Jews pythagorized a lot in Alexandria, several centuries before the Christian era. Philo and Josephus are excellent examples of Hellenizing Jews, belonging to the high class of this city, and sensitive to ideas flowing from elsewhere. Pharisaism and Essenism, which flourished at the time, can be interpreted as effective outcomes of Pythagorean and Alexandrian Judaism.
The Pharisees, the « Separated », indeed constituted a « separate band », they wanted to distinguish themselves from traditional Jews, and even to innovate with regard to the Law. Josephus says that the Pharisees imposed rules on the people that were not enshrined in the Law of Moses.
Death and resurrection occupied the minds a lot, then.
The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead. So did share this belief Rabbi Joshua ben Youssef, better known as Jesus, while still finding Pharisees « hypocrites », and « bleached graves ».
By contrast, the Sadducees, faithful to the letter of the Law, were « Old Believers » and they denied the resurrection.
The core idea of the resurrection was indeed not Jewish. It was widespread in Hellenism, pythagorism, with palingenesis and metempsychosis. All this originated in a more distant East. Iran. India. The vast world had many different views on these difficult subjects.
But the Pharisaic belief in the resurrection was undoubtedly « a decisive innovation, which made Pharisaic and Talmudic Judaism a religion quite different from that of the Law and the Prophets, » wrote Isidore Lévyi.
Pharisaic Judaism has adapted and modified the concepts of resurrection and palingenesis: the resurrection is not as a recurring opportunity offered to migrant souls, but a singular, unique event, which occurs once and for all on the day of Revelation.
As for the Essenes, another sect of Judaism, they are called Hassa’im, the « silent » ones. Josephus describes them as follows: « No scream, no tumult ever defiles the house; everyone in turn is given the floor. To people outside, the silence inside gives the impression of a frightening mystery.»ii
They are also fanatics, » adds Josephus. « They swear not to reveal anything about the members of the cult to strangers, even if they were to be tortured to death.»iii
It was already, let us remember, Pythagoras’ oath: « Rather die than speak », as reported by Diogenes Laertius (VIII, 39). And it also reminds us of Jesus’ obstinate silence before Pilate.
Flavius Josephus summarizes the belief of the Essene sect: « The soul is eternal. Freed from its carnal chain, the soul, as if liberated from a long servitude, joyfully takes off towards the heights.» iv
Other sects still competed with them in this troubled period: the Zadoqites, the Nazarenes, the Dositheans, the disciples of Johanan Ben Zakkai, those of Hillel…
In this world open to the influences of many heterodox cultures, the parallel between the birth of Jesus and that of Pythagoras is worth to be underlined.
There is more. Pythagoras in Crotone refused to be called a son of Apollo, just as Jesus in Capernaum does not want to be known as the son of God. Another similarity: Pythagoras and Jesus knew how to talk to women. Jesus had several of them as unconditional followers, three of whom are named: Mary Magdalene, Mary Mother of James, and Salome. This sole fact is in itself extremely remarkable, if we take into account the context and the time. Only Pythagoras has had a similar behaviour in the past.
Pharisaism, born in Alexandria in the midst of a maelstrom of cultures, religions, political, economic and migratory movements, tried to reconcile the ideas of Moses and Pythagoras. The time aspired to forms of syncretism, to conjunctions of points of view.
If Judaism was then influenced by Pythagorism, how can we not see that Christianity too was influenced by its aura? Long before Jesus, Pythagoras had been known as the God-Man of Samos, while being the son of Mesarch and Parthenis. He embodied on earth the manifestation of Apollo. Through him, shone in Crotone, the torch that saved happiness and wisdom.
I. Levy interprets what he calls « the enigmatic fact of the triumph of Christianity » in this way: « Of the religion which under the Caesars left Palestine, the essential had only been introduced to Jerusalem a century earlier. The Gospel conceals under an oriental garment the belief system which, as we know from the writings of Virgil, Plutarch and many others, from the careers of Apollonius of Tyana and Alexander of Abonutikhos, captured the most diverse spirits on the Greek and Latin shores of the Mediterranean. It seduced the ancient world because it brought it, imbued with the most penetrating exotic charm, a product of Greek thought, heir to an Indo-European past. »v
All this sounds curious in the 21st century, used to the strangest extrapolations, and sensitive to the most improbable reinterpretations, never without putative provocations.
Jesus, a slandered rabbi, condemned as « king of the Jews », now may reappear in the collective consciousness as an « oriental », « exotic » product, an heir to « Greek thought » and to an « Indo-European past ».
In the Jewish world, trying to survive after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD, it was probably not desirable to allow the seeds of heresy to develop. It was necessary to gather minds, after the political, symbolic and moral disaster. Yet Jesus was Jewish, as were the Pharisees, Sadducees or Essenes who occupied the field of Jewish thought at that time. More Jewish than Indo-European, we might say.
It is certainly not indifferent, today, to want to see in Christianity only an « oriental », « exotic », « Greek » and « Indo-European » non-Jewish heresy, rather than the sucker of the Jesse trunk, – that Judaeo-Christians celebrated then.
It might be more significant, from a very long-term perpective, to consider Christianity being, at the same time, and without contradiction, an interesting innovation: a Jewish-Greek-Indo-European and exotic religion, – transcending in its unique way cultures, borders, classes, sects, centuries.
i in La Légende de Pythagore de Grèce en Palestine, 1927
ii Bellum II, VIII, 5, §132
iii Bellum II, VIII, 5, §132
iv Bell. II, VIII, §155-157