A Pre-Christian Dying Messiah?

Ryan Covington has posted on his blog about a subject we also discussed here, namely the question of whether there was a pre-Christian concept of a Davidic Messiah who, rather than ascending the throne and restoring the Davidic dynasty, is executed before he can do so. Ryan points to some of the well-known proposed counter-examples: Isaiah 53 (especially as translated in the LXX) and 4 Ezra.

Whether Isaiah 53 in the Septuagint rendering is more messianic in character than the Masoretic Text is highly debatable, despite what Covington says. But to the extent that it may be, this rendering does what the early targum also does (see Donald Juel’s discussion), namely downplay or eliminate the death of the servant, so that there is reference to him being led to death, but also to others being given for death and burial (presumably in his place), and his subsequent success.

No one would have considered it impossible for a would-be king to face hardships on his way to regaining his rightful throne. (On this see the convenient discussion and parallel translation in Messianism in the Old Greek of Isaiah: An Intertextual Analysis by Abi T. Ngunga.)

My favorite part of his post is where Covington uses the kind of historical reasoning that mythicists reject when it suits them to do so. He points out the unlikelihood that the author of 4 Ezra borrowed an idea from what would still have been an obscure Jewish sect in his time. Indeed, that may be relatively unlikely -but it is far more probable than that the author of the Gospel of Mark, writing a decade or two after Paul, turned a purely celestial figure into an earthly human one with no indication that it might be controversial to do so or that he was changing the nature of Christian belief. And so I am all for the use of such historical evaluation of probabilities, and with mythicists would do so in a consistent manner rather than the usual selective and obviously self-serving one.

Some of what Covington mentions is not relevant, since no one disputes either that Judaism eventually developed room for a suffering Messiah, or that anointed ones (when not referring specifically to the hope for the restoration of the Davidic line to the throne) could suffer and die. It would surely have had room for a successful restorer of the Davidic dynasty to die, and be followed on the throne by his son. And in the case of 4 Ezra, a successful Messiah, after a 400 year reign, eventually dies along with the rest of humankind as the prelude to the resurrection. That is clearly not the same thing as an alleged Davidic Messiah who is crucified without restoring the dynasty of his forefathers, whose followers insist that God enthroned him in the heavenly realm, unseen by most and thus a seeming failure.

Israel Knoll’s reconstruction of the fragmentary “Vision of Gabriel” is a subject of much ongoing scrutiny and debate, and so I won’t tackle that here, since a hypothetical reconstruction is scarcely the sort of evidence we need to settle a matter like this one.

I don’t see anything in the evidence Covington presents which suggests that what early Christians said about Jesus – that Jesus was the anointed one descended from David, despite not having installed himself or his son on the throne in Jerusalem – would have been anything but controversial in the context of the Judaism of that time (as perhaps in any other). Despite what Covington says, we are not particularly disadvantaged by a paucity of relevant sources. And we also have the broader context of human thought, which generally considers being killed before installing yourself as king to represent failure.

And so, as has been said before on countless occasions, the most likely reason for Christians coming to treat the cross of Jesus as success is not that they took up something already existing and widely accepted, nor that they invented this counterintuitive if not indeed oxymoronic view and tried to persuade other Jews to accept it. The most likely explanation remains that Christians were attempting to deal with the actual crucifixion of someone they strongly believed was the Davidic anointed one, and found ways of putting a positive spin on it, by turning Jesus’ apparent failure into a salvific moment in the divine plan.

Of related interest, The Far Left Side (HT Hemant Mehta) had a cartoon that highlights some of the problems with seeing the crucifixion as both an act of human wickedness and part of a divine plan:

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  • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

    It is a very funny (even if blasphemous) cartoon. Which of your books discusses your views on the resurrection? You’ve finally made me curious to read one or two of them.

  • ncovington89

    “Whether Isaiah 53 in the Septuagint rendering is more messianic in
    character than the Masoretic Text is highly debatable, despite what
    Covington says. But to the extent that it may be, this rendering does
    what the early targum also does (see Donald Juel’s discussion),
    namely downplay or eliminate the death of the servant, so that there is
    reference to him being led to death, but also to others being given for
    death and burial (presumably in his place), and his subsequent success.”

    Granted, scholars do indeed debate this, and the interpretation of the passage seems to have been at issue in the ancient world. However, I think it must be the case that some Jews would have been led to interpret the suffering servant as a messiah, given the fact that interpreting the passage otherwise involves chopping the passage up and applying what sure looks like a description of one person into a description about several, and given the evidence that a number of medieval (and, apparently, a couple of much more ancient rabbis) interpreted it this way. I say that the application of this passage to multiple distinct entities (one Israel as a whole and the other the messiah) because this is the way the passage must be interpreted in order to avoid seeing it as talking about the death of the messiah. The “subsequent success” of the servant is discussed, but so is the “subsequent success” Jesus, via his resurrection and heavenly enthronement.

    “Indeed, that may be relatively unlikely -but it is far more probable
    than that the author of the Gospel of Mark, writing a decade or two
    after Paul, turned a purely celestial figure into an earthly human one
    with no indication that it might be controversial to do so or that he
    was changing the nature of Christian belief.”

    I don’t think the gospel of Mark intended to portray history, I think he was writing allegorical fiction.

    Incidentally, I had a conversation on my blog a while back in which someone suggested to me that Mark got his information about James being Jesus’ brother from Paul (and therefore Mark and Paul are not independent sources on this count). I promptly responded that this was although this was conceivable, it was not very plausible to me (this was in ‘Part 9’ of my review of Carrier’s “On the Historicity”). So I’m consistent in that respect.

    “That is clearly not the same thing as an alleged Davidic Messiah who is
    crucified without restoring the dynasty of his forefathers, whose
    followers insist that God enthroned him in the heavenly realm, unseen by
    most and thus a seeming failure.”

    Let’s try a thought experiment: suppose that a group of Jews came up with a celestial savior. Would they have given him a throne on earth? No. The only place they could give him a throne would be in the celestial realm, which is exactly what the earliest Christians said they believed, which is encapsulated in the saying “my kingdom is not of this world,” and this belief is reflected in some of the earliest Christian sources we have (Ephesians 5:5, Revelation 11:15). Most importantly, a non-earthly kingdom is the only belief that is attested. So I don’t think mythicism entails anything besides what the evidence we’ve got in this case.

    Given that the early belief was the Jesus died **only to be resurrected and then given an eternal heavenly throne,** I see this as barely different from dying and leaving the throne to your son. More to the point, though, something like a celestial throne is, again, the only possibility for believers in a celestial Jesus.

    “Israel Knoll’s reconstruction of the fragmentary ‘Vision of Gabriel’ is a subject of much ongoing scrutiny and debate”

    The book that I cited was published in 2000, about 8 years before the ‘Vision’ was brought to light. Knoll argues similarly to David Mitchell: that there is evidence within the dead sea scrolls supporting a pre-Christian dying messiah.

    “Despite what Covington says, we are not particularly disadvantaged by a paucity of relevant sources…”

    I beg to differ: As Donald Rumsfield once put it, There are known knowns, and there are
    known unknowns. The full spectrum of messianic belief is a known
    unknown. Imagine how many other collections of ancient jewish beliefs (like the “Dead Sea Scrolls”) must have existed but never made the cut.

    I’d just like to say that appreciate the dialogue, James, and thanks for offering your thoughts on the issue. I hope it can continue.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I am happy for it to continue too. Let me respond to a couple of major points. First, there isn’t much dispute that there was pre-Christian messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53. But the more clearly messianic its interpretation, the more suffering is downplayed and death transfered to the enemies of the anointed one.

      Revelation, with its mention of the city where their Lord was crucified, and its new Jerusalem coming down to earth, is not other-worldly in its expectations. That late works like John and Ephesians move in that direction suggests a trajectory directly opposite to what mythicism posits.

      The evidence we have is quite consistent on the question of whether the Davidic anointed one was expected to be executed before restoring the dynasty to the throne. There is no good reason, when the evidence is consistent, to insist that evidence which may never have existed could potentially change our perception. Of course it could. And if we ever find such evidence, revisions will be necessary. But presuming the gaps in our knowledge were filled with the opposite of what all extant evidence shows is a denialist tactic that I am pretty sure you don’t want to adopt.

      • ncovington89

        “But the more clearly messianic its interpretation, the more suffering is downplayed and death transfered to the enemies of the anointed one.”

        I grant that some Jews did indeed do this — however, there were others who fully accepted a suffering messiah. Also, as I pointed out, the narrative of Isaiah 53 most naturally reads as a reference to a single individual, and therefore this makes it strongly plausible to think someone would read it exactly this way.

        “Revelation, with its mention of the city where their Lord was
        crucified,”

        Revelation says that Jesus was crucified ‘figuratively in Sodom and Egypt.’

        “and its new Jerusalem coming down to earth, is not other-worldly in its expectations.”

        The book of Revelation is very ‘other worldly’ in its expectations, but in general it doesn’t evince any knowledge of Jesus attempting to be an earthly ruler during his lifetime, nor does a single document within early Christianity.

        “That late works like John and Ephesians move in that direction suggests a trajectory directly opposite to what mythicism posits.”

        Who says that they are moving in any direction? They may doing nothing more than expressing beliefs that were held previously but not explicitly mentioned in any extant documents. Moreover, the impression I get from the book of Hebrews would be that Jesus had honors in heaven due to his death (Hebrews 2:9).

        “But presuming the gaps in our knowledge were filled with the opposite of what all extant evidence shows is a denialist tactic that I am pretty sure you don’t want to adopt.”

        That is not what I am doing. I am arguing, on positive grounds, that there was a notion of a dying messiah prior to Christianity. We have abundant post-Christian evidence of a dying messiah, and such evidence is best-explained by it being the result of pre-Christian tradition. My argument was that this result cannot be denied by an argument from silence (i.e. “We don’t have any pre-Christian documents that mention a dying messiah”) not only because recent scholarship renders that premise doubtful, but because even if it were true we don’t have many messianic documents period, and as such the premise is not confirmed with great certainty.

  • Buck_Eschaton

    Does anybody read Margaret Barker? This idea of a dying Messiah/High Priest was an historic part of the atonement ritual. The goats we’re a substitute for the high priest who was/represented Yahweh.

    http://www.margaretbarker.com/Papers/Atonement.pdf

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Do we read Margaret Barker? Of course we do. Do most of us scholars who read what she has written find her persuasive in all details? No. And so I am not sure what your point is, or why you think it is justified to jump from reading an idiosyncratic view to asserting that it is accurate as though there had been no criticisms made thereof.

  • redpill99

    Jesus mythers Carrier Doherty et al., claim that both of Josepheus references to Jesus Christ in Antiquities are 100% forgeries or interpolations. I agree if Josepheus does accept Jesus’ existence then Jesus existence. OTOH if Josepheus did not know of Jesus, then his existence becomes highly suspect.

    Are the 2 passages in Antiquities that refer to Jesus partially genuine? Why didn’t Josepheus spill more ink both on Jesus and early Christians?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      In the case of the reference to “James the brother of Jesus called Christ” the consensus is that it is authentic. The evidence from Agapius seems to confirm what scholars have long thought, which is that Josephus also mentioned Jesus in his own right, and that Christian scribes tampered with it rather than it being a complete fabrication. Origen’s confident statement that Josephus was not a Christian, combined with his belief that Josephus mentioned James the brother of Jesus, seems to confirm that Josephus did mention these figures, even if Origen gets some details wrong.

      • Yuval

        It doesn’t seem as if you’ve read Carrier’s exhaustive peer-reviewed article on the issue, or you wouldn’t have repeated the bit about Origen, who clearly did not reference Josephus, but rather misremembered Hegesippus’ claim as that of Josephus (this is a fact; Origen’s claim mirrors that of H.). You’re also not up to the current scholarship on Agapius, which has proven, that his version derives from Eusebius’ version of the Testimonium.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I think you are mistaking not being persuaded for lack of familiarity, and are also confusing “Carrier has argued” with “proven.”

          • Yuval

            I think you’re mistaking “not persuaded” for a counter-argument.
            Also, the fact of Origen’s reference stemming from Hegesippus is prima facie obvious and thus doesn’t depend on Carrier.
            No word on Agapius? Good. I take it you agree with the current scholarship that it’s not a version independent from Eusebius’.
            Those are the facts regardless of whether the Josephus fragments are authentic.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            I hope you are aware that no one was ever persuaded by a blog commenter who said “you didn’t explicitly say not X, therefore you must agree with X.” It is silly and really doesn’t make you look like you are taking the discussion seriously.

            I take it you haven’t read anything other than Carrier, and thus have the mistaken impression that his argument is the consensus of “current scholarship,” rather than one recent argument which has yet to make much of an impact one way or the other, never mind changing the consensus in the direction of his viewpoint.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            And BTW, calling into question the quality of someone else’s argumentation is an interesting move when all you’ve given are appeals to authority, without even bothering to tell us who these authorities might be. Pot, kettle, black.

        • jjramsey

          FWIW, there are some interesting comments on Carrier’s article by Tim O’Neill: http://www.quora.com/What-are-some-criticisms-of-Richard-Carriers-article-Origen-Eusebius-and-the-Accidental-Interpolation-in-Josephus

          What I find especially worth noting is that Carrier’s claim that Ananus had really stoned the brother of Jesus son of Damneus doesn’t square with him later currying favor with that very same Jesus son of Damneus.

          Another thing, which O’Neill doesn’t mention, is that Carrier sees it as problematic that influential Jews would have protested Ananus’ stoning of James, even though Josephus’ text makes perfectly clear that these Jews were uneasy about Ananus’s actions because they were illegal.

        • Jonathan Bernier

          That “Origen’s claim mirrors that of H[egesippus]” does not make it self-evident that Origen knew Hegesippus. It might be a reasonable inference, but an inference it remains. And who wrote this “current scholarship on Agapius”? Please provide author name(s) and publication information.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            The other thing to note is that a mythicist would need to do more than show that Origen ran together or completely confused details from Hegesippus with details from Josephus. They would need to explain why Origen would mistakenly attribute this to Josephus, if he had never read anything in Josephus that mentioned James the brother of Jesus. I am prone to be unsure or misremember which of two scholars mentions a specific details related to a topic both have written about. I am unlikely to attribute the detail to a scholar who has never written about the broader topic.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Oh, brilliant observation! I like that a lot.

    • Jonathan Bernier

      “OTOH if Josepheus did not know of Jesus, then his existence becomes highly suspect.” Why? Why does this argument from silence mean a darn thing? Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, unless you can show that the absence is contrary to reasonable expectations. In this case that means that you have to show that 1) if Jesus was real Josephus would have known about him, and 2) if Josephus knew about him then he would have mentioned him. And note that until you do this work you do not know that Josephus did not know of Jesus, merely that he did not mention him.

      The interesting thing though is that the argument from silence cuts both ways. Josephus might not mentioned Jesus of Nazareth but he certainly does not make mention a group of Jews that believe in a purely mythical figure named Jesus Christ. Neither did Philo, for that matter. If failure to mention is so probative then why is that any less suspect than a failure to mention Jesus of Nazareth? My special pleading sense is tingling.

      • Charles Ormsbee

        Exactly. It’s worth noting that Josephus didn’t mention a number of important Jewish figures including the famous Hillel the elder. Arguably the most important figure in Jewish history and a contemporary of Jesus.

      • redpill99

        the gospels make pretty extravagant claims about Jesus, including that he had whole multitudes following him, and that he was very famous. John goes so far as to say Jesus performed so many miracles that the whole world would not have room for all the books that could be written.

        Josepheus did write about John the Baptist and Pilate and Caiaphas so he should have known of Jesus.

        • http://mythicpizza.blogspot.co.uk/ Paul Regnier

          If Josephus didn’t mention Jesus then he didn’t mention Christianity. So if he didn’t mention Christianity, why is it odd that he didn’t mention Christianity’s founder? You can’t have it both ways.

        • Jonathan Bernier

          Yes, I am aware of the content of the gospels. So are most of the participants in this discussion. Merely enumerating that of which we are all aware does not constitute an argument.

          Regarding arguments, you have not dealt with the second necessary condition. You have to show that not only should we expect that Josephus knew of Jesus but also that he should expect that if he knew about him then he would have written about him. As Charles Ormsbee perceptively noted above, he didn’t write about Hillel. Best I recall he didn’t write about Shammai or Gamaliel either. This is a man who claims to have been closely associated with the Pharisees. This leads us back to the “So what?” Josephus is no more neutral an observer of history than the evangelists. He has biases and agendas. And perhaps Jesus didn’t fit into them.

          And note that all this supposes regarding the scholarly consensus the Testimonium (that, whilst possibly tweaked by Christian writers, it is genuine), in false. In short, you’re arguing fallaciously from a silence that probably doesn’t even exist.

          Edit: also, he doesn’t mention Paul. Now, this is a problem. There is even less extra-biblical evidence for Paul’s existence than Jesus’, so if we employ the mythicist hermeneutic of suspicion it’s hard to see how one can consistently think that Paul existed. If however one says that Paul didn’t exist then suddenly all those arguments from “Paul didn’t know about a historical Jesus” become absolutely meaningless, because they all assume that we can date Paul’s letters prior to the gospels. If he didn’t even exist then they could be as late as the mid-2nd century. So I’m calling you out: if non-mention outside the biblical texts indicates non-existence then Paul does not exist, which means that you can never, ever, again use the “But Paul didn’t know anything about Jesus” line.

          • redpill99

            I’ve not read Robert Price’s book The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul but the blurb states Price believes Paul is actually Simon Magnus. He’s also voices his objections to Ehrman Bart Ehrman and the Quest of Historical Jesus of Nazareth: An Evaluation of Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?

            My impression based on the reviews is that the presumption is that Jesus is fictional in the way robin hood and king arthur are, and that the NT and gospels are not reliable enough to establish Jesus’ existence, so Josepheus silence on the matter is consistent with the view that Jesus is myth.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Please allow me in response to quote myself: “you have not dealt with the second necessary condition [to establish that absence of evidence is in this particular case evidence of absence]. You have to show that not only should we expect that Josephus knew of Jesus but also that he should expect that if he knew about him then he would have written about him.” Until you do that all your statements on the matter are but chasing the wind.

          • redpill99

            you can come up reasons to explain silence of Jesus in secular records. you’ve provided one possible reason, Josepheus did not have a reason to write about him. Another possible reason is that Jesus never existed so Josepheus did not know of a purely celestial mystical revelation. the presumption of Jesus mythers is that Jesus did not exist unless there is evidence to the contrary, and the NT is not acceptable evidence. The gospels are unprovenance and their sources are based on hearsay and interdependent, with Mark being the first. Jesus mythers point to mystery religions to show how it might be possible Christianity started out as a mystery religion whose central figure was then historized when the first author Mark proceeded to do so. I’m not necessarily convinced with what they say, but their request for extra-biblical contemporary confirmation is entirely reasonable IMHO.

            I know no written records of Pontius Pilate survive, but if they find his tomb and in his tomb is his autobiography. If he writes he had ordered Jesus of Nazareth to be crucified then that would debunk Jesus myth theory and provide additional historical evidence from an eye witness. No question. But if his autobiography states his early life, career, friends family, but no mention of Jesus crucifixion, it’s not hard to see this as a fatal blow to historicity.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            But you are just ignoring data that doesn’t suit you. The time between Paul and Mark is at most two decades, and yet Mark gives no sign that the depiction of Jesus as a historical figure is an innovation. And simply ignoring Josephus’ mention of Jesus in connection with his brother, even setting aside the other probable reference, and then talking as though that mention was not there, is not going to convince anyone for whom the evidence actually matters.

          • redpill99

            FYI i have debated both sides and there are plenty of atheist forums. I lean towards historicist though I agree if you are maximally skeptical it would be hard to argue for his existence. Did Mark know of Paul and his letters? One scenario promoted is that Mark knew of Paul and then proceeded to construct Jesus out of Paul’s letters, including the reference “on the night he was betrayed”

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I wouldn’t build too much on the order of the NT texts. Can you rule out James Crossley’s argument that Mark wrote his gospel c. 42? Because I can’t. There is in fact even a very venerable minority position that would date the entirety of the Synoptic Tradition to prior to Paul’s death. There is also a minority that would push the Synoptic Tradition later than the majority view. Ultimately there is not really a consensus on this matter, and that’s because in fact the data does not suffice to adjudicate with reasonable certainty whether the majority of scholars are correct on this matter or one of the minorities. I have my own hunches here, like most scholars, but I would always treat such discussions as an end on to themselves, not as the basis for building further historical arguments, because frankly that basis would be shifting sand.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Please allow me in response to quote myself: “you have not dealt with the second necessary condition [to establish that absence of evidence is in this particular case evidence of absence]. You have to show that not only should we expect that Josephus knew of Jesus but also that he should expect that if he knew about him then he would have written about him.” Until you do that all your statements on the matter are but chasing the wind.