Category Archives: John the Baptist


2013-08-24

So John the Baptist was interpolated into Josephus? One more argument for the forgery case

by Neil Godfrey

jm_baptism_1Many of us are aware of the arguments of Frank Zindler that the John the Baptist passage in Josephus is an interpolation, but we leave those aside here and look at what Rivka Nir of the Open University of Israel offers as reasons for doubting the genuineness of the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities. The following is drawn from “Josephus’ Account of John the Baptist: A Christian Interpolation?” by Rivka Nir in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus (2012) 32-62.

Rivka Nir’s article also suggests her own answer to the old question of the origins of the idea of baptism as we read it in connection with John the Baptist.

To begin, let’s refresh our memory of what we read about John the Baptist in Josephus. The translation following is as it appears in Rivka Nir’s article:

(116) But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist.

(117) For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews who lead [ἐπασκοῦσιν] righteous lives and practice [χρωμένοις] justice [δικαιοσύνῃ] towards their fellows and piety [εὐσεβείᾳ] toward God to join in baptism [be united by baptism] [βαπτισμῷ συνιέναι].

In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism [βάπτισιν] was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying [or: on condition] that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by [righteousness—R.N.] [δικαιοσύνῃ].

(118) When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused [ἤρθησαν] to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation, and see his mistake. (Antiquities 18.5.2 116-119)

Rivka Nir first gives us the three pillars upon which the authenticity of this passage rests (I omit supporting details in the footnotes and add bold format):

  1. In view of dissimilarities or even contradictions between the Gospel and Josephus versions about John the Baptist, it is reasoned that had the passage been interpolated by a Christian, the interpolator would most likely have accommodated the account to its version in the Gospels.
  2. The passage’s correspondence in vocabulary and style to Josephus’ Antiquities in general and books XVII–XIX in particular.
  3. The presence of the text in all the Josephus manuscripts and its mention by Origen in his Against Celsus (1.47), dated to 248 CE.

Early suspicions of a brazen forgery

1893: Herman Graetz called the passage “a brazen forgery”.(Geschichte der Juden, III, p. 276, n. 3) read more »


2012-11-16

Why the Gospel of John Depicted John the Baptist So Differently

by Neil Godfrey

John the Baptist is almost unrecognizable in the Gospel of John to those who have known him only from the Synoptic Gospels.

Apart from the Gospel of John’s Baptist never baptizing Jesus, (and apart from the possibility that in John’s Gospel Jesus himself uniquely does some baptizing for a time), one major difference between the Fourth Gospel and the Synoptics is that in the latter there is a clearly laid out sequence while in John’s Gospel Jesus and John work alongside each other.

The reason that the Gospel of John treats John the Baptist so differently from the way he is depicted in the Synoptics is, I suggest, because that sequential pattern in the Synoptics implies something about the nature of Jesus that the last evangelist flatly rejected. So this post looks firstly at what that sequence implies about Jesus and that might have been at odds with the theology or Christology of the Fourth Gospel.

In the Gospel of Mark, first John the Baptist appears to Israel; John is then imprisoned; only then does Jesus appears to Israel. In the Gospel of John, however, John the Baptist and Jesus are carrying out their respective baptizing ministries in tandem. The only difference is that the followers of Jesus are increasing while those of John are diminishing. So the Baptist is said to explain:

He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30)

That’s not how it is in the Gospel of Mark. In Mark a sequence is clear. First John the Baptist, then Jesus who announces the Kingdom of God, then (we must wait for it) the Kingdom of God is about to arrive (at hand). read more »


2012-02-21

Was Jesus “John the Baptist”?

by Neil Godfrey

For those of us who like to be stimulated with different views on Christian origins René Salm has translated and made available a 1956 essay by Georges Ory, Was Jesus “John the Baptist”?

This hypothesis reminds me of Robert M. Price’s suggestion that the two figures are doubles, or that Jesus was indeed something of a mythical hypostasis of John. (Unfortunately I forget the source for this discussion now — I welcome a reminder from anyone reading this.) Others — Roger Parvus and Hermann Detering, if I recall correctly, have had thought provoking views of the role of John the Baptist and Simon Magus.

I’ve had a less “psychological-anthropological” explanation for John the Baptist than Bob Price’s views, and have to admit I have never given enough sustained attention in the past to some of the views of Parvus and Detering. I know I have only covered one dimension of the evidence available — the midrashic literary. I wonder if the motif of a representative of the old, usually metaphorically rough in appearance, as the deliverer of one who ushers in the new creation and new world, is a deeply rooted cultural archetype found from the Epic of Gilgamesh right through to modern fiction and fables.

I may not always come away from reading radical new views being immediately convinced, but rarely do I ever come away without having been stimulated with new questions and avenues to explore.

So who was George Ory? read more »


2012-01-31

The First Signs of Christianity: Couchoud continued

by Neil Godfrey

Couchoud thought that John the Baptist epitomized and popularized the Jewish hopes for a coming Judge from Heaven — as shown in my previous post in this series (the entire series is archived here).

Christianity was born of the travail of the days of John. The Baptist gave it two talismans with which to bind souls:

  1. the advent of the Heavenly Man in a universal cataclysm,
  2. and the rite of baptism which allowed the initiates to await, without apprehension, the Coming of the Judge.

(p. 31, my formatting)

At first the teaching spread like wildfire but without John’s name attached to it as its IP owner.

Before long the teaching became enriched with various kinds of additions. First among these additions were new names for the Heavenly Man: Lord, Christ, Jesus.

Lord as a title was derived from Psalm 110:1

The Lord said unto my Lord,

Sit thou at my right hand,

Until I make thine enemies thy footstool.

To whom could this have been addressed? Surely not to the Messiah, the Son of David, waited for by the Pharisees. David would not have called his son “my Lord.” It must have been to the Son of Man who, according to the Revelation of Enoch, was placed on the throne of his glory by God Himself. (p. 31)

Since David as an inspired prophet makes it clear that the Son of Man is enthroned at the right hand of God and calls him Lord. So believers could also call the Son of Man their Lord.

(Note that the title “Son of Man” was used as a Greek expression, too. Think of Christianity as moulded very largely by Greek speakers.)

Christ, Christos, “is a somewhat barbarous translation of the Hebrew word which means consecrated by unction, Messiah.” read more »


2012-01-30

John the Baptist and the foundations of Christianity (Couchoud)

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. read more »


2011-11-17

John the Baptist became (or came from) a god?

by Neil Godfrey
Oannes

Image by Krista76 via Flickr

In my recent post I referred to an old view that John the Baptist may possibly in some way have originated from the Babylonian water god, Ea. Another scholar who also saw a link with this god was Robert Eisler, but he took the contrary view: that a historical John the Baptist was in some way eventually identified with Ea. He suggests the possibility in his 1920 book, Orpheus — The Fisher: Comparative Studies in Orphic and Early Christian Cult Symbolism. Eisler’s views have always been controversial and I find many of them imaginative discussion-starters rather than convincing conclusions. So it is in that context that I share here what he says about the possibility of John the Baptist’s link with the pagan god.

Eisler is dogmatic in his insistence that John the Baptist was a historical person and flatly denounces the contrary claim by two early Christ Myth proponents, Dupuis and Drews:

It is more than a century since Charles Francois Dupuis, the famous Parisian lawyer and professor of rhetoric , first declared that John the Baptist was a purely mythical personage and his name the equivalent of that of the Babylonian fish-clad divinity Iannes or Oannes. Quite recently the same theory has been repeated in Prof. Arthur Drews’ much-discussed book on the so-called ‘Christ-myth,’ . . . . read more »


2011-11-14

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

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. read more »


2011-10-12

The “Legend” of the Baptism of Jesus (Bultmann flashback)

by Neil Godfrey

Posted 6pm. Updated 8:30 pm with note on Thompson’s argument that baptism is a reiteration of OT narratives

Rudolf_Bultmann

Image via Wikipedia

Every so often scholars stumble over evidence that what they are reading in the Gospels is based not on historical events but on theological creativity but they never seem to mind. They nearly always pick themselves up, dust themselves off and look around declaring, “Didn’t hurt a bit” before continuing on their way as if nothing had ever happened.

Not so long ago I wrote a few posts on Bishop John Shelby’s Spong’s arguments that most of what we read in the Gospels is fictional midrash. (Even Dale C. Allison uses that “m” word to describe some of the same narratives in his Constructing Jesus — pp. 448, 451 –  so I guess scholars who object to mythicists using the word ‘midrash’ should have a quiet word with their mainstream counterparts who carelessly encourage them.) The point is that even though Spong argued Gospel stories were not historical memories, he nonetheless insisted that there was a historical foundation to them all. He’s not alone. Dennis MacDonald has argued that many scenarios in the Gospel of Mark are adaptations of scenes in the Homeric epics but he, too, makes a point of explicitly stating that he does not believe Jesus himself is a fiction.

So one feels immersed in familiar waters when reading a 1963 translation of the third edition (1958) of Rudolf Bultmann’s  The History of the Synoptic Tradition (originally published 1921) and finds Bultmann likewise being quick to declare that, despite all the legendary or mythical features of Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus, he nonetheless is not so sceptical  as to deny that John really and truly did baptize Jesus.

Without disputing the historicity of Jesus’ baptism by John,2 the story as we have it must be classified as legend. (p. 247)

If our earliest record of an event is legend then on what grounds do we decide not to question its historicity?

But even more intriguing is an attached footnote that reads:

2 I cannot share the scepticism of E. Meyer, Ursprung u. Anfaenge d. Christent., I, 1921, pp. 83f.  Indeed Acts 1037f, 1324f. prove that the historical fact of Jesus’ baptism is not necessary for linking the ministry of Jesus to John’s; yet not that this linking must be made by the story of a baptism, or that it could only be made if the baptism of Jesus were not an actual historical fact.

So my recent post about three modern scholars who are sceptical about the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John — Bill Arnal, Leif E. Vaage and Burton Mack — are nothing novel. So the scholarly doubt is at least as old as 1921.

So what was Bultmann’s finding that led him to decide the account of Jesus’ baptism was not historical (even though he still believed the event was historical anyway)? read more »


2011-10-07

More reasons for an early Christian to invent the story of Jesus’ baptism

by Neil Godfrey

Bill Arnal and Leif E. Vaage are not the only scholars who have published doubts about the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. I mentioned them back in January this year. Another was Burton Mack in Myth of Innocence. (The evidence against historicity is in my view overwhelming. I have shown the weakness of the arguments by E. P. Sanders for its historicity and posted before on how the scene’s can be explained entirely in terms of literary function and artifice without any need to resort to assumptions of extraneous events outside the text.) But for sake of completeness here is Burton Mack’s argument for treating it as entirely mythical. I highlight in bold type the reasons he sees evident for the need or wish of early Christians to invent the episode. Far from the scene being an embarrassment to the first Christians to have heard the story, it was surely welcomed. Only later evangelists reading Mark’s gospel felt embarrassment over Mark’s account because they had quite different views of Jesus.

The framework stories of the gospels are the most highly mythologized type of material. They include the narratives of Jesus’ birth, baptism, transfiguration, crucifixion, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances. The transfiguration story is purely mythological, as are the birth narratives, the story of the empty tomb, and the appearances of the resurrected Jesus to the disciples. Critical scholars would not say that any of these derive from reminiscences.

The baptism story is also mythic, but in this case may derive from lore about Jesus and John the Baptist. Lore about John and Jesus is present in the sayings tradition, in a pronouncement story, and other legends both in Q and in Mark. John the Baptist was a public figure whose social role was similar to that of Jesus and whose followers were regarded by some followers of Jesus as competitors.

Except for the baptism story, however, there is no indication that Jesus and John crossed paths.

read more »


2011-05-31

Mythicist Papers: Background to Christian Myths – a 3 day death, Nazarenes, the John the Baptist sect. . . .

by Neil Godfrey
Crescent Moon (NASA, International Space Stati...

Image by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center via Flickr

René Salm has translated the first two chapters of a fascinating study by Ditlef Nielsen, The Old Arabian Moon Religion And The Mosaic Tradition (1904) and made them available online at his Mythicist Papers resource page.

He has other resources there, too. Anyone interested in the origins of the “Nazarene” epithet [n-ts-r] applied to Jesus and early Christians, in the roots of the three-day death and resurrection concept in myth, of the (very early) background to what the later emergence of the Mandean or John the Baptist sect, the astrological basis for the Jewish sabbath and “magical” numbers, will find these resources indispensable. I have just completed the second chapter of Nielsen’s book and found it absolutely fascinating.

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2011-05-14

John the Baptist foreshadowed in Homer’s Odyssey?

by Neil Godfrey
http://www.flickr.com/photos/-lucie-/4321533423/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/-lucie-/4321533423/

Another interesting observation in Bruce Louden‘s Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East is his drawing a possible link between John the Baptist and Halitherses in the Odyssey. Louden explains that Halitherses is an aged prophet, close to the hero Odysseus, who warns the nobles in Odysseus’ absence to stop their evil plans or they will suffer the judgment of Odysseus upon his return.

That was enough to send me back to reading the Odyssey and I think the following passage that depicts Halitherses’  “preaching” worth quoting in full. I conclude with another in which Louden shows us that the message of the return of the king to his kingdom in the Odyssey is in a sense called “good news”, a word very similar to “gospel”. read more »


2011-03-30

Taking the Gospels seriously, part 2 (What John Baptist supposedly meant to Jesus)

by Neil Godfrey

I often find myself wishing some knowledgable scholars who write about “the historical Jesus” would take their Gospel sources more seriously.

To take just one illustration, I don’t know if I have read any scholarly work addressing the baptism of Jesus that fails to make some reference to the “influence of John the Baptist on Jesus”, or to the “calling of Jesus”, or such. The presumption is always that Jesus was some sort of spiritual “seeker” who was profoundly moved in some way by John the Baptist and as a direct consequence was catapulted on his own solo career.

Here is one example of this:

What we do know past doubting is that John had a crucially important impact on Jesus. According to the synoptic tradition, Jesus in some sense received his calling during or just after his baptism. (p. 191 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, by Paula Fredriksen)

And another that is within easy reach on my desk:

We can now see what attracted Jesus to John. John exercised a large-scale and highly successful prophetic ministry of repentance to Israel. . . . He offered salvation and predicted judgement in terms which recreated the Judaism of the prophetic tradition. This explains why Jesus underwent John’s baptism. . . . Jesus thereby joined this vigorous movement of prophetic Judaism. . . . On the occasion of his baptism, Jesus had a visionary experience. . . . (p. 176 of Jesus of Nazareth by Maurice Casey.) read more »


2011-03-27

When neither the Gospel nor Josephus makes sense

by Neil Godfrey
Execution of John the Baptist

Image via Wikipedia

The image we have from the Gospels of the death of John the Baptist belongs to the world of make-believe fantasy. A man out in the wilderness publicly complains that a king’s marriage is unlawful, so the king has him arrested and imprisoned. Later he is seduced by a dance into making an incautious promise so that he is honour-bound to deliver the head of John on a dinner plate to his new wife.

There’s another story in a historical work by Josephus about how John the Baptist met his death. John had a reputation for teaching people to be good towards one another and reverential before God. His teaching was so persuasive that Herod was frightened John might decide to tell all his followers to rise up and rebel against their king, so had him sent of to prison to be executed. (Antiquites 18.5.2)

Paula Fredriksen, author of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, is one scholar who acknowledges that neither account makes much sense. read more »


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 »