Sifting fact from fiction in Josephus: John the Baptist as a case study

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by Neil Godfrey

Palace of Machaerus

Machaerus: According to Josephus it was controlled by Herod's enemy but the same Josephus? says Herod still used it as his own! Image by thiery49 via Flickr

The Jewish historian Josephus writes about both genuine historical persons and events and mythical characters and events as if they are all equally historical. Adam and Vespasian, the siege of Jerusalem and the last stand at Masada, are all documented in a single work of ancient historiography.

Is there some method or rule that can be applied to help us decide when Josephus is telling us something that is “a true historical memory” and when he is passing on complete fiction?

Is Genre the answer?

We cannot use genre as an absolute rule. Genre can offer us some sort of guide to the intentions of the author. But Josephus is no better than Herodotus or the historical books of the Jewish Bible when it comes to freely mixing mythical accounts and historical memory within the same ostensibly historiographical scrolls. Genre can deceive the unwary. The myth of Masada has long been accepted as “historical fact” largely because it forms a literary and ideologically aesthetic conclusion to the demonstrably historical report of the siege and fall of Jerusalem. Some information used by Josephus is known without any doubt to be historical because it is independently witnessed by both archaeological remains and external — “controlling” — literary witnesses. But archaeology has also given us reason to believe that the numbers of sieges and conquests of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the sixth century was doubled for literary-theological reasons.

Compare the lengthy, dramatic and richly detailed narrative of Geoffrey of Monmouth who wrote the “history of King Arthur”.  Here the absence of external evidence — in some cases the presence of contradictory external evidence — opens up to modern readers the possibility that this history, despite its richness of plausible and “authoritative” details, the clear historical genre with all its detailed plausibility, is all fabrication.

Can we detect the sources used?

Another rule that historians have at hand is alertness to possible sources the historian is using. Tacitus, for example, is understood to have had access to imperial archives in Rome. But is it a plausible suggestion that he rummaged through those archives in order to find the facts he wanted pass on about the fate of the supposed founder of Christianity? In the case of what Josephus wrote about Adam, Abraham and Moses we can safely say that he used Jewish scriptural (including apocryphal) writings. He was passing on mythical events as history because he had been taught such myths as the background to his ethnic and cultural identity from his earliest years.

The importance of book-learning to become worldly-wise

But what was (or were) his source (or sources) for his Masada myth? A major clue to the imaginative source of his story lay there in the logic of the story itself. No story character survived to tell the tale — except for that most lucky escape of a handful of frightened women who were thereby able to pass the story on to Roman captors. Josephus thus “knew” a story none of his fellow-Jews had heard of much in the same way “Mark” was able to explain with his ending (with a handful of women too afraid to say a word to anyone) why none had heard of the gospel narrative until he wrote it. One smells the same literary “meta” deus ex machina in both instances. That is, a device to rescue the story itself from would-be oblivion and into the pages of the narrative.

Of course it is technically possible that there really were a few women who were the sole survivors to pass on the story, but archaeological investigations have since confirmed that in this case a more critical reader of Josephus was correct to have followed one’s literary sense trained by familiarity with literary compositions. Real-life history is rarely so obliging as to follow neat and tidy plot devices. If nothing else, a historical report that serves a literary function is theoretically open to the possibility of having being fabricated for that purpose. Alone a literary function does not demonstrate historicity. But it does raise the question and logically removes absolute certainty pending additional evidence.

Ronald F. Hock has a chapter titled Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative. His message has relevance in questions like this, too.

The ideational evidence

Josephus, like Herodotus, like Livy, like the author(s)/redactor(s) of Israel’s Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) composed national epics that were as much theological as historical. In the same “history” we will read about iron floating on water and an archaeologically confirmed siege set against Jerusalem. Fiction and fact. But we will They were writing about the ways their god had dealt with them and about the right and wrong ways of responding to their god’s will. (There were other functions for their histories, too, and we know of Josephus’ propaganda interests for his Roman audience.) Stories were the raw materials used to present these national-theological epics. The question that preoccupied the authors appears to have been not, “Is it factually true?” but rather, “Does it serve the moral I wish to convey?”

We know from sources external to Josephus that much of his material is grounded in genuinely historical persons and events. Of course he is prone to putting his own spin on these just as modern news reporters and official media agents and historians impose selective thematic spins on “the facts”. But that is the nature of all history. Spin does not mean certain things themselves did not happen.

A modern reader may wonder why Josephus could not simply have included an anecdote that did not support the lesson or theology that he was shaping his work simply because it was useful or interesting on other grounds. The answer lies in an understanding of ancient historiography. Josephus was not a chronicler with a goal of recording every or any detail of interest or note for its own sake. His accounts of the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and a “fourth philosophy” are not recorded to offer his Roman readers a general knowledge of Jewish affairs to help them in trivia party quizzes. Josephus is simplifying the earlier Jewish religious ideas to advance the idea that Jewish thought was a (superior) foil to the major Greek philosophical sects. Details are not selected for their incidental interest. Like Herodotus and the final compilers of Israel’s Primary History Josephus is writing his own ideological narrative in which every part helps to structure or flesh out the values, the image, the beliefs and ideals that make his historical composition.

So from this perspective we have to accept that a historian like Josephus was as willing to write fiction as historical ‘fact’ and he was not interested in explicitly distinguishing the two. This leaves modern readers in a very difficult position if they are wanting to use Josephus to recreate “history” in the modern sense of the word.

The difficulty for a modern reader with modern interests

Unless a story comes with tell-tale clues that indicate direct borrowing from other literary works that are known to be fictional, or that suggest narrative, ideological and/or literary artifice, or that are clearly fictional by virtue of a host of unrealistic features or clearly factual because of direct coherence with strong external evidence, and if at the same time the story coheres with the overall purpose/moral of the work, we are left with no way of sifting fact from fiction. If there were a sure-fire way of always discerning the historical from the non-historical in any work then it is safe to say the work would not be a human product. The arts of deception and illusion are part of being human itself.

The best an ancient historian can do is what any ancient historian does — write history in relatively broad brush-strokes. Our evidence does not allow us to be certain of the minutiae.

We can’t ignore interpolations

But what about interpolations? We know that ancient literary works were always being weeviled with interpolations. (See literary culture of interpolations and a case for interpolations.) Scholars as far back as ancient times have been devising criteria for detecting interpolations. It was one of the tasks of scholars at the ancient Alexandrian library to sift out interpolations from classical texts such as those riddling the works of Homer.

William Walker works with six criteria that he sets out in “Interpolations in the Pauline Letters”:

  1. text critical evidence — includes a study of other texts in which references are made to the document
  2. contextual evidence — contextual flows or breaks within the document
  3. ideational evidence — how does the idea at the heart of the questioned passage compare with the ideas throughout the main document?
  4. comparative evidence — compare the thought expressed in the questionable passage with related thoughts expressed elsewhere.
  5. motivational evidence — what do we know of the motivations of various interest groups relating to the thoughts expressed in both the larger document and the questionable passage?
  6. locational evidence — what is the impact of the questionable passage being located at this point in the text?

Of the above list it is #3 that I suspect should be elevated from the lowly status of one among a handful of mere standard check-list points.

Knowing a text well enough to discern its central values and ideologies is essential. It is a text’s ideology that holds its narrative parts into a whole and blurs the edges between tales of fiction and non-fiction.

Applying the above to John the Baptist in Josephus

Renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell in part acknowledged this and the difficulty it presents in his 1964 publication, Occidental Mythology. Campbell could see the mythological function and associations of  John the Baptist in the Synoptic Gospels and consequently expresses some surprise and even a little scepticism over the appearance of John the Baptist in the history by Josephus.

Apparently the historicity of John the Baptist cannot be denied. The almost contemporary Jewish historian Josephus (c. 37-95 A.D.) states that “he was a good man and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue through justice toward one another and piety toward God, and by so doing to arrive at immersion; for immersion would be acceptable to God only if practices not to expatiate sins but for purification of the body after the soul had first been thoroughly purified by righteousness. And further: “Because many affected by his words flocked to him, Herod feared that John’s great influence over the people might lead to revolt (for the people seemed likely to do whatever he counseled). He therefore thought it best to slay him in order to prevent any mischief he might engender . . . ” . . .

John, however, was no Essene, as we know both from his garb and from his diet. He was in the line, rather, of Elijah, who is described in the Book of Kings as a man who wore “a garment of haircloth, with a girdle of leather about his loins.” And the rite of baptism that he preached, whatever its meaning at that time may have been, was an ancient rite coming down from the old Sumerian temple city Eridu, of the water god Ea, “God of the House of Water,” whose symbol is the tenth sign of the zodiac, Capricorn (a composite beast with the foreparts of a goat and body of a fish), which is the sign into which the sun enters at the winter solstice for rebirth. In the Hellenistic period Ea was called Oannes, which is in Greek Ioannes, Latin Johannes, Hebrew Yohanan, (p. 349) English John. Several scholars have suggested, therefore, that there was never either John or Jesus, but only a water-god and a sun-god. The chronicle of Josephus seems to guarantee John, however; and I shall leave it to the reader to imagine how he came both by the god’s name and by his rite.

The episode of the baptism, then, whether taken as a mythological motif or as a biographical event, stands for the irrevocable passage of a threshold. The counterpart in the Buddha legend is the long series of visits to hermitages and ascetics, terminating with the five fasting mendicants on the bank of the river Nairanjana, after his stay with whom the Future Buddha bathed in the waters of the stream and departed alone to the Tree of Illumination. Analogously, John the Baptist and his company represent the ultimate horizon of saintly realization antecedent to the victory of the Savior: the last outpost, beyond which his lonesome, individual adventure now was to proceed. And as the future Buddha, having tested all the sages of his time, bathed in the river Nairanjana and departed to his tree alone, so likewise Jesus, half a millennium later, leaving behind the wisdom of the Law and teaching of the Pharisees, came to the ultimate teacher of his time — and passed beyond. (pp. 348-350, my emphasis)

Joseph Campbell was a mythologist and not a historian, otherwise he might have been more interested in analysing his source material for the authenticity of its parts. (A few modern biblical scholars — Burton Mack, Willian Arnal and Leif E. Vaage — have likewise been persuaded enough by the depth of the mythological structure of the account of the baptism of Jesus to dismiss the historicity of the story entirely.)

But armed with some knowledge of the ideas that made up the mind of Josephus as a narrator, and if we exercise a little thought, we should see something awry with those lines about John the Baptist in Antiquities Bk 18. Josephus as narrator hates popular leaders who stand apart from the respectable establishment of Pharisees and civil authorities. Sure some of these authorities were bad, but to threaten the political order was badder. Should not a worldly-wise reader, on coming upon this solitary exception where a maverick spawns fear in the powers-that-be but who is nonetheless “good”, sense something is not quite fitting right here? But my mistake, this is not the solitary exception. There is one other episode where a maverick is also “good” – and that is the controversial reference to Jesus. With an exception like this, however, I think a reader has a right for caution to be doubled rather than halved.

The John the Baptist episode, in which Josephus informs readers that this stand-alone anti-establishment figure is somehow a jolly good fellow, stands out against the rest of the narrative flow. That does not mean it is an interpolation but it does prompt us to wonder and entitle us to explore further. One who has explored further is Frank Zindler whose conclusions I have outlined in 5 reasons to suspect John the Baptist was interpolated into Josephus.

In that post one can match his

  • “reason one” with Walker’s “contextual evidence” above;
  • #1  the passage interrupts an otherwise smooth flow of text
  • “reasons two, three and four” with Walker’s “comparative evidence”;
  • #2  Josephus had only shortly earlier said the place where Herod sent John was not even owned by Herod
  • #3  elsewhere Josephus cites a different motivation
  • #4  Josephus is silent on John at a similar place in his other work
  • “reason five” with Walker’s “text-critical evidence”;
  • #5  the passages does not appear in the earlier Greek version’s table of contents but does appear in the later Latin version.

The Christian-bias that blocks the narrative flow

But what of the motivational evidence?

Christian-centred scholars sometimes jump the rails when they consider what Walker described as the important “motivational evidence”. John Meier illustrates perfectly the way this Christian bias grabs the passage about Josephus — and the one about Jesus — and draws conclusions about them without any significant allowance for the ideational evidence in Josephus’s works as a whole.

On page 66 of volume 1 of The Marginal Jew Meier writes:

The two passages [the one about Jesus and the other about John the Baptist] are in no way related to each other in Josephus. The earlier, shorter passage about Jesus is placed in the context of Pontius Pilate’s governorship of Judea; the latter, longer passage about John is placed in a context dealing with Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee-Perea. Separated by time, space and placement in Book 18, Jesus and the Baptist (in that order!) have absolutely nothing to do with each other in the mind and narrative of Josephus. Such a presentation totally contradicts — indeed, it is the opposite of — the NT portrait of the Baptist, who is always treated briefly as the forerunner of the main character, Jesus. Viewed as a whole, the treatment of Jesus and John in Book 18 of The Antiquities is simply inconceivable as the work of a Christian of any period. (my emphasis)

If I were a student of Maurice Casey I would probably respond here by echoing, “Everything is wrong with this.” Josephus — by which I mean his narrative whole and its ideology — is nowhere to be seen. All that Meier can see are the two big fat pimples on Josephus’s narrative face.

What Meier proceeds to do then is to compare those pimples with the Synoptic Gospels instead of the rest of Josephus. He finds ideational conflicts between these two bumps on the one hand and their NT counterparts on the other, and concludes that they did not derive from the NT ideology. If they did not derive from the ideology of the NT then, Meier believes, they must have come from Josephus himself.

(Meier could have expanded much more upon the contradictions between the Josephan and the Synoptic Baptist. The Josephan chronology disallows the possibility of the Synoptic event ever occurring; the purposes of the baptism are contradictory.)

But no study is undertaken to compare the ideology of Josephus with these pimples. And why should he? It serves scholarly interests well to have a Jewish witness to one’s interests in Christian events.

True, Meier does say that Josephus is a Jew and therefore has more interest in the more Jewish John the Baptist, but that is not a study of the ideological theme of the narrative of Antiquities with its particular stress on the wrongness of religious mavericks. Why this one (Jewish) exception? Can this exception be explained within the thematic ideas underlying the narrative of Antiquities? That is the critical question. (The Testimonium Flavianum, even in a truncated form, is also an ideological anomaly in Josephus as I have attempted to show in other posts: cuckoo in the nest 1; cuckoo in the nest 2; cuckoo in the nest 3; cuckoo postscript.)

Meier, and probably most Christian enculturated scholars who have addressed this passage in Josephus, have fallen into the same trap.

Zindler points to an obvious solution. If both passages were not interpolated by a Christian scribe, as the evidence indicates, and if neither passage was the work of Josephus, as the generally overlooked evidence also indicates, then someone else is likely to have been involved. The world has consisted of more groups than Christians on one side and Josephus on the other. Many scholars of early Christianity have agreed with the proposition that early Christianity was faced with a serious rival in a John the Baptist movement. Why not hypothesize a JB scribe adding the passage that contradicts both Christian and Josephan ideology?


I was pleasantly surprised to see that even my good friend Dr James McGrath recently affirmed:

The existence of a historical Jesus is no more beyond doubt than the existence of a historical John the Baptist – but it remains the case that historians consistently conclude that these figures more likely existed than not.

The progress here is on a glacial scale — admittedly even mockingly delusional. It does not follow that if a name or event appears in the histories of Josephus we can declare it probably historical by default. To do so is to misunderstand the nature of much ancient historiography and of the historiography of Josephus in particular. The Father of History himself, Herodotus, amalgamated myth and history and his work has been evaluated as a form of “theological historiography” not unlike Israel’s Primary History from Genesis to 2 Kings. And one key method for understanding the nature of a text is to understand its ideology or the ideas upon which it is structured and investigation of these.

The historicity of John the Baptist has raised questioning eyebrows in the scholarly community beyond biblical studies. The Synoptic story is certainly questionable unless one wants to send the likes of Burton Mack, Willian Arnal and Leif E. Vaage off to Coventry. I also question the assertion that “historians consistently conclude”. To “conclude” implies a serious investigation into the evidence and evaluation of sources used. I suggest few “historians” (let’s be honest and say “theologians” without formal training in historiography outside biblical studies) have studied the evidence — and methodological approaches to that evidence and its sources — any more thoroughly than John Meier.

One might still feel uneasy about excising John the Baptist entirely from Josephus. That is understandable and I won’t insist. But if the account is to be retained it surely must continue to suffer questioning looks from those who become increasingly aware of the ideological flow of the Josephan narrative.

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  • 2011-11-15 23:16:26 UTC - 23:16 | Permalink

    Ohhh, criteria for interpolation. I like it! Regarding textual criticism, I’ve laid out here the argument that the TF is a forgery:


    “Say It Ain’t So Joe. Testimonium Flavium. Will Eusebius Be Convicted In Civil Court?”

    The best evidence for forgery is no known reference by any Patristic until Eusebius. The crime is always attributed solely to Eusebius but he may have just been the first prominent to promote it:

    Back to the Future – Part Jew

    “Marky” – But Doc, Doc, what about all that talk about how changing Jesus’ word could change the whole heaven and earth warped time space con?

    Doctored Doc – Well “Marky”, I just figured, what the hell!

    I think it’s safe to say that the same type of Patristic silence regarding the TF to Eusebius exists regarding the BF (Baptism shower Flavium). Have you looked at this (the silence that is and not the Baptism shower)?

    • 2011-11-16 18:45:51 UTC - 18:45 | Permalink

      According to the Gospels not only are we faced with a chronological impossibility for the appearance of Josephus’s Baptist, but we are faced with messages that simply do not connect. Can any knowledgeable person possibly think that the Gospels John announcing the advent of a Messiah is the same as the Josephus John?

  • 2011-11-15 23:30:28 UTC - 23:30 | Permalink

    What if JtB was invented by Josephus (like many of his characters) to express a certain point, and Mark used Josephus as a source?

    • 2011-11-16 18:50:01 UTC - 18:50 | Permalink

      I wonder how or why Josephus might ever have been delivered a copy of the Gospel of Mark, or even if he would have bothered to have read it. What circumstances must be involved? I do sometimes wonder about the possibility of the author of Mark knowing Josephus, however.

  • Pingback: John the Baptist became (or came from) a god? « Vridar

  • 2011-11-19 08:42:41 UTC - 08:42 | Permalink

    Regarding Textual Criticism, it’s been pointed out here:


    that Origen does refer to John the Baptist in Josephus in the extant (although the silence to Orgien is so deafening ED had to get his hearing checked).

    Also, “the passages does not appear in the earlier Greek version’s table of contents but does appear in the later Latin version.”. But the text is still there in the Greek. How reMarkable this is would need to be evaluated based on the overall occurrence. If this was the only difference in the table of contents, that would be reMarkable. But it’s not is it.

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