In John 2, Jesus performs his first miracle, where he turns water into wine at a wedding near Galilee.
The theological challenge for anyone towing the party line is that Jesus’ mother seems to facilitate Jesus’s first miracle. This is curious considering Jesus was the son of God, and more explicitly, the “Word [of God] as flesh”.
And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus said to him, They have no wine.
Jesus said to her, Woman, what have I to do with you? my hour is not yet come.
His mother said to the servants, Whatever he says to you, do it.
Jesus reveals a subservience, along with his inability to do anything, when he says “my hour is not yet come”. In response, Jesus’s mother transfers her authority to Jesus so that he can render the non-existent wine, thus making this moment Jesus’s “hour”.
Why should Jesus’s mother do this?
If you are anything like me, and believe that not a single word of these Gospels was wasted on frivolous prose, the implication is that Mary *must* transfer her authority to Jesus to catalyze his powers on Earth. In other words, Jesus would have no authority to perform miracles unless his mother granted this authority. The fact that this interaction precedes Jesus’s first miracle is not inconsequential.
John’s catalyst for miracle-making Jesus is in contrast to Mark’s prerequisite, which was Jesus’s baptism prior to receiving the Spirit. Of course, the theology of this Johannine text was different than the Cerinthian/Ebionite theology which contributed to the Synoptic narrative; specific implementation differences should be expected.
An interesting aside is that Irenaeus, who also used John’s Gospel, gave a hostile response to Marcus the magician, who performed a similar trick as Jesus:
Pretending to consecrate cups mixed with wine, and protracting to great length the word of invocation, [Marcus the Magician] contrives to give them a purple and reddish colour…
The transfer of authority from the mother to the son is also detectable in Revelation, in a more abstract form.
Revelation 5:12 says “Worthy is the lamb that hath been slain to receive the power, and riches, and wisdom…”
In Revelation 12, the pregnant woman, clothed in the sun, with stars in her crown and the moon at her feet, gives birth after triggering a war in heaven; her antagonist, the dragon, gives chase and attempts to eat the child. The child is saved by God when he is snatched up to heaven.
Once the dragon sensed he would neither be able to capture the woman nor her newborn son, he turned his attention toward her other children, who were the keepers or preservers of the law. In Hebrew, the term for keep, preserve, or guard is Nasar.
If one assumes this Greek tradition found in John’s Gospel was a carryover from an earlier Hebrew one, then this passage exposes an important detail: the woman’s other children were the Nasaraeans. Among other things, the Nasaraeans rejected the Pentateuch, claimed it was a forgery, believed they had the true word of Moses, and lived in secret among the Jews.
John 19:19 taps into this tradition, when Pilate wrote on Jesus Christ’s cross: JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS.
If one is attached to the notion that Nazareth was called as such in the 1st century, this interpretation, that Nazareth was so-called because of the Nasaraeans, is faulty. However, I am very skeptical Nazareth was called as such at this time; rather, I believe Nazareth was so-named because it was later identified as the location where the Nasaraeans saw their brother, the newborn child of the Queen of Heaven, return.
In John 19:27, Jesus said to his mother that she was now mother to “the disciple”, presumably John. Likewise, he told John that his mother was now John’s mother. From that hour on, John took Jesus’ mother into his home. Jesus then drank vinegar, said “it is finished”, and “gave up the ghost”.
In this context, we see the underpinning of this Johannine system: Jesus’s first miracle was preceded by his mother giving him authority. Jesus’s last act was to turn over his mother to his disciple, and to make his disciple the adopted son of his mother. This passage is not by coincidence and it is not pedestrian. This is a critical element of the Johannine system.
The underlying theology saw Jesus’s mother as important, despite the fact that the Gospel goes out of its way *not* to name her. One speculation is that John had no need to name Jesus’s mother, because it was so well-known. But does that mean her name was Mary?
There are other Marys in John’s Gospel, including Mary Magdelaine and Mary, the wife of Cleophas (the extant Gospel says Cleophas’ wife was Jesus’ mother’s sister, but I suspect this was an interpolation).
More likely, Jesus’s mother was known to its readers because his mother was Wisdom, the Queen of Heaven. Later texts which rely on John expose this detail, as well. For instance, an early Christian text called The Teaching of Silvanus:
My son, return to your divine nature… Return, my son, to your first Father God, and to Wisdom your mother, from whom you came into being.
Jesus’ mother, who was the Queen Wisdom, is found in many places, including 1 Enoch 42.3, which describes her fate after being purged from Solomon’s temple after King Josiah’s Deuteronomic reform in the 7th century BCE:
Wisdom went forth to make her dwelling among the children of men, And found no dwelling-place:
Wisdom returned to her place, And took her seat among the angels.
And unrighteousness went forth from her chambers: Whom she sought not she found, And dwelt with them
In other words, true Wisdom was replaced by another woman on Earth, and Wisdom subsequently returned to heaven. In Revelation 19:2, we see this replacement woman’s fate:
He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries.
The woman had shown up earlier in Revelation 17:
One of the seven angels…said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.”
Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls.
This reference to purple, scarlet, gold, and stones seems a likely reference to the 2nd temple. Consider Josephus’ description in Wars:
As to the holy house itself, which was placed in the midst [of the inmost court], that most sacred part of the temple…the inner part was lower than the appearance of the outer, and had golden doors…a Babylonian curtain, embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful…There was also a wall of partition, about a cubit in height, made of fine stones, and so as to be grateful to the sight…on the other part there hung twelve stones, three in a row one way, and four in the other; a sardius, a topaz, and an emerald; a carbuncle, a jasper, and a sapphire; an agate, an amethyst, and a ligure; an onyx, a beryl, and a chrysolite
The conclusion this matrix brings me to is that the Johannines, and perhaps their earlier Nasaraeane counterparts, saw the 2nd temple as an illegitimate replacement of Solomon’s temple, and this replacement woman was a metaphor for it.
According to the 1st century Jewish-Roman historian Josephus, Theudas was a messianic claimant who instructed his “deluded” followers to take all their possessions and follow him to the Jordan River, where he would divide the River, presumably to provide passage across it; one might speculate that there was a ritual attached to this process, particularly considering Josephus’ characterization of Theudas, namely that he was a magician and charlatan (Antiquities 20).
Theudas’ following must have been large enough, or his message poignant enough, to attract the attention of the governor at the time, Cuspius Fadus, because Fadus ordered a group of soldiers to attack and kill Theudas’ followers. As for Theudas, he was beheaded, and his remains were paraded around Jerusalem, further amplifying his significance – after all, the decapitated head of an insignificant nobody serves no purpose except to stink up the room, but the decapitated head of an important adversary would have more impact, especially in Jerusalem – the Jewish social, economic, and religious epicenter of the day.
When Fadus assumed the role of procurator in 44CE, skirmishes had recently broken out between Jews in Peraea and people in Philadelphia (to Peraea’s East). According to Josephus, Peraean Jews attacked Philadelphians in a village called Mia (perhaps read as Zia) – Josephus implies these attacks were concerted, coordinated armed robberies, and that they were led by four men: Hannibal, Areram, Tholomy, and Eleazar.
Hannibal was killed, and Areram and Eleazar were banished. Eleazar showed up again a few years later, after Fadus’ procuratorship ended. The Galileans recruited him from his home in the nearby mountains to fight back against Samaritans who had been attacking them during their regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem to attend festivals. The procurator at the time, Cumanus, waged an offensive against these Galileans, taking some as prisoners to Jerusalem (Josephus claimed the Samaritans bribed Cumanus, which is why he gave them a pass and punished the Galileans). According to Josephus, “the most eminent persons at Jerusalem”, after learning the extent to which the Galileans had taken their revenge, poured ashes upon their heads, and urged the Galileans to throw down their arms and return home, which they did (see Romans 12:20 for an interesting parallel regarding ashes). Despite the temporary decrease in tensions, Judea saw a return of those robberies which Fadus purged some years earlier.
The Syrian governor, Quadratus, eventually intervened, bringing Samaritans and Jews to trial. He ordered the crucifixion of several Jews for making “innovations” (rebellion). One possible crucifixion victim was a Galilean named Dortus, who Robert Eisenman in The New Testament Code thinks is a variant of Dorcas (Acts 9:36-43), as well as an anagram for Dositheus.
When Theudas came on the scene, sometime within 2 years of Fadus’ crackdown in 44CE, it was in the aftermath, or at least the context, of this reform. It would have been clear to citizens that violent swindle would not be taken lightly under Fadus; perhaps it was in this context that Theudas’ scam was born. Instead of armed robbery, Theudas made promises to his followers, or employed sum magic trick to make it seem he was dividing the Jordan River (my personal speculation is that it was the dry season, and Theudas had an elaborate scheme to temporarily dam water flow). The prerequisite for Theudas’ followers was probably monetary, as he convinced them to bring their possessions with them.
Consider this detail in light of Matthew 19:21:
Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor,and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come,follow Me.”
Josephus is vague about what explicit crime Theudas committed, except to say that he implied Theudas was scamming people. The religious undertones, notably the mention of dividing the river, coupled with his congregation of followers and the mystical associations must have concerned Fadus, given increasing tensions between Rome and the area Jews; a messiah would have been problematic for the Romans, because it would have given people a rallying point. Clearly, Theudas was a threat.
The parallel between this story and the New Testament is obvious; Theudas resembles John the Baptist in consequential ways – not just in geography, prophesy, or the notable reference to dividing of the Jordan River (perhaps a reference to Joshua 3:15-17), but also in the celebration accompanying his beheading.
Could Theudas be part of the inspiration for a more fictionalized Gospel character? Or does he provide insight into a raw and unsanitized version of pre-Orthodox Christianity? No – not according to those defending Jesus’ historicity. After all, we have mountains of data supporting the historicity of Jesus (and John)…except of course, not really. Secular, contemporary mentions of both of them are sparse and suspect.
To Jesus defenders (which is to say, practically everyone), assuming they know anything at all about this Jordanian charlatan (they probably don’t), Theudas is an anomaly – a one-off parallel who means nothing to anyone except those combing through obscure Josephus passages looking for kinks in the impervious Jesus armor. Nothing to see here folks.
Yet, if one is so emboldened to pursue this insignificant, irrelevant anomaly, one finds much curiosity. For example, Acts of the Apostles 5:36 resurrects Josephus’ anecdote in order to castigate Theudas, who post-dated the supposed narrator Gamaliel in Acts 5 (Acts 5 was supposedly based 7 years prior to Theudas).
Once Acts’ author, via his re-crafted version of Gamaliel, completed the polemic against Theudas, he turned his attention to the subsequent radical, Judas of Galilee, who in reality died nearly 40 years earlier than Theudas, thus creating the infamous Theudas Problem.
Some time ago Theudas appeared…After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt.
The choice consumers have regarding this timeline dilemma is to either admit Acts copied Josephus’ Antiquities (Josephus mentioned Judas after Theudas in Antiquities 20, despite acknowledging Judas preceded Theudas), or to invent another lie, that Acts was referring to a different Theudas…or a different Judas. Considering the author locked himself into Judas being active around the time of the census (which he was), the more economical lie is that there must have been some other Theudas.
Honest traversal of this data compels one to admit the most self-evident conclusion is that Acts indeed copied Josephus, and this was simply a quality assurance failure on the part of Acts’ author(s).
Life would be simpler if, at this point, we could simply stick a fork in Theudas, and call the matter done; however, this Theudas shows up again, in the same timeframe, in Clement of Alexandria’s Stromateis 7.17:
Likewise they allege that Valentinus was a hearer of Theudas. And he was the pupil of Paul. For Marcion, who arose in the same age with them, lived as an old man with the younger [heretics]. And after him Simon heard for a little the preaching of Peter
I puzzled over this passage for some time, because it implied that Paul’s Theudas was nearly contemporary to Josephus’ Theudas. Of course, these two men could be completely different people, but given Acts’ need to specifically call out Theudas as some two-bit impostor, I don’t think so. The fact that Clement built an explicit bridge between Theudas and the heretics is also noteworthy.
My original point of curiosity here is that Clement places Simon Magus after Marcion. No other tradition creates such a chronology.
There are many possibilities here for why (or whether) Clement believed this chronology, but the most economical solution is that Clement committed a simple error in his reconstruction of chronology.
But how incorrect was Clement? My speculation is that Clement committed more than one error here.
Specifically, I believe Theudas was not a hearer of Paul; Paul was a hearer of Theudas!
If we entertain this speculation, what is the implication? One implication is that Theudas was indeed the person at the root of John the Baptist, and that Paul took up Theudas’ cross; the subsequent re-crafting of John the Baptist as a forerunner to Jesus who couldn’t get out of Jesus’ way fast enough, was fiction designed to create more obfuscation and shenanigans in the alter-world early Christians created.
This would explain why Simon Magus (another name for the Apostle Paul) and Dositheus battled for control of the John the Baptist group in the Pseudo-Clementines – perhaps Dositheus and Theudas were one-in-the-same, or as tradition holds, Dositheus and Simon were simply students of John the Baptist (AKA Theudas).
But Dositheus, when he perceived that Simon was depreciating him…moved with rage, when they met as usual at the school, seized a rod, and began to beat Simon; but suddenly the rod seemed to pass through his body, as if it had been smoke. On which Dositheus, being astonished, says to him, Tell me if thou art the Standing One, that I may adore thee.’ And when Simon answered that he was, then Dositheus, perceiving that he himself was not the Standing One, fell down and worshipped him…
In the above scene, Dositheus appears to have tapped into a tradition conveyed in the Gospel of Thomas, in terms of his immediate falling down on his face:
When you see one who was not born of woman, fall on your face (and) worship him. That one is your Father
Subsequently, this is why Simon Magus claimed to be born of a virgin:
For before my mother Rachel and he came together, she, still a virgin, conceived me
Concern for this tradition might explain why Paul claimed to have been born of a miscarriage (ektroma) in 1 Corin 15:8 – because he was not born of a woman, fulfilling the prophesy in the Gospel of Thomas:
And last of all He appeared to me also, as to one born of a miscarriage.
Epiphanius relays that Dositheus died of starvation in a cave, an interesting feature given the cave near Beth Ha-Karim, west of Jerusalem is often associated with John the Baptist by modern archaeologists.
In this light, it is interesting that Bultmann speculated that the Gospel of John’s original content was more John-the-Baptist-centric, specifically because the Valentinians were said to copiously use the Gospel of John (Ir. AH 3.11.7). My speculation is that the Valentinians, through their inheritance of Paul’s/Simon’s doctrines, actually saw Theudas/John the Baptist as the Christ, and after John’s/Theudas’/Dorca’s/Dositheus’ death by crucifixion, Simon Magus made claim to the Paraclete/Standing One; perhaps Theudas made the same claim some years earlier, before being beheaded for it.
This would explain why there was such contention between Dositheus and Simon Magus, in terms of who would inherit the title of “Standing One”. My speculation is that the Standing One was the Samaritan version of the Paraclete. That is why we see inklings of claims of the Paraclete in Paul’s letters, and likewise, it is why so many Jewish Christians were opposed to these claims.
The Valentinians were the first group of early Christians I learned about when I started to investigate early Christianity. The Valentinians opened up a whole new line of inquiry, because their mythos surrounding Jesus was as much celestial as it was Earthly. According to the Valentinians, the Christ/Soter had been created and sent by angels in the Pleroma to free Sophia from her entrapment and formlessness in the lower Kenoma. In some versions, Sophia herself gave birth to the Christ, and he was promptly taken up to heaven (see Revelation 12:5 for an interesting correlation).
At the time, I saw an inkling of a relationship between this view and the Gospel of John (particularly John 1), so I was relieved when I realized the Valentinians were vociferous consumers of John. My later speculations were (and are) that the Valentinians were responsible for the creation of the bulk of the extant Gospel of John, and probably injected the virgin birth into Christianity sometime around 130 – this probably would have created a rift between those Italian Valentinians, who held the earlier adoptionist view, and the Eastern Valentinians, who were the ones to inject this new Virgin Birth notion.
When viewed in isolation, it is easy to recognize that the Valentinians did not require Jesus Christ’s literal existence on earth. Therefore, especially in light of their heavy Platonic influence, any text they wrote could be construed as Earthly allegory which was meant to be interpreted in terms of the celestial goings-on in their mythos.
I struggled with that conclusion for a couple reasons, and any subsequent implication that the Valentinians provide the key to unlock the Jesus mystery. For one, the Valentinians and the Gospel of John were not the earliest Christian writings – they’re not even the earliest extant Christian writings – the Synoptic Gospels clearly preceded the Gospel of John – that’s the consensus anyway (I prefer not to disagree with critical consensus if I can avoid it). The other reason I struggled with putting too much emphasis on constructing my view through a Valentinian lens is because the theology seems derivative.
Where the Valentinians put heavy emphasis on a Platonic worldview (there is also a palpable anti-Semitism in John’s Gospel), other theologies, such as those of Cerinthus, Carpocrates, and the Ebionites had worldviews which were more Jewish, less Greek, and seem more likely to have given rise to the Valentinian worldview than vice-versa. For example, the Cerinthians and Carpocratians had a Jewish cosmological Demiurge model, where they presumed that inferior angels created the Earth, as opposed to the Valentinian Demiurge, Yaldabaoth – although both these Demiurges probably pointed back to Yahweh.
This Jewish angelological view is indeed related to the Valentinian view, at least abstractly in that it inserts hierarchy into heaven and it offloads material creation responsibilities onto a lower God (thus providing a solution to the problem of evil/pain/suffering), but it raises the question: which came first?
In my opinion, the answer is self-evident. The more Jewish view gets the priority because Jesus was (presumed to be) Jewish. It seems entirely unlikely that the Valentinian view (or any similar predecessor) would have preceded the Cerinthian and Carpocratian models, because Cerinthus and Carpocrates both rely more on Jewish literature; likewise, they are both less hostile (or at least more ambivalent) to Judaism and Yahweh. Providing support for this chronological conclusion is that the Cerinthians and Carpocratians are associated with the Synoptic Gospels – as I have mentioned in other posts, Cerinthus might have constructed some proto-Synoptic Gospel which gave rise to Mark and Matthew; Cerinthus was also associated with, and presumed to have written, Revelation.
In this paradigm, when one considers other important players in the pre-Orthodoxy, it is easy to see how Christianity evolved from a Cerinthian/Ebionite/Carpocratian/Synoptic model into the Valentinians; the fact that the Valentinians thrived in a tiered theological system, where initiation was required prior to receiving Gnosis, their adoption of various Synoptic and seemingly non-Gnostic material is not improbable.
When one factors in Marcion, who injected increasing hostility towards Judaism, and who seems at least partially responsible for the preservation and/or invention of the extant Paul letters (at least Galatians and 2 Corinthians), coupled with an increasingly robust Syrian and Alexandrian Gnosticism during a time of major growth in middle-Platonism, it is easy to understand what gave rise to the Valentinians, who relied on content from all of these groups in assembling their own theology.
The uniting catalyst in this mix was probably the bar Kokhba revolt in the 130s, which featured a doomed messiah claimant, Simon bar Kokhba, who persecuted Christians who refused to join him in his fight against Rome. This was a recipe for alienation and schism, and the subsequent Jewish expulsion from Judea cemented this.
This progression helps to explain some of the strange developments within Heterodoxical (pre-Catholic) Christianity, but it is by no means a “silver bullet” for all of the dissonant details in Christian history. For example, it does not explain why there was such wide diversity among Christians before bar Kochba and the Valentinians. One curious contrast was the one between the Cerinthians and the Ebionites.
The Cerinthians and Ebionites both used a Synoptic-looking Gospel which probably resembled Mark or Matthew. Likewise, both groups agreed Jesus and the Christ were separate, and that the Christ left Jesus prior to crucifixion. Yet the Cerinthians had a different high God than the Ebionites did. It would appear that the Ebionites saw Yahweh and Elyon as the same God, where the Cerinthians had a hierarchy which seemed to have resembled the Canaanite religion, where the Earth’s creation was performed by inferior angels.
Approaching Cerinthus through a Greek lens reveals his insertion of the Demiurge, or the world-craftsman. This was my simplistic conclusion on the matter for some time, but a problem (or at least a point of intrigue) is that Cerinthus seems to have relied on a Jewish worldview, especially if one presumes he was a consumer or contributor to Revelation, which strongly relies on various Old Testament texts, including Daniel and Ezekiel. Another simplistic solution in this matter is that it was presumed among Ezekiel’s consumers that Ezekiel was a teacher to Aristotle; this probably is not true, but what it demonstrates is that there was intellectual flow between the Jewish and Greek world, and that flow was probably occurring for hundreds of years.
Revelation also provides insight into its Jewish origins which solve this Jewish Demiurge dilemma. Specifically, the reference to the woman clothed in the sun with the moon at her feet and a crown of stars. This woman was the Queen of Heaven, a carry over from a long-lost religion which was purged from the 1st temple in the 7th century BCE (2 Kings 22-23). She became known as Wisdom, was associated with the tree of life from Genesis, and worshippers burned incense for her. She not only seems to have been the influence for the Gnostic Sophia, but she also seems to have worked her way into the later Jewish Gnostic belief known as Kabbalah, which integrates a concept called Chochmah Nistara, or “hidden Wisdom”.
Revelation describes the Queen giving birth to a child, who was presumably a reference to the messiah. But another detail which is not inconsequential is its reference to the Queen’s other children, who were the ones who “kept” the law (Rev 12:17).
The Hebrew term nāsar means to guard, preserve, or keep. This seems to be a quite obvious link which connects the Cerinthians (and any Revelation consumer) to the Nasaraeans.
This raises a question: If the Cerinthians revered the Queen of Heaven, and the Nasaraeans were connected to the Cerinthians via Revelation 12:17, and its reference to the “keepers of the law”, does that mean the Nasaraeans were connected to the Queen of Heaven too? Yes.
My support for that goes back to the purge of the Queen from Solomon’s temple in the 7th Century BCE. King Josiah’s inspiration to purge the Queen came when his high priest found a lost law book of Moses, presumably Deuteronomy, while renovating the temple. This book, which claimed to have been written by Moses, implores its readers to reject the Queen of Heaven, Baal, and other Polytheistic echoes.
It is striking then that these Nasaraenes lived among Jews, observed Jewish holidays, but rejected the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Old Testament). According to Epiphanius, one of the reasons they rejected the Pentateuch was because they had a “secret book” which they claimed was written by Moses. Consider this Nasaraene claim in the context of King Josiah’s purge, and it is easy to understand the Nasaraeane motivation: they did not like Josiah’s Deuteronomic reform.
In other words, they were the theological descendants of those people who are described in Jeremiah 44:16-18, who blamed the destruction of Solomon’s temple on Josiah’s Deuteronomic reforms:
“We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord! 17 We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. 18 But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.”
It seems likely that the Cerinthians were derivatives of the Nasaraenes, or the keepers of the 1st temple law, but this by itself does not anwer the question of why the Cerinthians had a different God than the Ebionites, despite the two groups having remarkably similar views about Jesus (that he and the Christ were separate).
One solution is that the original, first-temple law left room for a hierarchy in heaven. In light of the subsequent direction of temple-Judaism in the 800 years following Josiah’s purge, and the fact that Yahweh became Elyon (the most high) within Orthodoxical Judaism, it seems natural that this would have been where the gravitational pull took the group; indeed even the God of Christianity became the God of Judaism despite the fact that several early Christian groups explicitly denied Yahweh was the most high, notably the Marcionites, Valentinians, Cerinthians, and Manicheans.
Another piece of the puzzle lies with Elxai, presumably the figurehead of the Elcesites, a group to which Mani the Manichean belonged. According to Epiphanius, this Elxai led an enormously diverse group of Christians and non-Christians, which included Essenes, Ebionites, Nasaraeans, and Nazarenes.
The timeline we have for Elxai was the late 1st or early 2nd century; however, given what appears to be a clear connection between these groups and the Queen of Heaven, an obvious inference is that Elxai was not doing anything new.
This historical detail also renders an obvious link between Cerinthus and the Ebionites if one presumes the Cerinthians were a Nasaraeane derivative via their connection to Elxai; in other words, Elxai was a leader of a diverse group who were “keepers” of the law – the Nasar. The significant theological differences between Cerinthus and the Ebionites were probably, at least for a time, overcome by the group’s broader goals of adherence to “the way”, which probably included concerns for a restoration of the 1st temple and the royal priesthood, which would have been the Order of Melchizadek, as opposed to the more Moses-centric Aaronic priesthood, which had control over the 2nd temple. This view is probably represented in Hebrews 7:14-19
For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. 15 And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, 16 one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life. 17 For it is declared: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless 19 (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.
It appears there were many manifestations of the Queen of Heaven. We see instances with the mother from Revelation 12, Sophia in various Gnostic theologies, a likely reference to her in the Kaballah, and various echoes of her throughout the Old Testament. But she also shows up in 2 Esdras 9-10, as a woman mourning the death of her child. Below are excerpts:
I went out as he told me into the field that is called Ardat…Listen to me, Israel! Offspring of Jacob, pay attention to what I say!Look, I am sowing my Law in you, and it will bear fruit in you, and you will be glorified in it forever…While I was saying these things in my heart, I looked with my eyes and saw a woman to my right. She was lamenting and crying with a loud voice, and she was experiencing deep grief. Her clothes were torn, and there were ashes on her head…She said to me: “I, your servant, was infertile, and I hadn’t given birth, although I had a husband for thirty years.Hour after hour and day after day during these thirty years I pleaded with the Most High by night and day…After thirty years God heard your servant and saw how dejected I was. He attended to my distress and gave me a son…But it happened that when my son went into his wedding chamber, he fell down and died.We extinguished all our lamps, and all my fellow citizens rose to console me…I got up at night and fled, and I came into this field
It is interesting to note that the setting for this exchange with the grieving lady was a field, especially considering Mark 15 has Simon of Cyrene snatched from a field to bear Jesus Christ’s cross.
The conclusion of this story in 2 Esdras gives the grieving woman’s fate – she became a city…a replacement for the destroyed city. The most high would come to intervene
While I was speaking to her, look! Suddenly her face shone brightly and her countenance became a flashing splendor. I became afraid of her, and I wondered what was happening.Without warning she let out a noise, a great voice full of fear, so that the earth itself shook with the sound.I watched, and she no longer appeared to me as a woman, but there was a city built, and a place with great foundations appeared. I was afraid, and I shouted with a great voice,“Where’s the angel Uriel, who came to me from the beginning?…” While I was saying these things, the angel who had come to me in the beginning came to me again and looked at me.
… “This woman whom you saw is Zion, whom you now see built as a city.As for what she said to you, that she was infertile for thirty years, it is because there were three thousand years in the world when offerings weren’t yet made in her.After three thousand years, Solomon built the city and made offerings. That is when the infertile woman bore a son.As for what she said to you, that she nourished him with labor, this was the time that Jerusalem was inhabited.And as for what she said to you, that her son came into his wedding chamber and died and that misfortune happened to her, this is the destruction that happened to Jerusalem.Indeed, you saw her likeness, how she mourns her son, and you began to console her over these things that had happened. (These things were to be shown to you. )Now the Most High, seeing that you are sincerely saddened and that you suffer for her with all your heart, has shown you the splendor of her glory and the beauty with which she is adorned.For this reason I told you to remain in the field where no house is built:I knew that the Most High was about to show you these things. … Tomorrow night you will remain here,and the Most High will show you in dream visions what the Most High will bring about for those who live on earth in the last days.”
Up until a month ago, my view was that the heretic Cerinthus should primarily be associated with Revelation and the Gospel of Mark. My reasoning behind associating Cerinthus with Revelation relies mostly on the fact that various groups asserted he wrote it, notably the Alogi and Caius the Presbyter.
An economical position in the face of likely objection by those who adhere to the traditional narratives about Revelation’s authorship* is that Cerinthus was probably a consumer of Revelation, perhaps holding some leadership position with an early iteration of Johannine Christians. A subsequent speculation I make is that Cerinthus’ theological interpretation of Revelation was different than John’s (assuming John even existed), which is why Irenaeus relays the story about John fleeing from a bathhouse after encountering Cerinthus in AH iii.3.
*Note: Revelation’s author was presumably a person named John – Irenaeus adamantly claimed in Against Heresies that it was John the Apostle who wrote Revelation and John’s Gospel, but it was later presumed that it was John the Evangelist (or some alternative John) who wrote it. This idea seems to have been first proposed by Eusebius in the early 4th century.
Cerinthus’ association with the Gospel of Mark is more nuanced. Irenaeus implied this association in AH iii.11.7 and i.26.1
Those, again, who separate Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered, preferring the Gospel by Mark
[According to Cerinthus] But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassible, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being.
When reading Mark through the lens of Revelation (or vice versa), interesting correlations emerge, such as the reference to the young man dressed in white in Mark 16; compare that to the old man dressed in white in Revelation 1. One speculation is that both these men were representations of the angel Gabriel, whose role as God’s proxy seems to have been eventually taken up by Jesus, particularly in the Gospel of John 14:6, when Jesus says “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” This role is quite analogous to other messengers in mythology, notably Anubis and Hermes.
A detail which made me rethink Cerinthus’ explicit attachment to Mark was a curious statement by Epiphanius in Panarion
For [the Cerinthians] use the Gospel according to Matthew—in part and not in its entirety
This is a curious statement by Epiphanius, but it is also exactly the sort of data I would expect to see in my developing model. Most church fathers made it clear that the Ebionites used the Gospel according to Matthew. Of course the Ebionites rejected the virgin birth. If we presume that the Ebionites were derivatives (or the same) as the “men from James” Paul describes in Galatians 2:11-13, and we place Paul in the first century CE, then we might conclude that the earliest version of Matthew lacked a virgin birth…a speculation which is not altogether radical.
If this is the case though, then the original version of Matthew’s Gospel was even more similar to Mark than it is now – in fact, they would have probably been difficult to distinguish from one another, considering 90% of Mark is used in Matthew; coupled with the fact that the Ebionites and Cerinthians (and the Carpocratians) saw the Christ as a separate entity from a human Jesus, a likely solution is that this adoptionist belief was indeed part of the earliest Christian theology, and that Cerinthus and the Ebionites were contributors to a proto-Synoptic Gospel which later diverged into Mark and Matthew; therefore, the names that the early church fathers attached to the first two Gospels might very well be interchangeable. Incidentally, this solves part of the Synoptic problem.
Consider one original distinction between the Cerinthian and Ebionite theologies, notably the notion of the high God. Whereas the Ebionites held a decidedly 2nd temple view of the high God, where Yahweh was the most high, the Cerinthians believed the high God was separate from the creators of the earth, who were angels far removed from Elyon. It is therefore not inconsequential that the Cerinthians had a theology which would have left room for the Queen of Heaven, considering she shows up in Revelation 12 (a text which we already speculate was consumed and/or authored by Cerinthus) as the mother of the messiah, who is also the mother of those who kept the true law, and not the same law as the one invented by Josiah and his high priest after finding the phony lost law of Moses prior to his 1st temple purge of the Queen and Baal in the 7th century BCE.
Irenaeus implicitly contrasted Cerinthus and the Ebionites in Against Heresies 1.26, but he explicitly contrasted the Ebionites with Paul, whom the Ebionites believed was an “apostate from the law.”
In other words, where Paul sharply diverged from the Ebionites, the contrast between the Ebionites and Cerinthus was more nuanced. This is consistent with the extant canonical Gospels, notably the anti-Paul sentiments in Matthew, where Mark’s Christology is not only in-line with Paul’s, but also seems to equate Paul with Simon of Cyrene.
A major implication here is that Cerinthus is analogous to the Cephas whom Paul described in Galatians. Cerinthus was originally, or at least superficially, attached to a Marcan theology, but had enough Ebionite sympathies that he came to associate with them, and therefore to the Gospel of Matthew which the Ebionites consumed; perhaps this explains the divergence between Mark and Matthew in the proto-Synoptic Gospel referenced earlier. That Cerinthus is also associated with Revelation makes 2 Corin 12 more striking, specifically where Paul says that he knew a man who, 14 years earlier, was taken to the third heaven and saw “unspeakable things”. The link becomes even stronger when, later in 2 Corin 12, Paul discusses the other “super apostles”, compared to whom he is not the least bit inferior (2 Corin 12:11).
The link here is that this was Revelation’s exact setting; according to Caius the Presbyter, Cerinthus wrote Revelation while “pretending to be a great apostle”.
This must be along a similar timeline as Paul described in Galatians 1-2, where he talked about 3 years after his conversion, and meeting Cephas for the first time in Jerusalem. 14 years later, he went to Jerusalem again, and had his famous conflict with Cephas (Gal 2:11-21).
Consider Epiphanius’ description of Cerinthus in this context:
And so Cerinthus stirred the circumcised multitudes up over Peter on his return to Jerusalem by saying, ‘He went in to [a place with uncircumcised] men…’ For, because he was circumcised himself he sought an excuse, through circumcision if you please, for his opposition to the uncircumcised believers…
[The Cerinthians] discount Paul, however, because he did not obey the circumcised. Moreover they reject him for saying, ‘Whosoever of you are justified by the Law, ye are fallen from grace,’ and, ‘If ye be circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing.’
Epiphanius referred to Acts 11 with the reference to Peter going into a house of uncircumcised men. In Acts 11, Peter is chided by someone (it was Cerinthus, according to Epiphanius) for going into a house of uncircumcised men, something which would have been blasphemous to those “men from James” who had tainted Cephas’ faith in Galatians 2. Peter in Acts 11 explained why it was acceptable for him to eat unclean meat with uncircumcised men – entirely in contrast to Paul’s Cephas in Galatians 2, who adopted an increasingly Jewish, anti-Paul position as a result of Ebionite influence.
What Epiphanius was doing was offloading attributes of Paul’s Cephas onto Cerinthus, and subsequently remaking Peter 2.0 as a carbon copy of the Acts version of Paul – a superstar apostle and entirely Orthodox team-player who was existentially incapable of heresy once he received the Spirit. In other words, at least according to Epiphanius, the worst part of Paul’s Cephas became Cerinthus and the remaining shell was recrafted as Peter, a new and completely Orthodox doppelganger. This brought Matthew consumers into the new Orthodoxy by remaking one of their revered figures to be an exact match to the sanitized Christianity. This is a very interesting detail in light of the already curious parallels between Cephas-Peter and Cerinthus.
The earliest Christian theologies seem to be described in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies i.25 and i.26, notably the Carpocratians, Cerinthians, and Ebionites. In my mind, the most intriguing of these three groups is the Cerinthians, because I believe they are the epicenter of the Christ-on-Earth theology.
Irenaeus described Cerinthus and his followers in AH i.26.1. In AH iii.11.7, Irenaeus implied those who use the Gospel of Mark were an exact theological match to Cerinthus. Epiphanius claimed Cerinthus consumed the Gospel of Matthew, and according to Eusebius, a wide variety of fringe Christians assumed Cerinthus wrote John’s Gospel and/or Revelation. There is much to be unwrapped in this complicated matrix, but my speculation is that it was Cerinthus who wrote the proto-Synoptic Gospel which later diverged into Mark and Matthew.
Clearly, these early Christian groups relied on a story about Jesus on Earth. The question of whether these groups saw Jesus as truly human, or whether they saw him as an allegory designed to advance their own agenda, is an entirely different question that is difficult to answer. It could be the case that these groups had different humans who were influencing their personification of the Gospel Jesus. Or it might simply be that the Christ on Earth gave each splintered group leverage to elect a leader they claimed had inherited the Spirit from the fictional Jesus after his death. This motif is clearly evident with Mark’s invocation of Simon of Cyrene, whose carrying of Jesus’ cross granted him the Spirit prior to Jesus’ death.
In my mind, one of the most important details around the development of an earthly Jesus centers around a curious character described by Hippolytus and Epiphanius named Elxai. Elxai was the figurehead for an extremely diverse collection of Jewish Christians, notably a group of Essenes, Ebionites, Nasaraeans, and Nazarenes. As if this diverse conglomeration were not odd enough, he and his followers also believed that the Spirit and Christ were 96 mile tall figures in the sky, evidently positioned as beacons to send signals of themselves out to the elect, presumably to those baptized and initiated into the underlying mystery.
With that detail, it is easy enough to imagine why Cerinthus and the Ebionites believed the Christ descended onto the ordinary Jesus-man. It was because the Christ/Spirit was fluid, and went to those worthy to receive it. This notion is echoed throughout Acts of the Apostles, particularly in Acts 8, where Simon Magus went so far as attempting to purchase the Spirit without proper initiation or worthiness. For his deal-making offer, he was chastised by Christian writers for hundreds of years.
Though it is relatively easy to build a bridge between Elxai’s 96 mile tall Spirit/Christ and the earliest Christ-on-Earth theologies, it still raises the question: why did Elxai have such a diverse group of followers?
There are a few attributes that many of these groups had which I believe offers insight:
They relied on special, apocalyptic texts
They tended to have heterodoxical views of Jewish prophets, notably Moses, and even perhaps a distinction between Yahweh and the “Most High”, El Elyon
They increasingly rejected the Pentateuch
Despite 1-3, they came from a Jewish background
The key to these strange attributes can be found in Revelation 12, and the woman clothed in the sun with the moon at her feet. Though this woman is clearly an inspiration of the wisdom Aeon Sophia, her more obvious root is the Queen of Heaven, who was a centerpiece in the 1st temple period.
Though the Queen was purged from the temple in the 7th century BCE, and subsequently replaced by a Moses-centric, law-centric, Deuteronomic, monotheistic Jewish theology, Revelation 12 demonstrates that she remained a vital figure in various sects who were becoming increasingly disillusioned in a region in chaos, and whose concerns transcended socioeconomic and regional partitions.
There were probably many manifestations of Queen of Heaven cults, but if Revelation 12 is any indication, then Revelation’s consumers clearly believed the Christ was the child of the Queen, and therefore their heaven-sent brother. He was raised in heaven and would return to save the earth from the dragon, the beasts, and other villains and apocalyptic imagery.
Though the Queen and dragon originated in heaven, the war in heaven brought them both to Earth. Stories are indeed easier to explain and understand when they’re described on Earth.
An emerging feature, although arguably original, following the Cerinthus-Ebionite-Carpocratian generation was the Paraclete. The Paraclete would be the manifestation of the Spirit on Earth, sent by God to finish Jesus’ work. This is described in the Gospel of John, but the concept also seems to exist in the Gospel of Mark and Acts of the Apostles.
The matter of who the Paraclete would be must have been of some dispute, as any motivated would-be leader would have seen political leverage by claiming to be the Paraclete. The Gospel of Thomas (saying 15) seems aware of this issue, and has Jesus saying that the Paraclete would be one who was “not born of a woman”.
Two details are interesting in this area:
The Ebionite pseudo-Clementines (the Ebionites did not believe in the virgin birth) said that Simon Magus claimed to be born of a virgin
Paul makes several references to strange circumstances surrounding his birth, notably 1 Corin 15:8 – “and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
A group that became known as the Western Valentinians brought with them to Rome around the mid-2nd century a theology which relied on the Christ descending onto Jesus – the original theology, it would seem. Yet their Eastern Valentinian counterparts, who did not make the trek west, interjected the virgin birth into their theology.
My speculation from this detail is that the virgin birth was indeed an Eastern Valentinian invention brought on by the need to stamp out Paraclete claimants. Thus, antiquity had its extant formulation of Jesus Christ – an ordinary man who received the Spirit after baptism, but who was born of a virgin, but who also pre-existed the Earth’s creation as the “word of God” (the Logos), and who (in older versions of the story) freed the wisdom Aeon Sophia, who was trapped in a lower layer of heaven, prior to coming to Earth to be sacrificed to the God who would subsequently stop requiring all such sacrifice because Jesus’ death was finally enough. After this, the western world would experience roughly 1700 years of increasing zeal for Christ’s teachings, despite little benefit in terms of quality of life, infant mortality, or longevity.
In Revelation 12, there is a pregnant woman clothed in the sun with the moon at her feet and a crown of stars on her head. She is chased by a dragon and gives birth to a child. A proxy war ensued in heaven, and Michael and his angels purged the woman’s antagonist, a dragon, and forced the dragon and his subordinates to the earth. After it became clear the dragon would not be able to capture the woman or her recently-born child, he turned his attention to the woman’s other children, who were the keepers of the law (Rev 12:17).
A person reading Revelation, with the knowledge that a Gnostic wave would soon merge into Christianity, might recognize this woman as an inkling of the heavenly wisdom aeon Sophia, whose actions caused an abortion in heaven and helped to give birth to the material realm.
The assumption that this heavenly woman and Sophia share attributes is correct; however, this woman was more than simply the inspiration for later Gnostic formulations. I believe she was the central figure in the cults which later became Christianity, Mandaeanism, and Manicheanism.
One question this plot development in Revelation 12 raises is: why should angels in heaven fight on her behalf?
She must have been very important in heaven to have triggered such a fierce defense. The fact that her child was taken up to heaven while the woman was on Earth implies some sort of detachment between her and the powers who took her child. Yet the child was so important that he compelled the highest forces in heaven to raise and prepare him for future principle roles.
This woman, her newborn child, and her older offspring (Rev 12:17) are critical to the story. They foreshadow a child of heavenly origins, as well as a nod to those religious communities who were waiting for the heavenly child to come to earth. This foreshadowing is fulfilled in Revelation 14, when the Lamb stands on Mount Zion, along with his 144,000 abstinent, blemish-free, truth-telling followers who were the only ones who knew the Lamb’s special song (Rev 14:3). We get earlier context in Revelation 5:6, when the lamb took the scroll, and the harp-holding creatures sang and burned incense.
So who was the woman on whose account the war in heaven was fought? Who gave birth to the coming messiah, and whose previous children were the keepers of God’s law?
The woman was the Queen of Heaven. She is in many different religions and has many different names. Jews called her Ashera, and the Egyptians and Canaanites called her Anat.
The Queen of Heaven was considered the wife of whichever God her adherents worshiped, and across various iterations, congregants burned incense for her.
She became known throughout Old Testament texts as Wisdom, and can be found in several books. Her influence might even be found in Genesis 2, where two trees were described, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge. Of course, the tree of knowledge bore the fruit that eventually catalyzed man’s downfall, but as Margaret Barker points out in her paper “Wisdom and the Other Tree“,
The tree of life was the Lady and her wisdom in the temple; the other tree, which the Lord God had warned against and forbidden, must have represented the alternative to wisdom which had been established in the temple”.
Reference to the Lady Wisdom is also found in Proverbs 4
Get wisdom, get understanding;do not forget my words or turn away from them.Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you;love her, and she will watch over…She will give you a garland to grace your headand present you with a glorious crown.
Consider words from the Wisdom of Solomon 6 in this context. It is not only relevant that wisdom is referred to as feminine (of course, this might simply be an aspect of the language), but also that this wisdom is accessible and hidden-in-plain sight – available for anyone who seeks her.
So then listen, you rulers, and understand. Learn, you who judge the far reaches of the earth. Pay attention, you who have power over multitudes, you who take pride in having power over throngs of nations…The Lord gave you authority to rule…Wisdom is bright and unfading. She readily appears to those who love her. She’s found by those who keep seeking after her…She herself goes about looking for those who are worthy of her…If you love Wisdom, you will keep her laws. If you are attentive to her laws, you can be assured that you will live forever…I’ll tell you what Wisdom is and how she came into being. I won’t hide these secret matters from you. I’ll show you her very origins.
The Queen of Heaven was featured prominently for the majority of the time that Solomon’s temple, the first Jewish temple, stood. Although she was nearly purged several centuries earlier by King Asa (1 Kings 15:9-13), it was only after King Josiah commissioned renovations on Solomon’s temple that the Queen of Heaven fell from grace.
2 Kings 22 has Josiah’s high priest discovering a secret “book of the law” which served to clarify religious rules – it seems to have been some long-lost portion of Deuteronomy, which is still extant. The clarification converted Judaism from a quasi-polytheistic religion which left room for Asherah and Baal into a rigid monotheism dogmatically attached to “Moses'” law.
It is likely the following excerpt was included in this “discovery”:
Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven.
2 Kings 23 has Josiah ordering the removal of “all articles made for Baal and Asherah and all the starry hosts. They then burned these items outside of Jerusalem, and he pushed out priests who had burned incense “to the sun and moon, to the constellations and to all the starry hosts”. He proceeded to desecrate the other holy spots which the Queen’s followers would have treasured.
Furthermore, Josiah got rid of the mediums and spiritists, the household gods, the idols and all the other detestable things seen in Judah and Jerusalem. This he did to fulfill the requirements of the law written in the book that Hilkiah the priest had discovered in the temple of the Lord.
A reader of this story might assume this was the end of the Queen of Heaven’s rule on Earth. However, we see many indications in other Old Testament texts. There are ongoing popular concerns, depicted in Jeremiah 44, that the destruction of Solomon’s temple several years later was a result of Josiah’s purge.
Then all the men who knew that their wives were burning incense to other gods, along with all the women who were present—a large assembly—and all the people living in Lower and Upper Egypt, said to Jeremiah, “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord! We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.”
The women added, “When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, did not our husbands know that we were making cakes impressed with her image and pouring out drink offerings to her?”
The interesting detail here is that the later pushback against the Queen of Heaven’s purge was occurring in Egypt, where many Jews had gone after being expelled from Judea following the Neo-Babylonian siege. In this context, it is interesting that Alexandria might very well have been the place where the Gnostic Sophia, who was also wisdom personified, was invented.
Consider an evolving picture of those who were the “elect wise”, found in 1 Enoch:
And for all of you sinners there shall be no salvation, But on you all shall abide a curse. But for the elect there shall be light and joy and peace, And they shall inherit the earth. And then there shall be bestowed upon the elect wisdom, And they shall all live and never again sin, Either through ungodliness or through pride.
… Wisdom found no place where she might dwell; Then a dwelling-place was assigned her in the heavens. Wisdom went forth to make her dwelling among the children of men, And found no dwelling-place: Wisdom returned to her place, And took her seat among the angels.
1 Enoch continues to lend tremendous insight into the view that gave rise to Revelation. In fact, this seems like a prerequisite to Revelation.
And behold! He cometh with ten thousands of His holy ones To execute judgement upon all, And to destroy all the ungodly…
In those days violence shall be cut off from its roots, And the roots of unrighteousness together with deceit, And they shall be destroyed from under heaven. And all the idols of the heathen shall be abandoned, And the temples burned with fire, And they shall remove them from the whole earth, And they (i.e. the heathen) shall be cast into the judgement of fire, And shall perish in wrath and in grievous judgement for ever. And the righteous shall arise from their sleep, And wisdom shall arise and be given unto them.
The earliest Christian theologies in the late 1st or early 2nd century did not have a virgin birth. This is not just some reckless opinion of a bloviating atheist blogger. The fact that the earliest Synoptic Gospel (Mark), and the latest canonical Gospel (John) both lack a virgin birth story offers compelling support, despite the barrage of historical apologetics invented to explain away such critical omissions. The reason Mark and John lacked a virgin birth, which becomes clear when we glean information about what sort of people were using them, is because the communities that consumed these stories did not have a theology which required a virgin birth; in fact, the virgin birth would have only obfuscated their theologies. In other words, the virgin birth was born later due to evolution within the surviving sect’s theology.
Matthew, which is the earliest Synoptic Gospel which includes a birth story, does not seem to have originally included it, either. Matthew’s first consumers were a group of Jewish-looking Christians called the Ebionites. The Ebionites, like Mark’s consumers, the Cerinthians and Basilideans, likewise rejected the virgin birth and post-death resurrection. Specifically, Mark and Matthew’s consumers had a theology which presumed that Jesus and the Christ were separate, and it was via the Spirit descending onto Jesus after baptism that he gained his demon-casting ability and his mandate for martyrdom.
According to the church father responsible for the modern 4-gospel canon, Irenaeus of Lyons, the remaining extant canonical Gospel, Luke, was used by a group called the Marcionites, who did not even believe Jesus Christ was made from human flesh, let alone was born on Earth from a virgin woman. Though there is growing contention about whether the group’s figurehead, Marcion, personally used a version of Luke’s gospel, one intriguing speculation is that it was Marcion’s disciple, Lucan, who took Luke’s Gospel to Rome and propagated it.
These details, although they highlight bold inclinations to adjust Jesus Christ based on each sect’s agenda, is not hard proof Jesus did not exist; but, upon deeper investigation, they do expose more cracks in Christianity’s foundation than a simple problem of later interpolations.
The major problem, aside from the fact that none of the earliest Christians seemed to have believed in the virgin birth (and were perhaps oblivious to any notion of it), is that the group that most resembled the Jesus Christ of the Gospels, the Ebionites, heavily relied on the Gospel of Mark to construct their own Gospel. The reason this detail is so existentially problematic is that Mark’s earliest users (at least the ones we can identify) not only seemed reverent to Paul, the Ebionites’ most staunch adversary (AH 1.26.2, Gal 2:12), but neither Mark’s consumers nor its authors seem to have been from the geographic area where Jesus lived. There are many examples where Mark’s author exposes his own ignorance about the geography and customs in Judea, including his reference to the night trial, the annual release of a prisoner, his mischaracterization of Pontius Pilate (a brutal governor who would never have entertained such a frivolous tradition as releasing a prisoner), and Jesus leaving Tyre going through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis, a very odd and inefficient route (50+ miles on foot).
The traditional story about these Gospels’ authors does not help to clarify this matter.
Mark was presumed to be Peter’s interpreter, where Matthew was Jesus’ direct disciple. If those traditions are true, why should Jesus Christ’s disciple need to rely so much on a second hand account? The economical solutions are either that Matthew did not rely on Mark, or the traditional story about authorship is not true. In this case, given the fact that Matthew clearly relies on Mark, the latter seems most likely.
The Ebionites, who supposedly resembled Jesus in terms of geography and theology, indeed corrected some of Mark’s technical errors, but they still relied on the Greek version of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint. This is especially problematic because, if the Ebionites were Jesus Christ’s original followers, it implies they spoke Greek, which seems unlikely for poor (Ebion in Hebrew means poor), illiterate fisherman-types in Aramaic-speaking, backwoods Judea. It also means they used the more foreign scripture, the Septuagint, rather than the more local Hebrew bible.
In light of these logical dilemmas, the question of who Jesus was becomes much more complicated, because it raises the question: who was taking note of Jesus’ actions? Tradition would have us believe it was Jesus Christ’s disciples who wrote down his stories; however, this Mark/Matthew paradox makes that explanation exceedingly unlikely.
So was the Gospel development simply a process which relied on increasingly robust oral traditions and tall tales, until some Greek-speaking (and writing) person outside of Judea decided to write it all down?
That could be, and it is fairly economical when you begin with the assumption that Jesus Christ existed. However, when one makes no such a priori assumption, the Jesus Christ of the Gospels seems increasingly fictional. But again, that does not disprove a root historical character; rather, it simply means if there was a real Jesus, he probably did not much resemble the Jesus of the Gospels. If that is the case, then timeline, geography, and underlying motivation all become increasingly suspect.
Consider an implication of the virgin birth not being original to the story. What specifically does that imply?
If one reads the Gospel of Mark, what it implies is that Jesus, prior to his baptism by John, was an ordinary man. Perhaps he was a decent, God-fearing, law-abiding model Judean citizen, but still, the end of Jesus’ pure humanity, and his conversion into a demigod driven by the Spirit seems to be the centerpiece of the text and the corresponding theologies; his humanity prior to his baptism seems not to have even been noteworthy enough to be recorded in the earliest Synoptic narrative, which would have resembled the Gospel of Mark.
In Mark, Jesus’ ministry, and inheritance of the Spirit, was catalyzed by his baptism from John.
If we approach that detail with some skepticism (or cynicism if the reader prefers), this implies that baptism was a prerequisite for receiving “the Spirit”, which came down in the form of a dove. In a sense, it seems more metaphorical than literal, and would have been a useful device for sect leaders, because it gave adherents reason for theological compliance: baptism offered the recipient the ability to be like Jesus and to receive the Spirit.
After his baptism, Jesus was transported to “the wilderness”, where he was tasked to resist Satan for forty days. He had help from angels, and was surrounded by wild animals. Mark does not make it clear how much time passed between the wilderness fiasco and John the Baptist’s arrest, but a speculation is that John’s arrest compelled Jesus to go to Galilee to begin his ministry.
Jesus’ ministry began with entry into a synagogue (synagogues became much more common following the destruction of the holy temple in Jerusalem in 70CE). He amazed the masses, but he was also recognized by a man in the synagogue who was infested by a demon. At that point, Jesus told the man to be quiet, and forced the impure spirit out of him. The point of this exchange is clear: Jesus, despite growing evidence of his divinity, wanted his power to be kept a secret; a secondary aspect of this exchange is that the impure spirits quickly identified Jesus as being different than other people who taught the law. These themes repeat throughout the story. Of course, the most likely reason for this was to create a stark contrast between the author’s sect and other Jewish sects at the time, notably the Pharisees, whose real political power was only gained after the temple destruction in 70CE, when the Sadducees were dissolved (of course, the Pharisees had existed for a couple hundred years prior). This “be quiet” theme also seems to be an allusion to Christianity’s mystery-religion origins.
The detail which contributes striking confirmation to the notion that Mark’s author was neither concerned about Jesus’ birth, nor his history prior to baptism, is that Jesus’ family thought he had gone crazy in Mark 3:21:
When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”
Consider the subtext of what Mark’s author was implicitly saying: Jesus was not born of a virgin, nor was he particularly special prior to his baptism. What he was doing was altogether new behavior that his family had not before seen. This means that Jesus’s real power and contribution was only possible after baptism. In fact, the catalyst for the whole story was Jesus’ baptism, and this occurred very soon prior to John’s arrest and death.
In other words, if we presume John the Baptist had the Spirit before Jesus, then we can conclude the Spirit leaves the body prior to the death of its current host, and finds a new host who undergoes the proper ritual and is deemed worthy.
An early Christian named Basilides, who seems to have used the Gospel of Mark, held the view that the Christ left Jesus prior to his crucifixion; church father Irenaeus of Lyons goes so far as to say that those Christians who believed Jesus and the Christ were separate, and that the Christ left Jesus before he suffered on the cross, preferred the Gospel of Mark in Against Heresies iii.11.7. And according to Basilides, it was Simon of Cyrene who inherited the Spirit from Jesus; I associated Simon of Cyrene with the Apostle Paul in an earlier post.
All evidence for Christianity points to Jewish origin. Yet the introduction of these Gospels, which came to serve as holy texts, is not exactly Orthodox in Judaism; rather, there would have been people who would have called such text blasphemous, especially in light of the texts’ attempt to elevate this human Jesus to the level of Moses and Elijah (this pushback is certainly evident in the Toldoth Yeshu).
This raises the question: were there other Jewish groups around this time that were doing similar things as Christians?
One group in particular seems to be an exceedingly likely candidate for immediate Christian predecessors: the Nasaraeans.
According to Epiphanius of Salamis, the Nasaraeans came from a Jewish worldview, practiced Jewish customs, observed Jewish holidays, lived among Jews, but explicitly rejected the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Old Testament. They believed that Moses’ true teachings had not been recorded in the scriptures; rather, they possessed Moses’ true, unaltered teachings, which they evidently kept secret.
This motif of secrecy, in particular, secret religious literature, begins to resemble a very common institution before and during this time: the mystery religion. The fact that the Nasaraeans seem to have been a Jewish mystery religion is made even more interesting, because mystery religions are often thought about in terms of Greek or Egyptian worldviews. Kabbalah is another example of a Jewish mystery religion which is starkly contrasted with Rabbinical Judaism.
Some mystery religions were so secretive, that the punishment for revealing details about them was death. This is why so much information about them has been lost over the centuries – it really is quite lucky that historians and archaeologists have been able to recover anything about them at all.
One of the things we know about these mystery religions is that they commonly featured dramatic depictions, particularly of their hero overcoming death. For example, in the Eleusinian mysteries, there were yearly performances called the “Lesser Mysteries” which included a depiction of Persephone returning from the underworld to her long-dismayed mother, Demeter, thus ending a long drought.
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.
In terms of the religious environment out of which Christianity emerged, the Gospel of Mark makes it clear that John the Baptizer preceded Jesus; in other words, there was value placed on baptism. This narrows the possibilities of what sort of group that was producing this theology, namely to the Essenes and Hemerobaptists.
It is noteworthy that Epiphanius and Hippolytus described a particular historical character named Elxai who, for some time, was the figurehead of the Essenes, Nasoreans, Nazarenes, and Ebionites (those people who seemed to be Jesus Christ’s original followers).
The striking detail here is not that they provides the name of a potential inventor of Christianity; rather, it is that Elxai was the figurehead for both Christian and explicitly non-Christian groups.
In other words, these Spirit/Christ notions that were important to Mark’s consumers preceded Christians and emerged out of a Jewish atmosphere; even after the advent of Christianity, there still were Jews who revered the Spirit who were not explicitly Christian. The specific thread that may indeed connect these groups together is a reverence for knowledge and theology lost after the 1st temple’s destruction over 600 years earlier; this would explain why Christians were so opposed to the mainstream Judaism of the day – perhaps they believed Judaism had lost a crucial element which they wished to restore, particularly its concern for the Queen of Heaven, who was featured prominently during the first temple era and who shows up in Revelation 12:1 as a woman clothed in the sun and who has a crown of stars – see Margaret Barker. Someone familiar with Gnosticism might recognize parallels between the Queen of Heaven and Sophia, the divine wisdom aeon who gave rise to the material realm.
The origins of the transformation of Judaism was when the King Josiah commissioned renovation on Solomon’s temple around 622BCE. Josiah’s high priest (who probably also functioned as a mason and a carpenter) located a supposed lost secret “book of law”, which has long been presumed to have been some portion of extant Deuteronomy. The details in this book caused Josiah to purge all echoes of polytheism within the temple, including the Queen of Heaven. My speculation is that the Elxai, the Nasaraeans, and other so-called “keepers” were those people who remained reverent to the “old way” prior to Josiah’s reconfiguration.
What’s more, both Epiphanius and Hippolytus relayed how Elxai saw the Christ: he saw the Christ as an invisible, man-like, 96-mile tall structure in the sky. And next to the Christ was a 96-mile tall woman-like Spirit. It would appear that Elxai’s Christ and Spirit were masculine and feminine polarities which served as beacons to send (perhaps part of) themselves to those worthy to receive…this includes those individuals who were baptized and who were ready to advance the group’s agenda, even in the face of death. Though the idea is probably not oft-considered, Elxai’s view of the masculine/feminine polarity closely resembles the later Valentinian view, where the aeons in the highest heaven had similar polarities. According to Hippolytus in Refutation of All Heresies, Elxai was said to have come from a Pythagorean philosophical atmosphere, and he believed the Christ had been transmigrating from body-to-body since the dawn of time. The author of the Book of Ezekiel, an apocalyptic text which Revelation clearly relies on, was rumored to have been a teacher to Pythagoras.
It was out of this Elcasite umbrella, composed of the Nasaraeans, Nazarenes, Ebionites, Hemerobaptists, and Essenes that emerged the Gnostic Mandaean and Manichean messiah cults, which seems to suggest that the leaders under this umbrella placed a high value on prophetic leaders, and were concerned with who specifically had the Christ/Spirit.
With this detail, Jesus Christ continues to seem more like a metaphor than a man. The fact that he was placed in Judea 40 years prior to the temple’s destruction, coupled with the fact that Christianity did not start to resemble anything like its present Orthodoxy until at least the mid-2nd century, demonstrates that this ordinary man Jesus might have been, after John, one of the first people to receive the Spirit, and the inheritance of the Spirit was brought on by impending doom for the people and place where the story was based. In the Gospel story, both Jesus and John were schemed against, and eventually killed by people in the community they served, in Jesus’ case, by the Pharisees and the Roman procurator.
In Josephus’ 75CE work, Wars of the Jews, he describes a Jesus ben Ananias, who undergoes parallel circumstances as Jesus Christ. He goes to Jerusalem,
gives prophesy about impending doom, is beaten by the Roman procurator, is deemed crazy, and is eventually killed by a siege machine that was knocking down the holy temple – a religious event that would have been no less serious than if the St. Peter’s Basilica were knocked down by some powerful Muslim country today.
Upon further investigation, many other characters in the Gospels not only resemble historical characters, but they resemble characters described in detail by Josephus. For instance, Jesus’ later parents, Joseph and Mary, quite resemble two people in Herod the Great’s inner circle, his uncle Joseph and second wife, Mariamne I. John the Baptist resembles a magician-messiah named Theudas. Judas Iscariot resembles the Judean insurgent, Judas of Galilee. Pontius Pilate performed the same role as Albinus, that procurator who punished Jesus ben Ananias. The list goes on.
Though there is large socio-economic diversity among the historical characters which seem to underlay the Gospel characters, the trend seems to be that those historical characters who advocated peace and moderation were treated well, where those who advocated zeal were treated poorly.
In this model, the Spirit/Christ concept probably predated Christianity by hundreds of years. Some underlying Jewish movement, which transcended a variety of social, political, religious, and economic standings, advanced their agenda, probably with increasing secrecy, perhaps as a response to some element of temple politics or overarching Jewish theology, and with increasing Greek influence. As a result of the broad inclusion of this Christ/Spirit group, there were various manifestations and implementations, which splintered, and sometimes reconnected. One specific practice, perhaps as a means to attract new initiates to the lower rungs of the group, was to employ the common mystery religion practice of dramatic depictions, which eventually rendered various versions of the Gospels. These Gospels were built around a fictitious man, based on several historical and biblical characters (notably Moses, Elijah, and Jesus ben Ananias), and were designed to show how the people on Earth would receive a Spirit that originated in the sky, perhaps from a God different than the God revered in Judaism.