My post “The Chosen People Were Not Awaiting the Messiah” led to more diverse comments than I had been expecting and I thought I should cover a little more of Akenson’s grounds for his view that there is no unambiguous evidence for popular messianic expectations as part of the background to the life of Jesus — or anytime between 167 BCE and 70 CE. I was attracted to this aspect of his larger discussion in Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds because it is a view I have addressed several times over the years here. It’s always nice to meet someone who agrees with us. Akenson could be wrong, of course, but I find the balance of evidence (or rather lack of evidence) coupled with what I think is sound analysis leaves me thinking that it is a myth that many Jews were eagerly anticipating a messiah to deliver them from the Romans. (The myth arose, I suspect, as a spin-off from the post 70 CE Christian narrative.)
So here is a fuller account of Akenson’s argument.
These arguments, which are representative of a type, appear to suggest that the best way to learn about the messiah in ancient Judaism is to study texts in which there is none. — William Scott Green
The Messiah concept in the “Old Testament” is a peripheral idea that has no clear relationship with our concept of a future conquering and redeeming saviour figure. “Anointed ones” (translatable as “messiahs”) referred to kings (good and bad ones), to prophets and mortal high priests. Yet scholars have tended to look for some notion of the later Christian and/or rabbinic idea of messiah in other places in the Tanakh where the word is not found. At this point Akenson makes a point and quotes a scholar I have also quoted several times to make the same point:
Granted, there are such things as sub-texts and arguments-from-silence, but the forcing of Moshiah into places where the writers did not use the term is surpassing strange. As William Scott Green has noted, this forced exegesis seems to “suggest that the best way to learn about the Messiah in ancient Judaism is to study texts in which there is none.”
But what about the extra-biblical Judean writings between 167 BCE and 70 CE? Apart from the Dead Sea Scrolls there are only two surviving documents that mention the messiah. Of the passages in the Book of Enoch, or in those chapters (37-71 — the Similitudes or Parables) written during this period, Akenson writes
In two places (48:10 and 52:4), the term Messiah is used, but in a strangely subordinate form: as if referring to an archangel rather than to an independent figure. In the first instance, a judgement is announced against those who “have denied the lord of the Spirits and his Messiah,” and in the second, an angel explains to Enoch that at the final judgement Yahweh will cast a number of judgements, which will “happen by authority of his Messiah….” Apparently, in the latter case, Moshiah would not be an active participant in events, but rather, the guarantor of their authenticity.
Of the passage in the Psalms of Solomon,
In the Songs of Solomon, hymns number 17 and 18, there is found praise of “the Lord Messiah,” a future super-king of the Davidic line who will destroy Judah’s enemies and purge Jerusalem. Whether the voice here is closer to old-time classical prophecy or to later Second Temple apocalyptic rhetoric, is open to question. The clear point is that Messiah is a king who will reign in the manner of a powerful and righteous monarch. This is not a piacular or redemptive figure, but an Anointed One, in the same sense that King David was.
One widely held view that I have long questioned is that there were widespread expectations or hopes for a soon-coming messiah around the time of Jesus. One line of evidence often cited in support for this scenario are the scrolls from Qumran. I have posted regularly on the evidence and what various scholars have had to say about it, and now happily (for me) I have found one more scholar who has likewise questioned the prevailing assumption and specifically pointed to the failure of the Qumran scrolls to indicate the existence of messianic fervour or imminent hopes prior to the Jewish War of 66-70 CE. The author speaks of Judahism to distinguish the religious ideas and practices of later (200 CE – 600 CE Judaism).
Three characteristics of the apparently Messianic usage of the Damascus Document are noteworthy. First is the way that this Moshiah – whom one would expect to be central to the discussion – is only mentioned briefly, almost with a passing nod. The concept of Messiah is there, certainly, but the Damascus Document almost says that, really, it’s no big deal. This is very curious indeed. Secondly, there is the matter of the title “Messiah of Aaron and Israel,” or, more accurately, “Anointed One of Aaron and Israel.” This seems to apply directly to a future High Priest, for it is to Aaron that the competing high priestly lines traced their ecclesiastical ancestry. So the future Moshiah will be a High Priest with the proper credentials. This position, that Messiah will be a proper High Priest, is buttressed by a fragment from Qumran Cave No. 11 (again if, and only if one accepts that this document comes from the same belief system as does the Damascus Rule). This fragment is an apocalyptic piece in which Melchizedek is presented as the active agent of God, and Moshiah as the messenger of Melchizedek. Messiah is identified as the man “anointed of the spirit about whom Daniel spoke” (11Q Melchizedek 2:18). The reference almost certainly is to the high priest who is forecast in Daniel’s prophecy of the “seventy weeks.” Thirdly, in what seems to be a related Qumran document, one given the name “Rule of the Community,” or “the Community Rule,” there is a fleeting eschatological reference to the way the religious community in question was to be run “until the prophet comes, and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel” (Rule 9:11). Note the plural. From this many scholars have concluded that not one, but two Messiahs would appear to redeem the righteous. This belief in two Messiahs is injected thence into the Damascus Document, with the assertion that “Messiah of Aaron and Israel” really means Messiahs of Aaron and Israel, and is best differentiated as meaning “Messiah of Aaron” and “Messiah of Israel.”
This is not bad scholarship, but it certainly is confusing eschatology. What, indeed, did the texts in the Qumran library mean when they referred to Messiah? We must remain confused, because the authors of the documents were confused. The concept of Messiah in the Qumran documents is neither central, nor is it very well thought out, and these judgements hold whether one wishes to read the Qumran manuscripts as independent and unrelated items, or as texts that dovetail into one another.
Yet, consider the context in which these Qumran documents were found; in a library that included copies of various complex texts that were basic to the Judahist tradition. These ranged from entire sets of what later became the canonical Hebrew scriptures (save for the Book of Esther) and big and complex volumes, such as the Book of Jubilees and the Book of Enoch. This means that whoever wrote the four Qumran documents I have referred to above, almost certainly knew how to frame complicated and important concepts within the tradition of Judahist religious invention. Yet, despite this knowledge, the concept of Messiah is left so vague as to be almost evanescent. (That we cannot be sure whether the belief was in one or in two Messiahs is vague indeed.)
This leads to a simple conclusion, but one that most biblical scholars – especially those whose background is the Christian tradition – being dead keen to find any Messianic reference, resist: that the concept of Messiah was only of peripheral interest to later Second Temple Judahism.Even if one speculates that future scholarship on the Qumran libraries may produce from the remaining fragments as many as half-a-dozen more possible references to an Anointed One, or Anointed Ones, it still would not shake the basic point. As indicated by the contemporary texts – the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocrypha, and the Pseudepigrapha – Messiah was at most a minor notion in Judahism around the time of Yeshua of Nazareth. The Chosen People were not awaiting the Messiah. (175-76. Italics original. Bolding mine.)
Akenson, Donald Harman. 2001. Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds. New edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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).
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)
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)
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)
What Old Testament figures appear to have influenced the development of messianic ideas?
(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)
(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)
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)
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.
Common attributes of Servant of the Lord and Davidic Messiah
Rowley challenges the significance of one scholar’s table setting out a list of attributes shared by the Suffering Servant of Isaiah and the Davidic Messiah. Before we look at Rowley’s contrary arguments here is the list he cites. It is from an appendix in T. W. Manson’s The Servant-Messiah:
SERVANT OF THE LORD (A) AND DAVIDIC MESSIAH (B)
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)
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):
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
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.
Some readers will be interested in what Martin Goodman had to say about Jewish concepts of the Messiah in the Second Temple era. As much as I’m tempted to add my own comments I will restrain myself. I have written enough of my own perspective on this question other times I have addressed “messianic expecations” (as distinct from messianic speculations). I have replaced endnote numbers with citations.
. . . There is no evidence of an agreed coherent eschatology within any ancient Jewish group. It is, however, striking that expectation of some dramatic change in the world was so widespread. Even the philosopher Philo, whose interpretation of the Torah generally focused firmly on the psychological need of the individual worshipper to concentrate on the higher meaning of the laws, still let slip an uncharacteristic hope that God would one day bring to an end ‘the enmity of wild beasts which is activated by natural antipathy’ and produce an age in which nature will be at peace:
When that time comes I believe that bears and lions and panthers and the Indian animals, elephants and tigers, and all others whose vigour and power are invincible, will change their life of solitariness and isolation for one of companionship, and gradually in imitation of the gregarious creatures show themselves tame when brought face to face with mankind … Then too the tribes of scorpions and serpents and the other reptiles will have no use for their venom.
Philo did derive a moral message from the analogy between these wild beasts and the wild beasts within the soul, but it seems likely that this idealized picture, so close to the prophecy in Isaiah of the lion lying down with the lamb, owed more than a little to popular conceptions of the perfect time when the last days arrive. [Philo, On Rewards and Punishments 85, 89-90]
In some Jewish texts the central figure in these events of the last days is called the Messiah, ‘the anointed.’ Some texts, like the Psalms of Solomon, describe the Messiah as a human figure, descended from David:
Behold, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to reign over your servant Israel in the time which you did foresee, O God. Gird him with strength to destroy unrighteous rulers, and purge Jerusalem from the nations who trample her down to destruction … And he will be a righteous king over them, taught by God. There will be no unrighteousness among them in his days, for all shall be holy, and their king shall be the anointed Lord. [Psalms of Solomon 17:21-22, 32]
In other texts, however, the Messiah is described as a supernatural figure, as befits the events in which he is involved. So the author of 2 Baruch, a description of a series of visions alleged to have been experienced by Baruch, amanuensis of the prophet Jeremiah, but in fact composed by a Jew, probably in Hebrew, in the late first century CE and now preserved only in Christian translations into Syriac and Arabic:
And it will happen after these things when the time of the appearance of the Anointed has been fulfilled and he returns with glory, that then all who sleep in hope of him will rise. And it will happen at that time that those treasuries will be opened in which the number of the souls of the righteous were kept, and they will go out and the multitudes of the souls will appear together, in one sole assembly, of one mind … The souls of the wicked, on the contrary, will waste away completely when they shall see all these things. [2 Baruch 30:1-2, 4]
Among the Dead Sea sectarians are to be found varied and conflicting ideas about the nature of the Messiah. Sometimes the scrolls envisage just one royal, Davidic, triumphant Messiah, but sometimes a Messiah of Israel was contrasted to a Messiah of Aaron, who in turn was differentiated from ‘the Prophet’:Continue reading “Messiahs and Eschatology in Second Temple Judaism”
skip to the end of this post where I cite one of several explanations.
I don’t know the answer to the question in the title (in part because much depends upon how we define and understand the origins of “Christianity”) but I can present here one argument for the possibility that there was a belief among various Judeans prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE that a future messiah was destined to be killed. (This post goes beyond previous posts addressing messianic-like interpretations of the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53 that we find in Daniel and the Enoch literature and builds upon other earlier posts addressing the evidence in later rabbinic and other Jewish writings.)
Recall that in my recent post, Suffering and Dying Messiahs: Typically Jewish Beliefs, we read a Jewish narrative from the early 600s CE describing a Messiah son of Joseph being slain in battle against end-time forces of evil. The earliest surviving reference to the Messiah ben (=son of) Joseph is in the Talmud. If you are like me your first reaction to hearing that will be “How can writings up to several centuries into the Christian era possibly be used as reliable sources for events and ideas in first century Palestine?” But also if you are like me you will be at least open to hearing the case being made. So here it is as I understand it.
Talmud: Rabbinic writings made up primarily of two parts, the Mishnah and the Gemara.
The Mishnah purports to be the written collection of oral traditions of rabbinic debates and teachings. The Mishnah was completed around 200 CE.
The Gemara is rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah and is said to have been composed between 200 CE to 450 CE.
There are two broad chronological eras represented in the Talmud: the Tannaitic and the Amoraic.
The Tannaim is identified by Hebrew text and represents ideas prior and up to 200 CE.
The Amoraim is identified by Aramaic text and represents the period subsequent to 200 CE.
In the Mishnah we sometimes read both Hebrew and Aramaic text in the one section. We understand that the Aramaic text has been added by rabbis post 200 CE to fill out or clarify the earlier Hebrew account.
It will help to know some important terms relating to the Talmud. I explain these (hopefully not misleadingly simplified) in the side box.
The earliest known references to Messiah ben Joseph are found in a section (or tractate) called Sukkah. (Scroll through the Talmud page at http://www.halakhah.com to see where it sits in the broader collection.) The Sukkah tractate relates to the Feast of Tabernacles (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sukkot).
I copy the first of these passages, Sukkoth 52a, as Mitchell himself sets it out, with the later Aramaic passages in italics, but I have added bolding to make it clearer:
“And the land shall mourn family by family apart. The family of the house of David apart and their women apart” (Zech. 12:12). They said: Is not this an a fortiori conclusion? In the age to come, when they are busy mourning and no evil inclination rules them, the Torah says, “the men apart and the women apart.” How much more so now when they are busy rejoicing and the evil inclination rules them. What is the cause of this mourning? Rabbi Dosa and the rabbis differ.One says: “For Messiah ben Joseph who is slain;” and the other says: “For the evil inclination which is slain.” It is well according to him who says, “For Messiah ben Joseph who is slain,” for this is what is written, “And they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him like the mourning for an only son” (Zech. 12:10); but according to him who says, “The evil inclination which is slain:” Is this an occasion for mourning? Is it not an occasion for rejoicing rather than weeping?
I understand from Mitchell’s discussion that the highlighted words above are translations of Aramaic text. The remainder is rendered from Hebrew.
Accordingly we have in this section of Mishnah, typically dated prior to 200 CE, later rabbinic additions in Aramaic. But the Aramaic text is quoting references to Messiah ben Joseph that are in Hebrew text.
Mitchell argues that the Aramaic script is the work of Amoraic (post 200 CE) rabbis commenting on a tradition from the Tannaitic era (prior to 200 CE). He disagrees with another scholar (Joseph Klausner) who believed we should interpret the passage as indicating that the tradition of Messiah ben Joseph itself originated some time in the later Tannaitic era (200-450 CE).
Let’s back up a little. Let’s see what light the broader context might be able to shed on the question of dating.
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.
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)
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.
I am copying here a post I just submitted on another forum, so with apologies to readers who have already seen this . . . .
This topic is not about “Jewish prophecies of the messiah’s arrival”. It is not about the second century Bar Kochba rebellion. Nor is it even about popular beliefs and attitudes at the time of the 66-73 CE Jewish war.
It is about the historical evidence we have or don’t have (that is the question) for:
of the appearance of a messiah figure to liberate Judea from Rome
in the early years of the first century, let’s say up to around year 30 CE
I often read and hear scholars and lay people alike saying that Palestine or the Jews generally were strongly anticipating a messianic figure to appear around the time when, lo and behold, Jesus happened to appear. This is so often said in a way that assumes it is a well-known and indisputable fact of history. But some years ago when I started looking for the evidence supporting this claim (I fully expected to find plenty) I found the task was not so easy. What was cited as evidence so often appeared to me to be vague, imprecise, ambiguous at best and very often simply not relevant — not the sort of data that historians usually like to use as foundations for hypotheses.
I have since been reassured that I was not crazy or blind by discovering several reputable scholars who do say as much: that there is scant to no evidence for
of the appearance of a messiah figure to liberate Judea from Rome
in the early years of the first century, let’s say up to around year 30 CE
I recently set out details of this [absence of] evidence in a series of blog posts responding to Richard Carrier’s arguments and supporting citations attempting to establish a popular messianic “movement” in early first century Palestine.
The details are covered in that series of posts but I will outline them here:
The Dead Sea Scrolls
Yes, there are messianic references found in some of these. But they are in fact very few compared with the total number of scrolls and surviving manuscript fragments. This relative “fewness” does not lead us to think that messianism was a particularly major preoccupation of the sectarians producing or using those scrolls (assuming “sectarians” of some sort were responsible for them).
Moreover, the messianic references that do exist do not, if I recall correctly, give any indication that a messiah was to appear “within a few years/generation” around the early first century (or any specific period). One could write of a doctrinal belief in a messianic future without being hung up about it and getting everyone around enthused to expect it to happen “any day now”.
Besides, one has to ask the extent to which the contents of the DSS throw a light on the beliefs and attitudes of the more general illiterate population.
Other Second Temple writings
The main criticisms — especially relative fewness of the references, and their generalised (nonspecific) character — raised re the DSS also apply here.
Often these writings speak of God himself directly acting in some future day of judgment. We are so accustomed to think of God doing this through a messiah that we sometimes read a messianic figure into these passages. But like the OT books, most prophecies about the “last days” do speak of God directly acting in the world and make no mention of a messianic intermediary.
Besides, is it not a giant leap to impute to the illiterate population at large certain emotional or psychological attitudes towards passages in these texts that attract our attention?
Were not those who read, studied and discussed such texts just a tiny fraction of a percent of a tiny fraction of a percent of the entire population?
Carrier’s claim “Palestine in the early first century ce was experiencing a rash of messianism” is introduced. His assertion that “The early first century ce was in their prediction window” is tested against his footnoted authority, “The Expectation of the End in the Dead Sea Scrolls” by John Collins.
Carrier’s claim that “That Jewish expectations of some kind of messiah in the early Roman Empire were widespread, influential, and very diverse . . . has been well established by experts on ancient messianism” is tested by examining seven of the nine “experts in messianism” cited by Carrier.
An examination of the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gospels and various purported “messianic” figures (the Samaritan, Theudas, the Egyptian and the anonymous “imposter”) in Josephus. Argues that reading what Josephus does say about the prophetic role of these figures, as opposed to what he does not say about their supposed messianic role, has too often been overlooked.
I put Richard Carrier’s arguments on hold to point out what J. H. Charlesworth calls “the myth that Jews expected a Messiah and knew what functions he would perform.” I would even say William Scott Green‘s “Messiah in Judaism: Rethinking the Question” . . . is obligatory reading and discussion for anyone interested in this question.
Examines Carrier’s dismissal of Horsley, Freyne and Goodman’s views; shows Carrier inconsistencies in the application of his definition of “messiah”; and surveys Goodman’s analysis of the “ambiguous oracle” in Josephus and messianism in the first Jewish war with Rome, and the evidence for “messianism” between 70 and 132 CE.
Another look at origins of the “myth of messianic expectations” in the “apocalyptic hypothesis”; a companion argument to Green’s discussion in post #4 Origin of the Myth. Considers the evidence used to claim Daniel was a popular messianic text in the early first century. Also refers to evidence for attempts to calculate the time of the arrival of messiah from Daniel’s prophecies.
The posts also stress the difference between apocalypticism and messianism. Apocalyptic literature was for most part unconnected with messianic expectations.
Note, also, that there is no dispute about the existence of a wide variety of messianic concepts. In fact it is the research into these that has been a significant contributor to undermining the conventional view that Second Temple Jews were experiencing messianic fever.
I expect this post will conclude my series challenging Richard Carrier’s arguments in On the Historicity of Jesus attempting to justify the common belief that early first century Judea was patchwork quilt of messianic movements. This belief has been challenged by specialist scholars* (see comment) especially since the 1990s but their work has still to make major inroads among many of the more conservative biblical scholars. We have seen the Christian doctrinal origins of this myth and I discuss another aspect of those doctrinal or ideological presumptions in this post. Carrier explicitly dismissed three names — Horsley, Freyne, Goodman — who are sceptical of the conventional wisdom, but I think this series of posts has shown that there are more than just three names in that camp. Many more than I have cited could also be quoted. Their arguments require serious engagement.
Richard Carrier sets out over forty social, political, religious and cultural background factors that anyone exploring the evidence for Christian origins should keep in mind. This is an excellent introduction to his argument, but there are a few I question. Here is one more:
(a) The pre-Christian book of Daniel was a key messianic text, laying out what would happen and when, partly inspiring much of the very messianic ferver of the age, which by the most obvious (but not originally intended) interpretation predicted the messiah’s arrival in the early first century, even (by some calculations) the very year of 30 ce.
(b) This text was popularly known and widely influential, and was known and regarded as scripture by the early Christians.
(Carrier 2014, p. 83, my formatting and bolding in all quotations)
The current scholarly approach to the origins of Christology has been guided by the apocalyptic hypothesis. The apocalyptic hypothesis is that Jesus proclaimed the imminence of the kingdom of God, a reign or domain ultimately imaginable only in apocalyptic terms. Early Christians somehow associated Jesus himself with the kingdom of God he announced (thinking of him as the king of the kingdom) and thus proclaimed him to be the Messiah. If Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, as the logic seems to have run, it was only natural for early Christians to conclude that he must have been the expected Messiah and that it was therefore right to call him the Christ.
With this hypothesis in place, the field of christological “background” studies has naturally been limited to the search for “messianic” figures in Jewish apocalyptic literature.2
2.A theological pattern has guided a full scholarly quest for evidence of the Jewish “expectation” of “the Messiah” that Jesus “fulfilled.” Because of the apocalyptic hypothesis, privilege has been granted to Jewish apocalyptic literature as the natural context for expressing messianic expectations. The pattern of “promise and fulfillment” allows for discrepancies among “messianic” profiles without calling into question the notion of a fundamental correspondence. Only recently has the failure to establish a commonly held expectation of “the” Messiah led to a questioning of the apocalyptic hypothesis.
(Mack 2009, pp. 192-93)
Part (b) is certainly true. Part (a), no, not so. The apocalyptic book of Daniel was popular but it was not a key messianic text.
The book of Daniel was a well known apocalyptic work but most apocalyptic literature of the day contained no references to a messiah. Apocalypticism and messianism are not synonymous nor even always conjoined. Messiahs were not integral to the apocalyptic genre. It was more common in apocalyptic writings to declare that God himself would act directly, perhaps with the support of his angelic hosts. Very few such texts contain references to a messiah. Even when reading Daniel you need to be careful not to blink lest you miss his single reference to an anointed one (messiah). And even that sole reference, as we learn from the commentaries and to which Carrier himself alludes, is a historical reference to the high priest Onias III. There is nothing eschatological associated with his death.
Yes but, but ….
…. Didn’t the Jews in Jesus day believe that that reference was to a messiah who was soon to appear?
This is where a search through the evidence might yield an answer.
The evidence supporting “this fact”?
According to Carrier there is an abundance of evidence supporting “this fact” — by which he appears to mean both parts (a) and (b) in the above quotation.
This fact [i.e. a+b] is already attested by the many copies and commentaries on Daniel recovered from Qumran,45 46but it’s evident also in the fact that the Jewish War itself may have been partly a product of it. As at Qumran, the key inspiring text was the messianic timetable described in the book of Daniel (in Dan. 9.23-27). (pp. 83-84) . . . .
. . . .
45.See Carrier, ‘Spiritual Body’, in Empty Tomb (ed. Price and Lowder), pp. 114-15, 132-47, 157, 212 (η. 166). The heavenly ascent narrative known to Ignatius, Irenaeus and Justin Martyr (see Chapter 8, §6) may have alluded to this passage in Zechariah, if this is what is intended by mentioning the lowly state of Jesus’ attire when he enters God’s heavenly court in Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 36. 46. On the numerous copies of Daniel among the Dead Sea Scrolls, including fragments of commentaries on it, see Peter Flint, ‘The Daniel Tradition at Qumran’, in Eschatology (ed. Evans and Flint), pp. 41-60, and F.F. Bruce, ‘The Book of Daniel and the Qumran Community’, in Neotestamentica et semitica; Studies in Honour of Matthew Black (ed. E. Earle Ellis and Max Wilcox; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. 1969). pp. 221-35.
I suspect some oversight at #45 because I am unable to locate a related discussion in Empty Tomb. So on to #46. I don’t have Bruce’s book chapter but I do have Peter Flint’s. Here is his chart setting out the Daniel texts in the Qumran scrolls (p. 43):
Notice what’s missing, apart from any certainty regarding Daniel 9 as explained in the side-box. There is no Daniel 9:24-26. No reference to the anointed one. (We might see a flicker of hope with those few verses from chapter 9 in that table but sadly Flint has this to say about those:
However, the eighth manuscript, 4QDane, may have contained only part of Daniel, since it only preserves material from Daniel’s prayer in chapter 9. If this is the case — which is likely but impossible to prove — 4QDane would not qualify as a copy of the book of Daniel. (Flint 1997. p. 43)
I continue to examine the arguments mounted in favour of the view that Jewish messianic expectations at the time of the founding of what became Christianity as set out by Richard Carrier.
Even ‘John the Baptist’ (at least as depicted in the Gospels) was a messianic figure (e.g. Jn 1.20; Lk. 3.15), or otherwise telling everyone the messiah would arrive in his lifetime (Mt. 3.1-12; Mk 1.1-8; Lk. 3.1-20; Jn 1.15- 28). And he was enormously popular (the Gospels and Acts claim so, and Josephus confirms it), thus further exemplifying the trend of the time. This messianic Baptist cult may even have influenced or spawned Christianity itself (see Element 33). The cult of Simon Magus might likewise have been promoting its own messiah. Acts certainly depicts Simon Magus as a messianic pretender (Acts 8.9-11), again with enormous popularity, just like the others in Josephus. The historicity of this Simon has been questioned, but the historicity of his worship as a divine being has not.26 If the biblical account of him reflects the truth (of the historical man or the celestial demigod he once was) he would be another example confirming the same trend. (Carrier 2014, p. 71)
Previous posts have alerted us by now to the flaws in appealing to the New Testament for supporting evidence that the NT was itself a product of one of many messianic movements in the early first century CE. Once again we see the proclivity to find messianic underlays in any figure who happens to be popular or speaks of the future, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
Two of the scholars I have quoted in previous posts are Richard Horsley. and Sean Freyne. Their works are included in the volumes that Carrier himself cited as supports by specialists in this field for the common view about messianic expectations. So how does Carrier respond to their views?
Horsley still insists these are not messianic movements, but that assertion depends on an implausibly specific definition of ‘messiah’ (or an excessively irrational denial of obvious inferences): see my discussion of definitions (§3). Similarly in Sean Freyne, ‘The Herodian Period’, in Redemption and Resistance (ed. Bockmuehl and Paget), pp. 29-43: like Horsley, Freyne is only skeptical in respect to an over-restrictive definition of ‘messiah’: whereas given my definition, his evidence completely confirms my conclusion. The same can be said of Martin Goodman, ‘Messianism and Politics in the Land of Israel, 66-135 C.E.’ in Redemption and Resistance (ed. Bockmuehl and Paget), pp. 149-57.
That is, with a little unfortunate muddying of the waters and an appeal to overly-restrictive definitions and obvious inferences. As for inferences, what we have seen in this series so far is that all the evidence for messianic movements has been inferential from data that is anything but obvious. Recall Geza Vermes made the same claim, that “obviously” such and such would have been interpreted in a certain way, but then proceeded to set out four other possible interpretations!
Carrier supplies his own definition of what he means by messiah and to my mind it is no different at all from what Horsley and Freyne themselves accept. The problem is not in an “overly restrictive definition” but in an overly-liberal approach to seeing messiahs in the writings even when no mention of such a figure is present. As we saw, for example, with the rebel Athronges at the time of Herod’s death, we read twice of his interest in wearing a crown but nothing at all about an anointing. An attentive reading of Josephus’s description demonstrates that Athronges is emulating Herod as a king and there are no hints of any messianic pretensions. And so forth for all the other figures, as we have discussed in previous posts.
To be clear, here is Carrier’s definition of messiah:
I shall mean by messiah (the Hebrew word of which ‘Christ’ is a translation) any man in fact, myth, or prophecy who is (a)anointed by the Hebrew God to (b) play a part in God’s plan to liberate his Chosen People from their oppressors and (c) restore or institute God’s true religion. This means ‘anointed’ in any sense then understood (literally, figuratively, cosmically or symbolically), ‘liberate’ in any sense then claimed (physically or spiritually), ‘oppressors’ in any sense then identified (whoever or whatever they may be) and ‘religion’ in the fullest sense (cult, mores, sacred knowledge, and the resulting social order)— and I specify only ‘play a part’, not necessarily bring to fruition. All Jewish kings and high priests were, of course, ‘messiahs’ in the basic sense of being anointed to represent God. But here I shall mean a messiah conforming to (a) through (c). Yet I do not assume there must be only one messiah of that kind. Neither did the Jews . . .
I’ve seen some scholars question or deny that the Jews had any prior notion of a messiah before the advent of Christianity. But such a denial is accomplished only by proposing an implausibly hyper-specific definition of ‘messiah’, then showing no such thing was previously imagined, and concluding ‘the Jews had no prior notion of a messiah’. This is a textbook fallacy of equivocation: start with a term defined one way, then end with the same term defined in a completely different way, often without noticing a switch has been made. To avoid this, I shall stick to my minimal definition, since I am certain anyone meeting criteria (a), (b) and (c) would have been regarded by at least some ancient Jews or Judaizers as a messiah. I attach no other baggage to the term— no particular eschatology or scheme of liberation. Jews of antiquity were clearly quite flexible in all such details, as everyone agrees . . .
(Carrier 2014, pp. 60-61)
I doubt that Horsley, Freyne or Goodman would have any problem with that definition. Forget quibbles over semantics and precise meanings. The problem is that Carrier’s definition itself is thrown to the winds when looking for evidence of popular fervour for the appearance of a messiah as defined by Carrier with the result that the de facto definition becomes “anyone who commands a popular following”. Even if the context and details described point to a quite non-messianic figure (on the basis of Carrier’s definition) it does not matter.
In other words, even though Carrier insists that a messianic figure must be defined by “a through c”, if a figure conforms only to b and/or c then the most essential component, a, the anointing, is assumed to have been present. Of course it is the most essential detail that we should look for first.
Carrier does not name the scholars who “deny that the Jews had any prior notion of a messiah before the advent of Christianity”. Even Carrier concedes that messiahs were common enough in Jewish ontologies as kings and priests; and as I have demonstrated in my previous posts scholars such as Horsley and Freyne, far from denying the Jews any pre-Christian notion of a messiah, do indeed address the references to messiahs in the inter-testamental writings.
Since Carrier introduces another name I did not cover in earlier posts, Martin Goodman, I think this is a good time to quote some of his article that Carrier finds objectionable. The chapter is titled “Messianism and Politics in the Land of Israel, 66-135 C.E.” I did not use it earlier because as we can see it applies to the late first century and early second.
Goodman seeks to answer the question
how many Jews in Judaea shared … beliefs about the imminent arrival of the messiah, and what impact such beliefs had on the political actions which led Judaean Jews into two disastrous wars against Rome, in 66-70 C.E. and 132-5 C.E.
I put Richard Carrier’s arguments on hold in this post in order to point out what another scholar I have not yet cited has had to say about what J. H. Charlesworth calls “the myth that Jews expected a Messiah and knew what functions he would perform.” I would even say William Scott Green‘s opening chapter, “Introduction: Messiah in Judaism: Rethinking the Question”, in Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era, is obligatory reading and discussion for anyone interested in this question.
Green’s chapter helped me identify much of the fallacious reasoning and unfounded assumptions that underpin all efforts I have encountered attempting to prove that Second Temple Jews gave much attention to messianic hopes. What we tend to see in the arguments is, in Green’s words, a form of “proof-texting” carried out to justify one’s a priori assumptions about Second Temple religion and attitudes. Worse, most of the arguments attempting to demonstrate a messianic fever are based on texts where there is no mention of the messiah idea at all and in spite of other clear and explicit statements in the documents to the contrary.
The irony here is that Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, and others who identify the fallacious presumptions scholars bring to their reading of the New Testament epistles fail to see that they share with many of those same scholars the same type of fallacy at the heart of this particular question.
Green’s chapter needs to be read in its entirety, but I single out a few sentences.
The major studies [of the messiah at the turn of the Christian era] have sought to trace the development and transformations of putative messianic belief through an incredible and nearly comprehensive array of ancient literary sources – from its alleged genesis in the Hebrew Bible through the New Testament, rabbinic literature, and beyond – as if all these writings were segments of a linear continuum and were properly comparable. Such work evidently aims to shape a chronological string of supposed messianic references into a plot for a story whose ending is already known; it is a kind of sophisticated proof-texting. This diegetical approach to the question embeds the sources in the context of a hypothetical religion that is fully represented in none of them. It thus privileges what the texts do not say over what they do say.
(Green 1987, p.2)
The term “messiah” has scant and inconsistent use in early Jewish texts. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Pseudepigrapha, and the entire Apocrypha, contain no reference to “the messiah.” Moreover, a messiah is neither essential to the apocalyptic genre nor a prominent feature of ancient apocalyptic writings.
(Green 1987, p.2)
The Myth’s Origins
So what has led to today’s situation where it is taken for granted that
“In the time of Jesus the Jews were awaiting a Messiah.” (Mowinckel, He That Cometh, p. 3)
“from the first century B.C.E., the Messiah was the central figure in the Jewish myth of the future” (Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979), p. xxvii.
“belief in the Messiah [is one of the four] good gifts which the people of Israel have left as an inheritance to the entire world.” (Klausner, Messianic Idea, p. 13)