I recommend reading my earlier blog-post: Constantine: Christianity’s True Catalyst/Christ before starting this one to gain a little perspective of 1st century Jerusalem under the Roman Empire’s sphere of influence, in particular the influence of Emperor Constantine.
The canonical-Gospel writers paint a different picture of Jesus’ life and death than what the surrounding historical traditions of the period paint. Around most of Judaism’s various sects, including the Diaspora, and throughout post-Davidic traditions, the modern story of a suffering Messiah was supposedly unheard of until after Jesus’ death; a unique tragedy. Most New Testament Christian scholars argue that a suffering Messiah was completely uncommon in the time prior to Jesus’ life or during his life. Prior to Jesus’ birth in 4 BCE, claims as the Messiah or the arrived Savior/Redeemer of David’s oppressed people are mentioned in the Gospels, e.g. Matthew 24 and Mark 13, Luke 3: 14-16, 22: 66-68, 24: 46 and John 7: 42, and 12: 34. It is inferred from these passages that Messianic expectancy was active and alive among all Jews for a very long time. But not a suffering or crucified Messiah. This was the apparent reason the canonical-Gospel Jesus was such a controversy during his life among fellow Jews. This has been the traditional Christian view since the Apostle Paul’s first letters and public preaching. But this is not the entire picture.
What isn’t widely known today is that there is strong evidence of at least two suffering Messiahs PRIOR to Jesus. As a matter of fact, contrary to the Greco-Roman Gospel traditions, the story of a suffering Messiah was much more common around the empire and outlying trade routes than Constantine’s bishops would have been comfortable tolerating or allowing.
Did you know that Flavius Josephus, the Jewish-Roman historian that many Christian apologists reference, writes about two earlier Messiahs other than Jesus? Simon of Peraea and Anthronges were both claimants and both killed by the Romans. Following the death of Jesus there were as many as four further claimants by 70 CE, then two more by 135 CE (see Wikipedia’s page on Jewish Messiah Claimants). Interestingly, Josephus names Roman emperor Vespasian as one of the Messianic claimants. This unusual designation by a Jewish-Roman historian indicates an established trend of Rome’s ruling figures to keep up control of outer provinces, including Judea, by any means necessary even if it meant hijacking their Messianic traditions and making it their own; something Constantine turned into reality 255 years later. What is important to note here is in a region such as 1st century Judea and Jerusalem who constantly rebelled against their rulers in Rome, the context of those unsuccessful rebel-Messiahs were intentionally handled and later scripted with Roman interests in mind, NOT local Jewish interests.
Messianic traditions were not exclusive to Judaism. The traditions already existed in Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism, religions founded well before Constantine’s Christianity began. This makes Messianic expectations in whatever form common and not unique by the time Jesus arrives in Jerusalem. The last religion mentioned is of particular interest. Zoroastrianism was founded between 1500-1200 BCE by the Persian prophet Zarathustra in what is now modern-day Iran. Many Antiquities and religious scholars trace ‘anointed King’ traditions back to Zoroastrian stories. As the kingdoms of Judea and Israel were often conquered by near eastern empires then exiled to foreign lands, inevitably some of the victors beliefs and traditions are assimilated into each other. This morphing is widely accepted by historians. Dr. Abraham Valentine Williams Jackson, an American specialist on Indo-Iranian languages writes:
“The typical passage is found in the Hþtokht Nask (Yt. 22. 1-36; and compares Vistþsp Yasht, Yt. 24. 53-64). For the first three nights after the breath has left the body the soul hovers about the lifeless frame and experiences joy or sorrow according to the deeds done in this life. On the dawn of the fourth day the soul takes fight from earth…”
Note: compare this to the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday, and his resurrection on Monday (the dawn of the fourth day).
“The author has attempted in his article in the Biblical World to show how much the Messiah-idea in Judaism and the Saoshyant-idea in Mazdaism, probably taught by Zarathushtra himself, resemble each other.”
“The similarity between it (the Zoroastrian doctrine of the future life and the end of the world) and the Christian doctrine is striking and deserve more attention on the side of Christian theology, even though much has been written on this subject.”
American archaeologist and historian James H. Breasted found:
“There is plenty of evidence that the post-exilic religious development of the Hebrews was affected by the teachings of Zarathushtra, and that among the international influences to which the development of Hebrew morals was exposed, we must include also the teachings of the great Medo-Persian Prophet.”
“It was not until the rise of the Chaldean power (Neo-Babylonian) in the 6th century B.C. and the subsequent supremacy of the Persians after Cyrus, that the Babylonians disclosed outstanding intellectual interests and their noble astronomers laid the foundations upon which the astronomical sciences of the Greeks was later built up.”
English-born political philosopher John N. Gray and author of the book Near Eastern Mythology states:
“The Persians had their own mythology, or rather their own conception of the natural and supernatural order, formulated by the religion of Zarathushtra. This cosmic philosophy, influenced by Babylonian astronomy, had an effect on late Jewish thought and Messianic expectations.”
Writing down or documenting events was typically expensive and reserved mostly for select specialized individuals in 1st century Palestine and Judea. Naturally, the spoken word or public speaking was commonly used regarding news-worthy stories or to do commercial business. It is well established that the three common languages around 1st century Jerusalem were Greek (Roman), Hebrew (Jews), and Arabic (near eastern empires). Jesus most definitely spoke Arabic and Hebrew, and likely knew enough Greek to get by (for further reading see Aramaic language-Imperial Aramaic). It is conceivable that Jesus’ Arabian-Jewish heritage played a significant part in his own Messianic projection but also signifies that Messianic traditions were not exclusive to Judaism and equally likely they were brought to Judaism.
In July 2008 The New York Times released a news article Ancient Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection raising questions about the uniqueness of the traditional Christian Messiah, as well as the validity of the canonical-Gospel’s rendition of the resurrection selected by Constantine’s bishops. When Antiquities collector David Jeselsohn purchased the tablet, he had no clue of its origins or implications. The writing on the stone dates to the latter part of the 1st century during other Dead Sea literature of the time and prior to the birth of Jesus. It is referred to as The Jeselsohn Tablet or Gabriel’s Revelation Stone. The controversy among scholars of biblical archaeology lies in one specific line of the tablet. National Geographic Expedition Week aired this episode about the tablet (below in two parts):
Go to this webpage for the next part Lessons from Another Messiah. It could not be embedded here; my apologies.
It is important to keep in mind that after the three Jewish rebellions of 66-70 CE, 115-117 CE, and 132-135 CE much of the Hebrew speaking population of Judea was wiped-out and with it widespread spoken traditions of a Messiah. From these fragmented remnants sprang the diverse earliest Jewish-Christians which eventually spread into an eastern empire social welfare system by the time of Trajan and on into Constantine’s reign.
With the combination of the Jeselsohn Tablet and the surfacing of original 1st century BCE Jewish Messianic traditions (e.g. Dead Sea Scrolls), it is becoming more clear that the Greco-Roman version of Christianity founded by Constantine’s bishops reflects only small portions of Judaic Messianism in its true eschatological forms. What does this mean then to modern Christianity?
Dr. Israel Knohl of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (and in above videos) is part of a group of Jewish historians and theologians that concentrate on reestablishing Jesus’ Jewish roots, in particular to the teachings of Hillel, a 1st century BCE liberal Jewish rabbi. Because of the linguistic dating of the Jeselsohn Tablet it falls nicely into place with Hillel, and probably well-known to an adolescent Jesus. If the tablet does indeed end up predating Jesus and the scientific community are able to determine that one “lost” Hebrew letter, the implications on traditional Christianity are profound on many levels. The most significant of these effects would be on the resurrection and ascension of Jesus being based on an earlier Jewish Messianic story (Simon of Peraea) and not on any real events. Other effects would be on Christian exclusivity, atonement, salvation, incarnation, the Holy Trinity, and the virgin birth…all misrepresented by Constantine’s bishops. Dr. Israel Knohl describes it this way:
“This should shake our basic view of Christianity. Resurrection after three days becomes a motif developed before Jesus, which runs contrary to nearly all scholarship. What happens in the New Testament was adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story. … [Jesus’] mission is that he has to be put to death by the Romans to suffer so his blood will be the sign for redemption to come. This is the sign of the son of Joseph. This is the conscious view of Jesus himself. This gives the Last Supper an absolutely different meaning. To shed blood is not for the sins of people but to bring redemption to [the nation of] Israel.
This sheds new light on the messianic activity of Jesus. It proves that the concept of the messiah was already there before Jesus. … This is evidence that the idea of a suffering messiah, put to death and coming back to life after three days was known to at least a group of Jews.”
Due to the might and influence of the Roman Empire upon its conquered, uncovering the real roots of Christianity, or more accurately Jewish-Christianity, has been by the hands of modern-day science and academia. In their acclaimed books James the Brother of Jesus by Robert H. Eisenman and The Lost Christianities by Bart D. Ehrman, both authors portray 1st century Jerusalem struggling to maintain its religious integrity while subjected to Messianic Zionism and Roman oppression. After the deaths of Simon of Peraea, Anthronges, and Jesus of Nazareth, religious historians know there was a group of Jews within and around Jerusalem that followed closely rabbi Hillel’s Messianic interpretations. This group would have included Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, close followers/disciples of Jesus and siblings including next in command, James. These Jews are sometimes called Ebionites. They believed Jesus was fully human and a prophet or great teacher, but completely rejected the idea of Jesus as God or the Son of God. It is these very Ebionites that the Herod-ian Jews of Palestine labeled as apocalyptic Messiah-militants and by extension not in the best interest of Rome. And interestingly Eisenman connects the Herodian Saul’s denunciation of old school circumcision-Judaism in Galatians 3 and 6:12 — remarkably a coincidental “evil” twin of the “Opposition Movement” of Essenes, Zealots, Sicarii, Nazoreans, and Ebionites referenced by Josephus documenting the Jewish revolts — as practically identical to Saul of Tarsus, aka the Apostle Paul to the Greek Christians that Roman bishops favored. It is right there that the difference between Jewish-Hillel-Simon-Jesus Messianism begins to compete with a Herod-Paul-Ignatius-Tertullian-Constantine Christianity over two and a half centuries…and loses. The birth, appetite and growth of anti-Semitism is in full swing.
With a historically accurate perspective on 1st century Jewish Messianic traditions and the Roman armies’ destruction of the Jewish Revolts and near annihilation of its Messianic rebels, it is not unrealistic to conclude that by the 3rd century CE the original context and purpose of Jesus’ life and death took on an entirely different meaning. As I mentioned in my earlier blog Constantine: Christianity’s True Catalyst/Christ, it was a customary Greco-Roman method to govern its foreign provinces by any means necessary, especially when your mission is to reunite the Eastern Roman Empire with the Western Roman Empire. Whether the Jeselsohn Tablet proves that Simon of Peraea was the first real suffering Messiah or not, or the bishops of Nicaea either got it all wrong or purposefully deified their own version of a Christ (Greek) through their canonical-New Testament, there is enough real evidence showing that the gap between our modern Christ — birthed from Constantine’s unification program — resembles little of its supposed Messianic prophetic fulfillment in light of the real Jewish Messianic traditions prior to Jesus.
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