To identify a new dispensation that emerged out of first century CE may sound like it is stating the obvious, as Jesus clearly made a novel imprint in the world, spurring a whole new religion. However, this story handed down to us in the New Testament, I believe, is a distant echo of a more original teaching.
To begin to unpack this thesis of a new dispensation, I’d like to first look into the context of the place and times where this event happened, specifically the first century CE in the Middle East.
An Historical Look at First Century CE Palestine
For centuries, after multiple invasions by the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans, the Jewish population of this land of the crossroads, known at the time as Judea or Syria Palestine, sought self governance where they could practice their religion and religious customs without restrictions from foreign control. In around 140, BCE, the Hasmonean Dynasty came to power by overthrowing the Greek Seleucid rule, where these victorious and brutal Maccabeans (meaning “hammer”) finally brought religious freedom to their Jewish people.
This lasted off and on for some 80 years when, in 63 BCE, Judea came under Roman rule as Pompey conquered Jerusalem and, with profound blasphemy, stepped into that most sacred site in all of Judaism, the Holy of Holies, the inner chamber of the Second Temple of Solomon.
In the 1st century BCE, Herod the Great became the Roman proxy ruler who was tolerant of Jewish religious practices as he claimed to be part Jewish himself and his remodel of the Solomon Temple on the Temple Mount was a sign of his endorsement. However, what he did not tolerate were Jewish attempts to overthrow Roman rule. So intent was he to stamp out any threats from the former Hasmonian clan, in an odd move, he married the Hasmonian princess Mariamme to assimilate this line into his own, which only resulted in him murdering their only two sons. These were strange times, and an important backdrop to understanding the context of the New Dispensation.
This ongoing quest for Jewish self rule in the face of occupation is really important to understand as we tease apart some of the fact from fiction in this whole Christ Sophia New Dispensation.
The above illustration shows the tension of the Jewish revolt, associated with a figure known as James, that ultimately led to the Jewish Wars and the sack of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. This Jewish uprising was carried out by a group of zealous Jews who demanded a more strict adherence to the Law of Moses. Their religious leadership was not approved by the Herodian leadership, unlike what Eisenman calls the “establishment priests”, the Sadducees and Pharisees. These “zealots” were most offended by how the Herodian rule would only tolerate Jewish religious practices as long as they remained subservient to Roman laws, something which a strict Jewish adherence would violate by not bowing to Caesar over their own God. It’s most radical wing, called the sicarri, were the guerrilla jihadists who hid their curved swords under their cloaks as they conducted strategic assassinations of their Roman overseers.
Though this man Jesus likely interfaced and even was related to these anti-Roman Jewish groups (even identified as being a “brother” to James), I do not believe Reza Aslan’s thesis in his book Zealot (1) that Jesus himself was a revolutionary nationalist fighting for the cause of Jewish sovereignty. Though Aslan’s work may be helpful in pulling back some layers of misinformation about this history, he falls short, I believe in seeing the broader context associated with this Christ Sophia New Dispensation.
Aslan writes, “Thus began the long process of transforming Jesus from a revolutionary Jewish nationalist into a pacifistic spiritual leader with no interest in any earthly matter. This was a Jesus the Romans could accept, and in fact did accept three centuries later when the Roman emperor Flavius Theodosuis (d. 395) made the itinerant Jewish preacher’s movement the official religion of the state, and what we now recognize as orthodox Christianity emerged.” (2)
Instead of focusing on Jesus being a Jewish zealot, I believe it is better to understand the figure of James as being arguably the most important Jewish religious leader of first century Jerusalem. James was a man of incredible religious integrity who was revered for his “righteousness.” Peter was directly connected to James’ leadership, as was Paul. And yet James’ role in all of this as portrayed in the New Testament’s version of this history is presented solely as being one of Jesus’ disciples and the entire history of his role as religious leader in the Jewish uprising is fully masked, creating two James, the Lesser and the Greater, and even substituting him with with what Eisenman claims is a wholly fictitious replacement, called Stephen. (3) Even more astounding, there are the two references in the gospels (Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3) that James was one of Jesus’ brothers. According to Eisenman, the Christian orthodox designers were forced to acknowledge James as being brother of the lord only because there is a zealot-flavored book that they reluctantly allowed into the New Testament called the Epistle of James. He also notes that Josephus’ reference to James, the brother of the Jesus, (4) is one of the few if only historical and non-Biblical cross reference to Jesus’ very existence.
People often confuse the gnostic Nag Hammadi Library with The Dead Sea Scrolls, both having been discovered in the dry Arab deserts within three years of each other in the 1940’s. I will be presenting more about the Nag Hammadi library in the next section. The Dead Sea Scrolls are largely 1st and 2nd century CE documents, according to Eisenman, associated with this Jewish zealot movement. As the Jewish uprising was fiercely persecuted, these temple scrolls were hidden away, and were even added to during the last flair up of this movement in the 2nd century. Eisenman is a preeminent Dead Sea Scroll scholar who played a pivotal role in releasing the microfiche copies of these scrolls from a suspiciously closed group of Catholic scholars. (5)
Christian history seems either to have confused or deliberately obscured the relationships between this zealot movement and the early Jesus movement, with vague references to what is known as the Jerusalem Church associated with James. The task of untangling the mess of what was going on in first century, because of how obscure this history has become, poses an enormous challenge in uncovering what I am calling this new dispensation. Indeed, I wonder if Eisenman’s analysis of extensive obscurations of this history was to some degree motivated by the need for the emerging orthodox Christian tradition to white wash the more spiritually radical roots of Christ’s teachings.
The Nag Hammadi Library is a textual record of a tradition that not only broke from its Jewish theological roots, it constituted a profound Jewish heresy. The Dead Sea Scrolls on the other hand. sprang from this fierce messianic Jewish nationalism that saw the Helenizing trends associated with St. Paul as being highly heretical.
The New Dispensation
Dropped into the middle of this Jews vs Rome conflict is a New Dispensation of high wisdom teachings, first associated with John the Baptist, then landed in a massive way with this figure known as Yeshua and people in his close inner circle including Mary Magdalene and St. Thomas. It is this epicenter of 1st century earth shattering divine intervention that will be the primary focus of our mystery thriller on the Gnostic or the Deep Christ. The Essenes are related to all of this and were clearly profound religious adepts. But their role is confused as they appeared to also have been involved in these fierce Jewish messianic nationalists movements and hence, I am choosing to not further complicate this history by including them.
St. Paul’s role in all of this is complex and controversial but in a nut shell, Paul was indeed, I believe, involved in this New Dispensation Wisdom download. As the primary architect of a Hellenized version of Christianity, Paul worked to weave highly esoteric teachings into his religious system (6) that was designed to be non-threatening to the Roman state. Paul’s version of Christianity eventually became the “universal” (i.e. the only) acceptable version of Christianity that was locked into the Roman central authority by anchoring their “apostolic” tradition onto this conveniently non-mystical person called Peter. Indeed, I there are so many clues to this 1st century mystery thriller to be found in the theatrical fog that surrounds the key figures of Peter, Paul and, as we will eventually discuss, the even more obscure and controversial figure known as Simon.
As this New Dispensation was dropped in the middle of the intense religious upheaval of 1st century centered in Jerusalem, by the end of that century and the beginnings of the 2nd century, there began to form various schools and sects that we know generally now as gnostic. I will provide some more background to what this movement was, but for now, in general, as stated, this was not apart of the Jewish messianic nationalist movement.
I believe that the earliest texts in the schools of Gnosticism, generally known as “Sethian” (7), are some of the closest second generation offspring of this initial Jesus download. As will be discussed, this Sethian Gnostic tradition is distinctly non or pre-Christian according to a number of scholars including the editor of the original 1978 English translation of the Nag Hammadi Library (8) though over time and with later editions, these Sethian writings became more “Christianized”. It is this tradition that I believe holds many clues to the more original Wisdom download, where many of the gnostic texts attribute Jesus as a source for a far reaching cosmology that features Sophia as well as Jesus himself as key players in this creation drama.
The politics around all of this cannot ignore the role that Rome played in this whole tumultuous time. Here Rome is battling one of the greatest opposition movements they had ever encountered, that took tens of thousands of soldiers in a brutal siege to reclaim Jerusalem against a religious movement that refused to surrender. The toll that the Jewish Wars took was so great that Rome vowed to never let another religious movement pose such a threat. Anything remotely related to Judaism was seen as a threat to Roman rule. This obscure new Gnostic system alone was quite radical, where esoteric teachings and high initiatory practices brought strong spiritual empowerment to people within that movement. This was certainly not acceptable as it fostered too much personal independence from Roman state power.
A man named Irenaeus is a good example of an early theologian who worked with the Roman leadership to begin to shape this emerging new religion known as Christianity into something that was acceptable to Rome and that was distinctly non-Jewish. (9) At the same time, he was working to demonize this gnostic system where it became a Christian heresy, rather than, one might argue, something quite the opposite.
In his Against Heresies (10), Irenaeus argues at length about how this gnostic version of the Christ story is corrupt and how it’s endless speculation and strange depictions of angels and fallen angels has no place in the emerging orthodoxy of Christian religious doctrine.
As we will see in how this figure Peter becomes a foundation stone upon which the narrative of a Roman orthodoxy is built, gradually in the second, third and fourth centuries CE, this version of Christianity began to take hold. It did so against many odds, and I believe that the whole New Dispensation has some debt of gratitude, strangely enough, for this religion, because without it, the whole download might well have been lost into the dust of time.
The Triumph of Roman Orthodox Christianity
Eventually, a Roman sponsored Christianity took hold, and at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, a concise declaration of belief was carved out that has become the bedrock of a non-gnostic, Roman Christian orthodox version of Christianity. Not only were the gnostics virtually wiped clean from the face of history, the source and inspiration behind their movement, this New Dispensation, was buried deep almost beyond recognition under the gravestone of this Petrine bedrock.
Orthodox Roman Christianity is the victor who wrote the history, and as Robert Eisenman, I believe will attest, trying to dig our way out of the layers upon centuries of what could be seen as a Readers Digest version of what was really going on, is a nearly impossible job. But we plod forward.
Next up: An Introduction to Gnosticism.
- Aslan, R. Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. NY: Random House, NY. 2013.
- Ibid. p. xxx
- Eisenman, James. James the Brother of Jesus. The key to unlocking the secrets of early christianity and the dead sea scrolls. NY: Penguin Books, 1997.
- Baigent, Michael. and Leigh, Richard. The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
- Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Paul, Gnostic exegesis of the pauline letters. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press. 1975.
- Turner, John, D. Sethian gnosticism and the platonic tradition. Quebec: Les Presses De L’universite Laval. 2001.
- Robinson, James, M. General Editor. The Nag Hammadi Library: Revised edition. the definitive new translation fo the gnostic scriptures comple in one volume. Harper and Row: San Francisco. 1978. p. 8. “In none of these Sethian instances can one derive the texts or their mythology primarily from Christian tradition…”
- Pagels, Elaine. Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. NY: Random House, 2003.
- Irenaeus of Lyon. Against Heresies: On the detection and overthrow of knowledge, falsely so called. ~ 130-202 CE.