In 76 BCE Yeshu ha-Notsri was about twenty-four years old. Still officially a Pharisee in exile, he had been living in Alexandria, Egypt since boyhood. However, in that year the political situation in Israel altered and the balance of power radically shifted. The rabidly anti-pharisaic King Janneus died, and his wife Salome Alexandra ascended to the throne of Israel. She was as pro-Pharisee as her husband had been anti-Pharisee, doubtless because her own brother, Simeon ben Shetach, was a leading Pharisee and would himself become head (nasi) of the Sanhedrin after Perachiah. In all, later rabbinical writings romanticized the short reign of Alexandra (76–67 BCE) as the glory days of the Pharisees. With Salome’s ascendancy to the throne, suddenly the situation of the exiles in Alexandria dramatically improved. Without delay and with great celebration the exiled Pharisees returned to their ancestral homes in Palestine. This included Joshua b. Perachiah and his elite pharisaic retinue, doubtless including many members of the 71-strong Sanhedrin and their families, relatives, and servants.
Yeshu the heretic
The personal situation with Yeshu, however, was evidently very different. Later rabbinical writings tell us that the young Pharisee was no longer welcome in the Jewish fold. In the curt, enigmatic language of the Talmud, Yeshu “worshipped a brick” (i.e., he was no longer a Yahweh-fearing Jew), he “practiced magic” (i.e. the acknowledged power that he possessed did not proceed from God), and he was accused of sexual immorality (i.e. he did not abide by the basic marriage and sexual codes of Judaism). These notices show us that, already at the age of twenty-four, Yeshu ha-Notsri was a force to be reckoned with by the Jewish establishment—a powerful and inimical force.
In the preceding posts we have looked at three central themes of Yeshu/Jesus’ teaching, as witnessed in the gospels and other Christian writings: not of this world, self-denial, and his adversarial relationship with ‘scribes and Pharisees.’ These must also relate to the reasons Yeshu was excommunicated. ‘Not of this world’ signifies that Yeshu did not bestow honor upon the creator, Yahweh. ‘Self-denial’ signifies that Yeshu embraced the very un-Jewish doctrine of encratism (from Gk. egkrateia, ‘in continence’)—the sacrifice of pleasure in order to attain understanding. Finally, Yeshu was against ‘scribes and Pharisees’—very understandable given that they excommunicated him, and that Yeshu believed he knew a better way.
The influence of Buddhism
And what was that better way? Significantly, all three themes—not of this world, self-denial, and against ‘scribes and Pharisees’—are prominent in Buddhism. In a case similar to that of Yeshu, the Buddha had great difficulty with the elite Brahmin caste of his day, which was in a privileged position similar to that of the Pharisees in late Second Temple Judaism. Many Buddhist texts relate how the devotee is to become a ‘true’ Brahmin, namely, by actually seeking enlightenment rather than by repeatedly mumbling verses (cf. Mt 6:7) and executing empty rites and rituals.
Thus, two global religions have been founded by prophets who stridently opposed the entrenched religious elites of their day. In fact, I would claim this is axiomatic, de rigueur, for any prophet worth his salt. The Buddha challenged the stale, empty rituals of Brahmanical sacrifice in his time, and he even claimed that an outcast (of the lowly sudra caste) could amount to more than a sanctimonious Brahmin hypocrite, no matter how high-born the latter might be. All this resonates very closely with the attitude of Yeshu/Jesus vs. the Pharisees in the gospels.
Related ‘Buddhist’ themes are voluntary poverty, chastity, non-violence, and homelessness—also prominent in the canonical gospels. These themes are neither Hellenistic nor Jewish. In fact, they are anti-Jewish and diametrically opposed to Yahweh’s command to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” (Gen 1:28). Also entirely incompatible with Judaism (yet quite Buddhist) is the severe self-denial enjoined by Jesus in the canonical gospels.
It is my contention that the young Jesus/Yeshu ha-Notsri absorbed these core Buddhist themes during his long exile in Alexandria, Egypt, in the early first century BCE—with life-changing results. He became either a Buddhist or a crypto-Buddhist as a young adult in Alexandria. His subsequent teachings show that he was no longer a good Jew, and certainly no longer a good Pharisee and faithful disciple of his erstwhile mentor Joshua ben Perachiah.
One further theme central to Jesus/Yeshu’s message is so prominent in the gospel tradition that it also merits special attention. I call it “On empty learning” (the title of Chp. 19 of my Buddhist and Christian Parallels). It is related to several subthemes prominent in the gospels: meekness, against ostentation, finding fault in others, and entrapment with words.
And ‘the rest is history’…
In a nutshell, the foregoing explains the eventual trajectory of Christianity away from Judaism and to the formation of an entirely new religion. In contemporary college courses it is fashionable—and, some would say, even required—to teach that ‘Jesus was a Jew.’ Though the professors are not referring to Yeshu ha-Notsri but to the invented figure Jesus of Nazareth, their argument immediately falls on its face. For if one knows a tree by its fruit, then how can somebody who was categorically rejected by Judaism via excommunication, and subsequently even killed by the Jewish religious establishment for ‘apostasy’—how, I ask, is it possible to still consider that person ‘a Jew’? It is not, and the summary proof is that in his own lifetime the Jews themselves did not consider Yeshu to be one of them. If they did not consider him a Jew, then we should not either.
The source of Yeshu’s non-Jewishness—and the reason he was excommunicated—can only be because his beliefs and teachings were non-Jewish. Furthermore, the reason Yeshu was eventually crucified by the Jewish establishment must be because his teachings were a threat to the basic fabric of Judaism itself.
The seminal passage reads:
What of R. Jehoshua ben Perachiah? When Jannai the king killed our rabbis, R. Jehoshua ben Perachiah fled to Alexandria of Egypt. When there was peace, Shimon ben Shetach sent to him, “From me the city of holiness, to thee Alexandria of Egypt. My husband stays in thy midst and I sit forsaken.”
Rabbi Perachiyah came, and found himself at a certain inn; they showed him great honor. He said, “How beautiful is this Acsania!” [“Acsania” denotes both inn and innkeeper. Perachiyah used it in the first sense; the answering remark implies the second meaning, “hostess.”] Yeshu said to him, “Rabbi, she has narrow eyes.” R. Perachiyah said, “Wretch, do you employ yourself thus?” He sent out four hundred trumpets and excommunicated him.
Yeshu came before him many times and said to him, “Receive me.” But he would not notice him. One day when R. Perachiyah was reciting the Shema, Yeshu came before him. R. Perachiyah was minded to receive him and made a sign to him. But Yeshu thought that he repelled him. Yeshu went and hung up a brick and worshipped it.
R. Perachiyah said to him, “Return.” Yeshu replied, “Thus have I received from you, that every one who sins and causes the multitude to sin, they give him not the chance to repent.”
And a teacher has said, “Yeshu ha-Notsri practiced magic and led astray and deceived Israel.”
[—b. Sanh. 107b. Cf. R. Herford, Christianity in Talmud & Midrash, p 51.]
We have already discussed some implications of this passage in previous posts. As head of the Sanhedrin, Perachiah returned to Israel in triumph. He was now arguably the most powerful person in the land after the queen herself, more powerful even than queen’s brother, Simon ben Shetach. The passage relates that Perachiah excommunicated Yeshu on the way back to Israel. “Excommunication” does not merely signify that the person is no longer a Pharisee. It signifies that the person is no longer a Jew. In the religiously rarified atmosphere of Yeshu’s upbringing, education, and former associations, excommunication is doubly devastating. It is the ultimate humiliation, the irreparable ban. Yeshu was twenty-four years old and henceforth a pariah to his relatives, colleagues, nation, traditions, and culture. It is likely that even his family would not have associated with him.
To be pronounced no longer a “Jew” must have some validity, for Perachiah would not have excommunicated Yeshu unless the young Pharisee had staked out a religious position so radical, so outside the norms of Judaism that there was no chance of reconciliation. Indeed, we read in the above citation that Perachiah did offer Yeshu the olive branch: “Return,” Perachiah invited.
But Yeshu refused. Evidently, the young man was so convinced that his thoroughly incompatible theology was correct that he no longer sought reconciliation or even wished to be known as a Jew. We know that Yeshu had a “thoroughly incompatible theology” because he was excommunicated, was accused of “apostasy,” of deceiving and leading Israel astray according to the Talmud, and was eventually executed for his religious beliefs. All this is not speculation—it is a provable part of the historical record.
And so, Perachiah did the only appropriate thing: he excommunicated Yeshu. Yet the passage above reveals that the excommunication was a last resort. And indeed, the little we know of Joshua b. Perachiah is that he was a fair and mild-mannered individual. The Talmud relates:
Joshua ben Perachiah and Nittai the Arbelite received [the Torah] from them. Joshua ben Perachiah says, “Set up a teacher [rab] for yourself. And get yourself a companion-disciple. And give everybody the benefit of the doubt.” (Pirke Avot 1.6)
We must, accordingly, suppose that Perachiah gave Yeshu every “benefit of the doubt.” Yet that was still not sufficient to keep the headstrong young man within the broad bounds of Judaism. According to b. Sanhedrin 107b (above), Yeshu was excommunicated for apostasy while still in Egypt, which tells us that he already had not only fully-formed views but that those views were not compatible with Judaism. This is the only reasonable scenario that can be drawn from the Talmudic account. Mead writes: “The 400 horns, trumpets or trombones may be taken simply to mean that the excommunication was exceedingly formal and serious” (p. 146). In a subsequent post we will see that the excommunication received added weight because Yeshu may, in fact, have been related by blood to Perachiah himself.
We can reasonably infer that, after the excommunication, Yeshu did not keep his heretical views to himself. The young man’s calling as a prophet is indicated by his subsequent career of ‘deceiving and leading Israel astray.’ Already in Egypt, then, repeated bitter and unresolvable religious, dogmatic, and ethical confrontations between Yeshu and his more senior Pharisaic colleagues (including Perachiah) must have led to Yeshu’s excommunication as a young man.
The Talmud gives us several reasons for Yeshu’s excommunication: practicing magic, sexual impropriety, apostasy, and “leading the world astray.” However, three of these grounds are post-excommunication reflections on Yeshu’s ministry, death (and supposed resurrection), and the success of his religion—influenced, no doubt, by the canonical gospels and other Christian writings. Only the accusation of apostasy would have clearly preceded the excommunication. It alone offers a compelling reason for the act itself.
According to the above citation Yeshu would suddenly have become the blackest of black sheep. Previously a promising disciple of Perachiah and himself perhaps destined for the Sanhedrin, the young Pharisee had played his cards very poorly: he was personally excommunicated by the leading Pharisee in the land! In all likelihood, when Yeshu returned to Israel (certainly not with Perachiah), he did so quite alone. Indeed, he probably went into immediate hiding.
To Qumran?It is here that we must consider for a moment Qumran by the Dead Sea. The location is remote, ‘in the desert’ (en té erémw) as the gospels so frequently write, and also within hailing distance of Jerusalem (easily accessible to “scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem”—Mk 7:1, etc). I do not know for certain if the Dead Sea Sect was already in existence in early I BCE (majority opinion today is that it formed in II BCE), or if the sect was established as a result of Yeshu’s personal activity, or if there even was a Qumran sect (some scholars maintain that there was only a scroll ‘library’ in the caves).
At the conclusion of my book The Myth of Nazareth (pp. 306–7), I point out that the attempted casting down of Jesus from a cliff (Lk 4:29) hardly fits the typography of Nazareth (where no cliff exists) but strikingly matches the area around Qumran. Is this mere coincidence, or can it be Luke’s vestige of a distant memory? Furthermore, I note on the same page that in “the earliest gospel tradition, Q located Jesus’ home of Nazara not in Nazareth of Galilee, but in Judea.” This Southern Tradition survives in marginalized works such as the Protevangelium of James (where Mary and Joseph live in proximity to the Jerusalem temple). Such ancient traditions, long forgotten, gain in importance as we search for clues into Christian origins.
In my first book, having located Nazara in Judea, I also noted that in the earliest gospel stratum Nazara “is none other than the field of activity of John the Baptist.” This has significance for those who suspect that, originally, John the Baptist and Jesus were one and the same historical figure (Robert Price, George Ory, myself).
In sum, multiple clues point to Judea rather than Galilee as the original locus of the Christian founder prophet’s activity. Those who have read NazarethGate are aware of my view that the Dead Sea Scrolls reflect a Jewish sect (the Yachad) whose tenets are a forced and somewhat artificial mixture of gnosticism and Judaism. The DSS sectarian texts attempt to reconcile those two incompatibilities. We have seen, however, that Yeshu did not do this: his excommunication and subsequent career (ending in execution) shows that he made a complete break with Judaism. The evidence presented in these posts favors buddhist gnosticism as the most likely source of Yeshu’s heresy. On the other hand, the DSS attempt to combine gnostic tendencies (the quest for wisdom, man’s discovery of the ‘divine’= gnosis, and the adherent’s status as a quasi-divine ‘angel’) with a reactionary, conservative Jewish outlook (insistence upon Torah, religious purity, ritual, and Jewish tradition). I discuss this at length in my second book NazarethGate (pp. 461–71).
My provisional view, then, is that the Dead Sea scriptures are the products of a sect influenced (or possibly founded) by Yeshu ha-Notsri, but that the sect was not entirely faithful to Yeshu’s message. In other words, the Dead Sea Scrolls are both syncretist and revisionist.