'Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?'

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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.

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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. "These hymns," he writes, "are different from the other thanksgiving psalms [in the scroll] both in their language and in their forms of benediction." Not only were they inserted at a later date, but in tone they convey a sense of present redemption rather than the sense of guilt and hope for future redemption found in the other thanksgiving psalms. These two hymns, he claims, point to "a messianic movement that arose within the Qumran community" toward the end of the first century BC.

To better understand the specific historical setting and violent death of the Messiah of Qumran, Knohl has examined relevant passages from two apocalyptic works, the Oracle of Hystaspes (written by a Jew and preserved in early Christian literature) and the Book of Revelation. Those passages, he argues, are a polemic against Roman propaganda and contain parallel allusions to Augustus, the false prophet who would wage war on and kill the prophet of God, the messianic leader.

That, plus a preponderance of scholarly opinion that the people of Qumran were Essenes, encourages him to suggest a specific identity for the Qumranic Messiah - Menahem the Essene.

The capstone of Knohl's argument is a fascinating analysis of Jesus' use of the word "paraclete" in the Gospel of John. In ancient translations, the word was used to render the Hebrew noun "menahem" which, in fact, means "comforter." The reasoning by which Knohl proposes that Jesus was actually saying "another Menahem," thus implying that he himself was a Menahem and successor to the first Menahem, is convincing in context.

Is this book important to anyone but scholars? Yes, courageous, responsible scholarly work such as Knohl's deserves attention - and admiration. Knohl doesn't claim absolute truth for his argument. Far from it. But he is confident enough to place his hypothesis before colleagues and critics and let it be accepted, or not.

Linda L. Giedl is a freelance writer in Boston.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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