Did Christianity Begin as A John The Baptist Cult?

When Epiphanius described the so-called Dositheans, he described them as very Essene or Ebionite-like.  They practiced circumcision, they abstained from meat, and they frequently fasted.

He also said they believed in the resurrection, which is in-line with the Essenes and Pharisees, but was altogether foreign to Samaritans, which is where Dositheus appears to have been from.

The Samaritan reference is compelling in this context.  Epiphanius described 4 major Samaritan sects:  Essenes, Gorothenes, Sebuaeans, and Dositheans.

The detail I find hard to ignore centers around the Sebuaeans and Dositheans, especially given their geography.  As I wrote in an earlier post, I wonder if these two sects are a reference to Sabbaeus and Theodosius, who argued on behalf of Mount Gerizim’s holiness in front of Ptolemy VI (Ant 12:10).  For their zeal, and because of their failed argument, they were put to death, which makes them likely candidates for martyrdom cult figureheads, which were so attractive to residents of the day.

Epiphanius also relayed that the Dositheans kept the Festivals of Unleavened Bread, Passover, Pentecost, and the Tabernacles.  Interestingly, Jesus ben Ananias came to Jerusalem during the Festival of the Tabernacles, and the building of Tabernacles is referenced in Mark 9:5. (as I’ve mentioned on occasions, I believe the Gospel of Mark invented Jesus and John the Baptist as composites of a variety of historical figures, including Jesus ben Ananias and Jesus son of Nun [apprentice to Moses]; John the Baptist seems almost certainly to have been a composite of Theudas, who like John, took his followers to the Jordan River, practiced magic, promised salvation, and was beheaded).

Epiphanius wrote that Dositheus retired to a cave, and fasted so long that he died from “lack of bread and water – willingly if you please!”.  I generally do not put much stock into Epiphanius’ retelling of traditions, because he is ridiculously illogical at times, but this tradition is fascinating, considering Jesus was put into a cave after his death in the Gospel of Mark 16.

According to the Ebionite Pseudo-Clementines*, Dositheus was a follower of John the Baptist.  After John died, Dositheus and Simon Magus battled for supremacy of the sect.  According to the text, Dositheus beat Simon Magus with a rod, but the rod passed through him.  Dositheus then acknowledged Simon was “The Standing One”**, to which Simon responded “I am”, which perhaps relates to the “I am” statements in the Gospel of John.

Dositheus then submitted to Simon’s authority and died soon after.

*Note:  The Ebionite undertones in this text are quite obvious, and include an advocacy of circumcision, and a rejection of Simon’s virgin birth claim.  According to Irenaeus (AH i.26.2), the Ebionites also hated the Apostle Paul.

**Note:  The reference to the “standing one” seems a likely reference to the idea of a new prophet – a new Moses; my understanding is that the standing one is the Samaritan equivalent to the Jerusalem Christ [see The Samaritans By Alan David Crown p 388].  In Exodus 40, God commands Moses to setup a tabernacle and light a lamp – this became symbolic in Jewish culture, and was recognized during Sukkot, or the Festival of the Tabernacles, when Jesus ben Ananias came to Jerusalem.  In that sense, the old man dressed in white in Revelation 1 who had a lamp seems to be reference to a new Moses, revealing “unspeakable things”, or attributes of the mystery, (2 Corin 12) to the story’s narrator, who might very well have been understood to be Cerinthus by readers of the day.

Simon Magus and Peter

The intrigue here is that Simon Magus is an obvious doppelganger for the Apostle Paul, which explains why the Ebionites advanced their polemical traditions of Simon Magus, who the Gospel of Mark’s writer might have seen as the historical equivalent of Simon of Cyrene, the man who bore Jesus’ cross, and whom some traditions (Basilides) considered to have inherited the Christ prior to Jesus’ crucifixion.  In that sense, Simon of Cyrene, or whatever person was underlying him, inherited the Paraclete – the Valentinians and Marcionites agreed that Paul (Simon Magus) was the Paraclete.  If one presumes that Acts of the Apostles 8 and Acts of the Apostles 13 are basically telling the same story, this formulation fits well – in Acts 13, the evil sorceror was an assistant to the governor in Cyrene.

The subsequent questions raised are:  If Simon

Jesus Christ and Simon of Cyrene

Magus and Paul are the same person, does that mean Christianity originated with Samaritanism?  And that John the Baptist was the original figurehead?

If the answers to these questions are yes, they have much explanatory value:

  1. This explains why John the Baptist was so prominently featured in the Gospels, and why the authors felt so inclined to point out that John led the way to Jesus’ authority
  2. This explains why there is such a cooling of tensions between Jews and Samaritans throughout the Gospels, particularly in the Gospel of John
  3. This explains why there were ongoing references to Theudas (who again, probably underlies John the Baptist).  Theudas is referenced in Acts of the Apostles, and he was also said to have been Paul’s (AKA Simon Magus’) disciple, and revealed Paul’s “key to the mystery” to Valentinus – in other words, Theudas (John the Baptist) was a follower of Paul (Simon Magus), and later revealed Paul’s wisdom to the Gnostic Valentinus
  4. That explains why, according to Irenaeus, the Valentinians were “copious” consumers of the Gospel of John (AH iii.11)

See Also
Who Were The Ebionites


Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

3 thoughts on “Did Christianity Begin as A John The Baptist Cult?”

  1. Hi Tim,
    first off, thank you for your work. It’s a pleasure to read. I stumbled upon your site searching for this very subject. My own (very) amateurish research has also led me to the conclusion that early Christianity came out of Samaritan religious practices.
    I didn’t see an article on your site, so forgive me if this is somewhere in an archive but what are your thoughts on the Samaritan Prophet who was killed by Pilate?


    1. Thanks for the comment. I think there were a lot of Samaritans contributing to the mix – the people underlying Simon Magus and Dositheus seem to be interesting characters, as well. I’m not terribly familiar with the Samaritan Prophet, as I don’t really think that the influencers of the Gospel stories came out of the time of Pontius Pilate…my suspicion is that the chief influencers of the earliest Gospels were Theudas, the Egyptian, Jesus ben Ananias, James (who was killed by Ananus ben Ananus) and Old Testament figures such as Moses, Gabriel, and Michael.

      Feel free to check out my selected posts on the topic:


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