Category Archives: Religion

Better Informed History for Atheists — Scholars assess the Two Jesus Parallels

A week ago James McGrath alerted readers to a new post by Tim O’Neill of History for Atheists commending it for its take down of “amalgam Jesus” theorists for supposedly uncritically and emotionally concocting excuses to disbelieve in a historical Jesus. It has taken me a week since that alert but I have finally caught up with O’Neill’s Jesus Mythicism 4: Jesus as an Amalgam of Many Figures. His primary target is one L. Aron Nelson a.k.a “Aron Ra” 9 whom he presents as someone bearing

all the hallmarks of someone who has educated himself on the subject, without much idea of what is scholarly and credible and what is not.

Scholarly discussion at XTalk (Crosstalk) on the parallels between Jesus ben Ananias and Jesus of Nazareth was active in 2003 and again in 2005.

With that introduction we should expect to be informed of some of the scholarly responses to the ensuing arguments he critiques. (To avoid an over lengthy post I will focus on but one point in O’Neill’s essay and that will be his rebuttal of the claim that the Jesus of the gospels was to some extent based on Jesus of Ananias in Josephus’s account of the Jewish War, written some time between 74 and 79 CE. Other points can be addressed separately if warranted.)

Despite O’Neill’s attempt to address one who in his eyes had not “much idea of what is scholarly” and “credible” in the eyes of scholars, O’Neill himself fails to indicate that he has any awareness of the relevant scholarly discussions, let alone that those scholarly discussions essentially undermine almost everything he writes. His own attempts at take-down arguments have gained no traction among scholars engaged with this particular question. In this post I will provide the evidence from scholars that they do find the parallels significant and worthy of serious discussion with some suggesting that one Jesus was indeed in part based on the other.

Here is the Josephus passage with the key areas to be compared in red.

The Whiston translation of Josephus’ War of the Jews (6.300-309)

But, what is still more terrible, there was one Jesus, the son of Ananus, a plebeian and a husbandman, who, four years before the war began, and at a time when the city was in very great peace and prosperity, came to that feast whereon it is our custom for every one to make tabernacles to God in the temple, began on a sudden to cry aloud, “A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds, a voice against Jerusalem and the holy house, a voice against the bridegrooms and the brides, and a voice against this whole people!” (Jer.7:34 LXX) This was his cry, as he went about by day and by night, in all the lanes of the city. However, certain of the most eminent among the populace had great indignation at this dire cry of his, and took up the man, and gave him a great number of severe stripes; yet did not he either say any thing for himself, or any thing peculiar to those that chastised him, but still went on with the same words which he cried before. Hereupon our rulers, supposing, as the case proved to be, that this was a sort of divine fury in the man, brought him to the Roman procurator, where he was whipped till his bones were laid bare; yet he did not make any supplication for himself, nor shed any tears, but turning his voice to the most lamentable tone possible, at every stroke of the whip his answer was, “Woe, woe to Jerusalem!” And when Albinus (for he was then our procurator) asked him, Who he was? and whence he came? and why he uttered such words? he made no manner of reply to what he said, but still did not leave off his melancholy ditty, till Albinus took him to be a madman, and dismissed him. Now, during all the time that passed before the war began, this man did not go near any of the citizens, nor was seen by them while he said so; but he every day uttered these lamentable words, as if it were his premeditated vow, “Woe, woe to Jerusalem!” Nor did he give ill words to any of those that beat him every day, nor good words to those that gave him food; but this was his reply to all men, and indeed no other than a melancholy presage of what was to come. This cry of his was the loudest at the festivals; and he continued this ditty for seven years and five months, without growing hoarse, or being tired therewith, until the very time that he saw his presage in earnest fulfilled in our siege, when it ceased; for as he was going round upon the wall, he cried out with his utmost force, “Woe, woe to the city again, and to the people, and to the holy house!” And just as he added at the last, “Woe, woe to myself also!” there came a stone out of one of the engines, and smote him, and killed him immediately; and as he was uttering the very same presages he gave up the ghost.

Tim O’Neill associates the argument with Richard Carrier and appears not to be aware that Carrier was presenting a well-known observation among professional scholars.

Here at least we have someone called Jesus who is obviously not Jesus of Nazareth and his story has at least some parallels with elements in the Jesus stories. The argument that these parallels indicate derivation and that the story of Jesus was in part based on that of ben Ananus is articulated in detail by … Richard Carrier

Carrier actually credits the argument to two other highly renowned scholars, Theodore J. Weeden, Sr. and Craig Evans:

Indeed, even how Mark decides to construct the sequence of the Passover narrative appears to be based on the tale of another Jesus: Jesus ben Ananias, the ‘Jesus of Jerusalem’, an insane prophet active in the 60s ce who is then killed in the siege of Jerusalem (roughly in the year 70). His story is told by Josephus in the Jewish War, and unless Josephus invented him, his narrative must have been famous, famous enough for Josephus to know of it, and thus famous enough for Mark to know of it, too, and make use of it to model the tale of his own Jesus. Or if Josephus invented the tale then Mark evidently used Josephus as a source. Because the parallels are too numerous to be at all probable as a coincidence.86 Some Mark does derive from elsewhere (or matches from elsewhere to a double purpose), but the overall scheme of the story in Josephus matches Mark too closely to believe that Mark just came up with the exact same scheme independently. And since it’s not believable that Josephus invented a new story using Mark, we must conclude Mark invented his story using Josephus—or the same tale known to Josephus. . . . There are at least twenty significant parallels (and one reversal)…

86. Theodore Weeden, ‘Two Jesuses, Jesus of Jerusalem and Jesus of Nazareth: Provocative Parallels and Imaginative Imitation’, Forum N.S. 6.2 (Fall 2003), pp. 137- 341; Craig Evans, ‘Jesus in Non-Christian Sources’, in Studying the Historical Jesus (ed. Chilton and Evans), pp. 443-78 (475-77).

(Carrier, 428-29)

Given the tone of Tim O’Neill’s study up to this point a reader will expect to be led to a conclusion that “Carrier’s parallels” (they are in fact the parallels presented by scholars in the peer-reviewed scholarly literature) are going to be proved nonsensical or at best without significance. Will O’Neill’s rebuttals equally apply to two highly notable New Testament scholars, Weeden and Evans?

Carrier’s list of parallels are derived from Weeden so in the interests of presenting as fully as possible what is found among the peer-reviewed scholarly publications I will give here Evans’ list of parallels from another essay of his (I do not yet have access to the one Carrier cited): read more »

Revising the Series “A Simonian Origin for Christianity”, Part 3

The previous post concluded with

. . . at a minimum, the Saturnilians are addressing the same kind of issues we see in addressed in Paul’s letters. At a maximum, . . . 1 Corinthians could be providing us with a window . . . on the Saturnilian church sometime between 70 and 135 CE.

Continuing . . . .

What we would have in Galatians is not Paul’s version of events but Saturnilus’ version of Paul.

There have been biblical scholars who rejected—and not for religious reasons—the Galatians version of events and, on some points, were willing to accept that of Acts. 

The Real Paul

If in the Pauline letters someone—whether Saturnilus or someone else—has made Paul the recipient and bearer of a new gospel i.e., the Vision of Isaiah, it would mean that our knowledge of the real Paul is more questionable than ever. The widely accepted rule in New Testament scholarship has been to give Paul’s letters the nod whenever their information conflicts with that of the Acts of the Apostles, especially concerning Paul himself. His information is first-person and earlier than Acts. The author of Acts seems to be more ideologically-driven than Paul. So Paul’s account in Galatians 1:1-2:14 of how he came by his gospel and became an apostle is considered more accurate than what Acts says about the same matters. Likewise regarding Paul’s account of how in the presence of James, Peter and John he defended his gospel and received their approval of it. But this preference for the Galatians account of events takes a hit if it was in fact written by someone like Saturnilus who was looking to promote the gospel he had projected onto Paul. What we would have in Galatians is not Paul’s version of events but Saturnilus’ version of Paul.

There have been biblical scholars who rejected—and not for religious reasons—the Galatians version of events and, on some points, were willing to accept that of Acts. Alfred Loisy was one:

The legend of Paul has undergone a parallel amplification to that of Peter, but on two different lines: first, by his own statements or by the tradition of his Epistles designed to make him the possessor of the true Gospel and of a strictly personal mission for the conversion of the Gentile world; and then by the common tradition for the purpose of subordinating his role and activity to the work of the Twelve, and especially of Peter regarded as the chief instrument of the apostolate instituted by Jesus.

Relying on the Epistles and disregarding their apologetic and tendentious character, even in much that concerns the person of Paul, though this is perhaps secondary, criticism is apt to conclude that Paul from his conversion onwards had full consciousness of an exceptional calling as apostle to the pagans, and that he set to work, resolutely and alone, to conquer the world, drawing in his wake the leaders of Judaic Christianity, whether willing or not. And this, indeed, is how things happened if we take the indications of the Galatian Epistle at their face value. There we encounter an apostle who holds his commission from God only, who has a gospel peculiar to himself given him by immediate revelation, and has already begun the conquest of the whole Gentile world. No small claim! (Galatians i, 11-12, 15-17, 21-24; ii, 7-8).

But things did not really happen in that way, and could not have so happened…

Interpret as we may the over-statements in the Epistle to the Galatians, it is certain that Saul-Paul did not make his entry on the Christian stage as the absolute innovator, the autonomous and independent missionary exhibited by this Epistle. The believers in Damascus to whom Paul joined himself were zealous propagandists imbued with the spirit of Stephen, and there is nothing whatever to suggest that he was out of his element among them. Equally, he was quite unaware at that time of possessing a peculiar gospel or a vocation on a different level from that of all the other Christian missionaries. That idea he certainly did not bring with him to Antioch, where he found a community which others had built up and which recruited non-Jews without imposing circumcision. For long years he remained there as the helper of Barnabas rather than his chief... (La Naissance du Christianisme, ET: The Birth of the Christian Religion, translation by L.P. Jacks, University Books, 1962, pp. 126-7)

My hypothesis supports Loisy’s claim that the real Paul was commissioned as an apostle in the same way that other early missionaries were: by being delegated for a mission by a congregation which supported him. And that the real Paul’s gospel was no different from theirs: the kingdom of God is at hand and Jesus will be coming to establish it. But if that is the way the real Paul was, why does Acts try to take him down a notch? read more »

Justin Martyr Answers a Second Century Jesus Christ Mythicist

We return here to the question of the Testimonium Flavianum, the passage about Jesus found in our copies of Antiquities of the Jews by the first century Jewish historian Josephus.

Not many years back Earl Doherty wrote for this blog:

Trypho

Finally, there is the question of what is meant by Trypho’s remark in Justin’s Dialogue (ch.8):

But Christ—if he has indeed been born, and exists anywhere—is unknown, and does not even know himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint him, and make him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves . . .

As I discuss at length in Appendix 12 of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, the typical historicist argument over this passage is that Trypho “is arguing that Christians invented a false conception of Christ and applied it to Jesus” (so Eddy and Boyd in The Jesus Legend, p.170). But the language is far from this specific. And it is not Trypho who is assuming Jesus existed, but Justin, who is creating the dialogue and putting into Trypho’s mouth what he himself believes and to further the argument he is constructing.

Eddy and Boyd, whom Doherty is addressing, do acknowledge that “some scholars interpret Trypho as denying that Jesus existed” but they do not identify any of those scholars. Louis Feldman is the first scholar I have encountered. One would expect a seriously critical discussion to have cited the scholars alluded to and not vaguely left the reference as an unidentified “some”.

But it does suggest that Justin is countering something that contemporary Jews are claiming, and the quotation is sufficiently ambiguous to suggest even to a committed historicist scholar like Robert Van Voorst (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.15, n.35) that “This may be a faint statement of a non-existence hypothesis, but it is not developed . . . ” (It is not developed because that is not part of Justin’s purpose.) The “groundless report” may allude to an accusation that the entire Gospel story with its central character was indeed fiction.

Interestingly, another highly respected scholar on Josephus, Louis M. Feldman, wrote thirty years earlier, presumably without any conscious awareness of a Christ Myth debate, the following:

A point that has not been appreciated thus far is that despite the value that such a passage would have had in establishing the credentials of Jesus in the church’s missionary activities, it is not cited until Eusebius does so in the fourth century. This is admittedly the argumentum ex silentio, but in this case it is a fairly strong argument against the authenticity of the passage as we have it, especially since we know that Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century (Dialogue with Trypho 8) attempted to answer the charge that Jesus had never lived and was a mere figment of Christian imagination. Nothing could have been a stronger argument to disprove such a charge than a citation from Josephus, a Jew, who was born only a few years after Jesus’ death.

(Feldman, 182)

Feldman in none of his writings of which I am aware expresses any doubt about the historicity of Jesus. On the contrary, he even argues (in the same work quoted above) that the Testimonium Flavianum should be treated as the earliest non-Christian evidence for Jesus.

What I find of some significance is that a scholar seemingly unaware of any debate over the historicity of Jesus interprets the words Justin puts into the mouth of Trypho, and of equal significance, of course, the arguments Justin used to affirm that what he had to say about Jesus was not based on a “groundless report” or “invention”.


Feldman, Louis H. 1982. “The Testimonium Flavianum: The State of the Question.” In Christological Perspectives: Essays in Honor of Harvey K. McArthur, edited by E. Berkey and Sarah A. Edwards, 179–99. New York: Pilgrim Press.


Here’s an idea: Treat Believers with Kindness, not Contempt

Another one well worth thinking about from Valerie Tarico:

Decent people don’t jeer at others who are functioning poorly in some part of life.

With religious belief holding such an outsized influence on our society, it is reasonable that atheists, humanists and other freethinkers push back against religious superstitions, outdated social scripts and archaic rules. But one way we often do this is by ridiculing believers themselves, which is less reasonable. . . . . 

The post is on Valerie Tarico’s blog: Treat Believers with Kindness, not Contempt

The Gospel of John as a form of Jewish Messianism? (Part 2)

To continue from the first part first part of this post:

The Double Bind

For the similar quandary on the question of Jesus as the Messiah in Pauline scholarship Reynolds directs readers to a section of Novenson’s Christ Among the Messiahs; coincidentally the section he cites has been set out in an earlier post here: Christ among the Messiahs — Part 1.

Thus, on the question of Jesus as the Messiah, Johannine scholarship finds itself in an interesting place not unlike that of Pauline scholarship. Johannine scholars, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, have recognized the Palestinian Jewish nature of the Gospel of John, but by and large, they have understood John’s Christology as a corrected, theologized, or Christianized version of Jewish messianology. Meanwhile, scholarship on Jewish messianism has acknowledged the diversity of early Jewish messianic expectation, but at the same time, the Fourth Gospel is almost never referenced as an example of this expectation. This situation appears counterintuitive, but there may be ways to move beyond the apparent impasse.

Jewish “High Christology” Preceded Christianity

The first instance of a move “beyond the apparent impasse” that Benjamin Reynolds discusses is the argument of Daniel Boyarin. For Boyarin, the “high christology” we find in the Gospel of John is all part of the same set of ideas that had been expressed in the Jewish works of the Parables of Enoch, 4 Ezra 13 (and 2 Baruch). In these Jewish texts we read of a messianic figure who

  • is preexistent
  • judges the wicked
  • is the Servant of the Lord
  • is seated on the Lord of Spirit’s throne

But let’s read Boyarin’s own words:

The proposal being advanced in this paper is that at least since Daniel and almost surely earlier, there had been a tradition within Israel that saw God as doubled in the form of an old man and a younger human-like figure, sharing the divine throne (or sharing, rather, two equal thrones). Although not necessary for the present argument, my guess is that this doubling of the godhead within much of Israel’s tradition goes back to the original El/Y’ merger. The vision of Daniel 7 . . . represents this tradition . . . .

After introducing the Similitudes of Enoch and 4 Ezra 13 into the discussion as further evidence of this Jewish concept of a “second anthropomorphic divine figure” who is associated with the Messiah, Boyarin is persuaded that such Jewish literature should be seen as the backdrop for the divinity of Jesus:

It is this view of God, given full rein in Enoch, that explains the development of High Christology as fully explicable within Jewish religious history, with the enormous innovation on the part of the Gospels being only the insistence that the divine man is already here as a historical human being and not as a prophecy for the future. Apocalypse now! This provides, in my view, a much more appropriate historical explanatory model than one that depends on visionary experiences of Jesus on the Throne allegedly ungrounded in prior speculation, as per the view of, e.g. Larry Hurtado and others who advance similar views.

Ouch! I have been one of those who has been prepared to accept those “similar views”.

What Enoch can Teach us About Jesus“*

read more »

The Gospel of John as a source for Jewish Messianism? (Part 1)

The tendency within New Testament studies is not to consider that the Johannine perspective might possibly reflect a Jewish sectarian perspective, but to see John and the Johannine Jesus, who is Messiah, as anti-Jewish.

A recent publication with a challenging title and edited by Benjamin E. Reynolds and Gabriele Boccaccini is Reading the Gospel of John’s Christology as Jewish Messianism: Royal, Prophetic, and Divine Messiahs. How could that be? The Gospel of John is widely considered the most Christian-theologically advanced of the gospels and even anti-Jewish.

. . . in the Gospel of John, Jesus has descended from heaven, has been sent by the Father, is one with the Father, and is the only begotten of the Father. This Johannine portrayal of Jesus as the divine Son of God is thought to have been possible only in later Christian thought. . . .

. . . scholars do not deem John’s Christology to reflect Jewish messianic expectation, at least directly. Rather, John’s Christology is understood to reflect a Johannine version of the Synoptic Jesus set in the context of late first-century intra-Jewish diaspora dialogue and conflict or less specifically a Christianized or theologized development of Jewish messianic expectation.

. . . For many, John’s high Christology indicates its derivation from the community, which in turn negates its historicity. How much more problematic then is it to read the Gospel of John’s Christology as a form of Jewish Messianism? (16f)

Yet the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has exposed certain similarities between the Gospel of John and some form of early Judaism in Palestine.

The challenge for Johannine scholarship has been where to go and what to do after noting John’s relationship with early Judaism. (18)

Benjamin Reynolds suggests the reason scholars stop short after doing little more than remarking upon certain points in common is that to go further

means traveling into uncharted waters, into places that Johannine scholarship does not go, such as reevaluating the possibility of historical evidence in John’s Gospel, the context in which the Gospel was written, and the height of its Christology.

Reynolds can say that “scholars almost without exception” address the Gospel of John as an instance of “early Christian (and thus not Jewish) belief in the Messiah.”

Attempts at Using John as Evidence for Jewish Messianism

read more »

From Adapa to Jesus

Adapa Sumerian deity of healing, with healthy catch of fish
Creative Commons Attribution

That the gospels recycled themes, motifs, sayings, can be found across the Middle East from Mesopotamia to Egypt and stretching back millennia to before the Neo Babylonian empire and even before the time of any Jewish Scriptures will be of no surprise to anyone who has read The Messiah Myth by Thomas L. Thompson.

Of the myth of Adapa and the South Wind “the earliest known version is a Sumerian text from Old Babylonian Tell Haddad”, made available by Cavigneaux in 2014. I have part translated, part paraphrased the opening section of Cavigneaux’s French translation of the often broken Sumerian text, and added a distinctive note on one comment that I found particularly interesting.

In those distant days …

After the Flood had swept over,

and brought about the destruction of the land …

The world is reborn

A seed of humanity had been preserved …

Four legged animals once again widely dispersed …

Fish and birds repopulated the ponds and reedbeds …

Herbs and aromatic plants flowered on the high steppe …

The state is born

An and Enlil organized the world …

The city of Kish became a pillar of the country …

Etana becomes king

Then the elected shepherd …

Founded a house …

The South Wind during his reign brought blessings …

Humanity without a guide

Humanity did not have a directive …

[Nobody knew how to give or follow orders]

The Story of Adapa begins

[A loyal devotee of Enki he goes fishing in the quay to supply his master’s temple in Eridu.]

In later exorcistic texts … the quay (Akk. kārum) is a trope for the liminal space between worlds.

At the New Moon he went up to go fishing

Without rudder he let the boat go with the flow

Without pole he went up the stream

On the vast lagoon …

[He is capsized by the South Wind]

He curses the South Wind …

And broke the wings of the South Wind …

Jesus stills storm. Interestingly the South Wind was said to be beneficial; it appears to me that Adapa’s technology, apparently directed by the power of his words, was being frustrated by the South Wind.

The narrative is thus a reference to the destruction of the old world and the restoration of the new, through a Flood or through water bringing about the end of one world and nourishing the emergence of the new. As Thompson observes in The Mythic Past new worlds emerge through parting waters (Creation, Noah, Exodus, Elijah-Elisha, Jesus’ Baptism/heavens divided).

Adapa has a special gift. Though mortal, he has power over words, or rather his words have power over the world. Adapa will become the great mythical sage of scribes, of all who can with the magic of words change the face of the earth and the organization of society: engineers, architects, legislators, ….

We are familiar with astronomy and astrology being all one branch of knowledge in these times; similarly magic and medicine were indistinguishable at this stage. The skills of the scribes, the amazing feats they accomplished with words, appear to have been supernatural gifts.

After Adapa by merely speaking causes the wind to cease the supreme god is astonished and invites him up to heaven. Adapa’s personal god, however, warns Adapa not to accept certain gifts [bread, drink, a coat] that will be offered to him there but to only accept an anointing. The chief god laughingly tells Adapa that he has just refused the gifts that would have given him eternal life.

And so forth.

We see here a story opening with the water, a flood, separating the old and the new. We see the wise hero wielding power over the elements, even stilling a “storm”, by his mere commands. Others are amazed at his ability. In this case, it is the gods who are amazed.

The plot of the story begins with the sage “going fishing”, a scene that is found to have mythical or metaphorical significance of life and death, entering a space between two worlds.

I find such literary comparisons interesting. I’m not saying the evangelists were adapting the myth of Adapa, of course. I am thinking about the way certain mythical tropes have been recycled and refashioned through changing human circumstances and experiences.


Cavigneaux, Antoine. 2014. “Une Version Sumérienne de La Légende d’Adapa (Textes de Tell Haddad X).” Zeitschrift Für Assyriologie Und Vorderasiatische Archäologie 104 (1): 1–41. https://www.academia.edu/26276183/Une_version_sum%C3%A9rienne_de_la_l%C3%A9gende_d_Adapa_Textes_de_Tell_Haddad_X_

Sanders, Seth L. 2017. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck. 42


 

Tragic Reminder of Christianity’s Power to Alienate and Crush Life

Chris Terry is a Christian in love with Christ. For me his post Amazement was a tragic reminder of how life-destroying that devotion can be. No doubt if Chris were to see this post he would respect that statement as containing a hidden irony: yes, I imagine he might say, we must become “dead” so that Christ can live in and through us.

“Apart from Christ”, he says, “there is absolutely nothing in me that was good.”

I don’t know if Chris is a parent. But I find it hard to imagine any healthy parent thinking their newborn babe, their growing child, having nothing good in or about them. Indeed, in Leaving the Fold, a book about deconversion from fundamentalism, psychologist author Marlene Winell suggests one activity that recovering believers might find helpful is to have a baby doll that they should come to see as themselves when they were an infant, and that whenever they feel overwhelmed by guilt or shame they should project themselves into that babe and reassure them that they are loveable and are loved. As a believing Christian one may, like Chris, be convinced that one does not “deserve God’s grace, mercy, and favor”, but that’s not how any sane parent rears their child. Of course our children are deserving of grace, mercy and favour. Growing up believing anything else is to grow up a psychological wreck.

The Bible is brought out, that book of often fascinating ancient literature that has had such a cultural impact throughout our history, and grotesquely seriously applied personally to the extent that a modern believer will come to see they are “dead in sins” and under the sway of Satan merely by being a part of wider society. If ever the believer comes close to a moment of sanity and begins to wonder what can be so wrong with being a normal and healthy part of the community just as themselves, without any put-on act of trying to be a light for Jesus, and then begin to think that their “sins” are miniscule compared with the mass murderers and child abusers out there, they will devoutly remind themselves as does Chris that that is the sin of pride “downplays their depth of guilt and corruption apart from Christ”. As Chris says,

The mistake is seeking to understand these issues through our own reason, rather than understanding all of life as God views it.

Such a God was responsible for biblical genocides. Even literally sacrificing one’s own children is something he has said is both an unspeakable evil and an ultimate sign of heroic righteousness – the trick is knowing which god to do it for.

No, Chris. You are not as evil and wicked and worthless as your god wants you to think you are without him. Without him you can flourish as a wholesome, good human being. Yes, with faults, some that can be quite harmful. But you are mature enough to know how to manage those potentials and to be a good force for liberation and humanity for others and even yourself, as many other humans really do without suppressing in fear one’s own nature and trying to replace it with some alien “put on” (the Bible’s expression for the process).

 

Questioning the Claim of a Pre-Christian Suffering Messiah

Gog and Magog attack Jerusalem and kill Messiah ben Joseph

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

Common attributes of Servant of the Lord and Davidic Messiah

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

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

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

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

read more »

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

H. H. Rowley

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

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

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

(Broadhead, 102)

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

(Jonge, 48)

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

(Jipp, 257)

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

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

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

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

Once more on Josephus, and questions arising . . . .

Clare K. Rothschild

As a follow up on my previous post about the care we need to take in judging certain passages in Josephus’s Antiquities to be inauthentic I quote below a small section from “‘Echo of a Whisper’. The Uncertain Authenticity of Josephus’ Witness to John the Baptist”, a chapter by Clare Rothschild in Ablution, Initiation, and Baptism: Late Antiquity, Early Judaism, and Early Christianity (2011). All bolding and line-breaks are mine.

Meier claims that both the “vocabulary and style” of this passage “are plainly those of Josephus.” Yet many scholars, most famously H. St. J. Thackeray, argue that Josephus uses one or more assistants (συνεργοί), or if not assistants then sources, for this section of the Antiquitates.9

The interesting detail is in the footnote (C.Ap = Against Apion; B.J. = Jewish War; A.J. = Antiquities of the Jews):

9  C. Ap. 1.50:

I kept a careful record of all that went on under my eyes in the Roman camp, and was alone in a position to understand the information brought by deserters. Then, in the leisure which Rome afforded me, with all my materials, in readiness, and with the aid of some assistants for the sake of the Greek (χρησάμενός τισι πρὸς τὴν Ἑλληνίδα φωνὴν συνεργοῖς), at last I committed to writing my narrative of the events (ET: H. J. St. Thackeray).

H. St. J. Thackeray even refers to this secretary as “hack!” See Josephus The Man and The Historian, 132. This statement refers to B.J., but B.J. became a source for A.J. Cf. also Ant. 1.7 where Josephus expresses hesitation over “rendering so vast a subject into a foreign and unfamiliar tongue” (ET: Thackeray). This thesis is old, but not, as many assume, debunked.

Mason, with Rajak, rejects Thackeray’s ‘secretaries’ theory (referring to it as “rightly rejected”) at Josephus, Judea and Christian Origins, 233–234. However, earlier in this essay collection (with specific but not exclusive reference to B.J.) Mason simply prefers a modified version of the Thackeray’s “literary assistants” as “co-workers and literary friends” (συνεργοί, C. Ap. 1.50) at Josephus, Judea and Christian Origins, 56 incl. n. 43.

Concerning B.J., Mason writes:

In Josephus’s enlistment of co-workers (συνεργοί) or literary friends in the capital for this massive project, we again witness a social affair and not the work of an isolated author. Another point raised by this notice concerns Josephus’s ability in Greek, since the collaborators helped particularly with the Greek sound (or possibly “language”: φωνή) (56).

Horst R. Moehring too assumes some intervention by assistants. In defense of and as a means of defining Josephus’ authorship, Moehring writes:

Josephus can justly be called the author, in the true sense of this term, of the works ascribed to him: even when he borrows and even when he uses assistants, he impresses his own personality upon his work (Novelistic Elements in the Writings of Flavius Josephus), 145.

See also

The discussion is likewise older than Thackeray:

In contrast, D. R. Schwartz argues for the presence of sources (and likewise absence of authorial or other editing) in the final volumes of A.J.; see Schwartz, Agrippa I: The Last King of Judaea, 2; idem, Josephus and Nicolaus on the Pharisees, 157–171.

Steve Mason

In a brief critical review of Schwartz’s project Mason (2003) counters Schwartz by echoing Thackeray:

Finally, Schwartz does not explain why the very section of Antiquities he would like to assign to incompatible sources, books 17 to 19, exhibits an impressive, if bizarre (mock-Thucydidean), stylistic conformity (Josephus, Judea, and Christian Origins, 112; Thackeray is acknowledged in n. 58).

Mason, however, also points out that it is dangerous to assume that Josephus himself was always consistent:

It is an uncomfortable fact for the more ambitious varieties of source criticism that Josephus has the authorial habit of repeating and contradicting himself, and of varying his terminology. These oddities call for analysis, but they may result from a variety of causes (e.g., sloppiness, rhetorical artifice, multiple editions, copyist’s interventions, and yes, sources); they do not ohne weiteres imply incompatible sources (112).

See also Shutt, Studies in Josephus, 68–75; Rajak, Josephus: The Historian and His Society, 235.

This essay’s question of the authenticity of the Baptist passage is related, but not identical to the question of the historicity of Josephus’ writings in general. The latter topic is of intense interest to the scholars named in this note as well as others; see Mason, Josephus, Judea, and Christian Origins, 105–113.

(From p. 257 of Rothschild’s ‘Echo of a Whisper’)


Rothschild, Clare K. 2011. “‘Echo of a Whisper’. The Uncertain Authenticity of Josephus’ Witness to John the Baptist.” In Ablution, Initiation, and Baptism: Late Antiquity, Early Judaism, and Early Christianity, edited by David Hellholm, Tor Vegge, Øyvind Norderval, and Christer Hellholm, 255–90. Berlin ; New York: De Gruyter, 255–90.


 

Interpolations in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews

Of special interest to many readers are questions over the authenticity of passages about Jesus and John the Baptist in Josephus’s Antiquities.

We know the tell-tales signs that a passage has been inserted into Josephus’s Antiquities:

  • It breaks the narrative flow of the surrounding passage;
  • It contradicts what is known about information from other sources or even elsewhere in Josephus’s work;
  • It can be out-of-place chronologically;
  • It appears to assume certain details are found elsewhere in Antiquities but that are not found anywhere else;
  • It introduces details in which Josephus appears to have no interest in the rest of his work.

But what if Josephus himself was responsible for those interpolations? A study by Vered Noam sets out evidence for thinking that Josephus was responsible for a series of additions to an otherwise completed narrative history. We know that textual “corruptions” were very common throughout antiquity (for some details see Forgery in the ancient world) so the question that we need to ask as we read Antiquities is: Is this interpolation by Josephus or some subsequent copyist?

To illustrate a case for an interpolation by Josephus into his own work I copy a table from Vered Noam’s Shifting Images (p. 69). Close to twenty years after completing the Jewish War (75-79 CE) Josephus modified and expanded that earlier narrative by adding — interpolating — new material in Antiquities (93/94 CE). (I have added the older passage location references — e.g. III. 7 — that many of us relying on Whiston translation know better than the Loeb Classical Library numbering.) read more »

Salvation through a Saviour’s Death — Another List

Recall our recent post, Why a Saviour Had to Suffer and Die? Martyrdom Beliefs in Pre-Christian Times. I have just come across a similar list making the same point: the blood of Jewish martyrs was believed to purify and cleanse the nation; the martyrs’ blood led to God’s forgiveness of the sins of the nation and the salvation of all.

Third, the martyrs suffered and died because of the nation’s sin (2 Macc 7:18, 32; 12:39–42; 4 Macc 4:21; 17:21–22), just as the high priest offered the animal’s blood for sin on Yom Kippur (Lev 1:1–7:6; 8:18–21; 16:3–24).

Fourth, the martyrs’ blood was the required price for the nation’s national purification, forgiveness, and salvation (2 Macc 7:32–38; 4 Macc 6:28–29; 7:8; 17:21–22), just as the animals’ blood was the required price for Israel’s forgiveness on Yom Kippur (Lev 16:30).

Fifth, the martyrs’ deaths provided purification and cleansing for the nation (4 Macc 6:28–29; 17:22), just as the animals’ blood provided purification and cleansing for Israel on Yom Kippur (Lev 16:16, 30).

Sixth, the martyrs’ deaths ended God’s wrath against the nation (1 Macc 1:1–64; 2 Macc 7:32–38; 8:5; 4 Macc 17:21–22), just as the animals’ blood when appropriately offered at Yom Kippur placated God’s wrath against the nation (Lev 9:1–16:30).

Seventh, the martyrs died as representatives of and vicariously for the nation (2 Macc 7:18, 32; 4 Macc 4:21; 17:21–22), just as the animals were representatives of and were substitutes for the sins of the nation on Yom Kippur (Lev 16:1–30).

Eighth, God judged sin and granted forgiveness through the martyrs’ deaths in the narratives (2 Macc 6:12–7:38; 4 Macc 17:21–22), just as YHWH judged sin and granted forgiveness through the animals’ deaths on Yom Kippur (Lev 16:1–30).

Wiley, Henrietta L.. Sacrifice, Cult, and Atonement in Early Judaism and Christianity: Constituents and Critique (Resources for Biblical Study Book 85) (Page 263). SBL Press. Kindle Edition.

It would seem to be the most natural thing in the world for the Judeans who could interpret their martyrs deaths in such a way to imagine a similar fate, at least equally beneficial, for a messiah. This, especially if any thought of earthly military victory was utterly out of the question.


Wiley, Henrietta L., and Christian A. Eberhart. 2017. Sacrifice, Cult, and Atonement in Early Judaism and Christianity: Constituents and Critique. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press.


R.G. Price on the “Temple Cleansing” by Jesus

R.G. Price has posted an article expanding on his argument he made in Deciphering the Gospels that the “cleansing the Temple” scene is derived from an imaginative interpretation of a passage in Hosea and has no basis in any sort of historical memory of anything Jesus ever did. Price goes beyond the argument itself, however, and believes it is strong enough to serve as a lever against the standards of mainstream studies of the historical Jesus. He concludes:

The relationship between the temple cleansing scene and Hosea 9 is real and it needs to be addressed by mainstream biblical scholars. It requires revising the models of mainstream scholarship and seriously reevaluating mainstream positions. The implications are vast and profound. The idea that it’s, “certain that Jesus did something that caused a disturbance in the Temple,” is no longer tenable. Anyone continuing to claim it is in light of this evidence should no longer be considered credible. Anyone who addresses the temple cleansing scene without addressing this literary dependency is either unaware of the most recent scholarship or intentionally ignoring it because they are unable to address it. From this point forward, addressing the temple cleansing without addressing its relationship to Hosea 9 is untenable.

That’s not how “mainstream biblical scholars” are going to respond, of course. Once they start with the “secure fact” that Jesus was crucified they need to find some grounds for that crucifixion that will not undermine whatever attributes he had that enabled his former followers to believe he was the messiah who had been raised to heaven. A misunderstood event in the temple serves that function. I think many of those scholars are well aware that the evangelists have culled words from the canonical Hebrew texts to colour the episode, but none of that seems to lead many to doubt the historicity of the event. The literary borrowings are said to reflect the deep meaning that the authors gave to the historical event that they are nonetheless sure must have happened.

Price has elaborated upon details in Hosea 9 that have surely inspired the three-fold steps of the gospel narrative:

  • The idea of seeing fruit on a fig tree (Jesus approaches the fig tree looking for fruit)
  • Driving sinners out of the temple (Jesus drives out the money-changers)
  • The withering of the fig tree (the fig tree is found to be withered)

I think the case can be made even stronger by adding the other passages that our evangelist author has drawn upon. In addition to Hosea 9 we have Isaiah and Jeremiah:

Mark 11:15-17 (New King James Version)

15 So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 16 And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. 17 Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations?[a]But you have made it a den of thieves.[b]

Footnotes:

  1. Isaiah 56:7
  2. Jeremiah 7:11

(From BibleGateway.com)

Toss in Zechariah 14:21 for good measure:

No trader shall be seen in the house of the Lord.

In an earlier post I did point to the same passage in Hosea (along with other passages expressing the fig tree metaphor) but without Price’s elaboration of how it fits the structure of the episode in Mark:

The same theme of being planted to bear good fruit and being cursed and uprooted for bearing bad, and the lesson to be godly at all times, is repeated in Jeremiah 8.13; 32:36-41; Hosea 9:10-14.

Michael Turton also referenced the Hosea 9:10 passage in his commentary on Mark.

It is that last passage, Hosea 9:10-14 that Price teases apart and highlighting the chiastic structure of Hosea’s matching the chiastic structure of Mark’s “fig tree – temple – fig tree” unit.

We can go farther, yet. So far we can claim that each scene and each sentence in the narrative of the cursing of the fig tree and cleansing of the temple can be sourced to Scriptural sources. That’s fine, but there is also the literary function of the double episode itself in the framework of the gospel’s plot. (Again, refer to that “earlier post” above for details.)

For further literary linkages see Michael Turton’s commentary on Mark.

Everything about the episode has been constructed from well-known canonical passages and constructed for narrative plot. The author of the Gospel of John presented a Jesus quite different from the one found in the Synoptic gospels and replaced the temple cleansing scene with the raising of Lazarus. It was the raising of Lazarus that prompted the Jewish authorities to do away with Jesus. The fourth evangelist treated the temple action as a theological or symbolic action that he was free to move to the beginning of the gospel. Tim has shown the reason for this move in one of his posts: it served as a replacement for the synoptic Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.

It is as clear that the story is a composite literary artifice. The only grounds for concluding that it does have some historical core are a belief that Jesus was crucified even though he was a righteous and good man consumed with zeal for God and purity of worship. That the theme of the righteous man being unjustly executed by authorities and becoming an atonement for others is another literary-cum-theological trope in literature (Jewish and Greek) is something to be discussed another day.