H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 34)

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The Didache—Pt. 4

The spiritual Jesus

I have argued on this website that “Jesus” in the first century CE (before appearance of the canonical gospels) was spiritual, not material (see here and here). As so much in Jesus mythicism, the consequences of this thesis are far too provocative for mainstream scholarship. After all, a first century ‘spiritual’ Jesus strikes at the very heart of Christianity and gives the lie to the very existence of Jesus of Nazareth. So today this view of an early spiritual Jesus—graphically recorded in the Christian apocrypha and in some gnostic tractates—lives only in the outer reaches of the Internet. The great irony is that, while Christians are forever desiring to recover earliest Christianity, at the same time they blithely relegate the spiritual Jesus to the dustbin of history, ignore and effectively ‘kill’ it, favoring in its place a nexus of beliefs painfully codified in numerous Church councils and encapsulated in the Nicene Creed.

So, two pathways lead to “Jesus.” One, described above, points to a prophet—a person of flesh and blood—a second Joshua who was given the name of the first Joshua (ben Nun) because he completed the mission of the first Joshua, opening up to the true believers the spiritual Promised Land, one no longer limited to Hebrews but now available to the whole world.

A second pathway leading to “Jesus” describes a spiritual, saving, and mobile entity. This entity does not ‘belong’ to any one person (read: Jesus Christ) but is accessible to all. The fact that ‘the Jesus’ of the first century CE is mobile gives a very interesting dimension to some early Christian writings and even to passages in the canonical gospels (cf. the road to Emmaus). One dramatic element of that early spiritual Jesus is the aspect of incognito: one could never be certain that the gardener, fellow traveller, or chance neighbor was not a “Jesus,” a great man/woman inhabited by the saving spirit. Some Christian apocrypha relish this aspect of disguise, and it cannot be simply by chance. There must be an explanation, and the “spiritual Jesus” thesis is the only one that seems to fit.

For example, the Acts of Pilate (part of the Gospel of Nicodemus) has a carefully constructed scene in which the spirit Jesus takes possession of Joseph of Arimathea while Joseph is in a locked room with no windows. The physical circumstances of the room seem contrived by the author precisely to demonstrate that Jesus is a spiritual entity.

The Church takes control

The early Christian view of the spiritual Jesus is complex and represents a fusion of god and man. One might say that Jesus of Nazareth represents a similar fusion. However, Jesus of Nazareth is a far simpler conception, one made to order for the masses. This is because Jesus of Nazareth is God become man. You and I are passive witnesses to this cosmic transaction, to the formation of a savior who is entirely at the initiative of God–and, in fact, who never ceased to be divine.

The early Christian conception of Jesus, however, was very different. In it, man becomes god by incorporating (or realizing) the divine Jesus within himself/herself. Here, you and I are the principal agents in a deeply personal transformation, one which is entirely at the initiative of man. In this we perceive the true roots of Christianity as arising out of the mystery religions.

It appears that, in the earliest century or so of Christianity, anyone could become divine—a true Son (or Daughter) of God—if s/he incorporated the Jesus. Or, to put it another way, anyone could become divine if the Jesus ‘entered into’ him/her. This was the Christian religion before the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth in the mid-second century.

The scenario of a universal, mobile Jesus-spirit and of multiple, unpredictable Jesuses appearing randomly was a nightmare for the incipient Catholic Church. The only way to establish its control was to monopolize Jesus. And here is the true genesis of ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ That figure is a tool of propaganda and control, one created by the Catholic Church. The Church taught that the Nazarene is the only Jesus. There were, are, and will be no others. The Church also fixed Jesus within narrowly defined specifications carefully set forth in the gospels, parameters that benefited the Church and no other organization/agenda. The role of Peter (as representative of Jesus after the crucifixion) also plays an important role in establishing a lineage of authority going back to the one-and-only Jesus, founder of the Catholic Church.

To summarize the roles and purposes of the canonical gospels:
(1) The canonical gospels redefine and limit Jesus: he came once (and only once) as the Son of God, and he will not come come again until the end times. He (and only he) was both God and man, born of a virgin and resurrected bodily from the dead. [In these ways, the emergent Church did away with all the ‘other’ Jesuses running around.]
(2) The canonical gospels define salvation: belief in Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God ensures remission of sins and eternal life with Jesus/God after physical death.
(3) The Church defines its own authority and writes that authority into the texts: Jesus of Nazareth (in the canonical gospels) appoints Peter the foundation of the Church, and the Roman Catholic church then forever follows Peter via his authoritatively appointed successors, the infallible popes.

The above came into existence in mid-II CE, when the canonical gospels appeared. Before then, the Church did not yet exist. What we find in the first century are many ‘Jesus’ movements—disparate, more or less unorganized groups that believed a latter-day prophet had shown the way, had been ‘anointed’ (made a Christ, a messiah) by being indwelled by the spirit ‘Jesus.’ That anointed latter-day prophet was a second Joshua, one who opened up a new Promised Land. In this early Christianity, anyone could receive the spirit Jesus and become anointed. In gnostic terms, this occurred when/if one found “the meaning of these sayings” (Gospel of Thomas, 1). Whatever one’s secular name, history, or occupation, one could become spiritually perfected, could follow in the footsteps of the founding prophet, and could join the family of Jesuses. It appears, then, that the earliest Christian movements were fellowships of aspiring Jesuses.


As regular readers probably know, my opinion is that the prophet at the incipience of Christianity—the second Joshua described above—was a renegade religious teacher whose life is documented in Jewish records and who lived towards the beginning of the first century BCE: Yeshu ha-Notsri. Rabbinical records report that he was a learned Pharisee who spent about twenty years in exile in Alexandria, Egypt. There Yeshu had a falling out from Judaism and, essentially, became a gnostic—perhaps even one influenced by Buddhism. The Talmudic texts tell us that Yeshu returned to Israel after the death of the violently anti-Pharisaic Alexander Janneus. The prophet and ex-Pharisee Yeshu then had great success teaching gnostic and quite non-Jewish views. The clues that survive show us that he was arrested, put on trial, and killed by the Sanhedrin. Accused of blasphemy and making himself God, Yeshu was “hanged on the eve of the Passover” (Sanh. 43a; passage at Zindler 2003:238). Yeshu’s career has been reconstructed, in extenso, in the final chapter of my book NazarethGate.

What this renegade prophet’s real name was, we do not know. He made such an impression during and after his lifetime, however, that his Jewish followers regarded him as a second Joshua, “savior.” This latter-day Joshua revealed the spiritual Promised Land, as described above.

In my opinion, the pieces finally fit.

One reservation to an identification of Yeshu ha-Notsri with Joshua ben Nun is that the names are not identical: Joshua (יהושׂוע, “Yah[weh] is Salvation”—BDB 221) and Yeshu (ישׂו). After all, why would the Talmudic Rabbis call him Yeshu and not “Joshua,” since his namesake was Joshua (ben Nun) and not “Yeshu”?

The most obvious answer is that the Rabbis refused to honor an arch-heretic with the name of one of their most venerated ancestors, Joshua. Therefore they coined a banal corruption of the name: Yeshu, a name that is unique and otherwise unattested in Jewish scripture. In my opinion, use of the moniker “Yeshu” in the Mishna and Talmud strengthens the likelihood that the rabbis knew quite well that the name “Joshua” was applied to a heretic.

Though we cannot be sure, in all likelihood “Joshua” (a quite common name both in antiquity and today) was not the prophet’s real name. Is not the meaning “Savior” simply too coincidental? From the overlaps between John and Baptist and Jesus in the canonical gospels, and also from the role Dositheus plays in the Pseudo-Clementines and other marginalized writings, I suspect that the prophet’s name was somehow aligned with Yonathan. In Hebrew this name literally means “Yah Gives.” But if the prophet was born “Yonathan,” he would have jettisoned that Jewish name after abandoning Yahwism and embracing proto-gnostic views. And this brings us to the non-Yahwist Hebrew equivalent Nathan-el/Nathaniel = “God Gives.” The Greek rendering is Dositheus. It is possible to theorize, then, that Yeshu’s original name was Yonathan, and that when he broke with his pharisaic background he became known as Nathaniel/Dositheus.


In a recent post, I noted surprising parallels between the Didache and the Testament of Levi, a Jewish work dating to II BCE but which has certainly undergone editing by Christians. I pointed out that both the Testament and the Didache share a general gnostic outlook, where “the nations shall be multiplied in gnosis” and “the spirit of understanding and sanctification shall rest upon him in the water.” Here I would like to signal another link between the Didache and the TestLevi: chronology.

In TestLevi 16:1 one reads: “…for seventy weeks you will go astray and profane the priesthood and pollute the sacrifice; and you will make void the law…” Now, seventy weeks is generally understood as seventy weeks of years, that is, 70 x 7 = 490 years. Scholars date the beginning of that period from the Exile, i.e., 586 BCE. Accordingly, 490 years of (spiritual) exile are counted from that date, leading to an endpoint in 96 BCE. This is when the spiritual exile comes to an end.

As it happens, 96 BCE closely corresponds to when Yeshu ha-Notsri himself went into exile in Egypt, when he abandoned normative Judaism, and when he ‘founded’ the new gnostic-style religion that he subsequently preached (see NazarethGate 420) and that I believe eventually became Christianity. Is this dating mere coincidence? One might suppose so, yet the fact that the Testament of Levi figures in this discussion as to both content and dating suggests otherwise—at least to me.

Incidentally, the Testament of Levi exists in multiple copies from Qumran. However, the section (T. Levi 16:1-17:11) including the “seventy weeks of years” passage is lacking in the Qumran manuscripts. I am not able to comment on whether the post-Qumran dating of the passage in question also supports the thesis that the section comes from a later Christian—a Christian who was a disciple of Yeshu ha-Notsri. I have merely broached this issue that is entirely novel. It is for the next generation of scholarship to investigate this and related questions that have never been raised before.


Detering’s final word in this exciting section of his paper: “The Didache constitutes early evidence for the existence of a Jewish Christianity in which the traditions of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth were completely unknown. The Jesus sayings that it contains did not come from the mouth of an historical Jesus [of Nazareth], but came from the mouths of prophets in whom the spirit of Joshua [ben Nun] worked.”

I agree in the main with the foregoing. However, I would personally rewrite the second sentence as follows: “The Jesus sayings that [the Didache] contains did not come from the mouth of an historical Jesus [of Nazareth], but came from the mouth of a prophet known to history as Yeshu ha-Notsri, a latter-day Joshua who led his people into a spiritual Promised Land.”

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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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