A Note to the Reader: The following is a chapter from my book THE SACRED JORDN AND THE PARTING OF THE WATERS. The book is about a sect of Gnostic-Christians who were known as the Naassenes. They were based in Alexandria during the early period of Christianity, and they claimed a direct link to James the Just, the brother of our Lord. Almost everything we know about the Naassenes is based on a single source document, the Refutation of All Heresies by Bishop Hippolytus. The Naassenes believed that Jesus reversed the flow of the Jordan. The following chapter explores the Old Testament background for such a belief, and arrives at some radical conclusions about the relationship of John the Baptist and Jesus to the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha.
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Every school boy knows the tale, if not from Church or Sunday school, then thanks to Hollywood: how Charlton Heston, playing the bearded patriarch Moses, lifted up his serpent staff and commanded the mighty waters. Whence, the Red Sea parted and the Hebrews crossed over between the towering walls of sea water. And pharaoh’s troops, following in relentless pursuit, were swamped and destroyed; how, in short, the Israelites were able to make good their escape into the wilderness of Sinai; where according to tradition they wandered for forty years.
The Sea Peoples and the Disputed Date of the Exodus
The Book of Numbers 11-21 describes the many wanderings of the Hebrews in the desert, including the long march north to Bashan (TransJordan). The next book, Deuteronomy, recounts the three discourses of Moses, in which the patriarch, shortly before his death, lays down the Law to the Hebrews, who at the time were camped on the plains of Moab. The first discourse (Deuteronomy 2:23) looks back to the wanderings and mentions that sea invaders from Caphtor had established themselves on the coast of southern Canaan, what is today the Gaza Strip. The name Caphtor refers to Crete, and more generally to the Aegean. These Caphtorians were the same Sea Peoples–Mycenaeans and other proto-Greeks–who at various times threatened Cyprus and the coast of Canaan, from Turkey to Egypt. We know that Merneptah, son of the Pharaoh Ramses II, and also Ramses III, fought major campaigns against these same sea invaders, including pitched sea battles at the mouth of the Nile and off the coast. Shore battles were also fought in northern Egypt. Surviving Egyptian records describe how the pharaohs vanquished the enemy in these battles. However, scholars have questioned the veracity of the Egyptian accounts, because, despite claims of victory, the evidence points to a stinging defeat.
The Sea Peoples were not simply raiders out for booty. They came in search of new lands to settle. According to Deuteronomy (2), the invaders sacked the original Canaanite towns on the coast, drove out or slaughtered the inhabitants, then rebuilt the coastal cities on a much grander scale. The names of these urban centers are recorded in the Bible: Ascalon, Ashdod, Gaza, Ekron and Gath. Probably there were others. According to the great linguist Cyrus Gordon, the invaders from the Aegean, although Greek, spoke a Semitic tongue, like the Minoans. And, in time, they became known as the Philistines, from which the name Palestine is derived. These same invaders are also mentioned in the Song of Miriam, also known as the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:14), which I have already cited, one of the oldest surviving fragments of oral tradition in the Old Testament. The Philistines are also mentioned in Genesis (26: 2, 8, 18), which suggests that their arrival in Palestine occurred at a very early date.
Mainstream archaeologists dismiss these scriptural references out of hand, however; because they cannot be squared with conventional wisdom about the date of the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt, and the desert wanderings. Considerable evidence does affirm the presence of the Philistines in southern Canaan. For example, in 1992, the ruin of a previously unknown Philistine fortress was discovered in the hill country of Mannaseh, near present-day Al-Ahwat, on a site which overlooks the Samaritan mountains. The construction of the fortress, twelve miles from the sea, probably occurred after the Sea Peoples had consolidated their hold on the coast, and were attempting to expand inland at the expense of the Canaanites. At issue is not the presence of the Philistines–on this scholars are in agreement–but rather, the date of their arrival, which most archaeologists place at or around the start of the twelfth century BC. This conforms with the standard date of the Exodus at around 1250 BC. Most archaeologists believe that the passages from Deuteronomy, Exodus, and Genesis pointing to a much earlier arrival date are unreliable, the result of anachronistic editing by later scribes. The standard chronology of the second millennium which is the basis for these dismissals has been seriously challenged, however, first by Immanuel Velikovsky in the 1950s, and more recently–and much more substantially–by the maverick Egyptologist David Rohl. In his important 1994 book Pharaohs and Kings Rohl pointed out that 100 years of archaeology in Palestine has failed to produce any hard evidence affirming the conventional date of the Hebrew conquest and occupation. For example, Kathleen Kenyon’s painstaking stratigraphic analysis of Jericho in the 1950s demonstrated that the site was not even occupied at the time of Joshua’s attack, when, we are told, the walls came tumbling down. Some scholars have seized upon Kenyon’s work, and similar evidence from Meggido and other sites, to impugn the historicity of the Bible itself, much in the manner of nineteenth century skeptics who equated Biblical history with mythology.
But does the archaeological data, or lack of it, support the wholesale devaluation of the Bible as history? No says David Rohl, who in his book argues that the problem is not with the Bible, but with our interpretation of it. As Rohl points out, without archaeological support, the standard chronology of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) remains entirely derivative, a house of cards based solely on the king lists of the Egyptian pharaohs. The problem is that these king lists, like all regnal dating systems, are extremely difficult to interpret. In regnal dating systems an event in the ancient record is described as having occurred in the year such-and-such of the reign of the ruler so-and-so. The difficulty lies in fixing an absolute date based on this relative information. Interpreting the Egyptian king lists is a tricky business, as it involves a number of variables and uncertainties. For example, if two dynasties were contemporaneous, rather than sequential, as new evidence suggests was often the case–Egypt did not always have a united monarchy–then the true period of their reigns would be less than previously expected. Glitches of this sort tend to add up–they are cumulative–and can skew the chronology by centuries. In Rohl’s view this is exactly what has happened; and explains why the archaeological data does not support the conventional date of the Hebrew Exodus. Rohl would amend the record by rolling back the Exodus by some 200 years, to the mid-fifteenth century BC.
It will be years, perhaps decades, before David Rohl’s serious challenge has been confirmed or rejected, based on the evidence. Which is why, in this study, I have refrained from fixing dates for the second millennium BC–no sense venturing into quicksand! Nor will I delve into the continuing controversy about the date of the Exodus, wanderings, and conquest. The issues are complex. Furthermore, the matter has been competently discussed elsewhere. The implications for Biblical scholarship are immense. But, fortunately, for our purposes the disputed chronology is unimportant.
Nonetheless, when the dust has finally settled, and scholars arrive at a more precise date for the Hebrew captivity, Exodus, and wanderings, I believe the aforementioned passages in Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy about the Sea Peoples will be affirmed as real history. I do not believe they are anachronistic–later additions. I take this view because I agree with the scholar David Neiman that the timing of Joshua’s invasion of the hill country of Canaan was not happenstance. Neiman was convinced that the Hebrews had shrewdly exploited the Philistine occupation of the coastal plain, and even turned it to their advantage. Neiman believed that the Egyptians and Canaanites became so preoccupied with the Philistine menace that the Hebrews were able to move into the hill country from the east unopposed, gain a foothold, and consolidate their position before a decisive counter-attack could be mounted against them. Although the Hebrews later suffered serious defeats at the hands of all three, the Egyptians, Canaanites, and Philistines, they were never subsequently dislodged from Ephraim. The Philistines continued to dominate the coastal plain through the period of the Judges, until they were finally defeated by a coalition of Phoenicians and Hebrews led by King David.
Of course, it is possible that the timing of the Hebrew thrust into Canaan was serendipitous. But I think not. I tend to agree with Neiman. No doubt, Joshua had numerous sources of intelligence, and was himself an astute observer of the changing politico-military situation. Many years before, Moses had sent an expedition from his base in northern Sinai, Kadesh-Barnea, to reconnoiter the southern approaches into Canaan. The party was led by none other than the young Joshua himself. The mission followed the easiest and most direct route through the Negev, along what the Biblical geographer Nelson Glueck called the Way of the Wells. The party returned with frightening reports that the Canaanites “are a people bigger and stronger than we….” Some of the Hebrews rashly attempted an invasion of the Judaean hills anyway, against the advice of Moses, only to be routed north of Hormah by the Canaanites and their allies the Amalekites; and forced to retreat. If Neiman is correct, the growing presence of the Sea Peoples along the coast eventually altered this equation, tipping the balance of power in favor of the Hebrews. No doubt, Moses received continuing intelligence reports from various sources, including his spies, and simply bided his time. The long-awaited opportunity did not arrive, however, until Joshua had assumed leadership of the tribes; which brings us to our real purpose, the exploration of an Old Testament theme whose true importance cannot be guessed by the rare or reluctant attentions it has received from Biblical scholars.
The Parting of the Waters Theme
Whatever its basis in fact, the parting of the waters by Moses and the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt is one of the defining episodes in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is a pity that the tale of Joshua’s subsequent crossing of the Jordan is less well known. According to scripture, this second crossing occurred near Jericho, probably not far south of Adamah, which lies at the confluence of the Jabbock River with the Jordan, where a mound, today known as Tell Damiela, marks the site of some ancient city. The Book of Joshua (3: 1-17) recounts the event in considerable detail. Normally, the Jordan is a pacific stream, and easily fordable. However, we are told that on this occasion, which was at harvest time, the river was in a state of flood, and almost impassable. According to the scriptural account, Joshua, following Yahweh’s instructions, bid his men carry the ark of the covenant down to the river, at a point a half-mile above where the tribes had gathered. No sooner did the selected men step into the swollen river with the ark than the waters–we are told–backed up in a solid mass, as if behind a dam. The remaining waters continued flowing downstream, with the result that the tribes simply strolled across the dry river bed into the promised land.
The repetition of the parting of the waters idea in the Book of Joshua is noteworthy. At very least, it ought to get our attention. What is amazing, however, is that the motif reappears yet a third time in II Kings (2:8), a book which scholars attribute to the Deuteronomist, the same scribe responsible for the Book of Joshua. Scholars believe that the Books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are the composition of a single individual, who probably lived in the seventh century BC. And this single authorship makes the third repetition of the pattern even more remarkable.
The story of the third crossing recounted in II Kings occurs in the context of the final return of the prophet Elijah to his home town of Gilead in TransJordan. The Deuteronomist tells us that on the occasion the great prophet was accompanied by his chief disciple, Elisha, and an entourage of some fifty members of the “brotherhood of the prophets” (“sons of the prophets” in the King James Bible). There is no mention of a flood, nothing about a swollen river. The scribe takes pains, however, to mention the others in attendance, probably because they are the key witnesses to the events which ensue. Indeed, we are left to ponder whether the story would ever have found its way into scripture, if corroborating observers had not been present. By explicitly mentioning them the scribe is telling us that real history, not simply legend, is being recounted. Of course, because Elijah and Elisha lived in the ninth century, two hundred years before the Deuteronomist, the scribe himself must needs have relied on a previous oral tradition, and perhaps written records. Even if we assume his integrity as a historian, we still must judge for ourselves the extent to which real events had already been embellished by others, before the Deuteronomist compiled the various accounts and set them down for all time in II Kings. Yet the story has the feel of history–though precisely what remains the question.
The Deuteronomist describes in graphic detail the circumstances of the third crossing of the Jordan, and how Elijah was subsequently translated, in other words, taken up bodily into heaven. The text reads:
“And they went on together. Fifty of the brotherhood of prophets followed them, halting some distance away as the two of them stood beside the Jordan. Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water; and the water divided to left and right, and the two of them crossed over dry-shod. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha “Make your request. What can I do for you before I am taken from you?” Elisha answered “Let me inherit a double-share of your spirit.” “Your request is a difficult one,” Elijah said. “If you see me while I am being taken from you, it shall be as you ask; if not, it will not be so.” Now, as they walked on, talking as they went, a chariot of fire appeared and horses of fire, coming between the two of them; and Elijah went up to heaven in the whirlwind.”
It is one of the most extraordinary episodes in the Bible. Indeed, it is peculiar almost beyond words. For example, what is the meaning of the phrase “a double-portion of your spirit”? The passage is so strange that one feels compelled to wonder out loud: for heaven’s sake, what in the world is going on here? Nor have we come to the end of surprises. As if this third crossing were not enough, the pattern is repeated yet again, a fourth time! Except that now it is the disciple Elisha who commands the waters. The text continues:
“Elisha saw it and shouted “My father! My father! Chariot of Israel and its chargers!” Then he lost sight of him, and taking hold of his clothes he tore them in half. He picked up the cloak of Elijah which had fallen, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the cloak of Elijah and struck the water. “Where is Yahweh the God of Elijah?” he cried. He struck the water, and it divided to right and left, and Elisha crossed over.”
Apparently the cloak drops into Elisha’s hands at the very moment when Elijah disappears into the whirlwind. The Deuteronomist informs us further that “The spirit of Elijah came down upon Elisha.” What can this mean? We are reminded of the baptism of Jesus at the Jordan, when–we are told–the spirit similarly descended upon the Messiah. It is not, however, the first appearance of “spirit” in the Bible. The first reported instance occurs in the Book of Numbers (11: 24-30) account of the wanderings in the desert. In that episode Moses had gathered seventy elders of the people to the tent of Yahweh; whereupon “Yahweh came down in the Cloud. He spoke with him [Moses], but took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. When the spirit came on them they prophesied…”
The parting of great waters is astounding enough, whether due to divine intervention, or to some natural catastrophe on which legend–we can suppose–was later based. Not surprisingly, in this age of science a number of scholars have taken up the case for a naturalistic explanation. One of these, Johns Hopkins scholar Hans Goedicke, pointed out that the famous description in Exodus of a sudden receding of the waters followed by a flood resembles the behavior of a tsunami. This, Goedicke believed was, indeed, the basis of the Exodus story, and was probably caused by the eruption of the volcano Thera in the Aegean. Immanuel Velikovsky had a different naturalistic explanation. Velikovsky opted for a near miss by a comet, the effects of which would have been no less catastrophic. Naturalistic theories have even been advanced to account for Joshua’s second parting of the waters at the Jordan. Ian Wilson, a writer better known for his research into the Shroud of Turin, proposed in 1985 that the second event was caused by an earthquake, which he thinks temporarily dammed the Jordan river, conveniently allowing the Hebrews to cross over and sack Jericho, whose walls were destroyed by the same tremor.
But even if we assume, for a moment, that some reasonable explanation or other based on a natural event accounts for the first instance (Moses at the Red Sea, or bitter lakes), and even the second (Joshua at the Jordan), I doubt if even the most richly endowed imagination could conjure up a suitable naturalistic explanation for the third, and fourth cases. If someone does, I would like to hear about it. The third and fourth repetitions in this strange sequence seem perversely designed to frustrate every effort in this direction. Indeed, one senses the futility of Nature-based explanations. The reader intuitively senses that here we are in the presence of something “other.” And by “other” I do not mean “alien.” I am not talking about extraterrestrials. I am referring to what the writer Rudolph Otto called the “numinous,” in other words, “the holy.”
It becomes impossible to ignore the likelihood that what began as one sort of thing has evolved into something very different. What started as a straightforward demonstration of power mechanics, mastery over Nature, vast power to be sure, but power, nonetheless, has been transformed into something that is…the only word which captures the thing-in-itself is: sublime. A parting of the waters of Nature, however impressive, shows, after all, a rough hand. But an ascension!? That is a fundamentally different proposition. And so, those of us who are interested in deciphering the purpose of the Deuteronomist are confronted by a true conundrum, a very different sort of challenge. One senses an evolution of meaning. The key question is whether this also indicates a maturation of the Judaic tradition over the several centuries between Joshua and II Kings. According to professor W.F. Albright, written versions of Exodus and Joshua date to as early as the tenth century, though both books were based on a much older oral tradition. As mentioned, II Kings may similarly be based on an oral tradition, though one of a much shorter duration, since II Kings was written in “the purest classical Hebrew, of a type that can hardly be later than the eight century [BC].” This was the opinion of W.F. Albright. It is of interest that Albright’s star pupil, Frank Moore Cross, disagreed, and settled on a seventh century composition date.
There seems no way to ignore the conclusion that in the story of Elijah and Elisha we are presented with a spiritual lesson imbued with deep, but as yet unexplained, meaning. Certainly the events here recounted have no parallels anywhere in the Old Testament, the sole exception being the ascension of Enoch; which is only briefly mentioned in Genesis (5:21-24). That the third and fourth repetitions concern an ascension into heaven is shocking enough. That this ascension involves both Elijah and Elisha, master and disciple, is more extraordinary still, because both of these inspired prophets were great Yahwist reformers; and, even more importantly, because of their links to the New Testament.
A Fifth Repetition?
Which brings us–Voila!–to the fifth scriptural recurrence, more than eight hundred years after the time of Elisha, when we witness the return of the second Yeshua (Joshua = Jesus) to the river at a place which may have been very near to the spot where the prior crossing orchestrated by the first Joshua occurred; this time, however, not for a crossing, rather, for the occasion of a baptismal immersion hosted by the prophet John the Baptist. We are not surprised by the proximity of the waters, that is, the location on the Jordan. Because, now, we have been alerted to the pattern. Already we are experiencing an eerie case of deja vu. Whereupon, just when we are beginning to wonder what could Jesus possibly do to top the last solo performance, the Naassene document informs us that the slugger stepped up to the plate, crouched and waited for the delivery, got behind the swing, and–WHAM!–knocked the leather off the ball, smacking the thing out of the park! Not only does he stop the Jordan in mid-flow, dead in its tracks, he actually reverses it! He makes the river flow backwards, all the back way up to the source; by which, in this case, is not meant the Nahr Banias, nor the Ain Leddan, nor the Nahr Hasbani, the Jordan’s three main headwater springs; but rather, to heaven, meaning, of course, ultimate spiritual reality. Instead of boring us with a seismic rerun, Jesus pulls off an encore performance worthy of the name in every respect. In short, he accomplishes the impossible, beautifully completing the cycle, while, at the same time, introducing us to a whole new series of cosmic lessons on a still higher plane–this the conundrum.
Of course, there is no explicit passage in the canonical New Testament about Jesus reversing the flow of the Jordan. Nevertheless, just such an event is mentioned in the apocryphal Testimony of Truth (from the Nag Hammadi), as well as in the Refutation. And for those willing to look, corroborating clues can also be found in unexpected places, for example, in folk legend: a Scandinavian fairy tale describing how Jesus “stopped up the Jordan.” If they could speak, the Naassenes would surely tell us that the idea is implicit in scripture, assuming nothing more than the pattern we have just observed. Certainly, the parallels between the baptism of Jesus and the initiation of Elisha in II Kings are strikingly obvious. Without question, both cases are spiritual initiations, easily identified as such by the descent of spirit. Curiously, this is precisely the point of John’s gospel (3:3), in the passage where Jesus tells Nicodemus and several other pharisees that “Unless a man is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The same idea is also explicitly stated in Mark, Matthew and Luke, who unanimously report that when Jesus came up out of the waters of the Jordan the heavens opened and the spirit, like a dove, descended and remained upon him. In John’s version the baptism is not mentioned, only implied.
The Prophecied Return of Elijah
The parallels between Jesus and Elisha are more than just curious, once it is understood that in Jesus’ day the return of the prophet Elijah was widely expected, perhaps because of the final utterance of the fifth century BC prophet Malachi (3:24): “I will send you Elijah before the coming of the Lord.” [my emphasis] That the return of Elijah was anticipated is evidenced by the pointed questions put to John the Baptist by his supporters. When John is quizzed about whether he is the returned Elijah, the Baptist repeatedly says “No.” John also denies that he is the Messiah (John 1: 21-22). In his reply John cites Isaiah 40:3, asserting that he has come to prepare the way for another, one far greater than he, who will baptize not with water but with spirit (John 1: 24-34). Even in denial John alludes to the prophecy of Malachi!
Yet all of the synoptics report that the Baptist was, in fact, the reincarnated soul of Elijah. Their ratification is unanimous, and explicit. Consider, for example, the following passage from Matthew, relating an incident which occurs immediately after the Transfiguration, when the apostles question Jesus:
“And the apostles put this question to him ‘Why do the scribes say, then, that Elijah has to come first?’ ‘True,’ he replied, ‘Elijah is to come to see that everything is once more as it should be; however, I tell you that Elijah has come already and they did not recognize him but treated him as they pleased; and the Son of Man will suffer similarly at their hands.’ The disciples understood then that he had been speaking of John the Baptist.”
Here, Matthew adds a short explanation, lest there be any doubt about Jesus’ meaning. Another instance occurs after John the Baptist’s imprisonment, when several of John’s disciples visit Jesus, and question him about the Baptist. Jesus replies:
“I tell you solemnly, of all the children born of women, a greater than John the Baptist has never been seen; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is. Since John the Baptist came, up to this present time, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence and the violent are taking it by storm. Because it was toward John that all of the prophecies of the prophets and of the Law were leading; and he, if you will believe me, is the Elijah who was to return. If anyone has ears to hear, let him listen!”
The statement about taking the kingdom of heaven “by storm” refers to the zealots who attempted to hasten the final days through rash acts. Some believed that by invoking prophecy they could precipitate the coming of the Messiah, and the day of judgment. The statement in Matthew about John the Baptist is an explicit confirmation of the transmigration of souls, i.e., reincarnation. There is no other plausible interpretation. And similar passages can be found in Mark (9:9-13) and Luke (7:26-30).
A Double Portion of Spirit
Given nothing more than the scriptural evidence, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Elisha and Elijah together make up one pair, and Jesus and the Baptist another. Scholars have occasionally noticed this parallel structure. Yet, for whatever reason, scholarship has failed to add up the dyadic evidence, by following the logic through to its stunning conclusion. Because if John the Baptist was the reincarnated soul of Elijah, then Jesus must have been the reincarnated Elisha! Paramahansa Yogananda pointed this out many years ago in his famous autobiography. And how strange that it took an eastern yogi to bring this important idea to the attention of the West! The key difference–and it is no less stunning–is that now the roles have been reversed. Elijah, who was the teacher in I and II Kings, has in the New Testament become the “voice crying in the wilderness, who prepares a way for the Lord.” The words, which Matthew draws from Second Isaiah, recall, as I have noted, the prophecy of Malachi: that Elijah was to come and precede “the day of Yahweh.” We are reminded also of the obscure passage that precedes Elijah’s ascension into the whirlwind. Recall that, before he departs, Elijah bids his disciple Elisha to make a wish. Elisha requests “a double-portion of your spirit,” a cryptic line that has long puzzled scholars. Indeed, the phrase is sufficiently obscure to have defied interpretation for 2700 years. But this should not deter us from attempting to decode the line–if we can. One senses that the Deuteronomist crafted this peculiar phraseology for a purpose. But what could that be? How curious that when the scholar George Wesley Buchanan compared the miracles of Elijah and Elisha, he found that the numbers were precisely doubled! Buchanan counted seven miracles in scripture attributed to Elijah, and fourteen to Elisha. Is this doubling a mere coincidence? I think not. I believe that the doubling served the purpose of the Deuteronomist, which, I believe, was to inform us that from a spiritual standpoint the disciple Elisha had greatly surpassed his teacher. This would also account for the switch in the New Testament: the overshadowing of the teacher (John the Baptist) by his former disciple (Jesus). It is of great interest that the number seven also crops up in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, where Jesus says: “The man old in days will not hesitate to ask a small child seven days old about the place of life. For many who are first will become last, and they will become one and the same…” The passage is obscure, and would be inexplicable, but for several clues. Notice here again the number seven. Indeed, why seven days old? Why not six days, or eight? Moreover, consider the obscure phrase “for many who are first will become last.” Could the intent here be to alert us to the phenomenal switch we have just proposed, the eclipse of Elijah (John the Baptist) by his erstwhile disciple? Moreover, the final line “…and they will become one and the same…” could easily refer to the guru-disciple relationship. In spiritual traditions, the purpose of the guru is to lead the disciple to the well, and to induce him to drink deeply; whereupon, disciple and guru become one. Whence the teacher’s job is done. Just as one candle lights another, so also does the guru kindle the flame of spiritual knowledge in his disciple. But even a guru can be outshone by a soul destined to become an avatar (a great spiritual being); just as a candle can spark a bonfire, and be eclipsed by it. So it is of great interest to find this very passage from the Gospel of Thomas quoted in the Refutation! Insofar as I know, Helmut Koester was the first (and only scholar) to point this out. To be sure, the context of the Refutation in which the citation appears is obscure. Indeed, it would have no meaning, but for the pattern we have described. Let us examine the words. Bishop Hippolytus tells us that
“…they [the Naassenes] hand down an explicit passage, occurring in the Gospel inscribed according to Thomas, expressing themselves thus: ‘He who seeks me will find me in children from seven years old; for there concealed, I shall in the fourteenth age be made manifest’.”
Here, “days” have become “years.” No matter. Obviously, it is the number seven that is important. Notice that the number fourteen has also been added! But what is the fourteenth age? The deeper meaning is lost on Bishop Hippolytus, who attributes the passage to a quotation by Hippocrates, the father of Greek medicine. The meaning is veiled. But the key is the doubling of spirit! The number fourteen is the giveaway, a number that has no significance apart from its association with seven. As the linguist Cyrus Gordon pointed out in his milestone study, The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations, the ancients often expressed the number fourteen as “twice seven.” Apparently this was customary among the Babylonians, Greeks, and even among the Hebrews. In the context of the Refutation, the number fourteen (twice seven) recalls the ratio identified by Buchanan, the doubling of spirit cast in veiled language to establish the link between Elisha and Jesus–for those with an eye to see it. And there seems little doubt but that this was the mystical interpretation of the Naassenes.
Other evidence supporting this same conclusion can be found in the Deuteronomist’s account. In II Kings 2-8, the ascension of Elijah is closely followed by the Elisha Cycle, which describes in detail the fourteen miracles performed by Elisha. What is striking about these stories is that they seem conspicuously out of place in the Old Testament. Indeed, the Elisha Cycle reads like the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, or Luke! That the miracles attributed to Elisha anticipate those later performed by Jesus could not be more obvious, for they include the multiplication of loaves, the healing of the sick, the foretelling of the future, even the raising of the dead!
Still more evidence may be found in the Gospel of Matthew (3: 14-15), which recounts the episode at the Jordan, where Jesus consents to be initiated by John the Baptist. Indeed, Jesus insists upon it:
“‘It is I who need baptism from you,’ [John] said. “And yet you come to me!” But Jesus replied “leave it like this for the time being; it is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that righteousness demands.” At this, John gave in to him.”
The Naassene logic is obvious enough. Even though the spiritual attainment of Jesus has far outstripped that of his former teacher, the Messiah deems it fitting, out of love and respect for his former guru, to be initiated again by him. For such is the deep and abiding nature of the guru-disciple relationship that it survives even death and reincarnation.
Needless to say, the idea that Jesus was the reincarnated soul of the prophet Elisha is viewed as heresy by the Roman Catholic Church. Reincarnation, that is, the transmigration of souls, was formally declared anathema at the Fifth General Council convened by Justinian in 553 AD. The Council’s decision in 553 AD was only a formality, however. The rejection of reincarnation had long been a matter of Church policy, made inevitable by the Roman Church’s early repudiation of the immortality (preexistence) of the soul. As we have already discussed, the Church taught from the time of Tatian and Jerome that the soul is created from dust along with the body at conception. So it should not be surprising that the third century debunker Bishop Hippolytus would condemn Jewish-Christian sects like the Elchasaites as heretical for teaching that Jesus had reappeared on earth a number of times. Like the Ebionites, the Elchasaites were probably descended from the survivors of the original Nazarene community. But even more interesting is the fact that the official teaching of the Roman Church flatly contradicts scripture–as I have just shown.
Finally, let us examine the words of the crucified Jesus, uttered shortly before drawing his final breath: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” The expression is usually translated: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, which is the first line in Psalm Twenty-Two. Yet, it is interesting that in recounting the story Matthew mentions that
“When some of those who stood there heard this, they said ‘The man is calling on Elijah.’ And one of them quickly ran to get a sponge, which he dipped in vinegar and, putting it on a reed, gave it to him to drink. ‘Wait!’ said the rest of them, ‘and see if Elijah will come to save him’.”
The name Elijah contains within it the word for God (El). The name Elijah (Eli-jah) means “Whose God is Yahweh.” Hence the basis for the usual translation that Jesus in extremis called on the Father (Yahweh). Yet the witnesses to the crucifixion thought differently. According to Matthew, they believed that Jesus was calling out not to God, but to Elijah. The question arises: why would Jesus do so? There can be only one explanation. The words make sense only if the man on the cross was the reincarnated soul of Elisha. For nothing could be more natural than for a dying man, in this case Jesus, to cry out the name of his guru.
Conclusion: Orthodoxy Contradicts Scripture!
So who is right? Perhaps the question ought to be: why does the doctrine of the Catholic Church directly contradict the words of Jesus? I must say, the more I have pondered the Naassene point of view, in light of scripture, the more impressed I am by the idea of the sacred river, together with all that it implies. Because, whether heresy or not, the entire sequence I have described, from Moses to Joshua to Elijah to Elisha to Jesus has a compelling inner light and logic, suggesting that Elijah and Elisha represent an important transitional stage between the Old and New Testaments. Not only does this Naassene interpretation make perfect sense, it has the added merit of being scripturally unassailable. Can it be that the Naassenes, those despicable Gnostics whose heresies were likened by the good Bishop Hippolytus to “a many headed hydra,” were correct, after all?
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- The evidence is inscribed on the walls of the mortuary temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu (part of the Theban necropolis in Upper Egypt). The same military campaign is also described in the Harris Papyrus. Bryant G. Wood, “The Philistines,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November-December, 1991.
- “An Interview with Cyrus Gordon,” in Biblical Archaeological Review, Nov/Dec 2000, p. 52; also see Gary A. Rendsburg, “Is Linear A Semitic?” in the same issue, pp. 60-61.
- Cross, 1973, p. 121; also see Albright, 1949, p. 233.
- The discovery is recent enough that, insofar as I know, nothing yet has been published.
- Cross, 1973, p. 124.
- Velikovsky, 1952; also see Rohl, 1995.
- Kenyon, 1960; also see Rohl, 1995, pp. 299-314.
- See David Rohl’s book. For a summary of the mainstream view see Israel Finkelstein, “The Date of the Settlement of the Philistines in Canaan”, Tel Aviv [Journal], 22, 1995.
- This was also the view of Cyrus Gordon, who believed that the Sea Peoples arrived in waves beginning early in the second millennium BC. Gordon believed the earlier migrants came in peace, rather than as invaders. For a discussion of the evidence, including Aegean-style pottery found at Jericho and Beth-Shan, see Gordon, 1964, pp. 121-122. For a convincing photo of this Minoan pottery see Glueck, 1946, p. 206.
- Cited in Albright, 1968, p.163.
- For example, see Judges 14:4.
- Glueck, 1959, p. 88.
- Deuteronomy 1:28-46; Numbers 14.
- Cross, 1973, pp. 274-289.
- II Kings, 2: 13-15.
- Wilson, 1985, pp. 128-141.
- Velikovsky, 1950, pp. 63-81.
- Wilson, 1985, p. 167.
- Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy, London, 1933.
- Albright, 1957, pp. 276, 250-251.
- Ibid., pp. 306-307.
- Cross, 1973, p. 223.
- Many more details can be found in the apocryphal Book of Enoch, which the early fathers of the Church regarded as part of the canon. It remains so in the Ethiopian Church even today. Apparently Enoch was never so regarded in Judaism, however, for reasons that are unclear to this writer.
- See, for example, the study by George Wesley Buchanan, 1984, pp. 303-308.
- Yogananda, 1946, p. 328.
- Matthew 3:3-4; also see Isaiah 40:3.
- Malachi 3:24.
- Buchanan, 1984, pp. 304-305.
- Koester, 1990, p. 78.
- Gordon, 1965, p. 79.
- II Kings 4: 42-44; 5: 1-27; 8: 7-15; 5: 1-19.
- Prophet, 1997, p. 221.
- Ibid., p. 195.
- Hippolytus, Refutation, Book IX, chapter 4.
- Matthew 27: 47-50.