Pious Fraud, Vegetarian Style

Bart Ehrman’s book “Forged” deals mostly with ancient forgeries, but also with some modern forgeries

NOTE: this post discusses Nicholas Notovitch and Edmond Bordeaux Szekely. For G. J. R. Ouseley and “The Gospel of the Holy Twelve,” see the next post.

Why would anyone want to fabricate a gospel to prove that Jesus was a vegetarian, or anything else about Jesus? There is plenty of solid historical evidence that the message of Jesus was simple living, nonviolence, and vegetarianism, and that vegetarianism was a key idea of the movement which he headed. But Nicholas Notovitch and Edmond Bordeaux Szekely have not gone down the historical path; they have instead fabricated a gospel. Both of these gospels are sometimes innocently quoted by vegetarians to prove that Jesus went to India or that Jesus was a vegetarian. But neither of them constitutes real evidence about Jesus, or about anything else before the nineteenth century.

Forgeries in the name of religion are sometimes called “pious frauds.” Notovitch and Szekely are in distinguished company. The New Testament includes many books whose actual authors are other than they are claimed to be, such as Paul’s two “letters to Timothy,” which were not written by Paul.  Forgeries are in a different category altogether than channeled works such as Rev. Ouseley’s The Gospel of the Holy Twelve or Levi’s The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus Christ.  In the case of channeled works, the author is being straightforward: I had a dream or vision, in which God (or Anna Kingsford, or the Akashic Records) revealed these things. But in the case of forgeries, a manuscript is being advertised as being written by someone who in fact did not write it.

Nicholas Notovitch

Nicolas Notovitch was a French explorer who, in the late nineteenth century, created a sensation by publishing a book called The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ. In it, Notovitch describes his travels to Tibet, where after breaking his leg, he was brought to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in which he finds an unusual manuscript. It is about a Saint Issa, and Notovitch quickly realizes that Issa is simply Jesus. In this gospel, Issa travels to India and studies with the wise men in that country before returning to Israel and proclaiming his message and ministry. Notovitch’s book was first published in French in 1894 and created a sensation; it was then translated into English and various other European languages.

From a vegetarian point of view Notovitch’s book is not that helpful, even if you accept it as gospel. There is no explicit reference to vegetarianism, though Saint Issa does, at least, condemn animal sacrifices (at 7.14). Vegetarians might be tempted to use this gospel to prove that Jesus lived in India, though, where he presumably received some vegetarian influences.

In The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, Saint Issa as a young man goes to India, Persia, and finally comes back to Israel.  In Israel, spies monitor him closely to find an excuse to have him arrested, but for three years they are unable to. Finally Issa is hauled before Pilate and condemned. He is buried, but Pilate sends his soldiers to get the body and bury it somewhere else, so the rumor spreads that his body has been removed by angels.

This sounds really fascinating. But, to make a long story short, the book was soon discredited. Several people traveled to Tibet to find out more at the monastery that Notovitch claimed to visit, and if possible have a peek at the manuscript, including an academic professor. The whole story unraveled. The chief lama said that not only was there no such manuscript, but they had never been visited by Notovitch or any other European during that period. Notovitch, confronted with the evidence, admitted that he had lied, and tried to put forward a different story, about finding fragments of the manuscript in different monasteries. But obviously Notovitch was discredited, and the controversy faded. Notovitch did, however, make quite a bit of money off his book.

However, Notovitch’s book remained available in libraries, and later researchers “discovered” the book without being aware of its earlier history, or of the fact that Notovitch had been discredited. Holger Kersten wrote Jesus Lived in India which is largely based on Notovitch’s book. Kersten is apparently completely oblivious to the history of the controversy over Notovitch’s work. Zombie-like, Notovitch’s hoax continued to have a life of its own even after it was discredited.

Edmund Bordeaux Szekely

The Essene Gospel of Peace, written by Edmond Bordeaux Szekely, is the most famous modern example of a pious vegetarian fraud. It is still used by some today to “prove” that Jesus was a vegetarian. There is a clear vegetarian message.  Killing animals is allowed in self-defense, but not for food or for hides or tusks, or any other purpose (1981 edition, p. 34-35). There are also various other unusual themes in this gospel, promoting natural living, a theology of the Earth, and so forth.

It was first published in 1937, and then again in 1977, and has been reprinted since then. The title page of the 1981 edition announces it as “The Third Century Aramaic Manuscript and Old Slavonic Texts Compared, Edited, and Translated by Edmond Bordeaux Szekely.” (Inconsistently, though, the 1937 edition dates the manuscript to the first century.) Szekely claims to have found the manuscripts in various locations, including the Vatican Library, where he first encountered the manuscripts in 1923, and then also in the Royal Archives of the Hapsburgs in Vienna, and the monastery at Monte Cassino. Szekely identifies Hebrew, Aramaic, and Old Slavonic versions of the manuscript.

There are two key problems with Szekely’s story. The first is the contents of the manuscripts themselves. Yes, at least it’s vegetarian; but it also has a number of clearly modern “natural health” ideas. The second is Szekely’s own accounts of the manuscripts. His accounts are inconsistent, and most alarmingly, no one has documented anyone other than Szekely who even claims to have seen these manuscripts.

A number of people have written to the Vatican Library or the Hapsburg Archives; no one has found any such manuscript. The Monte Cassino monastery, as is well known, was destroyed during the Second World War. Conveniently, Szekely only revealed the existence of the manuscripts at Monte Cassino after the war, even though the first edition was published before the war. In the 1937 edition, Szekely dates the Aramaic to the first century; in the 1977 edition, to the third century. Well, how does he know, and why did he change his mind?  What, exactly, is going on here?  Are we just supposed to take his word for it, or what?

Looking at the manuscript, we see that it is full of modern “natural” health ideas. For example, Jesus is quoted as advocating enemas, complete with a graphic description of how to perform them! Here is a quote (from The Essene Gospel of Peace, Book I, 1981 edition):

Seek, therefore, a large trailing gourd, having a stalk the length of a man; take out its inwards and fill it with water from the river which the sun has warmed. Hang it upon the branch of a tree, and kneel upon the ground before the angel of water, and suffer the end of the stalk of the trailing gourd to enter your hinder parts, that the water may flow through all your bowels. (P. 16)

In fact, Jesus says that unless you perform these enemas, you cannot come into God’s presence:

No man may come before the face of God, whom the angel of water lets not pass (p. 14).

He also advocates a raw-foods diet:

“Master, where is the fire of life?” asked some of them.

“In you, in your blood, and in your bodies.”

“And the fire of death?”

“It is the fire which blazes outside your body, which is hotter than your blood. With that fire of death you cook your foods in your homes and in your fields. I tell you truly, it is the same fire which destroys your foods and your bodies . . . Eat nothing, therefore, which a stronger fire than the fire of life has killed.” (P. 36)

Jesus goes on in this vein, explaining how you can make raw bread (by sprouting wheat, basically). Jesus also allows us to drink dairy milk (p. 36–37). Presumably this milk would be non-pasteurized. Every seventh day, we are to fast altogether (p. 41).

Sometimes there are modern forgeries (or alleged forgeries) which really do puzzle even the scholars. These include Dr. Morton Smith’s The Secret Gospel of Mark, and the inscription on the James ossuary, “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” The James ossuary inscription resulted in accusations of forgery and a lengthy trial. In both cases scholarly opinion was at least initially divided and expert opinion really was required. Scholarly opinion seems to be that The Secret Gospel of Mark is a forgery, but that the inscription on the James ossuary is genuine; the owner of the ossuary was acquitted of the forgery charges.

But it does not require specialist knowledge to see that there are some major problems with The Essene Gospel of Peace. Szekely has come up with a clearly contrived story: a mysterious manuscript, the physical condition of which Szekely never described, which no one except Szekely has ever seen, which Szekely quickly and effortlessly translated, and which the libraries at the Vatican and in Vienna deny having, is supposed to have fabulous revelations about Jesus? And Jesus wants us to drink raw milk, eat raw food, and give ourselves enemas? This can’t be taken seriously as evidence about Jesus. Readers interested in pursuing this topic further should read Strange Tales About Jesus, by Per Beskow (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), which discusses this and other modern gospels.

Why did Szekely do it? We don’t know. Perhaps Szekely thought that “the end justifies the means,” and just wanted to promote his own raw-food ideas claiming “Jesus” as his authority. Perhaps he did it just because he could; the man is long gone, and we cannot cross-examine him. But we absolutely cannot rely on The Essene Gospel of Peace as any sort of historical information about Jesus or for that matter anything else before about the year 1920.

19 Replies to “Pious Fraud, Vegetarian Style”

  1. Even the conservative scholar Ben Witherington has endorsed this Erhman book, except he believes these books were written by the original Christians; ie, they aren’t forgeries at all. My own pastor is ultra liberal (Jesus Seminar) but he would argue Paul wrote 1 Tim. I wouldn’t use the word “know” when it comes to authorship. Otherwise I pretty much agree with you here.

    1. The authorship of I Timothy is still debated by some, but the basic argument looks pretty clear to me. I Timothy, and the other pastoral epistles II Timothy and Titus, have a very different vocabulary from that of Paul in his seven authentic letters (Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, and I Thessalonians). He uses the term “faith” in a different way in the pastoral epistles (as a body of doctrine, not a relationship to Christ).

      Paul in his authentic letters also expects an imminent end to the world, and advises people not to marry. But in I Timothy, he says that bishops and deacons (two titles which probably didn’t exist in the earliest church) must be married! So whoever makes this argument would need to explain why Paul changed his mind and his vocabulary.

  2. Thanks Keith, this is interesting, although i was aware there were some doubts about the authenticity of the manuscripts. While the Essense Gospel never rang true to me, it’s pretty disappointing all the same, to think that an someone who spent time as an academic would indulge in fraud.

    That said, in another book of Szekely’s, The Essene Origins of Christianity, which is a book of biblical criticism – that is, about the conventional idea of Jesus Christ – he talks a lot about manuscript fraud. Here’s an excerpt, discusing the work of Ernest Renan: “If fraud, according to Renan – and Renan, moreover, is a so-called liberal critic – exists to a certain degree (he does not tell us to what degree), I have the right to declare, not from any desire to cause offense, but simply as a clearly established fact, that religious history is fraudulent legend. Renan hardly substantiates the fraud; to him it is “pious.” But for me, a historian, fraud is just plain fraud.”

    So this sits at marked odds with him forging the documents. At the end of the book he includes excerpts from the Dead Sea Scrolls and Essene Gospels of Peace. As such, he would’ve had a lot of nerve denouncing forgery for the majority of the book, then just giving in to it at the end. It’s a mystery.

    On a slightly related note, i wonder whether you have any thoughts on the authenticity of The Essene Code of Life? I think it’s a really interesting book, which EBS says is translated from, “the Aramaic, of the manuscript discovered by Count Volney during his travels in Egypt and Syria, 1783-5; giving a record of the discourses between the famous Roman Historian, Josephus Flavius, as pupil, and Banus, the Essene, as master, during Josephus’ three years’ sojourn with Banus in the Desert of the Dead Sea, for his initiation into the Essene Teaching and Traditions.”

    1. Szekely’s authority, in my mind, is fatally compromised. If he’s going to make up stuff like this, why should we take anything else he says seriously? The overwhelming burden of proof is on anyone who wants me to take anything written by Szekely as serious historical evidence. I have no evidence that Szekely had a personality disorder (e. g. was a “sociopath”), but that is as good an explanation of any for his statements about fraud.

      The practical problem is that if you allow yourself to be distracted by Szekely, after this display of deceit, you can be distracted by anything and everything. It is much, much easier to create a problem and create doubts with some obscure, difficult-to-disprove ideas and references, than it is to prove them wrong. Sometimes I am tempted just to write my own fake gospels just to prove my point. But then someone might believe me, and how would I undo that? So it is easier just to speak the truth.

      Look at Gary Taubes’ writings, for example, as discussed on the “Plant Positive” web site. (This is a completely different area, namely nutrition instead of religious history, but the basic principle is the same.) Taubes provides endless footnotes, but you have to be an expert to be able to disprove every single one. It requires much, much less effort to create doubts, than it does to resolve them. Once you’ve seen several obvious problems, though, you stop worrying about whether this other statement or that other statement made by Taubes is wrong. You just study the subject independently of Taubes’ authority and reach your own conclusions.

      The same principle applies to Szekely, or to Hegel, or nuclear physics, or anyone and anything else. Just because someone can produce a bunch of learned-sounding references in support of some obscure thesis, doesn’t mean we are obligated to research each one in order to disprove it. If you want to tell me something about Volney, just tell it to me without reference to Szekely at all. Does Volney, for example, refer to the Essenes or to Banus at all in any of his known writings? What does Volney say? Give me some references. Let’s skip over the part about what Szekely said in The Essene Code of Life and just get straight to the subject matter itself.

  3. There’s nothing i have to say about the Count. He seems like an interesting character from what i can find on the internet – that’s the extent of my knowledge. He was in Egypt and Syria at the time EBS mentions in the quote i gave above, but of course that’s no proof that he came back with any Essene manuscript – in fact, that seems to be another document that’s hard to locate.

    Josephus did however spend 3 years with Banus, and Josephus says in The Life of Flavius Josephus that Banus, “lived in the desert, and used no other clothing than grew upon trees, and had no other food than what grew of its own accord.” So that *suggests* Banus ate a vegan diet, if nothing else.

    Philo, Josephus and Pliny also say a number of things that support the Code of Life. Even so, i guess EBS could have taken those things and fashioned a text around them in retrospect.

    Whatever the case, i continue to think The Code of Life is a fascinating book.

  4. It might help to know that the Essene Origins of Christianity by Szekely/Bordeaux contains wholesale plagiarism. The original is Daniel Masse’s 1926 (?) L’Enigme de Jesus Christ.

  5. What’s the point of referring to the Catholic Church as a source of proof that something is false?
    Of course they would deny something that directly contradicts their doctrine. They are a shady institution at best.
    As for calling Szekely an outright fraud it’s very possible he wasn’t. Certainly there is question in some of the things he promoted but that doesn’t mean he was a full fledged liar.
    Things slip through the cracks often.

    1. There are many, MANY more problems than that the Catholic Church doesn’t like Szekely. Szkeley’s own account is highly suspicious even before we get to what others say. Divinely ordained enemas? No one even CLAIMS to have seen the manuscript except Szekely? No description of physical condition of manuscript? Manuscript at Monte Cassino revealed AFTER the monastery is destroyed? Raw foods diet, including dairy? From a first-century, no, wait! a third century manuscript? (AND HOW DOES HE EVEN KNOW?) And it’s not just the Catholics, the Hapsburg archives also deny everything.

      This is an unusually lengthy manuscript, it has a lot of 19th-century health ideas, it is of totally unknown provenance, we don’t have even a description of its condition, there’s no evidence it’s before the 19th century, and we’re supposed to take this seriously? If we actually DID find a manuscript like this in the Vatican (publicly available), the very first question would be, what’s the condition of the manuscript? Anything really from the first century or even the third or seventh century would be EXTREMELY fragile. Next question, can we date it based on the style of writing, etc.? This is how scholars actually proceed. Look at the controversy over the “Secret Gospel of Mark” discussed above.

      The balance of the evidence indicates that Szekely is a fraud, and it would take something quite explicit, extraordinary, and publicly verifiable to convince me otherwise.

  6. I think that’s a fair enough and honest answer.
    My opinion is still open though.
    The Hapsburgs themselves are suspect as well just like the Smithsonian and The Catholic Church.
    The condition of the source document or documents is a valid point but is it not possible that his were copies of older and by then deteriorated copies? Maybe he was reading something that had been rewritten in the 6th century that stated the original had been written in the first century.
    He describes his original book as having been dry and full of footnotes and he was advised to write it in a more palatable form for the general public.
    Maybe he was young and naive, insecure?
    I too have problems with the things he promoted such as the raw dairy and eggs, but I’ve also had eye opening experiences applying the principles of fasting and hydrating and eating raw foods minus the dairy and eggs.
    It’s too easy for any major institution to obfuscate a subject by creating credibility in a broad spectrum of generally mundane and regurgitated topics and then
    enshroud a subject in darkness and dismiss it wholesale because it doesn’t align with their mission.
    The Catholics Hapsburgs and many others are powerful and have ties to the “underworld” as far as I’m concerned but their motives are questionable non the less.
    I still find truth in the gospel of peace even if it is not as straight forward as it should be.
    I appreciate your hard research and enjoyed reading The Lost Religion of Jesus but I can’t dismiss the Essene Gospel of Peace as pure fiction either.
    Admittedly my profession doesn’t involve long hours of research so I have to base my conclusions on the information I can gather and the experience gained through applying the information and comparing that against what I see in this world.

    1. Sorry, but this argument is totally off the wall. There still isn’t a SHRED of evidence to support the idea that Szekely’s manuscript is of ancient origin, except the “can’t prove me wrong” argument. There’s quite a bit of evidence that the manuscript is of 19th century origin at the earliest, most likely an outright fraud.

  7. I found this commentary on the Essene Gospel of Peace online, and felt the need to respond. Edmond Skekely was a linguistic genius, and it seems very strange that he would publish a fraud and then spend his whole life trying to make copies of this gospel available to anyone at no cost. Furthermore, this gospel was translated when historic evidence of the Essenes was nil. Archaeological evidence from ancient Israel show that the Essenes were such a large group that they had quarters or sections of a city that were named after them, the Essene Quarter of Jerusalem for example. They were the healers, and the caretakers of the poor and the sick and the orphans. They became the early Christians, after John the Baptist and Christ, and must be why they are not mentioned in the Bible by name. They were everything this gospel seems to point to, if you really care to delve into the archaeology, much information regarding the Essenes have come to light in recent years. People scoff at what this gospel says, but in it I see the origins of Baptism, massively scaled down for the masses now. This gospel, the words of Christ supposedly translated directly from the original Aramaic Hebrew. This book carries a message of light, hope, love, and healing. If you cannot feel the vibrancy of Jesus through these words, then renew yourself and fast, and follow the instructions in this book.

      1. It is my understanding that the word ‘Essene’ was added to the title of Szekely’s neo-gosepel only after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

  8. I have the 1959 edition of “The Gospel of Peace” which I found, surprisingly, in a Catholic church book sale. It is in part beautiful, and in part horrible and threatening. I does contain some sound advice for good, clean, healthy living, but all that has a relatively modern ring to it! I was semi-convinced of the gospel’s authenticity until I read “And take no delight in any drink, nor in any smoke from Satan, waking you by night and making you sleep by day. For I tell you, all the drinks and smokes of Satan are abominations in the eyes of your God.” At this point my suspicions of the fraudulent nature of the work were confirmed. Surely Jesus himself drank (and even miraculously produced) wine – which is most likely to be the “drink of Satan” to which the text refers, but I know of no biblical or historic references to “recreational” smoking prior to the importation of tobacco from the Americas in the 1600s (where it was used much earlier, but was unlikely to have been copied as common practice by those whom Jesus was purportedly lecturing in the text we are discussing). Edmond Szekely’s anti-smoking campaign was the real giveaway for me. I can’t accept such advice, supplanted to the time and tongue of Jesus, to be other than fraudulent.

  9. What do you make of people like Gabriel Cousens who make a lot out of these texts but also seem to be very sincere, and intelligent?

    1. I haven’t read his book on the Essenes (Creating Peace by Being Peace), but obviously, if he believes that Szekely’s manuscripts are genuinely from the Essenes, this is a mistaken view. Being sincerely mistaken, though, doesn’t make you dishonest, and I believe that Cousens is quite sincere.

      Do you know how closely Cousens follows these manuscripts? Does he advocate raw milk, raw food generally, and enemas?

  10. I encountered the The Essene Gospel of Peace just last year after marrying a Messianic Jew who rejects the New Testament (because it was written by Catholics) but who adores the apocrypha; among the apocrypha, Szekely’s book is his favorite and he attempts to follow Szekely’s health regimen aside from smoking marijuana. On first reading Szekely’s book, I was amused, finding it glaringly spurious. (I hold a graduate degree in literature.) My amusement increased when my husband showed me booklets he had desktop-published in order to spread Szekely’s gospel revealed in: the cover illustration showed Yashua sporting a military crewcut — the son of Yahweh could not possibly have had long hair — showing the Messiah with long hair was just another Greek/Catholic assault on the Children of Israel! From all this I learned that there is absolutely no point in trying to hold a rational discussion with anyone who refuses to engage his frontal lobe.

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