Christians before the turn of the era

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 7

Birger Pearson

I mentioned in a prior post that the thief always leaves clues. Detectives count on that. It might be a fingerprint, a stray hair that can be genetically analyzed, a tip from a casual passerby… Every crime is different, and every crime leaves clues—if one simply looks long enough.

The thief himself often provides clues. It is said that one lie requires another lie to cover up the first. The second lie requires yet another, and eventually the lier is caught up in a web of contradictions. With a really big crime—something involving many people, several generations (!), and a lot of coordination—there will be many contradictions. Picture Colombo stroking his chin, glancing at the floor, pointing his cigar-stub at the shaking suspect and coolly asking, “But didn’t you say…?”

Game over.

Birger Pearson is a professor emeritus at UC Santa Barbara. He is an expert on early Christian Gnosticism, particularly in Egypt. During a long and active career Pearson has published in the usual academic journals and written several books. However—given his specialty, Gnosticism—his investigations often ventured into controversial territory, territory that does not seem to interest most other scholars. His 2007 book presents ancient textual evidence for long marginalized sects like the Mandeans and the Manichaeans. It also admits an important category: “Christian Gnosticism,” a locution that better-known scholars such as Robert Grant and Bart Ehrman have assiduously avoided.

One of Pearson’s most interesting and provocative articles is tucked away in an obscure journal that publishes annually. In 1973 Studia Philonica was only in its second year. I have a library copy beside me and see a basic, very plain booklet with typewritten text and no formatting or graphics at all. Sombody typed up the article, sent the manuscript to the journal, and they simply printed that. In any case, the article is entitled “Friedländer Revisited: Alexandrian Judaism and Gnostic Origins” (pp. 23–39; a scanned PDF of the article is here). Pearson begins:

     In many fields of human endeavor it sometimes happens that a person sets forth seemingly outlandish theories, his work is dismissed lightly, or perhaps ponderously refuted, and then lies unnoticed by the next generation. At last, however, someone takes notice of what had been proposed many years before, and the earlier work turns out to be exceedingly useful when looked at with new evidence and by a different generation…
     [Moritz Friedländer] put forth the thesis that Gnosticism is a pre-Christian phenomenon which originated in antinomian circles in the Jewish community of Alexandria. This Gnosticism, against which Philo polemicizes, came early to Palestine; and the rabbinic polemics against the Minim are directed specifically at such Gnostics. Christian Gnosticism is simply a secondary version of the older Gnosticism, which attached itself to the emergent Christian sect and appropriated for itself the figure of Jesus Christ.

Before going any further let’s make sure we understand what “Gnosticism” even means. In the most general sense, Gnosticism is the belief—the conviction—that gnosis is somehow salvific. In other words, “understanding” saves.

That happens to be pure Buddhism—but we leave that point aside for now.

Moritz Friedländer’s theory of pre-Christian Gnosticism

According to Friedländer, Gnosticism was a pre-Christian phenomenon. “[H]eretical Gnosticism was an important factor in Palestine already in the time of Jesus” (Pearson, p. 28). It originated “in antinomian circles in the Jewish community of Alexandria.”

Let’s pause here for a moment… “[A]ntinomian circles in the Jewish community of Alexandria” is a rather strange phrase. After all, how can Jews be against divine law—“antinomian”? Would that not disqualify them from being “Jews” at all? Indeed, that was the inference of the early rabbis who, as Friedländer shows, denominated such antinomians as minim—“heretics.”

Now, the term minim has always been associated with early Christian heretics. But Friedländer clearly shows that by minim the early rabbis were referring to Hebrew sectarians and, furthermore, that those minim existed before the turn of the era. He identifies Ophites, Cainites, Sethians, and other gnostic groups traditionally associated with early Christianity as minim well known to the rabbis before ‘the time of Jesus’ (pp. 25, 26, 32).

Well now, that is indeed interesting…

This revelation, first made in 1898, caused consternation in scholarly circles and was quickly buried, to be resurrected by Pearson in 1971 in his obscure article under present discussion—only to be buried again.

Evidence for pre-Christian ‘Christians’

Friedländer considerably strengthens his case by showing—and quite convincingly—that the Alexandrian philosopher Philo himself polemicized against the very minim who were identified as early Christians by the Church Fathers (and as such also by modern scholarship). Philo (d. ca. 40 CE) was, of course, a contemporary to the alleged Jesus of Nazareth. So, if Philo wrote about minim, those ‘Christian’ heretics certainly existed before Philo’s time, that is, before the time of Jesus of Nazareth—already in the first century BCE!

Pearson writes, “the view of some later Fathers that heresy is necessarily later than orthodoxy… is obviously tendentious” (p. 25). Friedländer shows that Christian heresy is not only earlier than orthodoxy—it also predates the turn of the era.

Some Clues

Many smoking guns exist in Christian writings going back to the New Testament, clues that the religion of ‘Jesus’ not only preceded the canonical gospels but preceded the turn of the era itself. Below I list some of the most obvious ones that I have found to date. Many more surely exist in the voluminous writings of the Church Fathers (anyone care to read through Migne’s hundreds of published volumes in Greek and Latin?) and in other authors of the first Christian millennium.

• Apollos in the Acts of the Apostles. The author of Acts gives the game away at 18:24–25:

24 Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.

How is it possible, one will ask, to teach “accurately the things concerning Jesus” yet to know only “the baptism of John”? This is a smoking gun in plain sight. It signals the early existence of a theology very different from that of the canonical gospels, for Apollos knew Jesus—but not Jesus of Nazareth. This indicates that John possessed a different Jesus—a spiritual Jesus. It was the pre-orthodox theology I have elsewhere labeled Stage II—‘the Jesus’ is the divine wisdom (in Hellenistic terms, either Sophia or Logos), a mobile, ever-accessible entity that indwells the saint. This was the prevailing form of Gnosticism in the first and second centuries CE, and it was severely combated by the Church—thus, we read in Acts (v. 26) that Priscilla and Aquila immediately “took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.” That is, they taught Apollos the new party line: Jesus of Nazareth, the savior of the world, was not merely the spirit of God but was also God in the flesh.

• “Filastrius (late IV CE) numbers the Ophites, Cainites, and Sethians among the sects that flourished in Judaism before the advent of Jesus” (Pearson p. 26). The Church expunged this information of Filastrius from later editions (see Pearson 36, n. 9) and replaced it with the words: “catalogus eorum qui ante adventum Christi haereseos arguuntur,” i.e. “catalog of those proposed heresies before the advent of Christ.”

Epiphanius (late IV CE) in his Panarion (29.6.1) writes: [The Nazirites] “did not call themselves Nasaraeans either; the Nasaraean [with sigma] sect was before Christ and did not know Christ.” Elsewhere Epiphanius devotes an entire section (Pan. 18) to the gnostic heresy of the Nasaraeans, whom some scholars today identify with the Mandeans (see below).
     In the Yahoo discussion group Crosstalk long ago (1998) I identified the Nasarenes with the Ebionites (message 3632—apparently no longer available). I may mirror that message again in a future post, for I consider that the Nasarenes/Natsarenes (nun-tsade-resh) were in all likelihood the heresy closest to Yeshu ha-Notsri both in time and in doctrine. That Epiphanius says they were “before Christ and did not know Christ” perfectly conforms with the two-stage development of Christianity proposed in the preceding post: (1) a gnostic Christian movement beginning c. 60 BCE in which ‘Jesus’ was the divine spirit/gnosis that indwells the saint; and (2) a later orthodox Christian movement beginning in mid-II CE. Because the Nasarenes belonged to the earlier stage, Epiphanius considers that they were historically “before” the savior Jesus of Nazareth and hence “did not know Christ.” In a curious way, Epiphanius was correct: the Nasarenes were before (the invention of) Jesus of Nazareth.

• The enigma of the Therapeutae of Alexandria: Since the third century CE all the way up to the nineteenth century, the Therapeutae—a group of ascetics described only by Philo of Alexandria—were considered to be Christians. This, of course, immediately presents a problem, because Philo lived at the turn of the era. So, if he was writing about the Therapeutae, and if they were Christians—then we have here Christians before Christianity.
     The modern rebuttal is simple: Church tradition was wrong! The Therapeutae were not Christians! From his description, in any case, Eusebius (fl. c. 300 CE) had no difficulty viewing the Therapeutae as early Christians. And today, scholarship has no trouble highlighting numerous points of contact between the Therapeutae and early Christianity, e.g., their communal attitude towards possessions (Acts 2:44). Furthermore, the Therapeutae also had numerous points of contact with Buddhism. In my opinion, the Therapeutae are a link between Buddhism and Christianity, one of the few historical links between Eastern and Western religion provably on the ground at the turn of the era.

• Mandeism was pre-Christian in its origins, according to a growing cadre of scholars—and according to Mandeism itself:

One who is honest and firm in belief will not listen to the teaching of Christ and to the false wisdom of the twelve deceivers and will not abandon this first teaching. [Ginza Rt; Lidzbarski p. 51, emphasis added.]

     Scholarly suspicion that Mandeism preceded the turn of the era goes back several generations to Bousset, Reitzenstein, and Bultmann. More recently, one scholar writes: “[I]n Mandaic literature we have before us an important witness to the religion of ‘Gnosis’ or gnosticism from late Antiquity, which probably reaches back to the pre-Christian era” (W. Förster, GNOSIS, 1974:125).
     There is evidence, too, that Philo, writing at the turn of the era, already knew Mandean tenets. Reitzenstein even concluded that aspects of the New Testament gospels are dependent on Mandean sources—for example, the Johannine concept of baptism. Finally—and I hope to post about this fascinating discovery in the future—I have found close (virtually identical) parallels between Mandean writings on the one hand and the Dead Sea Scrolls on the other.

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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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