Monday, January 30, 2017

The gospel before the gospel

I've recently read Richard Carrier's "On the Historicity of Jesus" (OHJ). Its a big book. More thoughts likely to follow in later posts. But for now, this issue strikes me as important:

In Zechariah chapters 3 and 6 there is a character Carrier describes as 'Jesus Rising'. That is, in an old testament book, there is a character called Jesus (=Joshua, it's the same name) who rises in some (poorly defined) way. In the new testament, of course, Jesus rises from the dead. 

Carrier suggests that the Christian belief that Jesus rose from the dead could, in part, derive from a pre-existing belief that someone called Jesus would rise / had risen. Here's a bit of chapter 6 from the NIV:
9 The word of the Lord came to me: 10 “Take silver and gold from the exiles Heldai, Tobijah and Jedaiah, who have arrived from Babylon. Go the same day to the house of Josiah son of Zephaniah. 11 Take the silver and gold and make a crown, and set it on the head of the high priest, Joshua son of Jozadak. 12 Tell him this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the Lord. 13 It is he who will build the temple of the Lord, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two.’ 14 The crown will be given to Heldai, Tobijah, Jedaiah and Hen son of Zephaniah as a memorial in the temple of the Lord. 15 Those who are far away will come and help to build the temple of the Lord, and you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you. This will happen if you diligently obey the Lord your God.”
Erm, nothing about 'rising' there at first glance. The word in question, in verse 12, is translated 'Branch' in the NIV. More literal translations render this as 'sprout' rather than branch. That is 'sprout' in the sense of 'sprout out of', like a budding branch, or a plant breaking out of the ground. Still not 'rising'. If you translate your Bible from the original Hebrew into English, then 'sprout' or 'branch', or possibly 'emanation' is the best that you can do.

But have a look at the Septuagint (LXX). In the LXX, the word ἀνατολή ("anatole") is used as the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word צֶמַח ("tsemach"). Strong's definition of tsemach (H6780) is "sprout, growth, branch", whereas Strong defines anatole (G395) as "a rising (of the sun or stars)" or "the east (the direction of the sun's rising)". So a reader of the LXX would not understand the above passage to be referring to a 'branch' or even a 'sprout', but would only really have the image of the rising sun in mind. Something like:
11 Take the silver and gold and make a crown, and set it on the head of the high priest, Jesus son of Jozadak. 12 Tell him this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Here is the man whose name is Rising, and he will rise up from his place and build the temple of the Lord. 
So if a reader of the LXX took the words in verse 12 ('here is the man') to refer to the high priest in verse 11, he would indeed think he was reading about a priest called Jesus, whose name is Rising. That is "Jesus Rising". Maybe Richard Carrier is right?

But. Its a fairly convoluted path we've had to take to get to this point, isn't it?

It seems unlikely that many people would jump through all these hoops to end up with a belief that a priest called Jesus would in some (undefined) way rise up. Certainly, this is far from the mainstream interpretation of these verses. So is it too 'out there' to be worthy of consideration?

I don't think so. You see, nobody ever claimed that Christianity or Christian belief ever emerged from the mainstream Jewish consensus belief. They started as a fringe group, with some pretty 'out there' beliefs.

All it really would need is someone to interpret the LXX as speaking about a character called Jesus who would in some way rise up, and then speculate about what kind of even this 'rising' might be (we've all heard of believers like that), and teach others about that speculation (we've all heard of preachers like that), and it is entirely plausible that a minority belief could arise that there would be a high priest called Jesus who would rise (or had risen) (into the sky? from the dead?). If that rolling stone gathered a small amount of moss, its not implausible to see how this belief could have entered proto-Christian thinking before the early 1st Century. Zechariah wrote sometime BCE, possibly two or three hundred years before the emergence of Christianity. It is totally plausible that this belief could have become part of Jewish belief, on the fringes of orthodoxy, in that time.

So we could have had a proto-gospel, decades or centuries before the gospel message we know about.

Makes you think, doesn't it?