Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Part Nine]

The point here is that the entire reconstruction of history in Christianity is developed in a hopelessly dishonest manner. The underlying assumption is that there ‘must have been’ a ‘Jewish Jesus’ beneath the ‘corruptions’ of the Roman Church and that this man was ‘faithfully’ witnessed by the ‘Jewish Christian’ Ebionites. However the actual situation is quite different. The real ‘Jesus’ of the Ebionites turns out to be a heavenly Man who descended to earth and who is associated with Ish, the visiting angelic stranger of the book of Genesis. One wonders whether the other traditional ‘Jewish origin’ for Christianity – the mystical sect of the Essenes – will testify to a similar reconstruction.

Though this shadowy group is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus and many other Christian sources, the etymology of their name has never been properly explained. The appellation is certainly Semitic albeit preserved by Josephus in Greek. So double ‘s’ is indicative of a ‘sh’ sound just as the first letter ‘e’ was certainly pronounced ‘ee’ owing to a linguistic phenomenon called itacism which we will discuss at great length in our next chapter. To this end there are already strong indications that the group were originally called ‘those of Ish’ – an association which Epiphanius reinforces with his rendering lessaioi or Jessenes and his attempt to link with the founder of Christianity – Jesus.

We will look at all these things again in the next section of our investigation. What is critical to address here is the question of the ‘Jewishness’ of the various heresies. Scholars once again take a rather simple-minded approach to the heresies dividing ‘Jewish’ and ‘un-Jewish’ based upon favorability toward the Judaism. Yet the history of messianic movements in recent times makes clear this approach is utterly worthless. The Sabbateans rejected the Judaism of their neighbors but retained their ‘Jewishness.’ The same would certainly have been true for the Sadducees and Pharisees no less than the first Christians – in short, ‘Jewishness’ is a relative concept. In point of fact it is only the surviving orthodoxy through its early witnesses like Irenaeus which truly embodies a complete ‘un-Jewish’ worldview – mostly because it ignores the whole the obligations to the commandments. Even the Marcionites demonstrate their Jewishness by acknowledging the reality of authority of the Law – even if only as a pretext to justify or explain why Jesus came to abolish that obligation.

Indeed a careful reading of Irenaeus’s description of the Ebionites demonstrates how ambiguous their ‘Jewishness’ really was – i.e. “they practise circumcision, persevere in the observance of those customs which are enjoined by the law, and are so Judaic in their style of life.” Yet what customs were those? It would be impossible to fulfill ‘the whole Law’ – especially the many laws of sacrifice. Moreover we have strong indications that the Ebionites were opposed to the slaughter of animals. Indeed the parallel account of the Philosophumena is even more obscure noting that “they live conformably to the customs of the Jews, alleging that they are justified according to the law, and saying that Jesus was justified by fulfilling the law.” Again how was this possible? How could one man fulfill a set of commandments designed to be carried out by the whole nation?

The only additional information that the Philosophumena gives us is the followings statement. Jesus and the Ebionites were justified according to the Law, we are told “since not one of the rest (of mankind) had observed completely the law. For if even any other had fulfilled the commandments (contained) in the law, he would have been that Christ. And the (Ebionaeans allege) that they themselves also, when in like manner they do (this), are able to become Christs; for they assert that he was himself a like man with all.” Yet again the question remains – how could anyone think that they have filled six hundred and thirteen commandments, most of which have to do with sacrifices and which require a suitable altar, a priesthood etc.

Indeed Epiphanius reports that in their gospel it reads – “I came to abolish the sacrifices, and if ye cease not from sacrifice, wrath will not cease from you.” The sect also appears to have abstained from eating meat and drinking wine. Clearly the community had some trick up its sleeve – a clever way of explaining how one can ‘fulfill the righteousness of the law.’ The first step toward this understanding is to see that there is undoubtedly some connection between these early Christians and the Jewish sectarians identified in rabbinic texts who refused to eat meat or drink wine because of the destruction of the temple. Their “Ascents of James,” make it seem as though Jesus “were giving orders against the temple and sacrifices, and the fire on the altar—and much else that is full of nonsense.”

There are only a few other clues that Epiphanius gives us about the beliefs and practices of the Ebionites. Instead of saying “With desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you,” the Ebionite gospel had “Did I really desire to eat meat as this Passover with you?” So the passage is again making clear that Jesus denied meat and rejected the Jewish Passover. In all of this – despite superficial claims to the contrary - it is difficult not to suppose that the Marcionites and the Ebionites must have been remarkably similar sectarian groups. They certainly agreed with one another on all important issues and against the orthodox. Yet in order to begin to understand the idea of ‘fulfilling the Law’ by ignoring commandments we need to go back to the subject of the Christian appropriation of the command regarding the bread offering (Number 15:18 – 21)

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