Cahiers du Cercle Ernest Renan, no. 11 (1956)
Edited and translated from the French by R. Salm (April, 2012)
Note: Editorial additions are in green.
(I have taken the liberty of placing seminal theses of Ory in bold—R.S.)
John = Dositheus
Most of the Church Fathers reported that Simon the Magician was a disciple of John the Baptist and of Dositheus. He was the favorite disciple of John, and at the latter’s death Simon returned from Egypt where he had gone to learn. After having been accepted into the group of Thirty by Dositheus, Simon eventually took the latter’s place, succeeding both John and Dositheus after a short period.
The history of Simon’s beginning must be much simpler—the account which has come down to us contains a doublet. It is probable that, being his favorite, Simon followed directly after the Baptist. There was no need for him to be accepted into the sect by Dositheus. One can even suggest that there were not two deaths of the leader in succession, for “John” and “Dositheus” are two variations of the same name. The name of the master was Dositheus in Greek, John in Hebrew—the announcer of God [“annonciateur de Dieu”] of which Dositheus is an exact translation.14
What we know of Dositheus’ life is confirmed by what we also know of John: each was head of the sect; messiah, baptizer, ascetic, the precursor of another “Christ” who would complete his teaching and takeover his disciples, and each died a violent death. Finally, both were associated with Simon and Helena.15
Dositheus was the Samaritan “Jesus”
The Clementine Recognitions, Philaster, Pseudo-Tertullien, and Jerome all portray the Sadducees as descendants of the Dositheans. They link the Sadducees to Dositheus, the precursor of Simon the Magician, who appeared before the public ministry of Jesus. Thus the role of Dositheus before Simon is analogous to that of John the Baptist before Jesus.
Origen (C. Celsus 1.57) reports a certain Dositheus in the time of Jesus, one who called himself “Son of God” and second Moses (Deut 18:18). Origen adds that the disciples of Dositheus believed that their master had never died. Krauss (REJ 43:36) theorized that this Dositheus was the Samaritan Taheb—Joshua/Jesus redivivus—who was involved in the insurrection of 35 CE, one suppressed by Pilate and mentioned by Josephus (Ant 18.4.1).
In that passage, Josephus reports that an unnamed prophet appeared in Samaria at the time of Pontius Pilate and became popular there. He promised the Samaritans that he would reveal to them the sacred objects which Moses had hidden on Mt. Gerizim. The Samaritans armed themselves and assembled at Tirabatha on a specified date, forming a crowd at the foot of the mountain.
The episode ended in disaster and blood. Pilate sent troops to occupy all the roads leading away from the mountain. They brutally dispersed the prophet’s partisans, killed some and imprisoned others.
The Samaritans had a reputation of faithfulness to Rome. They called upon Vitellius, the legate of Syria, and affirmed that there had been no question of sedition. Pilate was recalled to Rome to await the Emperor’s judgment, but Tiberias died precisely at that time (37 CE). Nevertheless, Pilate did not escape punishment, for we learn of his exile to Vienne, in Gaul. That is the last we hear of him. What is certain is that Pilate’s recall was due to his action against the Samaritans at Mt. Gerizim. We note in passing that, during this very time, the High Priest’s duties had devolved to Caiphas (36 CE). Thus, it was a period of double jurisdiction. This historical circumstance is reflected in the gospel accounts.
The legate thought the incident sufficiently serious that—besides the sanction against Pilate and Caiphas—at Passover of 37 he reduced the tax on fruit sales, a pacifying measure. We may even wonder if the removal of Herod by Caligula (successor to Tiberius) was not also a consequence of the political misstep by the trio Pilate-Caiphas-Herod.
Who could have been the Samaritan who inspired such repercussions—from bloodshed to the removal of rulers at the highest levels—at a time when the death of Jesus was quite ignored by history? He was in all likelihood a human messiah, a Christ.
Dositheus = Theudas = John the Baptist
Origen’s “Contra Celsum” informs us that a certain Theudas arose among the Jews before the birth of Jesus. Under the Samaritan name of Dositheus he affected to be the Messiah/Christ predicted by Moses. Remarkably, the name Theudas is Dositheus in reverse.
If Dositheus is nothing other than the Greek translation of the name Joannes, the “announcer of God,” are we not in the presence of John the Baptist?
Was not John executed under Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate shortly before Herod’s defeat at the hand of the Nabatean king Aretas? Was not that defeat considered, at the time, the just punishment by God for the execution of John? (Cf. Ant. 18.5.2.) That defeat took place in the year 36. The death of John would have been not long before, therefore around 34-35. This was the same period as the activity of his Samaritan namesake Theudas.16 At the same time, was not John himself Samaritan, one who died outside of Samaria? Furthermore, according to tradition, he was buried next to Sebaste-Samaria.17
We know that Flavius Josephus took pains to remove the messianic character from the prophet. Let us analyze what that historian writes about John. He speaks about the Baptist in connection with the defeat inflicted upon Herod Antipas by the arab king Aretas, whose daughter Herod had repudiated in order to marry Herodias:
Now, some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away of some sins, but for the purifications of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.18 Now, when others came to crowd about him, for they were greatly moved by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it should be too late. Accordingly, he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Machaeus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure against him. (Ant 18.5.1).
This account complements the one concerning the prophet abused by Pontius Pilate at Mt. Gerizim. In both cases a crowd assembles in Samaria and it appears clear that the assembly is without provocative or insidious intent. In the cases of both Pilate and Herod, only simple political precaution motivated their brutal aggression against the Baptist and his unfortunate disciples.
If we use this point of view to analyze the gospels, we will then find in them certain confirmations and details of considerable interest. We learn in them, for example, that John called people to experience baptism before the imminent end of the world (proof of a messianic movement) and that, in this baptism, John already began the separation of good and evil people.
According to this gospel account, Herod Antipas determined that John would die because the latter objected to his marriage with Herodias (the wife of his half-brother Herod), his own niece. This reason, if it is valid, would explain a political motive and the paranoia Herod nursed in regard to John.
14. Clement of Alexandria, Hom. II:22-24; Rec. II:7-8, 14.—G.O.
Ory may be correct even though his etymology is not exact. Dositheus is from Gk. δóσις (< δíδωμι, “give”) + θεος, thus “Gift of God” or “God Grants.” The Hebrew equivalent is יונתן (Yo + nathan) = Jonathan. The Greek Ιωαννης (Iôannês) follows a different etymology and corresponds to Heb. יוחנן (Yo + Hanan) = “Yahweh is Gracious.” That being said, there is apparently some confusion between the two names even in Hebrew scripture. E.g., at Neh 12:11 we read “Jonathan” in the Hebrew (and in the Septuagint) where we would expect “Johanan” (cf. IDB 2.968b). The overlap is significant, for it may permit etymological relation between “John” the Baptist and the Levite Jonathan who founded the priesthood of Dan (Judg. 18:30) and, more remotely, with the famous OANNES of Babylonian mythology as described by Berossus.—R.S.
15. Significantly, Helena is called “Luna” at Cl. Rec. II.7-8, thus strengthening Simon’s link with the moon, a primordial symbol of gnostic religion.—R.S.
16. Ory is claiming that John the Baptist = Theudas who was massacred with his followers in Samaria by Pilate. The four gospels tell us that, indeed, Pilate was somehow “involved” with the death of Jesus. But the gospels entirely absolve Pilate and transfer the blame for Jesus’ death to the Jews! (Mk 15:13-14 & pars.) History tells us, however, that Pilate was hardly absolved. In fact, his extremely brutal attack on the followers of Theudas led to Pilate’s recall to Rome and his eventual banishment to Vienne in Gaul (Ant 18.4.2). Ory is claiming that the evangelists flagrantly reversed history by 180 degrees in their efforts to place the blame for the death of “Jesus” upon the Jews.—R.S.
17. Rufinus II.29; Theodoret III.3.; Philostratus VII.4; Jerome, The Chronicle of Alexandria (Patr. XLII).—G.O.
18.The implication of this passage is that the baptism of John was merely an external and subsequent rite “for the purification of the body” that took place after inner (spiritual) purification.—R.S.