Was Jesus Divine, the Son of God? — 2. The Jewish Messiah

King David

This article follows on from The Adoptionist Problem, and is closely related to it. Most of what follows is well known, if not accepted by Christians. I am writing primarily, therefore, to ensure continuity and completeness in this series, but hope to add a few original observations.

In the previous article it was suggested that an earlier version of Luke’s gospel had God declaring Jesus King of the Jews, not the Christian Son of God, at his baptism, and that all four gospels have references, even if indirect, to his coronation. In the eyes of the authors, therefore, Jesus was the long awaited Jewish Messiah, whom no Jew considered to be divine. He was expected rather to be a human descendant of King David, and Matthew duly provides a genealogy tracing Jesus back to him. In Mark (11.10), as Jesus rides into Jerusalem, the cry is “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” In John (12.13), “the great crowd that had come to the festival” greeted him shouting “the King of Israel”.

Luke is the most insistent; in scenes nowhere to be found in the other gospels, he has the angel Gabriel say: “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David” (1.32). He also has the priest Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, prophesy, “He has raised up a mighty saviour for us in the house of his servant David” (1.69), and “that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (v71). In the context of history, this can only mean the Romans.

A preliminary observation therefore is that Jesus completely failed in the mission prophesied for him even by an angel of God! He never became King of the Jews, and later, the Romans actually won the war (66–74 CE) and completely destroyed Jerusalem. Yet that prediction remains in the gospel. Are we meant to conclude that the angel Gabriel and Zechariah, “filled with the Holy Spirit” (v.67), did not understand Jesus’s true mission? As is obvious to anyone reading the gospels in their current form, Jesus understands his mission, according to the same four authors who wrote the above, completely differently. How can this be? (Interesting though that question is, I won’t deal with it now, but return to it in a later article.)

A reasonable hypothesis is therefore that the historical Jesus was nothing like how he is portrayed in the gospels. He would have had to have been something along the lines of a military leader. At the very least, even if he did not intend to bear arms himself, he must have been closely associated with some rebels, military figures — as King the leader of a group capable of entering into a potentially winnable conflict with the Romans. The only alternative, more in keeping with the gospel portrayal, is that Jesus was a peaceful, spiritual figure, who entered Jerusalem to claim his throne, expecting divine intervention to come to his aid. After all, in Matthew’s gospel he had said: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (16.28). He might be referring to his own successful military mission but, in the light of other passages, he might also be referring to some supernatural figure. If that is what he believed, then, given what followed, he was completely deluded. The first option is therefore by far the more likely. (I suggest you don’t read it yet, but there will be an appendix later which explores the alternative version.)

Recent authors who have examined this hypothesis in detail are Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln in Holy Blood, Holy Grail¹, and Laurence Gardner in Bloodline of the Holy Grail². The first trio were independent, investigative researchers, who, as far as I know, had no foreknowledge of the material. Gardner seems to have inside knowledge — more of that later. If any reader is thinking that these are merely ‘alternative’ writers, lacking the credibility of ‘serious’ scholars, I should point out that the scholar S.G.F. Brandon came to the same conclusion³, and he was a Christian priest! Also relevant is Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan⁴, although I haven’t read that yet. On a wikipedia entry he describes himself as “a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and [was fluent] in biblical Greek, [and] has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades”. According to the same entry, his conclusion is that “Jesus was a political, rebellious and eschatological (end times) Jew whose proclamation of the coming kingdom of God was a call for regime change, for ending Roman hegemony over Judea and ending a corrupt and oppressive aristocratic priesthood”⁵.

Because Gardner seems to have inside knowledge, I propose to examine Holy Blood, Holy Grail first, to see what conclusions the authors come to purely on their own initiative, then look at Gardner, to see to what extent he agrees. What follows is a summary of the authors’ argument for the benefit of any readers not already familiar with this material⁶, interspersed with a few of my own observations in brackets.

Regarding Jesus’s status as potential King, they do not think that the Massacre of the Innocents in Matthew (2.16) was a real event, but assume that, if Herod were indeed worried, it could “only have been by a very real, concrete, political threat — the threat posed by a man who possessed a more legitimate claim to the throne than his own, and who could muster substantial popular support”. “Jesus would have been a priest-king of the line of David, who possessed a legitimate claim to the throne”. His mission would have been “to unify his country, mobilise the populace behind him, drive out the oppressors, depose their abject puppet and restore the glory of the monarchy as it was under Solomon. Such a man would indeed have been ‘King of the Jews’ ”.

They state that:

  • crucifixion was a Roman punishment for insurrection, whereas the punishment for blasphemy, what Jesus was actually accused of, was stoning, which could be authorised by the Jews, without reference to the Romans.
  • “Jesus was the victim of a Roman administration, a Roman court, a Roman sentence, Roman soldiery and a Roman execution”.
  • when asked by Pilate “Are you the King of the Jews”, Matthew (27.11), Mark (15.2), and Luke (23.3) agree that Jesus replies “You say so”, and John (18.37) has Pilate ask him “So you are a king?”, and Jesus responds “You say that I am a king”. This is usually interpreted as Jesus deflecting the question, therefore not answering directly. These authors, however, claim that in the original Greek this statement can only mean “thou hast spoken correctly”. (I am not competent to judge.)
  • an inscription “King of the Jews” is affixed to the cross, a detail which appears in all four gospels. (There is, however, an interesting variation in John, where Pilate orders the inscription to read “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”. The chief priests ask him to change this to “This man said, I am King of the Jews”, but Pilate refuses point blank. How are we to interpret this? He is presumably saying that he believes unequivocally that Jesus is the King of the Jews — and this is why he has to be executed.)

They conclude that “there is no question but that (Jesus) was crucified as a Zealot”, thus someone guilty of insurrection. “The two men allegedly crucified with him are explicitly described as lestoi — the appellation by which the Zealots were known to the Romans”. This leads us to the Barabbas episode. The authors are deeply suspicious about this. The free-a-prisoner policy never existed, according to modern scholars. Even if it did, there are some other bizarre factors that have to be taken into account.

According to Matthew, his name is Jesus Barabbas, a strange coincidence (although the NRSV notes that “other ancient authorities lack Jesus”). The authors research the name more deeply. Berabbi “was a title reserved for the highest rabbis”, thus Jesus Barabbas might be Jesus himself. Jesus bar Rabbi would mean Jesus, son of the Rabbi, and could therefore refer to a son of Jesus. Alternatively, abba is the name that Jesus uses to address God (his Father) in the gospels, thus Barabbas could also be translated Son of God, another weird coincidence.

Barabbas is also described as a lestoi. According to Luke, Barabbas “had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder” (23.19). Typically, Luke seems to be trying to tone things down, for Mark says that “a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection” (15.7). (What insurrection? There has been no mention of one. Why the insurrection, not an insurrection, as in Luke? Does he assume that the reader knows what he is talking about? Was Barabbas in prison with them, but not one of them? Or was he with them because he was one of them?) “Since Mark and Luke agree that Barabbas is guilty of insurrection, and since Matthew does not contradict this assertion, it is safe to conclude that Barabbas was a Zealot”.

In the gospels the only incident which might qualify as this insurrection is the one in the temple, when Jesus drives out those selling things and overturns the tables of the money-changers. The authors suggest that this was the incident in which Barabbas was involved, and therefore that Barabbas was one of Jesus’s entourage. (Perhaps this incident was much more serious than we are led to believe.)

There are various (apparently) militaristic references in the gospels, although their meaning, to me at least, is not clear cut:

“I have not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10.34). They (and Gardner) cite this as evidence of militarism, and it seems conclusive, but when read in context, it is far from clear that Jesus is talking about an insurrection against the Romans. (Even if he is, it is worth noting that this is part of a very strange passage in Matthew, known as the Mission of the Twelve. This is discussed in the next article in the series)

In Luke (22.36–38), shortly before the final drama in Jerusalem, Jesus instructs his disciples: “the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one”. (The meaning would seem obvious, but surprisingly, he then says that two swords are enough. Enough for what? Surely not enough to overthrow the Roman occupation of Jerusalem.)

In John (18.10), Peter is carrying a sword when Jesus is arrested, and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave. Jesus rebukes him, (but why, if he wanted them to be armed, presumably in order to defend themselves?).

Laurence Gardner agrees with the general thrust of the above authors, repeats many of their details, and adds many more of his own. In support of their primary claim that Jesus’s mission was to defeat the Romans in battle, he notes that the War Rule from the Dead Sea Scrolls “sets out a strategy for the ultimate battle, naming the Messiah as the supreme military commander of Israel”⁷. His most significant extra contribution is to disclose the true (he claims) identity of the twelve apostles most of whom, it has to be admitted, are little more than vague names in the four gospels. He reveals them to be significant figures in Jewish religious society, including several Zealots, therefore militant opponents of Rome⁸. He thus confirms what Baigent/Leigh/Lincoln had suspected when they said: “James, John and Simon Peter all have appellations which may hint obliquely at Zealot sympathies, if not Zealot involvement (p392). They also note there that “Judas Iscariot derives from ‘Judas the Sicarii’ — and ‘Sicarii’ was yet another term for Zealot… The Sicarii seem to have been an elite within the Zealot ranks, a crack cadre of professional assassins”. (Everyone knows, of course, that Judas ‘Iscariot’ was one of Jesus’s twelve apostles.) Gardner talks of “an influential Council of Twelve under their supreme leader Jesus the Christ” (which means Messiah in the Jewish sense), and notes that “the Qumrân Manual of Discipline details the importance of a Council of Twelve to preserve the faith of the land”⁹.

How is Gardner able to do this? How does he know things that no one else does? The back cover of his book states that he has been “granted privileged access to royal and suppressed archives”. He is also described as:

  • a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland
  • the Chevalier Labhràn de Saint Germain
  • attached to the European Council of Princes as the Jacobite Historiographer Royal
  • Presidential Attaché to the European Council of Princes
  • a Knight Templar of St. Anthony.

His wikipedia entry¹⁰ says that he also referred to himself as Prior of the Celtic Churches Sacred Kindred of Saint Columbia. The best guess would therefore be that, before his death, he was involved with various secret societies associated with the bloodline, which have, or claim to have, retained otherwise unknown information down the centuries. Wikipedia notes that some of the above titles “cannot be verified”, and that “historians and scholars regard him as a conspiracy theorist, and treat his work as pseudohistory”. Well they would, wouldn’t they? I have no way of knowing one way or the other, but his account of Jesus’s story does seem credible.

Appendix — the Opposite View

One author who has taken the divine intervention idea seriously is Hugh Schonfield in The Passover Plot¹¹. Here are a few of the most apposite quotes, beginning with those which reject the idea of the expected Messiah, thus Jesus, as a military figure:

“Quite commonly… the view is expressed that the Jews of the time of Jesus were expecting a Warrior Messiah, one who would win military victories over the enemies of Israel, and in this way accomplish the deliverance. The Jews rejected Jesus because he was a man of peace, who represented the love of God” (p39).

“In references to the Messiah up to the time of Jesus the conception of a Warrior Messiah does not appear. Among the peasantry of Palestine many did entertain such a notion… Those who took things into their own hands, the violent ones, who resorted to militancy, were strongly criticised and denounced by the Pharisees, who were the chief spiritual instructors of the masses” (p40).

“If they resorted to violence, if they even nourished hatred in their hearts, not only would they be playing into the hands of their enemies to their own undoing, they would be abandoning the path God had marked out for them as a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ to win the heathen to God… Many of the Pharisees taught in the same vein” (p94).

“Of the Branch of David for whom pious Jews waited it was written: ‘With righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked’ (Isaiah 11.4). The sharp two-edged sword of the Messiah would be no physical weapon, but justice and righteousness” (p40).

“The Son of David who was to come would be holy and just, ‘the Messiah of righteousness’, as he is called in the Dead Sea Scrolls, living in close communion with God and obedient to his will. It is by the word of truth that he will convict and defeat his adversaries” (p41).

“The ruling passion of his life was the coming of the Kingdom of God. For him it had its Hebrew meaning, the time when war and hatred would be banished” (p209).

Here Schonfield specifically refers to divine intervention:

“The last stage of the evolution of the Messianic Hope envisaged the intervention of God by means of the Anointed Ones, ideal figures, a Prophet like Moses, a perfect Priest, a righteous King of the line of David” (p28). (This “last stage” could easily refer to the mission of John the Baptist and Jesus, its urgency and their belief in its imminent fulfilment, as portrayed in the gospels — see the next article in the series.)

“The spiritual infirmity of Israel would be helped by the intervention of God. To become worthy of this interposition was imperative”. “The desire to merit God’s intervention had become deadly serious” (p31). (This would explain John the Baptist’s call for repentance and the forgiveness of sins.)

The scholar Bart Ehrman also notes similar ideas among the Essene community who had “devoted their lives to purity in light of their belief that they were living at the end of time. Soon, they believed, God would intervene in history to overthrow the forces of evil and to reward his righteous ones”. Some of the books of the Dead Sea Scrolls refer to “the end of time when the forces of good (on the side of the members of the community) do battle with the forces of evil (the Devil and his earthly representatives — e.g. the Roman armies), overcoming them prior to the appearance of God’s kingdom on earth”. (Although Jesus in the gospels shares such ideas, Ehrman does not believe that he was himself an Essene.) He also lists the four major tenets of apocalyptic belief, one of which is vindication: “God will then intervene on behalf of those who have sided with him”. “He will overthrow all the forces of evil in a cataclysmic act of judgment, destroying the Devil and all his powers and bringing his good kingdom here on earth”¹².

So there we have it, the Jesus of the gospels, apart from suggestions of his divinity which he refutes, is completely in line with Schonfield’s vision of the Jewish Messiah.

Conclusion

In this article I have explored two different understandings of the Jewish Messiah. Baigent/Leigh/Lincoln make an impressive case that Jesus was more militarily minded than he would appear in the gospel accounts. Evidence against this would be the attitude of Pilate, who seems to want to go out of his way to free Jesus, which could not possibly be the case if he indeed posed any threat to the Roman occupation — Pilate had already had many insurgents crucified. He insists that he can find no fault in him. This notwithstanding, if it is true that Jesus was the leader of a military campaign against the Romans, the conclusion that all modern Christians have to take on board is that (the historical) Jesus was a failed (Jewish) Messiah. They should ponder that deeply, and wonder what we are to make of all the passages in the New Testament which claim that he had a different, secret agenda, which his disciples did not understand at the time.

If, on the other hand, Schonfield’s understanding is correct, we have to accept that Jesus was someone who trusted absolutely in God, but was completely let down. His faith in God was therefore delusional.

I am not sure which of those two scenarios is preferable for Christians. If the idea of divine intervention is the correct one, however, it opens up a whole new level of meaning to the words attributed to Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

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I hope you have enjoyed this article. I am now engaged in what will be a long series of articles about Christianity, but have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, politics, astrology. All these articles and blogposts are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).

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Footnotes:

1. Arrow, 1996. The first two of these authors went on to explore the hypothesis further in The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, Corgi 1991, and Arrow, 2006.

2. Element, 2002

3. Jesus and the Zealots, Manchester, 1967

4. Westbourne Press, 2014

5.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zealot:_The_Life_and_Times_of_Jesus_of_Nazareth

6. as footnote 1, p362f

7. p18. Compare: “there shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse […] the Branch of David and they will enter into judgement with […] and the Prince of the Congregation, the Br[anch of David] will kill him […by strok]es and by wounds. And a Priest [of renown(?)] will command […the s]lai[n] of the Kitti[m…]”. (Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Penguin, 1998, p189)

8. as footnote 2, chapter 4, The Early Mission, Who Were the Apostles?

9. p39. The Manual of Discipline is also known as The Community Rule. Compare: “In the Council of the Community there shall be twelve men and three Priests, perfectly versed in all that is revealed of the Law”. In what follows, they seem like pleasant, peace-loving people. Then comes, they “shall atone for the land and pay to the wicked their reward” (Vermes, as footnote 7, pp108–109). We are left to wonder what that might mean.

10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laurence_Gardner

11. Originally 1965. I am working from the Element 1993 edition.

12. Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code, OUP, 2OO4. I am using the 2006 paperback edition, pp 30, 31, 33.

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Graham Pemberton

I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com