Indeed the most commonly accepted etymology for the name Israel in antiquity was that this was an 'upright' (yashar) people. What most people aren't aware of is that yashar is at least occasionally rendered into Greek translations of the Bible as chrestos - the very title that was originally associated with Jesus before he became 'the Christ.' There is also evidence that the early members of the religion of Jesus in Alexandria identified themselves as chrestoi (the good, the noble) rather than the decidedly unusual formation christianoi (Christians). Yet matters today are of course quite the reverse.
The point here is that stories, myths and meanings change. What seems second nature today might seem outdated tomorrow and - more importantly - be totally forgotten the day or year after that. While most people of faith think the truth is unchanging - they're plain wrong. What is believed about Jesus in the popular culture today is very different from what it was fifty years ago. This problem gets compounded the further back you go in time.
Since most people who have opinions about the Bible don't speak Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic it is not surprising that they find themselves stuck in a fairly rigid understanding of what might be true about it. Most of them are completely unaware of the incredible variations within various recensions of the holy writings and then there is the complexity of early interpretations of these textual sources. It takes many, many years of study to come to a learned opinion about the Bible - which is probably why most people either avoid thinking seriously about the good book or stick to the inherited opinions of their ancestors.
Yet if it is truth that we are after there really is only one way to proceed. We have to build on the discoveries that we made in our first two chapters and ask the penultimate question - who or what was Jesus? Indeed we have made some progress toward our goal insofar as we determined that Christianity not only originally appealed its message to Jewish converts but more importantly was engaged in a bitter struggle with leading members of the Jewish community like Philo of Alexandria. These facts rarely get the attention they deserve because we have inherited a New Testament which was principally aimed at Gentiles. The difference comes down when the materials were first developed. Philo was active at the latter part of the first century, our present New Testament canon was fixed some time near the end of the second century.
In those precious one hundred years, the religion of Jesus was fundamentally transformed. Most contemporary Gentile Christian believers aren't really interest in much beyond this late appeal to outsiders like themselves. As we noted earlier, it takes too much effort, too much time, too much attention to sort through all the evidence and speculate about what was going on before the first edition of our present New Testament canon. It is enough to stick with the ancient Gentiles rather than start 'messing around' with uncertain truths about the beliefs of the first Jewish converts to the religion. Nevertheless, this is exactly what we are going to do in this chapter - we are going to continue to follow the lead we came up with in the last chapter about a group of Christians at Alexandria who were terrorizing the local population with gloom and doom interpretations of the Bible by means of kabbalah.
The first question of course is - what exactly is 'kabbalah' anyway? A quick glance at Wikipedia confirms that the term simply means 'receiving' in Hebrew. After the thirteenth century the term began increasing associated with the receiving of mystical traditions and knowledge. There is no evidence to demonstrate that this term ever had this meaning in the period before the last millennium. Yet these ideas certainly go back at least to the beginning of the Common Era. The Christian group that we noted in the last chapter identified itself with Mark - likely the evangelist - that was accused of an unhealthy interest in the mystical significance of letters and numbers is reported to have identified themselves as maskilim (= enlightened) from the Book of Daniel. This was also the very term used by the earliest kabbalists to identify themselves a thousand years later in Spain, France and other urban centers.
Coincidence? On its own it might well be seen as such. Nevertheless there is just too much that connects the followers of Mark to Philo and then both traditions to the earliest mystical writings of the medieval period that Gershom Scholem, the great authority on kabbalah, determined that one developed from the other. There is of course so much that we don't know about Judaism in the Dark Ages. When it comes to developing the history of ideas from thousands of years ago we will always have many, many blind spots in our knowledge. Yet the starting point is as always to begin by acknowledging 'some kind of relationship' and then developing a more detailed analysis from there.
As such we can be certain that a number of core mystical ideas were passed on to these earliest kabbalists from a shared religious past with the first Alexandrian Christians. Whether or not the relationship was as direct as Scholem often portrays it, is a great unanswered question. It may well be that Philo, the followers of Mark and the early Jewish kabbalists were all drawing from some unknown source from before the Common Era. We may never know for certain however, because of course we are ultimately trying to make sense of things which no longer exist.
We do have one important clue from within the body of writings in the early Church Fathers which often goes overlooked. As noted at the close of our last chapter, it is reported by Irenaeus of Rome that the followers of Mark believed that the entire gospel was written according to some kabbalistic cipher. The interpretation of this code of letters and numbers was preserved in the form of a secret myth of salvation that was imparted by Mark by word of mouth to a select group of disciples. As noted by many scholars, this is decidedly similar to the manner in which Jewish mystic circles alleged their 'kabbalah' was passed on for generations. The only difference is of course that the secret knowledge of Christians was ultimately extirpated. All we have left are the hostile reports of the Church Fathers from the second, third and fourth centuries to shed some light on matters.
It would seem from the evidence of Philo and Irenaeus that this Marcosian kabbalah was principally preserved in Greek. These mystics also used the Greek translation of the Bible to develop its mystic truths. Nevertheless it is also clear from the writings of Irenaeus that this knowledge existed side by side a liturgy and perhaps an older school of exegesis that existed in Hebrew or Aramaic, the 'real language' of the Jewish religion at least within the circle of Marcosians. This situation at least helps explain why Philo and the Jewish tradition of Alexandria may not have shared all the beliefs and traditions with Mark and his followers. Perhaps the early Christians were drawing from some hitherto unknown (and unimagined) Palestinian source for their ultimate inspiration.
Indeed it was this struggle between mystical knowledge developed in Greek from Greek sources in Alexandria and something more traditional (i.e. Hebrew or Aramaic) which ultimately exposed the exegetical tradition of Mark to criticism from the likes of Irenaeus and the later Church Fathers. They have hit upon a seemingly fundamental problem with the Marcosian interpretation of the gospel as the same words and phrases in Hebrew and Greek do not add up to the same numerical value. How then, Irenaeus asks, can this mystical exegesis be 'true'? If the word dove for instance is spelled two different ways in two different languages each formation having different letters which add up to different sums (dove = 801 in Greek and 72 in Aramaic) does this fact disprove all their mystical mumbo jumbo?
Irenaeus brings up another matters which goes right to the heart of the Marcosian understanding of Jesus - the mystical significance of his very name. Apparently the Marcosians preserved two different forms of the name Jesus - Iesous and Yeshu. Indeed we have yet to explain who or what the first Christians believed Jesus to be in the gospel narrative. Certainly, it has become clear that he was universally understood have been God - even the 'Son of God.' Yet why was the Son of God named 'Jesus'? Indeed wasn't the very name 'Jesus' simply the normal Greek translation of the Biblical name Joshua?
Before we get into the mystical identity of Jesus a basic fact about the manuscripts of the New Testament has to be made manifest to our readership. Indeed this understanding is so essential that the world would be well served to hear it everyday for the rest of their lives. The oldest manuscripts of the Bible do not ever spell out the name 'Jesus,' 'Christ' or for that matter many of the holiest words in the Christian religious vocabulary. A sacred nomenclature was established - likely from the very beginning of Christianity - where sacred words were abbreviated to two or three letter 'codes' written out in peculiar scripts.
The earliest and most common abbreviation for the name of the Lord is simply the Greek equivalent of the letters I and S. The most common abbreviation for his title is similarly the Greek equivalent of the letter X and S. As such when you go through the early manuscripts of the New Testament you do not see the name 'Jesus' or 'Christ' appear anywhere on the page. Instead the manuscript is filled with peculiarly ornate two letter codes which are typically presumed to designate the familiar theological concepts of a savior named 'Joshua' who was called the 'Christ' by his followers. Nevertheless there is ample evidence to suggest that these were not the only explanations to these 'alphabetic codes' of the Bible.
For instance it is well established in the writings of the Church Fathers that some - a group often described as 'the vulgar' - identified the XS code to designate the title of the Lord to be 'Chrestos' - i.e. the kind one -rather than the Christ or 'the anointed one.' We have already mentioned this title at the beginning of this chapter. It turns out that according to a very ancient understanding Jesus did not want to be identified as the Christ of the Jews but rather a divine being already witnessed in the writings of Philo of Alexandria as the god Chrestos. The god Chrestos was the furthest thing from being some foreign pagan divinity. The Alexandrian Jewish community no less than other Hebrew cultures noticed that there were at least two powers of God being referenced throughout the narrative of the Pentateuch. He explicitly makes reference to the idea that the text witnesses that one power - 'the Lord' - was the power of retribution, the other - 'God' - the power of mercy or kindness.
Philo repeatedly makes reference to 'the god Chrestos' as this power of mercy. He visits the Patriarchs many times during the course of the narrative of Genesis and Exodus. The Christians who identified the ornately written XS word on the written pages of their gospel with this being must have been Alexandrian. The followers of Mark were certainly counted among those venerating Jesus as Chrestos. They also must have believed that this one part of the godhead - i.e. 'the nice side' of God - had visited Palestine during the reign of Tiberius in order to prepare them for the ultimate manifestation of the 'bad side' during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. At the core of the gospel narrative then is something of a heavenly 'good cop/bad cop' routine which is ultimately an expression of the lost beliefs associated with Alexandrian Judaism.
Now to return to Irenaeus's testimony. With respect to the IS name of this god Chrestos, there seems to have been a divided opinion about what this meant. To be certain the letters I and S were identified as the first and last letters of the Greek name Jesus (= IesouS). This is how the two letter code of the New Testament were interpreted by some heretics, some representatives of the official Church and indeed all scholars today. Yet interestingly Irenaeus bucks this trend and argues that there 'heretics' who make this argument have it all wrong. The real name of Jesus was Yeshu and all the mystical arguments that they developed with respect to the Greek name 'Jesus' (i.e. that I + E + S + O + U + S = 888) are all utterly misguided. The divine language was Hebrew according to the Roman Church Father and the letters of Jesus's real name Yeshu actually add up to 613, the very number of commandments that God gave to Moses.
Of course the likes of Madonna or Ashton Kutcher - those who have a wholly superficial knowledge of Jewish mysticism - are probably scratching their heads here wondering how this early kabbalistic tradition calculated the three letters of the name Yeshu to add up to 613. Y and S and U only have a value of 316 in Hebrew, the number 613 in jumbled form. Irenaeus however acknowledges here at least that this 'Christian kabbalah' is not all complete bullshit. They haven't just scrambled the original values of the three letters but instead notes that Yeshu "is a word belonging to the proper tongue of the Hebrews, contains, as the learned among them declare, two letters and a half (letters), and signifies that Lord who contains heaven and earth."  In other words Irenaeus cites with apparent approval that Jesus name is really acronym which comes from Genesis 2:4 in Hebrew - the “Lord (Yahweh) of heaven (Shamim) and earth (U’eretz).”
It is amazing to see how few New Testament scholars take the time to deal with this tradition. Irenaeus is after all the champion of orthodoxy. He knows what the truth of the religion is supposed to be and is rightly bashing the heads of the wrong-headed heretics. Nevertheless with this comment these same scholars don't know what to do. Yeshu is the real name of Jesus and it is an acronym for God Almighty? They have to scratch their heads and ask - what kind of drugs was Irenaeus on when he wrote this? Nevertheless Yeshu isn't just found as the name of Jesus in Irenaeus or his early gnostic witness. It is used throughout the Jewish writings from the very earliest period. Moreover it is the name used throughout the writings of Christians in the Aramaic speaking regions of the Middle East for as long as we have records. It is still used in these churches to this day.
It is also worth noting that Irenaeus also champions the view that the Jews actually changed their body of religious writings to confound the Christians. This view isn't taken very seriously by religious scholars. Nevertheless it is also echoed in other early Church Fathers. It is interesting to note that when we turn to Genesis 2:4 in the Masoretic recension the ordering of the oft repeated phrase in the Bible 'heaven and earth' has become inverted. We read now 'the Lord of earth and heaven' which is contradicted by every other witness to the material.
Could the Jews have been so scared of the influence of the first Christians that they modified their holy writings? The early Christians certainly said this was true. Yet a very similar argument can be leveled against Irenaeus and the Christians of the third century. Did they alter the sacred writings of the Bible in order to stamp out the heretical beliefs associated with Jesus being originally identified as a hidden power named Yeshu? It is a very complex question. One that a number of popular books and websites make reference to, mostly with dissatisfying results. On the one hand, there can be no doubt that the gospel(s) used by the earliest Christians in the period before Irenaeus are very different from the standardized texts used after this Roman Church Father. Nevertheless it is among the murkiest and most elusive proofs to assemble in a convincing way.
At the very least let us acknowledge that Irenaeus accepts the notion that the Jewish scriptures have been tampered with. Indeed he believes in the Pentateuch even though he acknowledges that it only falsely claims to have come from the hand of Moses. Irenaeus reports that the text was lost and ultimately written 'according to the spirit' - i.e. under the spell of inspiration in the fifth century BCE by Ezra. This is decidedly odd - at least on the surface - for one wouldn't expect someone to accept the idea that the Pentateuch was a pseudepigrapha and yet believe in the material all the same. But that's Irenaeus of Rome - always full of surprises.
So let's get back to Irenaeus's surprising rejection of Iesous as Christ's real name. As noted above what Irenaeus is saying is not without precedent. The Jewish writings when they refer to Jesus by name reference him as Yeshu. They even seem to be aware of the existence of an acronym associated with the name and develop many disparaging forms themselves. Yet what is really puzzling is why Irenaeus and the Semitic speaking believers and detractors should all agree on an appellation which is ultimately without meaning.
To be certain scholars simply assume Yeshu as some form of the Hebrew Yeshua which is itself ultimately a short form of the Biblical name Yehoshua. But this is simply uninspired thinking. Yeshu looks decidedly strange in Aramaic. There is no precedent for this form. It just is taken to be a short form of Yeshua much like they simply take for granted that Jesus must have been a historical figure. Scholarly simply have a habit of oversimplifying things in order to allow them to get back to their inherited presuppositions.
Since all early Christians - i.e. both Irenaeus and his opponents - point to a wholly mystical origin for the name Yeshu can such a thesis be explained? Don't we at least owe this to the ancients? There is no word in any Hebrew or Aramaic dictionary which looks exactly like yeshu, however there has always been an unexplained phenomenon in Hebrew grammar which is worth considering. Scholars have wondered for at least a thousand years why yeshu isn't the third person form of the Hebrew term yesh (= 'being')?
Certainly these matters are the furthest thing from most people's minds. Even people who speak Hebrew couldn't careless why it is that they say yeshnu rather than yeshu if they were to speak of someone having being or substance. Indeed this is a matter strictly reserved for those who study the history of the Jewish language and theoretically reconstruct what forms might have existed in certain periods where we have little or no information available to us.
The problem was first noticed by the great twelfth century Jewish rationalist and Biblical exegete Moses ibn Ezra. Hebrew grammar is pretty straightforward. While there is no proper equivalent to the English verb 'to be' in the language, Hebrew uses two terms - yesh and eino - to denote 'being' and 'not being.' Judging by the normal rules of conjugation one would expect these two related terms to become 'yeshu' (he is) and 'einu' (he is not). Yet Ibn Ezra noticed that a 'superfluous' n is added in Deuteronomy 29:15 - "But with him that standeth here with us this day (Deut 29:15) - the nun of yeshno (= that standeth here) is superfluous."  To understand what Ibn Ezra is saying often escapes those fluent in Hebrew but the English translators of his work - "yeshno is the word yesh plus the third person pronominal suffix. That suffix is a vav. Thus we would expect yesho rather than yeshno. Hence Ibn Ezra's comment."
Indeed the pattern is consistent throughout the Hebrew language. For instance yad is 'hand' in Hebrew and his hand = yadu. The question Ibn Ezra was raising is why isn't yesh similarly transformed into yeshu? Ibn Ezra sees the nun as superfluous. Moreover modern scholars of Hebrew are quick to come to Ibn Ezra's defense. Abraham Tal, one of the greatest living authorities on the language writes - "judging by the form with the second person suffixed pronoun (yeshkha, Judges 6:36; yeshkhem, Deut 13:4), the nun of yeshno looks superfluous indeed." Yet as Tal points out, these examples come from Biblical Hebrew, a language which dates back to before the beginning of the composition of the Bible. We actually have Hebrew documents from close to the time of Jesus and strangely the n drops from the analogous form ein.
Of course if people who actually speak Hebrew aren't interested in these matters why should anyone else? The reason is very simple - we should believe that yeshu was originally a part of the Hebrew spoken in Palestine at the time of Jesus. The reason for this is that we see the unusual n drop from its sister term ein. One of our earliest surviving kabbalistic text the Sepher Yetzirah is written in what is called 'Middle Hebrew' the Hebrew that was spoken when the gospel was allegedly written in that language. At that time the third person form of ein (= not being) was not einenu but einu. In short the superfluous nun was dropped or did not exist in that period.
Indeed when we spend the time to actually think about what is said in the Sepher Yetzirah I think everyone will see the obvious mystical ground from which Yeshu the god of the Christians developed. The text recasts the creation myth of Genesis in terms of a proto-creation of 'being' (yesh) from nothingness (ein) :
He formed from confusion substance (yasar mi-tohu mamasa) and made it with fire and there was being (we-yesnu), and hewed out (hasab) great pillars with intangible air. This is a sign ... He made non-being (einu) into being (yeshnu)
Of course there are almost no living Jewish mystics who would concede that yeshnu here once read yeshu or for that matter had something to do with the God of Christians. As we have seen, Jews denied that Jesus was God from the very beginning. Indeed this was their 'sin' according to the gospel. This is why - we are told - the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed.
With the historical background of two millennia this anti-Jewish mythology it is no wonder that no scholar has ever suggested that the name of Jesus might derive from the 'substance' (= yesh) that the Sepher Yitzirah says was created at the beginning. Indeed we are not merely talking about 'matter' as such but a proto-spiritual substance which was a second form of divinity, one step degraded from the ultimate unknowable God. In Hebrew 'matter' is homer. Yesh, as the twelfth century mystic Azriel ben Menahem describes the process of yesh being the substance of the divine nothingness (= ein) as follows “the surge that issues from the source of Wisdom (hochmah) is called 'blessing' (beralehah), for the dirninution increases progressively and 'he makes his nothing something'" (she-ha-mi'u_t mitrabbeh we-holeleh we-asah eino yeshno)? If yesh was a normal Hebrew noun the last expression would read - God "makes his nothing (into) yeshu."
The main difference between early Jewish mysticism from the eleventh century onward and the Jewish and Christian traditions from Alexandria for a thousand years earlier is emphasis which is placed on the mediating power called 'the Logos.' While it is true that medieval Judaism faintly remembers some sort of mediating power often referenced as 'metatron' the earlier traditions bring forward a complete theological system. It must also be recognized that later Judaism was now living in the shadow of Christianity. If the creative Word had once been a part of their mystical understanding nothing short of a sledgehammer would have had to be taken to efface the memory of Yeshu within their tradition. After all, Jews were increasingly being forced to live under Christian sovereigns who were not always favorable to their right to worship god after the manner of their ancestors.
The turning point in Jewish life in Europe can be dated to 1212 when Crusaders waged a Holy War on Jews in Toledo, Spain. Things quickly went from bad to worse as far as the Jews were concerned. As long as the Moors were a danger to the security of Spain, the favorable conditions were granted to the Jewish people. Then under the rule Ferdinand III (who united permanently the kingdoms of Leon and Castile), and James I, the contemporary ruler of Aragon decrees directed against the Jews became more and more pronounced. The Spanish Jews of both sexes, like the Jews of France, were compelled to distinguish themselves from Christians by wearing a yellow badge on their clothing. This was done in order to keep them from associating with Christians.
The papal bull issued by Pope Innocent IV in April 1250, to the effect that Jews might not build a new synagogue without special permission, also made making proselytes was forbidden to the Jews under pain of death and confiscation of property. They might not associate with the Christians, live under the same roof with them, eat and drink with them, or use the same bath; neither might a Christian partake of wine which had been prepared by a Jew. The Jews might not employ Christian nurses or servants, and Christians might use only medicinal remedies which had been prepared by competent Christian apothecaries. Every Jew should wear the badge, though the king reserved to himself the right to exempt any one from this obligation; any Jew apprehended without the badge was liable to a fine of ten gold maravedís or to the infliction of ten stripes. The Jews were forbidden to appear in public on Good Friday.
Yet most significantly for the history of the power yesh in Judaism, Christians at this time began to change their tactics in terms of harassing the Jewish religion. In Aragon at this time that the Church initiated a large-scale campaign to convert the Jews to Christianity by demonstrating their religious errors and proving the truth of Christianity. In 1263 Rabbi Moses ben Nahman was thus forced to participate in a public disputation in Barcelona. The disputation was arranged at the urging of the Dominican monk Pablo Christiani who had converted from Judaism, so he had some knowledge of Hebrew and the Jewish scriptures.
For several years Pablo had travelled around in Provence preaching missionary sermons with the permission of the French King. He probably also debated with ben Nahman at some point before 1263 in Gerona. In Aragon too he had the support of the King in his conversion efforts, and James I not only attended, but actively participated in the disputation, and made sure that ben Nahman took part against his will. Pablo's object with the disputation was to prove the truth of Christianity with the aid of quotations from Talmud, Midrash and the Jewish Bible. This was an entirely new strategy, since the Paris Disputation had set out to prove precisely that the Talmud was lies and slander and a new, false doctrine. Presumably Pablo, realizing that the Talmud was an integrated, indispensable element in the Jewish religion, decided to exploit the variegated and often divergent narrative elements in support of his proselytizing message.
The point clearly is that it cannot be coincidence that up until 1300 we find a wealth of interest in yesh in Jewish writings. Then all of a sudden all references completely dry up. There is no evidence to suggest that Pablo Christiani ever exploited the resemblance between yesh and Jesus. Nevertheless as Christian officials continued to poke around in the writings of members of the Jewish community in Spain and perhaps other countries in Europe they may well have stumbled on the uncanny resemblance between the God's creation of 'his Being' (= yeshnu) and Jesus (Yeshu) in the early writings of Paul.
After all, it must have been common knowledge by then that the Jewish name for Jesus was Yeshu. When Paul speaks about Jesus being "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven" it is impossible not to see something of the early kabbalistic interest in the yesh - even yeshnu - shining through this understanding.
Perhaps the greatest spokesman for the yesh as the firstborn power of the Most High is Joseph ben Abraham Gikatilla. His Sha'are Orah or 'Gates of Light' places yesh just under ein in the second highest place in the heavenly hierarchy. Gikatilla wrote the work sometime before 1294 and received his knowledge about yesh from his teacher Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia who was born in Zaragoza, Spain in 1242. Abraham Abulafia likely came in contact with the yesh in Capua where he came under the instruction of Hillel ben Samuel ben Eliezer of Verona and from Hillel we can connect these Spanish kabbalists to the French school of the great Talmudist Shlomo Yitzhaki aka 'Rashi.'
It was here in Provence that the Sepher ha Bahir (= the Book of Bright Light) our oldest witness to the yesh as the power of God was given final editing. As the Cambridge Guide to Jewish History, Religion, and Culture the original text was probably composed in the academies of Babylonia, perhaps in the eighth or ninth century. It has long been recognized that this work bears a striking resemblance with the writings of Philo and Alexandrian Judaism's divine Word. In the Bahir, Yesh is one of the names of that mediating hypostasis.
It is of course far easier to believe that Jesus was a man from Nazareth, that he claimed to be the Christ and miraculously resurrected on the third day after his death on the Cross. It won't require you to take up an interest in Hebrew grammar or mystical traditions within Judaism. It won't require you to become familiar with a number of ancient testimonies that are known to only a handful of hardcore Christian believers. Nevertheless this approach is the only way to make sense of what actually happened in antiquity. It is the only way to know the truth. It is the only way to come to terms with the idea of a myth from Palestine rapidly spread throughout the Empire and was eventually overcome. Indeed once the reader comes to terms with the history of the Yesh in Jewish mystical thought, he will see that truth really is stranger than fiction or at the very least - sometimes words have greater reality than individuals.