Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Heretical Alternative to the Pronunciation of ΙΣ as Ἰησοῦς

One of the most important discoveries in the history of the study of Jewish mysticism was Gershom Scholem uncovering of an earlier, variant text to the Bahir, a sacred, mystical text which is still very influential in Kabbalistic thought.  What concerns us especially here is that this text, witness as early as the thirteenth century, helps explain for us a number of difficulties with assuming that אישו was the original name of the Christian god.

Now it would seem that I should go back to the beginning of our discussion in order to explain matters to anyone who has stumbled across this post for the first time (one of the unfortunate things about developing ideas in a blog).  The earliest Christian writings make mention of a name above all names which associated with a divine being who visited mankind under Pilate and subsequently 'appeared crucified.'  This name is commonly identified as 'Jesus' (Ἰησοῦς) but it is clear from the earliest manuscripts that the name was written ΙΣ

There can be no doubt that ΙΣ was read as Ἰησοῦς by many early Church Fathers.  The assumption must have been that the first and last letters of the name used by the LXX to translate יְהוֹשֻׁעַ.  There can be no doubt that this was done by the third century CE.  Nevertheless, as we have noted in previous posts, Irenaeus and the early rabbinic tradition identify the name of the Christian god as ישו. This stands very close to the parallel Marcionite name, written in Syriac letters as ISU according to the fourth century Church Father Ephrem the Syrian.  The difference is here the 's' sound in each version of the divine name.  The heretics retained a name which seemed to be a transliteration of the Greek Ἰησοῦς.

This is certainly what C W Mitchell thought when he translated Ephrem's text from the Syriac palimpsest.  But I have been wondering ever since whether the Marcionites 'pronounced' the nomen sacrum (= ΙΣ) as ISU.  Remember the idea isn't as crazy as it seems given that the orthodox pronounced it Ἰησοῦς.  Either way, we see two letters on a page which hid other 'secret letters' - letters which were only revealed by pronunciation. 

It has been argued by Hurtado and others that the nomina sacra derive their origins from the Tetragrammaton (= יהוה).  But there is a key difference here - there are no 'secret letters' in the Jewish tradition.  Much more likely in my mind is the idea that ΙΣ arose in the circles of the followers of 'Marcus' - the charismatic Christian leader reported at length in Irenaeus Against Heresies.  It is there that we see repeated mention - and justification - of the existence of 'hidden letters' and sounds (stoicheia).  As we mentioned in a previous post, the hidden letter likely added to the sacred heretical nomen sacrum was the episemon, the mystical sixth letter which dropped from the Greek alphabet at an early date and was connected with the Hebrew vav (also a mystical letter in Jewish kabbalah).

In another recent post, I noted that Irenaeus identifies vav as a 'half' (dimidia) letter.  But we have to be careful to remind ourselves that this is Irenaeus talking.  No other source - ancient or modern - speaks of vav in this manner.  He is clearly echoing (or refuting) something put forward by his heretical opponents, and this would appear to be that that the last letter in the name of the Christian god was silent or secret.

It is worth noting that Irenaeus himself in the passage in question distinguishes 'sacred letters' and ordinary letters and speaks in terms of the latter being 'added' to the former:

in the Hebrew tongue, Jesus contains only two letters and a half ... [f]or these ancient, original, and generally called sacred letters (literae sacerdotales) of the Hebrews are ten in number (but they are written by means of fifteen), the last letter being joined to the first. And thus they write some of these letters according to their natural sequence, just as we do, but others in a reverse direction, from the right hand towards the left, thus tracing the letters backwards.(AH 2.24.2)

No one has ever managed to make sense of any of this.  The only clue that is available to us is the fact that this bizarre argument is made in the context of the heretics reading two letter name ΙΣ as a six letter word (Ἰησοῦς).

It is also palpably clear that, as we just noted, it is Irenaeus who took ΙΣ to be a 'two and a half letter' name ישו.  The Marcionites by contrast pronounced ΙΣ as ISU which implies not only that the vav was 'hidden' for both Irenaeus and Marcion when reading sacred manuscripts but that the Greek name Ἰησοῦς may have interpreted as a disguise - a veil - for the real sacred name of the heretical tradition which was אישו.  In other words,  ΙΣ not only meant 'Man' (as 1 Cor 15:45 - 49) but quite specifically  אישו pronounced 'eeshu' i.e. 'His Man,' God's person, the Man of God, a traditional Samaritan title for Moses.

Under this scenario we begin to understand the heretical view of their god.  There were a group of Christians - the psychics - who were only capable of understanding god as a man named Ἰησοῦς.  This understanding was absorbed into the mystical consciousness by noting that the letters of the name Ἰησοῦς added up to 888 and that this exact number appears in the first two words of the Song of the Sea (אָז יָשִׁיר a point recognized by Marqe in his Samaritan writings).  Exodus chapter 15 is also interestingly enough, the very place the mystical concept of a heavenly איש is also brought forward - two lines later - יְהוָה, אִישׁ מִלְחָמָה.

Does all this come together somewhere?  I believe it does.  We have already noted that the Marcionites are identified by Ephrem as taking a deep interest in this name איש that appears Exodus 15:3.  While all the writings of these mystical sects have pretty much disappeared they appear to have been preserved in a Jewish text called the Sefer HaBahir סֵפֶר הַבָּהִיר allegedly written in the first century CE.  While no one believes the text is this early, Gershom Scholem, discovered an early variant text described as:

one of these Hasidim, the afore- mentioned Ephraim ben Shimshon, (see p. 89 herein) [who] quotes a passage from the Bahir around 1240.  His quotation is nothing other than an entirely different version of a passage found in the Bahir texts originating from Provence and Spain. In the ordinary text, Exodus 15:3, "God is a man ['ish] of war," is explained (section 18) by a parable to the effect that the three consonants of the word 'ish indicate the three supreme powers of God. According to the text of Ephraim ben Shimshon, however, there is no reference to the sefiroth, but to the three divine names Elohim, YHWH, Shaddai, and their rank. 

After noting "that the tenor of this text is completely in the spirit of the Hasidim" he cites the two versions of the text (the variant and the received) side by side one another.

As we are not interested in the received text I will only cite Scholem's discovered text from the thirteenth century:

Bahir according to Ephraim ben Shimshon:

R. Simlai asked R. Rehumai: What is meant by the verse: a man ['ish] of war? He said him: I will relate to you a parable. It is like a king to whom a son was born. He went to a market and bought him a crown which he named 'alef. When another son was born to him, he went and bought him a crown which he named yod. When a third son was born to him, he went and bought him a crown and named it shin. When another son was born to him he took all of their crowns and made them into one and put it on the head of the fourth, and that signified 'ish, man. He said to him: How long will you still make of your words a mystery? He answered him: First, when Abraham came, He revealed Himself to him on account of the great love with which He loved him, by the name Elohim, which is 'alef. When Isaac came, He revealed Himself under the name of shaddai, and that is shin. But when God revealed Himself to Israel on the shores of the Red Sea, He took the initials of these three names and made a crown, and that is 'ish.

It is important to note that the one divine name not represented in the surviving reference is the Tetragrammaton.  In the parallel text which survives in the copies of the Bahir it is also missing from most manuscripts and we read instead "Then he said: I wish to give to my son the apartment which is called 'alef, but that which is called shin is also beautiful." Scholem provides a footnote here which notes "at the beginning of this paragraph Ms. Munich 290 also read: "That which is called yod is also beautiful." But these words are missing in old quotations. An old commentator even takes the trouble to explain why they do not figure in a text where they obviously belong."

Clearly there was a notion in the earliest traditions associated with the Bahir where איש is the 'name above all names - even יהוה. Indeed יהוה is the middle of three divinities that makes up the totality of the pleroma איש.  Aside from the gnostic implications of this concept, it should also be noted that it has always seemed absurd the manner in which Christians identify an ordinary human name Ἰησοῦς as the 'name above all names.'   With the aid of the Sepher haBahir we can at least begin to see why איש would have been written in a special way by the earliest Christian manuscripts i.e. ΙΣ. It was clearly regarded as higher than the Tetragrammaton, which as we know was traditionally written with special characters in early Jewish manuscripts. 

Moreover it is important to note the discovery of the incantation bowl identified now as 1 Levene, CMB M163. The incantation includes an adjuration בשםיה דאישו דכבש רומא (in the name of Ishu who conquered Rome). The report in Ṭal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, Part 4 p. 38] reads again "this may be Jesus. His name is followed by "and in the name of his exalted father and the holy spirit" which may be an allusion to the trinity. Shaked (JSQ 1999) claims this is the only mention of Jesus in these bowl to date."  Moreover we have also already made reference to the grave markers in Anatolia which identify the name of Jesus with the number ninety-nine (= ΙΣ).  Little by little our alternative to the human identification of ΙΣ in Marcionite and heretical circles is coming together. 

Scholem's discussion of the Sepher haBahir concludes:

The two versions of the quotation (discussing Exodus 15:3) are instructive. The common version speaks of the three consonants mentioned, as other passages in the Bahir text suggest, as symbols of the three supreme sefiroth. 96 The second version, on the other hand, knows nothing of any such speculations and merely sees allusions to the names of God that were revealed to the Patriarchs and combined under the heading 'ish. The text of the Bahir was therefore treated in various ways: either the first version reflected the spirit of the Hasidic speculations on the names of God and was subsequently elaborated in accordance with the new, developing symbolism, or the received text had reached the Hasidim already in this form and was then revised in keeping with their simpler way of thinking [Scholem, Origin of the Kaballah p. 124]

I am not sure that we can completely agree with his analysis.  Notice also that there are four kings that make up the cosmic man איש. There is clearly one 'silent letter' which would again explain the Marcionite pronunciation of the nomen sacrum as ISU (אישו).  Still waiting for those middle period Samaritan prayers where אישו is mentioned too.  Benny, are you reading this? 

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