by Neil Godfrey
In the next chapter of this series we read the view that John the Baptist was a key figure in sparking the movement that became Christianity. Couchoud takes the date for John from Josephus — that is, towards the end of Pilate’s office in 36 c.e. Couchoud believes strongly that there was a fervent expectation among the Jews for a divine messianic deliverer. John was part of this popular hope when he came preaching the coming of the heavenly Messiah figure to judge the world. John’s message was thus fed by the tradition we read of in the above works (Daniel, Enoch, Moses).
Zechariah 13:3 had said there would be no more prophets but John was not afraid to don the prophet’s mantle and take their place. John did not create an image of the Heavenly Man but delivered threats against those who this figure would judge:
O generation of vipers, [ Pliny, Nat. Hist. viii. 59, 1 -- the viper was believed to be the only snake that could bury itself in the earth - metaphor of those who think they can hide from the wrath of God ]
Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance,
Do not to say to yourselves,
We have Abraham to our father:
I say unto you that God is able
Of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. [ "stones" = Aramaic abenayya; children = Aramaic benayya ]
Already the axe
Is laid unto the root of the trees:
Every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit
Is hewn down and cast into the fire.
He that cometh after me
Is mightier than I,
Whose shoes I am not worthy to untie:
I baptize you with water,
He will baptize you with wind and fire: [ the context of the next verse explains the meaning of wind and fire; the word "holy" before wind (same word as spirit) was a Christian addition and foreign to the context ]
His fan is in his hand,
To purge thoroughly his floor,
And gather his wheat into his garner;
But he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
The urgency of this message (taken from Luke and Matthew) leaves no room for delay. The judgement from this heavenly Son of Man figure from the Book of Enoch is about to befall.
With such heightened expectations there was nothing to live for except that expectation. And as for that rite of baptism:
What an inspiration it was to invent a rite which should become the most solemn, the most widely spread of all rites, which should be a bond between multitudes of believers, binding them into a single religious community!
“I baptize you with water, he will baptize you with wind and fire.” This plunging into water is called by its Greek name, baptism. Its meaning is profound and its might great. It is in antithesis to the passing through fire which he “who is mightier than I” shall give to those who reject him. Baptism in water will preserve the faithful from the baptism of fire. The soul must be purified by repentance first. Then shall the baptism in water give protection from the Wind and the Fire of the Great Winnower. (p. 28)
That’s an interesting twist on a rite I had always associated with a symbolic death — a burial as per Noah’s flood or the Egyptian armies chasing Moses’s Israelites. But I do like the “wind and fire” interpretation — makes more sense than the Gospel having a baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire.
The Jordan River is the setting. Ezekiel 47:1-12 had foretold a stream would flow down from the Temple cleansing the waters of the Dead Sea so they would become the scene of fish and fisher nets.
Here the prophecy is realized. The invisible stream has sprung forth. The lands once burned with fire from heaven for their sins are now the first purified. A new life is beginning. The nets of the Fisher are spread forth. (pp. 28-29)
There is so much symbolism here that I can’t help but suspect literary artifice. But I am giving this space to Couchoud’s views so let’s continue.
The believer comes down to the Baptizer and is immersed, thus entering into the Kingdom, now saved from the whirlwind of fire to come. Through this rite — to be preserved among the early Church and the Mandaeans — the believer is separated from the rest of mankind and bonds with a new and saved community.
These believers separated themselves into small communities, fasted often (Luke 5:33) and prayed often as John taught them (Luke 11:1).
They were distinguished from ordinary Jews by the name of Nazorean. (p. 29)
Couchoud turns to Lidsbarski, Ginza (1925) to inform us that the designation of Nazoreans was retained by the early Christians (Acts 24:5), by Oriental Christians and by the Mandaeans — and probably means “those who observe”.
Elements of a new religion
If a religion consists essentially of a common belief in a divine being and a common rite that puts believers in communion with their god,
then the baptism of John associated with the myth of the Celestial Man offered the elements of a new religion.
So when the author of Acts (Acts 27:25 — Apollos knew only the baptism of John) speaks of the Baptism of John he effectively means the religion of John.
These are the foundations on which Christianity is to rise. (p. 29)
Though Judaism was the matrix of John’s religion John taught that it was not enough to be a Jew — a child of Abraham — to enter the Kingdom. Not race but baptism was the bond of the new sect. As per Luke 3:10-14, the foreign soldier and unclean tax collector could become a member along beside the purest Jew.
The idea of a single religion accessible to all is outlined here. (p. 30)
Couchoud follows Josephus for the account of John’s demise. John preached within the territory of Herod Antipas and beyond the direct borders of Rome. Herod’s Arabian wife fled from him to her father, the King of Petra, on learning Herod planned to get rid of her and marry his sister-in-law (Herodias) instead. Herod was now threatened with war with the King of Petra. Alarmed at the crowds John was attracting in his territory he had John arrested and executed. The war followed and Herod was defeated in 36 c.e. Josephus tells us that the Jews believed this defeat was a punishment for his murder of John. The gospel account is anachronistic with its having Herodias already married to Herod by the time of John’s imprisonment.
All of this has been covered in other posts (in particular discussing Zindler’s arguments for the Josephan account of John the Baptist not being original to Josephus). I cannot accept any of the narratives of John’s death. The Josephan account is too simplistic with its setting of the war over a personal insult — this recalls to mind the “saga” genre in which kings traditionally go to war over such personal affronts. And Dennis MacDonald (and, I think, Robert Price?) have pointed to other literary origins of Mark’s account of John’s death.
Other recent posts have also drawn attention to the symbolism underlying names like Paul and Simon. We cannot forget in this context the nagging suggestion that John has been thought to be linked with Oannes the water god. Is this also an epithet taken on by a historical person? But this is entirely speculative.
Had expected to cover what I recalled of Couchoud’s discussion of John the Baptist in a few sentences and complete a few chapters in one post here. I made the mistake, however, of opening the book again and seeing little details I thought I should add.
So next post in this series will be the final chapter in this first section of the book which takes us to A.D. 40. After that Couchoud enters the period 40 to 130 and the chapters leading up to where I began the section on the development of the Gospels and the New Testament.