In the last several posts we looked at Marcion’s critical role in early gospel formation, and at two recent scholarly views that propose a new synoptic paradigm: Marcion’s gospel predated all four canonical gospels. This includes the Gospel of Mark which, accordingly, now moves to the mid-second century CE.
Prof. Markus Vinzent, in particular, has proposed that it was Marcion of Pontus who, in the first half of the second century, ‘invented’ the figure of Jesus of Nazareth (more correctly: Jesus the Nazarene). Vinzent writes:
Marcion created a powerful narrative of a transcendent, pre-existing figure who appeared on this alien earth, in the midst of history, to liberate human beings from these physical chains of ignorance, greed, law, sin, judgement and the need for repentance, to rescue humanity through buying men back by paying the price of death on the cross, through his descent to the utmost depths of hell, in order to save all who wanted to accept this helping hand, and to let them be where and what the Risen is. (Vinzent 2014:135)Thus, the Sitz im Leben of the canonical gospels seems to be this: Marcion’s arriving in Rome in 139 CE with his new gospel precipitated (a) first a crisis in the Roman Church; then (b) Marcion’s excommunication; and finally (c) a frenzy of Christian writings whose intent was basically to ‘rewrite’ Marcion’s gospel for Catholic purposes. Some of these rewritings (i.e. our four familiar gospels) were eventually canonized, but others were never accepted, were eventually shunned by the Church, and were forgotten.
One question that now faces us is: If Vinzent is correct (and I, for one, think he is), then what preceded the theology of Marcion? And further: Are there any traces of that earlier, first century, theology?
In this post we begin to answer those questions affirmatively. We will find that yes, indeed, there was a vibrant theology of ‘Jesus’ that preceded the one Christians currently know. And, yes, traces survive of that theology. Some of those traces have been before us all along—in the Pauline epistles. They point to a Jesus who was not of Nazareth/a Nazarene—nor even of flesh—but who (or ‘which’) was entirely spiritual.
The above analysis, if correct, provides us with a powerful tool with which to differentiate two major stages in the Christian religion: an earlier, first century stage in which ‘Jesus’ is a purely spiritual (and also ‘mobile’) entity; and a later, second century stage in which ‘Jesus’ is associated with flesh and, indeed, with the flesh of a unique god-man: the ‘Nazarene’/person from Nazareth.
Two early and forgotten accounts of Jesus that preserve traces of the earlier stage are the Gospel of Nicodemus and the Gospel of Peter. The long and sprawling Gospel of Nicodemus consists of two halves: the Acts of Pilate and Christ’s descent into Hell. In this post we begin to look at its first half: the Acts of Pilate.
The Acts of PilateJustin Martyr, writing in the mid-second century CE, refers twice (First Apology c. 35 & 48) to documents of the trial of Jesus before Pilate. He must have been referring either to the Acts of Pilate or to closely related works that were long ago destroyed. The Acts of Pilate (AcPil) survives in Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac, and Armenian versions (for critical introduction and text see Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha 1991, I:501 f). Even a cursory reading of the work reveals why it was not admitted into the Church: it’s conception of “Jesus” is highly unorthodox.
The author of AcPil was clearly familiar with traditions in the New Testament. For example, he knows the (comparatively late) birth story in GMt, including the death of the children of Bethlehem and the flight into Egypt (AcPil 2.3; 9.3). Additionally, the work has many points of contact with the synoptic gospels. These elements may have been added later in order to conform an older text to the new theology of Jesus the Nazarene (‘Nazarene’ and ‘Nazareth’ do not appear even once in the Gospel of Nicodemus). Thus, a clash of theologies is witnessed in the text. Indeed, that clash may have informed its editing, because the AcPil, as we possess it, is uncertain and greatly preoccupied regarding the nature of Jesus.
Most of the versions of AcPil that we possess have a prologue stating it was written down in 425 CE by one “Ananias, an officer of the guard, being learned in the [Jewish] law.” Ananias claims he translated the larger work (the Gospel of Nicodemus) from Hebrew into Greek and that the original Hebrew text was written by Nicodemus—the same figure who plays a role in the ensuing account surrounding the death of Jesus. Though we have every reason to doubt that any part of the text goes back to c. 30 CE (the putative date of the crucifixion) as Ananias claims, it is very possible that AcPil (and the entire Gospel of Nicodemus) was composed in the middle of the second century CE, as part of the wave of rewritings following Marcion’s presentation of his gospel in Rome. It is also possible that AcPil reworked even older traditions, for its concept of “Jesus” has much in common with first century texts—including the Pauline epistles.
In short, the AcPil and entire Gospel of Nicodemus may have had a long transmission history before Ananias translated and wrote it down in the fifth century. Elements that obviously harken back to the New Testament may have been added to a much older work. Some late elements may have been added by Ananias himself.
The trial before PilateThe Acts of Pilate (the online text is here) begins with the familiar judgement of Jesus before the “chief priests and scribes assembled in council.” Jesus is accused of healing on the Sabbath and of other “evil deeds.” Some naive miracles follow, such as the standards lowering (in homage) by themselves when Jesus enters the praetorium. In this case, “the Jews” accuse Jesus (1) of sorcery and (2) of being born of fornication. We know from other sources (e.g. the views of Celsus; rabbinic writings) that both these accusations were early and common. AcPil seems to combat them, e.g., by having twelve witnesses attest to Pilate: “We were present at the betrothal of Joseph and Mary.”
After extensive cross examination, Pilate finds no fault in Jesus. But at the insistence of “the Jews” he eventually hands Jesus over to them (AcPil 4.4; 9.4). At this point in the narrative a certain Jew, Nicodemus, comes forward and asks for a word with Pilate. “This man does many signs and wonders,” Nicodemus pleads. “Let him alone and contrive no evil against him.” Then, in words surprisingly similar to those Gamaliel spoke in the defense of Christians (Acts 5:38-39; cf. Cl. Rec. 65), Nicodemus says: “If the signs which he does are from God, they will stand; if they are from men, they will come to nothing.”
Joseph of Arimathea becomes JesusJesus is crucified (AcPil 11.1). He “gives up the spirit” and the watching centurion immediately exclaims “This man was righteous.” The “multitudes” who saw the crucifixion then “beat their breasts.”
At this point Joseph of Arimathea enters the account (11.2). Indeed, the focus henceforth is on Joseph, not Jesus. If one thinks that the account until here was somewhat strange, it now takes on elements that one must find astonishing.
Pilate gives the body of Jesus over to Joseph, who places it in his tomb, “in which no one had ever yet been laid” (par. Lk 23:50–53). Joseph rolls the stone over the mouth of the tomb. [Aside: Archeologically, rolling stones for tomb closure were common only after the First Jewish Revolt. They were extremely rare before that time, per the work of Amos Kloner and other archeologists.] Surprisingly, “the Jews” find Joseph’s activity worthy of death, even as Jesus’ activity had merited the ultimate penalty. However, because “the sabbath dawns” they seize Joseph “and commanded him to be secured until the first day of the week.” They taunt Joseph: “We will give your flesh to the birds of the heaven” (12.1). But Joseph replies: “This word is like that of the boastful Goliath, who insulted the living God…” The Jews shut Joseph “in a building without a window, and guards remained at the door. And they sealed the door of the place where Joseph was shut up.” After the death of Jesus, then, Joseph was virtually entombed—at the same time (and place?) as the body of Jesus.
On the first day of the week “the whole multitude rose up early and took counsel in the synagogue by what death” they should kill Joseph (12.2). They commanded Joseph to be brought, but “when they opened the door they did not find him.” Of course, we are reminded of the women who went to the tomb of Jesus and did not find his body (Mk 16:6). “And all the people were astonished because they found the seals undamaged, and Caiaphas had the key.”
The action then shifts (13.1) to the site of Jesus’ tomb, which is on Joseph’s property. We learn that at midnight there had been a “great earthquake,” women were at Jesus’ tomb, an angel descended from heaven, rolled away the stone, and “shone like snow and like lightning.” The angel informs those present that Jesus is risen and is “in Galilee” (Mt 28:5–7).
“The Jews” then engage in an argument with the guards who, having witnessed the above strange happenings, are now ‘believers.’ The guards insist: “For he does live.” They taunt the Jews: “We have heard that you shut up him who asked for the body of Jesus, and sealed the door, and that when you opened it you did not find him. Therefore give us Joseph and we will give you Jesus.”
“Therefore give us Joseph and we will give you Jesus”? What a strange thing for the Roman guards to say… Of course, they would have been able to “give” Jesus only if they had received him first. And how would they have received Jesus if, per their request, they were only given Joseph? (Solution: Joseph is Jesus.)
The parallelism between Jesus and Joseph continues: the Jews say “Joseph has gone to his own city.” To which the guards retort: “And Jesus has risen… and is in Galilee.”
The Jews then bribe the Roman soldiers to simply say that they slept through the whole thing. Jesus is subsequently seen in Galilee on Mount Mamilch (14.1). Though the Jews don’t believe the report they still bribe those telling it to keep quiet. Nicodemus then speaks before them and persuades the Jewish leaders to search on top of every mountain for Jesus. At this point, perhaps the most incredible passage in the entire text occurs:
And they told the elders and the priests and the Levites: “We went about to every mountain of Israel, and did not find Jesus. But Joseph we found in Arimathea.” And when they heard about Joseph, they rejoiced and gave glory to the God of Israel. And the rulers of the synagogue and the priests and the Levites took counsel how they should meet with Joseph, and they took a roll of papyrus and wrote to Joseph these words. “Peace be with you. We know that we have sinned against God and against you, and we have prayed to the God of Israel that you should condescend to come to your fathers and your children, because we are all troubled. For when we opened the door we did not find you. We know that we devised an evil plan against you; but the Lord helped you, and the Lord himself has brought to nothing our plan against you, honored father Joseph.” (14.2. Emphases added.)Obviously, the attitude of the Jews towards Joseph has suddenly reversed 180 degrees. A day or two before, they wanted to kill him! Now, on finding him in Arimathea “they rejoiced and gave glory to the God of Israel”! Most revealing is that the most prestigious Jews in the land admit to having sinned against Joseph, someone who a couple of pages earlier (12.2) was merely “a certain man” and “a member of the council”!
In the last post we began looking at the increasing evidence that the New Testament is a product of the second century, rather than the first. We continue now by examining the role that the arch-heretic Marcion of Pontus played in gospel formation, a role that is becoming ever more astonishing as scholars finally realize that Marcion is certainly implicated in the earliest stratum of canonical gospel formation. That stratum is normally associated with the Gospel of Mark. Can there be any historical connection here between the names “Mark” and “Marcion”? If so, how ironic that would be, since one is a Christian hero and the other an arch-villain!
No gospel is mentioned by the Church Fathers before the appearance of Marcion’s gospel in the first half of the second century. Marcion evidently brought his gospel with him to Rome in the early 140s CE, along with a great sum of money that he gifted the Church. The money was accepted, and presumably the gospel was examined. However, we know that the money was returned to Marcion, which signals an irreconcilable breach in relations. Marcion was eventually excommunicated, and so we know that the breach must have been on theological grounds. Indeed, from the Catholic perspective something was very wrong with Marcion’s gospel (Mcn). Nevertheless, it appears that the Church ‘adapted’ it (below). In rather quick succession, the Gospels known to us as Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John appeared. These were ‘sanitized’ versions of Mcn—gospels more in accord with Catholic doctrine.
What was it about Marcion’s theology that so upset the Church? In the previous post we signaled the major problems: (a) Marcion believed in two gods, an inferior creator god, and a superior “foreign” or “stranger” god who has nothing in common with our debased materiality. (b) As a result, Marcion rejected the Jewish law as being in service to the inferior creator god. Indeed, for Marcion, the entire creation is evil and a prison of the divine soul.
Marcion’s theology leads inevitably to a severe, ascetic and world-denying outlook. It was quickly deemed unacceptable to the Catholic Church which opted for a much more pleasing theology: the creation is good and (borrowing from Judaism) our bodies are “in the image and likeness of God” (Gen 1:26).
However, Marcion’s gospel also contained some winning elements that were irresistible to the Church, and this is why his gospel was ‘co-opted.’ One element was the concept that God redeemed mankind through the sacrificial death of his spiritual son. Thus, the focal point of redemption moved from the baptism (which had been into gnosis, symbolized by water) to the death of Jesus. In fact, Marcion did not invent this concept of the redeeming death of the savior (which is actually very ancient). It is also strongly present in the Pauline epistles, writings that predated Marcion (J. Clabeaux, A Lost Edition of The Letters of Paul, 1989:148).
The aspect that turned everyone’s head was surely the astonishing ‘adventures’ of Jesus the Nazarene that Marcion presented to civilization via his gospel. Marcion may not have himself invented this Jesus—elements of the passion appear in two early works that we will look at separately (the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel of Nicodemus). But Marcion may have been the first to give the world a unified biography of Jesus the Nazarene—what we call a “gospel”—one probably influenced by the recent adventures of the peregrinating prophet Apollonius of Tyana (d. ca. 100 CE). In any case, the Roman Church must have been greatly shaken by Marcion’s astounding gospel of the god-man-redeemer-savior Jesus the Nazarene, strutting around the Galilee and Judea healing, raising people from the dead, driving out demons with a word, and walking on water. The world had no knowledge of the Nazarene before Marcion appeared with his all-conquering Jesus and his astounding gospel. We know this because preceding texts (like the Pauline epistles) know only a spiritual Jesus (to be discussed separately). Despite the theological problems associated with it, Marcion’s gospel was a potent text that the Church needed to deal with. It did so by sanitizing Mcn—by removing the “two-god” theology, rehabilitating the creation, and by including the Jews in God’s plan. As mentioned above, Mcn was adapted/co-opted and became the principal source of the canonical gospels.
Of course, Christianity as we know it is inconceivable without its central figure, Jesus the Nazarene/of Nazareth. Thus, it is very likely that Marcion, the arch-heretic, is most responsible for having created Christianity.
Virtually all of Marcion’s gospel (also known as the Evangelion) is found in Luke’s much longer gospel. The Church Fathers aggressively repudiated any claim Marcion might have to originality by asserting that the Evangelion was a subsequent ‘abridgment’ (and hence a mutilation) of their own amazingly similar gospel, the Gospel of Luke. This is a natural ploy that the thief uses in the face of his victim and in the court: I had it first. Henceforth, Mcn/the Evangelion was completely unworthy of attention by the faithful. This orthodox view of disparagement has endured into modern scholarship (e.g. Harnack), despite the scholarly recognition that Marcionite readings are often more primitive than the parallels found in the various synoptic gospels.
The fact that no “gospel” is mentioned (much less attested) before the time of Marcion is also damning. It is only when we come to Irenaeus of Lyon and his Against Heresies (c. 180 CE) that the Gospel of Mark is mentioned for the first time (H. Raschke, Die Werkstatt des Markusevangelisten, Jena: Diederichs, 1924:33-34). Chronologically, then, Marcion’s gospel may well have been the first of the new genre.
The new recognition of Marcion’s role at the ground level of the synoptic gospels (seriously explored by M. Klinghardt and M. Vinzent only in the last ten years) will require, of course, a complete reformulation of the traditional relationship among the canonical gospels. If Marcion had anything to do with producing the text that eventually gave rise to our gospels, then the New Testament not only dates at least a half century later than is conventionally thought, but it also stems from a gnostic, ascetic (encratite), and world-denying arch-heretic!
In the next post we will consider more closely the new ‘synoptic tree’—with the Gospel of Marcion as the first version.—R.S.
In the last post we looked at the Acts of Pilate (AcPil)—being the first half of the rather obscure Gospel of Nicodemus, a Jewish Christian work probably of the mid-second century CE. The work betrays a most unusual theology where “Jesus” is partly physical, partly spiritual, and somehow able to pass from one person to another. This ambiguous theology is the author’s focus. For example, the setting is scrupulously laid out whereby Joseph of Arimathea is locked into a sealed room (even without windows), and with guards outside. Yet the spirit of Jesus still passes to Joseph at midnight, effecting a sacred transformation immediately following Jesus’ death. All this has some kind of meaning, and it is no doubt allegorical. On the literal level, however, Joseph’s stature is suddenly enhanced from a mere “member of the council” to someone in whom all Israel rejoices:
And when they heard about Joseph, they rejoiced and gave glory to the God of Israel. And the rulers of the synagogue and the priests and the Levites took counsel how they should meet with Joseph, and they took a roll of papyrus and wrote to Joseph these words. “Peace be with you. We know that we have sinned against God and against you, and we have prayed to the God of Israel that you should condescend to come to your fathers and your children, because we are all troubled. For when we opened the door we did not find you. We know that we devised an evil plan against you; but the Lord helped you, and the Lord himself has brought to nothing our plan against you, honored father Joseph.” (14.2. Emphases added.)A day or two before, the “elders and the priests and the Levites” mentioned in the above citation wanted to kill Joseph! They obviously underwent some sort of (sudden) religious conversion, witnessed by their radically changed view regarding Joseph. The Jewish leaders continue to defend the “holy scriptures” (15.1), but they also now revere Joseph of Arimathea—who himself reveres Jesus. We are thus dealing here with a Jewish Christian work, yet one which has a very unusual view of Jesus, of Joseph of Arimathea, and of the link between them. The exalted Joseph of Arimathea then “saddled his she-ass and went with [the Jewish elders] to the holy city Jerusalem. And all the people met Joseph and cried: ‘Peace be to your entering in!’ And all kissed him, and prayed with Joseph, and were beside themselves with joy at seeing him” (15.4). Of course, this is very reminiscent of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Mk 11:7–10)! Joseph is then quizzed (15.6) by the elders regarding what happened that fateful night when he was shut up in the house and somehow ‘transformed.’ He explains as follows:
On the day of preparation about the tenth hour you shut me in, and I remained the whole sabbath. And at midnight as I stood and prayed, the house where you shut me in was raised up by the four corners, and I saw as it were a lightning flash in my eyes. Full of fear I fell to the ground. And someone took me by the hand and raised me up from the place where I had fallen, and something moist like water flowed from my head to my feet, and the smell of fragrant oil reached my nostrils. And he wiped my face and kissed me and said to me: “Do not fear, Joseph. Open your eyes and see who it is who speaks with you.” I looked up and saw Jesus. Trembling, I thought it was a phantom, and I said the commandments, and he said them with me… I said to him: “Rabbi Elijah!” He said: “I am not Elijah.” And I said to him: “Who are you, Lord?” He replied: “I am Jesus, whose body you asked for from Pilate”… [Joseph says] “Show me the place where I laid you.” And [Jesus] took me and showed me the place where I laid him. And the linen cloth lay there, and the cloth that was upon his face. Then I recognized that it was Jesus. And he took me by the hand and placed me in the middle of my house, with the doors shut, and led me to my bed and said to me: “Peace be with you!” Then he kissed me and said to me: “Do not go out of your house for four days. For see, I go to my brethren in Galilee.”Readers familiar with the “Secret Gospel of Mark” will recognize parallels to the above. Both present a sacred interaction between Jesus and an initiate at night after “death.” The midnight timing of the meeting with Jesus (revealingly symbolized by the “bridegroom”) is also familiar from the New Testament (Mt 25:6; cf. Mk 13:35; Lk 11:5; Acts 16:25 f). All these passages witness to a critical event: a spiritual transformation of some kind involving “Jesus” and an initiate who is present after a death. In Secret Mark it is Lazarus who was raised from the dead and who undergoes some sort of conversion. Parallelism would suggest, then, that Joseph of Arimathea is himself being raised from the dead in a spiritual conversion. From the change that Joseph of Arimathea experiences, and from his subsequent exaltation, the reader is invited to understand that Joseph becomes Jesus.
And what of Nicodemus? Why are the Acts of Pilate found in a “gospel” under his name? The answer quickly takes us to the Fourth Gospel, where Nicodemus appears several times. We recall the third chapter of John’s gospel, where Nicodemus comes secretly at night to converse with Jesus. He is there described as “a man of the Pharisees… a ruler of the Jews.” Jesus himself calls him “the teacher of Israel” (Jn 3:10)—clearly implying that Nicodemus was not of any mean standing. Indeed, being a “ruler of the Jews” (v. 1), we can confidently infer that Nicodemus was a member of the powerful Sanhedrin—the religious body that centralized Jewish power in Jerusalem.
In my book NazarethGate (Chp. 14), I argue that the subject matter of the canonical gospels must be transposed back several generations into the time of Alexander Janneus (early 1st cent. BCE). It is then that Jewish records relate concerning a certain Yeshu ha-Notsri, “Jesus the Natsarene.” This Yeshu was himself a promising Pharisee, being groomed for the Sanhedrin. However, he fled to Egypt when Janneus persecuted the Pharisees. It was during his long tenure in Alexandria (as much as twenty years) that Yeshu had a change of heart. He rejected not only his Pharisaic calling, but the entire fount of his Jewish heritage. Upon his return to Israel he was excommunicated. After teaching a ‘new Way,’ gathering many followers, Yeshu was hounded, tried by the Sanhedrin, and executed by stoning and then hanging “on a tree.” The above, of course, is entirely hidden from the reader of the gospels, texts that present an entirely different Jesus—a remarkably unrealistic force from backcountry “Nazareth,” one who works miracles that now seem more childish with each passing year, a life form that was born of a virgin and that “arose” bodily from the grave…
On the other hand, the Yeshu ha-Notsri that I described above was a man of flesh and blood, a remarkable religious rebel whose activities caused great commotion in Israel, a man of history recorded multiple times in the Talmud—and with great animosity.
The reader of this website is advised that henceforth I will presume informed knowledge of this Yeshu, for it is not possible to explore the critical data of history without such historical knowledge—knowledge now publicly available. For example, a member of the Sanhedrin visiting Yeshu by night takes on added dimensions thoroughly hidden to the reader of the canonical gospels. Even if Nicodemus was a literary invention of the fourth evangelist, he was probably based on the facts of history. In the original setting, “Nicodemus” may have known Yeshu, perhaps from youth. The two may even have fled to Alexandria together… The fact that one of them broke away from Judaism, but not the other, is knowledge that was once available to the tradition—perhaps also to the John the evangelist—but no longer to his readers, because John was creating a different Jesus!
We must begin to look at the canonical gospels through new lenses, through knowledge of the earlier Yeshu ha-Notsri. Scholars accept that Nicodemus was sympathetic to Jesus—for he bothered to visit him, evidently at risk of his reputation (“at night”). In fact, Nicodemus was made a saint in the Church. The knowledge that he was originally a member of the Sanhedrin that condemned Yeshu to death, however, adds an entirely new dimension to their surreptitious meeting in the Fourth Gospel. In fact, readers of my book will recall parallels between Nicodemus and the head of the Sanhedrin in the time of Yeshu, the powerful Simon ben Shetach. As a sympathetic member of the Sanhedrin that would shortly put Jesus to death, the position and motives of Nicodemus/ben Shetach become particularly poignant.
The true background to the Johannine scene is thus entirely hidden to the reader of the Fourth Gospel. Knowing that background, however, reveals the deep resources upon which John the evangelist was drawing. And he, too, deserves our attention, some sympathy, and perhaps even admiration. For the evangelist was in an impossible position. He had knowledge of a seminal prophet whom he greatly admired, and yet whose biography he had to hide. Why? Because he was creating a new Jesus—a Jesus for the masses. This colossal ambivalence explains the heroic foundation of the gospels, and also their fundamental flaw.
Nicodemus appears again in the Gospel of John. After the crucifixion…
Joseph of Arimathea, who as a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him leave. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus, also, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight. They took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid. So because of the Jewish days of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there. (Jn 19:38–42)In the prior post we saw that, in the Acts of Pilate, Joseph of Arimathea actually becomes Jesus following the crucifixion. In that remarkable text, the spirit of Jesus comes to Joseph at midnight, while he is in a sealed room. From the above citation, however, we now see that Joseph was not alone. Nicodemus was with him—another friendly figure taking care of the body. Furthermore, we note that the tomb was located “in the place where he was crucified.” Though the gospels portray all this as literal, if we take a step back and consider the language metaphorical, then we see that “the place where he was crucified” was nothing other than his body. The place where he was buried (being at the same location) was also nothing other than his body. And the place where he would be raised was nothing other than his body.
In other words, all this activity could originally only have been spiritual, not meant to be taken literally. Furthermore, in the Acts of Pilate, it is Joseph who is honored after the death of Jesus! In another marginalized text (to be considered in future), Judas was crucified in the place of Jesus, while in Islam Jesus entirely survives the ordeal… All this reveals that at its root the death-resurrection of Jesus was a spiritual event—what we might call a transformation. Only such a non-material event could give rise to such astonishingly diverse material interpretations. And if the event is spiritual, then it is replicable. Indeed, this is made explicit in the sequel to the Acts of Pilate, a text entitled “Christ’s Descent into Hell,” where Joseph asks: “Why then do you marvel at the resurrection of Jesus? It is not this that is marvelous, but rather that he was not raised alone, but raised up many other dead men who appeared to many in Jesusalem” (AcPil 17.1).
Among the dead raised by Jesus was Joseph of Arimathea—and Nicodemus, too, a figure who acts in tandem with Joseph through the text. Twice the AcPil explicitly state that Nicodemus also received Jesus’ “truth and his portion” (5.2 and 12.1).
The spiritual Jesus
At an early stage of Christianity, according to the foregoing analysis, Jesus was a spiritual entity. This was a pre-canonical stage, to be dated to the first century CE—before the invention of Jesus the Nazarene and before the writing of the canonical gospels. The spiritual Jesus is evident, for example, in the epistles of Paul, works that do not know Jesus the Nazarene (“Nazarene” or “Nazareth” do not occur even once in the Pauline epistles). As I wrote in NazarethGate (p. 409):
Paul enthuses in his epistles about the spiritual entity he calls singly and severally the “Lord,” “Jesus,” and “Christ.” The entity grants grace, peace, comfort, authority (2 Cor 10:8), will slay the “lawless one” at the Last Judgment, and will save those who “love the truth” (2 Thess 2:10). Most importantly, the entity has the power to overcome death…Of course, with the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth in the second century, the above theology became heresy… Then why, one may ask, did the Pauline epistles survive—even to become among the most venerated texts of the Church? The reason is that they were very effectively supplemented in the second century: by the canonical gospels and (let us not forget) by the Acts of the Apostles. This latter work essentially ‘rewrote’ Paul, supplied a new biography for him, and transformed him from a proto-Gnostic into “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazoreans” (Acts 24:5). When we add subtle (and not so subtle) interpolations into the epistles, it was no longer necessary to jettison the Pauline epistles. They were co-opted for the Church. Their deep spirituality and wonderful imagery were effectively transferred to the new savior, Jesus of Nazareth. Ever since, Christians have read the Pauline epistles through thick lenses colored by the God-man from Nazareth. The Church did its utmost to rid history of all traces of the purely spiritual Jesus. But those traces have survived, to be hunted down in very obscure literature known as the Christian apocrypha. That literature is much vaster than might at first be suspected. When one begins to read in it, all sorts of strange notions regarding Jesus crop up—most pervasively, that Jesus did not have a body. Scholars call this view “docetist” and simply laugh. “How could anyone be so stupid as to think that someone who traveled around Galilee and Judea in the time of Pontius Pilate did not have a body? Just look at the gospels!” Ha ha ha.
In sum, the Lord Jesus Christ is a great, expansive spiritual being that merges with the lives of the saints so that they are absorbed into it. It is our job to “rise up” to that spirit (Phil 3:12 f) and to partake in its being—that is, to be “saved.” For Paul, only the spirit Jesus can resurrect from death. This is the true victory, and by uniting with that spirit we also can overcome death.
Yes, there’s a little circular reasoning there… One cannot look at the gospels to prove the gospels. The shoe is on the other foot, because when we take Jesus of Nazareth out of the equation (as a pure invention), then the docetist view of Jesus suddenly emerges. It explains not only the Pauline epistles, but also why docetists were everywhere. Indeed, the Church Fathers spilled a great deal of ink combating them!
In the prior posts we looked at an apocryphal writing, the Acts of Pilate (part of the Gospel of Nicodemus). In that work, Joseph of Arimathea receives the Jesus in a completely sealed room—showing beyond any doubt (which is exactly what the author wished to show) that the Jesus he is writing about is spiritual and has no body. Thus it is that Joseph of Arimathea (not Jesus of Nazareth!) enters Jerusalem in triumph on a donkey and is lauded by all of Israel. This is explicable only if Jesus is a spirit that has come into Joseph. Jesus is a shape-shifter. He (or more properly: it) enters the body of any worthy initiate.
Signs of this spiritual, shape-shifting Jesus are visible even in the canonical gospels. Immediately after the “death” of the initiate (originally: the death of one’s corporeal attachments), “Jesus” appears in bodily form but is not recognized:
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. (Lk 24:13–16)In his 2012 book, The Amazing Colossal Apostle, Robert Price devotes a whole chapter to the shape-shifting Jesus (“The Original Gnostic Apostles,” pp. 131–71). It all goes back to the centrality of the spiritual Jesus in Gnostic theology. “As Schmithals showed,” writes Price (p. 133), “pure, original Gnosticism would have understood the fact of self-knowledge as sufficient to effect post-mortem liberation.” In other words, self-knowledge was originally the Jesus. (In NazarethGate I term this view Primary Gnosticism, as opposed to the later, Secondary Gnosticism characterized by mythology, aeons, and a savior figure.) “Schmithals envisioned Gnostic apostles,” Price continues (p. 134), “who did not preach a historical individual called Christ but rather an invisible cosmic Christ… the universal Man of Light who dwelt in the souls of the elite among the human race…” We detect a similar view in Paul’s epistles. After all, the Apostle asks (1 Cor 9:1): “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” But from Gal 1:11–12 we know that what Paul saw was “not of human origin” and was through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” Viewing the passages synoptically, one must conclude that Paul’s Jesus was emphatically spiritual. Price writes, “The Gnostic Christ, [Elaine] Pagels and Charles H. Talbert observed, was a subjective and unverifiable inner voice,” and “Jesus was a heavenly revealer within one’s heart” (p. 137).
Jesus the shape-shifterIt’s clear that if Jesus could indwell people, then Christians could be “virtually Christs in their own right” (Price p. 142). This is the key to unlocking the mystery of Joseph of Arimathea’s exaltation in the Acts of Pilate. Because Christ could indwell many people, he had a “many-formed countenance” and was “Jesus of many forms… appear[ing] in the guise of our poor humanity” (Acts of Peter 252, 523). Thus, Price remarks, “In the apocryphal Acts, the apostles are regularly taken for gods walking the earth. John even mistakes himself for a deity!” Of course, it was no mistake. In Gnostic symbolism, having a divinity inside you makes you a divinity, “a god in a human body” (Price, p. 157). So, in the Acts of John (242) we read: “Now I know that God dwells in you, blessed John!” In the Acts of Peter (321), Jesus himself is “being crucified again” when Peter is on the cross, while in the Acts of Paul (381) Paul’s death is a second crucifixion of Christ. These examples show us that the line between the saint and the Jesus was blurred. Indeed, no real line existed, for the Jesus was in the apostle, and the apostle in the cosmic Christ.
Thus Jesus appeared in the guise of multiple human beings. He was a shape-shifter—sometimes recognized, sometimes not. Price (p. 165) offers a series of admirable examples that I mirror here:
Drusiana had said, “The Lord appeared to me in the tomb in the form of John and in that of a young man” (Acts of John 224–25)These citations are from writings that were immensely popular in Roman times. Once the Church gained ascendancy in the early fourth century they came under the ban and were marginalized, so that today the apocryphal acts are known to hardly anyone except scholars of early Christianity. There are, however, even lesser known works of which scholars themselves have scarcely heard, writings that survive in only one or two copies or that may be unpublished even today. For the heresiologist, a productive working presumption is: the less known a Christian writing, the more important it is. This attitude yields good results, for it makes copious allowance for fifteen hundred years of assiduous Christian suppression. In the next (and last) post in this series we will look at scarcely known Christian writings, texts that not only explain the theology of an early, spiritual, and shape-shifting Jesus (who is available to all), but texts that also aggressively deny the monstrous conception of the God of the universe incarnated, once and for all time, in the form of a unique human being.—R.S.
And immediately a man who looked like yourself, Peter [appeared]… so that I gazed upon you both, both on you and on the one… whose likeness [of you] caused me great amazement. And now I have awakened, and have told you these signs of Christ. (Acts of Peter 305)
But Thecla sought for Paul, as a lamb in the wilderness looks about for the shepherd. And when she looked upon the crowd, she saw the Lord sitting in the form of Paul (Acts of Paul 358)
Maximilla, the Lord going before her in the form of Andrew, went with Iphidamia to the prison. (Acts of Andrew 414)
And he saw the Lord Jesus in the likeness of the apostle Judas Thomas. (Acts of Thomas 448)
Outside the familiar terrain of twenty-seven New Testament books lies a vast, virtually unexplored expanse of so-called “apocryphal literature.” The word apocrypha derives from Greek and literally means “from [that which is] hidden” (apo+crypto). Well, let me say up front: the only reason most of this literature is hidden is because the Catholic Church has done everything it could to hide it. In short, these texts contain what is threatening to the Church—what it doesn’t want you to read. The Church’s suppression of the apocryphal literature was pretty successful during the fifteen or so long centuries when European scholarship was either conducted by the Church or approved by it. Increasingly, however, secular modern scholarship has broken the Church’s monopoly on religious investigation. One result is the liberation of the Christian apocrypha. Already in 1820 W. Hone compiled an Apocryphal New Testament, subsequently much improved and enlarged by M. R. James’ volume in 1924. This in turn has been superseded by the various editions of E. Henneke and W. Schneemelcher, now consisting of two bulky (and indispensable) volumes. But “Schneemelcher” is still incomplete, contains predictably conservative views on the various texts, and needs to be used with caution. Like Wikipedia (I use the analogy deliberately) it offers only an introduction that must be augmented.
The earlier conception of JesusWhen we begin to explore the apocryphal literature, one of the first things we discover is that the “Jesus” described is very different from Jesus of Nazareth. As a rule, in the apocryphal literature Jesus has no body!
It’s true. Anyone who begins to explore the vast terrain of non-canonical Christian texts is soon swimming in works describing a spiritual Jesus, a shape-shifting Jesus, and what scholars today call a “docetic” Jesus. The massive presence of this spiritual Jesus in the apocryphal Christian literature is nothing less than embarrassing to the tradition. No wonder it was all hidden! But liberal scholarship is now realizing that the non-fleshly Jesus was, in fact, the dominant view before the second century. Heresy preceded orthodoxy, and not the other way around. This conclusion is based on several factors, not least of which is that the corporeal “Jesus of Nazareth” of the canonical gospels belongs not to the first century, but to the second. We know this from recent work on Marcion of Pontus, work that proves Marcion’s gospel predated the gospel of Mark. Amazing, indeed…
It is even possible that Marcion of Pontus invented the figure “Jesus the Nazarene.” At the current breathtaking pace of research, I think we will have clarity on this question within a few years. Marcion’s gospel dates not before 90 CE (and as late as 150 CE). The question is whether Marcion was or was not dependent on an earlier “gospel.” In any case, the German researchers M. Klinghardt and M. Vinzent have recently shown that the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John are all later than Marcion. Thus, the bulk of the New Testament must leave the first century. It is fair to say that the thousands—nay, millions—of books on Christian origins written prior to the year 2000 are now obsolete. For with this colossal redating comes a paradigm-changing realization: Jesus of Nazareth was not the original Jesus. He was a late-comer—and a fake.
We are all conditioned to read the apocryphal Christian writings through later lenses, a mis-reading that has been systematically encouraged by the tradition. Even the Pauline epistles, when read without preconceptions, seem to describe a spiritual Jesus. The jury is still out on how much of those epistles was actually written in the first century (see discussion here)—and this is another question that should be clarified soon—but it is becoming increasingly clear that “Paul” (including his biography in Acts) is an invention of the second century.
The Pauline epistles make no mention of Nazareth and hardly any mention of a human Jesus. A multitude of apocryphal writings also make no mention of “Nazareth” or “Nazarene”—yet they speak exhaustively about a “Jesus.” In fact, the entire Nag Hammadi gnostic library (52 tractates) contains not a single mention of “Nazareth,” though the Gospel of Philip mentions “Nazara” once (62:14)—but it defines that not as a place, but as “the truth.” These are telltale signs that the Nag Hammadi library is concerned with a “Jesus” different from the Jesus of the canonical gospels. It is entirely valid to ask: does the NHL know Jesus of Nazareth at all?
The Jesus of the gnostic texts is disembodied, eternal, within, from on high, sometimes a “name” or “word” of God (Gospel of Truth 21–23), and generally communicated to us after “death.” The latter shows, critically, that Jesus has the power to conquer death. However, because Jesus is a spiritual entity, we are dealing here with a long-forgotten definition of “death”—not death of the body, but death of something immaterial. To the gnostics, this would be death to ignorance, that is, acquisition of the all-saving gnosis. “Death,” then, for the gnostic is a variable concept. It can be positive—as in the passage to life, enlightenment, even baptism (its earliest celebration, where water is a symbol of gnosis). “Death” can also be negative, meaning the lack of life, enlightenment, gnosis… The subtle ways gnostic texts use the concepts “death” and “life” are signs of the richness of their repertoire. We find in gnosticism a deep, well-articulated worldview. These rather advanced concepts inform earliest Christianity and predate the canonical stratum of the second century CE.
As in virtually all religions, what begins as a spiritual teaching becomes materialized, as the masses eventually demand a religion announcing not merely spiritual might (an oxymoron, some worldlings may claim) but manifest material might—something the masses well understand, venerate, and before which they are taught to bow. So, the overcoming of spiritual death (“ignorance”) through secret knowledge (gnosis) carried little truck with the common people. It gave way to something they could worship (though hardly understand): a quasi-human phenomenon born of a virgin, resurrected from the grave, who walked on earth (as also on water) raising the dead, multiplying fish, curing the infirm, stilling the storm, and resurrecting bodily from the grave. As we read in Mk 9:1, that’s Jesus coming with power!
On the other hand, the name of God, the word of God, and the truth of God—all abstract gnostic definitions of Jesus—have little to recommend them for the masses. But those who embraced such abstractions saw through the sham of the late-comer, the corporeal Jesus. They doubted the existence of Jesus of Nazareth from the start. The gnostics insisted: “Jesus has no body.” Today, we call them “docetists,” not realizing that they had an older and far more subtle conception of “Jesus” than did the later Church.
According to the gnostic, the spiritual Jesus is available to all. Though an abstraction, it is quite real—for its attainment (and that alone) bestows true happiness. To find this Jesus (“the truth,” according to the Gospel of Philip) we need only foray off the beaten path into the voluminous literature rejected by Catholic Christianity. The Repose of Saint John the Evangelist and Apostle is one such work. This virtually unknown Coptic Christian text announces:
Christ our Lord… has never made himself manifest to you through the eyes of the body, neither have you heard him through the ears of the body, but he has made himself visible to you through the integrity of your heart, and by visions, and by works which are holy. (Brit. Mus. MS. Oriental, No. 6782. See E. Budge, p. 233 [online here].)One might ask: How can “integrity” of heart, “visions,” and “works which are holy” (that is, your works, or my works) lead to the manifestation of “Christ our Lord”? The answer must be: he/it is nothing other than the result of such good works. The conclusion: through integrity, through seeing (i.e. gnosis), and through meritorious conduct, we become Christs—we enter Nazara, what Philip defines as “the truth.” This early and surely authentic theology has ever been anathema to the Catholic Church, which since its birth has offered mankind a savior and little more. Without any need of a savior, however, no one has need for the Church either…
The Repose of Saint John the Evangelist and Apostle also writes of “your majesty that is invisible,” of “you who have spoken words in our hearts,” of “you who made yourself to be apprehended by every person of reason,” and of the soul “worthy of your gnosis.” We have here an alternate path to salvation (reason), an alternate conception of (the spiritual) Jesus, and even an alternate conception of God (gnosis). Obviously, this text was anathema to the Church. No wonder that today it is entirely unknown!
The Nag Hammadi library, too, was unknown to the world until its almost miraculous discovery in 1945, buried in the sands of the Egyptian desert. Most of its works—including the Gospel of Thomas—exist in no other manuscript, showing the astounding efficiency of the Church’s destructive efforts. What a debt of gratitude we owe to that nameless monk who, one dark night about 362 CE, loaded his donkey with precious manuscripts and ventured out into the starry desert, dug a deep pit, and there deposited his single earthen jar containing the entire Nag Hammadi library! Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a single thoughtful, committed person can change the world; indeed, that’s all that ever has” (my edited version of her great saying). Well, that nameless monk changed the world. His midnight ride colossally influenced history. The monk knew that the texts he was burying would almost certainly never be seen again. But he buried them anyway, unwilling to simply destroy them. And, as it happens, his treasure constitutes the only copy of many seminal scriptures that we possess today. I have to digress here and say, his act is an astonishing example of the exhortation to do the right thing—especially when no one is looking! When Athanasius, the archbishop from Alexandria arrived a few days later, rounding up heretical manuscripts to destroy, he no doubt found none at the Pachomian monastery of Chenoboskion and conferred upon the monastery his fulsome praise. Little did the famous archbishop know that he had been foiled by the actions of a lowly monk.
If one opens the Nag Hammadi library to virtually any page, one reads of a spiritual quest leading towards perfection, liberation, or some sort of divinity. The Second Treatise of the Great Seth (NHL VII.2.57–58), for example, speaks of the soul that is liberated when it “becomes free and when it is endowed with nobility in the world, standing before the Father without weariness and fear.” This liberation occurs already in the world—not in some future life. And the liberation occurs through being “endowed with nobility.” That nobility, for the gnostic, is emphatically self-attained, the product of effort and wisdom (gnosis, secret knowledge).
One might signal here also the Ascension of Isaiah, a work popular in gnostic traditions from the Manichaeans to the Cathars of the Middle Ages. The Ascension essentially blurs the line between man and God, chronicling the change of God into man and man into God. All this was rank heresy (and impossibility) in both Jewish and Christian eyes—though such transformation was the very heart of the so-called “mystery religions.” Bart Ehrman writes:
The Ascension of Isaiah contains certain motifs otherwise widely associated with Gnostics, in particular, the ascent and descent of the Beloved, who changes into a new shape in each realm of the heavens and delivers the passwords necessary to be granted passage. (B. Ehrman, Forgery and Counterforgery, Oxford Univ. Pr. 2013, p. 398.)The initiate changing “into a new shape in each realm” is shape-shifting, in this case on the way to full divinity. This concept is unacceptable to modern man mostly because we have a different concept of God than did the ancients. Gods (of which there generally were many) were not creators of the physical realm (the primary attribute of God to us today) so much as potencies. The physical creation was merely their lesser manifestation, a byproduct of their various potencies. Mankind, too, is merely an ephemeral byproduct of those potencies. If he wishes to reach divinity (and his full realization), he must rise above his carnal, physical limitations—no easy task. This mindset already underlies the religiosity of the Bronze and Iron Ages. It is extremely old. The hard separation between man and the divine is comparatively recent. In ancient times, man was a form or manifestation of divinity—albeit a more-or-less corrupted manifestation. This was the problem. Mankind was not manifesting his and her full potential. The secret to salvation, then, was emphatically to rid oneself of corruption. This is a transformation, one eventually enshrined in various notions ranging from baptism, to resurrection, to enlightenment. Man could become divine. In fact, this is the goal of life, whose main purpose is to transcend this short, unsatisfactory, and bestial carnal existence.—R.S.