• The Dying Messiah: A Problem for Jesus Myth Theory?

    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.


    ‘Explicit Disagreements’

    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.


    ‘Implicit Disagreements’

    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.


    4 Ezra

    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.

    Update: James McGrath has responded, and I have continued the discussion in the comment section.

    Category: Uncategorized


    Article by: Nicholas Covington

    I am an armchair philosopher with interests in Ethics, Epistemology (that's philosophy of knowledge), Philosophy of Religion, Politics and what I call "Optimal Lifestyle Habits."

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    1. Even better evidence is the story of a dying hero, a martyr, dying to save his country, a perhaps divine son of a religious mother, would be 2 Mac. 7.

      “Messiah” is a problematic title by all accounts. So let’s put that aside. Instead, look say closely related tales of heroes dying to save their country. A very, very common story. With many sources.

      The apocryphal 2 Mac 7 specifically in fact, would be the most likely predecessor for the Jesus tales.

      Are such predecessors EXACTLY the same as tales of Jesus? They are not. But clearly they contain many of the key ELEMENTS. Such elements, added to others by confused oral rumors, accretion, could easily have finally resulted in the legend of a self-sacrificial Lord called Jesus.

      1. The most likely predecessor to the Jesus tales?

        How about a King and High Priest of the Jews executed by Rome?

        Wikipedia: “Josephus states that Marc Antony beheaded Antigonus (Antiquities, XV 1:2 (8-9). Roman historian Dio Cassius says he was crucified. Cassius Dio’s Roman History records: “These people [the Jews] Antony entrusted to a certain Herod to govern; but Antigonus he bound to a cross and scourged, a punishment no other king had suffered at the hands of the Romans, and so slew him.”[4] In his Life of Antony, Plutarch claims that Antony had Antigonus beheaded, “the first example of that punishment being inflicted on a king.”[5]”

        Methinks there is no need for a historicized Pauline celestial crucified Jesus figure when history offers up the real thing…..The Jerusalem above needs it’s corresponding Jerusalem below. A heavenly crucifixion story does not rule out the relevance, for the gospel storytellers, of the historical execution, by Rome, of a King of the Jews.

        1. Interesting. You might be interested in Carrier’s ‘Rapture Day’ Lecture on Youtube where he talks about how there were many “Jesus Christ’s” in those days.

          1. Ah, but we need to get specific if the ahistoricist position is going to move forward.

            Consider the work of Greg Doudna on the Qumran texts. Working from the historical context in which Antigonus removed his uncle Hyrcanus from the High Priesthood (by biting off his ears thereby making him unfit to be High Priest) and thus causing a Hasmonean family rift; a family rift that is played out in the Qumran texts as between a Teacher of Righteousness and a Wicked Priest.

            There is only one context in the
            first century bce with which this
            portrayal of violent death at the
            hands of gentiles for a ruler of Israel
            corresponds, and that is the
            Roman invasion which ended the Hasmonean dynasty in 37 bce. That Roman invasion was an army sent
            by Mark Antony to install Herod
            as king, and it brought a violent and
            horrific end to the regime of the
            last Hasmonean king and high priest, Antigonus Mattathias. There was a siege and a massacre in Jerusalem and the temple was looted by Roman soldiers. Antigonus Mattathias was captured in Jerusalem and killed by gentiles in a foreign country. And of particular interest in light of the allusion in Pesher Nahum is the fact that Cassius Dio, the Roman historian, says that Antigonus Mattathias was hung up alive on a cross and tortured in the process of being executed by Mark Antony.3 In
            his death at the hands of gentiles
            Antigonus Mattathias corresponds
            with the portrayal of the death of
            the Wicked Priest, and Antigonus
            Mattathias is the only Hasmonean
            ruler of the first century bce who does.


            What do the texts say? (a) he ousted the legitimate ruler, the now-exiled Teacher of Righteousness; (b) he persecuted the righteous; (c ) he defiles the temple (of which he is now in charge); (d) he robbed wealth of the temple; (e) he tried to kill the Teacher, drove him into exile, etc. The rhetoric represents the standpoint of loyalists to the exiled Teacher. Why assume the exiled Teacher, formerly high priest in Jerusalem until usurped, was non-Hasmonean? What support is there for that in the texts, or reason to suppose that? One of the most basic themes in Josephus for 1st century BCE is the conflicts between rival Hasmoneans that in the end destroyed the dynasty. Why assume the Qumran sectarian texts, which come out of exactly the time and place of those conflicts, are outside or removed from that known history, instead of rhetoric emerging from actors or partisans within that history?

            #4 – Greg Doudna – 05/01/2014 – 14:36

            D. Stacey and G. Doudna,
            Qumran Revisited: A
            Reassessment of the Archaeology of the Site and its Texts

    2. 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 …

      This is actually a slight straw man. The issue is not just that Jesus died, but that he appeared to die a failure. He was purported to have given a humiliating death at the hands of those that a Messiah was expected to defeat. The Messiah is ultimately supposed to conquer, not be a martyr. That’s why the Christian claim that Jesus’ death was somehow for our sins and that he reigns (conveniently unseen) in Heaven comes off as such an ad hoc rationalization.

      Your example in 4 Ezra falls flat then. As McGrath pointed out in his response to you (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2014/09/a-pre-christian-dying-messiah.html ),

      in the case of 4 Ezra, a successful Messiah, after a 400 year reign, eventually dies along with the rest of humankind as the prelude to the resurrection. That is clearly not the same thing as an alleged Davidic Messiah who is crucified without restoring the dynasty of his forefathers, whose followers insist that God enthroned him in the heavenly realm, unseen by most and thus a seeming failure.

      So, what do we have as supposed evidence for a pre-Christian dying Messiah? Knoll’s contentious reconstruction of a fragmentary text? An LXX translation of Isaiah 53 that isn’t substantially different from the Masoretic text? And I wouldn’t rely on Carrier’s Dying Messiah Redux, either. He claims on the one hand that he has fixed his analysis based on Thom Stark’s criticisms, but on the other hand, he say he hasn’t changed his overall thesis — even though Stark’s criticisms pretty thoroughly tore that thesis apart. Indeed, Carrier seems to have doubled down on the notion that there’s a dying messiah in the Jonathan Targum, even though expert translation just doesn’t support that (http://religionatthemargins.com/2012/05/does-the-messiah-die-in-targum-jonathan-after-all/ ). This is thin stuff.

      [ETA: For some reason, Disqus seems to be mangling links by putting “http://disqus.com/embed/comments/” in front of them, so I’ve put the links directly in the text.

      1. //So, what do we have as supposed evidence for a pre-Christian dying Messiah?//

        We have, as I posted below, the last King and High Priest of the Jews: Antigonus, executed by Marc Antony in 37 b.c.e. A victorious messiah figure who ruled for 3 years before being executed by Rome. Executed via Herod I paying Marc Antony a great deal of money. (re Josephus)

        Dead flesh and blood messiah figures don’t have any social/political value. In other words; flesh and blood human sacrifices have no salvation potential. However, what the early Jewish Christians did do was use the Roman execution of the last King of the Jews, Antigonus, as a model for a gospel crucifixion story: Faced with the historical reality that human blood has no salvation potential – the gospel writers placed their crucifixion story within a different context, a non-historical context, a pseudo-historical context.

        It is within an intellectual context, a ‘spiritual’ context, that crucifixion can have value. A ‘heavenly’ context where ideas have to be ‘killed’ once they become detrimental to the values necessary for living in a social/political environment. Thus, what does not work for salvation in the Jerusalem below – works in the Jerusalem above – if we give it half a chance. Ideas enslave as well as enlighten. Old ideas will strive to cling to their glory days. Intellectual sacrifices are vital to human progress. Flesh and blood sacrifices are detrimental to our humanity.

        Richard Dawkins: “Among all the ideas ever to occur to a nasty human mind (Paul’s of course), the
        Christian “atonement” would win a prize for pointless futility as well as moral depravity.”

        While the Dawkins quote is insightful in relation to the usual Christian interpretation of the gospel crucifixion story – we should not be so quick as to read the Jesus story in such a way. We should not seek to impute to the NT writers such an anti-humanitarian premise of flesh and blood sacrifices having salvation value.

        1. We have, as I posted below, the last King and High Priest of the Jews:
          Antigonus, executed by Marc Antony in 37 b.c.e. A victorious messiah
          figure who ruled for 3 years before being executed by Rome. Executed via
          Herod I paying Marc Antony a great deal of money. (re Josephus)

          No, this is evidence of someone dying someone who has had oil poured on his head in some ceremony. Not everyone who has literally been anointed counts as what Second Temple Jews would count as the Messiah. Otherwise, even Herod would probably have been counted as the Messiah.

          Faced with the historical reality that human blood has no salvation potential … the gospel writers placed their crucifixion story within a different context….

          We should not seek to impute to the NT writers such an anti-humanitarian
          premise of flesh and blood sacrifices having salvation value.

          I think you are trying to give the NT writers way too much credit.

          1. Well now, at least bringing Herod into the picture you have a historical figure to deal with – rather than Israel Knohl’
            Menahem the Essene. A figure that cannot be historically verified. Rachel Elior even going so far as to suggest that the Essenes were, re Philo, a philosophical ideal.

            Anyway, if you think you can supply an argument as to why Herod should be considered a Jewish messiah figure – I’m all ears….

    3. The date and provenance of 4 Ezra are purely speculative. It was solely preserved by Christians and could have been written by them, and it could have been written later, much later, than 100 CE. I wouldn’t base any arguments around it. The “experts” on 4 Ezra are theologians, not objective historians.

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