Jesus & The Gnostics

In November of 2018, not only did archaeologists report discovery, in the Israel desert, of a 1500-year-old painting said to be of Jesus as a young man (see page 11), but also, in the region south of Qumran in Palestine, the neighborhood where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the 1940s and 50s, new caves have come to light. Though the story drew headlines, no new scrolls have yet turned up, but optimism that they may yet be found, is encouraged by the fact that the caves have not been looted. According to archaeologists Randall Price of America’s Liberty University and Oren Gutfield of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, caves dubbed 53b and 53c contain plenty of well-preserved pottery and cooking ware. Perhaps, by the time you read this, new scrolls and new evidence surrounding the time of Jesus will be discovered.

Curiously, in an apparently unrelated development, another detail in the traditional story of Jesus also came to light in November, when the personal ring of Pontius Pilate was unveiled. Actually found in 1968 in the palace of King Herod near Bethlehem in the West Bank, the small piece of copper alloy jewelry had gone unrecognized for a half century until a proper analysis established its likely ownership. The man who the Bible says ordered the crucifixion of Jesus has been reviled ever since, but, ironically, Pilate may have inadvertently made a contribution to latter-day debate over the reality of an historical Jesus. Argument over the matter is certainly not new, but recent controversy has put the issue back in the spotlight. That may partially explain why, also in November, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan chose to declare in Lahore, “There is no mention of Jesus in history.” In a speech calling for an international convention to ban speech deemed insulting to Muslims, Khan was attempting to contrast Jesus unfavorably with Muhammad, who he described as “Allah’s last prophet [and] part of history.” Strangely, Khan neglected to mention that Jesus is also revered in Islam.

Debate over the historical reality of Jesus has not been entirely between believers and non-believers. Indeed, there are plenty of non-Christian authorities supporting the case. In, for instance, Antiquities of the Jews, AD 93, Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian, mentioned Jesus and his brother James, as well as John the Baptist. The Roman historian Tacitus recorded the death of Jesus at the hands of Pontius Pilate, and first-century Roman politician Pliny the Younger mentioned knowledge of Jesus gained from interrogating Christians. Other early references, both direct and indirect, have been made in Jewish Rabbinical literature, by the Greek philosopher Celsus, and elsewhere.

Over the past century archaeology has produced some very interesting evidence that is still far from being fully digested. The much-celebrated Gnostic Gospels—thirteen, leather-bound papyrus codices buried in a sealed jar—were discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Comprising 52, mostly Gnostic, treatises, the codices included three works belonging to the third and fourth centuries and numerous references to a special relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. There is even a gospel of Mary Magdalene. Needless to say, the Roman Catholic Church has not looked kindly on the Gnostic Gospels or their implications, now or ever. From the church’s inception, the early fathers officially proclaimed the teachings of the Gnostics to be heresy. At the time the Nag Hammadi gospels were buried, one could have been tortured and killed just for reading them, which, doubtless, explains why they were hidden.

While a visitor from another planet might expect the two enormous religions contending for worldwide dominance—Christianity and Islam—to differ over the issue of historical authenticity for Jesus, the visitor would be wrong. Both religions agree that Jesus existed. Oddly some of those most likely to reject the historical case for Jesus consider themselves Christians and align with a more allegorical and mundane explanation of his significance. In a further irony, many of those who fervently believe in a literal interpretation of Bible stories seem to find themselves at odds with evidence now coming to light which points to the real existence of a man called Jesus, but one much different than they may have pictured. For the latter, the best question may not be: Did Jesus exist? But rather: If he did, what kind of person was he?

A few years ago mainstream Christians were shocked to read in the Dan Brown novel, The Da Vinci Code, the claim that not only did Jesus have a flesh-and-blood identity, but that he was married and left a bloodline which survives to the present day. Another researcher, Atlantis Rising contributor Ralph Ellis (Jesus, Last of the Pharaohs) has argued that Jesus, was, in fact a historical personage in Palestine known as Jesus of Gemala who descended from the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt. Popular Egyptian author Ahmed Osmon (Jesus in the Land of the Pharaohs) thinks Jesus was actually Tutankhamun. Reconciling such widely divergent views might seem impossible, but one thing many alternative researchers seem to agree on: Jesus was probably part of a community of ascetics, the Essenes or, perhaps the Zealots, that may eventually have become Gnostics.


The Apocalypse of James

New archaeological discoveries help to make the point. The first-known original Greek copy of a heretical Christian writing: Jesus’ secret teachings to his brother James from ‘Gnostic Gospel’ The First Apocalypse of James, has been discovered in the U.K. in the stacks at Oxford University by biblical scholars from the University of Texas at Austin.

Only a small number of texts from the Nag Hammadi library had been found in Greek, their original language of composition. But in 2017, religious studies scholars Geoffrey Smith and Brent Landau of the University of Texas at Austin added to the list with the discovery of several fifth- or sixth-century Greek fragments of the First Apocalypse of James, which was previously thought to have been preserved only in its Coptic translations.

According to a UTA press release, the ancient narrative describes how Jesus reveals to his brother knowledge of the heavenly realm and future events, including James’ inevitable death. In other words, Jesus initiated James into an esoteric awareness, or special understanding reserved for the initiated, or chosen elect—a recurring theme in gnostic literature.

The relationship between Jesus and his brother James has been at the center of much of the debate over the role of first-century Gnostics in the life of Jesus. A tomb discovered in 1980 in Jerusalem’s East Talpiot neighborhood, containing several inscribed ossuaries corresponding to Jesus’ and family members mentioned in the Gospels, including Mary, has been asserted to be the actual Jesus family tomb. A Discovery Channel documentary and associated book, The Jesus Family Tomb, by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles R. Pellegrino was released in 2007

In 2002, discovery of the ‘James ossuary’—a first-century limestone box used to contain the bones of the dead—was announced by the Discovery Channel and the Biblical Archaeology Society. Greeted, initially, with much skepticism, its discoverer Oded Golan was tried for forgery, before, ultimately, being acquitted. In the years since, many scholars have come to think the Ossuary could, indeed, be the real thing. On the other hand, Robert Eisenman, author of James, the Brother of Jesus, and considered one of the preeminent authorities on early Christians, is on record as very doubtful of the Ossuary’s authenticity.

The Ossuary is inscribed with Aramaic text declaring the box to be that of James, son of Joseph and brother of Jesus. Until now, it has been impossible to determine exactly where the Ossuary originated, but, according to Jacobovici, a Canadian-Israeli filmmaker, and Arye Shimron, a geoarchaeologist, it can be directly connected to a purported Jesus family tomb first located in 1980. Jacobovici and Shimron carried out an extensive statistical analysis of the first-century population of Jerusalem and various popular Jewish names of the time and have established the strong likelihood that the inscriptions on both the tomb and Ossuary could only pertain to the actual Jesus family. Moreover, the researchers claim that a unique chemical signature clearly links the tomb with the Ossuary.

While the new research seems to contradict many aspects of the orthodox Gospel narrative concerning the life of Jesus, some scholars, like James Tabor of the University of North Carolina, believes the most important thing here is new evidence for the existence of the historical Jesus.


Esoteric Christianity

Advocates for a more esoteric kind of Christianity, like that practiced by the gnostics, point out that the Bible, as presently constituted, is the product of church councils convened to address early controversies. The Council of Nicaea, for instance, was gathered in AD 325 by Constantine I, the newly converted Christian emperor of Byzantium. At the top of the agenda was the so-called Arian heresy. The argument was over the divinity of Jesus—on one side the so-called Gnostics, or Arians, and on the other, the Niceans. The Gnostics sought direct personal knowledge of God (gnosis) and took very seriously such statements by Jesus as “Know ye not that ye are gods?” and “the kingdom of heaven is within you.” The Niceans, on the other hand, saw Jesus as the absolutely essential mediator between God and man. The Gnostics were outvoted and most of their teachings were thereafter forcibly removed from church doctrine.

Some researchers, including Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln in The Messianic Legacy, have argued that the fourth-century Gnostics inherited the mantle of the apostle James, brother of Jesus and leader of the first-century church. Few today realize that the church’s early years produced many gospels and books purported to have been authored by direct associates of Jesus; i.e., The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, etc. Most were destroyed by the Church’s ruling faction which wanted no interference with its designs. Some of those once-despised books were rediscovered at Nag Hammadi. Author Elaine Pagels included many excerpts in her 1989 bestseller The Gnostic Gospels. (Pagels, a professor of Religion at Princeton University, was back in the news in 2018 with Why Religion?, a new book relating how gnostic insights have helped her deal with tragedy in her own life.

The gnostic texts appear to fill in gaps exposed by discoveries in the 1940s and 50s of the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls near Qumran in Palestine. Despite bitter resistance from orthodox scholarship, many respected researchers believe the scrolls were created by a sect known as the Essenes, which possibly included Jesus and his followers. Many common elements between the Dead Sea scrolls and his teachings are easily recognized.

Moreover, Norman Golb, author of Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?, says that handwriting analysis shows at least five hundred scribes were involved. This suggests to many scholars that the texts must have come from a broad movement spread across Palestine and Judaea, not just some tiny isolated sect. Robert Eisenman supports this view.

Baigent and Leigh, in their book The Dead Sea Scroll Deception, draw on Eisenman but go further, contending that the Qumranians and early Christians were not only one and the same, but nationalist militants, known as Zealots, trying to install their priest/king, Jesus, on the throne of Israel and possibly his brother, James, after him. They cite, as does Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ lineage from King David. He becomes, in their view, someone other than the traditional Jesus, a literal ‘king’ of the Jews, perhaps a freedom fighter against the Roman occupation. Ensuing elements of this story line, as it may have impacted European history, were laid out in Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail and, subsequently, in The Da Vinci Code.

Such revelations from alternative scholarship have offered compelling new insight into Christian origins. Emerging from the mists of antiquity is a picture of intrigue and treachery in which Jesus’ subtle original teachings were codified into a crude set of laws and doctrines enforced by a priestly elite, in collusion with secular princes determined to preserve their authority. The hidden agenda was to distract the people from troublesome notions of personal immortality and to substitute instead the specter of sinful guilt requiring the intercession and vicarious atonement of Jesus. This doctrine mandated the actual worship of Jesus as the wholly unique Son of God and the placing of the burden of atoning for all human error on his shoulders alone. Thus diverted from accepting responsibility for their own sowings, the people were effectively robbed of the power to challenge their personal oppressors, and ultimately, to transcend their circumstances—prevented, in other words, from endangering their rulers.


The Egyptian Connection

Among the most interesting alternative interpretations of the meaning of Jesus’ life are those that come from comparisons between Christian teaching and that of ancient Egypt.

“The central figure of the ancient Egyptian Religion was Osiris,” wrote Egyptologist Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, “and the chief fundamentals of his cult were the belief in his divinity, death, resurrection, and absolute control of the destinies of the bodies and souls of men. The central point of each Osirian’s Religion was his hope of resurrection in a transformed body and of immortality, which could only be realized by him through the death and resurrection of Osiris.”

Classical writers describe Osiris as a semi-divine king who abolished cannibalism, taught men and women to live according to Law of Maat, improved their morality, and, filled with love for mankind, set out on a quest to travel the world and bring the benefits of civilization to other cultures. Murdered by his jealous brother Seth, Osiris’ rebirth is achieved magically by his sister/wife Isis. His second death, caused again by Seth, who dismembers his body and scatters the pieces up and down the Nile, is avenged in an epic battle by Horus, the son of Osiris.

Many important symbols of Christianity, including the cross, the shepherd’s crook, the special role of Mary, even the beard of Jesus, seem to echo earlier Egyptian practice. Perhaps the link may be explained by Israeli, and ultimately Christian, history. The lawgiver Moses, it must be remembered, was first a prince of Egypt before establishing Judeo/Christianity. Some researchers, such as Ralph Ellis, Robert Feather, and Sir Lawrence Gardner, have suggested there was a continuous thread from the pharaohs of ancient Egypt and their traditions directly through old testament Israelite history to Jesus.

The Egyptians likened the spirit of Osiris to a heavenly bird much like Christianity portrays the Holy Spirit as a white and shining dove. The Egyptians called the bird Benu; the Greeks called it Phoenix. According to legend the creature miraculously appears in the eastern sky at crucial points in history to herald a new world age, then mysteriously sets itself ablaze and is consumed. However, it ultimately arises triumphantly from death, renewed and rejuvenated.

Scholars believe the phoenix was a symbol of Osiris. The attributes of Osiris as phoenix are the same as those of the Christian Messiah. Both appear in the eastern sky (the star of Bethlehem arose in the east). Both rise from the dead. Both symbolize life after death through resurrection. Both signal the start of new ages. Finally, both are associated with prophecies of a second coming.

The Gnostic Christians presented the life and teachings of Jesus primarily as a path of initiation where the Christ, acting more as priest than king, guided disciples like his brother James—those with “eyes to see and ears to hear”—through various rituals of purification, culminating in illumination and liberation. In this sense, Jesus’ role as anointed revealer of the sacred mysteries harmonizes with the purest and most ancient temple wisdom and practice.



Fragment of Coptic translation of The First Apocalypse of James, found in the Nag Hammadi Library (colorized by Atlantis Rising).

The purported Ossuary of James

A fourth-century painting from the Commodilla catacomb may be the oldest depiction of Jesus as recognizably jewish, with beard and long hair. Previously Christian art in Rome had portrayed him disguised as Orpheus.

A nineteenth-century Russian icon of James, the brother of Jesus, also known as ‘James the Just’

Geoffrey Smith and Brent Landau

The Conversion of Constantine (painting by Peter Paul Rubens)

The Egyptian goddess Isis nurses Horus, her son by Osiris, her murdered husband. (Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon)

By Martin Ruggles