UPDATE: There is a Part Two to this post here.
If your head has been in the sand the past few years, a Jesus Mythicist is someone who believes that Jesus of Nazareth is not a historical figure, but a mythical figure concocted by a sect of first-century Jews. Richard Carrier is not a Jesus Mythicist. He simply argues in favor of Jesus Mythicism, and has tentatively estimated that there is a four in five chance that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. And he should know since, in his own words, “I am no less a philosopher than Aristotle or Hume. My knowledge, education, and qualifications certainly match theirs in every relevant respect.”1
Carrier’s obviously much-deserved fame has been ballooning in recent months, as he has blogged not one but two assaults on Prof. Bart Ehrman’s new book, Did Jesus Exist?, in which Ehrman defends the historical Jesus against the Jesus Mythicists. Carrier’s cantankerous criticisms of Ehrman have themselves come under criticism, by James McGrath (here and here), Joseph Hoffmann (here and here), and by Ehrman himself (here and here). Further, Hoffmann, Maurice Casey, and Stephanie Fisher will each be writing an essay-length critique of Carrier’s arguments within the next week or so.
I’ll join in the fray, focusing on Carrier’s argument that some pre-Christian Jews held a belief in a dying Messiah. While this argument is not directly related to a mythicism argument, it is indirectly related in that, for Carrier, if it can be shown that some Jews held a belief in a dying Messiah prior to Christianity, then it cannot be argued that the idea of a dying Messiah could only have come about if one who was believed to have been the Messiah actually died in history (as with Jesus of Nazareth). Thus, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is not inconsistent with the Jesus Myth hypothesis. I’ll look at two major pieces of evidence Carrier provides for his thesis and show why they really come to naught, when examined properly.
The Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel
The first piece of evidence provided by Carrier that we’ll look at is an Aramaic Targum which interprets Isaiah 52-53 as a Messianic prophecy. Isaiah 52-53 itself does not identify the Suffering Servant as a Messiah, but the Targum of Jonathan does. So for Carrier, this is enough to show that non-Christian, first-century Jews were connecting messianic expectations with the Suffering Servant. Note that Isaiah 53 says that the Suffering Servant will be killed unjustly.
Here is what Carrier writes in a blog post entitled, “The Dying Messiah”:
The Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel, which was originally composed in the 1st century A.D., actually inserts “messiah” right in Isaiah 52:13 (“Behold, my servant, the messiah…”), thus confirming this “servant” was already being interpreted as the messiah by Jews decades before Christianity began. A Targum is an Aramaic translation of the OT. So really, this is a textual variant for this passage. In other words, some pre-Christian Jews believed their scriptures actually outright said this. [Source]
After one or two commenters pointed out to Carrier that the Targum he cites actually denies that the Messiah will suffer, and actually transfers the suffering to a) the messiah’s enemies and b) the people of Israel, Carrier amended this section with the following parenthetical:
[Though this same Targum also erased the death-and-burial angle from the passage, we already know that content predates the Targum; what the Targum shows is that some Jews saw this passage as about the Christ: see my comment below.]
Here’s the “comment below” to which Carrier refers:
The Targum of Janathan indeed alters the text so that it does not make the dying messiah claim (hence I didn’t cite it as such). Its relevance is that it understood this servant to be the messiah and thus translated it thus. The Targumic messiah will still be despised, and will forgive all Israel’s sins, but not by dying and getting buried. That latter variant exists in the Dead Sea texts of Isaiah (and correspondingly in the modern Masoretic). [Source]
This comment was made on Nov 28, 2011. Interestingly, well over a month earlier, on Oct 7, 2011, in response to James McGrath, who pointed out that “the targum felt the need to shift the suffering elsewhere in identifying the Servant with the anointed one,” Carrier’s response was somewhat different:
I have no opinion on that (I’m assuming you conclude this by some means other than retroactive telepathy). The point at issue is that it is irrelevant why some Jews came to believe that Isaiah identified this Servant as the Messiah, as all that matters is that they did so. Once that cat was out of the bag, you have the Christian Gospel right there in explicit Jewish prophecy. Indeed, that’s why we can be sure this happened before Christianity: only when Jews had no idea what Christians would do with this connection would they themselves have put it in there. [Source]
So, which Carrier are we to believe? Do we believe the Carrier who has “no opinion” about the fact that the targum did not identify the Messiah as a sufferer, the Carrier who assumes that McGrath concludes this “by some means other than retroactive telepathy,” i.e., the Carrier that had apparently learned something new about the targum he was citing as evidence (Oct 7)? Or are we to believe the Carrier who was clearly already aware that the targum didn’t identify the messiah as one who would die, “hence I didn’t cite it as such” (Nov 28), even though he included it in a post entitled, “The Dying Messiah”? I’ll leave that to the reader to ponder over.
But auto-apologetic discrepancies aside, Carrier’s argument here is riddled with problems. Before we discuss them, let’s first look at the Targum itself, next to the biblical text of Isaiah. We’ll do this just to make it abundantly clear that (as Carrier is now aware), the Targum does not identify the Messiah as one who suffers and dies.
The biblical text will appear in bold font, and the targum’s interpretation in italic font:
52:13 Behold, My servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.
52:13. Behold my servant Messiah shall prosper; he shall be high, and increase, and be exceeding strong:
52:14 According as many were appalled at thee—so marred was his visage unlike that of a man, and his form unlike that of the sons of men—
52:14. as the house of Israel looked to him during many days, because their countenance was darkened among the peoples, and their complexion beyond the sons of men,
52:15 So shall he startle many nations, kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them shall they see, and that which they had not heard shall they perceive.
52:15. so will he scatter many peoples; at him kings shall be silent, and put their hands upon their mouth, because that which was not told them have they seen, and that which they had not heard they have observed.
53:1 ‘Who would have believed our report? And to whom hath the arm of the LORD been revealed?
53:1. Who hath believed this our glad tidings? and the strength of the mighty arm of the Lord, upon whom as thus hath it been revealed?
53:2 For he shot up right forth as a sapling, and as a root out of a dry ground; he had no form nor comeliness, that we should look upon him, nor beauty that we should delight in him.
53:2. The righteous will grow up before him, yeah, like blooming shoots, and like a tree which sends forth its roots to streams of water will they increase – a holy generation in the land that was in need of him; his countenance no profane countenance, and the terror at him not the terror at an ordinary man; his complexion shall be a holy complexion, and all who see him will look wistfully upon him.
53:3 He was despised, and forsaken of men, a man of pains, and acquainted with disease, and as one from whom men hide their face: he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
53:3. Then he will become despised, and will cut off the glory of all the kingdoms; they will be prostrate and mourning, like a man of pains and like one destined for sicknesses; and as though the presence of the Shekhinah had been withdrawn from us, they will be despised, and esteemed not.
53:4 Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried; whereas we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
53:4. Then for our sins he will pray, and our iniquities will for his sake be forgiven, although we were accounted stricken, smitten from before the Lord, and afflicted.
53:5 But he was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed.
53:5. But he will build up the Holy Place, which has been polluted for our sins, and delivered to the enemy for our iniquities; and by his instruction peace shall be increased upon us, and by devotion to his words, our sins will be forgiven us.
53:6 All we like sheep did go astray, we turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath made to light on him the iniquity of us all.
53:6. All we like sheep had been scattered, we had each wandered off on his own way; but it was the Lord’s good pleasure to forgive the sins of all of us for his sake.
53:7 He was oppressed, though he humbled himself and opened not his mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before her shearers is dumb; yea, he opened not his mouth.
53:7. He prayed, and he was answered, and ere even he had opened his mouth he was accepted; the mighty of the peoples he will deliver up like a sheep to the slaughter and like a lamb dumb before her shearers; there shall be none before him opening his mouth or saying a word.
53:8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away, and with his generation who did reason? for he was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due.
53:8. Out of chastisements and punishment he will bring our captives near; the wondrous things done to us in his days who shall be able to tell? For he will cause the dominion of the Gentiles to pass away from the land of Israel and transfer to them the sins which my people have committed.
53:9 And they made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich his tomb; although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.’
53:9. He will deliver the wicked into Gehinnom, and those that are rich in possessions into the death of utter destruction, in order that those who commit sin may not be established, nor speak deceits with their mouth.
53:10 Yet it pleased the LORD to crush him by disease; to see if his soul would offer itself in restitution, that he might see his seed, prolong his days, and that the purpose of the LORD might prosper by his hand:
53:10. But it is the Lord’s good pleasure to try and to purify the remnant of his people, so as to cleanse their souls from sin; these shall look on the Kingdom of their Messiah, their sons and their daughters shall be multiplied, they shall prolong their days, and those who perform the Law of the Lord shall prosper in his good pleasure.
53:11 Of the travail of his soul he shall see to the full, even My servant, who by his knowledge did justify the Righteous One to the many, and their iniquities he did bear.
53:11. From the subjection of the nations he will deliver their souls, they shall look upon the punishment of those that hate them, and be satisfied with the spoil of their kings; by his wisdom he will hold the guiltless free from guilt, in order to bring many into subjection to the law; and for their sins he will intercede.
53:12 Therefore will I divide him a portion among the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the mighty; because he bared his soul unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
53:12. Then will I divide for him the spoil of many peoples, and the possessions of strong cities shall he divide as prey, because he delivered up his soul to death, and made the rebellious subject to the Law: he shall intercede for many sins, and the rebellious for his sake shall be forgiven.
What is abundantly clear is that the targum very clearly portrays the messiah as a conquering warrior, not as a suffering servant. The targum’s interpretation of Isaiah radically alters Isaiah’s meaning. In the targum, it is not the messiah who suffers; the messiah conquers. Rather, it is the messiah’s enemies, and the nation of Israel, who suffer.
Carrier’s ad hoc rejoinder to this embarrassing fact is transparent in its desperation: “What the Targum shows is that some Jews saw this passage as about the Christ. . . . The point at issue is that it is irrelevant why some Jews came to believe that Isaiah identified this Servant as the Messiah, as all that matters is that they did so. Once that cat was out of the bag, you have the Christian Gospel right there in explicit Jewish prophecy.”
If that’s the point, it’s entirely moot in an article trying to show that some pre-Christian Jews believed in a suffering and dying messiah. This targum is clearly not evidence for this; in fact, it is evidence of precisely the contrary. It’s not enough just to show that some saw Isaiah 52-53 as a messianic text. In this period, virtually any text could be read as messianic. Their hermeneutic wasn’t exactly a science. What matters is what the interpretation says about the character of the messiah, and clearly, in this case, the messiah is characterized as a conquering warrior who does not suffer or die, but rather inflicts suffering and death on his enemies. Carrier just needs to admit that he should not have used this targum as evidence. Of course, the targum doesn’t count as evidence against his thesis, because his thesis is not that all Jews believed in a suffering messiah. His thesis is that at least some did. So while this targum is clearly representative of those who did not believe in a suffering messiah, neither is it evidence against Carrier’s thesis. He’ll just need to find evidence elsewhere.
But there are more mistakes made here than just the major mistake of thinking this targum supports his case. I’ll identify a few of them. Carrier says that a targum is an “Aramaic translation” of the Hebrew Bible, and extrapolates from this that the Targum of Jonathan counts as a “textual variant” of Isaiah 52-53. This is of course quite inaccurate. Targumim were not “translations” as we would understand translations; rather, they were midrashic paraphrases; they regularly expanded upon, altered, and often times radically reinterpreted the texts they were “translating,” usually without express acknowledgment that that’s what they were doing. Carrier probably knows this, but most of his readers will not know this, so his identification of this targum as a “translation” and a “textual variant” of Isaiah 52-53 is irresponsibly misleading.
Another deceptive statement Carrier makes is that “the Targumic messiah will still be despised, and will forgive all Israel’s sins, but not by dying and getting buried.”
This is not at all what the targum says. First, he is despised, not because he is made lowly, but because he is a thorn in the side of the nations. In the targum, the nations despise him because he is their conqueror.
Then he will become despised, and will cut off the glory of all the kingdoms; they will be prostrate and mourning, like a man of pains and like one destined for sicknesses; and as though the presence of the Shekhinah had been withdrawn from us, they will be despised, and esteemed not.
Second, nowhere does the targum say that the messiah “will forgive all Israel’s sins.” What it actually says is that he will intercede for Israel, and that God will forgive Israel’s sins on account of the righteousness of the messiah:
Then for our sins he will pray, and our iniquities will for his sake be forgiven, although we were accounted stricken, smitten from before the Lord, and afflicted. But he will build up the Holy Place, which has been polluted for our sins, and delivered to the enemy for our iniquities; and by his instruction peace shall be increased upon us, and by devotion to his words, our sins will be forgiven us. All we like sheep had been scattered, we had each wandered off on his own way; but it was the Lord’s good pleasure to forgive the sins of all of us for his sake. . . . By his wisdom he will hold the guiltless free from guilt, in order to bring many into subjection to the law; and for their sins he will intercede.
Carrier wants to find the Christian Gospel script in the targum by any means necessary, but it simply isn’t there. What the targum expresses is a standard Jewish idea that the righteousness of the king will be looked upon by God and transferred to the people. Moses did the same for Israel when he interceded. Carrier says that the messiah “will forgive all of Israel’s sins” in the targum. This simply isn’t the case.
I’ll note also that Carrier implies that in Isaiah 52-53, the Suffering Servant also forgives “all of Israel’s sins,” through his suffering. This may just be a sloppy articulation (you know, the kind of sloppy articulation Carrier lambasted in Ehrman’s book). But it’s very misleading. Isaiah 53 does not say that the Servant forgives the sins of Israel. It says that the punishment for Israel’s sins is laid upon him, and that the Servant intercedes to God on Israel’s behalf (53:12).
Finally, there’s the question of whether the word “messiah” was original to the targum, or a later gloss added in. This is really neither here nor there, but for Carrier, it seems to be very important, and he argues that “we can be sure this happened before Christianity: only when Jews had no idea what Christians would do with this connection would they themselves have put it in there.”
This is of course an utterly illogical claim. Precisely because the targum denies that the messiah will suffer and die, but rather presents him as a conquering warrior, it stands perfectly to reason that this could be a post-Christian identification. If the Christians had been going around identifying their Messiah as the suffering servant of Isaiah, a perfectly logical response from non-Christian Jews would have been to do precisely what this targum does: yes, the Isaianic Servant is the messiah, but no, it is not he who suffers. Alternatively, if this is a pre-Christian identification, as we’ve established, it does nothing to support Carrier’s thesis.
I should point out here in this regard that in Carrier’s self-published book, Not the Impossible Faith, in which he takes on the, ahem, serious scholarly work of J.P. Holding, Carrier quotes Isaiah 52-53 and then concludes, “How could any Jew not have understood this to mean that a righteous, wise, chosen servant of God would be wrongly despised, convicted, and executed, and in so doing save Israel from its sins and afflictions?”2
Apparently Carrier hadn’t read the Targum of Jonathan.
[Update: Some are saying that I’ve straw-manned Carrier’s point with Targum Jonathan. Not so. I left it to the reader to decide whether Carrier originally intended to imply it had relation to the dying messiah thesis. The reason I showed that Targum Jonathan doesn’t support the dying Messiah thesis is because I felt that needed to be made clear to Carrier’s audience, because I think it’s misleading to include this argument in a piece called, “The Dying Messiah.” Second, my argument is not just that Targum Jonathan doesn’t support the dying Messiah thesis. My argument is that Carrier’s point that it shows that some Jews saw Isaiah 52 as messianic is totally useless. I made this very clear in the original post, but some people don’t read very carefully I suppose. The point is this: almost any text could be read as messianic in the Second Temple period. That’s not news. What matters is how they characterized the messiah when they interpreted their texts, and clearly Targum Jonathan doesn’t support a dying Messiah tradition. The point Carrier wishes to make with this text is so trivial as to be useless, but he presents it as if it helps his case. It really doesn’t. It’s kind of like padding a bibliography. It’s possible some read Isaiah 52 as referring to a dying messiah, but we have no evidence that anybody did. That’s the point. Carrier is trying to make something out of nothing.]
The Melchizedek Scroll (11Q13)
The second piece of evidence offered by Carrier he says is “even better” than the evidence from the Targum of Jonathan. Well, I should hope so for Carrier’s sake!
We’re talking about the so-called Melchizedek Scroll from Qumran (referred to as 11Q13, i.e., thirteenth scroll from cave eleven of Qumran). In it, the scroll links the Servant in Isaiah 52 (thought it doesn’t quote 53 where the Servant suffers and dies) with the reference to an “anointed one” (literally, moshiach) in Daniel 9. Here is what Carrier writes:
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). . . .
Notably, a repeating theme in the OT (e.g. Daniel 9) is that God keeps holding back his apocalypse (in which he would reverse Israel’s fortunes and make the whole world bow to them as the master race, and horribly kill all who refused, e.g. Zech. 14:12-19) because of Israel’s sins. It would have been a rather obvious conclusion that if Israel’s sins were cleansed and thus decisively removed from the picture, no obstacle would remain before God, and he could finally make good on his promise and end the world, and create a paradise in which the Jews would finally rule the world eternal. Thus if the messiah could be killed and thereby atone for all the sins of Israel (as explicitly declared in Isaiah 52-53), doomsday would at last be upon us. 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. [Source]
Now, there’s a mixture of good information and bad information here. Did apocalyptic Jews widely believe that forgiveness of sins would directly precede the final judgment? Yes, of course. Of course, that means nothing for the mythicist argument, and Carrier knows that. Does 11Q13 connect Isaiah 52 with Daniel 9? Yes, it does. But the question is, does it connect the two based on the idea of a dying messiah? This is what Carrier insinuates. The answer to that is most probably not. We’ll address that, before we come back and break down Carrier’s claims above, showing many of them to be misleading or false.
The question is, again, did the Melchizedek Scroll identify the Messiah as one who would die. Carrier seems to think so, and what’s revealing here is that (in multiple posts), every time he provides a hyperlink to an online translation of this passage, he links to a translation that is very problematic. Remember, as Carrier noted, that this scroll is fragmentary. Here is the translation Carrier provides his readers:
(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)
The scripture references are obviously not original to the scroll; they have been added by modern editors. So we note the excerpt in bold. The translation identifies Dan 9:26 as the citation referenced in the scroll. The problem is, there is a lacuna in the scroll precisely here, but this particular website doesn’t give any indication that the verse from Daniel they included in their translation is a guess! This is very unfortunate. Perhaps Carrier is not aware that the scroll is fragmented exactly here. Perhaps he is, but if he is, he certainly ought to have discussed this fact, since it has direct bearing to the validity of his argument. But Carrier doesn’t even mention it, as far as I have been able to see. Here’s the translation of this excerpt from Geza Vermes’s edition of the scrolls:
. . . and the messenger is the Anointed one of the spirit, concerning whom Dan[iel] said, [Until an anointed one, a prince (Dan. Ix, 25)] . . .
Note that the missing section is found in square brackets. This is a restoration of the lacuna. It’s possible that the original scroll quoted from verse 26, in which the Anointed one is said to die. But it’s also possible that it quoted from verse 25, where no death is mentioned. And in point of fact the majority of scholars identify verse 25 as the original referent. This is the position of Vanderkam.3 Collins notes that it is usually identified with verse 25, though verse 26 is possible.4 The point is that Carrier is basing his “better” argument on a reconstruction of a fragmented text, a reconstruction that isn’t even the preferred one among most scholars. This is shoddy scholarship.
And before someone interjects and says, “But even if it were verse 25, certainly the allusion would include the content of verse 26.” But that would be an objection that would totally misunderstand the way pesher interpretation worked. The pesher scrolls at Qumran routinely took snippets of verses out of context, with no regard to their original meaning, and made them to say what they wanted them to say for their own agenda. (See my discussion of this in Stark, The Human Faces of God, pp. 18-32.)
So the point is, we simply don’t know whether this scroll mentioned an “anointed one” who was “cut off” or not. It possibly did, but most scholars reconstruct the scroll with verse 25, where no death of the anointed one is mentioned. And, as I’ve pointed out, this scroll does not quote from Isaiah 53, where the Servant suffers and dies. It only quotes from Isaiah 52, where the Servant proclaims a message of salvation. Again, from what we know about pesher, there is no way we can responsibly say that the author(s) of the Melchizedek scroll envisioned or wished to allude to a suffering messiah. All we have is an identification of the Servant in Isaiah 52 with the anointed one (moshiach) in Daniel 9. So we do have another example (like Targum of Jonathan) which identifies the Isaianic Servant with a messianic figure, but we have no information whatsoever about whether the Qumran community believed this messiah to be one who would suffer and die, and we have evidence starkly to the contrary with Targum of Jonathan. And of course, the overwhelming evidence from the Qumran scrolls indicates a consistent portrait of a militaristic, victorious Messiah. In short, Carrier doesn’t have a case to make here with these texts. If he insists upon reading 11Q13 as evidence for a dying messiah, he’ll be doing so as an ideologue, not as a responsible scholar.
Now, let’s return to other claims made by Carrier about 11Q13 and examine them in some detail, to see how they hold up.
First, I should point out for the readers’ benefit that the “anointed one” mentioned in Daniel 9 is identified by the vast majority of scholars not as a “messianic” figure but as the High Priest Onias III. What many of Carrier’s readers may not be aware of is that the word “moshiach” (anointed) was a term applied to prophets, priests, and kings throughout Hebrew and Jewish literature. Carrier is of course aware that scholars identify the anointed one of Daniel 9 as High Priest Onias III, although he makes no mention of this in his book, Not the Impossible Faith, when he discusses Daniel 9 there. There he appears at least to be unaware of this, in that the language he uses betrays some ignorance. For instance, he refers to Daniel 9:26 as “the preeminent prophecy of the coming Messiah” (p. 35). Of course, Carrier will rightly point out that there is an important difference between what the original author of Daniel 9 meant, and what later generations understood the text to mean. He rightly points out that Jews of later generations interpreted it to refer to a future military victory over Rome. But what he has not been able to provide is evidence that these later Jews accepted the notion that the messiah would die. Yes, the claim that he would die is right there in the text, but what is “right there in the text” has never prevented decent Jews from believing something else altogether.
And in point of fact, the very evidence that Carrier provides in Not the Impossible Faith (pp. 35 ff) shows us precisely the opposite of what Carrier wishes to claim with it. He notes that all sorts of Roman and Jewish sources talk about an “ambiguous prophecy” in Jewish scriptures (which Carrier identifies as Daniel 9ff) which encouraged them to make war on Rome. But Daniel 9-12 actually says that human efforts to overcome their adversaries will result in ruin, and that the final victorious battle will be waged by an angelic warrior (identified as Michael in Daniel 12). Yet, if Josephus is accurate (and Carrier cites him), the Jews waged war on Rome because of an “ambiguous prophecy found in their sacred writing, announcing that at that time someone from their country would become ruler of the world.” So too Suetonius: “an ancient superstition was current in the East, that out of Judea at this time would come the rulers of the world.”
I think it is very plausible to identify Daniel as the “ambiguous prophecy” and “ancient superstition” to which Josephus and Suetonius refer, but if it is (and Carrier at one time seems to have thought so: “This Jewish prophecy [Daniel 9:26] was widely known in the Jewish and Roman world, and interpreted in many different ways”; “This Danielic prophecy is probably alluded to by Suetonius.”), then we have evidence that the Jews were not reading Daniel as a prophecy about a dying Messiah. Rather, they read it as a prophecy about a human patriot who would become emperor. In his book, Carrier is incredulous that Jews could read such “clear” prophecies as these in any way other than as a prophecy about a dying messiah, but the actual evidence keeps mounting against him.
So it’s Carrier who would be blurring the line between author’s original intent and later interpretation. What he needs to provide is evidence that the text was interpreted by later Jews to mean that they should expect the messiah would die. He has tried to do this with 11Q13, but here he’s claiming more than the evidence allows, and I haven’t seen him produce any other evidence in support of his contention.
Of course, Carrier will cite texts like Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-3:3, which speaks of a “righteous man” who will be killed unjustly, but later vindicated with immortality as his enemies are destroyed, but the text is actually talking about all such righteous men (the singular employed in some of the verses is a literary device), and nowhere does Wisdom of Solomon identify this man as the messiah. Carrier’s argument is that, surely the messiah would be the archetypical “righteous man,” and this is where his argument begins to spread quite thin. It’s certainly possible that some Jews made this connection, but what is lacking is evidence that they did so. After all, the picture of the righteous martyrs who will be vindicated at the end is perfectly consonant with the picture of a militant and victorious messiah whose victory (not death) will usher in the age of immortality. The fact is, however, that Wisdom of Solomon cannot be said to be an apocalyptic text. Although it includes some common apocalyptic tropes, it radically reinterprets them within the categories of Greek philosophy.5 So while it’s vaguely possible that some Jews invented a messianic figure that followed their interpretation of Wis. Sol. 2-3, and other texts, what’s probable, and what the vast consensus concludes, is that the narratives written about the historical figure of Jesus were shaped in ways that alluded to such texts. That is something that we do quite regularly—we interpret the significance of our heroes along lines delineated by our common cultural narratives.
Anyway, back to Carrier’s claims vis-à-vis 11Q13.
First, “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).”
As we’ve seen, Carrier has failed to make the case for this claim.
Second, “Thus if the messiah could be killed and thereby atone for all the sins of Israel (as explicitly declared in Isaiah 52-53), doomsday would at last be upon us. 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.”
In reality, of course, Daniel 9:24 says no such thing as that “the messiah’s death would atone for the sins of Israel.” Carrier is eisegeting this. Here’s what v. 24 actually says:
Seventy weeks are decreed for your people and your holy city: to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place [or holy one].
Here’s v. 26:
After the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing, and the troops of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary.
The text says nothing whatsoever about any sort of connection between the death of the anointed one and the forgiveness of Israel’s sins. What it really says is that the forgiveness of sins is achieved by Israel’s “putting an end to sin” (i.e., by acting righteously) and by “atoning for iniquity” (i.e., by making proper sacrifices in the rebuilt temple). Carrier is like a fundamentalist Christian who wants to find Jesus everywhere he looks in the Hebrew Bible, even if Jesus isn’t really there.
I could justifiably follow Carrier’s example, and conclude that Carrier’s arguments are “full of errors,” that they “misinform more than they inform,” that Carrier is “incompetent,” does “sloppy work,” makes “hack” mistakes, and is guilty of “arrogantly dogmatic and irresponsible thinking.” I could conclude justifiably that Carrier does not act “like a real scholar,” that his thesis is “crap,” “worse than bad,” and that it “officially sucks.” These are all things Carrier has said about Prof. Ehrman and his fine work. But instead I’ll follow Prof. Ehrman’s example and take the high road. I’ll conclude that Carrier has nice credentials, is generally competent, and that I often find myself in agreement with him, but in this case at least, Carrier’s handling of the evidence has been sub-par, and he has in fact marshaled no valid evidence to support his thesis. I think that Carrier is now personally too invested in this issue to be able to make the appropriate turnaround, but out of due deference to a scholar of Aristotle and Hume’s caliber, I won’t withhold the benefit of the doubt.
- See here. Also here, where he seems to have toned down his original language just a bit. [BACK]
- Richard Carrier, Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle To Succeed (Egoton, ME: Self, 2009), 39. [BACK]
- James C. Vanderkam, “Apocalyptic Tradition in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Religion of Qumran,” in Collins and Kugler, ed., Religion in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Eerdmans, 2000), 117. [BACK]
- John J. Collins, Apocalypticism in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Routledge, 1997), 55. [BACK]
- See John J. Collins, “The Reinterpretation of Apocalyptic Traditions in the Wisdom of Solomon,” in The Book of Wisdom in Modern Research: Studies on Tradition, Redaction and Theology (ed. Angelo Passaro and Giussepe Bellia; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2005), pp. 143-155. [BACK]