Myth of widespread messianic expectations early first C

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neilgodfrey
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Myth of widespread messianic expectations early first C

Post by neilgodfrey » Fri Feb 03, 2017 4:14 am

This topic is not about "Jewish prophecies of the messiah's arrival". It is not about the second century Bar Kochba rebellion. Nor is it even about popular beliefs and attitudes at the time of the 66-73 CE Jewish war.

It is about the historical evidence we have or don't have (that is the question) for:
  • widespread/popular expectations
  • of the appearance of a messiah figure to liberate Judea from Rome
  • in the early years of the first century, let's say up to around year 30 CE
The Psalms of Solomon were raised by several people in the discussion and since I have just read another's perspective on that text (Pss Sol) I thought I'd quote it here. It's by Kenneth E. Pompykala, in his published thesis, The Davidic Dynasty Tradition in Early Judaism: Its History and Significance for Messianism 1995. After acknowledging Geze Vermes claimed that the Pss Sol "represent 'mainstream Jewish ideology'" he comments:
There are, however, several weaknesses to Vermes' argument. First, his claim that the Psalms of Solomon represent mainstream Judaism lacks support.22 Indeed, it is questionable whether one can speak at all about mainstream Judaism during the first century BCE. Secondly, his contention that prayer embodies the non-academic and most normative religious ideology cannot be used to argue that davidic messianism was the dominant expectation among Palestinian Jews. All that can be asserted is that prayer, based on its popular use, may reflect the non-academic and normative religious ideology for people who used those prayers.23 How widely the Psalms of Solomon were used in the Second Temple period is not known. Furthermore, the didactic prayers in the Psalms of Solomon probably reflect more the ideas of learned circles than popular ideology.24 . . . .
Further discussions follow re the Eighteen Benedictions also utilized by Vermes. Then.....
Finally, other evidence about popular religious sentiment in the early Jewish period, such as one finds in Josephus, makes no mention of a dominant expectation for a davidic messiah....
Footnotes:
22. The community associated with the Psalms of Solomon is not certain, although a good case can be made for the Pharisees; but Pharisaical ideology cannot be labelled "mainstream Jewish" in the first century BCE.

23. Similarly, prayers from Qumran often embody ideas particular to the Qumran community, no one would claim that these prayers, simply because they are prayers, reflect "mainstream Jewish ideology."

24. Cf. D. Flusser, "Psalms, Hymns and Prayers," Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period (CRINT 2:2; Assen: Van Gorcum/Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 573, who writes, "It is difficult to assume that they were written for liturgical purposes or later became part of any liturgy." Cf. also R. A. Horsley and J. S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985) 102-106, who attribute Psalms of Solomon to learned groups.
Last edited by neilgodfrey on Wed Aug 16, 2017 11:35 pm, edited 3 times in total.

neilgodfrey
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Re: Myth of widespread messianic expectations early first C

Post by neilgodfrey » Fri Feb 03, 2017 4:17 am

Or would this topic be better placed with Christian texts and history?

iskander
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Re: Myth of widespread messianic expectations early first C

Post by iskander » Fri Feb 03, 2017 4:26 am

neilgodfrey wrote:This topic is not about "Jewish prophecies of the messiah's arrival". It is not about the second century Bar Kochba rebellion. Nor is it even about popular beliefs and attitudes at the time of the 66-73 CE Jewish war.

It is about the historical evidence we have or don't have (that is the question) for:
  • widespread/popular expectations
  • of the appearance of a messiah figure to liberate Judea from Rome
  • in the early years of the first century, let's say up to around year 30 CE

I often read and hear scholars and lay people alike saying that Palestine or the Jews generally were strongly anticipating a messianic figure to appear around the time when, lo and behold, Jesus happened to appear. This is so often said in a way that assumes it is a well-known and indisputable fact of history. But some years ago when I started looking for the evidence supporting this claim (I fully expected to find plenty) I found the task was not so easy. What was cited as evidence so often appeared to me to be vague, imprecise, ambiguous at best and very often simply not relevant -- not the sort of data that historians usually like to use as foundations for hypotheses.

I have since been reassured that I was not crazy or blind by discovering several reputable scholars who do say as much: that there is scant to no evidence for
  • widespread/popular expectations
  • of the appearance of a messiah figure to liberate Judea from Rome
  • in the early years of the first century, let's say up to around year 30 CE
I recently set out details of this [absence of] evidence in a series of blog posts responding to Richard Carrier's arguments and supporting citations attempting to establish a popular messianic "movement" in early first century Palestine.

The details are covered in that series of posts but I will outline them here:

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Yes, there are messianic references found in some of these. But they are in fact very few compared with the total number of scrolls and surviving manuscript fragments. This relative "fewness" does not lead us to think that messianism was a particularly major preoccupation of the sectarians producing or using those scrolls (assuming "sectarians" of some sort were responsible for them).

Moreover, the messianic references that do exist do not, if I recall correctly, give any indication that a messiah was to appear "within a few years/generation" around the early first century (or any specific period). One could write of a doctrinal belief in a messianic future without being hung up about it and getting everyone around enthused to expect it to happen "any day now".

Besides, one has to ask the extent to which the contents of the DSS throw a light on the beliefs and attitudes of the more general illiterate population.

Other Second Temple writings

The main criticisms -- especially relative fewness of the references, and their generalised (nonspecific) character -- raised re the DSS also apply here.

Often these writings speak of God himself directly acting in some future day of judgment. We are so accustomed to think of God doing this through a messiah that we sometimes read a messianic figure into these passages. But like the OT books, most prophecies about the "last days" do speak of God directly acting in the world and make no mention of a messianic intermediary.

Besides, is it not a giant leap to impute to the illiterate population at large certain emotional or psychological attitudes towards passages in these texts that attract our attention?

Were not those who read, studied and discussed such texts just a tiny fraction of a percent of a tiny fraction of a percent of the entire population?

The OT books

Much the same criticisms as above apply here, too.

As significant background reading I can also recommend Matthew Novenson's Christ Among the Messiahs. I have blogged a series on this book. The first two posts in that series address the problem of modern readers bringing their own ideological conceptions of "messiah" into their reading of the Biblical texts. Novenson points out how very often our concepts of the messiah are read into passages that would otherwise have no messianic associations at all. He further points out that our understanding of messiah derives from a period AFTER the Second Temple era and was not, at least according to the evidence we have, part of general Second Temple thinking.

In my first blog post I cover a wide range and history of scholarly views on the question. Novenson concludes that scholars assume Paul was countering a popular Davidic-conquering messiah notion of the Jews with his concept of Christ, but he finds no evidence in Paul that that's what he was doing at all.
At the present time, scholarly scholarly opinion on χριστός in Paul is an ironic position. While most of the major monographs, commentaries, and theologies of Paul now follow Davies and Sanders in reading Paul in primarily “Jewish” rather than “Hellenistic” terms, on the question of the meaning of χριστός they nevertheless perpetuate the old religionsgeschichtliche thesis that Paul is revising, transcending, or otherwise moving beyond the messianic faith of the earliest Jesus movement.
Novenson also remarks:
Since the last sixty years in Jewish studies have witnessed a dramatic breakdown in consensus about what messiah Christology would look like and indeed whether it existed at all in the first century C.E. (my emphasis)
In my second blog post I cover
  • what the popular messianic idea looks like -- its various facets
  • how that idea compares with text of the OT
  • the OT passages most commonly cited by Second Temple writings as information about the messiah
But in none of this is there any indication what the mainstream illiterate population thought about any of these ideas -- or even that they had the slightest idea that anyone was pondering them. Paul, in fact, can be interpreted as evidence that there was no messianic movement (apart from his own) in his time.

Josephus and Roman historians

Josephus speaks of an ambiguous prophecy that supposedly animated many rebels during the War. But we have no idea where that prophecy comes from or any indication that it had anything to do with a "messiah" figure. In the same breath he mentions another prophecy from the same source that clearly does not come from our OT writings:

Now if any one consider these things, he will find that God takes care of mankind, and by all ways possible foreshows to our race what is for their preservation; but that men perish by those miseries which they madly and voluntarily bring upon themselves;

for the Jews, by demolishing the tower of Antonia, had made their temple four-square, while at the same time they had it written in their sacred oracles, “That then should their city be taken, as well as their holy house, when once their temple should become four-square.”

But now, what did the most elevate them in undertaking this war, was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how,” about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.” The Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular, and many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their determination. Now this oracle certainly denoted the government of Vespasian, who was appointed emperor in Judea.

However, it is not possible for men to avoid fate, although they see it beforehand. But these men interpreted some of these signals according to their own pleasure, and some of them they utterly despised, until their madness was demonstrated, both by the taking of their city and their own destruction.
Now if any one consider these things, he will find that God takes care of mankind, and by all ways possible foreshows to our race what is for their preservation; but that men perish by those miseries which they madly and voluntarily bring upon themselves;

for the Jews, by demolishing the tower of Antonia, had made their temple four-square, while at the same time they had it written in their sacred oracles, “That then should their city be taken, as well as their holy house, when once their temple should become four-square.”

But now, what did the most elevate them in undertaking this war, was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how,” about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.” The Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular, and many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their determination. Now this oracle certainly denoted the government of Vespasian, who was appointed emperor in Judea.

However, it is not possible for men to avoid fate, although they see it beforehand. But these men interpreted some of these signals according to their own pleasure, and some of them they utterly despised, until their madness was demonstrated, both by the taking of their city and their own destruction.
Historians have also noted that Josephus had a very strong motivation for making much more of this prophecy than may have been the historical reality. The prophecy served the political interests of an emperor who rose from "lesser social ranks", Vespasian. Other historians of his day repeated it, thus indicating that Vespasian found it very useful to propagate in an effort to legitimize his rule. Josephus's life was saved by it, too. So we have ample evidence to detect the political and personal functions of this prophecy, and reason to expect Josephus to make it much more of a "thing" than it was at its source -- whatever that was.

But here we so often find modern "messianic biases" interfering with our reading. Here some warnings from William Scott Green are useful:
The major studies [of the messiah at the turn of the Christian era] have sought to trace the development and transformations of putative messianic belief through an incredible and nearly comprehensive array of ancient literary sources – from its alleged genesis in the Hebrew Bible through the New Testament, rabbinic literature, and beyond – as if all these writings were segments of a linear continuum and were properly comparable. Such work evidently aims to shape a chronological string of supposed messianic references into a plot for a story whose ending is already known; it is a kind of sophisticated proof-texting. This diegetical approach to the question embeds the sources in the context of a hypothetical religion that is fully represented in none of them. It thus privileges what the texts do not say over what they do say.

. . . .

The term “messiah” has scant and inconsistent use in early Jewish texts. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Pseudepigrapha, and the entire Apocrypha, contain no reference to “the messiah.” Moreover, a messiah is neither essential to the apocalyptic genre nor a prominent feature of ancient apocalyptic writings.
Then after summing up various scholarly arguments used to "prove" the existence of popular messianism in the time of Jesus:
These arguments, which are representative of a type, appear to suggest that the best way to learn about the messiah in ancient Judaism is to study texts in which there is none.
So we come to those other supposed "messianic pretenders" Josephus describes -- Theudas, the Egyptian and many others from BC to CE.

In response I can only point to Green's warnings above. Not once does Josephus indicate any messianic associations with any of these. Bandit kings were surely not seen as "long awaited messiahs". Some of the figures (Theudas, the Egyptian, for instance) were in fact acting out prophetic roles, not messianic ones. They imitated prophets of old. And Josephus and plenty to say about false prophets.

It is often said Josephus did not write about "false messiahs" because he didn't want to "mention the war" to his Roman audience. That argument is surely very shallow given the way he is quite capable of identifying all sorts of false leaders, false prophets.... why not join in with this supposed Roman hate for messianism by making equal time to blast the "false messiahs" just as viciously? We would in fact expect him to do just that had he been aware of "false" messianic movements.

The Problem

Such, in outline, are the flaws that I see in the evidence that is usually cited to claim that early first century Palestine was experiencing a wave of messianic fervour.

The evidence for such a social phenomenon at that time and place simply does not exist. The data that is said to be that evidence is, I submit, only testimony to such a movement if we read our preconceptions into Josephus and other writings.
Since Daniel there existed in the Jewish life the expectation of a redeemer and Jesus is a result of it.
This preaching of yours is becoming tiresome apologetics,
E pur si muove

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Re: Myth of widespread messianic expectations early first C

Post by Peter Kirby » Fri Feb 03, 2017 7:52 am

neilgodfrey wrote:Or would this topic be better placed with Christian texts and history?
It's good for either one, but I will move it to Christian Texts and History in hope that it gets a larger response there.
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Re: Myth of widespread messianic expectations early first C

Post by Giuseppe » Fri Feb 03, 2017 8:13 am

My problem with this view (no widespread/popular expectations of an ''Anointed'' in I CE) is that the only way to explain the so-called ''CHRESTIANI'' in Tacitus is to see them as followers of CHRESTUS, meaning simply the Jewish CHRIST, at least as a coming anti-Roman vendicative figure (not even a man being really there on the play). This may explain why Pliny wondered about the unexpected pacifism of the Christians (of Jesus called Christ): they were strangely different from the more common messianists. This may explain why the emperor in person was interested about them (via Pliny's letter) and already he realized that there were pacifist 'Messianists'' and riotous ''Messianists''.

Usually the criticism raised against the identity Christus/Chrestus is that Chrestus was a common name and means ''good'', not ''anointed''. But the irony implicit behind the ''good guy''/''Chrestus'' could well be a caustic reference to the messianists themselves, seen as a apparently ''good'' fragrance whose toxic miasma are propagated throughout the major cities of the empire.

Shaftesbury called ''enthusiasm'' the religious hate/fanatism: a word apparently good is used to allude a negative fact.
Nihil enim in speciem fallacius est quam prava religio. -Liv. xxxix. 16.

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Re: Myth of widespread messianic expectations early first C

Post by Giuseppe » Fri Feb 03, 2017 8:33 am

In response I can only point to Green's warnings above. Not once does Josephus indicate any messianic associations with any of these. Bandit kings were surely not seen as "long awaited messiahs". Some of the figures (Theudas, the Egyptian, for instance) were in fact acting out prophetic roles, not messianic ones. They imitated prophets of old. And Josephus and plenty to say about false prophets.
Did the Gospel Jesus himself bear the mantle of the prophet or the crown of the Messiah? According to Bart Ehrman, for example, the ''historical Jesus'' never considered himself messiah but other ''scholars'' disagree. Maybe the entire ''Christ'' affair is only alluded bedhind the figure of these false prophets: insofar the prophet prophetizes someone more greater than him, this someone is already there, maybe possessing the same prophet in a spiritual way. But then this would make the Christ figure more a spiritual and invisible one, than a militaristic ''visible' figure.
Nihil enim in speciem fallacius est quam prava religio. -Liv. xxxix. 16.

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Re: Myth of widespread messianic expectations early first C

Post by Secret Alias » Fri Feb 03, 2017 10:05 am

This topic is not about "Jewish prophecies of the messiah's arrival". It is not about the second century Bar Kochba rebellion. Nor is it even about popular beliefs and attitudes at the time of the 66-73 CE Jewish war.

It is about the historical evidence we have or don't have (that is the question) for:

widespread/popular expectations

of the appearance of a messiah figure to liberate Judea from Rome

in the early years of the first century, let's say up to around year 30 CE
But surely it is not difficult for anyone - not even those who dislike the Jews - to see why it is that evidence for hope and expectation that a Jewish king would destroy the Roman Empire and take over the world would not be well represented or as thoroughly represented as other concepts in the Jewish literature that survived from antiquity. I can't fathom what can account for your resistance to this idea especially given the fact that Jews were constantly at war with the Roman state in the period.

The facts are that the Davidic messianic expectation is attested in the Qumran literature - i.e. before the first century CE - and that it also appears in texts dated to the first century CE. Your point of emphasis is the word 'widespread.' In other words it is your contention that SOME Jewish MIGHT HAVE accepted the messiah, the son of David but that this belief wasn't necessarily WIDESPREAD.

Interesting.

So I assume you accept that the Jews were more or less constantly engaged in insurgent activity against the Roman state. I also assume that you accept that being Jewish necessarily involved a religious dimension. But - I assume - you contend - that there could be Jewish insurgent activity among a highly religious people and a highly restricted culture (i.e. one where religion governed every aspect of the lives of its members) but that MAYBE, somehow the insurgents were guided by an inspiration which was NOT motivated by scripture.

So how do we arrive at the truth? Well I would start with the fact that Christianity and the Bar Kochba revolt are signs of a sustained interest in the Davidic messiah and that the reason why texts associated with this expectation have not survived out of Christianity because Christianity redefined the Davidic messianic expectation in a way that was compatible with being a productive member of the Roman state. Some other points

I draw your attention to the fact that Marcionism denied any association between Jesus and the Davidic messianic expectation that was current among the Jews. The Marcionites claimed that they represented the original theology of Paul and zealously adhered to that 'original Christian faith.' I find this particular dimension to the problem highly instructive. For while what became orthodoxy embraced and encouraged Jesus the fulfiller of the Jewish Davidic messianic expectation, the Marcionites said that the Jews indeed promoted such a figure but Jesus or Chrestos represented something entirely different.

Why is this significant? I would argue that both the orthodox and the Marcionite traditions attest to a WIDESPREAD - and I stress WIDESPREAD - Jewish Davidic messianic expectation. Indeed if you only accept or consider the orthodox model you could argue that Jesus as Christ the Davidic messiah MIGHT imply that Jews COULD HAVE venerated a peaceable figure. There is no antagonism now with the idea that Jesus is said repeated to be the Davidic messiah AND he is at once not a warrior, not a blood thirsty general etc. If there were only the orthodox one might argue that the familiar 'son of David' messiah in later Jewish literature MIGHT have been a marginal phenomenon and that our existing attestations from the first century BCE OVERSAMPLE the phenomenon.

However when you factor in the Marcionite acceptance of widespread even universal Jewish expectation from the scriptures of a 'son of David' who was a blood thirsty man of war into the situation your emotionally wrought efforts to undermine the messiah concept in Judaism goes hopelessly off the rails. Even if you argue that Marcionism was merely a mid-second century Christian phenomenon which lied about its relationship with a first century Paul and its zealous adherence to his doctrines by 150 CE it clearly and unmistakably attests to exactly what you deny - i.e. widespread Jewish belief in a Davidic messiah.

Indeed the Marcionites pushed to the side this expectation. Justin also attests to this Jewish expectation. However the Marcionites go one step further and argue that the manner in which Jews looked for 'Christ' in the scriptures while the proper exegesis of the scriptures have nothing to do with Jesus. Surely this lays to rest any notion that the attestations from the 1st century BCE onward were not marginal but rather a near universal expectation among Jews.

Now one more point which is worth considering and goes far beyond your limited knowledge of Judaism (other than the kooky books you delve into) - there are countless other examples of things Jewish had to know about, had to practice, had to venerate which have been wiped from the historical record. By your logic i.e. if it isn't attested it never existed or wasn't fundamental to first century Judaism - appears entirely laughable and again motivated by hate. For instance:

1. the sabbatcal years. There are no documents which explain the manner in which Jews calculated and venerated the shemittah and Jubillees. The reason is obvious now. Messianic uprisings were timed to correspond with these years. But by your logic they didn't exist. The Jews didn't venerate 'years of favor.' Stupid
2. the person of Moses. Surprisingly little is found in the surviving rabbinic literature about Moses. The Samaritans by contrast obsess about this seminal figure. But in Jewish literature from the early period he is avoided. Why is that? Because obviously Moses was another inspiration for the revolution as the god-Man leader of the community.
3. anything in the way of commentaries on the Torah outside of the Book of Exodus. If you look at the Jewish literature which survives disproportionate attention is shown toward the Prophets and other 'human' books. Indeed the later rabbinic authorities typically cite indiscriminately from all parts of what we would call 'the Old Testament.' However it is clear and logical that in the Second Commonwealth period the Pentateuch held a higher 'holiness.' Indeed the entire temple service was dependent upon it. What accounts for the change? Clearly the destruction of the temple. It must have been difficult to reconcile the holiness of a book which directs Israel toward sacrifices and things that require a tabernacle. Judaism seems to have gotten around this situation by placing undue emphasis on the prophetic writings. But this was just one reaction to the situation after the Jewish War. The point of fact is that once again we have evidence that contemporary history changed Judaism and the practice of the Jewish religion.

I don't have time for such stupidity as this. Back to my real life. Enjoy your continued undermining of yet another Biblical tradition.
“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.”
― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

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Re: Myth of widespread messianic expectations early first C

Post by Kunigunde Kreuzerin » Fri Feb 03, 2017 11:26 am

neilgodfrey wrote:I often read and hear scholars and lay people alike saying that Palestine or the Jews generally were strongly anticipating a messianic figure to appear around the time when, lo and behold, Jesus happened to appear. This is so often said in a way that assumes it is a well-known and indisputable fact of history. But some years ago when I started looking for the evidence supporting this claim (I fully expected to find plenty) I found the task was not so easy. What was cited as evidence so often appeared to me to be vague, imprecise, ambiguous at best and very often simply not relevant -- not the sort of data that historians usually like to use as foundations for hypotheses.
(Just to give a positive feedback.) I see your point and I think your case is convincing.

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Re: Myth of widespread messianic expectations early first C

Post by kennethgreifer » Fri Feb 03, 2017 12:32 pm

I know that your topic is about Messianic expectations from around 2000 years ago, but I was wondering how anyone would really know what it was then? In order to prove that your topic is impossible to really know, I would like to ask you if there is a widespread Messianic expectation right now among the Jewish people and the Christian people separately? Isn't it subjective because there are different groups all around the world from each religion with different expectations? I hope you will take my question seriously because I think the answer is impossible to pin down for the present, so I doubt you could do it for 2000 years ago.

Kenneth Greifer

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Re: Myth of widespread messianic expectations early first C

Post by neilgodfrey » Fri Feb 03, 2017 2:59 pm

iskander wrote:
Since Daniel there existed in the Jewish life the expectation of a redeemer and Jesus is a result of it.
And the evidence for this is?

These sorts of claims are made all the time. Yesterday I was listening to a radio discussion on why people believe falseshoods so easily and the old Goebbels line came to the fore again: anything that is repeated regularly becomes increasingly accepted as true. (And anything to the contrary does indeed become "tiresome".)

I discuss the evidence of the Daniel prophecy in some detail at Questioning Carrier: Was the Book of Daniel Really a “Key Messianic Text”?

In that article I question the twin claims found commonly enough but as expressed by Carrier in his recent book:
(a) The pre-Christian book of Daniel was a key messianic text, laying out what would happen and when, partly inspiring much of the very messianic ferver of the age, which by the most obvious (but not originally intended) interpretation predicted the messiah’s arrival in the early first century, even (by some calculations) the very year of 30 ce.

(b) This text was popularly known and widely influential, and was known and regarded as scripture by the early Christians.

(Carrier 2014, p. 83)
Examine the evidence and I think we find that yes, Daniel was certainly popular and widely influential. Agreed, no doubt. But no, there is scant evidence that it was considered a "key messianic text".

In the blog post I set out a table showing DSS references to Daniel passages and show that despite the many Daniel quotations there is not one Danielic reference to a messiah. (Or rather, the only time DSS speaks of an "anointed one" in the context of Daniel is when the term refers to a prophet, not our Davidic or conquering messianic figure.

Daniel 9:24-26, the source of supposed interest in messianic time-tables, is absent from Qumran and the Gospels.

(In the blog post I address some of the details of the origins of our assumptions that this passage was a popular text for people trying to calculate the date of the appearance of the messiah. This particular "myth" seems to have been first recorded in Syncellus's Chronography -- and there we see that the mathematical calculations did not start with Daniel, but with Luke 3:1 and worked backwards.)

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