The Christiad is a epic-poem retelling of Christ's life in Latin hexameters (by Marco Girolamo Vida, published in 1535) and I've been translating it in little daily gobbets over the last few months. Why have I been doing that? Hmm: why have I been doing that?
The thing is, I’ve gone down a series of rabbit holes whilst working on this project, which wasn’t really what I set out to do. What I set out to do was just to give myself a little task to start and help structure my days during Lockdown. My wife has taken up embroidery for the same reason. Some people are doing jigsaws, or baking bread, or learning the trombone. This is my equivalent. And I suppose that’s still the function it serves: one or two dozen lines of Latin rendered into English daily, with a little bloggish commentary appended. But the longer I’ve gone on, the more the latter element has bloated. I use the topic of the day’s portion as an excuse to poke around online, to go through JSTOR and other scholarly resources, and dig out anything that strikes me as interesting. A lot of the scholarship I find is many decades old, but that doesn’t bother me: I’m not trying to retrain as an actual expert in Renaissance Italy or 1st-century AD Judea, after all.
Here’s one thing I didn’t realise before I started this, for instance. Jesus may not have been called Jesus. I don’t mean in the sense that Jesus is a Greek name (Ἰησοῦς, Iēsous) because the Gospels were written in Greek, a language Jesus himself probably didn’t speak at all and certainly didn’t converse in day-to-day. That’s true of course: ‘Jesus’ is the Hellenized version of the Hebrew name Yeshua or Y'shua (ישוע), etymologically related to another biblical name, Joshua. I knew that already. What I didn’t realise is that this particular historical Yeshua/Joshua may not have been called Yeshua/Joshua.
So: even my fairly scanty reading into the huge amount of work that has been done on the historical Jesus tells me three things:
1. It’s overwhelmingly likely Jesus was a historical figure, like Mohammed or Ataturk, rather than a purely mythological invention like Moses or King Arthur. There’s a lot of data about him and his life, and although most of that is the NT texts and apocrypha (most written later, some much later, all written to advance a particular set of theological rather than historical agenda, and all rewritten and smoothed over many centuries) some of it is other writers with less of an axe to grind, and some of it is papyrological and archaeological evidence. He was a real person, it seems.
2. Scholars also agree on the historicity of John the Baptist, who, it seems likely, led his own purity-baptismal eschatological sect and had his own followers. Despite later Christian revision it seems clear that Jesus started out not as a self-proclaiming messiah figure from the get-go, but as a follower or disciple of John. Indeed, it seems likely John was, for much of Jesus’s life, the more famous, or notorious, figure: a Jewish, perhaps Samaritan-Jewish, end-times preacher who insisted upon a strict regime of personal purity for his followers to prepare them for the imminent apocalypse. Baptism was an important part of his cult, although it seems Jesus developed doctrinal differences from his master on this matter.
[This was] the difference between preaching baptism as the first step, and preaching it (as Jackson and Lake, here, believe the historical John did) as the last step, the culmination of a series of purifying modes of living undertaken by a small sect of ascetic followers: ‘the real difference between Josephus and the Gospels as a whole is that Josephus represents [John] as preaching to those who had especially devoted their lives to virtue, and offering baptism as the crowning point of righteousness, whereas the Gospels, including Luke, represent the baptism of John as one of repentance for the remission of sins.’ John's way (if this is right) retains the common-sense connection between actual washing and spiritual washing, where Christ's call to baptism breaks it, or sets it in some strange new, almost ironical relation.Perhaps these differences caused Jesus to break away from John’s sect and set up his own; or perhaps Herod’s execution of John left the original group leaderless and Jesus took over and steered it in a new direction. Either way, when later Christians came to relate this relationship they could neither write John out of history (he was much too famous in the 1st-C AD near east) nor could they concede that he had precedence over their preferred messiah, Jesus. This leads to the story in which Jesus (though later Christians insisted he had been born without sin) comes to John to be baptised and have his sin washed away, and also to the characterisation of John not as a prophetic leader in his own right but only a kind of carnival barker, announcing the coming of somebody bigger than himself. Neither of these last two ideas really make logical sense, but there we are.
Jesus began as a follower of John the Baptist. Jesus was certainly baptized by John, and he seems not to have begun his own ministry until after the arrest of the Baptist. That all suggests that he was in the beginning a disciple of the Baptist. All our evidence about John the Baptist indicates that he was a prophet attempting to prepare the Jewish people for some urgent, imminent apocalyptic event, probably the arrival of the “reign of God.” So Jesus began as an adherent of an apocalyptic movement. … Jesus also appointed twelve male disciples, doubtless as an eschatological symbol for the messianic reconstitution of the twelve tribes of Israel. He probably expected that these twelve men would be heads of the miraculously reconstituted twelve tribes in the eschatological world. [Dale B. Martin, New Testament History and Literature (Yale University Press 2012), 191]It's worth quoting Martin’s book a little more:
Beyond that general picture, we can say a few more things about the historical Jesus, most of which I cannot defend here because doing so would merit a book of its own. Jesus was a lower-class Jewish peasant from Nazareth, a small village in Galilee. There is no reason to believe the later legends that he was born in Bethlehem. He grew up probably in a family of hand laborers. He had brothers and probably sisters. His mother was named Mary, and his father, Joseph. Since we hear nothing of Joseph’s activities from Jesus’ adulthood, he likely was dead by the time Jesus began his preaching. His mother, though, and at least his brother James later were figures in the movement after Jesus’ death, with James ending up as the main leader of the Jewish church in Jerusalem. Jesus certainly spoke Aramaic as his first language. If he spoke Greek at all, it was only enough to get by in bilingual situations. He probably could not write, and if he could read, it was only minimally.3. What about the Joshua-Jesus name? Well: Jesus and his followers were not the only apocalyptic religious movement knocking-around 1st-C Roman Judea. From Josephus we know of at least two others: John the Baptist (whose own movement has been partially erased and glommed onto Jesus’s by later Christian writing) and another, perhaps led by a man called Dositheos (or perhaps a different name), whose movement was put down by Pontius Pilate.
Jesus did gather followers around him, some of whom were certainly women in central positions. Mary Magdalene was doubtless a close follower, later respected by the community after Jesus’ death. ... I also think Jesus taught against the traditional household and formed, in its place, a band of men and women separated from their traditional households and families and bound to one another as a new, eschatological household of God. There are few aspects of Jesus’ ministry more certain to be historical than that he called people away from their families for the sake of the coming kingdom of God. The historical Jesus, therefore, was certainly not a “family man” in any way advocated by modern Christianity or ancient household ethics.
In spite of the possibility that Jesus was something of an ascetic with regard to marriage and family, he was not one with regard to eating and drinking. In fact, one of the things that may have differentiated the ministry of Jesus from that of John the Baptist, his early teacher, and other Jewish ascetics was that he and his followers did not follow an ascetic agenda with regard to food and drink. I think it is historical that he was rumored to be a man who enjoyed feasting and drinking when the rare opportunity arose for someone so poor, and that he kept the company of tax collectors, prostitutes, and other disreputable persons. [Martin 193-4]
Helen Bond notes that for the first six years of Pilate's tenure the Syrian legate Lamia was in Rome, which meant that Pilate couldn't simply send for troop reinforcements from the north if he had trouble. ‘Pilate would have had great difficulty in contacting [Lamia] if he needed the support of his legions, a situation that would mean that any potential uprising had to be put down quickly before it could escalate.’ [Bond, Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 15]. We can assume that his default, leadership-wise, was to act swiftly and with some violence in the face of any popular disquiet.‘Dositheos’ means ‘given by God’, more a title (like ‘Christ’, the anointed one) than a given name. That he was a Samaritan is interesting. I'll explain what I mean.
A case in point: around the same time as the events recorded in the NT Pilate had dealt with a different self-proclaimed Messiah, a Samaritan (conceivably a man called Dositheos) who tried to start a movement and possibly a rebellion. Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews [18.4.1-2], records that this messianic sect stormed Mount Gerizim, hoping to find artefacts they believed had been buried there by Moses. As the group was armed, Pilate decided their action was insurrectionary. He brought Roman troops to the scene, dispersing the gathering and killing many, including the ringleader. Executing messiahs was part of his job spec, we might say.
After this event other Samaritans, claiming the group killed had not been armed, complained to Lucius Vitellius the Elder, the governor of Syria. He (either because the complaint had genuine merit, and it was a way of calming the people he had to rule over, or else for reasons of Roman political jockeying-for-power) managed to get Pilate recalled to Rome to be judged by Tiberius. Tiberius however, died before his arrival (this dates the end of Pilate's governorship to AD 36/37). We don't know what happened to Pilate after that.
There are various non-Gospel sources for this period, including near-contemporary Jewish non-Christians like Josephus, and the sacred writings of other groups. The Jews were not then (any more than they are now) a single, homogenous group, and although they shared many rituals, practices and beliefs there were important differences. In the south of what is today Israel were Judean Jews; in the midlands (the present day West Bank) were Samaritan Jews; in the north were Galilean Jews. And that’s just three groups in the immediate vicinity. Two things they all had in common were: a belief in one God rather than many, and a belief that God would send a messiah to his chosen people. There was, however, little consensus on what this messiah would be like.
One thing we can be certain of is that no 1st-C Jew believed the messiah would be in any way like the figure who later emerged out of the Nicean council of AD 325: that is to say, a figure not only from God but of God and the same as God, one in three and three in one, possessed of all the powers of God—coeternal with the Father and begotten from His same substance. Important though that figure has become to Christianity, it’s a long way from what 1st-C Jews were expecting. Different Jewish groups had different ideas as to what the messiah would be like. Some thought he would be, in effect, an exceptionally just and beneficent ruler, others that he would be a spiritual not a temporal leader, or that his concern would be to re-establish the true Temple; others that he would be a healer and miracle worker; others again that he would usher in the end-times. These different conceptions of the coming messiah took different Old Testament figures as their prototypes: Joshua, the ruler. Moses, the great spiritual leader. Elisha, the wonder-worker.
The Samaritan angle is interesting here. There was hostility between Samaritan Jews and Judean and Galilean Jews, but they were all Jews. Some scholars think that the NT includes a number of (in context, surprisingly positive) references to Samaritans as a deliberate attempt by Jesus's Galilean and Judean followers to proselytise Christ’s status as messiah to Samaria. Moreover, many Samaritan religious texts have come down to us, and they provide an interesting perspective on the Christian scriptures.
Although they spoke more-or-less that same Aramaic as Judean and Galilean Jews, the Samaritans looked forward not to the messiah but to a figure they called the taheb:
The term most frequently encountered in Samaritan texts for the eschatological agent is the Taheb, a title which allows several translation-interpretations: the ‘restorer,’ the ‘returning one’, or the ‘repentant.’ [James D. Purvis, ‘The Fourth Gospel and the Samaritans’, Novum Testamentum 17:3 (1975), 182]Who was going to return, or restore? It would, it seems, be a renewed Moses, or perhaps a renewed Joshua, or conceivably a renewed Elisha or Elijah, depending on which sect you belonged to—and although Judean and Galilean Jews had a different word for messiah, many of them had similar expectations of him.
‘Marqah, the classical theologian of Samaritanism,’ Purvis explains, ‘contributed significantly to the sect's literature and liturgy. The major work attributed to him, the Memar Marqah, or Teaching of Marqah, is especially rich in the traditions it preserves concerning Moses and Joseph.’ Because so much of Marqah’s writings have been preserved, and because ‘it is clear that Marqah was not a representative of that branch of Samaritanism which glorified Joshua—that stream of thought is reflected in the Samaritan Book of Joshua as well as in some other sources—’, that the Taheb would be a new Moses is seen as mainstream Samaritanism.
The figure is associated with the Divine promise to Moses in Deut. 18:18-22 (‘I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren, etc.’). It has been said that at his appearance the Taheb will recover the sacred vessels which have been hidden in a cave on Mt. Gerizim, and that he will have with him the rod of Moses and a container of Manna. Such is the understanding of the contemporary Samaritan community concerning this figure.Purvis’s footnote to this last claim is the rather charming: ‘So, my conversations with Samaritans.’ But if modern-day Samaritan Jews expect the coming messiah to be a new Moses, not all 1st-century Samaritan Jews—or other kinds of Jew—thought that. For many the messiah would rather be a Joshua, primarily a judge and ruler; or an Elisha, primarily a wonder-worker and healer. The episode mentioned above, when the Samaritan ‘Dositheos’ (or whoever it was) and an army of followers ‘stormed Mount Gerizim, hoping to find artefacts they believed had been buried there by Moses’, suggests that more-or-less contemporaneous with Jesus’s ministry there was a separate individual claiming to be the Jewish messiah: a Moses-figure ‘sent by God’.
Jesus’s ministry contains a lot of Elisha-like miracle-working, and NT scholars have unearthed a deal of eschatological (that is, Moses-messiah) aspects too. But those eschatological aspects had to be downplayed, and even erased, in later Christian versions of the sacred texts—for the rather obvious reason that the world did not end within the lifetime of the disciples, as a few remnants of the original Gospel suggest Jesus’s original followers believed it would. Hence, just as the whatever-his-original-name Samaritan executed by Pilate after storming Mount Gerizim called himself ‘Dositheos’, so the whatever-his-original-name Galilean we today call by a Hellenized version of Joshua’s name acquired that title because the ‘Joshua’-messiah was expected to come not to perform miracles, nor usher in the end times, but to rule. ‘The Joshua Taheb concept itself remains an enigma’ Purvis concedes, ‘with much less by way of textual evidence’; although he does speculate that, Moses—the version of the messiah thought to bring-in the end-times—was a reaction against the idea of the messiah as Joshua: ‘the association of the Taheb with Moses rather than Joshua would also have been due to the original use of Joshua in some Samaritan circles as a non-eschatological model, i.e., as a model leader for the restoration in history of the old priestly order.’
A. D. Crown has suggested that the Joshua-like Taheb is also known from Justin Martyr, or, that the Joshua-Jesus typology in Justin (a native of Samaria) was dependent upon an older Samaritan Joshua-Taheb typology. … Bowman has recently related the alleged Joshua Taheb to John's gospel by suggesting that the unnamed feast of John 5:1 ff. was Purim and that the visit to Samaria of John 4 coincided with the Samaritan minor feast of sammu't happesah. Just as the Samaritan woman supposedly saw Jesus as the coming Joshua “who would restore the Temple on Mt. Gerizim, recapture the land and divide it among the Samaritans as the true Israel”), the story in John 5 supposedly points to Jesus as a Joshua-like figure through whom the remembrance of Amalek would be eradicated (Exodus 17:I4)—i.e. through him and not through Esther or Mordecai. The statement of John 5:46, “for he [Moses] wrote of me,” refers, Bowman claims, to Exodus 17:14 (“Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven”), and not to Deut. 18:18. Bowman notes that this Joshua-Jesus typology in reference to Amalek is found also in Justin Martyr and the Epistle to Barnabas 78).Of course, it’s possible that Jesus’s given name was Yeshuah/Joshua. But it’s also possible that he adopted this messianic name to indicate the kind of messiah he presented as—or that his followers retrospectively gave it him, to establish the terms on which his messiah-ness was to continue. The fact the Gospels give him two names: Joshua, and Emmanuel (עִמָּנוּאֵל: a very different Hebrew and Aramaic name, meaning, ‘God is with us’) perhaps suggests that his given-name was the latter and his messianic name the former.
Or perhaps ... not? Of course it’s impossible to be sure. But I do find all this stuff really fascinating. You're at liberty to disagree.
The image at the head of this blog is of Joshua and the Israelite people: from a Carolingian miniature, c. 840.