In the Lives of the Prophets, a Jewish work from as early as the first century that has been supplemented with Christian additions, we read of the death of Isaiah:
The image captured the imaginations of medieval manuscript decorators:
There remains the problem, of which the reader must by now be thoroughly aware, of how a saint and, for that matter, a Jewish prophet, came to be imagined as having died by the extraordinary process of being sawed in two. Even granted that the Middle Ages liked its tales of martyrdom gory and sensational, one cannot help but feel that to saw a man in two is not only cruel, but also unusual and impractical. Other motives besides a preference for the excessive seem required to explain the choice of an instrument of torture which is almost without parallel in the long catalogue of Christian and Jewish suffering. — Bernheimer, 21
Despite having been familiar with the Bible for many years I have had to confess that much of my understanding has been at a layman’s level and only sporadically informed by more thorough scholarly insights. One assumption that most lay readers are likely to bring to the Bible is that it speaks with a uniform voice about a future time when a Messiah figure descended from King David will once again restore Israel to a power exceeding the comparable status she held in the days of King Solomon.
So I was taken aback when I read that one of the contributors to the book of Isaiah had no such vision about a future Davidic messiah, but on the contrary accepted that David’s dynasty had finished, been terminated. But don’t we read in 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 89 that God promised an everlasting dynasty for David? Did our Isaiah writer not know of this prophecy? How could that passage be included in the canon if it contradicted other “sacred scriptures”?
That second Isaiah was keen to reinterpret what he could of Isaiah’s oracles can be seen in his handling of the Davidic convenantal tradition. Though political realities would not allow him to simply repeat Isaiah’s promises to the Davidic monarchy, he skillfully actualizes this tradition by “democratizing” it, and applying the Davidic promises to the entire nation (55:1—5). (David Meade, Pseudonymity and Canon, 1986. p. 34)
Again 5 pages later,
We already saw how the Davidic promises were applied by second Isaiah to all Israel (55:1— 5).
If you’re confused by the above reference to “second Isaiah” then understand that scholars have long believed that the 66 chapters of our book of Isaiah are a composite of different writings: “first Isaiah” wrote chapters 1-39 during the time of the Assyrian empire; “second Isaiah” wrote the rest at the time of the Babylonian empire. Some even add a “third Isaiah” responsible for chapters 55-66.
surveyed the evidence Hengel finds for how the authors of the books of Zechariah and Ben Sirach/Sira interpreted the Suffering Servant we read about in Isaiah 53;
noted related developments in the period of the Maccabean martyrs (around 165/164 BCE) when the book of Daniel appears to have been written.
Though we sometimes read dogmatic assertions by scholars who don’t keep themselves up to date across their field of research to the effect that no pre-Christian era Jew could ever have thought that the Messiah was destined to suffer and be killed, Martin Hengel has no qualms arguing on the basis of early Jewish writings that pre-Christian Jews really do appear to have done just that. And why not? How better to make sense of a persecuted and often martyred community? We must keep in mind that there was no fixed idea of any other kind of Messiah (“anointed one”, “Christ”) in this period.
Yet we must remember that in the second century B.C.E., we do not yet possess any fixed Jewish doctrine of the Messiah – there basically never was one – but must rather deal with various ideas of anointing and the Anointed One. In Qumran, not only the Davidic Messiah but also the eschatological high priest and the prophets are considered “anointed ones.”
— Hengel, Martin, ‘The Effective History of lsaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period’, in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources(ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), p103. (Bailey is responsible for translating Hengel’s essay into English and updating it in consultation with the author.)
Hengel warns us not to expect an author to introduce the new ideas or interpretations emerging in the Maccabean period with an unambiguous supporting citation to an earlier text.
Because the ideas introduced are new, they are at first only cautiously hinted at. Isaiah 53, as a unique text in the Old Testament, may have helped this development along, though at first the collective understanding [i.e. that the Suffering Servant represented Israel] stood in the foreground, and only certain aspects of the whole text exerted an influence. It also needs to be remembered, as already said, that the pre-Christian Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha contain almost no literal scriptural citations. We can therefore conduct only a very cautious search for traces. (p. 96)
So the argument is suggestive rather than conclusive. We might further consider the interpretative power of the argument: Does it explain the emergence of earliest Christian interpretations more directly than a radical revision of Jewish thought being sparked by a belief in a crucified leader’s resurrection from the dead?
The previous post showed the apparent influence of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 upon the books of Zechariah and Ben Sirach/Sira. This post pauses to look at some background before resuming with the way the Book of Daniel adapted Isaiah’s Suffering Servant idea in the light of contemporary events — around 165/164 BCE.
A chapter by Martin Hengel is the basis for the posts.
It appears that at the end of this post I anticipated writing one more to conclude the series. I must complete that as soon.
These posts trace the evolution of Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” from a poetic symbol for the nation of Israel into a dying and rising Messiah even before Christianity emerged on the scene. (See the Wikipedia article for background on the Servant Songs in Isaiah.) The previous post showed the apparent influence of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 upon the books of Zechariah and Ben Sirach/Sira. This post pauses to look at some background before resuming with the way the Book of Daniel adapted Isaiah’s Suffering Servant idea in the light of contemporary events — around 165/164 BCE. My source for these posts is
Hengel, Martin, ‘The Effective History of lsaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period’, in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources(ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 75-146. (Bailey is responsible for translating Hengel’s essay into English and updating it in consultation with the author.)
Just as the author of the Book of Zechariah looked for fulfilment of prophecies in his own day so did the author of the Book of Daniel and the chaotic times of Antiochus IV Epiphanes — armed struggle, persecution, temple defilement — supplied much material to fuel imaginations for this sort of thing. The events of 165/4 and the Maccabean revolt changed the way that unique passage in Isaiah 53 came to be interpreted by many. New ideas about the glorification of martyrs and even the ability of the blood of martyr heroes to take the place of atoning sacrifices entered the world of Judaism and its various sects. The Greeks had long held comparable ideas about human sacrifice and suffering. From the archaic period we encounter in Greek literature the pharmakos motif (see also the EB article). Many of us are aware of the sacrifice of the virgin Iphigenia bringing about the favour of the gods on the eve of the Trojan War. We see a new stage of heroizing fallen warriors with the Persian Wars. Those who died for their city-state and its holy laws came to be glorified as martyr saviours of their people. The closest to anything like these practices and cultural attitudes in the Old Testament are the stories of Jephthah’s daughter, Samson and the song of Deborah. The Old Testament condemned the child sacrifice of neighbouring Canaanites and Phoenicians. Those who died died because of their own sin — that was the dominant message in the OT. Prophets were slain but their deaths were not glorified or studied in any great detail as we might expect among their Greek counterparts. The Maccabean revolt changed everything. Continue reading “From Israel’s Suffering (Isaiah’s Servant) to Atoning Human/Messianic Sacrifice (Daniel)”
(1) There is no evidence of a belief in a dying messiah prior to Christianity, therefore
(2) Before Christianity emerged, no one believed in a dying messiah.
(3) Out of all the possible explanations we might offer for this apparent innovation of the early Christians, the best explanation is that Christians came up with the idea as a response to the unexpected pre-mature death of Jesus, because a belief in a dying messiah looks like an ad-hoc rationalization (no one had expected a dying messiah previously and it otherwise seems precluded by Jewish beliefs).
Therefore, Jesus existed.
Nicholas Covington’s response:
In this post, I will demonstrate that there are credible, recent, non-mythicist scholars who believe McGrath’s first premise is false. I will follow this with some other considerations that render McGrath’s argument doubtful in other respects.
Rikki Watts presents a very thorough argument in Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark (1997) that the major themes, structure, and narrative details in the Gospel of Mark were drawn directly from the Book of Isaiah, and in particular from the last chapters of Isaiah that speak of a New Exodus for Israel from captivity to various nations and back to Jerusalem.
Watts would surely disapprove of my saying so, but I do believe his argument so cogently explains the life and teachings of Jesus in this gospel that one must surely question whether introducing hypothetical sources pointing to an historical Jesus would only create difficulties and add nothing to the gospel. But that is a secondary question. Let’s stick with the outline of Watt’s argument. (It is too detailed to consider anything other than a broad outline in a single post.)
Isaiah Part 2
The second half of Isaiah opens with “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” calling upon God’s people to prepare the way for their coming Lord, God himself. The coming of the Lord will be through a tearing apart of the heavens; he will come as an overpowering warrior to destroy the rulers and idols of the nation; and he will also come as a Shepherd who heals his people, cares for them, and leads them back to a land of rest and true worship. Within these chapters, we also read of a mysterious “Suffering Servant” whose suffering is somehow related to the salvation of all Israel. Many Jews have interpreted this figure as an ideal Israel.
Having traced Couchoud’s argument for the development of the New Testament it’s time I returned to the beginning of his two volume work, The Creation of Christ, and outline his views on the development of Christianity itself. (The entire series is archived here.)
I once posted links to pdf version of Couchoud’s opening chapters:
Foreword (approx 2.2 MB pdf)
Apocalypses (168 b.c. – a.d. 40)
I. Preliminary (approx 1.8 MB pdf)
II. Profaned Temple (approx 2.2 MB pdf)
III. The Dream of Daniel (approx 3.3 MB pdf)
IV. Revelations of Enoch (approx 6.7 MB pdf)
V. Revelations of Moses (approx 2.8 MB pdf)
[Since posting the above I have removed each of the above links. Thanks to Frank Zindler the full first volume of Couchoud’s Creation of Christ is now accessible on my Vridar.info site. The second volume is also available. Both links are direct to downloading PDF files. — Neil Godfrey, 22nd July, 2019]
I will comment on only a few aspects of some of these chapters. Read them — they are not long — to understand Couchoud’s argument for the background to Christianity and the references to much of what is below. I will only address a few points here.
Some thoughts that occurred to me after reading Ulrich Berges’ article that I outlined in the previous post – – –
One sees in Isaiah an overlap between the Servant as Israel and the Servant who is the personal prophet, or more strictly the personification representing a prophetic community.
Such a literary technique — constructing or attributing to a literary persona the issues and experiences being grappled with by the authorial community — is not unique to Isaiah. It is found in relation to David, Jeremiah, Judith, Daniel, Ezra, the mourner in Lamentations.
Ulrich Berges has conveniently outlined a history of scholarly interpretation of the Servant Songs in Isaiah 40 – 55, concluding with his own reasons for understanding the Servant who suffers yet saves as a literary personification of a prophetic community in the restored Jewish province under the Persian empire (SJOT, Vol.24, No.1, 28-38, 2010). The following is an outline of Ulrich Berges’ article. I have questions about some of the premises upon which Berges relies, and have additional questions about the possible relevance of the literary developments in evidence here for later Gospel narrative traditions, but I try not to let any of these personal thoughts interfere with my outline of Berges’ article here. The Isaiah Servant songs have always been of special interest to me, and I assume someone else without access to academic online journals will find some interest in these notes also.
Developments in the exegesis of the so-called Deutero-Isaiah corpus
The first to challenge the idea that Isaiah wrote the entire book bearing his name was Ibn Ezra in the 12th century.