H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 27)

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The Therapeutae—Pt. 7

A turning point

Dr. Detering concludes on page 42 of his article: “The alexandrian/gnostic exegesis of the Exodus theme, as we have seen, was dependent on Indian-Buddhist traditions from the very beginning.”

This conclusion is stunning. If Detering is correct, we can infer two important chronological consequences. Firstly, Indic influences entered into Jewish exegesis prior to the rise of Christian gnosticism (the Naassenes, etc—see below).

Secondly—and more controversially—we can be sure that those Indic influences occurred prior to the formation of the Christian tradition itself. One need only connect the dots regarding the Therapeutae: they were long considered ‘Christians’ by the Church; they flourished already at the turn of the era; and (as Dr. Detering has now shown) they were influenced by Buddhism.

The pieces of the puzzle come together in a different way when one adopts the ‘new chronology’ alluded to elsewhere in these posts (see here and here): according to Jesus mythicists, ‘Christianity’ as commonly understood (i.e. centered on Jesus of Nazareth) is a second century CE invention.

We are now at a great turning point in understanding Christian origins. The way forward—according to the facts of history—must acknowledge the following: (1) vital and formative influences upon Christian origins emanated from faraway India; (2) earliest Christianity was ‘gnostic’ and influenced by Buddhism; and (3) the religion centered upon Jesus of Nazareth is based on the exploits of an invented figure—it is “fake news”—dating from the second century CE. Of course, today only Jesus mythicists are in a position to appreciate all this. As a result, we have now reached the point in New Testament scholarship when only mythicists are able to proceed in a meaningful way.

The Levites, baptism, and Jewish influences

Detering’s contribution to deciphering the Indian influence on early Christianity is signal. In his article under discussion, he has explored Indic influence on the Peratae, on the Naassenes, on the author of the Odes of Solomon, and so on. Yet, I would like to add another critical influence on all these ‘Christian’ groups and writers of antiquity. That influence came from within Judaism itself. I would characterize it as a Jewish proto-gnosticism. Clear evidence of such a movement has been documented. My own research suggests that the Levites were carriers of that Jewish proto-gnosticism. They carried on esoteric, ancient wisdom traditions ultimately linked to the Mesopotamian gnostic water religion of Ea/Enki and the Abzu. In the Iron Age the Levites were dominant (e.g. Moses was a Levite) country priests who were eventually usurped by, and then subordinated to, the Aaronide temple priests of Jerusalem. If we consider that Judaism, at the turn of the era, was an Aaronide-High Priest-Temple religion, then the Levites were the non-temple priests scattered about in the towns who once represented the dominant proto-gnostic religion of the people. In the Old Testament—which is largely an Aaronide production—the Levites are accorded nominal status in service to Aaronides and are restricted to menial duties in the Temple: “They are subordinate cultic officials, the clerici minores, who have charge of the lower duties of the sanctuary (Num 1:50; 3:28; 32, etc—IDB 1962 III:879ii).

Early Christianity reflects age-old tensions between Temple and people, between Jerusalem and countryside. After all, Jesus draws his disciples from the simple country folk. He disparages scribes, hypocrites, and those who make a pretense of much holiness. Most revealingly, Jesus is killed by the Temple establishment. In addition, much of Jesus’ teaching has esoteric, quasi-gnostic meaning. All this suggests that the figure of Jesus—though invented in II CE—originated in the old Levitical side of the dispute. This suspicion receives confirmation in clues and anomalous data not in the mainstream of present-day scholarship, e.g. that John the Baptist was a Levite (Lk 1:5, descendents of Aaron being also Levites) and even that the apostle Mark was a Levite. Interestingly, in the Acts of Mark he hailed from Alexandria.

While this is a new field of study that must be fleshed out, I personally suspect that the Therapeutae were heirs to old and suppressed Jewish Levitical traditions specifically related to salvation through gnosis.

An Alexandrine-Levite tradition does not, of course, exclude influence also from India and from Buddhism—the Therapeutae could have been influenced from both directions, Levitical (Jewish) and Buddhist (Indian).

Such dual-influence on the Therapeutae would explain the contradictory views of water found in Christian texts. Baldly phrased, a question can be posed: How is it that water is both (1) a negative entity to be crossed over (the stream of samsara/becoming/passion) and also (2) a positive entity to be dipped into (baptism)? While Detering considers the former negative view, I would also add the latter positive view. Cultically dipping into water for religious purification is known in Hinduism, in ancient Mesopotamian religion, and—I would suggest—in suppressed Levitical strains of Judaism (below).

Baptismal overtones are also present but veiled in the Old Testament account of the Jordan crossing—for example, the priests dipping “into the edge of the water,” standing in the middle of the Jordan (Josh 3:15, 17), and the enigmatic gathering of stones from the middle of the river (4:3 f). These are also present in early Christian history: baptism, the ‘stone’ (cf. Peter/Rock), and ‘standing’ (cf. Simon Magus ‘the Standing One’).

Buddhism and metaphorical water

In Buddhism, water symbolism is both positive and negative. On the negative side, one figuratively crosses the stream of cravings, e.g.: “In whom there is no clinging, in the bhikkhu who has cut across the stream and has given up what is to be done and what is not to be done, no fever is found” (Sn 715). In another passage, the stream is actually in the domain of Mâra (the Buddhist equivalent of Satan): “By breasting Mâra’s stream, they have gotten safely across to the further shore” (MN 1.226).

At the same time, however, Buddhism can also view water/the stream positively, as we see in the important concept known as stream entry. A long discourse from the Samyutta Nikaya is entitled “Connected Discourses on Stream Entry” (Sotâpattisamyutta, SN 55). The discourse identifies the stream with the Noble Eightfold Path (V.347). Another passage describes the “fruits” of stream entry (MN 1.325). In fact, Buddhism had a term for the “stream enterer”: sotâpanna, defined as one who has “confirmed confidence in the Buddha, in the teaching, in the community, and possesses the virtues dear to the noble ones” (SN V.347). In this sense, the ‘stream’ is Buddhism itself.

In my opinion, only the negative view of water would have reached the Therapeutae from Buddhism. In other words, any notion of ‘baptism’ did not come from Buddhism but from elsewhere. My reasoning is that conceptions such as ‘stream enterer’, ‘fruits of stream entry’, and even the ‘Noble Eightfold Path’ are products of advanced analysis and organization of the dharma/dhamma (teaching)—something that had not yet taken place at the turn of the era.

In any case, we still are left with the negative view of water as something to be crossed over (samsara/ignorance). This coheres with both the OT Exodus motif and with the Jordan crossing. In this sense, Jewish gnostics may well have borrowed their conception of crossing over from Buddhism. This negative water symbolism seems subsequently to have been absorbed both by the Therapeutae and by the evangelists. When Jesus crosses the water, walks on water, and stills the storm he is transcending and dominating that which is viewed as negative. All Buddhist associations would have long been forgotten (and/or suppressed).

In contrast, the Christian sacrament of baptism indicates an opposing tradition—the tradition of sacred water. While this tradition may not yet have existed in Buddhism (see above), I have argued elsewhere that there existed in the Levant—from very ancient times and long before Buddhism—a theology of sacred water. It goes back to Enki, the Babylonian god of water and the friend of mankind. As far back as the thired millennium BCE, Enki’s realm was the Abzu (lit. “Deep Water,” i.e. “Lower Watery Realm of Truth”), his underworld domain. By the Iron Age, the Abzu had become universalized throughout the Levant. Enki’s watery domain—the domain of gnosis—came to be represented by the sacred cauldron of water found in many temples (including the great bronze cauldron in Solomon’s temple). Of even more interest to us is that this tradition of sacred water may have been perpetuated through the centuries within Judaism itself—namely, but the denigrated ‘proto-gnostic’ Levites.

The Levites and Christian beginnings

The age-old theology of water = gnosis was apparently despised and suppressed by the Aaronide priests, who replaced that theology with obedience to Yahweh, his temple, and priesthood (that is, themselves). Aaronide hegemony dates from the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE. Even before their return to Israel, those Second Temple power brokers conceived the historical books that form the backbone of Jewish scripture, books that laud the “descendants of Aaron” and subordinate the Levites at every opportunity.

The Levitical priesthood experienced a reversal of fortunes. In pre-exilic times, the Levites were the old, de-centralized, and indigenous priesthood. After the exile, however, they became landless and were compelled to live on alms—this by fiat of (Aaronide) legislation embedded in the new Jewish scriptures.

It is my contention, however, that the Levites continued their proto-gnostic traditions as a Jewish heterodoxy and that they largely went underground. Clues to their now esoteric traditions are understandably scant due to widespread Aaronide suppression. Nevertheless, much-maligned Levitical traditions briefly and obliquely insinuate themselves into Jewish scripture, where the Levites and their stand-ins usually appear in an unflattering light. Such negative scriptural passages include those relative to the enigmatic and bumbling Sons of the Prophets, to the ‘hanger-on’ Elisha, and to the Levite Jonathan (the disparaged founder of the Danite priesthood in the Mt. Hermon area—Judg 18:30).

If my analysis is correct, then the Levites inherited the baptismal, proto-gnostic symbolism water = gnosis. This very positive water symbolism and accompanying gnostic theology infused suppressed traditions in Judaism in the centuries preceding the common era. That theology survives in the sacrament of baptism, and the conception water = gnosis is made explicit in (‘gnostic’) Christian apocryphal literature, where dipping into water is dipping into hidden knowledge, gnosis, enlightenment:

This is the hidden knowledge of Adam, which he gave to Seth, which is the holy baptism of those who know the eternal knowledge through those born of the word and the imperishable illuminators, who came from the holy seed: Yesseus, Mazareus, Yessedekeus, the Living Water. (The Apocalypse of Adam, 85)

If one knows these things, he has washed in the washing of the Hidden One. (Zostrianos 23:18)

It appears that the suppressed pre-Christian Levitical traditions venerated Joshua-Jesus, the hero who supplanted Moses as God’s agent. In turn, the mythological crossing of the Jordan superseded the mythological crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus). It is from the suppressed proto-gnostic tradition of Joshua/Jesus and of veneration of the Jordan/water that we must look for the eventual emergence of Christianity.

The succession Moses –> Joshua/Jesus in Jewish tradition is also noted by Detering in his discussion of the Therapeutae –> Naassenes and their mutual interactions with Buddhism (p. 42):

Jewish-Buddhist circles of Alexandria attempted to interpret the [Buddhist] crossing of the Stream of Becoming in terms of the Old Testament. They found the key in the Exodus account. For them, the one who crossed over was Moses. In their nocturnal mystery ritual, the Therapeutae re-enacted how the people of Israel were led through the water of the Red Sea into the Holy Land. In their [allegorical] exegesis, this was out of the material realm into the spiritual, immaterial realm.
While the exegesis of the Therapeutae oriented itself mainly to interpreting the Book of Exodus, the Naassenes and other Christian Gnostics substituted Joshua/Jesus for the central figure of Moses. Clearly, the Naassenes quite deliberately had recourse not to the Book of Exodus but to the Book of Joshua. In their view, Joshua had surpassed Moses in every way, as manifested by the fact that it was Joshua who succeeded (where Moses failed) in bringing the Israelites across the Jordan and into the promised land—a prefiguration and surety of entry into future life. At the same time, Joshua usurped the traditional role of liberator of the Israelites from Egypt, a role previously held exclusively by Moses.
In this development we see a progression, one beginning with an interpretation of the Exodus and ending in the gnostic-Christian mystery of baptism.

If Detering is correct, and if my foregoing analysis in this commentary is also correct, then the Therapeutae were mediators into Christianity of suppressed gnostic traditions from Buddhism on the one hand, and from the Levites on the other. As Detering affirms, the Therapeutae were “Jewish Buddhists.”

Also, the figure of John the Baptist clearly betrays association with this hidden, proto-gnostic tradition of water = gnosis. After all, the Baptist was a Levite (Lk 1:5). Jesus’ baptism by John indicates that Jesus was on some level (or perhaps originally) viewed as the disciple of the Levite John. In any case, the very moniker ‘the Baptist’ immediately signals John’s adherence to the ancient and suppressed water tradition of immersion into 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 www.NazarethMyth.info.

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