The two Christian messiahs

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 16

Some readers may notice that occasional entries on this weblog change after the initial posting. This is because—when new information requires—I go back and revise passages in older posts to conform to new discoveries. I used to keep the older post in an ‘archive’ section of this site, but I rarely do that anymore because my capacity to revise prior entries is limited by time and energy—after all, there are now over 300 posts on this site! If a book ever results from all this material, that will be the time to revise and put this “New Account of Christian Origins” into proper order.

Thankfully, I’ve not yet had to take down a post entirely—all my major propositions (while admittedly quite recent) still stand: the second century appearance of the New Testament (gospels and epistles), as well as the non-existence of Paul, of Marcion, and of the earliest Church Fathers (Clement of Rome through Polycarp of Smyrna)…

Nevertheless, in some cases the new information requires more than a mere revision, and the older post merits expansion with a new entry. For example, I now offer a major refinement of views that I recently presented in a post on “The Christ.”

Pliny’s letter to Trajan

My initial impression was that the terms “Christ” and its cognate “Christian” were part and parcel of the Catholic proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth in the middle of II CE. I proposed that the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew meshiach (“anointed one”)—Xristos—arrived along with the astonishing proposition of God-In-The-Flesh, Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, the words “Christ” and “Christian” (as opposed to “Jesus”) could be used for general dating purposes—texts that mentioned “Jesus” and not “Christ” were early (e.g. Gospel of Thomas), while texts that did mention “Christ” referred to the new savior, Jesus of Nazareth, and postdated the Catholic revolution of mid-II CE.

The foregoing, however, is only a first approximation. A reader, Danila Oder, alerted me to the letter of Pliny the Younger to the Roman emperor Trajan (X.96) which mentions “Christo” and “Christiani” many times. The Latin letter is doubtless authentic and dates to about 110 CE. To clear up a side issue, in consulting the editorial apparatus I verified that, in all the copies that were made beginning already in the second century, Pliny exclusively refers to “Christo” etc. and never to “Chresto” (“good”). For Pliny these were Christians, not Chrestians.

This is significant. It shows that Jesus followers in the early second century viewed the prophet at the origin of their religion as the Jewish messiah, the meshiach, “anointed one”—with all the religious implications (whether of Davidic or Ephraimite descent, etc) that entails. Though Pliny’s Christians were no doubt primarily Gentiles living in Asia Minor (Pliny was the Roman governor of Bithynia and Pontus), by their self-designation “Christians” we see that they were still under Jewish influence. But Pliny nowhere calls them “Jews.” This suggests that the Christians of that time and place also did not call or consider themselves “Jews.” We can, in turn, doubt that these Christians practiced circumcision or even regarded the Jews as the chosen people of God.

However, we cannot suppose that the term “Christians” had the same meaning ca. 100 CE as it did a century later. The difference is in fact colossal, for in the intervening century the Catholic Church came into existence. The Christians that Pliny referred to did not worship a God-man who mandated the Great Commission—something Trajan would certainly have considered fatally seditious:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphases added.)

Pliny writes that his investigations revealed only harmless practices and “depraved, excessive superstition” on the part of the Christians. This corresponds with my view of pre-Catholic Christianity: “Jesus” was still the spirit of God that entered a man (now in the remote past), a man whom the Christians venerated as an especially wise prophet and ethical example. Trajan’s reply to Pliny reveals no alarm: “Christians are not to be sought out… they shall obtain pardon through repentance.”

Spirit and flesh

The contrast between the earlier and later Christians is stark: the earlier Jesus followers venerated a spiritual entity, while later Catholic Christians venerated a God-man. The texts also reflect this contrast. 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 GTh the spirit Jesus speaks through an anonymous person. His name and fleshly existence are considered unimportant.

Because of the early self-designation “Christian” (evident from Pliny’s letter), it is clear that believers in the spiritual Jesus had, already in the first century, associated the prophet whom they venerated with the Jewish messiah. That linking of human “anointed one” (messiah) + spirit “Jesus” is, I suggest, the original pre-Catholic meaning of the “Christ.” There is no theology of the cross here, no atonement, no redemption, no man as God. The Gospel of Mark betrays echoes of this early conception: GMk lacks the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection, and the divine spirit (“Jesus”) enters the human prophet at baptism (1:10) and abandons him prior to his crucifixion (14:52 & 15:34).

To review: for the first century followers, the “Jesus” (“savior”) was a numinous, divine spiritual entity, and for them the “Christ” (“anointed one”) had two components: divine spirit + human prophet. That early combination of man + divine spirit was by no means God or inimitable Son of God. For the early Christians, ‘Christ’ was simply a man imbued with the Holy Spirit—as we read, say, in the much-ignored Gospel of Barnabas.

The later Catholics, however, made that Christ into “God”—the only-begotten God-Man (or Man-God), the Son of God who graciously came to earth to ransom sinners and who, in a cosmic act of redemption and out of pure love, suffered and died for those who believe in him.

The religion of the Catholics was thus entirely different from that of first century gnostic Jesus-followers. Their religion was no longer a question of personal striving, of gnosis, of inner transformation by means of the “Jesus” ( = what later came to be called the “Holy Ghost”). Faith was now key, and entry into the kingdom of heaven was purely a matter of belief in the Catholic Christ—Jesus of Nazareth.

We can trace the rough development of Christology:

– a Jewish prophet teaches the gnostic way to salvation in the early first century BCE;
– after his death, the divine wisdom leading to eternal salvation is termed the Jesus (“Savior”)—that is, Jesus = gnosis;
– the Jewish followers identify the Jesus endowed prophet with the long-standing Davidic messiah (“anointed one”), the Christ;
– later Gentile followers redefine the “Christ” by making the prophet inimitable, the Son of God, and the ruler of the world who will return in judgment at the end of time. Whereas the designations were once distinct, for the Catholics “Jesus” and “Christ” became synonymous: Jesus Christ.

The two messiahs
(Important background is here.)

We have seen that the trajectory from Jesus to Christ around the turn of the era is a trajectory from spiritual redeemer (gnosis) to fleshly redeemer (God-man). However, it is also a trajectory from the suffering messiah Son of Ephraim to the conquering messiah Son of David:

According to Isa 53, God’s servant or the Messiah clearly must suffer and die for his people. This could hardly be expected (or only with difficulty) from the Son of David. Hence, another messiah of lesser stature needed to precede him, a messiah through whose death the sins of Israel are expiated and atoned, as well as a messiah who would open the way for both the Kingly Messiah and for his people to attain the kingdom of glory. [G. F. Moore, Judaism II:371. My translation from the German.]

We are now approaching a number of nebulous elements that attach to the birth of Christianity and signal its emergence from the Jewish matrix. I simply list these curious (and sometimes contradictory) elements here:

– Ephraim and Manasseh were the two sons of the biblical Joseph. Jesus of Nazareth, too, was the ‘son of Joseph.’

– According to Jewish tradition, the Josephite messiah Son of Ephraim would fight valiantly, but (in contrast to the Davidic messiah) would be finally killed by Gentile armies at the walls of Jerusalem.

– The “field of Joseph” (where the patriarch Joseph’s bones were buried) is at the center of Samaritan religious tradition. That field is located at Sychar between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal.

– Jesus “came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph” (Jn 4:5). This is the field of Joseph, where Jesus had his fabled discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well.

– The author of Acts 7:16 erases the patriarch Joseph from his account by writing that Jacob was buried at the tomb in Shechem (it was Joseph—Jacob was buried in Hebron), while Jacob (not Abraham) purchased the field of Joseph where the tomb under discussion is located (Gen 33:19; 50:13; Josh 24:32).

– In Samaritan tradition, Levi was killed at the Field of Joseph.

– The Levites first settled in Bethlehem of Judea (Goulder, Psalms of the Sons of Korah, p. 56)

– According to my researches, Yeshu ha-Notsri was a Levite priest of the Hasmonean royal family. (All male Hasmoneans were Levites and priests.)

– In Samaritan tradition, the light of the world manifest in Moses had been transmitted through the tribe of Levi. (Miller, Molad Mosheh, p. 250: “And of them [i.e. the twelve sons of Jacob], Levi became the portion and lot of God, for he was the bearer of the ray of light for the sake of prophecy. In him [God] placed His glory.” See also: J. D. Purvis, “Joseph in the Samaritan Traditions.”)

– The Testament of Levi has outright gnostic mythology, with Levi’s ascension through various gates “to gather heavenly secrets” (R. Kugler, From Patriarch to Priest: The Levi-Priestly Tradition from Aramaic Levi to Testament of Levi. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996, p. 48.)

– In my opinion, the Samaritan Dositheans in all probability constituted the very first Christian sect.

– “Dositheus” (Gk: “Gift of God”) is a locution of Jonathan/Jehonathan (“Gift of Yahweh”)—“John” (i.e., “the Baptist”).

– Jonathan (or perhaps Johanan) the Hasmonean was the name of the person whom the Talmudists later styled “Yeshu ha-Notsri”—Jesus the Nazarene.

I don’t expect anyone to connect the dots between all the above—or even to perfectly understand them (I don’t). They show the way forward, however, and indicate that the received history must be rewound, as it were. In the second century, the received tradition gave the world Jesus Christ, the conquering messiah Son of David. Going backwards in time, however, we recover another messiah: the suffering messiah Son of Ephraim.

The received tradition gave the world the Christ of the New Testament. Going backwards in time, we recover the spiritual Jesus.

The received tradition gave the world the Pauline kerygma. Going backwards in time, we ultimately recover the theology of salvation through gnosis.

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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 two Christian messiahs — 5 Comments

  1. I think you’re right with your views on e.g. Paul and early church fathers. But, can you please expand on the thoughts related to Pliny’s letter: “the letter is doubtless authentic” and which copies you undoubtedly judge to be 2nd century copies. Are these statements free from Groupthink?

    • As to the actual authenticity of the two “Christian” letters, ISTM that a critical factor is whether they are included in the 2nd century collections. I’ll see what I can find out about this… Thanks.

      • Good to see Klaus Schilling’s remark below, which is related to the questions I asked.

        I think indeed a critical assessment of the authenticity of “Pliny’s” letter about Christians is important. Hermann Detering mentions indeed a number of good reasons to doubt. But also the content of the letters poses quite some questions about how realistic the described scenarios are and about the amount of time Roman rulers would really bother about what they call ‘superstition’. If it was really such a big issue to bother about, than having not many more sources is also suspicious.

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