Mythicists, docetists, Nazoreans (Salm)

The present confrontation between Jesus mythicists and the tradition may seem new to some. Others may suppose that it dates as far back as the eighteenth century, when scholars began to question the historicity of Jesus. However, I suggest in this statement that mythicism is a modern name for ancient docetism—Christianity’s “twin” born along with the religion itself.

In his Panarion (29.6.1) Epiphanius writes of a sect of “Nasarenes” whom he denominates as heretics. He writes that “the Nasarene sect was before Christ and did not know Christ.” The Church Father carefully distinguishes these Nasarenes (with sigma) from later “Nazoreans” (with zeta) whom he accepts as “Christians.” Other indications also exist of a pre-Christian movement somehow attached to the Greek word “Nasarene.”

Before continuing, we should note that the Greek Νασαρηνε employs a sigma which, as linguists tell us, is the usual transliteration for all three voiceless Semitic sibilants—sin, samekh, and tsade. On the other hand, the zeta in Greek Ναζωραιος transliterates Semitic zain (a voiced sibilant). Simply put, “Nasarene” and “Nazorean” (Mt 2:23 etc.) reflect very different words in both Greek and Semitic. Epiphanius tells us that the former sect was pre-Jesus and heretical, while the latter sect was post-Jesus and completely orthodox. Like Epiphanius, we should also carefully observe a distinction: the Nazoreans were early Christians (cf. Mt 2:23; Acts 24:5), but the Nasarenes were pre-Christian heretics. In this essay I shall use the English spellings “Natsarene” (rendering the Semitic tsade) and “Nazorean.”

Who were the Natsarenes?

Some scholars identify the Natsarenes with the group around James in Jerusalem. They are known to the New Testament as the “Hebrews” (Acts 6). Certainly these Natsarenes were in existence before the time of Paul, and all indications are that Hellenist Christianity postdates the Natsarenes. Indeed, Epiphanius (above) tells us as much: the Natsarenes were pre-Christian, while Paul, the Hellenists, and the Nazoreans were all (of course) post-Jesus.

A probable reconstruction, then, is that the Hellenist Christians (that is, Christianity as we know it) were an offshoot of the Natsarenes and that the Semitic-speaking Jerusalem Church spawned both “Hellenists” and “Hebrews.” As we see from the literature, these two groups eventually opposed one another. The former became the Great Church, while the latter undoubtedly became ancestor to many heretical gnostic movements. Those gnostic movements originated with the James faction and spread eastwards following a flight in I CE. That flight across the river Jordan is recorded in both Greek and Mandean writings.

From Epiphanius we learn more about the pre-Christian Natsarenes. They were schismatic Jews who (like the Samaritans) “acknowledged Moses” but not the legislation found in Jewish scripture, much of which they considered “fiction.” The Natsarenes were also vegetarian and repudiated the Jerusalem temple (“sacrifice”).

Epiphanius links the Natsarenes with another pre-Christian heresy which he terms the Ossaeans (Pan. 19.5.4). Could these be the “Essenes”? Now, we know that the Dead Sea Sect revered a “Teacher of Righteousness.” Whether or not the Natsarenes also revered a prophet—perhaps the same Teacher as the Essenes—we do not as yet know.

Gleanings of Natsarene thought may shine through the New Testament letter of James. The letter is decidedly anti-Pauline and stresses works over faith, humility and ethical action over mere belief. It writes of the “Father of Lights” who gives birth uniquely to the “word of truth” (1:17-18). We find touches of dualism and anti-materialism, e.g., “remain unstained by the world,” and “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (1:27; 4:4). The letter also inveighs against wealth (5:1 ff).

Apollos and “Jesus”

In the Acts of the Apostles, it is curious that Apollos—while knowing only “the baptism of John”—somehow already accurately knew about “Jesus”:

Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. (Acts 18:24-25)

The passage has greatly perplexed scholars, for how could John’s baptism yield accurate knowledge concerning “Jesus”? The answer may lie in the same passage where we see that, for Apollos, the salvific agent is apparently instruction “in the Way of the Lord.” This was what Apollos knew and himself had been teaching. Evidently, for Apollos “the Way of the Lord” = “Jesus.” In other words, for him “Jesus” was not a prophet nor even a human being. “Jesus” was simply a saving Way, a doctrine.

This makes sense when we examine the etymology of “Jesus.” In Semitic the word means “salvation” (ieshu). It very appropriately describes what we might call the “Way.” As we know, the Way was the earliest designation for Christianity (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). In other words, Apollos taught “Jesus” in the sense that he taught the Way/salvation. He was a very different Christian than what we think of today, for he taught “Jesus” without ever having known Jesus of Nazareth!

According to the account in Acts, Priscilla and Aquila encountered Apollos and roundly “converted” him to a religion more in line with Paulinism. They explained to him the Way “more accurately.” Their teaching is encapsulated in the fateful words: “the Christ is Jesus” (18:28).

The meaning is clear. Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos that “Jesus” is not a doctrine but is the meshiach, the messiah, the “anointed one,” the Christ—a human being long expected by the Jews as bringer of salvation. Apollos would no doubt have asked, “Who then is the Christ-messiah?” Priscilla and Aquila would have duly explained to him their grand revelation: “The Christ was Jesus of Nazareth.”

This may be the first account we possess of a conversion to Christianity. Nota bene: Apollos already believed in “Jesus.” His conversion was a redefinition. From being formerly a body of instruction, a Way to salvation, “Jesus” becomes a human being to be followed and worshiped. That redefinition can be considered the birth of Christianity.

The first schism

It is apparent that the Way of the Natsarenes (which appears to have been gnostic) was too difficult for most people. The Letter of James warns: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (2:10). During the first century CE some Hellenists apparently developed a religion in which “Jesus” was far more approachable. Their religion required only belief, not the continual self-denial and way of perfection taught by the Natsarenes (as well as the Essenes, Ebionites, and many Gnostic sects). In the first century CE the Hellenists were already several generations removed from the Teacher of Righteousness (or whoever the original prophet was). As an offshoot of the Natsarenes, they evidently accommodated Natsarene teachings to the popular mould of the Greek theios aner, “divine man” (cf. Hercules, Orpheus, Apollonius of Tyana, etc). The Hellenists also transferred many of the Teacher’s authentic preachings to an awe-inspiring but entirely made-up character: Jesus of Nazareth.

Those Hellenists were the first Christians. Their “Jesus” was “the Christ,” the unique Son of God, and their quintessential apostle was Paul.

It is doubtful that many Natsarenes would have converted to the new Hellenist religion of “Christianity.” The account of the conversion of Apollos in Acts is probably simply propaganda of the new religion. But the Natsarenes were to be feared. Being intimately familiar with the Way, and living mostly in Palestine, they were in a powerful position to give the lie to the Hellenists and knew full well that no prophet “Jesus of Nazareth” had existed in living memory. They certainly would have repudiated the “God-man” from Galilee whom they knew to be a pure invention. They might also have called Paul epithets such as “the man of the lie” and “teacher of smooth things.” A similar acrimonious and confrontational background is detectable in Galatians where we read of a “contrary gospel,” “false brothers” in Jerusalem, and of Paul’s colorful wish that his opponents would “castrate themselves” (5:12). The upshot is that Paul assumed the “mandate to the gentiles” (tactfully phrased in Gal 2:7-10), though he was basically chased out of Palestine.

The vast majority of Natsarenes no doubt saw the sham in the new Hellenist religion and were repelled by the fabrication of its over-the-top central character. They would have been the first Jesus mythicists as well as the first “docetists”—those who denied that “Jesus of Nazareth” ever existed in the flesh. The Natsarenes saw through the elaborate Pauline-Hellenist-Christian sham. They saw through the bogus biography of a god-man born of a virgin in Bethlehem, working miracles in Galilee and Jerusalem, teaching “belief” in himself as a way to salvation, and predicting his own death and resurrection. For the Natsarenes this was all a terrible perversion of the saving doctrine which they had known as “the Jesus”—a Way of salvation. They were not about to deny their august traditions in order to accommodate a Johnny-Come-Lately religion based on a heinous lie: Jesus of Nazareth.

To the Natsarenes, “Jesus” was a Way to Truth—not a person. They would have emphatically denied that “Jesus” had a body. That is why the Natsarenes were the first docetists. After the emergence of Christianity they were placed in the position of claiming that “Jesus” indeed existed (as a Way, a doctrine), but that Jesus certainly did not have a body.

As early as Ignatius (ca. 110 CE) we know that some “heretics” were alleging that Jesus did not have a body. In his Epistle to the Smyrneans (Chps. 2-3) Ignatius practically falls over himself emphasizing the physical nature of “Jesus”:

[Jesus] suffered all these things for us; and He suffered them really, and not in appearance only, even as also He truly rose again. But not, as some of the unbelievers, who… affirm, that in appearance only, and not in truth, He took a body of the Virgin, and suffered only in appearance, forgetting as they do, Him who said, ‘The Word was made flesh’ [Jn 1:14]… I know that he was possessed of a body not only in His being born and crucified, but I also know that he was so after His resurrection, and believe that He is so now.

Like a child turning against its father, the Hellenist Christians turned against their Natsarene precursors—and they did so with uncompromising anger. Anyone who denies “that Jesus has come in the flesh… is the deceiver and the anti-christ” (2 Jn 7). We recall the conversion of Apollos entailing his recognition that “the Christ is Jesus.” This the Natsarenes refused to do, and that refusal (and by implication the Natsarenes themselves) is villified in Christian scripture:

Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. (1 Jn 2:22)

By this know that spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that dilutes Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world. (1 Jn 4:2-3)

So it is that the Natsarene father of Christianity became its first heretic and the “antichrist.”

The verb “to appear” in Greek is dokein, from whence we derive the English “docetism.” We commonly conceive of docetists as those in ancient times who thought Jesus of Nazareth existed, yet who curiously also believed that he did so without a physical body. This doesn’t make sense. The dual understandings of “Jesus” detailed above allow us to see the ancient docetists as originally being nonbelievers in the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. They were the first mythicists.

As an offshoot of the Natsarenes, the Hellenists would have been intimately familiar with Natsarene theology and with the Way. Thus, the canonical gospels may well incorporate authentic teachings of the Natsarene prophet—especially in the inimitable parables and logia of “Jesus.” The genius of the Hellenists was to combine their false hero with authentic teachings. This blending of falsehood and truth ensured that Christianity would not only survive, but that it would grow to eventually conquer all of the western world.—R.S.

About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

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