H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 36)

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The Transfiguration

In a short section (pp. 62–64) of his paper, Dr. Detering reveals that the Transfiguration scene in Mk 9:2–8 primarily serves to answer the question: Who is the true prophet predicted in Jewish scripture (Deut 18:15)? Three candidates are at the top of the mountain: Moses, Elijah, and Joshua/Jesus. The answer that comes from heaven is clear: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”—and only Jesus/Joshua is seen to be still there, while the other two Old Testament figures have disappeared.

Consistent with the rest of his paper, Detering argues that the “Jesus” of the scene was, in the earliest stratum of the story, not “Jesus of Nazareth” but Joshua ben Nun—the successor to the prophets Moses and Elijah.

I have argued, however, that—while the Jesus/Joshua figure of the New Testament does ultimately go back to the Old Testament figure Joshua ben Nun—that allusion has been mediated and redefined: the Jesus/Joshua of the proto-Christians was a second Joshua, a latter-day prophet who taught a spiritual crossing over ‘to the other side’—that is, a form of gnosticism. I also identify that prophet with Yeshu ha-Notsri.

“Let us go to the other side” (Mk 4:35)

One encounters the expression “to the other side (eis to peran) astonishingly often in the canonical gospels: 4 times in Matthew, 5 times in Mark, and once in Luke—a total of 11 times. In comparison, the expression occurs only 9 times in the entire Old Testament. Mark employs the phrase in three distinctive passages: at the stilling of the storm (4:35 f), at the crossing of the sea (6:45 f), and at the multiplication of loaves (8:13 f). [H. Detering, p. 64]

I have long been convinced that the repeated ‘crossings over’ of the Sea of Galilee in GMark are allegorical. As actual events they are immediately problematical, for no purpose is served in ‘crossing over,’ while the destination is unimportant. Detering also notes the ambiguity of Mark’s language—in two of three ‘crossing’ passages, the evangelist does not specify a destination. “This is not about travel itineraries and geography,” Detering writes, “but is a metaphor for reaching the world beyond [Jenseitswelt].”

I agree. There is something more to these transits than the simple desire to reach an unidentified destination. Crossing over may itself be the essence—as if the evangelist were trying to convey that Jesus/Joshua had done so in some profound metaphorical sense. This suspicion perfectly fits the thesis of these posts regarding a second Joshua, a prophet who taught a spiritual ‘crossing over’—in contradistinction to the first Joshua (ben Nun). When read in this way, Mk 4:35 ff takes on very specific meaning: the apostles (and the rest of us) simply can not ‘cross over’ without Jesus’ help. This is the doctrine of redemption in nuce. But we should not forget its original Sitz im Leben, which was gnostic and spiritual: the (second) Joshua/Jesus showed the way to cross over from ignorance to understanding. As it happens, this teaching is also the core of Buddhism.

Detering agrees. He continues:

In reference to the already-mentioned Buddhist passages, we have seen how the ‘walking on water’ motif is closely linked to the concept of reaching “the other/transcendent shore.” It appears that the Buddha’s walking on water was taken over by the early Christians, allegorically used in their interpretation of the Old Testament, and applied to the new ‘Crosser-Over’ [Furtüberquerer] Joshua/Jesus.

It appears that in both the Buddhist and Christian traditions, ‘crossing over’ transformed from an originally gnostic journey to a miracle contrived to impress readers. The original, metaphorical importance of ‘crossing over,’ however, cannot be overstated. In the Marcan case, if the evangelist constructed several scenes that act as metaphors for something too deep to convey straightforwardly, then we are dealing with a critical element of early Christian theology. In short, it behooves us to understand what Mark means by “crossing over.”

In only one of the three above-mentioned Markan passages does Jesus walk on water—in the other two passages he crosses over in a boat. The constitutive element of all three passages, then, is crossing over to the other side, not the walking on water. In the Buddhist tradition the Master also walks on water, and there too it is miracle contrived to impress. If the Buddhist miracle inspired the scene in the Christian gospel, that would certainly constitute a link between the two religions. But far more interesting is if—on a deeper level—the Buddhist concept of “crossing over” inspired multiple scenes in Mark’s gospel. In this case, we might be justified in considering the Gospel of Mark as a sort of crypto-Buddhist text. We might also be justified in considering Christianity an adulterated form of Buddhism.

As Detering states in the above citation, crossing over in Buddhism has to do with reaching “the other/transcendent shore.” In Buddhism, the goal is to realize nirvana/enlightenment/a transcendent state of being in this life. The Gospel of Mark, however, conveys no such thing. Though it is the first canonical gospel chronologically, GMark already touts belief in “Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” raised bodily from death (1:1; 16:6). The gospel is far removed from what I claim are its proto-gnostic roots. Nevertheless, it is critical that we understand those roots, for in doing so we understand the genesis of Christianity: the Gospel of Mark uses the metaphors of gnosticism—including ‘crossing over’—in service to its new hero, Jesus Christ the Nazarene.

Buddhism in Christianity

The outlines of Christian beginnings now emerge: the evangelist Mark took pre-existing gnostic/Buddhist material and adapted it in stages to the purposes of his revolutionary Hellenistic doctrine, a doctrine based upon an invented Divine Man (theios aner) called Jesus the Nazarene. The material that Mark took was not directly from Buddhism. His material had already been mediated by Jewish Christians, fervent followers for whom a latter-day prophet (Yeshu ha-Notsri) was ‘a second Joshua,’ a Joshua who taught the spiritual crossing over from death to life.

The pieces fit not only doctrinally but also historically. We know, for example, that Buddhism had percolated to the West before the rise of Christianity. The fact of Buddhist (both Theravada and Mahayana) influence on earliest Christianity has been mooted for a long time (at least since the work of Albert Edmonds in the late nineteenth century), but the great extent of Buddhist influence is only now becoming appreciated. Dr. Detering’s work advances that appreciation. My own work has detailed extensive similarities in doctrine and ethics between Buddhism and Christianity (Buddhist and Christian Parallels Compiled from the Earliest Scriptures).

Surprising influence from India—sometimes outside of Buddhism per se—has also come to light. To this day there are ‘Thomas Christians‘ in India. Their claim is very ancient. In the Acts of Thomas, the apostle Thomas is supposed to have gone to India, where (legend has it) he was martyred. Less appreciated is that the Acts of Thomas betray clear influence from India. Commenting on one passage (Acts 91 f) G. Bornkamm wrote: “The symbolic meaning of the dream is clear from the context… But over and above this the whole scene is an exact reproduction of the Indian myth of the stealing of the food of immortality by the heavenly eagle Garuda, the sacred bird of Vishnu…” (NTA 1964.I:431, emphasis added).

Above, it was suggested that the Gospel of Mark drew not directly from Buddhism, but from an esoteric Jewish Christian tradition that itself was dependent on Buddhism. Thankfully, texts survive witnessing to that esoteric Jewish pre-Marcan tradition. Those texts include the Gospel of Thomas and others found at Nag Hammadi in 1945. The Nag Hammadi library does not know Jesus the Nazarene. However it does know a Jesus who is a gnostic teacher of the kind we have been describing. In the Gospel of Thomas ‘Jesus’ is still the voice of gnosis. The teachings of that early Jesus align much more closely with Buddhism than do the teachings of Mark’s Jesus the Nazarene.

The Christian records include, at their core, Buddhist material now in a thoroughly original Western form. I don’t believe such a development would have taken place on its own, that is, without a particularly strong stimulus. In my view, that stimulus was the career of Yeshu ha-Notsri—a Jewish prophet who taught a form of Buddhism. Yeshu lived in the early part of I BCE, spent many years in Alexandria, and then returned to Palestine to teach, gather disciples, and to be finally executed by the Jewish religious establishment. The coincidences are numerous, compelling, and simply too powerful to overlook: the prophet’s name was Yeshu (cf. Jesus/Joshua) ha-Notsri (cf. Nazarene), and he was “hung on a tree” on the eve of Passover, c. 75 BCE. The principal accusation of the Sanhedrin against Yeshu was: “He made himself God” (NazarethGate, 422-23). Similarly, the Marcan Jesus is God in man, as we read at the climax of his trial when Jesus self-references himself as the Son of Man who will come at the end times in judgment:

And the High Priest stood up in the midst, and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” But he was silent and made no answer. Again the High Priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the High Priest tore his garments and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy!” (Mk 14:60-64)

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