Daily Archives: July 27, 2011

The Messiah Was A Jewish Idea

I recently watched an awesome video of Bart Erhman giving a talk about his new book Forged. During the Q&A, he received a question about the idea that Jesus never existed. To paraphrase, his response was that the idea of the messiah was a Jewish idea. Some versions of this Jewish messiah depicted him as a sort of conquering hero (like Simon Bar-Kokhba). Others viewed him as a celestial figure that would descend from the clouds and conquer Earthly kingdoms. In all of these iterations, the messiah is a conquering figure. So, if someone (i.e. some Jewish person) were going to “invent” a messiah, they wouldn't make up a story about him getting crucified. Essentially getting himself conquered instead of the one being conquered.
But is this even a fair assessment of what Christians did?
Christians claim that Jesus was (is) the messiah because he did do some conquering: He conquered death. This is what our earliest Christian writings claim. But let's go beyond that. What about the concept of eternal punishment or eternal rewards? This most certainly is not a Jewish idea (try to find the concept of any sort of afterlife just reading the Hebrew bible), but somehow it got into somewhat mainstream Jewish belief (the Pharisees; cf Josephus AJ 2.8.14). How did this happen? The concept of the Logos, also, is not a Jewish idea. How did this also get into Hellenistic-Jewish (and subsequently Christian) belief? The concept of an apocalypse, also, is not originally a Jewish idea. A book like the second half of Daniel (7-12) is evidence of Greek ideas infulencing Jewish ones.
The answer is quite obvious. Syncretism. Non-Jewish beliefs were synthesized with Jewish beliefs. Those are examples of some outside influence changing how Jews viewed their religion. Why couldn't the concept of the messiah also have been subject to similar syncretism? Or, what if some other religion absorbed the Jewish belief in the messiah, and this belief similarly underwent some transformation?
The Jewish scriptures had been translated into Greek – the equivalent of English today as far as international language popularity goes – for a couple hundred years before we first start noticing Christian belief in history. For a modern example, the concept of rap music was originally 100% an inner city phenomenon; just like the concept of the messiah was originally a Jewish idea. Since rap music was in English and thus able to be transmitted onto any other culture or peoples that understood English, the concept of rap could spread beyond its birth the Bronx c.1979. 30 years later, we have rap music being performed by native French speakers.
How easy would it be for a similar thing to happen to the concept of the messiah, when that concept was easily read and understood by any two-bit Greek and their mystery religion(s)? The one thing that the Jews had going for them was the idea that their religion was an ancient one. This gave their concepts a bit more respect. 
I'm not arguing this point very intensly, because we have no evidence of other mystery religions co-opting any sort of Jewish beliefs. I'm just writing this to point out a very possible flaw in Erhman's argument. I don't think it's as prima facie absurd as he intimated it was.

Posted by on July 27, 2011 in historical jesus, jesus myth

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