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Who Invented the Idea of a Suffering Messiah?

For this week’s readers’ mailbag I give a very interesting and important question.



Where did the idea of a Jewish messiah dying for the sins of mankind originate from? OT? Did Jews prior to Jesus’ existence believe this notion of the messiah dying for other’s sins?



I deal with this issue in a couple of my books.  Christians often point to messianic prophecy about Jesus in the Old Testament and suppose the suffering messiah was “right in front of the Jews’ faces” all along.  In fact, it wasn’t.

Here is one of my fuller discussion from Did Jesus Exist?, where I talk about the issue in connection with the question of why Paul originally opposed Christians before converting to the faith.


Why, as a highly religious Jew, did Paul originally persecute the Christians before he himself joined their ranks?   It appears to have been for one reason only: the Christians were saying that Jesus was God’s special chosen one, his beloved son, the messiah.  But for the pre-Christian Paul it was quite clear.  Jesus was not anything like God’s chosen one, the one selected to do his will on earth.  He did not enjoy God’s blessing.  Just the opposite.  He was under God’s curse.  Evidence?  He was hung on a tree.

But why would that be a problem?  Wasn’t the messiah supposed to suffer horribly for the sins of others and be raised from the dead?  Not according to ancient Jews.  On the contrary, the messiah was not supposed to be killed at all.  It is at this point that we need to consider what ancient Jews, including the pre-Christian Paul, thought about the messiah.


Ancient Views of the Messiah

The word “messiah” is Hebrew, and literally means “anointed one.”  The Greek translation of the term is “christos,” so that “Jesus Christ” literally means “Jesus the Messiah.”  The origin of the term goes back into the ancient history of Israel, to the time when the nation was ruled by kings, who were said to have been specially favored, “anointed,” by God.  In fact, the king was literally anointed during his inauguration ceremonies, when oil was poured on his head as a way of showing that he was specially favored by God, as seen in such passages as 1 Samuel 10:1 and 2 Samuel 23:1.

Other persons thought …

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Degrees of Punishment and Purgatory
The Unforgivable Sin and Purgatory



  1. Avatar
    nbraith1975  April 9, 2018

    I was stunned this past Sunday when an evangelical pastor admitted that most historians believe that Paul only authored seven of the letters ascribed to him in the NT. He listed the seven letters and used only passages from them; stating that information from the seven authenticated letters was undeniably credible. It was his Easter sermon and he was trying to prove that Jesus rose from the dead by using mostly Paul’s Corinthian letters. The pastor’s point was that these letters were written only about twenty years or so after Jesus’ death, which made their content even more credible. What I found most interesting was that he simply glossed over the most shocking part of his sermon – the fact that a big part of the NT was obviously forged.

    This pastor is probably one of the most impressive and detailed preachers I have heard. This is why I was so shocked.

    Here is the sermon.

  2. Avatar
    stokerslodge  April 9, 2018

    Re “A crucified criminal? That’s worse than being crazy. It’s an offense against God, blasphemous. Or so thought Paul. And so he persecuted this tiny sect of Jews and tried to destroy them.”

    Bart, what means did Paul have at his disposal to set about destroying this “tiny sect” – given that Rome was in charge?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2018

      Oh boy I wish I knew. I’ve started thinking over the past year or so that he was beating people up. Or maybe having the synagogues punish them with flogging?

      • Avatar
        godspell  April 10, 2018

        I doubt he attacked anyone personally.

        There’s a story about Jean Calvin, in Geneva–he saw a former colleague, with whom he had some serious theological disputes. He pointed the man out to the community, which of course viewed him with great reverence. That’s all he did, was point, basically. They did the rest. Paul probably did something along those lines. Just raise awareness of dissenters. “Oh we got trouble–right here in River City!”

        Early Christians were mainly Jews. Part of that community, however unconventional in their beliefs. Therefore, they were subject to many penalties a gentile convert to Christianity wouldn’t have been.

        As was Paul, once he converted, and I imagine that might have been his version of penance.

        But since he survived so long, we can at least wonder if in fact anybody he persecuted was killed. Certainly placed in a difficult situation. I’d assume some Jewish communities were more tolerant than others.

      • Avatar
        jhague  April 10, 2018

        1. If Paul was beating up people, I assume they would fight back?
        2. And two or more people should be able to take on Paul?
        3. If the synagogue leaders were flogging, it would be their decision, not Paul’s, correct?
        4. If the synagogue decided to flog someone, could that person try to run away from them?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 11, 2018

          1. I assume so 2. Sure (depending on how many were on his own side) 3. Yup, but he may have instigated it 4) If it were me I would.

  3. Avatar
    ddorner  April 11, 2018

    In Galatians 3:1 is Paul saying that the Galatians were eye witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion? Or does he mean this in a spiritual sense?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 11, 2018

      He means “vividly portrayed as crucified” — i.e. in his own preaching.

  4. webo112
    webo112  April 11, 2018

    I think your line in the above post “…It came from historical realities. ”
    Is a great line that (at times) covers many of the starting points for much of the mythical and non-historical stories about both Jesus and followers.
    It is a line that should be applied to counter many of the Mysticism’s theories.

    I guess however, then the debate becomes what are the “historical realities” ? As even Price was not agreeing that Paul wrote his letters.

  5. Avatar
    Eric  April 13, 2018

    You stated above that none of Paul’s surviving writings use OT scripture to justify a suffering Messiah. But in other ways, was he an originator (or earlier practitioner) of reading out-of-context prophecy into OT text?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2018

      I doubt it. I imagine Christians before him were doing it too.

  6. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  April 15, 2018

    “Their King shall be the Lord (Adonai?) Messiah.” Is there any evidence that any 2nd temple apocalyptic Jews expected the Messiah to be God himself or a divine being?
    When Jesus is quoted as saying, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” do you think that is a deliberate reference to the Psalms of Solomon reference above to serving under the Davidic king’s yoke?

  7. Avatar
    dankoh  April 16, 2018

    There are scholars who read parts of Daniel and also the Qumran scrolls as making reference to the Suffering Servant, as a way of saying that God rescued his servant(s) before, and therefore will do so again. But I agree that no one prior to the Jesus Movement saw Isa. 53 as describing a/the messiah.

    However, I question your use of blasphemy. In those days (and after), blasphemy had a specific meaning: cursing God by name. Claiming that someone, crucified or otherwise, is or was the messiah may upset people, but it was never denounced as blasphemy. (Except in the reports of the evangelists, which only shows that they did not understand – or deliberately misrepresented – the term.)

  8. Avatar
    Edward  April 17, 2018

    The nation of Israel represented by King Uzziah, its king in Isaiahʼs time, died of leprosy.

    Was Jesus “despised [and] shunned by men?” According to Luke 4:15, he taught in the synagogue and everyone praised him. And huge crowds supposedly followed him, and he was described as making a ‘Triumphal Entry’ into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:8-11; John 12:12-13,17-19).

    Was Jesus ‘familiar with disease’ and ‘stricken by God’ (where the Hebrew word for ‘stricken’ is one that is used in the Hebrew Scriptures to stand only for leprosy as at Leviticus 13:3,9,20 and 2 Kings 15:5).

    Was Jesus crushed by disease? “the Lord chose to crush him by disease, that if he made himself an offering for guilt, he might see offspring and have long life…” Did Jesus see any offspring, or have a long life?

    According to Shmuel Golding, Isaiahʼs message may have been: “Here is your leprous king, who is in type suffering under Godʼs hand for you the backslidden servant nation of Israel” (which explains verse 6). Uzziah was taken away from the royal palace because of his affliction as a leper and spent his remaining years in isolation, which fits verse 8. Golding says the following:

    Israel is portrayed as a suffering servant on account of its anointed leader being stricken with leprosy. Israel, like the leper, is a suffering servant of God. Both have suffered humiliation at the hand of their fellowmen: the leper because of his unsightly appearance; Israel through its defeat at the hands of the Babylonians. The gist of the message is that Israel like the leper has suffered, but nevertheless will retain its identity in the form of the exiled Jewish people and that they will prosper in this form. [Shmuel Golding, The Light of Reason, volume II (Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Institute of Biblical Polemics, 1989), p. 36.]

    Also, per Ehrman, many readers fail to consider the verb tenses in these passages in Isa 53. They do not indicate that someone will come along at a later time and suffer in the future. They are talking about past suffering. The Servant has already suffered — although he “will be” vindicated.

  9. Avatar
    Veyron  April 27, 2018

    May I ask you guys what do you mean by “false memory” or “distorted memory”? Basing on what case or referring to which issue namely?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 29, 2018

      I’m not sure what you’re asking. These are terms psychologists use for memories that a person has which do not correspond to what actually happened.

  10. Avatar
    Veyron  April 27, 2018

    The topic about the Servant of Jahwe is an interesting one indeed. For the last two centuries, biblical scholars attempted to explain who is he… still with no satisfying result. I would personally say: scholars will “wander” in their researches/considerations as long as they negate a certain historically well documented figure. For some unknown reason, they scratched out his name from the list of potential candidates who could fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy related to God’s Servant. I think most readers know of whom I’am talking about.

  11. Avatar
    pbethala  May 21, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, if Isaiah 53 is referring to Israel, then how would verse 9 (“His grave was assigned with wicked men, yet he was with a rich man in his death, because he had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in his mouth”) apply to it? How would the burial (and, based on verse 11, the apparent revival) of Israel have been understood by Jews? Additionally, how does the statement “he had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in his mouth” apply to Israel given its sinfulness described elsewhere in Isaiah?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2018

      This is a metaphorical passage using figures of speech — it can’t be interpreted with strict literalness (any more than we can ask “how can you possibly think that the sun “rose” this morning?) The nation Israel is likened to a person, who suffers for the sins of others and then is vindicated. One common line of thought is that many of the elite who were taken into Babylonian captivity didn’t do anything (themselves) to deserve this, and so the “suffering servant” could be portrayed as (some people) suffering for the sins of others.

      • Avatar
        pbethala  May 23, 2018

        I agree with you there, but I guess what I was asking is what the Jews might have thought the burial and rising/vindication was a metaphor/prediction of. You raise an interesting point on the elites, though, and it would explain a lot in the chapter.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 23, 2018

          They would have thoght that the Babylonian exile was the “death” of the servant and the return from exile that he was hoping for would be his resurrection. Thta’s the message of this entire section of Isaiah (chs. 40-55).

  12. Avatar
    prestonp  June 5, 2018

    “Some Jewish thinkers, however, recalled the original promise to David that an anointed one, a messiah, would always be on the throne, and came to think that the promise would come to fulfillment in days to come. In some future time, possibly soon, God would remember his promise and bring a future king like David to rule his people.”

    According to the Jews who attempted to stone Jesus, they did so because a man was forbidden to claim to be God.

    It is interesting to note that if Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher and not the Messiah, many Jews at that time and in that area mistook His message.

    • Avatar
      prestonp  June 5, 2018

      Led by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. And when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for Him what was customary under the Law, 28 Simeon took Him in his arms and praised God, saying: 29 “Sovereign Lord, as You have promised, You now dismiss Your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen Your salvation,……” “There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, [37] and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. [38] Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”
      A few Jews did recognize Him before He was baptized to begin his public ministry.

  13. Robert
    Robert  August 25, 2018

    “Ask him [Richard Carrier] when the Targum dates from. … Yes, you’ll notice that he doesn’t talk about the date of the Targum *itself* (when it was written). Maybe he doesn’t know.”

    “Yup. Using the Talmud is a rookie mistake [of Carrier’s].”

    I have no sympathy for Carrier’s position, methodology, or contemptible attitude, but this is unfair. Of course Carrier is very much aware of the dating of rabbinic literature and he presents arguments (which I don’t accept) for why he thinks some specific elements of later rabbinic literature represent earlier traditions. This is no different than very experienced mainstream NT scholars who judiciously make use of some rabbinic materials. For example, the majority look to rabbinic usage of ‘shaliach’ as background for understanding the NT term ‘apostle’ given the lack of earlier parallel usage. You would not accuse CK Barrett, WD Davies, and DC Allison of making a rookie mistake in using the Talmud or questioning whether or not they even know the dating of the Targumim. Your own historical reconstruction of Jesus’ understanding and use of the ‘Son of Man’ expression finds it’s closest parallel in Medieval Ethiopic texts of the Similitudes of Enoch.

  14. Avatar
    Brand3000  December 24, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    That’s interesting, so is this correct: For the earliest Christians, after having the resurrection experiences of Jesus, his followers then looked through the scriptures such as Isaiah 53 to try to make sense of things and find a new interpretation even though they knew it would be a very tough sell?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 25, 2018

      Most of that is correct. I don’t know, though, whether or not they knew it would be a hard sell. They may well have thought it was a slam-dunk case.

  15. Avatar
    Brand3000  December 28, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman:

    Do you agree?:

    “When Jesus and his immediate followers went up to Jerusalem that final Passover, they were expecting an eschatological miracle: the coming of God’s Kingdom and, as part of that, the revelation of his messiah – perhaps, indeed the revelation of Jesus as his messiah. Instead, their hopes were brutally crushed…the men following Jesus fled and hid…His death – unexpected, traumatic, bewildering…[but later] this demoralized group did receive [something] they had not been expecting. They saw Jesus again, risen from the dead…[His Second Coming] would be public, [physical], indeed cosmic, its results unquestionable.”
    – Paula Fredriksen

  16. Avatar
    Brand3000  February 2, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman:

    In Galatians 3:13 Paul quotes: “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” Is this the key verse that was once Paul’s basis for his Anti-Jesus stand?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 3, 2019

      There’s no way to know for sure, but I’ve long suspected it was part of the problem. (Not the whole problem: the more basic problem was of a messiah being killed at *all*. See today’s post).

  17. Avatar
    RG959  February 15, 2019


    Isaiah 53:10- he shall see his SEED. The Hebrew word here is Zera, which comes from the root Hebrew word Zara, which strictly and literally means physical, carnal, biological offspring between two humans that have conceived child. I guess it refers to animals and plants but you see my point.

    Is there any SINGLE reference in the Old Testament where the word Zera means anything other than biological offspring?

    Christians claim (as you very well know lol), he shall see his seed can mean Jesus’ disciples, followers, those who believed him in etc… and not his/Jesus physical offspring; which clearly no Christian would claim had happened obviously.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 17, 2019

      I don’t know!

      • Avatar
        RG959  February 17, 2019


        I should clarify my question, does the Hebrew word Zera literally mean physical biological offspring between humans, animals, or a seed in the ground being fertilized producing a plant.

        Just like the Hebrew word BETHULAH, literally means virgin. Sorry if I wasn’t clear on that.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 18, 2019

          I”m still not sure. What other kinds of offspring are not physical biological? The word comes from the verb “to sow” and simply means “seed.” Or are you asking if it can be used metaphorically? Sure: God “sows” the nation of Israel in the promised land, for example.

          • Avatar
            RG959  February 18, 2019

            Christians would claim that in verse 10 of Isaiah 53 “he shall see his seed.” Is a metaphor for jesus’ seeing his disciples, followers, believers. Jesus seeing his seed.

            This seems implausible since the word Zera literally means physical biological offspring, which obviously Jesus has none of. Therefore the metaphor is in error and not really applicable to this verse. Hope that clarifies my point.

          • Bart
            Bart  February 19, 2019

            If it’s a metaphor it doesn’t need to mean literal offspring.

          • Avatar
            RG959  February 19, 2019

            Ha! Good point

  18. Avatar
    Brand3000  February 17, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you agree?

    “[Jesus’] designation as Lord also indicated his capacity to return to judge the living and the dead…Here was a [tremendously] provocative claim. Calling Jesus “Lord” after his death could only mean that divine status was being claimed for a human being. In Jewish eyes, this amounted to…committing the unforgivable sin of polytheism. It meant that Christians were breaking decisively with the Shema Israel.” ‘The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters’ By Luke Timothy Johnson p. 17

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2019

      Not at all. There were plenty of Jews who understood that humans were sometimes made divine. I have a long discussion of this in my book How Jesus Became God, with the proof.

  19. Avatar
    john76  March 11, 2019

    It has long been noted that Jesus believed he needed to suffer to fulfill God’s plan, such as demonstrated with the Gethsemane prayer, or Jesus rebuking his followers for not thinking he had to suffer. This has sometimes been thought to be due to an exegetical coloring of the gospels with Isaiah 53, although there is disagreement on this issue.

    Here is another avenue that might prove more fruitful as an explanation. In Book 2 of Plato’s Republic, Plato gives the example of the lowly impaled just man as a condition to determine whether one was just and whether this is preferable to being a happy unjust ruler. Sachs comments that:

    “If Socrates were to succeed in proving that justice by itself cannot but be good for the soul of its possessor, and injustice evil, he still would not be meeting Glaucon’s and Adeimantus’ challenge; for they ask him to show that justice is the greatest good of the soul, injustice its greatest evil. Further, showing this will not be sufficient unless Socrates thereby shows that the life of the man whose soul possesses justice is happier than the life of anyone whose soul is unjust. The latter is required of Socrates when Glaucon asks him to compare certain lives in terms of happiness. Glaucon envisages a just man’s life ‘bare of everything but justice. . . . Though doing no injustice he must have the repute of the greatest injustice . . . let him on to his course unchangeable even unto death . . . the just man will have to endure the lash, the rack, chains, the branding-iron in his eyes, and finally, after every extremity of suffering, he will be [impaled].’ ”

    So Plato proposes a sort of test for how to measure whether one is truly just, and whether such an individual would be “happier” in the technical Platonic sense.

    Plato’s Republic was the most famous book in the ancient world, so it is not unreasonable to suppose some of its themes may have influenced Jesus and his followers, even if none of them ever read The Republic. Perhaps Jesus thought it was God’s plan for him to nobly suffer as a criminal in society’s eyes like Plato’s impaled just man, because this would demonstrate him to be truly just and thus worthy of being the Son of Man/judge of people in the new age following the apocalypse.

  20. fefferdan
    fefferdan  March 14, 2019

    I’m fascinated by the process by which the early church came to see Jesus as fulfilling the Suffering Servant prophecies etc. I too see no Jewish source that believed the Messiah would die for mankind’s sin. His job was to restore Israel. And I don’t think he needed to be a literal descendant of David btw. After all, several other messiahs tried it without Davidic credentials both before and after Jesus. If we accept Luke 24.21, even after the crucifixion, the disciples still expressed belief in Jesus’ role to realize Israel’s political redemption. Even if Jesus himself wasn’t trying to become this Messiah and was only an apocalyptic preacher, the question remains as who came up with the idea: Paul, or earlier Christians who searched the scriptures to make sense of it all. Paul was in many ways an innovator, but I’m not sure about this particular point. Just got your “How Jesus Became God.” I’m expecting good food for thought from it. For now, I’m still picturing disillusioned disciples talking around the campfire and someone saying: “Hey didn’t Isaiah say something about the Servant bearing our griefs?”

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