A Pre-Christian Heavenly Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

A little exchange of views (beginning here) on Larry Hurtado’s blog (Hurtado generously offers a platform for some interesting resources for those interested in mythicist arguments 😉  ) has alerted me to something no doubt many who follow Richard Carrier’s writings more attentively than I have done will already know that Carrier writes:

Nor was the idea of a preexistent spiritual son of God a novel idea among the Jews anyway. Paul’s contemporary, Philo, interprets the messianic prophecy of Zechariah 6:11-12 in just such a way. In the Septuagint this says to place the crown of kingship upon “Jesus,” for “So says Jehovah the Ruler of All, ‘Behold the man named ‘Rises’, and he shall rise up from his place below and he shall build the House of the Lord’.” This pretty much is the Christian Gospel. Philo was a Platonic thinker, so he could not imagine this as referring to “a man who is compounded of body and soul,” but thought it meant an “incorporeal being who in no respect differs from the divine image” whom “the Father of the Universe has caused to spring up as the eldest son.” Then Philo says, “In another passage, he calls this son the firstborn,” and says “he who is thus born” imitates “the ways of his father.” (Not the Impossible Faith, pp. 250-251)

Carrier then quotes the passage from Philo, and I quote it here from the Yonge translation available online. The word “East” has since been better understood as “Rises”, as in the rising of the sun:

“Behold, a man whose name is the East!” A very novel appellation indeed, if you consider it as spoken of a man who is compounded of body and soul; but if you look upon it as applied to that incorporeal being who in no respect differs from the divine image, you will then agree that the name of the east has been given to him with great felicity. (63) For the Father of the universe has caused him to spring up as the eldest son, whom, in another passage, he calls the firstborn; and he who is thus born, imitating the ways of his father . . . . (On the Confusion of Tongues, Book 14:62, 63)

Before adding my own discussion I’ll quote the next paragraph from Carrier, too:

In the same book, Philo says even if no one is “worth to be called a Son of God,” we should still “labor earnestly to be adorned according to his firstborn Logos, the eldest of his angels, the ruling archangel of many names,” and notably Jesus is also called the firstborn Logos, and Christians were also called upon to try and emulate him and adorn themselves like him. Elsewhere Philo adds “there are two Temples of God, and one is this cosmos, wherein the High Priest is the Firstborn Son, the Divine Logos.” Compare these remarks with Colossians 1:12-19 and Hebrews 1:1-14 and the connections are obvious. Likewise with Zechariah 6:11-13, which not only says Jesus will “build the temple of the Lord,” but “he shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule upon his throne, and he shall be a priest upon his throne.”

Carrier has a PDF presentation addressing these points.

A 2005 article in the Journal of Theological Studies (doi:10.1093/jts/fli105) by Simon Gathercole links Philo’s interpretation of the Zechariah passage with Luke 1:78-79. Speaking of the coming of Jesus, the father of John the Baptist says:

Through the tender mercies of our God, In which the Rising from on high did look upon us,
To give light to those sitting in darkness and death-shade, To guide our feet to a way of peace.’

So the Gospel of Luke knows of the Rising as Jesus, and Zechariah 6:11-12 also tells us that the name of this one who Rises is Jesus:

And thou shalt take gold and silver: and shalt make crowns, and thou shalt set them on the head of Jesus the son of Josedec, the high priest.

And thou shalt speak to him, saying: Thus saith the Lord of hosts, saying: BEHOLD A MAN, THE ORIENT (i.e. RISES) IS HIS NAME: and under him shall he spring up, and shall build a temple to the Lord.

(Carrier says that this Jesus was to be crowned king, but I think the crown was for the priestly authority. But that’s a side issue.)

The JTS article also notes the striking contrast between the Zechariah 6:12 claim that the “Rises” “will arise from beneath” while the Gospel’s claim is that this Jesus-Rises “will visit from on high“.


English: Joshua was, according to the Bible th...
English: Joshua was, according to the Bible the first person chosen to be the High Priest for the reconstruction of the Jewish Temple after the return of the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But what does this make of the Jesus (Joshua) in the Book of Zechariah? How could Philo interpret him to be the firstborn son and Logos of God? Quite apart from Philo’s Platonic training in reading texts allegorically, the Book of Zechariah itself says that its Jesus is an allegory, a type, a foreshadowing of another figure:

Listen, O high priest Joshua [Jesus] and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant, [Rises]. (Zech. 3:8 — other translations say “sign”. “Rises” has become a preferable translation to “Branch”)

This Jesus was also said in the same book to be symbolic of two burning lampstands fueled by olive oil.

And he saith, `These [are] the two sons of the oil [anointed ones], who are standing by the Lord of the whole earth.’ (Zech. 4:14)

The word is not the same as “messiah” but it is surely suggestive.

The same Jesus was made “sin” and was rescued from the clutches of Satan to be glorified and rule:

And the Lord said to Satan: The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan: and the Lord that chose Jerusalem rebuke thee: Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?

And Jesus was clothed with filthy garments: and he stood before the face of the angel.

Who answered, and said to them that stood before him, saying: Take away the filthy garments from him. And he said to him: Behold I have taken away thy iniquity, and have clothed thee with change of garments.

And he said: Put a clean mitre upon his head: and they put a clean mitre upon his head, and clothed him with garments, and the angel of the Lord stood. (Zech. 3:2-5)

It is not the gospel story, but it is not hard to see it as an analogue of the crucified Jesus who was raised again.

Much more can be said and probably has been said in discussions that have escaped my notice.

Philo introduces his reflections on the heavenly firstborn Logos, a Jesus renamed Rises, or a Jesus who was a symbolic representation of the heavenly Rises, with this:

I have also heard of one of the companions of Moses having uttered such a speech as this . . . .

It sounds like Philo is referring to one of the many Jewish interpretations and speculations about the biblical figures that in this instance happened to support his primary theme.

It’s an interesting mix: we have persons in the bible narrative being interpreted as allegories; we have a Jesus who is said to be the Rises/Dawn Rising in Zechariah, in Philo and in the Gospel of Luke; he is the son of Josedec whom Spong and others have noted is close to “Joseph”; the same is said to be the firstborn Son of God and Logos (Word) with God from the beginning; there is also suggestion of this Jesus being an anointed one (messiah) and having been attacked by and rescued from Satan to be raised (from “below”) to glory.

A lot of interesting, if speculative at this point, stuff.  What it shows is yet another set of passages that could have fed the ideas from which Christianity took root.


(Thanks to Robin Tulip to alerting me to this discussion on Larry Hurtado’s blog.)

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28 thoughts on “A Pre-Christian Heavenly Jesus”

  1. It seems to me that Philo was confused that the high priest Jesus was called “the East” and then said “Aha, this title makes no sense if applied to a person. But if the title ‘the east’ were applied to the Logos, that would make sense”. It doesn’t look like he’s saying that there was a heavenly Jesus who was the Logos. He’s saying that there was an earthly Jesus who was nonsensically given the title “the East” and argued that this title should actually belong to the Logos.

    1. It doesn’t matter either way to a mythicist position. Either way, the earthly “Jesus” referred to was not an historical figure. Or, if he was, he wasn’t in anyway what we would consider Jesus of Nazareth.

      I believe this is very persuasive, excavating a pre-Jesus Jesus, who was clearly heavenly.

      And what of Pliny the Younger’s observation about early Christian practices:

      “They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god.”

      I think this is a significant piece of the puzzle coming together. Good job, Carrier!

        1. I was referring to Philo’s possible reference to a heavenly Jesus. That the Jesus in Zec 6:11 was said to be an actual person doesn’t matter much if Philo recasts him as “that incorporeal being who in no respect differs from the divine image.”

            1. J. Quinton, you appear not to have read Neil’s post or Philo’s text with any care, as your comments here are completely wrong. Philo’s ‘incorporeal being’ is the man named East, who Zechariah says is the king Joshua – a name that is the same as Jesus, who is anointed (Christed) as king. Philo says that applying the name East (ie Jesus Christ the Logos) to an earthly man makes no sense, calling it ‘very novel indeed’. Philo was a coherent mythicist, and was not confused as you say. The confusion entered the picture when Philo’s high vision was degraded by the literalism that became Christian orthodoxy.

              1. No, I’ve read Philo. Here is what the text says:

                I have also heard of one of the companions of Moses having uttered such a speech as this: “Behold, a man whose name is the East!” (Zec 6:12.) A very novel appellation indeed, if you consider it as spoken of a man who is compounded of body and soul. Instead, if you look upon it as applied to [the Logos] who in no respect differs from the divine image, you will then agree that the name of the east has been given to [the high priest] with great felicity. For the Father of the universe has caused [the Logos] to spring up as the eldest son, whom, in another passage, he calls the firstborn; and he who is thus born, imitating the ways of his father, has formed such and such species, looking to his archetypal patterns.

                Here it is in plain English:

                There’s a guy that’s called “the East”. But this title “the East” makes no sense for a regular flesh and blood person. But if we apply it to the Logos, that would make sense. And since the Logos is the archtypal high priest, it now makes sense that a flesh and blood high priest is called “the East”.

                The only way you could interpret it as saying that Philo is calling the guy who is called “the East” the Logos is if you completely ignore the bolded parts.

              2. Quinton: I usually like your remarks, but would have to respectually disagree here. I think the references passage(s) ARE consistent with thinking of Jesus as just the Logos.

                Regarding your boldface remarks: first 1) Philo might be saying that naming someone “the East” would not make sense if he was a man, with “body and soul.” But it might make sense Philo might be saying, if the “man” is really simply rather a spirit, a ray of light, a bit of revelatory ideation or comic enlightenment: the “Logos.” Or 2) as John translated it, “the Word.”

                Next, 3) if the material on Jesus looks “to his archetypal patterns,” that is clearly an invocation of Plato’s theory of Forms; the idea there being that almost all apparently material things here on earth are imperfect “copies” or “shadows” of the eternal forms, “models,” or “patterns” (cf. Gk. “paradigms”), in heaven.

              3. J. Quinton: Your paraphrase is wrong where you read Philo as saying “a flesh and blood high priest is called “the East”.”

                Philo says “if you look upon it [the name East] as applied to that incorporeal being [the Logos] who in no respect differs from the divine image, you will then agree that the name of the east has been given to him [King Joshua] with great felicity.” Philo is saying King Joshua is incorporeal, the high priest is not flesh and blood, and the anointed King Joshua (ie Jesus Christ) is a myth.

        2. (Carrier wants to overlook that part—–much as he ‘overlooked’ some verses in The Life Of Adam And Eve to posit an other-earthly burial site for Adam. sigh)

    1. Sure. This is from footnote 35 in Simon Gathercole’s article:

      “Despite its presence in a number of translations, it was shown at the beginning of the 20th c. by Driver that ‘branch’ is an untenable translation for צֶמַח [zemah] because צֶמַח always comes up out of the ground rather than from an already existing trunk or stalk. See S. R. Driver, “The Minor Prophets: Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi” (Edinburgh: Jack, 1906), pp. 197-8. More recently, however, W. Rose has shown that Driver’s alternative, ‘shoot’, is also difficult to accept. Rather, Rose shows convincingly that the meaning is ‘growth’, either in the sense of actual produce, or of the phenomenon of growing. This latter is more likely in Zechariah 3 and 6, and also fits well with the Greek ἀνατολή, which naturally means ‘rising’. Rose’s argument centres on the fact that the most common cluster in the Old Testament is ‘the צֶמַח, of the earth/field/ground’. Other words for ‘branch’ or ‘shoot’ do not come in similar contexts to צֶמַח, here; rather the kind of language which does is that of grass, trees, plants, herbs, and bushes. See W. H. Rose, “Zemah and Zerubbabel: Messianic Expectations in the Early Postexilic Period” (JSOTSuppS; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), pp. 91-120.”

      What is interesting is Luke’s taking the “rises” of Zechariah to apply to a rising of (pre-existent) day-star or sun, while Zechariah speaks of a “rising” from the ground below.

      1. “Rose shows convincingly that the meaning is ‘growth’, either in the sense of actual produce, or of the phenomenon of growing…”
        Hence the Pauline mystagogical assertion by the Christ that his body and blood comprising the sacred meal are the fruits of the earth…..

  2. “Zechariah,” near the very end of the Old Testament, is a complex text, with indeed some implications of a rather “eastern” or heavenly annointed savior. But? Interestingly, this seemingly late book of the OT also indicates some problems with one or two such alleged saviors.

    First, there ARE some interesting parallels with Jesus; the book is the story of the “prophet” “Joshua,” of the time for example; also speaking of “two anointed” helpers. Seeing the Joshua of the time, “Crown”ed too; even over kings. And it all turns into a prediction of a coming, rather Apocalyptic Day of the Lord; when some similar Lord comes to earth, to reward the good and punish the bad.

    But interestingly? Though this book seems to indeed, provide some Jewish/Old testament input into the NT and the story of its own “Joshua,” or Jesus? This book at the same time, warns of many false things, deep in some related religious persons in the midst of all this. Even our “shepherd”s can be “false,” Zech warns (10.3 – 13.7). The text suggesting that even our shepherd christ of alleged savior – might be after all, a … false christ. OR here, a “worthless shepherd.” 11.17.

    No doubt,the New Testament and it’s “Jesus,” are formed of elements of ANE, Greco-Roman, Platonic, but ALSO Jewish legends and expectations. But? Curiously those relevant Jewish legends indicated that there would be problems, even in our highest religious “shepherds.” (In parallel to say, Isa. 14.13-20; the famous 21.23-25; and many NT warnings about “False” and “anti” Christs).

    The OT and the book of the prophet Zechariah indeed look forward to a savior of some sort. One perhaps in part, indicated by the heavens, the light of the eastern sun and so forth. But this same book also warns of many false things, even in our would-be annointed saviors; even “shepherds.” While the “pierching” of one of the shepherds, prophets, does not indicate approval, but disapproval, by God (13.2 ff).

    1. If you differ radically with the prevailing translations, by the world’s greatest experts? You should cite your own authority.

      Personally I intuitively prefer the “received text” as it is called. In this case. Or the NT mod. Since otherwise you deviate from a consistent theme in the Bible, (and in real life) of a false messiah, false shepherds, and so forth.

      In fact, even one or two of the first historical shepherdic models – Cain; David, the sheepherders – made mistakes now and then.

      So that your current reading looks too apologetic?

      Is that your intention?

  3. I found the earlier readings, through Philo, of a saving Logos, as “son,” more convicing as a Platonistic reading of the OT.

    Philo though, is famous for dematerializing and metaphoricalizing ; quite like the later Origen, and the Gnostics. And whether his readings were true to the original Jewish texts or not, his writings show what many Jewish thinkers were doing, just before Jesus; Philo being Jesus’ slightly older contemporary (and model?), in Alexandria Egypt: everything in the OT is being read as an allegory of the spirit, etc..

    In the case of Zech though, what interests me more than Philo’s reading? Are very clear indications of more historical roots to Jesus. Historical roots that however suggest strong that the origin of the whole story of a “Jesus” or “Joshua” … was in large part a confused retelling of the story of the earlier prophet Joshua.

    The original Joshua or Jesus .. lived in an era of a corrupted Temple or Judaism. And who was alleged to have been given a commission from God to therefore, to assume a crown of Jewish leadership, and refound the temple, refound Judaism.? Though as popularly translated, the text also warns of problems with/in this saving prophet, or shepherd, or Jesus. Who is “pierced” to indicate disapproval by God.

  4. By the way? Bits of earlier scholarship suggested that Hellenized Jews like Philo were not above taking old Jewish legends, even holy OT stories … and making up new, midrashic or parable-like reformulations of the old stories. Then presenting them as biographies of real persons.

    And in fact? Just the slightest reformulation (or say popular misunderstanding) of the storty of the prophet Joshua, could have started off the whole legend of our Jesus Christ. While an origin around Philo, would explain the rather Platonistic/spiritual overtones of the new Joshua: Jesus.

    Philo, the slightly older contemporary of “Jesus” – Philo b. 20 BC – Philo or someone around him, could have created their “Jesus” c. 10 AD or so. Corresponding closely to the dates we have for the “birth” of Jesus.

    This in fact is one of the classic mythicist models, for the origins of “Jesus.”

  5. Neil Godfrey quotes Richard Carrier: “Nor was the idea of a preexistent spiritual son of God a novel idea among the Jews anyway.”

    Hebrews 7, the discussion of the high priest Melchizedek, presents some illuminating ideas for how Christ as the eternal Logos aligns to mythicist analysis. At the end of Chapter 6, Hebrews tells us that “our forerunner, Jesus, has entered the inner sanctuary on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”

    Next, the mythical nature of Melchizedek is explained at Heb 7:3: “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.” Hebrews sees Melchizedek as the type for Jesus, a priest without genealogy. Contrasted to the weak mortal Levitical priestly order, the strength of Christ is in his eternal incorporeal nature. The apologist line is that 7:3 really meant ‘without recorded beginning or end’ against the plain statement of the text that Melchizedek ‘remains a priest forever’. As Heb 7:24-26 says “because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood… exalted above the heavens.” The plain meaning is that salvation is from the eternal idea, “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb 13:8), a line that contradicts the incarnation idea of Jesus changing from eternal essence to corporeal existence.

    Melchizedek appeared in Genesis 14, and then Psalm 110, as the high priest who blessed Abraham and the priest-king in whom messianic hopes are vested.
    The Bible references to Melchizedek are at http://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?quicksearch=Melchizedek&qs_version=NIV

    The line where Jesus says ‘before Abraham was, I am’ at John 8:58 is supported at Heb 3:3 which says Jesus “has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as he who built the house has more honor than the house.” This plainly means Jesus came before Moses, because the builder, Jesus as God, pre-exists the house, Moses as the Jewish people.

    As Paul puts it at 1Cor 10:4, the Israelites with Moses “drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” The original vision of Christ was pure myth, and the story was later carnalized for base political motives.

    1. I have yet to see much justification for the notion that a spiritualized Christ “was carnalized for political motives.” And the honest problem with making “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb 13:8) exclusively “a line that contradicts the incarnation idea of Jesus changing from eternal essence to corporeal existence” is that for nearly 2,000 years it’s served handsomely for the proponents of gospel literalism (!)

  6. My remarks on “prevailing traditions” were directed at a comment in favor of the Logos, that no longer seems to exist; and so my 6:03 statement might simply be deleted, or disregarded.

  7. Tulip:

    Thanks for your useful explanation.

    Adding a bit more, I’d add that part of a simple way to explain Doherty’s notion – of a Jesus who existed primarily in a “cosmic” way – is to translate this to the language of ordinary sermons: Jesus was born in “heaven.” And the truths of his are not carnal, or about this world or the flesh, but are related to “spiritual” truths. The truths not of “this world,” but “of heaven.” (Read: “cosmos.” Or Platonic ideals)

    As Jesus said, his “kingdom is not of this world.” Nor are his origins. While his truths are more “spiritual,” relating to spirit “Heaven,” more than being about his literal biological “family,” and so forth. Or even about a physical crucifixion; which was about putting our material flesh aside – including physical trials, like a physical crucifixion. In order to relate more to spiritual/ “cosmic” things.

    That is the way an average sermon might presents all this; how many sermons present to everyday people, the residues of Gnosticism and Platonism that are found in the BIble, and the epistiles, especially of Paul.

    To be sure, there are problems with Paul’s over-spirituality in turn; and especially with the Gnosticism it would become. Still, Paul’s spiritual model was very influential, and needs to be understood. While of course Doherty argued that Paul’s vision was the real foundation of Christianity.

  8. I remember first suggestisng the notion that the celebrated passage in Zechariah was the actual origin of the name ‘Jesus’ for the Pauline hero of his cult back in 2009-2010 I believe, given that his theory that the movement originated with an assiduous scriptural study along with visions made sense to me. These ideas require close examination and it would appear that the surface has only been scratched. [Interesting to find this terminology in Luke; interesting too that ‘Rises’ will have been his Name given that hearers of Paul at the Areopagus, acc. to that same Luke, mistakenly thought the apostle’s preaching to have been about a new god called ‘Resurrection’]. This business of the Redeemer’s secret Name also shows up in Asc. Is., another text it seems Paul quoted as Scripture.

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