Richard Carrier has responded to some of my criticisms of his pre-Christian Dying Messiah thesis. He cites my first response and links to it, but only casually mentions my second, longer critique, and doesn’t link to it. While he engages my second response lightly, it seems clear to me that he did not read it very carefully. Carrier reiterates numerous assertions that were refuted in my second response, but he makes no reference whatsoever to the arguments I made in most of these cases. As a result, Carrier’s latest article does not constitute an adequate response, but it was very interesting and actually led me to change my mind about the most important text in question, 11QMelch. No, I haven’t been convinced by his position—there’s still no dying messiah whose death atones for sins in the Melchizedek scroll. But Carrier and I were both half right and half wrong in our readings of the scroll. I’ll get to that in a follow up post.
Anyway, those who have read “The Torturous Death” with an ounce of care will not be able to avoid cringing throughout a reading of Carrier’s latest response; he continues to make many of the same mistakes for which I have already poked fun at him, and does so obliviously in some cases. Moreover, he makes new mistakes, in addition to numerous evasions and reiterations of old mistakes. He says that my analysis has changed his opinions “on some matters,” but unfortunately doesn’t spell out for us what those matters are. He did send me an email saying, “Assume that on any points I don’t contend you have convinced me, and I no longer dispute them.” So that explains why his response was so short. He says that ultimately my critique was “a fail.” Let’s evaluate his response in detail and see whether that claim sticks or not.
Throughout I’ll follow the section headings from Carrier’s latest article.
The Dying-and-Rising Messiah ben Joseph
Stark ignores completely the evidence I cite from the Talmud. And that omission undermines the bulk of his argument. If b.Sanhedrin 98b and 93a [ACTUALLY B] explicitly say Isaiah 53 is about a dying messiah (and they do), and b.Sukkah 52a-b likewise has a dying-and-rising “Christ son of Joseph” ideology in it (and it does), then my statement “only when Jews had no idea what Christians would do with this connection would they themselves have put it in there” becomes obviously correct: there is no plausible way later Jews would invent interpretations of their scripture that supported and vindicated Christians. They would not invent a Messiah with a father named Joseph who dies and is resurrected. They would not proclaim Isaiah 53 to be about the messiah and admit that Isaiah there predicted the messiah would die and be resurrected. That was the very chapter Christians were using to prove their case (and which scholars like Bart Ehrman keep insisting only Christians saw as messianic). So we have evidence here of a Jewish belief that predates Christian evangelizing, even if the evidence survives only in later sources.
First, I ignored these because Carrier conceded in his original article that these are not the best evidences since they are found only in post-Christian sources; therefore, I focused on his efforts to identify a dying messiah in what he argued were pre-Christian sources.
But since Carrier is insistent, I am forced to display yet more of Carrier’s ignorance of the basic scholarship here. First, let’s examine b.Sanhedrin 98b and 93b (which Carrier incorrectly identifies as 93a). He says that these two passages “explicitly say Isaiah 53 is about a dying messiah.” In fact, they do no such thing. First we will examine b.Sanhedrin 93b:
The Messiah — as it is written, And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge of the fear of the Lord. And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord [Isa 11:2f]. R. Alexandri said: This teaches that he loaded him with good deeds and suffering as a mill [is laden]. Raba said: He smells [a man] and judges, as it is written, and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears, yet with righteousness shall he judge the poor.
(Bar Koziba reigned two and a half years, and then said to the Rabbis, ‘I am the Messiah.’ They answered, ‘Of Messiah it is written that he smells and judges: let us see whether he [Bar Koziba] can do so.’ When they saw that he was unable to judge by the scent, they slew him.)
First, let’s note that this passage doesn’t even quote Isaiah 53. It quotes Isaiah 11. Second, nowhere does the text say that the Messiah dies. It says he is laden with good deeds and suffering, but it does not say he dies. It paints a portrait of a righteous man who judges God’s people and also bears suffering. There is no death, and certainly no atoning death. Third, it explicitly references Bar Koziba (also called Bar Kochba), a failed messianic hopeful in the 130s CE who led a revolt against Rome which was quashed, thus proving to these Rabbis that he was not the messiah. Thus, this text clearly post-dates Christianity by well over a century.
It was after the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt that the rabbis developed the idea of a sage messiah, as opposed to an arrogant warrior messiah after the model of Bar Kochba.
In short, b.Sanhedrin 93b obviously does not work for Carrier’s thesis, a fact to which he seems to be entirely oblivious. Has he read it? If so, how did he miss the direct reference to Bar Kochba?
Now we’ll examine b.Sanhedrin 98b, another text that post-dates the Bar Kochba revolt:
R. Giddal said in Rab’s name: The Jews are destined to eat [their fill] in the days of the Messiah. R. Joseph demurred: is this not obvious; who else then should eat — Hilek and Bilek? — This was said in opposition to R. Hillel, who maintained that there will be no Messiah for Israel, since they have already enjoyed him during the reign of Hezekiah.
Rab said: The world was created only on David’s account. Samuel said: On Moses account; R. Johanan said: For the sake of the Messiah. What is his [the Messiah’s] name? — The School of R. Shila said: His name is Shiloh, for it is written, until Shiloh come. The School of R. Yannai said: His name is Yinnon, for it is written, His name shall endure forever: e’er the sun was, his name is Yinnon. The School of R. Haninah maintained: His name is Haninah, as it is written, Where I will not give you Haninah. Others say: His name is Menahem the son of Hezekiah, for it is written, Because Menahem [‘the comforter’], that would relieve my soul, is far.
The Rabbis said: His name is ‘the leper scholar,’ as it is written, Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted [Isa 53:4].
R. Nahman said: if he [the Messiah] is of those living [today], it might be one like myself, as it is written, And their nobles shall be of themselves, and their governors shall proceed from the midst of them. Rab said: if he is of the living, it would be our holy Master; if of the dead, it would have been Daniel the most desirable man. Rab Judah said in Rab’s name: The Holy One, blessed be He, will raise up another David for us, as it is written, But they shall serve the Lord their God, and David their king, whom I will raise up unto them: not ‘I raised up’, but ‘I will raise up’ is said. R. Papa said to Abaye: But it is written, And my servant David shall be their prince forever? — E.g., an emperor and a viceroy.
First, while Hillel is obviously a pre-Christian rabbi, most of the rabbis named here lived between the second and fourth centuries CE. Second, this passage does not cite Isaiah 53 to say that the Messiah would die. It simply cites it to say that the messiah would be a “leper scholar.” Third, while several of the rabbis identify long-deceased figures from Israel’s history as “the Messiah,” it is clear that they do not mean this in the sense of an eschatological Messiah. Hillel makes this clear; the text says that Hillel “maintained that there will be no Messiah for Israel, since they have already enjoyed him during the reign of Hezekiah.” So references to past figures as “the Messiah” do not constitute a claim that the Messiah would die and rise again. These reflect a different conception of the Messiah altogether from the dominant one found in apocalyptic Judaism, including Christianity. The last tradition cited in this passage refers to a Davidic Messiah who will be raised up (not resurrected but brought onto the scene) in the future. Clearly what we have here are competing conceptions of the Messiah, some of which envision a Davidic warrior-king, others of which envision a sage-scholar, either past, present or future. None of the deceased Messiahs are posited as Messiahs in the sense that Jesus of Nazareth was said to be the Messiah. It’s apples and oranges. There is no claim here whatsoever that an eschatological, Davidic messiah would die (in battle or otherwise), let alone be resurrected from the dead or atone for Israel’s sins with his death.
So, once more, Carrier confidently claims that a text “obviously” supports his thesis, when in fact it does not.
But Carrier’s biggest blunder lies in his claims about b.Sukkah 52a-b. I’ll quote the only relevant portion of the text in full, followed by a discussion:
And the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart [Zech 12:12]. Is it not, they said, an a fortiori argument? If in the future when they will be engaged in mourning and the Evil Inclination will have no power over them, the Torah nevertheless says, men separately and women separately, how much more so now5 when they are engaged in rejoicing and the Evil Inclination has sway over them.
What is the cause of the mourning [mentioned in the last cited verse]? — R. Dosa and the Rabbis differ on the point. One explained, The cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, and the other explained, The cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination.
It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, since that well agrees with the Scriptural verse, And they shall look upon me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son [Zech 12:10]; but according to him who explains the cause to be the slaying of the Evil Inclination, is this [it may be objected] an occasion for mourning? Is it not rather an occasion for rejoicing? Why then should they weep? — [The explanation is] as R. Judah expounded: In the time to come [i.e., the messianic age] the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring the Evil Inclination and slay it in the presence of the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it will have the appearance of a towering hill, and to the wicked it will have the appearance of a hair thread. Both the former and the latter will weep; the righteous will weep saying, ‘How were we able to overcome such a towering hill!’ The wicked also will weep saying, ‘How is it that we were unable to conquer this hair thread!’ And the Holy One, blessed be He, will also marvel together with them, as it is said, Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, If it be marvellous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days, it shall also be marvellous in My eyes [Zech 8:6].
R. Assi stated, The Evil Inclination is at first like the thread of a spider, but ultimately becomes like cart ropes, as it is said, Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart-rope.
Our Rabbis taught, The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to the Messiah, the son of David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days!), ‘Ask of me anything, and I will give it to thee’, as it is said, I will tell of the decree etc. this day have I begotten thee, ask of me and I will give the nations for thy inheritance. But when he will see that the Messiah the son of Joseph is slain, he will say to Him, ‘Lord of the Universe, I ask of Thee only the gift of life.’ As to life, He would answer him, ‘Your father David has already prophesied this concerning you’, as it is said, He asked life of thee, thou gavest it him, [even length of days for ever and ever].
Here the text identifies a “Messiah ben Joseph” and a “Messiah ben David.” These are two separate figures. The former precedes the latter in time (which is yet future to the rabbis writing about them). The Messiah ben Joseph would wage a war against Rome and retake Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, according to the tradition. But he would later come under attack by “Gog and Magog” and in that battle he would be slain. He would be a precursor to the messianic age—he is an anointed one, but not the Davidic Messiah. After his time, the Messiah ben David would come and finally defeat God’s enemies once and for all and initiate the true messianic age.
So that’s the basic picture in the background of this text; just so we’re clear. The debate in the text is over the cause of the mourning mentioned in Zechariah 12. Some said the mourning was over the slaying of the Messiah ben Joseph. Others said the mourning was over the slaying of the “Evil Inclination.”
We’ll just reiterate: the text nowhere says that the Davidic Messiah would be slain. Jesus of Nazareth of course was cast as the Davidic Messiah, a son of David. What the text says is that the Messiah ben Joseph would be slain—this anointed one was not of the line of David.
Here are some things we need to note: (1) Scholars virtually uniformly date the emergence of this notion of two Messiah (one of the line of Joseph, and one of the line of David) to the period after the Bar-Kochba revolt. (2) The text identifies the argument as between Rabbi Dosa and his contemporaries. Rabbi Dosa, of course, was active between 170 and 200 CE, well over one hundred years after the emergence of Christianity. So any attempt to date this text to a pre-Christian period is not standing on anything like firm ground.
Finally, Carrier hinges his entire argument for a pre-Christian dating of the text on the notion that “there is no plausible way later Jews would invent interpretations of their scripture that supported and vindicated Christians. They would not invent a Messiah with a father named Joseph who dies and is resurrected.”
Carrier simply displays his ignorance yet again. The “Joseph” here is not some obscure Jewish figure who begot/fathered this anointed warrior. “Joseph” refers to Joseph the son of Jacob/Israel. This same figure is referred to interchangeably as Messiah ben Joseph or Messiah ben Ephraim in this tradition. Ephraim, of course, was one of Joseph’s two sons. The reason for this is that Israel was divided into two houses, and the northern house was called both “Israel” and “Ephraim.” The Messiah ben Yosef is the anointed one who is thought to come from the tribes of the North (Ephraim-Joseph), while Messiah ben David is from the tribes of the South. Together they represent the joining of Israel back together. Messiah ben Yosef is never seen as the great Messiah. He is simply a warrior who dies in battle. What this means is that this slain anointed one could in nowise have been confused with Jesus of Nazareth, who was said to be of the line of David (and hence Judah). The two Messiahs in b.Sukkah are from two different tribes entirely. Thus, there is no way, as Carrier mistakenly claims, that this tradition would have “supported and vindicated Christians.” As such, Carrier’s argument for a pre-Christian dating of this material fails entirely. Here’s another example why it’s important to have a solid background in a field before one sets out to make consensus-overturning arguments within that field.
So, Carrier says that by ignoring his arguments from the Talmud, “the bulk” of my argument is “undermined.” He says:
There is no plausible way later Jews would invent interpretations of their scripture that supported and vindicated Christians. They would not invent a Messiah with a father named Joseph who dies and is resurrected. They would not proclaim Isaiah 53 to be about the messiah and admit that Isaiah there predicted the messiah would die and be resurrected. That was the very chapter Christians were using to prove their case. So we have evidence here of a Jewish belief that predates Christian evangelizing, even if the evidence survives only in later sources.
In short, on every single point Carrier tries to make here, we have an epic fail.
The Super-Christ of the Jonathan Targum
As Stark is barely willing to admit, I had only cited the Targum as (additional) evidence that some first century Jews saw Isaiah 52-53 as messianic (because Jonathan actually inserted the word “messiah” into it). I did not use the Targum as evidence of a belief in a dying messiah.
I have said that if this is the case, then Carrier’s original post was incredibly misleading, and I’ve documented why it was at the least misleading, as well as why I think he might be saving-face, based on his initial comment to James McGrath. But I don’t really care either way, as I’ve stated. The point is, citing this as evidence that pre-Christian Jews saw Isaiah 53 as messianic (suffering or no) is irrelevant for this thesis, and I’ve explained why in detail. Carrier hasn’t responded. Let alone the fact that this is very unlikely to be a pre-Christian text at all, as I’ll discuss (yet again) below. Carrier continues:
Nevertheless, the Targum, which otherwise downplays the suffering-and-dying element (transforming the figure into a more awesome one, eliminating all the pathos of the original), still says “he delivered up his soul to death” (53:12, as Stark’s own quoted translation reads) and that this somehow effected his victory.
Interruption: nowhere does the text imply that his “delivering up his soul to death” “somehow effected his victory.” This is more Carrian eisegesis. All the text says is that he was rewarded because he “delivered up his soul to death.” The question is, what does this phrase mean? I’ve cited formidable scholars who argue that it is idiomatic for “he risked his life.” Carrier now attempts to refute this:
When this was pointed out, Stark resorted to special pleading about what the Aramaic might instead mean, exposing the fact that this is really more ambiguous than he let on at first.
I did no such thing. Carrier will now attempt (and fail) to prove this:
Now the issue hinges on whether the Aramaic translates as “he delivered up his soul to death” (as expert translators conclude) or as “he was willing to face death” (or “something similar”) as Stark suggests.
This is deceptive. Here Carrier pits me alone against “expert translators.” Of course, the translation I originally used was one I found online, and I don’t know who the translator was, and neither does Carrier. Moreover, I cited two expert translators in my post devoted to just this question, who translate the phrase, “he risked his life.” I don’t know if Carrier is familiar with Joseph Blenkinsopp, but let’s just say it doesn’t get any more expert than him. So Carrier is deceiving his readers by pitting “expert translators” against “Stark.” He continues:
I was open to being corrected on this. Until I decided to research the targumim and other background elements and found Stark’s case a great deal weaker than he lets on. He appeals to two arguments, context and linguistic precedent. Regarding context he (now) says:
All the suffering of the original Servant is transmuted to either his enemies or to Israel everywhere else in the targum; he is said quite clearly to have conquered his enemies in the targum; and directly after the phrase, “he delivered up his soul to death,” it is said that he divides up the spoil of his enemies and is given his share (which would be difficult to do if he were dead, and no mention whatsoever is made of any resurrection).”
The first point is too weak to credit. The figure’s death would still be a known element from the Hebrew (and even Septuagint) versions of this passage. The Hebrew in fact would often have even been read out loud before turning to the targum. It’s not as if Jews reading this Targum would not be aware of that. Jonathan or his redactors might well have been retaining the bare element of the original (the sacrificial death), while transforming the remainder into something more triumphant (“interpreting” as much as possible as being about Israel or its enemies). Any interpretation we make has to take this into account: the readers of the targum would know the original text. A targum is not meant to be a literal translation but a paraphrase or explanation of the original Hebrew.
This objection fails. He says (1) that the audience would have been familiar with the original text, so they would have known it referred to his death. Well, Carrier doesn’t know this. He does know that the vast majority were illiterate, and that even among the literate few, only the leaders would have access to the scrolls. If the Hebrew was read aloud prior to the reading of the targum, that doesn’t mean much since most of the audience spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew (that’s the whole point of having Aramaic versions in the first place). Even still, if the original text was read aloud, it was immediately followed by the interpretation, which clearly changes the text’s meaning in dramatic ways all throughout this passage. Carrier says that (2) the targum is a paraphrase or explanation of the original Hebrew. This is correct, but Carrier seems to think this means the targum doesn’t often change the meaning of the original Hebrew, which it clearly does. Let’s examine the two texts again and see how ridiculous Carrier’s argument here is:
Original text: 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
Targum: 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
Not at all a paraphrase. The targum undeniably changes the meaning of the text dramatically. In the original, the Servant’s appearance was marred and unlike a man’s. In the targum, it is not the Servant but Israel whose countenance was marred and unlike a human’s.
Original text: 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.
Targum: 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.
Again, the targum undeniably and dramatically changes the original text. In the original, it is the Servant who shoots up. In the targum, it is not the Servant but a righteous generation that grows up in the presence of the Servant. In the original, the Servant was difficult to look at, because he was uncomely and not beautiful. In the targum, it is denied that his countenance was uncomely.
Original text: 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.
Targum: 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.
Again, a dramatic change to the meaning of the text. In the original, he was a man acquainted with disease. In the targum, it is the kingdoms who oppose him who are “destined for sicknesses.” In the original, the Servant was despised and esteemed not. In the targum, it is the enemy kingdoms who “will be despised and esteemed not.”
Original text: 53:4 Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried; whereas we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
Targum: 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.
Yet again, a total reversal of the original text’s meaning. In the original, the Servant is the one stricken, smitten of God and afflicted. In the targum, it is not the Servant, but Israel who is stricken, smitten, and afflicted.
Original text: 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.
Targum: 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.
In the original, the Servant was wounded and crushed for the sins of Israel. Moreover, in the original it is by his wounds that the people of Israel are healed. In the targum, by stark contrast, it is not the Servant but the Temple that is damaged on account of the sins of Israel. Moreover, it is not by the Servant’s wounds but by devotion to his teachings that Israel will be healed. This is not a paraphrase. This is in no uncertain terms a radical rewriting of the text.
Original text: 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.
Targum: 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.
Again, this is not a paraphrase. This is a radical rewriting of the original text. In the original, the Servant was oppressed, humbled, and was led as a lamb to the slaughter. The Servant did not open his mouth. But in the targum, it is the mighty nations, rather than the Servant, who are the lambs taken to slaughter, and it is the mighty nations, rather than the Servant, who do not open their mouths before him.
Original text: 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.
Targum: 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.
Yet again, the author of the targum completely and unabashedly changes the meaning of the text. This is not a paraphrase. In the original, the Servant is taken away by oppression and judgment. In the targum, it is his captives who are oppressed and judged. In the original, the Servant was cut off from the land of the living. By contrast, in the targum, the dominion of the Gentiles is what is cut off, not from the land of the living, but from the land of Israel. In the original, the Servant’s death is vicarious punishment for the sins of Israel. In the targum, the defeat of the Gentiles is vicarious punishment for the sins of Israel. The targum here denies his death and denies any vicarious suffering on his part. It replaces it with the defeat of the Gentiles and the idea that the punishment for the sins of Israel was transferred to the Gentiles.
Original text: 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.’
Targum: 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.
In the original, it says that they buried the Servant with the wicked and with the rich, despite the fact that he was nonviolent and honest. In the targum, the Servant is not buried because he is not dead. Rather, the Servant, after defeating his enemies, sends the Wicked to hell and the rich to utter destruction. In the targum it is not that the servant is without sin or deceit; rather, it is his enemies who are killed to put an end to their sin and defeat. This is not a paraphrase. This is a totally different story.
Original text: 53:10 Yet it pleased Yahweh 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 Yahweh might prosper by his hand:
Targum: 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.
Again, not a paraphrase. A radically different story altogether. In the original, Yahweh crushed the servant with disease, but in doing so, yet prolonged the seed of the Servant (i.e., his lineage). In the targum, it is not the Servant who is purified but Israel, and it is not the Servant whose seed is prolonged, but Israel’s.
Original text: 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.
Targum: 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.
In the original, the Servant’s soul suffers travail and bore the iniquities of Israel. In the targum, by stark contrast, it is the souls of Israelites who are delivered from the hand of the enemy by the conquering Servant. It is not by his suffering that the sins of Israel were forgiven, as in the original, but by his wisdom, and by his intercessory prayer.
Original text: 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.
Targum: 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.
Yet another radical contrast. In the original, he is given a portion among the great because he died and was buried with the transgressors. In the targum, he is given a portion of the spoils of the enemy because he risked his life (idiomatic in Aramaic). Moreover, it is not he who is buried with the transgressors, as in the original, but rather the Servant who made the transgressors (i.e., “the rebellious”) subject to the law. In the original, he “bore” the sin of many. In the targum, rather, he “shall intercede for many sins.”
All throughout the entire passage, the original story is radically changed. Every element of the Servant’s vicarious suffering and every mention of his death and burial is removed and replaced with the suffering of Israel or the enemy. Carrier says the targum merely retains “the bare element of the original (the sacrificial death).” In fact, there is no death of the Servant retained in the targum at all, let alone any sacrificial death. Even if we read “he delivered up his soul to death” literally (rather than idiomatically as we should), there is still no sacrificial death mentioned anywhere in the targum. To quote Bruce Chilton (whom Carrier will soon appeal to rather deceptively regarding the dating of this targumic passage), “The messiah does not forgive sin, he prays concerning it, and there is no question of his ministering to individual transgression. His programme is of restoration and law, which leads to communal forgiveness.”1
Carrier says that the targum is merely “transforming the remainder into something more triumphant (‘interpreting’ as much as possible as being about Israel or its enemies).” He says (apparently accepting my correction of his earlier definition of a targum) that “a targum is not meant to be a literal translation but a paraphrase or explanation of the original Hebrew.” But in reality, as is amply clear, this targumic passage is not paraphrasing the original text. It is changing it. Or as I characterized it in my original post, it is doing “midrashic paraphrase.” Yes, it is “interpreting” it, but it is an “interpretation” which (on virtually every point) completely changes the meaning of the original to say the opposite.
Carrier continues his attempt to paint the obvious as something ridiculous:
Stark seems to imagine Jews pulling the wool over each other’s eyes by sneakily rewriting the entire passage to say something completely different and hoping no one would notice. Not even the scholars who troubled to continue copying and preserving Jonathan’s Targum? That’s essentially impossible.
Carrier is simply in denial. The ruling elite routinely did pull the wool over the eyes of the illiterate masses. Not that I’m conceding they had a malicious intent. Nevertheless, it cannot rationally be denied that the targum in fact completely changes the meaning of the original on almost every point. Whether they were successful in pulling the wool over the eyes of the masses or not is something we can’t know, but since the masses were illiterate, and didn’t have access to the texts themselves, this is hardly “impossible” as Carrier asserts without basis.
And come on. Carrier knows full well that ministers do this to this day to Christians in the pews, and fully literate Christians with Bibles in their hands just eat it up. A minister will read a text, and go on to interpret it to mean the exact opposite of what it says, and the pew-sitters will buy it hook, line and sinker because they’re invested in the faith. Paul Copan’s entire life has been devoted to doing just this, and most of his audience eats it up. He’ll read a text about slavery, and say it means the opposite of what it says, and everyone will believe him because they want to believe him. If some don’t believe him, it won’t phase Copan, because Copan can just call them a “skeptic” and will have as such soundly refuted them. Carrier is really divorcing himself from reality with this argument, and I think he knows it, or at least he should by now.
As for Carrier’s rhetorical question, “Not even the scholars who troubled to continue copying and preserving Jonathan’s Targum?” As if to say, not even the elite would see that he’s being dishonest? The answer, of course, is, no, they probably wouldn’t. What has the last one hundred years of Christian fundamentalist scholarship told us if not that fundamentalists will continue to regurgitate obvious misreadings of the text precisely because they prefer the misreading to the proper reading? I’m sure if Carrier will think about this for two damn seconds, he’ll realize how unrealistic his objection is. And of course, Jews had good reason to want to see a conquering Messiah in the text rather than a dying one, since that was by far the dominant tradition, not to mention the more cathartic.
What’s hilarious is that the argument Carrier is making here is the exact argument I constantly get from fundamentalist Christians when they critique my book, The Human Faces of God. They argue that there can’t be contradictions in the text because people weren’t morons—the redactors would have noticed, the audience would have noticed, blah, blah, blah. Fundamentalist Christian: because people weren’t morons, there can’t be contradictions. Richard Carrier: because people weren’t morons, the targum couldn’t change the meaning of the original text. The same arguments I’ve used to rebut the fundamentalist Christians are the ones I’m now having to use to rebut Carrier. But of course, Carrier isn’t finished:
The Targum can only be understood as an interpretation of the Hebrew text. Not an attempt to replace it (as if Jonathan knew better than Isaiah what God had really said to him). In that cultural and literary context, we cannot assume Jonathan intended to wholly eclipse the death of the “Servant” (the “Arm of God”) that his readers would already know is clearly declared in the original Word of God. We would need a better argument than that before concluding something so extraordinary.
Carrier is simply in denial. He must defend his thesis at all costs. I do hope he wises up quick smart, for the sake of his reputation as a critical scholar.
Stark’s second contextual argument is a non-starter. The original Hebrew also has the dead servant “dividing up the spoil of his enemies and being given his share” (and without explicit mention of a resurrection). And yet the original clearly and unmistakably means to say he did indeed die (and was even buried: 53:8-11) and yet is then rewarded, literally God says “I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death” (NIV 53:12). Since Isaiah had said earlier that “he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted” (52:13), yet nothing like this occurs until after his death (in the Hebrew text), one must infer that he divides the spoil after being resurrected from the dead (or somehow symbolically, in the success of his progeny).
Yes, Carrier gets it right at the last. The nations are astonished at what the Servant accomplishes when through his death Israel is restored to its greatness. That he is lifted up and given a spoil among the great can refer either to Israel’s dominion or to the Servant’s exaltation to status alongside the great figures of Israel’s past who are honored in heaven. The targum in fact interprets the “spoil” in earthly terms: it says, “and the possessions of strong cities he shall divide as prey.” But the original text does not say anything about “strong cities.” The original says, “Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong.” First, what spoil is the Servant dividing here? In the original, there is no battle against the nations taking place as there is in the targum, at least, not one made explicit. Second, as Carrier should know, the idea of bodily resurrection didn’t yet exist at the time of the composition of Deutero-Isaiah. There would be several hundred years yet before Jews started believing in bodily resurrection. So the Servant’s exaltation in the original may refer to his being given a place of greatness alongside the patriarchs and men of faith from Israel’s past. They may be the “great” and the “mighty” with whom he shares a portion of the spoils of victory.
Alternatively, if we follow numerous critical scholars, including John Collins who makes a persuasive argument, it may in fact be that the original meaning of the Suffering Servant was a personification of Israel. The servant doesn’t literally die and rise again; rather, as in Ezekiel 37, this is a symbol for Israel’s “death” in exile and its “resurrection” upon being returned home. Israel then becomes a light to the nations, and is given more honor than ever before. Either way, the targumic interpretation is entirely different.
In the targum, all of the references to the Servant’s death and burial are removed and replaced with references to the utter defeat of his enemies. The last statement about the Servant’s death is replaced with an idiom meaning, “he risked his life.” What Carrier misses is that in the Hebrew, it does not say, “He delivered up his soul to death.” It says, “He emptied his soul unto death,” or, “He poured out his soul unto death.” This is a different verb from the verb used in the Aramaic targum. The Semitic verb used in Isaiah is ‘arah (empty, pour out, leave destitute). This verb could have been used in the Aramaic targum, but instead it is replaced with the verb mesar, which means “delivered up.” But of course, mesar napsha is idiomatic in Aramaic for “to risk one’s life,” among other things. So the targumic author switched out the verb that would have meant a literal death, and replaced it with a verb that was used frequently throughout the targums as an idiom for the risk of death.
Carrier then says, “So much for the argument from context.” Indeed. Carrier has failed to refute my argument from context. But I thank him for forcing me to flesh it out and make it tenfold stronger.
What about from the language? Stark says:
I originally stated that it is like the Aramaic phrase should be translated, “he was willing to face death,” or something similar. I then looked into it, asked some friends who work in Aramaic, and checked the secondary literature, and as it turns out, my guess is confirmed: whenever that phrase occurs in the Aramaic Targums, it is unambiguously idiomatic for “he risked his life,” or “to put oneself in danger.” (E.g., Tg. Onq. Deut 24:15; Tg. Ps.-J Num 31:5; Tg. Judg. 9:17 and Tg. Ps. 99:6.) So, while I wouldn’t say it’s 100% impossible that the text means “he died,” I would say that almost certainly it just means that he is being rewarded for risking his life.
Stark’s own argument from context would refute his own argument here: since nowhere in the Targum is there any mention of this messiah risking his life or putting himself in danger, either. So “he died” would make just as much sense as “he risked his life,” neither having any precedent in the preceding verses.
This is of course absolutely wrong. I’m not sure how Carrier can claim “he risked his life” doesn’t have any contextual support when all throughout the targum the Servant is waging war against the enemies of Israel and sending them to hell. Viz.—
Then he will become despised, and will cut off the glory of all the kingdoms; they will be prostrate and mourning…. The mighty of the peoples he will deliver up like a sheep to the slaughter and like a lamb dumb before her shearers…. Out of chastisements and punishment he will bring our captives near…. 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…. He will deliver the wicked into Gehinnom, and those that are rich in possessions into the death of utter destruction…. 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.
Does Carrier think that engaging in combat doesn’t constitute risking one’s life? And of course, absolutely none of this battle language is found in the original text of Isaiah. He continues:
So why are we to prefer Stark’s interpretation over the one that actually corresponds to the Hebrew this targum is interpreting?
By “Stark’s interpretation,” let’s not forget that he must also mean Blenkinsopp’s, Ådna’s, and yet many others’ interpretation. But we’ve seen why. Well, we have. Carrier hasn’t. Carrier continues:
I am not an expert in Aramaic…
By which he means, “I have no training in Aramaic.”
…but the passages he cites as precedents aren’t contextually similar (e.g. the Numbers passage refers to future possibility, not past fact, hence “willing to surrender their lives” is how the Liturgical Press translation reads), nor do they all “unambiguously” mean risk and not gave.
First of all, an idiom is still an idiom regardless of what tense it’s in: “He was dead in the water.” “He’s dead in the water.” “He’s gonna be dead in the water.” A future or a past tense doesn’t mean that the usage is not “contextually similar,” whether in English or in Semitic languages.
Second, Carrier says they don’t all “unambiguously mean risk and not gave.” Let’s have a look at one:
Tg. Judg 9:17. This is an example of armed combat, and probably the closest parallel to Isa 53:12. “For my father fought for you and risked his life [mesar napsha'] to kill for your side, and saved you from the hand of Midian.” Clearly here “mesar napsha’” does not mean that the father died in battle, but that he risked his life in battle and was successful in routing the Midianites.
But Carrier brings one of the texts up, namely, Tg. Ps. 99:6 (which he misidentifies as Ps. 9:6). I’ll grant that here the phrase does not “unambiguously” mean “risk” rather than “gave.” Here’s Carrier’s argument:
The Psalms Targum for example reads (according to a professional translation by Edward Cook, endorsed by the International Organization for Targumic Studies), “Moses and Aaron are among his priests who gave their life for the people of the Lord, and Samuel prayed for them before the Lord, like the fathers of old, who prayed in his name; they would pray in his presence and he would answer them” (9:6). The David Stec translation published by Liturgical Press (The Targum of Psalms, pub. 2004) reads, “Moses and Aaron were among his priests who surrendered their lives for the sake of the people of the Lord; and Samuel prayed for them before the Lord, like the fathers of old who prayed in his name; they were praying before the Lord, and he was answering.” So I do not trust that Stark is being wholly forthright when he claims the meaning here is “unambiguously” not what these translators say it is. Clearly it can mean both, and context is determinate. And we just saw where context gets us.
Carrier ends this with, “And we just saw where context gets us,” referring to his attempt to refute my arguments from context. His refutations of course failed quite miserably. So yes, we now do see where context gets us. But no, I would not say that “clearly it can mean both” in Ps 99:6. With Blenkinsopp and Ådna (among others), I would argue that the translators Carrier uses (one of which he found on the internet) are wrong. The Psalm Targum says that “Moses and Aaron were among his priests who mesaro napshahon [literally, delivered up their lives] for the sake of the people of the Lord.” Let’s just think about this for a moment. Did Moses and Aaron die “for the sake of the people of the Lord”? No. They both died of old age. Their deaths had no special significance “for the sake of the people of the Lord.” However, both Moses and Aaron did in fact risk their lives for the sake of the people of the Lord. They did so when they led the Israelites out of Egypt, and when they constantly led the Israelites into battle as they wandered through the wilderness. This is significant for Moses especially because he fled Egypt in fear for his life, but eventually returned willing to risk his life—“for the sake of the people of the Lord.” Dying of old age doesn’t fit in with that description. Risking life by opposing God’s enemies does.
Ironically, I had originally assumed this Targum did not preserve the dying-messiah element and only attested the early understanding of this servant as the messiah. Yet after Stark’s argument led me to investigate further, I am actually more doubtful of that conclusion. So in effect, Stark’s attempt to argue against the existence of a dying messiah in this text has actually made the case for the existence of a dying messiah in this text stronger. I do not conclude it is a certainty, since there remains some ambiguity. But on present evidence it looks to me like the odds favor retention of the concept, and just a softening of its pathos.
Of course, Carrier has only distorted the present evidence at just about every turn. He’s tried to argue that the targum emphatically did not replace Isaiah 52-53 with a different story altogether, but as we’ve seen, it most certainly did. Using fundamentalist logic, he’s tried to argue that a radical rewriting of the passage wouldn’t have slipped by the audience or subsequent tradents, but his arguments here were utterly divorced from reality, and one with which he is actually painfully familiar, which is the real irony. Finally, he tried to argue that there is nothing in the context of the targum on Isaiah that would suggest “he risked his life,” when in fact, the whole image in the targum is one of a war waged against the Gentiles, an image which also happens to be entirely absent from the original text of Isaiah. He’s also ignored the fact that every other time original Isaiah says the Servant died or was buried, the targum replaces this with the death of Israel’s enemies. So, Carrier has at every turn distorted the “present evidence” which he says favors a reading of the targum that presents a dying messiah.
Finally, Carrier will immediately go on to cite Bruce Chilton’s The Glory of Israel: The Theology and Provenience of the Isaiah Targum to discuss the question of the dating of our passage. Interestingly, Chilton himself confirms that the proper reading of mesar napsha’ in 53:12 is “risked his life.” Chilton says of Bar Kochba that “he was even willing, as the Targumic messiah, to risk his life, subjecting the rebellious to the law (cf. Tg. Is. 53:12).”2 Chilton also cites Paul Humbert and Marcus Jastrow in favor of this reading:
Humbert accepted Jastrow’s assurance that mesar lemota’ napshah in the Targum means simply that the messiah risks his life. We would agree that such an attenuated meaning (in comparison with the MT) was probably accorded the passage by the Amoraic tradents of the Isaiah Targum . . . and perhaps also by their Tannaitic predecessors, for whom the ultimate victory of the messiah was of first importance. Our point is not that Aramaic phrase unequivocally means the messiah did die, but merely that it is susceptible of the interpretation that he did so, and that therefore the Targumic rendering of Isaiah 53 should not be characterized as univocally anti-Christian (and post-Christian).3
What Chilton means here is that, if it was the interpreter’s concern to write a specifically anti-Christian rendering of the passage, he might not have used the idiomatic phrase which may have been susceptible to a literal reading, even though not intended. But Chilton is still saying that “he risked his life” is the likely intent (as he says elsewhere), and he still argues that the passage is post-Christian. He is simply saying that 53:12 itself should not be used as evidence that it is post-Christian (which I wouldn’t argue anyway).
Once again, Carrier’s own sources align against him.
Now he turns to the question of the dating of this portion of the targum:
There is a separate issue of date, and that’s more complex. Stark argues that one verse here suggests a post-war date (and some scholars conclude the same, dating it to the late first century) because in this version it is said the messiah “will build up the Holy Place, which has been polluted for our sins, and delivered to the enemy for our iniquities” (53:5; technically “the enemy” is not in the text, but it’s reasonably inferred). Part of the problem with this is that in The Glory of Israel: The Theology and Provenience of the Isaiah Targum, Bruce Chilton finds several places in it where the temple is assumed to still be standing and others where it is assumed to have been destroyed, and he assembles other like evidence to conclude that this targum has been redacted over time. So it’s entirely possible Jonathan did not write verse 53:5 as we have it (Jonathan ben Uzziel was famously a student of Hillel, d. c. 10 A.D., and a contemporary of Shammai, d. c. 30 A.D., and thus certainly did not compose his original targum after the Jewish War, which began in 66, and resulted in the temple’s destruction in 70). And there are other ways to interpret the passage (e.g. as meaning only that the messiah will make the temple more glorious after ending its corruption by foreign occupiers).
First, the Aramaic emphatically does not say “build up” the temple. It simply says “build/rebuild.” “Build up” in the sense of fortifying or refurbishing is not a possible translation of this Semitic verb at all, so Carrier is mistaken on his last point.
Second, while Carrier goes to pains to remind us that Jonathan—to whom the targum is attributed—lived in the latter part of the first century BCE into the first part of the first century CE, Chilton writes: “But can the meturgeman [i.e., the actual “author” of the targum] be identified with Jonathan? Even within the uncertain world of rabbinic ascriptions, the answer would appear to be ‘no.’”4 In other words, often with identification of targumic authors we can’t say definitively one way or the other, but with the Isaiah Targum, we have to say that Jonathan was probably not the actual author as tradition claims. Again, Chilton writes that “it would be imprudent to assume, even as a working hypothesis, that Jonathan or Joseph is what we would call the ‘author’ of the Prophets Targum.”5
But of course, Chilton, whom Carrier depends upon, does not suggest that 53:5 alone was the addition of a later tradent, as Carrier suggests. Carrier doesn’t inform his readers that despite the obvious fact that the Isaiah Targum was redacted over the course of several centuries, Chilton himself lands upon a post-70 date for the Isaiah 52-53 passage as a whole (a passage which, of course, does not include any references at all to a temple still standing, but only to a temple in need of being rebuilt). Chilton writes:
But two remarks made by Paul Volz encourage us to suggest that the 70-135 period was likely the temporal origin of the messianic portrait of the (Tannaitic [i.e., earliest]) Isaian framework meturgeman [i.e., interpreter]. Both remarks highlight the specific association of the messiah and the resortation of the Temple cult at this time. Bar Kokhba, he reminds us (who had Numbers 24.17 applied to him by Aqiba), caused coins to be minted ‘[upon which a star over a temple is shown].’ Secondly, Volz twice calls our attention to Pesahim 5a, where three rewards promised the sons of Israel according to the school of Ishmael are the extirpation of Esau (Rome), the building of the Temple and the name of the messiah. Moreover, the Davidic identity of a concretely victorious messiah such as we see portrayed in the Isaiah Targum is authorized as an obligatory element of the Shemoneh Esreh by none other (if Volz’s inference is accepted) than R. Eliezer. ‘Whoever does not mention the kingdom of the house of David in the benediction “builder of Juersalem” (i.e., the fourteenth) has not discharged his duty.’ Such evidence suggests that the provenience of the messianic portrait in the Isaiah Targum is Tannaitic.67
Again, Chilton writes, “In a word, the hopes of the primitive meturgeman centered on a messiah as he looked forward to recovery from the disaster of 70.8
So Carrier turns to Chilton to argue that the Isaiah 52-53 passage in Targum Jonathan was probably written mostly prior to 70 CE, with some possible redactions afterward, yet Chilton lands on 70-135 CE for the primitive material in the passage, with some possible redactional material from the Amoraic period several centuries after that.
Carrier then says, “This again, entails an ambiguity that can’t be resolved.” Yes. It cannot be resolved, except by the scholar whom Carrier cites to argue that it cannot be resolved. He continues:
Some scholars even propose that Jonathan’s treatment of Isaiah 53 was rewritten later to construct an anti-Christian polemic, although that is overly speculative and doesn’t fit all the evidence. But alas, that again introduces uncertainty.
Here is what Chilton has to say about that:
Generally speaking, one has no warrant to presume that the gospel was instantly presented in connection with Isaiah 53:12, that ‘the Jews’ instantly recognized it in connection with the passage as an exegetical challenge, or that the Targum would instantly be reformed to deal with the challenge. After all, the initial efforts of evangelization were short of totally effective, and the Targum endured much transmission, long after the decisive split of Church and synagogue, before it was committed to the extant manuscripts. More specifically, our passage refers to the removal of the Shekinah (v. 3), and announces that the messiah will build the sanctuary (v. 5). Again, we seem to have before us the work of the c. 70+ interpreter. If so, then the consistent refusal to countenance messianic suffering may instance anti-Christian exegesis, although the basic conception, which at least involved the messiah in risking his life, clearly was not a part of such a (secondary) tendency. Moreover—and on Aytoun’s own admission—the stress on the oppression of the Jews could well be Amoraic [i.e., the period between 200 and 500 CE, as opposed to Tannaitic, the period between 10 and 220 CE]. . . . In addition to these usages of ‘Shekinah’ and ‘sanctuary,’ we find references in this messianic passage to ‘house of Israel’ (52.14), ‘the righteous’ (53.2), ‘glory’ (53.3), ‘exile’ (53.8) and ‘law’ (53.11, 12), all of which instance congruence with the work of the early meturgeman.9
First, note that Chilton identifies both vv. 3 and 5 as evidences for a post 70 date. Second, remember that originally Carrier was using incredibly tortured logic to argue that there is absolutely no way a Jew would have made Isaiah 52-53 messianic after the emergence of Christianity. Now at least he is conceding it’s a possibility, even though I have always agreed with Chilton that it’s not very likely at all. But note what Chilton argues. He does not argue that because it’s probably not an anti-Christian apologetic it is therefore pre-Christian. Rather, the argument is that even 40-100 years after Christianity, refuting Christian readings of the Prophets wouldn’t likely have been very high on the rabbinic to-do list. Carrier continues:
In the end, what we can say for certain is that the Targum evinces that some first century Jews did understand Isaiah 53 to be about the messiah (and those same Jews would have known that the original Hebrew of the Word of God said this same figure would die and be buried).
Whether they “knew” this or not is beside the point, a point I keep reiterating and a point Carrier continues to evade. What matters is how they understood the text, and Targum Jonathan clearly tells us that they either rejected the idea of a dying messiah, or poorly interpreted the original text of Isaiah (much like contemporary Evangelical apologists incessantly do while being totally oblivious to it). Contrary to Carrier, what Targum Jonathan actually tells us is that this tradition insisted upon the portrait of a victorious messiah who did not suffer or die, and that they were able to maintain this belief even while making the Suffering Servant passage over into a messianic text. Carrier:
Which was all I intended it to prove. At most, I have to concede the possibility that the text post-dates the origin Christianity by a generation or two, and thus does not conclusively prove pre-Christian Jews were thinking along these lines (although neither would a later date prove they weren’t).
Considering all the evidence, it’s a high probability, not just a meager “possibility,” but credit to Carrier for going that far. But note this last parenthetical by Carrier: “neither would a later date prove they weren’t” thinking along the lines of identifying the Servant in Isaiah 52-53 as messianic. Carrier goes on to say, “But since my argument was first for the possibility (and thus against the extreme argument, as we see from Bart Ehrman, that ‘no Jews would ever think this’).” Actually, Carrier made this argument long before Ehrman jumped on board. At any rate, I haven’t ever argued that it’s impossible for any Jew to have envisioned a suffering Davidic Messiah prior to Jesus. I’ve just argued that we don’t have any evidence that any Jew did. But Carrier will, after a straw-mannish interlude, try to prove, once again, that 11QMelch constitutes such evidence. #facepalm
A Distinction Between Hypothesis and Evidence
Notably, Stark agrees with me against Ehrman on the matter of possibility, saying:
I have never argued that “no one could think of a suffering messiah before Jesus.” I have consistently said that anything is possible, but what we need is evidence that anyone did have a conception of a suffering messianic figure prior to Christianity, in order to advance the thesis that, well, someone did have a conception of a suffering messianic figure prior to Christianity. I’ve never argued that such a thing would be impossible.
Stark is, however, confusing explanation with evidence.
Uh, no. I’m not. Carrier:
I advanced two different theses in my article: first, that it is possible; second, that we have evidence of it. Stark is right that I need to present specific evidence of a pre-Christian notion of a dying messiah among the Jews to maintain that. But I do not need that to propose it as an explanation of Christianity. “Christianity arose from a sect of Jews that came to expect a dying messiah” remains a plausible hypothesis even if we can’t prove such a sect existed.
Carrier is the one who seems to be confused. I’ll quote myself, the same quote he just quoted from me: “I have consistently said that anything is possible, but what we need is evidence that anyone did have a conception of a suffering messianic figure prior to Christianity, in order to advance the thesis that, well, someone did have a conception of a suffering messianic figure prior to Christianity.” How does the statement, “we need evidence to prove P in order, well, to prove P” (which is what I said) constitute a statement that “we need evidence to prove P in order to prove that Q came from P”? That’s a head scratcher.
“Christianity arose from a sect of Jews that came to expect a dying messiah” remains a plausible hypothesis even if we can’t prove such a sect existed, because (a) we know there were many diverse sects of Jews with many diverse notions against the leading orthodoxy and we know nothing about most of them, therefore (b) an argument from silence to the conclusion “no such sect existed” is invalid, and (c) the scriptural inspiration and logic for such an idea is easily discerned (and if it’s easy for us, it would have been easy for at least someone to have noticed it during centuries of thousands of Jews scrambling to look for God’s secret messages in scripture). For (c) I detail the evidence in Not the Impossible Faith (pp. 34-44). For (a) (and therefore (b)) I survey the evidence and scholarship in The Empty Tomb (pp. 107-13).
Again, I’ve never argued that it’s impossible. I’ve only argued that we have no evidence for it. And boy, isn’t it surprising that no evidence for Carrier’s thesis is extant, despite all the diverse evidence we do have. I argue that it’s unlikely, because the idea of a conquering messiah is pervasive. In fact, the idea of a conquering messiah is actually the Christian conception of Jesus too. He was still expected to be the conquering warrior; he just died first. Absent clear evidence for a parallel tradition (which Carrier doesn’t provide here above, here below, or in his two books), the best explanation for the Christian anomaly is that their rabbi was actually executed, and I like to think that deep down, Carrier knows this. But I’m probably kidding myself.
In logical terms, “Christianity arose from a sect of Jews that came to expect a dying messiah” is a hypothesis that we can then test against the evidence. If it explains the evidence better than alternatives, then it is more probably true than alternatives (as a hypothesis it’s already more likely than, for example, “Christians only started believing this because Jesus actually rose from the dead”).
OK, I take back what I just said about Carrier knowing deep down that the crucifixion is the best explanation we have. Sigh, Carrier:
It therefore does not require direct evidence of “there was a sect of Jews that came to expect a dying messiah.” Because if all the other evidence is better explained by the proposition that “there was sect of Jews that came to expect a dying messiah,” then that other evidence is evidence that “there was a sect of Jews that came to expect a dying messiah.” Indirect inference is routine in historical argument, and known in every other field (even subatomic particles are inferred from indirect evidence, never actually seen). For example, that Henry assassinated William II is a hypotheses, which we can argue for from whether it explains the evidence of what happened better, without requiring a confession by Henry or an eyewitness to the deed (Proving History, pp. 273-75).
The problem with this, every argument Carrier makes is either tenuous, or dubious, or ridiculous, or close but no cigar. I’m well aware of arguments from inference. What they require in order to be successful are valid arguments from inference. Carrier:
The fact is, we lack evidence detailing the beliefs of dozens of Jewish sects, and no evidence at all naming (much less describing in detail) which sect Christianity grew out of (e.g. what sect Peter was most enamored with or devoted to before he joined the movement; or, on a historicist thesis, what sect or sects Jesus originally came from or was educated in; or even what sects Paul was influenced by, if any before the Christian sect, that led him to abandon the Pharisee sect).
Paul was trained by Gamaliel in Jerusalem, where he grew up and went to school, according to Acts. But yes, Peter and Jesus are a mystery. But this is all irrelevant. When Carrier has no evidence for a pre-Christian dying messiah, all he has to make his indirect inference argument is an argument from silence. Conversely, we have mounds of evidence for the hypothesis that Christians believed in a dying messiah because their messianic hopeful died, and then had visions of him which they interpreted as resurrection experiences (which is what Carrier argues when he’s not arguing for mythicism). He continues:
So we know it’s very likely we won’t have evidence of such a thing as that the seminal sect Christianity grew out of was already expecting a dying messiah. Thus, whether it was or not, is either unknowable (in which case it can’t be denied as a possibility, but could be doubted as improbable, if a case can be made for that), or can be inferred from evidence we do have (such as that the crucifixion of the messiah was always said to have been discovered in scripture: 1 Cor. 15:3-4 and Rom. 16:25-26; or that there was already a firstborn son of God named Jesus in heaven since the beginning of all creation in some pre-Christian Jewish theology, cf. NIF, pp. 250-51).
OK. (1) Yes, a case can in fact be made to doubt Carrier’s thesis as improbable, since all the evidence we do have (including the evidence Carrier tries to twist to fit his thesis) paints a picture of a militant, victorious, non-dying Davidic Messiah. (2) The crucifixion of the messiah was not “always said to have been discovered in scripture.” Rather, it was said (by Christians) to have “always been in scripture.” Carrier had a syntax problem there. And this is of course nothing but Christian propaganda. Apocalyptic Jews interpreted their texts not historically-grammatically, but in light of the experiences of their community. Yet they still claimed that their interpretations were the “real meanings” of the text. Yet both Paul and the Jesus of the Gospels explained the fact that other Jews didn’t see what they saw with reference to a theory that everybody was blinded to scripture because they didn’t have access to the Spirit, who was there to reveal the truth to initiates. The same mumbo-jumbo was asserted by the Qumran community about their “real meanings” of the text.
And now, this “firstborn son of God named Jesus in heaven since the beginning of all creation in some pre-Christian Jewish theology.” I’ve argued everything Carrier argues in Not the Impossible Faith regarding the Jewishness of Jesus’ preexistence and pseudo-divinity, etc., in much greater detail and at much greater length than has Carrier. But of course, that Christians use common motifs to interpret the significance of Jesus is not an argument for mythicism. Jews did the same things for many of their beloved leaders. Aqiba did the same sort of thing to describe the significance of Bar Kochba. That doesn’t mean Bar Kochba was a myth or an amalgamation of other messianic figures. The Qumranites did the same sorts of things for their Righteous Teacher with the texts. That doesn’t mean he’s a fantasy they thought they’d try to pass off as reality.
Thus it’s important to distinguish a case for plausibility from a case for actuality. The Talmud and Targum (and the case made in NIF) are all evidence for plausibility, not actuality. And they therefore must be evaluated as such. But I do make an argument for actuality, too. And that I make from the Melchizedek scroll recovered from Qumran, which dates to the first century B.C. and thus definitely predates Christianity. So to that we now turn…
They’re all cases for plausibility that fail. We’ve seen how Carrier’s arguments from the Talmud fail. We’ve seen how his argument from Targum Jonathan fails. And before we return for a third time to 11QMelch, we’ll take a look at how the case for plausibility made in Not the Impossible Faith fails. This will be an interruption of Carrier’s argument in this article, turning to his book:
Not the Impossible Faith’s Implausible Arguments
Before I begin, there is much in this book that I readily agree with. But there’s a great deal that’s bunk as well, as in this case. Let’s look at Carrier’s argument, entitled, “Many Expected a Humiliated Savior,” on pp. 34-44.
Carrier begins with a massive blunder. He writes:
Jewish scripture declared that “The Redeemer of Israel” or “The Holy One of God” shall be “despised by men,” and nations will be “disgusted” with him, yet he shall triumph.
For these quotations, Carrier cites Isaiah 49:7. In an end note, he says, “that this was a messianic prophecy is clear from the context (Isaiah 49:1-13).”
The problem is, Isaiah 49 is not at all a messianic prophecy. It’s in fact a dialogue between God and the people of Israel. There is no third figure, no messianic figure at all in Isaiah 49. Let’s look at it piece by piece:
Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
Yahweh called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, ‘You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’
The figure speaking here is Israel personified. This is clearly stated in the last two lines: “And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’” It continues in Israel’s voice:
But I said, ‘I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with Yahweh,
and my reward with my God.’
Is this really something we would expect the Messiah to say of himself? “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity”? Not to mention the fact that the Messiah itself is an anachronistic concept in Second Isaiah. It continues:
And now Yahweh says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of Yahweh,
and my God has become my strength—
‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’
The following is where Carrier seems to get confused:
Thus says Yahweh,
the Redeemer of Israel and its Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
‘Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of Yahweh, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’
Carrier thinks these references to the “Holy One of Israel” (which he mistakenly translates, “The Holy One of God”) and “the Redeemer of Israel” are references to a Messiah. In reality, these are descriptions of Yahweh. Yahweh is the Redeemer of Israel and Israel’s Holy One. The one “deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers,” is Israel itself, not a Messiah.
The passage goes on to describe Israel’s afflictions, Israel’s feelings of abandonment, but culminates with Yahweh’s assurance of his presence, and ultimately with Yahweh’s defeat of the enemies of Israel:
I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh,
and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine.
Then all flesh shall know
that I am Yahweh your Saviour,
and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.
Obviously, and contrary to Carrier, the text does not say that “the Redeemer of Israel” will be “despised by men.” It says that Israel will be despised by men, but that Yahweh is the “Redeemer of Israel.” So Carrier is not off to a good start.
He continues with quotations from the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 52-53:
the people will “bury him with the wicked” even though he was innocent, and he shall be “numbered with the transgressors” just as the Gospel of Mark says. The idea that a Chosen One of God must suffer total humiliation and execution at the hands of the wicked is a major theme in Isaiah.10
He then quotes N.T. Wright who says, “Messiahship in Judaism, such as it was, never envisaged someone . . . suffering the fate he [Jesus] suffered.” Carrier says that Wright’s claim is, based on Isaiah 49 and 52-53, “demonstrably false.” But actually, as much as it pains me to say so, Wright is the one making the claim based on the evidence we have.
Isaiah 52-53 does not identify the Suffering Servant as a messianic figure. As we’ve seen, Targum Jonathan, which does identify the Isaianic Servant as the Messiah, nevertheless denies that he suffers or dies. It’s possible that some Jews made this connection, but we have no evidence that any did (once again, 11QMelch is no such evidence). Is it possible? Again, yes. Is it probable? Again, no, because all the davidic messianic traditions we have contradict the portrait of the Suffering Servant. I’ll quote John Collins:
The Christian belief in such a figure [a suffering Messiah], and the discovery of prophecies relating to him, surely arose in retrospect after the passion and death of Jesus of Nazareth. There is no evidence that any first century Judaism expected such a figure, either in fulfillment of Isaiah 53 or on any other basis.”11
Next, Carrier refers us to Psalm 22:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
‘Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver—
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
Many bulls encircle me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shriveled;
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
That’s the first part of the Psalm. From this, Carrier concludes: “This song set up a Jewish model for a crucified Davidic savior.”12 But the song does absolutely no such thing. There is no hint of anything like a crucifixion setting, or an execution. The king is afraid for his life in a time when his enemies are surrounding him to face him in battle. But what does the song go on to say?
But you, O YAHWEH, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion!
From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear Yahweh, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise Yahweh.
May your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to Yahweh;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to Yahweh,
and he rules over the nations.
To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
The song is emphatically not one that depicts a suffering and dying Davidic Messiah. On the contrary, the king is fearful, so he calls out for help, and Yahweh answers, giving him victory over his enemies and establishing his dominion over the nations. This is the standard portrait of a militant, victorious Davidic king.
Everyone knows that Mark used this passage selectively to garnish his Passion narrative, but (as Carrier is wont to argue) it’s obvious to everyone that this is a portrait of a victorious military leader, not of a dying Messiah! One would need a prior conception of a suffering Messiah in order to read this psalm as anything but a song of victory and escape from death. That’s what Mark had, after Jesus was crucified—a prior conception that allowed him to misuse the text. In the same way, one would need a prior conception of a victorious messiah to read the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah as a story of messianic victory. And of course, this is precisely the preconception we know Jews had. We have no evidence to the contrary prior to Christianity.
Next, Carrier cites Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-22; 5:1-8, 15-23. I’ll start with 2:12-22, which Carrier cites in his book, but I’ll also include the rest of chapter 2 and the first 9 verses of chapter 3:
“Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child [or servant] of the Lord.
He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;
the very sight of him is a burden to us,
because his manner of life is unlike that of others,
and his ways are strange.
We are considered by him as something base,
and he avoids our ways as unclean;
he calls the last end of the righteous happy,
and boasts that God is his father.
Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
Let us test him with insult and torture,
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”
Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray,
for their wickedness blinded them,
and they did not know the secret purposes of God,
nor hoped for the wages of holiness,
nor discerned the prize for blameless souls.
for God created us for incorruption,
and made us in the image of his own eternity,
but through the devil’s envy death entered the world,
and those who belong to his company experience it.
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,
because God tested them and found them worthy of himself;
like gold in the furnace he tried them,
and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them.
In the time of their visitation they will shine forth,
and will run like sparks through the stubble.
They will govern nations and rule over peoples,
and the Lord will reign over them forever.
Those who trust in him will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with him in love,
because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones,
and he watches over his elect.
Carrier then asserts, “This is a lesson that would automatically apply to the Messiah, who would be, by definition, a blameless and righteous man.”13 This of course would not “automatically apply to the Messiah,” as Carrier asserts. Nowhere is this figure identified as the Messiah, and if the Messiah was believed to be a conquering warrior, then we have no reason to expect that Jews would have read this as applicable to the Messiah. Carrier can’t help but read these texts from a post-Christian vantage point, but what seems obvious to us now had no reason to register to anyone back then. Carrier is merely arguing by assertion. But Jews had categories for these things. Those who weren’t the Messiah were expected often to die martyrs’ deaths. On an apocalyptic reading, it would be the Messiah, however, who would come and vindicate them by defeating the enemies of God, ushering in the messianic age, and thus instigating the resurrection of the righteous dead—those described here in 2:12-22. These righteous martyrs are referred to in the plural. Again, no Messiah is mentioned (anywhere in Wisdom of Solomon in fact). It is not the Messiah who will rule over the nations, but all of the righteous ones of God. Is it possible someone could have applied this text to the Messiah prior to Christianity? Yes. Do we have any such evidence? No. Is it probable? No, not based on what we know of Jewish expectations of the Messiah. Moreover, Wisdom of Solomon, as I pointed out in my first critique of Carrier’s thesis, is not an apocalyptic text. Although it includes some common apocalyptic tropes, it radically reinterprets them within the categories of Greek philosophy.
Anyway, the very fact that the Gospels portray Peter and others as resistant to the idea that the Messiah would suffer indicates cognitive dissonance. It’s something they had to account for, expressly, in an apologetic way. If the idea of a dying Messiah was already established, we wouldn’t really expect to see this in the Gospels.
Now we’ll look at Wisdom of Solomon 5:1-8, 15-23:
Then the righteous will stand with great confidence
in the presence of those who have oppressed them
and those who make light of their labors.
When the unrighteous see them, they will be shaken with dreadful fear,
and they will be amazed at the unexpected salvation of the righteous.
They will speak to one another in repentance,
and in anguish of spirit they will groan, and say,
“These are persons whom we once held in derision
and made a byword of reproach—fools that we were!
We thought that their lives were madness
and that their end was without honor.
Why have they been numbered among the children of God?
And why is their lot among the saints?
So it was we who strayed from the way of truth,
and the light of righteousness did not shine on us,
and the sun did not rise upon us.
We took our fill of the paths of lawlessness and destruction,
and we journeyed through trackless deserts,
but the way of the Lord we have not known.
What has our arrogance profited us?
And what good has our boasted wealth brought us?”
But the righteous live forever,
and their reward is with the Lord;
the Most High takes care of them.
Therefore they will receive a glorious crown
and a beautiful diadem from the hand of the Lord,
because with his right hand he will cover them,
and with his arm he will shield them.
The Lord will take his zeal as his whole armor,
and will arm all creation to repel his enemies;
he will put on righteousness as a breastplate,
and wear impartial justice as a helmet;
he will take holiness as an invincible shield,
and sharpen stern wrath for a sword,
and creation will join with him to fight against his frenzied foes.
Shafts of lightning will fly with true aim,
and will leap from the clouds to the target, as from a well-drawn bow,
and hailstones full of wrath will be hurled as from a catapult;
the water of the sea will rage against them,
and rivers will relentlessly overwhelm them;
a mighty wind will rise against them,
and like a tempest it will winnow them away.
Lawlessness will lay waste the whole earth,
and evildoing will overturn the thrones of rulers.
Again, the righteous martyrs are plural. No Messiah is mentioned. Again, there is no Messiah figure at all in Wisdom of Solomon. In fact, it is God himself who takes on the task of defeating his enemies here. This text does not constitute evidence for belief in a dying Messiah, nor does it provide any plausibility that some Jews would have read this text as messianic, since the subjects here are all the righteous ones of God, not a singular figure. Again, is it possible someone could have found the Messiah here? Yes. But the evidence just isn’t there, nor is it at all obvious or even plausible that these passages would “automatically apply” to the Messiah. Carrier has his assertions, and he’ll probably stick with them, but that’s all he has. He can’t escape his post-Christian hermeneutic.
Carrier then goes on to argue that Daniel 9:26 refers to a Messiah who would die and atone for sins. I’ve already thoroughly refuted this in my second critique, but I’ll have to do it again after this Impossible excursus.
Hilariously, Carrier goes on to cite Psalm 23 as evidence for a dying Messiah, referring to a Davidic king who is “sojourning in the land of the dead.”14 Does Carrier honestly, seriously think that the “valley of the shadow of death” suggests that David was dead? Despite the fact that God comforts him and then gives him victory over his enemies and a long (but not eternal) life? If Carrier wishes to argue that this was read messianically and in reference to a dying and rising Messiah, he’ll have to provide some evidence. More tenuous assertions.
He goes on some more about texts we’ve already covered—Daniel 9:26, Isaiah 52-53, Wisdom of Solomon 2 and 5. And that’s essentially the sum of his argument in Not the Impossible Faith that “Many Expected a Humiliated Savior,” in which he understands “savior” in terms of a Davidic Messiah. The conclusion of the matter is, Carrier hasn’t made his case at all. At absolute most, he has argued that it’s possible that some unknown, no longer extant Jews, might have read some of these texts as predictions of a dying messiah, but he’s offered no valid evidence that any did so, and he’s a far cry from proving the claim made in the heading, that “Many Expected a Humiliated Savior.”
Conclusion to Part 1
As should be clear, Carrier hasn’t so far demonstrated that my criticisms of him were “a fail.” Not at all. On the contrary, Carrier has continued to make many of the same old, and several new, weak arguments that lack anything like substantiation.
But in the next post, I’m going to concede Carrier is right about 11QMelch! Not entirely, of course. Actually, not even half right. Less than half right. His major thesis is still wrong. But he made some really good arguments that forced me to look more closely at both Daniel 9 and 11QMelch, and I’ve had a really exciting change of mind on one of the big questions. Everything fell into place. Carrier’s still not going to like it, even though I’m conceding some big points to him, because in doing so I’m making my argument against his “atoning death of the messiah” reading even stronger. But it’s a position that’s actually built in part upon a structure he put into place, so my hope is that he’ll be able to see it too and we can be bum chums or something.
Until next time.
- Bruce Chilton, The Glory of Israel: The Theology and Provenience of the Isaiah Targum (JSOT: 1982), 93. [BACK]
- Bruce Chilton, The Glory of Israel, 95. [BACK]
- Chilton, The Glory of Israel, 94. [BACK]
- Bruce D. Chilton, The Isaiah Targum: Introduction, Translation, Apparatus and Notes (Michael Glazier, 1987), xxi. [BACK]
- Chilton, The Glory of Israel, 3. [BACK]
- I’ve translated Volz’s German for you. [BACK]
- Chilton, The Glory of Israel, 95-96. [BACK]
- Chilton, The Glory of Israel, 94. [BACK]
- Chilton, The Glory of Israel, 93. [BACK]
- Richard Carrier, Not the Impossible Faith (Egoton, ME: Self), 34. [BACK]
- John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature (Yale University, 2007), 126. [BACK]
- Carrier, Not the Impossible Faith, 34. [BACK]
- Ibid., 34. [BACK]
- Ibid., 36. [BACK]