Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Proving that 'Bethsaida' Was a Reference to the Temple of Jerusalem

I know there are a number of people who are excited about the recent 'Secret Mark conference' and there is good reason for that of course. There were a great number of people who worked very hard to put this event together and they should be commended for all their hard work (even if I am not sure that I agree with the goals that were established). The point of course is that our purpose is not to 'vindicate' or 'condemn' Morton Smith. There is no doubt that there injustices committed against his person, but it is not our job to rescue his reputation.

Our purpose, the goal of our very short life here on earth, is to make sense of a twenty two chapter work written in the first century of the Common Era called 'the Gospel of Jesus.' We do not approach the text as friends or enemies. We are simply interested in knowing the truth.

There are so many paths to take in this incredibly short life of ours. When it comes to the understanding of the gospel one has to make a fundamental choice between accepting or rejecting the form of the gospel which is presented to us from canonical sources. Did God really plan to reveal the gospel through four evangelists in different parts of the world at different times? Most of us find this understanding, first developed in the writings of Irenaeus at the end of the second century, untenable. Yet moving from this proposition is rather difficult. There really is only path that makes any sense and that is the road associated with Marcion, a heretic first condemned in the same period by the sources associated with Irenaeus.

I can only speak of my own experience, my own 'coming to terms' with Christianity as a most perplexing religious tradition. Marcion made sense in a way that Irenaeus never did to me and this even with most of the information about his tradition expunged from the record. This doesn't mean that I necessarily accept all the things the Church Fathers said about Marcion unquestioned. What I am saying is that the idea of Marcion, a semi-mythical figure who first set a firm limit as to the shape and purpose of the canon of New Testament writings, is a reassuring rock exposed from the surface of a turbulent stream of ideas in early Christianity.

The problem of course for us is that all the reports that survive down to us about Marcion are difficult to reconcile with one another. It is not as if the Church Fathers give us a firm picture of what the Marcionite gospel looked like. The core content of the gospel seems to have resembled the much of the material that is found in our canonical gospel of Luke, but it is not so simple for us to say that the Marcionite gospel was Luke or Luke with a few or many changes. The Marcionite gospel on some level has to also have resembled the Gospel of Mark. There is so much more that I could say here that I should stop myself right there before I get too far off track.

In our previous post in this series we noted that we have finally unlocked the secret of how the Marcionite gospel began. As Irenaeus notes, according to this text "Jesus being derived from that father who is above the God that made the world, and coming into Judaea in the times of Pontius Pilate the governor, who was the procurator of Tiberius Caesar, was manifested in the form of a man to those who were in Judaea, abolishing the prophets and the law, and all the works of that God who made the world." [AH 1.27.2]  In other words, Jesus supernatural ministry begins with a descent to Judaea not Galilee and in specific the temple of Jerusalem which is brought forward with the codename 'Bethsaida,' a term developed from the traditional Jewish interpretation of Ecclesiastes 2.8 and meaning 'the house of demons.'

There is absolutely no question among scholars that the Marcionite gospel changed the place name of the first place Jesus performed wonders.  Instead of identifying the house of worship where Jesus walked through (or flew over cf. texts related to the early Diatessaron) the angry mob of worshipers who heard his sermon there as his hometown of Nazareth, Ephrem the Syrian tells us that the place was identified as 'Bethsaida' in the Marcionite text.

We have noted that there is something intuitively implausible about identifying this 'Bethsaida' as an insignificant fishing village high up on a mountain.  First of all, fishing villages never appear on the tops of mountains.  Yet only when we look at the reading which appears in Shem Tov's Hebrew Gospel of Matthew do we find confirmation of our identification of the place as the temple of Jerusalem for there we read:
אי לך בוֹרוֹזוֹאים ואי לך בית שידה שאם בצור וסדום לעז טִירָאוֹ דֵיטֶיר אוֹ סְדוֹמָה נעשו האותות שנעשו בכם היו חוזרות בתשובה בזמן ההוא בשק ואפר

Woe to you and woe to you Beth Saida, for if in Tyre and Sodom, that is, Tirao deter or Sidomah, the signs had been done which were done in you, they would have turned in repentance at that time in sack cloth and ashes. [Shem Tob 11.21]
There simply are no Hebrew or Palestinian Aramaic texts of the gospel which have come down to us besides this text.  Clearly here 'בית שידה' is a witness to the development from description of Solomon building and containing within the temple a demon (שידה) or demons developed from Eccles. 2.8 in many texts including the Testimony of Truth, the Testament of Solomon, Gittin 68 a,b and many more.

Indeed the idea is expressly mentioned in the Epistle of Barnabas (16:7) sometime at the turn of the second century from a lost gospel text but cited interestingly again in the writings of Clement of Alexandria (Strom. 2.20):

And how we say that the powers of the devil, and the unclean spirits, sow into the sinner's soul, requires no more words from me, on adducing as a witness the apostolic Barnabas (and he was one of the seventy and a fellow-worker of Paul), who speaks in these words:

"Before we believed in God, the dwelling-place of our heart was unstable, truly a temple built with hands. For it was full of idolatry, and was a house of demons, through doing what was opposed to God."(Epist Barn 16.7)

He says, then, that sinners exercise activities appropriate to demons; but he does not say that the spirits themselves dwell in the soul of the unbeliever. Wherefore he also adds, "See that the temple of the Lord be gloriously built. Learn, having received remission of sins; and having set our hope on the Name, let us become new, created again from the beginning." For what he says is not that demons are driven out of us, but that the sins which like them we commit before believing are remitted. Rightly thus he puts in opposition what follows: "Wherefore God truly dwells in our home. He dwells in us. How? The word of His faith, the calling of His promise, the wisdom of His statutes, the commandments of His communication, [dwell in us]."

Clement is of course combating a heresy which infers from this tradition that the soul of the individual like the temple of Jerusalem of old was likewise a 'house of demons.'  Clement's argument here does not interest us beyond his citing of the Alexandrian text of Barnabas which makes reference to the 'house of demons' citation.

Another early text which makes identifies the temple of Jerusalem as a 'house of demons' through Ecclesiastes 2.8 is the Testimony of Judah.  It tells of the coming of Christ to destroy said building:

Now I have much grief, my children, because of your lewdness, and witchcrafts, and idolatries, which ye will work against the kingdom, following them that have familiar spirits; ye will make your daughters singing girls (Eccles. 2. 8) and harlots for divinations and demons of error, and ye will be mingled in the pollutions of the Gentiles: for which things’ sake the Lord shall bring upon you famine and pestilence, death and the sword, avenging siege, and dogs for the rending in pieces of enemies, and revilings of friends, destruction and blighting of eyes, children slaughtered, wives carried off, possessions plundered, temple of God in flames, your land desolated, your own selves enslaved among the Gentiles, and they shall make some of you eunuchs for their wives; and whenever ye will return to the Lord with humility of heart, repenting and walking in all the commandments of God, then will the Lord visit you in mercy and in love, bringing you from out of the bondage of your enemies.

The Nag Hammadi text the Apocalypse of Peter similarly references a docetic crucifixion where by "this one that they nailed is the first-born of the house of demons" (Apocalypse of Peter 82,21—23).

The identification of the temple of Jerusalem as a 'house of demons' also appears in the early Mandaean text the Haran Gawaitha where John rather than Jesus is the one chosen for the role of destroying said abomination:

The First Life conceived a plan for gaining a grasp in order to destroy the mysteries of Adonai from the seas and to destroy the plot of Ruha and Adonai which came (emanated) from the House of Ruha; to ruin the scheme of Ruha before the presence of the great Father of Glory and to propagate the mysteries (of the Great Life?) .. in Tmari, the pure Jordan, and bore witness to the Truth . And in the great Jordan a pure seed was formed... and came and was sown in the womb of 'Nisbai, so that from it a child might come into being, a prophet of the great Father of Glory, praised be His name! in order to destroy the building of Ruha and Adonai.... in the House which Ruha and her seven sons built I sur- rounded all the district....

The tradition that Solomon used demons to work and live in the Jewish temple even makes its way into the Quran and the early Hadith.

Yet our real purpose here is to make clear that the Marcionite gospel's use of the term 'Bethsaida' was certainly developed from this concept.  The references in the Epistle of Barnabas, the Testimony of Truth and the Apocalypse of Peter are of course important, but many commentators have already noted the idea is present throughout the gospel.  We have already alluded to the parallels with the account of Jesus cleansing the temple at the beginning of the Gospel of John (John 2:12 - 25).  Eduoard Massaux (The influence of the Gospel of Saint Matthew on Christian) notes that the 'house of demons' concept is present in Mt. l2:43-45 and Lk 11:24- 26.  There is a parallel here and throughout the gospel between the temple as 'house of demons' and the human body which Clement earlier rejected.

Yet it is difficult to see how Clement can dismiss the heretical interpretation of the human body containing 'seven demons' just like the temple of Jerusalem in Test. Truth 70.  It appears in the reference to Mary Magdalene (Mark 16.9; Luke 8:2) and as James Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark p. 121) however notes "Mark 12. 27 is patterned according to the image introduced in v. 22 of Beelzeboul as the master of a house of demons."

The question of course then, when we go back to Hebrew text of Matt 11:21, how is it possible that Jesus is wasting his time condemning some insignificant fishing village set on a mountain with the words:

Woe to you and woe to you Beth Saida, for if in Tyre and Sodom, that is, Tirao deter or Sidomah, the signs had been done which were done in you, they would have turned in repentance at that time in sack cloth and ashes

Pagan commentators rightly laughed at the vitriol piled up against some supposedly insignificant little fishing village. It was clearly Jerusalem and its 'house of demons' which Jesus is attacking.  The fact that Peter and Andrew and the apostles are connected to this place (cf John 1.44) only strengthens the identification.

Email stephan.h.huller@gmail.com with comments or questions.

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