As noted in an earlier post, John or Jonathan was probably the actual name by which the Christian founder was known in his lifetime. Jonathan means “Yahweh Gives” (cf. Gk. Dositheus, “Gift of God”). Later Jewish records (the Talmud) refer to the Christian founder as Yeshu ha-Notsri, “Preserver of Salvation,” reflecting latter-day Christian developments of the name “Jesus” (→ Yeshu) and “Nazarene” ( → Notsri).
John was a favorite name among the Hasmoneans. John, the person with whom we are concerned and the founder of the religion that eventually became Christianity, was the son of a Hasmonean known to history by the name of Absalom—the brother of Alexander Janneus (who was also known as “Jonathan”). Thus, John/Yeshu was a nephew of King Janneus. One might assume this close relationship conferred protection upon the lad, but that assumption would be wrong. The Hasmonean family was notoriously fractious, some members favoring the Sadducees (Janneus, John Hyrcanus I and II), and some favoring their bitter enemies the Pharisees (Salome Alexandra, Absalom). Among the Hasmoneans, brother routinely killed brother or even parent (cf. Aristobulus I) if they were impediments to accessing the throne.
Absalom sided with the Pharisees while his brother Janneus sided with the Sadducees, and open warfare existed between the two sides. Thus it is that the young Pharisee John/Yeshu, son of Absalom, fled to Egypt ca. 88 BCE when his uncle Janneus instigated a pogrom against the Pharisees. Yeshu (I will continue to call him by that name for simplicity) returned to Israel upon the death of Janneus in 76 BCE, at which time the Pharisee-friendly widow of Janneus, Salome Alexandra (Yeshu’s aunt by marriage) became queen.
Yeshu’s sister was also married to the queen’s son, Aristobulus II. Thus, upon his return to Palestine from exile in Egypt, Yeshu had multiple very close connections to royalty.
Like his father, Yeshu was also a Pharisee. We know from historical and religious records that Salome favored the Pharisees. Indeed, her brother, Simon ben Shetach, was the leader of the Pharisaic faction and the heir to Joshua ben Perachiah as nasi (head of the Sanhedrin). All these links mean that Jonathan/Yeshu had entrée to the royal household itself and to the highest level of Pharisaic and royal power.
It is obvious, then, that the eventual execution of Yeshu at the hands of the Pharisaic religious faction was no light matter. They were not only executing one of their own, but were executing a person with the highest royal connections. They were also executing this gnostic and quasi-Buddhist on religious grounds: apostasy, blasphemy, and leading the people astray (thus the Talmud). Of course, Yeshu merited a full pro forma religious trial before the Sanhedrin, with a waiting period of forty days for witnesses to come forward, and so on. Yeshu’s final judge was doubtless the queen’s brother, ben Shetach. In sum, the founder of Christianity was put to death for religious reasons by his own family and by his own people. In that unprecedented confluence of circumstances we detect some of the pathos of Christianity’s beginnings.
However, the pathos also extended to those related to Yeshu—including Salome. Evidence from multiple sources suggests that she herself was his disciple. If the Salome named in the Gospel of Thomas is the Queen Salome we have been discussing, then she is explicitly made to state “I am your disciple” (GTh 61). Also, in the Toldoth Yeshu (an ancient Jewish history of Jesus), Queen Alexandra (“Helena”) is personally impressed with Yeshu and, at one point, thus 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.
A great schism, indeed. The personal situation of Queen Helena/Salome would also be quite pathetic as regards Yeshu, for it was her brother who may have sentenced her own religious mentor to death. Salome was apparently in the middle between the two, and who can fathom the acute pathos and helplessness of her position when forced to yield to the stern opposition of the entire Pharisaic establishment?
Mention can also be made of Mk 15:40:
There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome who, when he was in Galilee, followed him…
This discussion only begins to unravel the complexities and higher dimensions of that very unique individual—a man very well educated religiously, a pacifist-Buddhist, and also a man well-placed politically and socially in Israel, one who put all aside, struck out on his own courageous road of truth, and in so doing changed the face of history.
Yeshu, by the way, was not the first person in history to go down such a radical path. He had a great model: the Buddha. Gautama Siddhartha, five hundred years earlier, was similarly born into royalty. To the shock of his father the king, and of his wife and child, Gautama renounced all and became a wandering beggar in the sole search of truth. As far as we know, Gautama was the first person in history to do so—and to succeed. He founded Buddhism. Yeshu was the second person in history to succeed. He founded Christianity.
Though the details of his life have until now been obscured, the essence of Yeshu’s teachings have long been known. The New Testament is studded with them, astonishing parables and sayings that genuinely go back to the founder himself. Those teachings were too precious to jettison along with his biography, and so the evangelists selectively preserved a number of them—those that were compatible with their invented god-man Jesus of Nazareth. Other authentic teachings can be found in the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Barnabas.
To be continued…