The Life and Times of Jesus, that was the title of a philosophy course I was expected to teach in the late 1970s at Golden West College. The Dean wanted to counter the fundamentalist Christian influence of Chuck Smith’s wildly successful Agape revisioning of the Baptist Church. Of course the Dean wanted one of his cronies to teach the course, but I had the background in the philosophy of religion and I insisted a philosophy course should be taught by a philosopher, not an ordained minister. That was the beginning of my search for the historical Jesus and my use of the recently published Gospel of Thomas.
Looking back two thousand years and trying to imagine the lives of the people living in Palestine during the Roman era is a daunting task. The texts which exist are all written with certain biases. The received text of the Christian New Testament is a perfect example of the difficulties. Little or nothing remains of what the original disciples of Yeshua had to say about his teachings. There are threads of course. His brother James wrote and his friend John did also. The original language which they all spoke was Aramaic, a modern version of ancient Hebrew. The important Hebrew texts had been translated into Greek one hundred fifty years before the time of Jesus, so educated Jews who spoke Greek could discuss Jewish ideas with Koine Greek speaking people. Of course the problem was cultural. Jews had very different ideas from the dominant Greek and Roman cultures.
The daunting part of the story was created by a very intelligent Jew by the name of Saul, who came from Asia Minor. He was well educated in Tarsus and never met Yeshua in the flesh. He was persecuting the followers of Yeshua, when he was struck blind. That’s when he heard a voice, which he identified as the Christ. From that point on he changed his name to Paul and began spreading his interpretation of the message of Yeshua. He wrote in Greek to people, and after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple (as predicted by Yeshua), the Aramaic language was all but forgotten. Everything was translated into Greek. Three hundred years later the Roman Emperor Constantine called a council of the heads of the Christian churches together so that they could decide what the basic structure of the new Roman religion was to be. They came up with the Creed at the Council of Nicea (325 ad) and decided which books would be regarded as sacred and which would be discarded. Little changed for 1600 years.
At the end of the Second World War two important discoveries were made. Around the Dead Sea in Palestine some fragments of ancient Hebrew texts were found. These verified the correctness of the received texts. There was little difference between the Palestinian and the Babylonian Hebrew texts. The other important discovery was made in Egypt near Qumran where long lost scrolls had been hidden for 1300 years and preserved by the desert’s dryness. The Gospel according to Thomas was one of those. It is a collection of sayings of Yeshua with no context. More than any other book, it has perplexed scholars. Many thought it to be a Gnostic text, because it could be interpreted that way. But what always intrigued me was the question whether there was an Aramaic text behind the Coptic Greek document. I gave that intellectual pursuit a break when I left my college job and began teaching my children.
Thirty five years later the question came back to roost. My benefactors invited Dr. Lewis Keizer to present his research on early Kabalistic thought and practice during the days of Yeshua. He had studied the Coptic language at Harvard. He obtained his Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. Everything fell together for me when he presented his translation of the Aramaic Lord’s Prayer. The versions from the New Testament are Greek. There must have been translations from the Aramaic, but what changes had to be made for a Greek mind set to understand the Jewish original? And is it possible that Yeshua had a private and public teaching? Did his private teaching assume familiarity with the Kabalistic teachings of his time? If so, then we need to pay attention to Dr. Keizer’s interpretation of the ABBAUN, the Mother-Father Godhead of the Kabala. He points out that the supposed Aramaic or Syriac translation came directly from the Greek, not the other way around. But it is possible to use linguistic analysis to figure out what the Aramaic expressions probably were. After that it is a question of how you interpret the concepts. Is there a secret Kabalistic meaning behind the prayer? Keizer thinks so.
If you want to explore this novel approach to the teachings of Yeshua, (200 years ago when they invented the J, they changed the Greek “iesus” to the present spelling Jesus) I recommend you check out the works of Lewis Keizer.