Nearly all Christians nowadays—Roman Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox—share three basic premises. They accept the canon of the New Testament, the apostolic Creed and a Church with an institutional, hierarchical structure. It was only toward the end of the second century A.D. that these three aspects of Christian belief and observance emerged in this form.
The purpose of the first two sections of this book was to demonstrate— not simply on the basis of historical evidence but on the witness of biblical writers and the writings of early Fathers of the Church—that, although the resurrected Jesus is reported to have appeared to his disciples during the early part of the first century A.D., his historical mission on earth took place in the fourteenth century B.C. How can this statement of historical fact be reconciled with orthodox Christian belief? The first task is to bridge the gap of 14 centuries.
As the British scholar A. N. Wilson pointed out in his book Jesus: "The Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith are two separate beings, with very different stories. It is difficult enough to reconstruct the first, and in the attempt we are likely to do irreparable harm to the second." The historical truth about Joshua, the Teacher of Righteousness and the Wicked Priest (i.e., Phinehas), and the Suffering Servant was preserved throughout this long period principally by two groups of sects—the Essenes (Judaeo-Christians) and the Gnostics (Gentile-Christians), seekers after self-knowledge, which they regarded as knowledge of God—the God within. The Gnostics were to be condemned as heretics by the bishops of the early Church because they would accept neither the canon of the New Testament, nor the apostoiic Creed, nor the authority of the Church.
Until the discovery of their library, the Dead Sea Scrolls, in caves at Qumran in 1947, the Essenes were known only from Greek sources (that is, sources written in Greek). In the first century A.D. they were written about by the Jewish philosopher Philo Judaeus, by Pliny the Elder, the geographer and naturalist, and by the historian Flavius Josephus. At this time, according to both Philo and Josephus, there were about 4,000 Essenes in numerous communities scattered throughout Palestine and Syria.
The Essenes were the principal among a number of secret Jewish sects who believed that the Savior—their Teacher of Righteousness—had already lived, suffered and died at the hands of an assailant identified as The Wicked Priest, and they awaited his Second Coming. The Essenes separated themselves from the Jewish community at large and from the Jerusalem priesthood, whom they looked upon as "ungodly men" whose teaching was false. The sects faced the threat of persecution—through being ostracized socially or, like their Teacher, killed—if their beliefs were known, and they imposed a vow of secrecy upon all those who joined them.
Josephus understood and explained in his writings that, in complete contrast to the Old Covenant of Moses, which was simply to "keep my Commandments" and which made no promise of eternal life, members of the sect believed in immortality: "It is a firm belief among them that, although bodies are corruptible, and their matter unstable, souls are immortal and endure for ever; that, come from subtlest ether, they are entwined with the bodies that serve them as prisons, drawn down as they are by some physical spell; but that, when they are freed from the bonds of the flesh, liberated, so to speak, from long slavery, then they rejoice and rise up to the heavenly world."
The manuscripts found at Qumran, which date from 200 B.C. to A.D. 50, are written largely in Hebrew. A few are in Aramaic, the common language of Palestine in New Testament times, and some in Greek. Among them are sections of every book of the Old Testament apart from the Book of Esther (which may have been written later; alternatively it may have come from another place, such as Persia, where she lived). The Essenes seemed to attach particular importance to the writings of Isaiah as no fewer than 18 copies of his work were found in the caves. The most informative material, however, consists of documents about the sect itself. Two in particular—The Damascus Document and The Manual of Discipline—give an account of the history of the sect, conditions for admission to its ranks and the sect's rules of conduct.
The Essenes, like the Jewish Temple priests, studied the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) and the law of Moses; observed the Sabbath strictly; obeyed the law of Moses and the Commandments; and held the name of Moses in high esteem. However, their beliefs went far beyond what might be regarded by modern standards as the simplistic views of the Temple priests.* Although their roots lay in Israelite history, the Essenes, feeling that they personally had no responsibility for the death of their Teacher of Righteousness, observed the Jewish Day of Atonement with a Messianic Banquet rather than the Temple's ritual of animal sacrifice. This banquet, at which they expected their Teacher of Righteousness to return and join them, has many similarities with the Last Supper when, on Maundy Thursday, the eve of the Crucifixion, Christ is said to have instituted the Christian sacrament of Communion. According to the Qumran text the priest "[will bl]ess the first of the bread and win[e and will stretch forth] his hand on the bread first. And after[wards] the Messiah will str[etch forth] his hands upon the bread, [and then] all the Congregation of the Community [will give bles] sings, each [according to] his rank. And after this prescription shall they act for every ass[embly where] at least ten men are assembled."
Later Christians, too, rid themselves of animal sacrifice because they regarded Jesus himself as the sacrifice: "For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45) and "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world" (John 1:29).
The Dead Sea Scrolls show that women were excluded from membership of this secretive Judaeo-Christian sect and only circumcised Jewish males admitted. Aspiring members received a hatchet and an apron for taking part in the sect's rituals, and a white garment, the normal wear of the Essenes. Initially they had to undergo a year of probation, followed by a further two years. At the end of this three-year period the initiate had to swear an oath of allegiance that bound him to piety toward God, justice to men, honesty to his fellow Essenes, faithful transmission of the sect's teachings and preservation of their secrecy. The Essenes practiced community of property. New members turned their property over to the group whose elected members administered it for the benefit of all.
*Priestly worship was focused on cultic sacrificial ritual performed by priests at the Temple, on behalf of the congregation. No personal involvement was required of the laity, other than attending the Temple with their offering.
Members of the sect began their day with prayer, followed by purification rituals and a communal meal, before and after which a priest recited another short prayer. They then did their work, mostly farming the land for food, and prayed again at sunset before coming together for an evening meal.
The Essenes were a strictly hierarchical sect. It was divided into priests and laity. The priests were described as "Sons of Zadok"* with the laity grouped, after the biblical model, into 12 tribes. As the Last Supper, with the blessing of bread and wine, echoes the Messianic Banquet of the Essenes, the 12 disciples mentioned in the gospels are an echo, long predating the Christian era, of the formation of the Essenes' ruling council, comprised of one representative from each of the 12 tribes.
Their Community Rule, one of the documents found at Qumran, says: "In the Council of the Community [there shall be] twelve men and three priests"—the ambiguous text allows two meanings: either that three of the 12 should be priests or that three additional priests were to be included— "to practise truth, righteousness, justice, loving charity, and modesty, one towards the other, to guard the faith upon the earth with a firm inclination and contrite spirit, and to expiate iniquity among those that practise justice and undergo distress of affliction, and to behave towards all men according to the measure of truth and the norm of the time."
The Egyptian roots of these Essene practices were as follows. They were affected by the belief in the spiritual element of human beings, which they saw as eternal, and believed that their Teacher would rise from the dead at the end of days. Their hermetic way of life was similar to later Egyptian practice, but they did not go as far as believing in their own resurrection, as Egyptians did.
Every member of the Qumran sect had his rank, with the priests first in authority. Geza Vermes, Professor of Old Testament Studies at Oxford, points out in his book The Dead Sea Scrolls in English: "In their hands lay the ultimate responsibility for decisions on matters of doctrine, discipline, purity and impurity, and in particular matters pertaining to 'justice and property.' It was also a basic rule of the order that a priest was required to be present at any gathering of ten or more meeting for debate, Bible study or prayer . . . One interesting feature of the priesthood at Qumran is that their precedence was absolute." This "interesting feature" of the Qumran priesthood was to have consequences for Christian belief that have endured
*Zadoc(k) was a priest of David and it is believed that his descendants held the priesthood in Jerusalem till the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century B.C.
for almost two thousand years. The Essenes (Judaeo-Christians) were not alone, however, in keeping alive the truth about the death of The Teacher of Righteousness (Christ).
The Essene belief that the Savior had already lived, suffered and died for the sins of mankind was shared by the Therapeutae (Gentile Christians in Egypt), one of the Gnostic sects. Our sole authority for the history of the Therapeutae is the philosopher Philo Judaeus, who was born around 15 B.C. and died some two decades after the supposed date of the Crucifixion. Philo, who wrote admiringly of the Essenes and identified them as a dissident part of the Jewish community, did not name the Therapeutae as Jews. This is also true of Josephus, who did not include them in his division of Jewish sects, which he named as the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and the followers of Judas, who led a rebellion against the Romans and priests after introduction of the Roman tax in A.D. 6.
Despite many similarities between the sects, the Gnostic Therapeutae, unlike the Essenes, did not exclude women.* Nor were they divided into a rigid hierarchy of laity and priests, who were entitled to absolute obedience: anyone of either sex could take responsibility for ritual and organization. In contrast to the Essene practice, the Therapeutae accepted both Jews and Gentiles as members of the sect and also practiced celibacy. Philo explained that most of the women, though old, "are still virgins, having kept their purity not from necessity—like some of the priestesses among the Greeks—but rather through their own choice, because of their zeal and eagerness for learning, in which, being eager to pass their lives, they despise the pleasures of the body ..."
The Therapeutae were members of a contemplative sect that embraced the simple life. On becoming members, they renounced the world completely, fleeing "without ever turning to look back, abandoning brothers, children, wives, parents . . . they make settlements for themselves outside the walls, in gardens or in solitary places, seeking solitude." Like the Essenes, the Therapeutae believed in communal property. They handed over what they owned to the sect and went to live in encampments of individual huts: "The houses ... are very cheap affairs, affording protection
*In contrast to Essene practice, women were never excluded from religious activities in Egyptian history. From their early days they had priestesses and women temple servants; in some cases a woman could dedicate her life for this service. Nevertheless, the evidence of virginity comes only with the Therapeutae.
against the two most necessary things, the heat of the sun and the chiJJ of the air. Nor are the houses close together as they are in cities, for close proximity would be troublesome to those who seek solitude. Nor yet are they far apart because of the fellowship they covet, and also in order that they may help one another should there be an attack of robbers."
Their commitment to simplicity—"regarding the false as the beginning of pride, but truth as the beginning of simplicity"—was reflected in the food they ate and the clothes they wore: "They eat no costly food, but simple bread and, as a seasoning, salt." Those with daintier palates formed in the years before they joined the sect were permitted to add a little spice to this spartan diet in the form of the aromatic herb hyssop. Spring water was their only drink. In summer the Therapeutae wore "inexpensive" sleeveless jackets of linen, in winter thick cloaks.
They began each day with prayers around the time that dawn broke. More prayers followed toward evening. The hours in between were spent in their huts, which they called "monasteries," where they devoted themselves to "reading Holy Scriptures. They philosophize and interpret alle-gorically their native code of laws, since they regard the words of the literal interpretation as symbols of a hidden nature revealed only in such figures of speech." They also studied writings of forebears, founders of the sect, about the truths enshrined in these allegories.
They did not eat or drink before sunset for six days since they thought that "philosophizing is consistent with the light while the necessities of the body are worthy of darkness." Many of them fasted for the whole of these six days because they were accustomed "as they say the cicadas are, to feed on the air." On the seventh day they assembled for communal worship and a sermon on their holy books. On each fiftieth day, garbed in white, they gathered for a banquet—innocent of meat or wine—that was followed by a sacred all-night festival during which hymns were sung in honor of God before members of the sect went out to greet a new dawn: "They stand up and turn their eyes and their whole body towards the east. And when they see the sun rising they raise their hands towards heaven and pray for a fair day and truth and keenness of understanding ..."
Discovery of the Essenes' library, the Dead Sea Scrolls, in 1947, and the subsequent controversy about its contents and their significance, have served to distract attention from the Gnostic library found at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt two years earlier. This library, hidden at some time in the latter half of the fourth century A.D., consisted of 13 papyrus books containing 52 texts, among them previously unknown gospels (listed in Appendix 1 at the back of this book). They included the Gospel of Thomas, which represents a tradition as early as, if not earlier than, any of the New Testament books and more than 100 sayings attributed to Jesus. Among the other works were the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of the Egyptians and the Apocalypse of Paul.
Much, but not all, of this literature is distinctively Christian. Some texts derive from pagan sources (such as the Book of the Dead), others from Jewish traditions. It is clear, however, that the Gnostics looked upon themselves as the true interpreters of Christianity. Their name indicates that they were seekers after knowledge, not rational knowledge but self-knowledge, which was at the same time knowledge of God, for they regarded the self as being part of the Divine nature, with salvation as nothing more than release of man's spirit from imprisonment within his body, with physical death the final release from the evil material world.
The Gospel of Thomas is clearly of great academic importance, but as it consists purely of sayings it does not throw any light on the course of historical events in the first century of the Christian era. However, other documents make it clear that, once they became part of "orthodox" teaching in the course of the second century A.D., the Gnostics rejected the orthodox understanding of the Virgin Birth, which they regarded as the emanation of the Savior from God the Father, as a spirit, not as a physical birth from a human mother; they denied that Jesus was crucified at the time of the Roman Empire; they regarded the Resurrection as having been spiritual, not physical, suggesting that it is to be understood symbolically, not literally; and they claimed that they had their own secret sources of apostolic tradition, separate from those of Jerusalem. Here is one example from the Apocalypse of Peter;
I saw him (the Saviour) seemingly being seized by them. And I said, "What do I see, O Lord, that it is you yourself whom they take, and that you are grasping me? Or who is this one glad and laughing on the tree? And is it another one whose feet and hands they are striking?"
The Saviour said to me, "He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness. But look at him and me."
But I, when I had looked, said, "Lord, no one is looking at you. Let us flee this place."
But he said to me, "I have told you, Leave the blind alone! And you, see how they do not know what they are saying. For the son of their glory instead of my servant they have put to shame."
The Gnostic form of worship was informal, with no division between clergy and laity. All believers were regarded as equals, and salvation was looked upon as a matter of personal experience. Hence there was no hierarchy. At each of their meetings they chose any member of the congregation, man or woman, to play a priestly role—an informal approach that fatally weakened the Gnostic movement when it was later challenged by the Church of Rome. Gnostic communities were widespread. The indications are that they started in the area between Memphis and the Fayyoum, before spreading to Alexandria then all over Egypt, as Philo says, "in every nome." Then again overseas to all parts of the Roman Empire.
The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of parables and sayings of Jesus. It does not contain a narrative interpreting the life of Jesus and culminating in a description of his death. It claims that these sayings, properly understood, open the path to salvation and life: "Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death" (Saying 1).
Many of the sayings have parallels in the four canonical gospels of the New Testament as well as the letters of Paul. For example:
Jesus said, "No prophet is accepted in his own village." "A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country and in his own house." Matthew 13:57 and, with minor changes in wording, Mark 6:4, Luke 4:24 and John 4:44
The Cross is mentioned in the Gospel of Thomas, but as a symbol not of death but eternal spiritual life in the same sense that we find in both the canonical gospels and Paul's Letter to the Galatians: "Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34) ... "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20).
The basic religious experience, according to the Gospel of Thomas, is not only the recognition of one's divine identity but, more specifically, recognition of one's origin (the light) and destiny (the repose). To return to one's origin it is necessary to "strip off" the garment of the flesh. Then one can experience the new world—a kingdom of light, peace and life.
In the Gnostic myth implied in the Gospel of Thomas, individual spirits dwelt originally in "the All," the spiritual universe of divine beings. Through some primeval catastrophe—the Fall—some human spirits became imprisoned in the fleshly bodies of the material world and are blind to their true origin. Jesus saves them simply by revealing to them the truth about who they really are—divine beings belonging to another world. This realization frees them immediately from the "garments" of their material bodies.
Here we find echoes of Therapeutae teaching: the material world and the physical body are rejected as evil; so, too, is sex; by asceticism, the spirits triumph in principle over the body; and physical death is the final release from the evil material world. "If you do not abstain from the world you will not find the kingdom" (Saying 27).
The source of the Gospel of Thomas has been the subject of a great deal of scholarly debate. The basic argument is whether it is another version of the sayings found in the four canonical gospels or is drawn independently from the same imprecise source—"Q" (from the German Quelle, source)—as the sayings of Jesus recorded in the four gospels.
Professor Helmut Koester, who translated the gospel into English, believes that it was possibly written in the second half of the first century A.D. and represents a tradition as early as, if not earlier than, the four canonical gospels because its sayings and parables are generally shorter and pithier, and they lack the allegory, narrative framework and other redactional fingerprints of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
As for the sayings and parables themselves, scholars who accept the New Testament account of the life, suffering and death of Jesus as historically accurate clearly have no alternative but to date them to the first century A.D. However, the Gospel of Thomas is close in form to other collections of sayings in the ancient world, that is, they belong to an exceedingly old tradition of wisdom literature in Egypt and the Middle East. The Wisdom Texts, which go back as far as the time of the pyramid builders in the twenty-seventh century B.C., were the most highly regarded old types or literature in Egypt. Imhotep, the architect of the Step Pyramid of Sakkara, was regarded as the first composer of this type of writings. The texts are regularly presented in the form of advice given by a father to his son, and the teaching is based upon experience and the passing of tradition. Wisdom—"
Sophia in Greek—is personified as a feminine character who emanates from God and speaks in proverbs, riddles and other forms of wise sayings.
All of these sects—the Essenes, Gnostics and Therapeutae—were already established in the civilized world (the Roman Empire) at the start of the Christian era, and even in Rome in the first half of the first century A.D. Precisely how they came to settle in Rome is obscure. One source of converts to a religion that the authorities looked upon as just another mystic sect may have been their own soldiers. Strabo, the Greek geographer and historian, who visited Egypt in 25 B.C. and accompanied its governor, Aliu Gallus, the following year in his attempt to subdue southern Arabia, recorded that there were three Roman legions stationed in the ancient city of Babylon (modern Cairo), on the other side of the Nile from Memphis. Memphis contained a temple of Serapis, the Egyptian god whose worship was the most popular Egyptian cult of the time. It had spread throughout the civilized world and was to survive alongside—and be looked upon by many worshippers, as we shall see later, as a separate branch of—emergent Christianity for more than two centuries.
Another source may have been the Jews, both orthodox and the Essenes (Judaeo-Christians). The first Jewish community had been brought to Rome as prisoners of war and slaves after the Roman invasion of Judaea in 63 B.C. This would not, of course, explain the presence of Gentile Christians in the city as the Essenes did not accept uncircumcised Gentiles into their movement. However, riots between the Christians, who believed the Messiah had already come, and orthodox Jews, who denied it, led ultimately to their expulsion from Rome by the emperor Caligula in A.D. 49.
We find a reference to this expulsion in the Book of Acts: "After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth; And found a certain Jew named Aquila . . . lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla; (because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome:) And because he was of the same craft"—Paul had been initially a tentmaker—"he abode with them, and wrought: for by their occupation they were tentmakers" (18:1-3).
However, there had been an earlier expulsion of the Jews, many of whom may well have been Judaeo-Christians (although evidence on this point is lacking), from Rome in A.D. 19 during the reign of Tiberius, the uncle of Claudius. Jews of military age were expelled, as also were devotees of the Egyptian cult of Serapis. Tacitus, the Roman historian (c. A.D. 55-115), recalls in the second book of his Annals that:
there was a debate . . . about expelling the Egyptian and Jewish worship, and a resolution of the Senate was passed that four thousand of the freedman class who were infected with those superstitions and were of military age should be transported to the island of Sardinia to quell the brigandage of the place, a cheap sacrifice should they die from the pestilential climate. The rest were to quit Italy unless before a certain day they repudiated their impious rites.
It is possible to date this event to around A.D. 19, 30 years earlier than the date most scholars accept for the expulsion of the Jews from Rome— because all events chronicled in Tacitus's second volume of Annals come to an end around that time.
The early appearance of Christianity in Rome is also suggested by the tradition that Claudius's wife Protonica, who was married to him before he was appointed emperor in A.D. 37, became a Christian convert during the reign of his uncle, Tiberius (A.D. 14-37). The accompanying tradition—that Protonica had at this period discovered the "true" Cross, for whose existence there is no historical evidence—raises the possibility that the story of her conversion may be equally apocryphal. However, in a passage from Paul's Letter to the Philippians members of "Caesar's household" are the only Roman Christians singled out specifically as sending greetings to their Philippian brethren: "The brethren which are with me greet you. All the saints salute you, chiefly they that are of Caesar's household" (Philippians 4:21-22).
The climate changed when Nero, who had been adopted by Claudius, succeeded to the throne in A.D. 54 and, before his suicide 14 years later, had achieved enduring notoriety for murder, cruelty and debauchery. By the time of his reign (A.D. 54-68) the Christian community in Rome had expanded to a considerable size. The historian Tacitus relates in his Annals how Nero, accused of setting Rome on fire in A.D. 64 and in need of scapegoats, "fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace."
By the first half of the first century A.D., the Therapeutae had also spread far and wide. Philo, whose brother was head of the Jewish community in Alexandria, visited Rome during the brief reign of Caligula (A.D. 37-41) to protest at the emperor's order that the Jews should place his image in their temple and worship it. It was at this early date, on his return from Rome, that—according to Eusebius (c. A.D. 260-342), one of the early Church Fathers, who wrote an ecclesiastical history down to his own time—Philo set down his most important work, The Contemplative Life, in which he described the Therapeutae as "citizens of heaven and of the universe, and truly acceptable to the father and creator of the world." He also recorded that the Therapeutae were "to be found in many parts of the civilized world," but were "numerous in Egypt throughout each of the districts called nomes, and particularly around Alexandria." Eusebius identified the Therapeutae as the earliest Christian church in Egypt. At this time there were 42 nomes—geographical districts—in Egypt, often separated by vast distances. For example, it was the better part of 300 miles from Alexandria, the capital, to Mount Sinai at the southern end of the Sinai peninsula. It is hardly to be believed, if the two dates indicated by the gospels for the Crucifixion (a.d. 30 and 33) are correct, that Christian communities could have spread throughout Egypt—let alone to Rome—in less than two decades when the only means of travel were by donkey, camel or boat.
The existence of Christianity in Egypt so soon after the supposed date of the Crucifixion is also attested in an account by Josephus, the first century A.D. historian, in his Antiquities of the Jews. He records that in the A.D. 50s a missionary from Egypt appeared in Jerusalem itself where he is said to have had greater success than John the Baptist, gathering 30,000 Jews under his leadership. The newcomer "said he was a prophet, and advised the multitude of the common people to go along with him to the Mount of Olives . . . He said further that he would show them from thence how, at his command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down . . . Now when Felix (the Roman procurator) was informed of these things he ordered his soldiers to take their weapons and came against them with a great number of horsemen and footmen from Jerusalem, and attacked the Egyptian and the people that were with him. He also slew four hundred of them and took two hundred alive. But the Egyptian himself escaped out of the fight..."
This account by Josephus suggests that the Egyptian must have been a Messianic teacher, for the Jews would not have followed him had he been a pagan prophet. Later, when Paul made his last visit to Jerusalem in A.D. 57 and had to be rescued by Roman soldiers from the wrath of the Jews, the Roman captain mistook him for the Egyptian rebel prophet and asked him: "Art thou that Egyptian, which before these days made an uproar, and leddest out into the wilderness four thousand men who were murderers?" (Acts 21:28).
The question at issue is simple. If the historical Jesus (Joshua) lived, suffered and died in the fourteenth century B.C., what motives lay behind the "orthodox" Christian Church's identification of the spiritual appearances of
Christ to some of his disciples and to St. Paul—reported to have taken place during the first century A.D.—as representing the historical Jesus? Those motives were nothing less than the Church of Rome's need to place the incarnate Jesus—the Jesus of flesh and blood—in A.D. 1, and to ratify these spiritual appearances as manifestations of the historical Jesus, in order to legitimize its authority and power.
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