The “Christ”

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 10

The preceding post ended as follows:

We can imagine the scene, say, in the gnostic Christian congregation of Philippi, ca. 150 CE. The Reader or First Servant stands before the congregation and says solemnly:

“My dear brothers and sisters in Jesus: there is great news! Even as some of us suspected, the full power of God entered into a man about one hundred years ago. I have his story here, and it has just arrived. Let us say a communal prayer of blessing, and then I will read to you The Good News According to Markus.”

Stunned, wide-eyed silence. The communal prayer was intoned. And then the First Servant proceeded to read The Gospel of Mark.

A sudden hubbub in the congregation followed the reading:

“Can it be true?”
“I have never heard anything like this…”
“What an awesome story!”
“It’s simply wonderful!”

And finally we can imagine someone, moved by the spirit, standing up in the midst of the startled congregation and stating in a loud voice: “Jesus the Nazarene was indeed the Son of God—the Christ!”

The sensation caused by the Gospel of Mark—in fact, by all four canonical gospels—spread like a wildfire through the Christian congregations of the mid-second century, within a few years quickly reaching the limits of the Roman Empire.

The essential vehicle for this conquest was not the story of Jesus of Nazareth, nor his miracles, nor his rising from the grave… It was that the hearers learned a radically new meaning of a word: the “Christ.” Previously they venerated “Jesus,” which to them meant “Savior” (its literal meaning in Semitic) and which denoted the spirit of God. And they also venerated the man who received that spirit—an example for all to follow. Jews naturally associated the combination of human Prophet + spirit Jesus with the old concept of messiah, the “anointed one”—Christos in Greek, transliterated as Christus in Latin.

Thus, the human prophet Yeshu ha-Notsri was venerated as the Christ/Messiah already in the first century CE. We know this from a letter of Pliny the Younger to the emperor Trajan, dated about 110 CE. The letter (No. X.96) mentions “Christians” many times (not “Chrestians”). This shows that believers in the new messiah were fairly numerous in Asia Minor at the time.

Nevertheless, we must not confuse the first century Christ with the Catholic Christ ca. 150 CE. The former was a man imbued with the spirit Jesus. Though he was considered the messiah (“Christ”) by many, he was emphatically not divine. (We find this view also in the Gospel of Barnabas and in Muslim tradition.) The first century Christ was not the Son of God, was not born of a virgin, and did not resurrect bodily from the grave. These astonishing views belong to the later Catholic Christ, Jesus of Nazareth.

So, in the first century there existed a definite distinction between “Jesus” and “Christ.” The former was a numinous, invisible, and almost magical entity. One never really knew who had the Jesus—the gardener, the person passing in the street, the fruitseller… Thus, anyone with a pure heart and open mind could become Jesus, as it were, by receiving the spirit of God. But he could not become the “Christ”—that august position was already taken by the founding prophet, Yeshu ha-Notsri. Nevertheless, the gnostic Jesus was the spirit of God—an enlightening, transforming, and quite hidden potency. “Jesus” in the first century imparts knowledge of life—it is the knowledge of life:

These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.
And he said, “Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.” [Gospel of Thomas, L. 1]

The word “Christ” does not appear a single time in the Gospel of Thomas nor, to my knowledge, in any other early gnostic text. In the Gospel of Thomas the spirit Jesus speaks through an anonymous person (his name and fleshly existence considered unimportant). It is clear that the concept of the spiritual Jesus arose first, and that it was then linked to the old concept of the Jewish messiah. That secondary linking of spirit Jesus + human “anointed one” (messiah) is the basic meaning of the “Christ” or the “Christ Jesus.” Thus, the Gospel of Mark begins:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The Catholic Christ was in a category apart. It was entirely different from the gnostic, numinous Jesus and even from the first century Christ. While the earlier Christ was a human being endowed with the divine spirit, Jesus, the Catholic Christ was a God-Man (or Man-God), the (only begotten) Son of God who graciously came to earth to save sinners, who out of love suffered and died for those who believe in him. Previously, belief was in the divine spirit, Jesus. For the Catholics, however, belief is now in the Christ, the inimitable Son of God who died on the cross for our sins in a cosmic act of redemption.

The religion of the Catholics was thus entirely different from that of first century gnostic Jesus-followers. It was no longer a question of personal striving, of gnosis, and of inner transformation by means of a numinous spiritual Jesus. Faith was now purely a question of belief in the Christ, Jesus the Nazarene (Gospel of Mark)/Jesus of Nazareth (Gospels of Matthew, Luke, John).

For the Catholics, then, the Christ is the lynchpin of history, God come in the flesh to redeem mankind. This concept was wholly new in the mid-second century.

We can now understand why Mark brings “the good news of Jesus Christ.” He and the other evangelists were not interested in merely bringing the news about Jesus—that was old news, for the Christian congregations were already familiar with the spiritual Jesus and with the wise words of that Jesus. What the Catholics brought was entirely different: the Christ, the only-begotten Son of God in the flesh—Jesus of Nazareth.

So we see—from the very beginning of the production of Catholic writings—those texts hammering away at the notion of “Christ,” “Christ Jesus,” and “Jesus Christ.” Often, they even drop “Jesus” and simply enjoin belief in “Christ.”

Soon after the canonical gospels were ‘published’ a barrage of epistles began to circulate—first under the name of “Paul” and soon thereafter under the (equally spurious) name of “Ignatius.” These were letters to the congregations that mirrored and reinforced what the Christ instructs in the gospels. The foremost requirement was belief in Jesus Christ—as we read so often in the various epistles. This includes belief in Christ’s atoning death on the cross and in his promise to return at the end of days to rescue (“resurrect”) those who believe in him. The reasoning is in fact circular: those who believe in Christ will be saved by their belief in Christ. That circularity doesn’t seem to have bothered (or dawned on) anyone.

The early Catholic texts

Thus, use of the words “Christ” and “Christian” in an ancient text may signal a later date: after the middle of the second century, with the caveat that one or another Church Father later interpolated the word “Christ” into older texts. In these cases, the underlying text may be Gnostic or Jewish Christian, yet it contains later catholicizing interpolations—such as the word “Christ,” references to the virgin birth, the resurrection from the grave, the eschatological second coming, etc.

On the other hand, if the text speaks only of Jesus and of ‘his’ wisdom (Gospel of Thomas) and lacks catholicizing elements, then it may well predate the mid-second century.

Some texts (such as the Didache) begin with an ethical section (“The Two Ways”) and then continue in a Catholic manner. The Two Ways section has not a single mention of “Christ” or even of “Jesus” (it could, in fact, pass quite well as a Buddhist text). In the remainder of the work, however, we find “Christ,” “Christ Jesus,” “Son of David,” “your Church,” instructions on institutionalized sacraments such as the eucharist and baptism, and how to treat itinerant Christian prophets (now deprecated) versus settled Christian “bishops and deacons” (Chp. 15). So, there are at least two layers in the Didache.

Thorough-going Gnostic scriptures that the Church could not salvage by interpolation or rewriting were simply destroyed.

After mid-II CE, belief in “Jesus” alone was obviously not enough for “orthodox” Christianity. The emerging Church insisted upon belief in the Christ, the messiah come in the flesh—Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, towards mid-II CE we suddenly witness the emergence of the dual term “Jesus Christ” in the gospels and in ancillary Christian literature. By continually linking the old term Jesus with the new term Christ, the emerging Church cunningly co-opted many gnostic believers.

Of course there would have been some insightful congregants who questioned the new figure Jesus of Nazareth, the “Christ.” They smelled a rotten fish and perhaps sensed in their bones that the way to salvation is not through belief but through arduous “seeking and finding.” Thus, the appearance of the canonical gospels immediately split the Christian congregations. Profuse evidence for this is found in the many Catholic epistles that have survived. As mentioned above, those epistles were primarily designed to support the new concept of “Christ” first introduced in the canonical gospels. The epistles took no prisoners—they viciously attacked naysayers and backsliders. For example, here is the opening of Paul’s famous letter to the Galatians:

Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the members of God’s family who are with me, to the churches of Galatia.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!

Nothing subtle there. Consider also the following verses:

Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. (1 Tim 1:3)

For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5)

For no one can lay a foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:11)

Additional warnings against Christ-deniers among the congregation are readily found:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded. (Rom 16:17–18)

I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough. I think that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. (2 Cor 11:2–5)

This last citation is revealing. The congregants are enjoined to ‘marry’ Christ for whom they have “a sincere and pure devotion.” Here “Christ” has largely replaced “Jesus.” And who are the “super-apostles” that get the author’s dander up? They are, of course, the already existing and trusted gnostic leaders of the mid- and later-II CE who are actively resisting the new religion of Christ. In the Pauline epistles, these prior apostles are represented by Peter, James, and the “Jerusalem” faction, as well as by “false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us” (Gal 2:4).

The most vindictive passage that I have found in all these epistles occurs in the Letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians. There we read:

Be not deceived, my brethren. Corruptors of houses [i.e. thieves and the like] will not inherit the kingdom of God. If then they who do these things after the flesh are put to death, how much more if a man through evil doctrine corrupt the faith of God for which Jesus Christ was crucified. Such a man, having defiled himself, will go into the unquenchable fire; and in like manner also he who listens to him. (¶16)

And thus, already in antiquity the fires were prepared that would one day consume the (often saintly) “heretics” of the Middle Ages and that would arm the future inquisitors of the Church.

The late second century CE was a time of acrid Christian factionalism as well as of intense literary production. The authors of the new religion—the Church Fathers—tried everything in the book to cajole, threaten, and induce Christians everywhere to accept the new Jesus “who is the Christ.” They did not always threaten naysayers with perdition, however. Sometimes they used a softer touch, as we witness in the Apollos story of Acts:

24 Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately. 27 And when he wished to cross over to Achaia, the believers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. On his arrival he greatly helped those who through grace had become believers, 28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Christ is Jesus. (Acts 18:24–28)

Here we have a sincere believer in Jesus who is converted to the view “that the Christ is Jesus.” There is no acrimony in this conversion, only enthusiasm, encouragement, and the frank acknowledgment of Apollos’ spiritual prowess. Of course, the slip of the pen in verse 25 is revealing. That Apollos “knew only the baptism of John” speaks volumes, for it tells us that “John” was the original prophet who preceded Catholic Christianity. That is, John was the prophet who taught the earlier divine Jesus of gnosis—who taught the spiritual Jesus of individual salvation.

Finally, John was also the name of the prophet who lived in the early part of the first century BCE, the prophet known to the Jewish Talmudists as “Yeshu ha-Notsri”—literally, Jesus the Nazarene.

“After John, the world will be captive to a lie. The Roman Christ will divide the people.”—Mandean Right Ginza 1.154

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About René Salm

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


The “Christ” — 6 Comments

  1. Are you suggesting that in the NT scriptures at large, many of the references to Jews, “Judaizers”, and the Jerusalem church could actually be literary stand-ins for older gnostic Christians?

  2. Yes, I am. From a gentile standpoint, “Jews” ranges from Hebrews who demand circumcision and follow Torah (Ossaenes-Essenes/Epiph. 19.5.1; Nasarenes-Nazarenes/Epiph. 18, 29.5.5, etc), to Hebrews who are now gnostic and relaxed regarding the ritual demands of Torah (the sects responsible for the Odes of Solomon and Wisdom of Solomon).

    • Fascinating. I have to admit when you chose to quote the opening passages of Galatians to support your thesis that the ones who “preach another Jesus” actually describing early gnostic Jesus followers, I was a bit perplexed because the author of Galatians then goes on to describe these people as ultra “Judaizers” who require circumcision and strict adherence to the Torah. The author then rails on about how there is no life in the Torah and that it is better to be free from the Torah through Christ, an argument in and of itself that sounds much more gnostic-like than the “Judaizers” the author rails against. So I’m wondering how do the Jews in these texts (described as super strict Torah followers) end up becoming literary stand-ins for a group of people (early gnostic Jesus followers) who would have been the absolute antithesis of the “Judaizers” described?

      • Thank you for your comment. I think “absolute antithesis” is too strong. In the first generations of the religion there were many gnostic Jesus-followers (most?) who were Hebrew by blood. Epiphanius in one place writes that Gnostics “use both the Old and New Testaments” (Pan 26.6) and even has the Jewish gnostic Cerinthus behind Paul’s difficulties in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:4 & Pan. 28.4). BTW, this puts gnosticism quite early!

        But Judaism + Gnosticism is an uncomfortable alliance, as we see in the Dead Sea Scrolls—yes, IMO the sect of Qumran was proto-gnostic. I also think it was affected (but not founded) by Yeshu ha-Notsri in early I BCE.

        As regards the Pauline epistles, I don’t think we should look for consistency. Along with Price, Detering, and some others, I maintain that the Pauline epistles are multi-layered, contrived documents of the second century. The base layer preceded Catholicism and was gnostic—letters written (perhaps even by Marcion) to various Jesus congregations. The Catholics extensively reworked these documents, but they had a very difficult and complex task: (1) they had to separate the religion from Judaism (in order to accommodate gentiles); (2) they had also to accommodate the one Creator God of Judaism (otherwise they would be Marcionite) and to accept the Tanakh as God’s voice preparing the way for the “Christ”; and finally, (3) they had (most difficult of all) to place the epistles in the time and place of the (invented) Apostles, agreeing as much as possible with other Catholic texts that had been written and were being written. It’s an impossible task—esp. given the poor sense of history then prevalent—and that’s why we see so many contradictions in the letters and between them and Acts.

  3. So in some early Jesus gnostic circles, (1) there were people who still observed the Torah, on top of seeking gnosis? (2) Is it better to understand that Torah observance and gnosis were not seen as absolute replacements, or mutually exclusive in [some] early communities? And therefore (3) what you theorize Yeshu Ha Notsri did, to completely reject the Torah and follow Buddhism, wasn’t the beginning of Gnosticism in Jewish communities, but contemporary to it, and considered much more of an extreme shift? (4) Essentially, did Gnosticism at this time exist more on a spectrum, rather than being an absolute “either or” kind of teaching?

    • There are several questions in your comment. I’ve numbered them and will briefly address them here: (1) Yes. (2) Yes. (3) It is possible to view gnosticism as a continuation of Jewish wisdom traditions. That is, in fact, probably the majority view. But Judaism has always been uncomfortable with gnosticism and has treated it with suspicion—cf. Merkabah mysticism and warnings in the Talmud regarding the one whose questioning goes too far. Yeshu certainly went “too far”—his gnosticism was qualitatively different and well outside the bounds of that religion, as we see in his encratite teachings, endorsement of poverty, and rejection of worldly and family values (all very un-Jewish). (4) Yes, gnosticism existed on a spectrum. The ‘pure’ gnosis of Yeshu (my Stage I) quickly evaporated (such radical world-rejection was too difficult) and was replaced by the gift of gnosis from on high (my Stage II)—the spirit of ‘Jesus’ entering the human being. This is where you find the merging of gnosticism and Judaism with its many flavors, as we see from the texts ranging from the DSS to the Odes of Solomon.

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