Precedent for a Dying Messiah?

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.

Carrier: The Dying Messiah
Stark: The Death of Richard Carrier’s Dying Messiah (I) and (II)
Carrier: The Dying Messiah Redux
Stark: It is Finished for Richard Carrier’s Dying Messiah (I) and (II)

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.

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12 thoughts on “Precedent for a Dying Messiah?

  1. Wow, what a boxing match in those threads. You're right, Stark's case is final. As for Jesus, I always took for granted he existed, and I'm as atheist as Carrier.

  2. Debates like these remind me of how useless those 1 hour live debates with WLC are. in the end, you never have enough time to actually make your case. But with debates like this, you can actually evaluate all your opponents arguments fairly.

    And, like anonymous, I think Carrier lost this debate; And I think Jesus existed; And I'm an atheist.

  3. Stark may edge out Carrier in this particular issue. But check my comments on Stark's Messiah pt. 1 (?) posts.

    As it turns out, there are lots of precedents, for a suffering “hero,” or “martyr,” in early ANE and Jewish culture. For example, in 2 Mac. 7; in the hero who becomes a martyr, and dies to save his country.

    Dying heroes – martyrs dying to save their country – are not rare in Jewish thought, or anywhere else. In fact, they are one of the most common cultural cliches of all, in all cultures, to this very day.

    So even if the notion of a “suffering servant” as predecessor to a crucified Jesus collapses, still, there are lots and lots of other major cultural myths, that preceeded and contributed to the notion of a Savior, suffering and dying to save his country.

    – Anon/Brettongarcia

    • The suffering servant can’t “collapse” as evidence, because it is definitely about a dying suffering servant, and it was definitely interpreted as being about the Messiah.

      It is impossible for Stark to edge Carrier out, because Carrier has the correct argument. All he can do is quibble on the details. Isa 53 and its messianic figure BY ITSELF is evidence that there was a dying messiah in the Jewish literature, as long argued by Christians, and nothing you can say about the majority interpretation of can change this fact. You might say it’s a naive reading, but a naive reading gives the Christian version, so it is completely clear that any naive readers would come to the naive conclusion..

      Besides, it is not clear if Peter was using Targum, the Septuagint seems more likely. In Carriers thesis, he can be the author of 1 Peter. The arguments I saw were over quality of evidence, over the strength of the evidence in Baysian terms in Carrier’s language, and whatever you weight this, it doesn’t make a historical Jesus any more likely.

    • Even the High Priest was familiar with the thought, “Don’t you know that it is expedient that one should die for the people?” (duh) If even HE knew about it, what’s all this if’n n’ but’n about. “Messiah the Prince shall be cut off, but not for himself.” (Daniel 9 prophecy) He (Jesus) clearly told them what was going to happen and why. Interestingly, Tim Keller talks about those of His disciples who saw Him, Nowhere was there any more strict concept about the absolutely heretical idea of a man worshiping and living being in a personal form or any image or any statue than among the Jews, and yet His disciples on seeing Him and seeing the holes in his hands bowed down to Him and said “My Lord and my God!” This is like SO UN-Jewish, and this was a capital offense and yet they did it and repeated the story over and over. Why would they do this to support any pretense or cover up. Doesn’t hold water! If they hadn’t seen Him. they’d have simply split town, or done what Peter did at first, “I go a fishing!” and the others to him, “We also go with thee!” But they DIDN’T do that. They didn’t do a thing! Why not? And they certainly didn’t split town which would have been the safest thing to do; they waited till Pentecost! Why? ‘Cause He told them to. He said “Wait…” so they waited for the day of Pentecost. Dumbest, riskiest most idiotic thing they could have done and then…

  4. According to Bretton Garcia, the “messiah” is not an important concept. After all, says Brett, the word “messiah” only appears twice in the entire New Testament!

  5. Loren,
    where precisely did you take Stark to task for advocating that Paul was for grassroots activism. I´m interested in reading your thoughts on the matter

  6. Stark's clearly right (almost self-evidently so), and Carrier clearly isn't, so on to other things:

    You note that we deal in plausibilities, and to be sure, there's some truth to that. But it might be worth citing Thompson:

    “there is little historiographic value in ‘better’ or ‘best’ analogies, when there is no clear evidence, only uncertain possibilities.”

    Megan Moore clarifies Thompson a bit more:

    “Thompson is saying that when there is no evidence, there is no history, and that plausible reconstructions are not acceptable substitutes. Historical reconstructions, claim the minimalists, must be based on certain evidence, and usually the Bible does not qualify as certain evidence.”

    (working from libronix under WINE in linux, so page numbers don't cite properly, but Biblical History and Israel's Past)

    I think it is legitimate to suggest that when your only appeal is to the plausible, the appropriate course is to withhold judgment. Today's plausibillity is tomorrow's absurdity. Look at Morton Smith and Secret Mark. Or at female drummer statuettes, and how the interpretations have changed, even within our lifetimes. “Plausible” is only as valuable as its audience allows it to be, and anyone who finds it “implausible” has functionally refuted the entire position. “I'm not convinced” shouldn't be enough to justify rejection of an entire historical model, but if we deal solely in plausibilities, it is.

    Gaddis (The Landscape of History), provides a wonderfully fruitful analogy between historiography and cartography. Like history, a map is only as valuable as it is useful. It's value lies in a correlation between what the creator wants to convey, and what the audience needs to know, and the choices made in what is emphasized, almost by definition, rob it of its accuracy. A map is never a true description (it would need to be lifesized!), and neither is history.

    But for all that, a map needs to correlate with known reality. A map made up wholesale has no utility at all. No matter how much it appeals to our subjective whims.

    Why should history be different? On what basis do we declare “plausible” a suitable measure for cumulative knowledge? Without a known entity (or better yet, a slew of known entities), all one needs to do to refute a history is to find it implausible.

  7. Well, I don’t know much about all these historical false flags and hot air about what it “might have been” (if it hadn’t been what it really was). Others are saying it was some Roman Caesar and blah blah blah.

    I want to know what Jesus himself said it was! That’s the ONLY thing that could possibly be interesting to me. Matthew 24 is one of the more ignored chapters of the Bible, especially when one considers that you have the representative of the King of the Universe, telling folks what they need to be looking for, that they can be aware of when it’s gonna happen: His return. So what is it that He says to them (his apostles) “When (KJV) ye shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (Another gospel says “standing where it ought not”), then let him which is in Judea flee unto the mountains… for then shall be great tribulation such as was not since the beginning to this time, no, nor ever shall be,,,” (He is simply clarifying that it is no little, Podunk, second rate tribulation, but the real McCoy, the one-and-only, final GREAT Tribulation!) They were asking him about details.

    Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the messenger who many even are so bold as to refer to as the Son of God COULD’VE gone into great detail and really done a superb job to the N’th degree, but what does He do? He says, “For goodness sakes, if you can read, check out Daniel. He was a prophet. He did a bang up job of it and gave you all the info and details you really need to know!” (at that time, when He was talking.

    These references to the “abomination of desolation” are BOTH in Daniel (9:27; 11:31). They are BOTH describing the same event, and actions by the same person (or forces). Reading history is great, and understanding it too, if you think it’s possible. But I’m MUCH more concerned about knowing where I’m going than where we’ve been, especially when it involves the events of the end of things as they are, the rise of a one-world-government spoken of by the scriptures Rev. 13 (both old and new) and the return of someone so many have been waiting for with such anticipation for so long. The scriptures not only mean what they say, you also have to read around in them a lot before you’ll be able to make the necessary connections. Be wary of history books and historians who lean so heavily on the theories (and “facts”) of man, but yet haven’t spent the necessary amount of energy researching the scriptural facts: not just what it “says” but also what it means and why it means it and why and what for and where this one’s comin’ from and why etc.

    John was straightforward and didn’t pull any punches: ” These things have I written unto you that believe… that you may know… and that you may believe on the name…” Any more questions?

    PS, I’d have gotten rid of Isaiah 53 too, if I’d wanted to perpetuate a misconception in the face of so many facts and events, but it still just didn’t work, did it?

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