A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 20
Below is my summary of the birth and development of Christianity in the first three centuries. Of course, just about everything regarding the points below differs from the ‘received tradition’:
• I begin ca. 100 BCE rather than at the turn of the era;
• I propose a different prophet than Jesus of Nazareth (namely, Yeshu ha-Notsri);
• for me neither Paul nor Marcion existed—nor did the earliest Church Fathers until Justin Martyr;
• the ‘Pauline epistles’ came after the canonical gospels, not before;
• the canonical gospels themselves are products of the second half of the second century.
The tenets above are fleshed out in slightly greater detail in the 22 points below, each provided with a link (sometimes two). Incidentally, an entirely separate introduction to my views of Christian origins can be found in the ‘Detering Commentaries.’ That series of 38 posts has background on pre-Christian religion going back to the Bronze Age and is valuable in understanding the ancient origins of gnosticism.
Let me just say that all science is provisional. The points above and below are, of course, all subject to adjustment and ongoing evidence…
And don’t worry—there is no exam! 😉
(1) John (Yochanan or Yehonathan) the Hasmonean was a renegade Pharisee of royal lineage.
(2) Ca. 86 BCE, when Alexander Janneus began an intense pogrom against the Pharisees, the young John fled to Egypt with his mentor, Joshua ben Perachiah.
(3) While in exile in Alexandria, John came under Buddhist influence. He abandoned his Jewish religion and became a gnostic, one who believes that the goal of man is to find understanding, “enlightenment.”
(4) John returned to Palestine after the death of Janneus (76 BCE) and went to Samaria, where he had more freedom to preach. He taught his subversive new religion which essentially entailed the overthrow of Judaism.
(5) For his followers, the gnosticism of Yeshu/Buddhism was considered arcane, ‘higher’ wisdom. In Hebrew, the higher wisdom was associated with the Semitic root NTsR (BDB 666) = “secret things” (Isa 48:6), also: “watch, guard, keep, protect.” This Semitic root has an august and ancient pedigree going back even to Akkadian times (ca. 2000 BCE), when such higher wisdom was already venerated, and when secret gnosis was symbolized by “Water.”
(6) Perhaps already during his ministry, and certainly after John’s execution by the Pharisaic Sanhedrin (ca. 65 BCE), the gnostic followers of John dubbed him “John the Baptist.” For them, the acquisition of gnosis ( = enlightenment) was symbolized by the dipping into water (baptism).
(7) The prophet was also known as “Yeshua” (“Savior”) for showing the way to Truth, and ha-Notsri (< NTsR), “the One with Secret Wisdom.” Thus, Yeshu ha-Notsri = Jesus the Nazarene = John the Baptist.
(8) An early gnostic offshoot of the early Jesus followers called themselves “those with secret wisdom”—Mandeans ( < manda = “knowledge”). They called their teachers/leaders Natsraiia (Nazarenes < NTsR), holy “Keepers of secret knowledge” (Drower, Mandaic Dictionary p. 306). This meaning was known to the markan evangelist, who at 1:24 defines “Nazarene” for the reader: “the holy one of God.”
(9) The original theology of Christianity was a philosophy of gnosis: understanding saves.
(10) The (originally Hebrew) Natsarenes embraced a severe, world-denying, ascetic, and encratite way of life directed at personal spiritual liberation through gnosis. Aspects of this are found both in the Dead Sea Sect (in which Yeshu is implicated—though negatively) and in the Therapeutae of Alexandria.
(11) Simon Magus (the “Standing One” and the “Great Power”) was probably a personification of the spiritual Jesus that indwells the saint (Stage II christology).
(12) The ascetic way to gnosis was too difficult for ordinary people who wished to accommodate to family life, to society, and to the ethos of gentile Hellenism. Thus a cultural and religious split developed in the Christian fellowships: Hellenists vs. Hebrews (Acts 6:1-6).
(13) About 100 CE Christians were already in Asia Minor in considerable numbers (cf. Pliny’s letter to Trajan). Their theology had developed from the pure gnostic liberation (Stage I) into a theology where the spirit of God, Jesus (“Savior”) enters into the saint and ensures salvation (Stage II). John was now venerated as the Christ, “the anointed one,” messiah. The prophet was, however, emphatically not divine (cf. the Gospel of Barnabas). Anyone could possess “the Jesus,” and thus there were many “Jesuses.”
(14) The ‘Hellenists’ revolted against the Hebrews towards the middle of the second century. They overthrew the gnostic theology with a new savior, Jesus the privileged Son of God, in whom all must believe in order to be saved.
(15) The first Hellenist gospel, the Gospel of Mark, is adoptionist: Jesus receives the spirit of God at baptism (Mk 1:10; Stage II). Due to his ability to work miracles, Jesus is somewhere between human and divine.
(16) In GMk Jesus hails from Capernaum (Mk 3:31; 9:33; etc.—Except for the interpolation at 1:9, “Nazareth” is not mentioned once in this gospel). Echoes of this first canonical gospel stratum can be detected in the writings of both Irenaeus and Tertullian.
(17) The Hellenists rejected the concept of the gnostic Nazarene, “the holy keeper of secret knowledge” (point 8 above). They redefined “Nazarene” by making it an inhabitant of a mythical town called “Nazareth.” Their savior, Jesus, now came from Nazareth (Mt 2:23).
(18) However, Jesus hailing from Nazareth caused problems: it now conflicted with the older tradition of his coming from Capernaum. Therefore, the Catholics interpolated “Nazareth” into the verse Mk 1:9. More importantly, the problem that the messiah must hail from Bethlehem was finessed by Matthew at 2:23 and then by Luke via the census of Emperor Augustus.
(19) Because GMt and GLk are dependent on GMk, a great deal of Jesus’ activity takes place according to the first gospel stratum—by the sea and in Capernaum. So, it certainly seemed that Jesus’ home was Capernaum (as in GMk). Matthew solved the dilemma by having Jesus’ family move (relocate its hometown) from Nazareth to Capernaum (Mt 4:13) and he also introduces a curse on Capernaum (Mt 11:23). The evangelist Luke took a different strategy—he pointedly denies that Capernaum is Jesus’ hometown (despite appearances) and emphasizes Nazareth via the passage 4:16-30, and he also retains the curse on Capernaum (Lk 10:15). These complications were necessary so that Nazareth could be (at some point) Jesus’ home, and all this was to avoid the original gnostic meaning of “Nazarene.”
(20) The new gospels, which were non-gnostic, were so astonishing to the Christian fellowships that they immediately caused a split: Catholics vs. gnostics. The latter were dubbed “Marcionites”—those who believe in a God above/beyond the world (that is: immaterialists, gnostics).
(21) In order to propagate their new theology of belief in the saving cross of Jesus of Nazareth, the Catholics penned the epistles of “Paul.” They made Paul into a figure whose activity took place during the apostolic generation.
(22) There was a ‘Watch and Wait’ period in the second half of II CE, when the canonical gospels and Pauline epistles were penned. This was a period of great creativity and also of indecision, when no one was certain (a) how history would play out, (b) which gospel would be favored, or (c) which version of the new “Jesus” would be successful. And there were several different Jesuses to choose from: the human Jesus (GMk); the Son of God born of the Virgin Mary (GMk and GLk); and the Son of God pre-existent from the beginning of the world (GJn).