John the Baptist: Another Case for Forgery in Josephus

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by Neil Godfrey

Of making many posts about John the Baptist there is no end, and much discussion may weary, or stimulate, the flesh. Here’s another one. This post is the first in a series of perhaps three that intends to raise awareness of Rivka Nir‘s case for the passage about John the Baptist in Josephus being a Christian interpolation. It comes from her book, The First Christian Believer: In Search of John the Baptist.

Nir begins by setting out the reasons scholars generally accept the Josephan passage about John the Baptist [JB] as authentic.

But first, here is the passage:

But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, called the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews who lead righteous lives and practice justice towards their fellows and piety toward God to join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by righteousness. When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation, and see his mistake. Though John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus. the stronghold that we have previously mentioned, and there put to death, yet the verdict of the Jews was that the destruction visited upon Herod’s army was a vindication of John, since God saw fit to inflict such a blow on Herod (Ant. 18.116-19).

First reason: there are significant differences between the Josephan and gospel portrayals of JB

The scholars who argue for the authenticity of this passage base their case primarily on the differences, modifications and even contradictions between Josephus and the Gospel version. It is reasonable to assume, they argue, that had the hand of a Christian interpolator intervened here, he would fully align the passage with the Gospel account. (p. 33)

I am immediately reminded of Ken Olson’s discussion (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Forger) of how effective forgery works on readers psychologically in the case of the Secret Gospel of Mark. Indeed, Rivka Nir returns to the very same idea later in her discussion with respect to the Josephan passage of JB. But for now, let’s look at those differences that scholars have thought give assurance the Josephus passage is genuine.

Unlike the gospel authors, Josephus

The absence of an apocalyptic and messianic message for JB is said to be consistent with Josephus’s interests throughout his writings — to avoid offending Roman readers with mention of apparent messianic rebel movements against Rome. At the same time, Josephus wished to present the Jewish culture as embodying enlightened philosophical traditions so he portrayed JB as a popular ethical philosopher instead of a prophet of end-times.

Scholars have argued that the gospel account is needed to explain why crowds flocked to JB since they would more likely be attracted by a message of imminent judgment and messianic time than ethical philosophy. The evangelists were also just as motivated to remove suggestions that JB was a political threat as Josephus was to remove messianic associations.

Hence the accounts are viewed as complementary with their differences.

  1. does not associate JB with Jesus or Christianity
  2. gives JB no eschatological, apocalyptic or messianic interest
  3. plants JB in a real political-historical background
  4. gives political reasons for Herod Antipas’s hostility towards JB (fear of mob uprising: contrast gospels where hostility is personal hatred, in particular from Herodias who is not mentioned by Josephus)
  5. has JB imprisoned in Machaerus and executed shortly afterwards (contrast gospels where no place is given and the imprisonment appears to be for a considerable time before his execution)
  6. sets the execution of JB around 35 CE (contrast Gospel of Luke where it appears around 28-29 CE)

Scholars interpret these differences as an indication that there was a tradition about JB independent of the gospels.

Yet, at the same time, these scholars attempt to reconcile this testimony with the Gospels. (p. 34)

Reconciliation is found in the following:

  1. the need for repentance or righteous living in association with baptism
  2. crowds follow John
  3. Josephus’s statement that John had an influence over the attitude of the crowds towards Herod Antipas couples nicely with the gospel account Herod was worried by JB’s criticism of his marriage

Accordingly, these two testimonies are interrelated, complementary and unintelligible independently of each other; and their divergences derive from the difference in point of view, in authorial interest and the tendencies underlying each source, and, in fact, we have one tradition under different mantles. (pp. 34 f)

Second reason: the JB passage has the same vocabulary and style as the surrounding passages

They note, for exampie, Josephus’s inclination to verbosity, his peculiar vocabulary and linguistic forms, his usage of circumlocution, his heavy reliance on participles (participium) and the infinitive (infinitivus) and genitive absolute (genetivus absolutus), in his attempt to imitate classical Greek style, especially Thucydides. Of the many expressions characteristic of Josephus’s style in Ant. 17-19, scholars emphasize his usage of the following paired terms: piety toward God/fear of God (εύσεβεία πρός τόν θεόν) and righteousness (δικαιοσύνη). The conjunction of eusebia and dikaiosunë is typical of Josephus, encapsulating the essentials of ethical philosophy in his time, and is part of the apologetic arsenal in his effort to present Judaism as a philosophical tradition embracing the highest universal virtues. (P. 36)

Third reason: the JB passage appears in all of the manuscripts

Fourth reason: the JB passage is mentioned by Origen

Origen writes, ca 248 CE, in Against Celsus 1.47

I would like to have told Celsus, when he represented the Jew as in some way accepting John as a baptist in baptizing Jesus, that a man who lived not long after John and Jesus recorded that John was a Baptist who baptized for the remission of sins. For Josephus in the eighteenth book of the Jewish antiquities bears witness that John was a Baptist and promised purification to people who were baptized.

So how does Rivka Nir meet the above challenges in order to argue that the passage was not penned by Josephus? Continue reading “John the Baptist: Another Case for Forgery in Josephus”