In preceding posts we 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’ (posts 8-10 in this series). These themes 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.
Rabbinic literature preserves additional clues regarding the theology of the rebellious prophet. One is in the Palestinian Talmud. Though it does not mention Yeshu, “That it refers to Jesus there can be no possibility of doubt” (Herford):
R. Abahu said: If a man says to you ‘I am God,’ he is a liar; if [he says, ‘I am] the Son of Man,’ in the end people will laugh at him; if [he says] ‘I will go up to heaven,’ he says, but will not perform it. (Taanith 65b)
This revealing quote makes three accusations against Yeshu/Jesus: (1) he considered himself (and others?) divine; (2) he considered himself the Son of Man; and (3) he claimed to have gone up to heaven. All three claims are, in fact, related and immediately point to the Jewish heterodoxy known as merkaba (“chariot”) mysticism, that is, the theology of man’s ascent to God. This theology has never been tolerated in normative Judaism, yet it has ever been present at the fringes of the religion. The patriarch Enoch is also related—he “walked with God: and he was no more; for God took him” (Gen 5:21–24). Interestingly, the theology of ascent was very important to the Dead Sea Sect, where the members may have looked upon themselves as angels in heaven (cf. Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and writings by, e.g., Crispin Fletcher-Louis). The most radical version of this theology dispenses with God entirely and places the entire burden of finding ‘enlightenment’ upon the shoulders of man—in a word, Buddhism.
The above claims against Yeshu/Jesus are vaguely familiar from the New Testament—e.g., “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Man’s ascent to divinity implies that man is in command of his own salvation and can reach perfection by himself—without God’s help (or even without a God at all). The ascent depends on man, on his effort and his works (Mk 12:30 etc). Hence two broad avenues opened in Christianity: the way of works, and the way of faith. For Gnostics, the former was needed, for man does all the work. Followers of Paul and later adherents of the Great Church, however, required faith, for God does all the work.
Jewish mystical traditions of late antiquity, together with the Hechalot literature, struggle with the desire to cross the chasm separating man and God. That desire is anathema in normative Judaism. Evidently, Yeshu ha-Notsri dared cross that chasm. He repudiated the broad avenue that is normative Judaism, the avenue that demands allegiance and obedience to Yahweh above all. This appears to have been the cause for his excommunication. Yeshu embraced the gnostic quest, and for that he was anathematized by his contemporaries highly placed in Judaism.
The net widens
We are now gradually, and by degrees, entering a new phase in our unorthodox exploration into Christian origins on this website. Up until now, this series of posts has focussed on what Talmudic records can tell us about Yeshu ha-Notsri, the forgotten prophet who (I maintain) was the true founder of Christianity. We have reviewed Yeshu’s heritage as the scion of an elite pharisaic family from Jerusalem, his flight to Alexandria with other exiled Pharisees while still a boy, his encounter with proto-gnosticism (in the form of Buddhism) in that great cosmopolitan city, his ascetic, other-worldly, and decidedly un-Jewish views, and finally his excommunication from Judaism at the young age of twenty-four.
The next stage in Yeshu’s career was his activity as a renegade, already-excommunicated prophet in Palestine. We know, indeed, that he did return to Palestine, for the Talmud relates that he was excommunicated on the journey back, that he “deceived and led all Israel astray,” and that he was finally arrested by the Sanhedrin, put on trial, and executed for apostasy in Lod (Lydda), a town about 35 km NW of Jerusalem. These few details are available from rabbinical accounts. Otherwise, however, Jewish records are largely silent.
In order to trace the career and teachings of Yeshu ha-Notsri after his return to Israel, we must turn to other texts. Surprisingly, a vast array of both traditional and non-traditional religious texts awaits us. The sheer variety of relevant material attests to the fact that, astonishingly, this single prophet was not only the founder of Christianity, but also of other movements long marginalized and ignored—such as Mandeism, Manichaeism, and even that branch of Samaritanism known as Dositheanism. But I am getting ahead of our story… My point here is that, in order to continue to retrace the steps of the remarkable prophet that was Yeshu, we must explore a great variety of religious texts, including:
—the Talmud (Jewish rabbinical records)
—canonical Christian scripture (the New Testament)
—non-canonical Christian literature (gnostic and apocryphal texts)
—literature of ‘baptist’ sects (Mandean, Manichaean, etc)
—long known but rejected works all-too-hastily written off as spurious, forged, or ‘medieval’ (Secret Mark, the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Barnabas, the Acts of Mark, to name a few)
Not a Galilean
Having examined in the previous posts what we can learn about Yeshu ha-Notsri’s career from Jewish sources, we can appreciate that the biography of Yeshu is of an entirely different cast than the story of Jesus of Nazareth as presented in the gospels. The renegade Yeshu lived several generations before the turn of the era—in the time of King Janneus and not of the Herods. Yeshu is from Jerusalem, not the Galilee. He is obviously well educated. Not only that, but he is connected to the highest echelon of the Jewish establishment. Far from being an outsider, a backcountry schismatic, Yeshu is very much an insider. He is apparently a well connected Jewish legalist, with a promising future in Jerusalem pharisaic circles.
Despite the above very advantageous perquisites, Yeshu ha-Notsri turned against his entire religious heritage. In the words of the Talmud, he “worshipped a brick” and “caused the multitude to sin.” These accusations indicate that the prophet was not only heretical but also successful. He was able to gather a significant following in his homeland: Yeshu “led astray and deceived Israel.” Obviously, the rabbis considered Yeshu very dangerous and took him seriously. The Talmud never disputes Yeshu’s success with the people, nor does it doubt his power and abilities, though it accuses him of deriving those powers from magic and trickery. Nevertheless, Yeshu was a threat to the ascendant pharisaic power base, for he had the potential to turn the people against the Jewish religious establishment. This, we can confidently surmise, was the true cause of Yeshu’s eventual execution. The arrest, trial, and execution of Yeshu ha-Notsri as recorded in the Talmud were not simply for religious reasons. They were, above all, because Yeshu was a political threat.
In his book Did Jesus Live 100 B.C.? (1903:180), G.R.S. Mead even opined that “Yeshu was a person of great distinction and importance, and ‘near those in power’ at the time, that is to say, presumably connected by blood with the Jewish rulers—a trait preserved in the Toldoth Yeshu.” This is possible and would explain the young boy’s presence in the general pharisaic flight to Egypt under Perachiah. This general line of reasoning receives support from b. Sanh. 43a, where one reads: “With Yeshu, however, it was different, for he was connected with the government [malkuth].” I discuss this important passage in NazarethGate (p. 425):
We now consider the astonishing final words of the above citation: “for he was connected with the government.” This is the Shachter-Freedman translation and fully confirms our above observation that Yeshu was “connected to the highest echelon of the Jewish establishment.” In fact, the pertinent words have secular meaning in Talmudic Hebrew. Thus the translation clarifies the word GOVERNMENT with the bracketed phrase: “or royalty, i.e., influential.” Jastrow’s Talmudic dictionary translates malkuth in this context as “court,” and adds in parentheses: “influential.”
It is clear, then, that Yeshu ha-Notsri was not some obscure back-country schismatic. He was the most dangerous of rebels: a charismatic and highly-placed insider, a well-born Pharisee once himself groomed for the Sanhedrin. To use a military analogy, Yeshu successfully preaching an alternate gnostic theology to the Jewish people was like the defection of a general at the height of battle—a defection straight to the headquarters of the enemy camp!
“Straight to the enemy camp” indeed… Those words may be more than mere hyperbole. Now excommunicated from Judaism and persona non grata in ultra-pharisaic Jerusalem, upon returning to Palestine Yeshu would have gravitated towards the one area in his homeland that was also historically hostile to Jerusalem and to its religious power structure: Samaria. In the preceding post I suggested that Yeshu may in fact have gone to Qumran by the Dead Sea. That is certainly a possibility. But more numerous clues, coming from different traditions, link the founder of Christianity to Samaria.
It will be appreciated that in Samaria Yeshu would have found ready support for his deeply-felt crusade against ‘scribes and Pharisees.’ This Samaritan support, in turn, ultimately strengthened his power and largely explains the Sanhedrin’s accusation against Yeshu prior to his execution, namely, that the prophet ‘deceived and led Israel astray.’