The prophet Yeshu, Pt. 6—The founder: Who was he?

As we seek basic answers to the origins of Christianity, it is worth noting that we are embarked on a sublime mission, one that is as necessary as it is difficult. We are not like children playing in the sand or adults gazing at the clouds. Our purpose is essentially to understand. This is the same purpose that motivated the ancient Gnostics, the Buddhists, the shamans… It is a quintessentially human undertaking. Our purpose, however, will not meet with success except with complete dedication and a universally inclusive view. One writer has remarked:

     The only person able to deal conclusively with [the link between Buddhism and Christianity] must not only be fluent in Sanskrit, Greek, Hebrew, etc., but he must also have a personality that will charm and persuade “the prejudiced and the indifferent.” Unlike many linguists we know, will he enter into original and highly controversial work? Will he possess the stamina to sustain a great enterprise? To the first miracle, a second miracle must be added.
                              —J. D. M. Derrett, The Bible and the Buddhists

While I hardly claim to be the exemplary scholar that Derrett describes, I note that publishing professors of Christian studies are quite the opposite—they tend to be super-specialized, masters in a narrow subfield. Very few of them venture to even glance at parallel traditions such as Mandaism, Samaritanism, or Talmudic Judaism. Those who teach in confessional colleges (in the Bible Belt and elsewhere) are even more insular, scarcely acknowledging the existence of important Gnostic materials (e.g. the Nag Hammadi finds) or of any text that is not actually printed in the Holy Bible.

This investigation into Christian origins casts a far wider net. I believe that we must see Christianity for what it is: a human phenomenon rooted in the universal quest for understanding. As such, Christianity is an expression of the eternal search: “Seek and ye shall find.” That search is related to Buddhism—and, before that, to Shamanism. The search will always be with us. It can never go away, because the quest for understanding of man’s condition is nothing less than the vital essence of what it means to be human. The Gnostics knew this, the Buddhists know this, and the primordial shamans also knew this. Deep down, we all know this.—R.S.

Seeking information regarding the founder of Christianity, the religious texts we have thus far examined in this series of posts have come from extremely disparate traditions. I list them here in general chronological order:

— the New Testament (II CE)
— the Church Fathers (II–V CE)
— Talmudic Judaism (3rd–6th cent. CE)
— medieval Judaism (XII CE)
— medieval Samaritan writings (XIV CE)

Of the above-listed texts, the most useful have been those from Talmudic Judaism. In numerous passages the Rabbis refer caustically, irreverently, and angrily to an apostate figure who obviously discommoded them greatly. Given the already-emerged movement called Christianity, the Talmud is extremely cautious in its treatment of Yeshu, often resorting to euphemisms (Baalam, Ben Stada) and repeated censorship through history. Over a century ago R. Travers Herford examined these writings and compiled what they can tell us about Yeshu—and it is a good deal (for a synopsis, see NazarethGate 419 ff). We learn that Yeshu was a Pharisee linked to the Jewish government, an important person who fled to Egypt in the entourage of Joshua b. Perachiah, a figure who then successfully preached in Israel, who was tried by the full Sanhedrin, and finally executed. Parallels with the Christian gospel story are inescapable.

Nevertheless, the above listed texts are hardly sufficient to reconstruct a reliable account of the founder of Christianity. For if the figure we are investigating lived in the early part of the first century BCE, then he died (c. 66 BCE) a full two centuries before the earliest writings about him, namely, the Christian gospels (which I date to the decade 140–150 CE). The Christian gospels, in fact, do not even write about him—they write about a colossal, invented superhero called Jesus of Nazareth!

The Dead Sea Scrolls to the rescue

Thankfully, and quite miraculously, a whole ancient Jewish library was discovered in the 1940s that amply supplements the meagre clues noted above. Scholars of Christianity, naturally, have not consulted the DSS for clues regarding Jesus. For them, the library from the caves of Qumran predates Jesus and is thus a priori off the table as evidence relating to the Christian founder. (An exception is Robert Eisenman, who dates the DSS a century too late.)

The foregoing chronological problem, however, is completely removed once we acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth is a fiction and that the true founder of Christianity lived several generations earlier. In fact, Yeshu ha-Notsri was contemporary with the writing of most of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He was active in Palestine during the reign of Salome Alexandra, that is, after he returned to Israel following the death of Alexander Janneus (76 BCE). As it happens, Yeshu’s short ministry falls precisely in the period when the bulk of the DSS were written:

     [A] few texts from Cave 4 actually refer to historical individuals by name. These references, though isolated, are of enormous importance… All of these individuals and events fall within the first century BCE…
     …The Annalistic Calendar (4Q322-324b) seems clearly to refer only to events in the first half of I BCE… The prominence of the period 76-63 BCE has not escaped the notice of adherents of the Standard Model…
     [The Commentary on Nahum] fits very well into this watershed era. Its author considers the activity of the Lion of Wrath to be past, while the ‘dominion of the Flattery-Seekers’ is a tragic reality at the time he is writing. Since, as we have seen, the Lion was Alexander [Janneus], the writer must be living in the period after Alexander’s death in the year 76 BCE.
                              —Wise et al, The Dead Sea Scrolls (1996:14, 29 & 30)

Of the eighteen historical individuals named in the DSS, all fall in the mid-first century BCE range (Wise et al 14). These were precisely the decades during and following the ministry of Yeshu in Israel.

Now, for the big question: Was there a link between the ministry of Yeshu and the writing of the Dead Sea Scrolls? The answer is affirmative. There certainly was a link, as I will show in subsequent posts in this series. In fact, the DSS have more to say about Yeshu than all other sources combined. This owes to three principal reasons:

(1) The quantity of DSS material is enormous. The library exceeds the New Testament in length and encompasses well over one hundred new works.
(2) Internal evidence shows that the people who wrote the DSS interacted extensively with the followers of Yeshu and possibly also with Yeshu himself. (I will show this in later posts.)
(3) The DSS are not from two hundred years later, or five centuries later, or even fifteen centuries later—they are contemporary with the events of Yeshu’s career and his immediate followers. Thus, the DSS are a treasure trove for the investigator of Christian origins and are a virtually ideal source regarding contemporary events.

Now, before we get too excited, a couple of caveats are in order… First of all, Yeshu was not the Teacher of Righteousness. Nor did he found the Dead Sea Sect. As a. matter of fact, we shall see that Yeshu was a competitor of the Sect—indeed, it considered him a particularly venomous rival.

Secondly, as with the Talmud, the Jewish Dead Sea Scrolls are replete with euphemisms and hidden code. Nowhere do these works write explicitly ‘This man is Yeshu’, ‘That man is Janneus’, ‘This man is Pompey’ etc. With rare exceptions, the reader has to tease the historical referents out of these works. Mainline scholarship has reached a consensus on the identity of many figures in the DSS. However, nobody until now has suggested that Yeshu ha-Notsri was one of them. I do so here, and I maintain that Yeshu is not only referenced in the DSS, but that he was a significant figure in those writings.

“The Man of the Lie”

Specialists are agreed that the Commentary on Habakkuk is one of the most valuable texts among the DSS when it comes to historical information. In one revealing passage, the Commentary notes:

     “How can you look on silently, you traitors, when the wicked destroys one more righteous than he?” This refers to the family of Absalom and the members of their party, who kept quiet when the Teacher of Righteousness was rebuked, and they did not help him against the Man of the Lie, who had rejected the Law in the presence of their entire company. (1QHab Col. V.8-11)

This passage from the Habakkuk Pesher probably reads as gobbledy-gook to those who have not studied the scrolls. Described is a confrontation between the Teacher of Righteousness (TR) and a certain Man of the Lie. The TR is publicly rebuked, apparently by the Man of the Lie himself. Meanwhile, “the family of Absalom and the members of their party” keep quiet. What does all this mean?

We see from the chart above that an Absalom was one of the five sons of John Hyrcanus I. Michael Wise et al were the first to link this Absalom with the passage in question:

The reference to the “family of Absalom”… has puzzled scholars for decades. Is “Absalom” another code name or a real historical figure? The biblical Absalom was a son of King David who revolted against his father’s rule. But there was also an Israelite nobleman named Absalom in the first century BCE who was the uncle… of Aristobulus II… It is possible that he is the one the text refers to. (Wise et al 1996:118)

As we concluded in the preceding post, the father of Yeshu was probably one of the five sons of John Hyrcanus I. This passage from the Habakkuk Pesher is telling us that the “family of Absalom and the members of their party” stood by while the TR was publicly rebuked. Furthermore, it seems to imply that the Man of the Lie himself did the rebuking. Now, we know that Yeshu was actively preaching in Palestine at this very time. Furthermore, we know that Yeshu was related by blood to the government (malkuth) and probably the son of one of Hyrcanus’ five children.

The pieces to the puzzle are finally coming together… The logical inferences from this passage and from what we already know about Yeshu are (a) that the Man of the Lie was a member of the “family of Absalom”; (b) that the Man of the Lie was probably Yeshu, the son of the (Hasmonean) Absalom charted above; and (c) that the “members of their party”—that is, of the party of the Man of the Lie and family of Absalom—are followers of Yeshu.

The political dynamics around the above confrontation now also gain in clarity… The ministry of Yeshu took place during the reign of Salome Alexandra, which was a time of Pharisaic hegemony and a time of extreme animosity between Sadducees and Pharisees. The Sadducees had always maintained the upper hand, but for the first time in history they were in full retreat. As a person who had been raised a Pharisee, and as the son of Absalom (who sided with the Pharisees), Yeshu would have been able to rebuke the Teacher of Righteousness with impunity during the reign of Salome Alexandra. We can appreciate, then, that Yeshu was by blood and upbringing on the other side of the divide from the Teacher of Righteousness who, as we know from the DSS, was a refugee Sadducee priest, one who was ultra-protective of the priesthood and of its prerogatives.

I consider the above DSS passage decisive as regards the paternity of Yeshu. In my view, Absalom the son of John Hyrcanus was almost certainly the blood link between Yeshu and the ruling Hasmonean family. This would make Yeshu the grandson of the High Priest John Hyrcanus I and also the nephew of two other High Priests: Aristobulus I and Alexander Janneus. At the same time, Salome was the aunt-in-law of Yeshu—in his case, it was a close but not direct relationship to contemporary royalty.

Looking at the chart above, we can also appreciate that Janneus and Absalom were on opposite sides of the Sadducee-Pharisee divide. This intra-family rivalry explains why Yeshu fled during the reign of his uncle, Alexander Janneus. And let us not think for a moment that the Hasmonean family was above killing its own relatives—they were constantly killing one another! (Aristobulus I, for example, killed his own mother as well as his brother Antigonus I.) As for Absalom, the father of Yeshu, he probably went into hiding during the reign of Janneus—or was killed by Janneus, perhaps even during the mass crucifixion of c. 88 BCE.

We also learn from the above citation that (brace yourself) Yeshu ha-Notsri was known to the DSS community as the “Man of the Lie”!

To me, all this makes complete sense. We have seen that Yeshu had become a gnostic. He was a lapsed Pharisee who embraced Buddhism while in Egyptian exile. At the same time, the Teacher of Righteousness was an ultra-Jewish Sadducee, a priest who took the prescriptions of Judaism to the nth degree. These two mighty religious figures were coming from diametrically opposed belief systems. Yeshu had renounced the entire Mosaic Covenant, the narrative of the Chosen People, all the baggage of the Patriarchal Narrative, and even Yahweh himself. The Teacher of Righteousness, on the other hand, upheld these with a vengeance. It is no wonder, then, that in the Sadducean Dead Sea Scrolls Yeshu is referred to as “the Man of the Lie.” Furthermore, we will learn that this Man of the Lie not only rebuked the theology of the Dead Sea Sect, but that he was also successful in pulling followers away from Qumran. In other words, the antagonism was on multiple levels: it was not simply theoretical, but manifested also on the practical level at a critical time, that is, just as the Qumran sect was in the process of formation.

The Man of the Lie figures prominently, and always negatively, in the Dead Sea Scriptures. My view is that he is none other than the founder of Christianity.

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About René Salm

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

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