H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 31)

→ Table of Contents

The Didache (Pt. 1)

Dr. Detering points out that the Didache (“Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”) is a Church manual discovered only in 1873. “Majority opinion holds that it dates to the early second century,” he writes, reflecting the somewhat more progressive European scholarship. (American scholarship largely dates the work to I CE.) Kurt Niederwimmer (Vienna), author of the 1992 Hermeneia commentary The Didache, writes (p. 53): “An origin around 110 to 120 C.E. remains hypothetical, but there are as yet no compelling reasons to dismiss this hypothesis.” Also in agreement with Niederwimmer, Detering considers that the document is based on Jewish Vorlagen and was given only a superficial Christian veneer.

Detering (p. 54) cites three passages from the Didache, each with the “remarkable” (auffallend) phrase “Jesus, your servant” (Did 9.2, 9.3, 10.1). This occurs in the NT only in Acts (3:13, 26; 4:27, 30; regarding David 4:25). Detering finds, however, that it echoes the “servant Joshua” found in Jewish scripture (Judg 2:8; Josh 5:14; 24:29). Another link between the Jesus of the Didache and the OT Joshua is as “revealer of the vine” (Did 9:3). Detering sees a parallel here with Num 13:26, where Joshua and Caleb show Moses “the fruit of the land.”

However, the Didachist seems to have redefined the ‘promised land.’ It is no longer a strip of terrain conquered by force. Joshua is the conqueror of a new Promised Land—and hence he is in some way a different Joshua from the Old Testament hero. This new Promised Land is hinted at in the following verse:

[1] As this broken bread [i.e. manna] once lay scattered on the mountains
and became one when it had been gathered,
So may Your church be gathered into Your
kingdom from the ends of the earth.
For glory and power are Yours,
through Joshua the Anointed One [i.e. “Jesus the Christ”], forever. (Did 9:4)

Those in the church/kingdom come from “the ends of the earth.” Hence, the new Promised Land (= the “kingdom”) is certainly not the Israel of old. In any case, this is evident from the use of “church” (ekklésia), which obviously does not mean “Israel.”

“Joshua the Anointed One”

In the foregoing citation we also witness another re-definition—namely, the genesis of the moniker Jesus Christ. Today, no one ever thinks that “Jesus Christ” derived from “Joshua the Anointed One.” Yet that indeed seems to be the earliest Christian (or, more correctly, Jewish-Christian) textual witness. Incidentally, the above is the only passage in the Didache where ’Iésou Xristou occurs.

What can we say about such an anointed Joshua? Anointing with oil was a common occurrence in the Levant, used cosmetically and often daily in secular contexts. Anointing with oil, however, anciently also had religious meaning. Smearing with oil was, in fact, one way to remove an object or person from the secular realm and place it/him into the sacred realm—that is, to sanctify (IDB I:139). The king was anointed (Jud 9:15), as was the High Priest and priests in general (Ex 28:41 etc). By extension—and perhaps only metaphorically—the ancient patriarchs were “anointed ones,” as also the prophets of Israel.

The most special—and most famous—religious usage of ‘anoint’ is messianic. Of course, the word messiah derives directly from ‘anoint, smear’ (Heb. MShH). Joshua in the above verse is clearly messianic, for he is “Joshua the Anointed One” = “Joshua the Messiah”—that is, Jesus [the] Christ.

At this point, it is important to recognize that multiple messianic traditions existed side by side in Judaism. The Messiah Son of David is well known through both Jewish and Christian texts. However, a second lesser-known tradition also existed. That is the northern tradition of the Messiah Son of Ephraim, also known as the Messiah Son of Joseph (for the OT patriarch Joseph was the father of Ephraim). On this website Charles Torrey examines this second tradition in detail (beginning here). It is from a fusion of both messianic traditions—Davidic and Ephraimite/Josephite—that Christianity arose.


Before proceeding, it can be noted that the Old Testament historian may have been aware of these two traditions and attempted to fuse both Northern (Ephratite) and Southern (Judahite) traditions. The town of Bethlehem (an entirely mythical entity—see below) confusingly belonged to both traditions. At Gen 35:19 we read that Rachel was buried “on the way to Ephrath, that is, Bethlehem.” King David’s ancestors were “Ephratites” from Bethlehem of Judah (Ruth 1:2), and at 1 Sam 17:12 we read: “Now David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse, who was from Bethlehem in Judah.” This information was of critical importance to the Christian evangelists, whose hero Jesus “son of David” (Mt 1:1) was also from Bethlehem of Judah. It is quite certain, however, that in all these cases we are speaking of events in the mythic realm, if for no other reason than that Bethlehem of Judah did not exist at the time of David—nor even at the time of Christ! No archeological evidence of the settlement exists in the ground until the era of Constantine the Great (See A. Oshri, Archaeology, Nov-Dec/05:42 ff).

Nevertheless, it is also clear that Bethlehem had an exalted position in religious mythology during Old Testament times—not only did King David and Jesus Christ hail from there, but so also did Jonathan, founder of the Levitical and heretical priesthood of Dan in the far north (Judge 18:30—see NazarethGate 452). I have discussed Bethlehem and Ephrath already at some length on this website (see especially here and here). The subject bears renewed scrutiny, however, due to the title of Detering’s article—“The Gnostic meaning of the Exodus”—and his thesis that the Exodus, in gnostic parlance, was a crossing over from materiality “to the other side” of spirituality, from the inferior to the superior—a transcending. All this has particular interest in relation to the all-important term “Hebrew,” as well as the toponyms “Bethlehem” and “Ephrath.” I wrote in a previous post:

The etymology of Ephrath (אפרת) is of some significance. Its root a/e-p-r (אפר) corresponds to the Babylonian-Assyrian ebêru (אבר) with the common exchange of labials beth and pe. Ebêru means “reach the other side, go across, through, or over.” This meaning conforms well to the ʻgate to gnosisʼ that we have been discussing.

The nominal form of Hebrew eber (ayin-beth-resh) signifies ʻthe other side,ʼ the place one reaches when one has ʻcrossed over.ʼ In a gnostic context this is the place of enlightenment, rest, and immortality. Here, then, must be the root meaning of the place Ephrath. It is the land of salvation on ʻthe other side,ʼ to which Beit-Lahmu (Bethlehem) is the all-important gate of entry. (Emphasis added.)

Thus, the Hebrews were originally those who had “crossed over”! This adds a significant dimension to the Exodus theme. In another post I also wrote:

Johnʼs teaching came from gnosis (water), out of Bethlehem (the gate to gnosis), and from Ephrathah (the land of salvation)—even as his ancient namesake, Oannes, the half-fish half-man of Mesopotamian legend, emerged from the sea to teach the Sumerians wisdom more than two millennia earlier (according to the Babyloniaca of Berossus, the Mesopotamian priest of the third century BCE).

The Messiah in the Didache

According to Charles Torrey’s article on this website, the Messiah Son of Joseph was known as the human servant of God who suffers and dies, while the Messiah Son of David was cosmic and divine “God-appointed king of the end of time” (IDB 3.360). With this distinction in mind, we note that the Jesus/Joshua of the Didachist is clearly a human figure:

[2] We thank You, our Father,
For the life and gnosis
which You made known to us
through Joshua Your servant. (Did 9:3)

“Joshua Your servant” is a human being. This is not the cosmic Davidic messiah but, rather, the northern messiah Son of Joseph/Ephraim. Significantly, this human savior (“Joshua” means “Savior” in Hebrew) brought two paramount qualities: “life” and “gnosis.” Furthermore, he lived in the not-too-distant past, for “You made [him] known to us.” One might conclude, then, that the Didachist may himself have been an eye-witness to the Prophet who lies at the origins of Christianity. (But on this, see below.)

Though the Didachist certainly does not have the OT figure Joshua, son of Nun, in mind, that first Joshua may still be in the background, for the Didachist is considering a very different kind of conquest and a new Promised Land: “life and gnosis.” The first Joshua conquered on the material plane. The second Joshua, however, conquered on the spiritual plane.

Nevertheless, we see from citation [1] above that Joshua the Anointed One revealed the “glory and power” of the Father. Thus, we perceive in the Didachist’s conception of the messiah already a fusion of the Davidic and Josephite messianic traditions. This is confirmed in other passages, e.g.:

[3] “We thank You, our Father,
For the holy vine of David Your servant,
which You made known to us
through Joshua Your servant.
To You be glory forever.” (Did 9:2)

The Father here makes known “the holy vine of David” through Joshua. Hence, this Joshua appeared after King David. He is clearly not Joshua ben Nun, the patriarchal figure who lived at the time of the conquest and before the monarchy.

The Levites, the Didache, and Christianity

Furthermore, the new Promised Land is now available to the whole world, as we see from citation [1] above: “So may Your church be gathered into Your kingdom from the ends of the earth.” We are now speaking not of the Jews as a chosen people, but of a “Church” (ekklesia). With the Didache there is also a new dispensation: all are potentially included in the kingdom (“from the ends of the earth”—cf. Mt 28:19)—including the gentiles! Again, one reads:

[4] Be mindful, Lord, of Your church,
to preserve it from all evil
and to perfect it in Your love.
And gather it from the four winds,
into the kingdom which You have prepared for it. (Did 10:5)

The kingdom will be gathered “from the four winds,” i.e., from all nations. Obviously, the Didachist is no longer merely addressing Jews in the land of Israel. He has a much vaster landscape in mind. The fact that the Church already exists for the Didachist suggests some remove from the time of the Prophet (read: Yeshu ha-Notsri, died ca. 75 BCE). The author was probably not an eye-witness to the Prophet, as intimated above. On the other hand, a I CE date for the Didache seems perfectly sound.

We can now attempt to locate the messianic conception of the Didachist in Judaism. In my opinion, the closest parallels to the above citations are surprisingly found in a little-known tractate dealing with the Levites and usually dated well into pre-Christian times:

[5] The Lord will raise up a new priest…
And in His priesthood the nations shall be multiplied in gnosis on the earth,
and they shall be illumined by the grace of the Lord,
but Israel shall be diminished by her ignorance
and darkened by her grief. (Testament of Levi 18.1,9)

This citation now admits a priesthood of “the nations.” They are multiplied “in gnosis.” These are also the themes of the Didachist, and we have the same Sitz im Leben of a new “priest” and new dispensation to the world based in gnosis. Scholarship dates the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs to the third century BCE (OTP I:777). But the passage above—or elements of it—may be Christian interpolations, which are acknowledged in many passages of the Test12Pat. Consider the intervening verses 7-8 from the above passage:

And the glory of the Most High shall burst forth upon him,
And the spirit of understanding and sanctification shall rest upon him in the water
For he shall give the majesty of the Lord to those who are his sons in truth forever.

This all sounds very Christian to me and to be nothing less than an interpretation of the baptism of Jesus. I am not capable of parsing the original Jewish elements from the later Christian ones, but it is clear that “the spirit of understanding” resting “in the water” is precisely the water-gnosis doctrine that has been a recurring theme of this series of posts. In short, I suspect there is more Christian substance in the Test. of Levi than is generally suspected.

In any case, like a pod that suddenly bursts in spring and scatters seeds everywhere, so the old conception of the Promised Land (Israel) in Christian times has suddenly burst open and now includes the whole world. Significantly, the author (or interpolator) of the Testament of Levi is already at some remove from his Jewish roots—he is able to condemn Israel “by her ignorance” (v. 9). Furthermore, the phrase “darkened by her grief” may even suggest a post-70 CE dating for those words.

In citation [2] above from the Didache we read of “life and gnosis.” This is the new gospel of Christianity. I believe that in the Didache and other marginalized texts we witness the vibrant transition from Judaism to Christianity. In Jewish-Christian eyes, that transition was effected by a second Joshua, a messianic figure who redefined the Promised Land by spiritualizing it. That redefinition led inexorably from one religion to another, from Judaism to Christianity.

Integral to this redefinition was also a new interpretation of ‘crossing the Jordan,’ which now meant to cross over from empty materiality into the fullness of spirituality. This water-crossing was a new Exodus—a gnostic Exodus—the overarching theme of Dr. Detering’s article under examination in these posts.

 Previous               Next →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *