continuing … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson

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by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to those contributors who encouraged and assisted me to obtain a review copy of this volume, and thanks, of course, to the publisher T&T Clark/Bloomsbury for sending it to me.

The first part of this review is at https://vridar.org/2020/08/25/biblical-narratives-archaeology-historicity-essays-in-honour-of-thomas-l-thompson/

. . .

Continuing the section Part 2. History, Historiography and Archaeology . . . 

Jesper Høgenhaven’s chapter explores evidence in the Qumran texts for how Second Temple Judeans thought about the Biblical writings. We can be puzzled by the way biblical passages were joined to one another to create new texts (Thomas Thompson, Høgenhaven informs us, spoke of a ‘Copenhagen Lego hypothesis’ with regard to 4Q175). An early quotation in the essay jumped out at me since it addresses the basic method of gospel interpretation by Maurice Mergui and Nanine Charbonnel whose books I have been discussing on this blog. (I will be returning to them both in coming months.)

The late Philip R. Davies made the following pointed remark on scholars striving to collect the elements necessary for writing a ‘sectarian history’ based on Qumran scriptural commentaries (pesharim):

The first direction in exegesis of the pesharim must always be towards their midrashic function, for until we understand how these commentaries work – and that means as midrashim – we have no warrant to plunder them for historical data, especially given that (a) no continuous tradition can be established as lying behind them and (b) where they do contain – as we know that they do (I think in particular of 4QpNah) – some historical information, any kind of plausible analogy we could invoke would warn us that it will be mixed up with invention, will be distorted, garbled and anachronistic. (Davies 1989: 27-8)

(pp. 101f. The Davies 1989 link is to the Open Access book at Project Muse)

Amen. I recall Liverani’s observation about lazy historians running with a narrative that looks like history without too much second thought. Investigating the genre of a source ought to be the first priority of any historical inquiry.

So Høgenhaven surveys the way Israel’s past is utilized in various Qumran texts. He concludes that there is little conceptual difference between myths of ancient times and recent historical experiences. Metaphor and history are blurred in a way that it is not always obvious to modern readers which is which. Stories are rewritten, reinterpreted, rationalized, expanded, and commented upon as their functions vary over time. History is salvation history (“or ‘perdition history’), and along with its dualistic motifs, discerning what texts meant to readers at any particular time can be a challenge. Høgenhaven’s concluding reference to “renewed and repentant ‘Israel’ or the faithful and obedient remnant of Israel” as a stock identifying motif for the creators of the texts and their audiences links up with a dominant theme in Thompson’s The Mythic Past.

2 heads: John Hyrcanus II and John the Baptist

Next essay is by Gregory L. Doudna, another scholar some of whose work (especially on Qumran and the DSS) has been addressed here. This time Doudna takes on the passage about John the Baptist in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews. After having read a variety of cases for the passage being an interpolation by a Mandean or Christian hand and other suggestions that the passage is definitely Josephan but straining at ways to reconcile Josephus’s chronology with Jesus, I learn now that there is yet another possible explanation for the various curiosities raised by the account. I admit I approached this chapter with some scepticism but by the time I had finished had to concede that I think Doudna makes a very good case that Josephus’s John the Baptist report is “a chronologically dislocated story of the death of Hyrcanus II”:

In the same way [as another apparently dislocated account], Josephus’s John the Baptist story reads as a doublet or different version of Hyrcanus II chronologically dislocated to the time of the wrong Herod. In this case Josephus did not place the two versions of the death of Hyrcanus II close together in the same time setting as in some of the other cases of doublets. If Josephus had done that, the doublet in this case would have been recognized before now. Instead, Josephus mistakenly attached one of the traditions of the death of Hyrcanus II to the wrong Herod, just as he separately mistakenly attached documents to the wrong Hyrcanus. (p. 132)

I hope to discuss Doudna’s chapter in more detail in a future post.

The next chapter by Jim West is a “re-evaluation” of

the book by Thomas Thompson titled The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David and discusses the appropriateness of his methodology, the correctness of his interpretation, and the continuing importance of his contribution on the topic of the historical Jesus. (p. 138)

West laments the lack of more general scholarly interest in The Messiah Myth given that it has, he claims, been taken up by

an army of ‘Jesus Mythicists’ who latched onto Thompson’s work as support for their view that Jesus actually never existed and who were bolstered by Thompson’s book. (p. 139)

West does not cite any members of that “army” who “latched onto” the work, nor does he demonstrate his assertion that

they misunderstood both Thompson and his work.

For Thompson’s discussion of Messiah Myth, see interview, and Bible & Interpretation (discussed also on Vridar). Other posts: Jesus a Saviour Like Kings and Gods of…; and briefly here and here.

I have linked to Vridar posts on the work beneath the cover image here; the only author I am aware of who has demonstrably misunderstood the book is Bart Ehrman (see links to Thompson’s – and my own – corrections of Ehrman’s distortions.) Perhaps it might even be said that Jim West himself, despite his best intentions, has read more into The Mythic Past than is warranted. West does his utmost to try to persuade readers that readers of The Mythic Past should see a real historical Jesus beneath the texts of the gospels, drawing so abundantly as they do from mythic tropes.

Thompson’s Jesus is a real man who really existed but he is a man about whom we know nothing at all aside from the understanding foisted upon him by the theologians of the early Church who wrote his story: the Gospels.

The book, for those who have not yet read it . . . invite[s] the reader to consider the ancient Near Eastern background (or better, underpinning) of the messianic concept. How are we to understand, historically, the person of Jesus? . . . .

It simply recognizes the fact that the historical bones of great persons have been covered with muscle and flesh and decorations drawn from the stories of other great heroes from other times and places. . . .

The various tropes, in other words, are illustrations. In the same way that preachers illustrate their sermons with stories that are sometimes a mixture of historical fact and metahistorical fiction, so too the biblical authors. . . . .

Fortunately, though, the Old Testament and the New are not mere historical tales telling the bare facts of historical events. The Old Testament and the New are theological works, which happily and unselfconsciously mix historical remembrance with illustrative materials without any concern that postmodern readers take them as something other than sermons.

If we take the text of the Bible seriously and on its own terms than we will find Thompson’s disentangling of the disparate threads which make it up both engaging and enthralling. [But compare an earlier paragraph where West acknowledges that “we simply do not have any way of disentangling the threads and the Gospel authors would not wish us to do so.“]

West, pp. 139, 140, 141, 143, 144,

Such phrases (my highlighting) look to me to be assertions that the mythic tropes in the gospels identified by Thompson must necessarily be understood as being applied to historical memories of a historical figure. Yet that is the very point Thompson goes to some length to disavow. For Thompson, if I understand him correctly, there are no discernable historical and mythical threads to disentangle. Thompson neither denies nor endorses the historicity of Jesus in The Mythic Past. As far as I am aware Thompson is a Catholic so I presume he does believe in a historical Jesus but that is beside the point.

Schweitzer so understood Mark’s gospel as a text interpreting the life of Jesus that he assumed the existence of his historical Jesus from the start. The historical presence Jesus gained in Schweitzer’s reading, the gospel’s author never had. The question was not whether Mark presented the figure of an apocalyptic prophet, but whether he was describing a historical figure.

Twentieth-century scholarship, with its faith in history, assumed a historical Jesus as its starting point. . . .  [T]hey always assumed there was a historical Jesus to describe.

The assumptions that (1) the gospels are about a Jesus of history and (2) expectations that have a role within a story’s plot were also expectations of a historical Jesus and early Judaism, as we will see, are not justified. Even though a historical Jesus might be essential to the origins of Christianity, such a need is not obviously shared by the gospels.

Before we can speak of a historical Jesus, we need a source that is independent of Matthew, Mark and Luke and refers to the figure of the early first century. Such an ideal source, of course, is hardly to be hoped for . . .

The tendency to evoke oral tradition to transmit the sayings from event to the writing of the gospels is required only by the assumption that the text is about a historical Jesus.

The problem of the quest for the historical Jesus is . . . that the gospels are not about such a person. They deal with something else.

The purpose of this book is . . . about the influence of the ancient Near Eastern figure of the king in biblical literature, and this has much to do with how figures such as Jesus are created.

(The Mythic Past pp. 7, 8, 9, 11, 14, 16)

If the gospel literature can be explained without recourse to memories and oral traditions of a historical Jesus then so be it: it does not follow that there was no historical Jesus. The scholarly exercise and a starting point of historical inquiry are to understand the gospels per se.

For scholars like Jim West, Thompson leaves room to apply the gospels to an assumed historical figure. That’s fine and a nice starting point for theological reflections on Jesus. If Catholic mythicists like Thomas Brodie find no need for assuming an oral tradition behind the gospels then that’s fine, too. West expresses his hope that his essay will encourage his scholarly peers to make more of an effort to “latch onto” the significance of Thompson’s The Mythic Past for a study of how the historical Jesus was understood by the evangelists.

Wikimedia Commons

The final essay in this second section is “The Qur’an as Biblical Rewriting” by Mogens Müller. How times are changing that now we see that third “people of the book” entering biblical studies. We see a “rewritten Bible” in various Samaritan, Old Testament pseudepigraphic and Qumran texts as well as the New Testament, so we may be able to learn more about this activity by expanding our horizon to that other rewriting of biblical narratives, the Qur’an. It is a mistake, we learn in this essay, to assume that the Qur’an has relied solely on a rewriting of the canonical Jewish scriptures because some of its portrayals of biblical characters (e.g. Abraham) appear to rely more heavily on other texts such as Jubilees. Similarly, some of the Qur’ans sources for Jesus have been taken from apocryphal gospels such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The Qur’an has drawn upon a wide heritage of Judea-Christian literature. The question that arises for all texts engaging in this “rewriting” activity is not “which version is closest to the historical facts” but how those rewritings functioned to create new religious consciousnesses and hierarchies.

This change of focus away from the question of eventual [historical] referentiality to that of biblical authors and their intentions in producing their writings, brought attention to the particular phenomenon of rewriting in the Bible and a vast Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphic literature. Hitherto, variations had mainly raised the question of which version could claim to be the original or, at least, the most original among many variants. Now, such variations acquired independent interests for reissuing a message in new situations and changed circumstances. (p. 146)


In this connection the employment of the genre or interpretation strategy known as ‘rewritten Bible’, especially in the version of ‘biblical rewriting’, intending to produce new authoritative religious texts, is helpful, not only in perceiving what is going on in the New Testament, but also in the Qur’an. In both cases, existing religious or theological universes are transformed in several respects, the most important being that a new character of fundamental significance is introduced with the effect of changing the existing hierarchy. From the perspective of the understanding formed in the tradition of historical criticism and its repeated question about the referentiality of what is narrated, this transforming change in our perspective is a challenge, not to say a problem. However, when scholarship takes into consideration that religious truth never converges with historical truth but always arises out of an interpretation of certain events, and that this interpretation can take place in the shape of story-telling, many things become more understandable. It is extremely important not to mistake story for history. (pp. 154f)

Part 3 consists of eight essays on “Biblical Narratives”. To be continued….

Niesiolowski-Spanò, Lukasz, and Emanuel Pfoh, eds. 2020. Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson. Library of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament Studies. New York: T&T Clark.

Thompson, Thomas L. 2005. The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David. New York: Basic Books.

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12 thoughts on “continuing … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson”

  1. Re “Thompson’s Jesus is a real man who really existed but he is a man about whom we know nothing at all aside from the understanding foisted upon him by the theologians of the early Church who wrote his story: the Gospels.” This is a strange kind of support for the claim that Jesus Mythicists have totally misunderstood Thompson’s work.

    So the according to Thompson, the historical Jesus is a skeleton, “a man,” but everything else about him, his muscles, vicera, likeness, etc. were cobbled together by the writers of the gospels from previous heroes, messiahs, etc.

    This is a claim for an historical Jesus that is completely useless. The whole idea of hunting for an historical Jesus is to find out what his personal contribution was and then what else was claimed for him, but not by him. Claiming “he is a man about whom we know nothing at all” aside from unreliable sources who couldn’t be bothered to state the color of his eyes or hair or that his breath was sweet or … is a basically useless historical Jesus. Saying, of course he was real, we just do not know a single thing about him is sophistry. If you don’t know a single thing about him, you would have a hard time arguing he existed. Are not all arguments for the reality of Julius Caesar or Alexander or Philo based upon their actions, offices held, accomplishments, their writings, descriptions by people who met them that were recorded, etc.? Knowing nothing about a man equals “he didn’t exist” for all intents and purposes.

  2. Regarding the proposal that Hyrcanus II = John the Baptist, I find it unconvincing. I know Greg considers that the Teacher of Righteousness of the DSS was Hyrcanus II—while most scholars (and myself included) consider that Hyr II was actually the “Wicked Priest.” Putting that question aside, however, what Josephus writes about John the Baptist has little or no relation to what we know about Hyrcanus II. Even assuming that the Josephan passage is authentic (which I doubt—see Zindler, The Jesus the Jews Never Knew 88 ff), Josephus writes about a “good man who commanded the Jews to exercise virtue… to come to baptism” and about crowds who were thrilled to hear his words. Does this have any relation to what we know of the ruler and High Priest Hyrcanus II? He was a violent man, a monarch (briefly) and High Priest (two long tenures) who engaged in a scorched-earth civil war against his brother Aristobulus II (67-63 BCE), who gave “enthusiastic support” to the Romans in their brutal conquest of the land (War 1.150), and who, according to the Hasmonean specialist K. Atkinson (referencing War 1.149-50) “when Roman soldiers stormed the temple compound, they merely surrounded the priests in its courts and did not touch them. Rather, they waited until the forces of Hyrcanus II arrived to kill them.” The suggestion that this was the saintly John the Baptist indeed seems forced to me.

    1. Rene, please see the section “Themes of Hyrcanus II and John the Baptist in Josephus Compared” in my article, which can be downloaded at https://independent.academia.edu/GregoryDoudna.

      One gets the sense in reading Josephus that the partisans of Hyrcanus II, if not Hyrcanus II himself, at the end, interpreted anything objectionable during his years of high-priesthood as not having been his doing or responsibility but rather that of Antipater and/or Herod, and that he had been victimized by them. In this view, reflected in Josephus, Hyrcanus II had not initiated any action for his own advantage in his entire life, but simply accepted whatever were the fortunes of Fate or Divine Providence. That Hyrcanus II was plausibly regarded by huge numbers of Jews as good and righteous need hardly be disputed, if there is any truth underlying Ant. 15:124-15: “[Parthian ruler Phraates] “permitted him [Hyrcanus II] to settle in Babylon, where there was a great number of Jews. These men honored Hyrcanus as their high priest and king, as did all of the Jewish nation occupying the region as far as the Euphrates”. Would you follow the same kind of logic of your argument–historians’ assessments of deeds in history of a figure–as evidence that Cyrus could not have been regarded as messianic by authors of Jewish prophetic texts, or that Muhammed could not be regarded as honorable in Islam?

      Hyrcanus II never left a coin, never left an inscription, never left an unambiguously authenticated authored text, there are no recognized relics or artifacts, not even his place of burial is known–even though, according to Josephus, by the end of his long public life he had so much support and status from Jews at home and abroad that Herod feared him as the preeminent threat to Herod’s legitimacy and had him judicially executed despite widespread Jewish belief that he was innocent of wrongdoing. All that is known of Hyrcanus II is one hundred percent hearsay from ancient sources of varying quality and biases. Hyrcanus II was not even present in Jerusalem according to the story of the massacre of priests in the temple in the conquest of Pompey to which you refer. How do you know what Hyrcanus II’s role was in that, or in the civil wars, much less how the large numbers of Jews worldwide thirty years later who honored Hyrcanus II interpreted his role in those things? Was Khomeini of Iran a saint or a villain? Maybe it depends who you ask…? (Actually I consider al-Sistani, the Shia cleric of Iraq, a possibly more fruitful modern analogy to the ancient Hyrcanus II.)

      1. I have now read your relevant pages regarding chronological dislocations in Josephus. I have no problem with your thesis. But the end result still makes little sense to me. How do you explain the link between a warrior general (Hyrcanus II) and a desert solitary (John the Baptist)? If there really was a link, then I would need more description, with multiple steps set out. I know Josephus repeatedly characterizes Hyr II as very mild-mannered (am still wondering about this), and that there was A LOT of creativity in these ancient accounts (including Josephus).
        As for the lack of coins of Hyr II, remember that he was king for only three months in 67 BCE. Also, the coins of Janneus had great currency long after his own reign (they were still in use well into CE times).
        I agree with you that one ancient writer’s hero is another writer’s villain. So, when I read “Wicked Priest” in the DSS, it’s “Wicked Priest” for THEM.
        About Hyr II’s putative role in massacring Jews in Jerusalem (63 BCE), K. Atkinson’s footnote references another work of his: pp. 153-54 in “Septuagint, Sages, and Scripture” (Gauthier et al, eds., Brill, 2016).
        BTW, my initial research into the DSS seems to support your dating schema. I see a high point of activity and writing of the scrolls c. mid-I BCE. You’ve done the heavy lifting on dating the DSS, Greg, and I’m sorry you don’t get more credit there. I’m also on board with you regarding much interpretation in your pNahum book (Seekers of Smooth Things, Ephraim, Manasseh, etc). The main sticking point between us seems to be our different identifications of Hyrcanus II. Also, I’m developing some pretty radical theories regarding Yeshu ha-Notsri in the DSS (pace mythicistpapers.com) which you (and most scholars) may have a lot of difficulty agreeing with.—RS

    2. Good comments Rene, especially on “one ancient writer’s hero is another writer’s villain”. But you ask as in objection: “how do you explain the link between a warrior general (Hyrcanus II) and a desert solitary (John the Baptist)?”

      But there is nothing in Josephus’s John the Immerser passage about John being in the desert, or being solitary. You are getting that from the Gospel of Mark. That is not in the Josephus passage, which is what my article is about. (Nor was Hyrcanus II a warrior or general in the time relevant to the Josephus John the Immerser discussion, the 30s BCE; he was “high priest emeritus”, of worldwide stature and reputation among Jews, likely located in the same time and place the sectarian texts of the Qumran texts were written, Jericho–text compositions which inexplicably seen to end the same time Hyrcanus II ends.)

      Although I purposely did not take up the Gospel of Mark in the article, I think composition of the Gospel of Mark postdates the publication of Josephus’s Antiquities and that that Gospel’s stories and legendary material of John preserve no independent information concerning Hyrcanus II external to its use of Josephus’s John passage, which the authors of the Gospel of Mark, no more than Josephus, did not realize was a displaced tradition of Hyrcanus II. In short the Gospel of Mark–the desert, the eating locusts, the dance of Salome, the head on the platter, all that embellishment in a world of stories–is irrelevant to understanding Josephus’s John the Immerser.

      On the other hand, I perceive that the John figure with which the Fourth Gospel opens may not draw from Josephus and may be a different John altogether: the Johannine John known to Papias of Asia Minor. I do not even assume that the purification by immersion of Josephus’s John–nothing other than routine first-century BCE Jewish purification in mikvehs or running water as I read it–was the same as the late-first-century CE proto-Christian baptism-initiation rite of the Fourth Gospel’s John and disciples of Jesus.

      In any case, as noted at the start of the article, “as a matter of method the Gospels are set completely to one side and the focus is solely on analysis of the Josephus passage”. Thanks for your comments. I also appreciate Neil’s discussions of all of the articles of this worthy volume edited by Emanuel Pfoh and Lukasz Niesiolowski-Spano in honor of our teacher Thomas Thompson.

      1. Regarding your argument that the JnBap figure in Josephus represents Hyr II, I still find it weak. Yes, there is an execution by Herod the Great and, yes, both Hyr II and the Baptist had a ‘following’ (one religious, the other political?). But nowhere is Hyr II characterized as a baptizer, or as one who attracted crowds via his religious preaching. Another little detail: Josephus never (to my knowledge) elsewhere refers to Hyr II as “John.” It is always “Hyrcanus.” I really think we are dealing with two different figures.

        But you have alerted me, Greg, to the difference between the character of JnBap in Josephus and in GMk. Okay. There are many issues related to this discussion that really require more fulsome treatment than is possible via comments. Let me just cut to the chase: I suspect the Baptist passage is an early interpolation into Josephus, not merely a dislocation from the time of Herod the Great to that of Herod Antipas.

        In favor of interpolation is that no parallel passage exists in the earlier BJ and that the Baptist passage is not mentioned in the ancient Greek table of contents to AJ, but is in the later Latin version (Zindler 99).

        You are spot on when you write: “I think composition of the Gospel of Mark postdates the publication of Josephus’s Antiquities.” I’ve written about the dating of all 4G to the decade 140-150 CE (http://www.mythicistpapers.com/2016/07/08/before-jesus-of-nazareth/). Thus, the Baptist passage could be an early interpolation into one edition of Josephus’ Antiquities, executed in the early decades of II CE, that is, before the Baptist character had fully individuated into the ‘wild man eating locusts & honey’ of GMk. Zindler supposes that the Josephan passage portrays an early Jewish-Christian version of John the Baptist. Incidentally, the passage is cited by some Church Fathers, which would make it a fairly early interpolation into Josephus.
        I also find many parallels between the invented JnBap figure and Yeshu ha-Notsri, but I can’t go into those here. Let me just say that Yeshu’s actual name was “John” and that he was a baptizer (immerser in the water of Gnosis) in the spiritual sense. In fact, this was his core religious significance.

        The Baptist figures of GJn and of the synoptics coalesce when one perceives that the “light” of Jn 1:7 and the “water” of Mk 1:8 both symbolize Gnosis.

      2. Getting back to you about this Rene, on whether Josephus’s Antiquities’ JB passage is a Christian interpolation. You write “Let me just cut to the chase: I suspect the Baptist passage is an early interpolation into Josephus, not merely a dislocation from the time of Herod the Great to that of Herod Antipas. In favor of interpolation is that no parallel passage exists in the earlier BJ and that the Baptist passage is not mentioned in the ancient Greek table of contents to AJ, but is in the later Latin version (Zindler 99).”

        The absence of parallel in the earlier War (BJ) is no argument, given the studies that show Josephus himself interpolating Jewish stories in the midst of the War narrative, in composition of Antiquities, in exactly the same way as the JB passage appears in Antiquities, therefore there is nothing implausible about the JB story as one more of this known phenomenon. The omission in the Greek Table of Contents is also not much of an argument given that, according to the analysis of Peter Kirby, something like 43% of material in both Antiquities and its earlier War parallels are not represented in the Greek Table of Contents (http://peterkirby.com/table-of-contents-josephus.html).

        But third and above all, was the Josephus JB passage even Christian at all, as is your premise? What is the evidence for that? Is there evidence there was a Josephus John the Baptist figure tradition already circulating among Christians at the time Antiquities was written?

        There is evidence for a John figure who was prominent to Christians–the Rev 1:10 John; and the Johannine John figure with which the Gospel of John opens, depicting the implied author of the Fourth Gospel in third-person narrative character form (surprisingly, this reading is hardly ever recognized). But is this Johannine-Christian John figure the JB of Josephus’s Antiquities?

        In currently prevailing scholarly view the Gospel of Mark, with its Josephus-like John the Baptist, predates 93 CE in composition and is the evidence that the Josephus JB reflects Christian tradition. However that dating of the Gospel of Mark, however commonly understood, never was securely established as distinguished from hypothesized and is not stronger than argument from plausibility (as you recognize). The alternative argument is that the Gospel of Mark is later than and draws from Antiquities as a literary source for its John the Baptist material. But if there is no certainty of a pre-93 CE Gospel of Mark, and if John the Baptist in the Gospel of Mark is well explained as created from use of Antiquities as a literary source, what evidence is there of the Josephus JB figure current in Christian circles prior to when the Gospel of Mark was written? Paul’s letters do not know of a Josephus John the Baptist. Acts has a reference to “disciples of John” in Ephesus, also to an Apollos from Alexandria in Ephesus who is a Jesus-Christian who knows “the baptism of John”, but (a) Luke-Acts is second-century CE and Acts is widely understood to be filled with anachronisms and tendentious story-telling; but even more to the point, (b) is the John of the “baptism of John” of Ephesus, implied to be an adversary of Paul according to both Acts and Rev 2-3, the Josephus JB, or is it the Johannine John figure of Asia Minor associated with the Johannine writings of the New Testament known to Papias? I say the latter.

        In this light there is no evidence the JB figure in Antiquities had anything to do with anything Christian at the time it was written. In my article I suggest that the reason Josephus or his source explains what John’s purification by immersion does not mean (forgiveness of sin) could have been written to oppose emerging Christian views of baptism, but that is not a necessary reading either, for it could be written simply to clarify a general (not specifically Christian) gentile misunderstanding of what Jewish mikveh purification was about. Maybe there can be further opportunity to engage some of these issues at the time Neil dedicates a blog post to this topic (if so).

  3. Hi,

    What do you think about the case for interpolation of the Bsptist passage made by Leon Herrmann ,(Chrestos, Témoignages païens et juifs sur le christianisme du premier siècle, p.99-100, my translation):

    This passage interposed between «Such were the orders given by Tiberius to the proconsul of Syria» (A. J., XVIII, 115) and «After having made preparations for war against Areta, Vitellius» (A.J., XVIII, 120) is obviously interpolated entirely, because to και Τιβέριος corresponds Ούιτέλλιος δε. Moreover, the first sentence of the passage presents «some Jews» and the last sentence presents «the Jews», less correct, since it substitutes for a minority the totality of a people which, according to the Gospels themselves, had not been convinced by the preaching of St. John the Baptist. On the other hand, it is clear that, if the passage is found inserted there and not elsewhere, it is because of the mention in A.J., 111-112, of the fortress of Macherus, mention made about the sojourn made there by the daughter of the Arab king Aretas, repudiated by Herod Antipas, who wanted to marry her sister-in-law Herodias.

    There is also a connection between the enchainment and beheading of Aretas prescribed by Tiberius to Vitellius in case of victory and the fate effectively inflicted on St. John the Baptist by Herod Antipas. Finally, the distinction made between the two baptisms, the one of purification and one of remission, can only emanate from a Christian who has read the Acts of the Apostles (XVIII, 25) on Apollos. Certainly the word «nicknamed» (επικαλούμενου) is used aptly in the place of «named» (καλουμένου), or “called” (λεγομένου), and no connection is established between the action of the Baptist and that of Christ, but in this passage Herod Antipas’ hostility is motivated only by the fear of a revolutionary propaganda and not by the denunciation of his quasi-adultery, which one would not expect after what is said about the departure of his first wife. In short, the whole passage appears as an interpolation, the end of which, on the punishment of Herod Antipas by military defeat, appears modelled on A.J., XI, 299-302 (1), although in the latter text it is a sacrilegious fratricide and not an adultery and the murder of a holy man that is avenged by military defeat.

    (1) Jesus kills his brother John in the Temple. The punishment for this sacrilegious fratricide is inflicted by Bagosès, general of Artaxerxes.

    1. Giuseppe, you always bring up interesting bibliography and I have not previously seen the Leon Herrmann reference, but based on your description: yes the John passage in Antiquities was interpolated into its present position in the preexisting Wars source–by Josephus.

      Where my proposal differs from prevailing conceptions is in understanding the Antiquities passage as coming from a Jewish source telling a story of an undated John killed by an undated Herod, a tradition of the death of Hyrcanus II at the hands of Herod the Great, mistakenly dated by Josephus to the wrong Herod–and the Antiquities story generates the stories of the Gospel of Mark re John the Baptist rather than vice versa. Herrmann assumes like practically all discussions that composition of the John story of Antiquities postdates and is derivative from the Christian John the Baptist stories of the Gospel of Mark, but that premise needs to be questioned. There needs to be consideration given to an inversion of that premise, in which literary influence operated in the reverse direction from what has been assumed.

      In this light, references to what the Gospels say of their John figures are of no relevance to understanding the Antiquities John passage. There is no beheading of John in the story in Antiquities, and therefore beheading has nothing to do with understanding Josephus’s John passage.

      The suggestion that the Machaerus cross-reference played a role in Josephus’s choice of dating his Jewish story of John killed by Herod, of his source, to the time of Herod Antipas where Josephus positioned it, is possible.

      Either Josephus’s source telling the John story, or Josephus himself, contrasts John’s teaching concerning purification (= of first-century BCE high priest and diaspora ethnarch Hyrcanus II) with either a contemporary gentile misunderstanding or rival Jewish interpretation, whichever it was. Inter-Jewish differences in interpretation from the first century BCE forward are clear from texts such as 4QMMT, also 1QS whose ideology of purification by immersion is in agreement with that of Josephus’s John—the texts of Qumran from separate argument reflecting a former mainstream of Jewish thought and practice from the first century BCE. In any case the purification by immersion practice and ideology taught by Antiquities’ John appears to allude to what Adele Berlin calls the emergence of “household Judaism” or popular practices of purification, Jewish use of mikvehs, starting in the first century BCE. So those are my tentative responses to what you raise.

  4. I see your reasons and I may be persuaded in any moment by your view. My perplexity about the authenticity of the Baptist passage is about Machaerus.

    What need Herod had to kill John just there, an obvious pointer to the last apparition of the Aretas’s daughter in Antiquites (accordingly, a pointer working easily as a not so implicit – Christian? – allusion to the moral corruption of Antipas in matter of women).
    The need to kill John the Baptist in the enclosure of a fortress, and not on the place, assumes that the author of the Baptist Passage had crystallized in his mind in advance the (Gospel?) view of John the Baptist as a man constantly surrounded by large masses in public places (hence one who could be killed only away from prying eyes).

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