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"JJJJJJ Jesus, It's JJJJJJ Jesus!"

Religions don’t evolve, they metastasize. What starts out as a simple but profound core takes on barnacles the minute the prophet exits the scene and second rate intellects, middle managers, flim flam artists and institutions glom onto the next marketing opportunity. Elegance and understanding are subsumed by rococo and byzantine doctrine cooked up by people who wanted to be “the guy” and eaten up by those seeking easy comfort. I am indebted to Selina O’Grady’s hard work in “And Man Created God” for providing the backup to my own observations. It happened to the Buddha, it happened to Zoroaster and to Isis and it happened to Jesus.

What perplexes me is that with all the scholarship devoted to the study of the Christian religion is how few are interested in excavating the original teaching compared to the multitude studying the permutations introduced by later opportunistic pedants for whatever personal or power motive. While the tale of how those changes were wrought is compelling (Charles Freeman’s “The History of Early Christianity” a must-read), I am more interested in recovering the original insights wherever possible. Many bible scholars are current or former believers and therefore have an unconscious bias to maintain the current teachings even as they point out the inconsistencies and flat out untruths that exist in what is held as “scripture.” I don’t know what they think they are preserving, as religious beliefs continue to evolve with the necessities and PR campaigns of the modern national insecurity state. Then again, abdicating to the status quo has never been my style.

Yet scholars are generally in agreement that the Jesus movement was thoroughly undercut by Paul and his acolytes preaching to a wider audience than originally intended. Even the last pope admitted that the faith had been filtered through neoplatonism and church records show the development of doctrine through vulgar politics and the desire to accumulate power and prestige in the empire. It’s hard to imagine rioting monks, but that’s pretty much how it went, often with a horrified emperor stepping in with some solomonic if unsatisfactory middle ground. This is where the whole concept of “leap of faith” comes from: it makes no fucking sense, so it’s a “mystery.” At one level you can’t blame a group wanting respectability but at what cost?

Enough with the mental tangents. What got me on this subject was the tsimmus over Reza Aslan’s new book, Zealot. Of course I had to take an intellectual flying leap at it, reading a half dozen books first in preparation. While he does an interesting job, Aslan’s focus is more on the political aspects to Jesus’ mission. He colors in the social and political upheaval beautifully and, placed in context with O’Grady’s, one gets a clearer picture of the strange new world that existed at the time.

The world into which Jesus was born was a rapidly changing one. The expanding empire had settled down and become more for traders and less for soldiers. Travel was unparalleled until modern times, so a vast diaspora of peoples expanded their horizons throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. The type of religions previously useful to rural life (paganos meant peasant), i.e., place-dependent gods, fertility gods and those who protected against the elements transitioned into the mystery cults which provided membership and consolation to displaced peoples. Rapid urbanization meant that more portable gods (like the abstract Yahweh) survived this transition. With the interaction of so many divergent peoples, syncretism was prevalent. Mystery cults offered a personal relationship to the divine with an increased emphasis on individuality, making them less attractive to imperial demands.

Around this time, the concept of an afterlife began to develop though it was not yet a feature in Judaism. While the rest of the empire was settling in, Palestine remained a hotbed of insurrection despite the empire’s attempts at accommodation. Internally, two uprisings were thrumming: one toward imperial occupation and another toward the corrupt priesthood who collaborated with the empire. The Galilean countryside in particular, suffering the impoverishing effects of rapid urbanization and high taxation, was ground zero for discontent. As recent converts (within the previous 100 years), Galileans were regarded as bumpkins and second class Jews by Judeans. Many self-described prophets, messiahs, miracle workers roamed the countryside until their inevitable fatal clash with the power structure. Within Jerusalem itself, tensions existed between the hereditary priesthood of the Sadducees and the rising middle class of Pharisees who sought to widen the restrictive interpretation of Mosaic law.

Born and raised a villager, Jesus is reputed to have become a follower of John the Baptist, starting his own mission upon the latter’s execution. What all experts seem to agree on is that while Jesus preached social justice as so many others during this time, what set him apart was not that he was a miracle worker for there were many. Rather, it was that Jesus did not charge for healings that attracted large crowds. Part of his healing agenda reflected a direct challenge to the Judean priesthood which charged people to be readmitted to the faith after a healing, for Jesus not only healed but he cleansed at the same time. As a villager, Jesus observed Mosaic law except insofar as it interfered with the necessities of life for the poor and rural.

Beyond this, most experts tend to trail off, reluctant to dig further into his theology. Part of the problem is that they are entirely reliant on the Paul-influenced gospels which are more focused on theological interpretation and glorification as an after effect of the crucifixion. They present a fantasy elevating that final event into the sole purpose, when in reality Jesus was just one more troublemaker to be dealt with as others had. What differentiated Jesus’ violent ending from so many others is brilliantly envisioned by Charles Freeman who postulates that Caiaphas, wanting to avoid trouble over a martyr’s body, secreted it from the tomb (which is why soldiers were stationed there) thereby unintentionally giving rise to the resurrection rumor mill and subsequent rebranding.

So the only way to really examine his ministry is to pick out the Q material from the storytelling of synoptic gospels and (here’s the rub) the Gospel of Thomas. There is some dispute as to the dating of Thomas but it seems to me that the only way it is not regarded as 1st century (and likely predating the earliest mainstream gospels) requires a complete abandonment of historical methodology. Stevan Davies observes that the text is “about as primitive a form of text as there can be … reminiscent of oral tradition than of literary construction” like the New Testament gospels. It closely parallels the wisdom tradition of Judaism and makes no mention of later creations as messiahs, christs, resurrections or virgin births. Its sources are more Judaic despite having been written in Greek. That the document is Syriac in origin also lends to early dating since Galilee borders Syria which provided a more direct influence on the countryside than more distant Judah. One commentator observed that the Gospel of John only makes sense as a refutation of Thomas, so it had to have had some currency outside of Palestine prior to the writing of John.

The narrow, legalistic wording of Thomas distinguish it from both the New Testament materials as well as the gnostic materials with which it was discovered. Glenn Davis observes “[i]f one considers the form and wording of the individual sayings in comparison with the form in which they are preserved in the New Testament, the Gospel of Thomas almost always appears to have preserved a more original form of the traditional sayings, or presents versions which are independently based on more original forms.” Those who argue for a later date claim it is gnostic in nature largely due to the cache in which it was discovered (although Marvin Meyer sees it as having a merely incipient gnostic perspective). Not only do I disagree with argument for late dating, but I would go so far as to say its differences with the other texts actually lend further credence to the earlier dating school. Unlike the rest of the Nag Hammadi library, Thomas is not dualistic and lacks the cosmologies and creations like Barbelo and Yaldabaoth that developed over time. It is, however, experiential: “Jesus is not a teacher in the conventional sense … because people must come to knowledge themselves. Jesus is more like a bartender, in that he serves the intoxicating drink of knowledge, but people must drink for themselves.” (Marvin Meyer, “The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus”) It is in this sense alone that Thomas can be categorized under the gnostic banner.

Later events would destroy the last living remnants of the original Jesus movement with the Roman crushing of Judean resistance and the death of Jesus’ brother, James the Just, so savagely written out of Catholic history. As the movement thereafter divorced itself from its Jewish roots, it also shed much of Jesus’ message. The very fact that Thomas does not do so also supports an earlier dating before the final steamrollering of the Jewish insurrection made all associations politically toxic (12:2).

So, then, what does Thomas tell us of Jesus’ ministry? First off, it forcefully reveals that Jesus did not believe in an afterlife, a concept that was only beginning to take hold among certain sects and among the Pharisee community (3:1-3, 113). Clearly, he, like so many of the Hebrew prophets before him (and since), preached a social gospel castigating the rich and demanding justice for the poor. His confrontations with the priesthood came in part from their corruption and wealth but also in part to their position as gatekeepers between the people and their god (39, 102). His is an experiential religion, not unlike Taoism and various sects of Buddhism (1, 2, 5, 18, 22:4-7, 58, 62, 70, 108). Commentators have noted apparent contradictions in the statements, a quality that is shared with the Tao Te Ching. For those schooled in esoterica, the contradictions fade as true understanding emerges. The purpose is for the disciple to undergo an initiatory experience, finding enlightenment on his or her own and thereby achieving a deeper accomplishment, what Thelemites refer to as “crossing the abyss” on the Tree of Life. This is the true “messianic secret,” not some hidden claim to godhood.

Direct experience of the divine is anathema to any religion guarded by priesthoods. Instead, the Thomasine Jesus keeps goading his disciples like a Zen master to find themselves and manifest without what is within (5, 18, 22, 61:5, 67, 70). For one to whom the concept of an afterlife did not exist, then finding spiritual attainment in this life can be the only kingdom to which Jesus is referring. To the extent that this divorces a disciple from the political world is about political as Jesus gets. At no point does he directly challenge the occupation; rather, his response is to withdraw from worldly matters (42, 47, 49, 55, 100). But he understands that very withdrawal is revolutionary (10, 13:8, 16, 47, 68).

Thomas is a list of sayings and therefore makes no mention of miracle workings (or the crucifixion for that matter). The New Testament gospels do but are deliberate works of Pauline theologizing, over time bootstrapping the purported miracles to posthumous claims of godhood. However, the Thomasine Jesus does exhort his disciples to heal the sick as part of their ministry (14). Clearly, this Jesus believes that anyone who has attained enlightenment from his teachings is fully capable of following in his footsteps (108). As consciousness studies advance and, with current mathematical support for the holographic universe theory, becoming more in touch with reality may support some ability to manipulate it, Matrix-style (1, 5, 18, 22:4, 106, 114). An illiterate 1st century peasant would of course lack the language and other skills to fully describe such a theory but that may be where the apparent contradictions can be reconciled.

If we distill this concept from Thomas, we can see similar ideas at root in Hinduism as well as Taoism. Understanding the nature of reality and being able to separate out the real from the phantom is at the heart of this form of enlightenment. And it is this particular wisdom that took root in the hermetic movement in the West as it was largely eradicated from the empire appeasing comfort food that the dominant movement became. It is significant that these are the very aspects of the Thomasine Jesus that are missing from the mainstream gospels. Jesus may have seen himself as following in Hebraic prophet tradition but he ultimately conforms more to the mage school of Hermes Trismegistus.

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