Saturday, October 15, 2011

Richard Carrier on Ancient Judaism's Suicide Messiahs

I am Joshua. I shall redeem you through terrible films.
Do not despair ye, for each movie will offer my hot-hot young wife
being all kinds of naked.
I recommend everyone to Richard Carrier's recent post, "The Dying Messiah." Carrier here lays out a case some Jews in pre-Christian times held beliefs that the messiah would come and be killed. It's an interesting and important case because the popular wisdom holds that Jews expected the messiah to come and liberate Israel from the yoke, thereby ushering in a new and perhaps final world era. They did not expect the messiah to be tortured and executed, a la Jesus of Nazareth, as a low criminal; indeed, their expectation later blinded them to the "truth" of Jesus's messiahship.

Carrier argues the popular wisdom is inaccurate. In the time of Christianity's beginnings, he says,
Jewish beliefs were remarkably diverse, open to innovation, and not as conservative as later Rabbinical Judaism would become. In fact many an expert on ancient Judaism has called attention to the repeated mistake of assuming first century Judaism was "just like" medieval Rabbinical Judaism. So it would be more than safe to propose as a hypothesis for the origin of Christianity that some Jews did see these connections and did expect a dying messiah and that it is from their movement (or its influence) that Christianity arose.
Feeling "safe" enough, Carrier hypothesizes that one possible explanation for the emergence of Christian beliefs is that they had already been formulated to some degree within Judaism. Carrier concludes:
Seen in its actual context, there really isn't anything all that novel about Christianity's basic claims. The way it assembled the parts is unique, as every religion was and is, but the parts were already there for the taking.
Carrier leads us through the evidence very well. See, for example, how he introduces a key passage from the Dead Sea Scrolls:
A fragmentary pesher among the Dead Sea Scrolls explicitly identifies the servant of Isaiah 52-53 with the messiah of Daniel 9. This decisively confirms that this specific equation had already been made by pre-Christian Jews, as it exists not just in a pre-Christian text, but in this case a pre-Christian manuscript. The passage in question is in 11QMelch ii.18 (aka 11Q13). A pesher is an interpretive commentary on the OT that operates on the assumption that the OT text has hidden, second-level meanings (a view Christians shared, e.g. Rom. 16:25-26). Thus some pre-Christian Jews were already finding hidden "secrets" in the OT that basically are the Christian gospel: that Isaiah 52-53 is about the messiah whom Daniel 9 predicted will be killed (this same pesher also identifies Isaiah 61 as being about this same messiah, thus proving again that the Christians did not come to this conclusion post hoc either).
Carrier links to, but does not give, the passage in question. So, I offer the text here:
(...) And concerning what Scripture says, "In this year of Jubilee you shall return, everyone of you, to your property" (Lev. 25;13) And what is also written; "And this is the manner of the remission; every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the community, because God's remission has been proclaimed" (Deut.15;2) the interpretation is that it applies to the Last Days and concerns the captives, just as Isaiah said: "To proclaim the Jubilee to the captives" (Isa. 61;1) (...) just as (...) and from the inheritance of Melchizedek, for (... Melchizedek), who will return them to what is rightfully theirs. He will proclaim to them the Jubilee, thereby releasing them from the debt of all their sins. He shall proclaim this decree in the first week of the jubilee period that follows nine jubilee periods.

Then the "Day of Atonement" shall follow after the tenth jubilee period, when he shall atone for all the Sons of Light, and the people who are predestined to Melchizedek. (...) upon them (...) For this is the time decreed for the "Year of Melchizedek`s favor", and by his might he will judge God's holy ones and so establish a righteous kingdom, as it is written about him in the Songs of David; "A godlike being has taken his place in the council of God; in the midst of divine beings he holds judgement"

(Ps. 82;1). Scripture also says about him; "Over it take your seat in the highest heaven; A divine being will judge the peoples" (Ps. 7;7-8) Concerning what scripture says; "How long will you judge unjustly, and show partiality with the wicked? Selah" (Ps. 82;2), the interpretation applies to Belial and the spirits predestined to him, because all of them have rebelled, turning from God's precepts and so becoming utterly wicked. Therefore Melchizedek will thoroughly prosecute the vengeance required by God's statutes. Also, he will deliver all the captives from the power of Belial, and from the power of all the spirits destined to him. Allied with him will be all the "righteous divine beings"(Isa. 61;3).

(The ...) is that whi(ch ...all) the divine beings. The visitation is the Day of Salvation that He has decreed through Isaiah the prophet concerning all the captives, inasmuch as Scripture says, "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion "Your divine being reigns"." (Isa. 52;7) This scriptures interpretation: "the mountains" are the prophets, they who were sent to proclaim God's truth and to prophesy to all Israel. "The messengers" is the Anointed of the spirit, of whom Daniel spoke; "After the sixty-two weeks, an Anointed shall be cut off" (Dan. 9;26) The "messenger who brings good news, who announces Salvation" is the one of whom it is written; "to proclaim the year of the LORD`s favor, the day of the vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn" (Isa. 61;2)

This scripture's interpretation: he is to instruct them about all the periods of history for eternity (... and in the statutes) of the truth. (...) (.... dominion) that passes from Belial and returns to the Sons of Light (....) (...) by the judgment of God, just as t is written concerning him; "who says to Zion "Your divine being reigns" (Isa. 52;7) "Zion" is the congregation of all the sons of righteousness, who uphold the covenant and turn from walking in the way of the people. "Your divine being" is Melchizedek, who will deliver them from the  power of Belial. Concerning what scripture says, "Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; in the seventh month . . . " (Lev. 25;9)
For Carrier, the text's connection between Isaiah 52-53 and Daniel 9 is particularly important:
Connecting Isaiah 53 with Daniel 9 proves that some Jews were already thinking this before Christianity even began. In fact Daniel 9:24 also says the messiah's death would atone for the sins of Israel and thereby bring about the end of the world (9:27), and this after a long preface complaining that those sins had been getting in the way. Should we be surprised that some Jews would come to believe that this had at last happened? For them, the death of the messiah, setting up the subsequent end of the world, was expected. That Christians taught all these things (their messiah had died, his death atoned for all sins, and the end was therefore nigh) is unlikely to be a coincidental reinvention of ideas the Jews were already getting on board with. No, the first Christians most likely came from these very Jews, or were directly inspired by their teachings.
Carrier makes an impressive and persuasive case, although I have only presented the first part of it. Why, though, is it important that specifically Christian beliefs emerged more or less directly from Jewish ancestors?

Wisely, he avoids trying to use his one case as the basis making another, different case. In a comment, he addresses whether the dying messiah in pre-Christian Judaism sheds light on one or more historical Jesuses/Joshuas:
This blog post takes no position on that and makes no argument either way. It is solely about this one fact, which can fit both mythicist and historicist hypotheses of the origins of Christianity. Indeed, in isolation, one could use what I establish here to argue in favor of historicity, since the other Jesus Christs were historical (Jesus is then just another historical figure posing as the Joshuan Messiah and trying to get himself killed). But one cannot argue from isolated items of evidence. A conclusion must come from a survey of all the evidence together.
I am not so wise as Dr. Carrier, so I'll take his case to make another of my own.

We make so much of religious beliefs, political beliefs, social beliefs, and beliefs generally. We take them as monolithic things. We discuss them and examine them as themselves and for themselves.

This is often how literature is taught and studied.

We cannot forget, however, that beliefs are like everything else: they have precedents and antecedents. They are real and palpable as subjects of discussion, writing, and dispute.

We therefore err to talk about beliefs--be they modern or ancient--only in terms of their content and personal use. If we only focus on beliefs in this or that god, and about how we should apply beliefs to our daily lives, we miss the most interesting stuff: the origins and development of the beliefs themselves.

We don't fully understand something if we only interpret what it is and what we can do with it. To understand, we must also pursue material origins.

I should footnote that Carrier's argument does not necessarily affect the point I make in a previous post, namely that the Christian understanding of Jesus's sacrifice appears to many of Jewish background--like me--as a "left turn" from Judaism. The Jewish dying messiah and the Christian dying messiah remain leagues apart, and they presuppose two very different gods.

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