Gnostic Interpretation of Exodus and Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult

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by Neil Godfrey


Recall that Hermann Detering was a work out about the gnostic interpretation of the Exodus and the beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus cult. See my earlier posts:

Since then René has posted a second installment. Meanwhile, on Hermann Detering’s page we see that a translation by Stuart Waugh is due to be “published soon”.

Here I set out my own notes from the first part of the work. I don’t read German except through machine translators, alas, so if anyone who has read the German original can see I have misstated something do let me know.

Gnostic Interpretation of the Exodus


The earliest Jewish allegorical interpreter of the Exodus is Philo of Alexandria, Egypt, in the first century CE. In Philo’s Allegorical Interpretations II we see that Philo interpreted Egypt as a life of pleasure, a symbol of physical passions, in contrast to the wilderness, representing the spiritual life of the ascetic.

But notice that Philo extends his allegory of the exodus from Egypt to the wilderness by inclusion of the crossing of the Jordan River, apparently conflating this event with Moses’ (not Joshua’s) leadership.

Therefore, God asks of the wise Moses what there is in the practical life of his soul; for the hand is the symbol of action. And he answers, Instruction, which he calls a rod. On which account Jacob the supplanter of the passions, says, “For in my staff did I pass over this Jordan.” {Genesis 32:10.} But Jordan being interpreted means descent. And of the lower, and earthly, and perishable nature, vice and passion are component parts; and the mind of the ascetic passes over them in the course of its education. For it is too low a notion to explain his saying literally; as if it meant that he crossed the river, holding his staff in his hand.

The passage through the Red Sea is symbolic of the transition from the worldly to the spiritual life.

The Therapeutae

Philo spoke of a distinctive religious community, the Therapeutae, living in the vicinity of Alexandria, Egypt, in On the Contemplative Life. The Therapeutae ritually re-enact the narrative of having miraculously crossed the Red Sea. Their community becomes a kind of embodied allegory of male and female choirs who come to sing as one.

And after the feast they celebrate the sacred festival during the whole night; and this nocturnal festival is celebrated in the following manner: they all stand up together, and in the middle of the entertainment two choruses are formed at first, the one of men and the other of women, and for each chorus there is a leader and chief selected, who is the most honourable and most excellent of the band.  Then they sing hymns which have been composed in honour of God in many metres and tunes, at one time all singing together, and at another moving their hands and dancing in corresponding harmony, and uttering in an inspired manner songs of thanksgiving, and at another time regular odes, and performing all necessary strophes and antistrophes.  Then, when each chorus of the men and each chorus of the women has feasted separately by itself, like persons in the bacchanalian revels, drinking the pure wine of the love of God, they join together, and the two become one chorus, an imitation of that one which, in old time, was established by the Red Sea, on account of the wondrous works which were displayed there;  for, by the commandment of God, the sea became to one party the cause of safety, and to the other that of utter destruction; for it being burst asunder, and dragged back by a violent reflux, and being built up on each side as if there were a solid wall, the space in the midst was widened, and cut into a level and dry road, along which the people passed over to the opposite land, being conducted onwards to higher ground; then, when the sea returned and ran back to its former channel, and was poured out from both sides, on what had just before been dry ground, those of the enemy who pursued were overwhelmed and perished.  When the Israelites saw and experienced this great miracle, which was an event beyond all description, beyond all imagination, and beyond all hope, both men and women together, under the influence of divine inspiration, becoming all one chorus, sang hymns of thanksgiving to God the Saviour, Moses the prophet leading the men, and Miriam the prophetess leading the women.  Now the chorus of male and female worshippers being formed, as far as possible on this model, makes a most humorous concert, and a truly musical symphony, the shrill voices of the women mingling with the deep-toned voices of the men. The ideas were beautiful, the expressions beautiful, and the chorus-singers were beautiful; and the end of ideas, and expressions, and chorussingers, was piety;  therefore, being intoxicated all night till the morning with this beautiful intoxication, without feeling their heads heavy or closing their eyes for sleep, but being even more awake than when they came to the feast, as to their eyes and their whole bodies, and standing there till morning, when they saw the sun rising they raised their hands to heaven, imploring tranquillity and truth, and acuteness of understanding. And after their prayers they each retired to their own separate abodes, with the intention of again practising the usual philosophy to which they had been wont to devote themselves.  This then is what I have to say of those who are called therapeutae, who have devoted themselves to the contemplation of nature, and who have lived in it and in the soul alone, being citizens of heaven and of the world . . . .

Simon Magus

Third century Hippolytus of Rome has left us an account, in Refutation of All Heresies, book 6, of the teachings of Simon Magus set out in the Great Announcement, a writing by either Simon or his students. Here we learn that Simon Magus taught likewise taught an allegorical interpretation of the Exodus:

For what has been produced, passing through the Red Sea, must come into the wilderness,–now they say he calls the Red (Sea) blood,–and taste bitter water. For bitter, he says, is the water which is (drunk) after (crossing) the Red Sea; which (water) is a path to be trodden, that leads to a knowledge in (this) life of (our) toilsome and bitter lot. Altered, however, by Moses–that is, by the Logos–that bitter (water) becomes sweet. And that this is so we may hear in common from all who express themselves according to the (sentiments of the) poets:- “Dark at the root, like milk, the flower, Gods call it ‘Moly,’ and hard for mortal men To dig, but power divine is boundless.”

Moses is the Logos who makes the bitter waters sweet. In chapter 12 of the same book we learn that Simon associated blood and bitter water with the birth of the infant from the womb, another allegory of the spiritual.

The Peratae

The Peratae were one of many types of gnostics whose teachings were described by Hippolytus. Their name means “passing through” so we already see a possibility that their core teachings related to the Exodus. Like other gnostics the Peratae placed the serpent in a central role of their system. The serpent was a good, not evil, agent, a revealer of gnosis or wisdom. Moses held up the bronze serpent to heal the Israelites, they reminded themselves. This serpent was also the Logos, seated between the Father and Matter, and was a mediator between the two.

Salvation for the Peratae meant a person must experience a downfall even before his death, and this brings us to the mystery of baptism. The downfall to be experienced was water: the downfall was water, since it was by water that the world perished in the days of Noah.

Such a teaching related to the system of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who argued that the created world was essentially running water. Everything flows, everything is in motion. To be saved one first had to pass through water, or death (compare the River Styx).

Hence the story of the Exodus represented departure from the body (Egypt), crossing the Red Sea or waters of destruction, and rising to enter the wilderness, or coming into being.

The Israelites Cross the Jordan with the Ark; Joshua Sends Spies to Jericho

The Naassenes

The Naassenes were also gnostics. Their name derived from “serpent” so we again see the centrality of this figure. The Naassenes further developed a pun with the word for temple, “naos”, to identify the temple with serpents.

Egypt was again a symbol of the ways of the flesh that led to death. The spiritual lived beyond death, however, and was born from above. But notice how the Naassenes are also said to link the Jordan with the Exodus (book 5 of Hippolytus’ Refutations):

“If ye hasten to fly out of Egypt, and repair beyond the Red Sea into the wilderness,” that is, from earthly intercourse to the Jerusalem above, which is the mother of the living; “If, moreover, again you return into Egypt,” that is, into earthly intercourse, “ye shall die as men.” For mortal, he says, is every generation below, but immortal that which is begotten above, for it is born of water only, and of spirit, being spiritual, not carnal. But what (is born) below is carnal, that is, he says, what is written. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.” This, according to them, is the spiritual generation. This, he says, is the great Jordan which, flowing on (here) below, and preventing the children of Israel from departing out of Egypt–I mean from terrestrial intercourse, for Egypt is with them the body,–Jesus drove back, and made it flow upwards.

That last image is a reference to the waters of the Jordan being held back when Joshua led Israel across. “Jesus” here is surely “Joshua”, since there are none of the distinctive elements of the baptism of Jesus — the dove, the heavenly voice, John the Baptist — appearing here. Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua, the successor of Moses.

The Testimony of Truth, a Nag Hammadi gnostic text, contains the following:

But the Son of Man came forth from Imperishability, being alien to defilement. He came to the world by the Jordan river, and immediately the Jordan turned back. And John bore witness to the descent of Jesus. For it is he who saw the power which came down upon the Jordan river; for he knew that the dominion of carnal procreation had come to an end. The Jordan river is the power of the body, that is, the senses of pleasures. The water of the Jordan is the desire for sexual intercourse. John is the archon of the womb.

Here Jesus is no longer Joshua. Clearly the baptism of Jesus is meant. But the details are so very similar to the Naassene teaching. With such a slight change the Old Testament image has become a New Testament one.

Notice, also, that in the Testimony of Truth it is not the Holy Spirit that descends at the baptism but Jesus himself.

Detering’s text appears to speak of another Nag Hammadi text that I am unable to decipher. There appears to be a reference to another account of the baptism that no longer contains the motif of the Jordan’s waters being rolled back. That is, the idea of crossing over the Jordan is no longer visible.

“we are led from [destruction] to [everlasting]ness – [which (?)] is the Jordan, […] this place is the […] world (?). So we were led out of the world to the aeon – but the interpretation of that which is the Jordan is the descent, which is the [rising], which is the coming out of the world [towards] the aeon.”

Odes of Solomon

These odes date from at least the second century (some have argued earlier) and again appear to have originated in the Alexandrian milieu of Egypt. Ode 39 is of interest here:

Ode 39

  1. Raging rivers are the power of the Lord; they send headlong those who despise Him.
  2. And entangle their paths, and destroy their crossings.
  3. And snatch their bodies, and corrupt their natures.
  4. For they are more swift than lightnings, even more rapid.
  5. But those who cross them in faith shall not be disturbed.
  6. And those who walk on them faultlessly shall not be shaken.
  7. Because the sign on them is the Lord, and the sign is the Way for those who cross in the name of the Lord.
  8. Therefore, put on the name of the Most High and know Him, and you shall cross without danger; because rivers shall be obedient to you.
  9. The Lord has bridged them by His Word (Logos), and He walked and crossed them on foot.
  10. And His footsteps stand firm upon the waters, and were not destroyed; but they are like a beam of wood that is constructed on truth.
  11. On this side and on that the waves were lifted up, but the footsteps of our Lord Messiah stand firm.
  12. And they are neither blotted out, nor destroyed.
  13. And the Way has been appointed for those who cross over after Him, and for those who adhere to the path of His faith; and who adore His name.

There is no reference here to either the Red Sea or the Jordan River. The reference appears to be to Isaiah 43:2. Unlike the Exodus stories above we have here a crossing over the surface of the waters, a rising above the waters.

Nonetheless there are clear similarities to the Exodus motifs. The waters are both the salvation for the righteous and destruction for the wicked. The waters are the agents of judgment.

What we may be seeing here is a tradition that felt licensed to work very freely with existing texts.

The Mandaeans

The Mandaeans (their descendants suffered terribly in the Iraq war around fifteen years ago) were a gnostic baptizing sect claiming John the Baptist as their founder. The same symbolism is found among them: Egypt represents the earthly, fleshly life and the exodus is an escape from this existence into a spiritual one. The wicked meet their end in the same waters, however. From one of their texts:

The Treasury am I, Life’s Treasury. The wicked are blind and see not. I call them unto the Light, yet they busy themselves with the Darkness. “O ye wicked,” I unto them cry, “ye who sink down in the Darkness, arise and fall not into the deep.” I cry unto them; yet the wicked hear not and sink into the great Sea of the Ending. Therefore was Jordan made a bridge for the treasures; a bridge for the treasures became he, while he cut off the wicked and hurled them into the great Sea of the Ending.

Other passages:

“Love and bear each other, like the eyes that watch over the feet.
Love and bear each other, then you will cross the great Sûf Sea.”


“For those who can not show wages and alms, there is no bridge across the rivers.
For those who can not show wages and alms, there is no passage for him on the sea.’

Also in the Mandaean book of John the Redeemer addresses his “chosen ones” with the following words:

“Love the alms giving and love Sunday, so that a bridge over the sea will be laid for you (the soul). A bridge will be placed over the sea, on its shores stand a thousand times a thousand. A thousand times a thousand stand on its shore, but of a thousand only one is allowed across. One out of a thousand is allowed across, and two thousand two. They let the souls over, who are zealous and worthy of the place of light (Pleroma).”

In Summary

Gnostic interpretations of the Exodus motifs (whether referencing the Red Sea or Jordan) assign Egypt and the waters as symbols of the physical world, with the passage through the waters representing the ascent of the soul to an immortal realm.

There are differences among the various sects, too, and Hermann Detering identifies the following stages:

1) Moses saves the people of Egypt, holding back the waters of the Red Sea (Therapeutae, possibly Peratae).

2) Joshua / Jesus saves the people from Egypt and make the Jordan flow back up (Naassene).

3) Jesus comes over the Jordan into the world, the waters fall back. (Testimonium Veritatis).

One can see the evolution of the motif from the crossing of the Red Sea with Moses to the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. A critical transition point on this evolutionary path is the attributing of the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt to Joshua/Jesus instead of Moses.

(I have been conscious of a number of awkward references in the above outline. They testify to my ignorance of German, unfortunately. Corrections are definitely welcome.)

Unless Detering’s translated work comes out first I hope to continue notes of some sort on the remainder of the argument.



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8 thoughts on “Gnostic Interpretation of Exodus and Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult”

  1. All this is reminiscent of C.W. Leadbeater in “The Christian Creed” (1898) where he proposed that “Pontius Pilate” was merely a historicization of the original Greek “pontus piletos” (dense sea). Thus “suffered under Pontius Pilate” should be interpreted as, “Jesus allowed himself to be limited by, and imprisoned in, astral matter” in the original Greek myth.

    People scoff at such interpretations today, but such thinking would hardly be out of place for Philo or any first century Christian historicizer. Regardless, I think Detering is on to something. Switch Joshua/Jesus for Moses in the Exodus myth and it takes on an entirely different cast. John the Baptist (“the archon of the womb”) is there to witness the event.

    1. Yes, you find these allegorical interpretations in a lot of esoteric/occult writings. I personally think they are right about the allegorical meanings of religious myths.

      From “The Lost Light: An Interpretation Of Ancient Scriptures” by Alvin Boyd Kuhn:
      “Now man is distinctly a creature compounded of two natures, a higher and a lower, a spiritual
      and a sensual, a divine and a human, a mortal and an immortal, and finally a fiery and a watery,
      conjoined in a mutual relationship in the organic body of flesh. Says Heraclitus: “Man is a
      portion of cosmic fire, imprisoned in a body of earth and water.” Speaking of man Plato affirms:
      “Through body it is an animal; through intellect it is a god.” To create man God incarnated the
      fiery spiritual principle of his life in the watery confines of material bodies…It requires little “proof” to ascertain that “Egypt” as used throughout the Bible has the meaning of the lower self or animal-human personality, indeed the physical body of man itself. Jerusalem means the “holy city” or the heavenly realms, which are in consciousness, not on the map.”

      In ancient Egyptian religion the sun god goes through a watery realm before entering the underworld(representing the same thing as Egypt in the bible) and then goes through another watery realm when leaving the underworld(like the Israelites crossing water when they leave Egypt).

      From “Les fêtes d’Osiris à Abydos au Moyen Empire et au Nouvel Empire” by the Egyptologist M. Christine Lavier:
      “It is always about the source of life, the fresh water in which the divinity (Re, Osiris) immerses himself, in prelude to his (re)birth.”

    2. To add to my last post, from “The Lost Light: An Interpretation Of Ancient Scriptures” by Alvin Boyd Kuhn:
      “The depiction should not have created incredulity, seeing that the Gospel Jesus himself, dramatic figure of the divine principle in man, announced it categorically in declaring to Nicodemus that “ye must be born again.” Nicodemus asks if this means that we must enter a second time into our mother’s body and experience a second birth in the natural manner. Jesus replies that we “must be born of water and the spirit.” Attention must be directed a moment to the fact that the Latin word spiritus, translated “spirit” in many passages, means as well “air” or “breath.” One of the great keys to Bible meaning is the series of the four “elements” of ancient mythicism: earth, water, air and fire. The body of the physical or natural man was conceived as being composed of the two lower, earth and water, while air and fire, representing mind and spirit, commingled to make the higher or spiritual man. Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus, then, could have been rendered, “born of water and air.” And John the Baptist uses three of the four elements when he states that he, the forerunner of the Christos, and therefore a type of the lower
      natural man, indeed baptizes us with water (omitting earth), but that there cometh after him one
      higher than himself who shall baptize us with the holy spiritus (air) and with fire.”

      You find a similar idea in the myth of Narcissus. From the same book:
      “This detail is an intimation that it was the god’s inclination toward a life of sense,
      depicted by his bending down (Cf. the fable of Narcissus) to gaze delightedly at his reflection in
      the water of generation[same as biblical “Egypt” and Egyptian “underworld”], that preceded his fall and divulsion into fragments.”

  2. Detering’s text appears to speak of another Nag Hammadi text that I am unable to decipher.

    The text is On Baptism A (XI, 2b 41, 35-38), found in Nag Hammadi Codex XI, 2b. It’s an appendix of a longer work found in this same codex, named a Valentinian Exposition.

  3. Gday all 🙂

    Some of of Alvin Boyd Kuhn’s works are available online :

    The Lost Light :

    Who is this King of Glory? :

    The Red Sea Is Your Blood :

    Which reminds me of Mary Anne Atwood (South)’s
    A suggestive inquiry into the Hermetic mystery :

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