The Scepter and the Star

The Scepter and the Star May 28, 2016

I am grateful to Eerdmans for having sent me a free review copy of the second edition of John J. Collins’ book The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Anyone familiar with the first edition will already know that the book at the very least retains its value even without any updates. But Collins has gone through and updated references and interaction with secondary literature, as well as adding some new material, in particular an excursus on Israel Knohl’s The Messiah Before Jesus.

As I gear up for the Enoch Seminar on the Gospel of John and/as Jewish messianism in June, reading the second edition of Collins’ book seemed an appropriate way to remind myself of key relevant material. But I found that the book did much more than merely remind. Instead, its treatment seemed fresh and new, as well as thoroughly up to date. The key ancient sources are all given ample discussion, with consideration of a full range of scholarly views and disagreements. Not only the standard Dead Sea Scrolls that are always mentioned, but relatively neglected ones like the “self-exaltation hymn,” are discussed, as are 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, the Psalms of Solomon, Josephus, and many other texts.

Although not mentioned in the title or subtitle, the book is of particular interest for those who study early Christianity, and indeed the messianism of Jesus serves as the climax and conclusion of the book. But the subject is also in view throughout the book, and considered precisely as one of the many forms of Jewish messianism in this period. While there are respects in which Collins considers Jesus and Christianity something of an “anomaly” in comparison with others, one still gets a strong sense that every single messianic movement was distinctive. There were patterns and trends that were shared, but not in general mere precise copying. This is important, as Collins’ book challenges the tendency in Christian scholarship to treat Jewish messianism as a negative foil which can serve as a backdrop to highlight Jesus’ distinctiveness and superiority.

The treatment of the “sign prophets” mentioned by Josephus is a particularly good example of Collins’ evenhandedness, as he identifies assumptions about the purported violent militancy that has sometimes been assumed to have motivated these figures, with no actual support in the evidence. And in the process, Collins addresses the concern that has sometimes been raised about whether the texts of this period provide access to popular hopes and expectations, or merely those of the tiny scribal elite. “The pattern of prophecy and fulfilment was not merely a scribal exercise among the literate few. It had a direct impact on Jewish history in the Roman period” (p.219).

For those who have followed discussions of mythicism on this blog, Collins’ treatment of the question of whether a suffering messiah predates Christianity will be of interest. On pp.141-145, Collins examines how the suffering servant of Deutero-Isaiah is treated in Jewish texts in this period, noting that the more messianic the interpretation, the more the suffering of the figure is played down or even eliminated. Where a figure is said to “make atonement,” some have jumped unjustifiably to the conclusion that this was through their sacrifice of themselves, rather than by more traditional priestly methods. On the use of certain Psalms as well as Isaiah 53 in the New Testament, Collins writes, “The Christian use of these psalms involved a new line of interpretation, however, for which there was no precedent in Judaism. There is surprisingly little use of Isaiah 53 in the New Testament, a fact that would be difficult to explain if that passage had been understood with reference to a suffering eschatological figure in Judaism” (p.235).

There are other important conclusions which are drawn about the New Testament. Bucking an earlier trend, but foreshadowing and influencing the direction that scholarship has since moved, Collins writes of the identification of Jesus as Messiah, “It is unlikely that Jesus’ followers would have given him such a politically inflammatory title after his death if it had no basis in his life…The messianic identity of Jesus must be grounded in some way before his crucifixion” (p.229).

Collins’ book is essential reading for anyone interested in ancient Judaism or early Christianity. And those who have read it before definitely ought to read it again in the second edition. At the very least, it will serve as a refresher. But I fully expect – at least for those who had not read it in a long time, like me – that it will impact you as though you are reading something new. Because Collins’ book in its updated form provides both – reminders of the familiar, but also interesting discussions of possibilities for the interpretation of that ancient material that continue to be the focus of discussion and debate in the present day.

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  • John MacDonald

    I think the Christians were making “some” use of Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 in creating the atoning passion narrative. Paul said “3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES, 4that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES,… (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).” What “SCRIPTURES” was Paul referring to if not Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22? I’m not a mythicist, but there seems to be some exegetical work going on here.

    • It is impossible to know what scriptures if any Paul had in mind in 1 Corinthians 15. But no one is denying that the early Christians were doing exegetical work. The point is that they did innovative eisegetical sommersaults in order to create a concordance between the historical details about Jesus and their scriptures. They “found” in scripture what others before them had not, because they were starting with the historical impact of Jesus and working hard to find in scripture what they were looking for.

      • John MacDonald

        Is there another Scripture other than Isaiah 53 which would fit “Christ died for our sins?”

        • I am not sure if there are any texts into which it is easier to read Paul’s dictum, but my points are that (1) if that was the pasage Paul had in mind, it is surprising that Paul makes so little of it, and (2) it still takes effort against the grain of Isaiah 53 to turn it into an account of a crucified Davidic Messiah.

          • John MacDonald

            Maybe Paul was more concerned with the atoning Death of Jesus than worrying about whether Scripture fit exactly with a crucified Messiah or not. What Jesus’ death probably meant to Paul (and Mark) was that through his atoning sacrifice Jesus reconciled humanity to God, so that “sin covering sacrifice” was no longer needed. It is somewhat suspicious that we read in Isaiah 53:7 that “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”

          • Why is this “suspicious”? What in that passage describes anything specifically about what happened to Jesus, as opposed to offering an interpretation of suffering that could be applied to Jesus as to many others?

          • John MacDonald

            You’re probably right. It’s just that when Isaiah says “and with his stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5),” the original Christians could have seen this and been inspired to invent the story of Jesus’ atoning death, just as they saw Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I have called my son”), and invented the story about Jesus in Egypt. I’m not saying there’s any way to prove this. It’s just speculation.

      • John MacDonald

        This seems to be the point of dispute between the historicists and the mythicists: did the Christian writers start with exegetical use of Scripture and in this way invent the narratives about Jesus, or did they start with facts about Jesus, and give them a scriptural flavoring?

        Dr. Marc Brettler, co-editor of “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” says that “exegesis” as a genre of writing in the New Testament presents an interesting problem. There are two poles of interpretation, with a lot of room in between. For instance, on one end, we could argue that in an exegetical narrative like Matthew’s Jesus infancy account the gospel writer started with information about the historical Jesus and then added some material to make it seem like the story about Moses from the Old Testament. On the other end, we could say that the gospel writer simply wanted to rewrite a story from the old Testament and apply it to his times, in which case there is no reason to think there is any reliable information about the historical Jesus at all in the exegetical narrative. And there is a lot of room between these two poles. Dr. Brettler says that when we present the problem in this way, it becomes a hard and sophisticated problem to try to determine what part of the exegetical narrative (if any) presents information about the historical Jesus. This is the problem that comes up when the issue of “Exegesis” is introduced as a New Testament genre. The question is: What criteria or method do we use to determine which part of the “exegetical” narrative is giving us information about the historical Jesus? Can we assume that any part of the “Exegetical” narrative is representing the historical Jesus? If the exegetical narrative says that Jesus did “such and such,” does this mean the historical Jesus actually did it, or was this characterization of Jesus just the author’s way of rewriting the Old Testament story (and the historical Jesus never did it)?

        • What the historian has to do is recognize that there are places where whole cloth creation based on earlier stories, to depict Jesus as like an earlier figure, is entirely plausible. But there are others where the only way to claim that is to offer a convoluted scenario that is less likely than that the reason for the lack of fit to alleged prototype is that the story is an attempt to depict actual words or events through a particular scriptural lens. The issue with mythicism is not the suggestion that there could be creation of something like Matthew’s infancy narrative based wholly on Moses and other Jewish traditions. The issue with mythicism is the attempt to crowbar all material into that framework even when it fits poorly.

          • John MacDonald

            You’re right of course. I got interested in this stuff through people like Price, so I still am guilty of seeing everything as imitation. lol