John the Baptist and the Foundations of Christianity (Couchoud)

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by Neil Godfrey

In the next chapter of this series we read the view that John the Baptist was a key figure in sparking the movement that became Christianity. Couchoud takes the date for John from Josephus — that is, towards the end of Pilate’s office in 36 c.e. Couchoud believes strongly that there was a fervent expectation among the Jews for a divine messianic deliverer. John was part of this popular hope when he came preaching the coming of the heavenly Messiah figure to judge the world. John’s message was thus fed by the tradition we read of in the above works (Daniel, Enoch, Moses).

Zechariah 13:3 had said there would be no more prophets but John was not afraid to don the prophet’s mantle and take their place. John did not create an image of the Heavenly Man but delivered threats against those who this figure would judge:

O generation of vipers,  [ Pliny, Nat. Hist. viii. 59, 1 — the viper was believed to be the only snake that could bury itself in the earth – metaphor of those who think they can hide from the wrath of God ]
Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance,

Do not to say to yourselves,
We have Abraham to our father:
I say unto you that God is able
Of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.  [ “stones” = Aramaic abenayya; children = Aramaic benayya ]

Already the axe
Is laid unto the root of the trees:
Every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit
Is hewn down and cast into the fire.

He that cometh after me
Is mightier than I,
Whose shoes I am not worthy to untie:
I baptize you with water,
He will baptize you with wind and fire: [ the context of the next verse explains the meaning of wind and fire; the word “holy” before wind (same word as spirit) was a Christian addition and foreign to the context ]

His fan is in his hand,
To purge thoroughly his floor,
And gather his wheat into his garner;
But he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

The urgency of this message (taken from Luke and Matthew) leaves no room for delay. The judgement from this heavenly Son of Man figure from the Book of Enoch is about to befall.


With such heightened expectations there was nothing to live for except that expectation. And as for that rite of baptism:

What an inspiration it was to invent a rite which should become the most solemn, the most widely spread of all rites, which should be a bond between multitudes of believers, binding them into a single religious community!

“I baptize you with water, he will baptize you with wind and fire.” This plunging into water is called by its Greek name, baptism. Its meaning is profound and its might great. It is in antithesis to the passing through fire which he “who is mightier than I” shall give to those who reject him. Baptism in water will preserve the faithful from the baptism of fire. The soul must be purified by repentance first. Then shall the baptism in water give protection from the Wind and the Fire of the Great Winnower. (p. 28)

That’s an interesting twist on a rite I had always associated with a symbolic death — a burial as per Noah’s flood or the Egyptian armies chasing Moses’s Israelites. But I do like the “wind and fire” interpretation — makes more sense than the Gospel having a baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire.

The Jordan River is the setting. Ezekiel 47:1-12 had foretold a stream would flow down from the Temple cleansing the waters of the Dead Sea so they would become the scene of fish and fisher nets.

Here the prophecy is realized. The invisible stream has sprung forth. The lands once burned with fire from heaven for their sins are now the first purified. A new life is beginning. The nets of the Fisher are spread forth. (pp. 28-29)

There is so much symbolism here that I can’t help but suspect literary artifice. But I am giving this space to Couchoud’s views so let’s continue.


The believer comes down to the Baptizer and is immersed, thus entering into the Kingdom, now saved from the whirlwind of fire to come. Through this rite — to be preserved among the early Church and the Mandaeans — the believer is separated from the rest of mankind and bonds with a new and saved community.

These believers separated themselves into small communities, fasted often (Luke 5:33) and prayed often as John taught them (Luke 11:1).

They were distinguished from ordinary Jews by the name of Nazorean. (p. 29)

Couchoud turns to Lidsbarski, Ginza (1925) to inform us that the designation of Nazoreans was retained by the early Christians (Acts 24:5), by Oriental Christians and by the Mandaeans — and probably means “those who observe”.

Elements of a new religion

If a religion consists essentially of a common belief in a divine being and a common rite that puts believers in communion with their god,

then the baptism of John associated with the myth of the Celestial Man offered the elements of a new religion.

So when the author of Acts (Acts 27:25  — Apollos knew only the baptism of John) speaks of the Baptism of John he effectively means the religion of John.

These are the foundations on which Christianity is to rise. (p. 29)

Though Judaism was the matrix of John’s religion John taught that it was not enough to be a Jew — a child of Abraham — to enter the Kingdom. Not race but baptism was the bond of the new sect. As per Luke 3:10-14, the foreign soldier and unclean tax collector could become a member along beside the purest Jew.

The idea of a single religion accessible to all is outlined here. (p. 30)

The end

Couchoud follows Josephus for the account of John’s demise. John preached within the territory of Herod Antipas and beyond the direct borders of Rome. Herod’s Arabian wife fled from him to her father, the King of Petra, on learning Herod planned to get rid of her and marry his sister-in-law (Herodias) instead. Herod was now threatened with war with the King of Petra. Alarmed at the crowds John was attracting in his territory he had John arrested and executed. The war followed and Herod was defeated in 36 c.e. Josephus tells us that the Jews believed this defeat was a punishment for his murder of John. The gospel account is anachronistic with its having Herodias already married to Herod by the time of John’s imprisonment.

All of this has been covered in other posts (in particular discussing Zindler’s arguments for the Josephan account of John the Baptist not being original to Josephus). I cannot accept any of the narratives of John’s death. The Josephan account is too simplistic with its setting of the war over a personal insult — this recalls to mind the “saga” genre in which kings traditionally go to war over such personal affronts. And Dennis MacDonald (and, I think, Robert Price?) have pointed to other literary origins of Mark’s account of John’s death.

Other recent posts have also drawn attention to the symbolism underlying names like Paul and Simon. We cannot forget in this context the nagging suggestion that John has been thought to be linked with Oannes the water god. Is this also an epithet taken on by a historical person? But this is entirely speculative.

Had expected to cover what I recalled of Couchoud’s discussion of John the Baptist in a few sentences and complete a few chapters in one post here. I made the mistake, however, of opening the book again and seeing little details I thought I should add.

So next post in this series will be the final chapter in this first section of the book which takes us to A.D. 40. After that Couchoud enters the period 40 to 130 and the chapters leading up to where I began the section on the development of the Gospels and the New Testament.

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Neil Godfrey

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16 thoughts on “John the Baptist and the Foundations of Christianity (Couchoud)”

  1. Neil,

    I’ll finish reading your post later as time permits. But for now, you should see by now some evidence for what I say of other Masters besides Jesus. “Even NOW” the ax is laid at the root. John was Jesus Christ’s MASTER. Do you see? He praises his successor Jesus, because that’s what they all do — so that THEIR followers will accept the new Master and not distance themselves. Some reject. To this day, John has ‘followers’. Jesus praised his predecessor, too, for the allied reason: he wants to give himself indirect support when he says “NO ONE born of women greater than John the Baptist”. The rest, “least in the kingdom is greater than he”, was a gloss (Bart Ehrman).

    Masters come at all times.

    Following in Zechariah 13, Zechariah 13:7 is grossly mistranslated as prophetic support for Jesus, as is Isaiah 53. Properly understood and translated, it should read:

    “Rise up, O sword of my shepherd,
    within the man who is my friend,
    says the Lord of hosts.
    Strike, O shepherd, that
    the sheep may be troubled;
    I will replace my hand upon the
    little ones.

    This is a Master being called upon to bring The Word of God (the Sound of His Voice, “Apophasis Logos”, the Holy Spirit) to his given souls so that the Lord can recover them to Himself.


  2. BTW,

    Zechariah 13:3 about no more prophets has an esoteric, mystic meaning. It refers to the chosen (“house of David”, 13:1) not being subjected to false prophets WITHIN, IN SPIRIT. They aren’t in the world anymore, where they go. “The land” of 13:2 is “land” inside — in the Spirit world. http://www.RSSB.org

    1. Such interpretations are derived from your own theological or mystical views. They are akin to midrash or pesher. I am more interested in interpretations that can be supported by a historical and literary analysis of the text itself.

      1. OK, then how about this. The Radha Soami Masters who inform my views say that Jesus was not a solo act. He had predecessors, like John the Baptist, his Master, and successors, like James the Just, one of his disciples. The literary context supports this view when Jesus himself says, “For this is the will of my Father; that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” And, “We must do the works of him who sent us [C. Sinaiticus] while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world I am the light of the world.” – John 6:40 and 9:4-5. I am reading this: Only those who live in the time of a Master and can actually SEE him can be saved by him. Once he is gone (“night” means dead) he is no longer the Light because he can no longer “work”. I am not interpreting, just reading what is there. Isn’t understanding these writings what is important? The writings of the OT are allegory, mostly — very little history, if any at all. You will be hard pressed to understand them either historically or as literature without a thorough grounding in their theological tradition.

        1. First of all, Robert, I don’t understand why a scholarly approach would take any notice at all of anything a modern spiritual guide has to say about any ancient text if the scholarly aim is to understand the provenance and nature of that text. The scholarly approach is to examine the contemporary evidence surrounding that text, and comparing it with similar texts of the time. What people millennia later think about strikes me as quite irrelevant.

  3. But that’s just it. It ISN’T irrelevant. The teachings of modern Sant Mat are IDENTICAL in even the finest detail to what the Masters of Roman Palestine of 2,000 years ago taught. I could — and DID — write a book on just that. If someone wants to understand it, why wouldn’t they want to go to THE CURRENT MASTER and ASK HIM about it? Especially since they are the ONLY ones today who DO understand it!

      1. Because they KNOW (gnosis) and we DON’T, that’s why… How arrogant! You would think that you know more than Jesus? These Masters in India are THE SAME in station as Jesus was back then. “NO ONE comes to the Father but by me [the Master of the time].” Gnosis saves –NOT BLOOD. That’s a Pauline LIE, condemned in the Damascus Document, and the Habakkuk Pesher by James, and in Matthew 24:5-15, 5:19, 7:15, and Rev 2:2-14 by Jesus himself, prophetically.

  4. Er, yes, I think I do know a lot more things than Jesus ever did, simply because I live in a much more informed world than he did. By the same token I am sure he knew a lot of stuff that is now lost to me and the rest of us forever. Know (gnosis) what exactly? About evolution? Geology? Biology? Astrophysics?

    If it’s human values you are thinking of I think many of us have made some progress since ancient times. I think I have a higher standard of ethics, certainly a more humane set, than Jesus knew about. But that’s the same for many of us today.

    What do you mean by “gnosis saves”? Certainly a lot of modern medical knowledge can save us from illness and premature death.

    I once had a girlfriend heavy into Indian wisdom teachers etc and I was reminded all our time together of my years in a cult. I have no wish to go anywhere near that road again, sorry.

    1. Neil,

      I’m not taking you THERE. I once rejected the false, or incomplete, Eastern teachings myself (SRF) — right at the door, literally. When my girlfriend and I were going to become initiates in 1970, we changed our minds in the car right at the SRF center in Santa Cruz, CA, over the issue of money. No true teacher accepts compensation. It was true in the time of Christ (“take no purse” isn’t referring to their needs, but to the free nature of the teachings), it is still true. I include a list of 10 ways to know a true Master in my book


      “Gnosis” isn’t “knowledge” as we commonly know it. It is becoming one with Higher Being. It IS Being, in truth. “You will exceed them all, for you will sacrifice the man THAT BEARS ME.” — Jesus to Judas in the Gospel of Judas, about JUDAS becoming one with Jesus — WITHIN HIMSELF). Only a perfect living MASTER (not Guru Maharaji, not the Mahareshi, not the Love Guru, not Rajneesh) can impart true Gnosis. That’s just the Way it is, in the Divine Plan. Salvation is from the living, for the living. You MUST have a living Master (John 6:40, 9:4-5). John, Jesus and James were such Masters; Seth, Enoch, Melchizedek, Noah, Moses, Zadok, Elijah, Elisha, Samuel, David, Honi, a host of others in the Bible were, too. There have been dozens since: Mani, Namdev, Paltu, Dadu, Shamz Tabriz, Nanak, Kabir, Ravidas, and the ten Sikh gurus of his line, Mira Bai (woman), Tulsi Sahib, Swami Ji, and the six Radha Soami Masters of his line, including the present master, Baba Gurinder Singh Dhillon. Some of these are well known (outside the U.S.). Baba Ji speaks perfect English, was a successful businessman in Spain before becoming Master at Beas, India, and comes to America yearly (Petaluma on West Coast, Fayetteville on East Coast), as well as Europe. He succeeded my Master, Maharaj Charan Singh (1918-1990), who wrote a slew of terrific books (in English) that everyone should read about this subject. He was double graduate in Arts and Law and was a practicing attorney in India before taking over the Mastership of RSSB from his grandfather Maharaj Sawan Singh (aka, ‘Great Master’). I am one of 1,281,690 initiates of Charan Singh. I assume Baba Ji has at least that many now after 22 years as Master. Here’s the official website, where about 45 titles on the Teachings of “Sant Mat” (Teachings of the Saints), many by the Masters, are available at cost, shipped free anywhere: http://www.RSSB.org You should at least read Charan Singh’s, “Light on St. John” and “Light on St. Matthew”. They will change your view of the Bible permanently — and for the better, by far. After 35 years, and as a former Christian myself, I still learn from him. Other titles from RSSB pub. are online in full for you to read at Scribd.com:

      Sar Bachan, Swami Ji
      Path of the Masters, Julian Johnson
      Spiritual Discourses, Sawan Singh
      Spiritual Gems, Sawan Singh

      With all the altered translations in the English versions of the Bible, and the many intentional corruptions to scripture (think Bart Ehrman), beginning with PAUL, the original message of the authors of the Bible’s works was largely lost. You do a great job of deducing what you can as far as is possible not knowing what these teachings originally were, and that’s why I continue to come to Vridar — but — it can’t be done completely without an introduction to them directly. No one I know of has been able to do it. Why not read what a real Master says, in his own words, in the original ENGLISH??? You have nothing to lose, and Heavenly realms and the Father himself to gain. I am retired and have plenty of time to discuss this with other ardent seekers, like you obviously are. I appreciate your going online with what you have, and have already learned much from you. Thank you. Tell me more about what this is you do here, and how it started. Really — I’m amazed at how insightful the stuff here is. It is one of my top ‘bookmarks’! Little else is quite like it, including the Ph. D.s — with the one exception of Robert Eisenman — a true genius.

      Oh — Douglas Del Tondo (“Jesus Words Only”) is another one to read. I know both these men. QUITE talented, both of them (but very stubborn). Maccoby, Bultman, Spong, Burton Mack, and Richard Elliott Friedman are my other favorite sources.

      I can, through my education by these Masters, introduce you to depths in the teachings of Christ you have no idea exist. I read and study for more every day, and will continue to do so and share that insight with others for what years I have left here.



      Here’s the online books available from RSSB. Get John Davidson’s “Treasury of Mystic Terms” at the bookstore for a term lexicon.


      …. ssl.perfora.net/s112005287.oneandoneshop.com/sess/utn;jsessionid=154f4eaf2199db4/shopdata/0110_RSSB+Books/0002_English+Language+Books/product_overview.shopscript [Link broken: 19th August, 2015 — Neil]






      1. I am by no means an ardent seeker of anything “spiritual” as you think. What I am doing here, my motivations, are all explained in the “About Vridar” page, along with links to further information on my background. There is nothing more than what I say there.

        You are in a cult and you are clearly enjoying the experience. It is meaningful to you, and that’s fine. But it is cult-think to see yourself as in the light and all others in darkness. I am happy to have comments here for critical discussion but when people come here to witness for Christ and to preach I interpret that as a form of trolling and I ask them to take their efforts elsewhere.

        1. Is that what I’m doing — ‘trolling’? You have no idea what The Radha Soami Satsang really is, but you tell me it is a ‘cult’ that I’m in. That is offensive. I don’t even know what you mean by it, but I find it to be an intentionally offensive comment. I came posting here to offer information, not to push a philosophy. I really enjoy the challenge of showing others something interesting that they haven’t yet seen or learned. I enjoy it when someone else shows ME something, too. You obviously missed my thanking you for the interesting things I have learned from YOU. I never claimed to be “in the light” and “all others in darkness”. That’s your assessment, based on God knows what. I have no need to see anyone accept what I offer. It is simply unfortunate that so many reject such a fertile avenue of investigation. I feel sorry for you and others, which is pretty much everybody, who think they know so much that they can afford shut out even the Masters themselves! Wow. I’m glad I’m in THAT ‘cult’. I won’t post here anymore if this is not what you want from your readers.

          1. When you said others claimed you were in a cult I took that as an indicator you were not offended by them or their remarks — though obviously you disagreed. I did not mean to be offensive. When I was in a cult I did not accept it was a cult but I was well aware that others did think it was. I disagreed with them but I was not offended. I understood a spiritual peace and maturity was a good defence against being offended by the perceptions of others.

            I had to say here that I agree with their assessments about your cult associations because your posts are so very much in the same spirit and themes as I once experienced. Further, I believe my experience in a cult was not all negative by any means. There were many positives, too. I look back and can accept and still appreciate the good. I am sincere when I say it is meaningful to you and no doubt is a very positive thing for you in many ways.

            But I do not appreciate other types of religious fundamentalists or conservatives (whatever they are called in the US) coming here to preach or witness the gospel and I do ask them not to do that. Your posts are not from the same types of religion but I do not like others “witnessing” spiritual messages to me uninvited. There is no need for that if we truly respect where each of us is at.

  5. Neil,

    Isn’t there a post editing function, when you see a posted flaw to correct like the missing parenthesis in my post above? Or the implication that my “sources” are Masters? (No, they are not all Masters!)

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