Tag Archives: Messiahs

A Pre-Christian Suffering Messiah Idea: Concluding a Case Against

For a discussion of the old view of Israelite Kingship and comparison with today’s understanding:

Clines, David. 1975. “The Psalms and the King.” Theological Students’ Fellowship Bulletin 71: 1–6. (Reprinted in On the Way to the Postmodern: Old Testament Essays, 1967–1998, vol. 2 (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 293; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), pp. 687-700.)

The last part of H. H. Rowley’s argument against the views of Joachim Jeremias and others that at least some Second Temple Judaeans held the notion of a Suffering Messiah relates to views that are no longer extant, as far as I am aware, among biblical scholars today. My understanding is that few today continue to hold to the idea that Israel’s kings participated in annual rituals of humiliation and rebirth as representatives of a dying and rising divinity.

If, as was once widely understood, the king of Israel or Judah regularly enacted such a ritual,

This evidence would seem to justify the inference that the concepts of the Davidic Messiah and of the Suffering Servant alike had their roots in the royal cultic rites, though they developed separate elements of those rites. (87)

That is, the separate concepts of Davidic Messiah and Suffering Servant developed their own pathways after the demise of the kingdom and during the periods of Babylonian captivity and Second Temple era.

Rowley next step (along with other scholars) is to posit that these two separate strands of ideology were united in the teachings of Jesus himself. Why with Jesus? Because

There has been no success in all the endeavours made to find previous or contemporary identification of the Messiah with the suffering servant of Yahweh. (87)

Rowley is citing H. Wheeler Robinson, whose complete statement follows:

It is no exaggeration to say that this is the most original and daring of all the characteristic features of the teaching of Jesus, and it led to the most important element in His work. There has been no success in all the endeavours made to find previous or contemporary identification of the Messiah with the suffering servant of Yahweh. The Targum of Jonathan for Isaiah liii. does give a Messianic application to some parts of the chapter, but, by a most artificial ingenuity, ascribes all the suffering to the people, not to its Messiah. This is very significant for the main line of tradition. There is no evidence of a suffering Messiah in previous or contemporary Judaism to explain the conception in the consciousness of Jesus. (Robinson, 199)

“Most original and daring”? Do I detect a confessional bias leading to the conclusion that Jesus owed nothing to distinctive or innovative to any earlier Jewish belief systems?

It seems so.

One may wonder if Rowley’s arguments against the general views of Jeremias and others are influenced by religious faith so that they become very exacting in demanding unambiguous and explicit statements testifying to a pre-Christian suffering messiah view; but one must also concede that the arguments of Jeremias rest most heavily on inference and one’s own assessments of probability.

Postscript: Another point I have not addressed in these posts is raised by critics other than Rowley against the idea of a pre-Christian suffering messiah. That is, making a clear distinction between “suffering” messiah and a “slain” messiah. In sifting through the evidence some scholars would insist that we be careful not to assume that a messiah who is killed is necessarily one who suffers as in experiencing the sorts of torments apparently suggested in Isaiah 53.

I titled this post, “concluding a case against”, not “the” case. If I begin to see that Morna Hooker has added further significant arguments against the views of Jeremias I will post those here, too.

Previous posts in this series:

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

  2. Questioning the Claim of a Pre-Christian Suffering Messiah

And the series covering Jeremias’s case for a pre-Christian suffering/dying messiah:

Zimmerli & Jeremias: Servant of God (8 posts)

Robinson, H. Wheeler. 1942. Redemption and Revelation: In the Actuality of History. Library of Constructive Theology. London: Nisbet.

Rowley, H. H. 1952. The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays on the Old Testament. London: Lutterworth Press.


Questioning the Claim of a Pre-Christian Suffering Messiah

Gog and Magog attack Jerusalem and kill Messiah ben Joseph

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

Common attributes of Servant of the Lord and Davidic Messiah

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

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

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

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

read more »

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

H. H. Rowley

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

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

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

(Broadhead, 102)

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

(Jonge, 48)

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

(Jipp, 257)

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

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

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

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

Salvation through a Saviour’s Death — Another List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further on Origins of Belief in a Dying and Resurrected Messiah

Matthew Ferguson once again has an interesting post that serves as an apt sequel to my previous post on the meaning of martyrdom among pre-Christian era Judaeans: The Rationalization Hypothesis: Is a Vision of Jesus Necessary for the Rise of the Resurrection Belief?. It is a guest post written by Kris Komarnitsky, author of Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection.

Komarnitsky writes from the position of acceptance of the historicity of some form of belief in Jesus’ resurrection arising among his disciples (as distinct from my own view that there is no methodological justification for assuming a “historical core” behind our gospel narratives or a gospel narrative behind 1 Corinthians 15) when he introduces the question:

The origin of the resurrection belief is a captivating historical puzzle and the lack of a satisfying answer motivated my inquiry into this topic. Ironically, the lack of a satisfying answer for the rise of the resurrection belief subjected me to the same basic cognitive process that I will suggest led to the resurrection belief. . . . 

The conviction that Jesus was raised from the dead is found in the earliest evidence of Christian origins and appears to have come about almost immediately after Jesus’ death. How does one account for the rise of this extraordinary belief if the later Gospel accounts of a discovered empty tomb and corporeal post-mortem appearances of Jesus are legends, as many scholars believe is the case?

Subheadings give an idea of what to expect (I have not yet had an opportunity to more than quickly skim the article):

  • Introduction
  • What is Cognitive-Dissonance-Induced Rationalization?
  • Model #1: Leon Festinger’s Cult Group Study
  • Model #2: The Millerites
  • Model #3: Sabbatai Sevi
  • Model #4: The Lubavitchers
  • Conclusion from Models
  • Preconditions to a Rationalization of Jesus’ Death
  • Jesus Died for Our Sins and Will Return Soon
  • The Resurrection Belief
  • From the Resurrection Belief to Visions of Jesus to the Early Creed
  • Summary of the Rationalization Hypothesis
  • A Critique of the Bereavement Vision Hypothesis
  • Conclusion

It looks like a significant contribution to further testing of various hypotheses accounting for Christian origins.

I have been critical of the cognitive dissonance theory to explain a historical turning point leading to Christianity but Komarnitsky obviously explores this psychological explanation in a depth that I have not considered before. Some of his points coincide with the reasons I have dismissed the validity of the theory, but he adds so much more that I have yet to read more carefully and consider. From what I have noticed at this point, some of the data and proposals of Komarnitsky may well have a relevance to alternative modes of Christian origins, that is, even apart from a historical background to the gospel resurrection narratives.

Almost at random, some interesting passages that I have noticed by chance:

The answer to the second question – why did the Messiah have to die – could have been formed from Jewish beliefs about measure-for-measure recompense and vicarious sacrifice when dealing with God. An example of such beliefs can be found in the aqedah story, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac in return for God’s blessing and favor (Gen. 22.1-19). By the first century, this story had become embellished to emphasize that Isaac was a willing sacrifice: “[Isaac] was pleased with this discourse.…So he went immediately to the altar to be sacrificed” (Ant. 1.13.4).

. . . .

These new beliefs were a creative interpretation and reconfiguration of Jewish beliefs about measure-for-measure recompense and vicarious sacrifice when dealing with God, great prophets ascending to heaven, the final immortal body, the state of existence of souls in heaven, and possibly Jesus’ apocalyptic teachings and some minor Hellenistic influences. 

. . . .

However, once one integrates cognitive-dissonance-induced rationalization into the bereavement vision hypothesis, the question posed by this article logically follows: Is a vision of Jesus even necessary for the rise of the resurrection belief? 

I look forward to engaging with the post as soon as opportunity permits.


A Crucified Messiah Was Not an Offensive Scandal to Jews (with a postscript on evangelical language among scholars)

The idea that Jews would be (actively and aggressively) scandalized by the message of a crucified messiah because of his manner of death should be retired from New Testament scholarship.

Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle

Crucified Jewish Rebels from Jerusalem Post

This is a topic I’ve posted about before but this time I am sharing Paula Fredriksen’s version of the argument. (Yes, I know I have several other series I am supposed to be completing but as I follow up footnotes and related references to works on those posts I find myself coming across other little interesting details like this one along the way.)

Paula Fredriksen sums up the widespread scholarly view this way:

Some scholars have conjectured that the core message of the new movement — the proclamation of a crucified messiah — would have deeply offended any and all Jews. In Galatians 3.13, Paul cites Deuteronomy 21.23:

Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree.

Jews in antiquity took “hanging on a tree” to mean crucifixion (so too, e.g., 11 Q Temple 64.6–13). On this scholarly construction, the early kerygma was an affront to pious Jews anywhere and everywhere, since a messiah known to have been crucified like a criminal would be viewed as dying a death “cursed by the Law”: for this reason, Jews would be scandalized by the message of a crucified messiah (cf. 1 Cor 1.23). How could the messiah be “cursed of God”?

This is one of those tropes of New Testament scholarship that refuses to go away, despite all its problems as historical reconstruction.

Fredriksen, Paula. Paul: The Pagan’s Apostle (Kindle Locations 1567-1573). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition. — My formatting and bolding in all quotations

The first point to note (as Paula Fredriksen points out) is that the Deuteronomy passage does not speak of executing a criminal by hanging but to a post-mortem public display of the executed criminal’s body. (I am reminded of the later Talmudic account of a Jeschu (Jesus?) being stoned and his corpse subsequently being strung up on a tree.)

By the first century, however, “hanging on a tree” had become a circumlocution for crucifixion as we learn in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

But a significant point that Fredriksen notes is that there is no evidence in any Jewish literature that death by crucifixion was considered a “cursed” type of death as appears to be indicated in Galatians 3:13. So it is worth looking at the broader context what death by crucifixion or hanging meant to Jews of Paul’s day.

Saul and Jonathan hanged

David retrieved the bones of King Saul and his son Jonathan that the Philistines had hung up on public display in one of their cities. Though hanged,

nowhere is this taken to mean that they had died under a special curse (2 Sam 21:12).

800 Pharisees crucified

In Antiquities of the Jews 13.380 Josephus tells us about king Alexander Janneus crucifying 800 Pharisees.

. . . . . after which the Jews fought against Alexander, and being beaten, were slain in great numbers in the several battles which they had; and when he had shut up the most powerful of them in the city Bethome, he besieged them therein; and when he had taken the city, and gotten the men into his power, he brought them to Jerusalem, and did one of the most barbarous actions in the world to them; for as he was feasting with his concubines, in the sight of all the city, he ordered about eight hundred of them to be crucified; and while they were living, he ordered the throats of their children and wives to be cut before their eyes. This was indeed by way of revenge for the injuries they had done him; which punishment yet was of an inhuman nature . . . .

Sons of Judah the Galilean crucified

Again we learn from Josephus in Book 20 of Antiquities of the crucifixion by Rome of two sons of a Jewish rebel:

And besides this, the sons of Judas of Galilee were now slain; I mean of that Judas who caused the people to revolt, when Cyrenius came to take an account of the estates of the Jews, as we have showed in a foregoing book. The names of those sons were James and Simon, whom [Tiberius] Alexander commanded to be crucified.

2000 Jews crucified in wake of Herod’s death

Josephus further tells us in Book 17 of his Antiquities that the Romans crucified 2000 Jews to crush a rebellion that broke out after Herod’s death.

Upon this, Varus sent a part of his army into the country, to seek out those that had been the authors of the revolt; and when they were discovered, he punished some of them that were most guilty, and some he dismissed: now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand.

Thousands of refugees crucified during the Jewish War

In the fifth book of his Jewish Wars Josephus writes of the crucifixions of thousands of Jewish refugees attempting to flee the besieged city of Jerusalem:

Some of these were indeed fighting men, who were not contented with what they got by rapine; but the greater part of them were poor people, who were deterred from deserting by the concern they were under for their own relations; for they could not hope to escape away, together with their wives and children, without the knowledge of the seditious; nor could they think of leaving these relations to be slain by the robbers on their account; nay, the severity of the famine made them bold in thus going out; so nothing remained but that, when they were concealed from the robbers, they should be taken by the enemy; and when they were going to be taken, they were forced to defend themselves for fear of being punished; as after they had fought, they thought it too late to make any supplications for mercy; so they were first whipped, and then tormented with all sorts of tortures, before they died, and were then crucified before the wall of the city. This miserable procedure made Titus greatly to pity them, while they caught every day five hundred Jews; nay, some days they caught more . . . . . So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest, when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies.

No suggestion of divine curse, no offence in death by crucifixion

Paula Fredriksen observes that in all of the above Jewish accounts of crucifixions Josephus

nowhere claims that other Jews regarded these people as therefore having died under a divine curse.

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 »

Addendum: the Power of the Death of the Anointed High Priest

I should have added the following to my latest post.

In previous posts I’ve discussed the implication of an anointed one (i.e. messiah, or in Greek, christ) being identified with the high priest:

If some Jewish groups in the early first century identified a messianic figure with the high priest as his template then then one must almost inevitably consider the possibility that they accepted that such a messianic figure would die. And that death would have a saving power if precedent be any guide:

Numbers 35:25

and the congregation shall deliver the manslayer out of the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge, whither he was fled: and he shall dwell therein until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil.

Barabbas the murderer was freed at the time of the death of Jesus. If Jesus were being depicted as a high priestly messiah then that would perhaps be ironically appropriate. read more »

Who do Israelis think is the Messiah?

A reminder to Christians not to take their beliefs too seriously . . . .

(alerted via Gilad Atzmon)