Back in August this year, I introduced a hypothesis that what we read in Josephus’s Antiquities about John “the Baptist” is actually a misplaced episode about the John Hyrcanus II. (See the relevant section linked here in the discussion of the festschrift for Thomas L. Thompson, Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson.) I won’t go into the details of Doudna’s argument yet so check the summary to get the context for this post.
The point here is that if Doudna’s idea is correct then the gospel authors drew their template for John the Baptist from the writings of Josephus in the early 90s. There would be no reason to justify any other source; there was no oral tradition or historical person or event to draw upon — nothing but a literary confusion stands alone as the source.
Now why would the first evangelist to write a gospel (we’ll call him Mark) introduce a story about Jesus with an Elijah-like figure baptizing “all of Judea and Jerusalem” in the Jordan river?
By the way, I stress that Mark does not say “some” of the people of Judea and Jerusalem but he speaks of the whole population being baptized and Matthew follows him here. It is easy to dismiss this phrase as an exaggeration but why would our evangelists exaggerate to such an astonishing extent? Why would they begin the ministry of Jesus with a claim that Judea itself was baptized by John? If we try to imagine the evangelists putting a hyperbolic spin on “historical memories” then we have to wonder why they could not see that they somewhat overdid it and thereby undermined their credibility. Or — there is another explanation…. One of the oldest critics to spell out this alternative was David Friedrich Strauss in the nineteenth century. He wrote:
The baptism of John could scarcely have been derived from the baptism of proselytes, for this rite was unquestionably posterior to the rise of Christianity. It was more analagous to the religious lustrations in practice amongst the Jews, especially the Essenes, and was apparently founded chiefly on certain expressions used by several of the prophets in a figurative sense, but afterwards understood literally.
Ah yes, we return once more to the Jewish Scriptures being the source* of the gospels. So what are those “certain expressions used by several of the prophets”?
According to these expressions, God requires from the Israelitish people, as a condition of their restoration to his favour, a washing and purification from their iniquity, and he promises that he will himself cleanse them with water (Isaiah i. 16, Ez. xxxvi. 25, comp. Jer. ii. 22).
For those too rushed or lazy to click on the references here they are on a platter:
Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong.
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.
Add to this the Jewish notion that the Messiah would not appear with his kingdom until the Israelites repented,9 and we have the combination necessary for the belief that an ablution, symbolical of conversion and forgiveness of sins, must precede the advent of the Messiah.
9 Sanhedr. f. xcvii. 2 : R. Elieser dixit : si Israélite pænitentiam agunt, tunc per Croeiem liberantur ; sin vero, non liberantur. Schöttgen, horæ, 2, p. 780 ff.
(Strauss, Life of Jesus, Pt 2, ch2, §45)
So we can imagine our first evangelist thinking:
I need to begin by having Israel repent so the Messiah can come — as we understand from our holy books. The Jordan River seems like a logical place to start. That’s where Joshua renewed the covenant with Israel. But how to get them all assembled there? And we need Elijah to be the herald of the Messiah at the same time, as per Malachi. . . . Hey, what was that in Josephus about John the Immerser? … Ah yes, perfect… I’ll use him. He gets arrested and sent to prison, and that’s something I can work with, too. And being a ritual baptizer, how convenient that that fits right in with the conversion of the nation being a washing or sprinkling in the prophets. Right…. here we go, clothing our John with Elijah’s garb and having him represent the “OT”…
And so we have it: all the Jews repent by going out to a John who is redescribed as Elijah and are baptized in the Jordan.
Once that “little detail” is out of the way, the journey of Jesus begins. Of course, the repentance of his people preceding his coming is soon forgotten as demons come in and Jesus has to contend with unbelievers, enemies, and so forth. But many do accept him even if they don’t fully understand what he’s all about till after the resurrection.
Is it likely, though, that Josephus could have been so “sloppy” as to misplace a story about John Hyrcanus so that later readers interpreted his John through their knowledge of the gospels? Recall certain observations I noted in Once more on Josephus, and questions arising . . . .
It is an uncomfortable fact for the more ambitious varieties of source criticism that Josephus has the authorial habit of repeating and contradicting himself, and of varying his terminology. These oddities call for analysis, but they may result from a variety of causes (e.g., sloppiness, rhetorical artifice, multiple editions, copyist’s interventions, and yes, sources);. . . (112).
Many scholars . . . argue that Josephus uses one or more assistants (συνεργοί), or if not assistants then sources, for this section of the Antiquitates.
One can imagine arguments breaking out from time to time in the editorial room.
The Date of Mark?
I do not know if Greg Doudna’s case is true. But it is a possibility that does need to be considered in any discussion of the date of the gospels. If the evangelists had a strong theological reason to introduce a narrative of Jesus with a general repentance and washing away of sins, and with an Elijah figure and one “crying out in the wilderness”, then one can imagine seizing upon the John figure Josephus to be the bare bones that could be fleshed and dressed to make the part.
IF that is so, then we are reminded of other passages in Josephus that seem to be echoed in the Gospel of Mark.
The one most elaborately discussed is the Jesus ben Ananias who was brought before the authorities and dismissed as mad before being killed by the Romans. See Tale of Two Jesus’s (notes from Theodore Weeden)
We also have Josephus (who is ben Matityahu) seeing three of his former acquaintances crucified, but still alive. He begged the Roman general to have them taken down. Two subsequently died but the third survived. The gospels speak of another “Josephus” (of Arimathea) having Jesus’ body, crucified with two others, taken down from the cross.
Then there is Josephus’s list of signs signalling the end of Jerusalem with an emphasis on deception by false prophets. For an earlier discussion see The signs of the end in Josephus and Mark
There are other suggestive links, too. Some involve considerable discussion to justify, some are open to a too free-wheeling association and lose their suggestiveness the more closely they are examined.
The point: if Mark did know of both Jewish War and Antiquities, then he could not have written the gospel before the mid-90s. (Compare Earl Doherty’s dating of Mark in the 90s.)
Some perspectives (e.g. those of Roger Parvus) would lead us to conclude that the John the Baptist scenes were later additions to an earlier gospel. That’s possible, I suppose, but if so, then the redactors have done a very good job of integrating John the Baptist well into various theological threads of the longer narrative.
Then there is Hermann Detering’s view that the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark 13 was composed with the Second Jewish War of the 130s in memory and was a later addition to the gospel. Again, perhaps. But that chapter seems to me to be so very well integrated textually and thematically into the Passion scene that I have to wonder.
It’s uncomfortable dating the Gospel of Mark so late. One feels a bit lost and lonely. But it is a possibility that I cannot ignore, either.
Strauss, David Friedrich. The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. 2nd ed. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1892.
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