Jewish Anticipations of a Suffering Christ

Was a suffering Messiah a surprise?

It need not have been: there were psalms of a suffering, lamenting king. There was Isaiah 53. Plenty of precedent existed for claiming that the Messiah would die. And, the NT writers depict this suffering as the focal point of the OT’s anticipations of Jesus (e.g., Luke 24).

In his final argument for the Jewish nature of the early church’s claims, Daniel Boyarin argues that a suffering Messiah is at home in the exegetical traditions of Judaism.

He wants to argue that the church’s construction of a suffering messiah is not a theology that was created after the fact, in light of its conviction that the suffering one was (and is) the Messiah, but a category that was already extant and applied to Jesus.

The chapter does not accomplish this.

What it accomplishes instead is the following: Boyarin demonstrates that one can use traditional Jewish hermeneutical moves to demonstrate from scripture that the Messiah had to die.

While he shows that the biblical interpretation is Jewish, he does not demonstrate that these moves had been made previous to the church’s claims about Jesus, such that he was simply fitting into one possible type of expected Messiah.

In fact, one might argue in parallel with Qumran that after-the-fact readings of Scripture in light of the realities being experienced by one’s community are, themselves, a hallmark of the type of midrash Boyarin sees in play in early Christianity.

He states on p. 132:

The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent.

What evidence does he offer?

He offers two arguments:

(1) The exegetical methods used in the Gospels are perfectly traditional Jewish, midrashic moves.
(2) Such an understanding of the Messiah as one who must suffer, in step with say Isa 53, continues in the later period of the Talmud, etc.

In other words, the evidence of non-Christian Jews making these precise moves comes from texts a couple hundred years later than the NT.

I think that Boyarin is offering in this chapter an excellent, challenging reading of Daniel 7 as a suffering son of man. In fact, I think that we should mine the suffering of the saints in Daniel 7 as part of what Jesus refers to when he says the son of man must suffer before entering his glory. I’ve not researched this possibility, but I’ve thought there might be something to it, and Boyarin encourages more research along these lines.

But to say that the NT writers use a Jewish way of talking about Jesus, and Jewish exegetical methods to demonstrate his messianic identity, is a very different thing from saying that they are putting Jesus into an already extant category of suffering messiah.

Such a category may have existed, but Boyarin has not shown it.

That Jews in the Talmudic period and later depicted a coming suffering Messiah in step with Isa 53, for example, does constitute an interesting piece of circumstantial evidence. It would have been easy, in the wake of the separation between Christianity and Judaism, to leave such argumentation entirely in the hands of the Christians. But arguing backwards a few hundred years is tricky business.

I have a few overall thoughts about Boyarin’s challenging and provocative book, including a revisiting of Jesus’ declaring all foods clean in Mk 7. So look for one more pass at Boyarin in the coming days.

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