Jesus OriginsDiscovering the original Christianity
Who killed Christ?
Who crucified Jesus?
According to the four gospels, it was the Romans at the instigation of the Jewish priests. If Jesus were a man living in Roman occupied Judea in the first century, then the Romans must have been the culprits. No one else had power to order a crucifixion.
But did Jesus exist as a man in the first century? If the story was rewritten by the author of the Gospel of Mark to place Jesus in that timeframe, then the Romans and Jewish priests could not have been guilty of the crucifixion.
But if not the Romans, who did crucify Christ?
We will look at two sources that predate the gospel account of the crucifixion to find the original culprits.
Paul says that heavenly powers, the “archons”, crucified Christ
The genuine letters of the apostle Paul are the earliest books in the New Testament. These letters are a unique survival, an eyewitness account of the Jesus movement dating from the 50s AD, at least two decades before the first gospel, that of Mark, was written. And unlike the authors of the four gospels, Paul was in direct contact with the leaders of the movement.
There is a famous passage in 1 Corinthians in which Paul talks about those who have killed Christ:
We speak wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers [archonton] of this age who are coming to nothing. No, we speak the hidden wisdom of God in a mystery which God foreordained before the ages. None of the rulers [archonton] of this age knew it, for had they known it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Corinthians 2:6-8)
This tells us that Christ, “the Lord of glory”, has been crucified by the “archons” (rulers). These powers are “coming to nothing”, a reference to the apocalypse which Paul believed was very close. The rule of the archons would then be replaced by the rule of Christ. What are we to make of this strange phrase “rulers of this age”? Does Paul mean the human rulers, the Romans? Then why does he not say so?
Paul’s phrase gives a strong impression that the archons are divine beings.
Such was certainly the interpretation of the diverse Christian gnostic groups who flourished in the early centuries alongside the developing proto-orthodox church.
In gnostic mythology, the archons were angels who ruled the world. They had been appointed by the Demiurge, the flawed creator who stood for the Jewish God, Yahweh. The archons were evil and enslaved humanity. In the gnostic view, Christ came from the light that was far above the Demiurge and the archons. He descended with a mission to defeat the archons, to redeem humanity and to bring about a new kingdom of heaven.
Paul’s secret mystery
Going back to Paul’s words, it is clear that the archons are heavenly beings. Paul is telling the Corinthians that a mystery was hidden before time: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart has imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). It is because the “rulers of this age” did not know this mystery that they crucified Christ.
It is absurd to think of any human ruler, such as a Roman governor administering a troublesome province, knowing of such a mystery. Pilate would not have crucified Jesus because he did not understand some hidden spiritual mystery. He would have executed Jesus as a trouble-maker. The mystery is heavenly, so the archons must be heavenly rulers.
The parable of the tenants tells us who killed Christ
Paul was writing in the 50s AD. Our second source is likely much earlier—perhaps even centuries earlier. It is also an account of the death of Christ. But because it is in the form of a parable it has received relatively little attention.
The parable of the tenants is found in Mark, Matthew, Luke and also in the Gospel of Thomas. This is the Thomas version:
He said: “A good man had a vineyard. He gave it to some tenants that they might work it, and he receive the fruit from their hand. He sent his servant, that the tenants might give him the fruit of the vineyard. They seized his servant, they beat him, and almost killed him. The servant came and told his master. His master said: ‘Perhaps they did not know him.’ He sent another servant; the tenants beat the other one. Then the master sent his son. He said: ‘Perhaps they will be ashamed before my son.’ Those tenants, since they knew that he was the heir to the vineyard, they seized him and killed him. He that has ears, let him hear.” (Thomas 65; TC 4:10)
The son is Christ and he is killed by the tenants. That makes everything clear, doesn’t it?
We are left with more questions than answers:
Who are the tenants?
Who is the good man? If he is God, then why is he so ineffectual?
Who are the two servants?
The parable ends on a bleak note—the son is dead. If this is about Christ, there is no resurrection.
The versions of the parable in Mark, Matthew and Luke differ in some important respects from that in Thomas. Problems with these gospel versions have long been known to scholars.
The most significant issue concerns the servants. The Gospel of Mark’s description of the servants starts with two:
When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants so that from the husbandmen he might receive some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully.
This is very similar to Thomas, except for a few details such as “struck him on the head”. But then Mark adds a whole stream of servants:
And he sent another, and him they killed, also many others: some they beat, and some they killed.
It is getting absurd. Would any vineyard owner send servant after servant? And some of the servants are now killed by the tenants which detracts from the climax where the son is killed.
The author of Mark has to include all these servants because he interprets the servants as the prophets, with the tenants being the Jewish priests. The problem is that there were far more prophets than just two—traditionally there are twenty-four prophets. In reality, there would have been hundreds of prophets to Israel and Judah over the centuries.
The author of Matthew used Mark extensively. He is mostly loyal to the earlier gospel except where he finds a problem. So it is significant that he changed Mark’s description of the servants into two groups of servants. He is trying to reconcile Mark’s interpretation of the servant as the prophets with a version of the parable that has two servants. The author of Luke also used Mark and changed the number of servants to three.
So each of the New Testament versions differ in the number of servants: Mark has many, Matthew has two groups, Luke has three. Even before the Thomas version was found, some scholars deduced that the original must have had two servants followed by the son.
This conclusion was based on the traditional story telling pattern of three. The first two cases establish the pattern, and the third case partially breaks the pattern while bringing it to a climax. The human brain loves such patterns of three. Think of the story of the three pigs:
- The first little piggy built his house with straw. The big bad wolf came, and he huffed and he puffed and he blew that house down.
- The second little piggy built his house with sticks. The big bad wolf came, and he huffed and he puffed and he blew that house down.
- The third little piggy built his house with bricks. The big bad wolf came, and he huffed and he puffed, and he huffed and he puffed, and he could not blow that house down.
We find this same basic structure of three rising to a climax in the Thomas version:
- The first servant is sent, is beaten, and returns.
- The second servant is sent, is beaten, and returns.
- The son is sent and is killed.
This must preserve the original structure. The author of Mark has changed the parable to fit in with his interpretation of the servants. But was his interpretation correct?
Are the servants the prophets?
One problem is that some of Mark’s servants are killed by the tenants, the priests. But the priests did not kill the prophets in scripture. It is true that two of the ancient kings of Israel supposedly killed priests or prophets. Saul killed the “priests of the Lord” for siding with David. And Jezebel, Ahab’s wife and devotee of Baal, killed many “prophets” of the Lord. It would be absurd to blame either episode on the priests when it was the priestly caste who were the victims. In addition to these cases, Zechariah was killed at the Jerusalem temple. But he was the son of the former High Priest, Jehoiada, and it was Joash, the king, who ordered his killing.
More fundamentally, two servants cannot represent many prophets. If the two servants are original, they cannot stand for the prophets. So who were they?
The Thomas manuscript indicates that the servants are divine beings.
In the one surviving complete manuscript of Thomas, there are some small, apparently insignificant, lines over the first three letters of the Coptic word for “servant”. These lines are present for both of the two servants in the parable. Such marks are called “nomina sacra” and occur frequently in Thomas and other early Christian manuscripts. Typically, they appear over abbreviations used for certain sacred names, but sometimes, as here, they are used to indicate the special status of a name spelt out in full. The nomina sacra are marks of the divine. They are used for Jesus, God, the holy spirit, and a few other holy names. They are not used for prophets nor for the purely human. Whoever drew the nomina sacra regarded the two servants as being more than human.
The search for the servants
We can conclude that the servants are two messengers who were regarded as divine. But who? My search for the servants led me to what turned out to be a key work to unravelling the history of early Christianity; the Animal Apocalypse which is contained within the Book of Enoch.
The Animal Apocalypse is found within the Dream Visions, which are supposedly Enoch’s account of two dreams. The Animal Apocalypse is certainly very old; fragments of the text have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran including one dated to 150-125 BC. The original language was almost certainly Aramaic.
The Animal Apocalypse is a cleverly constructed allegory of the history of the world in which everything is reduced in scale. The rules are:
- Animals represent humans.
- Humans represent angels.
- The first humans, the ancestors of the Jews, are cattle.
- The Jewish people are a flock of sheep.
- The nations (the gentiles) are predators and other unclean animals.
Although the nations play an entirely negative role in the allegory, at the end times both they and the Jews will be transformed into cattle, abolishing the distinction between them.
The cattle, Jews and gentiles alike, will then be ruled by a heavenly Messiah who takes the form of a great white bull.
There are obvious links in all this to Christianity:
- The idea of a kingdom of heaven ruled by the Messiah at the end times.
- The Messiah is a “son of man” (a bull=a human!) but also divine.
- Both Jews and gentiles will be brought into this kingdom on something like equality.
We can add that those who wrote the Animal Apocalypse rejected the second temple and hence the Jewish law, as did the early Christians. All this in a text that is at least two hundred years earlier than the Jesus movement of the first century! You would think this alone would stimulate academic enquiry as to whether the Animal Apocalypse is on the critical path that led to Christianity. But no.
It is in the Animal Apocalypse that we will find both the servants and the tenants.
The two servants are Noah and Moses
In the Animal Apocalypse, the prophets are sheep like the other Israelites. But there are two, and only two, figures who undergo a remarkable transformation. They turn into humans—that is into angels. These two alone were believed to have a nature that was both human and divine.
The first of these two figures is Noah:
Then one of those four went to those snow-white bovids and taught (one of them) a secret: he was born a bovid but became a person: and he built for himself a big boat and dwelt upon it. (1 Enoch 89:1)
Noah transforms from a bull into a person, meaning an angel. The idea of Noah as an angel may appear strange to those who encounter him in nursery books or even in the Old Testament. But Noah was a very important character to those who used the Book of Enoch. A section of Enoch (chapters 106-7) is believed to relate to a lost Book of Noah. In one passage, Noah’s father, Lamech, describes his birth:
“And his body was white as snow and red as a rose: the hair of his head as white as wool and his demdema* beautiful; and as for the eyes, when he opened them the whole house glowed like the sun—(rather) the whole house glowed even more exceedingly. And when he arose from the hands of the midwife, he opened his mouth and spoke to the Lord with righteousness.” (1 Enoch 106:2-3)
* Ethiopic word for long and curly hair combed up straight.
(All passages here from the Book of Enoch are translated by E. Isaac from The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Vol. 1.)
The baby Noah fills the house with light and Lamech fears that the boy might be an angel:
“I have begotten a strange son. He is not like an ordinary human being, but he looks like the children of the angels of heaven to me; his form is different, and he is not like us. His eyes are like the rays of the sun, and his face glorious. It does not seem to me that he is of me, but of angels, and I fear that a wondrous phenomenon may take place upon the earth in his days.” (1 Enoch 106:5-6)
Returning to the Animal Apocalypse, the second figure who transforms into an angel is Moses. Yahweh, who is called the “Lord of the sheep”, appears to Moses who ascends to the top of Mount Sinai, which is represented as a rock:
That sheep then ascended to the summit of that lofty rock; and the Lord of the sheep sent (him) to them. After that, I saw the Lord of the sheep, who stood before them; his appearance was majestic, marvellous and powerful; all those sheep beheld him and were afraid before his face. All of them feared and trembled because of him, and cried around to that sheep (who was) leading them and to the other sheep who was also in their midst, saying, “We are not able to stand before the presence of our Lord and to look at him.” (1 Enoch 89:29-31)
The Israelites are unable to stand before the presence of God. Only Moses can, and he is transformed:
I continued to see in that vision until that sheep was transformed into a man and built a house for the Lord of the sheep and placed the sheep in it. (1 Enoch 89:36)
Like Noah, Moses becomes an angel. We can find some trace of this in the Bible. In Exodus, Moses is on the mountain forty days and forty nights communing with Yahweh, neither eating nor drinking. When he comes down from the mountain with the tablets of the law, he is changed, and his face shines:
And when Aaron and the people of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone [qaran], and they were afraid to come near him. (Exodus 34:30)
The word qaran means literally “horns”, but most likely is a figurative expression for rays of light. Sometimes it is taken literally, which is why Michelangelo’s famous statue of Moses shows him with two horns coming out of his head. Moses’ companions can’t stand his glowing appearance, and he has to cover his face with a veil when talking to them. When he communes with Yahweh, he casts the veil aside. Moses literally shines with light—he has become an angel like Noah.
Why should the two servants be Noah and Moses? Noah was not even a prophet, nor a Jew. But Noah and Moses have something in common that made them very special to the Jews. They both brought a system of Law from God to humans.
The Law of Noah was very basic and applied to all humanity. God blessed Noah and his sons and told them to be fruitful, to multiply and to fill the earth. They were permitted to eat of all plants, beasts and birds. There was a basic requirement for animal welfare—they were not to eat the flesh of a living animal. Murder was forbidden on pain of death. And that is it! After giving this very basic law, God makes a new covenant between himself and all living things. He will send no more floods. As a mark of his promise, he places the first rainbow in the sky.
The Law of Moses applied only to the Israelites, the Jews. It was engraved on tablets of stone and brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses. The core of the Law of Moses was the ten commandments, but it was amplified to include the whole of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures which were traditionally believed to have been written by Moses.
Christians believed that Christ also brought a law, one which superseded the old Laws of Noah and Moses. Unlike the Law of Moses, Christ’s new law was not written on tablets of stone, but in people’s hearts—it was a spiritual law.
So we find that there is a unifying characteristic for each of the three figures sent to the vineyard. Not only were they all believed to have a joint human/divine nature. But the two servants and the son all bring a law.
But who are the tenants?
If the servants are Noah and Moses then the tenants cannot be the Jewish priests. The Jews were not even in existence at the time of Noah and the priesthood traced back its roots to Moses’ brother, Aaron.
We can, in fact, find the tenants in the same place we find the servants—the Animal Apocalypse. After the destruction of Jerusalem temple, the Lord of the Sheep appoints shepherds to rule the sheep:
He then summoned seventy shepherds and surrendered those sheep to them so that they may pasture them. He spoke to the shepherds and their colleagues. “From now on, let each and every one of you graze the sheep; and do everything that I command you. I shall hand them over to you to be duly counted and tell you which among them are to be destroyed; and you shall destroy them!” So he handed over these sheep to them. (1 Enoch 89:59-61)
The shepherds are men and so stand for angels. The Lord of the sheep asks other angels to watch over the shepherds and record their actions. The shepherds kill many more sheep than authorised and abandon the flock to the hands of the lions, leopards and wild boars (the nations). Each shepherd takes a turn in pasturing the sheep before handing over to the next one. There is a direct parallel between the tenants and the shepherds:
- The tenants are appointed over the vineyard (originally Israel)
- The shepherds are appointed over the flock (originally Israel)
- The tenants are appointed by the “good man” (Yahweh)
- The shepherds are appointed by the Lord of the Sheep (Yahweh)
- The tenants abuse their position
- The shepherds abuse their position
In the Animal Apocalypse the shepherds are only appointed after the exile. However, we can see traces of an original myth where the shepherds ruled the world for the whole of human history, which was supposedly seventy generations.
The shepherds are, in fact, another version of the Watchers in the Book of Enoch. The Watchers are angels who descended to earth to corrupt humans. In the Book of the Watchers, found within the Book of Enoch, they are judged at the time of Noah and locked in a pit for seventy generations. In the Animal Apocalypse, the shepherds and the watchers are judged together at the end times and cast into a fiery abyss.
We are seeing here different versions of the same basic myth that have been adjusted to fit in with varying contexts.
Shepherds, tenants, archons—and God
According to Paul, the archons, “rulers of the age”, are responsible for the death of Christ. In the parable of the tenants, it is the tenants who are guilty, and they are the same as the shepherd angels who have been appointed to rule the world. “Shepherd” was a common metaphor for a king or ruler. The tenants in the parable, the shepherds in the Animal Apocalypse, and Paul’s archons are one and the same.
The world was believed to be ruled by supernatural beings, angels, who are evil. It was a way of explaining the apparent triumph of evil and the domination of the weak by the strong. It was a worldview that gave rise to the complex systems of archons of Gnostic mythology. But originally it was very simple: seventy angels would rule for seventy periods (generations) and each was associated with one of the seventy nations. Each of the angels was the divine ruler of their nation, acting through the nation’s human kings and ruling class. But the the king of the Jews was Christ.
It had been promised that the rule of the seventy would come to end and both Jews and gentiles would be united under the rule of Christ. This was the kingdom of heaven.
The angels were supposedly appointed by Yahweh, by God. But how could God be so fallible? The Christians’ answer was to divide God into two. The real Yahweh was beyond all human understanding. He/she was the one that Paul talks about: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart has imagined…”. The God who appeared to the Jews in the scriptures was not this ultimate God, but a great angel—the Angel of the Name. He was an emanation of the ultimate God and bore the name of God—Yahweh—but he was not Yahweh, but a created being.
To the Gnostics, the Angel of the Name became the evil Demiurge, but that was not the view of the first Christians. He was “good” but had limited knowledge.
The parable of the tenants ends on a bleak note. The son is dead. Why is there no resurrection? Because to the people who created the parable, the resurrection was still in the future. They expected the son to return, but lived in the evil universe of the tenants.
Paul says that the archons were tricked. They did not understand the mystery of heaven which had been prepared by the unknowable God. Nor did the Angel of the Name, the good man of the parable, know this mystery. He was an angel of justice. He believed that Christ was his son. But in reality, Christ had been begotten before the creation of the world, and before any of the angels, including the Angel of the Name, was created.
Christ was an intermediary and bridge between the unknowable God and humans. The only way a person could approach the father/mother was through the son.
By killing the son, the tenants thought they would inherit the earth. But the crucifixion began the end of their own rule. By his perfect sacrifice, the son completed the law of Moses. The fallen angels would be destroyed. On the “third day” Christ would be resurrected to bring a new spiritual law to the whole of humanity and not just the Jews. This would be the only type of law that humans could keep—a law of forgiveness.
(Image by Midjourney AI.)
Read more about the seventy angels in The Judas War.