Category Archives: Messianism

Rabbinic Traditions that the Messiah was to Suffer? (6)

Image of cover of Barry Holtz’s historical survey of Rabbi Akiba

Before addressing some of the modern criticisms of Joachin Jeremias’s arguments we are attempting to set out JJ’s case as fairly as possible.

In this post we look at Jeremias’s case for an early rabbinic preservation and development of the tradition of interpreting the suffering passages Isaiah 53 as applying to the messiah.

Before we start with the new we must recap the previous posts. The witnesses to a Jewish, pre-Christian, belief in a Suffering Messiah that we have heard from so far:

  1. Ecclesiasticus,
    • Interpreted the Servant Songs in Isaiah as references to a new coming of Elijah as the messiah.
  2. the Testament of Benjamin,
    • Attributed to a messiah from the tribe of Joseph the atoning death found in Isaiah’s Servant chapters.
  3. and the Parables of Enoch.
    • Describe a messianic figure whose attributes are taken from Isaiah’s Servant passages.
  4. the Peshitta
    • A pre-Christian translation portraying Isaiah’s Servant chapters as references to the messiah.
  5. the Gospel of Luke
    • The mocking expression “the chosen one” most probably derives from pre-Christian
  6. Aquila’s leprous messiah translation of the OT
    • the messianic servant bore our sicknesses, that is, became a leper
  7. Theodotion’s second century translation
    • to counter Christianity he translated Isaiah 53 as a judgmental messiah
  8. Aramaic translation of Isaiah
    • evidence of the suffering messianic exegesis goes back to pre-rabbinic times

Here we look at Joachim Jeremias’s ninth witness for a pre-Christian Jewish teaching about a suffering servant messiah: the Rabbinical tradition that Isaiah 53 was interpreted messianically.

Only two passages in Isaiah (more specifically, Deutero-Isaiah, chapters 40 to 55) have been consistently interpreted messianically in early rabbinic literature. These are Isa. 42.1 ff. and Isa. 52.13 ff. 

The Isaiah 42 passage:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles.
He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.
A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth.
He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth: and the isles shall wait for his law.
Thus saith God the Lord, he that created the heavens, and stretched them out; he that spread forth the earth, and that which cometh out of it; he that giveth breath unto the people upon it, and spirit to them that walk therein:
I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles;
To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house. 

The other passage, Isaiah 52-53 contains passages of suffering:

13 Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high.
14 As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men:
15 So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider.

53:1 Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?
For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

In Jeremias’s words,

On the part of the Rabbis, likewise, only two Deut. Isa. servant passages have been understood in a messianic sense: Isa. 42.1 ff. and Isa. 52.13 ff.305 These are in fact the two passages which, so far, we have constantly found to be interpreted messianically. As for Isa. 42.1 ff, it is essential to note that only the messianic interpretation306 is found in rabbinic literature. The messianic interpretation of Isa. 52.13-53.12 by the Rabbis307 concerns both the passages of exaltation and the passages about suffering.308 In particular the reference of the passages about suffering in Isa. 53 to the Messiah emerges very early with the Rabbis, and simultaneously at several points.

R. Jose the Galilean

Jeremias on the testimony of Raymond Martini:

The context discusses the fact that Adam’s transgression caused countless sentences of death and puts the question: ‘What measure is the greater, that of mercy or that of punitive justice? Answer: the measure of goodness is the greater (here begins the addition of Raymundus Martini) and that of punitive justice is the smaller. How much more then will the king, the Messiah, who suffers and is in agony for the godless, justify all mankind, as it is written: “But he was wounded for our transgressions” (Isa. 53.5). The same is meant by Isa. 53.6: “But the Lord hath laid upon him the iniquity of us all”.’ (p. 72)

The first witness Jeremias calls in this particular context is Rabbi Jose the Galilean who wrote prior to A.D. 135 and the second Jewish war with Rome. His testimony is not secure, however, since it comes to us from the thirteenth century Raymond Martini and our surviving copies of the source lack the passage Raymond Martini claimed he saw in the late 1200s. The passage that is said to have existed at that time in the Siphre Leviticus 12.10 and 5.17 recorded a saying by R. Jose the Galilean that a King-Messiah would justify all peoples by means of his own pains, suffering and sorrows.

So what happened? Did the passage really exist and was it deleted after it came to the wider attention of the Christian world? Jeremias suspects that possibility on the basis of the “sharpness with which Judaism opposed the Christian exegesis of the passages about suffering in Isa. 53 . . . especially as elsewhere messianic exegesis of Isa. 53 seems to have been excised.” (p. 72)

This assumption gains a high degree of probability from the fact that similar statements have come down to us from a scholar closely connected with R. Jose, likewise a pupil of R. Akiba and, together with R. Jose, a teacher in Jabne and then in Lydda: R. Tarphon (Tryphon).

(pp. 72f)

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Jewish Pre-Christian Prophecies of Suffering Servant Messiah (5)

So far we have presented the following seven witnesses to a Jewish, pre-Christian, belief in a Suffering Messiah:

  1. Ecclesiasticus,
    • Interpreted the Servant Songs in Isaiah as references to a new coming of Elijah as the messiah.
  2. the Testament of Benjamin,
    • Attributed to a messiah from the tribe of Joseph the atoning death found in Isaiah’s Servant chapters.
  3. and the Parables of Enoch.
    • Describe a messianic figure whose attributes are taken from Isaiah’s Servant passages.
  4. the Peshitta
    • A pre-Christian translation portraying Isaiah’s Servant chapters as references to the messiah.
  5. the Gospel of Luke
    • The mocking expression “the chosen one” most probably derives from pre-Christian
  6. Aquila’s leprous messiah translation of the OT
    • the messianic servant bore our sicknesses, that is, became a leper
  7. Theodotion’s second century translation
    • to counter Christianity he translated Isaiah 53 as a judgmental messiah

The eighth piece of evidence is the Aramaic translation of Isaiah per the Targum on Isaiah. I quote Jeremias in full.

(θ) The Aramaic translation of Isaiah must be considered here from a chronological point of view, although the Targ. on Isaiah289 in its present form is not older than the fifth century A.D., for the text was fixed much earlier. The history of the oral tradition of translation, the result of which the Targ, represents, goes back to pre-Christian times.290 In particular it can be shown that the messianic exegesis of the servant texts Isa. 42.1 and Isa. 52.13 in the Targ, Isa. is old. Of the nineteen servant passages in the Heb. text (cf. p. 50) only three are messianically interpreted in the Targ, Isa.: 42.1; 43.10; 52.13;291 in all three texts the Heb. עבדי is rendered עבדי משיחא by the Targ.292 Our conclusions so far make it certain that the messianic interpretation of Isa. 42.1 and 52.13 rests upon ancient tradition (cf. pp. 57 ff.).293 The observation that the description of the Messiah as servant of God is to be found only in the pre-rabbinic layer of late Jewish literature (II Esd. [IV Ezra], Syr. Bar., cf. p. 49) but nowhere in rabbinic literature outside the Targ. (cf. p. 50), points to the same conclusion. Above all, the ancient date of the messianic exegesis of Isa. 52.13 in the Targ. is clear from the fact that Targ. Isa. explains the whole context Isa. 52.13-53.12 uniformly in a messianic sense; for the messianic interpretation of 53.1-12 cannot, as we saw (p. 64), have first arisen in the Christian era.

The Targ. Isa. 52.13-53.12 runs:

(52.13) ‘Behold my servant, the Messiah, will have success, will become exalted, great and strong.’

(14) ‘As the house of Israel have hoped in him many days when their appearance was overcast in the midst of the peoples and their brightness less than that of the sons of men;’

(15) ‘so will he scatter many peoples; for his sake kings will be silent, will lay their hand on their mouth; for they see what they had never been told and perceive what they had never heard of.’

(53.1) ‘Who hath believed this our message ? and to whom hath the strength of the mighty arm of the Lord thus294 been revealed ?’

(2) ‘And the righteous295 shall be great before him, yea, as sprouting branches and as a tree which sends out its roots beside water brooks, so will the holy generations increase in the land which was in need of him. His appearance is not like that of worldly things and the fear which he inspires is not an ordinary fear, but his brightness will be holy so that all who see him will gaze (fascinated) upon him.’

(3) ‘Then (he) will be despised and will (make to) cease the glory of all kingdoms.296 They will become weak and pitiable—behold, like a man of sorrows and as one destined to ills and as if the shekina had turned its face from us—despised and disregarded’.

(4) ‘Then he will make intercession for our transgressions and for his sake our iniquities shall be forgiven, though we were accounted bruised, smitten by Yahweh and afflicted.’

(5) ‘But he will build up the sanctuary which was desecrated because of our transgressions and surrendered because of our iniquities, and by his teaching his peace297 will be richly upon us, and when we gather to listen to him our transgressions will be forgiven us.’

(6) ‘We were all scattered as sheep, each one had gone his own way into exile; but it was Yahweh’s will to forgive the transgressions of us all for his sake.’

(7) ‘When he prays he receives an answer and hardly does he open his mouth, but he finds a hearing. He will deliver the strong from among the peoples to be slaughtered as a lamb, and as a ewe that is dumb before its shearers, and no one will (dare) to open his mouth and plead.’

(8) ‘He will bring our exiles home from their suffering and chastisement. Who can tell the wonders which will come upon us in his days? For he will remove the dominion298of the peoples from the land of Israel; he will lay to their charge299 the sins of which my people were guilty.’

(9) ‘And he will deliver over to hell the godless and those who have enriched themselves by robbery unto the death of (eternal) destruction, so that they who commit sin may not be preserved and may no longer speak cunningly with their mouth.’

(10) ‘And it pleases Yahweh to refine and purify the remnant of his people in order to cleanse their soul from transgressions. They shall see the kingdom of their Messiah; they will have many sons and daughters;300 they will live long, and those who fulfil the law of Yahweh will by his good pleasure have success.’

(11) ‘From subjugation by the peoples he will deliver their soul; they will see the punishment of them that hate them; they will be satiated by the plunder of their kings. By his wisdom he will acquit the innocent to make many servants of the law. And he will make intercession for their transgressions.’

(12) ‘Hereafter will I apportion to him the plunder of many peoples and he will distribute strong towns as booty, because he surrendered301 himself to death and brought the rebels under the yoke of the law. And he will make intercession for many transgressions and for his sake the rebellious will be forgiven.

It can be seen how, step by step, in Targ. Isa. 52.13-53.12 is depicted the glorious establishment of the messianic kingdom over Israel. The statements about the passion of the servant have been so radically and consistently removed by artificial contrivances that faint traces remain only in two places.302 Even allowing for the targumic translation technique, the section Targ. Isa. 52.13-53.12 stands out by the unusual freedom of its paraphrase in the context of Targ. Isa. 40-66,303 which elsewhere keeps more closely to the Heb. text. For this violent reinterpretation of the text there is only one possible explanation: we have here a piece of anti-Christian polemic.304 From the second century at the latest, Judaism was concerned in various ways to wrest Isa. 53 from its use by Christians as a christological scriptural text proof (cf. p. 75). The curious form of Isa. 53 in the Targ. shows to what extremes this attempt was carried through. The whole section was indeed messianically explained because the messianic interpretation of Isa. 52.13-53.12 was so firmly rooted that Targ. Isa. could not escape it, but the passages about suffering, in brusque contradiction to the original, are replaced by the current view of the Messiah. The fact that this thoroughgoing process of reinterpretation of Isa. 52.13-53.12 was applied to both the Greek (see pp. 65 ff.) and the Aramaic texts of Isa. 53 shows how firmly rooted in Palestinian Judaism was the messianic exegesis.

(pp. 66-71)

I would very much love to locate scholarly publications addressing Jeremias’s presentations, not only for, but especially against the thrust of his interpretation of the evidence. Any reader who can direct me in this quest please do so. read more »

Jewish Understandings of a Suffering Messiah before the Christian Era (4)

A free Vridar plug for a Rob Levinson book

The witnesses to a Jewish, pre-Christian, belief in a Suffering Messiah that we have heard from so far:

  1. Ecclesiasticus,
    • Interpreted the Servant Songs in Isaiah as references to a new coming of Elijah as the messiah.
  2. the Testament of Benjamin,
    • Attributed to a messiah from the tribe of Joseph the atoning death found in Isaiah’s Servant chapters.
  3. and the Parables of Enoch.
    • Describe a messianic figure whose attributes are taken from Isaiah’s Servant passages.
  4. the Peshitta
    • A pre-Christian translation portraying Isaiah’s Servant chapters as references to the messiah.
  5. the Gospel of Luke
    • The mocking expression “the chosen one” most probably derives from pre-Christian

6. Aquila’s “leper messiah” translation of the OT

Aquila’s agenda was to replace the Septuagint that was seen as allowing too much room for Christian interpretations of the messiah. We must accept that Aquila was drawing upon pre-Christian interpretations of the messiah “bearing our sicknesses” to justify his translation.

At the beginning of the second century A.D.263 Aquila completed in Palestine a new translation of the O.T. into Greek, designed to replace the LXX, as the latter offered Christians too much scope for the production of christological proof-texts.264 Aquila’s interpretation of the servant in Isa. 53 is to be inferred, inter alia, from his agreement with Test. B. 3.8 in the understanding of Isa. 53.5,265 and from his exegesis of 53.9 as referring to the judgement which the servant holds; messianism is implicit at both points.266 Further, Aquila translates (according to Jerome) נגיע (Isa. 53.4) by άφημένον267 (leprous, cf. Vulgate: quasi leprosum), a translation which is explained by the fact that the past participle of נגע in postbiblical Hebrew (Pu’al) and Aramaic (Pa’el) has the meaning ‘leprous’. For our question this translation is very illuminating because the exegesis ‘leper’ for Isa. 53.4 is met with also in rabbinic literature and is here referred to the Messiah.268

We are thinking of two places in B. Sanh. 98 which alone in the Talmud, along with a late Midrash text,269 have preserved the curious conception of a leprous Messiah.270 One text is B. Sanh. 98b, from circa A.D. 200.271 In an enumeration of messianic titles it is here said ‘And the teachers said “the leprous one”, those of the House of Rabbi272 said “the sick man” is his name, for it is written: “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, but we thought him stricken with leprosy (? גגו ), smitten and tormented by God” (Isa. 53.4)’.273 The other text is B. Sanh. 98a (alleged experience of R. Jehoshua’ ben Levi, circa A.D. 250), where it is described how the Messiah sits outside the gates of Rome among the wretched people who ‘bear pain’ (cf. Isa. 53-4),274 and alone among them unbinds and binds just one wound at a time, so that without delay he may fulfil the summons to save Israel.

Aquila’s translation of Isa. 53 permits us to trace back this reference of Isa. 53.4 to the leprous Messiah as far as A.D. 100.275 But we must go back yet a step further; the messianic interpretation of Isa. 53.4 cannot have arisen first circa A.D. 100, for quite apart from the messianic exegesis of Isa. 53 in Test. B. (cf. p. 57) and Peshitta (cf. p. 60), it is completely out of the question that the Jews should have begun to interpret messianically the passion texts of Isa. 53 only at a time when Christians were already using Isa. 53 as the decisive christological proof text.276

(Jeremias, 63 f.)

To see how Aquila’s translation is dated to the beginning of the second century scroll down to the end of the this post where you will see the footnote #263. read more »

Modern Scholars on Pre-Christian Jewish Beliefs in Suffering Messiahs and Atoning Deaths

I am currently sharing the evidence for a pre-Christian Jewish beliefs in a suffering servant, even dying, messiah set out by Joachim Jeremias, but in response to a reader’s comment I would like to list here some contemporary scholars who have presented similar or related arguments. I can only list the few whose works I have read and no doubt there are many more I am yet to discover.

In one or two of the linked articles below are citations by a contemporary scholar suggesting that the same evidence we have been reading from Jeremias is not “absolutely conclusive”; others, however, continue to see the evidence as more clear cut.

The first name to come to mind is the prominent Jewish scholar, Daniel Boyarim. Boyarim points out that Jewish ideas of a sacrificed messiah logically have to precede Christianity since the rabbis would never have copied the idea from the Christians.

Martha Himmelfarb discusses pre-Christian interpretations of a dying messiah.
Other scholars such as Jacob Neusner point to similar views but their works can hardly be said to be still “contemporary”.

Thomas L. Thompson, whose thesis on the nonhistoricity of the Genesis patriarchs at first excluded him from academia but has now become a mainstream view, has in various publications argued that

  • the first royal messiah died and David poured out a lament over him
  • the Pentateuchal high priest was an anointed, a messiah, whose death led to the return of certain exiles
  • the Davidic messiah figure is depicted as a pious man who suffers greatly, even faces death, yet is ultimately vindicated

Matthew Novenson in his book, Christ Among the Messiahs, rejects the idea that pre-Christian Jews could only conceive of a conquering royal messiah and argues that Paul, far from being completely at odds with Jewish thought of his day, uses χριστός within the range of conventional Jewish understanding of the Messiah.

Leroy Huizenga agues that the author of the Gospel of Matthew based his Christ figure upon Isaac who was offered as a sacrifice to atone for all the sins of (future) Israel. Some Jews interpreted the Genesis account to mean that Abraham did in fact kill Isaac and shed his blood but then brought him back to life again. His shed blood was to cover the sins of God’s people.

Jon Levinson similarly argues for the centrality of the early Jewish belief in the atoning power of the blood actually shed by Isaac in his sacrifice prior to his return from the dead.

Crispin H.T. Fletcher-Louis points to indicators of an early Jewish belief in a messianic high priest offering a ransom and that one “like a son of man” in Daniel was believed to have been sacrificed to the Ancient of Days and that these interpretations found their way into the gospels.

David C. Mitchell posits the belief that Zechariah 12:10 applied to a future Messiah ben Joseph to come in the last days and be slain at the dawn of the messianic age and that this belief was at extant before the destruction of the temple in 70 CE.

Joshua Jipp has pointed out that the messianic (pre-Christian) Psalms of Solomon 17-18 are based on our canonical Psalm 2 which refers to a royal son of God facing threats to his life by early rulers.

Of course most readers are aware of Richard Carrier and his arguments, similar in some ways to those of Thomas Thompson.

Other posts of relevance, though some of their references are to scholars from around the same time as Jeremias.

 

 

Evidence for Belief in a Suffering Messiah Before Christianity (3)

So far we have seen evidence for a pre-Christian belief that the “suffering servant” passages in the Book of Isaiah spoke of a future Messiah in three sources:

  1. Ecclesiasticus,
    • Interpreted the Servant Songs in Isaiah as references to a new coming of Elijah as the messiah.
  2. the Testament of Benjamin,
    • Attributed to a messiah from the tribe of Joseph the atoning death found in Isaiah’s Servant chapters.
  3. and the Parables of Enoch.
    • Describe a messianic figure whose attributes are taken from Isaiah’s Servant passages.

We have dusted off a 1957 book with yellowing pages, The Servant of God, and are following the trail of evidence according to the book’s co-author J. Jeremias. Where I can I have been supplementing the posts with critical information from more recent scholarship.

4. Peshitta

Next witness to take the stand, the Peshitta. The Peshitta is a Syrian translation of the Bible but we are interested in its translation of the Suffering Servant passages in the Book of Isaiah, probably dating from the of)early second century. Jeremias:

The next source which gives us information about the exegesis of ‘ebed texts in late Judaism is the Peshitta; it is probably of pre-Christian origin.257 Peshitta explains Isa. 53 — including the passages about suffering — in a messianic sense.258 This is clear from the passages where Peshitta discloses its understanding of Isa. 53 by deviations from the Heb. text. Thus Peshitta saw in the servant

  • a figure awaited in the future (52.14)
  • who shall ‘cleanse’ many peoples (52.15);
  • this figure is denied (53.2),
  • despised (53.3)
  • and slain (53.5)
  • but exalted by God
  • and (at the last judgement) will convey forgiveness (53.5: healing).

These statements can only refer to the Messiah.259

(Jeremias, 60 f. My formatting and highlighting)

The devil is usually found in the detail so here are the relevant footnotes:

257 P. Kahle, The Cairo Geniza, 1947, 184, 186; also Hegermann, 22-27.
258 Hegermann, 127.
269 Hegermann, ibid.

Unfortunately I have no further information on the “pre-Christian origin” of the Peshitta’s translation of the ‘ebed (Servant) texts in Isaiah. I present Jeremias’s statement “as is”. If anyone has more up to date corrective or confirming information feel free to add it to the comments.

5. The Gospel of Luke 

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A Pre-Christian Jewish Suffering Messiah (2)

Can anything good come out of such an old and dowdy looking book, one retrieved from an off-site library stack, and with no more than 100 yellowing pages of text?

In the previous post we saw the first two items of evidence for a belief among pre-Christian Jews in a suffering messiah to come. This post looks at a third item, the Parables of Enoch. Follow up posts will address several more.

I begin by presenting Jeremias’s argument in his own words but in the next section of the post I update his terminology and the state of the discussion to accord with current terms and scholarly views concerning the dating of the key passage.

Joachim Jeremias’s third item of evidence is a section from the Ethiopic Book of Enoch. His references to Deut. Isa are to the second (deutero) part of Isaiah, chapters 40 to 55. I have reformatted Jeremias’s text to allow for easier following of each of the points where Enoch draws upon an Isaiah servant passage:

(γ) The next relevant source from the point of view of time is the so-called Visionary Discourses of the Ethiopian Enoch (chs. 37-71) which are certainly pre-Christian. Here the Messiah is depicted to a quite striking extent by means of traits drawn from Deut. Isa. Apart from the titles ‘son of man’ and ‘Messiah’ he bears constantly the name ‘the chosen one’ but only occasionally that of ‘the righteous one’. ‘The chosen one’ is, however (Isa. 42.1), the title of the servant of God and the same applies to ‘the righteous one’ (Isa. 53.11). Thus we are led straight away to those two sections of Deut. Isa. which, also in the subsequent periods, are the ones interpreted messianically: Isa. 42.1 if., 52.13 ff.

In En. 48.4 the son of man is called ‘the light of the peoples’; this is an attribute of God’s servant (Isa. 42.6; 49.6).

It is said further that his name was named before creation ‘in the presence of the Lord of spirits’ (En. 48.3); this is an amplification of Isa. 49.1: ‘my name he named when I was not yet born’.

Then he was ‘hidden before God’ (En. 48.6, cf. 62.7) which is a reference to Isa. 49.2 (‘He hid me in the shadow of his hand’).

Again, in the description of the revelation of the son of man the Visionary Discourses constantly depict the humiliation of kings and the mighty before him with a reminiscence of Isa. 49.7; 5 2.15. It is said that they will see him in his glory (En. 55.4; 62.1, 3), rise before him (En. 46.4; 62.3), and cast themselves down (48.10 v.l.; 62.9; cf. 48.5), thus with an allusion to Isa. 49.7; ‘Princes and kings will see it and arise and cast themselves down’.

It is said further that their countenance will be fallen (En. 46.6; 48.8) alluding to Isa. 52.15: ‘Kings will shut their mouths before him’.

In particular in En. 62.1 ff. the conduct of kings, the mighty and those who possess the earth, is depicted in close connexion with Isa. 52.13 ff.; thus En. 62.5 f.: ‘They will be afraid (cf. Isa. 52.14), they will lower their eyes (cf. Isa. 52.15), and pain will seize them when they see the Son of Man sitting on the throne of his glory; kings (cf. Isa. 52.15), the mighty and all who possess the earth will glorify, praise and exalt him who rules over all (cf. Isa. 52.13), who was hidden (cf. Isa. 52.15)’.

Again it is the passages Isa. 42.1 ff.; 52.13 ff. (cf. p. 59) which are messianically interpreted; together with 49.1-2, 6-7.

Finally there are the following statements which have a loose connexion with Deut. Isa. The chosen has the spirit of righteousness (En. 62.1 f; cf. [besides lsa. 11.2,4] 42.1: ‘My chosen . . . I have laid my spirit upon him’). He executes judgement (En. 41.9; 45-3; 49.4; 55.4; 61.9; 62.2 f.; 69.27; cf. Isa. 42.4 Ά, Θ, Targ.). En. 48.4b: ‘He will be the light of the peoples and the hope of the sad’ combines Isa. 42.6 (‘fight of the peoples’) with its context (42.7: salvation of the blind and wretched).

The son of man of the Visionary Discourses is thus to a large extent depicted with traits which are borrowed from servant passages of Deut. Isa. (42.1-7; 49.1 f., 6 f; 52.13-15; 53.11).

The author of the Parables of Enoch interpreted Isaiah’s servant passages, including those passages announcing a suffering servant, as references to a future messiah.
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Evidence of a Suffering Messiah Concept before Christianity (1)

When I recently posted Further Evidence of a Pre-Christian Concept of a Suffering Davidic Messiah I was patiently waiting for a certain book to be collected from an off-site library stack. I had two reasons for wanting to read that particular work. The first was from a Mormon scholar, hence slightly dubious, but nonetheless I was curious . . .

Robinson, Stephen E. 1977. “The Apocalypse of Adam.” Brigham Young University Studies 17 (2): 131–53.
Pre-Christian Judaism had a doctrine of a suffering Messiah as Jeremias has shown 21

21 Walter Zimmerli and Joachim Jeremias, The Servant of God, Studies in Biblical Theology, no. 20, (London: SCM Press, 1957), pp. 57ff

And again, this time from an article that seemed somewhat of a turning point in discussions of the Apocalypse of Adam:

MacRae, George W. 1965. “The Coptic Gnostic Apocalypse of Adam.” The Heythrop Journal 6 (1): 27–35.
Böhlig has suggested that in the redeemer-myth that appears here we have a confrontation of Iranian notions of a redeemer and the Jewish idea of the suffering Servant-Messiah which J. Jeremias has shown to have been accepted in pre-Christian Judaism.2

2 Cf. W. Zimmerli and J. Jeremias, The Servant of God, Studies in Biblical Theology 20 (London, 1957), pp. 57 ff. . . .

That settled it. I had to locate Zimmerli and Jeremias’s The Servant of God.

Now that I have it, it is clear that there is too much content for a single post so I’ll write it up here one, maybe two, arguments at a time.

The first piece of evidence given for a pre-Christian Jewish concept of a suffering messiah is found in Ecclesiasticus (also known as Sirach).

(c) Messianic exegesis (Isa. 42.1; 43.10; 49.6; 52.13; 53.11.) Messianic interpretations of certain Deut. Isa. servant passages can most probably be traced back to pre-Christian times (cf. p. 41).

(α) In Ecclus 48.10 one of the three tasks of the returning Elijah (cf. TWNT, II, 93 3,12 ff.) is described as להכין שבטי ישראל; the expression comes from Isa. 49.6 where the ‘ebed receives the mission of להקים ואת־שבטי ןעקב. The restoration of the twelve tribes is a messianic task and its assignment to Elijah must have marked the latter as the coming saviour. But since only a broad allusion to Isa. 49.6 is in question, conclusions about a messianic interpretation of Isa. 49.6 from Ecclus 48.10 alone are not quite secure (but cf. n. 305). In any case it is significant that Ecclus. explained the servant in Isa. 49.6 in an individual sense.

And here is Isaiah 49:6

And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.

For anyone like me who is not familiar with Ecclesiasticus 48:10 here it is in context

1 Then stood up Elijah the prophet as fire, and his word burned like a lamp.
2 He brought a sore famine upon them, and by his zeal he diminished their number.
3 By the word of the Lord he shut up the heaven, and also three times brought down fire.
4 O Elijah, how wast thou honored in thy wondrous deeds! and who may glory like unto thee!
5 Who didst raise up a dead man from death, and his soul from the place of the dead, by the word of the most High:
6 who broughtest kings to destruction, and honorable men from their bed:
7 who heardest the rebuke of the Lord in Sinai, and in Horeb the judgment of vengeance:
8 who anointedst kings to take revenge, and prophets to succeed after him:
9 who wast taken up in a whirlwind of fire, and in a chariot of fiery horses:
10 who wast ordained for reproofs in their times, to pacify the wrath of the Lord’s judgment, before it brake forth into fury, and to turn the heart of the father unto the son,and to restore the tribes of Jacob.

But note the next point:

The pre-Christian Testament of Benjamin is said to draw upon the “suffering servant” passage in Isaiah when it speaks of the future Messiah. And for those readers who (like me) are quick to claim that the Testament of Benjamin is riddled with much later Christian interpolations, do read on….

(β) In the Testament of Benjamin (second or first century B.C.) the patriarch at the beginning puts forward his brother Joseph as a model because he made intercession for his brothers with his father Jacob. In this connexion it is said in Test. B. 3.8 (Armenian):

In thee (Joseph) will the heavenly prophecy be fulfilled which says that the innocent one will be defiled for the sake of the guilty and the sinless one will die for the impious.

The heavenly prophecy must mean Isa. 53. The possibility that Test.B. 3.8 (Armenian) is a Christian interpolation does not come into the question, for nowhere is there ascribed to Jesus descent from the tribe Joseph-Ephraim, but always Davidic descent (cf. υίος Δαυίδ) from the tribe of Judah (Heb. 7.14). Since further the idea of a vicarious atoning death of the patriarch Joseph himself is nowhere else attested, the phrase

‘in thee will the heavenly prophecy be fulfilled’,

probably refers not to Joseph himself but to his posterity (cf. for this type of phrase I Sam. 3.12-14), i.e., the Messiah from the house of Joseph.

In Test. B. 3.8 we have probably the oldest testimony to the expectation of a Messiah from the tribe of Joseph. This passage should therefore be regarded as the oldest witness to the messianic exegesis of Isa. 53 (next to LXX, cf. p. 41).

In summary

We know that many Christians have always interpreted the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah as prophecies of the suffering messiah Jesus. Jeremias’s chapter offers several lines of evidence that before Christianity some Jews likewise interpreted those Isaiah passages messianically. The first two of those arguments are

  1. Ecclesiasticus, a pre-Christian text, suggests that at least one messianic function of an Isaiah servant passage applies to a future appearance of Elijah, presumably as the messiah;
  2. The Testament of Benjamin, another text believed to be pre-Christian in its original form in one surviving manuscript line (Armenian) applies a suffering servant passage in Isaiah to a coming messiah descended from Joseph.

(Two down, eight to go. Then I will need to locate and dig out scholarship that has since, presumably, shown Jeremias’s case to be flawed.)


Zimmerli, Walther and Joachim Jeremias. 1957. The Servant of God. Revised edition. London : SCM Press.


 

Further Evidence of a Pre-Christian Concept of a Suffering Davidic Messiah

 

It is commonly recognized that the Gospels depict Jesus’ crucifixion as an ironic royal enthronement.

We know the evidence for this statement: the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem; the riddle of Psalm 110 over the messiah being David’s Lord; the parable of the pounds; the dressing up of Jesus in royal garb; the ironical mocking of Jesus as a messiah and king when he is on the cross; and the Gospel of Mark’s ironical Roman triumph  and mock acclamation of Jesus as emperor. Some have questioned whether pre-Christian Jews ever contemplated the idea of a messiah who suffers. I have posted some of the reasons we have to think that some Jews did speculate on the possibility of a suffering messiah and this post will be one more addition to that archive.

The point is not so much that David is the paradigmatic example of a “righteous sufferer” so much as he is the “righteous suffering king.”
William Hole. David fleeing from Jerusalem, cursed by Shimei. Wikipedia Commons

I recently posted an excerpt from Martin Goodman’s discussion of Second Temple Jewish beliefs about a coming messiah:

In some Jewish texts the central figure in these events of the last days is called the Messiah, ‘the anointed.’ Some texts, like the Psalms of Solomon, describe the Messiah as a human figure, descended from David:

Behold, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to reign over your servant Israel in the time which you did foresee, O God. Gird him with strength to destroy unrighteous rulers, and purge Jerusalem from the nations who trample her down to destruction … And he will be a righteous king over them, taught by God. There will be no unrighteousness among them in his days, for all shall be holy, and their king shall be the anointed Lord. [Psalms of Solomon 17:21-22, 32]

Interestingly another scholar, Joshua Jipp, has pointed out that that messianic Psalm of Solomon is based on our canonical Psalm 2 which speaks of a suffering messiah.

One may ask if there are any specific examples of pre-Christian messianic appropriation of the psalms. Psalms of Solomon 17 and 18 use Psalm 2 in their description of a coming Davidic Messiah. Moreover, one could describe Ps. Sol. 17:21-32 as a midrash on Psalm 2. For example, the coming Davidic figure is depicted as bringing forth punishment ἐν ῥάβδῳσ ιδηρᾷ (“by an iron rod”; Ps. Sol. 17:24), an exact replication of Ps 2:9.

The vocabulary of Ps 2:9 of σκεῦος κεραμέως συντρίψεις αὐτούς (“you will crush them into pieces as a potter’s vessel”) is echoed in Ps. Sol. 17:23b-24a with ὡς σκεύη κεραμέως . . . συντρῖψαι.

The use of Psalm 2 by Psalms of Solomon, therefore, provides further evidence of the eschatological and messianic nature of Psalm 2.

Perhaps most important, however, is the psalms’ frequent depiction of a Davidic figure, under intense duress and persecuted by his enemies. While suffering and hostility at the hands of one’s enemies are potentially common to all humanity, it is King David who is portrayed as the righteous, royal sufferer par excellence (Pss 7:4; 69:4; 109:3). His enemies surround him to mock and afflict him (e.g., Psalms 22; 69; 89). David’s plight frequently brings him to the point of despair, wondering if God has abandoned and forsaken him, giving him over to death and Hades (Pss 22:14-18; 38:5-8; 69:16-20). Yet despite his sufferings and persecution, David maintains his fidelity and hope in God. In the Davidic psalms one finds the paradoxical combination of kingship and righteous suffering. The point is not so much that David is the paradigmatic example of a “righteous sufferer” so much as he is the “righteous suffering king.”21 This anomaly, namely, that David, God’s anointed one, undergoes persecution and suffering, has great importance for Luke’s conception of Jesus, the suffering Anointed One.

21 In other words, though the psalms’ characterization of David as a “righteous” sufferer is extremely significant, it is his royalty and kingship that are crucial for Luke’s appropriation of the Davidic psalms. 

(Jipp, 258f)

read more »

Messiahs and Eschatology in Second Temple Judaism

Some readers will be interested in what Martin Goodman had to say about Jewish concepts of the Messiah in the Second Temple era. As much as I’m tempted to add my own comments I will restrain myself. I have written enough of my own perspective on this question other times I have addressed “messianic expecations” (as distinct from messianic speculations). I have replaced endnote numbers with citations.

. . . There is no evidence of an agreed coherent eschatology within any ancient Jewish group. It is, however, striking that expectation of some dramatic change in the world was so widespread. Even the philosopher Philo, whose interpretation of the Torah generally focused firmly on the psychological need of the individual worshipper to concentrate on the higher meaning of the laws, still let slip an uncharacteristic hope that God would one day bring to an end ‘the enmity of wild beasts which is activated by natural antipathy’ and produce an age in which nature will be at peace:

When that time comes I believe that bears and lions and panthers and the Indian animals, elephants and tigers, and all others whose vigour and power are invincible, will change their life of solitariness and isolation for one of companionship, and gradually in imitation of the gregarious creatures show themselves tame when brought face to face with mankind … Then too the tribes of scorpions and serpents and the other reptiles will have no use for their venom.

Philo did derive a moral message from the analogy between these wild beasts and the wild beasts within the soul, but it seems likely that this idealized picture, so close to the prophecy in Isaiah of the lion lying down with the lamb, owed more than a little to popular conceptions of the perfect time when the last days arrive. [Philo, On Rewards and Punishments 85, 89-90]

In some Jewish texts the central figure in these events of the last days is called the Messiah, ‘the anointed.’ Some texts, like the Psalms of Solomon, describe the Messiah as a human figure, descended from David:

Behold, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to reign over your servant Israel in the time which you did foresee, O God. Gird him with strength to destroy unrighteous rulers, and purge Jerusalem from the nations who trample her down to destruction … And he will be a righteous king over them, taught by God. There will be no unrighteousness among them in his days, for all shall be holy, and their king shall be the anointed Lord. [Psalms of Solomon 17:21-22, 32]

In other texts, however, the Messiah is described as a supernatural figure, as befits the events in which he is involved. So the author of 2 Baruch, a description of a series of visions alleged to have been experienced by Baruch, amanuensis of the prophet Jeremiah, but in fact composed by a Jew, probably in Hebrew, in the late first century CE and now preserved only in Christian translations into Syriac and Arabic:

And it will happen after these things when the time of the appearance of the Anointed has been fulfilled and he returns with glory, that then all who sleep in hope of him will rise. And it will happen at that time that those treasuries will be opened in which the number of the souls of the righteous were kept, and they will go out and the multitudes of the souls will appear together, in one sole assembly, of one mind … The souls of the wicked, on the contrary, will waste away completely when they shall see all these things. [2 Baruch 30:1-2, 4]

Among the Dead Sea sectarians are to be found varied and conflicting ideas about the nature of the Messiah. Sometimes the scrolls envisage just one royal, Davidic, triumphant Messiah, but sometimes a Messiah of Israel was contrasted to a Messiah of Aaron, who in turn was differentiated from ‘the Prophet’: read more »

Questioning the apologetic argument for Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem

Let’s assume, as is commonly argued within mainstream biblical scholarship, that there was a very small town of Nazareth in Galilee at the supposed time of Jesus’ birth and let’s assume that the reason Jesus was called “Jesus of Nazareth” was because he grew up in Nazareth, and that the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are awkwardly contorted to have Jesus of Nazareth somehow also born in Bethlehem because all the Judeans of the day knew and expected that that’s where the Messiah was to be born. The concocted narratives of Jesus being born in Bethlehem are even pulled out as evidence for the very existence of Jesus since the evangelists were oh so embarrassed that he came from Nazareth in reality.

After reading some sections of Richard A. Horsley‘s The Liberation of Christmas: the Infancy Narratives in Social Context, I think we have some problems that seem so obvious in hindsight that I have to pinch myself for not noticing them before. Our attention will be primarily on Matthew’s birth narrative rather than Luke’s in this post.

Part of Horsley’s discussion begins on page six and seven:

Recognition of Matthew’s distinctive use of “formula quotations” (“this was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet… ”) led to the claim that Matthew 2 (which contains several such quotations) “is dominated by geographical names,” which are “what is really important to him.”21 The purpose of Matthew in Chapter 2 was apologetic: how did Jesus the messiah come from Nazareth in Galilee and not from Bethlehem, the village of David, as it said in Scripture, according to the questioning in John 7:41-42.22

21. K. Stendahl, “Quis et Unde? An Analysis of Mt 1-2,” in Judentum, Urchristentum, Kirche (Festschrift J. Jeremias; ed. W. Eltester; Berlin: Topelmann, 1964; reprinted in Interpretation of Matthew [ed. G. N. Stanton; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983], 56-66), 97. Stendahl’s article is important and influential and is followed with further refinement by Brown (BM, chaps. 1 and 5).

22. Stendahl, “Quis et Unde?” 98; Brown, BM, 179-80.

That’s the common understanding. Now Horsley begins to notice some problems with it:

However, the claim that the geographical names, even as emphasized by the formula quotations, dominate Matthew 2 seems highly questionable. What dominates the narrative is clearly the conflict between the newborn king of the Jews and the reigning king, Herod. The threatened Herod figures directly or indirectly at every point in the narrative except the actual visit of the Magi in verses 9—11 and the naming in verse 23.23 Moreover, the notion that Matthew is pursuing an apologetic purpose is derived not from Matthew but only from the dispute in John 7.

23. As Stendahl himself points out, the text mentions “Herod’s name 9 times, and at all points of progress in the account” (“Quis et Unde?” 99).

Yes, of course. The only reason we know there was supposed to be a problem with Jesus not really being born in Bethlehem are the narrative dialogue in one of the latest canonical gospels. We do not find supporting evidence in any earlier or independent records.

From the lack of textual evidence, we are increasingly aware that at the time of Jesus there were almost certainly no standard or widely acknowledged “Jewish expectations about the Messiah” such as birth in Bethlehem, about which Matthew or other followers of Jesus of Nazareth would supposedly have been embarrassed.24 Just because the followers of Jesus early on applied to their “messiah” phrases from psalms that stemmed originally from the established Davidic royal theology (esp. Pss. 2 and 110) does not mean that they were defensively oriented toward some hypothetical established view of the proper pedigree of the messiah. Indeed, the royal Herodian and aristocratic priestly families that dominated Jewish Palestinian society would hardly have been entertaining messianic expectations, which could only have been threatening to their own position. Precisely that is the principal point of Matthew 2! The popularly acclaimed “kings” among the Jewish people who were active around the time of Jesus’ birth surely did not have Davidic pedigrees.25 There is little in the Gospel of Matthew itself or in the Palestinian Jewish milieu out of which the traditions he used emerged to suggest an apologetic motive. The typical early Christian concern to interpret Jesus according to fulfillment of biblical promise and prophecy (and prototype) would appear to be the operative motive in Matthew’s use of the formula quotations to embellish the significance of the events narrated in chapter 2.

24. Cf. Brown, BM, 180; but Brown himself points out in Appendix 3 that expectation of the messiah’s birth at Bethlehem is not attested “until considerably later in Jewish writings.”

25. For a sketch of these popular Jewish kings and their movements, see R. A. Horsley and J. S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs (Minneapolis: Winston- Seabury, 1985), chap. 3.

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Continuing a case for an early Jewish belief in a slain messiah

The second of the three earliest references to the slain Messiah ben Joseph is a few lines further on in the same Talmud tractate, Sukkah 52a

Our rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be he, will say to Messiah ben David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days!), “Ask of me anything and I will give it to you,” as it is said, “I will tell of the decree [of the Lord],” etc. “This day I have begotten you. Ask of me and I will give you the nations for your inheritance” (Ps. 2). But when he will see that Messiah ben Joseph is slain, he will say to him, “Lord of the universe, I ask of you only life.”

Here the Messiah from the tribe of Joseph has been slain at some point towards the end time, but there is another Messiah involved in the drama, one who is descended from David who expresses concern over the death of his forerunner. We are not told how or why nor by whom the Messiah ben Joseph was killed. Readers or those who knew of this teaching of the rabbis presumably knew the details so there was no need to spell them out.

Interestingly the Messiah ben David in this passage has not till now made his mark in the end-time drama and in other passages (outside Sukkah 52a) his first act on his appearance is to forgo invitations to ask great things for himself and to request, instead, the resurrection of Messiah ben Joseph. In the Suk 52a, however, it appears that the sight of the dead Messiah ben Joseph stirs the Messiah ben David to ask for eternal life for himself — to which God replies that he already has eternal life (he had been living for ages in Rome unrecognised before the last days).

There are two clues in this passage that date the teaching to some time prior to 200 CE.

  1. The passage is written in Hebrew. See the previous post for the relevance of this: notice the Tannaitic period.
  2. The passage is introduced by the vague reference, “our rabbis taught” — instead of by a specifically named rabbi. Such an anonymous introductory formula is said to be typical of passages deriving from the Tannaitic period (the first two centuries of the current era) or earlier.

The last of the earliest three references to Messiah ben Joseph is from the same tractate, Sukkah 52b:

“And the Lord showed me four craftsmen” (Zech. 2.3). Who are these [four craftsmen]? Rav Hana bar Bizna said in the name of Rav Simeon Hasida: “Messiah ben David, Messiah ben Joseph, Elijah, and the Righteous Priest.”

This passage is not so easy to date on internal evidence though it is recorded as part of the later Aromaic tradition. The initial question is in Aramaic and the “ben” (son of) is Hebrew (rather than the Aramaic “bar”). External evidence helps more, says Mitchell. There are six other places where the “four craftsmen” appear, so let’s see how Mitchell analyses these variants to make an assessment on the date of the origin of the saying.

Note that there are three passages in Hebrew (that is, from the pre 200 CE Tannaitic period) and they all contain the same names in the same form:

  • Elijah
  • The King Messiah
  • Melchizedek
  • The War Messiah

Genesis Rabbah 99:2: “the War Messiah, who will be descended from Joseph;”

Midr. Tanhuma vol. I, p. 103a (§11.3): “in the age to come a War Messiah is going to arise from Joseph;”

Numbers Rabbah 14:1: “the War Messiah who comes from Ephraim;” [Ephraim is a son of Joseph]

Aggadat Bereshit, pereq 63 (A. Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrash [BHM], vol. IV, p. 87 [Leipzig, 1853–1877; photog. repr. Jerusalem, 1967]); “a War Messiah will arise from Joseph;”

Kuntres Acharon §20 to Yalkut Shimoni on the Pentateuch (BHM, vol. VI, p. 81): “a War Messiah is going to arise from Joseph;”

Gen.R. 75:6 applies Moses’ blessing on Joseph (Deut. 33:17) to the War Messiah.

The King Messiah of the early period (in Hebrew, before 200 CE) can be aligned with Messiah ben David that appear in what can be taken on balance as later texts (in Amorite, post 200 CE).

Since in biblical texts (Genesis 14:18-20 and Psalm 110:4) Melchizedek is known to be a priest, we can match the early reference to Melchizedek to the Righteous Priest in the later texts.

See the side box for the evidence that leads us to equate the War Messiah with Messiah ben Joseph.

Mitchell finds three key issues for dating the origin of the above third Messiah son of Joseph reference”: the Righteous Priest, the names in which the tradition is transmitted and the Qumran text 4Q175.

The Righteous Priest 

The prominence given to the Righteous Priest alongside Messiah ben Joseph as one of the Four Craftsmen is an indicator of pre-Christian era origins of the teaching: Mitchell’s argument is as follows.

We saw in The Priestly Messiah and the Royal Messiah the Jewish belief in a Priest Messiah or an end-time priestly deliverer. Biblical passages on Melchizedek and the anointed priestly companion, Joshua ben Jehozadak, to the Davidic prince Zerubbabel in the Book of Zechariah may provide some foundation for a belief in a priestly saviour, but post-biblical writings bring such a figure into sharper focus. Here we are entering the Hasmonean era, the period following the Maccabean revolt, or the Second Temple era.

The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs (see Priestly and Royal Messiahs) sets up a priest messiah from the tribe of Levi as the foremost messianic figure without any rival from the line of David. The Qumran literature (Dead Sea Scrolls) likewise contains passages that promote the priestly messiah, sometimes as superior to the Davidic messiah (1QSa 2.14-20).

If the priestly deliverer was a pre-eminent figure in the Hasmonean era, after Christianity emerged Jewish writings lost interest in him.

 

The priestly Messiah therefore enjoys pre-eminence in Hasmonean times. But at the turn of the era, when Judaism and Christianity diverge, although he is taken up by Christianity and Gnosticism, particularly as Melchizedek, Judaism knows him no more. The only other talmudic reference to Melchizedek, apart from this one in B. Suk. 52b, derogates the priesthood of the Genesis figure (B. Ned. 32b). Later midrashim feature the other “craftsmen” — ben David, ben Joseph and Elijah — with great frequency, but have no place for the priest. . . . 

It therefore seems that the priestly messiah’s popularity rose with the Hasmonean dynasty who, keen to beget messianic acclaim, took Melchizedek’s title “Priest of El Elyon” from Gen. 14:18. But when their power was eclipsed and priestly status fell a century later with the Temple, the Priest Messiah, like his brothers, passed into obscurity, leaving only his former renown lingering among the “Four Craftsmen.” So the Righteous Priest’s presence among the “Four Craftsmen” must date from a time when he was still held in honor, that is, the Temple period. (Mitchell, p. 87f)

Variant source names

The Tannaitic texts cite relatively early names as the conveyors of the tradition. One source dates Rabbi Isaac to around 140 to 165 CE. The Rabbi Eleazar who is named in one of the early texts is dated even earlier, around 80 to 120 CE.

The names listed as sources for the four craftsmen tradition in the later Amoraic texts, Simeon Hasida and Hana bar Bizna, are dated to the late second and early third centuries.

Now the fairly short time-gap between these teachers hardly allows for the divergence between them. The different variants therefore derive from an earlier common source. In that case, we are taken back to the period before Isaac — or Eleazar– and, once again, find ourselves near the Temple era. (p. 88)

Qumran 4Q175 and a Joshua Messiah read more »

How Early Did Some Jews Believe in a Slain Messiah son of Joseph?

If you are more interested in

  • why a second messiah in the first place? and
  • why the tribe of Joseph for a second messiah?

skip to the end of this post where I cite one of several explanations.

I don’t know the answer to the question in the title (in part because much depends upon how we define and understand the origins of “Christianity”) but I can present here one argument for the possibility that there was a belief among various Judeans prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE that a future messiah was destined to be killed. (This post goes beyond previous posts addressing messianic-like interpretations of the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53 that we find in Daniel and the Enoch literature and builds upon other earlier posts addressing the evidence in later rabbinic and other Jewish writings.)

We focus here on a 2005 article by David C. Mitchell in Review of Rabbinic Judaism, “Rabbi Dosa and the Rabbis Differ: Messiah Ben Joseph in the Babylonian Talmud“. I find a number of aspects of the article questionable, but nonetheless Mitchell does present a somewhat technical argument in support of the possibility of a pre-Christian belief in a slain messiah.

Recall that in my recent post, Suffering and Dying Messiahs: Typically Jewish Beliefs, we read a Jewish narrative from the early 600s CE describing a Messiah son of Joseph being slain in battle against end-time forces of evil. The earliest surviving reference to the Messiah ben (=son of) Joseph is in the Talmud. If you are like me your first reaction to hearing that will be “How can writings up to several centuries into the Christian era possibly be used as reliable sources for events and ideas in first century Palestine?” But also if you are like me you will be at least open to hearing the case being made. So here it is as I understand it.

 

Talmud: Rabbinic writings made up primarily of two parts, the Mishnah and the Gemara.

The Mishnah purports to be the written collection of oral traditions of rabbinic debates and teachings. The Mishnah was completed around 200 CE.

The Gemara is rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah and is said to have been composed between 200 CE to 450 CE.

There are two broad chronological eras represented in the Talmud: the Tannaitic and the Amoraic.

The Tannaim is identified by Hebrew text and represents ideas prior and up to 200 CE.

The Amoraim is identified by Aramaic text and represents the period subsequent to 200 CE.

In the Mishnah we sometimes read both Hebrew and Aramaic text in the one section. We understand that the Aramaic text has been added by rabbis post 200 CE to fill out or clarify the earlier Hebrew account.

It will help to know some important terms relating to the Talmud. I explain these (hopefully not misleadingly simplified) in the side box.

The earliest known references to Messiah ben Joseph are found in a section (or tractate) called Sukkah. (Scroll through the Talmud page at http://www.halakhah.com to see where it sits in the broader collection.) The Sukkah tractate relates to the Feast of Tabernacles (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sukkot).

I copy the first of these passages, Sukkoth 52a, as Mitchell himself sets it out, with the later Aramaic passages in italics, but I have added bolding to make it clearer:

“And the land shall mourn family by family apart. The family of the house of David apart and their women apart” (Zech. 12:12). They said: Is not this an a fortiori conclusion? In the age to come, when they are busy mourning and no evil inclination rules them, the Torah says, “the men apart and the women apart.” How much more so now when they are busy rejoicing and the evil inclination rules them. What is the cause of this mourning? Rabbi Dosa and the rabbis differ. One says: “For Messiah ben Joseph who is slain;” and the other says: “For the evil inclination which is slain.” It is well according to him who says, “For Messiah ben Joseph who is slain,” for this is what is written, “And they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him like the mourning for an only son” (Zech. 12:10); but according to him who says, “The evil inclination which is slain:” Is this an occasion for mourning? Is it not an occasion for rejoicing rather than weeping?

I understand from Mitchell’s discussion that the highlighted words above are translations of Aramaic text. The remainder is rendered from Hebrew.

Accordingly we have in this section of Mishnah, typically dated prior to 200 CE, later rabbinic additions in Aramaic. But the Aramaic text is quoting references to Messiah ben Joseph that are in Hebrew text.

Mitchell argues that the Aramaic script is the work of Amoraic (post 200 CE) rabbis commenting on a tradition from the Tannaitic era (prior to 200 CE). He disagrees with another scholar (Joseph Klausner) who believed we should interpret the passage as indicating that the tradition of Messiah ben Joseph itself originated some time in the later Tannaitic era (200-450 CE).

Let’s back up a little. Let’s see what light the broader context might be able to shed on the question of dating.

Immediately prior the section mentioning Messiah ben Joseph we read about worshipers at the end of the first day of the Feast going down to the Court of Women at the Temple where a significant change is encountered: read more »

The Priestly Messiah and the Royal Messiah

In the previous post we looked at ancient Jewish concepts of multiple messiahs, each with a distinctive role. There was Davidic messiah who for most of existence lives like a destitute vagabond or beggar, despised, rejected and unrecognized in the streets of “Rome”.  Then there was a messiah from the tribe of Joseph who emerged as a warrior to lead Israel in a battle against the ultimate forces of evil but who was killed in that battle. His death was the cue for the Davidic messiah to emerge from obscurity and call upon God for the resurrection of the fallen messiah.

We also saw other messiahs, one from the tribe of Levi or family of Aaron, who was a priest-messiah. Associated with these messiahs was a prophet, Elijah.

We looked at some reasons for believing such ideas were familiar (if not unanimously embraced) by Jews prior to the fall of the Temple in 70 CE. In a future post I will look at additional evidence for assigning such beliefs as early as the period from 200 BCE to 70 CE. I will also address the midrashic processes by which Second Temple era Jews could well have arrived at such characters and scenarios according to Daniel Boyarin.

And most interesting of all, at least for me, I will post on how all of these ideas relate to what we read in the Gospel of Mark about the figure of Jesus and the reason for his crucifixion.

But in this post we will look at other types of messiahs, or at least one other: the priest-messiah and his subordinate companion (political) messiah from Israel or Joseph.  read more »

Suffering and Dying Messiahs: Typically Jewish Beliefs

So Easter is here again and everybody is mourning the death of Tammuz and rejoicing in the new life to hatch from digested easter bunny eggs. But let’s be serious and respect the meaning of the season. Let’s talk about messiahs, especially suffering and dying ones.

Daniel Boyarin

There’s much to write about but I’ll try to keep to just a few highlights. They have a common theme: the idea of a suffering and dying messiah was not uniquely Christian; it was very much a Jewish idea. Let’s begin with the opening lines of Jack Miles‘ Foreword to a little book by Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ:

“Daniel Boyarin,” a prominent conservative rabbi confided to me not long ago, “is one of the two or three greatest rabbinic scholars in the world,” and — dropping his voice a notch — “possibly even the greatest.” The observation was given in confidence because, quite clearly, it troubled the rabbi to think that someone with Boyarin’s views might have truly learned Talmudic grounds for them. As a Christian, let me confide that his views can be equally troubling for Christians who appreciate the equally grounded originality of his reading of our New Testament. . . . .

His achievement is . . . a bold rereading of the rabbis and the evangelists alike, the results of which are so startling that once you — you, Jew, or you, Christian — get what he is up to, you suddenly read even the most familiar passages of your home scripture in a new light. (p. ix)

Now read what Boyarin has to say about the commonplace idea that Christians reinterpreted Jewish scriptures to find in them their suffering messiah, supposedly an idea highly offensive to Jews. He is discussing that famous Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53 (my own formatting and emphasis):

10Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.  11Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. 

If these verses do indeed refer to the Messiah, they clearly predict his suffering and death to atone for the sins of humans, but the Jews allegedly always interpreted these verses as referring to the suffering of Israel herself and not the Messiah, who would only triumph. To sum up this generally held view: The theology of the suffering of the Messiah was an after-the-fact apologetic response to explain the suffering and ignominy Jesus suffered, since he was deemed by “Christians” to be the Messiah. Christianity, on this view, was initiated by the fact of the crucifixion, which is seen as setting into motion the new religion. Moreover, many who hold this view hold also that Isaiah 53 was distorted by the Christians from its allegedly original meaning, in which it referred to the suffering of the People of Israel, to explain and account for the shocking fact that the Messiah had been crucified.

This commonplace view has to be rejected

This commonplace view has to be rejected completely. The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent, and it remained current among Jews well into the future following that—indeed, well into the early modern period.4 The fascinating (and to some, no doubt, uncomfortable) fact is that this tradition was well documented by modern Messianic Jews, who are concerned to demonstrate that their belief in Jesus does not make them un-Jewish. Whether or not one accepts their theology, it remains the case that they have a very strong textual base for the view that the suffering Messiah is based in deeply rooted Jewish texts early and late. Jews, it seems, had no difficulty whatever with understanding a Messiah who would vicariously suffer to redeem the world. Once again, what has been allegedly ascribed to Jesus after the fact is, in fact, a piece of entrenched messianic speculation and expectation that was current before Jesus came into the world at all. That the Messiah would suffer and be humiliated was something Jews learned from close reading of the biblical texts, a close reading in precisely the style of classically rabbinic interpretation that has become known as midrash, the concordance of verses and passages from different places in Scripture to derive new narratives, images, and theological ideas. (pp. 132-33)

But notice that little detail of an endnote reference in there. What does that say? It’s a call for support from Martin Hengel (whose applicable work I have discussed in How Did Daniel Understand Isaiah’s Suffering Servant?):

Martin Hengel

4. See Martin Hengel, “The Effective History of Isaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period,” in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources, ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher, trans. Daniel P. Bailey (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), 137-45, for good arguments to this effect. Hengel concludes, “The expectation of an eschatological suffering savior figure connected with Isaiah 53 cannot therefore be proven to exist with absolute certainty and in a clearly outlined form in pre-Christian Judaism. Nevertheless, a lot of indices that must be taken seriously in texts of very different provenance suggest that these types of expectations could also have existed at the margins, next to many others. This would then explain how a suffering or dying Messiah surfaces in various forms with the Tannaim of the second century c.e., and why Isaiah 53 is clearly interpreted messianically in the Targum and rabbinic texts” (140). While there are some points in Hengel’s statement that require revision, the Targum is more a counterexample than a supporting text, and for the most part he is spot on.

So the argument rests on its explanatory power. I won’t repeat here the rabbinic texts Boyarin has in mind since they can be found in my earlier post, Suffering Messiah is a Very Jewish Idea. In that earlier post I also look at the evidence for the developing idea of a suffering messiah, one who identifies with martyrs, in Second Temple era books attributed to Daniel and Enoch.

But don’t think you’re wasting your time by reading a repeat post here. There is much more to add. read more »