Embarrassing failure of the criterion of embarrassment

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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 non-historicity 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?

Confrontation and demolition, not dialogue and reasoning engagement

This is the same unfortunate experience we have had on this blog a number of times now with opponents of mythicism dropping in to declare their arguments while at the same time refusing point blank to acknowledge, let alone address, the mythicist responses and answers to those arguments.

This indicates to me that there is no interest on the part of such anti-mythicists in dialogue or reasoned debate. It indicates that the anti-mythicist is interested in defeating mythicism by rhetoric. Avoiding reasoned dialogue is the tactic of one who is seeking an adversarial confrontation and unconditional defeat of “the enemy”.

The circularity of the criterion of embarrassment

To argue that something in a narrative is historical because the only reason it is in the narrative is that it is historical is, well, circular.

To say the baptism is historical because an author was too fearful of being laughed at for not including it in his narrative is truly nothing but question-begging. It is just as easy to say that the author imaginatively created the story to satisfy a range of theological interests and messages. Not only is it “just as easy”, the literary creation argument requires fewer hypotheses to justify. (I have these points in the posts linked above.)

Historical Jesus scholars can get away with arguing for symbolic gospels

So why not mythicists? I recently quoted John Shelby Spong (a former student of Michael Goulder) arguing that the evangelist “Luke” knew he was writing a symbolic narrative and not a literally true historical one. This was in specific reference to the ascension of Jesus.

So why should it be prima face unreasonable to argue that the baptism of Jesus was also intended symbolically? We know the evangelists (canonical and noncanonical) had no qualms about changing, adding and removing stories to fit their theological agendas. “History” was presumably what followed by way of community belief.

There are abundant reasons for reading the baptism of Jesus as having originated as a midrashic or symbolic narrative. We know the evangelists were quite adept at creating anecdotes to demonstrate fulfilments of prophecy. There was a prophecy that Elijah was to precede the coming of the Lord. John the Baptist was said to be — and dressed up as — that Elijah. We know well the repeated biblical theme of God bringing a new creation, a new Israel, out of the waters: the waters of chaos, the land and life emerging from the waters, the flood of Noah and renewed world, the Exodus through the Red Sea as God renewed a people for himself, the renewed Israel once again through the Jordan, the departure of Elijah and the arrival of the one with double his spirit through the waters.

That a new Moses-Elijah figure bringing in a new covenant to displace the old should emerge from the waters of the Jordan is surely the sort of image and creative fiction that one should expect within the literary tradition of Israel.

So John tries to stop Jesus being baptized. Embarrassment? Not at all. This is just like the dialogue Justin Martyr engages in with his literary foil, Trypho. Justin is piecing together a story from OT verses and, aware of implicit contradictions as he does so, he rationalizes each one for the benefit of his readers through his addres.ses to Trypho. (For example, Justin feels it necessary to justify his claim that Jesus made ploughs and yokes as a carpenter: these were to teach the symbols of a righteous life. (Trypho, 88) This rationalization was not compelled by a historical reality that Justin feared to omit in case sceptics laugh at his Jesus for being nothing more than a manual labourer.)

Misusing the tools of historical inquiry

Scot McKnight (who is, I am sure, a believer in the historical Jesus) has written about the fallacy of “criteriology” as used by HJ scholars. (Scot McKnight’s Lament and Historical Facts)

The criterion of embarrassment is normally used as a tool for historians (nonbiblical) to interpret facts and evidence. As far as I am aware only biblical scholars attempt to use it to create facts, to establish what is a historical fact itself.

But a number of biblical scholars know very well that these criteria are too subjective (even circular) to truly establish objective (existential) facts (pp. 42-44 of Scot McKnight’s Jesus and His Death). Jim West (Refreshing Honesty) and Dale C. Allison (Clarity about Circularity) both concede that HJ (historical Jesus) studies rest on circular arguments.

Mythicists are on/wp-admin/post.php?post=16195&action=edit&message=1ly repeating the arguments that are found in the scholarly literature when they reject the use of the criterion of embarrassment (on grounds of its circularity and subjectivity) as a means of establishing the historicity of the baptism of Jesus. The difference is that the mythicists take the arguments to their logical conclusions and apply them more rigorously than many HJ scholars do.

Fantasy worlds and reality

In my opening sentence I linked to comments that informed me of McGrath’s renewed attempt to post an “antidote” to mythicism. I conclude here with an extract from one of those comments:

‘You seem to envisage a fantasy world where Christians never tell their beliefs and stories to anyone else, and reality has no impact or control on their storytelling.’

I live in a fantasy world where Christians write Gospels omitting details like baptisms, and fabricate public events that everybody knew did not happen?

But that is the world of the Gospels- a world where public events were fabricated and where Christians could and did omit baptisms when it suited them.

This is not a fantasy world I have created. As you well know, Christians certainly found it easy to simply cut out from history anything they found embarrassing.

Luke/Acts could even remove all mention of Jesus having James as a brother, so there is no need whatever to accuse me of living in a fantasy world where Christian Gospellers could select the ‘facts’ they wanted to report and omit others.

The fact remains that the embarrassment over the baptism can be traced to when Mark wrote it, thus by the criterion of embarrassment it had not been subject to 30 years of Christian spin-doctoring that would have happened if there had been 30 years of embarrassment.

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34 thoughts on “Embarrassing failure of the criterion of embarrassment”

  1. It seems to me that whatever establishes the historicity of an event/character has to be determined before using the criterion of embarrassment. For example, if I applied that criterion to a Spiderman comic, I could “prove” that Spiderman existed because certain editors were “embarrassed” by Peter Parker’s marriage to Mary Jane, and edited out his marriage from the comics.

    This of course is absurd. Historians would rightly say this is a misapplication of the criterion of embarrassment because it’s a Spiderman comic book. So it’s at this level (knowing that it’s a comic book) that we determine the historicity of some event/person, not at the criterion level. In order to properly apply any criteriology to some text, we have to first do some sort of literary analysis on the text. To me, it seems that at this literary analysis level is where historicity is determined, not at the criteriology level.

    1. Exactly. It was quite funny to read here http://thechurchofjesuschrist.us/2010/12/maurice-casey-most-proponents-are-extraordinarily-incompetent/ and here http://www2.macleans.ca/2010/12/23/jesus-historians-get-an-earful/ the following on Casey’s book:

      The emeritus professor of New Testament language and literature at Britain’s University of Nottingham—a scholar, that is, of the only sources we have for the life and times of Jesus Christ—knows that history is not done in his field like it is in any other. . . .

      It’s less a full-blown biography than a vigorous defence of historical methodology—of the moral necessity of applying the same historical standards to the study of Jesus as we apply to, say, Julius Caesar. Casey’s magnum opus offers, for those who accept his reasoning, an impressive array of facts about Jesus Christ, and a slashing attack on almost everyone to the left or right of him.

      Can you imagine ancient historians wading through texts applying the criterion of embarrassment to prove that Julius Caesar really did historically cross the Rubicon? Same standards as we apply to the study of Julius Caesar indeed!

      Genre and independent controls enable ancient historians to determine historical facts with Caesar. They use “criteria of embarrassment” etc to interpret the biases of this or that account of Caesar, NOT to establish this or that event as a fact.

  2. McDuff can be very trying. I recently made a comment on a post on his blog because someone pointed out to me some particular point that I thought would be helpful to clarify. Well, another asked a follow up question of me. Then McDuff posted to that questioner saying that I leave comments on his blog just to drive traffic to my site.

    McDuff is an interesting bird. He writes constant articles about blog ratings and ranking as if the purpose of the internet is to facilitate some competition with a calvinist kook he is fixated on. But when I post a comment specifically about a flaw I see in this “criteria of embarrassment” thing people were talking about, I am trying “drive traffic to my site”. This is why you will seldom see me even bothering to post comments to his site, which he pretty much ends up deleting anyway. In fact, I think that almost every post I have ever made on his site eventually get’s deleted. Much like the Church eventually deleted all of Marcion’s post on their blog. McDuff’s deleting of my posts got so funny that a few months ago that I even posted a humorous comment, playing on CS Lewis’s catchy apologetics phrase “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord”, on his site. Unfortunately you can’t read that either, cause he deleted that one as he does all my posts.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

  3. From Wikipedia ‘Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster first created a bald telepathic villain bent on dominating the entire world.’

    A bald telepathic villain? This was so embarrassing to Superman supporters that they changed him into a hero.

    By the criterion of embarrassment, we know Superman existed.

  4. John Dominic Crossan wrote of the criterion of embarrassment in “The Birth of Christianity”, p. 144:

    Let’s start with the first criterion. There is a lot of very embarrassing material in Mark about the disciples and relatives of Jesus, including, for example, the sworn denial of Jesus by Peter at his trial. Is that material historical from Jesus’ time or editorial from Mark’s purpose? Did Mark, in other words, polemically create teh embarrassment for Peter and Jesus’ main disciples?

    Even apart from the early Christologies of Adoptionism and Separationism, the idea that an “orthodox” Christian would create a symbolic tale of Jesus, “the first”, making himself “the last” through baptism (as he once again made himself “last” on the cross), to provide an example for all devotees, and to enable them all to identify more fully with him in the ritual, hardly seems a way out impossibility to me.

  5. The criteria of embarrassment cannot be used to prove anything occurred, nor can it be used to prove anything did not occur. It can only determine likelihood. Bart Ehrman, in Jesus, Apocalyptic of the new Millennium, seems to see it as a form of the criteria of dissimilarity. If a reason is proposed for an event not being embarrassing or actually serving the needs of author, it should not be automatically preferred because that would create a false fact, that this passage was written for reason x. So if the claim is made that Mark depicted Jesus as baptized to show the emergence of a new Israel out of the water and not reflecting an event in someones life, that is a claim to establish a historical fact regarding the text and we have to ask, how likely an explanation is that?

    Claims about what a text is trying to communicate is a historical claim, just like a claim that a person did some act in history. If we have a text where someone claims to have seen some event happen, and someone proposes that the person may be lying, that does not mean that the text is no longer historically valuable and the person is assumed to have been misleading in their account. We know that a persons testimony is not proof, and we have a certain level of uncertainty in all such accounts. But a claim that a text may be unreliable is not a claim that it is. A claim that a text is unreliable requires evidence. There are no default historical facts. As strongly as someone may feel that the episode with John was created to fulfill some prophecy, that does not prove it is true. Evidence may show it possible, but when then have to ask how likely is that compared with likelihood of Jesus actually being baptized by John.

    1. Yes, but it is incredibly likely that if an author wrote that X happened, then he had a very good reason to say that X happened.

      The criterion of embarrassment claims that an author would have given anything never to have said that X happened, because he was embarrassed by his own words on the page, but he had to write that X happened, even when it pained him to do so.

      This is not likely. Most authors are not embarrassed by what they write at the time that they wrote it, although they may find it embarrassing later.

      So the default position is that none of the Gospellers were embarrassed by their own words, and it takes a high level of evidence of an author’s embarrassment before we can show that he was embarrassed by what he was writing (it is easier, but quite irrelevant, to show that later authors were embarrassed by their sources)

      ‘If a reason is proposed for an event not being embarrassing or actually serving the needs of author….’

      But authors write texts to serve the needs of the author. Why else would an author write if not to serve a need of his to write what he wants to write?

      The default position is that the texts in the Gospels serve the needs of the authors.

      1. With respect to the different Gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus, it is very easy to find explanations that have nothing to do with embarrassment.

        Why can’t Matthew simply be including an answer to the obvious question that would arise over Jesus’ baptism: it was not about his need to repent, but a matter of conforming to all the right rituals. That does not have to imply any embarrassment at all.

        For Luke, John was not an Elijah figure, but voice heralding the advent of Jesus. It was Jesus who was the Elijah figure, while the church itself took on the role of Elisha. John’s role was completed once he made the announcement. The baptism of Jesus was linked to Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. Or was Luke constrained from explicitly saying John baptized Jesus by his restructuring of the narrative? He brought forward the reason for the arrest of John the baptist to the moment of the arrest itself, in order to keep a clear demarkation between the ministry of John and that of Jesus, just as later he had a clear separation between the work of Jesus and that of the church. So once John was shut away in prison, it was time to introduce the narrative of Jesus. It would have looked odd if he said John baptized Jesus after he was put in prison.

        One does not need to fall back on embarrassment as the only explanation for the different ways the Gospels treat of the baptism. Though of course if one does do so, the evidence points to embarrassment with Mark’s narrative, not anything historical.

      2. It doesn’t claim that the author would do anything to not include the information, only that it isn’t something someone would be likely to make up. If an author is inventing a narrative to get a point across, how many ways could that be done and would they choose this way? Again, it can’t be used to say, “this happened” only that is more likely than if this was something a an author would defiantly want to make up. I’ll skip the discussion of this concerning the baptism specifically, you guys seem confident that this would defiantly be something the author would want to include and your entitled to your opinion. The criteria can’t be used to prove any one existed, and if you have a good argument that Jesus is a mythical construct, then obviously you wouldn’t conclude he did any actions attributed to him. I may look into the other post and chime in if I have any problems with the arguments.

        1. MIKE
          It doesn’t claim that the author would do anything to not include the information, only that it isn’t something someone would be likely to make up.

          That isn’t the criterion of embarrassment.

          That criterion says we know the baptism happened because John’s Gospel never refers to any baptism happening.

          Because ‘John’ was too embarrassed to mention any baptism happening, the baptism happened.

          http://sheffieldbiblicalstudies.wordpress.com/2010/12/01/mike-kok-on-casey-ch-3/ has more on how we know something happened if a source never mentions it.

          I quote a Respected New Testament Scholar – Mike Kok – ‘It is not that John simply does not have the baptism, it is that he deliberately omits the baptism.’

          You can’t deliberately omit something that never happened, can you?

          The criterion of embarrassment involves looking at our primary sources, seeing where they are silent, and deducing that what they are silent about must have happened, because why else would it be omitted?

          1. Unless McGrath/Segal present a different argument from embarrassment for the historicity of John the Baptist from anything I have read before (I have not bothered to read the posts), the entire argument hangs on a certain view of Gospel trajectory/relationships: Mark to Matthew to Luke to John. And I think that that trajectory has in part been decided because it supports certain progressions of thought, such as (for one) the trail of embarrassment over Jesus’ baptism. If so, another circularity underpinning the argument kicks in.

            Now what if instead Matthew was the earliest Gospel, John followed, then Luke, and finally Mark? We would then have the earliest Gospels in contradiction: one saying Jesus was baptized and the other knowing of no such thing. Luke struggles to reconcile the two by making merely a sideways acknowledgement of it happening, and finally Mark decides to open up completely and side with Matthew unequivocally.

            Our “earliest sources” would then not be evidence of embarrassment, but outright contradiction, with the church later having to decide: did he or didn’t he? The trajectory would then be from uncertainty to a most unembarrassed definitely.

            So instead of arguing that the church struggled over the years to find more thorough ways to hide its embarrassment, the argument would have to be that the church became increasingly bold over the years to declare something uncertain at first to be a fact to be proclaimed without any equivocation.

            Historicity would have to be established by a criterion of mounting assertions of Confidence, not Embarrassment, in that case.

            I’m not saying that the Gospel sequence should be revised (such revisions are surely likely to happen over the long run of ongoing scholarly inquiry anyway, but that is not the point here) but just pointing out another area of fragility of the whole argument for historicity — finding any ad hoc circular argument that happens to fit a claim for historiciity.

            1. Or how about the Johannine tradition being the earliest – a tradition that assumes a baptism – a ‘spiritual’ as opposed to a literal baptism? John does not explicitly say he literally baptized Jesus; his story is that the one who sent him to baptize also told him about seeing someone upon whom the spirit would descend like a dove and remain on this figure. Does John *see* literally or figuratively? The high Christology of John could well suggest some spiritual or prophetic insight. (even if, as Anderson suggests, the Prologue is later, the high Christology is evidenced by the “I am” sayings…..).

              The high Christology could itself be the ‘embarrassment’ – not a specific instance of a literal baptism? And how does Mark go about rectifying or down playing the Johannine high Christology? Simple – have John actually do the baptism! – and then send his Jesus figure into the desert for 40 days to be tempted as a demonstration of humanity not high Christology.

              And so begins the early struggles over the nature of the gospel Jesus. Matthew sides with Mark, albeit with reservations. Luke sides with John – no mention that John baptizes Jesus – just that “when all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too”. A literal baptism by John or a spiritual or re-birth theology/philosophy? Literalism verse spirituality; history and its interpretation as ‘salvation’ history. Too peas in a very Jewish pod.

        2. Having looked it over, I think you are right that some have over valued the the historical reliableness of the baptism of Jesus. The early material however, (with due respect to your current fascination with Markan priority)doesn’t seem to put Jesus association with John to as good a use as Matthew and John do. It is possible that Q and Mark just didn’t think to have John actually acclaim Jesus as messiah and left that to more market savvy writers, but they did think it would be good to have Jesus as part of John’s crowd, since by all accounts, people liked John.

          On the other hand, that Jesus was a fan of a popular preacher is a fairly mundane assertion. There isn’t anything about Mark’s purpose that requires Jesus to be baptized by John, either for his own themes, to fulfill any prophecies, or satisfy the demands of known fact. As Carr mentioned, if it he didn’t like it, he could have just left it out. There could well have been a lot of things “known” by Mark’s community about Jesus that was left out. While I see no compelling reason for its invention, I can’t be certain that it is authentic. All I can say for certain is the John movement had an impact on the Jesus movement.

          1. The Gospel authors tell us what their motivation was for associating John with Jesus. It was to illustrate the fulfilment of prophecy. The voice of one crying in the wilderness.

            One criteria against authenticity is that a narrative that is explicitly said to be a fulfilment of a prophecy is not likely to be historical.

            So there is no need to wonder why John is there. The Gospel authors tell us exactly why they included John with Jesus:

            John’s Gospel has John declare:

            “John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

            Matthew’s Gospel informs us:

            This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

            “A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
            ‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
            make straight paths for him.’”

            Mark also tells us why he included John:

            as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

            “I will send my messenger ahead of you,
            who will prepare your way”[c]—
            “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
            ‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
            make straight paths for him.’”

            And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness

            And Luke too:

            As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

            “A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
            ‘Prepare the way for the Lord,

            So why is this little criterion (of a fulfilled prophecy counting against authenticity) overlooked in discussions of historicity?

            If it was prophesied then it happened, just as surely as Jesus was born in Bethlehem. That’s how the Gospel authors created history.

            1. 1. the destruction of Jerusalem is also related to a prophecy. 2. John is not mentioned in the prophecy, so why him? How many other ways could this prophecy have been fulfilled? 3.How many verses could potentially be used as a prophecy given the rules used for what constitutes a prophecy in the NT? How many potential introductions to Mark could be created?

              The element of prophecy fulfillment is not enough to establish that the passage was created for that purpose, only that it may have been.

              1. The destruction of the temple has independent attestation that it happened. The Gospel narrative itself has no such thing. So we have no way of knowing if it relates to historical events of not. But if we see a link to OT stories/prophecies, then we have identified a source for them. In the absence of any other known source it is reasonable to lean to the explanation that attributes the story to imaginative retellings of prophecies/OT narratives.

                An author has to decide on one way to tell a story. Just because he doesn’t come up with any of an infinite number of alternative possibilities proves nothing of itself.

              2. I’m not sure we have enough information to lean that way. We have a plausible event and someones belief that it fulfills a prophecy. I don’t think we can prove or establish with any certainty that a person created this incident, the baptism of Jesus by John.

            2. Neil: “The Gospel authors tell us exactly why they included John with Jesus…”

              Yes, the gospel writers not only told us why they inserted John into the story, but Matthew made Jesus himself explain it, “Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.”

              Mike: “There isn’t anything about Mark’s purpose that requires Jesus to be baptized by John…”

              It provides Mark with an historical anchor for his story. It demotes John to the status of forerunner. Assuming that while Mark is writing, there are followers of John competing with followers of Jesus, this story “puts John in his place.”

              But more than that, I think there’s a lot in Mark’s baptism story that can be understood symbolically with respect to the Margaret Barker’s temple theology. The rending of the heavens (echoed later in the rending of the temple curtain) and the descent of the spirit of Yahweh into Jesus indicate that Yahweh (the Lord) has become flesh. His father, El Elyon, is pleased. It’s all there: the invocation, atonement, judgment, etc.



            3. Neil:“So why is this little criterion (of a fulfilled prophecy counting against authenticity) overlooked in discussions of historicity?”

              Very simply answer here – Josephus holds the trump card in regard to historical investigation into the gospel storyline! In this case the assumed historicity of John the Baptist.

              Seemingly, NT historians would rather side with Josephus than the very words of the gospel figure they are so keen to find in first century Palestine….Jesus says JB fulfilled prophecy! Unfortunately, no alarm bells are ringing – Bethlehem can be ditched but not the baptism of Jesus by a figure fulfilling prophecy …


              7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:

              “‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
              who will prepare your way before you.’

              11. Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist;

              Malachi 3:1 – used by Mark in collaboration with his Isaiah quote. Matthew puts the Malachi quote into the mouth of his Jesus figure. Two prophecies related to the JB gospel storyline…

              1. Yes, Josephus so riddled with questionable passages that became ever so useful never too soon. John the Baptist who in Josephus taught a different meaning of baptism, lived or preached at the wrong time, has no connection with wilderness living or a weird diet. No problems. The details that are similar are confirmation of the gospels just as much as those details that are dissimilar.

              2. He(John) does live and preach at the wrong time for many NT scholars, but I’m not sure why Jesus wouldn’t be a figure from the better attested time of Josephus than the earlier period in the 30’s many have chosen. He also, very forcefully presented by Josephus, has a different meaning to baptism. He doesn’t comment of the diet of John, but we know of others from his works, other preachers, that did affect some similar oddities as John in the gospel.

                As Helena points out, the association of Jesus and John along with the prophecy, are found in another source, one more reliable than our Mark passage. while it does not prove John’s existence, or relation to Jesus, it does make the case stronger.It is not unlikely that the case is being made for Jesus being a follower of John is being made because Jesus was a follower.

              3. Josephus himself lives with a JtB figure before deciding to become a Pharisee:

                And when I was about sixteen years old, I had a mind to make trim of the several sects that were among us. These sects are three: – The first is that of the Pharisees, the second that Sadducees, and the third that of the Essens, as we have frequently told you; for I thought that by this means I might choose the best, if I were once acquainted with them all; so I contented myself with hard fare, and underwent great difficulties, and went through them all. Nor did I content myself with these trials only; but when I was informed that one, whose name was Banus, lived in the desert, and used no other clothing than grew upon trees, and had no other food than what grew of its own accord, and bathed himself in cold water frequently, both by night and by day, in order to preserve his chastity, I imitated him in those things, and continued with him three years. So when I had accomplished my desires, I returned back to the city, being now nineteen years old, and began to conduct myself according to the rules of the sect of the Pharisees, which is of kin to the sect of the Stoics, as the Greeks call them.

              4. It seemed to be the thing to do. Thus while Josephus account of the Baptist doesn’t explain much, the frequent mentions in NT sources of him being some kind of desert hermit should be taken seriously. It was something religious seekers did then(Josephus, Paul, Jesus)and the comparisons with Jesus as the glutton and John as the ascetic wouldn’t work if John was known for his silk hose and cosmopolitan style. While it does not prove John was a desert ascetic who imitated Elijah, it has more evidence that claims that he was doing anything else.

              5. Thanks for this reminder. Add this to other little snippets such as Joephus seeing three of his friends crucified, approaching Titus personally to beg for their bodies, and having only one survive the cross; and a Jesus crying Woe to the city of Jerusalem, and being thought mad; and (if memory serves) the curiosity that the Gospels inform us of nothing more about the Pharisees and Sadducees than we learn from Josephus.

                This description of Banus would seem to render the Baptist description even less Josephan if indeed John the Baptist did live a similar lifestyle. As with Jesus, the apparent testimony of Josephus raises more questions than answers.

              6. Nail, the John the Baptist is only a side note to the the Herod/Arabian war, he list what was particular to the guy, but if the whole wild man routine was, routine, then I see no problem with the omission. His own guru is a more personal story so the description is more called for. It would, however, be quite an oversight for a later Christian to pen a report of John so out of line with Christian tradition, being plausible never seems to be a big factor for ancient pseudographers. People were rather gullible toward written sources.

                By the why, I’d like to extend some thanks to you Neil, your skepticism has given me some insight on how to approach NT study. I was reading about some minor Classical authors and I noted that the entries on them often included terms like “not much is certain”, “it was claimed”, “according to”. I thought this terminology should be used more in descriptions of people from the NT being as that the sources fro them are about the same as the people I was looking up. NT scholars seem to get carried away by what can be stated as fact as opposed to what should be qualified by source and hypothesis.

              7. There is an argument from silence that is valid: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/11/03/the-argument-from-silence/

                The “silences” in Josephus’s account of John the Baptist do not qualify here.

                One can otherwise easily enough imagine any ad hoc reason for NOT finding a particular reference or detail in a text. The real task is in explaining what one DOES read.

                One post I hope to do some time is to go through various biographies and historians from the time of the early Roman empire (ones I studied in my old uni days) and confront in some detail the ignorant assertion by some scholars and students that historical Jesus studies apply the same standards used to study Julius Caesar etc.

  6. Methinks its assumption; they probably read Mark and Matthew into John regarding John the Baptist and the ‘literal’ baptism of the gospel Jesus figure. If the gospel of John, or more correctly its early Johannine tradition, is ever placed first in re-creating the gospel storyline – the flood gates could well open and point the way towards mythicism. Little wonder that the gospel of John has been kept on the back burner!

    The Fourth Gospel and the quest for Jesus: modern foundations reconsidered.
    By Paul N. Anderson
    Page 86 and 87 (from google books)

    “The gospel of John, despite its distinctiveness, overlaps with other Gospels in significant ways and it may therefore be assumed that Jesus probably did connect with the Baptist, create a Temple disturbance, preside at some sort of feeding and sea rescue, receive an anointing, undergo the Passion events, and was experienced in some way by his followers after his death….

    “….when the picture of the ‘historical’ Jesus is determined on the basis of information in the Synoptics – excluding John – and then this grid is applied over the Fourth Gospel to determine its authenticity, it is no wonder that John loses. What if the reverse were performed? What if a picture of the historical Jesus were determined upon the basis of John, the one purportedly eyewitness account – and material in the Synoptics were sifted through a Johannine grid and voted upon by scholars applying their criteria for determining historicity? The results would be entirely different from those starting with the Synoptics only. Perhaps the problems lies with excluding any primitive tradition when forming one’s impression of a coherence standard – including John. When tradition-critical inclusion/exclusion methodologies build upon the Synoptics and second-century Gnostic texts to the exclusion of John, and then are used to find John wanting, this circular operation cannot but be regarded as dubious and critically flawed.”

  7. What is the earliest evidence for Christians wearing white robes at baptism? (I have my copy of an article explaining this history packed in a box somewhere.) Mark’s Gospel has been seen as containing a recurrent theme of baptism throughout, as with the comparisons of the cross with baptism, the wearing of a white robe by the young man after having lost it prior to the crucifixion. There may be more in Mark’s Gospel than the opening scene that points to the importance for the author of baptism for the new converts. The relevance of this is that it could indicate that Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism was a reaffirmation or consolidation of the requirement and meaning of baptism ritual. This would be consistent with the understanding that mythical narratives are created to explain rituals, rather than the other way around.

    1. I don’t think it required an early Christian baptism ritual for the gospel of John to mythologize or spiritualise the ritual. Is not the baptism ritual based upon Jewish rituals re the ceremonial washing for temple functions?. (putting aside any assumptions re the historicity of John the Baptist). What about that very first miracle at the wedding in Cana; turning water into wine. From water used for cleansing to use of wine as a sign to reveal “his glory”. (Wine being later used to represent the blood of the new covenant.)Whatever the meaning of water turned into wine – it seems to me that a new spiritualizing is going on….Mark backtracks and wants a water baptism ritual for his Jesus figure – indication of the tension between the developing traditions. A necessary tension not an antagonistic tension – no benefit, from a Jewish perspective, of going all the way with Gnostic type philosophical speculations….

      John 2:6-11

      Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
      7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
      8 Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
      They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine….
      11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

  8. King James had written a book on demons and witches, claiming they were demonic and in league with Satan.

    And then Shakespeare writes a ‘play’ where witches announce a line of kings stretching down to James.

    Just how embarrassing is that? Claiming the reigning monarch was foretold by demonic powers that he himself has just condemned in a book.

    This is so embarrassing that it must be historically certain that witches foretold the line of succession of kings of Scotland.

  9. If jesus had ever been the kind of historical reality mark suggests and promotes the circular arguments regarding his actual existence would not be necessitated through repeated reconsideration of who he really is/was.

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