H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 15)

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Simon Magus
Part 5—Conclusion

In the Book of Joshua, stones assume an important and rather strange role in the Israelite crossing of the Jordan River. The relevant verses are below, taken from chapter 4:

1 When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua: 2 “Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, 3 and command them, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood, carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.’” 4 Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe. 5 Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, 6 so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ 7 then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.”

8 The Israelites did as Joshua commanded. They took up twelve stones out of the middle of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, as the Lord told Joshua, carried them over with them to the place where they camped, and laid them down there. 9 (Joshua set up twelve stones in the middle of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood; and they are there to this day.)

10 The priests who bore the ark remained standing in the middle of the Jordan, until everything was finished that the Lord commanded Joshua to tell the people, according to all that Moses had commanded Joshua…

19 The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they camped in Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. 20 Those twelve stones, which they had taken out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal, 21 saying to the Israelites, “When your children ask their parents in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 22 then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.’ 23 For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we crossed over, 24 so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, and so that you may fear the Lord your God forever.”

The above informs us that the stones are a “sign… the waters of the Jordan were cut off.” This is because the stones came from the middle of the Jordan River. Had the stones come from anywhere else, they would not have the significance that the author intends. Thus, the value of the stones is in their witness to something else: to the miracle of the water holding back. That is their meaning according to the OT author.

To a later gnostic, however, the entire scene would carry a different meaning than it did to the OT author. While one was telling a story, the other was expressing an allegory. The interest of the gnostic was not on the Israelites crossing a particular river and eventually conquering the terrain between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. Rather, the gnostic was interested in:

(1) immersion in gnosis as symbolized by immersion in water;
(2) the Jordan River as ‘river of gnosis,’ for it alone issues from sacred Mt. Hermon, the ancient home of the gods (see Ugaritic and Enochic literature), the gateway to the subterranean waters (‘Abzu’—home of moon, sun, and all the gods), the goal of Gilgamesh in his quest for Truth, and the home of Atrahasis (“Ultra-Wise”);
(3) the eternal stability of hidden Truth. This is implicit in Simon Magus’ theology of the blessed and incorruptible, ‘Great Indefinite Power’ that is hidden, immanent, eternal, and that ‘stood, stands, and will stand.’ For such a gnostic, then, the ‘stones’ in the middle of the Jordan are symbols of the enduring and unmoving Truth in the midst of gnosis. Indeed, Hippolytus confirms this view when he reports concerning the eternal Standing One: “He stands below, when in the stream of waters” (Ref. VI.12).

It is noteworthy that the Samaritans have a slightly different version of the Jordan crossing. According to the conclusion to the commandments (Ex 20:17; Deut 5:21) in the Samaritan Pentateuch, the stones are to be inscribed with the words of the Law and set up on Mt. Gerizim (see here).

John the Baptist → Jesus

As scholars have long known, the figure of John the Baptist is at the heart of Christian origins. Not only did John ‘baptize’ Jesus, but many of John’s disciples went over to Jesus—demonstrating doctrinal overlap between the two prophets. That doctrinal overlap is evident in the canonical gospels themselves: in at least one point (‘the axe laid to the root of the trees… and thrown into the fire’) both John and Jesus deliver the same teaching (Mt 3:10/John and 7:19/Jesus).

It is well known that the figures of John and Jesus overlap in myriad ways, particularly in their New Testament birth stories. Mary and Elizabeth are related by blood (Lk 1:36), the same angel (Gabriel) appears to both mothers announcing their impending pregnancies, and in both cases those pregnancies are contrary to nature—Elizabeth conceives John in old age, and Mary conceives Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Thirty years later both John and Jesus were preaching in close proximity to one another. All this overlap makes one suspect that originally one figure lay at the root of these stories, not two. In other words, it appears that an artificial separation was effected between the Baptist and Jesus at an early time.

As mentioned in the last post, certain scholars have suspected that John was Jesus. These scholars include Robert Price and Georges Ory. The latter concluded: “This complex of facts permits one to advance the hypothesis that John the Baptist was the principal Christian messiah” (“Samaria: The Messiah’s Homeland”). Not only do the above overlaps in the tradition offer firm grounds for their suspicion, but clues in various non-canonical traditions bolster that suspicion. We will now briefly look at some of those additional clues.

First of all, there is the emerging realization that “Jesus” was a mobile and spiritual entity in I CE, before the canonical gospels were penned towards the middle of II CE. This being the case, the most probable inference is that John was a very human prophet, and ‘Jesus’ was the spirit that indwelled him. The Gospel of Mark can be read in such an ‘adoptionist’ way, whereby Jesus receives the sprit of God at his baptism. Now, if one substitutes John for Jesus, then we arrive at the probable underlying event: John received the Spirit of God at his ‘baptism,’ that is, when he immersed in gnosis (became enlightened) in the metaphorical waters of the Jordan River. According to this view, the enlightenment of John was transformed by the Christian evangelists into the baptism of Jesus by John. That’s quite a transformation: (a) the Church pushed John aside and subordinated him to (b) an invented new ‘savior’ Jesus (which means ‘savior’!); and (c) the gnostic symbolism of water was replaced by the mere ritual of dipping into water (‘baptism’), whose gnostic roots were no longer acknowledged.

Another clue that John (and not Jesus) was the prophet at the source of Christianity is in the Protevangelium of James (c. 150 CE). There, in the context of the extermination of the infants, we read that “Herod was searching for John” (PrJa 23.1, cf. 22.3).

A third clue occurs in the much-ignored Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, edited by Dr. George Howard. The scholarly consensus is that HebMt is a medieval work dating to XIV CE. Howard, however, demurs and finds many ancient elements in the text, elements that he maintains go back to the first Christian centuries. As regards Jesus and John, Howard writes:

In summary, this series of readings asserts that none is greater than John, the prophets and the law spoke concerning John, John (Elijah) is to save all the world, and Jesus’ own disciples are disgraced for not having believed John…
… [Hebrew Matthew] never identifies Jesus with the Messiah. John the Baptist is given an exalted role (even takes on messianic traits), similar to the one polemicized against in the Gospel of John and the Pseudo-Clementine writings. (Howard, 1995:219, 234.)

Most astonishing is verse 3:10 in the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew (Howard p. 11). There we read, in black and white: “John is Jesus”!

What does it mean to assert “John is Jesus”? The statement is inconceivable if both entities are viewed as separate persons. However, if ‘Jesus’ is viewed as a spiritual entity, then the true meaning emerges and the original, pre-canonical scenario appears: the person John received the spirit Jesus (“savior”), and then they both became one. That is, we have a person indwelled by the Holy Spirit ‘Jesus.’ It’s actually quite a simple concept. This is the authentic Christology that predated the Church and that predated the New Testament. I call it Stage II Christology, and it was dominant until mid-II CE—that is, until the canonical gospels appeared. If we want to know what first century ‘Christians’ believed (something so many conservative Christians desire), then the answer is here. The first believers knew a spiritual Jesus that indwells the worthy human being. (In Simonian terms, that worthy person is the one who ‘stands’ in the flowing water of gnosis.)

The Church called those spirit-believers ‘docetists’ and lampooned them as believers in a phantom, as ‘those who believed that Jesus had no body.’ Of course, that explanation is only a half-truth and entirely misleading. It omits the critical element, namely, that ‘Jesus’ is an all-pervading spiritual entity: “that which is blessed and incorruptible in a latent condition in everyone—that is, potentially, not actually; and that this is He who stood, stands, and is to stand” (Hippolytus on the doctrine of Simon Magus, Ref. VI.12).

The critical moment at which John ‘became’ Jesus was at the moment when John ‘immersed himself in the waters of gnosis’—that is, at John’s baptism. In Buddhist terms, this would be the moment when John became ‘enlightened.’ In all this, then, the founder of Christianity is not Jesus at all. It is John.

Simon Magus → Simon Peter

As it happens, the saying mentioned above regarding the ‘axe laid at the root of the trees’ is not only attributed to John the Baptist and to Jesus in the gospels (Mt 3:10, 7:19), but it is also attributed to Simon Magus by Hippolytus (Ref. VI.11). This is more evidence of ‘character migration’ from John to Simon to Jesus. Other clues exist in the canonical gospels. For example, ‘the woman with five husbands’ (Jn 4:18) is common to both the woman at the well and to Helen of Troy (whose husbands were Theseus, Menelaus, Paris, Diophobus, and Achilles). Helen of Troy is relevant because, according to the patristic legend, Simon Magus claimed to have rescued in Tyre a certain prostitute Helen and married her. The legend has it that this Helen was a reincarnation of Helen of Troy. The mention by Jesus of “five husbands,” then, is a clear indication that the Lucan evangelist was quite familiar with the simonian legend. (See “The Simonian origins of Jesus and the woman at the well.”)

Here, however, I wish to focus on the possible early identity between the two Simons: Simon Magus and Simon Peter. We know from Hippolytus and the other sources that the Magus was a carrier of gnostic doctrine, as analyzed in this and prior posts. That gnostic doctrine was of course anathema to the nascent Church. What is little appreciated (and even denied by the mainstream) is that the gnostic doctrine of ‘Simon’ preceded the invention of Jesus of Nazareth. It is quite clear that the canonical gospels were written in II CE, probably after the Bar Kochba revolt and much later than the timeline taught today in universities throughout the world (which places the 4G in I CE and GMk about 70 CE).

Towards the middle of II CE—about the same time that ‘Jesus’ ceased to be purely spiritual and became the god-man ‘Jesus the Nazarene’ (Mark)—Simon Magus seems to have been co-opted and sanitized, eventually emerging as Simon Peter, the foremost of Jesus’ disciples. The connection between the two Simons can be seen not only in their identical first names, but also in the moniker Cephas/Peter, which means “rock, stone.” The latter immediately recalls “that which stood, stands, and will stand.” It also recalls the stones ( = enduring entities) taken from the middle of the Jordan River (above). Thus it is that the nascent Church ignored gnostic Simonian doctrine and turned “the Standing One” into “the rock upon which I shall build my church” (Mt 16:18). Simon Magus became Simon Peter.

There is no question that the ancient texts treat Simon Magus with great caution. Obviously, at the base of this figure was a doctrine of considerable profundity and very dangerous to the incipient Church, which singled out Simon Magus as the ‘father of heresy.’ The Pseudo-Clementine literature takes great pains to rebuff at length the figure and gnostic doctrine of the Magus. In that literature we essentially have a struggle between the two Simons: Peter contra the Magus.

Apparently, a gnostic figure of the past (partially historical, partially literary) known as ‘Simon’ was bifurcated into (a) the heretic Simon Magus and (b) the orthodox Simon Peter. The former became the ‘father of heresy,’ the latter the Church’s great champion. In opposing one Simon to the other, the Pseudo-Clementines witness that the split was still fresh. The whole purpose of the Clementines is to authenticate the new Simon ‘Peter’ against the older Simon ‘Magus.’

Magus’ means ‘magician’ and Zoroastrian priest, with the added inferences that the powers of Simon Magus came from the devil and were foreign.

Simon ‘Rock/Stone’ (Cephas/Peter) became ‘the Standing One,’ but now for Jesus and the Church and shorn of all gnostic doctrine.

In short, I suspect that Simon Peter is a sanitized and rehabilitated Simon Magus.

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About René Salm

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


H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 15) — 2 Comments

  1. Beautiful post!

    In Mark, I have advanced the possibility that there is a parody of Simon Magus (“the standing one” who adores the fire) behind the grotesque image of Simon Peter who is “sitting” at the fire while he denies his being follower of Jesus (or even the same knowledge of Jesus!).

    • As regards the tale of Saint Peter’s denial, Matthew’s version knows no fire and should be seen as closest to the origins of the triple tradition. Here, then, in quite a striking way, we see that the Markan version is later. But the whole story of the trial by the Sanhredrin and the disowning can only be understood as post-Bar-Cochba interpolations into an even older story where Jesus (or even John) was caught, tried, and executed by a probably anonymous Roman leader. To the story as reported in Matthew, Mark added elements of a source also common to Luke and John.

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