What follows is a summary of my conclusions regarding (1) the presence of a large percentage of gays and lesbians among some of Jesus’ very first followers (the Q community), (2) the highly political and violent nature of the rabbis and Pharisees in years before Jesus’ ministry, and (3) the role of Rabban Yohannan ben Zakkai in the deadly campaign against the Q community.
Gays and Lesbians in the Q Community
One of the communities of Galilean followers of Jesus, the Q community, accepted and included a large number of Jesus’ gay and lesbian followers. What was preserved of Jesus’ teachings and actions did not necessarily include everything said and done, but certainly included things of particular relevance to his earliest audience.
The Q Source preserves four sections in particular which are the evidence of the theme of same-sex relationships:
- the story of the centurion and his pais (Q 7:1-10),
- the relatively favorable reference to Sodom (Q 10:1-13),
- the association of Jesus with the spreader of “sodomy” on the earth, Beelzebul (Q 11:14-26), and
- several elements of what I have called the Gay Apocalypse of Q (Q 17:22-35). The Gay Apocalypse includes (a) two symbols closely associated with the divine “gay” couple, Zeus and Ganymede, (b) the story of Sodom’s destruction, and (c) a story about two gay and lesbian couples being apprehended in the middle of the night.
I follow Q scholars who support an early date for the Q source, between 30 and 45 CE. I also agree with the view that the Q community was located in northern Galilee. This location is based on the mention of two otherwise insignificant Galilean towns, Chorazin and Bethsaida, which are just north of the Sea of Galilee.
Q Community Disappearance: A Puzzle to Scholars
Until now, Q scholars have had a hard time explaining why the Q community disappeared. Nothing seemed to exist to provoke a violent persecution, nothing meriting the death penalty. The Q community is frequently dismissed as a bunch of wandering vagabonds, “countercultural” cynics who petulantly whined about not being welcomed with open arms.
Regarding the existence of a “Q community”: the composition and propagation of each of the gospels is believed to have been supported by a particular community of Jesus followers. Thus, scholars speak of the Markan community, the Lukan community, etc. Yet because of its unfinished, unpolished condition, the Gospel of Q seems to have had no community to support its continued composition and development. The question has remained: why did the Q community not survive?
Yohannan ben Zakkai’s Destruction of the Q Community
I argue that the Q community disappeared because, in order to impose Pharisaic teaching and practice on the Galilee, Rabban Yohannan ben Zakkai waged a ten-year campaign for its destruction.
Rabban Yohannan was one of the most influential rabbis of the period, and is credited for the survival of the Jewish people. Early in his career he was stationed in northern Galilee, between 20 and 40 CE, probably as an official representative of the Pharisees in Jerusalem. The Pharisees were always attempting to expand their influence on government officials. The specific city mentioned as his place of residence is Arav, which is located only 17 miles north of Chorazin and Bethsaida.
This overlap in time and space between (1) Jesus’ ministry, (2) the Q community, and (3) the presence of Yohannan ben Zakkai was the key discovery that pushed me to explore the official record of Rabban Yohannan.
Yohannan ben Zakkai: Means, Motive, and Opportunity
Thus, Rabban Yohannan ben Zakkai, one of the most important Pharisees of the first century, had the means, motive, and opportunity to wage the campaign that destroyed the Q community.
The means? He was an expert in Torah, had experience in explaining Torah to gentile officials, and used persuasion as his primary method to prosecute his campaign. Pharisees eschewed holding the reins of power themselves, and favored using civil authorities (Jewish or gentile) as instruments through which to work.
His motive? To establish the centrality of Torah in Galilee, a region sometimes called “Galilee of the Gentiles,” a region with its own religious traditions from as far back as the days of Nehemiah and Ezra, a region about which Rabban Yohannan said, “Galilee, O Galilee, you hate Torah!” There is no better way to convince a resistant population to follow your ideology than to “flex your muscle,” to impose upon the region a “reign of terror.”
His opportunity? Living in northern Galilee between 20 and 40 CE, witnessing all of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, living a mere 17 miles north of Chorazin and Bethsaida where events occurred which caused the Q community to announce God’s judgment against them. From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry until Rabban Johannan’s own departure to Jerusalem (30—40 CE), the rabbi’s base of operation was located only 17 miles from two small towns that were probably the scenes of the first executions of gay and lesbian members of the Q community.
Q Refers to Yohanan ben Zakkai and to his Disciple, Exorcist Hanina ben Dosa
There is strong evidence within Q itself that Yohannan ben Zakkai was among the Pharisees persecuting the Q community.
Q 11:39-49 is comprised of woes specifically aimed at the Pharisees. Before that section is Q 11:14-19, which is often called the Beelzebul Controversy. In the Beelzebul Controversy the Pharisees accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the authority of Beelzebul. In Q 11:19 Jesus reportedly says, “And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges.”
It so happens that one of Jewish history’s most famous exorcists was a disciple of none other than Rabban Yohannan ben Zakkai. That name of that exorcist was Hanina ben Dosa. Thus, when Jesus refers to “your sons” who cast out demons, he is referring to one of Rabban Yohannan’s most well-known disciples. Referring to their exorcist “sons” near the climax of this heated exchange suggests that the historical basis of this event left a dramatic, even poignant, impression. Note that within this debate between Jesus and the Pharisees, mention is made of the little towns of Chorazin and Bethsaida.
Rabban Yohannan is virtually unknown among Christians, but is much better known among Jews. He founded the rabbinic school in Yavneh (also known as Jamnia), what became the center of Jewish learning in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Subsequently, the Torah replaced the Temple as the center of the Jewish religion.
A Cover-Up: Sanitizing Rabban Yohannan’s Official Record
You will search in vain for any descriptions of Rabban Yohannan ben Zakkai’s campaign against the first gay and lesbian followers of Jesus. I believe that an understandable and wise cover-up of ben Zakkai’s anti-Q campaign was launched in the years between c 70 CE and c 500 CE when the Gemara (the second part of the Talmud) was written. Jacob Neusner, a leading scholar on Rabban Yohannan,, insists repeatedly that nothing was “preserved” about Rabban Zakkai except what Rabban Hillel and his colleagues (who succeeded Zakkai at Yavneh) wanted to survive. Neusner repeated emphasizes the political coloring of Zakkai’s record, suggesting that the picture we have of Yohannan ben Zakkai was carefully crafted, sanitized of materials that were either antithetical to the “precedent” conscious Hillelites, or were dangerous to the Jewish people under newly “Christianized” Roman imperial power.
Clues that Survived the Cover-Up
Nevertheless, a number of clues were left, clues which undermine the studious and scholarly picture of Zakkai’s life and work. Without going into great detail, I will list these clues here.
- He cancelled traditions that allowed officials to go light on capital crimes; he favored strict enforcement of the death penalty. He overturned by fiat two means for weakening the death penalty: the “Red Heifer” and the “Poisoned Waters.”
- Bind and detain dangerous culprits in your home, was his message. They are threats to your family members. Bind them even if you sin. Woe to you if you bind them on the Sabbath, Woe to you if you do not. Using the principle of “lesser to greater”, or kal v’chomer, this is the background of the famous story of “The Scorpion under the Dish”.
- He believed that the best motivation for obedience to God is fear, not love.
- In situations of serious sexual perversion (bestiality and prostitution at high places) he argued for the destruction of everything involved (the beast, the stones of the altar, etc.), even though not morally culpable, in order to avoid “confusion” in people’s minds.
There are two popular descriptions of Zakkai, one referring to his interest in capital crimes, and the other a typical exaltation of Torah study, that bear the markings of the cover-up. I believe they were generated in response to bona-fide criticisms that were actually leveled against him by his successors at Yavneh.
- His great interest in capital crimes supposedly goes back to his earliest days as a student (his scrupulous questioning witnesses about fig leafs in the context of a capital crime).
- No one ever saw him doing anything except studying Torah.
The first of these would preempt accusations that ben Zakkai was careless in his prosecution of the campaign against gay and lesbian in the Q community. In such a reign of terror, it is impossible to avoid sweeping up uncooperative bystanders (friends and family) along with those targeted. The second characterization, while elevating the virtue of Torah study, is voiced so exaggeratedly that it too sounds intended to preempt criticism, accusations that his cleansing operation had eclipsed his devotion to Torah.
Another clue to ben Zakkai’s activities follows.
- He discusses the destruction of a beast with whom someone has had sex, arguing for its necessary destruction to a gentile magistrate.
This episode is exceedingly significant for several reasons. First, it indicates that Yohannan ben Zakkai had an active interest in capital crimes involving what might be called sexual perversion, and that he sought to destroy anything connected with such perversion. Second, it is consistent with the typical Pharisaic approach to making things happen: working through civil officials. Third, it is related to the principle of minorum ad majorum, and/or to the practice of legal reasoning by analogy. Here, by analogy, the beast represents a gentile sexual partner, who, though technically not subject to Torah, could be argued to be so subject by extrapolation. Remember that even Jesus is recorded as calling the Canaanite woman a dog.
This point regarding gentiles as beasts and dogs fits the Galilean settings of an anti-gay campaign. Galilee had a mixed population of Jew and gentile, and sexual minorities often cross social and ethnic boundaries because of their problematical social isolation. Or more simply, when your romantic options are severely limited, you are more willing to cross normal ethnic and social boundaries to locate a suitable partner. It follows that Jesus’ following included gay and lesbian couples who were ethnically mixed—Jew and gentile.
Estimates for the first-century population of Galilee range from 100,000 to 200,000. If we use today’s conservative estimates, and 3.5% of the population is homosexual, that means that the number of gays and lesbians in the Galilee were between 3,500 and 7,000. Also, the Galilee was roughly 650 square miles. less than half the size of Long Island, NY or the entire state of Rhode Island, 1/7 as large as San Diego County, and 1/10 the size of Kuwait. Or, envision a region approximately 25.5 x 25.5 miles.
First, Jesus’ inclusive and celebratory message attracted gays and lesbians. They follow him. They attended his love feasts. Launching a campaign to exterminate these gay and lesbian followers of Jesus (and mainly ben Zakkai’s fellow Jews) would be relatively easy in such a small area, given their new acceptance and visibility. Rabban Yohannan had a relatively easy time of it, so long as he could persuade the local magistrates to cooperate.
It is important to remember that in the early decades of Christian history, there was no strict line separating Jews from Christians. The early Christians considered themselves Jews, and so did the Jewish authorities. Thus, Yohannan ben Zakkai was not, in his mind, persecuting another religion. He believed he was fighting for the purity of the Jewish people by eliminating Jews who were unwilling to repent of their sodomy. For ben Zakkai, the elimination of gays and lesbians was an in-house, domestic affair.
Rabban Yohannan’s mission was to bring the Galilee under the sway of Pharisaic orthodoxy. In our popular Christian mind, we often merge Galilee and Judea together and assume that, religiously speaking, they were pretty much the same. This assumption is quite incorrect. Their histories were very different. Galilean Jews, for example, were not taken to Babylon into captivity–and the Galilean offer to assist in the rebuilding of Jerusalem when the Jewish nobility returned from captivity, that offer of assistance was rudely rebuffed by Ezra.
A Major Barrier to Grasping the Reality of First-Century Violence
There is one major barrier to most people’s ability to accept the argument that the Pharisees–Jewish rabbis–launched a campaign to annihilate gay and lesbian Jews. That barrier is our habit of reading into ancient history our contemporary image of rabbis as temperate, calm, wise men who patiently and peaceably lead their flocks.
We anachronistically read back into the past what we know of the Judaism of the present. In the past, religion and politics were often fused in the government, and deadly violence was common. We aren’t inclined to imagine rabbis and priests with swords and knives killing one another, but this is not too far from the truth. Assassinations motivated by politics & religion did occur.
Several relevant episodes occurred during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus, and during the reign of his wife Alexandra. Alexander Jannaeus was king of Judea from 103 BCE to 76 BCE. Once, in order to demonstrate his support for the priests, he slaughtered 6,000 people in the Temple courtyard, a number that included many Pharisees. On his death bed Alexander advised Alexandra to make peace with the Pharisees and take them in as advisors. Upon the advice of the Pharisees, a massive repression of their enemies occurred: the crucifixion of some 800 persons, and a number of up-close-and-personal assassinations. Religion and politics were truly a high stakes game.
In first-century Palestine religion and politics were intimately connected, as they are in most places in the world today. To really understand this part of our ancient past, while many things stay the same, it is often necessary to unlearn what you have learned.
Surmise and Conjecture? Try “Politics as Usual”
Q scholars are fond of saying that theories for the disappearance of the Q community are surmise and conjecture. They believe it is not possible to know these reasons with any sense of confidence. I obviously disagree.
Rabban Yohannan ben Zakkai is the only well known Pharisee of that era who is known to have been in the vicinity of Jesus and the Q community at the time of that community’s disappearance. He had the means, motive, and opportunity to eradicate these gay and lesbian Jews who flouted Torah and associated with gentiles so indiscriminately. Official records demonstrate his policy of tightening up the enforcement of the death penalty. Accounts exist showing his M.O. to be consistent with the Pharisaic policy of persuading civil authorities to implement their strategic plans, like they had done with Queen Alexandra. And there is evidence of a cover-up of his actions. Today we would call his actions “crimes against humanity”. In the first century CE, his actions were simply “politics as usual.”
Some people paint a picture of Rabban Yohannan’s early years as being spent in a sort of melancholy, bucolic state of inactive defeat. He is painted as complaining, impotent to influence Jews in the Galilee. And we are expected to believe that he suddenly becomes a person of bold action and initiative, able to negotiate with the Zealots trapped in Jerusalem and with Vespasian himself? Is such a transformation believable?
Rabban Yohannan was always inclined to act unilaterally, to do whatever the situation demanded to accomplish his goals, to make whatever argument was appropriate to his audience. It was impossible for even the Hillelites to totally suppress his characterization in an attempt to make him a precedent-bound rabbi who would never make a decision without consulting the opinions of those who came before him.
The impetuous man who cut the ear of a priest, thereby ending the priest’s career, was the same impetuous man who convinced civil magistrates in Chorazin and Bethsaida to execute homesexuals according to Torah.
A Cover-Up Born out of Necessity, Foresight, and Wisdom
The discontinuity of these pictures of ben Zakkai is the result of a massive cover up. The record of his work was thoroughly sanitized and redacted. Under the conditions after 70 CE of being subject to Rome but lacking any territory, the actual example set by Yohannan ben Zakkai would be extremely dangerous to preserve as a precedent. Repeated clashes with Rome eventually resulted in the annihilation of hundreds of thousands of Jews in Jerusalem. These clashes were nurtured by the memory of Jewish heroes. After 70 CE, and after Constantine, the last thing the Jews needed was yet another hero, the first hero to do battle with the Christians.
Many scholars have expressed with surprising vehemence their anger at what they characterize as the misdirection and half-truths of the Talmud. I have only seen a few brief characterizations that go along these lines. I don’t know what their backgrounds are, but they remind me of former fundamentalist Christians who hate their former faith. Such expressions of bitterness suggest to me a sense of betrayal. I have no direct knowledge of the roots of their bitterness.
What I do know is that in this regard, the early compilers of the Talmud had excellent reason to cover pre-Yavnean history in a veil of silence and misdirection.