Wednesday, June 27, 2012

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.

14 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

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.

6/27/2012  
Blogger Andyman409 said...

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.

6/27/2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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

6/28/2012  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Brettongarcia,

Of course you're right, but no one is denying that martyrdom was common to Jewish and Greco-Roman thought, nor even that the idea of martyrdom was readily incorporated into ideas about Jesus' death. The issue is the messiah and his expected role.

6/28/2012  
Blogger Thom Stark said...

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!

6/28/2012  
Anonymous Antonio Jerez said...

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

7/03/2012  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Antonio, it was on the Corpus Paulinum list. See the thread which starts here.

BTW, what's your email nowadays? I think the one I had from years ago doesn't work anymore.

7/04/2012  
Blogger Rick Sumner said...

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.

7/04/2012  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Rick, a lot of this is abstract and I'm not sure I'm even getting it. (I certainly don't get the allusion to Secret Mark, whose authenticity I never found plausible). What I've been saying in recent posts is that the nature of the Jesus traditions make an historical figure more likely than complete invention. Do historians "withhold judgment", as you advise, when they're in the process of making such judgments?

I'm afraid I'm not getting the analogy with the map, so perhaps I'll just have to read Gaddis sometime.

7/04/2012  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Rick,

Your follow-up comment came through the blog software but didn't actually post, and when I tried to paste it here for you, I got a note saying it can't be accepted for being over 4,096 characters. But thanks for the clarification, I did read it, and it helps.

7/04/2012  
Blogger Rick Sumner said...

Strange. I knew it was close, but usually it warns you if you're over. From my end it looked like it went, and now it's not here! Glad it didn't get lost in the ether.

7/04/2012  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Well, let me try breaking your comment in two parts. Here's the first half:

[Rick]

RE: Secret Mark, as Carlson points out, hoaxes become more self-evident with the passage of time. As the context shifts, so does the assessment of it. Elements that once seemed plausible and sensible suddenly appear laughably clumsy.

But the argument hasn't changed, only the observers have, or rather, the context of the observers. Neither Smith, nor his reviewers, could see how they were affected by their context. But now we can. In similar fashion, female drum statuettes were associated with everything from the ill-defined but once omnipresent "goddess worship" to fertility cults. Until recently they were only rarely associated with the rather more mundane idea of a female drummer, even though this was the most obvious connection.

What once seems plausible seems, with the passage of time, obviously the product of a given context. Not a context of the evidence, a context of the observer.

In similar fashion, what seems plausible to your or I now is no indicator of truth, and correlates only with our preferences, not with historical reality. In 20 or 30 years it will seem equally obvious to other observers (and--I can dream--ourselves?) why it seemed plausible, not because of the argument, but because of our context. What we find plausible is only affected by evidence to a limited degree.

So the point of Smith wasn't you personally, but history (and "plausibility") at large. Plausibility is no guarantor of truth, and if past performance is any indication, it tends to be wrong with alarming frequency. We can't rely on it. It cannot grant cumulative information, unless it is accompanied by what we know. If we do not have a known to pair it with, it's nothing but an opinion. "I think this is plausible" is tantamount to "I like the color red."

7/04/2012  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

And here's the second half:

[Rick]

And no, historians in general do not reserve judgment (though many do, in Biblical Studies we have Thompson, Davies, Lemche and Whitelam, for the obvious set, all of whom have taken issue with the notion of plausibility. The entire concept has been under fire since Albright though, since his contention that we should accept what seems plausible unless we have reason to doubt was perhaps the principle difference between him and Alt, peaking in the '90s when one of the fundamental disputes between the minimalists and everyone else was whether or not "plausibility" was meaningful). But that doesn't mean they shouldn't. Given that plausibility is an unequivocal value judgment, it is extremely difficult to defend it as a means to "truth" if truth is defined as correlating with objective reality.

Reading Gaddis is definitely worthwhile (I disagree with him on several points, but he's good nonetheless). I got off on a bit of a tangent with him, so I'll try to phrase it more succinctly: When you make a map, you make judgments. Is this road important? Should I mark this path? How accurate should the coastline be? Should I keep it to scale, or emphasize the route the traveler needs? All of these judgment correlate to what you want your map to convey.

In history you do the same thing. You make judgments about what is important, and then you construct them into a narrative. It would be nice if we could do otherwise, but it seems to be how our brains work--we build stories whether we want to or not.

The understanding--both in history and map making--is that you are only creating a model. It isn't truly accurate, because every choice you made compromised accuracy. Its value is in the utility of the model.

But history running only on plausibility is like a map without geography. It doesn't have a known. A map is only good if you can test it in the real world. And history is only good--can only be cumulative--if we can test it against known reality. If we don't have known reality, we don't have history, we're just telling stories.

7/04/2012  
Anonymous Antonio Jerez said...

Loren,
my present email adress is anton.jerez4@gmail.com. Please send me your adress too. I´ve lost it.

7/04/2012  

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