2021-03-03

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?

To my mind, the possibility that this passage is a Christian interpolation can hardly be dismissed on these grounds. (p. 36)

1. Differences are not decisive

Even the New Testament gospels each present a different portrait of John the Baptist. Nir advances the reasonableness of extending this fact to imagine a scribe adapting another version of John the Baptist to suit Josephus’s narrative interests.

2. Vocabulary and style

Nir brings out the argument that many of us have met before in arguing against the significance of the Josephan style in the earlier section on Jesus Christ (Earl Doherty) — that a decent forger would be familiar with Josephus’s vocabulary and style and would attempt to imitate it so not to make the forgery conspicuous.

Again in common with arguments surrounding the Testimonium Flavianum (Josephus’s passage about Jesus), Nir notes that too often significant differences in vocabulary in the suspect passage are downplayed by too many scholars.

Against this, it seems that scholars try to blur the fact that this brief passage also contains unique words unparalleled in any of Josephus’s writings, notably words that, as I shall attempt to prove, are semantically and conceptually suspect of a Christian hand—βαπτιστής, βαπτισμός, βάπτισιν, έπασκούσιν, άποδεκτός. (p. 36 – my emphasis and links)

3. In all the manuscripts

None of our manuscripts is earlier than the eleventh century so this is hardly a decisive consideration.

4. Mentioned by Origen?

I think here lies Rivka Nir’s strongest argument so far. She robs the passage of an important early witness. Origen’s words are quoted above. Here is RN’s critical observation:

Contrary to the usual standpoint in research, Origen is not citing the passage from Jewish Antiquities, either wholly or partly. In contrast to his habitually accurate citations of Jewish War, Antiquities and Against Apion, here he uses indirect speech (oratio obliqua). Moreover, he provides no details from this particular passage, and what he says implies he knows nothing about its contents. Quite the contrary, he ascribes to John a baptism ‘for the remission of sins’, which explicitly contradicts Josephus (‘if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed’), and can merely tell us that John baptized Jesus, was called ‘Baptist’ and ‘promised purification to the people who were baptized’. It is only from the Christian tradition that he could acquire these details, as noted by Grant: ‘Origen made John’s baptism thoroughly Christian, claiming that he was simply relying on Josephus … The expression ‘‘for the remission of sins” is thoroughly Christian and Josephus did not use it.’ (p. 37 – my highlighting)

We know Origen knew and had access to Josephus’s writings, so why does his account of JB differ from the one in Josephus even though he claims to be referencing Josephus? Nir finds it instructive to compare Origen’s statements about James the brother of Jesus that he also attributes to Josephus. The details have been posted here a number of times. See Brother of Jesus called Christ / 2 for one of the more detailed discussions. I won’t repeat them here. The point is that Origen’s account, which he attributes to Josephus, cannot be found in any manuscript of Josephus. Nor does Origen refer to any of the details about James that we can read in Antiquities.

Origen wrote in the mid-third century. In the early fourth century, Eusebius repeated some of Origen’s points about James but attributed them to Hegesippus instead of Josephus. Did Origen’s memory confuse Josephus and Hegesippus?

Further, Origen’s accounts of James and John the Baptist appear side by side and he attributes both to Josephus. Did Origen mistakenly attribute them to Josephus instead of Hegisippus? Or is there another explanation for Origen’s passage about the Baptist?

Given Origen’s failure to demonstrate any knowledge of our Josephan passage Nir states emphatically,

Whatever the explanation for Origen’s source of information, he was obviously unacquainted with the Baptist testimony in Josephus, and what he says contributes nothing to its authenticity. (p. 41)

The first person we have on record to know about and quote the JB passage in Josephus is Eusebius. Some readers will have come across him before in connection with suspect passages in Josephus’s Antiquities. Both Eusebius and Origen, Nir notes, were keen to prove the historical truth of the gospel narratives of Jesus. We know that Christian authors in their enthusiasm to find historical proofs would even modify texts as they copied them.

Here is the relevant section of Eusebius:

Not long afterwards John the Baptist was beheaded by the younger Herod, as we learn from the inspired gospel narrative. Confirmation comes from Josephus, who mentions Herodias by name and tells how though she was his brother’s wife Herod married her, discarding his existing lawful wife—daughter of King Aretas of Petrea—and separating Herodias from her husband, who was still alive. For her sake, too, he put John to death and was involved in war with Aretas. whose daughter he had slighted. The war ended, as Josephus records, with a pitched battle in which Herod’s army was totally destroyed, the direct result of his outrageous treatment of John. The same writer acknowledges that John was a man of unimpeachable virtue, and a Baptist, confirming the description of him contained in the gospel narrative. He also records the fact that Herod was deprived of his throne on account of the same woman, with whom he was driven into exile and condemned to live in Vienne, a city in Gaul.32 The story will be found in Antiquities Book XVIII, from which I quote verbatim what he has to say about John. . . . [And it is here that he quotes the passage concerning John the Baptist].

32. Eusebius exchanges Herod Antipas’s fate with that of Archelaus, who was exiled to Vienne (Ant. 17.344).

At this point we come to Nir’s view on the techniques of a successful forgery that coheres with one expressed by Ken Olson as mentioned at the opening of this post:

34. Sanford, ‘Propaganda and Censorship in the Transmission of Josephus’, pp. 127, 132; Hardwick, Josephus as an Historical Source, p. 64; ‘Origen saw in Josephus confirmation and explication of New Testament tradition’.

Eusebius’s text also allows us to understand why this passage removes John from Jesus. It is precisely because the author disconnects John from the Christian gospel and anchors him in the historical events at the time of Herod Antipas and Herodias that in the eyes of Eusebius confirms what is told about John the Baptist in the New Testament. Conversely, had the author presented John in connection to Jesus and the Christian gospel, and had his testimony been fully aligned with the Gospel account, Eusebius’s proof for the veracity of the Gospel narratives (‘confirming the description of him contained in the gospel narrative’) would be weakened considerably and the forgery’ would not achieve its purpose—to prove John’s historical existence independently of Gospel events.34  (p. 42)

In a future post I will set out Rivka Nir’s detailed case for the JB passage being a Christian interpolation.


Nir, Rivka. First Christian Believer: In Search of John the Baptist. Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2019.


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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “John the Baptist: Another Case for Forgery in Josephus”

  1. A commendable effort thanks Neil. The upshot in my view is Eva Sanford’s quote saying at the end of your article (your Note 34), that propaganda and censorship are evident as motives in the writings of Josephus. In my view the gospels are likewise suspect. I followed the link :

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/283292?seq=1

    and here is the quote on her page 127 :

    The historical works of Flavius Josephus have been constantly subject to interpolation, revision and censorship in the interest of various religious and political views. Though intended as propaganda in favor of the Roman rule, the Jewish War has been used to stir up rebellion against secular authority and imperial power; by a similar paradox, it has been used as propaganda both to convert Jews to Christianity and to convert Christians to complete or modified Judaism. The propagandist uses of Josephus have inspired the making of translations in many European languages. At the same time his work was used, especially in the Middle Ages, as authority on most of the subjects for which classical authors were commonly consulted, in addition to his special contributions in connection with the Jewish background of Christianity.

    I am now no more sure that Josephus was a historical person than I am that Jesus was. If Josephus and the NT were written last century then we could perhaps examine and test our sources, but two thousand years ago, crushed under the Roman Catholic system, anything could have happened !

  2. Neil, it should also be noted that the alleged Josephean passage contains an anachronistic, somewhat formalized dogmatic development in soteriology that is definitely post c. 95-115 c.e.:
    “[JBt] 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.”
    Christian converts regularly sought baptism specifically as a means of removing all taint of sin, popularly before and in pursuit of a sound theological truism by the time of Eusebius.
    That Origen could not be referring to Josephus is, also, obvious.
    I also feel that by stating the people felt that the destruction of Herod’s army was due to divine retribution, our interpolator (Eusebius?) is alluding to the popular Christian view that the destruction of Jerusalem was divibe retribution for the unjust execution of the Christ….

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