Thursday, August 21, 2008

Knohl's Suffering Messiah

Israel Knohl has an article in BAR about the "Messiah son of Joseph."  It is partly a defense of his interpretation of the "Vision of Gabriel" inscription and partly a defense of his idea that Second Temple Judaism had a suffering messiah concept and he was the "Messiah son of Joseph."

April DeConick has posted her questions about the Apocalypse of Gabriel and she raises an interesting point about most of Knohl's textual evidence:

I am a bit disturbed about Knohl's argument in the BAR piece, since the second temple passages that he quotes as evidence for a Jewish suffering messiah are from texts that have clearly been revised by later Christians.

After reading Knohl's article, I have to agree with her.  He notes that some scholars have linked his evidence to Christian circles, but he rather quickly dismisses them in an endnote.

More recently, see Magnus Zetterholm’s introduction to Magnus Zetterholm, ed., The Messiah in Early Judaism and Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), when he argues that the Jesus movement added a new element to the Jewish concept of messianism: a messiah of Israel who will suffer and die. This is now refuted by “Gabriel’s Revelation,” which had not yet been known when Zetterholm wrote.

I think this qualifies as "begging the question."  He dismisses Zetterholm by appealing to "Gabriel's Revelation," a text whose interpretation is so controversial and uncertain that it can't refute anything. From his comment, I think Zetterholm was exactly right, and yes, I have another book to add to my reading list on this subject.

Knohl appeals to work by Saul Liebermann on the issue but never engages the argument directly.  Knohl's evidence comes from the Babylonian Talmud, Joseph and Aseneth, Pesikta Rabbati, and the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.  All of these texts had their final redaction after the first century CE.  It's not even clear whether the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs was a Jewish or a Christian composition originally.  The Talmud and the Pesikta Rabbati were redacted much later than the second century CE.

When I read through his examples, my first impression was that all of the texts were reactions to Jesus of Nazareth in some way.  I'm not sure if it matters whether the texts were tweaked by Christians directly or whether the texts reflect a rabbinic response to Christianity in some way.

The point is that there is still no proof that a Messiah son of Joseph or a Messiah of Ephraim was expected as a "messiah of suffering and death" as Knohl claims.  When he gets around to discussing "Gabriel's Revelation," he mixes his terminology in a way that implies the stone mentions a "Messiah son of Joseph" explicitly by using that title interchangeably with the title of "Ephraim."  When I read his translation from the sidebar, the only mention of Ephraim is in line 16.  There are 3 references to David (lines 8, 16, and 72), and the controversial line about a dying, rising messiah comes in line 80. 

Knohl's argument that a Messiah son of Joseph was known in the Second Temple Period and was expected as a suffering messiah still lacks a firm textual basis - a controversial unprovenanced inscription and a handful of late primary sources aren't very convincing.

April DeConick also made an important point about the use of post-Christian sources to explore a question like this:

How can we tell if the expectation of the suffering messiah in these late sources is pre- or post-Christian? One way to solve this dilemma is to notice HOW MUCH of the early Christian literature is devoted to apology for the fact that the Messiah Jesus suffered and died, and how this was a "stumbling block" to the conversion of Jews. Why would the Christians have so much explaining to do if there existed a common Jewish expectation of a suffering messiah prior to Jesus? This is a question that is absolutely necessary for us to face, and it suggests that IF the expectation already existed, it was not well-known or well-liked. Or the expectation grew as a result of Christians explaining the historical experience of their crucified Messiah Jesus.

The fact that the Gospels present the death of Jesus as a completely unexpected turn-of-events for the disciples who believed he was the messiah makes Knohl's search for a suffering messiah before Jesus very difficult because if the idea was known at all, it was a minority view.

[April DeConick has collected an index of links related to the Vision of Gabriel inscription here.  The links include the early publications of the text, Knohl's work on the text, and the mainstream media coverage of it.  Paleojudaica also has several posts related to the stone and a post at NT Gateway collects some of the early blog reactions to the inscription from July.  And my post from yesterday has links to all of my previous posts on the inscription and the issue of messianism.]

No comments:

Post a Comment