Review : Revolutionizing Ancient History: The Case of Israel and Christianity
The Statesman Festival Issue 2004, Pages 130- 135
Becoming a poet, a political commentator, a literary critic while editing a monthly journal of culture without stirring out of an ashram in South India may not be a matter provoking comment let alone arousing wonder. But to revolutionize the very chronology of the ancient world based on minute examination of the latest archaeological findings and texts from within such confines – that, too, in the pre-internet era – could not but astonish. It becomes all the more amazing when the subject is not just the prehistory of one’s own country but so distant a subject as the beginnings of history for Israel and Christianity. The short compass of this paper does not permit examination of both; so, we shall restrict ourselves to the “foreign” sphere of scholar-extraordinaire K.D. Sethna’s research.
Taking his point of departure from the 1968 lectures Professor Chaim Rabin of Hebrew University delivered in India placing the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt in the mid-13th century B.C., Sethna, in The Beginning of History for Israel challenges this as well as archaeologist W.F. Albright’s dating of the Exodus to c, 1294 B.C. and his identification of the Pharaoh responsible for this as Ramses II. While painstakingly taking Albright apart over 227 pages, Sethna also takes on – and demolishes – a completely different type of antagonist who is himself denounced by orthodox historians as “the other” because of his revolutionary reading of Egyptian history: Immanuel Velikovsky, notorious author of Worlds in Collision and Ages in Chaos.
The paradox that stumps one in studying Jewish history-is that it presents a paradox that is the converse of what we find in Indian history. Our records have no mention of Alexander’s invasion by which Western historians set such store in determining our chronology. On the other hand, although the Exodus is such a watershed for the Israelites, the Egyptian records are innocent of it. Two Pharaohs are prominent in the context of the Exodus. The first is the “Pharaoh of the Oppression” under whom the Jews suffered; the other is the “Pharaoh of the Exodus”. Albright conflates the two in Ramses II (1304-1238 B.C.) who enslaved the Jews to build the store-cities of Raamses and Pithom leading to the Exodus in c. 1294 B.C. This leaves Ramses II living for 46 years more, whereas the Bible states that the oppressive Pharaoh died before Moses returned to Egypt. On the other hand, if the Exodus occurred in the reign of his successor Merneptah and the Jews wandered for 40 years en route the Promised Land, how could this Pharaoh defeat them in Palestine? Further, as the mummies of both Pharaohs have been found, how can either be the one who was drowned in the yam suf in the miraculous parting of the waters?
Sethna alone points out that nowhere does the Bible say that it was the Pharaoh who went into the sea. It was his horse and horsemen, while he rode in a chariot. Sethna conclusively demolishes F. Mayani’s special pleading, showing how he distorts the Biblical text to make Seti I the ruler who oppresses and dies. A critical inscription lists the ‘Apiru as labouring at Per Re-emasese that the Albright school (Werner Keller, G. Ernest Wright) has interpreted as referring to the Hebrews of Egypt although this word is found in other epigraphs too and nowhere connotes Hebrews. Rather it means foreign warriors and prisoners of war reduced to slaves.
Sethna takes his point of departure from the phrase “the land of Rameses”, from where the Exodus began, as marking the original settlement of the Israelites, identifying it as the Biblical Goshen where Jacob’s people were allowed to settle by Joseph’s Pharaoh. Sethna examines the several Biblical sources (termed J, E, D, P, etc.) to show that the city Raamses is not only delinked from Ramses II but is relevant to the Exodus. “What remain are Goshen/’ writes Sethna, “and Moses parleying with the Pharaoh in some city to which he comes from the Israelites and which, not having to be Raamses, could be anywhere in Egypt.” This city he identifies as Memphis, the capital of Thutmose III and his two successors Amenhotep (Amenophis II) and Thutmose (Tuthmosis IV), located near Goshen. It is evidence of Sethna’s unflinching dedication to seeking out the truth that he imports a possible hurdle into the smooth course of his thesis: can this be reconciled with the Pharaoh’s injunction that the Israelites should find their own straw? This needs harvested fields. He studies ancient Egyptian agriculture to present a picture of such areas ready first in southern Egypt (usually called Upper Egypt), then shifting northwards to Middle Egypt and concluding in Lower (northern) Egypt. That is why the Israelites have to range far and wide, says the Bible, to gather stubble. Goshen, with its rich alluvial clay is ideal for brick-making.
Sethna, the Devil’s Advocate par excellence, now asks: “But is there any Egyptian evidence of this when the word ‘Goshen’ has not surfaced in any record?” Why this word, there is absolutely no allusion to the Israelites and hardly to bricks (references to stones are found), certainly not in the time of Ramses II. Sethna marshals evidence to identify the Bible’s Shamgar Ben-Anath as the one who got his daughter married to a son of Ramses II. Ben-Anath being far removed from the time of Moses, neither Ramses II nor Merneptah can be the Pharaoh of the Exodus. A possible synchronism that can upset this is the date of the Song of Deborah and the Song of Miriam, describing the victory of Israel over Sisera, with whose rule Ben-Anath is linked. Here, again, Sethna shows Albright’s dating to be contradictory in placing the Song of Miriam in the time of Ramses II. Both are triumphal poems celebrating victories that is a form going back to the victory Stele of Tuthmosis II from Karnak, whose phrases were re-used by many later Pharaohs like Amenophis III, Seti I, Ramses III. The songs, therefore, need not be forced into the 1300-1100 B.C. bracket but can easily be older, at least to the time of Tuthmosis II who is pre-1400 B.C.
Sethna cites a frontier official’s letter under Merneptah describing the peaceful passage of Bedouins through a fortress to graze their herds in Pithom, just as the Hebrews did in Joseph’s time. This is certainly not a state of affairs we can associate with the Pharaoh of the Oppression or of the Exodus. Rather, it indicates a continuation of a system prevalent in the time of this Pharaoh’s predecessor Ramses II.
To fix upon the date of the Exodus, Sethna takes his clue from the Bible’s computing of Solomon starting to build the Jerusalem Temple in the fourth year of his reign, which came 480 years after the Jews had left Egypt. Starting with an authentic date – that of the Battle of Qarkar on the Orontes in 853 B.C. (the 6lh year of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser Ill’s reign) in which Ahab fought – Sethna arrives at 964 B.C. for Solomon’s accession, whereby the Exodus is fixed at 1441 B.C.
The schema has now to be fitted into Egyptian history. This is the period of Amenophis II. Therefore, his predecessor, the 5th king of the 18th dynasty, Tuthmosis III was the Pharaoh of the Oppression. The only representation of slave-labor in Egypt comes from Tuthmosis Ill’s reign in a rock tomb west of Thebes, showing Semitic foreigners as bricklayers. Working backwards, Sethna fixes on the “Pharaoh’s daughter” who brought up Moses as the famous Hatshepsut, daughter of Amenophis I (1546-1525 B.C.), with Moses being born in 1521 B.C. and she dying in 1482 B.C. to be succeeded by Tuthmosis III.
On the other hand, following the Albright school, if Ramses II was ruling during the Exodus and Seti I was the Pharaoh of the Oppression, Moses would have to be born in 1373 to be 80 years old in 1294 B.C. (Albright’s date for the Exodus) well before Seti I’s reign and quite out of sync. Sethna expands on the unique role of Hatshepsut – inevitably, when we recall that she is supposed to have been one of the Mother’s avatars – to show that Moses’ monotheism had its roots in the new religion of Amon that she established, merging all the temples into a single organization. He points out how Moses’ dialogue with God in the burning bush episode echoes the colloquy between Amon, speaking from his shrine about God’s land and living among the trees there, and Hatshepsut. Punt, of which she speaks so lovingly, was approached through the Promised Land. Albright himself points out that the Hebrew Yahweh, the Biblical “I am what I am”, actually means, “He causes to be what comes into existence”, Yahweh asher yihweh; a formula occurring repeatedly in Egyptian texts like the 15th century B.C. hymn to Amon.
A digression is in order here. In order to make Hatshepsut contemporary with Moses, Sethna has to demolish a powerful challenge: Immanuel Velikovsky’s revised chronology identifying Hatshepsut with the Queen of Sheba who visited Solomon in the latter half of the 10th century B.C Sethna is able to show that:
Velikovsky’s interpretation of the Papyrus Ipuwer and the Ermitage Papyrus is biased; there is little to support his arguments for dating the Exodus a few weeks prior to the Hyksos invasion of Egypt; the Amalekites are certainly not the Hyksos; Saul cannot possibly be contemporaneous with Ahmose I who drove the Hyksos out of Egypt; Velikovsky has doctored evidence to make it seem that Hatshepsut, who did not journey abroad, is Queen of Sheba who did; “God’s Land” is not Punt as the two are mentioned separately in the great hymn to Amon of the 15th century B.C. and vii) the Egyptian king Shishak who looted Jerusalem after Solomon cannot be identified with Hat-shepsut’s successor Thutmose III, as Velikovsky strives to by tinkering with the evidence.
Sethna proposes that the Queen of Sheba is the Queen of Ophir (the Somalia shore of Ethiopia) that is Punt. Her capital appears to have been in Saba (Yemen) from where she travelled to Jerusalem by land on camels (1 Kings and 2 Chronicles). He suggests that Shishak can be recognized as Pharaoh Sheshonk or Sosenk, centuries after Thutmose III.
We can return to the matter of the Exodus now. A remarkable piece of detective work by Sethna brings to the fore the only Egyptian record that can be equated with the Exodus. The earliest Egyptian historian, Manetho (c. 250 B.C.), recounts that 240,000 Shepherds (the Hyksos) left Egypt and built in Judaea a city later called Jerusalem. The Egyptian king, told by a prophet to chase away the “unclean ones” if he wishes to see the gods, drives out 80,000 of them under their chief Osarseph (Moses) who directs them to avoid worshipping the gods and eating consecrated meat. Helped by the Shepherds, they defeat Pharaoh Amenophis II’s son (Amenophis III) in battle who has to seek refuge in Ethiopia while the Unclean Ones and their allies spread over the entire land.
Having established correspondence between the Bible and Egyptian history satisfactorily, Sethna examines another puzzle: what was yam suf, the “red” or “reed” sea and how to explain the miraculous “parting of the waters”? Many have hazarded that the ten plagues of Egypt tally with the phenomena (red rain, fish poisoned, whirlwinds, swamps, water turning rusty red) attendant upon the volcanic explosion on Santorini in the Mediterranean that destroyed a 4,900 feet high mountain c. 1400 B.C. Sethna cites Glanopoulos’ identification of the yam suf as Sirbenis Lake that is separated from the Mediterranean by a narrow isthmus across which the Israelites could flee during the 20 minutes interval when the sea was drawn back towards the Aegean as the cone of Santorini dropped into the sea, the Egyptians drowning in the returning tidal wave. However, like the uncompromising truth-finder that he is, Sethna demolishes this evidence that would have clinched his thesis. He finds that the explosion had no effect in the southern direction, for it did not even affect nearby Crete lying south, but produced tidal waves that travelled east towards Palestine. It did not lead to flooding of the Nile delta. Finally, the explosion probably occurred between 1475 and 1450 B.C., which does not tally with the date for the Exodus. Therefore, Sethna leaves the ten plagues a puzzle and Serbenis Lake vies with the Papyrus Marsh as a candidate for the “Reed/Red Sea”.
After finishing with the Exodus, Sethna takes up the question of fixing the time of the wandering Israelites conquering Palestine, drawing upon rich archaeological evidence for his conclusions. Once again, Albright’s chronology is weighed and found wanting in the light of Kenyon’s excavations. Around the time Albright proposes for the Exodus, both cities of Bethel and Hazor actually fell (c. 1350-1325 B.C.). Even if we accept Kenyon’s date c. 1325 B.C. for the fall of Jericho, it rules out Albright’s dating of the Exodus to 1294 B.C., whereas it is closer to the Israelites entering Palestine in 1401 B.C. (40 years of wandering after the Exodus). Another city, Debir, shows destruction first in c.1350 B.C. that could have been the work of Israelites. The last city in the list of conquests is Lachish whose date is debatable (either the end of the 13th or in early 12th century). Sethna points out that the fall of Jericho has to precede that of Debir and Bethel, i.e. before 1350 B.C. and that Kenyon’s comments in Digging up Jericho permit such an earlier date. Further, he shows that the El-Amarna Letters support the Bible’s picture of “the lands of Seir (Edom)” as not hostile to the Israelites though capable of defending themselves. The excavations of Glueck support this picture of Edom, Moab and Ammon before c. 1300 B.C., who allowed the newcomers to pass through peacefully. Therefore, nothing contradicts Sethna’s proposed dating of Joshua’s conquests in consonance with the Exodus in 1441 B.C.
Working back from here, based on the Biblical 430 years of sojourn in Egypt, Jacob’s arrival can be dated to 1870 B.C., in the reign of Pharaoh Sesostris III of the 12th Dynasty. Supporting evidence for interaction between Semitics and Egypt in the 12th Dynasty is found in the Beni-Hasan tableau dated to 1892 B.C. that depicts 37 semi-nomadic Palestinians led by a chief with the Semitic name Absha bringing stibium (kohl) from Shutu in central Transjordan to the court of the “nomarch” (provincial nobles). Albright finds this illustrating the story of Lamech’s family in Genesis IV.19-22. Joseph’s supreme position tallies with the practice of Sesostris III who made the vizier superior to the nomarchs whom he suppressed totally. The vizier combined the functions of the governor and the superintendent of granaries who presented to the Pharaoh the account of the harvests that were the key to Egypt’s wealth. Joseph calls himself “father to Pharaoh” which is the epithet used by Ptahhotep, the name borne by five successive viziers of the 5th Dynasty, showing that it was a familiar title. It is significant that the earliest record of this title comes from a text dating to the Middle Kingdom which included the reign of Sesostris III. It was during his reign that there was marked interaction, because of his campaigns, between Egypt and Asiatic countries, with large numbers of Asiatics serving as domestic help. This reminds us of the slave-trade mentioned in Joseph’s story. Sesostris III also moved his capital into the Delta-area that features in the story of the Pharaoh and Joseph. Finally, the name “Potiphar” is the Egyptian “Potiphera” i.e. “Gift of Ra”. So, Joseph’s father-in-law is a priest of On (Heliopolis, the centre of Ra worship). Joseph married into Egypt’s most exclusive nobility and was named by the Pharaoh “Zaphnath-paaneah” i.e. “God says: he is living”. Unfortunately, the Egyptian records do not give the name of Sesostris Ill’s vizier, which would have clinched the identification. If Joseph became vizier to Sesostris III, he had to see 7 years of plenty and 2 of famine before Jacob entered Egypt in 1870. Thus, the first year of Sesostris Ill’s reign, 1878, coincides with Joseph’s appointment. Working backwards from this, Sethna fixes that Jacob was 92 when Joseph was born (“the son of his old age” says the Bible), that Joseph was 30 when he became vizier, and Jacob entered Egypt at the age of 130.
Depending on the introduction of horse and chariot by the Hyksos, Albright fixes Joseph at a much later date in the early 18th Dynasty. Sethna shows that the use of the horse and of the chariot in Egypt cannot be attributed to the Hyksos as there is no evidence of these before 1570 B.C. If Albright’s chronology for Joseph is to be accepted, we have to reject the sojourn of 430 years by the Israelites in Egypt as it would take us to 1140 B.C. for the Exodus, leaving no time for the numerous Judges preceding Saul, who is dated between 1020 and 1000 B.C. Sethna proceeds to demolish conclusively Albright’s thesis of Joseph existing in the period of a Hyksos Pharaoh by mounting a seven-point attack combining ammunition from the Bible and history, culminating in showing that even Joseph’s oath tallies only with a regular Egyptian Pharaoh of at least the Middle Kingdom and certainly not the hated Hyksos usurpers.
Sethna closes with the patriarch and founder of the Jewish nation: Abraham, again working back from when the Israelites entered Egypt. He fixes on 2085 B.C. for Abraham the Habiru (a people mentioned in the Babylonian records of the 21st century B.C. as present in every Near Eastern land) proceeding to Palestine and thence to Egypt in 2081-80, harassing Amraphel of Babylonia (Shinar)’s rear guard before 2075 B.C. His original name “Abram” (the Father is exalted) occurs in Babylonian texts. According to the Bible, he settled in the Negeb in the southern area in the plain of Mamra in Hebron. Glueck’s explorations have shown that the period when the Negeb was settled tallies with Abraham’s residence at Hebron in the 21st century B.C. To crown the demolition of Albright’s chronology, Sethna calculates from his proposed dating of the Exodus back to Abraham (645 years). Albright attributes Abraham’s departure from Ur to its destruction by the Elamites about 1950 B.C. But no such calamity is cited in the Bible, which states that Abraham’s father left behind one of his sons and his family in Ur. Actually, Ur is not even featured in the Greek Septuagint (c. 3rd century B.C.) which simply has “in the land of the Chaldeans”. The city is first mentioned in a work dated to around 150 B.C. The Israelite tradition prefers Haran in north-west Mesopotamia as the original land of the Patriarchs. It is from there that Rebecca is brought to wed Isaac. Nothing, therefore, prevents Abraham’s departure from being earlier, c. 2085 B.C., and not linked to the fall of Ur.
From the Old Testament Sethna turns to the New and takes up what is no less a formidable challenge than flying in the face of orthodox historical opinion to prove that the Rig Veda preceded the Indus Valley Civilization and that the Gupta Empire has to be pushed back in time by 600 years. In Problems of Early Christianity (Integral Life Foundation, 1998) and The Virgin Birth and the Earliest Christian Tradition (-do-2001) he deals with the hypersensitive issues of immaculate conception, the question of Jesus’ historicity and whether it was a resurrection or a resuscitation that Jesus underwent, drawing much from the writings of Sri Aurobindo. However, as archaeology is not a tool in this investigation, what we have is only literary evidence and that detracts considerably from the conviction that his arguments are supposed to carry. Dissecting Biblical literature piecemeal with great pains in the finest tradition of scholarship Sethna strives to prove his case. We are strongly reminded of his correspondence with Kathleen Raine where he exerts every intellectual sinew to convince her that Aurobindonian poetry is great English literature – but fails. With the NT, too, the final decision will have to rest with the reader of these books.
Sethna begins his examination of the birth of Jesus by pointing out that neither Protestant nor Catholic theologians exclude the fatherhood of God in case of the physical fatherhood of Joseph as Jesus’ divinity is not so much a biological fact as an ontological verity out of time in God’s eternity. That, however, is hardly something that will carry the field with a non-Christian as a decisive argument. A better point is that only the narratives of Matthew and Luke speak of the immaculate conception. It is Pauline and Johannine Christology that creates the idea of Divine Sonship quite independent of the gospels. The infancy accounts, unlike the rest of Jesus’ life, provide no evidence of eyewitness testimony. There is also the issue that Jesus had brothers and sisters (Mark 6:3, Matt 13:55, John 2:12, 7:5) and the fact that no special sanctity is accorded in the NT to the state of virginity, nor does the virginal conception preclude normal marital relations thereafter. The Gospel of Luke describes the conception of John the Baptist using the same phrases as for that of Jesus, although the former was a product of Zechariah’s normal marital relationship with Elizabeth. Mary chose to marry Joseph when she had conceived and lived with him as his wife. Joseph and Mary are designated as Jesus’ parents when they seek him in the Temple and she tells him that he has worried his father, meaning Joseph. Both fail to comprehend Jesus’ reply that he is busy with his Father’s affairs. Mary has no insight into her son’s special nature or mission. The parallel passages in Mark (3:31-35) show a clear rejection by Jesus of any special place for Mary in his scheme of things, least of all his considering her as “blessed among women” or being aware of any extraordinary experience on her part at his conception. The mother-son relationship is quite clearly unsympathetic and lacks mutual understanding. Sethna examines considerable theological evidence between 100 and 200 A.D. to prove that the alternative to the Virgin Birth account of Matthew was not any accusation of adultery on Mary’s part, but simply asserting that Jesus was normally born of Joseph and Mary (as in “Acts of Thomas”, Cerinthus, the Carpocratians, Irenaeus and later Gnostic and Jewish Christian Ebionites). Paul does not suggest any special manner of Jesus’ birth while describing him as “God sent his Son, born of woman, born a subject to the Law” which indicates a normal conception. Sonship-to-God does not exclude sonship-to-man. The nature of Jesus’ mission stresses not the manner of his conception but the fact of his being born of a woman, emphasizing his human experiences and his assuming “sinful flesh” for the sake of mankind (2 Corinthians 5:2, Romans 8:3, Philippians 2:6).
Sethna concludes that everything about the virgin birth in Matthew and Luke “has an air of fiction”. There is no trace of any family tradition of the virginal conception of Jesus till it appears in two gospels towards the end of the lst century A.D. Mary does not appear to have spoken of it to the apostles. Peter, the foremost disciple, is silent about it. Further, there is the complete absence of any scandalous rumor regarding Mary in every source till c.178 A.D. Matthew alone introduces Joseph thinking of divorcing Mary on finding her pregnant, because that is the only way in which he can propose a virginal conception.
Sethna seeks to correct a very important misconception that the OT prophesied Jesus’ virgin birth in Isaiah 7:14. Actually, the reference is to the birth of a child to a young woman about 700 years before Jesus signifying the continuance of David’s lineage. Matthew imported the Greek mistranslation of the Hebrew “a young woman” as “virgin” to show the OT prophesying his account of Jesus’ virgin birth. Unfortunately, Sethna fails to clinch this issue because he neither tells us who this “young woman” was nor the name of her son who is the subject of so momentous a prophecy.
Inevitably, Sethna ends his study on an Aurobindonian note, pointing out that the dogma regarding Mary rising bodily into Heaven specifies the event as having occurred on 15 August. Sri Aurobindo interpreted it as Mary, representing Mother Nature, raised to Godhead. He looked upon the Virgin-Birth doctrine as representing the manifestation of the Primal Shakti, the Creatrix. The appearance of such an avatar does not call for virgo intacta. The attribute of virginity is essentially symbolic of the para-prakriti. Sri Aurobindo explains that what it symbolizes becomes clear from the name of the Buddha’s mother, Mayadevi or Mahamaya, i.e. the Goddess-Force. We may add that the traditional shloka celebrating five much-married women as virgins (pancha kanya) can only be understood if this symbolic meaning of kanya is kept in mind. This symbol got attached “by a familiar mythopoeic process to the actual human mother of Jesus of Nazareth”. In a stirring conclusion, Sethna states that somehow she7 who did not comprehend her son’s mission in his childhood, came to assume in the post-crucifixion generations a role far beyond what she played in his life, carrying a great spiritual truth known to India into the heart and soul of the Occident.
When was Jesus actually born and was he a historical figure or fiction? This is possibly the most satisfying of Sethna’s excursions into NT territory because it conflates evidence from ancient Babylonian astronomy with textual testimony to prove his case. It was only in c. 354 A.D. that Christ’s birthday was made to coincide with the traditional Roman festival known as Vies Natalis Invicti (“the birthday of the unconquered”) on 25 December to placate converts while weaning them away from old associations. Analysing all available historical and astronomical evidence, Sethna dates the birth to 7 B.C. at the latest, between March and November (the fields would have been frostbitten in December and no shepherds would be grazing their flocks) synchronizing with Herod’s reign and the governorship of “Cyrenius” (the Roman Quirinius under whom the census was held in 6 A.D.) in the reign of Augustus Caesar. The conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces occurred on May 29 and October 3 in 7 B.C., tallying with the legend of the Magi following the star. Augustus’ birthday was celebrated as tidings of joy, “euangelion” – precisely the word used for the birth of Jesus in the NT – connoting the birth of the divine savior of the world. The Pax Romana Augustus established ensured the means for disseminating the Christian euangelion.
It is here that Sethna dispels a prevalent misconception that Sri Aurobindo had stated his having been Leonardo da Vinci and the Mother Mona Lisa in a previous birth. He quotes Sri Aurobindo’s written reply: “Never heard before of my declaring or anybody declaring such a thing.”
Objections raised regarding the historicity of Christ are taken up by Sethna and shown to be without foundation. For Ramakrishnaites, however, a stumbling block remains in the dream Swami Vivekananda recounts having seen near Crete while travelling back from Almora: one of the Therapeutae of Crete appeared to say that their teachings had been propagated mistakenly as those of Jesus who never existed. Even Eusebius (3rd-4th century A.D.) remarks on the remarkable similarity of Therapeutae to Christian monks and feels that their writings (referred to by Christ’s contemporary Philo of Alexandria) might be the Epistles and Gospels of the NT. It is, however, important to note that even the opponents of Christianity have never questioned Jesus’ existence, but only doubted his divinity and criticized his followers’ practices.
Taking up the problem of the Turin Shroud, Sethna painstakingly analyses all the pros-and-cons to conclude that there is no evidence for questioning the Carbon-14 test made independently by three laboratories in different countries dating it between 1260 and 1390 A.D. The description of how Jesus’ body was wrapped given in the gospel of John 206-7 clearly has his body and his head “wrapped in separate pieces of cloth using linen bands (othonia) not a single piece (sindon). Thus, there is no question of the shroud being the cloth in which Jesus was wrapped. Sethna also lays to rest the popular myths that Luke and Mark were friends of Paul, that the former was a medical man and that he also wrote the “Acts of the Apostles”.
The controversy about when the NT envisages Christ’s Second Coming interests Sethna. The earliest writing, Paul’s epistles, clearly envisages that it is due anytime. There is a crisis of faith mentioned in Peter’s Second Letter because the expected return has not occurred. Everything in the NT points to the Second Coming being fixed c. 1st century A.D. It is most unlikely that any apostle would, therefore, leave for so distant a shore as India, as Thomas is supposed to have done. Whatever happens thereafter is not part of Christ’s schema, therefore! Thus, another myth is laid to rest.
What engages Sethna at length is the examination of the dogma regarding the resuscitation of the crucified body as distinct from the resurrection of Jesus in a different form. The extreme physicality Luke and John attribute to the appearance of Jesus after the burial is suspect. Paul does not support it despite having spent time with Peter and James the brother of Jesus and referring to six contemporary instances of Jesus’ appearance. The NT stresses that his form was different and disciples could not recognize him till he announced himself. Paul says, “Even if we did once know Christ in flesh, that is not how we know him now… there is a new creation; the old creation has gone…” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17). What appeared from the dead mortal body was a divine being, the Messiah, who had descended into the body at baptism by John. Sethna shows that there is no evidence of any rock-hewn tomb in a garden as described in Mark/ Luke nor of Joseph of Arimathaea, who is supposed to have used an exorbitant hundred pounds of myrrh to embalm the body, nor of any feminine witness. Crucifixion being the most cursed of executions, the criminals used to be thrown into a common pit for burial. Paul states that Christ accepted being cursed as a slave for mankind’s sake as the scripture (Galatians 3:11) says “Cursed be everyone who is hanged on a tree.” Sethna turns to Albright the archaeologist to show that even prior to Mark – in the late 60s of the 1st century -there were practically no Christians left in Jerusalem to testify regarding Jesus’ burial, the Romans having driven them all out in crushing the Jewish revolt of 66 A.D.
In short, Paul’s account of Jesus’ resurrection in a non-physical body is the earliest and only first-hand evidence available to us. There is no evidence of any special burial or entombment or feminine witness to resurrection. We are left with a series of appearances to some people of a spiritual form identified as Jesus.
Sethna caps this discussion by daring to hazard what the nature of the form was in which Jesus appeared after death. Drawing upon Sri Aurobindo’s pronouncements, he identifies this as a subliminal reality, apprehended by the inner vision of mystics like Paul, of a subtle physical substance, a causal body, descending from Paul’s “third heaven” (the ideal or spiritual plane, beyond the vital and the mental). It is a remarkable conclusion, unprecedented and calling for serious attention, bringing to bear on Christian tradition the full weight of the experiential evidence of modern world’s Master of Integral Yoga.
In these three books Sethna has embarked upon a unique journey through territory none have dared to explore with such dedication, refusing to take any statement at face value, testing every claim against all possible evidence till only the incontrovertible truth shines forth. His Problems of Ancient India (Aditya Prakashan, 2000) is an outstanding fourth in the series, complementing the revolutionary Ancient India in a New Light. Unfortunately, space constraints do not permit us to discuss its findings in this paper. Perhaps sometime, in some other forum, readers will be able to savor the riches it contains.
- Waterford, U.S.A.: The Integral Life Foundation, 1995.
- 7s Velikovsky’s Revised Chronology Tenable?, A Scrutiny of Four Fundamental Themes, Waterford, U.S.A.: The Integral Life Foundation, 2002.
- “Karpasa” in Prehistoric India: A Chronological and Cultural Clue, New Delhi: Biblia Impex, 1981; Ancient India in a New Light, New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 1989, reprinted 1997; The Problem of Aryan Origins, -do-1980, reprinted 1992.
- Ahalya Kunti Draupadi Tara Mandodari tatha/ Panchakanya smarenityam mahapataka nashaka/
See my “Riddle of the Pancha Kanya” in Mother India elaborated further in “Panchakanya: Women of Substance” (See Boloji.com : Hinduism)
- cf my “High Adventure in Historiography” in Amal-Kiran: Poet and Critic, 1994.