A Jewish scholar challenges the received wisdom of contemporary scripture studies by contending that fragments of a Dead Sea scroll contain evidence of a suffering messiah prior to Jesus.
Knohl (Bible/Hebrew Univ.) proposes a thesis at odds with mainstream Scripture scholarship. According to what for decades has been the prevailing view, the notion of a suffering messiah was utterly foreign to first-century Judaism, so messianic claims made by Jesus in the gospels must therefore have been ascribed to him after his death by followers who picked up their ideas from non-Jewish sources. On the basis of certain Dead Sea Scroll fragments, however, Knohl argues that the notion of a suffering, redemptive messiah was indeed current in the Qumran community of Judaism prior to the time of Jesus. The fragments come from the badly torn “Thanksgivings Scroll,” which includes two hymns central to the author’s argument. The first, the “Self-Glorification Hymn,” speaks of an exalted figure who places himself on a footing with angels, but who has also known great suffering; the author argues that this figure was himself a member of the Qumran community. The second hymn, though, describes a time in which redemption and salvation are accomplished realities, and the author maintains that this blessed time had been achieved, in the community’s opinion, through the sufferings of the exalted figure in the first hymn. This mysterious redemptive sufferer, we are told, is thus the true author of “catastrophic messianism”—a Jewish conception of which Jesus was likely aware. The author’s thesis is daring; its soundness is for specialists to determine. Unfortunately, most of his study is devoted to identifying the shadowy sufferer referred to in the Scrolls, and the strain of this exertion presses his argument toward implausibility.
A brave attempt to discover more than ancient texts can reliably reveal. (11 b&w photos)