The spiritual Jesus
At an early stage of Christianity, according to the foregoing analysis, Jesus was a spiritual entity. This was a pre-canonical stage, to be dated to the first century CE—before the invention of Jesus the Nazarene and before the writing of the canonical gospels. The spiritual Jesus is evident, for example, in the epistles of Paul, works that do not know Jesus the Nazarene (“Nazarene” or “Nazareth” do not occur even once in the Pauline epistles). As I wrote in NazarethGate (p. 409):
Of course, with the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth in the second century, the above theology became heresy… Then why, one may ask, did the Pauline epistles survive—even to become among the most venerated texts of the Church? The reason is that they were very effectively supplemented in the second century: by the canonical gospels and (let us not forget) by the Acts of the Apostles. This latter work essentially ‘rewrote’ Paul, supplied a new biography for him, and transformed him from a proto-Gnostic into “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazoreans” (Acts 24:5). When we add subtle (and not so subtle) interpolations into the epistles, it was no longer necessary to jettison the Pauline epistles. They were co-opted for the Church. Their deep spirituality and wonderful imagery were effectively transferred to the new savior, Jesus of Nazareth. Ever since, Christians have read the Pauline epistles through thick lenses colored by the God-man from Nazareth.
Paul enthuses in his epistles about the spiritual entity he calls singly and severally the “Lord,” “Jesus,” and “Christ.” The entity grants grace, peace, comfort, authority (2 Cor 10:8), will slay the “lawless one” at the Last Judgment, and will save those who “love the truth” (2 Thess 2:10). Most importantly, the entity has the power to overcome death…
In sum, the Lord Jesus Christ is a great, expansive spiritual being that merges with the lives of the saints so that they are absorbed into it. It is our job to “rise up” to that spirit (Phil 3:12 f) and to partake in its being—that is, to be “saved.” For Paul, only the spirit Jesus can resurrect from death. This is the true victory, and by uniting with that spirit we also can overcome death.
The Church did its utmost to rid history of all traces of the purely spiritual Jesus. But those traces have survived, to be hunted down in very obscure literature known as the Christian apocrypha. That literature is much vaster than might at first be suspected. When one begins to read in it, all sorts of strange notions regarding Jesus crop up—most pervasively, that Jesus did not have a body. Scholars call this view “docetist” and simply laugh. “How could anyone be so stupid as to think that someone who traveled around Galilee and Judea in the time of Pontius Pilate did not have a body? Just look at the gospels!” Ha ha ha.
Yes, there’s a little circular reasoning there… One cannot look at the gospels to prove the gospels. The shoe is on the other foot, because when we take Jesus of Nazareth out of the equation (as a pure invention), then the docetist view of Jesus suddenly emerges. It explains not only the Pauline epistles, but also why docetists were everywhere. Indeed, the Church Fathers spilled a great deal of ink combating them!
In the prior posts we looked at an apocryphal writing, the Acts of Pilate (part of the Gospel of Nicodemus). In that work, Joseph of Arimathea receives the Jesus in a completely sealed room—showing beyond any doubt (which is exactly what the author wished to show) that the Jesus he is writing about is spiritual and has no body. Thus it is that Joseph of Arimathea (not Jesus of Nazareth!) enters Jerusalem in triumph on a donkey and is lauded by all of Israel. This is explicable only if Jesus is a spirit that has come into Joseph. Jesus is a shape-shifter. He (or more properly: it) enters the body of any worthy initiate.
Signs of this spiritual, shape-shifting Jesus are visible even in the canonical gospels. Immediately after the “death” of the initiate (originally: the death of one’s corporeal attachments), “Jesus” appears in bodily form but is not recognized:
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. (Lk 24:13–16)
In his 2012 book, The Amazing Colossal Apostle, Robert Price devotes a whole chapter to the shape-shifting Jesus (“The Original Gnostic Apostles,” pp. 131–71). It all goes back to the centrality of the spiritual Jesus in Gnostic theology. “As Schmithals showed,” writes Price (p. 133), “pure, original Gnosticism would have understood the fact of self-knowledge as sufficient to effect post-mortem liberation.” In other words, self-knowledge was originally the Jesus. (In NazarethGate I term this view Primary Gnosticism, as opposed to the later, Secondary Gnosticism characterized by mythology, aeons, and a savior figure.) “Schmithals envisioned Gnostic apostles,” Price continues (p. 134), “who did not preach a historical individual called Christ but rather an invisible cosmic Christ… the universal Man of Light who dwelt in the souls of the elite among the human race…” We detect a similar view in Paul’s epistles. After all, the Apostle asks (1 Cor 9:1): “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” But from Gal 1:11–12 we know that what Paul saw was “not of human origin” and was through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” Viewing the passages synoptically, one must conclude that Paul’s Jesus was emphatically spiritual. Price writes, “The Gnostic Christ, [Elaine] Pagels and Charles H. Talbert observed, was a subjective and unverifiable inner voice,” and “Jesus was a heavenly revealer within one’s heart” (p. 137).
Jesus the shape-shifter
It’s clear that if Jesus could indwell people, then Christians could be “virtually Christs in their own right” (Price p. 142). This is the key to unlocking the mystery of Joseph of Arimathea’s exaltation in the Acts of Pilate. Because Christ could indwell many people, he had a “many-formed countenance” and was “Jesus of many forms… appear[ing] in the guise of our poor humanity” (Acts of Peter 252–53). Thus, Price remarks, “In the apocryphal Acts, the apostles are regularly taken for gods walking the earth. John even mistakes himself for a deity!” Of course, it was no mistake. In Gnostic symbolism, having a divinity inside you makes you a divinity, “a god in a human body” (Price, p. 157). So, in the Acts of John (242) we read: “Now I know that God dwells in you, blessed John!” In the Acts of Peter (321), Jesus himself is “being crucified again” when Peter is on the cross, while in the Acts of Paul (381) Paul’s death is a second crucifixion of Christ. These examples show us that the line between the saint and the Jesus was blurred. Indeed, no real line existed, for the Jesus was in the apostle, and the apostle in the cosmic Christ.
Thus Jesus appeared in the guise of multiple human beings. He was a shape-shifter—sometimes recognized, sometimes not. Price (p. 165) offers a series of admirable examples that I mirror here:
Drusiana had said, “The Lord appeared to me in the tomb in the form of John and in that of a young man.” (Acts of John 224–25)
And immediately a man who looked like yourself, Peter [appeared]… so that I gazed upon you both, both on you and on the one… whose likeness [of you] caused me great amazement. And now I have awakened, and have told you these signs of Christ. (Acts of Peter 305)
But Thecla sought for Paul, as a lamb in the wilderness looks about for the shepherd. And when she looked upon the crowd, she saw the Lord sitting in the form of Paul. (Acts of Paul 358)
Maximilla, the Lord going before her in the form of Andrew, went with Iphidamia to the prison. (Acts of Andrew 414)
And he saw the Lord Jesus in the likeness of the apostle Judas Thomas. (Acts of Thomas 448)
These citations are from writings that were immensely popular in Roman times. Once the Church gained ascendancy in the early fourth century they came under the ban and were marginalized, so that today the apocryphal acts are known to hardly anyone except scholars of early Christianity. There are, however, even lesser known works of which scholars themselves have scarcely heard, writings that survive in only one or two copies or that may be unpublished even today. For the heresiologist, a productive working presumption is: the less known a Christian writing, the more important it is. This attitude yields good results, for it makes copious allowance for fifteen hundred years of assiduous Christian suppression. In the next (and last) post in this series we will look at scarcely known Christian writings, texts that not only explain the theology of an early, spiritual, and shape-shifting Jesus (who is available to all), but texts that also aggressively deny the monstrous conception of the God of the universe incarnated, once and for all time, in the form of a unique human being.—R.S.