Those entertained by heavy-handed debates won’t want to miss the to-and-fro between Richard Carrier and Thom Stark in the following series of blogposts. Both Carrier and Stark are shrewd thinkers, and I always enjoy reading their work, even in disagreement. For instance, I’ve disputed Carrier’s take on the resurrection view of I Cor 15, just as I’ve taken Stark to task over his claim that Paul was calling for grassroots political activism. But here Stark wins a slam-dunk.
The question is, did any pre-Christian Jews believe in a dying messiah? And the answer, as most of us know already, but in case you have any doubts explained at length by Thom Stark, is none that we know of. Two pre-Christian texts are relevant here.
The first is the Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel, which interprets the suffering servant passage of Isa 52-53 as a messianic prophecy. Precisely because it does this, it shifts the suffering of the servant (which now = the messiah) onto the messiah’s enemies and the people of Israel. There’s some amusing to-and-fro in the above threads that shows Carrier backpeddling and saving face when various commenters and Stark himself underscore how drastically the Targum altered Isaiah’s meaning on this point, and as Stark says, Carrier just should have admitted he shouldn’t have used the Targum as evidence for belief in a dying messiah. (Nor, for that matter, does the Targum say or imply that the messiah will be made low or forgive Israel’s sins, as Carrier claims; it says the messiah will be despised as a thorn in the flesh of the nations, and God will forgive Israel on account of the messiah’s righteous intercession.)
The second text is the one that needs attention: the Melchizedek Scroll (11Q13), which connects Isa 52 (though not Isa 53, where the servant suffers and dies) with Dan 9. But as Stark explains, it doesn’t connect the two based on any belief in a dying messiah. It doesn’t mention an anointed one who was “cut off”, and of course most scholars believe that Dan 9:25 (not 9:26) is in view. The pesher technique cherry-picked verses without regard for surrounding context, and that’s what the scroll does.
Carrier, however, insists that the “anointed one” of Dan 9:25 is identical to the “anointed one” of Dan 9:26, and even claims that was the original meaning in Daniel — that both verses referenced Onias III. Sane and sensible experts know that Dan 9:25 originally referred to either Zerubbabel or the high priest Joshua in the sixth century BC (when the Jews returned from exile in Babylon), and only Dan 9:26 referred to the high priest Onias III over 400 years later (who was executed in 171 BC). And of course, the atonement referred to in Dan 9 was originally about the establishment of the temple cultus at the end of the sixth century, certainly not the anointed one of Dan 9:26 getting “cut off” — which was an interruption in atonement, as Stark says, when the high priest was supplanted with an illegitimate usurper. This second anointed one, this “executed messiah”, needless to say, was not seen as a salvific or redemptive figure.
So how does the the scroll reinterpret the first anointed one, the Zerubbabel/Joshua figure of Dan 9:25? In Stark’s view, he is both Melchizekek, the anointed one of the spirit, and also the scroll’s messenger. But it’s equally possible that the scroll envisions a human messenger (perhaps a high priest, perhaps a prophet) proclaiming the rule of Melchizedek. The crucial point (in the debate between Stark and Carrier) is that the anointed one (Melchizedek) is no longer human, rather an angelic warrior, who like the archangel Michael in Daniel is Israel’s redeeming figure. Neither dies, let alone atones for peoples’ sins by dying; rather they defeat the powers of darkness at the end of 490 years. [In Daniel, the the 490 years are split up between 49 years, 434 years, and 7 years. In 11QMelch, they are split up by ten groups of 49 years, and the drama is set at the beginning of the last 49 years of the 490-year period.] “The Day of Atonement takes place when the captives are liberated,” says Stark, and “in 11QMelch, this occurs when Melchizedek defeats the forces of Belial. In Daniel this would occur when Michael defeats the armies of Israel. In both texts, the captives are set free.” Needless to say, this critical event doesn’t occur at the time of the “cutting off” of Daniel’s second anointed one, for the death of Onias started an evil period — again, a period devoid of atonement — which would end seven years later upon the liberation of the captives.
The figure of Melchizedek is fascinating to me — and what really prompted me to call attention to the Stark/Carrier debate — as I have an abiding interest in pre-Christian angelic figures. Dale Allison’s suggestion that Jesus thought the Son of Man was his heavenly twin or Doppleganger is strangely plausible, and Pieter Craffert has proposed something similar (independently of Allison), based on sources where a heavenly son of man figure seen in a vision turns out to be the visionary himself. One can’t help but wonder if Melchizedek is some sort of heavenly analog to the two earthly messiahs of the Qumran texts. I want to thank Thom Stark for his in-depth treatment of 11QMelch, which for all its focus on debunking Carrier’s claims, is an enlightening analysis of Melchizedek on its own.
Insofar as Jesus’ existence goes, what does Stark’s victory over Carrier prove? Perhaps not much. It just puts us back to square one with the problems surrounding the criterion of embarrassment. Granting that Carrier is off-base about a precedent for a dying messiah, lack of precedent is in itself no obstacle to claiming wild things. The early Christians could have invented Jesus, and could have invented the whacky idea that he effected redemption through shame and death. But we deal in likelihoods, or what’s most plausible — not what is simply possible — and for all the scholarly abuse of the criterion of embarrassment, there is something to be said about the cumulative effect of Jesus traditions that cut against the grain of common expectation. People invent wild things, but people also take real-life events and run wild with them. When wholesale invention is involved, it’s seldom in a way that’s so thoroughly self-defeating. The lack of precedent for a dying messiah doesn’t prove Jesus’ existence, but it’s one of many striking oddities that when added to others points to an historical figure beneath the fantasy.