Simon Magus looks like a real heretic

Robert M. Price makes a distinction in the purposes of a Gospel – to relate a narrative – and an Epistle – to argue a case. See his The marginality of the cross (2004-2005). And I write this listening to Yes: Tales from topographic oceans.

Two blogs ago I showed how the Epistle to the Hebrews (thus not the Gospels) gave the logic of the true Christian Church (CC). Yahweh’s covenant with Moses is demolished, and Jesus’s sacrifice creates the new covenant. Every believer is saved from the Original Sin created by Adam in Paradise: if only you believe in Christ – without the need to adhere to eating laws and such. Logic requires that Jesus’s sacrifice is a real sacrifice, and not some spiritual event only. By the sacrement of the Last Supper everyone can eat Jesus’s flesh and drink his blood, thus partake in Jesus’s death and the release from Original Sin. Indeed, who is dead has no obligations to an earlier contract anymore. And when a new law is written, the old law is kept on record to warrant where the authority derives from.

If Jesus’s death serves a purpose, why not let him die of old age and set a good example in that manner ? Why the choice of crucifixion, with all that suffering involved ? Some gnostics held that Jesus as celestial being could not suffer anyway, but the true Christian Church really wanted him to suffer. Why, what is the purpose of that suffering ?

Just to be sure, a search in said Epistle gives “sacrifice” from sin, and not “ransom”:

“If he had offered himself every year, he would have suffered many times since the creation of the world. But instead, near the end of time he offered himself once and for all, so that he could be a sacrifice that does away with sin.” (Biblija.net, The Common English version, Hebrews 9.26)

Also, who is responsible ? Is it Satan / The Snake who has seduced / abducted the soul ? In that case it would suffice to pay him a ransom to release the human soul from such slavery of the flesh. If it is the human soul all by himself who is responsible then it would be a veritable sin, and then we would need punishment and sacrifice to have justice done.

See here for a short discussion of Original Sin in the Torah.

Christian Church versus Gnostics

There was a difference of opinion anyway:

  • The true Christian Church (CC) created a merger of Yahweh of the Torah with the Demiurge of Plato. This had the advantage of a claim of an ancient religion, all the way back to the creation of the world.
  • The gnostics (a) moved Plato’s Demiurge to the second place as relevant only for the material world, (b) inserted a world spirit as more important in the top position, and (c) abolished the Torah as no longer relevant.
  • The agreement was on a new covenant, the replacement of circumcision by baptism, and the opening up of Judaism to the hellenistic world.
  • The disagreement was on the ancient claim and the importance of Plato and the flesh. Key gnostic Simon Magus presented Jesus’s sacrifice as a ransom for the Demiurge, like a price paid for release from slavery of the flesh. He was ridiculed by the CC by comparing him how he paid a ransom to relieve his lover Helen from prostitution. The CC insisted that Jesus’s sacrifice meant a salvation from sin. Simon Magus ridiculed this by saying that sin no longer existed when the law of the Torah that defined sin was abolished anyhow. This however is a feeble wisecrack, when the major problem for the gnostics was that they had to tell the supporters of Plato that this greatest of the Greek philosophers had made the mistake of overlooking the true God of the spiritual world. The CC embraced Plato and the importance of the material world. The suffering by Jesus logically established the importance of the flesh.
  • Logic required that one party was right and the other party was the heretic.

The logic of the CC is very legalistic, quite in the spirit of the Torah or the courts in Alexandria. We know that Egypt was a very hierarchical society. See (war) historian Richard A. Gabriel Jesus the Egyptian: The Origins of Christianity and the Psychology of Christ. See D.M. Murdoch, Christ in Egypt. Christianity is much rooted in the syncretic religion of Serapis. Christianity is targetted at widening the syncretism of Serapis with Judaism. The Torah resists syncretism since the covenant with Moses assigns supreme power to the king and priests in Jerusalem. The only solution for Alexandria is to design a new covenant. The Torah can be kept as a sign of diplomatic kindness.

The gnostic approach to abolish the Torah is too radical and needlessly harsh, and would block the syncretism for the Jewish priests with their vested interest in the Torah. If you throw out the Torah, adherents to the Torah would not be motivated to look into the argument that the Torah itself leads to its abolition. Gnosticism was very popular in Egypt and Samaria, the area of the old kingdom of Israel that had been more affected by the Babylonian period compared to the kingdom of Judah. But the target was Judea and Jerusalem that stuck to the Torah. Ergo, gnosticism has to go.

Robert M. Price says the same (earlier than me but only now discovered by me):

“Blood of the covenant” represents a midrashic attempt to understand the death of Jesus as a sacrifice performed to seal or renew a covenant between God and the Jewish people, as in Exodus 24:8. Such a theology is spelled out in great detail in the Epistle to the Hebrews.” (Price, op. cit.) (check biblija.net)

Gospels instead of Epistles

The Gospels however only relate a story, and don’t argue a case. For the gospel of Mark it has been suggested that there still is a lot of influence from Marcion (a gnostic related to Simon Magus), who presented a canon with full elimination of the Torah. In the Gospel of Mark we find the “ransom”:

“Mark 14:24, “This is my blood of the [new?] covenant, which is poured out for many” and its twin text, Mark 10:45, “For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” “ (Price, op. cit.)

Matthew however is directed at the Jews and emphasizes the release from sin:

““This is my blood of the [new?] covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). We should love to know the precise significance of the added phrase “for forgiveness of sins.” Does it imply something deeper, a la Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews, about the expunging of the moral failures and flaws of the contrite heart, in contrast to the apparently purely ritual expiation of ritual trespasses entailed in the Mosaic sacrifice system? If the sacrifice of the blood of Jesus is taken to inaugurate a new covenant, as in several manuscripts of both Matthew and Mark, would this added moral and/or psychological dimension be the relevant novelty?” (Price, op. cit.)

Points to note are: (1) Price assigns the Epistle to the Hebrews to Paul, but actually the author is debated, and it would not be Paul when he would be equated with Simon Magus, who would speak about “ransom”. Given the elegance and determination of the logic in the Epistle, I would deem that the author must be well educated, and likely in Alexandria (rather than perhaps gnostic or Jewish-Christian Antioch). (2) Price emphasizes the moral content of sin, while at stake is the theological issue of the Original Sin (the arrogance of Adam to want to know as much as God himself), not for itself, but because of the logical argument in Hebrews against the priesthood in Jerusalem.

Blood versus suffering

Price calls attention to a nice midrash:

A final Matthean parallel to the scene of Exodus 24:8 must claim our attention. To what, precisely, was Moses directing the attention of the Israelites on that fateful day when he bade them “Behold the blood of the covenant”? Back up just a little, if you please: “Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people, and they said, ‘All that Yahve has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’ So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant, which Yahve has made with you in accordance with all these commandments” (Exodus 24:7-8). These words seem to possess a familiar ring, and yet what a surprise to realize where their counterparts occur! “Once Pilate realized he was getting nowhere, only that a riot was brewing, he took water and washed his hands in plain view, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood! See to it yourselves!’ And all the people said, ‘His blood be on us and all our children!’” (Matthew 27:24-25). (Price op. cit.)

Indeed, the theme of flesh comes with the theme of blood. But, in practice, Jesus might have made a small cut and sealed the new covenant with his blood, without much suffering. Thus the issue of blood is secondary. The real point remains that the suffering is needed for the logic in Hebrews that we are not dealing with a spiritual event only.

Price holds that Matthew still embraces the Torah

We now cannot avoid a longer quote from Price, in which he argues that Matthew’s Christians would still have to observe the Torah apart from the new covenant by Jesus (bold face by me):

“But for our purposes, the point is that the passage would complete the parallel between Exodus 24:7-8 and various portions of Matthew, implying strongly that the evangelist intended the death of Jesus as a saving event in the particular sense that it inaugurated a new covenant of faithful observance of the Torah and the commandments of Jesus, the new Moses.

We are far here from any sort of Paulinism, much less any traditional orthodox soteriology. One might invoke the theology of the Epistle to the Hebrews, which is usually located in the Paulinist orbit: does it not similarly suppose that Christ brought a new covenant, sealed in his blood? And is not the result apparently the wholesale dispensing with the ritual regulations of the Torah? Not at all. (Our task here is to expound the teaching of the gospels, not the epistles; the relevant issue is whether Hebrews casts any light on Matthew.) The sympathies of Hebrews would seem to lie more in the direction of the Dead Sea Scrolls community, given (among other things) the mention of repeated baptisms (Hebrews 10:22) and the esoteric doctrine of Melchizedek (chapter 7). It is not evident that the writer to the Hebrews envisioned believers as forsaking ritual observance. All his talk about the superannuation and obsolescence of the temple sacrifice system is better understood as a kind of theodicy for the fall of the temple in 70 CE. [ftnt] The end of the sacrifices need not have entailed suspension of other laws, as the Javneh deliberations of Rabbinic Judaism make perfectly clear. But absolutely no doubt can remain about Matthew: he certainly believed exhaustive legal observance was incumbent upon every disciple. Matthew 5:17-19 even condemns Pauline Christians for so much as relaxing commandments, and the least important ones at that. Remember, too, that Matthew 23:23 congratulates the Pharisees for tithing garden herbs, though he faults them for neglecting weightier issues (unlike the Q original, preserved for us only in Marcion’s text, where Luke 11:42 lacks “without neglecting the others”).

Is the cross central to this plan of salvation? Hardly. One senses that Matthew would have been quite satisfied with a Jesus who died at a ripe old age, like his brother Simon bar-Cleophas, like Johannon ben-Zakkai, and like Moses, at 120 years. Matthew can make a place for the cross, as inaugurating the New Covenant, but this is just because he finds the fact of Jesus’ death unavoidable. The Dead Sea Scrolls sect lived the life of the New Covenant, too, but they did it without any doctrine of human sacrifice. (Indeed, Robert Eisenman suggests [ftnt] that the Markan/Matthean “new covenant in my blood” is a pun on and derivative from the Qumran term “new covenant of Damascus,” since the Hebrew for “blood” is dam, while “cup” is chos. Paul and others, initially part of the Dead Sea Scrolls community and partakers of their communal “messianic” meals, Eisenman postulates, carried the idea of the supper (and even the original Hebrew phraseology for it) with them when they apostatized from the Torah-zealous movement and preached a law-free gospel to Gentiles instead. The “Covenant of Damascus” thus became the “covenant of the blood cup,” assimilating the rite to the Mystery Cult sacraments with which the Gentile converts were already familiar. Thus the connection with the death of a divine savior, Jesus, would represent a secondary understanding of the ritual.” (Price op. cit.)

We can find the same reasoning in Price’s review of Eisenman’s 2006 book The New Testament Code.

This might well be. Researchers like Price and Eisenman are more at home in these issues than I am. Let us at least make these observations:

  1. The distinction between an Epistle and a Gospel may well allow for the situation that Matthew only relates a story without being quite aware of the logical significance of the crucifixion for the theological argument. But his change from Mark’s “ransom” to “sin” suggests that he wants more distance from the gnostics.
  2. While Mark’s use of “ransom” points to a desire to link to the gnostic view, his very Gospel consists of a creation of a human form in the flesh on Earth, which doesn’t fit the view of a celestial being. Mark would belong to the gnostic view that Jesus’s flesh is a ransom for Plato’s Demiurge of the material world (and no real sacrifice since sin doesn’t apply for the spiritual world).
  3. The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) sect (sects) then is not as determined / focused / obsessed as the Epistle to the Hebrews (then likely from Alexandria) to beat Jerusalem at their own game. (The Epistle provides an argument that the Torah itself must conclude to its own abolition.)
  4. The DSS sect would rather keep the Torah and plead for the appointment of a Zadok high priest, rather than the abolition of the authority of Jerusalem and Torah, which the Epistle to the Hebrews does.
  5. The pun on Damascus indeed seems like a pun, but it leads too far to conclude that death of Jesus would be secondary. Simon Magus still presents this death as a “ransom” to get rid of the Torah.
  6. The adherence to other rules in the Torah (other than the supremacy of Jerusalem, circumcision and eating laws and such) depends upon Jesus, as explained by the Gospels themselves. Matthew at least creates some ambiguity here, but it is known that his Gospel is targetted at the Jewish-Christians. (You might not adhere to some eating laws, but as soon as you belong to a community, you still must pay to support the priest and so on.)
  7. It is not entirely clear from this, yet, that the gnostic Simon Magus really had first joined the Torah-zealous movement.
Price on Luke

Luke presents the Gospel to the civilised world and wants to get rid of the primitive human sacrifice.

“The Third Evangelist’s antipathy for cross-based soteriology is well known, if not entirely understood.” (Price, op. cit.)

““Scripture stipulates that the Christ must needs suffer and, on the third day following, return from the dead, and that [a message of] repentance and forgiveness should be preached in [association with] his name to all nations, radiating outward from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). What is “missing” from this scenario? Any link between the death of Jesus and the efficacy of repentance for forgiveness. True, if Jesus had not died, repentance would not be preached in his name. If Christ had not died, our faith should be in vain. But there is not a word of his death enabling or effecting our salvation.” (Price, op. cit.)

“It appears that someone has sought to import into Luke’s text some of the “butcher shop religion” (Harry Emerson Fosdick) that Luke sought so fastidiously to avoid.”  (Price, op. cit.)

“We saw that Matthew retained the two scant Markan references to Jesus’ coming death as a ransom for many, supplying a more elaborate theological context, that of the new covenant and its sealing in sacrificial blood. Luke does just the opposite: he cuts them both! Where Mark had Jesus say, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45), Luke has, “which is the greater personage, the one who reclines at table? Or the one who serves? Surely, it is the one who reclines, no? And yet I conduct myself among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). Conspicuously absent are both the Son of Man references (given the context, a simple mark of self-abnegating humility anyway) and the business about him dying, much less as a ransom.” (Price, op. cit.)

Price on John

Price’s discussion of John is a repetition of these steps:

“On our topic, as with some others, the Gospel of John seems conflicted, pointing in two directions. It would be no surprise if the cause were simply the evangelist’s own lack of closure, a failure to think systematically. But, given the patterns that seem to form, it appears more likely to me that our present text of John is the result of a late harmonization of the recensions cherished and redacted by two competing Johannine factions: the Gnosticizing group condemned in 1 and 2 John and the Catholicizing group who condemned them as false offshoots.” (Price, op. cit.)

More on Eisenman

In his review of Eisenman’s 2006 book, Price finds:

“And the first achievement of The New Testament Code hard won through this methodology, is the realization that the Dead Sea Scrolls stem from the mid to late first century CE (equivocal Carbon dating results no longer even being relevant), and that they represent the sectarian baptizing Schwärmerei known variously as the Essenes, Zealots, Nasoreans, Masbotheans, Sabaeans–and Jewish Christians headed by James the Just. Endless references to the armies of the Kittim and “the kings of the Peoples” make the date clear even before we get to the catalogue of terminological and conceptual links between the Scrolls, the New Testament, and the Pseudo-Clementines. I should say that in all these comparisons Eisenman has established a system of correspondences fully as convincing, and for the same reasons, as the Preterist interpretation of the Book of Revelation by R.H. Charles and others. I just do not see any room for serious doubt any more. Teichner was right; Eisenman is right: the Scrolls are the legacy of the Jerusalem Christians led by the Heirs of Jesus: James the Just, Simeon bar Cleophas, and Judas Thomas. The Teacher of Righteous was James the Just (though Arthur E. Palumbo, Jr., The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Personages of Earliest Christianity, 2004, may be right: as per Barbara Thiering, John the Baptist may have been the first to hold that office, with James as his successor). The Spouter of Lies who “repudiated the Torah in the midst of the congregation” was Paul. It was he who “founded a congregation on lies,” namely the tragically misled “Simple of Ephraim,” converts from among the Gentile God-fearers who knew no better. The Wicked Priest was Ananus ben Ananus, whom Josephus credits with lynching James on the Day of Atonement.” (Price op. cit.)

This time window of the DSS fits the time shift hypothesis by Lena Einhorn, that the events really happened around the destruction of Jerusalem and Temple in 70 AD, and were only placed narratively a generation (of 40 years) earlier, (a) to not alert the Romans, (b) to present this destruction as punishment for not listening to Jesus.

Still, this hodge-podge or sects makes one doubt what the real goal of the DSS sect(s) would be. I take my clue from the teacher of righteousness. It may well be that it started 159 BC when the Maccabees failed to appoint a proper descendent from Zadok, and that over time the messianistic interpretation grew. We can allow that Theudas / John the Baptist and later James took over as leader of the main group. There still is no natural explanation how Paul or Simon Magus would first join up and later dissent again. Perhaps before 70 AD there was a natural reason to join forces against the clique in Jerusalem, and differ forces after 70 AD when that clique was gone ?

Enter Roger Parvus

In an amazing recent series of discussions, Roger Parvus looks again at the older hypothesis that Paul = Simon Magus.

  • He shows how CC interpolations reduced the gnostic (ransom) view and inserted the CC (sacrifice) view.
  • The CC story that Paul originally was Saul who persecuted the CC is analysed as an inversion of the true story: that Simon Magus originally was a partner in the CC but later deviated from the flock.
  • This still doesn’t explain the relation of the CC to the DSS sect(s), and how the CC got to dominate the Torah-abiding group led by James (though perhaps lack of good leadership after his death).

This weblog text for today is already too long. Continued tomorrow.

For today we at least understand why the CC was so determined to get rid of gnosticism.

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