John’s Gospel as the Eyewitness Event Itself

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What follows is a addition to The Gospel of John, my restoration of that original text, free from the later interpolations and excisions of the organized Christian religion, and translated afresh from the Greek. Ordering information here, but coming soon is the new two-volume edition!

In the preface to his five-volume opus, Papias (an early second-century Christian bishop and writer) explains his own approach to establishing the truth about Jesus in the following passage. Without doubt he was describing the historiographical method that his master John the Presbyter taught him, which means it is also the method John adopted in writing the gospel.

εἰ δέ που καὶ παρηκολουθηκώς τις τοῖς πρεσβυτέροις ἔλθοι, τοὺς τῶν πρεσβυτέρων ἀνέκρινον λόγους, τί Ἀνδρέας ἢ τί Πέτρος εἴπεν ἢ τί Φίλιππος ἢ τί Θωμᾶς ἢ Ἰάκωβος ἢ τί Ἰωάννης ἢ Ματθαῖος ἢ τις ἕτερος τῶν τοῦ κυρίου μαθητῶν ἅ τε Ἀριστίων καὶ ὁ πρεσβύτερος Ἰωάννης, τοῦ κυρίου μαθηταί, λέγουσιν. οὐ γὰρ τὰ ἐκ τῶν βιβλίων τοσοῦτόν με ὠφελεῖν ὑπελάμβανον ὅσον τὰ παρὰ ζώσης φωνῆς καὶ μενούσης.

And so whenever anyone who had followed the presbyters came along, I would ask carefully for the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or Peter had said, or what Philip, or what Thomas or James, or what John or Matthew, or any other of the disciples of the Lord, and which Aristion and John the Presbyter, disciples of the Lord say too. For I did not assume that whatever comes from books is as helpful to me as what comes from a living and persevering voice.

This quotation is not (as some have written) dismissing the value of books; certainly not when Papias wrote these words in a massive written work of his own. He is rather saying that when an actual eyewitness is still alive, still persevering in stating aloud in words his vivid memories, he deserves to be heeded more than a book, no matter how helpful the latter. It is saying that even the best books are of less value because they are indirect, coming between the student and the eyewitness descriptions, and that the eyewitness descriptions are superior because they are only one step away from the actual events themselves.

Modern historiography, while it pays lip service to primary sources, relies mainly on previously written works, as any survey of published material will amply demonstrate. And modern historiography, when it does turn to primary sources, insists that the best eyewitness is dispassionate, perceiving facts without their being distorted by the least shred of emotional attachment, free from subjective interpretation – in this case, spiritual understanding.

The classical historian, on the other hand, would aver that to lack emotional attachment to the event, that is, to not care about what one is observing, reduces one’s effectiveness as a witness. The best witness, that historian would say, is one who is invested in the event, and thus has senses well attuned and memory carefully storing the event away. The best witness is one who not just cares enough about the event to remember it well, but cares about it enough to recount it again and again to various audiences, who therefore has had good practice at the craft of putting memory into words, which strengthens the recall and prevents the memory from fading away.

As it is put in The Circle of Life:

Traditional peoples see time and place in terms of story. Everything around us is alive, and has its story. To exist, to live, is to create story: when we fall in love, when we have a child, and so on, we’re beginning a story, and the only way we can learn how the story is going to come out is by creating the story. The past, to the traditional way of thinking, is the stories that have been told and can still be told; the future is the stories that have not yet been told. Thus, this present moment is ceremony in progress, stories in the making. This moment now, with you holding this book in your hands as you read it, is your story-in-the-making. Some day to come you will remember reading this book. You won’t have this book in your hands, but you will remember reading something in it that really struck you, and what it made you think about, and what you did that you wouldn’t have done otherwise. This remembering will be for you a story, part of the greater story of your life. Death, in this view, is an ending not of life, but of a story – and other stories will always follow.

This issue was no doubt important to Papias because, as the Gospel of John demonstrates, it was crucial to his mentor John the Presbyter. The book, the gospel, that John wrote seeks to be something unique: to be not just a book of history like other books of history, even the best of them. It seeks to be more than merely an indirect witness to Jesus, a mere record of oral recollections like other written histories. Rather, it seeks to be itself a direct observer and describer of the events, telling the reader the story about them just the way a witness does – more than that, it seeks to be the event itself, such that we are not mere readers of a text that quotes witnesses about the event of Jesus, but that we are direct witnesses to the event itself. I said above that for classical historians the best witness is “invested in the event, and thus has senses well attuned and memory carefully storing the event away, … and cares about it enough to recount it again and again to various audiences”, which describes this gospel very well. For Jesus promises, in the gospel itself, that a new kind of eyewitness will come to the faithful; he speaks of it as the Paraclete (Παρακλητος), “the Spirit/Wind/Breath of truth … that will bear witness concerning me” (15:26), adding, “Whatever it hears it will speak … [it] will teach you all things and will remind you of all the things that I said to you” (14:26). That new kind of witness is the gospel itself. It is the eyewitness we attend to, so it is the event-itself that gives us Jesus.

In this modern age of malls and superhighways drained of all real intrinsic meaning, meaning, or the mere appearance of meaning, is a commodity that is bought and sold like any other: information technology, as it is called. The “ruler of this cosmos”, as Jesus calls him in this gospel, or Big Brother, as George Orwell called him, tells us to trust him and go home now, and he will explain everything to us later. We are in this modern age to believe what we are told to believe. Scholars in this modern age argue about what this gospel means. Most people just allow their religious organization to tell them what the meaning of this and other scriptures is, rather than discovering it for themselves through intelligent reading. The organized religious establishments took over the role of assigning meaning to events. And the scholars, just as bad, squeeze the scriptures for meaning and throw away the works themselves like an empty orange skin. Yet in fact Marshall McLuhan was right: don’t look for hidden meanings in the gospel; the medium, this gospel, is the message, and the message is the gospel itself.

For classical people, the event, the experience, and the meaning were all inextricably mixed. For the classical mind the truth as to the meaning of any event (historical or happening in front of one) was in the event itself, not in descriptions of the event – the descriptions contain truth to the degree that they conform their words to the truth in the event itself. That is the main criterion by which classical books of history were judged in classical times as to their quality, and it should remain such.

Moderns deem the meaning of an event or a teaching more important than the event or teaching itself. They suggest that there is something defective about a powerful symbolic work like the Gospel of John, and that therefore it needs the official explainers to explain it. They suggest that there is something defective about you and me, in that we are not able to appreciate the gospel fully unless we listen to the official explainers. This has the effect not only of devaluing the work itself and the readers themselves, but it creates a relativism of meaning: the meaning is whatever those powerful enough to take control of the social institutions of education, communication, media, and often government say is its meaning.

Symbols are not like highway signs. A red hexagon tells us to stop the car because we are trained by our culture so to do; someone from another culture will not know to stop. But a symbol, an archetype, is immediately a powerful spiritual dynamo for any human being of any culture in any epoch. It needs no explaining, and in fact explaining does it a disservice, suggesting that the symbol is of lesser importance, and that rather the big-mouthed bonehead who wants us to know how smart he is that he can explain a symbol is the real point. As Jung taught, symbols, archetypes, are hard-wired into our psyches as a species; they are ultimately a primal root part of the World Soul, the collective unconscious. Symbols are like bodies that express the ineffable archetypes; the archetypes are the souls inside the symbols that make the symbols come alive. So in my view symbols do not point at something beyond themselves: they simply are, and we can only gape at their inexpressible forever astonishing wonder. They are numinous. Like the famous “Flower Sermon” of Gautama Buddha, John the Presbyter was wise not to put a lot of explanations into this gospel. He simply gives us the symbols, points toward the allusions in the classics and the Tanakh, and leaves us to contemplate this glorious beauty that means what it is.

Most Jews and most Hellenes weaned on Plato would have agreed with John the Presbyter that the ultimate source of all truth is God, not the official explainers. If there is truth in someone’s words or deeds, in any situation, it is because these things are said or done in accordance with the will of God: they are, in the Presbyter’s terms, in accordance with the Λογος. Hence, if the Gospel of John was written by God’s will, then to the degree John the Presbyter wrote it as God wishes, it carries the truth of the words and events recorded. If it is more than an historic record, if it is in Kant’s term a Ding an sich, if it is in Lao-tse’s term 自然 (ziran; “self-so”), if it is in Borges’s term an aleph, then it is God’s own deed, and the Presbyter is but the instrument. And, if that is the case, then the gospel does not just embody the truth, but it is the truth, because the presence of God is in it.

Thus, the Gospel of John, as the Paraclete, by its established nature as the event itself, does not therefore reflect the truth of the event in its words as the moon reflects the sun, as we humans (should) reflect the image of Elohim, but rather it has the truth within its own very nature. And therefore it is for us, as not readers but eyewitnesses to this gospel-event and its inherent truth, to believe. Thus Jesus says the truth will set us free if we know it (8:32), that God’s word is truth (17:17), that he bears witness to the truth such that those who hear his voice have truth in them (18:37), and of course says to Thomas and us

“You believe because you have seen me.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe!”

For example, the resurrection appearances of Jesus were for the disciples new experiences that at first they could not understand. They were receiving sensory data that did not make sense to them, and had to be explained to them. They probably discussed and even argued with each other as to the meaning of these appearances. They may have realized that their guesses at the meaning might be wrong or incomplete. But they would never once have thought it was for them to establish the meaning, that the meaning was theirs to decide, but rather that the meaning was in the event itself and was something that they must discern in the event. Thus, as an event in its own right, the gospel does not like other works of classical history seek to reproduce faithfully the meaning in the event; it is the event, and so it carries its own intrinsic meaning. The meaning it gives to the resurrection is that this is no ordinary man but Messiah, and no ordinary event but a kairos, a tirtha, a moment-place where the veil between the worlds has grown thin and one can glimpse the eternal, the Æon.

This gospel is to be accepted, then, not an ordinary history based on the accounts of witnesses but a witness itself; more than that, it is to be taken as the direct experience of Jesus: by reading it we are there with Jesus. Therefore, we are not mere readers, removed from the event by the intervening media of witness and book; rather, we are witnesses ourselves to the gospel-as-event/teaching, we are put squarely in front of the truth itself, the event-presence itself, and thus we are anointed as disciples and presbyters and apostles and elders ourselves. Jesus in effect addresses us, the readers of the gospel, when in the gospel’s very last words he says: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe!” We, the readers of the gospel, have not seen the events and teachings in the gospel, but by reading we know them, and are called to believe. And the Envoi to the gospel, which follows immediately, drives home this same point:

πολλα δε και αλλα σημεια α εποιησεν ο ιησους ενωπιον των μαθητων αυτου α ουκ εστιν γεγραμμενα εν τω βιβλιω τουτω ατινα εαν γραφηται καθ εν ουδ αυτον οιμαι τον κοσμον χωρησαι τα γραφομενα βιβλια ταυτα δε γεγραπται ινα πιστευσητε οτι ιησους εστιν ο χριστος ο υιος του θεου και ινα πιστευοντες ζωην *αιωνιον* εχητε εν τω ονοματι αυτου

Indeed there are also many other signs Jesus has been doing in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book, which, if each one of them were written, I think not even the cosmos itself could contain all the books (that would have to be) written. These, however, have been written so you might believe that Jesus is the Anointed One, the son of God, and that, by believing, you might have Æonian life in his name.

The Jewish view in John’s day was that truth flowed from the Torah and from the Temple – whichever Temple, and hence the conflicting “truths” espoused by the priesthoods in Jerusalem, Samaria, and Leontopolis in Egypt; Mary and Jesus allude to this conflict in 4:20-21. But the gospel seeks to present God as the only source of truth and valid meaning; God has sent Jesus as emissary to express this truth, and the gospel is presenting itself as the Paraclete, continuing to express God’s truth, the only real truth.

In saying we are blessed who have not seen and yet believe, in saying the gospel was written “so you might believe”, the gospel is saying that those who believe are good witnesses to the experience of Jesus. As the Paracete the gospel presents itself, as I have often said, not as a history book, but as in itself the experience-of-Jesus, which makes us not mere readers of a book but witnesses to an event. Some people over the millennia have read the gospel and remain readers, remain agnostic, because for them this book remains a book; no harm in this. Yet some organizations, while they pay lip service to calling this book scripture, treat it as a book that they will interpret for their adherents, despite the fact that the meaning of the event is in the event, not enforced upon it by a social institution, in this case the meaning is in the book, not the institution, and to separate meaning from event, like separating the spirit from the body, kills both.

But for those who read and believe, the book becomes not just a witness to Jesus, but moreover an event, the experience-of-Jesus. As I have also previously noted, classical historians preferred to base their writings on witnesses who were emotionally involved, because that quality better engraved their memories of what they observed than the “dispassionate observer” preferred today; also, they had experience in telling the story of what they witnessed, and so their wording would be useful to the historian. Like a dream quickly written down at dawn or immediately told to someone, verbalizing an experience helps to firm up and fix the details in the memory with exactitude.

Perhaps thousands of people heard and saw Jesus – but only a relatively very few were so moved that they didn’t just “hear and see” but listened and observed. The difference is in this very factor of becoming involved in, committed to, the event, such that one absorbs it: the individual becomes a part of the event and it becomes a part of the individual. Therefore, for the gospel to discuss belief as a result of reading this gospel is to say it is possible for some readers to become more than readers: to become believers, that is, emotionally involved, committed witnesses to the experience-of-Jesus as mediated by the gospel (20:29,31).

Classical and modern historians both understand that the truth known to human beings is subjective: the only truth we have is the knowable truth, the truth from our finite perspective. And of course in ancient times like now, people would “spin” their telling to make the truth appear in ways that furthered their desires. Thus the wise historian, then and now, presents various perspectives as if in a courtroom, and evaluates the evidence supporting each in order to arrive at the truth in the event itself. Thus in the Gospel of John we find occasional courtroom terminology; even the original title, The Paraclete, is a courtroom term. Thus too we find the gospel focused on the nature of truth: Pilate asks what it is, and Jesus says I AM is the truth that, if we know it, frees us.

Pontius (“What is truth?”) Pilate had no more access to objective truth than any other human being; thus he like most others sought only the truth that would serve him, he like most others sought to be the master of the truth, but Jesus said to him, in effect, “You would have no truth at all, unless it comes to you from above.” John the Presbyter would agree with George Berkeley that, while our human truths are subjective, that we have at best an asymptotic relationship with the truth, God is a priori the one entity for whom truth is objective, whole, and perfect. We human beings cannot bridge the asymptotic gap to perfect truth – the closer we get the harder it is to get closer, like approaching absolute zero or the speed of light. But in the Messiah of Jesus, and therefore in the gospel that embodies his teaching, the truth has come to us, God has come to us – for, where we cannot bridge the asymptotic gap, God can. This is a major point in the Prologue to the gospel, and this coming of God into the human experience is the very essence of kairos, the Greek concept of sacred time, the “eternal now” moment when all ordinary life hushes in the presence of the inexplicable.

The final two words in the quotation from the Muratorian Canon, saying that John wrote “all the wonderful things of the Lord in order” (italics added), are significant here. For a central factor in classical historiography, besides primary reliance on committed eyewitnesses, was the arrangement of the raw observational reports of the eyewitnesses interviewed into a seamless historical narrative: that is, imparting an architecture to that narrative, a pattern as pleasing to the mind as the structure of a cathedral is pleasing to the eye. In Hegelian terms, this is the dialectical relationship between content and form, between truth and beauty, in Greek terms, between χρειαι (units of oral recollection) and συνταξις (organization into a large-scale work): while the eyewitness and historian could be the same person, properly speaking the former was the provider of content, of truth, and the latter the provider of form, of beauty. A classical historical work of fine quality had both blended into a unity; indeed, in classical works of history – indeed, in all great classical literature – these two were the same thing: in the words of Keats, “Truth is beauty, beauty truth.” Put another way, the classical historian saw his task as a form of fine art, painting a truthful image of the past with the raw materials of testimony and records. The structure of the gospel, which is detailed in the Commentaries, is clearly modeled on that of a Greek play, in four major sections (called Acts in my translation), with at least the beginnings of a seven signs and seven seals substructure. It is also filled with inclusio (details or themes or phrases in the early chapters that return in the final chapters), as well as with abundant references to Greek poets such as Sappho and Homer, the philosopher Plato, and the playwright Euripides.

John the Presbyter’s work included more than putting the reminiscences into chronological order and inserting later marginal additions where they seemed best to go into the narrative flow. It included more than refining the literary language was and adding artful references to Hellenistic philosophy and literature, and composing the Prologue. It included more than arranging an artful A-B-A symmetry or inclusio format.

The Presbyter also was determined a: to attest to the truth of this gospel and its hard-to-believe contents, b: to effectively quash the inevitable allegations by cynics (Celsus being the first in a line of them to the present day) that the whole thing about Jesus was made up or a matter of delusion, and c: to prevent ideological tampering with the text. He did this as did the great prophets (e.g., Isaiah 8:2,16; cf. the concern expressed in Jeremiah 8:8), by writing into the text statements that in modern terms are written legal depositions or affidavits, solemnly certififying that the text tells the truth. Therefore, the structure includes a “seven seals” arrangement that was at least partly fleshed out.

Thus we find factual certifications at 1:14, 3:33-34, 19:24, 19:35, 20:30-31, plus two more by John the Immerser at 1:32 and 34. These seven certifications are mentioned in Revelation 5:1-9; they are “seven seals” that seal the codex which is clearly this gospel; the imagery is borrowed from Ezekiel 2:9-3:3. (Note: I do not include a separate certification at the end of chapter 21, since the latter was not originally part of the gospel, nor the approximately seven times that Jesus serves as his own witness, at 3:11, 7:7, 8:18, 5:39, 5:43, 5:46, 18:37, since these are certifications about Jesus, not of Jesus.)

There is also a partly fleshed-out structure of “seven signs” (in modern parlance, miracles) done by Jesus, equivalent to the seven trumpets in Revelation 8-9, trumpeting Jesus’s identity as Messiah. These seven signs are themselves certifications as well: in the Jewish faith then and now a putative Messiah is expected to perform certain signs (אוֺתוֺת; otot; the singular is אוֹת; oth, rhyming with “oat”) to certify themselves as meriting that recognition. However here John evidently ran into a problem which may have delayed completion of the gospel (permanently, as it turned out): the chiastic structure of the seven signs should have had the healings of the paralytic and blind man mirror each other as the third and fifth sign, with the loaves-and-fishes taking the center spot – however, that would only be possible in the text if it were to ignore the chronological fact that the loaves-and-fishes sign preceded that of the paralytic man. The amanuensis could easily have “solved” this problem by just changing the order – but the man who had criticized John Mark for putting events out of their actual temporal order, now had to choose between doing just that or accepting a flaw in the chiasm.

Why all these artistic devices, especially the inclusio and the references to classical literature, in an account that stresses its eyewitness nature? Artifice to our contemporary thinking suggests hyperbole, exaggeration, even outright deception and fallacy. How can these accounts be truthful, we moderns may well ask, when they are so beautifully contrived? The answer is found in such classical philosophers as Plato and Aristotle whom the gospel writer clearly admired and studied. To the classical person, if not the modern, Keats was correct in saying, “Truth is beauty, beauty truth.” All of the great works, in all genres of artistry, are beautiful and true, even when they are ugly and raw. Guernica, Inferno, Hamlet, Rashomon, Don Quixote, Le Sacre du Printemps; these works are jarring and difficult to appreciate – but, for me, that is their beauty. This gospel has its brutal scenes, most especially the passion and crucifixion of Jesus, as well as some that are exquisitely lovely – and note that it is during the crucifixion that the prose gives way to several lines of the most pure, passionate, poignant poetry. Yet without doubt the composition of the gospel was intended, or inspired, to make this another one of these truthful, beautiful works, beautiful even as Jesus struggles on the cross through the last tortured gasps of life. So, for the first century reader, this careful arrangement of the raw materials to create the inclusio effect and bring out the allusions to classical literature is not as we might think today – after too much exposure to the bathetic blandishments of mendacious politicians and hypocritical clergy – to deceive us, but, quite the opposite, to make the gospel more trustworthy and true.

John the Presbyter clearly states the intention that this gospel be the event itself, that it be the presence of Jesus, in 15:26-27. “The Paraclete,” he quotes Jesus as saying, “will bear witness concerning me, and you too (will) bear witness because you have been with me from the first.” The last two words, απ αρχης, form a double entendre: to his actual disciples he means the phrase in its common sense, that they have been with him since this whole series of events began; but to those who are reading this the Paraclete, he means that they, we, have been with him from the first (απ αρχης) word of the gospel, which is, though conjugated differently, this very word, εν αρχη. In other words, we are not just reading about, but experiencing, observing, and witnessing Jesus as he teaches and performs signs. Thus 15:27, like 20:29, can be understood as Jesus speaking directly to the reader of the gospel.

These two verses, therefore, provide future generations with two witnesses: the gospel and its readers. Since under Jewish law the consistent testimony given by two witnesses of probity is to be accepted as truth, the combination of this gospel Paraclete and its readers – readers who become involved, committed witnesses, which in this case is a demonstration of their probity – is to be accepted as the truth. Once again we see how this gospel is laid on a strong legal foundation.

Following these two verses in this reconstruction of the original gospel is verse 13:20, in which the Presbyter further drives home his point through Jesus’s words: “Anyone who receives what I will send receives me,” which is to say again that this Paraclete-gospel is Jesus’s continuing presence, and if we become involved, committed witnesses by receiving it, we thereby receive Jesus; and then he adds, “who receives me receives the One who sent me”, which is to say if we accept and live by Jesus’s teachings we are living in accordance with the Λογος, and hence we become part of the Æon, and are one not only with each other but also one with God (17:26,22,21,23).

This understanding of the gospel as not merely witness but the event itself would have been immediately comprehensible to first-century Jews, and would be to most Jews today were it not for the mental barriers erected between religions that often blind us to their shared elements.

Jesus gives this teaching about the Paraclete, hence about this gospel, mere hours before the beginning of the Passover. Exodus teaches us in the generations following the Exodus to observe the Passover with the understanding that we were there too, for if our spiritual ancestors had not miraculously escaped bondage in Egypt, we their descendants would not be free today. Notice how the following verses do not say “our ancestors”, but “me” or “us”. Exodus 13:8 says, והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר בעבור זה עשה יהוה לי בצאתי ממצרים (“And you shall avow to your son on that day, saying, ‘This is done because of that which YHWH did to me when I came out of Egypt’”), and verse 14 says, והיה כי־ישאלך בנך מחר לאמר מה־זאת ואמרת אליו בחזק יד הוציאנו יהוה ממצרים מבית עבדים (“And it will be, when in future times your son asks you ‘What is this?’, that you will say to him, ‘With a mighty hand YHWH brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage’”). For this reason, the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus, is told to this day at the Passover Seder as not our ancestors’ story, but our story, that we were there too.

Jesus the Notzri and the Samaritan Resistance

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What follows is a addition to The Gospel of John, my restoration of that original text, free from the later interpolations and excisions of the organized Christian religion, and translated afresh from the Greek. You will find ordering information here.

Today, the phrase “Jesus of Nazareth” is universal. But there are no references to a village called Nazareth before 221 C.E. except in the New Testament – and later Christian writers apparently misunderstood Y’shuah ha Notzri in the earliest New Testament writings to say he was from a not-yet-existing village. Rather, he was apparently associated with the Notzrim, a group that expected a Messiah, and which opposed the Herodian petty kings, the Romans, and the religious authorities in Jerusalem. The name Notzrim refers to the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 11:1, in which “a shoot” (נֵ֫צֶר, ne-tser) comes forth from the stump of Jesse, i.e., the “tree” of the Davidic monarchy was long since cut down, but a new shoot will grow from the stump, the coming Messiah.

In John 1 Jesus calls Nathanael “a son of Israel” – an implication of these hated Herodian kings, vassals to the despised Roman rulers; therefore, the term “son of Israel” suggests that Nathanael is at least sympathetic to the cause of the many who would overthrow those rulers. It also suggests that Nathanael was a Samaritan, people who had no more love for the Jewish priests who ruled daily life in Jerusalem than for the Romans; see the second paragraph following. Jesus’s joke also refers to Jacob, later renamed Israel, who used deceit to steal the blessing of their father from his elder brother Esau (Genesis 27); if Nathanael was as is suggested below the son of Joseph of Arimathæa and nephew of Simon ben Nathanael, both religious leaders in Jerusalem, then as himself a young religious leader in Samaria he certainly had not like Jacob stolen his father’s or uncle’s blessing! In sum, therefore, the remark to Nathanael is a mix of pride and shame for Israelite history.

In John 8:48 his Pharisee interlocutors call Jesus a Samaritan, and he doesn’t deny this! This comes right after 8:44, which which Jesus refers not to the “Satan” of much later Christian mythology, but a very human shaitan [hinderer] mentioned in the Tanakh, at Zechariah 3:1-2. These verses feature Joshua the High Priest, who served at the time of the laying of the foundation for the Second Temple, wherein this very conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees is taking place. Jesus evidently associated himself with Joshua: the two shared, of course, the same Hebrew/Aramaic name, and in Zechariah 3:8 God tells the High Priest about “my servant the Shoot”, referring to Isaiah 11:1, an expected Messiah with whom Jesus here also identifies himself. Standing with Joshua is the Messenger (Angel) of God, also equivalent to Jesus, who is also a Messenger of God in the theology of this gospel. The shaitan in this scene, leader of an opposing faction of priests in the Temple, is standing by Joshua ready to challenge him, but has no chance to do so because the Messenger rebukes him.

By “the Shoot” Zechariah was referring to a priest named Manasseh, grandson of High Priest Eliashib (grandson of Joshua), who had married a daughter of the governor of Samaria, Sanballat, who was Nehemiah’s political rival. Nehemiah, who Zechariah portrays as the shaitan, threw Manasseh out of the Jerusalem Temple (Nehemiah 13:28, Josephus: Ant. 11:185-297). Manasseh went on to be high priest at the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim, which Sanballat (or a descendant by the same name; time may be telescoped here) erected.

Likewise in this passage Jesus rebukes these Pharisees, who, as descended from Nehemiah’s camp, he characterizes as sons of this same shaitan – in other words, as priests who oppose God’s will (λογος) and God’s appointed emissary, and who still cause trouble in the Temple now just as in Zechariah’s time. Jesus is thus hinting at the still virulent enmity and rivalry between Gerizim and Jerusalem; he sides here with the former. He may also be referring to the Notzrim , a group who hated alike the Jerusalem religious establishment, the Herodians, and Rome. These Pharisees must have been incensed by his comparing them to the shaitan in Zechariah’s prophecy, as they were by his earlier insinuation that they resembled the despicable King Ahaz (John 5:2-18).

Next, Pilate says “Behold the man!” (Ecce homo! in Latin) at John 19:5. This almost certainly is meant to echo Zechariah 6:12, “Look at the man whose name is Shoot, wherefrom he shall branch out and shall (re)build/(re)grow the Temple of YHWH,” and indirectly Isaiah 11:1, the Messianic prophecy of new life shooting up out of “the stump of Jesse”, all that is left of the Tree, the Davidic monarchy. It is possible that Pilate actually said “Look at the man!” and his hearers, especially Jesus’s disciples, heard in it echoes of Zechariah unintended by Pilate, who was not likely familiar with the Tanakh, though meeting often with the Jewish religious leadership may have changed that, as may also his wife Claudia Procula, who early Christians said was a follower of Jesus and friend of Mary his wife. It is far less likely that this phrase is here put into Pilate’s mouth by the author of the gospel, given his clear determination to be as faithful and accurate in his account as possible, and his quoted criticism of John Mark for failing to be so in his Gospel of Mark.

This verse again helps us see the intent in the gospel to paint Pilate as benignly disposed toward Jesus, since otherwise Pilate would never be given to say such a positive thing. As does the debate at 8:44 and 48, Pilate’s allusion here clearly associates Jesus with the Samaritans: Zechariah’s Shoot prophecies take the side of the Samaritans in their battle with the Jerusalem Temple establishment, who in this passage are conniving and implicitly antagonistic toward Pilate. The Shoot refers to a priest ejected from the Jerusalem Temple who became high priest in the newly established Samaritan Temple.

Mary’s cognomen “Magdalene” may come from “Magdalu in Egypt”, as it is called in the letters of Šuta in the 1340s B.C.E. On the northeastern frontier of Egypt, this ancient town was near the last encampment of the Israelites before they crossed the Reed Sea during the Exodus. The name probably comes from גָּדַל (gadal), meaning “to increase in size or importance”. Jeremiah 44:1 says Migdol (as he and Ezekiel call it) and other nearby Egyptian communities had significant colonies of Diaspora Jews. These Jews worshipped at a temple in Elephantine built as a replica of the one in Jerusalem, supported by the family of Sanballat with whom Jesus identified (as in his reference to Zechariah discussed above); James D. Purvis and Eric Meyers say the cultus at Elephantine was a mix of Yahwistic and Canaanite ways, and (as suggested by the Elephantine Papyrii) much influenced by Egyptian religion. Indeed, Jeremiah 44 describes the cultus at Migdol in detail, including worship of “the Queen of Heaven”, whom K. van der Toorn (Numen 39:1) says was similar to the Ugaritic goddess Anat and called Anath-Yahu.

This temple was destroyed by the Egyptians in 410 B.C.E., but another was built by Onias (or Honiah) IV in the first century B.C.E. in Leontopolis, near Magdalu, north of Heliopolis. According to Josephus (Ant. 13:3:2,14:8:2), this came after Judah Maccabee denied Onias the high priesthood in Jerusalem. It was demolished by Rome in 73 C.E., shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem, to prevent it from harboring insurrectionists. Hanan Eshel (The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hasmonean State) suggests Onias IV may have been the Teacher of Righteousness often referred to in the Qumran texts, and some classical Jewish literature, such as the Yuhasin, associates his temple with the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim; indeed, Rabbi Ben Abrahamson says Samaria at times had alliances with Egypt.

All this points to the good possibility that Jesus and Mary had some connections with an anti-Rome, anti-Jerusalem Samaria/Leontopolis alliance perhaps affiliated with the Notzrim. In any case, the several passages in this gospel, especially the resurrection, suggest both Jesus and Mary were reasonably familiar with the Egyptian language.

Christian Wars in Southern France

Local legends have Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Lazarus living their last years in southern France. They may sound like mere fanciful tales at first glance, but the brutal massacres by Roman Catholic forces of the Cathars – a movement with a theology eerily like that in the restored original Gospel of John – lend considerable weight to the possibility that these legends are true. What follows is a addition to the commentary section of The Gospel of John, my restoration of that original text, free from the later interpolations and excisions of the organized Christian religion. You will find ordering information here.

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There is nothing in either the New Testament about the rest of Lazarus’s life, or in the writings of early Christian leaders. Many romantic legends developed in time, including one that I love which (with some variations) has Mary, Martha, and Lazarus put to sea in a boat without sails, oars, or helm by Jews hostile to the Christians, and managing by a miracle to land safely at Les-Saintes-Maries-de- la-Mer, which I have visited, a lovely seacoast village in the Camargues. Soon thereafter, they say in that region, he was made the first bishop of Marseilles.

Romantic, but possible. Val Wineyard notes that Sejanus, de facto emperor in Tiberius’s madness, and the father of Pontius Pilate’s wife Claudia Procula, owned an estate in the Corbières, near Narbonne, in Gaul (France). Wineyard quotes French scholar André Douzet as theorizing that Pilate advised Jesus to flee to this estate and restore his health in the curative baths at Rennes-les-Bains, as had Claudia’s grandfather, Emperor Augustus, another “son of god” (but in his case the “god” was Julius Cæsar). If Jesus’s father was indeed Pantera (see pages 306-07), I add that he may have been motivated to go there and meet the soldier, stationed at the time farther inland, in what is now Germany. Wineyard also refers to local legend as saying Jesus was buried in a hidden cave about a kilometer outside the current-day hamlet of Saint-Salvayre, close to Rennes-les-Bains. She refers to another local legend that says Sergius Paulus (Acts 13) came the Narbonne region in the 50s C.E. and preached the teachings of Jesus, and even married Mary after Jesus’s death. It is thus possible that what I myself heard in Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is right, and that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus disembarked there. (Curiously, according to Eusebius, Pontius Pilate himself was exiled to the same region, perhaps to the same estate of his father-in-law Sejanus, in around 37 C.E., and committed suicide in Vienne.)

Adding gravity to this possibility of early eyewitnesses to Jesus’s actual teachings, and perhaps even Jesus himself, is the fact of the Cathars. This movement had a theology and practice astonishingly similar to those of the Jerusalemite branch of the earliest followers of Jesus, those who (unlike the Pauline branch that ultimately became dominant) did not turn Jesus into a Roman-style deity. The Cathars avoided as un-Biblical any highly organized religious institution (unlike the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches then solidifying and strengthening their grip on power and wealth) and any dogma or creed as a “test of faith”, as a set of required beliefs; as a result, their own beliefs are rather diffuse. They seemed to be more or less Arian (believing that Jesus was fully human, and appointed by God as “Son of God”, rather than existing through all time as an intrinsic part of God) and Sabellian (that different aspects of the nature of God are more in the eye of the beholder, the believer, and thus are subjective and intuitive, not dogmatic fact). Zoé Oldenbourg has written that the Cathar views on reincarnation, attributed to Jesus, are virtually identical to that found in Buddhism (another curious connection between Jesus and Eastern philosophy). The Cathars abstained from killing, and thus often did not eat meat, and they tended to prefer celibacy.

What is particularly interesting in the current discussion is that, while the Cathars were also found in Germany, Italy, and elsewhere, they always had their strongest presence in the same region of southern France where legend has Jesus, Mary, Lazarus, Sergius Paulus, and others spending their last years, and that the faith of the Cathars was eerily similar to that found in this restored original gospel. The Albigensian Crusade and the Inquisition were both intended to root out this major threat to the monopolistic power held by the mafialike bosses of Roman Catholicism. In 1210, Crusaders slaughtered some seven thousand Cathar citizens and their Catholic allies at Béziers; their leader, asked how the soldiers could tell Catholics apart such that they might not be killed, said, chillingly, Caedite eos; novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius (“Kill them all; the Lord will recognize his own”). Inquisitional forces burned alive at the last Cathar redoubt, Monségur, about two hundred bonshommes (Cathars who had undergone their only sacrament, Consolamentum [Consolation], and were effectively free from sin), putting an effective end to the movement. Could this have been the final destruction, by those who claimed to venerate Jesus, of a movement actually founded on his original teachings? Scholars like my friend Bertran de la Farge have dedicated their lives to shoring up what little we know about the Cathars.

Credible too is the Eastern Orthodox Church tradition that Lazarus escaped various plots on his life by moving at Barnabas’s suggestion to the latter’s homeland of Cyprus; Barnabas, as noted above, mentored Lazarus’s half-brother John Mark. In Cyprus Laarus was appointed the first bishop of Kition, now called Larnaka. The Orthodox tradition says Lazarus never smiled during the thirty years he lived after his resurrection – perhaps an aftereffect of his death-and-resurrection, perhaps even an effect of the drugs he theoretically took to induce a near-death coma; see the essay on page 547. A tomb discovered in 890 C.E. in Larnaka bears the inscription “Lazarus the Friend of Christ”. The sarcophagus reportedly is still displayed, though Lazarus’s actual remains were brought to Constantinople in 898. But then Crusaders during the Fourth Crusade conquered Constantinople in 1204 and, it is said, took the precious relics to Marseilles; who knows, perhaps this was because he, his mother Mary, and Jesus had previously spent time there and the French considered him an adoptive son.

Jesus and Dionysos

This blog entry discusses some of the clearly deliberate parallels made by the author of the Gospel of John to the god Dionysos (Bacchus to the Romans). These are additions I will be inserting into the commentaries of The Gospel of John, which is my recently published restoration of the original text of that work. You will find ordering information here. I welcome feedback on this and all blog posts!

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In reference to the miracle of the water-turned-wine at Cana:

To any first-century reader this miracle would have been clearly meant to cast Jesus not just as like Dionysos, but even as superior to him. Didorus Siculus (Library of History, 3:66) and Pliny the Elder (Natural History, 2:106) both mention springs of water, at locations sacred to Dionysos, that on festival days would miraculously produce wine. One of these is known from Corinth in the fifth century B.C.E. (Campbell Bonner: “A Dionysiac Miracle at Corinth”, Am. Journal of Archæology 33 [1929]). Pausanius (Description of Greece, 6:26) tells of another from Ellis, saying that during one Dionysian festival the priests would seal three empty jars within the temple in the presence of the local citizens, and in the morning they would be filled with wine. Jesus here performs a similar miracle in the presence of the locals, but he outdoes the miracle of Ellis with six jars, not three, and instantaneously.

In reference to Jesus’s trial before Pontius Pilate:

Dionysos like Jesus was put on trial before a hardhearted ruler determined to maintain control over the people despite the rise of an ecstatic new cultus; indeed, the names are quite similar: Pentheus and Pontius. Jesus, like Dionysos in Bacchæ, by Euripides, also sees the ruler

ὃς θεομαχεῖ τὰ κατ᾽ ἐμὲ καὶ σπονδῶν ἄπο
ὠθεῖ μ᾽, ἐν εὐχαῖς τ᾽ οὐδαμοῦ μνείαν ἔχει.
ὧν οὕνεκ᾽ αὐτῷ θεὸς γεγὼς ἐνδείξομαι
πᾶσίν τε Θηβαίοισιν.

…as one who struggles against God, pushing off
Any concord with me. His prayers have none of me.
Thus I will show him that I am God,
And all Thebes as well.

In both Euripides’s play and the gospel the two engage in a deep conversation on godhead, power, revolution, and the nature of truth. In the myth, Dionysos is killed and then resurrected from the dead by his father-god Zeus (or Jupiter, a name that carried Jewish implications; it at least sounded to Jews as הי-Πατερ, Yah-Pater, God the Father, and may in fact even have come from such linguistic roots). His dévotés communed with him by ingesting bread and wine said to have been transubstantiated into his sacred flesh and blood.

In the religions of Dionysos and Demeter and in the Mystery Religions of Inanna and Cybele, among others, the consort of the Goddess, made by her the Shepherd of the Land (cf. John 10:1-16), is publicly humiliated, stripped, and beaten (cf. John 19:1-5), and then killed, in some versions as an expiation for the sins of the people and in others for continued fertility. In most versions of this archetypal myth he comes to life again.

In reference to the miracle of the seeds turning into fruiting plants, from the Egerton papyrus:

As with the miracle at Cana, with which this event forms an inclusio, there is an implication here of the Dionysian cultus that would have been immediately apparent to any first-century reader. Dionysos is often associated with this kind of miracle. In the seventh of the Homeric Hymns, for instance, he reveals his godliness to the Tyrrhenian pirates by causing grape vines to grow around the mast, already heavy with fruit. Sophocles, in Thyestes, speaks of the holy vine growing and fruiting within a single day, and Euphorion explains that this miracle was caused by Dionysos’s worshippers executing cultic dances and singing choral hymns (Fragmenta, 118). Similar miracles took place in several other places, most notably at Parnassus, according to Walter Otto in his book Dionysus.

In reference to Jesus speaking of the greater dimension beyond this physical universe as the Æon:

Æonia is a name for part of the ancient Greek land of Bœotia, including the mountains Helicon and Cithæron that were sacred to the Muses. This bucolic region is the birthplace of Semele, the mother of Dionysos, who died and lived again like Jesus, and who was remembered with a sacred meal of bread and wine. Semele’s father, the hero and ruler Cadmus, introduced the Greek alphabet, and abdicated in favor of his grandson Pentheus, who is the equivalent to Pontius Pilate; sought as ruler to outlaw the ecstatic religion of Dionysus, and in his trial of the god, as related by Euripides, the two have a profound philosophical discussion reminiscent of the one between Jesus and Pilate.

All of this would be well known to the amanuensis of this volume, John the Presbyter. He was a Greek, associated by Eusebius with the city of Ephesus, and tradition suggests the gospel was composed there; John also received a vision while on the island of Patmos that became his Book of Revelation. John may have known Æonia from his travels, or even originally have been from there (nothing more than what has just been said is known about his life). In writing about the Æon he may have pictured the Æonian hills, what Milton called those “Fortunate fields and groves and flowery vales, Thrice happy isles” (Paradise Lost, III, 568). Elysium, the “Elysian Fields”, the after-death abode of the blessed, was found according to the classical Greek authors to the west, fronting the sea, which could be based on Bœotia, which faces out toward the expanse of the western Mediterranean.

Whether or not he had seen it, the highly literate John the Presbyter surely knew from his reading the glorious depictions of this land in Homer, Pindar, and Virgil. And therefore a land associated with life after death, a land celebrated not just in literature but for the very birth of literature (its mountains sacred to the Muses and the introduction of writing) would be significant to him. Nor would he have overlooked the connections between two spiritual mountains (Helicon and Cithæron, and Sinai and Gerizim), Semele and Mary mother of Jesus, Pentheus and Pontius, and most of all Dionysos son of Jupiter, הי-Πατερ, Yah-Pater, God the Father, and Jesus, son of God the Father.

Finding Jesus Guilty in Roman Law

This blog discusses the basis in Roman law for Jesus’s conviction before Pontius Pilate. It comes from my commentaries to the Gospel of John, appended to my restoration of its original text. The gospel as generally known today, suffered a hatchet job by early Christian leaders to conform it to their dogma that turned Jesus into a Roman-style godling. The forthcoming book will include a fresh translation of the gospel from the original Greek. This is a work in progress; feedback is most welcome, and people are encouraged to get the book when it comes available, by the end of this year.

The main reason Pilate sentenced Jesus to death was that he had little choice; he was probably fully aware that these high priests from the Temple had cleverly outmaneuvered him. They wanted this Jesus dead, and they could cause a lot of trouble for Rome if he didn’t give them what they wanted. Besides, he surely reminded himself, much as he found himself liking the man [see previous blogs], this Jesus wanted to die. The question was exactly how to do this according to Roman law, so Pilate could at least maintain the semblance of being in charge.

Pilate could have declared him guilty of challenging the emperor by calling himself a god, but this would have been hearsay from what the high priests had told him, and the Jesus had never said that to Pilate, so the foundational corpus of Roman law, Leges Duodecim Tabularum (Laws of the Twelve Tablets, instituted by the Decemviri in 449 B.C.E.) forbade hearsay convictions in capital cases.

Pilate might have adjudged him guilty of lèse majesté, of claiming to be a king in opposition to the emperor’s rule over Judæa, but Jesus had made it abundantly clear that his kingship was more philosophical or hypothetical. This man was a mystic, a saint, and clearly not a worldly king like the despicable Herodians, and very far from a Lucius Ælius Seianus (“Sejanus”), whom Tiberius would execute a year after Jesus’s death for conspiring against the emperor. The discussion in these verses is about Jesus as the Jewish king, but the way Pilate speaks (“Behold your king!” and “Shall I crucify your king?”) makes it clear that Pilate is convinced that Jesus is a king, even if one “not of this cosmos”, and that he is not convicting Jesus on the grounds of illegally claiming kingship but that he is appealing to the high priests to forsake their insistent demand that this good man, this philosopher-king, be killed.

Roman law was at the time far from codified, and Pilate was far from Rome besides, so he did have some leeway in how he executed his official decisions as a judge. That leeway was tempered by his always being covertly watched and reported upon; his staffers, eager for advancement and probably eager to escape this distant and alien city, would instantly alert the imperial court to any deviation from the proper execution of his job. Still, some early codified laws were widely respected, and Pilate would have been likely to follow them, at least in his reasoning, especially the Leges Duodecim Tabularum. The original is lost today, but a classical writer named Marcianus gives us a law from the ninth tablet stating: iubet eum, qui hostem concitaverit quive civem hosti tradiderit, capite puniri (“Anyone who has aroused a public enemy or handed over a citizen to a public enemy must be given capital punishment”). What is more, Emperor Augustus had established the Lex Julia Maiestatis, which included a provision making a capital crime of actions taken against Roman citizens and the empire’s security. These may well be the laws that Pilate invoked, since there was abundant evidence that Jesus had a lot of followers and, even if he was not actually advocating insurrection, his teachings were nevertheless bringing them nearly to the point of violent action against Roman citizens living in Judæa.

The Tears of Myrrh, the Roman Son of God

This is the second of two blogs about the real meaning of the conversation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Both come from my commentaries to the Gospel of John, appended to my restoration of its original text. The gospel as generally known today, suffered a hatchet job by early Christian leaders to conform it to their dogma that turned Jesus into a Roman-style godling. The forthcoming book will include a fresh translation of the gospel from the original Greek. This is a work in progress; feedback is most welcome, and people are encouraged to get the book when it comes available, by the end of this year.

18:38-40 – Pilate, after this first conversation with Jesus, does not wish to execute him. As noted elsewhere in this book he has never had any problem ruthlessly using brutal force to maintain a fierce control over this volatile Roman province – but here is someone different, a man who is clearly no threat, a man in whom Pilate is sure he could find a great deal of wisdom: another Socrates, even, combined with a worker of miracles like those travellers bring back to the Empire from the Asian lands.

And then Pilate comes up with what to him is the perfect solution: he has been boxed by the Sanhedrin, who have with loud meekness proclaimed that only he, and not they, can execute convicts. But he can offer to release this Jesus to them, and, if they refuse his release, they have not technically sentenced him to death, but in point of fact they have, and Pilate is not to blame. In this manner the populace won’t be stirred up against Rome, the Sanhedrin is mollified, and the only unfortunate thing is that this Jesus must die.

So Pilate offers to the crowd a choice between the father and the stepson, both of whom have called themselves Barabbas, Son of the Father, both of whom have stirred up a great deal of potential among the people of Judæa – the father by his many miracles, the most dramatic of which was raising this handsome young man his son from the dead. As a result, the crowds have so idolized them both it would be hard to say which they prefer.

So Pilate puts it to the to the Sanhedrin leaders – and that may be his error, for these religious leaders are not the crowd, and, though they want Lazarus out of the way too (12:10-11), they are even more determined to see Jesus dead (11:50-53).

Lazarus’s legal state is unstated in the text (because of the Beloved Disciple’s usual reticence to say more than is absolutely necessary about himself) but still reasonably clear. The Sanhedrin wants him dead, and he has surely been avoiding arrest by the Temple police through the simple expedient of avoiding the Temple, since the police had little authority outside the Temple complex. Thus, Lazarus was able to attend the Last Supper. But, when the Temple police perhaps unexpectedly accompanied the Roman soldiers to arrest Jesus in the garden, Lazarus may have been apprehended as well, or at least (in modern parlance) “brought along for questioning”. If not in the garden, then certainly Lazarus was detained in the precincts of Annas and Caiaphas. Either way, it may be that Lazarus stayed with Jesus not through courage but because he was in custody. The text tells us that he was known by the high priest (probably Annas, possibly Caiaphas or both), which would have been because his maternal family was very highly regarded; note how they came out to console Mary after Lazarus’s death (11:31,45); because of this and his youth, he would have been rather more gently than Jesus, and probably with some kindliness, hence his ability to get Rocky Simon let through the gate (18:16). He was probably sent in by the high priests and Pharisees at the same time as Jesus so both could be tried before Pilate; they probably wanted to persuade Pilate to give both of them a sentence of death. Without this explanation there is no logical explanation how Pilate would allow this young man to witness these closed-door proceedings with Jesus. Lazarus was being tried as well, but a good thing for our sake is that he was there to witness and later remember vividly in some detail (from 18:29 to 19:16) the entire proceedings within the prætorium. By contrast, the only other eyewitness gospel, Mark, recounts the private interview in just four verses (Mark 15:2-5), a summary that Lazarus probably gave to him later on.

Lazarus must have had all along the nickname Barabbas. It means “Son of the Father”, and certainly refers to his being born to a Samaritan Temple priestess: if she got pregnant in the course of her service in the Temple, the child would be considered to be sired by God, that is, the Father. The name in Aramaic is actually “Baraba” (באראבא with Hebrew letters and ܒ݂ܰܐܪ‌ܐܰܒ݁ܰܐ in Syriac; though the alpha in the first syllable is superfluous it brings out the sacred meaning), and it is rich in the sacred significance discussed at length in the commentary to 14:2. The comment that Barabbas was an insurrectionist makes no sense at all in comparison to what the gospel tells us: Barabbas, Lazarus, was sentenced to death for the reason stated in 12:10-11. This must be an interpolation of the redactor to “explain” this otherwise unmentioned Barabbas. Very likely the redactor had taken out a sentence that gave a correct explanation of who Barabbas was that ran afoul of the later Christian dogma.

19:1-4 – It might seem to the reader that the order to flog Jesus doesn’t fit with the context, in which Pilate repeatedly declares him innocent and expresses an understanding and even intellectual kinship with him. A careful reading of the text reveals that Pilate is hoping rather that the pain might persuade Jesus to “see reason” and retreat from his desire to be executed, or that a flogging might either satisfy these Jewish leaders calling for his execution. Indeed, Pilate shows Jesus to these Sanhedrin leaders and says, “Look at the man!”, in other words, “See him tortured; he’s only a man; he bleeds; surely this is sufficient to satisfy you!”

19:2 – Paul was himself subjected to this kind of institutionalized torture of suspects (cf. e.g. II Corinthians 11:23-25), so it appears to have been rather common. The unusual aspect here is the soldiers mockingly acclaiming Jesus as a king.

The “crown of thorns” was likely made from a branch or two of myrrh (a small tree whose bitter resin is used in embalming, perfumery, and incense). There would have been plenty of it available in Jerusalem at this time just before Passover; myrrh was a component in ketoret, the consecrated incense used in the First and Second Temples at Jerusalem, according to the Tanakh and Talmud.

This crown of myrrh is ironic, considering myrrh would soon be used to embalm Jesus (19:39 and probably in the hands of Mary, 20:1). The greater irony is that myrrh is collected by wounding the tree until it bleeds, drop by drop, its sap, its lifeblood, as Jesus is here and on the cross wounded to the point of bleeding. What is more, the word מֹר, mor (“myrrh”), is related to מַר, mar (“drop”, referring to the resin), as in a teardrop, and this is the root of the name מרה, Mara ( “bitter”), the name that Naomi (which means “sweet” or “pleasant”) gave herself when she was weeping bitter tears for the death of her sons and her husband (Ruth 1:13) – and it is the name of Mary, who in this gospel weeps bitter tears for the death of her son (11:31,33) and her husband (20:11).

19:6 – Note that “the Pharisees” have disappeared from the narrative. All these shouted demands to execute Jesus are coming only from “the chief priests and the officers”, with the latter comprising both Temple police and Roman soldiers, since the Greek word υπηρεται is used here, which heretofore has designated both groups. The last time the Pharisees are mentioned is at 18:3, and that is literally the last time; the Pharisees are never mentioned again for the remainder of the gospel. In 18:3 we are informed of their tacit support for Jesus’s arrest. But after that he is taken before the former and current high priests, Annas and Joseph ben Caiaphas; the priestly forces evidently have taken charge of Jesus’s prosecution, and the Pharisees have evidently backed away from this increasingly distasteful procedure. Jesus, it must be recalled, had strong connections to the Pharisees: he has friends (e.g., Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) and in-laws (e.g., Simon the Leper) among them, and his education and general philosophy suggest that he was virtually a member of their group himself. Where certainly the gospel portrays occasional Pharisaical antagonism toward Jesus (e.g., 7:32,47-48; 8:13; 9:16), and the Synoptic gospels suggest all but constant Pharisaical antipathy toward Jesus, some of this may have been no more than their love of a good intellectual debate on religious matters (which we see in the Talmud, which at times reads like one of Plato’s dialogues). The priestly class, on the other hand, certainly saw Jesus as more of a direct threat: he has roundly criticized them (e.g., 7:18; 10:12-13) and spoken about the destruction of their precious Temple (2:19), and they fear that his strong statements might yet lead to the Roman military tearing down the Temple (and all of Jerusalem, as eventually happened in 70 C.E.).

19:6-8 – To the Temple priests’ shouted demand that Pilate crucify Jesus Pilate replies by saying they should crucify him themselves, for he finds Jesus innocent of any charge. Pilate, of course, errs in this statement; by the Roman law that he represents these Temple authorities do not have the power to exert capital punishment, neither by their own traditional method, stoning, nor by the Roman method, crucifixion.

The Temple authorities, for their part, are also wrong about their law; there is no law in the Torah forbidding Jews from claiming to be children of God. Scholars point to Leviticus 24:16, which forbids blasphemy. But, as noted in the commentary to John 10:33, the accusation of blasphemy against Jesus and the demand that he be executed for it is a canard. The Talmud clearly declares that: “If a man says to you, ‘I am God,’ he is [merely] a liar; if [he says ‘I am] the son of man,’ people will ultimately [just] laugh at him.” (Tr. Yer. Taan. 65b). And Jesus himself cites Psalm 82:6 at John 10:34, a verse that speaks of the Jewish people as the children of God. (Another of several is found at Psalm 2:6-7.) Caiaphas took a far more reasonable position by saying that if Jesus was indeed Messiah then his death was customary; see the essay on page ____.

But Pilate, ignorant of all but the basic facts about Judaism, does not know this is a canard, and even less knows the idea of a kingly sacrifice raised by Caiaphas. So, faced with these unknowns-to-him, and constantly worried about insurrection, he is filled with dread (φοβέομαι, often mistranslated as “fear”).

This statement of the priests may, however, be more than a canard. These high priests knew the Torah and would be unlikely to cite it incorrectly. However, several times in this episode they are clearly using psychological ploys to goad or entrap Pilate such that he has no choice but to execute Jesus. This could well be another example: it may not be against the Torah to call oneself the son of God, but from a Roman perspective it was a treasonous and heretical statement to make: only the emperor had the right to call himself Divi Filius (“Son of God”). If this is their meaning, then when they say “we have a law” they are identifying themselves as good subjects of Rome and furthermore are saying that Rome has a law to this effect. In verse 11 these priests imply that they are loyal to the emperor and in verse 15 they say “We have no king if not Cæsar!” If here they are referring to Roman, not Jewish, law, then all three of their statements to Pilate are to say he had better not appear less Roman than they.

And this too, the threat that it might get back to Rome that Pilate wasn’t fully loyal to his emperor the Son of God, once again would be calculated to fill him with dread (φοβέομαι).

19:9-11 – Jesus remains silent to the question “Where are you from?”. The text does not say why; it could be the “suffering servant” motif (Isaiah 53:7), but that is relatively unlikely since Jesus otherwise does not hesitate to rely to Pilate’s interrogations. It may be that this was simply the wrong question to ask, an irrelevant question, that Pilate wasn’t in effect “following the script”. And, ultimately, Jesus does answer it in his reference to ανωθεν (“from above”) in verse 11, the same word that appears in the Prologue at 3:31, and in the conversation with Nicodemus at 3:3,7; hence, this forms an inclusio.

Jesus says Pilate would have no power unless it came “from above”, a clear double entendre; Pilate probably first thinks Jesus is referring to the emperor, in behalf of whom he speaks, and then realizes that Jesus is really alluding to God. Both meanings serve to undergird Jesus’s next words of relative exoneration for Pilate: as the representative of the Roman emperor Pilate is constrained to execute Jesus, and he has been ultimately given that power to execute by God. Given the nature of this point, Jesus is also here again urging Pilate to order his execution.

In this verse, as in 14:30, Jesus (or the amanuensis through Jesus’s mouth) is paraphrasing Herakleitos (Logion 114 in Diels-Kranz): τρέφονται γὰρ πάντες οἱ ἀνθρώπειοι νόμοι ὑπὸ ἑνὸς τοῦ θείου· κρατέει γὰρ τοσοῦτον ὁκόσον ἐθέλει καὶ ἐξαρκέει πᾶσι καὶ περιγίνεται (“For all human laws are nourished by the one divine law, which holds sway as far as it wishes, and suffices for all, even to spare”).

Pilate and Plato’s Philosopher-King

This blog about the real meaning of the conversation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, from my commentaries to the Gospel of John, appended to my restoration of its original text. The gospel as generally known today, suffered a hatchet job by early Christian leaders to conform it to their dogma that turned Jesus into a Roman-style godling. The forthcoming book will include a fresh translation of the gospel from the original Greek. This is a work in progress; feedback is most welcome, and people are encouraged to get the book when it comes available, by the end of this year.

Jesus briefly explains to Pilate his theology of the Æon. The concept and terminology (this conversation most likely takes place in Greek) would immediately have been familiar ground for Pilate, who like all Romans of his class would have been very well read in the classical philosophers. “My kingdom is not in this cosmos,” Jesus says to Pilate, and Pilate instantly recognizes the concept of the philosopher-king. He understands that Jesus is speaking of a kingdom not of this cosmos as in hypothetical terms, the way Socrates in The Republic spoke of Kallipolis (“Beautiful City”) as the ιδεα of the ideal country, in the greater universe called the Æon (what is called in introductory philosophy classes “the world of forms”), where philosophers like this Jesus are indeed kings, and where these philosopher-kings, to quote from that work, “are lovers of the vision of truth,” just as this man claims to testify to the truth.

Ironically, Pilate (like Caiaphas) is one of Jesus’s few interlocutors who is sufficiently intellectual to understand very well the profound thinking of this man before him, who only outwardly seems a simple “country rabbi”. The text tells us that Pilate met with Jesus at about dawn (18:28), and as always in this gospel this fact is reported because it is meaningful; as Jesus speaks to Pilate, the latter understands, one could say that the light dawns on Pilate.

Only once before has Jesus spoken of his kingdom, and that is to another ruler, Nicodemus (3:3,5), hence there is an inclusio between the two passages. Elsewhere Jesus declares, “I am the way” to the I AM, the Father (14:6). This theology looks not to stake out an empire in this earthly universe of space and time (τοπος and χρονος, to use the precise Greek terms), but to seek the Æon, the greater, sacred universe, in which space and time are infinite and yet one, γαια and καιρος. To quote Tennyson’s “Ulysses”, it is to

Come, my friends,
’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

In such an infinity as the Æon there is no need to go forth “conquering and to conquer” (Revelation 6:2) like the Cæsar and the Hitler

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

to quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet. For, as Jesus said, there are many abodes in his Father’s house (14:2), an infinity of room for all. No point in conquering with unlimited abundance for all, and no craving for power and wealth there. There the faithful will live in the Father’s house which, unlike the “Father’s House” in Jerusalem, the Second Temple, will not be in the exclusive control of these few self-appointed religious leaders outside Pilate’s audience chamber, but (in a phrase breathing other dimensions, where something can be bigger within than it is without) will contain “many dwelling places”. This philosophy of Jesus is not an either/or, but to say that his kingdom, the Æon, surrounds and includes this mundane cosmos the way an infinitely dimensioned structure surrounds and includes a single finite point on a straight line (the present moment in χρονος), and a minuscule country in a tiny world orbiting an unremarkable star on the edges of a galaxy like thousands of others.

Jesus’s statement that his followers have no plans to fight in his defense is usually taken as an attempt to put Pilate’s mind at ease. That is not the case. This statement, ironically (and there is much irony here), is a paradox; it works at the same time to Jesus’s benefit and detriment. If Jesus is innocent of claiming kingship in this cosmos, then Pilate should find him innocent; but that would mean Jesus would not be executed – which goes against Jesus’s wishes. However, in order to be sentenced to death as he wishes, Jesus must mendaciously claim kingship in this cosmos, which he cannot do because, as he says, he represents the truth.

But a solution presents itself. Pontius Pilate seizes not on the kingdom being beyond this cosmos but on the kingship: “Then you are a king!”, with the emphasis on “are”. Jesus takes Pilate’s exclamation and turns it into a practical solution of this ironic paradox, this dilemma, this impasse, that they both see. It is found in his statement, “You say that I am a king.” Jesus is saying in effect: “You just need to say that I have declared myself a king. That is the truth, and I was born as a witness to the truth. That is the only truth that the others outside this room will understand, for they don’t understand this philosophical nicety that I am only their king in the greater universe, the Æon, only that I am their king. And, if you declare this, it will be sufficient for you to sentence me to death, and it was to die in this manner, that I was born and came into this cosmos.”

Pilate makes it clear that he too comprehends the subtlety of what Jesus is saying with his response “What is truth?” Pilate knows from his readings in Plato, especially the Allegory of the Cave, that people (including Pilate himself) commonly only understand the absolute truth from their limited, subjective viewpoints. The people chained in the cave can only see shadows on the wall cast by real people out of sight behind them and think these shadows are the truth, and this they condemn the philosopher who looks away from the shadows they call “the truth” and sees the real truth. Discussing the allegory, Socrates says in Plato’s dialogue that “the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.”

Pilate knows that the truth he puts down in his reports back to Rome is very different from the truth of his day-to-day experiences; it is carefully sanitized to avoid arousing the interest of powerful people. Pilate knows that the truth of what history will say about these events will probably diverge widely from what actually happened; as a high government official he has surely read Thucydides and Julius Cæsar and seen their selectivity with the facts. Pilate may even guess that this very observant young man in the room with Jesus and him, a young man whom he knows as Barabbas, will one day write a history containing this very conversation.

Uncle Joseph of Arimathea

The following comes from the in-progress restoration of the original version of the Gospel of John, which includes a fresh translation from the original Greek:

Like his associate Nicodemus, Joseph was clearly a man of considerable wealth, and almost certainly another Sanhedrin member, as is implied by the word βουλευτης (“counsellor”) in Mark 15:43. John 19:38 says he was secretly a follower of Jesus because of his “fear of the Jews”; i.e., of other members of the Sanhedrin.

Despite his “secret follower” status, Joseph went to Pontius Pilate to claim the body of Jesus. He bought linen to wrap the body in, and Nicodemus brought a hundred pounds of embalming spices. It can only be concluded that – even though he is not mentioned in the canonical gospels except in reference to this disposal of the body – the man was closely connected to Jesus, especially inasmuch as he was able to persuade Pilate to give him this right of disposal.

Other than the canonical record, there are only unreliable references in several early Christian writers to the effect that, after the above events, Joseph supposedly travelled through Europe as a missionary; some even imply that he got to Britain. Mediæval legends abound that further embellish these hints.

Yet I believe we have one significant yet heretofore overlooked clue about Joseph’s life hidden in his name.

Despite its common pronunciation in English, the Greek for “Arimathea” (Ἁριμαθαία) has the diacritical mark on the first “a” that indicates an aspirated “h” sound is supposed to precede it. That makes it a version in Greek of the Hebrew ha-Ramata (literally, “toward Ramah”), a community referred to in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Tanakh familiar to Jesus and his contemporaries) as Armathaim (Αρμαθαιμ). The town is in the Shfelah Hills region, just south of Samaria, which would account for the name Ramah (Hebrew for “height”); it it is probably where, or close to where, the modern town of Rantis (or Ranthis) is located. Scholars often declare the modern towns of ar-Ram or al-Birah-Ramallah (both a few miles north of Jerusalem) to be where Arimathea was located, but, while it is less often cited, the Rantis area actually has the stronger claim. Anciently a monastery dedicated to Joseph of Arimathea was located there. And Eusebius (in his Onomasticon, 144:28) identifies this location as Aramathem-Sophim. The name given by Eusebius coheres with another traditional name for the community, Ramathaim-Zophim, which means the two heights of the “Zophs”, referring to the ancient land of Zuph (I Samuel 9:5), supposedly an ancestor of Samuel (I Samuel 1:1) – though this is probably just a fictional attempt in I Samuel to provide a tight connection between the prophet and this region. The Hebrew word צָפָה (tsaphah) actually means “watchers” or even “watchtowers” – in the sense of lookouts, scouts, or even spies, atop these two heights.

This community is where it is said that Samuel the prophet was born and died. It is associated with Rachel weeping for the “lost sons” she never had (Jeremiah 31:15-16). While technically still in Judæa, it was located on the verge of Samaritan territory and no doubt had a considerable Samaritan minority among its residents.

Another piece of the puzzle is that this land of Zuph, which includes the location known variously as Ramah, Ramathaim-Zophim, and Arimathea, was also called Kohath (קְהָת). This is because it was assigned to one of the four Levitical family descended from Kohath son of Levi. The Testament of Levi, part of the pseudepigraphical Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, says that when Kohath was born Levi had a prophetic vision of him as “on high in the midst of the congregation”, as raised higher than his siblings. Besides the obvious figurative sense, this meaning could point literally to the heights called Ramathaim-Zophim.

A persistently repeated bit of misinformation in modern Christian apologetics insists that the Talmud (an exact location in this massive collection of writings is never given, because this is an invented attribution) claims that Joseph of Arimathea was the younger brother of the father of Jesus’s mother Mary. This rumor can be traced back no farther than Mediæval British polemical writing. However always with rumors of this sort we must ask ourselves if there might be a kernel of truth imbedded in them, just as (as noted elsewhere in this book), the Mediæval rumor that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute was derived from the high probability that she was a priestess in the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim. Therefore I wonder if this Mediæval legend simply names the wrong Mary (because the Magdalene was perceived as a “fallen woman” and thus could be countenanced as having no more relationship with Jesus than would any pitiable, humble supplicant), and that in fact Joseph of Arimathea was the younger brother of Mary Magdalene’s father, variously known as Simon the Leper, Simon the Pharisee, and Simon Iscariot. As the Magdalene’s paternal uncle, Joseph would be the logical family member to take a fatherly role during and after the crucifixion of her husband – since, as noted elsewhere, she and her father, Simon the Leper, have clearly been estranged ever since she becdame a priestess on Mount Gerizim.

Again, there may be valuable information hidden in names. The cognomen “Iscariot” is usually understood as a Greek garbling of “Ish-Kerioth”, “Man from Kerioth”, the latter being a town in far southern Judæa. Another reasonable alternative is that it refers instead to Kohath.: קְהָת אּישׁ would be “Ish-Kohath”, and, since there is no way in Greek to put an “h” into the middle of a word, it was transliterated with a ρι (“ri”) substituting for the “h”, making it the familiar “Iscariot”. Thus, if indeed Joseph and Simon were brothers, they may have both come from Ramathaim (Arimathea) in Kohath.

In the biographical notes on Judas Iscariot that follow I suggest that the cognomen Iscariot is a Greek garbling of another Hebrew word, צרעת, meaning “leprosy”, pronounced in the Romanized Tiberian Hebrew of the time as ṣāraʻaṯ; and that Ish-ṣāraʻaṯ (man with leprosy), was given a “k” when transitioning into Greek to make it sound more natural in Greek-attuned ears. If the reader is wondering “Which is it?”, my answer is “Both.” As with the cognomen Magdalene, which has a number of clearly intended meanings, I think this cognomen Iscariot has one meaning for the family (“Man from Kohath”) but, in Simon’s case, this second meaning as well.

Mary Magdalene, as a former Temple priestess on Mount Gerizim, is also closely associated in this gospel with the Samaritans. Indeed, her cognomen, which might be rooted in the word migdal (“tower” or “watchtower”) might refer to this land of Zuph, the land of watchers. And Mary Magdalene has already been associated by this gospel with Rachel, who wept for her “lost sons” in this land of Ramah (Jeremiah 31:15-16): Mary and Jesus met in chapter 4 at Jacob’s Well, just as Jacob and Rachel met at a well, perhaps the same well. With all of these close family ties to the Samaritan territory, there were quite likely Samaritans in the family, which may help explain how it is that Mary Magdalene was able to enter service as a Samaritan Temple priestess.

These connections also would give us insight as to why Joseph of Arimathea was a “secret disciple” of Jesus (John 19:38). He and his family, with all of these close connections to the Samaritans, would not want to celebrate the most notorious of them, Mary Magdalene’s service as a priestess followed by her marriage (without the permission of her estranged father Simon) to the equally notorious Jesus. Still, as the wealthy businessman uncle of Mary, the brother of the wealthy businessman Simon the Leper, Joseph could go to Pontius Pilate, representing father and widowed daughter, with sufficient leverage to take control of the body of Jesus before others (especially the Roman authorities and those on the Sanhedrin who thought ill of Jesus) did. Normally a crucified body would be left for days on the cross as a “lesson” to the populace, to be pecked at by vultures, consumed by insects, and gnawed at by carnivorous animals. The body of Jesus, with all its volatile political implications, would need to be disposed of quickly. What is more, if Joseph and/or Nicodemus were aware of the possible plans for Jesus to take drugs (in the sour wine of 19:28-30) to put him into a deep coma (see the essay in this volume “The Trial, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus”), then there was all the more reason to gain speedy control of his body.