Tag Archives: John the Baptist

Historical Reconstruction or a “Mad House”?

“He is unlike any man you have ever seen . . .”

If you’ve ever watched the original Planet of the Apes, you no doubt remember the scene in which the Tribunal of the National Academy questions Charlton Heston (Taylor, aka “Bright Eyes”). None of Taylor’s explanations make any sense to the tribunal, of course. If fact, the disturbing testimony causes them to assume the position.

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

Later we discover that the Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith, Dr. Zaius, knows a great deal more than he at first let on. From the 1967 shooting script:

                                TAYLOR
			I told the truth at that 'hearing' of yours.

				ZAIUS
			You lied. Where is your tribe?

				TAYLOR
			My tribe, as you call it, lives on another
			planet in a distant solar system.

				ZAIUS
			Then how is it we speak the same language?
				(suddenly intense)
			Even in your lies, some truth slips
			through! That mythical community you're
			supposed to come from -- 'Fort Wayne'?

				TAYLOR
			What about it?

				ZAIUS
			A fort! Unconsciously, you chose a name
			that was belligerent.

“Even in your lies, some truth slips through!”

I often think of those two scenes — Taylor’s hearing and its aftermath — when I’m reading up on the historical Jesus. Very few modern critical scholars believe that Mark is telling the truth about the splitting of the firmament and the booming voice from heaven at the baptism. Yet, “even in [Mark's] lies, some truth slips through.”

Consider R Joseph Hoffmann’s assertion in his latest post.

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Did Jesus Baptize? – A Test Case for Brodie’s ‘Unity of John’ Thesis

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. – John 3:22

And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” — John 3:26

The Gospel of John here says that Jesus baptized. “There is no ambiguity: the verb is singular and refers to Jesus.” (Brodie, 219)

Then at the beginning of the next chapter the same idea is expressed:

Therefore when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John. (4:1)

But then, immediately, there is a further comment: “Although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples. (4:2)

Did he or did he not? The contradiction seems so glaring that some commentators have regarded 4:2 as an insertion, as reflecting an editorial process. In fact, Dodd and Brown see 4:2 as one of the gospel’s best examples of the whole phenomenon of editing. For Brown (164) it serves as almost indisputable evidence of the presence of several hands in the composition of John. . . . (Brodie, 219-220)

So Brodie acknowledges that if this is the one of the best pieces of evidence for John being a work that was composed layer by layer over several authorial or editorial processes, then it should also be taken as a test case for his own thesis that this Gospel was composed as a unitary work by a single author.

In my previous post on Brodie’s Commentary on John I explained that Brodie argues that the jarring intrusions or contradictory statements that pop up unexpectedly throughout this Gospel are placed there as deliberately by the original author to shock and confront the reader just as much as the words he puts into the mouth of Jesus to shock the narrative’s characters. That is, they point to a higher spiritual theological meaning that goes against the surface flow of the narrative. This flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that these apparent intrusions and contradictions are indicators that this Gospel was the product of many authors or redactors adding, over time, additional “layers” or “insertions” to the original composition. read more »

John the Baptist and the foundations of Christianity (Couchoud)

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 »

Reasonably doubting that John baptized Jesus — Or how HJ scholars worked before they had Tools

Does it really advance historiography to rename weak arguments "tools"?

There’s something very reassuring knowing you have a tool at hand if you are an archaeologist and hope to dig through layers of earth to find new historical evidence. And if you are a scholar of the historical Jesus you can always feel more secure in what you find digging beneath the texts if you can boast that you are deploying the latest tools in your efforts. Saying you are using a historians’ tools almost sounds as if you are on a level with a doctor using blood tests and blood pressure monitors in order to reach some level of objective assurance in a diagnosis.

One of these tools historical Jesus scholars use is embarrassment. That may sound like a flakey concept for a tool to the uninformed, but it historical Jesus scholars are widely known for explaining the tools they use to reach certain conclusions, and one of their tools is the criterion of embarrassment.

By using this tool these scholars, most of them anyway, can say with quite some confidence that it is a historical fact that John the Baptist baptized Jesus. The reasoning is that early Christians would have been embarrassed by their master Jesus being baptized by John as if a common penitent or inferior to the prophet, so it is not a story they would have invented. So the fact that they told the story shows they must not have been able to conceal the fact and were forced to live with, or explain away, their embarrassment. The baptism must thus be an historical event according to the criterion of embarrassment.

But of course the argument about embarrassment existed before historical Jesus scholars agreed not so very long ago to think about certain of their standard arguments as “tools”.

A secular rationalist argument in the pre-tool era

Contrast how this same matter of embarrassment could be handled in an argument before the days it was elevated to its modern technological status. read more »

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

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.

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

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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John the Baptist foreshadowed in Homer’s Odyssey?

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 »

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

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 »

When neither the Gospel nor Josephus makes sense

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 »

5 reasons to suspect John the Baptist was interpolated into Josephus

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 »

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

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 »

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

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 »

Embarrassing failure of the criterion of embarrassment

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 »

John the Baptist’s head: a eucharist for the Herods

Herodias' Revenge Museum Mayer van den Bergh, ...

Image via Wikipedia

Mark narrates in 6:14-29 the incident about Herod and John the Baptist in a way that makes the reader see it as endowed with a symbolic meaning. What we get is a perverted counter-eucharist: a deipnon among the Jewish political leaders which is dominated by the passions of the body (sexual desires) and in which the head of John the Baptist is served on a plate. (Fortunately, I am not the only one to read the story like this; cf. . . . . van Iersel B.M.F 1998: Mark. A Reader-Response Commentary, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 164, Sheffield).

This is from Henrik Tronier, Philonic Allegory in Mark. I feel incomplete not having read van Iersel, and feeling financially boa constricted when I see that the price of even a second hand copy is well in excess of $100!

Until I read this in Tronier’s article, almost the only literary criticism of this John the Baptist beheading passage that I had ever encountered was commentary on its rambling and irrelevant character, standing out as a curious out-of-place anomaly in the otherwise consistently terse pre-Passion narratives in Mark’s Gospel. The only exception to this pattern that I can recall at the moment is Dennis MacDonald’s linking it with popular stories of the murder of King Agamemnon (on his return from the Trojan War) by his wife Clytemnestra.

So in the absence of $130 to spare on Iersel, here are a few initial observations that might give reason to see this detailed anecdote as more meaningful than rambling after all: read more »