Making Stuff Up About Messiahs and Me

Neil Godfrey is at it again. I suspected from some of his recent posts that he had either misunderstood or was gearing up to misrepresent me – not to mention the field of Jewish studies. In his latest post, he writes the following:

“James McGrath claims all Messiah figures were expected to be conquering kings.”

Of course, Godfrey is either forgetting or deliberately ignoring things that I have not only written, but written to him, in the past. Here is one example:

Neil quotes several scholars whose conclusions reflect our mainstream understanding: there wasn’t one single concept of “the messiah” in the Judaism of this period, not every Jewish author or movement shows evidence of being interested in such a figure, and even those who did use the term did so in different ways. This is common knowledge to anyone familiar with the current state of our knowledge about ancient Judaism -  and very much beside the point as far as my argument about the unlikelihood that any ancient Jews would invent a crucified Messiah.

In connection with my argument about the historical Jesus and the crucifixion (to which Neil was responding) what matters is that we do know a great deal about a range of mediator figures and human deliverers that a wide range of Jews were expecting. And those who were expecting God to restore an anointed one descended from David were expecting the restoration of the role denoted by that anointing (from which the terms “messiah” and “christ” derive), namely the institution of Jewish kingship. We have evidence for such “messianic” beliefs in the Judaism of this period, and conversely, we have no evidence whatsoever frompre-Christian Judaism for the view that the restored Davidic king would die at the hands of his enemies.

Is Godfrey failing to grasp that saying that the Davidic Messiah was typically expected to be X is not the same as saying “All expectations about any sort of Messiah included X”? Is he misunderstanding scholarly discussions about different kinds of Messianic figures (Davidic and Aaronic in particular), and the diversity of views about them, to mean that there was nothing common to what Jews wrote about one specific sort of Messiah? Or is he just trying to make me look bad? It is impossible to tell.

Perhaps Earl Doherty can clarify this for Neil Godfrey. Here’s something I wrote in discussing chapter 5 of Doherty’s book:

Doherty rightly accepts what some other mythicists I have interacted with deny, namely that there were some widespread expectations about the nature of the coming Messiah (at least, if the Davidic Messiah is in view) and that the arrival of this Messiah was inseparable from the arrival of all that the kingdom of God was expected to entail.

What can you learn from this? Nothing that you shouldn’t have known already. Mythicists are either dishonest or uncomprehending when it comes to scholarly discussion of history and of concepts relevant to the consideration of the historical Jesus. As always, I am grateful that they provide evidence of this and display it on the internet, making it much easier for anyone interested to see why they are not and can not be taken seriously.

All of the above applied even apart from the obvious question one should ask about Godfrey’s recent post: In what way is the idea of a Davidic Messiah who is a conquering king at odds with what we find in 4Q521? Here is the text (in Michael Wise’s translation). You be the judge:

[the hea]vens and the earth will listen to His Messiah, and none therein will
stray from the commandments of the holy ones.
Seekers of the Lord, strengthen yourselves in His service!
All you hopeful in (your) heart, will you not find the Lord in this?
For the Lord will consider the pious (hasidim) and call the righteous by name.
Over the poor His spirit will hover and will renew the faithful with His power.
And He will glorify the pious on the throne of the eternal Kingdom.
He who liberates the captives, restores sight to the blind, straightens the b[ent]
And f[or] ever I will cleav[ve to the h]opeful and in His mercy . . .
And the fr[uit . . .] will not be delayed for anyone.
And the Lord will accomplish glorious things which have never been as [He . . .]
For He will heal the wounded, and revive the dead and bring good news
to the poor
. . .He will lead the uprooted and knowledge . . . and smoke (?)

There is even explicit mention of the connection of such a Messiah with the arrival of a kingdom – whether his, God’s, or one in which such a distinction is irrelevant. And whether God or his anointed one is the actor carrying out various activities is also clear. But why Godfrey sees in this text a vision of a Davidic Messiah incompatible with the inherent royal character of that figure is beyond me. Can you figure it out? If he approaches the Dead Sea Scrolls the way he approaches reading my blog posts, then the reason is clear: he is either misrepresenting them or misunderstanding them. Is there another possibility that I have missed?

  • Neil Godfrey

    You did indeed qualify your original assertions to explain that you meant to refer only to Davidic messiahs, James. So I will modify the quotation in my post with a correction note.

  • Neil Godfrey

    I have corrected my post, James. But you might also like to make a correction to your public youtube video in which you continue to make your claim about messianic expectations, period, and not davidic messiahs.

  • JSA

    That wasn’t Neil Godfrey saying that; it was a verbatim quote from Steven Carr.  Whether Neil’s use of Steven Carr quotes rescues or further damns his credibility is an exercise left to the reader.

    • Neil Godfrey

      JSA, yes it was a quote from Steven but I accept responsibility for what I post and I have made no excuses.

    • Michael Wilson

      A sad state of ones credibility when you turn to Steve Carr for rescue.

  • Neil Godfrey

    McGrath, you said that you suspect from some recent posts of mine that I am “gearing up to misrepresent” you. Perhaps you are referring to the little disagreement that was raised about the nature of midrash. I have asked you repeatedly to clarify your assertions and to inform me where, specifically, Doherty or Spong are in error with their references to “midrashic style”. You have had ample opportunity to explain and justify your assertions.

    I have also asked you repeatedly to explain a few basic terms you use in relation to historical method and it would be extremely helpful to me if you could do this so I do not misunderstand you.

    As for my post about the messiah, you have made your position clear and I corrected my post. If you were a nicer Christian I would even think of apologizing to you for my error.

    • Michael Wilson

      One could read some midrash. they are readily available and little resemble the gospels.

  • Geoff Hudson

    Is the passge 4Q521 talking about a priest Messiah or a Davidic Messiah?  To me it does seem to be about the former.  

    • Geoff Hudson

      4Q521 is talking about God.

      • Geoff Hudson

        So this Messiah is God, as distinct from the Priest Messiah and the secondary king Messiah who are earthly. 

        • Geoff Hudson

          As was Bar Kokhba, an anointed one, as were the early ‘Christians’, anointed ones.

          • Geoff Hudson

            Not that all earthly messiahs were regarded at different times as being the same. 

  • James F. McGrath

    @Neil Godfrey, thank you for making the clarification, however slight.

    I asked for evidence that “Midrash” means what mythicists and Spong claim it does. I suspect that the definition is derived from New Testament scholars who used the term inaccurately. But in fact, that wasn’t what I was referring to in this post, but rather to a recent post at Vridar on messiahs.

    • Neil Godfrey

      However slight? Oh my goodness! I offer a 25 word correction to a 13 word offence and I am being “however slight”!

      • Anonymous


        If you are going to say things like “If you were a nicer Christian, I might even think of apologizing,” I think that “however slight” has to be deemed fair comment.

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  • JSA

    However slight? Oh my goodness! I offer a 25 word correction to a 13 word offence and I am being “however slight”!

    It’s revealing that you would quantify the magnitude of a correction, or the relative magnitude of the original mistake, by the number of words used.  It says a lot about your scholarship.

    You should’ve included your comment about “If you were a nicer Christian I would even think of apologizing to you for my error” to your word count.  That would’ve made your correction almost 100% more substantial!

  • Anonymous

    I, for one, welcome the clarification of the historicist argument. I am probably wrong here, but I would hope that in whatever that I post here, if I fail to properly grasp things, I will be corrected. 

    It appears that Jews and followers of the Hebrew scriptures in the first century didn’t reference simply one Messiah but two. There was a priestly Messiah, who largely fits the statements that we have in the NT regarding Jesus of Nazareth, and there was a Davidic Messiah who apparently did not fit those statements.

    Therefore, as it seems, Jesus was primarily and only identified as the Davidic messiah, and this can be shown from textual evidence, primary evidence from the alleged time of Jesus or archeological evidence, then we would not expect to find characterizations of him as the priestly Messiah. It would be like finding descriptions of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court that were applied to someone widely known to have been the Speaker of the House of Representatives, is that an accurate analogy?

    I am probably incorrect in my reasoning above, but if I am correct, then a further question arises. What led the authors of the NT to spend so much time describing Jesus of Nazareth in terms that were applicable to the priestly messiah? This seems to be the crux of the matter. 

    • Neil Godfrey

      The Jewish scriptures themselves depict the high priest as the messiah whose death atones for sin:

      There is, further, nothing the least remarkable about the idea that Christians post 70 c.e. should oppose “Davidic messianic” military fantasies by subverting that image of David with David the one who flees to the Mount of Olives, prays in distress, and whose conquests are spiritual not temporal. Such “subversions” are almost trite, being recognized in the wider world as a common metaphor: conquering oneself shows greater mastery than conquering kingdoms, etc.

      There is simply no need to suggest that there is something astonishing or historically problematic about Christians subverting such an idea. This is not an “anti-McGrathian” argument — I have made it often enough in response to the common assumption found in so much of biblical scholarly writings.


    • Michael Wilson

      “I am probably incorrect in my reasoning above”, ’nuff said!

  • Nan Bush

    OK, here is another bit of spleen to add to this thread.
    I have been reading these posts for a number of months now, thinking that what I would find would be informed discussion about areas of theology that are less familiar to me. Instead, what I find is hissy-fit academic back-biting and a bunch of wounded egos. For pity’s sake, there’s enough of this kind of thing in the political news; can’t you guys manage to deal with your high-level subject matter without getting into middle-school-level slanging and nursing your injured sensibilities? However, as you seem to be enjoying yourselves, I’ll take myself off and find a different approach.

  • Just Sayin’

    The Mythicists make stuff up so they assume that the NT writers did too.

  • Sabio Lantz

    James and Neil, have you dudes ever met over a beer?  Have you ever Skyped each other?  If not, how about recording a Skype session where you talk to each other about anything BUT religion. It will add a new feel to the dialogue.  Love you both !

  • James F. McGrath

    Sabio, sorry it took me so long to reply. I loved your suggestion, but if Neil’s recent comments are anything to go by, I don’t think he would be willing to sit down with me over a beer. And I don’t think he realizes that, the way he comes across, I would be fearful for my safety were I to do so.

    You and I, on the other hand, I can readily imagine sitting down over a beer and having some wonderful conversations! :-)

  • Sabio Lantz

    Wow, that is not the impression I have of Neil but I don’t know him at all.  I hope replies to your comment and joins you for a beer — but I think he returned from Asia to Australia — you may have to share a beer on Skype!

    Yes, you strike me as a wonderful discussion partner — I hope to visit someday.  I will take that as an invite!!

    • Neil Godfrey

      I have been bending over backwards to try to open up a civil dialogue with James for some time now without success. Most recently the reason I was given was that I was not a nice person. I have to work with people often in my job who I don’t find nice or who have issues, but I work with them professionally. It is my job as a boss to get along with all sorts of people in cordial and civil and professional ways. Personal feelings must always be over-ridden by professional responsibility. I have sought the same sort of communication with James and would welcome few things more.

      I had actually been thinking just prior to your post about the beer, Sabio, the very same thing myself only days before you posted the idea here.

      Unfortunately, I think James has made it clear that one of his greatest fears is that anything he says might be construed as giving mythicists or mythicism a degree of public respectability. I can’t help but think that this is underlying his willingness to see character flaws and sinister motives in many of my posts and comments.

      Now that James even suggests that he would fear for his safety in my presence shows, at least in my mind, just how completely wrapped in his own misperceptions he has become.

      Everyone who knows me — including only in the online world — speaks of gentleness, kindness, and the least violent person they could imagine. I have never in my life been involved in violence of any kind except the odd primary school-boy fights. But I will speak up for others if I see them being unjustly maligned. I also do have a penchant for criticizing what I consider persistent failures of professional accountability. But these things I am willing to hold a cease-fire on if it will serve the interests of a fresh start.

  • James F. McGrath

    I suppose none of us knows what impression we give to people with whom we interact only electronically. It is such a different world we live in today, with so much that we need to learn to do differently from what we are used to. I showed my family a photo of my first computer yesterday – a TRS80. You had to load programs off of a tape recorder.

    If you ever find you and I will be on the same part of the planet, let me know! :-)

  • James F. McGrath

    I would be happy to try to have a fresh start, since we are apparently both gentle people in real life. But let’s have some honesty to help make that happen, if you’re willing. Is saying that I am not nice enough to be the recipient of an apology really “bending over backwards to try to open up civil dialogue”? I am guessing that you really do not perceive what your comments sound like to the one on the receiving end of them. But they come across as mean, not as going the extra mile to be civil.

    • Neil Godfrey

      James, we will always be able to find fault with each other. I would have been wiser not to have said that. But we cannot expect apologies from people we continually insult and ridicule — and we cannot simply say on other threads that we intend to continue with ridicule.

      If we want a fresh start we need to just make a fresh start and stop finger-pointing.

  • Sabio Lantz

    Jeez, I can feel the love!  OK guys, how about a challenge.  As I said before.  James and Neil meet for a virtual beer on Skype, record the meeting (with shots of the beer) and each share it on their site telling us what they found totally delightful about the other person — only compliments.  Now tell me that would not be the perfect “fresh start”!

  • James F. McGrath

    Or we could just separately drink sufficient beer to get us to think highly of one another.

    I for one apologize for everything insulting I have said about Neil, whatever it may have been. Fresh starts are good, and sometimes necessary at regular intervals.

  • Sabio Lantz

    Ahhh, come on James.  You are not worried of giving Neil that modicum of credibility he spoke of, are you?  You guys got great avatar photos.  I think this videod skype meeting will be a huge internet fest!!   Come on, play and have fun.  No drinking alone — you are bringing a tear to my eye.

  • JSA

    You have to admit that there are some people who just aren’t pleasant to drink around when you disagree with a theory that they’re attached to.  Randy Quaid and Nicholas Cage come to mind.

    I propose, instead, that Neil and James smoke a bowl together and broadcast it live on Skype. :-)

  • Neil Godfrey

    I don’t know what Sabio is envisioning, exactly. One does not have to like a person to engage with them in professional and respectful discussion and cooperation. I would like Early Doherty and Rene Salm to be included in any rapport efforts. It is things that have been said about them and what they have supposedly said that will continue to be addressed, too.

    Moreover, it is not only the demeaning comparisons with anti-intellectuals, but the perceptions that the other is blatantly mis-stating what has been said that is the point of contention.

    There is no need for people who have nothing in common to get along with each other at a personal level. But if James believes I have mis-stated or misconstrued something he has said then he should feel free to address that in a professional and civil manner. And vice versa. That, of course, means avoidance of imputations of motives and other personal perceptions.

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