The Jesus of a Previous Century

The Tomb of Honi
The Tomb of Honi the Circle Drawer

In 1962, Alvar Ellegård, a Swedish linguist, wrote the book, A Statistical Method for Determining Authorship, in which he was able to use a computer-aided analysis of letters to identify the anonymous 18th-century political writer known by the psuedonym Junius. By comparing the content of the letters to 230,000 words taken from known works, Ellegård was able to confidently identify Junius as Sir Phillip Francis through 458 lexical features, concluding it was 300,000 times more likely than not that the two authors were the same person (Crystal 68).

Thirty-seven years later, in 1999, Ellegård published Jesus: One Hunrdred Years Before Christ, which argued that the Jesus figure represented in the gospels was a fictional creation of the second century A.D. while the Jesus spoken of in the epistles and early apocrypha referred to a Jesus of the more distant past, most likely the enigmatic Teacher of Righteousness from the Dead Sea Scrolls. While Ellegård concocted this hypothesis entirely on negative evidence, there actually is an enigmatic text loosely dated to the fourth century A.D., unknown to the late Ellegård, called the Sepher Toldoth Yeshu, or Toledot Yeshu, which independently confirmed his suspicions in portraying Jesus living during the reigns of Alexander Jannaeus and Salome Alexandra, whose combined reign was between 103 and 67 B.C.

The name Yeshu has been used in Jewish literature as an acronym yemach shemo vezichro, “May his name and memory be obliterated,” and refusing to utter the name of a heretic was a common Jewish practice. There are several different versions of the Toledot Yeshu story, and two in particular, called The Jewish Life of Jesus and The Jewish Life of Christ, which were first translated from Hebrew to German by the Talmudic scholar Samuel Krauss in 1902, are in substantial agreement with the so-called Persian text from nineteenth-century Bukhara, Uzbekistan, and are related in type to a text published in Germany in 1681 by Oriental linguist Johann Christoph Wagenseil. These texts were then republished by G.R.S. Mead, an acolyte of the Russian-born spiritualist Helena Blavatsky, in the exceedingly well-researched book, Did Jesus Live 100 B.C.?, from 1903, and were then republished again in the appendix of atheist writer Frank Zindler’s self-published book, The Jesus the Jews Never Knew, exactly one hundred years later. If there are other versions that have been distributed in their entirety by a major publisher within that century, they have eluded me. While The Jewish Life of Christ has anachronisitic elements that appear to have been added to help make the story conform more with the canonical gospels, The Jewish Life of Jesus appears to be a genuinely original Hebrew tradition of Jesus and the only tradition completely independent of Hellenistic philosophy, neither of which can be said regarding the entirety of the New Testament tradition, whether canonical or apocryphal. Most theologians and biblical writers, however, have completely ignored not just the importance of, but the very existence of the Toledot Yeshu, leaving all but the most diligent of inquirers into biblical criticism literature even aware of its existence.

Sometimes referred to as an “anti-gospel,” the Toledot Yeshu portrays unique confrontations between Yeshu and his uncle Yehoshua ben Perachiah, the leader of the Sanhedrin Simon ben Shetach, and a “Queen Helene.” Far from being derivative of the Greek gospel as is sometimes assumed, the text reveals a layer of original folklore independent of the Greek gospels (Hoffman, Jesus 50). Although the history of transmission is obviously erratic, William Horbury attempted to reconstruct the source of the original Toledot story (Horbury 433-435). Since the Toledot includes verses and story elements and that do not appear to have been invented solely to mock Yeshu, the Toledot itself may be based on a very short, very early gospel story that predates even the Greek canonical gospels.

The Jewish Life of Jesus says that Yeshu, originally named Yehoshua ben Perachiah after his uncle, was the bastard son of Mary and that he was able to work his magic tricks by virtue of learning the ineffable name of God after sneaking into a sanctuary that held a special stone blessed by Jacob in Genesis which had the “Shem,” or name of God, written on it. After sneaking into the temple, Yeshu is said to have sewn the name into his thigh, which Zindler suggested may have been a metaphor for a tattoo (Zindler 156). The Jewish Life of Christ instead places the stone at the Jerusalem Temple, changing its guardian statues from dogs to Judean lions, and includes a story of how Yeshu took two millstones, made them float on water, and sat on top of it catching fishes for the multitude, a parallel to both Jesus walking on water and the “Feeding of the Multitude.” The story also explains that when Yeshu was a child he and his uncle were forced to escape into Egypt because of the growing conflict between Alexander Jannaeous and his uncle Yehoshua ben Perechiah, a parallel with the Gospel of Matthew’s story of Jesus’ family escape into Egypt.

The central conflict of both versions of the story revolves around Yeshu’s wavering relationship with “Queen Helene,” which The Jewish Life of Christ identifies as Queen Salome Alexandra of Jerusalem although it mistakenly names her son Monobaz II, the son of Queen Helene of Adiabene in Mesopotamia. This later queen became a Jewish proselyte who spent some time in Jerusalem and Lud between 46 and 60 A.D. after taking a Nazarite vow and studying under the Rabbis of Hillel’s school. However, as Mead and others have pointed out, the story itself portrays “Helene” as a Gentile, referring to Jewish law as “your law” and consulting Jewish scribes to learn about prophecies regarding the Messiah. The earlier Life of Jesus leaves her identity a mystery. Krauss believed that Helene was a reference to the mother of Emperor Constantine, whose legendary stories of entering the Holy Land to find the True Cross would have made her an ideal use for parody, but as Mead points out, this is highly unlikely since the queen plays such a central part to the plot of the story, saying, “It is impossible not to believe that there was the mention of some queen in the oldest deposit of the Toledot-saga, and difficult to believe that the name given her in it was anything else than Helene” (Mead 308-309). Zindler reluctantly accepts Queen Salome Alexandra as the intended reference, confused with Queen Helene of Adiabene.

There is however, a third contender that no one so far has suggested. There was also Queen Cleopatra Selene I of Syria, originally a princess of Egypt, who lived at an advanced age around the same time period. This would rectify her depiction as a Gentile Queen needing Jewish scribes to explain Jewish tradition to her and realign Yeshu’s location to match his Galilean heritage as portrayed in the gospels. Queen Cleopatra Selene also had five different husbands, two of them her brothers from Egypt and three of them kings of Syria, each a political marriage following the rise and fall of different regimes. A lost echo of this tradition may appear in John 4.17 as Jesus correctly prophecizes that a Samaritan he meets by the Well of Jacob has had five different husbands and lives with a lover. It’s possible that the original Signs Gospel was set in the first century B.C. as well and that a conversation with Queen Selene connected to the Stone of Jacob was rewritten into a conversation with a Samaritan at the Well of Jacob.

Yeshu is able to cure the lame and lepers by using the magic of the Shem, although the story portrays this as a “trick” rather than a genuine miracle. In The Jewish Life of Christ, the way that Yeshu is able to resurrect the dead is very strange: “And when they were brought, he put all the bones together and covered them with skin, flesh, and nerves, so he that had been a dead man stood up on his feet alive” (Zindler 377). The theme of bodies being opened and closed up are repeated in the way Yeshu hides the name of God inside his own body by sewing it up. The stories of Yeshu curing the lame and the diseased may be symbolic of performing medicine, and the heights of medical science were long achieved in Alexandria, one of the few places where the taboo of dissection was allowed on the bodies of criminals, both alive and dead.

Yeshu is called to the court of Queen Helene twice, and the second time her horsemen find Yeshu, he is turning clay birds into real birds, a miracle that the infant Jesus did in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Yeshu is at first able to convince the queen that he is the Messiah by claiming he can raise the dead. Following this is a legend about Yeshu fighting Judas Iscariot in a mid-air battle similar to the apocryphal legends of Simon Magus, but this episode was probably a later addition. The scribes then capture Yeshu, put a bag over his head, then had different people strike him on the head while asking for him to prophecize who was hitting him, a story element repeated in the gospels of Mark and Matthew.

But Yeshu’s disciples manage to rescue their master and they escape to Antioch until Passover. Yeshu travels to Jerusalem for Passover but is betrayed when a man named Gaisa sneaks into his tent while he is sleeping and opens up his body to steal the Shem, taking away his powers. In The Jewish Life of Christ, Gaisa is named Judas and he reports what he did not to nameless elders but to the Queen Salome’s brother, Shimeon Ben Shetach. Gasia, or Judas, explains that Jesus had come to Jerusalem disguised and that he had taken an oath not to identify him, but nevertheless worked up a plan with them for him to signal who Jesus was by giving him a bow. Gaisa takes them to Yeshu’s hideout at a school and betrays Yeshu not with a kiss but a short greeting. This time his disciples are unable to rescue him and Yeshu is stoned to death and then hung on a cabbage stalk in a garden, which in Life of Christ belongs to Judas.

When people continuously come to look at Yeshu’s body, the garden owner, decides to hide the body under a river, causing the disciples to claim that Jesus had risen from the grave, and when the Queen hears this she demands that the elders produce Yeshu’s body in three days or face execution. In that time, one of the old men, Rabbi Tanchuma, runs into the garden owner and is able to produce the body, which is then dragged around the streets of Jerusalem in condemnation. Frank Zindler points out that Tertullian knew of a literary tradition in which Jesus’ body is stollen by the gardener to stop the disciples from trampling on his cabbages (Zindler 283). Tertullian mockingly compares the story of Jesus’ body being hidden away to stop the trampling of cabbages to the story at the ending of the Gospel of Matthew, which says that the chief priests met with the elders to bribe the Roman guards of Jesus’ body to say that his disciples stole the body: “So they took the money and carried out their instructions, and to this day that is the story among the Jews” (27.15).

The manner of death that Yeshu suffers in the Toledot cannot so easily be dismissed as a Jewish invention. Both the Gospel of Matthew and Luke connect Judas to a strange “garden of blood” though each provides contradictory explanations for the connection. The Gospel of John has a strange episode in which Mary Magdalene mistakes Jesus for the gardener, however the Toledot Yeshu may help provide an explanation for why. The Gnostic Gospel of Judas portrays Jesus’ “betrayer” as the loyal “twin” of Jesus and the last redaction of the Gospel of John knows and purposely contradicts this legend, but if the gardener was also Jesus’ twin then it would make sense that Mary Magdalene would mistake one for the other. Zindler is likewise certain that the gardener played a much larger role in earlier versions of the Gospel of John. An early version of the crucifixion story that was popular among docetic sects of Christianity was that someone else (sometimes Judas) was crucified in Jesus’ place, a version that even today is accepted as Islamic orthodoxy. An earlier Gnostic version of John may have had Mary Magdalene learn that it was Jesus’ twin Judas who was crucified in Jesus’ place.

The Mishnah, a rabbinical commentary from about 220 A.D. that is part of the Talmud, also refers to a bastard born from an adulterer who was executed by stoning for seducing Israel into idolatry. Zindler argues that the references to Yeshu’s adultery in the Talmud are only a Jewish reaction to the late Christian theological belief in the virgin birth, but there are reasons to believe that Christians were dealing with such accusations relatively early. Saying #105 of the Gospel of Thomas says, “Whoever knows the Father and the Mother will be called the child of a whore.” Biblical scholar James Tabor, who discounts the Panthera legend but believes Jesus must have lived with the stigma of not having a father, has pointed out that the four women mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew’s geneaology list includes Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah: “each of these four women was a foreigner who had a scandulous reputation in the Old Testament” and “don’t belong in a formal geneaology of the royal family. . . It is as if he [the evangelist] is silently cautioning any overly pious or judgmental readers not to jump to conclusions. It is the most revered geneaology of that culture, the royal line of King David himself, there are stories of sexual immorality involving both men and women who are nonetheless honored in memory” (Tabor 50-51).

The later sixth-century Gemara, which comments on the Mishnah, adds that “Ben Pandira” was a heretic whose Egyptian mode of healing was treated as some kind of taboo. The Gemara also refers to Yeshu as “Ben Stada,” such as the quote from Rabbi Eliezer: “Did not Ben Stada bring spells from Egypt and cut which was upon his flesh?” In the Seder Nezikin of the Talmud, it says: “Our rabbis taught that Yeshu had five disciples: Matti, Necki, Netsur, Burni, and Toda.” (Sanhedrin 43a). In The Jewish Life of Jesus, four of Yeshu’s disciples are caught: Matthai, Naki, Boni, and Netzer (Toda goes unmentioned). Each of the four prisoners is asked to cite proof from scripture that their cause had been prophecized, to which each cites an unlikely passage in which a word resembles their name, and in response to each attempt, the disciples are in turn cited an equally unlikely passage proving that their execution had been prophecized.

The Jewish Life of Christ then says that 30 years after Yeshu was hung (around 33 B.C.), twelve men, called “bad offspring of foul ravens,” traveled through Israel as apostles, popularizing Yeshu’s faith. Acts also mentions Seven “Grecian Jews” (NIV, 6.1) or “Hellenists” (NJB) who were chosen by the Twelve Disciples to overlook the daily distribution of food; these men were “full of Spirit and wisdom” but were nevertheless given a back-handed denigration by “Luke” in that they given this task so that the Twelve would not have to “neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables” (NIV, 6.2). These seven are located in Cyrene and Alexandria, as well as in Cilicia and Asia, and one of them, “Philip the Evangelist,” lived in Caeserea (6.9, 21.8). The Gospel of Mark has two episodes where Jesus feeds 4-5,000 people, and soon after the second episode, Jesus tells his disciples when they are complaining about food that after he broke five loaves for 5,000, there were twelve left over, and after he broke seven loaves for 4,000, there were seven left over (8.19-21). This appears to me to be symbolic of the five original disciples of Yeshu “feeding” the inspiration of 5,000, with twelve apostles left over 30 years later, and of the seven “evangelists” feeding the inspiration of 4,000, presumably leaving another seven “evangelists” in their place. The author appeals for the numerical significance in the code when he has Jesus ask his disciples, “Do you still not realise?” (NJB, 8.21).

Although the Talmud confirms that Yeshu was executed on Passover eve stoning is placed at Lydda rather than Jerusalem. In 1971, G. A. Wells, a German professor of philosophy and natural science, wrote in his book, The Jesus of the Early Christians, that it “is remarkable that the compiler of the Tosephta makes Jesus die in Lud (viz. Lydda), not in Jerusalem, and by stoning. This does not suggest a reminiscence of the events alleged in the gospels. Incidentally, Jesus is nowhere in the Talmud said to have been executed by the Romans; his death is represented as solely the work of the Jews: and nowhere is his alleged Messiahship mentioned, not even as a reason for putting him to death” (Wells, Early 200). A particularly important reference in 1 Thessaloneans says that Christians there “suffered the same treatment from your own countrymen as they have had from the Jews, who put the Lord Jesus to death,” causing many Biblical scholars like John Dominic Crossan to assume the verse to be a late interpolation (NJB, 2.14-15).

Setting aside the reasoning for predating the historical Jesus by a century, it makes little sense for a Jewish writer to take blame away from the Romans and place it solely on Jewish leaders. Other than the verse from Thessaloneans and a mystical attribution to demonology in 1 Cor. 2.6-8, the early epistles are unnaturally silent about the exact circumstances of Jesus’ death. In fact, none of the canonical epistles or early apocrypha dated to the first century makes a direct statement that the Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem on a Roman cross. Even the references in the Greek Koine to Jesus being “crucified” can be equally translated as him being “hung.” As discovered by Biblical scholar Delbert Burkett, the hagiographic description of the apostle Stephen’s martyrdom by stoning in Acts, far surpassing the glossed-over death of the apostle leader James, is derived from the same “Sanhedrin Trial Source” used in part of Jesus’ trial in the Synoptic gospels where both judgment and execution is presided over by Jews alone, which Burkett believes is linked to the Taldmudic tradition of Yeshu’s stoning (Burkett 178; Mark 14.53-64; Matt. 26.57-66, Luke 22.66-71, Acts 6.12-7.60).

In looking over the historical evidence in the Pauline epistles, Wells says that nothing about Jesus, even regarding his crucifixion is given a historical setting:

“His letters tell only of a cult, Jewish on origin, in which a crucified Jesus, called the Messiah, figures as an atoning sacrifice, but counts for absolutely nothing as a teacher and wonder worker… Paul of course, believes that at some time in the past this deity appeared on earth, was born of a woman, as a descendant of David and was crucified. But nothing he says suggests that he knows or cares when this happened. He says only that it occurred just as the right time (Rom. V, 6; Gal. Iv, 4) and does not imply that it happened recently enough for any of the apostles to have known Jesus while he was on earth” (Wells, Early 146-148).

Wells goes on to explain that nothing in the epistle of James can be identified as Christian and concludes that: “James might never have heard the man Jesus” (152). The author of the epistle of Jude, which pointedly identifies himself not as the brother of Jesus but the “brother of James,” quotes the apocryphal First Book of Enoch, which was also found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but says nothing of the earthly Jesus. The epistle of 1 Peter makes no claim that the author knew Jesus personally, nor does it say anything about Jesus other than to say that the resurrected Jesus had been recently “revealed” (NJB, 1 Peter 1.5). The next epistle, 2 Peter, which most scholars agree was written much later by another author since it didn’t even make it into St. Irenaeus’ canon in 180 A.D., says: “When we told you about the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, we were not slavishly repeating cleverly invented myths; no, we had seen his majesty with our own eyes” (NJB, 2 Peter 1.16). These do not appear to be pagan enemies making the claim that Jesus was a myth, but “false prophets” who “try to make a profit out of you with untrue tales,” a description typically used for Gnostic Christians (NJB, 2.1-3). The First Epistle of John mentions Jesus, but also uses uncommon terms for him like “the Righteous One” and “the Holy One,” which means it may have be an edited epistle that was originally about the Teacher of Righteousness. Like 2 Peter, 2 John condemns as the Anti-Christ all the “deceivers at large in the world, refusing to acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in human nature” (NJB, 1.7). Had the gospel Jesus been a historical person, such a suggestion would be unthinkable: it would be like followers of Martin Luther King Jr. disagreeing with each other whether he was real or myth.

Another lost tradition hidden amongst hundreds of pages of early Christian commentary is a quote from Epiphanius, a bishop and heresiologist from Salamis on the island of Cyprus. In his book, Panarion, meaning “Medicine Chest,” he defends the Orthodox reading of the four canonical gospels and dates Jesus to the time of Pontius Pilate, writing:

“For with the advent of the Christ, the succession of the princes from Judah, who reigned until the Christ Himself, ceased. The order [of succession] failed and stopped at the time when He was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Alexander, who was of high-priestly and royal race; and after this Alexander this lot failed, from the times of himself and Salina, who is also called Alexandra, for the times of Herod the King and Augustus Emperor of the Romans; and this Alexander, one of the Christs and ruling princes placed the crown in his own head… After this a foreign king, Herod, and those who were no longer of the family of David, assumed the crown.”

Needless to say, Epiphanius has his history wrong. He is obviously combining a legend that Yeshu was rightful heir to the throne of Jerusalem following the death of Alexander Jannaeus with the gospel tradition of the baby Jesus living during the time of Herod and Augustus. In reality, Alexander’s wife, Salome Alexandra, took the throne after him, giving the high priesthood to her younger son Hyrcanus II, though her older son Aristobulus II tried to take it from her by force. The resulting civil war brought Pompey, fresh from his victory over the Armenian Empire, into Judea to arbitrate the matter as a minister to the newly expanded Roman Republic. Both of the Hasmonean brothers tried to buy Pompey’s support and though Aristobulus was able to buy the favor of Pompey’s deputy, Marcus Scaurus, for a while, Pompey ultimately sided with Hyrcanus. Pompey put Jerusalem to siege and blasphemed the Temple by entering its Holiest of Holies before setting Hyrcanus up as high priest. This would begin a long and complicated history of wars between the Romans and the Jews. Hyrcanus allied himself with a rich foreigner named Antipater the Idumean, who was made chief minister of Judea by Caesar after he defeated Pompey. After Antipater was poisoned for his being a Roman puppet, the throne of Judea then passed to his vengeful son, Herod the Great.

The tradition that Jesus lived during the time of Alexander Janneus survived for over a millenium in Jewish tradition. The 12th century Spanish philosopher, physician, and historian, Abraham ben Daud, is recorded in Dr. Adolph Neubauer’s Medieval Jewish Chronicles from 1887 as saying:

“The Jewish history-writers say that Joshua ben Perachiah was the teacher of Yeshu ha-Notzri, according to which the latter lived in the day of King Janni; the history-writers of the other nations, however, say that he was born in the days of Herod and was hanged in the days of his son Archelaus. This is a great difference, a difference of more than 110 years.”

There is yet another little-known record of an unidentified “wise king,” identified in a letter from a Syrian prisoner named Mara Ben Serapion dated some time between 73 and 165 A.D. The “wise king” mentioned is also a teacher whose teachings survived despite his execution by the Jews, a rare identification that is also shared with the gospel Jesus:

What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise king die for good; He lived on in the teaching which he had given.

It has been suggested to me that the Jewish kingdom being abolished could be a reference to the seige of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., but that event is better known for the Temple being destroyed, which goes unmentioned. Jewish rebels had only been thrown off the yoke of the Romans for a less than three years and there were still several sects fighting for domination when Emperors Vespasian and Titus came and reconquered the city. It would be hard to believe anyone would interpret that as anything more than a rebellion being put down, certainly not the fall of a kingdom.

The most important source for delivering definitive proof of a historical Jesus crucified by the Romans during the age of Pontius Pilate comes from a tiny excerpt from Antiquities of the Jews, by the Jewish-Roman historian and defected general, Titus Flavius Josephus. Assuming the source to be valid, it would mark the sole unbiased eyewitness to the Gospel Jesus’ existence from someone who was a near-contemporary of Jesus, having been born only seven years after the established date of the crucifixion. In the third chapter of Book 13, the text as found reads:

But Pilate undertook to bring a current of water to Jerusalem, and did it with sacred money…. However the Jews were not pleased…. So he [Pilate] bade the Jews himself to go away; but they boldly casting reproaches on him, he gave the soldiers that signal… and equally punished those that were tumultuous, and those that were not, nor did they spare them in the least… and thus an end was put to this sedition.

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

About the same time also another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder; and certain shameful practices happened about the temple of Isis in Rome….” (emphasis added)

Scholars are virtually unanimous in accepting that it would have been impossible for Josephus to identify Jesus as being the Messiah in such an understated and unexplained fashion. However, that has not encouraged the majority of New Testament scholars into dismissing the entire Josephus Testominium as a forgery. A litany of New Testament scholars including John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk, Bart Ehrman, R. E. Van Voorst, A. N. Wilson, and Paula Fredriksen all agree that some amount of the Josephus reference to Jesus is authentic, but that the more obviously ahistorical material, rendered above in bold, was later added by a Christian copyist. Although the text does indeed appear to be an amalgamation of Christian and non-Christian sources, the literary evidence that Josephus did not write any of it is considerable.

In 1912, William Benjamin Smith, a professor of Mathematics at Tulane University in New Orleans, showed that in an examination of the two paragraphs that mention Jesus, dividing it into five parts: 1) Pilate attempts to bring Caligula’s effigies into Jerusalem but is stopped by protestors for five days, after which Pilate decides to massacre them but changes his mind after seeing the Jewish protestors kneel and bear their necks to him in a show of self-sacrifice; 2) Pilate massacres protestors who try to stop him from using sacred money to create a water supply; 3) the story of Jesus; 4) “And about the same time another terrible misfortune confounded the Jews…”; and 5) 4,000 Jews are banished from Rome. Smith argued that Josephus meant for this to be a list of massacres, and that the “terrible misforune” mentioned in (4) could only be a referece to the massacre in (2), meaning the entire Testimonium regarding Jesus must be a forgery. Smith had argued in a series of books since 1894 that the lack of historical details in the New Testament epistles implied Christianity had originated from a Nazorean sect derived from the Essenes (Wells, Early 191). A German philologist named Eduard Norden also wrote a similar argument for the Josephus passage being a forgery independent of Smith a year after him (191f). Earl Doherty, in his book, The Jesus Puzzle, also points out that “In the case of every other would-be messiah or popular leader opposed to or executed by the Romans, he has nothing but evil to say” (Doherty 210).

Things get even more complicated when we look at a later passage of Josephus that mentions “James, the brother of Jesus, who is called the Christ.” Despite detailing many would-be Messiahs, these are the only two instances in which Josephus uses the word “Christ,” and not much after this reference, Josephus brings up a certain “Jesus, son of Damneus,” indicating that the phrase “who is called Christ” is probably a later interpolation. The fact that Josephus writes far more material on James than on Jesus is further indication of the fallacy that Josephus wrote even a portion of the Testimonium. Wells points out that Origen referenced “James, the brother of James” three times as proof of how “wonderous” it was that Josephus reported how the “justice of James was not at all small” even though he did not accept Jesus as Christ, yet Origen never cited the far-more important Jesus reference as a proof (Wells, Early 192). In fact, Origen writes that his version of Josephus claimed that the Jewish Temple had been destroyed because of the martyrdom of James, an element that is not found in any of the known versions of Josephus that have been survived (Zindler 38f). The first to mention the Jesus quote is Constantine’s church historian, Eusebius of Caeserea. Zindler says “it has long been believed by Atheist scholars and others that Eusebius was the forger of the Testimonium,” and although Zindler believes the Testimonium ultimately derived from an altered Arabian version of Josephus, he believes Eusebius is responsible for changing “He was believed to be the Christ” into “He was the Christ” (Zindler 58-59).

Philo, a contemporary author of the gospel Jesus, likewise, is strangely silent on Jesus concerning his particular focus on the politics and religion of Galilee. Even John Chrysostom, writing a century after Eusebius, fails to cite the Jesus Testomonioum. In the ninth century, Photius I of Constantinople wrote two reviews of Josephus’ Antiquities, yet not only did he not mention the Jesus Testimonium, he complained that the now-lost writings of Justus of Tiberias, a Jewish historian writing in Galilee around the year 80, “does not make the smallest mention of the appearance of Christ, and says nothing whatever of his deeds and miracles” (Wells, Jesus Myth 204).

Another problem with the historical significance of Jesus would have been his particular importance to Josephus’ earlier work, The War of the Jews, yet there is no mention of him in the primary texts. However, some time in the thirteenth century, a Christian revision of a Greek version of War of the Jews that included the Testimonium about Jesus was made and soon translated into Old Russian, creating what is now known as the “Slavonic Josephus” (Zindler 60, 67).

The second outside source independent of the gospels to cite the historicity of Jesus is a letter written in 112 by Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan describing how he tortured and interrogated Christians before asking the emperor how he should proceed. Although it was attested to early and most modern scholars accept the letter as authentic, Remsberg found the descriptions of the actions by men otherwise known for their acts of justice to be questionable and pointed out that many of the early German critics rejected its authenticity. Regardless of the letter’s authenticity, it speaks only of how the Christians sang “a hymn to Christ as to a god,” a phrase not particuarly effective for proving that Pliny’s Christians believed in a historical Jesus.

The third and last outside source comes from the Roman senator and historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus, in his Annals, dated to 115-120 A.D., less than a century after the events he is recording. It reads:

“[Nero] inflicted the most exquisite tortures on those men, who, under the vulgar appelation of Christians, were already branded with deserved infamy. They derived their name and origin from Christ, who, in the reign of Tiberius, had suffered death, by the sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate. For a while this superstition was checked; but it again burst forth, and not only spread itself over Judaea, the first seat of this miserable sect, but was even introduced to Rome, the common asylum which receives and protects whatever is atrocious.”

The passage goes on to describe how confessions of seized Christians allowed many of their accomlices to be convicted “not so much for the crime of setting fire to the city as for their hatred of the human race.” After being sentenced to death, their bodies were then used in the torches to light Nero’s gardens. Wells points out that the passage is “genuinely Tacitean, especially the cynical aside about Rome. And what Christian interpolator would refer needlessly to the temporary setback of Christianity or to the Christian’s betrayal of their fellows and the hatred of the human race?” (Wells, Early 186). Zindler, however, cities a critical review of Tacitus by the secularist author, John E. Remsberg, whose book, The Christ: A Critical Review and Analysis of the Evidences of His Existence, which argues that the passage “if genuine, is the most important evidence in Pagan literature. That it existed in the works of the greatest and best known of Roman historians, and was ignored or overlooked by Christian apologists for 1,360 years, no intelligent critic can believe. Tacitus did not write this sentence” (Reyes 511). Remsberg argued that the quote sounded like something from the Dark Ages and not from Tacitus and that the reference should have been cited by Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. He pointed out that Suetonius condemned Nero’s reign yet said that his public entertainments ensured humans were not sacrificed, “not even those of condemned criminals,” and that Tacitus himself was not in Rome but at Atium. Zindler adds that there is also no mention of Nero’s outrage in his earlier work, Histories (Zindler 8).

Zindler even goes so far as to assume the entire Annals is a forgery. J. P. Peebles successfully refutes these assumptions in his 2006 book, The Christ Question Settled, which cites the famous astronomer Ptolemy as mistakingly refering to the location of Frisian insurgents as “Siatontanda,” due to a Greek misreading of Tacitus’ Latin phrase “Ad sua tutanda disgressis rebellious,” meaning “to protect their quarters, the rebels digressed.”). Peebles also points out that John of Salisbury quoted the Annals in the 1100s and that there are now versions of the Annals that scholars date to a time earlier than Bracciolini but had fallen into disuse by the 1400s.

Of course, it would have been asking too much for a Roman senator to confirm the historical validity of the beliefs of a “superstition” he is mocking. Wells comes to this conclusion as well, stating: “[e]ven if records of executions in Palestine ninety years earlier were available, and even if it had been his practice to consult original documents (which, according to Fabia, 90, p. XIII, it ws not), why should he have undertaken such an inquiry in this particular instance, when all he appears to have aimed at was to give his readers some idea of who these disreputable Christians are?” (Early 187). Wells also cites J. Whittaker, who argued in his 1909 book, The Origins of Christianity, that the year 64 was far too early for a “great multitude” of Christians to be in Rome, and that Tacitus must have them confused with Messianic Jews (Early 188).

However, while it is highly unlikely that Josephus wrote anything about a Jesus of Nazareth, he may very well have written about Yeshu ben Perachiah. In Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus refers to “righteous man” named Onias who “especially loved God.” He recounts how Onias had brought rain during a drought and that Onias had hid himself during a conflict that erupted between Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II just before Passover, similar to how Yeshu is said to have escaped to Antioch just before the Passover, and also similar to how just as Jesus “no longer went about openly among the Jews, but left the district for a town called Ephraim” (NJB, John 11.54). Honi, Yeshu, and Jesus are then each put to death on Passover. (Unlike the Gospel of John, the Synoptic gospels instead use the Passover meal as the Last Supper, putting the crucifixion shortly after Passover, while the Gospel of John uses the Passover death to emphasize Jesus’ role as the “Lamb of God,” slaughtered at the same time the lambs were being slaughtered inside the Temple.)

When Aristobulus besieged Hyrcanus inside Jeruslem, Onias was captured and brought to Hyrcanus, where he was ordered to curse Aristobulus’ army. Onias instead spoke to the crowd saying, “Oh God, King of the universe, since these men standing beside me are your people, and those who are besieged are your priests, I ask you not to pay any attention to them against these men, nor to bring to pass what these men ask you to do against those others” (14. 23-24). This final act, calling God not to bring his wrath on either side, is comparable to a late verse that was interpolated into the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus asks God to forgive those who were crucifying him “for they do not know what they are doing.” (23:34). For fooling Hyrcanus, Onias was stoned to death, and “[a]s a result, not only the Jews, but many people of other nations as well, were indignant and angry over the unjust murder of the man.”

In the Mishnah there is a story of a scholar known as Honi the Circle-Drawer, who performed miracles in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha during the reign of King Jannaeus and Queen Salome. The gospels of Mark and Matthew likewise compare Jesus to Elijah nine times. When there had been no characteristic winter rains in Israel, it was said that Honi prayed for rain (Ta’anit 3:8). When that did not work, he drew a circle around himself in the dust and swore on God’s name that he would not move until God “had compassion on his children.” Rains did come, but they were at first too light, and then too hard, flooding the city of Jerusalem before stopping. Honi’s ability to control the weather appears characteristic of the story of Jesus calming the storm, one of the few Synoptic miracle stories that doesn’t involve healing.

Rabbi Simon Ben Shetach, the brother of Queen Salome, then sent Honi a message saying, that if it had not been him who had been him who acted so petulant before God, he would have excommunicated him: “But what shall I do to you, for you act like a spoiled child before God and He does your will for you, like a son who acts like a spoiled child with his father and he does his will for him?” Simon Ben Shetach is the also the Pharisee who conspired with Judas in the Life of Christ to have Yeshu captured. The Gospel of Mark, which is hostile towards the disciples, especially Simon, James, and John, has the reincarnated Jesus implicitly compare Simon ben Shetach to the apostle Peter by giving Simon his name and then having Simon Peter take part in denying Jesus at the same part of the story that Simon ben Shetach betrays Yeshu.

In 40 B.C., the son of Aristobulus II cut the ears off Hyrcanus II so as to make him ineligible for the office of high priest. The gospel story of one of Jesus’ disciples cutting off the ear of the servant to the high priest may have been an attempt to make a symbolic reference to this historic event. If so, it may also bring about a more macabre understanding behind the strangely repetative call in the sayings of Jesus: “Let those who have ears hear.”

Josephus and Maccabees describe how the Onias dynasty was the official Zadokite high priest family that ministered over the Jerusalem Temple before the tyrannical Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes deposed Onias III. Onias was eventually lured out of the sanctuary of Daphne near Antioch by an usurper priest named Menelaus under the sworn pledge of nonviolence. Onias’ son, Onias IV, was bought some land near Heliopolis and had a Jewish temple there. Ever since the Onias dynasty was plundered of its birthright, the priests of the line of Aaron had not ministered the Temple as demanded by Leviticus, for even after the Hasmoneans set up an independent Jewish kingdom, the Maccabean kings had found it necessary to keep control of the Temple’s finances in order to pay tribute or hire mercenaries. Philo spoke of how Egyptian Jews, including himself, paid homage to the temples in both Egypt and Jerusalem.

As shown by Randel McCraw Helms, the Book of Daniel identifies Onias III as the Messiah in its coded prophecy of the Apocalypse, which reads:

Know this, then, and understand: From the time there went out this message: “Return and rebuild Jerusalem” to the coming of an Anointed Prince, seven weeks and sixty-two weeks, with squares and ramparts restored and rebuilt, but in a time of trouble. And after the sixty-two weeks an Anointed One put to death without his . . . city and sanctuary ruined by a prince who is to come. The end of that prince will be catastrophe and, until the end, there will be war and all the devastation decreed. He will strike a firm alliance with many people for the space of a week; and for the space of one half-week he will put a stop to sacrifice and oblation, and on the wing of the Temple will be the appalling abomination until the end, until the doom assigned to the devastator. (NJB 9:25-27).

The seven ‘weeks’ represents the 49 years between the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 587 B.C. to the building of the second in 538 B.C. The 62 ‘weeks’ represents 434 years from the issuing of the decree to rebuild Jerusalem in 605 B.C. until Onias III was assassinated in 171 B.C. The ’half-week’ represents the 4 years between then and Antiochus putting an end to sacrifices and offerings in 167 B.C., when he set up a the “abomination that causes desolation,” a clear reference to the sacrifice of pigs upon an altar of Zeus which was set up in the Jerusalem Temple by Antiochus. The last ‘week’ represents the seven years between the death of Onias III and the rededication by Judas Maccabee in 164 B.C. Thus, the “70 years” originally prophesized by Jeremiah became 70 ‘weeks’ of years, or 490 years, divided into a seven-week period, a 62-week period, and a final one-week period (Helms, Who 28).

Since both Onias III and the Teacher of Righteousness were both high priests in conflict with the Jerusalem priesthood and died a martyr’s death, it would make sense if they were one and the same.

If Honi the Circle Drawer was a descendant of the Onias dynasty, then it’s possible that Yeshu had a claim to be high priest of the Temple as well as a Messianic legacy backed by scripture. This could explain the role of high priest given to him in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which says: “When Christ came as high priest, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation” (9:11). But if Honi the Circle-Drawer came into conflict with Shimeon Ben Shetach over the rights of the Jerusalem Temple, then we might expect some reflection of this in the gospel tradition. In fact, the Gospel of Mark records a story Jesus tells after the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem in which a man plants a vineyard before going away on a journey, affter which he keeps sending servants to collect some of the fruit from the tenents he hired, but each time the servant is beaten and run off. The vineyard owner then sent his son thinking the tenents would respect his son, but the tenents instead kill the son for the inheritance, after which Jesus asks, “Now what will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and make an end of the tenants and give the vineyard to others” (NJB 12.9). This parable in particular scares the Pharisees and the gospel says it was at this point that they began to try to look for a way to have him arrested. The vineyard is symbolic of the temple in Jerusalem, but if Jesus was a simple peasant from Nazareth, what right would he have to the Temple?

However, if the power dynamic behind the priestly rights to the Temple was part of the motive behind the conflict in the mystery surrounding the Honi dynasty, then the expected tradition handed down through the Gospels would be one of respect and admiration for the Jerusalem Temple. The prophecy Jesus makes of the temple’s downfall does not prove any personal hostility towards Temple itself. Even the story of Jesus clearing the Temple of merchants could be interpreted as a symbolic cleansing of the temple, a ritual done many times historically whenever the Temple had been descrated. But the problem with the episode is the assumption that sacrificial animals should not be sold at the temple, which seems to insinuate that either sacrificial animals are meant to be led through the city from outside Jerusalem in order to be slaughtered or that animals should not be slaughtered at the Jerusalem Temple in complete violation of Leviticus. Considering a large number of early Christian sects were vegetarian, the second option should not be so quickly dismissed. It is possible that the antagonism towards the Temple was a later addition but the equal distribution of the story through all four gospels makes the episode appear to be an early part of the story.

The passive aggressive undertone against the Temple in the gospel becomes even more pronounced in apocrypha. The Gospel of Thomas quotes Jesus as saying, ““I will destroy [this] house, and no one will be able to build it [again].” (71). The Gospel of John seems to reacting against this assumption that Jesus was hostile towards the Temple when he uses an obviously redacted saying: “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (NJB 2.19). Although “the Jews” think Jesus is talking about the Temple, John assures his reader he was really talking about his body. It is possible that after the Jerusalem temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., Hellenistic writers decided to rewrite Jesus as being hostile towards the Temple to align better with their dualistic theology of ignoring earthly ceremonies, or, considering Tertullian claimed Jews regularly denigrated Jesus as a “Samaritan,” it could be that Yeshu decided to ally himself with Samaritans hostile to the Jerusalem Temple and the tradition of Jesus’ hostility towards the temple is genuine.

There is also another Talmudic story in the Mishnah in which Honi meets a man planting a carob tree that won’t “bear fruit” for another 70 years, but the man explains to Honi that he is planting the tree for his children just as his his father and grandfather planted carob trees for him. Honi then went to sleep on a rock and woke up next to a carob tree 70 years later. He went to the house of study, where he overheard the sages say, “‘This tradition is as clear to us now as it was in the days of Honi the Circle Maker,” for whenever he came to the academy, he would settle any difficulty the sages had,” but when Honi identified himself, no one believed him (Ta’anit 23a). The concept of “bearing fruit” as a symbol for the handing down of a religious tradition is one of the most common metaphors in the gospel parables of Jesus. The story is a representation of how traditions change far beyond what their original founder intended. If the gospel traditions of Jesus are ultimately derived from the folktales surrounding Honi the Circle-Drawer, then the writers of the Mishnah were more prophetic than any of them could have known. Seventy years is also the span of time between when Honi was killed and when the Gospel Jesus would have been born.

Added together, we have four sources supplying evidence for dating Jesus to the Hasmonian age: The Toledot Yeshu, Epiphanius, Neubauer, and Ben Serapion, yet the argument is not even entertained in the majority of popular scholarship. In his book, Jesus Outside the New Testament, biblical scholar Robert E. Van Voorst said he Toledot “may contain a few older traditions from ancient Jewish polemic against Christians, but we learn nothing new or significant from it. Scholarly consensus is correct to discount it as a reliable source for the historical Jesus.” Strangely, after summarily discounting the Toledot and Talmudic traditions, Van Voorst says that the Jewish references to Jesus “provide an even stronger case than those in classical literature that [Jesus] did indeed exist,” (133). Van Voorst ponders over why there are not more contemporary references to Jesus, conceding that the Jewish sources are more corroborative to his existence — though not as reliable in historical content — as the entire canonical tradition, yet without even a deliberation on the question as to whether the historical Jesus may have lived when they say he lived.

Although Ellegård appears to have been premature in identifying Jesus with the Teacher of Righteousness since there is increasing evidence the Techer of Righteousness lived closer to 150 B.C., his intuition in dating the Jesus of the Pauline epistles to living a full century before the letter’s author is no less prescient today than when he wrote it. Ever since the literalistic form of Apostolic Christianity promoted by St. Irenaeus in the late second-century A.D. became the most popularly accepted sect of Christianity following the Council of Nicaea, the primary theological assumption of New Testament scholarship has been that the gospels are being historical in referring to Jesus as being crucified and that the references in the epistles attribuited to Paul, James, and Peter of Jesus being “hung on a tree” are symbolic of the wooden cross, but the evidence presented here completely reverses that assumption: it has always been the epistles that were being historical and the gospels that were being symbolic by associating the destruction of the Jewish Temple and subsequent cruficixion of the messianic rebels in 70 A.D. with the earlier martyr figure who helped inspire some of them.

This is an excerpt from a book I’m working on called “The Four Stages of Mythological Development.” I’ve also recently updated the Science and Archaeologist News section at Lost-History.com.

This entry was posted in History, Religion by Jeff Q. Bookmark the permalink.

About Jeff Q

I live in New Orleans. I have a Bachelors in Computer Science and a Masters in English Literature. My interests include ancient history, religion, mythology, philosophy, and fantasy/sci-fi. My Twitter handle is @Bahumuth.

6 thoughts on “The Jesus of a Previous Century

  1. I can’t believe you left out the part about Honi asking God to take him up into Heaven after the people didn’t recognize him! (unless I missed it)

  2. This is a terrific article! I am so pleased to have found it. I’ve studied the historicity of the Jesus myth with interest for years, and this article is better than many of the published works I’ve read (including, I might add, very well reviewed recent books on Amazon).

    Bahumuth, is this your original work? If so, I highly encourage you to submit to additional venues for wider publication. People should take note of this superb scholarship.

  3. Ah, now I read the tag-line: I will be first in line for your book! What a terrific achievement this article is alone (and I say that confidently without sourcing your very impressive citations). I especially liked the way you not only offered Toledot Yeshu as possible history, you backed it up with corroborating sources. Everyone else who I’ve read to date writes off Toledot Yeshu as Jewish anti-gospel polemics.

    But concerning your intriguing conclusion, if the mythical Jesus is heavily correlated to Honi the Circle Drawer, shouldn’t we see some greater hints of that relationship in the Talmud? Or I suppose you’re making the case that it’s there but encoded. So is your thesis that the Christian Jesus is a composite of Yeshu HaNotzri and Honi the Circle Drawer?

    I also found the discussion of 70 weeks verses in Daniel to be highly interesting. It’s a topic I’ve read a lot about but don’t have very firm views on because I know it’s complicated and very prone to manipulation (words, periods and secular versus religious dates). I’d also note for others reading that mashiach (anointed) in Daniel 9 certainly doesn’t mean King Mashiach. That verse doesn’t say “shall be killed” but “shall be cut off,” (y’karet), a very specific term in Torah/TaNaKh that refers to spiritual excision from the community, not physical death.

    Anyway, I can’t wait for your book. If the rest of it is like this portion, it may turn out to be one of the most important works on the subject in decades. I also commend you for your writing style, including the manner in which you are respectful of religious matters (notably for me, my religion!) even if (as I assume) the larger context of your work is atheistic (in the best sense of the term).

  4. Yes, this is an original work. And you have a good point about how there should be hints of a relationship between Yeshu and Honi in the Talmud. My own belief is that the Talmudic writings compiled conflicting legends about Yeshu, some of it sympathetic to him and some of it antagonistic. The sympathetic material used the name Honi, painting him as an ascetic rainmaker, and the antagonistic material used the name Ben Pandera or Ben Stada, painting him as an idolatrous magician. So the compilers of the Talmud, working in the 220s A.D. for the Mishnah, and even later for the Tosfeta, probably confused them as two different people. Since they were both stoned to death on Passover eve, I think it is more likely that these are two different traditions about the same person.

    Thanks for all the compliments. I like to think that my work might be useful or at least interesting to both religious and nonreligious readers. You can find more of my writings at Lost-History.com.

  5. Pingback: Jesus Mythicism: Response^3 | Political Rants

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