H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 28)

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Jesus, Joshua ben Nun, Dositheus, and the “True Prophet”

Dr. Detering begins this section of his paper (pp. 43–48) with consideration of Dt 18:15–“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren—him you shall heed.” Detering notes the import of the verse for the Yachad (fellowship) at Qumran, e.g., QS IX 9-11: “And you shall not stray from any rule of the Law… until the coming of a prophet and of those sent of Aaron and Israel” Other passages in the DSS write of a “Teacher of Righteousness” and a “Teacher of Truth,” both placed in apposition to Moses.

In Samaritanism, Moses assumed an exalted role and was ‘the divine Light.’ Like the later figure of Jesus, the Samaritan Moses is pre-existent, already divine, and ascends to heaven after death.

Elijah also fulfilled the role of True Prophet, to appear before the Messiah (according to Mal 3:1 and 23 f). The most important OT figure in this connection, however, was Joshua ben Nun (“Son of Nun”). In the Septuagint, of course, “Joshua” appears in the Greek as ’Iησoûς. Now, in Samaritanism the belief was prevalent that Joshua/Jesus was the prophet foretold by Moses. (Detering references here: H. Kippenberg, Garizim und Synagoge, de Gruyter, 1971.) In the Clementine Recognitions, Dositheus claims to be the True Prophet instead of Jesus. Detering notes that a late Church Father, Eulogius (d. ca. 607 CE) divided the Samaritans into two camps: those who expected Joshua, Son of Nun as the True Prophet, and those who expected Dositheus. Schematically, then, we have the following:

Septuagint              Joshua (Son of Nun) = ’Iησoûς
Samaritanism         Joshua/’Iησoûς = Prophet foretold by Moses (Orthodox Samaritanism)
Recognitions          Dositheus = True Prophet (Heterodox Samaritanism)
Eulogius                 Divides the Samaritans into two camps:
          (1) Joshua/Jesus = True Prophet
          (2) Dositheus = True Prophet

Viewing the foregoing synoptically, Detering draws a parallel: Joshua ben Nun = Jesus, the True Prophet. An additional point: Dositheus was held to be the True Prophet for some ‘heretics’ who rejected Jesus (of Nazareth) as the True Prophet. Then, on p. 48, Detering offers an astonishing conclusion:

The Jewish-Christian Jesus—as certainly seen in the oldest surviving gospel texts—refers to none other than Joshua ben Nun. With this recognition we approach the very earliest Jesus belief, in which no ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ exists, but rather the Old Testament figure of Joshua ben Nun.

The foregoing is one of the highlights of Detering’s paper, and is an absolutely remarkable insight.

IXΘYΣ—The meaning of the fish symbol in early Christianity
     [The following in brown font is a verbatim translation, in toto, of pp. 48-51 of Detering’s article, with some emphases added.–RS]

     The fish is numbered among the oldest and most widespread symbols of Christianity. In the second century we find it on house doors, funereal inscriptions, tombs, rings, amulets, and ornaments of all sorts, where it functioned not only as a (secret) sign to recognize a Christian, but also as a symbol to ward away evil spirits. The fish symbol is found throughout the Roman world.
     Often, the fish symbol is associated with the eucharist. Many early depictions link it with the bread and wine of the evening meal. Presumably this has to do with a combination of eucharist and meal traditions (cf. Mk 6:35-44). In some cases, the fish actually symbolizes the eucharistic bread, the body of Christ.
     The question of the origin of the fish symbol is often answered by signaling that the Greek word IXΘYΣ (= fish) can be interpreted as an acrostic employing the first letters of a declaration of faith—“Jesus Christ, God’s Son (is our) Savior”:
 
          I = I = Iησouς (Jesus)
          X = Ch = Xρiστoς (Christ)
          Θ = Th = Θεou (God’s)
          Y = Y = υiou (Son)
          Σ = S = Σωτηρ (Savior)
 
     However, it is unlikely that the fish symbol originated from an acrostic, one confessing the faith. Much more likely is that the symbol with Christian associations already existed, and that it was subsequently applied as an acrostic in the above manner to Jesus.
     So, we are left with the question regarding the genesis of the fish symbol, and in what way it was originally associated with the figure and name of ‘Jesus.’
     Several answers have been proposed.
[I number the ‘answers’ for clarity.–RS][1] Most preponderant is a parallel drawn to extra-Christian ritual-cultic scenes involving the eating of fish. [Franz Josef] Dölger has pointed out that many pagan cultures (particularly in the Eastern part of the empire, in Syria) venerated fish-gods, sacred fish, and offered fish in sacrifice. Thus, the cena pura, or sacred meal involving fish, could have entered Christianity via Jewish synagogues in the East.

[NOTE: The ‘sacred meal’ need not have entered Christianity via synagogues (which may not have existed before III CE in the Galilee—cf. the work of H. Kee). Nevertheless, Eastern Syria was certainly a center for the worship of Atargatis (literally, “the fish [goddess] Atar”). At her temples at Ascalon, Hierapolis Bambyce, and Edessa, there were ponds containing fish that only her priests might enter (Lucian, De Dea Syria. Malicious Church Fathers later suggested that the ‘fish’ in question were sacred prostitutes.)]

[Detering continues:]
     [2] Robert Eisler gave the simplest and at the same time most plausible answer. Unfortunately, his provocative works have not received the attention they deserve. In his article, “On the Origin of the Early christian Fisherman and Fish Symbolism,” Eisler shows that the solution to the riddle lies in the link Joshua = ben Nun. In Hebrew, ben nun means “son [of] fish; fish-son.” It can, however, be translated simply by “Fish” (as, for example, ben baqar simply means “Ox”). Jesus IXΘYΣ, then = Joshua (ben) Nun.
     Eisler does not go so far as to assert that the historical Jesus owed his origin to the Old Testament hero Joshua. For Eisler, Jesus’ name merely received a particular coloring on account of the patronym, for Jesus and Joshua were “doubles of the hero Moses, who was raised from the water [in a floating crib] and also split the water [of the Red Sea].”
     Furthermore, Eisler cites a Rabbinic saying: “Only a man called ben Nun [could] lead the Jews through the water into the Land of Promise.” Eisler closes: “Therefore, the Joshua or Jesus of the end times must once again be a ben Nun.”
     In Eisler’s view, the cognomen ben Nun could be the reason that, in later speculation, the messiah would be born in the sign of the fish [Pisces]. Only by understanding the background ben Nun = fish is it possible to explain the statement of 4 Ezra chp. 13—colored by the babylonian Oannes myth—that the messiah will rise “out of the heart of the sea.”

     [3] In another article, Eisler points to an obscure Rabbinic passage in which the sons of Ephraim (later Samarians) made a failed attempt to flee from Egypt even before the successful exodus under Moses. Writes Eisler: “And it was under the leadership of the foremost Ephraimite by the name of Nun [= Fish]. We naturally identify this man (who is not mentioned again in the Old Testament) with the ancestor of the ephraimite Joshua. Because of his abortive scheme, he was killed by the Egyptians. The suffering savior of the end times could thus be viewed as a reincarnation of that long ago martyr, ben Nun, who gave his life for the freedom of his people.”

[COMMENT. “The suffering savior of the end times” was the (now obscure) failed messiah tradition in Judaism. This ‘other’ messiah was a precursor to the cosmic, Davidic messiah. C. Torrey’s important article on this failed messiah tradition is found complete on this website in five parts, beginning here. Of course, deep resonances exist between it and the New Testament Jesus, a crucified messiah who gave his life to save his people. That this Rabbinic failed messiah tradition relates also to Ephraim, the ancestor of the northern Samarians/Samaritans (Ephraimites) suggests that we must look first to the Samarians/Ephraimites/Samaritans for the failed messiah tradition. The northern locus of this tradition is also suggestive: Samaria and Galilee. Torrey concludes: “The conception of the suffering messiah = the Son of Ephraim led directly to the conception of the Christian messiah, Jesus.”—R.S.]

[Detering closes:]
     It is not necessary to follow Eisler in all his speculations. The essential is to recognize that the Christian fish symbol clearly relates to the cognomen of the Old Testament Joshua, and that this relation was firmly anchored in the earliest stratum of the Christian tradition.

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