Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The New Fourth Chapter of the Myth of Jesus Christ

The most difficult part of making sense of earliest Christianity is that so much of the information we get from our earliest sources is inextricably linked with partisan propaganda.  It would seem no one is reporting the facts as much as they are constantly manipulating commonly held opinions to their advantage.  As such those individuals who have it as their destiny to make sense of gossip and half-truths from almost two thousand years ago must necessary also re-interpret the evidence rather than merely report on it.  The process of recovering the truth of the ancient past is in fact a lot like hunting for antiques - in order to get at the original 'thing' you have to be prepared to strip away layers of paint and covering.

Of course what obviously compounds our difficulties is the fact that people claiming to be 'living representatives' of Judaism and Christianity are quite happy with the propaganda.  The propaganda in fact is the basis to their living faith.  To this end, they are only happy with the stripping away of paint if what lies beneath conforms to their existing presuppositions. More often than not of course they are disappointed with  the naked form of documents and traditions.  They accuse those who are attempting to restore the original 'thing in itself' as having 'an agenda' - of course if they were to properly finish their sentence here they would say 'having an agenda at odds with their own ...'

Indeed not all agendas necessarily are rooted in the ancient past.  In recent years for instance a number of hoaxes have been perpetrated in the Jewish state of Israel hoping to capitalize on the desire of principally American evangelicals to find a wholly human Jesus.  While the official body which oversees the business of antiquities has often sought to prosecute those involved with wrong doing, there other ways that contemporary politics has crept into the living memory of religion.  The most obvious example being that of several prominent Jewish scholars and religious leaders openly embracing the myth of 'Jesus the rabbi.'

It goes without saying that ancient Jewish sources were always hostile toward the founder of Christianity.  Yet as we have already seen the argument began as a war against the core Christian concept of Jesus being a God or indeed more correctly 'the Son of God.'  For we have determined in the short space of a few chapters that as long as their was a Christian religion there were prominent Jewish leaders denying that he was divine and in fact affirming that he was all too human.  The tradition Jewish understanding of Jesus was that of a wicked magician who turned the people Israel away from their true God and in favor of a 'strange god.'  This notion is interestingly supported by the earliest witness of Christians themselves - at least those among the groups later denounced as 'heretics.'

It is only very recently then - undoubtedly connected with changing political fortunes of the state of Israel - that the ancient testimonies about the wickedness of the founder of Christianity have been essentially ignored. or buried.  Perhaps the transformation can be better argued to have resulted from something more positive - a general rapprochement with the Protestantism in particular or the decline of traditional forms of Christianity rooted in places outside of the New World.  These are things are perhaps best left for another book at another time.

It is enough to note that while celebrated Jewish figures are willing to change their traditional vitriol against the person of Jesus, they remain as steadfast as ever against the core belief of earliest Christianity - namely his claim to divinity.  There is often a thin red line which cannot be crossed when discussing the concept of Jesus or Christianity with Jewish scholars and theologians and that is the idea that the gospel writer wrote the gospel about a divinity hypostasis named Yeshu rather than a human 'prophet' named Joshua.

This observation is certainly based not only on personal experience as a scholar but a Jew having informal discussions with other Jews and Samaritans.  There is an absolute lack of objectivity about the gospel as a literary creation - even a myth - developed about a divine visitation at the beginning of the Common Era.  Some of this may have something to do with the fact that the rabbinic sources are so explicitly make reference to the humanity of Yeshu.  Nevertheless it is quite impossible to go all the way with this hypothesis given that these same modern witnesses feel quite comfortable ignoring the ancient testimonies to reconstruct their 'good rabbi' myth.

Indeed the earliest Jewish testimonies to Jesus are so utterly fantastical - rooted in a belief that magic for instance actually 'works' and allows people to fly, induces ritualized amnesia - it is difficult to believe that they have been constrained by the weight of this source material.  The proper explanation to why Jews refuse to accept the gospel as a myth may well have something to do with the fact that the same arguments could be turned around against the central story of Jewish origins - the Pentateuch.  It would be hard for Jews to attack the story of the gospel on the grounds that it is an invented fable when the Book of Exodus is similarly rooted in an alleged divine visitation.  In fact this is the very point that Celsus delvers against Philo's original treatise cited in the True Word of Celsus.

As such one can make a very convincing case that the decision to attack Jesus's claims by emphasizing - or inventing - his humanity - was a deliberate tactic of the earliest Jewish polemicists.  The argument was developed quite obviously because the Christian myth was set against the Jewish religion.  God came to earth basically to destroy the temple and end the original dispensation given to Moses.  If Jesus is argued to have 'really been' a human being much of the force of that polemic is effectively blunted.   As Christianity continues to change so too the Jewish attitude towards the central character in their myth.

Nevertheless it remains utterly astounding that not a single person who has some intimacy with the occult traditions of the Jewish religion has connected the traditional interest in yesh with Yeshu of the gospel.    Again, some of that may be attributable to a general unfamiliarity with parallel mystic traditions in Christianity.  Yet the steadfastness with with Jewish scholars hold to the humanity of a figure named Yeshu is quite perplexing.  To even utter possibility that this otherwise unknown appellation might have something to do with a second hidden power in heaven named yesh witnessed in the Sepher Bahir, Abulafia, Gikatilla and others inevitably leads to people questioning your very 'Jewishness,' your commitment to the 'Jewish cause' or even your sanity.

I had this experience recently when corresponding with a noted authority on the Hebrew language Ora Schwarzwald of Bar Ilan University. Schwarzwald was more than happy to discuss the perplexing formation of yesh as a theoretical linguistic problem.  Yet mention the possibility that it might have something to do with the otherwise unexplained appellation Yeshu, there is no room for any further discussion.  "Your theory has nothing to do with the linguistic facts. The word Yesh is a common word in biblical Hebrew. It existed long before Christianity and the trial to connect the two is irrational. It has nothing to do with Yeshu (Jesus), and every historian will tell you that Yeshu is in fact an abbreviation of Yeshua (further abbreviation of Yehoshua 'Joshua'). I consider the matter closed and I do not want to discuss the matter with you any longer.” 

The facts remain of course that not all the experts who contacted as part of the research behind this book were as inflexible as Professor Schwarzwald.  A few at least contributed to some profound breakthroughs which we will discuss shortly.  Nevertheless there is a palpable unease that emerges when you take too deep an interest in the figure of Jesus from a Jewish perspective.  It is akin to the guy at the party who expresses too much of an interest in what life might be like for a couple in a same sex relationship - he must be gay.  So does it appear 'unhealthy' for a Jew to wonder why the appellation Yeshu isn't known before the advent of Christianity?  How many historical figures introduce a wholly unknown form a common name?

It must be said again that up to this point in our correspondence Professor Schwarzwald was most gracious and supportive with peripheral discussions relating to the term yesh – that is of course until I left him a telephone message proposing a connection with the name of the Christian Lord. Indeed I am not even quite sure that Schwarzwald had even considered any or all of the arguments I was putting forward in that recorded sound byte.  From his perspective at least I sounded like some mashugana coming out of left field trying to prove that Jesus was the God of Israel.

In any event, as I have already noted, I was extremely fortunate to have approached more than one expert on the Hebrew language. One in particular, Professor Ruaridh Boid formerly of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia was very supportive of my ideas and ultimately pointed me in the direction which led to what I considered to be decisive proof for Jesus being regarded as the mystical power known to generations of Jews as the yesh.  It was on one of my phone calls with Dr. Boid that he recommended that I take a look at the Greek translation of Exodus chapter 3:14 – especially the section in which God manifests himself to Moses from the burning bush. It is there that we find unique readings in our so-called 'Septuagint'- i.e. the translation which purports to be the work which Ptolemy commissioned the 'seventy' (= Latin septuaginta) Jewish elders of Alexandria - which lead us to the ultimate solution.

For it is here in the Greek that we read a variant where God, instead of referring to himself ‘I will be what I will be’ as in the Hebrew (= eyheh asher eyheh) declares ego eimi ho on or "I am the Being.”  The reading has always puzzled the experts.  Indeed this discrepancy has never been plausibly explained as the Greek terminology does not fit the language of the Hebrew.  Given it is universally acknowledged that the lost original exemplar behind all existing recensions of the Pentateuch was certainly composed in Hebrew, there is a tendency to ignore the LXX (= Septuagint) even though it is in theory at least much older than the nor 'normative' Masoretic text.  Yet the LXX clearly points to a something different than what appears in the all existing Hebrew manuscripts.  After all ho on derives from a root which means 'to be' in Greek and ehyeh means not ‘to be’ but ‘to become.’

The closest Hebrew equivalent to the Greek ho on is of course yesh.  Of course some will argue that yesh is not strictly speaking a verb, but a noun that is used in quasi-verbal form.  But this has little bearing on the issue.  Yesh expresses the same idea as the participle to on.  The underlying text it was translating must have witnessed a completely different reading of Exodus 3:14.  This lost Hebrew exemplar likely read anochi yesh in place of the familiar eyheh asher eyheh.  Of course at the present moment this is just a supposition or a hunch, rather than a cohesive argument.  Nevertheless it is important to lay all our cards on the table before proceeding.  The fact that the Greek text has an unexpected reading in itself does not prove that the translators were working from a wholly different Hebrew original manuscript.  Yet this objection was ultimately overcome by appealing to the witnesses of the earliest manuscripts of the gospel.

It has long been recognized that the Gospel of John preserves an important witness to Jesus’s divinity when at John 8:58 Jesus tells his Jewish opponents – “Before Abraham was I am” (prin Abraam geenesthai ego eimi). Immediately after these words are uttered the Jews become enraged at these words an attempt to stone him. Most scholars connect the ego eimi (= I am) with the many declarations of the Jewish god in the Pentateuch. Yet there is something decidedly odd about simply ending a sentence with ‘I am.’ It has long been noted that something was either missing or cut out of the original reference in Greek and Latin but preserved in Syriac, Sahidic, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian and Ethiopic versions of the Gospel of John.

All of these witnesses preserve a more original form of the statement than is currently found in Greek and Latin which the original Syriac preserves as ena ithai – ‘I (am) being.’[1]  There can be no doubt that this exclamation was originally interpreted as a confirmation of who Jesus really claimed to be - i.e. God. Nevertheless there is a pronounced effort to refashion Jesus into the Protestant image of Christ – that is to emphasize his humanity and under report the places where he clearly claims to be God.  In this case John 8:58 is without question a citation of Exodus 3:14 as it appears in the LXX.  Yet were the ancient Syriac witnesses merely making reference to the existing Greek translation or rather to some lost Hebrew original text?  The answer has to be the latter.

At the most basic level we must concede that Jesus is telling his enemies that he is the Being that Moses encountered in the burning bush.  This is a critical piece of information which helps explain why Jesus was condemned by the Sanhedrin and ultimately (or apparently) crucified. By saying that he was the Being of the burning bush, Jesus was claiming to be God and thus was deemed to have been guilty of blasphemy. This understanding is consistent with the earliest witnesses of what transpired in all the gospel narratives. Before Jesus is condemned to death he is asked if he is the Son of God (or some other epithet associated with this heavenly power).  His original ‘I am’ response to the question of ‘are you the Son of God’ (or some such variant) was enough to confirm what was already heard in John 8:58.  He was duly 'convicted for his crimes'   by the Sanhedrin.[2]

This has all been demonstrated before of course.  Yet the important thing for us to keep in mind is that the the narrative of the gospel only makes sense if Jesus and the Pharisees are all speaking Aramaic - or perhaps artificial Hebrew.  It cannot be held that Jesus was citing from the LXX.  The textual variant of anochi yesh must have been known to the authorities in Hebrew.  The specific term ithay which is used in Syriac (and indeed Biblical and Samaritan Aramaic) is the exact equivalent of the Hebrew term yesh. If, as almost all the Church Fathers acknowledge, there was a Hebrew gospel behind all Greek texts the passage in question here in no uncertain terms announced ‘I am yesh’ or anochi yesh. In other words - and this is critical - we have to recognize that Jesus’s isn’t just quoting saying he is the Being of the burning bush but is also explaining the etymological origins of his very name Yeshu.[3]

There has been a lot of work recently in trying to figure out where the nomina sacra - the unusual little abbreviations written in ornate script - come from.  It is beginning to look increasingly certain that this earliest  of these representations of the name Jesus - i.e. IS in Greek - represent a simple transposition into Greek of the two letter Hebrew yesh (= YSh or the letters yod shin).  A parallel example which is found in early texts is the use of PIPI to denote the Tetragrammaton (YHWH).

In any event, the important thing for us to remember is that the name Yeshu was always the subject of mystical speculation in the writings of both Jews and Christians.  Where the original Christians developed acronyms to support the divinity of Christ, Jewish authors developed parodies of these inventions to ridicule the religion.  Yet even in spite this the name Yeshu cannot have started out as some sort of cryptic code.  The most likely explanation is that the traditional Jewish mystical interest in yesh is behind the appearance of a figure referenced by the letters IS in the Greek gospels.  Of course to one has to first be brought into acquaintance with the tradition Jewish interest in yesh.

Perhaps the fullest exposition of the original occultist significance of the term term it is found in Joseph Gikatilla's 'Gates of Light.'  All early rabbinic figures seem to be aware of the dictum yesh m’ayin which explained the mystical significance of the creation of ‘substance from nothingness’ which ultimately derives from the Sepher Yetzirah. Yet Gikatilla's interest in yesh goes far beyond this and clearly brings in other unnamed sources undoubtedly which included his master Abraham Abulafia.  Indeed Gikatilla preserves a tradition that fully complements what was originally developed among the first Christians over a millennium earlier, that is the understanding that wherever yesh appears in Holy Scripture it was referencing a hidden power unknown to all but the enlightened, which was the viceroy of the ultimately divinity.

It would take up too much space to go through all of Gikatilla's references to yesh in the small space that is available to us here.  While it is certain that the Jewish mystical tradition was no longer aware of the anochi yesh reading at Exodus 3:14, there were apparently many others which made his presence manifest.   Yesh was still 'there' in the Pentateuch narrative in verses Genesis 28:12 and Exodus 7:17.  There are also references understood to be present in 2 Chronicles 2:15, Habakkuk 3:14, Proverbs 8:21, Ruth 4:17 and Isaiah 11.1.  This cannot be something that Gikatilla simply invented out of thin air.  He clearly testifies that he is drawing his information about yesh from a pre-existent tradition, over and over again.

We shall concentrate on our efforts on the two examples which Gikatilla draws from the Pentateuch given the significance of this text in the Jewish religion.  Gikatilla begins the Gates of Light with the understanding that there are ten gates in heaven,Yesh occupying the second highest sphere and is also known by the name Yah, the short form of the Tetragrammaton (YHWH).  This notion of ten spheres in heaven is reminiscent of a number of early Christian representations of heaven including the so-called 'Ophite diagram' referenced in Against Celsus as well as certain statements in the writings of the Church Father Clement of Alexandria.  The notion that three heavens stand above the seven planets mirrors early exegesis of St Paul’s ascent to the ‘third heaven.’

Gikatilla tells us that there are in Jewish kabbalah “three upper spheres [which] influence the seven lower Spheres.”  In other words, for the early kabbalists there were three ‘super-heavens’ stacked on top of seven lower spheres undoubtedly originally equated with the seven planets, which were only visited by the purest of spiritual teachers.  After going through all the mystical reference to yah in the Jewish writings, Gikatilla immediately switches gears and explains that yesh is another name for the second highest sphere:

Know that this [same] sphere is referred to in the Torah as Yesh, and you must realize the reason. For the first Sphere is ‘crown,’ which is hidden from all living things, and no one may even contemplate it, for it is called Ein (nothing), as we shall explain in the future, with God’s help. If a man comes to ask of it something, the answer he will receive is ‘Ein’ – meaning that there is no one who can contemplate the essence of its depth and grandeur. Thus, it is not symbolized by a specific letter, but only by the crown of the letter yud (y). It is the origin of thought which flows, for the beginning of where the order of the Spheres is perceivable originates with the second Sphere which is Wisdom, and this is the place where one has access to request one’s wishes. For even though it is not revealed, [the second Sphere] is not completely hidden as the first Sphere. It is the second Sphere that contains the essence of where questioning begins. The first Sphere, because of its hiddenness, is called Ein; the second Sphere, which has limited accessibility to requests through [the fact that it receives] the everflow emanating from Crown [and Crown the does not receive overflow] is called Yesh. Jacob our Father, already revealed things from the mysteries of this Sphere, for it was more attracted to him than to Abraham or Isaac, for this portion ascends through the Middle Lane [of the heavenly hierarchy] which Knowledge until it reaches the realm of mercy. Therefore "and he dreamed and behold a ladder stood on the ground whose top reached heaven … and behold YHWH stood above him and Jacob awakened from sleep saying, “It is true that Yesh (there is) YHWH is in this place.'" (Genesis 28:12)

The point then is that Gikatilla has given us the first of many scriptural references which support he believed revealed a hidden divine power known to his ancestors as Yesh.  The description then not only begins by resembling the heretical interpretations of three 'super heavens' above the seven heavenly watchers but moreover early mystical interpretation of the Son's relationship with his Father.

Jesus is always conceived as a power that stands as an intermediary between the lower world and the highest power.  This is also the role that Gikatilla gives to the power in the Second Sphere called Yesh.  Gikatilla immediately goes on to say that this Yesh “was not revealed to the other Forefathers (Abraham, Isaac), thus he (Jacob) ascended to the “heights of the earth” saying ‘it is true that Yesh YHWH is in this place.’” Gikatilla stops himself from going any further and immediately says “the explanation of this portion is long and this is not the place to elaborate further” mentioning only:

This is Yesh which Israel is alone attached to, so that they may enter life in the world to come and then they will be nurtured with all the everflow, favour and blessing, which has no measure from the Sphere known as Yesh.

Thus it should be quite apparent to readers that this kabbalistic Yesh functions in exactly the same capacity as ‘the Son’ or ‘the Logos’ in the traditional Christian understanding about Jesus. In that system of thought, the being who cannot be seen directly is called ‘the Father’ (rather than Ein) and the one who ‘communes’ with us and to whom we cleave is ‘the Son.’

Indeed if we go back to Schwarzwald’s flippant remark about yesh being a pre-existent Hebrew terminology it should be obvious by now how silly this statement really is.  For the same arguments could be made about the Greek terms logos (= reason), sophia (= wisdom) or topos (= place).  Each has a meaning in Greek which predates the theological attribution given to it by Alexandrian Jews and Christians. Indeed  Philo of Alexandria doesn’t just pick a single Greek word to mean the god below the highest god. In fact the very arguments that Schwarzwald directs against the mystical assumptions about yesh could certainly also be assumed about the Hebrew term for ‘wisdom' (= hochmah). We can be absolutely certain that this term was not originally associated with a divine hypostasis in the most archaic period of the Hebrew language. At one time it too simply referenced something purely mundane and terrestial – i.e. human wisdom.

To this end, yesh certainly did not begin as a name for divinity or secret power.  Nevertheless at some point in the history of the Hebrew language it became associated with the power below the ultimately God.  Was the divine hypostasis yesh invented at Provence in the tenth century along with other kabbalistic texts and traditions?  It is certainly true that Gikatilla references previous generations of kabbalists associated with this conception.  We see his teacher Abraham Abulafia speak of the intermediary power which sits enthroned in heaven as Yesh Ra'l (= ‘there are 213’ gates).[3]  This is one of a number of mystical interpretations of the name Israel.  The existence of an angelic power named ‘Israel’ and who wrestled with Jacob and ultimately gave him his name is much older than Christianity. So too is the existence of a related angel named ‘Sariel’ who is ultimately banned from the mainstream traditions of Judaism and Christianity.[4] Moreover as noted earlier, the alternative epithet Chrestos can be connected with etymological root of the name Israel too.[5]

Gikatilla is also clearly indebted to other sources beside his teacher Abraham Abulafia for the idea that Yesh was an intermediary power between humanity and the highest God.  He clearly also draws from the Sepher Bahir’s reading of Habakkuk 3:4 “His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth. His splendor was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand, Yesh his hidden power.”[6] Indeed the term which follows yesh – hidden or hebion – can also be associated with the name of the Jewish Christian tradition 'the Ebionites' who believed Jesus was a secret God.[7]

Yet getting back to our original promise to focus only on the recognized mystical references to yesh in the Pentateuch, it is worth noting that while referencing Proverbs 8:21 “to bequeath the lovers of Yesh, I fill their storehouses” Gikatilla connects the reference to an important statement in the book of Exodus - "some Kabbalists say that this (passage in Proverbs) is referring to the Yesh that is hidden way for the righteous, for whom it is written “the Yesh YHWH in our midst or Ein?” (Exodus 17:7).  For Gikatilla it is especially significant that this passage immediately follows a reference to the concept of 'the Rock' (tsur) leading the Israelites in the desert.

The Jewish mystic sees the side by side reference of yesh and ein as relating to the two powers in heaven which would roughly correspond to 'Father' and 'Son' in the Christian system.  Gikatilla attributes the familiar rabbinic understanding of two aspects of God - mercy and judgment - to ein and yesh respectively.  Indeed early Christian writers also had a sense of Father and Son being present at the Exodus through the presence of the latter.  We shall take this up in greater detail in our next chapter.  For the moment at least Gikatilla argues that Exodus 17:7 makes reference to two pathways to reach the supernal realm which correspond to the 'mercy' of ein and the judgment of yesh.  As it turned out, the ancient Israelites apparently followed Yesh, the rock in the wilderness through a path of hardship viz.– “Let me infer that they did not enter through the pathway of love, but through the way [of Yesh is] known as Tzur (rock).”

Indeed if the Christian reader can substitute the terminology of Ain and Yesh for ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ he can immediately see how many fundamental concepts are present in Gikatilla’s mystical conception.[8]  They should consider for a moment the statement in 1 Corinthians chapter 10 - "they were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.  They all ate the same spiritual food  and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ."  In the one tradition the rock is Yeshu, in the other he is yesh.

It would be very easy to spend a whole book developing an appreciation for the early interest in Yesh as the hidden power which would ultimately save Israel.  The fact that so many people have interpreted the very name Israel to derive from some term related to yesh is very significant in this regard.  Yet we shall now close this chapter with perhaps the most startling reference of all - the shared interest of Gikatilla and the early Christians in the name yishay (= Jesse) the father of David who is the anointed one of Israel.  Gikatilla understands yeshay to derive from yesh.  A number of authorities on the Hebrew language agree with him in this respect.  Yet for Gikatilla yeshay isn’t simply the name of the human father of David but rather as the yesh, it represents the heavenly source for the eventual manifestation of the messiah.[9]

Like many mystical writers, Gikatilla focuses a great deal of attention on the words of Isaiah "a shoot will come up from the stump of yeshay; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him - the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord— and he will delight in the fear of the Lord."  The individual terms referenced here - wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, fear - are all kabbalistic terms which allow Gikatilla to understand yesh as feeding all the lower spheres with cosmic energy from the ultimate source of all things - ein.  Nevertheless, it is his conception of yeshay as nothing short of a heavenly double for the earthly messiah which is so utterly striking and reminiscent of the earliest Christian understanding of Jesus's role within the Christian community.

At one point in his discussion Gikatilla tells his readers that yeshay is a palindrome with each y representing a connected heavenly and earthly representative of the manifestation of the messiah.  A very similar explanation of the early Jewish Christian interest in the name 'Jesse' is reported by the fourth century Church Father Epiphanius.  He reports in no uncertain terms that the earliest Christians called themselves 'Jessaeans' from a spiritual power named yeshay:

But since David's seed through Mary is seated on a throne, forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. He would need now to reposition the former crown; for his kingdom is not earthly, as he said to Pontius Pilatus in the Gospel, "My Kingdom is not of this world."" For since Christ fulfills all that was said in riddles, the beginnings have reached a limit. For he who is always king did not come to achieve sovereignty. Lest it be thought that he advanced from a lower estate to a higher, he granted the crown to those whom he appointed. For his throne endures, and there will be no end of his kingdom. And he sits on the throne of David, and has transferred David's crown and granted it, with the high priesthood, to his own servants, the high priests of the catholic church.

And there is much to say about this. However, since I have come to the reason why those who came to faith in Christ were called Jessaeans before they were called Christians, I have said that Jesse was the father of David. And they had been named Jessaeans, either because of this Jesse; or from the name or our Lord Jesus since, as his disciples, they were derived from Jesus; or because of the etymology of the Lord's name

If you enjoy study and have read about them in Philo's historical writings, in his book entitled ''Jessaeans,'' you may discover that, in his account of their way of life and hymns, and his description of their monasteries in the vicinity of the Marean marsh, Philo described none other than Christians. For he was edified by his visit to the area-the place is called Mareotis and his entertainment at their monasteries in the region.

He arrived during Passover and observed their customs, and how some of them kept the holy week of Passover (only) after a postponement of it, but others by eating every other day though others, indeed, ate each evening. But Philo wrote all this of the faith and regimen of the Christians. So in that brief period when they were called Jessaeans after the Savior's ascension, and after Mark had preached in Egypt certain other persons seceded," though they were followers of the apostles if you please …

Thus Christ's holy disciples called themselves "disciples of Jesus" then, as indeed they were. But they were not rude when others called them Nazoreans, since they saw the intent of those who called them this. They did it because of Christ, since our Lord Jesus was called Nazoreans himself so say the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles-because of his upbringing in Joseph’s home in the city of Nazareth, which is now a village. Though he was born in the flesh at Beth Lehem, of the ever-virgin Mary, Joseph’s betrothed. Joseph had settled in Nazareth after leaving Beth Lehem and taking up residence in Galilee.

But these sectarians whom I am now sketching disregarded the name of Jesus, and did not call themselves Jessaeans, keep the name of Jews, or term themselves Christians but [rather] Nazoreans from the place-name, Nazoreans if you please! However they are simply completed Jews.

This is an absolutely significant reference which represents a wonderful place for us to bring to a close our discussion of traditions which recognized Jesus as the yesh.  Epiphanius clearly knew of a tradition which developed at least one of the arguments found in the writings of Joseph Gikatilla - namely that yeshay was a deeply significant name connected with the heavenly power which 'fed' the early messiah.

There can be no mistaking then that Epiphanius says he possessed a copy of Philo’s On the Contemplative Life which circulated under the title On the Jesseaeans. This is hardly astounding in itself as the treatise circulated in a Latin form with a very similar title (Philonis Judaei liber de statu Essaeorum, id est Monachorum, qui temporibus Agrippae regis).  It is Epiphanius’s contention then that not only that the Essenes were originally called Jessaeans but moreover that Christians themselves were first called by this name.  Many scholars have not taken this testimony seriously enough merely because it contradicts many of our inherited assumptions about Christians and the Jewish sect referred elsewhere in Greek and Latin as ‘the Essenes.’ Yet it is often overlooked that Epiphanius was a recognized expert in Syriac and Hebrew. [10]

A growing number of contemporary scholars have finally recognized that Epiphanius isn't just putting forward nonsense.  He probably is reporting on a real tradition which he came into contact with during his travels in Syria.  For it has recently been established that 'Jessaeans' is one of the actual terms by which Christians were referenced in Syriac.  They are still to this day called  natsray (= Nasoreans) and also yeshuaye, and a cognate title is to be found in Arabic as well [11]  As Matt A Jackson-McCabe notes in his recent study Jewish Considered Reconsidered "it is possible that Epiphanius knew these titles from Syriac traditions and connected them to the first Christians because, being Semitic, they had a ring of authenticity." [11]

The point of course is that it is uncanny how many of the same arguments that Gikatilla connects with the heavenly power yesh are also found in early Christian sources.  Epiphanius seems to be drawing from two separate sources – a Greek version of Philo’s reference to the Jewish sectarian Jessaeans as well as familiarity with the terminology used to describe Christians in the East.   Epiphanius may well have also picked up their own claims regarding their name deriving from a mystical association with yeshay, ‘the root of the messiah.’ Indeed the name yeshay is identified also by Genesius and others as being rooted in yesh and meaning ‘wealthy.’ It is very intriguing to see that the sect which believed in the hidden power yesh were sarcastically identified as ‘the Ebionites’ – i.e. the poor.  Indeed the earliest Church Fathers who connect the name Ebion with 'poor' (rather than hebion = hidden) always do so as a rejection of their claim to possess 'spiritual wealth.' [12]

To this end, we have succeeded I think in demonstrating what amounts to a 'road map' of sorts to understand how Jesus was understood by his followers to have been a secret heavenly power.  There existed within Judaism a belief in the existence of a being - indeed 'the Being' - whose existence was generally concealed who existed as a separate hypostasis from the ultimate god and even the Creator.  The figure of Yesh represented the firstborn creation of the Father.  It was from the spiritual substance of yesh that material being was ultimately formed.  "He was in the world, the world which came into being through him, but the world had no knowledge of him" [John 1:10]  It was yesh in the form of the Christian god Yeshu who finally appeared at what was supposed to be the end of the world and revealed a new path to heavenly liberation.

It should becoming manifest to the reader that there is a whole world within the Bible that is not generally well recognized.  The heretical notion of a series of emanations which emerge from the ultimate source of divinity culminating in the creation of what is ultimately an imperfect world is not some sort of aberration in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  With respect to the writings of Joseph Gikatilla we are one step removed from this doctrine.  It may be difficult for at least some of our readership to get beyond merely imagining Jesus as a messenger of God.  The reality was of course that he was conceived as both the messenger and the message.  As the yesh he is not merely talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood in some metaphorical manner - the word yesh means substance and so the Christian liturgy is principally focused on the absorption of substances.

Think about that the next time you sing Psalm 34:6 "taste and see that the Lord is Chrestos" ...

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Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
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