Yeshu ha-Notsri as founder of Christianity—Pt.13: The falsified biography

The Toldoth Yeshu

Before proceeding with Yeshu’s activities in Samaria after his return to Israel, I would like to expand a little on a remark made in the preceding post. There I noted that Yeshu was not merely a religious rebel due to his unconventional (Buddhist-gnostic) views, but also that he was a political threat. This suspicion derives from several clues, most importantly being that the young Yeshu was important enough to accompany Perachiah, the head of the Sanhedrin, into Egyptian exile. This alone suggests that Yeshu was probably associated somehow with an influential Jewish family.

Many other clues, however, support the suspicion that Yeshu was indeed connected to Jewish aristocracy—if not to royalty itself. In his book Did Jesus Live 100 B.C.? (1903:180), G.R.S. Mead opined that “Yeshu was a person of great distinction and importance, and ‘near those in power’ at the time, that is to say, presumably connected by blood with the Jewish rulers—a trait preserved in the Toldoth Yeshu.” This general line of reasoning receives support from b. Sanh. 43a, where one reads: “With Yeshu, however, it was different, for he was connected with the government [malkuth].” I discuss this important passage in NazarethGate (p. 425):

We now consider the astonishing final words of the above citation: “for he was connected with the government.” This is the Shachter-Freedman translation and fully confirms our above observation that Yeshu was “connected to the highest echelon of the Jewish establishment.” In fact, the pertinent words have secular meaning in Talmudic Hebrew. Thus the translation clarifies the word GOVERNMENT with the bracketed phrase: “or royalty, i.e., influential.” Jastrow’s Talmudic dictionary translates malkuth in this context as “court,” and adds in parentheses: “influential.”

The first Jewish history of Jesus, the Toldoth Yeshu at least partly goes back to earliest Christian times. This suspicion is not new or original with me. The founder of American Atheists, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, once wrote: “We venture to think that the Christian legend of Jesus may have originated with the Jewish story of Jeshu” (in her introductory remarks to the 1982 reprinting of the Toldoth Jeshu, original edition online here). O’Hair herself, however, may have derived the opinion from no less a luminary than Voltaire, who opined long ago: 
“The Toldoth Yeshu is the most ancient Jewish writing against our religion that has been transmitted to us. It is a life of Jesus Christ, one completely contrary to our holy gospels. It appears to derive from the first century and to have even been written before the gospels” (Voltaire, Lettres sur les Juifs).

In the Toldoth, Queen Alexandra (“Helena”) is herself personally impressed with Yeshu and, at one point, interrogates him:

Jesus said: Lady, I am he, and I raise the dead.

In the same hour the queen was affrighted and said: That is a great sign.

Apostates still joined themselves to [Yeshu], were with him, and there arose a great schism in Israel.

G.R.S. Mead (p. 317) also offers the following regarding the mother of Yeshu:

[F]rom several forms of the Toldoth we glean that [Mary] was regarded as a woman of distinction. Not only is she said to have been the sister of a certain Joshua, who is presumably to be identified with Joshua ben Perachiah, but she is also said to have been related to Queen Helene, that is, if our argument holds good, to Queen Salome, whose brother was Simeon ben Shetach. Here we have the close relationship of Jesus to the most distinguished Rabbis of the time.

Of course, if Mary the mother of Yeshu/Jesus were the sister of Joshua b. Perachiah, then we have here eminent reason why the young lad would have accompanied his own uncle, the head of the sanhedrin, into Egyptian exile. I certainly do not insist upon this interpretation, which at this point is a mere possibility. However, if Yeshu were indeed the nephew of Perachiah, he would have been a favorite—Perachiah’s darling, and doubtless Perachiah would have taken his nephew under his wing. We perhaps now catch a glimpse of the enormous deception (in the French sense) presented by Yeshu’s later betrayal of the Jewish religion. In this scenario, Perachiah’s excommunication of Yeshu in 76 BCE takes on stupendous personal overtones.

Not to mention the Sanhedrin’s execution of Yeshu ten years later.

We now are admittedly in speculative territory and none of this is provable. How much is true we may never know. But the clues are suggestive, and they do combine in certain ways to yield a rather exceptional, though still believable, story. Now, if the boy Yeshu accompanied his uncle into Egypt, we may then ask: what about Yeshu’s father? Why is he nowhere mentioned?

In fact, it may be (see below) that Yeshu’s father is mentioned in one guise or another. But it is also possible that Yeshu’s father was killed in one of Janneus’ pogroms/wars against the Pharisees. I am not asserting here that the father’s demise occurred specifically in the infamous mass crucifixion of 800 Pharisees by Janneus, so graphically depicted by Josephus. This would be one of the more macabre possibilities. If my reconstruction is correct, then Yeshu would probably already have been in Egypt at that time (87 BCE?). More likely is that Yeshu fled to Egypt in the retinue around Perachiah, while Yeshu’s father remained in Palestine to fight against King Janneus.

Before closing this section I wish to signal that an alternate account of Yeshu’s parentage exists in Jewish records. (This is discussed at Mead:148 f.) In the Palestinian Gemara it is not Perachiah who flees to Alexandria, but his successor as head of the Sanhedrin, Judah ben Tabbai (see here and here). Though I am no Talmudic scholar, it appears to me that the Gemara is considerably later than the Toldoth Yeshu (IV CE vs. I CE). Hence, I provisionally give preference to the account with Perachiah, and Mead (p. 169) seems to agree.

The Protevangeium of James

Another possible hint that Yeshu/Jesus was linked by blood to aristocracy (if not royalty) comes from the Protevangelium of James, a very early work in which Joseph and Mary live in Jerusalem, not Nazareth/Galilee. We read concerning Jesus’ cousin, John [the Baptist]:

23.2. Now, Herod was searching for John, and sent officers to Zacharias at the altar [of the Jerusalem temple] to ask him, “Where have you hidden your son?”… Herod was angry and said, “Is his son [i.e. of Zacharias] to be king over Israel?”

Here, Zacharias is a ‘high priest’ officiating in the Jerusalem temple and is the father of John [the Baptist, cf. Lk 1:5]. The Protevangelium goes on to relate that Zacharias is slain in the forecourt of the temple by the king’s men. This account seems known to Luke (11:51), while Matthew glosses “Zachariah the son of Barachiah.” All this may go back to 2 Chr 24:20, where a certain “Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest” is stoned in the forecourt of the Jerusalem temple. But the early Christian tradition contemporized this account, and the reason is not immediately clear. In any case, the Protevangelium explicitly links John’s father with the temple priesthood and, as we all know, in the canonical tradition John’s family was linked to that of Jesus by blood, for Elizabeth and Mary were “kinswomen” (Lk 1:36), presumably cousins. Thus, according to the Protevangelium, Jesus the son of Mary was connected by blood to the high priestly functioning of the Jerusalem temple.

It is also possible, if one conflates the Baptist with Jesus (as Price, Ory, and myself do) that Jesus is a cipher for John [the Baptist]. Originally, it was John’s folks who were associated with the Jerusalem temple. This parentage was no longer desired by the evangelists, who desired an entirely new biography for their God-Man, now from Galilee and not from Jerusalem. So, their new figure was furnished with a new set of parents, a new homeland (Galilee), and an entirely obscure (and hence unverifiable) background. Ergo, the Christian gospels.

This is not the place to delve into the conflation of John and Jesus. But, here too, many clues exist, including: Herod’s own fear that Jesus was John resurrected from the dead (Mk 6:16); Trobisch’s view that Jn. the Bptist had 12 disciples (cf. Acts 19:7; The 1st Ed. of the NT, 2000:81); Rod Blackhirst’s observation that in the Gospel of Barnabas Jesus “virtually subsumes the Baptist character” (“Herbs and Wild Fruit,” Journal of Higher Criticism 9:2 [2002] p. 287); the ‘pre-Christian’ Mandeans venerating John the Baptist (cf. the Book of John) while vilifying Jesus; the birth of John on June 21 (the summer solstice—Wünsch, Das Frülingsfest 55); John’s birth in a cave (Paciaudi, De Cultu 1755:53), etc.

To pursue the matter one step farther, if John were the originator of the Christian religion, then the prophet’s real name was either Yachanan (“Yaweh is Gracious”) or Yanathan (“Yahweh Gives”). The two names, while etymologically different, were occasionally interchangeable—particularly because the often imaginative and linguistically challenged people who in antiquity took upon themselves to translate/edit/abridge/expand these religious writings were hardly following the formal rules of linguistics when going from one language to another.

Of the two names, Yachanan or Yanathan, separate clues (to be discussed) favor the latter: the prophet’s name translates to “Yahweh Gives”—that is, Jonathan, or simply John. “The Baptist” was an ascription, an appellation bestowed upon the prophet by the congregation that he founded. For readers now familiar with the gnostic water symbolism highlighted often on this website, describing the prophet as a baptist signals that the core doctrine had to do with immersion in gnosis. Originally, then, the resurrection was spiritual, ritually identified with emerging from the water of baptism. (All this will have much to do with the figure of the Samaritan heresiarch Dositheus, to be considered later.)

Aside: We encounter a similar problem with Heb. Notsri yielding → Gk. Nazarene and Nazareth of the gospels. In this case, it was beyond the linguistic capacities of the evangelists to preserve the Semitic tsade (“ts”), which is an unvoiced phoneme and in the natural permutations of language yields the unvoiced “s” and not the voiced (aspirated) “z”: Tsforah→Sepphorah (wife of Moses); Tsarephat→Sarepta (place); Yitshak→Isaac; Tsidon→Sidon, etc. This is one clue that the true heirs of Yeshu ha-Notsri were the Natsuraiia (Mandeans) and the Nasarenes of Epiphanius (Panarion 18), while all the ancient groups and related places that have the “z” sound in their name are bogus (Mk 1:24, Mt 2:23, Acts 24:5, Panarion 29, Nazarenes, Nazoraeans, Nazara, Nazareth, etc).

If the Toldoth Yeshu and the Protevangelium of James are indeed as early chronologically as mooted above, this of course significantly affects the Synoptic Problem and the source history of the canonical gospels. Mainline scholarship still clings to the largely discredited ‘oral tradition’ hypothesis. What we have above, however, is a much more probable and demonstrable hypothesis: the canonical gospels rest upon pre-existent Jewish sources. I am convinced that the account in the Protevangelium of James served as one source for the canonical gospels (at the minimum, for Matthew and Luke). It is also my view that at least some portions of the Toldoth Yeshu served as model for the evangelists.

Already in mid-II CE Justin Martyr seems to know elements of the Toldoth, and it was his generation (as argued on this site here) that witnessed the birth of the canonical gospels. So, if one clearly locates these texts chronologically, it becomes eminently possible that the Jewish Toldoth Yeshu (an early anti-Yeshuine polemic) could have preceded the Christian gospels. With this in mind, when we read a passage such as the above—as well as it’s context in Toldoth ¶4—the possibility readily presents that Mark simply transposed the Yeshu-Alexandra scene to Jesus-Pilate, with necessary adjustments.

If the prophet’s name was, in fact, “John,” then the moniker Yeshu ha-Notsri is itself secondary, attached to the prophet about the turn of the era by the nascent rabbinical tradition. Yeshu, of course, is in the Hebrew semantic field meaning “salvation.” Notsri is (I maintain) in the semantic field of “watcher, keeper” (Heb. natsar). For reasons of encratism (to be discussed elsewhere), the original Christians were known as netsarim, “watchers” (signifying watching one’s behavior in order to maintain spiritual purity).

Interestingly, a common synonym of natsar is shamar. Both these words equally define the semantic field “Watch-Observe-Keep.” From natsar are derived “Notsri” and “Natsarene” (and, in the canonical Christian tradition, “Nazarene” and “Nazareth”). From shamar is derived the exact synonym “Samaritan.”

As we shall see, the early followers of Yeshu ha-Notsri were not only known as natsuraiia (Mandeans, Natsarenes), but also as shamarim, “Samaritans.”

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

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