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Fabulating Jesus

Why Gnostic "Codes" Do Not Name the Historical Jesus

On this site and in my book Not in His Image I have argued that "Jesus," considered as the proper name of an assumed-to-be historical person, does not appear in the Gnostic Coptic writings. The same applies for the term "Christ" understood as the Incarnation or Son of God celebrated in the theology of Saint Paul and Saint John. In Not in His Image I wrote:

In the Coptic Gnostic material the names Jesus and Christ are never written in full, but indicated by code such as the letters IS with a bar over them. Scholars routinely fill in the blanks, making IS into I(eseo)S, the Greek form of the Hebrew name Yeshua. They do so with considerable poetic license, for there is no textual evidence to support the assumption that in Gnostic usage IS indicated a historical person named Ieseos, Jesus. IS could as well be translated in another way: I(asiu)S, giving the name Iasius, “the healer,” a title rather than a common name. But translators assume that IS indicates Jesus of the New Testament. In short, scholars do not allow us the chance to consider that IS might indicate anything else but a literal person whose identity is predetermined.

The same applies for Christ. The code for Christ is XS or sometimes XRS, which could as well indicate Christos, or even Chrestos. In Coptic it looks like this: XC, with a bar over the letters. X is the Greek letter chi and C is the Coptic S. Scholars fill in XC so that it reads “Christ,” never “Christos,” even though “Christos” is more consistent with the final S. Where XC appears in the Apocryphon of John, for instance, scholars put the Greek Christos in parenthesis but translate the coded word as “Christ.” Doing so, they immediately equate XC with the well-known entity of Pauline and Johannine theology. Again, this is poetic license. Considering all the Gnostic material that argues against the Pauline-Johannine redeemer, this equation is extremely dubious.

Forum Protest

I do not belong to palmtreeforum, a locus of Gnostic discussions, because I will not comply with their rule to refrain from religion-bashing. Among the aspects of "Lashean Gnosticism" discussed on that forum is the issue of the nomina sacra, the coded terms presumed to stand for Jesus Christ of the New Testament. Since I cannot respond in the forum itself, I will use this digression to further clarify my view of the nomina sacra.

One forum contributor wrote:

I've been studying Coptic for two whole years now. In that time I've read a great deal of Coptic manuscripts of a wide spectrum from proto-orthodox,
orthodox, Gnostic, Manichean, to laundry bills and legal documents. One
thing consistently attested in all these diverse genres is nomina sacra,
the use of abbreviations like the ones Lash is discussing here (yes, even
on laundry bills). In the entire span of these works the abbreviations XS,
XRS, and IS all refer to the character understood by the authors as a
historical person referred to as Jesus-the-Christ.

In asserting that there is "no firm ground" for assuming these codes do in
fact refer to Jesus, Lash is ignoring the entire context of Coptic literature. There is even less firm ground for assuming that these were codes for Pagans (IE there is no external attestation to this being the case anywhere at any time) so he sets up a perceived conspiracy here to support his view:

"I argue that nomina sacra were used deliberately to indicate that Christ
and Jesus, as understood in conventional terms, were not meant. The codes were intended to warn us off literal associations. The scribes who
translated the Gnostic materials into Coptic were, I believe, instructed to
use these codes, probably without knowing why."

The old men-in-black defense. The codes were widely used, so pagan
conspirators must have used commonly Christian abbreviations to hide their pagan notions. What's his evidence? He doesn't provide any except his speculation that it is what Pagans would have done to hide their views from the oppressive Orthodox Christian establishment - which wasn't around during the composition of any of these texts!

Backlash, I

In the first place, I do not claim that "pagan conspirators" lurking in the shadows inserted the codes. I claim that scribes were instructed to use the codes by whoever directed them and oversaw the transcriptions that come down to us in the NHC materials. Who commissioned these transcriptions from (presumed) lost Greek original texts into Coptic? No one knows. Why were the Greek-language writings translated into Coptic at all? No one knows. Did those who commanded the translations do so to preserve Gnostic ideas, or to refute them? No one knows.

We do know, however, that Coptic was a language invented (around 100 CE) to transcribe hieroglyphs at a time when few people remained in Egypt who could read them, and that subsequently Coptic became the official language of the Egyptian Christian monastic movement. Presumably, by the middle of the 4th century CE when the Nag Hammadi books were buried, Coptic was used mainly by Egyptian monks who had been converted to an early form of Christianity—the desert monastic movement. It is known that the leaders of these cenobite boot camps, such as Shenoute of Athribis, were rabid ideologues who openly advocated violent means to suppress and eradicate all that remained of non-Christian culture. From Not in His Image:

Just across the river from Dendera are the ruins of an early Coptic monastery, Tabennisi. At the time the codices were hidden in a cave around 345 C.E., the founder of the monastery, the cenobitic monk Pachomius, had just died. A generation later, the monastery came under the control of Shenoute of Athribis (348–466), the leading figure in the Coptic Christian church and a close ally of Cyril of Alexandria, the man who probably orchestrated the murder of Hypatia. To his dismay, Shenoute discovered that a small remnant of persecuted Gnostics had taken refuge in the Temple of Hathor. He wrote to Cyril that the heretics possessed “books full of abominations” that must surely be destroyed. Shenoute commanded the Gnostics to renounce their perverted beliefs and accept Cyril as their spiritual master. When the heretics resisted, Shenoute warned them in no uncertain terms: “I shall make you acknowledge the archbishop Cyril, or else the sword will wipe out most of you, and moreover those of you who are spared will go into exile.”

Yet it was men such as Shenoute who oversaw the transcription of Greek-language Gnostic writings into Coptic. Or was it? Could the scribes who copied—NOT authored—these lost documents have been closet heretics, friends or students of Gnostic holdouts like those who took refuge at Dendera, or native Egyptians faithful in some manner to the sacred pre-Christian traditions of their land? We simply don't know if the scribes of the NHC were Christian monks robotically following orders, or if they were a straggling remnant of students of the Egyptian Mysteries who, for some odd reason, chose to preserve jumbled notes from their instruction in the language of the Christianized conquerers.

If they were monks of the Coptic Christian Church, their assigned purpose in transcribing these materials would have been to Christianize or refute them. That is, I think, an obvious and reasonable hypothesis.

If they were Gnostic diehards or sympathetic to such, they would have tried to preserve as much genuine Gnostic content as possible while shackled with the daunting task of hiding their intentions; thus resulting in the terrible mish-mash we find. This is also, I submit, a reasonable hypothesis.

The incoherence of these materials, and the maddening mix of Christian and non-Christian elements, suggests to me that Coptic-speaking monks transcribed a hodge-podge of received materials that they could barely understand. The huge range of scribal errors and inconsistencies lend support to this view.

Backlash, II

The forum contributor flatly states: In the entire span of these works the abbreviations XS, XRS, and IS all refer to the character understood by the authors as a historical person referred to as Jesus-the-Christ.

Okay, let's take a step or two back and look at this claim. What it says is that scholars today agree on what the codes mean, but this is no assurance of what the codes meant to the people who originated them. I ask, Where in the writings of that time and setting do we find anything that explains who set up the nomina sacra and why? I would like to see that information in the textual sources of the 4th century CE, or earlier.

I don't know who established the scribal conventions found in the NHC. I presume it was not the scribes themselves, but whoever oversaw them. Would this have been the head honchos in the hierarchy of the Christian Coptic Church, men like Shenoute? Probably. In that case, are we to assume that the overseers insisted on the codes to specify allusion to Jesus Christ of the New Teatament? But if they were so adamant about that identification, why use codes? Why not be literal and totally straightforward in naming the intended person? Wouldn't such literalness be consistent with the attitude of the early Church Fathers regarding the historical value of their sacred narrative? If we assume that the overseers imposed the code, we are left wondering why they, who advocated the literal Jesus and elevated that human figure to a divine status, would have encoded His Name?

Bear in mind that examples of the nomina sacra other than IC and XRS occur in the Nag Hammadi books. The Apocalypse of Adam (V, 5) shows these nams in code or full spelling with the superlinear mark: Seth, Adam, Eve (Euha), Deucalion (a figure from Greek myth), Ham, Japeth and Shem (sons of Noah), Sakla (a name for the Demiurge), Abrasax, Sablo, Gamaliel (Gnostic magical deities), the word Pneuma (spirit in Greek), Phersalo and Sauel, the word Aeon, Michou, Michar and Mnesinous (Gnostic angelic spirits), and Yesseus Mazareus Yessedekeus (invocatory name for the "Spirit of the Living Waters"). The name Noah, by contrast, is not coded, and Adam is inconsistently coded.

Now, I don't think that any scholar would argue that these nomina sacra refer to historical persons known actually to have lived in the early Christian era. So why should XC and XRC by any different? If the scribal convention was such, where is the textual proof in the words of those who introduced that convention? Lacking such proof, the accepted view of modern scholars about the XC and XRC is mere speculation. And my speculation is as good as theirs.

I argue that the Coptic IC, Greek IS, can indicate I(asiu)S rather than I(eseo)S, the Greek spelling of Jesus.

The whole issue hinges on sacramentalism, actual or symbolic enntheogenic ingestion. Many Gnostics practiced actual entheogenic ingestion, and came to identify the entheogen with Iasius, "the Healer," Jesus. The canonical fascists, bent on political conquest of the Empire, insisted on symbolic entheogenic ingestion, murdered both the original Nazarenes and their early Gnostic followers, and burned their writings.
- Dan Russell: Shamanism, Patriarchy, and the Drug War

Okay, palmtreegarden folks, take a bite of that one. I for one do not accept the direct identification of Jesus/Iasius with an entheogenic sacrament, but many people now do. A growing number, so it appears. I argue rather that the codes XC and XRC, along with the other coded examples cited above, were applied to mythological source material from Pagan traditions. For the "canonical fascists" who had to treat heretical writings in order to oppose them, this material was highly ambiguous and had to be defused. Its original allusions had to be subverted. Adam, for instance, could be understood in the Gnostic sense as the "first human" or Anthropos, not a literal male ancestor; but thought police like Shenoute would have insisted on the single, literal interpretation. It would have been to their advantage to put this tricky material in question by encoding it, thereby, in a sense, asserting their sovereign right to declare what the code meant. A clever say of saying, "We have made this name into an object of our privileged knowledge, and you must ask us what it means."

But insistence on a literal identity for XC and XRC by the Church fathers did not, and does not, obviate the rich alternative allusions that long predate the patristic ruse—if such it was. I challenge any scholar today to tell me that Deucalion, the mythological name found in encoded form in the NHC, was an historical person, and nothing but that.

Backlash III

The forum contributor accuses me of "the old men-in-black defense." Well, I don't know any old men in black, although I do know some women who dress in that color, including wide-mesh stockings held up by garter belts embellished with Gnostic amulets of Chnuphis the serpent god engraved in amber and jade. Recently, I asked one of these mystical harlots about pagan notions hidden in secret codes in the NHC. She laughed and said, "That's wild stuff, but there are more pagan notions hidden in my undies than you will find concealed in the entire Gnostic corpus. But seriously, John," she added, "Does this guy make you out saying that pagans did the NHC translations, and inserted the codes? You had better clarify that matter, dear man, wearisome though it be."

I suspect that the forum contributer and I agree on the grounds of historical evidence that Christian Coptic scribes, not pagans, transcribed the Nag Hammadi texts—although I must emphasize, once again, that the people who wrote down the codices did not author them, and probably did not in many places understand what they were translating. The forum contributor insists that the nomina sacra refer to "the character understood by the authors as a historical person referred to as Jesus-the-Christ." But, oops, we don't know who the authors of the NHC were, do we? And besides, it was not the authors of the lost originals who applied the codes, it was the translators. Wasn't it?

If this was the case, either the transcribing monks invented the nomina sacra themselves, or they were instructed to use them by their overseers. I go for the latter explanation, which leaves us baffled as to who so instructed them, and why, as I have already noted. We just don't know, period. Houston, we have a problem.

But here it's more appropriate to say: Jerusalem, we have a problem. We are delving here into an operation run by "mission control" in Jerusalem, either symbolically or literally speaking.

Wrongly assuming that I claim that pagan conspirators inserted the codes, my palmtreegarden interlocutor says, "there is no external attestation to this being the case anywhere at any time." True enough. And it is equally true, as far as I know, that there is "no external attestation" to support the opinion of modern scholars that XC and XRC refer expressly to the "historical person referred to as Jesus-the-Christ." If there is external attestation of this kind, let's see it. Then we would know who introduced the codes and why!

Extraneous Nitpicking Detail

The forum contributor adds: "Pagans were the dominant culture and would have had no reason whatsoever to hide their beliefs in code." Get your nose out of those Coptic laundry lists and look at the history books. In 391, about fifty years after the Nag Hammadi codices were buried, Theodosius declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Empire, and strictly banned all Pagan cults. The tide had been turning against Pagan teligion and the Mysteries for centuries. From the initial attacks on Gnostics by Christian ideologues around 150 CE, the atmosphere of tolerence was disintegrating sharply in the classical world. The thought police and their mindless mobs had proven what they could do to the opposition many times over. In the 4th century CE, Pagans had good reason to be cautious about expressing their views.

Gnostic Dissent

So, what's it all about, after all? This is not just a nit-picking argument about Coptic scribal conventions, it is a battle over narrative control. To insist that XC and XRC name the historical person Jesus, also regarded as the Son of God and divine savior of humanity, is to insist that such a person existed to be named: this is the real core of the argument.

But I maintain that such an alleged historical person, attributed with a divine status or not, never did exist, and so the codes could not have named him. The codes could have been introduced by the Church Fathers to enforce the fabulation of that person, but not to prove his existence. The nomina sacra prove nothing, and are better read as ambivalent mythological allusions. The scholarly consensus that the codes name Jesus assumes there was a Jesus to name, but the overwhelming weight of textual and historical evidence and disinterested opinion on the history of Christinaity shows, first, the complete lack of any reliable contemporary report of Jesus's existence, and second, the ambiguous use of Christ, Christos, Chrestos and Chrestus in canonical writings well into the 5th century. Even Saint Paul, the indisputable founder of Christian salvationist ideology (which he hijacked from the Zaddikim and distorted to his own ends, or to the agenda of his Roman paylords), totally disregards the historical existence of the Savior.

When all the sizzling nits fade into the void, this is what the contributor to palmtreegarden is doing: enforcing the fabulation of Jesus. To insist that the Coptic codes name an historical person is to affirm the existence of that person. For all I know, the contributor may not even believe that Jesus existed historically, but he does adopt the scholarly consensus that the codes were intended to name the key figure of Christianity whose fictional persona was still under construction in the 4th Century CE. I sense, however, that the contributor and the scholars in whom he trusts do indeed accept that Jesus Christ lived as an historical person whose existence is provable. They follow the fundamentalist and literalist view of JC.

Well, that's fine. So do many other unenlightened dolts on this planet. But it is eminently clear to some of us that since the time of Renan and Schweitzer, the historical Jesus has been shown to be a fiction, an obvious fabulation and, even more so, a confabulation that arises from the blind collusion of many confused and often hateful people. It's up to each one of us to make up our own mind and decide where we stand in that collusion, or if we stand against it. There is no compromise on Jesus. Gnostic dissent is a radical option, not a reconciliatory stance.

In protesting the attribution of XS and XRC, I rely on my scholarship, such as it is, and I am also demonstrating Gnostic dissent. As a scholar, I refuse to support the confabulation of Jesus and collude in inventing the Savior. I take no part in the ongoing fabrication of the delusional image of Jesus. I reject all messiahs, but first and foremost that one.

I am quite willing, on occasion, to take a lesson in scribal conventions from a serious person, but these matters go far deeper than such quibbles. I leave you with this question,

What is the point of getting involved with Gnostic writings, if we ignore the power of dissent from the savior program inherent to the Pagan Gnostic message, and merely use scholarship as a pretext to continue fabulating Jesus, the divine victim whose exalted doom so contaminates the world he came to save?

jll: 4 Sept 2007 Andalucia


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.