James McGrath and Melchizedek

James wrote a very interesting post on Carrier’s response to Thom Stark.  I thought he made some useful points which need to be addressed (and I did send along a link to Carrier, so hopefully when he is caught up he will respond), but one in statement in James’ post struck me as peculiar.

“I can only assume that he considers it self-evident that the term translated “cut off” in Daniel 9:26 can only mean “killed,” which suggests he may unwittingly be reading it through the lens of later Christian interpreters.”

Richard Carrier Illustrates Historical Jesus Methodology.

This comment surprised me; I’ve been doing a great deal of research on 11Q13 for a paper I am in the process of writing for publication and in all the authoritative works I’ve read, the phrase ‘cut-off’ is generally accepted to mean ‘killed’.   The author(s) of Dan. 9 used the phrase to explain that Onias III was the messiah, who did die, so in this context it definitely does mean ‘killed’ and there certain was a tradition of linking Melchizedek with a dying messiah between the point of 11Q13’s composition and the Nag Hammadi version as the Gnostics certainly interpreted ‘cut off’ to mean ‘killed’ when they wrote their version of 11Q13 in Melchizedek (who they link with Jesus).  So while it doesn’t eo ipso mean ‘killed’, in the interpretation of this phrase from Daniel 9, in 11Q13, in the ongoing messianic beliefs from the Roman period to Late Antiquity, it probably does mean ‘killed’–with a higher probability than any other meaning, and enough probability that it is unlikely that its interpreters used it to mean something else.

I would also like to point out something about this argument:

But I would point out that Christians did not merely expect a Messiah who would die. They believed that the Messiah had died. And that surely has relevance to whether or not there was a historical Jesus. Perhaps others expected such a figure. Christians believed – and we have no evidence that their contemporaries disputed this point – that the figure had in fact appeared and had died.

The problem with this is that we have written accounts (clearly fictional) of earthquakes, the sun going dark, the dead rising from the graves, and these were written down and never once disputed by any contemporary.  This is the problem with this criterion.  Belief, as strong as it is, does not determine historical certainty.

In other words, just because Christians believed their messiah lived and died does not mean it definitely occurred.  And simply because no contemporary disputed it does not ipso facto  imply that it did happen.  Certainly, it might have happened.  But when wholly fabricated world-effecting events like earthquakes or the sun going out can exist without any recorded disputation, then certainly a fabricated individual could have gone completely undisputed as well.  I just don’t believe that this is a valid argument to make, when clearly more extraordinary events go completely undisputed by contemporaries; the plights of a peasant Jew in Galilee seem insignificant to dispute when one considers the scope of the sun going out. And this is a point Carrier makes in his Proving History that James should really consider reading (though I understand his hesitation–reading about method can be rather dull).

But I do thank James for his otherwise interesting and insightful post.

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15 Responses

  1. Thanks for mentioning this, Tom! Even in its original context, there has been discussion of whether “cut off” refers to the exile of Onias III or his murder. But either way, a key point Richard Carrier makes in his post is that, for the Qumran group, the meaning of the text seems not to have been constrained by the original reference to Onias. And so one cannot have it both ways – either the original meaning is determinative or it isn’t.

    In either case, it is perhaps worth noting that the categories of anointed one referred to in the Dead Sea Scrolls are high priests, and likewise the Rabbinic “anointed one of Joseph”, and so these are not the Davidic anointed one that was the category into which Jesus was placed by our earliest Christian sources. The question of whether anyone in first century Judaism expected the restorer of the line of Davidic kings to be killed is thus not addressed by appeal to them, it seems to me.

  2. James, many Dead Sea Scroll scholars I know would likely agree that many of the references to ‘anointed one’ probably mean ‘high priest’ but with the caveat that regardless of whether they were high priests (and by the way, there is no dispute that 11Q13 is about a heavenly messianic figure, apart from an earthly one), their function as messiah was still there (i.e., they fulfilled messianic roles).

    As for whether ‘cut off’ means ‘killed’ via Onias III, there really isn’t much discussion about this. I’m not sure why you think that, but from what I’ve read (and again, I’ve checked with the various authoritative commentaries–so you’ll have to point me to a specific study so I can read it, and I’d very much like to!) the authors are specifically discussing the death of Onias III (i.e., he had to die in order to fulfill the requirements of the Jubilee timeline).

  3. Yes, but no one disputes that anointed ones could be killed or die. The argument related to the historical figure of Jesus is always about whether the Davidic anointed one, expected to restore the kingship to the line of David, was also expected to be killed before accomplishing that.

  4. The point about the earthquakes, the darkness and the nature of dispute is an interesting one, but it is important for the historians to sift traditions and not to lump everything together, isn’t it? When Josephus says that a cow gave birth to a lamb before the Jewish War, we question that tradition but not the war. This illustrates the nature of the difference between a healthy scepticism and hyper scepticism. A healthy scepticism recognizes that reports of earthquakes and the sun going dark are the way that the ancients reported events of moment. Hyper Scepticism says, “Good grief, we can’t believe that so we can’t believe any of it” in a kind of reverse-fundamentalist move (If you doubt this bit of the Bible, you’ll doubt it all!).

  5. You keep using ‘Davidic’, James. I really wish you would brush up on recent discussions of Jewish Messianism from the last two decades. ;-) Notice that the Dead Sea Scrolls contain various messianic interpretations, not a single Davidic messianism. And even within these Davidic messianisms, the expectations of this Davidic figure are not consistent.

  6. Tom, that is precisely my point, and your condescending correction suggests that you have not understood it. “Messiah” or “anointed one” was never (in pre-Christian times at the very least) a monolithic way of refering to a single type of figure. Hence my pointing out that the earliest Christians claimed that Jesus was a specific sort of anointed one, an anointed one “of David according to the flesh.” Hence my pointing out that the possibility of the death of a high priest not being relevant to the question of whether anyone expected the anointed one of the line of David to be killed before restoring the kingship to his dynasty.

    Do you understand my point now?

  7. Mark, I’m not saying that. My point is not to dismiss all of it (I am not suggesting we throw out the baby with the bath water). My point was merely to show the problem of suggesting that because something is undisputed, that means we can trust its historicity. Lots of crazy absurd beliefs went undisputed in antiquity and even among the best historians of the day we see emulations and discussions of these absurdities as if they were fully factual.

    The conclusion that James is making is that Jesus’ historicity is more likely because no one disputed a belief in his death and resurrection. But that mere fact alone proves nothing; lest we presume that Romulus really existed because many Romans believed in the story of his death and resurrection and visitation of Proculus Julius on the road from Rome? of course you’ll follow with the proximity discussion, but then I could just as easily raise the point that the story of Jesus Bar’Abbas and the palace scene is a fictional account that is much more mundane than those earthquake and sun darkening stories, and yet no one disputes that either. Whether mundane or ridiculous, no one contemporary disputed ANY event in the Gospels; even things we know never happened, just by the function of it (i.e., that the Sanhedrin convened on the night before the Sabbath–something that the Jews of the day would have jumped on due to its absurdity, and yet we see nothing) are left undisputed by contemporaries–that we know of, because we have limited evidence form the first century. So this criterion is, again, useless. Whether by the scope of our available evidence (we really don’t have any critical engagements of Christianity in the first century to weigh these claims against–how do we know no one disputed Jesus’ historical existence in the first century? Do we have any evidence which suggests that?!), or by the sake of argument alone.

  8. James, I apologize if I came across as condescending. I was merely just nudging you in the ribs a bit. Sorry about that; I thought I was just being fun.

    I do understand your point, I’m just not sure of its usefulness in light of the evidence. We always do seem to disagree about this subject. Clearly someone believed it or there wouldn’t be Christians…whether or not we can say if such a person really did die or if the belief that he died came from a theological edification, a political narrative, I don’t think we can be sure.

  9. Thanks, Tom. I get the point about the nature of disputed traditions, but I’m throwing something in about the nature of a strong tradition like the crucifixion of Jesus and the way that certain ancients told the story. It’s the same kind of thing you get in Josephus — solid tradition (Jewish War) expressed by means of portents (cow gives birth to a lamb). The fact that events were narrated in this way makes the historian’s task more difficulty, yes, but one should be careful to recognize the differing nature of these.

    Incidentally, one might add that there are some traditions that are disputed and where those disputes make it into the texts, e.g. resurrection / disciples stole the corpse; Jesus the healer / Jesus casts out demons by Beelzebul; party-guy / glutton and a drunkard.

  10. Mark, yes thank you for clarifying. But I think you’re making a mistake in comparing Josephus’ account of the Jewish war to the Gospel tradition, or even the epistles. As you know, they are different genres written for different purposes, with different agendas, using different styles of writing. So I am not convinced that one can say the crucifixion is a stronger tradition than the casting of lots story at the palace between Bar’Abbas and Jesus. They are part of the same tradition, even if perhaps one part of it has more importance in some circles than others–but no different than the plagues of Egypt, which are more important than the mana from God in certain cirlces even though they are from the exodus tradition, or the persecution of Romulus by the greedy politicians in Rome is less important than his resurrection as Quirinus and his vigilant watch.

    But you are quite right in recognizing the caution required; the trouble here, Mark, is that there is no distinct methodology to determine which part is fabricated by the author and which is recorded tradition. And this is why I suggested the criterion James used is useless; it is why I do not believe that one can simply draw upon ‘tradition’ to prove a historical point. One might as well suggest that King Arthur was a real person because of the strong tradition surrounding the figure. Or what of Paul Bunyan? I just don’t find ‘tradition’ very compelling evidence as a whole, since tradition is notoriously fictive from the very nature of it all. And it is precisely the mentality of the ancients to ignore fact-checking information or to accept tradition regardless of its historical value that has me so hesitant to simply agree with the criterion in play in this conversation.

    As for disputed traditions, I think the problem here is that we are still thinking in terms of historiography rather than theology and political reactions. We presume that the Empty Tomb narrative was in response to disputations about the body, but really that is a scholarly construct that may or may not be found in the available evidence. I believe rather that the Empty Tomb narrative is a theological point which links the story of the lions den in Daniel to Jesus. As for Jesus being the healer/casting out demons, I believe Joel Watts’ case for this is an interesting one and doesn’t rest upon the necessity of a historical tradition (instead resting upon ones use of imitative materials, i.e., Josephus). But my point here is just to reenforce the concept that we need to remember that it was not typical for people to dispute tradition, even when there existed multiple traditions which contradicted one another (which, after all, would make sense since we have four conflicting traditions in the four canonical Gospels and we also have conflicting traditions between the epistles and Acts). So simply because something exists that has not been disputed, whether one considers it a strong tradition or a weak one (a purely speculative business it is), does not imply it is more historically valid. There are just too many examples which show the criterion to be invalid.

  11. I should add that many a mythical story was also disputed as if it were historical. For example, Plutarch does not dispute the historicity of Romulus but disputes his physical resurrection as a belief of the ignorant masses. The fact that Plutarch made arguments against the resurrection of Romulus is not an argument for the historicity of Romulus.

    Likewise Jesus and Baalzebul: once you’ve been preaching a story for decades, “he was using the power of Baalzebul” would be the kind of rebuttal they would face, thus necessitating the creation of a story to address it. That does not make it historical (but neither would it entail of itself that Jesus didn’t exist and practice exorcism). For example, this is why we only see an accusation of graverobbing appear after Mark invented a story about an empty tomb (Mark having no idea of any accusation of graverobbing, he does not think to include any apologetic against it).

    And that assumes there was preaching of the myth as (exoteric) fact for decades before Mark. We can’t even know that for sure. Most pericopes in Mark look like types for Christian practice (baptism and last supper as a model or symbol for the rituals of baptism and eucharist; Jesus’ prayer as a model of prayer; his suffering and martyrdom as a model for suffering and martyrdom). Thus, Christians practicing exorcism would face the “you’re demonologists!” attack, and thus would need to invent a story representing how to deal with such attacks, and Jesus, as the type of the ideal Christian, would be the one on whom that model gets mapped (just as happened with the baptism, last supper, prayer scenes, his dealings with his family, and so on).

    The conclusion is, we cannot with any logical validity infer from “Jesus is depicted as responding to attacks” that “Jesus really existed.” We would need to rule out alternative explanations of that evidence first. And that’s where things get a lot harder than scholars want them to be.

    This is Verenna’s same point about the “no one disputed x, therefore x must be true.” That’s a fallacy, because (in this case) it is a logically invalid argument from silence (which Tom’s examples then prove). That this is a fallacy, however, does not permit the “fallacy fallacy” (the fallacy of assuming that the conclusion of a fallacious argument is false; when in fact, the argument for it being fallacious, the conclusion is simply not established, which is not the same thing as being false, but neither is it the same thing as being true).

    This is why it is so vitally important for historians to study logic and logical reasoning. And that’s why I wrote Proving History. It’s a primer, and gateway drug to the literature, on the formal logical of historical reasoning.

  12. Thanks for your comments, Tom. I don’t find this kind of hyper-scepticism helpful. The traditions about Jesus’ crucifixion are early and well-attested.

    On the issue of disputed traditions, I’m just pointing out that there are signs in the source material of traditions about Jesus being disputed, which is itself an interesting phenomenon worth exploring.

  13. Mark, I’m not being ‘hyper-skeptical’ I’m just looking at the state of the evidence. Jesus’ crucifixion being ‘early and well attested’ doesn’t make it true. It only makes it early and attested. But its lack of disputation doesn’t make it true either since we have limited evidence from that period. If you want to accept the evidence is sound, that is fine, but all I am saying is that one needs to respect the limitations of the texts. Which means we have to respect the possibility of its concoction for theological and political means, even if you don’t feel there is a high probability of it–and I’m not saying there is, merely that it exists.

    As for disputed traditions, while these may be examples of disputed traditions, they aren’t necessarily. Worth exploring, yes, so long as the function of the text is not ignored at the expense of ‘finding the historical Jesus’ which happens a lot in NT scholarship. I can provide examples if necessary.

  14. Richard, absolutely. You wrote this:

    The conclusion is, we cannot with any logical validity infer from “Jesus is depicted as responding to attacks” that “Jesus really existed.” We would need to rule out alternative explanations of that evidence first. And that’s where things get a lot harder than scholars want them to be.

    This is precisely my meaning. It is exceptionally easy to say ‘such and such is well attested and early’ but what does that mean? How does one make the logical leap from ‘attested and early’ to ‘historical valuable’? Are we sure that the earliest attestation is the same as the later attestation? Could it be interpreted another way that is yet valid and different from the later interpretations? Has the tradition changed between Paul and the Gospels? There are so many questions that need to be asked which are simply ignored or taken for granted as having been dealt with. Sometimes they have been dealt with, but not sufficiently–and one can’t know that until they start analyzing the evidence.

    To be clear, I’m certainly not suggesting that Mark or James haven’t analyzed the evidence (in fact in most instances I’m sure they have). But there is still a disconnect somewhere when I am accused of being hyper-skeptical when I am merely asking questions that have not yet been answered in a manner as to remove the doubt associated with the traditions.

  15. Mark,

    Since the England/Sweden match is on, I figure I’ll just ask my questions here and you can answer when you get the chance.

    First, the question I asked you in chat: Do you think it is more useful to accept the historicity of a tradition simply based upon it being well attested and early or to question everything about the value of that text prior to accepting historicity?

    To clarify, when I say question everything, I specifically mean useful questions (i.e., can we know who wrote it? Do we know its exact date of composition or are we confident in that date? Can we determine the genre? Can we know the motives of the author(s)? Can we interpret the text in another useful way besides the most common or most used? Etc…).

    Second, would you agree that how we answer these questions will change our perception of the text, its function, its value historically?

    Third, would you agree that there could exist at least one other (if not more) plausible understanding of a text that, say, is written anonymously, composed with a date that is tentatively placed within a few decades, which contains many mythical and fictional constructs? And I’m being general here, this doesn’t necessarily include the Gospels.

    Fourth, do you believe you are fairly consistent in your application of methodological principles? For example, do you feel you are applying the same principles of historical investigation to the Gospels that you would apply to Arrian or to Philostratus or to Plutarch?

    These aren’t ‘gotcha’ questions, I’m more interested in how you view your own scholarship. And I think they are important because establishing how one views the evidence in a conversation is a step towards gaining an understanding about the point they are trying to make.

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