One of Dr. James McGrath’s arguments for a historical Jesus goes something like this: (1) There is no evidence of a belief in a dying messiah prior to Christianity, therefore (2) Before Christianity emerged, no one believed in a dying messiah. (3) Out of all the possible explanations we might offer for this apparent innovation of the early Christians, the best explanation is that Christians came up with the idea was as a response to the unexpected pre-mature death of Jesus, because a belief in a dying messiah looks like an ad-hoc rationalization (no one had expected a dying messiah previously and it otherwise seems precluded by Jewish beliefs). Therefore, Jesus existed.
In this post, I will demonstrate that there are credible, recent, non-mythicist scholars who believe McGrath’s first premise is false. I will follow this with some other considerations that render McGrath’s argument doubtful in other respects.
Scholars who have explicitly disagreed with McGrath’s first premise include David Mitchell and Israel Knohl. For references on those two, see the section ‘Explicit Disagreements.’
There are other scholars who, while not making there disagreement explicit, seem to disagree implicitly. Martin Hengel, for example, says that “the frequently repeated thesis that there is no reference to a pre-Christian suffering messiah appears questionable” due to “messianic features” of the Septuagint’s translation of Isaiah 52:13 – 53-12. The passage Hengel cites speaks, in no uncertain terms, to the death of the ‘suffering servant’ mentioned therein (see 53:8-9). Adding weight to Hengel’s observation, we can note that there were ancient rabbis who interpreted Isaiah 53 messianically, even to the point of identifying the messiah as the suffering servant who is “wounded for our transgressions.” See the section titled ‘Implicit Disagreements’ for references and further discussion on this issue.
Now onto my second point: there are a number of disturbing weaknesses in McGrath’s argument which, in my opinion, completely do it in.
For one thing: Martin Hengel has written about how we have only a few pre-Christian messianic texts, and about how much variety there is in what we do have. Geza Vermes writes that the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has revolutionized our understanding of the New Testament’s Jewish background. Now the Dead Sea scrolls are one of the precious few resources we have concerning pre-Christian messianic expectations, and we have the scrolls as the result of a historical accident. They were found in a cave, and had managed to weather the sands of time well enough to reveal to us something about the past. Think how easy it would have been for them to have not survived at all. So, I don’t think an ‘argument from silence’ against a pre-Christian dying messiah would carry anything more than a modest amount of weight. In other words: establishing positively, and with high confidence, that “no one expected a dying messiah prior to 30 AD” isn’t something you can do simply by citing a lack of pre-30 AD evidence. Why not? Because we don’t have a lot of pre-30 AD evidence period, and the little bit we do have survived by a near-miraculous historical accident.
Of course, you can’t show that a dying messiah concept did exist on the basis of no evidence, and here is where we have to be sensitive to looking at circumstantial evidence to guide our judgement of history. We have information on post-30 AD Jewish beliefs, and a number of them attest to a belief in a dying messiah. It’s wise to consider whether those beliefs pre-date Christianity, and whether a pre-Christian origin is a better explanation than a post-Christian origin. And I think the evidence we have suggests that a pre-Christian origin is more likely. Wholly aside from the evidence cited by Knohl and Mitchell, there is a good, defensible case for a pre-Christian messiah. 4 Ezra 7:26-31 most definitely speaks of a messiah who will die before the end of the world. 4 Ezra is a composite document, but the scholars who have studied it agree that chapter 7 is part of an underlying Jewish layer that comes from around 100 AD. How do we account for the dying messiah of 4 Ezra? There are basically three possibilities:
(1) 4 Ezra borrowed the concept of a dying messiah from the Christians.
(2) 4 Ezra developed the concept of a dying messiah independently from the Christians.
(3) 4 Ezra inherited the concept of a dying messiah from a ‘common ancestor’ tradition that predates both Christianity and 4 Ezra.
Option 1 is by far the most unlikely hypothesis on the table. Here are the objections that do it in for good:
1. The hypothesis entails an inescapable catch-22: we must believe that a Jewish author placed great trust in the Christians concerning the reality of God sending a messiah who would die, and totally distrusted them about the actual fulfillment of this prophecy they were claiming for Jesus.
2. At a date of roughly 100 AD, Christianity was still a fringe sect of Judaism, which raises the question of how likely it is that Christianity even could have influenced a Jewish author, given that it was so tiny and necessarily lacked the ability to influence.
3. 4 Ezra 7 says the messiah would be with the people for 400 years prior to his death, which is a substantial difference that I think tells against the ‘borrowing’ hypothesis: direct borrowing wouldn’t produce such a great distinction as plausibly as ‘inheritance from a common ancestor’ or ‘independent development.’
Last but not least, the theory of Christian influence fatally undermines McGrath’s contention that a “dying messiah” is an ad-hoc rationalization. No Jewish person would adopt something they considered an ad-hoc rationalization of their faith, and therefore no Jewish person would have borrowed it. The same holds for the ‘independent origin’ hypothesis: no Jewish person would make up a future prophecy that violently contradicted established Jewish beliefs about the messiah, especially if they had no pressing need to come up with such a belief, as McGrath thinks the early Christians did. Even if somebody did do that, the document wouldn’t have been preserved and copied, as 4 Ezra was. It is safe to say that 4 Ezra, just by itself, completely undercuts McGrath’s argument.
I’m a human being. I could be wrong. But, I would appreciate knowing why I am wrong. And I’m hoping I will hear something from McGrath on whether he thinks I am wrong or right, and why.
And by the way, none of this necessarily means that Jesus was a myth. It is possible to make a bad argument for a good conclusion. It does, however, undermine an oft-used argument for a historical Jesus.
For Israel Knohl, the money quote comes from his book ‘Messiah Before Jesus’ in which he says that the disciples of the Qumranic Messiah “responded to the trauma of the year 4 BCE by creating a catastrophic model of messianism based on verses of the Bible. The members believed that the suffering, death and resurrection of the Messiah were a necessary basis for the process of redemption.” See “The Messiah Before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Page 48, University of California Press, 2000.
David Mitchell has a really interesting article called “A Josephite Messiah in 4Q372” which he has made available on his website and which was formally published in Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha. Of equal interest is his article on the atoning death of the Josephite messiah, in which he also discusses the atoning function of Baal’s death.
Martin Hengel, p. 37, “Studies in Early Christology,” Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2004.
On ancient rabbis who interpreted Isaiah 53 messianically, see Michael Fishbane, p.68 (with support in the rest of the chapter) “Midrash and Messianism” in “Toward the Millenium,” Brill Academic, 1998.
You can find a good summary on the date and composition of 4 Ezra on pp.69-70 of Timothy W.R. Churchill’s “Divine Initiative and the Christology of the Damascus Road Encounter” Pickwick Publications, 2010. As far as I can tell this viewpoint is widely shared among experts on 4 Ezra.
For those interested, the pre-Christian dying messiah is corroborated via evidence independent of what I have cited by Richard Carrier, “The Dying Messiah Redux.” I mention the article only because I think some people here may not have read it and might appreciate it; the people I am citing to show that a pre-Christian dying messiah is plausible are not mythicists and have published their work on the issue of a pre-Christian dying messiah in standard academic forums and not just on a blog.