A Jesus Who Was a Christ
by Revilo P. Oliver
IN THE FIRST CENTURY B.C. and the following century, Egypt, Palestine, and adjacent parts of the Near East swarmed with goetae, itinerant mountebanks who practiced thaumaturgy, performing tricks of magic to make the yokels gawk and part with their money. These fakirs were also in the salvation-business and promised some sort of posthumous felicity to generous contributors in the name of whatever deities the given set of proletarians venerated. Most of the goetae were Jews, and the more talented ones often succeeded in setting themselves up in a first-class business with numerous adherents.
When the goetae were plying their trade among Jewish peasants, they often took the logical step of representing themselves as christs (messiahs), divinely ordained to become Kings of the Jews and lead them to the dreamed-of slaughter of civilized races and the dominion over the whole world that Yahweh had promised his Chosen Predators. It is a statistical certainty that many of the goetae bore the name YSW, just as it is a statistical certainty that in any group of Americans today, whether plumbers or lawyers or salesmen, you will find quite a few who are named John or William. YSW was a very popular name among Jews because it was the name given to the hero of the stories about the conquest of Canaan and the joyful slaughter of the Canaanites in the “Old Testament,” and, as a matter of fact, we have record of quite a few fakirs and trouble makers who bore that name. The name, transmitted through Greek (1) and Latin appears in English as ‘Jesus.’
(1. Semitic languages have phonemes that do not occur in Indo-European speech, so no representation of a Semitic name in an Indo-European spelling can be more than a rough approximation. The name was evidently pronounced somewhat like <Yea-shoog> or <Yeh-shoug> (cf. note 3 below) without a following vowel-sound, at least in Aramaic. Greek, having early lost the letter of its alphabet that would have approximated the sound of [a Hebrew character], had to represent it by “sigma,” whence “s” in Latin. The lost letter, which resembled M and stood in the alphabet between “pi” and “qoppa,” disappeared because it represented a sound that did not occur in Greek, except in a few local dialects that disappeared in the sixth century B.C., and it was so completely discarded that, unlike “vau” (the digamma), “qoppa,” and “sampi,” it was not even kept as a numeral. When I say that the letter disappeared, I refer to its phonetic value, not its shape. The shape, i.e., like our M, did survive for a time in a few epichoric alphabets, but as a substitute for the more common shape of “sigma,” being, so to speak, a “sigma” turned on its face.)
One of the most interesting Jesuses was a thaumaturge whom Ralph Perier and I have mentioned a number of times in the pages of Liberty Bell, most recently in my “By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know them,” p. 4. He was Jesus ben Pandera, who was born in the reign of a Jewish King who had assumed a civilized name, Alexander Jannaeus. When he grew up, he learned magical tricks in Egypt, wowed the Jewish peasantry and even impressed Alexander’s widow, Alexandra Helene, acquiring her favor and a considerable following, but he eventually was ruined by the holy men with whom he was in competition and, betrayed by one of his disciples, named Judas Iscariot, when he rode into Jerusalem on an ass, was hanged, after which there was hanky-panky about disposal of his body. His career obviously contributed quite a few elements to the tales about a later Jesus in the “New Testament.” (2)
(2. The elements that the two tales have in common are listed by Dr. Larson, loc. cit. infra. It is not at all unlikely that there was another Jesus who, in Roman times, tried again and also came a cropper, and that, given the identity of two names, stories about them were conflated; that, in fact, would explain many of the passages in the “New Testament” that flatly contradict others.)
The Jewish record of Jesus ben Pandera, hostile to him as are all Jewish accounts of christs who failed, is preserved in a book commonly called Sepher Toledoth Yeshu (“Book of the Lineage of Jesus”), extant in several recensions, which differ in various details. The best summary of the story known to me is by Dr. Martin A. Larson, in his The Essene-Christian Faith (New York, Philosophical Library, 1980), pp. 151 ff. All versions of the story affirm that this Jesus really performed miracles, having learned the secret name of Yahweh, which enabled him to raise the dead, etc., and lost his power when he was in some way deprived of either his recollection of the name or of the parchment on which he had laboriously copied the four letters of the name and which he then inserted in an incision in his thigh. It is a reasonable inference that a story so precisely dated and, in its essentials, circumstantial is based on an actual occurrence, despite the supernatural garnish added to it.
The record of Jesus ben Pandera has mightily embarrassed professionals in the Jesus-business ever since it was rediscovered in the Sixteenth Century. One expedient is to feign ignorance of it and hope the customers will not have heard of it; I note that the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford Press, 1957; reprinted 1966), a compilation which, despite some concessions to historical scholarship, reflects little credit on its publisher, avoids all mention of it. The more common expedient is to claim that the story of Jesus ben Pandera was devised by the wicked Jews during the Middle Ages to undermine faith in the Saviour of the “New Testament.” That, of course, is intrinsically absurd: no one who intended to contradict a story about a Jesus who flourished when Palestine was a Roman province would transpose the story to an earlier period when Judaea was ruled by an historical Jewish King and Queen. Moreover, the holy men who made that claim were, if at all educated in their profession, consciously lying. One cannot suppose that students of theology would not read so important a Father of the Church as Origen, from whom they would necessarily learn that the story about Jesus ben Pandera was known to Celsus when he wrote, c. A.D. 170.
If you really want to read an English translation of one recension of the story about Jesus ben Pandera, it is readily available in an inexpensive booklet: The Jewish Life of Christ, being the Sepher Toldoth [sic] “Jeshu”, (3) s.l. & a. Despite the blank on the title page, the booklet was obviously published by the American Atheist Press, P. O. Box 2117, Austin, Texas, from which it may be obtained for $3.00. It was probably published around 1982, but I have just come across it and write this note for readers who may be curious and want to read such a translation without recourse to the Library of Congress or the libraries of the major universities. I am sorry to have to add that the booklet is so full of misprints that it will keep a reader in a state of continual exasperation.
(3. The English is followed by the title in Hebrew characters so blurred you may not be able to make them out, so I give here the standard transliteration: SFR TWLDWT’YSW. You will have noticed that the final letter of Jesus’s name in Hebrew has been omitted: to the Jewish mind, that is a cute way of showing contempt. Incidentally, the omitted letter, which is represented by the rough breathing (‘) in the standard transliteration, denoted a deep gutteral or laryngeal sound which, I am told by Semitists, is beyond the range of most or all Aryan mouths.)
The Atheist Press chose to copy a translation made in 1885 by G. W. Foote and J. M. Wheeler from an inferior recension of the story in which some details were stupidly altered with characteristically Jewish malice by an editor, who added a bumbling attempt to prove that Jesus ben Pandera was identical with the Jesus of the “New Testament.” You will wish to compare that recension with the earlier version summarized by Dr. Larson. Foote and Wheeler accompanied their translation with copious historical notes, which I must not take time to review here. A few have been made obsolete by information that became available after 1885.
The translators added an historical introduction and a commentary at the end. What gave me pause for a moment was a quotation (on page 47 of this reprint) from an essay by the Reverend Mr. Sabine Baring-Gould, who undertook to discredit the story about Jesus ben Pandera, claiming it was invented in the Middle Ages. All Protestant Christians have probably sung many times Baring-Gould’s best-known hymn, “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” He was a well-educated man, a graduate of Cambridge, and he has left no few works of learned research, of which Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (1866) is still in print. He was both an English gentleman and scholar of high attainments, erudite, acute, and judicious. But when his pious passions were aroused by a threat to his religion, he could lie brazenly and assert that the story of Jesus ben Pandera was unknown to Celsus. He could lie not only brazenly but recklessly, hoping that his readers would never read the surviving parts of Celsus’s work. (4) Do you wonder that I despair of minds that have been made feverish by the Jews’ greatest hoax?
(4. Baring-Gould must have counted on the complicity of his fellow clergymen, who, as I remarked above, would almost certainly have read in the course of their theological studies the Contra Celsum of Origen, who, writing around 250, tried to refute by declamation the book that Celsus had written eighty years before. For the Greek text of the extant parts of Celsus’s work, see the edition by Otto Glockner in the series of Lietzmann’s Kleine Texte fuer theologische und philologische Vorlesungen und Uebungen, Bonn, 1924. There is an excellent French translation by the eminent Louis Rougier in his Celse, ou le conflit de la civilisation antique et du christianisme primitif (Paris, Editions du Siecle, 1926); this, minus Rougier’s introduction, was reprinted under the title Celse contre les Chretiens (Paris, Copernic, 1977), while the introduction was replaced by Professor Rougier’s admirable study of the disastrous influence of the Judaic superstition on Western Civilization, Le conflit du christianisme primitif et de la civilisation antique (Paris, Copernic, 1974; 2d edition, 1977).)
The story of Jesus ben Pandera, if considered critically, will give us a convenient illustration of the way in which all such tales, including those in the “New Testament,” are elaborated.
It is a reasonable inference that the story has an historical nucleus: that among the numerous goetae there was a Jesus who, by his skill in magic and spellbinding patter, acquired a sizeable following and imposed for a time on the widow of Alexander Jannaeus, Alexandra Helene (Salome), who ruled Judaea from 78 to 69 B.C. He and his followers doubtless spread wondrous stories about his divine powers and the miracles he had wrought. Like many others, he was probably of obscure origin and claimed to be a Son of God. Holy men are always in keen and unscrupulous competition with each other, and it was probably through some intrigue that he lost the Queen’s favor and protection, and was hanged. His dupes, believing in his divinity, doubtless devised stories to account for his ignominious end and awaited his return with celestial reinforcements to make good his promises to them. If he was born during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (103-76), he cannot have been the Essene “Teacher of Righteousness,” who was crucified by that king c. 88 B.C.
To make our example brief, let us consider only the account of his birth and parentage.
According to what must have been the original and not implausible version of the story, Joseph, a lustful Jew who also bears the obviously assumed name of Pandera (=Greek panthera or pantheras), seduces a young woman, Mary, by stealing into her chamber at night and, under the cover of darkness, pretending to be her betrothed, John. When Mary and John are married, they discover that it was not he who took her virginity, but she is already pregnant, and John takes her to Egypt to avoid scandal. Her child, of course, is Jesus.
In what theologians call “hostile gospels,” the purpose is to denigrate the protagonist. Redactors habitually try to improve the tale they are transmitting. If it was felt that it was not sufficient that Jesus was a bastard, the story could be improved by disparaging his mother and placing on the circumstances of his conception a peculiarly Jewish stigma.
A recension of the story that shows this stage is translated in G. R. S. Mead’s Did Jesus Live 100 B.C.? (London, Theosophical, 1903), pp. 258 ff. According to this version, John and Mary are accustomed to engage in sexual intercourse while they are betrothed. Joseph enters and in the darkness Mary, thinking him John, objects that she is menstruating. (5) That does not deter the lascivious Joseph from indulging his lust. Soon after Joseph has departed, John enters the chamber, and Mary naturally exclaims, “What? You again!” John thus discovers what has happened, suspects Joseph, and departs without touching his fiancee, whom another man has defiled. When Mary is found to be pregnant, John knows, from the phase of her cycle in which she conceived, that he cannot be the father. He abandons Mary and leaves town, going to Babylon (which at that time was what New York is today, the largest Jewish city in the world).
(5. This is a subject on which the rabbis of the Talmuds enjoy exercising their Yiddish ingenuity and hair-splitting subtlety, and on which they expatiate almost endlessly with a pertinacity that seems incredible to Aryan minds. On the Jews’ sexual fixations, which seem so unnatural and repulsive to us, see Allen Edwardes, Erotica Judaica, New York, Julian Press, 1967.)
The redactor of the recension translated by Foote and Wheeler tried to improve on this. He makes Mary’s mother condone and even suggest the clandestine rape. He, however, wanted to present John as a very chaste and pious youth, so he eliminated the practice of sexual relations between John and his fiancee. Joseph enters, is mistaken for John, and insists on copulating with the girl despite her condition. So far so good, but in the version the redactor was improving, Mary was visited twice in one night. Instead of simply suppressing the second visit, the bumbling redactor makes Joseph return for a second bout. But, with the stupidity characteristic of such meddlers, he forgot to alter the girl’s exclamation that John has never before come to her twice in one night since they were engaged! Since John in this version has never had connection with his fiancee, he knows he cannot be the father of her child, and, to avoid being suspected, he runs off to Babylon.
In another recension, Mary appears as a peasant girl who is the wife of a village carpenter. She, doubtless in keeping with the adage that when husbands are away, wives will play, commits adultery with a foreign (Macedonian?) soldier named Panthera. Driven by her husband from their hut, she gives birth to her child in the wilderness. Another version makes Mary a prostitute and her mother a bawd.
One could go on to show how each element in the story was revised in successive recensions, but the one example will suffice.
As we all know, when a man repeats a story, whether an anecdote or a folk-tale, he often censors it to eliminate what displeases him, and revises or expands it to sharpen its point for his audience. When there is a strong religious animus, an urge to denigrate or exalt the subject of the tale becomes paramount.
Fortunately for us, religious emotions commonly make narrators overlook what is inconsistent in the changes they make. We noted above one example: the doubling of Joseph’s visit to Mary. We cannot be certain whether that inept alteration was made in oral or in written transmission of the tale. A quite different oversight appears in the manuscripts (Ninth Century or later) in which the redactor or, at least, the copyist overlooked a detail which, by implication contradicted the Jewish orthodoxy of his time.
Jesus ben Pandera claims that he was born of a virgin and is therefore a christ, alluding to the prophecy in Isaiah, 7.14: “The Lord himself shall give you a sign: Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” That ‘virgin’ is the correct meaning is obvious from the Septuagint, in which the word is parthenos, and even more from the common-sense consideration that the pregnancy of a virgin would indeed be remarkable, whereas hundreds of young women conceive every day and about half of them bear sons. Nevertheless, when the Jews, perhaps in the Third Century or late in the Second, determined to sever themselves completely from their Christians, they altered the Hebrew text and replaced the word for ‘virgin’ (probably BTWLH) with (LMH), which means ‘young woman.’ An alert redactor would have made the Jews who heard Jesus’s use of the supposed prophecy object that he was falsifying its meaning, and would have thus retrojected into the time of Queen Alexandra Helene the interpretation that was orthodox in his own time.
If we had the early oral and written versions of the gospels that were finally included in the “New Testament,” we should doubtless be able to trace a similar process of constant revision before the texts were canonized by the Fathers in widely disseminated copies, so that only relatively minor tampering with the text was possible thereafter. As it is, we have many surviving inconsistencies in the tales, and a very clear example in the drastic censoring of a passage in the gospel that is attributed to a certain unidentified Marcus, of which one of the earlier texts was preserved in a letter by Clement that was discovered by Professor Morton Smith. (Text with commentary in his Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark, Harvard University Press, 1973; translation in his more popular book, The Secret Gospel, New York, Harper & Row, c. 1973.)
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