The prophet Yeshu, Pt. 5—The founder: Who was he?

The name

As mentioned in a prior post (last paragraph), the early first century BCE prophet known to the Talmud as “Yeshu ha-Notsri” doubtless had some other name in actuality. We know this because Yeshu means “Salvation” and ha-Notsri means “the preserver” (also “watcher, keeper of secret wisdom” etc). Nobody is born with the name “Salvation the Preserver.”

The later religious writings of various traditions vaguely remember the prophet under a number of pseudonyms. This shows that already in late antiquity the founder had attained mythical status, for his personal attributes (including his name) were soon discarded. The Talmud records at least three names: Yeshu ha-Notsri, Balaam, and ben Stada. Samaritan texts record Dositheus and Dusis. Mandean texts record John. And Christian texts record Jesus of Nazareth.

I noted in the above-linked post that Yeshu’s actual name was probably Jonathan, “John.” The Hebrew name Jonathan (Ya-nathan) means “Yahweh/God Gives.” Its equivalents in Hebrew are Nathaniel (“God Gives”) and Mattanyahu (= Yahweh Gives, “Matthew”). Its equivalents in Greek are Dositheus and Theodoros (“Gift of God”). For uniformity and simplicity, in these posts I will generally use the name Yeshu ha-Notsri (or simply Yeshu)—his primary designation in the Talmud, cognizant that Jonathan is actually more correct. I will also make use of alternative names (Dositheus, John, Balaam, etc) when the need arises to discuss specific textual traditions.

If the prophet’s name was indeed Jonathan, then we are dealing with an extremely common Jewish name. It was also a favorite name in the Hasmonean royal lineage. This is of some moment, because we have located the prophet chronologically to the early first century BCE (Ibn Daud, Epiphanius, other evidence)—that is, to the time of the Hasmonean kingdom—and we have also noted that the Talmud associates Yeshu with the malkuth, “the government” (b. Sanh. 43a; see NazarethGate 425). If Yeshu were indeed linked by blood to the Hasmonean dynasty, then it would make sense that he had the name “John,” as did so many Hasmoneans.

The fact that the young Yeshu fled into Egypt along with the head of the Sanhedrin, Joshua b. Perachiah, also suggests that Yeshu was an important person. At the very least, he must have been a member of the religious aristocracy.

A clue from Samaritan writings

Considering that Jonathan is the linguistic equivalent of Dositheus, when we examine Samaritan records regarding the arch-heretic Dositheus/Dusis we come across an astonishing admission. At least two times, Dositheus is made to exclaim: “I am the son of the High Priest!” (Bowman 1977:164, 165).

And the High Priest Akbon [read: Hyrcanus II] searched for Dusis [read: Yeshu/Dositheus] but could not find him. For Dusis, because of his fear of the High Priest Akbon and the violence of his strength and the swiftness of his resolve, fled to Suwaika and lodged with a woman whose name was Amantu the widow, and said to her: “I am the son of the High Priest.” So she served him and he spent many days with her writing.
… So Levi [the actual High Priest’s son according to the Samaritan author] went, accompanied by his men and came to Suwaika, entered the house of Amantu the widow, and said to her: “Is not my friend [!] Dusis with you, who deserves to be killed?” And she said, “I know not that he deserves to be killed, but I was exceedingly generous to him when he said to me, ‘I am the son of the High Priest.’ And I found him continually busy writing on these pieces of paper…

These passages are from the medieval chronicle of the Samaritan Abu’l Fath. The chronicle dates almost 1,500 years after the facts it attempts to record and is certainly garbled. It must be used with great caution. Still, Abu’l Fath had earlier sources at his disposal and surely did not make everything up.

“Akbon” probably refers to Hyrcanus II (the voiceless velar “k” followed by “n” being the only elements of the name to survive). The citation reads, accordingly, as if Dusis is the son of Hyrcanus II. However, Hyrcanus II and Yeshu were contemporaries, and thus one could not have been son to the other. It is not surprising that Abu’l Fath might have the wrong Hasmonean here, for Hyrcanus II was by far the most memorable High Priest of the first century BCE, having served in that position during two lengthy periods: 76–66 BCE and again 63–40 BCE. Other than Janneus, the other High Priests had long since been forgotten to history, including to Abu’l Fath.

If Hyrcanus II is not chronologically a perfect fit to be Yeshu’s father, then who else in the Hasmonean lineage served as High Priest around that time? Now, if (a) Yeshu was born c. 100 BCE (as is suggested by Ibn Daud, as we have seen), and (b) if he was related to the government (malkuth, as Jewish records allege), and (c) if he was the son of the High Priest (as the Samaritan Abu’l Fath alleges), then our choices narrow dramatically: Yeshu’s father was one of the five sons of John Hyrcanus I (see chart above).

The names in red in the above chart served as High Priest of the Jews. They include two of Hyrcanus I’s five sons. Let’s immediately eliminate Alexander Janneus as Yeshu’s father, for Josephus and other historical records know only two children of Janneus, both quite famous and well-chronicled, neither tried and executed for his religious views (as was Yeshu), and neither having fled to Alexandria as a young man.

The only other obvious possibility is Judas Aristobulus I. He was High Priest for one year (104–03 BCE). This monarch was the first husband of Salome Alexandra. When Aristobulus I died, she married (by levirate marriage) his next younger brother and now king and High Priest, Alexander Janneus.

We must thus include the possibility that Aristobulus I was Yeshu’s father. If so, Yeshu was born before 103 BCE (thus moving his birthdate back a few years) and his mother was no less a figure than Salome Alexandra, who later became queen. In fact, the name “Salome” plays a marginal and curious role in certain Christian apocryphal texts, including the Gospel of Thomas. There Salome asks Jesus, “Who are you, man, whose son?” (saying 61, Blatz translation). If Salome were herself Jesus/Yeshu’s mother, this question is ironic indeed. Also, a certain Salome appears at a critical juncture in the Protevangelium of James (19.3 ff) and then disappears from the story as suddenly as she appeared. The reader has no idea who she is, but this Salome has a critical role: it is she who verifies that the mother of Jesus was indeed a virgin. And, let it be admitted, who would know this information better than the mother of Jesus herself? Thus, we have in the Protevangelium a curious link, again, between the prophet we are investigating and Salome—possibly Salome Alexandra, Queen of the Jews.

Salome being Yeshu’s mother also would clear up another problem to be encountered in an upcoming post: why Yeshu was spared and allowed to preach during the short decade of Salome’s reign (76-67 BCE), while the Pharisees hunted down and executed so many of their enemies.

The main problem I have with Yeshu’s father being Aristobulus I is that I cannot fathom why Yeshu would then flee to Egypt during the reign of Janneus, his uncle as well as his father-in-law (for Alexandra was married to Aristobulus and then to Janneus). Also, is it conceivable that Joshua ben Perachiah, the Pharisee whose kinsmen were being slaughtered by Janneus, would take the king’s own son-in-law under his wing and flee with him to Egypt? I think not… For these and other reasons I doubt that Aristobulus I was in fact the father of Yeshu. Rather, I suspect that some slight error has crept into Abu’l Fath’s medieval report over the course of fifteen hundred years and that Yeshu was not literally the ‘son’ of the High Priest but was the nephew or cousin of the High Priest—that is, Yeshu was closely related to royalty but not in the immediate line of succession. Furthermore, Yeshu must have had real reason to fear for his life at the hands of King Janneus.

In the next post we will continue looking and will discover another intriguing possibility…

← Previous                    Next →

About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *