Vridar

2012/07/29

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 7

Continuing from Part 6 . . . .

The preceding posts have outlined Matthew Novenson’s argument that Paul’s concept of Christ (as expressed throughout his epistles) was entirely consistent with “the formal conventions of ancient Jewish Messiah language” that we would expect in any messianic literature of his era.

There are a few passages, however, that have been used to argue that Paul’s idea of Christ “demurred from, repudiated or even polemicized against” the Jewish theological notion of Messiah. Novenson rejects these interpretations and argues that even in these passages Paul uses χριστός within the range of conventional Jewish understanding of the Messiah.

1 Corinthians 1:23 “We Preach a Crucified Christ”

For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

Recent scholarly interpretation has generally viewed Christ here as “a meaning-less proper name” and hence the common translation as above, “Christ crucified”. An alternative translation that Novenson deploys is “a crucified Christ“. That definitely has a different ring to it. (more…)

2012/07/28

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 6

Filed under: Messianism,Novenson: Christ - Messiahs,Paul and his letters — Neil Godfrey @ 2:02 pm

This post continues a study of some of the passages in Paul’s letters that, according to Matthew Novenson, demonstrate that Paul’s use of the term “Christ” is entirely consistent with the understanding of “Messiah” that we would expect to find in any other Jewish text of his day. That is, Paul did not have a radically new conception of the Jewish Messiah that stood in opposition to the very concept among his Jewish contemporaries. Novenson argues that “Christ”, for Paul, is neither a name nor a title, but an honorific (cf. Augustus, Epiphanes, Maccabee, Africanus).

The previous post considered passages from Galatians 3 and 1 Corinthians 15. The next passages discussed are

(1) 2 Corinthians 1:21-22 —

Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

The significance of this passage, Novenson explains, is that it demonstrates Paul’s consciousness of the meaning of “Christ” as “Anointed” — “Christ” is not simply another name-label for Jesus as some have thought. Word-play was a common ancient convention and we see Paul using this here with his verb χρίσας (anointed) following Χριστὸν (Christ);

(2) and Romans 9:1-5 —

I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.

I focus here, however, on those passages that on first reading are less clearly messianic in the orthodox sense.

Romans 15:3, 9 “Your Reproaches Fell on Me . . . I Will Praise Your Name”

For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.” . . . (more…)

2012/07/22

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 5

Filed under: Messianism,Novenson: Christ - Messiahs,Paul and his letters — Neil Godfrey @ 4:51 am
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Much New Testament scholarship has come to think that Paul did not believe Jesus was the Messiah in any sense that his contemporary Jews would have understood the word Messiah. Many Pauline scholars have concluded that for the bulk of Paul’s 270 references to Christ (Greek for Messiah) the word meant little more than a personal name, and certainly not the traditional Messiah of Jewish national aspirations.

Matthew Novenson (Christ among the Messiahs) argues otherwise. The previous posts in this series have sketched his arguments that Paul used the term Christ, not as a personal name nor as a title of office, but as an honorific comparable the honorifics applied to Hellenistic kings and Roman generals and emperors:

  • Epiphanes [God Manifest]
  • Soter [Saviour]
  • Africanus [conqueror of Africa]
  • Augustus [Venerable]

. . . . χριστός in Paul is best conceived neither as a sense-less proper name nor as a title of office but rather as an honorific, a word that can function as a stand-in for a personal name but part of whose function is to retain its supernominal associations. Consequently, we ought not to imagine Paul habitually writing χριστός as if it signified nothing, then occasionally recalling its scriptural associations and subtly redeploying it. We ought rather to think of Paul using the honorific throughout his letters and occasionally, for reasons of context, clarifying one of more aspects of how he means the term. (p. 138)

If follows that Novenson argues that Paul’s use of the word Christ (χριστός) is entirely consistent with what it meant among Jews of his day — a world-conquering and liberating Hebrew “Messiah”. Paul has not done away with the traditional messianic idea. Rather, Paul relies upon the same core Scriptural texts that other Jews likewise regarded as foundational to their understanding of who and what the Messiah was. I repeat here from Part 2 those half dozen central texts, none of which, interestingly, contains the word “messiah”. See part 2 for the explanation of why these texts are known to be central for Jewish concepts and discussions about the meaning of the Messiah.

Genesis 49:10

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the commander’s staff from between his feet, until that which is his comes; and the obedience of the peoples is his.

Numbers 24:17

A star will go forth from Jacob; and a scepter will rise from Israel; it will shatter the borders of Moab and tear down all the sons of Sheth.

Wenceslas Hollar - King David

Wenceslas Hollar – King David (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2 Samuel 7:12-13

I will raise up your seed after you, who will come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.

Isaiah 11:1-2

A shoot will come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch will grow from his roots. The spirit of YHWH will rest upon him.

Amos 9:11

On that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, and repair its breached walls, and raise up its ruins, and build it as in the days of old.

Daniel 7:13-14

I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like a son of man was coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and honor and kingship.

In this post I begin to look at some of the passages in Paul’s letters where Novenson finds Paul clarifying his use of the term χριστός/messiah. Novenson attempts to show through these passages that Paul’s use of the term is no different from what we would expect to find in any other Jewish or Christian text that we consider “a messiah text”.

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Galatians 3:16 “Abraham’s Seed, Which Is Christ”

Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. (Gal. 3:16)

But contrast the passage in Genesis that Paul is referencing (Genesis 13:14-17): (more…)

2012/07/08

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 4

Filed under: Messianism,Novenson: Christ - Messiahs — Neil Godfrey @ 1:05 am

Continuing the series on Matthew Novenson’s Christ among the Messiahs . . . .

Before addressing some of the passages in Paul’s letters in order to demonstrate, by reference to earlier posts in this series, that Paul’s concept of Messiah/Christ fell within the framework of the common Jewish understanding of the term, I cover here some well-known phrases Paul uses for Christ — “in Christ”, and his habit of switching the order of its use as in Christ Jesus and Jesus Christ. Novenson examines these common phrases to see if they throw light on what Paul meant by the term “Christ”.

We will see that For Paul, as for his fellow Jews, the “Messiah/Christ” was an anointed, conquering and liberating Israelite king. What was striking about Paul’s concept was the means by which the Messiah would conquer. I think this has implications for the traditional model of Christian origins that argues the earliest Christians turned the concept of Messiah on its head. Followed through, I also think the question has implications for the question of Christian origins itself, but none of that is touched by Novenson, of course, and I am sure Novenson is far more deeply embedded in the conventional wisdoms of Christian origins than I am.

Here is an outline of Novenson’s discussion of what may or may not be gleaned of Paul’s meaning from some short phrases. It is very much an outline only since I avoid the details of the grammatical arguments here.

Paul’s variant terms for Jesus

Paul speaks of “Jesus”, of “Christ”, of “Jesus Christ” and “Christ Jesus”. Scholars have debated the significance of these variations and many have concluded that the “Christ” is simply another name, like “Jesus”, without any particular messianic import that would be recognized by his fellow Jews. Novenson disagrees. Without going into the details of the arguments, there is one memorable analogy Novenson offers that would seem to clinch the argument against Christ and Jesus both being mere names. Julius Caesar was always Julius Caesar, never Caesar Julius. But Jesus Christ could quite comfortably also be Christ Jesus.

The fact that the order of the two terms is interchangeable strongly suggests that it is not a true double name but rather a combination of personal name plus honorific. (p. 134)

“In Christ”

Most scholarship concerning this phrase, Novenson informs us, has been concerned with exploring (more…)

2012/06/27

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 3b

Filed under: Messianism,Novenson: Christ - Messiahs — Neil Godfrey @ 11:30 am

The previous post surveyed the range of arguments over whether Paul uses the word “Christ” (χριστός) as a personal name for Jesus or as a title. The answer to the question has implications for Paul’s Christology and theology. (Did he view Jesus as a messianic figure in the traditional Jewish sense or not?) I also suspect the question has implications for the more radical question of Christian origins (Novenson does not address this broader topic, however) and whether or not the earliest concept of the Christian Christ is compatible with an itinerant Galilean teacher and/or healer, or to what extent, the original Christian Christ figure matched contemporary messianic understandings and how best to account for this match/non-match?

Earlier posts in this series examined how Jews of Paul’s era did understand and write about the “messiah”, and we saw Novenson’s conclusion that the concept revolved around a small subset of texts in the Hebrew Scriptures and a limited range of syntactical expressions.

This post concludes an outline of chapter 3 in Novenson’s Christ among the Messiahs, Names, Titles, and Other Possibilities. Having covered the arguments fueling the debate over whether Paul used χριστός as a name or a title, we conclude here with Novenson’s own argument for how Paul understood and used the word.

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Christ as an Honorific

Novenson does find a naming category that he believes is “just right” for the way Paul uses χριστός. The trouble is the particular category has been hidden beneath a range of other widely varying modern concepts: (more…)

2012/06/26

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 3a

In the previous post we saw how Matthew Novenson in Christ among the Messiahs showed that

there were certain linguistic conventions in Jewish antiquity whereby a speaker or writer could refer meaningfully to the concept of a messiah by alluding to a small but significant group of scriptural texts.

This post looks at the question of discovering what word “messiah” itself meant, or what role a messiah was thought to have, among ancient authors and with special reference to Paul.

One approach to interpretation is to note the frequency with which the word is used. It is significant, says Novenson, that 1 and 2 Maccabees never use messiah language with reference to Judah Maccabee or his brothers, that the Epistle of James uses the word only twice (1:1 and 2:1) and the Gospel of Thomas not at all. Paul’s seven “undisputed” letters contain 270 instances of the word. This total is

more than he uses any other word for Jesus and more than any other ancient Jewish author uses that word. (p. 64)

So was Paul really “the most messianically interested of any ancient Jewish or Christian author”? Did he really mean “messiah” in any traditional Jewish sense or was it mainly a personal name he applied to Jesus?

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The Name-versus-Title Debate

If Paul used the word Christ as a title for Jesus then we may understand Paul as having a messianic Christological view. If he used it only as a personal name, however, then we may conclude that he had no such Christology and the word had no particular or traditional messianic meaning.

Most scholars have come down on the side of the latter argument — that Paul uses Christ as a proper name,

and that consequently the messiahship of Jesus plays little or no role in Paul’s thought . . . It follows, then, that for Paul “the Christian message does not hinge, at least primarily, on the claim that Jesus was or is the Messiah.” In fact, for Paul, “the Messiahship of Jesus is simply not an issue.” (p. 65, quoting MacRae, also Hare, Kramer, Dahl)

A minority of scholars, including N. T. Wright, have taken the contrary view and argued that Paul used the term as a title and that the messiashship of Jesus “lies at the very heart of his theology, ecclesiology, and eschatology.” (more…)

2012/06/17

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 2

What “Messiah” meant at the time of Paul and the earliest Christians

Continuing with notes from Christ among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism

by Matthew V. Novenson

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christamongmessiahsThe messianic idea

We saw in Part 1 that interpreters of Paul have confidently concluded that whatever Paul meant by χριστός he did not mean “messiah”, but modern studies of messianism have shown that the meaning of “messiah” remains an open question.

Understanding what was meant by “messiah” was much simpler throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Jewish and Christian scholars alike took for granted the existence of “the messianic idea” that was widely understood throughout the period of ancient Judaism. The evidence for this idea was not found in every text that made mention of a messiah, but it could be cobbled together by combining motifs from different documents.

So the Christian scholar, Emil Schürer, on the basis of the Apocalypse of Baruch and the fourth Book of Esdras, showed that this messianic idea entailed the following:

  1. The final ordeal and confusion
  2. Elijah as precursor
  3. The coming of the messiah
  4. The last assault of the hostile powers
  5. Destruction of hostile powers
  6. The renewal of Jerusalem
  7. The gathering of the dispersed
  8. The kingdom of glory in the holy land
  9. The renewal of the world
  10. A general resurrection
  11. The last judgment, eternal bliss and damnation

Jewish scholarship did not substantially differ, as seen from Joseph Klausner’s list of ingredients that make up the messianic idea:

  1. The signs of the Messiah
  2. The birth pangs of the Messiah
  3. The coming of Elijah
  4. The trumpet of Messiah
  5. The ingathering of the exiles
  6. The reception of proselytes
  7. The war with Gog and Magog
  8. The Day of the Messiah
  9. The renovation of the World to Come

Klausner conceded that no single text sets out this complex of ideas in full, but these points nonetheless are what the disparate texts mean when put together.

In other words, if a literary text lacks some of the pieces, that is the fault of the text, not of the messianic idea. The idea exists prior to and independently of the texts. (p. 37)

The messianic idea psychologized

What is more, in most modern accounts the messianic idea is described in specifically psychological terms: It is the force that animates the pious Jewish hope for redemption, either throughout Jewish history (in Jewish treatments) or at the time of Christ (in Christian treatments).

In this train we find discussions of the messianic idea arising out of a tenacious belief in a better future despite overwhelming troubles facing the present. Some authors have seen this as one of Judaism’s special gifts to the world alongside monotheism and ethical codes. Scholarly study has accordingly been less about the messiah figure than about the religious attitude and ideology that was the backdrop to various beliefs in such a figure.

The messianological vacuum

The concept of the “messianic idea” in Judaism started to unravel at the end of the Second World War with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scholars increasingly argued that the words for “messiah” and “christ” in the Second Temple period “had no fixed content” (De Jonge) and may even have had no special significance or meaning at all (James Charlesworth, Jacob Neusner, William Scott Green). They were labels that could be, and were, applied to a wide variety of persons and things. (more…)

2012/01/31

The First Signs of Christianity: Couchoud continued

Couchoud thought that John the Baptist epitomized and popularized the Jewish hopes for a coming Judge from Heaven — as shown in my previous post in this series (the entire series is archived here).

Christianity was born of the travail of the days of John. The Baptist gave it two talismans with which to bind souls:

  1. the advent of the Heavenly Man in a universal cataclysm,
  2. and the rite of baptism which allowed the initiates to await, without apprehension, the Coming of the Judge.

(p. 31, my formatting)

At first the teaching spread like wildfire but without John’s name attached to it as its IP owner.

Before long the teaching became enriched with various kinds of additions. First among these additions were new names for the Heavenly Man: Lord, Christ, Jesus.

Lord as a title was derived from Psalm 110:1

The Lord said unto my Lord,

Sit thou at my right hand,

Until I make thine enemies thy footstool.

To whom could this have been addressed? Surely not to the Messiah, the Son of David, waited for by the Pharisees. David would not have called his son “my Lord.” It must have been to the Son of Man who, according to the Revelation of Enoch, was placed on the throne of his glory by God Himself. (p. 31)

Since David as an inspired prophet makes it clear that the Son of Man is enthroned at the right hand of God and calls him Lord. So believers could also call the Son of Man their Lord.

(Note that the title “Son of Man” was used as a Greek expression, too. Think of Christianity as moulded very largely by Greek speakers.)

Christ, Christos, “is a somewhat barbarous translation of the Hebrew word which means consecrated by unction, Messiah.” (more…)

2011/12/28

A fallacious argument for Jesus’ historicity

Filed under: Messianism — Neil Godfrey @ 5:57 am
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Dr McGrath in a recycled youtube presentation Did Jesus Exist? argues that Jesus was a historical figure in these words:

The reason that the crucifixion persuades most historians that Jesus was a historical figure is that a crucified messiah was in essence a contradiction in terms. . . .  It needs to be emphasized that we are talking about a dying and rising messiah. And the messianic expectations of Judaism around the time of early Christianity are well documented. And the whole notion of messiah is “anointed one” . . . . and this goes back to the practice of anointing kings and priests in ancient Israel. And in the case of Jesus the connection of the terminology of the term messiah with the claim to his having been descended from David shows they were thinking of a kingly figure. And nothing would have disqualified someone from seriously being considered possibly being the messiah as being executed by the foreign rulers over the Jewish people. That wasn’t what people expected from the messiah. And it makes very little sense to claim that the early Christians invented a figure completely from scratch and called him the messiah and said that he didn’t do the same things that the messiah was expected. Not only did he not conquer the Romans, he was executed by them. He did not institute and bring in the kingdom of god the way the people were expecting, and in fact Christians had to explain this in terms of Jesus returning to finish the task of what was expected of the messiah.

All of this makes much more sense if one says that there was a figure whom the early Christians believed was the messiah and that the early Christians were trying somehow to make sense of those things that don’t seem to fit that belief.

In other words, the argument for the historicity of Jesus is, “No-one would have made it up.” This is in effect an appeal to ignorance. If one cannot imagine (without really trying) why someone would make it up, it must be historical.

The argument as expressed is, however, quite implausible. Stop and think. (more…)

2011/10/09

Popular Messianic(?) Movements Up To The Time Of Jesus and Beyond – Part 3

Filed under: Horsley: Bandits Proph Mess,Messianism — Neil Godfrey @ 1:33 pm
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Samaritan sanctuary, Mount Gerizim

Image via Wikipedia

This continues from Part 2 where I continued discussing what Richard Horsley has to say about popular messianic movements in Israel up to the time of Jesus in Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs. In the last post I covered “social banditry” in Palestine (especially Galilee) and those who were looked upon as rightful kings in the early part of the first century.

What particularly interests me is the evidence that these movements represent popular messianism. Horsley is clear: there is no evidence of popular messianism before the time of Jesus. I have read many assertions that Josephus is describing messianic movements without explicitly describing them as such. But these assertions remind me of William Scott Green’s observation that many scholars have spent a lot of time studying messianism where the word is not found. The first clearest evidence we have of popular messianic hopes relates to the period after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 c.e. When we interpret movements before then as messianic are we guilty of reading later ideas back into an earlier period?

I do not deny that any of these pre-70 movements were messianic. They may have been. But what is the evidence? Are there alternative explanations that may fit the evidence (and the evidence for the origins of popular messianism) more economically?

This post addresses the Samaritan who led followers to Mount Gerazim, Theudas and “the Egyptian”. (more…)

2011/10/07

The Dying Messiah (refrain)

Filed under: Messianism — Neil Godfrey @ 8:23 pm
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Richard Carrier has posted a fascinating artticle on the pre-Christian Jewish concept of a dying Messiah and showing the nonsense so thoughtlessly repeated even by scholars the originality of Christianity’s idea that a messiah must die in order to offer saving atonement to his people.

Richard’s post is beautifully lengthy exploring much detail from the evidence.

I can’t resist taking this opportunity to refer to the many posts I have also made on this same theme, although they do not explore the same details as Carrier does — listed below.

My posts are for most part based on other scholars who have advanced the same idea, including a Jewish one who sees certain sectarian Second Temple Jewish ideas about Isaac’s offering (apparently thought by some to have been a literal blood sacrifice that atoned for the Jewish people) overlapping with messianism in the time of the Maccabean martyrs — whose blood also had atoning power.

Other posts are based in some measure on the considerable work of Thomas L. Thompson who has written quite a bit on the concept of pre-Christian messianism.

Of significance is the death of the messianic (anointed high priest) having the power to forgive and atone; and the Davidic messiah himself was very often depicted as a figure of suffering and even ultimate rescue from death or near-death.

Carrier refers to Daniel’s messiah being killed. Saul, another messiah, was also killed. The concept of a messiah per se dying — whether the messiah was humanly fallible or a righteous martyr — was very much a part of the thought world of sectors of Judaism at the time of Christianity’s birth.

Carrier sees the history of messianic pretenders arising in the pre-war period as a possible outcome of the Daniel prophecy. Maybe, but I will have to think that through some more. Till now I have tended to argue that there were no such popular messianic expectations until from the time of the Roman war of 66-70 in a series of posts I have yet to complete. (Carriers post might end up prompting me to finish that now so I can think through his arguments some more.)

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here is a list of posts of mine on the same theme — that the idea of a dying messiah was by no means novel to the Jews or original to the Christians. (more…)

2011/08/05

Messiahs, Midrash and Mythemes — more comparisons with the Gospels

6th August: expanded “the trial” comparison into “The face to face confrontation of secular and religious leaders

Comparing other rabbinic midrash with the Gospels

In my previous post I covered Galit Hasan-Rokem’s comparisons of some early Christian and rabbinic midrash. In this post I comment on Hasan-Rokem’s discussions of other tales in the midrash of Lamentations Rabbah and draw my own comparisons with the Gospels.

An image of the French philosopher, Claude Lév...

Claude Lévi-Strauss: Image via Wikipedia

The second rabbinic story of a Messiah discussed by Hasan-Rokem is one about the death of “King Messiah” Bar Kochba. Here the messiah is the villain. (Rabbinic sources subsequently referred to him as Bar Kozeba, Son of Lies.) I think there are a number of interesting plot and motif similarities here, just as there are between the messiah birth narratives of the Christian and rabbinic literature and that were detailed in the previous post. But what makes the overlaps interesting is considering an explanation for them through the constructs of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. If this turns out to be an invalid process, invalidly applied, fair enough. But let’s see what it might possibly suggest till then.

The midrashic tale is found in full (and re-edited) in the last half of the post titled Birth and Death of the Messiah: Two Jewish Midrash Tales (and have since copied it again at the end of this post, too.)

First, the common elements. I can see about 20. Some are more “distinctly defining” attributes that signal a common idea than others: #10 and #17 are surely tell-tale (DNA-linking) ones. (more…)

2011/07/30

The Messiah in the Dead Sea Scrolls — how like the Gospel Messiah

Filed under: Dead Sea Scrolls,Messianism — Neil Godfrey @ 10:31 am
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DSS fragment photographed by myself

Corrected and updated -- Neil Godfrey, 1:15 pm 30th July 2011 

Comment by Steven Carr — 2011/07/29

It is interesting to see how mainstream scholars are edging towards mythicist ideas.

http://nearemmaus.com/2011/07/28/the-future-of-historical-jesus-studies/

‘The old idea that exalted epithets such as “Son of God” or “Son of the Most High” applied to Jesus reflect Greco-Roman thinking, rather than Jewish thinking, has been seriously challenged by the Aramaic fragment, 4Q246, in which an eschatological figure is described with these very terms. Moreover, the idea of a Messiah figure, whose appearance brings healing, resurrection of the dead, and good news for the poor—concepts that define the identity and ministry of Jesus—is now attested in 4Q521. Indeed, the idea of a figure who acts in the very place of Yahweh himself, in fulfillment of Isaiah 61 and an expected eschatological jubilee, is attested in 11QMelchizedek.’

Curiously James McGrath claims all Messiah figures were expected to be conquering kings.** (Note by Neil: McGrath has clarified that he is only referring to “Davidic Messiahs” and he does not dispute that there were other messianic notions among the Jews.)

And Mike Wilson is adamant that no Jew could have thought of a figure acting in the very place of Yahweh himself (unless that figure was a crucified criminal, if I understand Mike correctly. )

It is interesting that mainstream scholars claim that mythical eschatological figures, people who never actually existed, are described in the same terms applied to Jesus.

The texts are available online, but for easy reference I copy the relevant ones here, with links to the site sourced:

4Q246

“[X] shall be great upon the earth. [O King all (people) shall] make [peace], and all shall serve [Him. He shall be called the Son of] the [G]reat [God], and by His Name shall He be hailed (as) the Son of God, and they shall call Him Son of the Most High like a shooting star.”

4Q521 (more…)

2011/07/24

Popular Messianic Movements Up To The Time Of Jesus – Part 1

Filed under: Horsley: Bandits Proph Mess,Messianism — Neil Godfrey @ 6:22 pm
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Abimelech was a son of the great judge Gideon ...

Abimelech was a son of the great judge Gideon: Image via Wikipedia

This post surveys the evidence and questions the conclusions of Richard A. Horsley (with John S. Hanson) in Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus (1999) concerning messianic hopes and movements among the common people of Palestine up to the time of Jesus. It is some years since I first read this book, and my own views have since been modified by my studies of the contributions of “minimalism” (mainly through Thompson, Lemche and Davies) to what we can securely know about the history of Palestine in the centuries up to the Christian era. So it is interesting to return to Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs with that new understanding and to read the arguments again through more informed – and more critical – eyes.

In a couple of recents posts I shared Horsley’s presentation of the evidence we have for understanding of literary elites on the concept of “messianism” (and “Davidic messianism”) up to the early first century CE. Horsley rightly stressed the “other-worldly” theological nature of these ideas and how removed they probably were from the masses. While Horsley emphasized that these ideas were unrelated to popular ideologies, I am now embarrassed to have to say I did overstate his position on what the peasant masses did have on their minds. I had allowed by subsequent reading of ‘minimalist’ methodologies to interfere with what I recalled of his argument, and I have to now confess that he really did claim that the masses did have some “dormant” messianic hopes after all that were activated around the time of Jesus. (I will have to return to my earlier posts and re-write a few lines.)

But in my defence I will show in this post that Horsley’s assertion here is comparable to the assertions of scholars who concede that the gospels are so overlaid with myth, theology and literary artifices that they bury from view any historical Jesus, but we have to believe there was a historical Jesus behind it all just the same. Horsley’s evidence for popular messianic hopes supposedly unlike anything we find in the elite literature of the period rests squarely upon the assumption that the Old Testament stories of Judges and Davidic Kings were genuine historical eras. The link Horsley attempts to forge between those times and the period of Jesus is, I will argue, unnatural, speculative and without unequivocal evidence.

The Tradition of Popular Kingship (more…)

2011/07/21

“Son of David” as an anachronism (or metaphor?) in the Gospels, Paul and Acts?

Filed under: Horsley: Bandits Proph Mess,Messianism — Neil Godfrey @ 8:52 am

Updated with NT passages for reference

This follows my previous post that set me thinking along a related line. The verse for the day is Horsley’s sentence that I quoted there:

It would thus appear that the supposedly standard Jewish ideas or expectations of the messiah are a flimsy foundation indeed from which to explain early Christian understanding of Jesus.

Now if it is the case that the notion of a Davidic Messiah was something that was only on the horizon of literary elites, and if even there it was an idea to be realized only in a vague and remote future time, and if the idea of a Davidic Messiah was a metaphor and not a genetic son of David, — recall Horsley’s other observation that “Like the title ‘Messiah,’ the explicit term ‘Son of David’ simply does not occur with any frequency in Jewish literature until after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.” — then should not we raise a questioning eyebrow when we see Jesus being hailed as the Messianic Son of David in the Gospels, and when we read in Romans the claim that Jesus was a Son of David? (Son of Belial, we all know, means  a bad person, not a literal son.)

Now in my previous post I pointed out that Horsley said the idea of a Davidic messiah was very rare and confined to literary elites in the time prior to Jesus. Here I look at his discussion of these exceptions.

Qumran — the exception proving the rule

My earliest questioning as I read Horsley was related to Qumran. But here is what Horsley wrote in expectation of my question: (more…)

Did the Jews before Christ expect a national Messiah?

Filed under: Horsley: Bandits Proph Mess,Messianism — Neil Godfrey @ 12:10 am
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The answer is, I think, no. In this post I quote a few sections from Professor Richard Horsley‘s work Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus.

(Since there is currently a discussion under way at the Freeratio Discussion Board that relates to this question, and since this is a topic I have discussed a few times already, this is a good opportunity to bring out another work I don’t recall using as much as I should have before.)

Horsley notes that common views today about ancient Jewish beliefs about the messiah have been “heavily influenced by western christological doctrine.” (p. 89) That’s never a good sign. Religious bias getting in the way again?

He writes bluntly:

[R]ecent studies have made clear that in pre-Christian times there was no general expectation of “The Messiah.” Far from being uniform, Jewish messianic expectations in the early Roman period were diverse and fluid. It is not even certain that the term messiah was used as a title in any literature of the time. There was no uniform expectation of “the messiah” until well after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., when it became standardized as a result of scholarly rabbinic reflection. In fact, the term is relatively rare in literature prior to, or contemporary with, Jesus. Moreover, the designation messiah is not an essential element in Jewish eschatological expectation. Indeed, a royal figure does not even occur in much of Jewish apocalyptic literature. Thus it is an oversimplification and a historical misconception to say that the Jews expected a “national” or “political” messiah, whereas early Christianity centered around a “spiritual” messiah — statements frequently found in New Testament interpretation. It would thus appear that the supposedly standard Jewish ideas or expectations of the messiah are a flimsy foundation indeed from which to explain early Christian understanding of Jesus. (pp. 90-91, my emphasis)

Davidic King Not Necessarily a Son of David (more…)

2011/05/31

Identifying the “Man of Sin” in 2 Thessalonians

JUDAEA, Bar Kochba Revolt. 132-135 CE. AR Sela...

Barkokhba silver tetradrachm with Star above Temple: Image via Wikipedia

Thanks to Roger Parvus who forwarded me a scanned portion of Joseph Turmel‘s commentary on 2 Thessalonians (from “Les Ecrits de Saint Paul IV L’Epitre aux Philippiens, les Epitres aux Thessaloniciens . . .” par Henri Delafosse, 1928), I can share here an argument for the Man of Sin in 2 Thessalonians being Simon Bar Kokhba, leader of the Jewish revolt of 132-135 c.e.

The commentary was published in 1928 under the name of Henri Delafosse, about two years before Turmel was denounced by the Catholic Church as a heretic. From that time on he was free to publish under his real name.

Turmel’s starting point is that 2 Thessalonians is not an authentic Pauline letter. It was written to undermine the message in 1 Thessalonians 5 that taught that Jesus would come unexpectedly, but that those alive at the time the letter was written would still be alive when that day came. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 directly contradicts this message of that earlier letter: (more…)

2011/04/10

Gaddafi: the millennia old Messiah figure is still with us

Filed under: Libya,Messianism — Neil Godfrey @ 9:45 am
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Cover of "The Messiah Myth: The Near East...

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The messiah myth, millennia old across north Africa and the Middle East, is still alive in Libya today. Words recently spoken by Gaddafi were scripted long ago by the Pharaohs of Egypt and the Kings of Mesopotamia, and are found in the Psalms of David and in the proclamations of Jesus Christ. I repeat a few of them here, then place Gaddafi’s perception of his messianic role beside them.

Interesting also is the motif of family relationships Gaddafi ascribes between himself and Nasser of Egypt and even the U.S. President Obama. All this is, one might truly say, “so iron age”. It is the stuff one reads on monuments of ancient kings.

More extracts are found in my earlier post, Jesus A Saviour Like the Kings and Gods of Egypt and Babylon, which are in turn extracted from Thomas L. Thompson’s book The Messiah Myth. This work demonstrates that biblical motifs attached to David and Jesus were part and parcel of the expected “messianic” salvation functions of kings and gods embedded in ancient Egyptian and Babylonian culture. (more…)

2011/04/05

Does the notion of a crucified messiah need a historical easter experience?

Filed under: Messianism,Segal: Paul the Convert — Neil Godfrey @ 10:25 pm
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It's the Easter Bonnie!

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It is interesting to read in a short section of Paul the Convert Alan F. Segal’s case for Christianity originating in an easter-type of experience of disciples of a historically crucified Jesus.

Having run across so many references to Segal’s book when I was reading about the heavenly ascent mystical experiences among Second Temple Jews and early Christians (blogged about in several posts in the first two weeks of March this year) I knew I could not continue posting along this line until I had read Segal’s book for myself. But this post addresses Segal’s encapsulation of the case that Christianity began when disciples of Jesus grappled with theology to explain his death. (I am aware Segal has only recently passed away, and I by no means intend any of the following post as a criticism of Segal personally. I hope it can be read as an impersonal argument. I find much of value in Segal’s works, including Paul the Convert, and of course in Two Powers, and respect him highly as a scholar.)

Segal’s argument

During the period of Jesus’ ministry some of his followers thought he was the messiah. Segal says only that it is “likely” that some of them did, but his argument depends on some of them certainly thinking so. Segal begins his explanation with this:

Since Jesus died a martyr, expectations of his resurrection would have been normal in sectarian Judaism. [Reference here to Segal’s Rebecca’s Children, pp. 60-67, 78-95] (more…)

2010/11/27

Prophecy, a useful tool for legitimizing a new order

Filed under: Messianism — Neil Godfrey @ 9:21 pm
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Michelangelo's rendering of the Delphic Sibyl

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The most accurate prophecies are made after the events. What the prophecy does is bestow the event with an aura of fate, destiny, divine edict, legitimate authority.

The Gospels inform us that Jesus was the prophesied messiah. This itself is not evidence, however, that early first century Jews were generally expecting a messiah as a fulfilment of some ancient scripture.

A Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar, was lauded as a prophesied saviour. Virgil placed his own age, with the advent of Augustus, as the fulfilment of a divinely inspired prophecy, in his fourth eclogue. He again shows Augustus was prophesied from ancient times in book 8 of the Aeneid. I doubt that Romans had been generally longing for Augustus with such prophesies on their lips during the period of the civil war that preceded and led to his rise to power. But after Augustus was in power, Virgil’s poems and epic praises of him found a very receptive public audience.

I know of no evidence that Jews of the early first century were any different from Romans in their expectations and focus during punishing times — the Jews being subject to Roman rule and the Romans to civil war. When one side or group found peace (or ‘peace’ through a form of spiritual escape from reality), that peace — the new order, the new institution — was legitimized, and given comforting assurance, through timely prophecies. Christianity went overboard with this technique and hijacked a whole collection of books from the Jews, declaring their exclusive function was to prophesy of their Saviour.

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2010/11/26

The Myth of a General Messianic Expectation in Jesus’ Time

Filed under: Jesus,Messianism — Neil Godfrey @ 10:58 pm
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It is standard practice to classify Jewish messianism as national, ethnic, political and material, and to mark Christian messianism as universal, cosmopolitan, ethical and spiritual. That Jewish anticipation of the messiah’s arrival was unusually keen in first century Palestine and constituted the mise en scène for the emergence of Christianity is a virtual axiom of western history. (p. 1 of Judaisms and Their Messiahs, my emphasis)

But there is little, if any, evidence for this “axiom of western history”!

The opening chapter of Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era, though over 20 years old, appears not to have been read or accepted among theological and other scholars who even now still argue that the generation of Jesus was possessed by expectations of a messianic deliverer. Many such scholars still argue strenuously that some of that generation reinterpreted the life, execution and post mortem psychic experiences of their renowned rabbi, Jesus, as the life, death and resurrection of the long awaited (but spiritual) Messiah. Sometimes even professorial insults will be directed at less learned individuals who dare question, and persist in asking to be shown, the hard evidence for this model.

But professorial insults notwithstanding, William Scott Green (the author of that opening chapter) is several times quoted in relatively recent publications by the renowned Thomas L. Thompson:

These arguments [for a general Jewish expectation of the advent of a Messiah around the time of Jesus] . . . appear to suggest that the best way to learn about the messiah in ancient Judaism is to study texts in which there is none. (Green in Judaisms and Their Messiahs . . . p. 6)

Green continues: (more…)

2010/11/25

The meaning of “Anointed-Messiah-Christ” in the time of Jesus

Filed under: Messianism — Neil Godfrey @ 9:15 pm
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One resolution I made to myself after leaving my experience with religion was never to embrace any argument or account of the world without checking out and testing the evidence for it. One detail I regularly read as if it were an established fact was that around the time of Jesus there was a general expectation among the Jews for a Messiah to appear to deliver them from subjugation to the Romans. I read much, and even asked a few academics specializing in New Testament and early Christian studies, but was never able to pin down a clear piece of evidence that this cultural ethos ever existed before the Jewish War that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in the year 70. I found this mystifying because even the academics I asked appeared to accept that this was the state of mind of “the Jews” generally at the time of Jesus.

The closest a number of scholars came to offering evidence was to point to books I had already read, and/or to refer me to texts such as certain Old Testament writings. I had little success when I responded by asking how we can know that OT texts dominated the minds of Jews throughout Palestine and/or the Diaspora, and in particular from around year 0 to year 30ish or so. (more…)

2010/07/26

Jewish scriptures as inspiration for a Slain Messiah

Filed under: Messianism,OT archaeology & literature — Neil Godfrey @ 7:01 pm
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Was it possible for Second Temple Jews to have imagined a Messiah who is unjustly killed solely by reading their Scriptures.

The Apostles in Acts are said to have preached Christ out of the Scriptures. Paul, and even other epistle writers, claim that their gospel was revealed to them through the scriptures and/or through the spirit of God — not oral tradition or personal encounters.

Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, 26but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him . . . (Romans 16:25-26)

the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. (Colossians 1:26)

My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ (Colossians 2:2)

the mystery of Christ, 5which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. (Ephesians 3:5)

and at his appointed season he brought his word to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Savior, (Titus 1:3)

Although one often hears it said that no first century Jews were expecting a humiliated and crucified Messiah, the evidence one can read in the Jewish Scriptures surely suggests otherwise. Given the diversity of religious ideas we are led to understand blanketed the Second Temple era, and given the nature of the few scriptural passages that specifically and literally refer to “anointing” or “anointed” (=messiah), we would be very courageous to bet that no sects had such an idea.

Look at Psalm 2.2 for starters

The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together,
Against the LORD and against His Anointed [=Messiah]

Now the rest of the Psalm goes on to recount God laughing at those plotting rulers and assuring his Messianic Son (whom he has begotten that day) that he will give him victory over his enemies.

Nonetheless, we do have passage that presents a clear threat to the Messiah, and one from kings and rulers.

It is surely not too much of a leap for any reader familiar with these scriptures, and the Psalms in particular, to let their mind wander to other psalms where David or God’s son is promised deliverance and exaltation over his enemies, but only after first being brought face to face with death itself. One finds similar motifs within Isaiah, where the servant of God (Israel – Isa.49.3, who is also God’s son – Exod.4.22 and Hos 11.1) is humiliated, despised, struck down, only to rise again in victory over his foes – Isa. 49 ff.

In Isaiah 11 we even read that such a son is, at least figuratively, a son of David. And in Isaiah 53 we find the same word to describe the “delivering up” of the Servant to humiliation as we find in Paul’s 1 Corinthians 11:23 statement that Christ was “delivered up” on the night of the Last Supper (Doherty, p. 86).

But it wasn’t all suffering and exaltation for the Messiah. Isaiah 61.1 informs readers that the one anointed (a messiah) is to preach good news.

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me,
Because the LORD has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound

And this Isaiah passage cannot help but lead readers of this book to companion passages where one reads of the lame being healed, the blind being restored to sight, such as Isaiah 35

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.
Then the lame shall leap like a deer,

And the tongue of the dumb sing.

And so the messiah will perform such miracles?

If we look at the career of kings who are said to have been “anointed” (messiahs) we find a similar mixed pattern.

Hazael (anointed 1 Ki 19.15) and Jehu (anointed 2 Ki 9.1-6) brought conquest and judgment upon those whom God sought to punish.

Saul (anointed 1 Sa. 9.10) also delivered Israel from her enemies for a time, but then was himself slain for his sin.

Joash of Judah (anointed 2 Ki. 1.32-45) likewise was chosen by God to save the Davidic line, but was also murdered for his subsequent sin against God’s prophet, Zechariah.

And we know the stories of David (anointed 1 Sa. 16.1, 13) and Solomon (anointed 1 Ki. 1.32-45) well enough. Both chosen by God, but both failed their God and suffered in different ways. David, in particular, had to flee from his kingdom, climbing the Mount of Olives in his own desperate straits and trusting in God for deliverance.

But these are all past human kings. If I were looking for a Messiah in the Scriptures who would be the Messiah of all Messiahs and bring in the age of God, would I not be guided by each of these, but also be open to something even greater than all that had preceded? If past messiahs broke physical kingdoms and ruled geographical areas for limited times, would not we want the final messiah to go one better and smash the powers that ruled all those kingdoms, and to take charge of them? I know, I’m jumping way ahead of the story, here.

This is only a  mind game, and we might think it’s too easy in retrospect to imagine how anyone might interpret the passages back then. But that’s why I am taking as my starting point only those passages that specifically mention the word for Messiah — the exact word that might trigger the imagination of an ancient Jew.

But how might at least some Jews have interpreted the following from Daniel? Are any at all likely to have played with its ambiguity? (more…)

2010/07/18

What might a Davidic Messiah have meant to early Christians?

Filed under: Jesus,Messianism,Son of Man — Neil Godfrey @ 1:58 pm
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king David from Chludov Psalter
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The metaphor of the messiah . . . is used neither as a direct reference to any contemporary, historical king nor to any known historical expectations before Bar Kochba (c. 135 CE). (Messiah Myth, Thompson, p.291; SJOT, 15.1 2001, p.58.)

Those scholars who repeat that there was a popular Jewish anticipation of a Messiah to emerge as a contemporary, historical leader in their own time — any time before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE — do not cite evidence that actually supports this assertion. Thompson likes to remind readers of W. S. Green’s observation that biblical scholars have tended to form their understanding of the concept of the Messiah — and their (unsupported) belief that the term refers to contemporary Israelite kings — by studying texts where the word does not appear.

But at the same time there is no doubt that David was depicted as a once-upon-a-time messianic figure as well as an author of psalms.

So what do we read about the career of David as an anointed (messianic) one? In the Psalms attributed to him he cries out to God as one forsaken and persecuted. (Pss 18, 142). In Psalm 22 he cries out in pious agony, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

David’s career is one of fleeing from persecution. He is the chosen and pious, righteous sufferer. His persecution is a badge of his honour, not shame, in the eyes of all who look to him as a model of piety.

He is betrayed by his closest followers, and ascends the Mount of Olives to pray in his darkest hour.

He prepares for the building of the future temple after his death.

If early Christians ever thought to apply the Davidic motifs to Jesus, they surely did so with remarkable precision. David may have ruled a temporal kingdom, but Jesus demonstrated his power over the invisible rulers of the entire world. Even though ruler over the princes of this world, he was still betrayed, deserted and denied by his closest followers. He ascended the Mount of Olives in prayer at his darkest hour.

And he suffered the injustice that the righteous have always proverbially suffered, even crying out with David, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

But as in the Psalms God delivered David from the depths and pits of hell to exalt him in vindication before his enemies, so did God deliver and exalt Jesus. What was the suffering of humiliation in the eyes of his enemies, has always been the badge of honour in the eyes of God and devotees.

And none of this should be surprising. Even in Daniel we read of a prophecy of the Messiah to be killed, “but not for himself”, with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple to follow. Daniel 9:26 (more…)

2010/07/02

An Old Testament Messiah Struck Down by God

Filed under: Jesus,Messianism,OT archaeology & literature — Neil Godfrey @ 10:08 pm
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"Death of King Saul", 1848 by Elie M...
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A modern reader will be excused for not seeing at first glance any connection between King Saul as an anointed one (i.e. “messiah”) and the concept of messiah as it applies to Jesus. But Thomas L. Thompson has brought out some interesting concepts in common.

Saul was a messiah of Israel, and as a messiah he was struck down by God. David’s lament over this event is rich in messianic themes. One finds the same themes repeated in the Gospels in connection with the death of the messiah Jesus. I am closely following Thompson’s arguments here in pointing out the messianic motifs that we find in common in Old and New Testaments.

Saul is described metaphorically as the anointed (messianic) shield of Israel:

O mountains of Gilboa,
Let not dew or rain be on you, nor fields of offerings;

For there the shield of the mighty was defiled,
The shield of Saul, not anointed with oil.
(1 Samuel 1:21 New American Standard)

Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you, nor fields of offerings: for there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away, the shield of Saul, as though he had not been anointed with oil. (1 Samuel 1:21 King James)

For the interlinear Hebrew, transliteration and translation see http://www.scripture4all.org/OnlineInterlinear/OTpdf/2sa1.pdf:

מָגֵן שִׁאוּל בְּלִי מָשִׁיהַ בַּשָּׁמֶן
mgn shaul bli mshich b·shmn
shield-of Saul without being-anointed in·the·oil

I quote Thompson’s discussion in his 2001 SJOT article (repeated in The Messiah Myth), while indicating my own additions in italics. I’ll then point out what I see as the similar thoughts on the messiah as applied to Jesus. (more…)

2010/06/30

Old Testament Messiahs as the Raw Material for the New Testament Christ

Filed under: Messianism,Thompson: The Messiah Myth — Neil Godfrey @ 8:32 pm
Priest, High Priest, and Levite, illustration ...

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The idea of a holy anointed one, a messiah that is, who liberated those captive to sin through his death, who represented the pious before God, who was subject even to the wrath of God for the sin of the people, such an idea was arguably a pre-packaged concept among some Jews long before Jesus was ever thought of.

Evolution of an idea or historical reinterpretation of a crucified criminal?

Indeed, the very concept of Jesus Christ as found in Paul’s epistles could quite conceivably have evolved out of contemplation of passages describing the roles and functions of the priests in their role as “anointed ones” (“messiahs”) in the Jewish scriptures and Sirach.

Levenson has demonstrated the similarity of the Second Temple Jewish view of the atoning death and resurrection of Isaac with the subsequent Christian a figure who atones for the sins of his people by his shed blood.

Thomas L. Thompson looks at several other passages in Jewish Scriptures that foreshadow the explicit Christian concepts of Messiah. He rejects the common (yet unargued) belief that “messiah” was a term that was applied to contemporary historical kings of Israel, noting that in every occurrence of the word in connection with an Israelite king, whether in “story or song”, it is always applied to Israel’s past. And as for “the developing transference of an historical [Messiah] — the king — to a unique and future oriented, super-terrestrial savior, [S. Talmon] attributes to a ‘second temple period’, which culminates in an idealized figure after 70 AD.”

So what of the concept of messianism around the time Paul and other NT authors are thought to have been writing? What does an exploration of the meaning of “messiah” or “anointed one” in texts known to these authors suggest?

In this post I am focusing on just one cluster of texts out of all the ones Thompson discusses. The following from Thompson’s 2001 Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament article “The Messiah Epithet in the Hebrew Bible“. Much of it is repeated in his later book, The Messiah Myth. (more…)

2010/05/09

“Minimalist” Thomas Thompson’s take on The Messiah Myth

Filed under: Historiography,Jesus,Messianism,Thompson: The Messiah Myth — Neil Godfrey @ 12:41 pm
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Thomas L. Thompson’s The Messiah Myth can be a somewhat mystifying read for anyone looking for an engagement with conventional historical Jesus studies. It can leave a reader who is looking for a repeat of this scholar’s demolition of the historicity of the biblical Patriarchs and Kingdom of Israel even more flummoxed. In his first chapter he explains:

The purpose of this book is not historical reconstruction. Nor is it centered in the problems of the historical Jesus. (p.16)

Rather,

It is about the influence of the ancient Near Eastern figure of the king in biblical literature, and this has much to do with how figures such as Jesus are created.

So Thompson is addressing Jesus as he has been created out of this Near Eastern literary figure, and not a historical figure behind the gospels.

Thompson sees no evidence for a historical figure. He critiques historical Jesus studies since the days of Schweitzer for “lack of clarity” in the method by which scholars have approached the gospels and attempted to find in them historical information.

On the one hand [Schweitzer] assumed that Jesus existed apart from the gospels and on the other that the gospels were about this historical person and reflected his beliefs. This lack of clarity in method supported the radical separation of a Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. (p.8)

Thompson sees an even more profound error in what he believes is a prevalent misreading of the apocalyptic images in the Gospels. This is something I am still thinking through. I am waiting to read Amos and the Cosmic Imagination by James Linville (to get a different but presumably related perspective from Thomspon’s — meet Dr Jim) as part of my attempt to grasp the rationale for understanding apocalyptic language as something other than an expression of literal beliefs in apocalyptic scenarios. Will return to this question at end of the post.

A difficult assumption

That the stories of the gospels are about a historical person is a difficult assumption. To what extent does the figure of Jesus — like the figures of Abraham, Moses and Job — fulfill a function in a narrative discourse about something else? Is Jesus rather — like so many other great figures on ancient literature — the bearer of a writer’s parable? The question does not refer to our knowledge of a historical person. It asks about the meaning and function of biblical texts. (p.9)

This question — what is the meaning and function of the gospels — is one Thompson addresses in The Messiah Myth in a way that few other scholars have done. Certainly historical Jesus scholars acknowledge the Gospels are theology and faith-messages. But they also assume they are records of oral traditions traced back to a historical event, and in so doing they violate the very basics of scholarly historical enquiry by reconstructing Jesus and early Christianity upon an untested and unquestioned assumption. Thompson argues that Gospels are born not from a set of unique oral traditions, but from a well established literary matrix traceable back through centuries and millennia.

Literary creations replace their authors (more…)

2010/01/26

Responding to standard arguments for Jesus’ historicity (1)

Filed under: Historiography,Jesus,Messianism,Schweitzer: Quest H Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 3:55 pm
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edited and added TLT quote Jan 26, 2010 @ 20:05 

I think of myself as neither a “Jesus mythicist” nor a “Jesus historicist”, but as someone interested in exploring the origins of Christianity. Whether the evidence establishes an historical Jesus at its core, or an entity less tangible, then so be it. Nonetheless, I cannot deny the importance and implications of the question.

Two things that bug me about much of the historicist position are:

  1. many of its interpretations of the evidence are grounded in circular reasoning
  2. many of its arguments are rhetorical and/or built on the fallacy of incredulity (aka “the divine fallacy“)

There are things that bug me about some mythicist arguments, too. But here I want to share the first of a series of responses I am making against the historicist position as summed up by a contributor on a Richard Dawkins website discussion forum.

In summary:

(i) [Jesus] existed

The idea that the stories about him are based on a historical figure is the most parsimonious explanation of how they arose, since the alternatives require repeated suppositions to explain away key elements in the evidence (eg all those “maybes” required to make references to his brother etc disappear).

This would be true IF the earliest evidence is for a more human Jesus, with the later evidence demonstrating an emerging divinization of this person until he eventually reaches co-creator and sustainer of the universe god status.

But the evidence we do have is actually the reverse of the above. The earliest evidence — such as an early hymn quoted by Paul (Phil. 2) — describes Jesus as equal with God, who had a brief temporary transformation to look like a human in order to be killed to effect a theological saving destiny for humankind, and was restored to the highest God-status and given the new name of Jesus, and worshiped by all as a reward.

. . . . Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Paul’s Jesus as referenced in the rest of his letters hews to the same identity. Jesus for Paul is the Spirit and Wisdom of God, a God-head figure of worship, whose exalted heavenly status is the honour bestowed on him for his descent into at least some form of flesh for the purpose of crucifixion.

It is the later evidence (among the gospels) that seeks to humanize Jesus. In Mark, he is said to become possessed by the Son of God spirit, lose his temper and need a couple of shots at healing a blind man. In Luke and Acts, his death is described as that of a merely righteous human martyr. A later copyist even added a scene with him sweating blood.

The most parsimonious way to describe the this trajectory of the actual evidence is to see Jesus as beginning his history as a heavenly figure whose temporary appearance in the form of a man became the subject of later elaborations.

He is mentioned by Josephus twice and by Tacitus once and the arguments required to make these clear references in two independent sources disappear require, once again, a small hill of suppositions and contrived arguments.

{{BArch-description|1=Albert Schweitzer Zentra...
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On the contrary, the contrived arguments are those that have emerged since the Second World War when many things changed. Prior to that time the scholarly consensus — a consensus that included names like Albert Schweitzer and Walter Bauer — was that these texts are worthless as testimony for the historicity of Jesus. So to accuse anyone who dismisses the value of the Josephus evidence of resorting to “contrived arguments” is to insult some of the greatest names in the history of biblical scholarship.

Sometimes intellectual changes reflect broader cultural developments, and this seems to be one case in point. It appears to coincide with the shift in scholarly consensus to exonerate or excuse Judas, and other scholarly research designed to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus. Western guilt over past anti-semitism has been proposed as one explanation for some of these scholarly shifts. I suspect something similar at work in finding ways to bring the Jewish historian Josephus and Jesus together.

The stories about him contain elements which are clearly awkward for the gospel writers (his origin in Nazareth, his baptism, his execution) and which they try, largely unsuccessfully, to explain away or which they downplay or remove. These elements are awkward because they don’t fit the expectations of who and what the Messiah was, yet they remain in the story.

Apart from the subjectivity of deciding if a narrative detail is “clearly awkward”, this argument rests on a false premise.

The fact is that there is no evidence for some general expectation among Jews for any particular type of Messiah at all in the period discussed.

In a review of the most detailed discussions of the idea of the Messiah among Jews of the Second Temple period, The One Who Is to Come by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Jeffrey L. Staley writes:

There is no serious attempt to place messianism within the broader matrix of social history. There is no interaction with, say, Richard Horsley or John Dominic Crossan’s work on social banditry and peasant movements (Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus; The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant). One might then ask of Fitzmyer what communities he thinks are reflected in his textual study. If, as many have suggested, only 5 percent of the ancient Mediterranean population could read and write, then what segment of the population is reflected in Fitzmyer’s analysis? Is his “history of an idea” representative of Jewish belief at large, or does it represent only a small segment of the population? Does Fitzmyer’s study of the “history of an idea” reflect only the elites’ mental peregrinations, which are largely unrelated to the general masses? And what difference, if any, would his answer to this question make to this “history of an idea”?

Thomas L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth, has discussed in detail the literary nature of this messianic ideal (a literary construct that extends beyond a Jewish literate class, and stretches across cultural and ethnic groupings from Egypt to Mesopotamia), and finds no correlation of it among popular Jewish culture before the second century c.e.:

Nevertheless, to make an argument that a specific theme belongs to the earliest sources of the gospels is not sufficient to associate it with history. The interrelated themes that have brought Weiss and Schweitzer — and the scholarship following them — to speak of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet do not reflect religious movements of the first century BCE. The thematic elements of a divinely destined era of salvation, a messianic fullness of time and a day of judgment bringing about a transformation of the world from a time of suffering to the joys of the kingdom are all primary elements of a coherent, identifiable literary tradition, centuries earlier than the gospels, well-known to us from the Bible and texts throughout the entire Near East. (p. 28)

There may also be some relevance here in Jon D. Levenson’s case that at least some not insignificant number of Jews in the Second Temple period coming to embrace a theology involving salvation through an atoning sacrifice of Isaac, as I have discussed in posts archived here.

This makes perfect sense if the gospel writers are trying to make a historical figure fit the Messianic expectations and some elements in his story simply don’t fit well. But it makes no sense at all if they are making him up or his story simply arose out of the expectations. If that were the case his story would fit the expectations very neatly and these awkward elements wouldn’t exist.

This is a repeat of the standard argument among the biblical studies faculties to establish the historicity of everything from the baptism of Jesus to his resurrection. The logical structure of the argument is elsewhere described as “the divine fallacy”. More formally it is listed among other fallacies as the fallacy of (personal) incredulity.”

N.T. Wright and other mainstream academics join with apologists in using this logic to prove the historicity of the resurrection on the basis that the “embarrassing” and “uncomfortable” and “awkward” fact is that mere untrustworthy women were the first witnesses.

To paraphrase the way it goes:

This makes perfect sense if the gospel writers are trying to speak honestly about the historical resurrection of Jesus and some elements in their story simply don’t fit well.

It makes no sense at all if the gospel writers are trying to make up a story about the resurrection.

If that were the case, they would never have said women were the first witnesses.

Everyone knew that women’s testimony was worthless in those days.

So it makes perfect sense if the gospel writers were writing about an historical event.

Others use the same logical fallacy to prove God, or creation science, or psychic powers:

How else can you explain this of that fact?

God/creationism/the tooth fairy are the only explanations that make sense of the evidence!

No other explanation makes any sense!

That such fallacious reasoning underpins so much of historical Jesus studies seems to escape notice surely can only be explained in the context of its cultural familiarity. (Trying to avoid slipping into the same fallacy here.  :-/  )

 

"F" is for "False Dilemma"

Image by BinJabreel (Is on Hiatus) via Flickr

(The original context of the summary cited here, by Tim O’Neill, can be found here.)

 

“F” is for “False Dilemma”
Image by BinJabreel (Is on Hiatus) via Flickr

(The original context of the summary cited here, by Tim O’Neill, can be found here.)

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