John the Baptist in Josephus — What was his baptism?

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by Neil Godfrey

I conclude* continue here my posts presenting Rivka Nir’s case for the John the Baptist passage in the Antiquities of Josephus being a Christian interpolation. All of these posts are archived at Nir: First Christian Believer. (* I had expected to conclude the series with this post but as usual, checking sources and being sure I get the argument correct takes more time than I usually anticipate). All bolded highlighting in the quotations is my own; italics are original.

Jewish or Christian Baptism? — What did John’s Baptism Look Like?

Nir identifies five defining characteristics of the baptism of John that we read about in Antiquities.

Here is the relevant section from Antiquities 18.116-118 (18.5.2)

John who was called Baptist . . . who was a good man and one who commanded the Jews to practise virtue and act with justice (δικαιοσύνῃ) toward one another and with piety toward God, and [so] to gather together by baptism. For [John’s view was that] in this way baptism certainly would appear acceptable to him [i.e. God] if [they] used [it] not for seeking pardon of certain sins but for purification of the body, because the soul had already been cleansed before by righteousness (δικαιοσύνῃ). . . And . . . others gathered together [around John] (for they were also excited to the utmost by listening to [his] teachings) . . . 

(Translation by Robert Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet, p. 32)

Character 1: Christian terminology

Nir submits that the terms used in the Josephan passage “derive from the lexicon of Christian theology.” That certainly appears to be true with respect to the epithet assigned to John, “the Baptist” (βαπτιστής). Though Josephus uses other forms of the word for immersion, dipping or washing elsewhere, “the Baptist” — βαπτιστής — is found nowhere else in Josephus and is specific to the New Testament as an epithet for John.


for someone who did not know Jewish tradition or Christian preaching, the rather deliberate statement that this was ‘the wetted’ or perhaps ‘the greased’ would sound most peculiar… Since Josephus is usually sensitive to his audience and pauses to explain unfamiliar terms or aspects of Jewish life, it is very strange that he would make the bald assertion, without explanation, that Jesus was ‘Christ’ (Ant. 20.200). That formulation, “the one called Christ,” makes much better sense because it sounds like a nick-name. . . . [I]t would make sense for Josephus to say, “This man had the nickname Christos,” and he could do so without further explanation. (Josephus and the New Testament, 166)

Nir further posits that we should expect Josephus to explain the meaning of the epithet if he did write it, just as, for example, Steve Mason argues that Josephus would be expected to explain the epithet “Christ” to non-Jewish audiences if he did use it of Jesus. Against this, in my view, and as Nir herself notes in a footnote, Mason further suggests that Josephus would not be expected to explain the meaning if the epithet was introduced as a nickname — e.g. Jesus who was called Christ, John who was called the Baptist.

The problem highlighted by Nir is as follows:

What would Greek and Roman readers unfamiliar with Christian sources understand by this term? They were familiar with the verb βάπτω, which means ‘to dip/be dipped’ or ‘to immerse/be submerged’, and with the verb βαπτίζω, which in classical sources denotes ‘to immerse/be submerged under water’.49 How would they understand a designation referring to someone who immerses others with this particular immersion? How could Josephus use this designation without defining it?50

49. Metaphorically: soaked in wine. See Oepke. ‘βάπτω’, TDNT, I. p. 535.

50. Rivka Nir cites Graetz, Abrahams, Mason and Webb. I have expanded on the difficulties Abrahams raises for Nir’s argument below.

Abrahams argues that the passage overall is genuine but acknowledges the possibility that the epithet “the Baptist” is interpolated:

The terminology of Josephus, I would urge, makes it quite unlikely that the passage is an interpolation. For, it will be noted (a) Josephus does not use βάπησμα which is the usual N.T. form; (6) he does use the form βάπτισις which is unknown to the N.T.; (c) he uses βαπτισμός in a way quite unlike the use of the word when it does occur in Mark (vii. 4) or even in Hebrews (ix. 10). It is in fact Josephus alone who applies the word βαπτισμός to John’s baptism. Except then that Josephus used the epithet βαπτιστής (which may be interpolated) his terminology is quite independent of N.T. usage. (Studies in Pharisaism, p. 33)

Others reply that Josephus does explain the term, if indirectly:

In his first editions Graetz accepted Josephus’ account of John as authentic. But in his later editions of the Geschichte der Juden he strongly contends that the passage is spurious. He urges that Josephus would not have described John as the “Baptist” (τοῦ ἐπικαλουμένου βαπτιστοῦ) without further explanation. Graetz does not see that it is possible to regard these three words as an interpolation in a passage otherwise authentic. But it is not necessary to make this supposition. For it is quite in Josephus’ manner to use designations for which he offers no explanation (cf. e.g. the term “Essene”). And the meaning of “Baptist” is fully explained in the following sentence, Josephus using the nouns βάπτισις and βαπτισμος to describe John’s activity.

(Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism, 33 — Rivka Nir cites Abrahams but the fuller quotations are mine.)

Abrahams (in both the paragraph above and in the side box) sounds more damning than his argument actually is. Yes, he is correct Josephus uses baptisis (βάπτισις) “which is unknown in the New Testament” and baptismos (βαπτισμός) “in a way quite unlike the use of the word when it does appear in Mark(vii. 4) or … Hebrews (ix. 10).” But what Nir points out is that those words are part of the “lexicon of Christian theology” as witnessed by Athanasius Alexandrinus, Origen and Chrysostom. They are not the words Josephus normally uses (λούεσθαι or άπολούεσθαι — louesthai or apolouesthai) when describing Jewish immersions. Those early fathers testify to the use of those terms in relation to John’s baptism as well as Christian baptism more generally.

Characteristic 2: a collective baptism into an elect group

The key section here is

[John] … commanded the Jews to practise virtue and act with justice toward one another and with piety toward God, and [so] to gather together by baptism.

Read attentively we can discern here a mass or collective baptism led by one person who is bringing all the participants into an elect group. This is how Robert Webb (whose translation we are using) understands the passage after a detailed analysis of the forms of Greek words used. He writes,

John was calling for his audience to ‘gather together’ into some form of group and that baptism is the means whereby the group was gathered, or from the individual’s point of view, baptism was the means whereby a person entered this ‘gathered’ group. Therefore, both semantically and syntactically, this clause is best understood to signify that John commanded the Jews ‘to gather together by means ofbaptism’.

. . . we may conclude that Josephus provides evidence to confirm that John’s baptism did indeed function as an initiatory rite.

A second line of evidence for understanding John’s baptism as an initiatory rite is provided indirectly by the prophetic concept of conversionary repentance—it was sometimes associated with a return to covenant faithfulness and the formation of a faithful remnant. . . . Since John proclaimed a baptism which expressed conversionary repentance, his call to repentance could suggest the formation of just such a group.

(Webb, John the Baptizer, 200-01)

Nir concurs

Accordingly, [Webb] draws the conclusion that we are dealing not with merely a meeting or gathering of individuals but with a new sectarian movement, united under John’s leadership by means of baptism, which functioned as a ritual of initiation into the sect, transforming the initiate’s status from member of Israel at large to member of an elect group. John, then, founded a fellowship for which baptism conditioned admission.

All these characteristics fit in with early Christian baptism, which was a collective baptism under the direction of one person, and constituted a ritual act by means of which baptismal candidates, catechumens, joined Christianity.

And . . . others gathered together [around John] (for they were also excited to the utmost by listening to [his] teachings) . . . 

That we are dealing with an elect group is equally evident in how the passage depicts John’s addressees, whom the author designates as ‘Jews who lead righteous lives and practice justice towards their fellows and piety towards God’. . . . Reference, then, is to an elect group subscribing to ‘righteousness’, ‘justice’ and ‘piety’, whom John exhorts to undergo baptism as a sign or unitying mark of group membership. This reading explains the distinction between the two publics at which the passage addresses John’s baptism: those already living virtuously, practicing justice toward their fellows and piety toward God, and ‘others’ who, aroused by John’s sermons, join the crowds gathered around him. implied are Jews and Gentiles who were not practitioners of this way of life, and by joining the crowds evoke the apprehension of Herod Antipas.

(Nir, 49-50)

The two-fold occurrence of the term “righteousness” (δικαιοσύνῃ – also translated “justice”) in the passage may also be significant. Baptism is for the purification of the body but that is only effective if the soul is converted to “righteousness”. Nir cites John Kampen’s conclusion after examining “the term ‘righteousness’ in the Qumran scrolls.

He reached the conclusion that unlike its usage in tannaitic sources to denote charity and mercy, at Qumran it denoted sectarian identity and belonging to an elect group having exclusive claim to a righteous way of life.

(Nir, 50)

The Gospel of Matthew uses the same word likewise as an identifier of a group called to follow Jesus and distinguished by “righteousness”. (Matt. 3:16, 5:6, 10; 6:1 ff; 21:32).

In other words, righteousness marked the sectarian identity of the group and served to preserve its boundaries. In this passage, as with Matthew and the Qumranites, ‘righteousness’ defines the lifestyle of this elect sectarian group as well as the boundaries separating it from society at large. 

(Nir, 50-51)

Characteristic 3: a baptism to be preached

The baptism we read about in Josephus was not merely administered by John but it was preached. Nir cites Webb whom I quote:

In Ant. 18.117 Josephus explains that John ‘commanded the Jews to practise virtue . . . and [so] to gather together by baptism’. Similarly, Mk 1.4 declares that John was ‘preaching a baptism…’ These texts indicate that not only was baptism important in John’s thought, but it was something which he believed was necessary for his audience to receive. Evidently his audience was not aware of the necessity of receiving John’s baptism prior to his preaching, which suggests that John attached some significance to his immersion which was different from the common understanding. Thus, John would preach, calling the people to be baptized, and that would involve explaining to them the signficance of the baptism as well as its necessity.

(Webb, 183)

We are familiar with the final command of Jesus from the mountain to his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations and to baptize them (Matt. 28:18-19).

Characteristic 4: a baptism to be acceptable 

The Josephan passage is clear: John taught that baptism was not for forgiveness; the candidates had to be repentant and righteous before they came for baptism. Baptism is for the purification of the body but for that to work the person must be morally or spiritually pure.

For [John’s view was that] in this way baptism certainly would appear acceptable to him [i.e. God] if [they] used [it] not for seeking pardon of certain sins but for purification of the body

The expression “to be acceptable” has special reference to sacrifices in both the Old (Lev 1:3; 19:5; 22:19-29; Jer 6:20; Isa 56:7) and New (Phil. 4:18; Rom. 15:16; 1 Peter 2:3-5) Testaments. The prophets warned that sacrifices were of no effect, were in fact an abomination, if offered with a sinful disposition. In the Second Temple and early Christain eras, there were a number of Jewish and Jewish-Christian “Baptist” sects that withdrew from the temple sacrificial system out of a concern for its confusion with moral corruption. Joseph Thomas studied this “baptist sectarian interest in Le mouvement Baptiste sfds

[T]he Baptists stop attending the temple or at least condemn the sacrifices; this is a fact that can be observed in all sects. The Essenes, for example, continue to send gifts to the temple, but they no longer offer sacrifices. The Nasareans keep all the ritual ceremonies of the Jews, except the sacrifices which they abhor; they regard it as a crime to offer a sacrifice and to feed on animal flesh. The Baptists of the Sibylline Oracles abhor “temples and altars, vulgar monuments made of insensible stones and soiled by the blood of the victims of the sacrifice”. Elchasai absolutely condemns sacrifices, he regards them as unworthy of God and blames the Jews for eating meat and offering sacrifices and burnt offerings to God. The Ebionites think the same: “if you do not stop offering sacrifices, anger will not cease to weigh on you”, they make Jesus say in their gospel; the true Messiah, according to them, is the one who comes to put an end to the sacrifices; their sacred collections, the Anabathmoi of James among others, contained violent words addressed to the temple, to the sacrifices and to the fire of the sanctuary. There are not until the Mandaeans to whom their sacred books do not recommend “not to sacrifice to the Great King” and who do not blame the Jews for having kept the use of bloody victims. So this is undoubtedly a defining note of the Baptist movement, and it is linked to the previous one.

What do we see in fact? A close correlation, and not just a more or less fortuitous coincidence, between the abandonment of sacrifices and recourse to baptismal worship. If the Baptists abandoned sacrifices, it was because they had a substitute for them in their sacred baths. Josephus says it clearly about the Essenes: if they do not sacrifice, it is because they prefer to resort to their purification baths. Epiphanes is also explicit when he deals with the Elchasaites: they reject the sacrifices because they deem them unworthy of God, while they regard the water as good and suitable. John the Baptist invited to baptism and baptized without saying anything about worship or sacrifices. The Ebionites of the Clementines, for their part, attribute to the true Messiah the mission of teaching men to flee from sacrifices and to seek in water baptism the remission of their sins. The water-fire antithesis that we have noticed in the doctrine of Elchasai and the Baptist Ebionites also testifies in the same sense, as does the accumulated praise of the water. This allows us to further clarify the meaning of baths in Baptism. Since these baths became not only acts of worship but unique acts of worship, substituted as such for sacrifices, we must recognize the value that was ordinarily attributed to sacrifices and sacrificial worship; they constituted the religious rite which was to provide everything that was usually required of temple worship: propitiation for faults, divine benevolence, etc. . . . 

(Thomas, 280-281. machine translation)

The idea that baptism stands as a replacement for the temple sacrifices is “distinctly Christian”.

The notion of baptism as replacement for the Jewish sacrificial system is distinctly Christian: Jesus is the expiatory sacrifice in place of the temple sacrifices and his death atones for all the sins of the world (Eph. 5:2; Rom. 12:1). By baptism, the baptized identify with Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, becoming a sacrifice themselves, and their sins are forgiven, as expounded in Rom. 6.2-6:

How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.

(Nir, 52)

Characteristic 5: a baptism for the purity of the body

Again, the inner cleansing is the precondition for the outer cleansing. The former is the precondition for the latter. The point is repeated in Josephus.

  1. . . . commanded the Jews to practise virtue and act with justice (δικαιοσύνῃ) toward one another and with piety toward God, and [so] to gather together by baptism. 
  2. . . . baptism certainly would appear acceptable to him [i.e. God] if [they] used [it] not for seeking pardon of certain sins but for purification of the body, because the soul had already been cleansed before by righteousness

For Nir, this aspect is “the most revealing of the Christian identity” of John’s baptism.

But is not John’s baptism in Josephus akin to a Jewish Pharisaic baptismal rite? Nir argues no, and we’ll cover her reasons in the next post.

Abrahams, Israel. Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels. London: Cambridge [England.] University Press, 1917. http://archive.org/details/studiesinpharisa0000abra_s7z8.

Mason, Steve. Josephus and the New Testament. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1992.

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

Thomas, Joseph. Le Mouvement Baptiste En Palestine Et Syrie (150 AV. J.-C.-300 AP. J.-C.). Gembloux, J. Duculot, 1935. http://archive.org/details/lemouvementbapti0000thom.

Webb, Robert L. John the Baptizer and Prophet: A Sociohistorical Study. Reprint edition. Eugene, Or.: Wipf & Stock, 2006.



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