Tag Archives: Jewish Messianism

Horbury Argued Similarly: Jewish Messianic Ideas Explain Christianity

For most scholars, Boyarin’s thinking is a complete paradigm shift and in many ways something that “just isn’t done.”74
74   Horbury, Jewish Messianism, argued similarly to Boyarín yet not as forcefully.

Those quotes are from Benjamin Reynolds, page 29 of his essay “The Gospel of John’s Christology as Evidence for Early Jewish Messianic Expectations: Challenges and Possibilities” for Reading the Gospel of Johns Christology as Jewish Messianism (2018). The hypothesis being advanced is that the Christology in the earliest Christian texts — a preexistent, heavenly messiah, sitting alongside God, was also the human messiah who died — can be explained with reference to messianic ideas in Second Temple Judaism.

Since I have been posting on Daniel Boyarin’s articles recently it is time to offer some “balance” and quote from William Horbury’s Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ (1998).

If you thought Daniel Boyarin is “too far left field” then perhaps the more conventional conservative image of William Horbury is more to your liking.

What can be the relevance of post Second Temple era rabbinic texts?

The Targums and rabbinic literature are considered from time to time among the evidence which may shed light on Judaism at the time of Christian origins. Most of their wealth of material is later, but when viewed in conjunction with the Septuagint and the writings of the Second-Temple period they can be seen to preserve much exegesis and tradition which will have been current then. (3)

–o–

What are the respective roles of Judaism and gentile beliefs in the development of the Christ cult?

Early Christianity also offers signs of continuity with the developed messianic expectation of ancient Judaism, especially in respect of conceptual links between spirit and messiah, and those narratives of advent and reign which make up a kind of messianic myth. These developments of an inherited messianism were encouraged by its parallel continuation in the Jewish community throughout the period of Christian origins, and by the importance of ruler-cult under both Greek and Roman rule. Within Christianity the Christ-cult developed side by side with the cults of the angels and the saints. For all three customs there were Greek and Roman counterparts, but the origins lay in Jewish practice which had already been influenced by the Greek and Roman world. In the case of the Christ-cult, messianism in particular formed the link between Judaism and the apparently gentilic acclamation of Kyrios Iesous Christos. (4)

–o–

What are messianic prophecies about?

[M]essianic prophecies are not simply predictions of deliverance, but affirmations of the ideal of the Israelite state as it should be. (14)

–o–

What Old Testament figures appear to have influenced the development of messianic ideas?

Moses

(a) Moses is represented as a king in Ezekiel the Tragedian (probably second century BC), Philo, and much rabbinic tradition. . . . . A royal interpretation of Moses seems to appear in any case in Isa. 63. 11 , where Moses is the shepherd of the flock, and Exod. 4. 20 LXX , where he receives his sceptre from God. . . . . At the heart of the Pentateuch, then, is a figure which could be and was interpreted as that of a royal deliverer. Note that his pleading for his people (e.g. Exod. 32. 11, 32) and his rebuttal by them introduce an element of suffering into this royal picture. (31)

David

(b) David emerges as a suffering and humiliated yet ultimately victorious king, notably in Ps. 18 = II Sam. 22; Pss. 21-22 , and the psalms associated in their titles with his flights from Saul and from Absalom into the wilderness (3; 54; 57; 59; 62; 142); . . . . he is an exorcist (I Sam. 16. 14-23) and an inspired prophet (II Sam. 23. 1-7 ; cf. I Chron. 28.12, 19). . . . .

The suffering aspect of the royal figure of David goes unmentioned for the most part in sources from the time of Christian origins, but its biblical prominence in the histories and psalms will have kept it in view, as is suggested by the reference to David’s flight in Mark 2.25-26 and parallels. This aspect of the figure of David will then have contributed, together with the suffering of Moses noted above, to the messianic interpretation of the suffering servant of Isaiah and the smitten shepherd of Zechariah. (32-33)

The Servant of Isaiah 53

(c) The servant of Isa. 53 is interpreted as messiah in the Targum, but as victorious rather than suffering. This interpretation is not unnatural, for the passage is preceded by a prophecy of [redemption and followed by a vision of restoration]. . . . The Israelite king appears as a suffering servant in Ps. 89. 39, and the messiah is God’s servant in Zech. 3. 8. . . . . It was perhaps originally formed on the model of the suffering king, and a messianic interpretation was probably current in the Second-Temple period, but the passage was not then regarded as obviously messianic. (33)

Smitten shepherd of Zechariah 13:7

(d) The smitten shepherd of Zech. 13. 7 forms part of a series of prophecies in Zechariah, beginning with the advent of the lowly king in 9. 9, which find a messianic interpretation both in the New Testament and in rabbinic literature. In the latter they are associated with Messiah ben Joseph or ben Ephraim, who fights Gog and Magog and dies in battle. The death of a messiah is already envisaged in II Esdras 7, at the end of the messianic age, and the cutting off of a rightful ruler called messiah is foretold in Dan. 9. 26, quoted already. The notion of a slain messiah is then likely to have been current in the Second-Temple period, partly on the basis of Zechariah, although it seems clearly to have been less prominent than the expectation of a great and glorious king. The objections of the disciples to Christ’s expectation of suffering, as depicted in the Gospels, might then be ascribed not to their total ignorance of the notion of a humiliated messiah, but to their unwillingness to accept that it might apply in this case. (33)

The Son of Man in Daniel 7

(e) The Son of man in Dan. 7 is viewed messianically in the earliest interpretation, ranging from the middle of the first century BC to the middle of the second century AD in the Parables of Enoch, II Esdras, the Fifth Sibylline Book, a saying attributed to R. Akiba, and Justin Martyr’s Dialogue. In its setting in Daniel, however, it is widely taken at present to represent an angelic deliverer, probably Michael, the patron of Israel, who is mentioned as such in 12. 1. . . . This is an attractive view, because human figures often represent angels, in Daniel and elsewhere, and the importance of angels as
regulating terrestrial affairs is clear not only in Daniel but also in the Qumran War Scroll. Nevertheless, the early messianic interpretation seems more likely to be right. Both angelic and human leaders functioned in the Exodus, both are mentioned in the War Scroll, and both can be envisaged without difficulty in Daniel. In Daniel 2, the coming of the kingdom of God, represented by the stone which breaks the image, can naturally be associated with a messianic figure, just as in the War Scroll the kingdom is said to belong to God pre-eminently at the moments when Israel is delivered by David, the kings of his line, or the messiah. In Dan. 7 the beasts represent kings or kingdoms (7. 17, 23-24), not the angel-princes who are the expected foes of Israel’s angel-patron (10. 13 , 20-21). Finally, the designation ‘Son of man’ is close to the use of various words signifying ‘man’ in pre-Danielic messianic oracles, including Num. 24. 17; II Sam. 23. 1 and Zech. 6. 12 , quoted above, and Ps. 80. 18, which has ben adam. (34)

Conclusion

Of these five figures, then, Moses, David, the smitten shepherd and the Son of man will have influenced the growth of messianism from the first. In each case they fitted well into the royal messianism which we have seen to predominate, despite the importance of dual messianism. In the end the servant of Isa. 53 also contributed to the picture of the messianic king. (34)

read more »

The 10th Testimony for a Dying Messiah Before Christianity (7)

Deaths of all but the Servant in Isa 53 were deemed to have some atoning power in the first millennium of rabbinical exegesis

This post cites the tenth and final witness called by Joachim Jeremias in a 1957 book, The Servant of God. Thanks to helpful comments left by some readers I can say that the testimony of this particular #10 witness is disputed by scholars who argue that the rabbis of “Late Antiquity” responsible for interpreting Isaiah 53 were not influenced by any sort of anti-Christian bias. Maybe those critics are right. I hope to address in detail their arguments, either for or against, before the end of January 2019. Jeremias has been numbering his witnesses by the Greek alphabet and this final one therefore is the tenth letter of the Greek alphabet, kappa, or κ.

(κ) From the second century A.D. the history of Jewish exegesis of Isa. 53 is shaped increasingly by the opposition to Christianity.325

325 The rich material concerning the anti-Christian apologetic and polemic of Judaism in the first centuries has not yet been exhaustively dealt with.

In other studies of Jewish writings among biblical scholars (especially since 1967) there appears to have been a trend to undo negative perceptions of the Jewish past (the “rehabilitation of Judas” being one of the more distinctive examples) so I wonder if the “anti-Christian apologetic and polemic of Judaism” in the past has ever been “exhaustively dealt with”. If readers know what I don’t then I trust someone will inform me.

Jeremias outlines what he saw as Jewish efforts to remove earlier messianic associations from Isaiah 53:

This process begins by the avoidance of the description of the Messiah as ‘servant of God’ and ‘the chosen’, which the pseudepigraphic writers had used without embarrassment (cf. p. 50 and n. 262), and also of the title ‘son of man’,326 and ‘Jesus’, which had become a nomen odiosum (cf. TWNT, III, 287,20 ff.). From the end of the second century the apologetic method of changing the text327 and of tendentious interpretation was seized upon in translating Isa. 53, in order to dispose of passages which were of use to Christians in their text proofs. This polemical method is used especially in Targ. Isa. 53 (cf. pp. 66 ff.).

326 As distinct from Eth. En. it is lacking in Slav, and Heb. En. and in the whole of rabbinic literature (S.-B., I, 959; there is also the apparent exception J. Taan. 2, 1 [65b], 60).

327 For an example of the change in the Greek text see p. 65 and for an example of the change of the Aramaic text see n. 296; by the change of יפסיק (Targ. Isa. 53.3) into יפסוק , a statement about suffering is transformed into one about glory.

328 Fischel, 66, n. 67: *Probably the not very frequent use of 42.1 ff.; 50.4 ff., and 52.13 ff. in the Midrash is occasioned by the great significance of these texts in Christian exegesis.’

A similar mode of apologetic is used by R. Simlai (circa A.D. 250), who applies Isa. 53.12 to Moses (see n. 329). As far as possible, however, Isa. 42.1 ff. and 53 are not used at all.328 Indeed, it seems that messianic interpretations of Isa. 53 were excised whenever occasion served; in several instances there is at least a suspicion of this sort (cf. n. 313). These observations are very important for our judgement of late Jewish exegesis of Isa. 53. The widespread conclusion, that the relative infrequency of messianic interpretations of Isa. 53 in late Judaism shows that the latter was not acquainted with the idea of the suffering Messiah, does not do justice to the sources; for it ignores the great part which — very understandably — the debate with Christianity played in this question.

There is a certain silence in the rabbinic literature that Jeremais finds especially telling. In all biblical references to death — whether of an executed criminal, a high priest, the martyrs, the righteous, even children — rabbinic literature in the first thousand years finds a space to associate the death with an atoning power; there is only one exception, Jeremias claims, and that is the death of the servant in Isaiah 53. Such special treatment of Isa. 53 (in contrast to other atoning death interpretations)  appears to suggest an effort to suppress or deny earlier understandings that may have been partly responsible for Christian views.  read more »

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)

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.

 

 

Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah in the Gospel of Mark

Holman_The_Holy_of_HoliesI am going to have to re-read and re-think the Gospel of Mark. I have just read a two-part article in 2007 issues of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, “Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah”, Parts 1 and 2, by Crispin H.T. Fletcher-Louis.

The article adds some weight, I think, to the plausibility of the existence of pre-Christian Jewish sects who expected a messiah who must die. But the article doesn’t go that far at all. That’s an inference I draw from it.

This post skims the surface of a few of the points raised by Fletcher-Louis. (Caveat: F-L is interested in assessing what the historical Jesus himself must have thought of his own identity and role; my take is entirely on how and why the same data has been woven by the author into the Gospel’s larger theme.)

We know the importance of the Book of Daniel to Gospel of Mark. Jesus identifies himself with the Son of Man figure of Daniel 7 before the high priest; Jesus infers he is the same figure who will return from the heavens in the end-times in Mark 13; and there are other allusions. The evangelist introduces the Daniel 7 Son of Man figure early: we learn from the beginning that Jesus, speaking as the Son of Man, has the power to forgive sins and is Lord of the Sabbath. (I am aware scholars interested in a presumed historical figure behind the narrative argue that the “son of man” in these early chapters is an Aramaic circumlocution for an ordinary mortal. My interest is in the thematic significance of the phrase in the gospel itself, however.)

I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. (Daniel 7:13)

So what is the connection between Daniel 7 and a high priest? read more »

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 7

Continuing from Part 6 . . . .

The preceding posts have outlined Matthew Novenson’s argument that Paul’s concept of Christ (as expressed throughout his epistles) was entirely consistent with “the formal conventions of ancient Jewish Messiah language” that we would expect in any messianic literature of his era.

There are a few passages, however, that have been used to argue that Paul’s idea of Christ “demurred from, repudiated or even polemicized against” the Jewish theological notion of Messiah. Novenson rejects these interpretations and argues that even in these passages Paul uses χριστός within the range of conventional Jewish understanding of the Messiah.

1 Corinthians 1:23 “We Preach a Crucified Christ”

For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

Recent scholarly interpretation has generally viewed Christ here as “a meaning-less proper name” and hence the common translation as above, “Christ crucified”. An alternative translation that Novenson deploys is “a crucified Christ“. That definitely has a different ring to it. read more »

Messiahs, Midrash and Mythemes — more comparisons with the Gospels

6th August: expanded “the trial” comparison into “The face to face confrontation of secular and religious leaders

Comparing other rabbinic midrash with the Gospels

In my previous post I covered Galit Hasan-Rokem’s comparisons of some early Christian and rabbinic midrash. In this post I comment on Hasan-Rokem’s discussions of other tales in the midrash of Lamentations Rabbah and draw my own comparisons with the Gospels.

An image of the French philosopher, Claude Lév...
Claude Lévi-Strauss: Image via Wikipedia

The second rabbinic story of a Messiah discussed by Hasan-Rokem is one about the death of “King Messiah” Bar Kochba. Here the messiah is the villain. (Rabbinic sources subsequently referred to him as Bar Kozeba, Son of Lies.) I think there are a number of interesting plot and motif similarities here, just as there are between the messiah birth narratives of the Christian and rabbinic literature and that were detailed in the previous post. But what makes the overlaps interesting is considering an explanation for them through the constructs of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. If this turns out to be an invalid process, invalidly applied, fair enough. But let’s see what it might possibly suggest till then.

The midrashic tale is found in full (and re-edited) in the last half of the post titled Birth and Death of the Messiah: Two Jewish Midrash Tales (and have since copied it again at the end of this post, too.)

First, the common elements. I can see about 20. Some are more “distinctly defining” attributes that signal a common idea than others: #10 and #17 are surely tell-tale (DNA-linking) ones. read more »

Did the Jews before Christ expect a national Messiah?

The answer is, I think, no. In this post I quote a few sections from Professor Richard Horsley‘s work Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus.

(Since there is currently a discussion under way at the Freeratio Discussion Board that relates to this question, and since this is a topic I have discussed a few times already, this is a good opportunity to bring out another work I don’t recall using as much as I should have before.)

Horsley notes that common views today about ancient Jewish beliefs about the messiah have been “heavily influenced by western christological doctrine.” (p. 89) That’s never a good sign. Religious bias getting in the way again?

He writes bluntly:

[R]ecent studies have made clear that in pre-Christian times there was no general expectation of “The Messiah.” Far from being uniform, Jewish messianic expectations in the early Roman period were diverse and fluid. It is not even certain that the term messiah was used as a title in any literature of the time. There was no uniform expectation of “the messiah” until well after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., when it became standardized as a result of scholarly rabbinic reflection. In fact, the term is relatively rare in literature prior to, or contemporary with, Jesus. Moreover, the designation messiah is not an essential element in Jewish eschatological expectation. Indeed, a royal figure does not even occur in much of Jewish apocalyptic literature. Thus it is an oversimplification and a historical misconception to say that the Jews expected a “national” or “political” messiah, whereas early Christianity centered around a “spiritual” messiah — statements frequently found in New Testament interpretation. It would thus appear that the supposedly standard Jewish ideas or expectations of the messiah are a flimsy foundation indeed from which to explain early Christian understanding of Jesus. (pp. 90-91, my emphasis)

Davidic King Not Necessarily a Son of David read more »

An Old Testament Messiah Struck Down by God

"Death of King Saul", 1848 by Elie M...
Image via Wikipedia

A modern reader will be excused for not seeing at first glance any connection between King Saul as an anointed one (i.e. “messiah”) and the concept of messiah as it applies to Jesus. But Thomas L. Thompson has brought out some interesting concepts in common.

Saul was a messiah of Israel, and as a messiah he was struck down by God. David’s lament over this event is rich in messianic themes. One finds the same themes repeated in the Gospels in connection with the death of the messiah Jesus. I am closely following Thompson’s arguments here in pointing out the messianic motifs that we find in common in Old and New Testaments.

Saul is described metaphorically as the anointed (messianic) shield of Israel:

O mountains of Gilboa,
Let not dew or rain be on you, nor fields of offerings;

For there the shield of the mighty was defiled,
The shield of Saul, not anointed with oil.
(2 Samuel 1:21 New American Standard)

Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you, nor fields of offerings: for there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away, the shield of Saul, as though he had not been anointed with oil. (2 Samuel 1:21 King James)

For the interlinear Hebrew, transliteration and translation see http://biblehub.com/interlinear/2_samuel/1-21.htm:

מָגֵן שִׁאוּל בְּלִי מָשִׁיהַ בַּשָּׁמֶן
mgn shaul bli mshich b·shmn
shield-of Saul without being-anointed in·the·oil

I quote Thompson’s discussion in his 2001 SJOT article (repeated in The Messiah Myth), while indicating my own additions in italics. I’ll then point out what I see as similar thoughts on the messiah as applied to Jesus. read more »

Responding to standard arguments for Jesus’ historicity (1)

edited and added TLT quote Jan 26, 2010 @ 20:05 

I think of myself as neither a “Jesus mythicist” nor a “Jesus historicist”, but as someone interested in exploring the origins of Christianity. Whether the evidence establishes a historical Jesus at its core, or an entity less tangible, then so be it. Nonetheless, I cannot deny the importance and implications of the question.

Two things that bug me about much of the historicist position are:

  1. many of its interpretations of the evidence are grounded in circular reasoning
  2. many of its arguments are rhetorical and/or built on the fallacy of incredulity (aka “the divine fallacy“)

There are things that bug me about some mythicist arguments, too. But here I want to share the first of a series of responses I am making against the historicist position as summed up by a contributor on a Richard Dawkins website discussion forum.

In summary:

(i) [Jesus] existed

The idea that the stories about him are based on a historical figure is the most parsimonious explanation of how they arose, since the alternatives require repeated suppositions to explain away key elements in the evidence (eg all those “maybes” required to make references to his brother etc disappear).

This would be true IF the earliest evidence is for a more human Jesus, with the later evidence demonstrating an emerging divinization of this person until he eventually reaches co-creator and sustainer of the universe god status.

But the evidence we do have is actually the reverse of the above. The earliest evidence — such as an early hymn quoted by Paul (Phil. 2) — describes Jesus as equal with God, who had a brief temporary transformation to look like a human in order to be killed to effect a theological saving destiny for humankind, and was restored to the highest God-status and given the new name of Jesus, and worshiped by all as a reward.

. . . . Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Paul’s Jesus as referenced in the rest of his letters hews to the same identity. Jesus for Paul is the Spirit and Wisdom of God, a God-head figure of worship, whose exalted heavenly status is the honour bestowed on him for his descent into at least some form of flesh for the purpose of crucifixion.

It is the later evidence (among the gospels) that seeks to humanize Jesus. In Mark, he is said to become possessed by the Son of God spirit, lose his temper and need a couple of shots at healing a blind man. In Luke and Acts, his death is described as that of a merely righteous human martyr. A later copyist even added a scene with him sweating blood.

The most parsimonious way to describe this trajectory of the actual evidence is to see Jesus as beginning his history as a heavenly figure whose temporary appearance in the form of a man became the subject of later elaborations.

He is mentioned by Josephus twice and by Tacitus once and the arguments required to make these clear references in two independent sources disappear require, once again, a small hill of suppositions and contrived arguments.

On the contrary, the contrived arguments are those that have emerged since the Second World War when many things changed. Prior to that time the scholarly consensus — a consensus that included names like Albert Schweitzer and Walter Bauer — was that these texts are worthless as testimony for the historicity of Jesus. So to accuse anyone who dismisses the value of the Josephus evidence of resorting to “contrived arguments” is to insult some of the greatest names in the history of biblical scholarship.

Sometimes intellectual changes reflect broader cultural developments, and this seems to be one case in point. It appears to coincide with the shift in scholarly consensus to exonerate or excuse Judas, and other scholarly research designed to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus. Western guilt over past anti-semitism has been proposed as one explanation for some of these scholarly shifts. I suspect something similar at work in finding ways to bring the Jewish historian Josephus and Jesus together.

The stories about him contain elements which are clearly awkward for the gospel writers (his origin in Nazareth, his baptism, his execution) and which they try, largely unsuccessfully, to explain away or which they downplay or remove. These elements are awkward because they don’t fit the expectations of who and what the Messiah was, yet they remain in the story.

Apart from the subjectivity of deciding if a narrative detail is “clearly awkward”, this argument rests on a false premise.

The fact is that there is no evidence for some general expectation among Jews for any particular type of Messiah at all in the period discussed.

In a review of the most detailed discussions of the idea of the Messiah among Jews of the Second Temple period, The One Who Is to Come by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Jeffrey L. Staley writes:

There is no serious attempt to place messianism within the broader matrix of social history. There is no interaction with, say, Richard Horsley or John Dominic Crossan’s work on social banditry and peasant movements (Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus; The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant). One might then ask of Fitzmyer what communities he thinks are reflected in his textual study. If, as many have suggested, only 5 percent of the ancient Mediterranean population could read and write, then what segment of the population is reflected in Fitzmyer’s analysis? Is his “history of an idea” representative of Jewish belief at large, or does it represent only a small segment of the population? Does Fitzmyer’s study of the “history of an idea” reflect only the elites’ mental peregrinations, which are largely unrelated to the general masses? And what difference, if any, would his answer to this question make to this “history of an idea”?

Thomas L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth, has discussed in detail the literary nature of this messianic ideal (a literary construct that extends beyond a Jewish literate class, and stretches across cultural and ethnic groupings from Egypt to Mesopotamia), and finds no correlation of it among popular Jewish culture before the second century c.e.:

Nevertheless, to make an argument that a specific theme belongs to the earliest sources of the gospels is not sufficient to associate it with history. The interrelated themes that have brought Weiss and Schweitzer — and the scholarship following them — to speak of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet do not reflect religious movements of the first century BCE. The thematic elements of a divinely destined era of salvation, a messianic fullness of time and a day of judgment bringing about a transformation of the world from a time of suffering to the joys of the kingdom are all primary elements of a coherent, identifiable literary tradition, centuries earlier than the gospels, well-known to us from the Bible and texts throughout the entire Near East. (p. 28)

There may also be some relevance here in Jon D. Levenson’s case that at least some not insignificant number of Jews in the Second Temple period coming to embrace a theology involving salvation through an atoning sacrifice of Isaac, as I have discussed in posts archived here.

This makes perfect sense if the gospel writers are trying to make a historical figure fit the Messianic expectations and some elements in his story simply don’t fit well. But it makes no sense at all if they are making him up or his story simply arose out of the expectations. If that were the case his story would fit the expectations very neatly and these awkward elements wouldn’t exist.

This is a repeat of the standard argument among the biblical studies faculties to establish the historicity of everything from the baptism of Jesus to his resurrection. The logical structure of the argument is elsewhere described as “the divine fallacy”. More formally it is listed among other fallacies as the fallacy of (personal) incredulity.”

N.T. Wright and other mainstream academics join with apologists in using this logic to prove the historicity of the resurrection on the basis that the “embarrassing” and “uncomfortable” and “awkward” fact is that mere untrustworthy women were the first witnesses.

To paraphrase the way it goes:

This makes perfect sense if the gospel writers are trying to speak honestly about the historical resurrection of Jesus and some elements in their story simply don’t fit well.

It makes no sense at all if the gospel writers are trying to make up a story about the resurrection.

If that were the case, they would never have said women were the first witnesses.

Everyone knew that women’s testimony was worthless in those days.

So it makes perfect sense if the gospel writers were writing about a historical event.

Others use the same logical fallacy to prove God, or creation science, or psychic powers:

How else can you explain this of that fact?

God/creationism/the tooth fairy are the only explanations that make sense of the evidence!

No other explanation makes any sense!

That such fallacious reasoning underpins so much of historical Jesus studies seems to escape notice surely can only be explained in the context of its cultural familiarity. (Trying to avoid slipping into the same fallacy here.  :-/  )

(The original context of the summary cited here, by Tim O’Neill, can be found here.)

 

“F” is for “False Dilemma”
Image by BinJabreel (Is on Hiatus) via Flickr

(The original context of the summary cited here, by Tim O’Neill, can be found here.)

Could Jews never have imagined a crucified Messiah?

This question is often enough presented rhetorically in one form or another as if to settle the question of the historicity of a Jesus whose presence was so inspiring that his followers continued to exalt his status after his death into a divine messiah status. It would be inconceivable that anyone would have completely made up such a story as a crucified messiah, the assertion goes.

I disagree.

If the Jews of the Second Temple period could imagine . . .

  1. their father Isaac saving their nation by his blood,
  2. by offering himself as a willing sacrifice that atoned for the sins of his descendants;
  3. and if they could identify with him as the archtypical martyr so that they could also face death, with hope of a resurrection;
  4. and if their historical narratives spoke of other favoured and beloved only sons, also fated for real or symbolic deaths,

— who were disbelieved and betrayed by their own brethren,

— but only as part of a divine plan to bring them through humiliation into exaltation and authority

. . . if Second Temple Jews (who were by no means as monolithic as they became in rabbinical times) could construct such a saving theology of Isaac and the Beloved Son, then some of them were definitely not far removed from a crucified messiah concept at all.

Not only do we have a plausible matrix for the Jesus theology, but even for the narrative of the blind and failing disciples who from the first gospel accompanied it.

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