is the way to life. It was the same throughout Jewish religious narratives. The prisoners doomed to die are the one exalted to rule the kingdoms. The suffering servant Israel is destined to be the light to all nations. The cast out are the most beloved. The destruction of the physical temple is the way to the advent of the spiritual temple.

And the way to rulership and conquest is through death and suffering. It is an inevitable paradox that gave comfort to Jewish martyrs ever since the time of the Maccabean wars. The way to life was through death. God would exalt those whom the world abased. Have discussed this in some detail here.

The idea of a divinity with whom one could identify in the face of cruel losses and lacks in this world, and who had overcome death and suffering, and all the evil of this world, must have been one of the easiest sells. The idea that it must have been “hard” to sell is derived, I think, from the apologetic paradigm that attempts to “prove” the truth of its gospel message.

Such paradoxical reversals were a comfort to people without hope in this life. They were far from being stumbling blocks. They were gateways to hope. They were always the hope of martyrs from pre-Christian times.

There is no evidence at all that the earliest Christians were struggling to make sense of the death of Jesus. The death of Jesus first appears in the evidence as a fully formed and sensible part of the message of the resurrection overcoming death.

Historicist arguments fail to deal with this evidence. By taking it apart, pulling it apart to the extend that it is no longer the recognizable belief or evidence calling for explanation, the historicist argument is trying to make sense of a non-working cat.

The mythicist argument has the advantage of advancing the more probable or likely scenario that explains the evidence as it is, that deals with the earliest Christian belief for which we have evidence, and without destroying this evidence to make sense of it.

I titled this post, “dismantling the evidence of James McGrath”. It is McGrath who has dismantled the evidence we have of earliest Christian belief to deal with something quite unlike any early Christian belief for which we have evidence.

(to be continued . . . . )


James McGrath has also asserted that the earliest Christian belief was that Jesus was a man and not a divinity. I have yet to see evidence for this, too.