(Original title: Orthodoxy, Heresy and Jesus, V)
Whether we like it or not, the reality is that both the “orthodox” and “heterodox” traditions of Jesus are based on contradictory sources which cannot be connected with historical witnesses . None of this evidence bodes well for those people out there who want to insist that all the “gospels” are literally true and that Jesus really existed. Skeptics today have every right to express their doubts.
For Gnostic readers these credibility gaps are not a problem because Gnostics are in search of wisdom, not facts. They want the Wisdom of Jesus and not the bloody man hanging on a cross. Nor are they looking for Jesus to come blasting out of the sky at the end of this “generation”. The Gnostic understands that “Jesus” and his “Name” are but symbols of a higher Savior and a higher Name: i.e. the ineffable Name of the ineffable God. This is the Spiritual Truth behind the Gospels; and of the four Gospels the Gospel of John contains the most coherent account .
But then again, one cannot simply say that the case is closed and that Jesus never existed. We cannot say that the records in question prove that Jesus never existed. To the contrary, I believe there is evidence that this man did exist, and that this evidence cannot be ignored. That evidence is preserved in the New Testament, in the “synoptic” Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. I believe these gospels do preserve sayings that were uttered by an historical figure. And early Christians clung to these sayings for more than one hundred years, thereby leading to an awkward situation (e.g. 2 Peter 3).
The basic problem here is that Jesus is reported to have uttered prophecies which never came to pass. The synoptic Gospels can be shown to contradict each other on many things. But the one issue on which they agree (and John disagrees) is that Jesus predicted that the “Son of Man” would arrive before the end of his “generation.” Let’s look at the evidence:
In Matthew 10 Jesus tells his disciples to preach the gospel to the lost sheep of the “house of Israel” and to avoid the “gentiles” (10:5). Jesus warns them that they will suffer persecution (10:22f.). He then tells them to persevere and promises to them in verse 23:
“For truly I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone through the cities of Israel till the Son of man arrives.”
And again in Matthew 16:28, (Mk. 9:1, Lk. 9:27)
“Truly I say unto you, There be some standing here which shall not taste death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.”
And in Mark 9:1,
“Truly I say unto you, There be some standing here which shall not taste death, till they see the kingdom of God come with power (dynamei).”
Our next example follows near the end of Jesus’s ‘end time’ prophecy speech in Matthew 24. Here Jesus speaks of the unparalleled tribulations that will occur before the end of the age (Mt. 24:21f.). And then he promises his followers in Matthew 24:34f.:
“Truly I say unto you, This generation (genea) shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled. Heaven and Earth shall pass away; but my words shall not pass away.” (Mk. 13:30–31, Lk. 21:32–33)
And again Jesus makes a similar statement to the Temple high-priest at his interrogation. When asked if he truly was the Christ, Jesus answered in Matthew 26:64:
“It is as you said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.” (Mk. 14:62, Lk. 22:69)
Clearly there is a record of Jesus promising and proclaiming in the Gospels (except John) that the Son of man will arrive before the end of the “generation” and that even the high-priest will witness the coming of the Son of man. It is also clear that these prophecies never came to pass.
I can’t help but arrive at the conclusion that these failed prophecies originate from a real person. The reason is that if Jesus was simply a figment of someone’s imagination, or a product of someone’s sublime mythology, they would not attribute failed prophecies to him. And this is one of the details that cannot be found in Gnostic texts. Nowhere in Gnostic literature is Jesus portrayed as an apocalyptic, end time prophet (John also contains no such prophecies).
I think the reason that these prophecies are still preserved is because someone named “Jesus” (Yahshuah) actually spoke these words, and many people believed him. Even after Jesus’s generation passed away, believers continued to hang on. But eventually a time came when people realized that these prophecies were worthless. But at the same time, these words were held among Christians all over the ancient world. No one could simply deny that Jesus spoke these words. On the other hand, new Gospels were written in which Jesus’s message was re-worked, or re-interpreted, and the mistakes were edited out. The Gospel of John was among the first of these new Gospels, along with the Gospel of Thomas and the Gnostic Gospels. In these Gospels Jesus’s message is more consistent, and there are no prophetic blunders. Jesus doesn’t repeat any of his past mistakes and the new message is mystical in nature.
The historic crisis that was created by Jesus’s prophecies, and the need for a reformation, is reflected in the Epistle of 2 Peter, chapter 3. Here the writer—posing as the Apostle Peter—warns about certain trouble-makers who began to disbelieve the prophecies, saying:
“Where is the promise of his coming? For since the fathers fell asleep all things continue as they were…”
This passage refers to the Apostles (“fathers”) who died without witnessing the coming of the Son of man as Jesus promised in Matthew 16:28,
“Truly I say unto you, There be some standing here which shall not taste death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.”
The author of 2 Peter proposes a solution to this problem (and in doing so shows that he is not Peter, for if Peter was alive then there would be no reason to dis-believe). This ‘solution’ appears in 2 Peter 3:8,
“But beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise…”
Our writer implies that Jesus was somehow misunderstood, and that one day to Jesus is a thousand years. However, this is not what Jesus promised to Peter in Matthew 16:28 or 10:23. Jesus explicitly promised that the kingdom would come before then end of Peter’s generation, and that “some standing here” would see the Son of man coming. In the latter verse Jesus told his Apostles that they would not even reach all the cities of Israel when the Son of man arrives (Mt. 10:23, cf. Mk. 9:1, Lk. 9:27).
Clearly Jesus issued prophecies that never came to pass. And 2 Peter 3 shows how this became a problem and how the end time prophecies were re-interpreted. Instead of “this generation” the time-span for fulfillment is measured in thousands of years. And then in the Gospel of John the end time prophecies are deleted altogether, and Jesus proclaims instead that the “kingdom” is spiritual like the blowing wind (John 3:5–8).
Again, I think that the failed prophecies and corresponding revisions of the Gospel message show that the original earliest Christian message was uttered by a fallible historical figure—a certain man named Jesus.
Next I would like to show another example of where the Gospel message has been revised, in order to correct an original message which proved to be too limited for the needs of a later following.
This can be seen in the difference between Matthew chapters 10, 24 and 28.
In Matthew 10 Jesus first sends out his twelve disciples. He tells them to avoid the gentiles and to preach the Gospel to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” only. And again, Jesus promises his disciples that they will not have gone through all the cities of Israel when the Son of man arrives.
But then in Matthew 24:14 the message undergoes a change. It now says that
“This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations, then shall the end come.” (emphasis added)
This new form of the message is repeated at the end of Matthew 28:19f., where the risen Jesus commands his followers:
“Go ye then and teach all nations… I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” (Mk. 16:15, Lk. 24:47)
Certainly these latter statements are in contrast with what can be regarded as the earlier stratum of Jesus’s message, which was directed to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In another passage Jesus even says to a gentile woman “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Mt. 15:24)
There is also a noticeable change in that, in the earlier stratum, Jesus prophesies about the imminent coming of the “Son of man.” He need not be referring to himself, but to another figure. But as the story evolves and is subject to changes in the message, the Son of man and Jesus appear to be merged into the same figure; whereas the original, historical Jesus may not have been referring to himself at all. Thus the original Jesus was simply a Jewish teacher and prophet who spoke of another figure he referred to as the “Son of man.” This is developed into a heavenly redeemer figure who has a message for all nations. (There are also two distinct theologies in Matthew which I document in part II of this series.)
If what I say is true then how is it possible that a failed prophet can come to be worshipped as a redeemer figure?
Jesus’s leap into immortality and deity happened as the result of his crucifixion, after being condemned by Jewish priests for sedition. I subscribe to the theory held by some scholars that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but “swooned” . There are also some matters or speculation involved, and which I will not waste much time on. It’s possible that Pilate and the Roman soldiers did not really regard Jesus as a threat. Thus out of contempt for the Jewish priests they went easy on the flogging, and let him down from the cross before he could die. It’s even possible that these soldiers were bribed to do this by Jesus’s wealthy supporters, such as Joseph of Arimathea. (At any rate we cannot rely on the four Gospels as evidence that Jesus died, anymore than these records can prove that Jesus rose from the dead.)
The result was that Jesus turned up alive after the crucifixion; which led many of his followers (many being simple folk) to believe that Jesus was divine. Jesus in turn fled the Roman realm, but told his followers that he would return.
There are many legends in the East, in Brahmin and Buddhist sources about a certain “Jesus” or “Yuz Asaf” (Jesus the Gatherer) who traveled in India. There is even an ancient tomb in the capital city of Kashmir, which is said to be the burial place of Jesus. Among Muslims and Indians alike it is believed that Jesus fled the Roman Empire and journeyed along the silk road to India, and eventually settled in Kashmir, where he died of old age . Some readers may find this theory far-fetched; but it is a fact that Jewish communities spread all the way to India back in Roman times. There really is nothing implausible about the idea that Jesus may have went to India himself—in order to avoid a second date with the Cross.
With Jesus gone, his followers were free to let their imaginations run wild. Jesus went from being a simple apocalyptic prophet, preaching about the Son of man, into becoming a new redeemer, a manifestation of the Godhead. Jews, Catholics and Gnostics have all placed their spin on who Jesus was and what he represented. All of these elements can be found in the four Gospels, all of which were written at a later time, and contain multiple, conflicting elements. In part II of this series I showed where the Gospels show a Jewish Jesus who commands his followers to obey the Law of Moses, while in other passages Jesus overturns the Law on behalf of a God which cannot be connected with Moses (e.g. cf. Mt. 5:17–19, 38ff., 48; Lk. 4:8, 6:35) link.
Again I have to express my doubt that failed prophecies can be consistent with a purely mythical and divine figure. Failed prophecies are the tangible products of real people. The Jesus we know from our religious traditions is the product of imagination and/or inspiration. In this case Jesus has become the figurehead of various sectarian movements. It will come as no surprise to my readers that I believe that the Gnostic tradition of Jesus is the wealthiest of all such traditions . But we must remember that in Gnostic tradition Jesus is a symbolic figure. In Gnostic texts profound wisdom is attributed to Jesus. Whether or not someone named “Jesus” actually said those things is irrelevant. The Gnostic “Jesus” is a symbol of the ineffable God and the ineffable Name. He is a symbol of the God above god and a higher plan for salvation, which we receive through gnosis. Let us not fall into the Catholic error of confusing Jesus with a real person—because that real person has nothing to offer us other than the botched prophecies of a Jewish prophet, as preserved in Matthew 10. This is where the true “Jesus” can be found. —jw
1] In part I of this series I showed that the four New Testament Gospels contradict each other in regard to critical details of Jesus’s life and teaching link. In part II, I showed that the NT Gospels contain contradictory theologies; thereby demonstrating that some texts are composite link. In part III, I showed that the Gnostic secret teachings of Jesus are inconsistent, and include some notable irreconcilable differences link. Thus even Gnostics don’t agree on what Jesus taught. In part IV, I explored the mystical aspect of the Gospel as portrayed in Gnostic literature, and which I feel is lacking in the NT Gospels (but is preserved in Paul) link. I do believe that the Gnostic texts preserve a spiritual legacy that has been suppressed in both the “orthodox” church and the New Testament. But here again I remain doubtful that these Gnostic texts document historical facts regarding an historical Jesus.
2] See my article Gnostic Enigmas in the Gospel of John link.
3] Wikipedia provides an excellent summary of the “Swoon” theory as well as speculation about the presence of Jesus in India: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swoon_hypothesis
4] Author Holger Kersten manages to provide some documentation in his rambling book Jesus Lived in India. The Ahmadiyya Muslim sect of India maintains that Jesus survived the crucifixion and fled to India. http://www.alislam.org/topics/jesus/
5] See my article Orthodoxy, Heresy & Jesus, IV: Did Jesus teach a Secret Doctrine?
By James M. West. Copyright © 2010, 2012. All Rights Reserved.