Once more exploring a question raised by Lena Einhorn in A Shift in Time — this time with doubts….
Was Jesus originally the Egyptian prophet we read about in the works of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus? Lena Einhorn seems to think so in A Shift in Time where she lists seven points in common between them. I won’t discuss those seven points but will look at her seventh:
And last, but not least, “the Egyptian” is defeated on the Mount of Olives, which is where Jesus was arrested. It is also from there that both men have declared their prophecies [that the walls of Jerusalem would fall down].
Actually Jesus predicted the walls of the buildings, in particular the Temple, would be pulled down, not the walls of Jerusalem. I have thought of the Egyptian as attempting to re-enact Joshua’s feat of miraculously having the walls of a great city collapse while Jesus (the Greek form of Joshua) spoke of the destruction of the Temple. But that’s a caveat we’ll set aside for now but return to later.
To begin, let’s be sure we have the picture. Josephus writes about the Egyptian twice, first in Wars (written about 78 CE) and second in Antiquities (about 94 CE). Here’s what he tells us:
But there was an Egyptian false prophet that did the Jews more mischief than the former; for he was a sorcerer, and pretended to be a prophet also, and got together thirty thousand men that were deluded by him;
these he led round about from the wilderness to the mount which was called the Mount of Olives, and was ready to break into Jerusalem by force from that place; and if he could but once conquer the Roman garrison and the people, he intended to domineer over them by the assistance of those guards of his that were to break into the city with him.
But Felix prevented his attempt, and met him with his Roman soldiers, while all the people assisted him in his attack upon them, insomuch that when it came to a battle, the Egyptian ran away, with a few others, while the greatest part of those that were with him were either destroyed or taken alive; but the rest of the multitude were dispersed every one to their own homes, and there concealed themselves.
War of the Jews 2.261–263
Then about fifteen years later Josephus wrote:
There came out of Egypt about this time to Jerusalem one that said he was a prophet, and advised the multitude of the common people to go along with him to the Mount of Olives, as it was called, which lay over against the city, and at the distance of five furlongs.
He said further, that he would show them from hence how, at his command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down; and he promised them that he would procure them an entrance into the city through those walls, when they were fallen down.
Now when Felix was informed of these things, he ordered his soldiers to take their weapons, and came against them with a great number of horsemen and footmen from Jerusalem, and attacked the Egyptian and the people that were with him. He also slew four hundred of them, and took two hundred alive.
But the Egyptian himself escaped out of the fight, but did not appear any more.
Antiquities of the Jews 20.169–172
The story has changed in some details over those fifteen years. The event itself is set in the 50s CE. Josephus first writes about it around 20 or more years later. That’s about the same time span between today and the catastrophic raid on the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas. Josephus appears to be saying that the Egyptian’s plan was to attack Jerusalem without any thought of a miracle to open the gates for them.
Approximately thirty five years after the event (compare today’s distance from the assassination attempt on President Reagan) Josephus introduces the Egyptian’s prophecy to command the walls of Jerusalem to do a Jericho.
So unless I am missing something hidden by a poor translation it seems that there is room for doubt that the Egyptian really was known at the time to have told his followers that the walls would obey his voice. One can imagine people talking about this fellow and mockingly asking how he could possibly have seriously thought he would take over Roman occupied Jerusalem, and how from such scoffing someone suggests he probably thought he could repeat the Jericho miracle. Or maybe he really did make such a declaration and Josephus simply failed to mention it in his first account. However that may be, years later when the event was recalled this detail did become part of the story. Who knows if it was Josephus’s memory or if he picked up the detail from someone else?
What, then, connects the Mount of Olives setting in the story of the Egyptian with our accounts of Jesus?
There are two links.
- Jesus delivered his prophecy about the destruction of the Temple and indeed the whole of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21). You will recall my little caveat above.
- Jesus was confronted by a cohort of 600 to 1000 Roman soldiers on the Mount of Olives. That’s news to you? It’s in the Gospel of John. The criterion of embarrassment usually obliges Christian scribes to record plainly whatever sounds embarrassing but somehow this detail has been lost in translation. I quote from two translations that most closely relay the Greek original:
So the Roman cohort and the commander and the officers of the Jews, arrested Jesus and bound Him . . . . (New American Standard Bible version of John 18:12)
So the battalion and their tribune and the Jewish police closed in, and took Jesus and bound Him. (Weymouth New Testament version of John 18:12)
A standard cohort is between 600 and 1000 soldiers. The word for commander or tribune is χιλίαρχος (=chiliarchos) which technically means a commander of 1000 men (recall chiliasm).
Lena Einhorn suggests that this detail in the Gospel of John is best explained as a vestige of an original story in which a large band of Roman troops came out to the Mount of Olives to capture/destroy the prophet with his large following.
I have to confess I stumble at this point of the argument. It seems to imply that the author of the Gospel was so incompetent that he could not remove a detail that is quite bizarre when he says there was only one person (potentially protected by eleven followers?) to be arrested.
I suggest that the author rather had some deliberate plan in mind when he chose to depict such an asymmetrical scenario. Compare, for example, the same author’s exaggerated account of the spices and things that Nicodemus brought for Jesus’ burial:
Nicodemus too–he who at first had visited Jesus by night–came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, in weight about seventy or eighty pounds. (John 19:39, Weymouth)
Further, if we interpret details like this as remnants of prior historical reports then I think we are reading against the larger genre and function of the Gospel itself. The Gospel of John especially is a highly symbolic theological tale. I see no reason to presume it owes anything to any historical events. Such a presumption would need to be argued, not taken for granted, I think. The cohort reference looks like a symbolic touch to me when I place it beside the subsequent exchange between Pilate and Jesus where they discuss kingdoms and their respective powers.
Further yet, I happen to side with those who argue the author of the Gospel of John was in dialogue with the Gospel of Mark. Mark’s account reserves the arrest for an unruly mob from the Jewish priests. John purposes to involve the Romans in a forceful Roman way — marching in with a full Roman cohort. It’s Jesus against the whole world, not just the Jews, but the power of Rome itself.
The point of all this is that we don’t really need the Egyptian being clobbered by Romans on the Mount of Olives to count as a source for this part of the Jesus story.
And still yet further, Jesus facing a cohort of Romans on the Mount of Olives is a detail introduced by probably the very last-written Gospel. The scene was unknown to the earlier accounts. Would we not expect it to appear in the earlier narratives if such a detail derived from a gradually fading historical event?
There’s still one more stumbling block I face before accepting the Mount of Olives link with the Egyptian.
Jesus is modeled on many figures in the Jewish Scriptures — Adam, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha come to mind. David is in that list.
A significant characteristic of the Gospel of John is that its Jesus is portrayed as a divinely in-control figure who does not stoop to weeping like David and who has not the least worry about being crucified. In fact it is this Fourth Gospel that even avoids mentioning the Mount of Olives at all and so cuts off any potential association with David. However, the author of this Gospel did inherit the story familiar to us in the earlier Gospels, especially the Gospel of Mark. In those earlier accounts Jesus is very closely modeled on the David figure.
|2 Samuel 15||John 18; Mark 14|
|And David said unto all his servants that were with him at Jerusalem, Arise, and let us flee; . . . . 15 And the king’s servants said unto the king, Behold, thy servants are ready to do whatsoever my lord the king shall choose. . . . And Ittai answered the king, and said, As Jehovah liveth, and as my lord the king liveth, surely in what place my lord the king shall be, whether for death or for life, even there also will thy servant be. . . . And all the country wept with a loud voice, and all the people passed over: the king also himself passed over the brook Kidron, and all the people passed over, toward the way of the wilderness.
. . . .
And David went up by the ascent of the mount of Olives, and wept as he went up
|When Jesus had spoken these words, he went forth with his disciples over the brook Kidron . . . .;
And . . . they went out unto the mount of Olives. . . . But Peter said unto him, Although all shall be offended, yet will not I. . . . But he spake exceeding vehemently, If I must die with thee, I will not deny thee. And in like manner also said they all. . . . And he saith unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful even unto death: . . . .And he cometh the third time, and saith unto them, Sleep on now, and take your rest: it is enough; the hour is come; behold, the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Arise, let us be going: behold, he that betrayeth me is at hand.
I believe we have a sufficient explanation for Jesus’ association with the Mount of Olives here. The last hours of the “Son of David” and Davidic Messiah were deliberately modeled upon the fate of the David of Scriptures when he was betrayed and facing imminent death.
That doesn’t mean that our Gospel authors did not filter their narrative of Jesus through the sieve of Josephus or more directly through their own memories of historical events that happened to be recorded by Josephus. There are some strong reasons for thinking that the author of the Gospel of Mark modeled his Jesus in part on another Jesus we read about in Josephus: see the evidence here. It is very hard to deny that the author(s) of Luke-Acts wove information he/they read in Josephus into their accounts: see Goldberg and Carrier.
- Dennis MacDonald finds the likeness of Homer’s Achilles and Odysseus in Jesus.
- The Socrates comparison has been well recognized for over a century.
- Lawrence Wills finds an Aesop model.
- The Jesus we find in the Gospel of Matthew is very closely modeled on Moses.
- Paul depicted him as a more exalted Adam.
- Jon D. Levenson finds in him the lineaments of Isaac.
- Jesus was rejected by his family and persecuted just like the godly heroes of Scripture (Jacob, Joseph, Jephthah, David…).
- His miracles of raising the dead and feeding the multitudes emulate the deeds of Elijah and Elisha.
- And so forth and so forth.
My difficulty with the identification of Jesus with the Egyptian is not that it is of itself unlikely, but that it should claim to be “the” identification. The evidence rather points to Jesus being constructed from many motifs available to his creators.
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