In the last post we looked at the Acts of Pilate (AcPil)—being the first half of the rather obscure Gospel of Nicodemus, a Jewish Christian work probably of the mid-second century CE. The work betrays a most unusual theology where “Jesus” is partly physical, partly spiritual, and somehow able to pass from one person to another. This ambiguous theology is the author’s focus. For example, the setting is scrupulously laid out whereby Joseph of Arimathea is locked into a sealed room (even without windows), and with guards outside. Yet the spirit of Jesus still passes to Joseph at midnight, effecting a sacred transformation immediately following Jesus’ death. All this has some kind of meaning, and it is no doubt allegorical. On the literal level, however, Joseph’s stature is suddenly enhanced from a mere “member of the council” to someone in whom all Israel rejoices:
A day or two before, the “elders and the priests and the Levites” mentioned in the above citation wanted to kill Joseph! They obviously underwent some sort of (sudden) religious conversion, witnessed by their radically changed view regarding Joseph. The Jewish leaders continue to defend the “holy scriptures” (15.1), but they also now revere Joseph of Arimathea—who himself reveres Jesus. We are thus dealing here with a Jewish Christian work, yet one which has a very unusual view of Jesus, of Joseph of Arimathea, and of the link between them.
And when they heard about Joseph, they rejoiced and gave glory to the God of Israel. And the rulers of the synagogue and the priests and the Levites took counsel how they should meet with Joseph, and they took a roll of papyrus and wrote to Joseph these words. “Peace be with you. We know that we have sinned against God and against you, and we have prayed to the God of Israel that you should condescend to come to your fathers and your children, because we are all troubled. For when we opened the door we did not find you. We know that we devised an evil plan against you; but the Lord helped you, and the Lord himself has brought to nothing our plan against you, honored father Joseph.” (14.2. Emphases added.)
The exalted Joseph of Arimathea then “saddled his she-ass and went with [the Jewish elders] to the holy city Jerusalem. And all the people met Joseph and cried: ‘Peace be to your entering in!’ And all kissed him, and prayed with Joseph, and were beside themselves with joy at seeing him” (15.4). Of course, this is very reminiscent of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Mk 11:7–10)! Joseph is then quizzed (15.6) by the elders regarding what happened that fateful night when he was shut up in the house and somehow ‘transformed.’ He explains as follows:
On the day of preparation about the tenth hour you shut me in, and I remained the whole sabbath. And at midnight as I stood and prayed, the house where you shut me in was raised up by the four corners, and I saw as it were a lightning flash in my eyes. Full of fear I fell to the ground. And someone took me by the hand and raised me up from the place where I had fallen, and something moist like water flowed from my head to my feet, and the smell of fragrant oil reached my nostrils. And he wiped my face and kissed me and said to me: “Do not fear, Joseph. Open your eyes and see who it is who speaks with you.” I looked up and saw Jesus. Trembling, I thought it was a phantom, and I said the commandments, and he said them with me… I said to him: “Rabbi Elijah!” He said: “I am not Elijah.” And I said to him: “Who are you, Lord?” He replied: “I am Jesus, whose body you asked for from Pilate”… [Joseph says] “Show me the place where I laid you.” And [Jesus] took me and showed me the place where I laid him. And the linen cloth lay there, and the cloth that was upon his face. Then I recognized that it was Jesus. And he took me by the hand and placed me in the middle of my house, with the doors shut, and led me to my bed and said to me: “Peace be with you!” Then he kissed me and said to me: “Do not go out of your house for four days. For see, I go to my brethren in Galilee.”
Readers familiar with the “Secret Gospel of Mark” will recognize parallels to the above. Both present a sacred interaction between Jesus and an initiate at night after “death.” The midnight timing of the meeting with Jesus (revealingly symbolized by the “bridegroom”) is also familiar from the New Testament (Mt 25:6; cf. Mk 13:35; Lk 11:5; Acts 16:25 f). All these passages witness to a critical event: a spiritual transformation of some kind involving “Jesus” and an initiate who is present after a death. In Secret Mark it is Lazarus who was raised from the dead and who undergoes some sort of conversion. Parallelism would suggest, then, that Joseph of Arimathea is himself being raised from the dead in a spiritual conversion. From the change that Joseph of Arimathea experiences, and from his subsequent exaltation, the reader is invited to understand that Joseph becomes Jesus.
And what of Nicodemus? Why are the Acts of Pilate found in a “gospel” under his name? The answer quickly takes us to the Fourth Gospel, where Nicodemus appears several times. We recall the third chapter of John’s gospel, where Nicodemus comes secretly at night to converse with Jesus. He is there described as “a man of the Pharisees… a ruler of the Jews.” Jesus himself calls him “the teacher of Israel” (Jn 3:10)—clearly implying that Nicodemus was not of any mean standing. Indeed, being a “ruler of the Jews” (v. 1), we can confidently infer that Nicodemus was a member of the powerful Sanhedrin—the religious body that centralized Jewish power in Jerusalem.In my book NazarethGate (Chp. 14), I argue that the subject matter of the canonical gospels must be transposed back several generations into the time of Alexander Janneus (early 1st cent. BCE). It is then that Jewish records relate concerning a certain Yeshu ha-Notsri, “Jesus the Natsarene.” This Yeshu was himself a promising Pharisee, being groomed for the Sanhedrin. However, he fled to Egypt when Janneus persecuted the Pharisees. It was during his long tenure in Alexandria (as much as twenty years) that Yeshu had a change of heart. He rejected not only his Pharisaic calling, but the entire fount of his Jewish heritage. Upon his return to Israel he was excommunicated. After teaching a ‘new Way,’ gathering many followers, Yeshu was hounded, tried by the Sanhedrin, and executed by stoning and then hanging “on a tree.”
The above, of course, is entirely hidden from the reader of the gospels, texts that present an entirely different Jesus—a remarkably unrealistic force from backcountry “Nazareth,” one who works miracles that now seem more childish with each passing year, a life form that was born of a virgin and that “arose” bodily from the grave…
On the other hand, the Yeshu ha-Notsri that I described above was a man of flesh and blood, a remarkable religious rebel whose activities caused great commotion in Israel, a man of history recorded multiple times in the Talmud—and with great animosity.
The reader of this website is advised that henceforth I will presume informed knowledge of this Yeshu, for it is not possible to explore the critical data of history without such historical knowledge—knowledge now publicly available. For example, a member of the Sanhedrin visiting Yeshu by night takes on added dimensions thoroughly hidden to the reader of the canonical gospels. Even if Nicodemus was a literary invention of the fourth evangelist, he was probably based on the facts of history. In the original setting, “Nicodemus” may have known Yeshu, perhaps from youth. The two may even have fled to Alexandria together… The fact that one of them broke away from Judaism, but not the other, is knowledge that was once available to the tradition—perhaps also to the John the evangelist—but no longer to his readers, because John was creating a different Jesus!
We must begin to look at the canonical gospels through new lenses, through knowledge of the earlier Yeshu ha-Notsri. Scholars accept that Nicodemus was sympathetic to Jesus—for he bothered to visit him, evidently at risk of his reputation (“at night”). In fact, Nicodemus was made a saint in the Church. The knowledge that he was originally a member of the Sanhedrin that condemned Yeshu to death, however, adds an entirely new dimension to their surreptitious meeting in the Fourth Gospel. In fact, readers of my book will recall parallels between Nicodemus and the head of the Sanhedrin in the time of Yeshu, the powerful Simon ben Shetach. As a sympathetic member of the Sanhedrin that would shortly put Jesus to death, the position and motives of Nicodemus/ben Shetach become particularly poignant.
The true background to the Johannine scene is thus entirely hidden to the reader of the Fourth Gospel. Knowing that background, however, reveals the deep resources upon which John the evangelist was drawing. And he, too, deserves our attention, some sympathy, and perhaps even admiration. For the evangelist was in an impossible position. He had knowledge of a seminal prophet whom he greatly admired, and yet whose biography he had to hide. Why? Because he was creating a new Jesus—a Jesus for the masses. This colossal ambivalence explains the heroic foundation of the gospels, and also their fundamental flaw.Nicodemus appears again in the Gospel of John. After the crucifixion…
Joseph of Arimathea, who as a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him leave. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus, also, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight. They took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid. So because of the Jewish days of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there. (Jn 19:38–42)
In the prior post we saw that, in the Acts of Pilate, Joseph of Arimathea actually becomes Jesus following the crucifixion. In that remarkable text, the spirit of Jesus comes to Joseph at midnight, while he is in a sealed room. From the above citation, however, we now see that Joseph was not alone. Nicodemus was with him—another friendly figure taking care of the body. Furthermore, we note that the tomb was located “in the place where he was crucified.” Though the gospels portray all this as literal, if we take a step back and consider the language metaphorical, then we see that “the place where he was crucified” was nothing other than his body. The place where he was buried (being at the same location) was also nothing other than his body. And the place where he would be raised was nothing other than his body.
In other words, all this activity could originally only have been spiritual, not meant to be taken literally. Furthermore, in the Acts of Pilate, it is Joseph who is honored after the death of Jesus! In another marginalized text (to be considered in future), Judas was crucified in the place of Jesus, while in Islam Jesus entirely survives the ordeal… All this reveals that at its root the death-resurrection of Jesus was a spiritual event—what we might call a transformation. Only such a non-material event could give rise to such astonishingly diverse material interpretations. And if the event is spiritual, then it is replicable. Indeed, this is made explicit in the sequel to the Acts of Pilate, a text entitled “Christ’s Descent into Hell,” where Joseph asks: “Why then do you marvel at the resurrection of Jesus? It is not this that is marvelous, but rather that he was not raised alone, but raised up many other dead men who appeared to many in Jesusalem” (AcPil 17.1).
Among the dead raised by Jesus was Joseph of Arimathea—and Nicodemus, too, a figure who acts in tandem with Joseph through the text. Twice the AcPil explicitly state that Nicodemus also received Jesus’ “truth and his portion” (5.2 and 12.1).
In the next post we will look more closely at the spiritual Jesus manifesting as a shape-shifter.—R.S.