H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 33)

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The Didache—Part 3

We have now arrived at page 56 of Dr. Hermann Detering’s remarkable essay, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus and the Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult.” Detering breaks a great deal of new ground and, as in such cases, the points made in his piece will require testing and some will certainly require adjustment. Were an essay of equal significance written more friendly to the Christian tradition, I suspect that it would immediately find publication and would probably also secure a book contract with a mainline publisher. Like so much good mythicist work carried on today, however, Detering’s works languish largely in obscurity, and he has long since accustomed himself to a scholarly career without conference invitations, major book contracts, or an academic teaching position.

This should give us pause when we reflect that Dr. Detering is arguably the world’s foremost Pauline specialist, as witnessed by his bold Ph.D dissertation The Pauline Epistles Without Paul? (German: Paulusbriefe ohne Paulus? Peter Lang, Kontexte Verlag, 1992) and his The Falsified Paul (Journal of Higher criticism, 2003). Detering’s technical mastery of the relevant issues and his acquaintance with the minutiae of the Pauline corpus are at least equal to those of anyone else. But Detering’s greatest asset by far (and one could also say this for Dr. Robert Price) is that he approaches Paul with no traditional preconditions. As a result, while Detering easily matches his academic peers for erudition, his openness to nontraditional ideas places him head and shoulders above them, for he is not constrained to embrace merely what society finds palatable.

Before the canonical gospels

Detering notes that in the Didache we find no hint of the (impending) death of Jesus, not even in the passage dealing with the Eucharistic Meal (“Last Supper”, Did 9:1-5). This is in stark contrast with the portrayal in the canonical gospel, where “the link with the death of Jesus is integral.” Detering continues: “It is hardly believable that, if the passion narrative existed, it would either have been unknown to the Didachist or ignored by him.” This recognition, in turn, leads Detering to the conclusion (p. 56) that the passion narrative had not yet been created. (The reader is reminded that the Didache dates c. 100 CE.) Hence, we are brought to the New Chronology, the stunning, non-traditional conclusion—arrived at so often in pages on this website, and from different paths (for example, see here and here)—that the New Testament is a product of the second century, not the first.

The Didache refers to an euaggelion four times. Dr. Detering asks whether the word refers to a canonical “gospel.” Of course, that would be very difficult given our discussion in the previous paragraph—for if the Didachist did not know the passion narrative, then it is hardly likely that he knew one or more canonical gospels. This skepticism is strengthened by Detering’s observation (p. 58) that the author’s “interest is nowhere in the life and works of Jesus—only with his sayings.”

That the Didachist knew no canonical gospel as text is reinforced by his use of euaggelion. We recall from another post that euaggelion (lit. “good news”) obviously could not have referred to a written text before such texts existed. Because the gospels—as written texts—are an entirely new genre of literature invented by Christianity, we can be sure that—until those new texts became well known—the use of the word euaggelion was to its literal meaning of “good news,” and also figuratively as “teaching.” The term simply did not (and could not) refer to Christian gospels before that genre of writing existed.

Is it possible that one or more Christian gospels were already well-known when the Didache was written, c. 100 CE? The mythicist will emphatically say “no,” having concluded from several independent evidentiary lines that the canonical gospels are second century writings. On this website and in my Nazareth books I’ve argued that the canonical gospels are: (a) post-Marcionite (c. 140 CE); (b) they supersede the spiritual Jesus known in I CE; (c) they know Nazareth, which did not exist until II CE; and (d) they presuppose a gentile Church, and even a universal Christianity (Mk 16:15 and pars.), all incompatible with a I CE dating. In addition, it has been frequently observed that no first century writing (leaving the canonical gospels aside) knows the Nazarene Jesus.

In short: all four references in the Didache to “gospel of the Lord” are to be interpreted generally as “good news/teaching of God”—not as “written texts [referring to] Jesus.” This is confirmed by the following verse:

This is [the meaning] of what was said by the Lord: “‘to offer me a pure sacrifice in every place and time, because I am a great king.’ says the Lord, ‘and my name is held in wonder among the nations.'” (Did 14:3)

Here it is clear that “what was said” does not refer to a Christian gospel text, for the embedded quotations are from the Old Testament (Malachi 1:11 and 14). The “Lord” is God and what he “said” is Jewish scripture!

Detering gives considerable attention to the words τρoπouς κuρiou (Did 11:8), which he translates by the German Lebensweise(n) des Herrn, literally “life-way(s) of the Lord.” Detering seems to interpret “Lord” here as Jesus/Joshua, and he argues a point of Greek grammar, concluding that the meaning is more ‘the life-ways [endorsed by] the Lord,’ i.e., example-lessons of Jesus intended for the Christian prophets/disciples. In the former case, the implication would be that the Didachist knew a canonical gospel (chronicling the Lord Jesus/Joshua and his ways). In the latter case, the implication would be that the Didachist knew traditions associatiated with the Lord Jesus/Joshua—but not necessarily a written gospel.

I would suggest, however, that the foregoing is moot. We have seen that “Lord” (κuρioς) in the Didachist’s vocabulary refers to the godhead and is always synonymous with the divine “Father” and “God.” This is reinforced by the above citation, where the Lord’s words = Jewish scripture. On the other hand, Jesus/Joshua (Iησouς) is emphatically not divine: for the Didachist he is God’s servant, is placed in apposition to King David, and is thus very human (as also was his namesake Joshua ben Nun). Hence, the phrase life-ways “of the Lord” (κuρiou) must refer to God according to the Didachist’s use of the word “Lord.” Had he wished to indicate God’s servant, he would write τρoπouς ’Iησou. But he doesn’t. All this is to say that the divinity of Jesus is an entirely foreign concept to the Didache. The divine Jesus—so integral to the oncoming Church—simply does not belong. Circa 100 CE, the divine Jesus is still not a part of ‘Christianity.’

This discussion reveals a great pitfall that we all face in reading these ancient texts: we are looking at them through a thick filter of subsequent history. We see “Lord” in association with “gospel” and assume the former means Jesus—even Jesus “of Nazareth”—in association with a written text. It completely escapes most of us that in 100 CE “Lord” in a religious context meant God, and god alone, while the written gospel as genre did not yet exist.

Detering finds a solution to the “evangelium” problem by concluding (p. 57) that the Didachist must have known a written source that lacked biographical details regarding Jesus, i.e., a Logiensammlung such as the putative Q, the Gospel of Thomas, or the “sayings collection of the Lord” signaled by Papias. This is surely correct. It is clear that the Didache belongs to the stratum of early logia collections and before the artificial ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ stratum reflected in the canonical gospels.

A second Joshua

Detering considers (p. 58) whether the word “curse” (katathematos) of Did 16:5 could possibly refer to the crucified Christ. He concludes, however, that it probably refers to the deceiver of the world, or perhaps the Antichrist. The eschatological passage reads as follows:

16:4 And at that time the one who leads the world astray will appear as a “son of God” and will work signs and wonders, and the earth will be given into his hands, and he will do godless things which have never been done since the beginning of time.
16:5 Then human creation will pass into the testing fire and many will be scandalized and perish, but those who persevere in their belief will be saved by the curse itself. [sothesontai hup’ autou tou katathematos; Niederwimmer translation, p. 221]

The way I read this passage, the “curse” may well refer generally to the times of tribulation that have just been described (i.e. “godless things” and “the testing fire”). Rather than the Antichrist, the Didachist may be looking back on the the loss of the Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the great debacle of the Jewish War. In any case, Detering sums up as follows:

In all, it can be demonstrated that no trace of a “historical Jesus (of Nazareth)” is to be found in the Didache. The community that the Didachist has in mind indeed knows a Joshua/Jesus, but one present only in prophetic spirit and word. It knows a series of sayings that derive from and go back to the prophetic mouth, and which have already been collected in an evangelium [= sayings collection] and thus have received an authoritative character. Furthermore, the community comes together on the “Day of the Lord” (Did 14:12), that is, on Sunday, to celebrate the “resurrection” of Jesus with a ritual communal meal. But a Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, died, and was buried—this the Didachist does not know. (Pp. 58–59).

Detering then writes (p. 59): “In the eucharistic ceremony we find no hint of [Jesus’] death, only the shared remembrance of the Old Testament hero Jesus/Joshua…” While I agree that the Didache certainly did not know Jesus of Nazareth, I find it problematic that “Joshua” refers to the Old Testament figure, Joshua Son of Nun. We find a clue that solves this riddle of “Joshua/Jesus” in the following verse:

As for thanksgiving, give thanks this way.
First, with regard to the cup:
“We thank you, our Father,
For the holy vine of David your servant,
Which you made known to us,
through Jesus your servant
To you be glory forever.”

We read here that through Joshua/Jesus the “holy vine of David” was made known. It is evident that this scenario can only obtain if Joshua/Jesus was chronologically later than King David. How otherwise can “the holy vine of David” be made known through Joshua/Jesus? And here we have the key to the enormous riddle of “Joshua/Jesus” in this text: the ’Iησouς of the Didache is not Joshua ben Nun. He is a theologically related figure: a second Joshua! I suggest that the view of the Didachist is as follows:

– the first Joshua/Jesus revealed the Promised Land to the Israelites
– the second Joshua/Jesus has now come and revealed the spiritual Promised Land.

In a sense, this second, latter-day Joshua completed the mission of Joshua ben Nun. And here, I believe, is also revealed the genesis of the name “Jesus” as regards the Christian savior. That name does not refer to Joshua ben Nun, though it ultimately does go back to him. The Old Testament figure lent his name—which, after all, means “Savior”—and also his prestige to a second prophet, a latter-day “savior” who revealed the spiritual Promised Land. This latter-day prophet must have existed in history. In my view, then, the Didachist’s “Jesus” is neither to be identified with Joshua ben Nun, nor does he have anything to do with the invented and altogether fabulous figure Jesus of Nazareth. The Didachist’s Joshua is an intermediary figure: a new Joshua, not yet the cosmic Christian savior, though very much a figure of history.


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