Here is the final post discussing the introductory chapter of Rivka Nir’s The First Christian Believer: In Search of John the Baptist where she sets out her case for the John the Baptist passage in the writings of Josephus being a forgery.
For readers with so little time, the TL;DR version:
- The baptism of John that is described in Josephus’s Antiquities is shown to be significantly different from Jewish Pharisaic baptism (Pharisee baptism was for ritual cleansing of the body independently from any call for moral purity; the Josephan John’s baptism was for bodily purity but required moral purity as a precondition);
- It is also significantly different from the baptism attributed to the Essenes (and the hermit Bannus) by Josephus — for the same type of reason it was different from the Pharisee baptism);
- That baptism of John appears instead to be very like baptism we read about among Jewish sectarians as in the Qumran scrolls and the Fourth Sibylline Oracle (moral purity was a precondition for the bodily sanctification effected by baptism);
- That same type of baptism we read about in the Dead Sea scrolls and Fourth Sibylline continues to appear among early Jewish Christian sects as witnessed in the Pseudo-Clementines (moral purity a precondition for bodily purification) — the early Christian baptism appears therefore to have emerged from the Jewish sectarians;
- The Josephan passage is polemical, apparently attacking what we associate with the orthodox Christian Pauline baptism that was a ritual performed to effect the forgiveness of sins and new spiritual life. (The Pauline and gospel baptism — especially as in the Gospel of Matthew — has nothing to do with physical purity.)
- Origen appears to have not known of the John the Baptist passage in Josephus but we first read of awareness of it in Eusebius. We can conclude that the passage was inserted by a member of one of the early Jewish-Christian sects late third or early fourth century.
To refresh your memory, here again is the Josephan passage with the description of his baptism highlighted:
|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).
Not a Jewish Pharisaic Baptism
Nir sets aside any possibility that the account of John’s baptism as quoted above could be a typical Jewish Pharisee baptism of the time. The Pharisaic baptism, she explains, was entirely for the purpose of cleansing the body from ritual impurities — from contact with a corpse, skin diseases, bodily discharges, and such. It had nothing to do with moral purity or righteous behaviour. To achieve forgiveness for spiritual sins one had the sacrificial cult of the Temple.
What about those passages in the Prophets that speak about washing away sins? One of many examples:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow’ (Isaiah 1:16-20)
Some scholars have speculated that such passages were interpreted by some Jews of the day as the basis of a new baptismal ritual, one that requires repentance and spiritual purity before being immersed in water:
The similarity between the initial immersion of the Qumran community and John’s immersion probably stems from a common use of the book of Isaiah. Thus, the idea that one could be made clean in body only if one was pure in heart is probably to be derived from an interpretation of the book of Isaiah that was current among several groups in Second Temple Judaism. (Taylor, The Immerser, 88)
Such passages as these attest the early association between physical and moral purification, such as meets us in the Johannine baptism. And the ideas are close. Whoever invented the epigram “ Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” it is a fair summary of Pharisaic conceptions on the subject under discussion. (Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism, 41)
Entirely speculative and contrary to the extant evidence, replies Nir. Jewish Pharisaic baptism was for the purification of the body “from natural and unavoidable states of impurity, such as contact with a corpse”. It was not “conditioned on inner moral repentance or spiritual purification.” (p. 53) The passages in Isaiah, the Psalms, Ezekiel, Jeremiah speaking of being cleansed or washed from sins are figurative. (I would add that such passages, if interpreted as the basis of a baptism ritual, would be more likely to prompt a baptism that is contrary to the one described in Josephus’s Antiquities because those passages speak of “washing away sins”, being “cleansed from sin” — as if the washing itself performs the moral purification.)
Yes, Philo did compare physical impurity with moral impurity, but at the same time he recognized the place of sacrifices in moral cleansing.
What of the Essenes and that hermit mentioned by Josephus, Bannus?
In War 2.119-61, Josephus describes the immersions of the Essenes. They bathed in cold water (άπολούοντοα τό σώμα ψυχροΐς ϋδασιν) for ‘purification’ (εις άγνείαν), and would wash themselves before meals (129), following defecation (149), or contact with a Gentile or person of inferior status in the sect (150). About Bannus, an ascetic hermit who lived in the wilderness, Josephus recounts that he would wash himself frequently in cold water, by day and night, for purity’s sake (λουόμενον πρός άγνείαν, Life 2.11) (Nir, 55)
That is, baptism for both is
- in cold water
- for physical purification
and Josephus uses similar terms for both.
With the support of an article by Bruce Chilton Rivka Nir observes of the baptism found here:
It has nothing to do with prior repentance or moral and spiritual purification: its administration requires no preaching or urging; it is no collective mass baptism and does not constitute an initiation rite into some elect group. Furthermore, the Essene and Bannus immersions were not a substitute for the sacrificial cult.
It may not be an “orthodox” Jewish baptism of the era, but Rivka Nir does see an overlap between the Josephan account and what we read in the Qumran scrolls. The key text is the Community Rule (dated by orthography and paleography between 100 BCE and 50 CE).
A Jewish-Christian Baptism
Rivka Nir’s argument is that Jewish sectarian baptisms stressing moral purity as a condition for ritually cleansing the body by immersion existed side by side early Jewish-Christian sects in opposition to the Christian baptism known to us from the Pauline tradition.
We start with the evidence for Jewish sects having a baptism in parallel with what we read about John’s in Josephus.
In the Community Rule 1QS 2.26-3.12 we see the same type of baptism that Josephus depicts for John — ritual cleansing of immersion into water is effective if one is first repentant:
And anyone who declines to enter the covenant of God in order to walk in the stubbornness of his heart shall not enter the community of his truth … For it is by the spirit of the true counsel of God that are atoned the paths of man, all his iniquities, so that he can look at the light of life. And it is by the holy spirit of the community , in its truth, that he is cleansed of all his iniquities. And by the spirit of uprightness and of humility his sin is atoned. And by the compliance of his soul with all the laws of God his flesh is cleansed by being sprinkled with cleansing waters and being made holy with the waters of repentance. May he, then, steady his steps in order to walk with perfection on all lhe paths of God, as he has decreed concerning the appointed times of his assemblies and not turn aside, either right or left nor infringe even one of all his words. In this way he will be admitted by means of atonement pleasing to God, and for him it will be the covenant of an everlasting Community.
Also as with the Josephan baptism of John we see the effect at a community level.
At Qumran, as in John’s baptism, justice (righteousness) was the means to purification and expiation of sins . . . And like John’s baptism, the Qumran baptism appears to have been one of the conditions for admission to the congregation: and it was similarly a collective baptism and a substitute for the sacrificial cult. (Nir, 60)
Also the Fourth Sibylline
Another Jewish group, one responsible for the Fourth Sibylline (dated to about 80 CE), takes the same position:
Ah! wretched mortals, change these things, and do not lead the great God to all sorts of anger, but abandon daggers and groaning, murders and outrages, and wash your whole bodies in perennial rivers. Stretch out your hands to heaven and ask forgiveness for your previous deeds and make propitiation for bitter impiety with words of praise: God will grant repentance and will not destroy. He will stop his wrath again if you all practice honorable piety in your hearts.”
Scholars who acknowledge the Jewish provenance of the fourth Sibylline oracle have at the same time noted its echoes of Christian Baptist circles:
The distinctive doctrines of Sibylline Oracles 4 then are baptism, as a prerequisite for salvation, and the rejection of temple cults. To these must be added a lively expectation of the end. This complex of doctrines finds its closest parallels in the beliefs of the Christian Ebionites and Elcasaites. There is nothing in Sibylline Oracles 4 to suggest Christian authorship, but the book was presumably written in Jewish baptist circles, of a kind similar to those Christian sectarian movements and perhaps historically related to them. (Collins, p. 383)
So we have here another indicator that some Jews had ideas about baptism that were similar to those of the John in Josephus and those of the Qumran community:
The author of the Fourth Sibylline instructs people that, once they have abandoned their sins, they are to purify their entire body in living water, beseech heaven to forgive their former deeds and heal their evil transgressions through prayer, whereupon God will extend repentance and cease from his anger (Nir, 61)
One of the earlier Christian texts expresses the same view . . .
Baptism goes hand in hand with spiritual purity, spiritual purity preceding the immersion that cleanses:
let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:22)
We find the existence of the same form of baptism as late as the fourth century:
And when it remains that the catechumen is to be baptized, let him leant what concerns the renunciation of the devil, and the joining himself with Christ: for it is fit that he should first abstain from things contrary, and then be admitted to the mysteries. He must beforehand purity his heart from all wickedness of disposition, from all spot and wrinkle, and then partake of the holy things: for as the skilfullest husbandman does first purge his ground of the thorns which are grown up therein, and does then sow his wheal, so ought you also to take away all impietv from them, and then to sow the seeds of piety in them, and vouchsafe them baptism.
For since man is of twofold nature, soul and body, the purification also is twofold, the one incorporeal for the incorporeal part, and the other bodily for the body: the water cleanses the body. and the Spirit seals the soul: that we may draw near unto God. having our heart sprinkled the Spirit and our body· washed with pure water’ (Heb. 10.22).
Pseudo-Clementines— language very like John’s baptism
purify your hearts from evil by heavenly reasoning, and wash your bodies in the bath. For purification according to the truth, is not that the purity of the body precedes purification after the heart, but that purity [of the body] follows goodness [of the heart] (Recognitions, 6.11)
In the Preaching of Peter, likely a source for the Pseudo-Clementines,
But what? If the keeping of one’s self pure (καθαραΐαν) did not belong to the (true) worship of God, would you wallow gladly in filth like dung-beetles (κάνθαροι) ? Therefore cleanse your hearts from wickedness by heavenly thoughts, as men who as rational beings stand above dumb brutes, and wash your bodies with water. 3. For to keep one’s self pure is truly worth aspiring after not because purity of the body precedes purity of the heart, but because purity follows goodness. 4. Therefore our teacher convicted some of the Pharisees and scribes among us, who arc separate and as scribes know the law better than others, and (described) them as hypocrites because they kept clean only what is visible to men, but neglected purity of the heart, which is visible to God alone. (Kerygmata Petrou, 11.28.2)
The affinity of John’s baptism with baptisms in the Qumran scrolls, the Fourth Sibylline, the Pseudo-Clementines and Apostolic Constitutions allows the inference that this baptism came into being amid sectarian circles at the margins of Second Temple Judaism, such as the Qumran sect and the circle that produced the Sibylline Oracles, and persisted within Jewish-Christian groups during the first centuries CE. It was a baptism that still retained a close connection with Jewish ritual washings for purity of the body but already incorporated an aspect of inner repentance distinctive of Christian baptism. At the same time, unlike the sacramental Pauline baptism in which water effectively brings repentance and forgiveness of sins, this baptism was preceded by repentance, and it is repentance that brings forgiveness of sins. Thus, in all these groups, baptism was perceived as substitute for the sacrificial cult at the temple. (p. 64)
We know from Epiphanius and the Pseudo-Clementines that some Jewish-Christian groups such as the Ebionites continued to observe the form of baptism we read about in Josephus’s account of John: a ritual for bodily sanctification that had to be preceded by spiritual purity. As an initiation rite into the elite community it may have been a one-time event. However, there are indications that the same assemblies additionally practised regular washings to maintain physical purity. The Pseudo-Clementines do tell us that John the Baptist’s baptism was a daily observance, and the same Pseudo-Clementines further inform us that disciples of John the Baptist thought of him as their messiah (Recognitions, 1:54, 60, 63).
But that he came to deal with the doctrines of religion happened on this wise. There was one John, a day-baptist . . . (Homiles, 2:23)
But Why the Interpolation of a Jewish-Christian Baptism?
Nir explains why she reads the passage in Josephus as being argumentative:
Of note is the author’s rhetoric of negation, which emphasizes that baptism would be acceptable to God ’not if they employ it (baptism) to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying (or on condition) that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by righteousness (p. 65)
The author sounds as if he is trying to set the record straight and establish the priority of a “true” baptism.
In the Gospel of Matthew (3:11) Nir reads John declaring that his baptism is “for repentance”:
In Matthew, John’s baptism in water is defined as baptism ‘for repentance [εις μετάνοιαν]’ (3.11), namely, baptism in water causes and brings to repentance, to inner purification bearing forgiveness of sins to the baptized. Accordingly, repentance is not a preliminary’ condition for baptism. (p. 66 … Nir contrasts Matthew’s wording with that found in Mark and Luke where it is more vague or ambiguous, “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.)
John in Josephus sounds as if he is dismissing the idea that baptism is some sort of magic ritual that can replace repentance. In Christianity as we have come to know it, however, baptism “became a sacrament that washed away the sins of the baptized.”
Contrast Paul’s explanation of baptism in Acts . . .
namely, a ‘baptism for repentance’, in which baptizing in water actually effects repentance and inner spiritual purification, which was intended ‘to gain pardon for whatever sins’—it carries forgiveness of one’s sins and the baptized emerges from the baptismal water pure and clean.
Thus in Acts (22.16), Paul instructs: ‘Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name’. According to Barn. 11.11, ‘we go down into the water full of sin and pollution, and go up bearing fruit in the heart, having in the spirit fear and hope toward Jesus’. Hermas says. Ί have even now heard from certain teachers that there is no other repentance beside that of baptism, when we go down into the water and receive the forgiveness of our sins; and that after that, we must sin no more, but live in purity’. And John Chrysostom similarly says:
After this anointing, the priest makes you go down into the sacred waters, burying the old man and at the same time raising the new, who is renewed in the image of his Creator. It is at this moment that, through the words and the hand of the priest, the Holy Spirit descends upon you. Instead of the man who descended into the water, a different man comes forth, who has wiped away the filth of his sins, who has put off the old garment of sin and has put on the royal robe.
The Pauline interpretation of baptism also rejected the function of physical purification, as emerges from 1 Pet. 3.21. Baptism, the writer of this letter expounds, is not ‘a removal of dirt from the body’, but ‘a pledge to God of (or appeal to God for) a good conscience’.
Other Christian affiliations that were considered marginal are also known to have practised a baptism that must have been anathema to these Jewish Christians. For the Elkesaites baptism atoned for sins. There were also the Hemerobaptists. And another branch, one that was certainly far from marginal, was the Marcionites. In Epiphanius’s work on Marcionites we read
(6) Marcionite baptism is not administered just once; in Marcionite congregations it is allowable to give up to three baptisms and more to anyone who wishes, as I have heard from many. (7) But he got into this way of allowing the giving of three baptisms and even more because of the scorn he suffered from his disciples who had known him, for his transgression and the seduction of the virgin. (8) Since he was in a state of grievous sin after seducing the virgin in his own city and fleeing, the tramp invented a second baptism for himself. He said that it is permissible for as many as three baths, that is baptisms, to be given for the remission of sins, so that if one were to fall away the first time he might repent and, on repentance, receive a second baptism—and a third likewise, if he transgresses after the second. (Pan 42.3.6-9)
The baptism of John that we read in Josephus — with its preservation of the Jewish interest in the link between physical and spiritual purification — is clearly opposed to the baptism of Pauline Christianity.
Was there a historical John the Baptist who preached the sort of baptism we read about in Josephus? If so, did Christians find a reason to use this figure of whom Josephus wrote and weave him into their origin narrative? If so, they presumably modified his actual teaching to make it suit theirs. That is the view of Steve Mason. Mason suggests that we can accordingly see hints of that original John the Baptist be reading between the lines of the gospels.
Or was the original John the Baptist closer to what we read about in the gospels? Did Josephus remove the Christian associations from him (presumably he heard about him via oral traditions)?
For Rivka Nir there is a third option that does not involve the hand of Josephus:
a third option: the tradition incorporated into Josephus’s Antiquities is not from the hand of the historian but rather is an interpolation by a Christian or a Jewish-Christian intent on substantiating the historical figure of John the Baptist and at the same time on promoting his own perceptions of Christian baptism. (p. 69)
The passage in Josephus thus reflects an “intra-Christian polemic at the initial consolidation phases of the baptismal rite in the first centuries CE.” The baptism inserted into the text of Josephus originated in Second Temple Judaism among marginal sects (Qumran, Fourth Sibylline) and was continued by Jewish Christians for some centuries in opposition to other more widespread forms of Christianity.
Since the passage in Josephus is unknown to Origen (who died around 253 CE) yet appears in Eusebius (born around ten years later) Nir reasonably infers that it was interpolated around about 300 CE. The Pseudo-Clementines and Apostolic Constitutions, with their similar wording and theology as found in the Josephan John’s baptism, are dated to around the same period, Nir notes.
Interestingly, Nir also maintains that not only the Jesus passage in Josephus (Testimonium Flavianum) but also the James passage are interpolations from about the same time.
The fact that the picture of the Baptist is quite different from that exhibited in the gospels has led many scholars to suppose that Josephus actually wrote the words above. But such scholars have failed to realize that many noQ-gospel views of the Baptist existed during the first three centuries (indeed, a decidedly non-gospel type of John the Baptist holds a very prominent place in the Mandaean religion to this day), and an unknown number of the might have held the opinion now supposed to have been that of Josephus.
Zindler, Frank R. The Jesus the Jews Never Knew: Sepher Toldoth Yeshu and the Quest of the Historical Jesus in Jewish Sources. Cranford, NJ: American Atheist Press, 2003. p. 97
Abrahams, Israel. Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels. London: Cambridge [England.] University Press, 1917. http://archive.org/details/studiesinpharisa0000abra_s7z8.
Collins, John H. “The Sibylline Oracles, Book 4.” In The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume 1: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments, edited by James H. Charlesworth, 1 edition. New York; London: Yale University Press, 1983.
Klausner, Joseph. Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teaching. New York: Macmillan, 1926.
Nir, Rivka. The First Christian Believer: In Search of John the Baptist. Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2019.
Schoeps, Hans Joachim. Jewish Christianity: Factional Disputes in the Early Church. Fortress Press, 1969.
Taylor, Joan. The Immerser: John the Baptist Within Second Temple Judaism. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1997.
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