Category Archives: John the Baptist


2011-01-29

5 reasons to suspect John the Baptist was interpolated into Josephus

by Neil Godfrey
Said to be the part of the skull (de cranis) of John the Baptist, in reliquarium, Residenz, Munich

Image via Wikipedia

Frank Zindler (The Jesus the Jews Never Knew) gives five reasons to think that Josephus said nothing at all about John the Baptist.

This is something that is not generally welcomed by those who are primarily interested in defending the possibility of any independent (non Christian) evidence at all for the historical background to the gospel narrative, but it is of interest to anyone who is interested in examining the evidence with an open mind.

Unlike the interpolation of the Jesus passage(s) into Josephus, Zindler suggests that the John the Baptist passage was inserted by a Jewish Christian or “an apologist for one of the myriad ‘heretical’ sects which are known to have existed from the earliest periods of Christian history.” (p. 96) One possibility he offers is even a pre-Christian Baptist of some sort.

Because there are details of John the Baptist in Josephus that are at odds with those we find in the Gospels many scholars, writes Zindler, have been persuaded the words about John the Baptist really were composed by Josephus. But Zindler reminds us that

many non-gospel views of the Baptist existed during the first three centuries (indeed, a decidedly non-gospel type of John the Baptist holds a very prominent place in the Mandaean religion to this day), and an unknown number of them might have held the opinion now supposed to have been that of Josephus. (p. 97)

Here are Zindler’s reasons for believing the passage in Josephus is a forgery. read more »


2011-01-18

Did not even John the Baptist recognize Jesus at the Jordan River?

by Neil Godfrey
Geertgen tot Sint Jans (15th century): "John the Baptist"

Image via Wikipedia

Mark’s gospel makes little sense if read as literal history, but it packs a powerful punch when read with a mind swept clean of all the other gospel accounts.

The punch the Gospel of Mark hit me with recently was its sentence noting John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus. It’s bizarre if we try to read it as biography or history. But it makes for a great symbolic message about the identity and function of Jesus.

The Gospel begins with John declaring that one far greater than he is to come from God and cover his followers not with water but with the holy spirit. The preamble has informed readers that this coming one is to be the one of whom the Prophets said is the Lord himself. Everyone came out repenting and being baptized.

Then Jesus came along and John baptized him too.

And that’s it. Mark gives not the slightest hint that John baulked and said, Hey, you’re the one! Nope. It’s as if Jesus was the last in line and John routinely baptized him like all the rest.

Then up from the water came Jesus and “he” (only) saw the spirit descending to him like a dove. No one else saw this or the heavens splitting apart, and no-one but Jesus heard the voice from heaven declaring him to be God’s son.

This is strange. It is especially strange if, as many modern interpreters like to think, Jesus was originally a follower of John the Baptist.

No, what Mark is doing here is entirely at a literary level. read more »


2011-01-14

Scholars who question the historicity of Jesus’ baptism and why they “do not persuade”

by Neil Godfrey

Icon_of_jesus_baptism-138x300I was struck by a sentence by Dale C. Allison in his Constructing Jesus that began as follows:

Indeed, Jesus seems to have submitted to John’s baptism. . . . (p. 53)

Only “seems”? I did not know that any theologian and biblical scholar who accepted the historical reality of Jesus doubted it. So catch that footnote number and make a quick check. Here is the explanatory footnote:

This is rarely doubted, although see William Arnal, “Major Episodes in the Biography of Jesus: An Assessment of the Historicity of the Narrative Tradition,” TJT 13 (1997): 201-26; Leif E. Vaage, “Bird-Watching at the Baptism of Jesus: Early Christian Mythmaking in Mark 1:9-11,” in Reimagining Christian Origins (ed.. Castelli and Taussig), 280-94. Arnal and Vaage do not persuade, in part because, as Mark’s account of the crucifixion and Luke’s theological use of Jerusalem show, remembered facts may not only serve literary ends but may also be fully clothed in legendary and mythological dress. The snag here is that almost every bit of tradition is integrated into the surrounding Synoptic narratives and serves clear editorial ends, so unless we are to find only fiction in the Synoptics, observation of such integration and such ends cannot suffice to determine derivation.

This is why I like Dale Allison so much. He is equal to the most honest biblical scholar that I have encountered who also believes in the historicity of Jesus. He essentially admits his belief is a belief and does not kid himself (or his readers) that his reasoning is not circular. There are a number of other theologians who cannot face this fact about their own writings.

Theologian James McGrath challenged me to address a scholar like E.P. Sanders “point by point” and still deny the historicity of Jesus, and when I did so, including a discussion of what Sanders argues about the baptism of Jesus, McGrath belatedly responded with a weak and meek “I do not agree”. I had hoped for some serious response that included a statement of reasons for his disagreement. I would much rather engage with Dale Allison who does demonstrate an ability to give a reasoned response. read more »


2011-01-01

Where Did John the Baptist’s Parents Come From? Reading the Gospels “with Jewish Eyes”

by Neil Godfrey
Annunciation to Zechariah. Fragment of russian...
Image via Wikipedia

The names of the parents of both Jesus and John the Baptist were arguably created from the imaginations of the Gospel authors working on Old Testament passages for inspiration. The names were fabricated because of the theological messages they conveyed. There is no evidence to indicate that they were handed down from historical memory.

This is not a “mythicist” or “atheist” argument. It is the result of scholarly research by an Anglican vicar and an Episcopal bishop.

Both have published scholarly reasons for believing that the names Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus, and Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, were carefully selected by early Christians on the basis of their ability to convey particular theological meanings. Goulder and Spong describe this process as “midrash”. Spong explains what he means by this:

How to read the Gospels as Jewish books

[T]here are stories in the Gospels that are so deeply reminiscent of stories in the Old Testament that one might inquire as to the reason for their similarity. Was that accidental or coincidental? Or does it point to something we might have missed? . . .

In a deep and significant way, we are now able to see that all of the Gospels are Jewish books, profoundly Jewish books. Recognizing this, we begin to face the realization that we will never understand the Gospels until we learn how to read them as Jewish books. They are written, to a greater or lesser degree, in the midrashic sytle of the Jewish sacred storyteller, a style that most of us do not begin even now to comprehend. This style is not concerned with historical accuracy. It is concerned with meaning and understanding. read more »


2010-12-25

Embarrassing failure of the criterion of embarrassment

by Neil Godfrey
Dome depicting the baptism of Jesus by Saint John the Baptist, and a pagan god in the guise of an old man stands to one side holding a leather bag; Arian baptistry, Ravenna, Italy.

Both symbolic (scroll on image to see the text) and embarrassing (don't double click the image to look at Jesus too closely) baptism scene. Image via Wikipedia

So I hear from commenters that a new foray into demolishing mythicism has been launched by James McGrath with yet one more account of the “criterion of embarrassment”. The curious — yet tedious — thing about this is that while McGrath in particular has faulted mythicists for (supposedly) failing to engage with the scholarship on the historical Jesus, he himself, and some of the other more strident critics of mythicism, have notably failed to engage with the mythicist responses to those scholarly arguments.

James McGrath once wrote:

I have not yet seen . . . . a mythicist who engages a scholar like Sanders point by point and argues the case for drawing a different conclusion.

So when I proceeded to engage E. P. Sanders himself “point by point’ — and one of those points was Sanders’ argument for the historicity of the baptism of Jesus — I was disappointed that there was no response from McGrath. But he can no longer say that he has not yet seen a mythicist who engages a scholar like Sanders point by point and argues the case for drawing a different conclusion. I still await an opponent of mythicism to engage with the argument for the nonhistoricity of the narrative of the baptism of Jesus that I made in the following posts:

Engaging Sanders Point by Point: John the Baptist

Baptism of Jesus is . . . entirely creative literature

There are many possible reasons why McGrath did not respond to these. But what is not clear is why he would still use the criterion of embarrassment, with the baptism of Jesus as a principle case-study, as if no mythicist argument had ever been mounted against it. Why simply repeat the same argument that mythicists have long since responded to and found wanting? read more »


2010-08-10

Baptism of Jesus is not bedrock fact. It is entirely creative literature.

by Neil Godfrey
The baptism of Jesus by John the baptist, as i...

This is how Mark did NOT portray Jesus' baptism. Image via Wikipedia

The baptism of Jesus by John in the Gospel of Mark

  • is stitched together with images from Old Testament passages, and
  • serves the particular theological agenda of Mark that was challenged by later evangelists

So,

  1. if a passage in the Gospels can be shown to serve a theological agenda of an evangelist, then according to widely accepted standards of biblical historiography, we have reason to question its historical authenticity; and
  2. if a passage can be shown to be a pastiche of other texts certainly known to the author and his audience, and if once we strip away those textual borrowings and are left with nothing that stands alone, or in other words, if once we remove the sheepskin and find nothing left underneath, then we have further support in our doubts as to the historical originality of the event; and
  3. if the only external testimony to John the Baptist contradicts or fails to support our narrative at significant points, then we will need more than three bag’s full of special pleading to justify holding to any shred of historicity in our little narrative.

To repeat what I won’t repeat here

I have discussed the evidence for the John the Baptist of Mark’s gospel being cut from OT passages, and how this cut-out shape stands opposed to the apparently historical account in Josephus’ Antiquities, and how the episode of the baptism of Jesus in Mark’s gospel is disqualified from being historical even on the grounds of one of mainstream biblical scholarly criteria for historicity. (The criterion of embarrassment only applies to those later evangelists, Matthew, Luke and John, who demonstrate embarrassment with Mark’s story, not with any historical event per se.) These demonstrations are in Engaging Sanders point by point: JB, and JB, strangest of prophets, so I won’t repeat those arguments here. Nor will I address the possibility that the baptism reflects an adoptionist or separationist Christology. Nor even the arguments advanced to suggest John the Baptist himself was a mythical creation.

But why would anyone make it up? read more »