H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 35)

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The ever-present Jesus

In a brief section of his paper (pp. 59–61), Dr. Detering draws attention to the short Epistle of Jude, a second century pseudepigraphic writing claiming authorship by Jesus of Nazareth’s brother, Judas (cf. Mk 6:3; Mt 13:55). In the fifth verse, most manuscripts have “Lord” (kurios), others “God” (theos), and—most remarkably—a few manuscripts have Iésous. The verse reads:

Now I desire to remind you, though you are fully informed, that Iésous, who once for all saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.

Detering maintains that preference goes to the reading Iésous, as above, for this is the lectio dificilior. If one goes along with this interpretation, then the Christian Jesus brought the Israelites out of Egypt! How could this be?

In the preceding post we saw that first century Jewish Christians conceived Jesus as a spiritual, universal, and mobile entity that indwells the true disciple. This was before the invention of Jesus of Nazareth in post-Marcionite times (i.e., mid-II CE). If one credits the above citation with correctness, then one must conclude that those Jewish Christians projected this spiritual Jesus onto the Old Testament: their “Jesus” was not only universal in place (it could indwell anyone), but also universal in time (it has existed since the beginning of time). After all, this makes sense: if the Jesus could indwell them, then (as pure spirit) it could surely have indwelled the great Jewish figures of the past.

It is very likely that the Jewish Christians gave credit to the divine spirit Jesus—which they considered to be an eternal entity at one with the Godhead—as being responsible for the actions of Yahweh in history, including the Exodus under Moses and the crossing of the Jordan under Joshua. In Jewish scripture, the hand of Yahweh works through his prophets. The Old Testament is quite emphatic that it was not Moses nor Joshua who effected the miraculous events credited to them—it was the spirit of God working through them. And now we come to the nub, the essence of the Jewish Christian revolution in thinking: they identified the spirit of Yahweh with that which crosses over. Only in this light can we understand a text such as Ode 39 of the Odes of Solomon. And this view of crossing over has inescapable gnostic implications—which we have already analyzed. We also recall that the word Hebrew itself means “cross over” (BDB 716, 720). I won’t force the argument here by claiming that “a true Hebrew is a gnostic,” but I believe such a view was present in the first century CE.

That proto-gnostic view teaches that gnosis brings one to the other side, that gnosis saves, and that gnosis enables one to cross over. Such a view was not the teaching of Moses, nor of Joshua ben Nun, nor of the Tanach. In fact, it is not found anywhere in Jewish scripture. Whence then did it come? I have suggested that it came from the teaching of Yeshu ha-Notsri, a highly-placed ex-Pharisee who fled to Egypt in early I BCE and there converted to gnosticism—probably under the influence of Buddhism.

Once we have the theology of crossing over clearly in mind, then it is a short step to identifying the great hero of the early Christian gnostics: Joshua ben Nun, the one who crossed over the Jordan and led the Hebrews into the Promised Land. In other words, the hero of the early Jewish Christians was ready-made. He simply needed to be interpreted metaphorically, for the crossing over that he accomplished was not of a mere body of water—now it was from death to life. This metaphorical interpretation, I suggest, was itself a result of the gnostic teachings of Yeshu, a contemporary prophet who was viewed by his Jewish followers as a second Joshua—and even as a more important Joshua.

Thus we have in early Jewish Christianity (1) the Jesus/Joshua associated with Yeshu (the name is itself a corruption of Joshua) ha-Notsri (a corruption of Nazarene), and (2) the Jesus/Joshua associated with that which enables one to cross over from death to life, i.e., the Spirit of God—reinterpreted as gnosis. We will look more closely at these two meanings in the next section (below). Examination of the Odes of Solomon, Testament of Levi (Christian additions), and Jewish Christian tractates from Nag Hammadi all bear this out: the saving hand of God is gnosis, esoteric knowledge (GTh 1, 3b, 39; OdeSol 8:8f, 11:4; 18:13-14; TestLevi 13:2 etc). Furthermore, there is every indication that water was a favorite metaphor for that saving gnosis, where “the spirit of understanding and holiness shall rest upon him in the water” (TestLevi 18:7; cf. v. 5 and OdeSol 6:8-18; 11:4-7; 30).

The quintessential heroes who crossed over were Moses and—even more importantly—Jesus/Joshua ben Nun, the one who brought the Hebrews into the Promised Land. If we read the last sentence metaphorically, we see that Joshua brought the Hebrews from death to life, from the Diesseits to the Jenseits, from ignorance to gnosis. After all, Joshua means “Savior,” and for a Jewish gnostic, the Savior needed to do these things.

Both man and God

The conception of Jesus/Savior as the saving power of God accords with normative Judaism: in the Old Testament, the power or hand (yad) of God frequently acts in history. Yet, Judaism has always kept man and God quite separate and distinct—there is no confusion between the two. Christianity, however, mingled the divine and the human. Jesus Christ is both God and man. These two facets of Jesus lent some confusion to early Christianity, for ‘Jesus’ could mean either element: (a) the power of God, or (b) the man through which that power acts. On this website I have argued that pre-canonical Christianity knew a mobile, spiritual Jesus. Yet, whoever embodied that Jesus, whoever expressed that ‘power of God,’ that person could also be referred to as ‘a Jesus.’ This is an understandable shorthand that permits some apocryphal Christian literature to claim ‘Here is a Jesus’, ‘There is a Jesus,’ that Paul is a Jesus, Peter is a Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea is a Jesus, and the like.

Notable in the early Christian literature was a certain dramatic aspect of this conception, namely, that one simply didn’t know who was “a Jesus.” Over and over, we encounter Jesus incognito—Jesus hidden in plain sight. This mysterious aspect of the revelation obviously fascinated early Christians. (See “Jesus the shape-shifter.”) This forgotten sense of ambiguity and drama survives in passages from the Acts of Paul, the Gospel of Nicodemus, and even the Gospel of Luke (the road to Emmaus, Lk 24:13 ff; cf. Jn 20:14). This is all a prelude and transitional stage before the invention of Jesus of Nazareth, who was also Jesus in spirit and body—but, critically, now he was the only Jesus.

As the crowning step in a fairly long process, Jesus of Nazareth thus did away with all competing Jesuses.

The conception of the power of God indwelling a human being did not come out of nowhere. My research suggests that it has esoteric roots in Second Temple Judaism, roots tied to wisdom traditions—most especially to the tradition associated with the figure of Seth and perhaps also with the much-maligned Levites. The power of God indwelling a human being is surely the genesis of the mobile, spiritual Jesus that we find in the first century CE apocryphal Christian literature. In that literature, there is no question of a mixing of the human and divine elements. In the Acts of Paul, Pilate, Peter, etc, when the spirit enters a person, that person becomes a vehicle for the divine power. He does not become ‘God’! But with the Gospel of Mark the barrier between God and man is sundered. With Jesus the Nazarene God IS man, and that man IS God. For this reason alone, the Gospel of Mark is no longer Jewish. Nor can one say that it is even ‘Jewish Christian.’

With the invention of Jesus the Nazarene in the second century, two competing conceptions of Jesus existed side-by-side: the mobile Jesus, and the Nazarene Jesus. These two conceptions are mutually exclusive, and thus they were in tension with one another. This is the ultimate cause of the friction between the Hellenist camp and the Hebrew camp (Acts 6:1 ff, etc)—at bottom, we are dealing with incompatible views regarding Jesus. But the older conceptions of Jesus as the power of God, and of Jesus acting through Joshua ben Nun, these were assimilated by the Church. Thus, at Heb 11:16 we read that Jesus leads Christians into the (spiritual) Promised Land of eternal life—“a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” The parallel between Jesus the Nazarene and Joshua ben Nun is also made explicit by Tertullian, in a citation that Dr. Detering offers in his paper (p. 68):

While Christ would lead his future people—that is, us, who were born into the desert of paganism—into the Promised Land that flows with milk and honey—that is, into the possession of eternal life, which is the greatest sweetness—so also this was not to happen through Moses, that is, not through obedience to the Law, but through Joshua/Jesus, through the grace of the Gospel, and only after we have been tested on a sharp rock, that is Christ—for Christ was the rock who was even cut. Therefore, the man who symbolically prefigured this mystery of faith held the name of the Lord and was also called Joshua/Jesus. (Tert. Mark 3.16.1)

The Catholic Tertullian (c. 200 CE) is clearly a follower of the Nazarene—he knows and accepts the gospel Jesus, the man “who was even cut” (i.e. who suffered/was crucified). Passages such as the above belong to the vast patristic literature that was produced to defend the new faith, and that was assiduously preserved by the Church—while competing views were equally assiduously destroyed. Thus we easily lose sight of the spiritual Jesus—the Jesus that held the stage before c. 140 CE, before the invention of Jesus the Nazarene. We must look carefully and methodically to uncover evidence for that Jesus.

Today, only obscure texts witness to a gnostic stage before the invention of the Nazarene. One such text is the virtually unknown The Repose of Saint John the Evangelists and Apostle. This ultra-heretical text knows Jesus Christ but not Jesus of Nazareth. Interestingly, the work is not even mentioned in the standard scholarly reference, The New Testament Apocrypha (Schneemelcher, 2 vols). It is to be found in a 1913 British Museum publication (PJ 2197.B7) made by E.A. Wallis Budge, Coptic Apocrypha in the Dialect of Upper Egypt. There we read:

[John speaks:] “My brothers, my fellow heirs, and my partners in the Christ Jesus, our Lord… He has never made himself manifest to you through the eyes of the body, neither have you heard him through the ears of the body, but he has made himself visible to you through the integrity of your heart, and by visions and by works that are holy.”

This is radical docetism: Jesus is categorically spiritual. He is emphatically not material and was never graced with a body. Of course, this is not to be confused with what passes for ‘docetism’ today: the strange belief that a bodiless phantom once roamed the world. That belief never existed, anywhere. Rather, docetism is the view that the bodiless Jesus is the spirit of God indwelling the worthy human. That indwelling is a partnership, an association, accurately described by the author of the Repose as follows:

Strengthen yourselves, then, in him, and you will remember him at all times. Morevover, you will also remember the mystery and the association [or: partnership] which has come upon you, and which our Lord has fulfilled… Let him but repose in your hearts, and you are turned into beings who rejoice in holiness of life… [Addressing the Jesus spirit:] O you who has spoken your words in our hearts… O you who alone are the savior, the righteous one, who exists in every place, who has existed from everlasting. God, the Christ Jesus!… For we know your majesty which is invisible, and which does not make itself manifest

This, of course, is a very different view of Jesus from the canonical gospels! It is the pre-canonical view that reigned among Jewish Christians in the first century CE. In the Repose above, Jesus is invisible, everywhere, and in the heart of the righteous person. In this way, the Jewish Christians were able to retroject the spirit Jesus back into Old Testament figures such as Moses and Joshua ben Nun, for they were also vehicles for the power/spirit of Yahweh.

In this connection, Dr. Detering presents a citation (p. 6) from Hippolytus, describing the view of the Naassene gnostics:

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.” This, according to them, is the spiritual generation. This, he says, is the great Jordan which, flowing on (here) below, and preventing the children of Israel from departing out of Egypt–I mean from terrestrial intercourse, for Egypt is with them the body,–’Iésous drove back, and made it flow upwards. (Hippolytus, Ref. V, end of chapter).

Here, the “great Jordan” prevented the Israelites from leaving Egypt. This is not an error in geography. It reflects Naassene theology whereby Egypt = carnality, and the Jordan = the boundary between carnality and the Promised Land ( = gnosis and purity). Iesous is the instrument for that passage out of carnality and into truth. This is what I mean by early Christian gnosticism. It is a proto-gnosticism that is not mythological, has no aeons, nor cosmogenesis. As Hippolytus observes, the Naassenes believed in “the spiritual generation.” That is the generation of truth, i.e., gnosis.

In early Christianity, Iesous was the ever-present, eternal, mobile power of God working through history and in and through man.

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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. 35) — 3 Comments

  1. The Christian Jesus could do this because pre-Nicean Catholicism identified Jesus with Lord Sabaoth. Gnostics differentiated at some point Yaldabaoth from Sabaoth (as in the Hypostasis of the Archons). While Yaldabaoth was punished by Sophia, Sabaoth was exalted and came to sit on the throne surrounded by the Cherubim, as described by Ezechiel. This is similar to Jesus in the interpolated hymn in Philippans 2:9-11.

    Churchfathers like Justin Martyr and Theophilus of Antioch identify Jesus with all theophanies of the Old Testament. Much of the eighth chapter of John blows a similar trumpet, specifically the famous words “Before there was Abraham, there I am” (8:58).

    Then there are hymns of the early Catholic church, based on Isaiah 6:3, which addressed Jesus as Lord Sabaoth. Come the age of Nicea and the consubstantial trinity, the hymns were written addressing either The Father (identified by the Church with the Jewish god) or the holy trinity as a bunch; yet this manipulation left traces which makes it possible to realize that something has been going on.

  2. Fascinating stuff, and the overall argument is beginning to cohere.

    If you haven’t already read it, I’d suggest checking out Margaret Barker’s work – especially “The Great Angel.” Although she writes from a faith perspective, her scholarship is very penetrating and her position refreshingly unconventional; she argues for a kind of composite Jesus-Yahweh who was understood as the messenger of El during the Second Temple period. She sees the roots of this Enochian-Melchizedek tradition as prior to the Babylonian exile – I don’t necessarily agree, and I think she understates the Persian influence, but many of her arguments seem to dovetail very comfortably with the position staked out in these posts.

  3. One example of a hymn (of the Eastern churches) addressing Jesus as Lord Sabaoth is the Trisagion (“Thrice Holy”) based on Isaiah’s chant of the Seraphim (“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts”). The Trisagion adds further attributes: “Holy God, Holy and strong, holy and immortal.” As late as the fifth century, the archbishop of Antioch Peter the Fuller insisted on the addition “who has been crucified for our sake”; and this addition caused scandalous protests in the Antioch church.

    The Ethiopian liturgy preserved a chant which connected the Trisagion with the virgin birth, baptism in the Jordan, and the crucifixion.

    The classic Roman Catholic liturgy for Good Friday included the Improperia, which also used the Trisagion. In this hymn, Jesus asks the Jews why they have tortured and slain him, in spite of all the good deeds he had performed according to the Old Testament reports (release from bondage, feeding with manna, guidance to the promised land).

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