The Vision of Gabriel and early Christianity

April DeConick is skeptical of Israel Knohl’s new article in the Biblical Archaeology Review:

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.

Professor Knohl doesn’t think so, but in the article he acknowledges that others do. Indeed, his point (or one of his points) in the article seems to be that the Vision of Gabriel (in his interpretation) supports his thesis that those second temple passages are not so influenced by Christianity:

Several scholars have argued that these late passages should be traced to Christian circles.5 A leading rabbinic scholar, Saul Lieberman, has argued otherwise.6 I have agreed with Lieberman.7 I believe “Gabriel’s Revelation,” now published in BAR, supports the view that the tradition of the Messiah son of Joseph who is killed goes back to the late first century B.C.E. or the early first century C.E. Although much of the text of “Gabriel’s Revelation” has not been preserved or is difficult to read, enough is there to make these points.

So there seem to be two takes on this:

  • [Knohl] The idea of the “Suffering Servant” Messiah already existed in Judaism, or at least in some strains of Judaism, by Jesus’s time. The Vision of Gabriel is evidence for this.
  • [DeConick] The Messiah as Suffering Servant Messiah was either new with Christianity, or at best an obscure and unpopular idea that the early Christians, desperate to explain their leader’s shameful death, latched on to.

Not that these are necessarily all that incompatible: I don’t see Knohl claiming that the Suffering Messiah was a particularly popular idea.

I have nothing intelligent to say about the cited second-temple-era sources, and I have no idea what the arguments Professors DeConick and Knohl cite are (heck, even if I had easy access to the article Knohl cites, I couldn’t read them, because they seem to be in Hebrew). I will say something (not necessarily intelligent) about something else he says, though (please forgive the extended quote):

This may shed new light on what has been a puzzling Gospel tradition. In parallel passages in the Synoptic Gospelsb (Mark 12:35–37; Matthew 22:41–46; Luke 20:41–44), Jesus is teaching on the Temple Mount. Surprisingly, he rejects the idea that the Messiah is the son of David: “How can the scribes say,” Jesus asks, “that Christ is the son of David?” (Mark 12:35).

To demonstrate that the Messiah is not the son of David, Jesus quotes Psalm 110, attributed in the Hebrew Bible to David himself. As the text of Mark (12:36) recites, David speaks in the psalm: “David himself, inspired by the Holy Spirit, declared …” Jesus then recites a passage from the psalm:

“The Lord said to my Lord,
Sit at my right hand,
till I put thy enemies under thy feet.”

Jesus then uses this passage to prove his point: “David himself calls him [the Messiah] ‘Lord,’ so how is he his son?” That is, David speaks of the Messiah as “my Lord,” rather than as “my son.” The Messiah therefore cannot be a son of David. Using Psalm 110 as his proof text, Jesus here refutes the scribes’ view that Christ, the Messiah, should be a son or descendant of David.

This seems strange in light of the fact that, as I noted earlier, in both Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ lineage is specifically traced to David. I am inclined to regard the passage in which Jesus quotes Psalm 110 as a historically reliable passage in which Jesus rejects the view that the Messiah will be a descendant of David. Not only do versions of this incident appear in all three Synoptic Gospels, but the very fact that it runs counter to the genealogies of Jesus suggests that this contradictory version must be authentic. Otherwise, the authors of the Gospels would not have included something that so blatantly clashes with their frequent reference to Jesus as the Son of David.8

The inconsistency there does seem real, but, well, the Gospels (like the rest of the Bible) are not noteworthy for their consistency. And in fact in the Gospel of Mark, presumably the original source of the passage, it’s not terribly inconsistent—only once in Mark is Jesus called the son of David, and then it’s neither Mark nor Jesus who uses the term (it’s blind Bartimaeus, if you’re curious). The (inconsistent!) Davidic genealogies are only in Matthew and Luke. And really I think much of the point of the passage, especially in the Matthean version, is to emphasize Jesus’s is confounding the scribes and Pharisees (“scribes” in Mark and Luke, “Pharisees” in Matthew).

More to the point, I think it’s a bit useless to speculate about the historicity of the passage—we really are pretty much completely clueless about The Historical Jesus. Those second-temple documents may or may not have been influenced by early Christians trying to explain Jesus’s death, but the Gospels certainly were (um, that’s an understatement, isn’t it?).


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2 Responses to “The Vision of Gabriel and early Christianity”

  1. Leon Zitzer Says:

    We are not completely clueless about the historical, Jewish Jesus. What we are is completely dominated by a tradition that does not want to know anything about him and does its best to create confusion so that no one will care.

    What can we know? Several examples: The Pharisees helped to create a constitutional form of government where the Torah was the Constitution and a judiciary held kings and priests accountable for not abiding by it. The Torah was not a collection of laws. It was a collection of constitutional principles which human beings were duty-bound to interpret. So in Matt 5, you can see Jesus acting as a constitutional lawyer. To interpret Torah like this is to uphold it. God wants you to creatively engage in his Torah and that’s what Pharisees and Jesus did.

    There was also a Jewish teaching that it is useful to approach God with chutzpah. That comes up a lot in the Gospels. Jesus also taught the value of chutzpah in relating to God. There are enough sayings and parables there about this to make it pretty obvious. It’s just that no one looks.

    The Gospels also contain abundant clues that Judas never betrayed Jesus and that Jewish leaders never persecuted Jesus but tried to save him from a Roman execution. Thus, the Gospels do not use the Greek word for betray to describe Judas’ act, but a neutral word instead. Mark in particular is missing all the features of a story of betrayal. He never says anything negative about Judas, he presents no motive for his alleged treachery, no conflict with Jesus or other disciples, and no recriminations from anyone after the deed is done. This is not a story of betrayal.

    My point is not to prove anything here. It is only to point out that the Gospels are filled with fascinating information that scholars generally erase. Scholars have made everyone clueless about the historical, Jewish Jesus but the Gospels have not, if you pay attention. There is plenty of good information there if you open your eyes and heart.

    Leon Zitzer

  2. Jim Deardorff Says:


    Though I don’t favor Markan priority over Matthew, in Mk 14:44 I notice paradidous (“handing over,” or betraying, or “the one betraying him”). So Mark doesn’t miss that aspect of the betrayal story. The implication of betrayal has to be there if Judas had previously been a loyal disciple. Not that this is what actually happened, but it’s the way the Gospel writers (starting with a Hebraic Matthew in my opinion) wanted the story to read.

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