Preexistence of the Messiah in the Talmud and its Implications for Christology

long time agoAs many throughout the blogosphere continue to wrestle with the new Bart Ehrman book, this has been a great opportunity to reexamine our interpretive presuppositions. Although it is admittedly difficult to ascertain the precise dating of comments situated in the Babylonian Talmud, this comment concerning the preexistence of the Messiah’s name is worth investigating:

Seven things were created before the world was made, and these are they: Torah, repentance, the Garden of Eden, Gehenna, the throne of glory, the house of the sanctuary, and the name of the Messiah…  And the name of the Messiah: “His name shall endure forever and has existed before the sun” (Ps. 72:17)  – b.Pes. 54a, tr. Neusner

The nature of this manner of preexistence is notional, being in the mind of God. None of these things, I argue, literally existed prior to the original creation. It seems that everything of extreme importance in Judaism was in God’s mind from the beginning.

Since this post is focusing on the nature of the preexistence Messiah, it would be prudent to note some of the biblical passages which likewise speak in the manner:

the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world. (τοῦ ἀρνίου τοῦ ἐσφαγμένου ἀπὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου) – Rev. 13:8

For He was foreknown (προεγνωσμένου) before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you – 1 Pet. 1:20)

If it can be reasonably concluded that Second Temple Jewish expectations of the Messiah carried an understanding of notional (not literal) preexistence, then such passages in the Gospel of John could quite reasonably be interpreted along similar lines:

“Before Abraham was, I am” -John 8:58

“Glorify me with the glory which I had with you before the world was” -John 17:5

 

Just some food for thought. Happy Monday.

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7 thoughts on “Preexistence of the Messiah in the Talmud and its Implications for Christology

  1. In the context of John’s Gospel – with clear assertions of deity in the first and twentieth chapters – it is not credible to suggest that statements in the eighth and seventeenth chapter may reduce Jesus’ status to a pre-existing “notion” in the mind of God.

  2. I toyed around with writing about this passage from the BT for a class. As I was reading John, it appeared to me that John was familiar with this tradition and thematically placed Jesus in the place of or over each of the 7 things that existed before creation. I may have been reading into it, but I have always wanted to follow up on this. Good grab.

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