The Natsarene and Hidden Gnosis – Pt. 6

Priests vs. Levites
We concluded the last section with an observation of Ellis Rivkin: “We must, therefore, conclude that the Aaronides come to power with the finalized Pentateuch and, as such, are their own creation” (IDB). The priestly Aaronides, centered in Jerusalem, are the post-exilic religious hegemonists who took authority away from the pre- and concurrently-existing (gnostic) Levites. By “their own creation,” Rivkin means that the Aaronides invented their own pedigree, invented their status as Levites (for Aaron was supposedly himself a Levite), and in this way they took over from the ancient and ʻtrueʼ Levites the rights to administer the Temple. Essentially, they arrogated to themselves the religion which became known as “Judaism.” With the rise of the Aaronides and the eclipse of the Levites, the old religion of Yahweh-gnosis became a religion of Yahweh worship. We recall that the First Temple of Solomon possessed an abzu—it was clearly a temple devoted to gnosis. But the Second Temple was emphatically devoted to the worship of Yahweh. In any case, archaeology has failed to find evidence of Solomon’s temple at all, showing that the language of Jewish scripture is largely metaphorical. David and Solomon themselves appear to have been mythical figures.

The brazen sea in Solomon's Temple

The brazen sea in the mythical
Temple of Solomon

This accounting of history will no doubt be unfamiliar to the reader, even strange. After all, we read in the Jewish scriptures how the Levites are consistently subordinated to the “priests” (Num 3:6; 8:19; 18:2), how they cannot carry out the most important duties of the Temple, how they are landless, and how their tithes (i.e., their very livelihood) are but a fraction of the tithes first given the priests (Num 18:24, 30). This change in Levitical fortunes reflects a remarkable about-face which occurred at an early stage in Judaism. However, unmistakable signs of the older religion survive in Jewish scripture, i.e., the Brazen Sea—a huge cauldron of water symbolizing gnosis (the Mesopotamian abzu) described in the Temple of Solomon (1 Kgs 7:23 f). This doubtless reflects the original pre-Aaronide religion of Israel—the religion of the Levites, “first born” to Yahweh (Num 3:12-13).
A prior post in this series describes how a Levite from Bethlehem goes northwards to Dan with accursed silver. This is an Aaronide story, at once pejorative of Bethlehem, of the Levites, and of Dan. The Aaronides could not exclude the non-Jerusalem based Levites from the cult—for Levi was one of the twelve sons of Jacob, and his descendants had already long been in the land carrying out priestly functions. But they could, and did, write a ‘new rule’ severely subordinating the Levites and excluding them from henceforth from approaching “to offer incense before Yahweh” (Num 16:40).
It would appear, from our inferences, that the non-Jerusalem Levites were indeed Hebrews, but gnostic-leaning Hebrews. We can also speculate that gnosticism became heretical with the ascendancy of a highly centralized priestly caste—the Aaronides—probably at first no more than a family. It would appear that the Aaronides conceived of their hegemony over the Israelite religion while in captivity in Babylon. It would have been there and then that they formulated the new recension of the Torah. The return to Jerusalem in the late sixth century was a religious re-conquest attended not only by the building of a new temple but also by new scriptures. Henceforth, the non-Jerusalem Levites were essentially outsiders to power. They constituted a vestige of the original Hebrew religion, of the religion of Moses, of North Arabia—and of Dan. (For more on these aspects see the tab above, “B.C.E. times”).
In post-exilic times the Levites carried on the torch of proto-gnosticism in more or less heterodox and ʻhiddenʼ traditions, represented by a number of writings in the Jewish pseudepigrapha (particularly the Enoch literature). That literature powerfully informed Christianity, including its anti-Jerusalem and anti-cultic aspects (cf. Mk 11:15-19; 7:6, 15, etc).
KorahAccording to this scenario, the decentralized and landless Levites represented a heterodox Judaism vilified at every turn by the ʻnormativeʼ Jerusalem-bound Aaronides. The Korah episode illustrates the virulent Aaronide animosity directed at the older religion. Korah, of Levitical descent and supported by other Levites, dared to challenge his subordination to the Aaronides and demanded full priestly status. The Priestly writer fashions his story (Num 16) in such a way that a divine sign determines who will be allowed to approach Yahweh—i.e., who will control the Temple and take pre-eminence in Israel.
The divine sign is not long in coming. The ground opens up and swallows Korah and his levitical allies, together with their wives and children, “and all these went down alive to Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly” (Num 16:32-33). The purpose of the story is then stated: “a reminder to the Israelites that no outsider, who is not of the descendants of Aaron, shall approach to offer incense before Yahweh” (v. 40). It was no longer sufficient to be merely a Levite—one had to be a descendent of Aaron. Thus, insiders and outsiders exchanged places. The latecomers, the Aaronides (whose Levitical pedigree was possibly fabricated), now defined themselves as insiders; while the rest of the long-standing Levites who had worked among the people for centuries became outsiders. Henceforth, the priestly family of Jerusalem Aaronides wielded unchallenged authority within the clan of Levi and over the Temple (Num 17:1-13). Until the rise of the Pharisees, they guided Israelite religion.
In the earliest Christian gospel that received canonical status, the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is known as a Nazarenos. Subsequently, however, “Jesus the Nazarene” was replaced by “Jesus of Nazareth” and, thus, the term “Nazarene” became an enigmatic term. To recover its meaning is to recover the true origins of Christianity.
Subsequent gospels replace “Nazarene” with “Nazareth”—a place, a toponym, a village not yet even in existence when the Gospel of Mark was written. It is clear that Mark knew the original meaning Nazarene (“keeper of hidden wisdom”), whom he calls “the Holy One of God.” (1:24)—but Mark betrays the inner spiritual meaning by making his Jesus a miracle worker who heals the body and commands the physical elements by the magic power of God and by faith (1:25; 5:36, etc). Subsequent Christian writings took the Marcan solution several steps further by giving Jesus a physical origin (virgin birth) and bodily resurrection. For Mark, faith in this bodily Jesus has replaced gnosis—knowledge of life (in Mandean, Manda d’Hayye).
In view of the above, to understand Christian origins we must return to the original word “Nazarene” and inquire into its meaning. Behind the Greek word doubtless lies the Semitic root n-ts-r, discussed in a prior post. That very ancient root—going back even to the third millennium BCE—betrays several meanings, including the possession of secret wisdom, and the ability to ʻcross overʼ from ignorance to gnosis. That crossing over is preserved in monumental literary stories including the Flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the crossing of the Jordan River to the Promised Land. Underneath all these iconic stories is a deeper gnostic message—crossing over from ignorance to gnosis. However, in each case that original message has been lost as the story became concretized: today we read about crossing various bodies of water, having quite forgotten that “water” was long ago a symbol of gnosis. The metaphor became fact, the symbol became real —and, in the process, the truth became lost.
Water and watchfulness
In ancient gnostic religion man crosses the sea of gnosis, as does Atrahasis/Noah. In the subsequent anti-gnostic Jewish religion, however, the Aaronides metaphorically asserted dominion over gnosis by taking the waters literally and making them “roll” back. We see this regression of the waters in the crossings by the Israelites of both the Nile and of the Jordan. In this way the Aaronides attempted to assert Yahweh’s victory over the religion of gnosis by merely asserting his victory over the physical realm.

Mandeans in the lower Tigris, Irak

Mandeans in the lower Tigris, Irak

For the gnostic, water was a positive symbol symbolizing not only gnosis but also those spiritual elements leading to gnosis. Such elements include watchfulness (natsar), that is, the difficult task of being awake while others are asleep. This is another way of metaphorically “going against the stream”—as did the fishes in so many Babylonian depictions of the god Enki.
The New Testament also contains sayings and parables that emphasize watchfulness. The name “Gregory” (from the Greek gregorein, “to watch”) is a relic referring to this older gnostic meaning. The divine will appears suddenly, at the most unlikely and inconvenient times (midnight, when you least expect it, etc.). God chooses to appear when men are asleep, and he rewards those that are ʻawakeʼ (Mt 25:1 ff). Being metaphorically awake or asleep at the moment of divine intervention is, in fact, the “judgment.”
The Gospel of Mark particularly enjoins ʻwatchfulness,ʼ as we read in the famous scene in the Garden of Gethsemane (14:32 ff). Jesus exhorts the disciples to “remain here, and watch” (γρηγορεῖτε) while he prays. The disciples are unable to do so and fall “asleep.” Mark writes: “Watch therefore—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly [ἐξαίφνης] and find you asleep” (Mk 13:35–36).
It is no coincidence that the Matthean evangelist illustrates the suddenness of the Lord’s coming precisely through the story of the Flood:

As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man… Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming… For the Son of man is coming *at an hour you do not expect.* (Mt 24:37 f., emphasis added.)

The association of the Flood with divine retribution can be no coincidence. It shows that to ancient Sumerians and early Christians alike, sudden and devastating divine retribution was the lot of those who failed to be watchful, natsar.
The Third Evangelist portrays the sudden coming of the Son of man as the eschatological judgment:

But take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you *suddenly* like a snare; for it will come upon all who dwell upon the face of the whole earth. But watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man. (Lk 21:34-36, emphasis added.)

The key is knowledge into the ways of the divine—gnosis. By being watchful, the wise person avoids ruin; the action of the divine does not catch him off guard. However, the ultimate value of watchfulness is not mere self-preservation. That too, is a metaphor. Being watchful, the wise person has saving insight unknown and unseen by his peers. He has conquered death. The deluge of ignorance drowns all except the Natsarene.
Noah was prepared through foreknowledge—in scripture, he was warned by an angel of the Lord. The New Testament relates that one is to metaphorically prepare for the divine visitation precisely where and when one least expects. Thus one can never be surprised. The parable of the wise maidens watching at midnight turns on such esoteric concepts (Mt 25:1 ff). In short, watchfulness is the key to understanding that which is hidden. The one who watches is the Natsarene ( < n-ts-r, "watch, keep, preserve").   In late antiquity, the mantle of gnosticism passed to the Natsraiia (Mandeans) and to the Natsarenes (pre-Christians). Their names betray the Semitic root that, already for millennia, had been associated with a preparedness and hidden knowledge that saves. For gnostics, water was also a sacred symbol of gnosis, and the baptist sects of late antiquity can all, by definition, be denominated "gnostic." They frequently immersed in water to memorialize and re-enact their central sacrament, the attainment of gnosis (ʻenlightenmentʼ).   The Mandeans venerate John the Baptizer, a gnostic figure who dipped others in water—that is, he metaphorically introduced them to the way of gnosis. Using metaphors we have touched on in this series of posts, Johnʼs teaching came from gnosis (water), out of Bethlehem (the gate to gnosis), and from Ephrathah (the land of salvation)—even as his ancient namesake, Oannes, the half-fish half-man of Mesopotamian legend, emerged from the sea to teach the Sumerians wisdom more than two millennia earlier (according to the Babyloniaca of Berossus, the Mesopotamian priest of the third century BCE). These allusions are unfamiliar to Christians today. They inhabit the realm of gnosticism, a metaphorical realm replete with esoteric symbolism and ‘contrary meanings,’ using a language that amounts to a code accessible only to initiates. This language is clearly visible in gnostic tractates such as those discovered at Nag Hammadi. It is also evident in the New Testament itself (as in the parable of the ten maidens) where the gnostic message has been intentionally obscured—but not eradicated.
John preached a hopeful and revolutionary message: that salvation (Yeshua, “Jesus”) is now and always at hand, readily available to every person through watchfulness and through the seeking of inner gnosis. This is the hidden knowledge, the nitsirtu of Mesopotamian religion two millennia earlier.
It is interesting that in the thoroughly suppressed Acts of Mark (still unpublished, but now available in part on this site), we read that Mark is a Levite and a disciple of John the Baptist. This and other clues reveal that the gnostic Levite, John the Forerunner, was the quintessential Natsarene. Though later obscured by the Church’s Jesus of Nazareth, John “the Baptist” is a gnostic herald at the very foundation of the Christian religion.

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The Preaching of John the Baptist by Baciccio

The Preaching of John the Baptist by Baciccio

About René Salm

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

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