The Jewish Jesus before Christianity: A discussion inspired by Dr Richard Carrier

I have recently discovered the fabulous work of Dr Richard Carrier, an academic who specialises in Christian history. His work excites me because it confirms my own research plus fills a few gaps. Dr Carrier clearly explains how Christianity developed out of Judaism whilst simultaneously synergising with other religious and cultural influences. On one hand the process is relatively straightforward to understand if one follows a timeline of major political developments around the Mesopotamian and Mediterranean region from about 2000 BCE through to 2000 CE. On the other hand, the process is decidedly difficult to understand if one’s knowledge about historical events is skewed by fallible sources of information, e.g., Hollywood movies, computer games, or the Bible itself.

There are many points of value that Dr Carrier brings up but today I’m going to focus on the Jewish concept of Jesus, that is, the Jewish Son of God who was symbolised by the bright star of the East. In this video, Dr Carrier draws attention to a particular Jewish scholar called Philo of Alexandria who is of interest because he discusses the concept of an allegorical “Jesus” in the Torah around the same time that the real Jesus was supposedly crucified. But before looking a little closer at Philo, let’s go over a bit of background information.

Historical Landscape of Judaism

Judaism began in Mesopotamia about 4000 years ago when God revealed himself to a man called Abraham.

Map of Mesopotamian and Mediterranean region, c.2000BCE; Abraham came from a town called Ur (located on above map near the Persian Gulf)

How did God reveal himself? By telling Abraham he was not to murder his son Isaac, thus defining cultural norms of worshipping the then dominant head-God, Baal. Judaism was radical both because it opposed child sacrifices and because it claimed there was only one God, albeit Judaism does recognise an assortment of angels, demons, and other spiritual beings that are apparently different to higher and lower gods and demi-gods of other religions. But anyway, semantics aside, there is a lack of clarity as to whether Judaism was the first so-called monotheistic religion or if that claim can be given to the Zoroastrians who, coincidentally, also lived in ancient Mesopotamia. 

Judaism and Zoroastrianism initially had different ideological features, however, when Persian rulers, politics, and customs dominated Jewish populations, c.600BCE to c.400BCE, the Jews finished up adopting some Zoroastrian beliefs. For example, the idea that after death, good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell was a Zoroastrian belief first and Jewish belief second. (To be a “good” person in Judaism includes needing to manage sex slaves according to God’s law but that’s a story for another time.) The formal term of this process in which a religion adapts the beliefs of another is called syncretism.

Map of Mesopotamian and Mediterranean region that was conquered by the Persian Empire, c.500

Following the syncretism of Zoroastrianism and Judaism comes the synergy of Judaism with Greek philosophies. Notably, this occurred through Alexander the Great’s expeditions and conquests. This is also known as the Hellenistic Period. The term Hellenistic is a reference to Greeks following the ideologies presented in Homer’s writings that include the story of Hellen of Troy.

Map illustrating Alexander the Great’s campaign pathways and scope of land that was Hellenised

Hellenised regions of Mesopotamia in c.240BCE

A pinnacle of Hellenistic achievement is the establishment of a great library in Alexandria, Egypt. Scholars from all over the Mediterranean were enticed by the Alexandrian book collection. It was a location that marks the first significant collaboration between intellectuals from around the then known world. Much science, technology, and philosophy was shared and gave rise to new discoveries and inventions, for example Euclid, the father of geometry, studied at the library.

Artist impression of the Great Library of Alexandria; source: History of Yesterday https://historyofyesterday.com/library-of-alexandria-13c1e5c98a18

By the time of Philo of Alexandria (c.20BCE – c.50CE), the province was Roman. The Romans were synergizers extraordinaires! Whatever lands the Romans conquered, they assimilated the ideas of those people into their own. The appropriation of Greek Gods into Roman deities is a classic example of this. 

Roman Empire at the height of its dominance in the Mediterranean region, 117CE

Who was Philo and why was he special?

Philo was a contemporary of Jesus, however, he never specifically mentioned him by name as being a human who walked upon the earth. Although, a later historian, Eusebius, does claim Philo wrote about Christians, Dr Carrier aptly argues Eusebius’ account is fake history.

In Alexandria, Philo was a respected Jewish scholar who was well versed in Greek philosophy, in particular he was a fan of Plato. Philo wrote all his treaties in Greek because that was the scholarly language of the time. (The Romans were still in the process of working out how to deconstruct the Greek language and reform it into a Latin prose.)

With the absence of concrete evidence that Philo was familiar with Jesus or any Christians, some claim the situation provides circumstantial proof that Jesus was not a real man. It is considered especially curious that Philo never mentioned Jesus because Philo was a diplomat for Roman politicians and, as part of this role, he made expeditions to Judea. Therefore, a premise of this argument is that, if Jesus had lived in the flesh and made all the commotion that Christians say he did (according to Gospel accounts), then Philo would have known about him and made some record of the events. But no, Philo did not say a word about any corporeal Jesus. Likewise, the historicity of the first Christians includes reports that St Mark established the first Church in Philo’s home town of Alexandria, during Philo’s lifetime. It is curiosity as to why Philo, as well established Jewish scholar, had no interest in the development of a new group of worshipers who claimed the Jewish God’s son had incarnated?

Of the writings Philo produced, he is most well known for his commentaries of the first two chapters of the Jewish Bible (Genesis and Exodus) that harmonise Jewish traditions with Greek philosophies. It is Philo’s interpretation of the Torah/Old Testament that Early Christians predominately followed.

A couple of odd side notes: 
1. Philo was not a fan of Egyptian religion.
2. A big difference between Judaism and Early Christianity was that converting to Christianity did not involve the ritualised cutting of genitals (circumcision) like Judaism did.

So what about Philo’s Jesus?

While Philo never mentions a real life human being called Jesus, he did write about the son of God, but whether or not one can spot that may depend upon educational background and/or if one has beliefs that they want to defend.

The following passage is taken from a text by Philo called On The Confusion of Tongues, also known as, A Treatise on the Confusion of Languages (61-63). Phrases of interest have been bolded and will be discussed shortly.

“And God planted a paradise in Eden, toward the East,” {#ge 2:8^} not of terrestrial but of celestial plants, which the planter caused to spring up from the incorporeal light which exists around him, in such a way as to be for ever inextinguishable. I have also heard of one of the companions of Moses having uttered such a speech as this: “Behold, a man whose name is the East!” {#zec 6:12^^} A very novel appellation indeed, if you consider it as spoken of a man who is compounded of body and soul; but if you look upon it as applied to that incorporeal being who in no respect differs from the divine image, you will then agree that the name of the east has been given to him with great felicity. For the Father of the universe has caused him to spring up as the eldest son, whom, in another passage, he calls the firstborn; and he who is thus born, imitating the ways of his father, has formed such and such species, looking to his archetypal patterns.

^ In Aramaic the passage reads: “And LORD JEHOVAH God planted Paradise in Eden from the first and he put there Adam whom he formed” (Bible Hub). In Hebrew, Adam means “son of the red earth”, thus, this depiction has a connection to the symbolism of the first human being formed from the sun, which is a symbol for God and, in turn, can be extrapolated as being a “red earth”. The link between Adam of Genesis being God's firstborn son and Jesus being God’s only son is sometimes overlooked, however, that was not necessarily the case for Early Christians who not only debated the consequences of Jesus being the new Adam but of Mary being the new Eve … that topic warrants a blog of itself. Suffice to say, while Jewish religious leaders openly discussed Adam as being an incorporeal “man” or “son of God”, Early Christian theologians were not so transparent in discussing Jesus as being an incorporeal being. There is some evidence to suggest they did, for example, Justin Martyr’s writings but, ultimately, literalist Christians have dominated history and they conveniently labelled all those who viewed Christian gospels as being symbolic, like the Gnostics, as heretics. And when belittling the beliefs of others didn’t work, excommunication, inquisitions, and witch trials ensured the literalists maintained their power. 
^^ According to Bible Hub most contemporary interpretations of Zechariah 6:12 say the man’s name is “Branch” or “Shoot” … is this a mistranslation? … an example of further syncretism within Christianity that occurred centuries later? … deliberate misquoting to confuse people? Who knows? In Aramaic, the passage reads: “And say to him: ”Thus says LORD JEHOVAH of Hosts, ‘behold the Man and his name Denkha (The Sunrise), and from below he shall rise up”.

The first sentence of the above passage tells us that the “east” is symbolic of God’s paradise, moreover, this Eden is filled with celestial plants. This terminology gives us a direct link to the Greek’s theology of the four elements, i.e., the plant realm is symbolic of a spiritual substance that is referred to in contemporary speech as the ether (for background information read the Four Elements in Ancient Theology).

The following quote from Philo's writing On Dreams confirms that he knew the traditional Greek elements and incorporated their premises into his work:

IV. (1.21) All these things, then, we feel: but the heaven has a nature which is incomprehensible, and it has never conveyed to us any distinct indication by which we can understand its nature; for what can we say? that it is solid ice, as some persons have chosen to assert? or that it is the purest fire? or that it is a fifth body, moving in a circle having no participation in any of the four elements? 

Following, the term “incorporeal light” is a symbolic reference to the element of fire in its highest state (in brief, in Greek philosophies, like Aristotle’s, a distinction can be identified between a lower type of fire that represents warmth and a higher type of fire that represents light). Hence, essentially what this first sentence is saying is that from the ether, God created a divine spirit who was made of the same divine spiritual substance as himself. Philo then shares that he’s heard that this “son/sun” (a pun that depicts the deity as a child of God and a source of light) has been called by some Jewish philosophers as “a man whose name is the East!” There is a symbolic link between Judaism referring to the son of God as a spiritual being of the east, and the Christian depiction of Jesus’ being born under a star of the east (Matthew 2:9). Coincidentally, Matthew’s followers were the only ones who wrote in Hebrew, and he is the only evangelist who mentions the star of the east, thus suggesting his sect consciously incorporated more traditional Jewish symbols. According to Dr Carrier, Matthew’s gospel was written as a reaction to Marks because because some sects of early Christianity did not like Mark’s version; essentially, some early Christians thought Mark’s version was too Greek and they wanted to revise it with more Hebrew references; introducing the symbology of the east star may be seen as evidence of this.

The language of the Gospels:

Followers of Mark, Luke, and John all wrote in Greek. I’d like to assume everyone knows that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John didn’t write their own Gospels but I have meet Christians who have not known this, hence it may be worthwhile to mention that it was the followers of the Four Evangelists who recorded the events of Jesus life, years, sometimes decades after their leader had died. In other words, the Gospel stories are not eye witness accounts of Jesus' life, they are the written records of oral story telling. 

Timeline:
c.60-70 CE Mark's Gospel, Greek 
c.85 CE Matthew's Gospel, Hebrew
c.85-95 CE Luke's Gospel, Greek
c.90-100 CE John's Gospel, Greek 

When Christianity is viewed as a sect of Judaism, there is no surprise in recognising that both religions used the symbolic reference of a light coming from the east in correlation to God’s firstborn child.

Moving on, Philo describes the visualisation of God’s eldest son as having a real body and soul as being a novel thing to do. To present Philo’s attitude using contemporary colloquialism, he may have said “and the firstborn son of God was a real human of flesh and blood, lol 😂”. In other words, Philo is making it painstakingly clear that God’s firstborn is incorporeal, and that it is ridiculous to depict him else wise. According to Philo, God’s firstborn son is as incorporeal as his divine Father. Thus, we can mirror this theology in the Christian belief that Jesus, the son of God, is the same as God himself. Jesus and God are two separate divinities but they are one because they are joined by a spiritual force, nigh, they are joined by a Holy Spirit!

There were major debates amongst the Early Christians regarding the nature of the Trinity, the conglomerate of Jesus, God, and Holy Spirit. The arguments predominantly fell into two broad categories, the Arians -  who believed Jesus and God were not equal - and the non-Arians - who believed Jesus and God were equal. Eventually, the Arian supporters lost and from the fourth century onwards, refusing to accept that Jesus was made of the same celestial substance as God became a heresy. 

The Christian belief that Jesus and God are one and the same incorporeal substance is identical to the Jewish belief that God’s firstborn, known as Adam or a man called East, are made from the same incorporeal substance.

The final line “imitating the ways of his father, has formed such and such species, looking to his archetypal patterns” is a curious remark that I suspect it is a reference to the belief that God created heavenly species of angels, archangels, demons, etc., as well as human beings. Specifically “looking to his archetypal pattern” could be interpreted as these “species”. including people, are made in God’s image, which is a core belief in Judaism and Christianity. To continue along this line of thought, it also a Christian belief that whilst humans are made in Gods and his son’s image, people are not perfect like Jesus … but people are supposed to aim to be like Jesus … what prevents humans from being perfect like Jesus? Why, it’s the sin of Eve of course! But that riddle can only be seen if Jesus is identified as being Adam, which is exactly what the Early Christians did. And the riddle continues … How does one overcome the sin of Eve? Simple, replace Eve with Mary! Arguably, all the Early Christians knew that one, and of course they knew that it was ridiculous to think of any of these characters as being corporeal, because to do so would be “a very novel appellation indeed”!

In the above context, the concept of all humans being “archetypes” of Jesus should not be confused with the Jungian concept of archetypes (i.e., that there are universal psychological symbols that define all humans), rather, the original usage of the Greek term “archetypes” means prototype or original model, hence, just as the prototype of an object like a bike has changed and developed over the years, so too the prototypical patterns of a spiritual being that imitates a creator being can be viewed as having malleable qualities, e.g., an “Eve” prototype can become a “Mary”, likewise, a penny farthing can become a solar powered motorised scooter. I have a working hypothesis that many Ancient philosophers viewed cosmology as being in an ongoing state of creative change but I’ll leave that discussion for another time. (I briefly touch upon the concept here.)

Why does all this matter?

Misunderstandings of the symbolic nature of language in the Bible have caused immense damage and conflict over the centuries. From Christians wars that have ended in bloodshed, through to manipulative cult leaders who control others through claim the Bible is literal so as they can justify abusive behaviour like sexual abuse and forcing followers to give up all their possessions, there are a multitude of reasons to engage in discussions about what the symbols in the Bible really mean.

Additionally, viewing Biblical characters as literal has contributed to the justification of patriarchal misogyny on a phenomenal scale. Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytic approaches enter into this scenario with the manner in which they justify sexism via misinterpretations of Biblical symbolism, e.g., women are either whores or Madonnas, and all women want to be dominated by men. Further, this pseudo-scientific approach to psychology has confused sincere academic investigations into history and authentic studies of how the mind operates on a symbolic level.

Conclusion

Dr Carrier’s research proposes that, for the most part, Early Christians perceived Jesus to be a spiritual truth, not a literal one, which is not unlike Philo of Alexandria perceiving God’s first born to be incorporeal. These conclusions can be further backed up by other means, like the letters of apostle Paul to the Thessalonians (written c.50CE). In these writings, Paul repeatedly says to his followers that the Gospels come from prophecies, personal convictions, and the Holy Spirit. Other supporting evidence from Christian apologists like Justin Martyr, Origen, Valentino, and many others, also indicates that the Early Christians were, as Dr Carrier says, a Jewish sect.

In conclusion, the extent to which Philo’s writings and philosophies directly influenced the development of Christianity is a topic well worth pondering. As too is the fact that the first Gospel written, that of St Mark, was compiled in Alexandria in approximately c.50-60CE. 

There is no evidence to suggest Philo initiated Christianity but there is significant circumstantial evidence to imply whoever did write St Mark’s Gospel knew of Philo’s work. Moreover, irrespective of Philo’s influence, a syncretism of Jewish and Greek philosophies was well and truly underway throughout the Mesopotamian and Mediterranean regions during the first century of the common era.

Map of Christian expansion throughout the Mediterranean region, 300-600 CE

And so it is, the process of religious evolution continued when the Romans took Christianity over …

References

Agatan Foundation 2018, The Crazy Facts You Didn’t Know About The History of Christianity by Richard Carrier, YouTube, viewed 17 June 2019, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q34SvWcurWk&gt;.

Agatucci, C 2011, Maps 2: History – Ancient Period, web.cocc.edu, Central Oregon Community College, viewed 7 September 2021, <https://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum213/Maps/Maps2HistoryAncient.htm&gt;.

Evans, L 2021, An Expert Explains Mythicism with Dr Richard Carrier, http://www.youtube.com, viewed 7 September 2021, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIv8gsCBo_g&gt;.

Hillar, M n.d., Philo of Alexandria | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Humphreys, K n.d., Witness to Jesus? – Philo of Alexandria, http://www.jesusneverexisted.com, viewed 7 September 2021, <https://www.jesusneverexisted.com/philo.html&gt;.

Philo c.40CEa, Philo: On Dreams, That They are God-Sent, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com, viewed 7 September 2021, <http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/yonge/book21.html&gt;.

Philo c.40CEb, Philo: On the Confusion of Tongues, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com, viewed 7 September 2021, <http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/yonge/book15.html&gt;.

Theology of Early Christianity as described by Justin Martyr: Was he deliberately harmonising Jewish and Ancient Greek philosophy?

"Do not the philosophers turn every discourse on God? and do not questions continually arise to them about His unity and providence ? Is not this truly the duty of philosophy, to investigate the Deity?" 
Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypo, P.5

Justin Martyr was born in Palestine, in about 100 CE. In his mid thirties he began wandering, preaching, and explaining Christianity to others. According to the encyclopaedia Britannica he was ‘one of the most important Greek philosophers-Apologists in the early Church’. 

Justin is described as being Greek (as opposed to Roman or Palestinian) because that is the language he used, moreover, he studied Plato and other Greek philosophers prior to converting from his old belief system to Christianity. Palestine, thanks to Alexander the Great, was Hellenised in 332 BCE, and despite the Roman takeover in 63 BCE, Greek was still a common language amongst academics.

Palestine was also home to many Jews and a variety of other religious groups. The interactions between these groups are suspected to have been a mixture of hostile and receptive occurrences. 

Justin’s evangelism took him to Rome where he was accused of being subversive and sentenced to death. He was killed by beheading in c.165, thus killed for his beliefs he was martyred by Christian followers. 

André Thévet – Saint Justin dans André Thevet, Les Vrais Pourtraits et Vies Hommes Illustres, 1584. Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons

Justin wrote several treatises explaining Christian theology; he was instrumental in defining beliefs in the days prior to the bible being compiled. In the following centuries, followers of Christ would become divided into two broad categories of “true” Christians and “false” Christians, the latter usually referred to as Heretics (for example, the gnostics). During a process of establishing consistent guidelines for the faithful – which mostly came about by Emperor Constantine calling council meetings (the Nicene council) – Justin’s version of theology was accepted in the “true” category, as opposed to some others, like Valentina and Origen. 

Given that Justin had a strong Greek background, it’s not surprising he incorporated references to ancient Greek philosophy into his writings, however, what I find even more interesting is his detailed understanding of Jewish theology. In a publication titled Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, Justin records an imaginative conversation between himself and a Jew called Trypho. The aim of the conversation is to explain to the Jew how Christianity fulfilled prophecies expressed in the Hebrew Bible, the Torah. The fact that Justin wrote in a dialogue style (like Plato and other Philosophers), is a reflection of his scholarly Greek background. It is with this foundation that he describes Christian stories as being a continuation of Jewish symbology. Thus we have two streams of ideology merging into one river. 

Let’s have a look at some of what Justin says, first through a Jewish lens, then a Greek:

‘For, as I before said, certain dispensations of weighty mysteries were accomplished in each act of this sort. For in the marriages of Jacob I shall mention what dispensation and prophecy were accomplished, in order that you may thereby know that your teachers never looked at the divine motive which prompted each act, but only at the grovelling and corrupting passions. Attend therefore to what I say. The marriages of Jacob were types of that which Christ was about to accomplish. For it was not lawful for Jacob to marry two sisters at once. And he serves Laban for [one of] the daughters; and being deceived in [the obtaining of] the younger, he again served seven years. Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church. And for these, and for the servants in both, Christ even now serves.’ [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 104

Several themes can be taken from the above extract, some of which I’ve underlined or bolded:

  • mysteries – this implies that Justin is referring to things that happened [in the events of Jesus life] that are not obvious at a surface level.
  • marriages – term used in a symbolic sense; if you lived in the 2nd (or earlier) centuries you probably would have understood the term “marriages” differently to that of someone today. 
  • your teachers never looked at the divine motive – this is a dig (insult) to rabbis and other Jewish experts of the day 
  • The marriages of Jacob were types of that which Christ was about to accomplish – this comment punctuates the notion that the term “marriages” is symbolic, not literal. 
  • Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church – “Leah” is symbolic of Judaism [i.e. Justin is talking to a Jew] and “Rachel” is symbolic of Christianity [Justin is referring to his church of Christianity] … 

The last point, that of “Leah” being symbolic of Jews and “Rachel” being symbolic of Christians is arguably the most important thing Justin says. He is clearly stating that the Torah, which became known as the Old Testament to Christians, was NOT literal. Moreover, concepts were personified. To understand the use of symbolism in this context, it is useful to consider Charles Peirce’s threefold definition of symbols:

  1. Iconic = where a thing literally means what it is.
  2. Indexical = where a thing brings to mind other things.
  3. Symbolic = where a thing represents another thing, with referential connections to iconic and indexical levels.

The third level of symbolism is the most complex. The symbolic representation of something may or may not have an obvious connection to iconic or indexical references. I discuss this in my blog The connection between symbolism and mental wellbeing: The basics.

Justin’s use of culturally informed gendered metaphors continues:

‘Jacob served Laban for speckled and many-spotted sheep; and Christ served, even to the slavery of the cross, for the various and many-formed races of mankind, acquiring them by the blood and mystery of the cross. Leah was weakeyed; for the eyes of your souls are excessively weak. Rachel stole the gods of Laban, and has hid them to this day; and we have lost our paternal and material gods. Jacob was hated for all time by his brother; and we now, and our Lord Himself, are hated by you and by all men, though we are brothers by nature. Jacob was called Israel; and Israel has been demonstrated to be the Christ, who is, and is called, Jesus.’ [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 104

Justin’s language is as colourful as a poet. Nearly every phrase is doused in pre-Shakespearean ambiguity: “Leah was weakeyed” and “Rachael stole the gods of Laban”. Moreover, Justin explicitly says: “Jacob was called Israel”, and “Israel has been demonstrated to be the Christ”. To take these phrases literally is to believe that Leah was a real person who needed reading glasses, Rachel was a thief, and Jacob is a double agent who goes by the names of Israel and Christ. However, interpreted figuratively, neither Leah, Rachel, or Jacob are real characters. This symbolism becomes even more apparent in the following: 

Moreover, that the word of God speaks to those who believe in Him as being one soul, and one synagogue, and one church, as to a daughter; that it thus addresses the church which has sprung from His name and partakes of His name (for we are all called Christians), is distinctly proclaimed in like manner in the following words, which teach us also to forget[our] old ancestral customs, when they speak thus: ‘Hearken, O daughter, and behold, and incline thine ear; forget thy people and the house of thy father, and the King shall desire thy beauty: because He is thy Lord, and thou shalt worship Him.'” [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 53

The term daughter in the above quote is also by no means literal.

‘Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church. And for these, and for the servants in both, Christ even now serves.’

Justin, throughout his discussion with the Jewish Trypho is referring to male and female personifications in a hierarchical manner that follows a patriarchal pattern of father (Jacob) at the top, followed by the mother (Leah and Rachel), however, if one is to continue down the ladder, we have another female symbol, that of daughters (the synagogue and church) before sons (individual members of congregation) who are the lowest rung. 

To give a visual of what he’s saying, let’s look at it like a family tree:

Justin is candidly stating that characters from the Torah (Old Testament) were not literal people, rather they are symbolic of groups of people. The use of a familia constructs follows the cultural conventions of the era, albeit, daughter is above son. 

The symbolic use of “son” as a reference to “man” can easily be understood in the figurative concept of “mankind” being children of God. “Man/mankind” is traditional patriarchal language that refers to all of humankind. (In sexist ideologies women were literally believed to be less than human, but that’s another story.) 

The logic behind using the family structure described above to present metaphysical ideology may not be obvious to us today but, presumably, it did to whomever developed it in the second millennium BCE (or earlier). 

In regards to women/daughters being used as symbolic of groups of people, while the reasons may not be clear, there are multiple examples in the Torah (Old Testament). 

Isaiah 47:1 (ISV)
Come down and sit in the dust, Virgin Daughter of Babylon. Sit on the ground without a chair, Daughter of the Chaldeans! For no longer will they call you tender and attractive”

Psalm 137: 8-9 (KJV)
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

Others
“The daughter of Zion” as a symbol of Israel, likewise, “the daughter of Jerusalem” and “daughter of Edom”. For more references of “daughter” as symbolising groups see Laminations 4:21; Zephaniah 3:14; Zachariah 9:9; Isaiah 3:16-17;  John 12:15; Matthew 21:5. (“Bible Hub” 2019; Schwartzmann 2000)

What I appreciate the most about Justin’s work is that it explicitly defines symbolism that, in my humble opinion, gets overlooked in modern Christianity. While growing up in a Catholic household, I have a clear recollection of my father once explaining to my older brother: “the daughter of Zion is metaphorical of the state of Israel”. So it is, I suspect the meaning of some symbolism has passed down through the ages, but it is not necessarily recognised by all laypeople. 

Many things come to my mind when I process the significance of Justin’s explanations of the Christian faith, as expressed by someone who converted in the second century. For instance, when in Luke 12:53 is says:

The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

King James Bible

Destructive cult leaders love to use this quote as a means of manipulating people into breaking all ties with their loved ones and, in turn, gaining more control over them. But what if Jesus is only speaking metaphorically of the “House of God”? Rather than referring to the divide of biological father and son, biological mother and daughter, and biological mother in law against daughter in law, I believe he’s talking about Synagogues, Churches, spiritual leaders, and followers being divided against one another. To me, it makes a lot more sense that the “man of peace” would be referring to the symbolic destruction of institutional “families” than real nuclear families. 

I also wonder about references to Jesus explaining scriptures to Rabbis and crowds … was he explaining symbolism, like that of Leah and Rachel? … were Jesus’ sermons all about explaining figurative expressions that had been forgotten by the masses? Additionally, to add a little complexity, Jesus was renown for speaking in riddles, and understanding the symbolism was virtually an initiation process:

And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.

Matthew 13:10-17

Note: the word “sin” in Ancient times was an archery term that mean missing the mark; if you did not shoot your arrow straight and get the target then you had “sinned”. Hence, Jesus is not saying that people who do not understand the parables are evil, rather, he is just saying they have misinterpreted symbolic language.

To me, understanding the Jewish background and how Judaism used familia terms within the symbolism of scripture is very insightful, however, as I stated at the beginning of this blog, Justin had a Greek/pagan background and his understanding of Christianity involved harmonising Jewish traditions with ancient Greek philosophy, namely, those compatible with Plato.  

As it so happens, Ancient Greek philosophy also used a symbolic familia system to describe elements of their faith. As discussed in The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts,  they had a hierarchy in which Zeus was at the top, followed by Demeter, then Persephone, and then Hades. The Greek system of Father (Zeus), mother (Demeter), daughter (Persephone), and son (Hades) has a correlation to the Jewish system of Father (Jacob), mother (Leah and Rachel), daughter (synagogue and church), and son (man/humankind). However due to different inferences, the characters of respective belief systems are not the same. Nonetheless, one could argue there are enough similarities to warrant the potential harmonising. 

So why did both Jewish and Greek philosophers use the symbolism of a family to present theological ideas? A simple answer could be it is because the family structure is something relatable to just about everyone. 

The links between Judaism and Ancient Greek philosophy and how they emerged in Christianity goes deeper than this blog can demonstrate. All the same, I hope I have illustrated that Justin Martyr is a prime example (there are others) of someone who explicitly spells out some of the symbolism of Christianity and how it is tied to both Jewish and Greek traditions. 

Also note, Justin references Plato at least twelve times in his dialogue with Typho. However, he never mentions Aristotle because his philosophies were not widely known in Palatine or the Roman Empire at this time. (Aristotle’s influence on Christianity came later as described Is Aristotle Overrated?: A look at one of the ways patriarchal systems have used Aristotle’s writings to justify male supremacy.)

I am not one to blindly follow conspiracy theories, and what I have presented here is not intended to nullify Christianity and the spiritual impulse that it inspires. Likewise, I do not wish to suggest that Christianity emerged as some conscious attempt to create a religion to control people (as some conspiracy theories suggest). Rather, my intention is to deepen the understanding of Abrahamic religions by examining the historical and cultural contexts in which they emerged. Moreover, I hope that by what I have written, individuals may be inspired to research for themselves the history of the Christian Church and question what some gurus (destructive cult leaders) have to say about how the scriptures are to be interpreted.

Final Thoughts

I’m not saying all Hebrew and Christian Bible stories are symbolic; it may be a case of some are, some art. What I am saying is that some Bible stories are symbolic. Justin’s writings support this premise. 

Was Justin deliberately trying to harmonise Jewish and Greek belief systems? Maybe. Or maybe he was just exploring spirituality in accordance with his culture. I’d love to hear what readers think, please write let me know in a comment below. 

As a final consideration, I’d like to mention Philo of Alexandria (c.25 BCE – 50 CE) whom it is known consciously tried to harmonise Jewish and Greek philosophy some hundred years prior to Justin Martyr. Philo was a Jewish philosopher that was fluent in Greek. Alexandria, his home town, was a Hellenisted province of Egypt (it was called “Alexandria” after Alexander the Great. It was also the location of the Great Library which housed scrolls gathered from all the Hellenised lands). 

Philo re-wrote Genesis, emphasising the allegorical significance of characters; it was Philos’ version of creation, the story of Adam and Eve, that most early Christians followed. Speculatively, it may be assumed that Church fathers, like Justin, were acquainted with scholarly ideas that were not shared amongst broader society.

References

Lévy, C. (2018). Philo of Alexandria (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford.edu. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philo/

Martyr, J. (150 C.E.). Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew. https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/15471/documents/2016/10/St.%20Justin%20Martyr-Dialogue%20with%20Trypho.pdf

Schwartzmann, J. (2000). Gender Concepts of Medieval Jewish Thinkers and The Book of Proverbs. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 7(3), 183–202. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40753264

The Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2020). Saint Justin Martyr | Biography, Writings, Legacy, & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Justin-Martyr

White, S. (2004). Romans, Greeks, and Jews: The World of Jesus and the Disciples Romans, Greeks, and Jews: The World of Jesus and the Disciples. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=classicsfacpub

Did the White Horseman have a bow, bow, or bow?

Symbols in the Bible are not always easy to decipher. Over the past two thousand years there have been numerous writings and re-writings of the Holy Scriptures. In order to keep the Word alive and comprehensible, scholars have continually strived to perfect the Bible’s language to align with their respective cultures and language.

There have been many debates, clashes, and arguments amongst Christians as to how the Word of God should be interpreted. Given how many developments there have been over the past two thousand years I like to keep an open mind. Therefore, to come across an evangelist, or to be precise, a Christian cult leader (FYI, the term cult leader is not used lightly), who believes that they have the capacity to interpret the Bible in a superior manner to all others intrigues me.

I do not want to unduly direct people to this man’s cult so I won’t mention them by name, however, I will give a little description of one their YouTube propaganda videos in which they discuss the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. They suggest the White Horse represents Jesus – which I dispute on the grounds that it is more probable that the ‘lamb’ in Revelations 6:1 who opens the seals and witnesses the horses is Christ. Therefore, how can Jesus be both the opener and the contents of the first seal? My greater curiosity, however, is in their point regarding how the word ‘bow’ should be interpreted.

In the video produced by the cult leader, they reference the White Horseman as depicted in Revelations 6:2:

And I looked, and behold, a white horse. He who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.

King James Version – BibleHub, 2020

Initially, the commentator, known as “the Voice”, considers ‘bow’ may be a reference to a weapon, which is a common inference.

Archer holding a ‘bow’ and arrow. Picture: ClipartMax

However, he isn’t too sure about associating Jesus with a weapon, so it’s suggested ‘bow’ is better interpreted as a ribbon. The video clip then flashes to a piece of fabric and the Voice says that Jesus’ has the miraculous capacity to save the world with a flimsy piece of cloth.

Floating piece of ribbon as a ‘bow’. Picture: PNGWING

A point overlooked with the bow as fabric interpretation is that it could be a ‘bow’ that represents status, like soldiers who receive ribbons of honour.

Ribbon of honour. Picture: Wikipedia Commons

The Greek word for ‘bow’ in Revelations 6:2 is τόξον [toxon] and there is some legitimacy to the interpretation of it being a ribbon of some sort. There are a number of Christian’s who share the opinion that the White Horseman’s bow is a simple piece of fabric. Justification for this view includes there being no mention of arrows in the Bible verse which is a point I appreciate, but I’m still not convinced about ribbon hypothesis. To investigate further I looked at a few other versions:

And I saw: and behold, a white horse, and he that sat upon it having a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went forth conquering and that he might conquer.

Darby Bible Translation – BibleHub, 2020

And I looked and a white horse appeared, and its rider carried a bow; and a victor’s wreath was given to him; and he went out conquering and in order to conquer.

Weymouth New Testament – BibleHub, 2020

I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

New International Version – BibleHub, 2020

Quick recap:

  • King James Version (1611) – Rider of white horse had a bow
  • Darby Bible Translation (1890) – Rider of white horse having a bow
  • Weymouth New Testament (1903) – Rider of white horse carried a bow
  • New International Version (1973) – Rider of white horse held a bow

It is interesting to note that between 1611 to 1973 the proposition of ‘had’ evolves into ‘held’. It’s only a little detail, but the semantics of the phrasing drastically alters the potential meaning of the overall symbolism.

In each of the interpretations I can see how the propositions ‘had’, ‘having’, ‘carried’ and ‘held’ can lead to the interpretation of ‘bow’ being a noun that refers to a physical object like a bow and arrow or piece of ribbon. But what if ‘bow’ was actually a verb? Could it be that the rider of the White Horse bowed their head to receive the crown?

‘Bow’ as a verb describing the act of bowing down to someone. Picture: PNGWING

In accordance with the King James Version, it makes sense: “He who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him … “. I do not believe the King James Version of the Bible is perfect (future blog about the terms Hell and Hades will highlight why), however, it is a very concise Old English version. Crudely, it can be perceived as being written closer to the primary source by roughly four hundred years, and the reference material of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew versions of the Bible were also in an earlier form. Hence, I give credence the proposition of ‘had’ over ‘having’, ‘carried’ or ‘held’.

Admittedly, I am partial to the interpretation that the bow in Revelations 6:2 is a reference to someone taking a bow, as in bending over to show honour. However, I’m also aware that someone participating in a bow does not linguistically flow in the phrase “had a bow”. Rather, it’s more likely that they ‘gave’ a bow than ‘had’ one.

Perhaps the term “had a bow” would suit better if whomever was giving the White Horseman the crown (i.e. the Christ-like figure) was the one who bowed? In order to read this interpretation, it needs to be understood that the Old Greek script did not have punctuation. Likewise, Old Hebrew was also written in a continuous script. All full stops, commas, paragraphs, and other punctuations have been added over the years. Hence, if the King James Version is read without the semi-colon: “He who sat on it had a bow and a crown was given to him and he went out conquering and to conquer“, the interpretation that a bowing gesture was given to the White Horseman before he received is crown becomes plausible.

Complicating the matter is that the word ‘bow’ appears in English versions of the bible about 248 times, however, Revelations 6:2 is the only time τόξον [toxon] is used (other Greek words used in reference to ‘bow’ include υποκλίνομαι [ypoklinomai], υπόκλιση [ypoklisi], τόξο [toxo], δοξάρι [doxari]). Like the English word bow, τόξον [toxon] can be a reference to a weapon, a ribbon, a bending gesture, and more.

Interestingly, the word τόξον [toxon] in ancient Greek also refers to a rainbow. It’s plausible this is an another option for how the Bible verse should be read. The symbolic image of a rainbow doesn’t fit the overall vibe of terror presented in Revelations, although it does have connotations of peace that nicely juxtaposes with the idea of the White Horseman representing goodness. Personally, I quite like the idea of a rainbow conquering the world … that is so long as I don’t think too deeply about the other reference in the Bible where a rainbow was used as symbol of God’s harsh judgment of the earth’s inhabitants … then again, perhaps there is a symbolic link between the of rainbow in the Old Testament and Revelations?

Rainbow. Picture: Kiss Clipart

If τόξον [toxon] has been used to portray a rainbow, then the next question is whether the rainbow is an object or an allegory? While pondering those possibilities, there are additional options of what ‘bow’ might mean.

In Hebrew word for bow is קשת. In the context of Revelations 6:2 it means much the same as is English and Greek in that is it has multiple meanings of reference which include a weapon, ribbon, bending gesture, and rainbow. Further, קשת has the additional meaning of oxbow which refers to curved wood that goes around the neck of an ox. Perhaps the White Horseman was wearing an oxbow?

Oxbow. Picture: Wikipedia

To seek clarity around what ‘bow’ in Revelations 6:2 is all about, I decided to look for clues in the propositions of ‘had’, ‘having’, ‘held’, and ‘carry’. The Greek word of interest in this instance is ἔχον [echon]. I compared its usage throughout other Bible verses (see below) but again this didn’t help because it appears the interpretation of ἔχον [echon] can have different connotations depending on the context, therefore, ‘had’ and ‘having’ are both technically correct.

ἔχον [echon] can refer to the verb of possessing or getting possession of something; therefore, the term ‘held’ in the New International Version and ‘carrying’ in Weymouth New Testament are interpretations that can’t be definitely perceived as correct. Subsequently, they create subtle alterations to the mental imagery of the scene that may not be appropriate if bow is a verb or adjective, opposed to a noun.

Verses from KJV Bible that illustrate different usages of the Greek term ἔχον [echon] in contextual situations:

Matthew 12:10 And, behold, there was a man which had [ἔχων – echōn] hand withered. 

Mark 1:22 And they were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one that had [ἔχων – echōn] authority, and not as the scribes.

Luke: 33 And in the synagogue there was a man, which had [ἔχων – echōn] a spirit of an unclean devil, and cried out with a loud voice,

Luke 7:2 And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear unto him, was [ἔχων – echōn] sick, and ready to die.

Luke 7:8 For I also am a man set under authority, having [ἔχων – echōn] under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth;

John 5:5 And a certain man was there, which had [ἔχων – echōn] an infirmity thirty and eight years.

John 18:10 Then Simon Peter having [ἔχων – echōn] a sword drew it, and smote the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear.

Revelations 14:18 And another angel came out from the altar, which had [ἔχων – echōn] power over fire;

Revelations 17:7 And here the mind which hath [ἔχων – echōn] wisdom. 

To add a final layer of complexity to what ‘bow’ might mean, it’s possible that the colloquialisms of the Greek τόξον [toxon] have been lost to time. For example the word “sick” literally refers to something that is unwell, however, it can also be used colloquially (particularly among younger people) to mean something which is great. Language constantly evolves and the meanings of words can also change, especially if they are tied to cultural influences. Therefore, does the term ‘bow’, or rather the Greek τόξον [toxon], have a colloquial meaning that is no longer known?

Overall, the most popular interpretation of ‘bow’ for centuries has been the idea that it is a reference to a weapon, as notable in Dürer’s woodcut from the fifteenth century. I have great admiration for Dürer. Still, with my recent experience of the flat earth myth, I wonder how valid it is to rely upon popular opinions. 

Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1498, woodcut. (White Horseman is depicted in the background, right side of composition) Picture: Smart History

It is worthy to note, that Dürer’s woodcut is not a literal representation of the book of Revelations. He applied creative licensing in an imaginative manner that combines various elements of the narrative into a single scene, plus he has added details like the Fourth Horseman holding a pitchfork which is not mentioned in the Bible. A lot can be learned from appreciating Dürer’s work, however, ultimately, it is an expression of his personal opinions. Pictures can be very persuasive but they are not always truthful.

So what does this all matter? Symbolically, it matters a lot. The mental representation of a rider on a White Horse armed for war, compared to one fashioning a ribbon, bending in reverence to receive a crown, or having the glow of a rainbow, all carry very different meanings.

Holistically, examining how the interpretation of a single word can drastically alter the meaning of text is a prudent reminder that making inferences from the Bible are not easy. 

Whether or not the Bible is the true word of God remains a matter of faith. As for translations and interpretations, they appear to be a matter of human choice. Further, cult leaders who assert they are authorities on interpreting words and symbols need to brush up on their history of linguistics.

For an in extended analysis see Interpreting The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse In A Historical Context

P.S. ‘Bow’ is an extremely interesting word, in addition to all the meanings explored in this blog, it also can be used to refer to a curved piece of wood with horse hair used to play a musical instrument, the fore-end of ship, or anything with a curved shape.

Bibliography

BibleHub. (2020a). Revelation 6:2 So I looked and saw a white horse, and its rider had a bow. And he was given a crown, and he rode out to overcome and conquer. Biblehub.com. https://biblehub.com/revelation/6-2.htm

BibleHub. (n.d.). Bow (248 Occurrences). Bibleapps.com. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://bibleapps.com/b/bow.htm

BOW. (n.d.). Definitions.net. Retrieved November 11, 2020, from https://www.definitions.net/definition/BOW.

Kiss Clipart. (n.d.). Download Rainbow Line. KissClipart. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.kissclipart.com/rainbow-png-clipart-clip-art-qzfxip/

Messie2vie. (n.d.). echo – Strong’s number G2192 – Greek Lexicon | Bible Tools – Messie2vie. Messie2vie. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.messie2vie.fr/bible/strongs/strong-greek-G2192-echo-page-4.html#concordance

Parsing and Strongs Definition. (n.d.). http://Www.Misselbrook.org.Uk. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from http://www.misselbrook.org.uk/Parsing.aspx?PNum=1078

Smart History. (2015). Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Smarthistory. Smarthistory.org. https://smarthistory.org/albrecht-durer-four-horsemen/

toxon – Strong’s number G5115 – Greek Lexicon | Bible Tools – Messie2vie. (n.d.). Messie2vie. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.messie2vie.fr/bible/strongs/strong-greek-G5115-toxon.html

What does קשת mean in Hebrew? (n.d.). WordHippo. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.wordhippo.com/what-is/the-meaning-of/hebrew-word-88b07c9532c6189b876c72b39e2f635c8f2ad642.html

Wikipedia Contributors. (2018, November 28). King James Version. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_James_Version