'Whom Do Men Say That I the Son of Man Am?'

Article excerpt

The Messiah before Jesus

By Israel Knohl University of California Press 145 pp., $22

The University of California Press has just issued a small but mind-bending book, "The Messiah before Jesus," by Israeli scholar Israel Knohl.

Three years' research into Jewish messianism during the complex and treacherous Herodian era has enabled Knohl to make a stunning imaginative leap. Thanks to David Maisel's excellent English translation, we can consider Knohl's thesis that historical sources, including remnants of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, point to a self- declared Jewish messianic leader one generation before Jesus.

Not only that, Knohl proposes that Jesus knew of this earlier messiah, possibly through John the Baptist. If this is so, Jesus would have envisioned himself as this man's successor, with whom he shared a common destiny - that of the "suffering servant" who must be killed by his enemies and, after three days, rise from the dead.

"This slain Messiah," writes Knohl, "is the missing link in our understanding of the way Christianity emerged from Judaism.... A reconstruction of the story of the [first] murdered Messiah allows us for the first time to provide historical background for the account of Jesus' messianic awareness in the New Testament."

The impulse to reject Knohl's thesis is very strong. Removed by 2,000 years from the documents and events he describes, we have adopted other explanations. Some have the status of revealed truth. It's not easy for a modern Christian to give credence to the idea, for instance, that when an earlier messiah "appropriated for himself the concept of a redeemer with divine attributes," he had been influenced by the propaganda of Caesar Augustus, who proclaimed himself divi filius, that is, "son of God."

Yet Knohl's consummate scholarship and intimate familiarity with other scholarly work gradually persuades. His argument depends heavily on surviving fragments of two hymns from the "Thanksgivings Scroll," discovered in 1947 in a Qumran cave near the Dead Sea. …