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Choosers and Chosen

The birth of Christianity, part 04


Matthew describes how Joseph moved to the village of Nazareth after the ascension of Herod Archelaus as ethnarch to the throne of Idumea, Judea and Samaria, so that Jesus could be called a Nazarene. The debate whether Nazareth existed in the first century or not has all but died out and claiming that it didn’t is no longer tenable. So far however, the entire archaeological discoveries that can be ascribed to the first century in the settlement consist of a few tombs, one small residential building and one mikveh. Are still conspicuously absent: a first century synagogue (*) where according to the gospels Joshua was said to have preached and the name of the settlement itself. Apart from the gospels, not a single source locates or mentions the hamlet (calling it a village would be doing it too much honor); we have to wait until the 3rd century before the location is tied to this name. In his Vita, Josephus recounts that in his day there were 240 towns and villages in Galilee but the ones he names do not include a Nazara or Nazareth. Admittedly, absence of evidence for the name is not evidence for the absence of the name and archaeology is somewhat difficult when a modern city is sitting on top of the tiny old settlement.

None the less, the move to Nazareth as proposed by Matthew cannot have fulfilled any prophecy as the hamlet is not referred to in the Old Testament at all. So is the term Nazarene really a geographical determinant, in the same way as surnames would slowly be applied to more and more people [i.e John of Gischala, Saul of Tarsus, Otto von Habsburg, Francis of Assisi etc.]? If that is the case, why is Jesus not called Jesus the Bethlehemite or Jesus of Bethlehem? That’s where he was born according to both Matthew and Luke. Though Luke has Joseph and Mary already living in Nazareth before Jesus’ birth, he still calls Bethlehem the ancestral home of Joseph. Matthew ties the family to Bethlehem much closer, as he has Joseph and Mary living in Bethlehem before Jesus’ birth. Contrary to Nazareth, Bethlehem did in fact tie in with Old Testament expectations. When Jesus became an adult, he moved to Capernaum and made it his hometown, but nowhere is he ever called Jesus of Capernaum or Jesus the Capernaumite. It is also quite strange that the main character of the gospels should be identified by his parents’ residence, whereas none of the other 'important' characters are. Nowhere in the synoptic gospels are the twelve disciples identified by a “geographical” surname, even if such a distinction would be useful. If a distinction is needed, it is made by using the description “son of” or more accurately “of”, as in James and John of Zebedee (Matthew 10: 2) opposed to James of Alphaeus. In other cases the characters are distinguished by a group they belonged to as is the case with Simon the Zealot (Simon the Rebel, to distinguish him from Simon the Rock), or Judas of the Sicarii. It is noteworthy that in Mark 3: 17, Jesus gives two of the apostles who already have a distinguishing “surname” yet another one, calling James and John of Zebedee ‘sons of thunder’. Similarly, the apparent surnames Alphaeus and Clopas (to distinguish between some of the many Marys), both mean renewal, making the second James be James of Renewal or James the Renewer. Why is Jesus not systematically called Jesus son of Joseph, as is so often done to identify other characters? Is it therefore a stretch to wonder whether “Nazarene” may equally be referring to a characteristic of Jesus, or perhaps a group that Jesus belonged to? It leads us back to point 1 of the previous post, raising the question of the chicken or the egg. And if no Old Testament prophecy ever mentions Nazareth, then why does Matthew make this the conclusion statement of the birth narrative? To explain this, we have to look at the two different meanings of Nazarene.

1. Scattered

The first meaning of Nazarene is derived from the Hebrew verb “zara”, ‘to scatter’. You could hardly find a more appropriate name to describe the various philosophy schools run by the Pharisees. The gospel of Mark is considered to be written around the 70’s AD and refers to a Jesus of the Scattering (Mark 1: 9, 24). He connects his character very strongly with Upper-Galilee however and far beyond. “The Word” is preached in Gaulanitis, Iturea and Jesus also visits the “Rock” aka the city of Tyre, while Matthew adds Sidon to the area. Matthew stresses the ‘Scattering’ much more than Mark. Where Luke’s genealogy is a straight line from Jesus to Adam, Matthew divides his genealogy in a “before the Exile” and an “after the Exile”, or the first Jewish Diaspora (Scattering). Why would this be in any way important if you’re merely giving a biological genealogy?

In Mark, “Jesus” simply appears as an adult Nazarene. Matthew expands on the provenance of “Jesus” with the birth story. He has his character born in his parents’ home town Bethlehem, but moves him first to Egypt. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus comes back from Egypt as, possibly, an adult, as this is in the days that John Baptist is preaching in the wilderness. The adult Jesus then is moved to Nazareth by his father, but when Jesus becomes even more adult, he moves to Capernaum. Again, read literally this doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. But if you read ‘Jesus’ as ‘Judaism’ this is not only possible, but more in line with the history and development of rabbinical Judaism. The Babylonian exile had a major impact on its development; hence the importance Matthew attributes to this in the birth story. Alexandria in Egypt was also a very important Jewish city and contributed of course a lot to the development of a Hellenized Judaism. It was there that the Septuagint was translated and where philosophers like Philo Judaeus of Alexandria gained eternal fame.

Up until the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the most important philosophy schools within Judea (in hoc casu the former Herodian kingdom of Judea) were located in Jerusalem, as was its highest religious and legislative authority, the Sanhedrin [there were other Sanhedrins, but the Jerusalem one seemed to be seen as the Supreme Court]. The first Jewish-Roman War however literally scattered the surviving scribes and teachers of the law to other cities within and without Judea. The Sanhedrin was moved twice, as Matthew’s gospel reflects. First to Yabneh/Yavneh (Iamnia) around 70 AD and under prince Gamaliel II it moved to Usha in 80 AD. If Matthew would have lived longer, he probably may have worked in the subsequent moves of the Sanhedrin back to Yavneh in 116 AD and back to Usha later on. The gospels have the Nazarene (or the Nazarenes) born in the house and philosophy of Juda (Judaism), but grow up and preached in Galilee. Jesus only moves to Jerusalem to spend his last days and basically die, and because of the war Judaism was almost literally crucified. Because of the “death and resurrection” of John Zachary-son however, Judaism itself was miraculously raised from the ashes of the Temple.

2. Jeet Kune Do

I have not invented a "new style," composite, modified or otherwise that is set within distinct form as apart from "this" method or "that" method. On the contrary, I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or molds. Remember that Jeet Kune Do is merely a name used, a mirror in which to see "ourselves". . . Jeet Kune Do is not an organized institution that one can be a member of. Either you understand or you don't, and that is that.” – Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee emphasized that every situation, in fighting or in everyday life, is varied. To obtain victory, therefore, it is believed essential not to be rigid, but to be fluid and adaptable to any situation. Bruce Lee’s martial arts philosophy is the perfect exemplification of the second meaning of ‘Nazarene’: to winnow. Winnowing is the separating of the chaff from the wheat, or as it has come to be applied much more than in its original meaning, keeping the good or useful and rejecting the bad or useless.

Nazarenes did exactly that. They married their Judaic philosophy to anything they deemed useful, which in their day was predominantly Greek philosophy. Nazarenism was a way of thought, a way of thinking and it is only in this sense that it can be linked to Old Testament sayings. Numbers 5:28 “But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be immune and be able to conceive children.” Allegorically: if wisdom, knowledge and understanding has not corrupted itself, then it shall be healthy and able to multiply and increase.

Opposed to the rigid doctrines of the establishment (the Roman-Herodian backed Sadducees), the Nazarenes understood that for Judaism to be any benefit to people, it had to change, adapt and improve its morality, ethics, rituals and of course laws. That’s why Jesus says his yoke is easier to bear than the uncompromising application of Mosaic Law as imposed on the people by the Sadducees. In the Second Temple period the financial consequences of religious observance was indeed driving a large part of the population into poverty and misery, while it mostly benefitted the Sadducee nobility and their Herodian allies. With the arrival of Rome and its taxes, the situation became desperate. It is why Luke connects Josephus’ “fourth philosophy” the Zealots with the census of Quirinius, as this census was the prelude to even more taxes. It birthed a major revolt and the guerrilla war waged by the Zealots and its offshoot, the Sicarii. “Nazarenism”, similar to the Jesus character would say that the law should be of service to people, not to keep them down. Kingship should protect people and their freedom to be inquisitive, to learn and to challenge the establishment and traditions. If a Mosaic law would stand in the way of human benefit, it should be rejected and if a “gentile” principle improves it, you should embrace it. Evidently, the establishment and ruling classes, no matter who they are at any given time, cannot allow such a philosophy to undermine their authority and in the first century, the Temple priests would therefore severely persecute adherents of this kind of thinking. It is a sad irony that in time, Christianity would itself become the very establishment persecuting differently thinking people. This history would repeat itself over and over, but the cycle would already continue within early Christianity itself (cfr. Paul) as the varying different churches fought for dominance of thought and doctrine.

It is no coincidence that the appearance of Nazarenes would be mostly centered in the regions of Upper-Galilee, the Decapolis and the territories of the tetrarch Philip. These regions were even much more Hellenized than Judea proper. At the same time this caused a lot of conservative reaction from fundamentalist “Jewish” Galileans. This polemic relation is very aptly portrayed in the very first chapter of John’s gospel, where the Pharisee Nathaniel criticizes that nothing good can come from Nazarene thought. But “Jesus” knows where Nathaniel is coming from, i.c. the Temple, represented by the fig tree. Nathaniel is still thinking in terms of the established order of “traditional Judaism”, but with the Temple gone, it is time for Nathaniel to question his beliefs and become a “critical thinker”, hence Nazarene.

The oval forum and cardo of Gerasa (modern Jerash, Jordan)

Apart from being Winnowers or Choosers, these Nazarenes would congregate in schools or houses of their likeminded peers, thus forming their version of “Christian” churches. Its leaders would be chosen among them just as new members or sympathizers would be chosen to be initiated in the philosophies they valued and become part of the “ekklesia”. As they were equally open to Greek philosophy and “Old Testament” thought, they would of course be equally open to Greek and gentile thinkers and sympathizers. They would still congregate in the same synagogues or “houses of the Lord” [kyriakon > churches] and up until the second century be completely indistinguishable from the other Jewish philosophers and philosophies.

Over time, the Nazarene Jews would be completely overshadowed by an increasingly gentile form of Judeo-Christianity, disconnecting itself more and more from Judean traditions. This process would be massively solidified in the aftermath of the Bar Kochba revolt of 132-136 AD. The latter left Judea in ruins, even more so than the first Jewish Revolt. If there ever was a Jerusalem Church initially led by Peter, John and James as attested to by Paul and the book of Acts, there would be nothing left of it. If ever this Jerusalem church community would have kept any correspondence or written records of their community they were undoubtedly destroyed with the city itself. And for the second time, if any Nazarenes in Judea survived, they would have been scattered so thinly across the Mediterranean world, that we hear or read nothing about or from them save a few vague allusions here and there as part of refutations by their adversaries. Because of the Jewish-Roman wars, Christianity became a matter of communities outside of Palestine. Those communities would be found in the same cities where philosophy was being taught. The most important of these centers would be Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Corinth, Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, joined by a few cities known from Paul’s letters. As much as I dislike Paul and rather not talk about him, I will have to get to him at some point. He is after all the first “Christian” source.

3. The Time Travelers

In “A shift in time”, published in 2016, dr. Lena Einhorn draws attention to the possibility that the gospels employed a chronological shift to cover up the true identity of Jesus. I agree with her: there are very good arguments to be made that the gospels describe political events decades after the commonly accepted lifetime of the Jesus character… or perhaps before as well? She proposes the rebel described by Josephus as the Egyptian as a candidate for the real historical Jesus. This is the part of her proposal that I (and of course many others) disagree with, or am at least not convinced of. Some of the parallels with this Egyptian and the gospel Jesus are indeed intriguing. In Acts, Paul is at one point being suspected of being this Egyptian. But there are just as many parallels to be drawn with Judas the Galilean, another major revolt leader who is equally referred to by name in the Book of Acts [along with Theudas, yet another rebel leader]. Messianic expectations within Judaism already started to become more overt under the Seleucids and would be revived more strongly with the end of the Hasmonean dynasty and Jewish independence, when Judea would once again become part of a “heathen” empire. Whoever you consider the most likely alter ego of the gospels’ Jesus, it doesn’t solve the very contradictory statements about this possible human prophet’s life and ministry. However, if you consider the real possibility that the gospels are not about any single person, but a philosophy or variations thereof, then it would explain why different authors had different views and opinions about that philosophy and its practical, tangible and historical consequences

As I said before, this doesn’t settle every single debate or question that may arise from this interpretation. I don’t claim that this view accounts for all the contradictions in and between the gospels but in my opinion eliminates some of the problems caused by a literal (physical ) interpretation of the character Jesus, rather than as a personification of ideas. The representation of abstract ideas by means of a human figure is after all used in literature throughout all ages and in many cultures. Many will be familiar with the humanized representations of death (the Grim Reaper), Father Time or a conflation of those two. In classical mythology, especially Greek, almost every abstract idea is personified in a deity. We have but to think of the Three Fates as the destiny goddesses; Eos, the goddess of the dawn (or her Roman equivalent Aurora). Noteworthy in this broad spectrum of thought turned human is definitely the development of the Charites (in Latin, the Graces). Is there any reason why the gospel authors, so deeply steeped in the Hellenized world, its culture and philosophies, could not have used the same technique? Earlier in this series, I wondered whether Jesus was the product of Christianity or Christianity the product of Jesus. Similarly, is Jesus possibly the personification of ‘Salvation’, rather than salvation only being possible through Jesus. At this point, I’ll leave it up to you, dear reader, to decide whether Jesus is the egg or the chicken and which one comes first.

Darryl P.A, 21 April 2022


Notes, sources, references:


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