Where does John the Baptist fit in History? — The Evidence of Josephus, Pt 1

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Where does John the Baptist fit in History? . . . . 

Peter Kirby’s first argument for the authenticity of the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities of Josephus is

(1) The Textual Witness Itself

All manuscripts contain the passage and Kirby goes one step further and states as a fact:

It is referenced already by Origen in the middle of the third century (Against Celsus, 1.47), . . .

However, anyone who has studied the problem of interpolations and textual corruptions in ancient texts (not only the biblical ones) knows that manuscript uniformity tells us nothing about whether any particular passage is an interpolation. At the most all the manuscript record can do is affirm that an interpolation took place before all surviving manuscripts. Rather than repeat the arguments here I refer anyone interested to previous explanations for why we should expect interpolations. To bias ourselves against their likelihood is to defy what scholarship knows about ancient practices:

The serious scholar of ancient texts should never adopt a defensive position against the possibility that any particular passage might be an interpolation.

Kirby’s second argument for authenticity of the John the Baptist passage in a work by Josephus:

(2) The Unlikelihood of an Interpolation on John Being Inserted First

The argument here is that Origen, writing in the mid third century, clearly declared that he found the John the Baptist passage in a work by Josephus, and if sceptics who like to think that the Jesus passage in Josephus was an invention of the fourth century Eusebius are correct, then it is very strange that a Christian interpolator would introduce John the Baptist into Josephus in the absence of any reference in Josephus to Jesus. Surely an interpolator would insist on adding something about Jesus at the same time, if not before, adding a note about John the Baptist — so the argument goes.

Kirby repeats the mainstream view as if it is a fact:

Origen already attests to the passage on John as being present in Antiquities book 18 . . .

Yet scholars have good reasons to suspect that Origen sometimes confused in his memory Josephus for Hegesippus. What Origen says he found in Josephus is not always in Josephus, but was instead very likely in Hegesippus.

At this point I’ll hand over the discussion to Rivka Nir (with my own bolded highlighting) (pp 37-42):

Turning to Origen, he appears to have been unacquainted with the Baptist testimony in Josephus, at least in its present form. Attempting to prove John’s existence, Origen (185-254 ce) writes:

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.19

Contrary to the usual standpoint in research,20 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 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.’21

How are we to account for this? Undeniably, Origen was well acquainted with Josephus’s texts: he had been to Rome, where they were preserved in libraries, and as a resident of Caesarea, in Josephus’s native land, he was sure to find them at the local library.22 If so, why does his testimony about John the Baptist differ from that in the extant text of Josephus? To answer this query, it would perhaps be helpful to compare what Origen says about John to what he goes on to say about James, the brother of Jesus:

The same author [Josephus], although he did not believe in Jesus as Christ, sought for the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. He ought to have said that the plot against Jesus was the reason why these catastrophes came upon the people, because they had killed the prophesied Christ: however, although unconscious of it, he is not far from the truth, when he says that these disasters befell the Jews to avenge James the Just, who was a brother of ‘Jesus the so-called Christ’, since they had killed him who was a very righteous man. This is the James whom Paul, the true disciple of Jesus, says that he saw, describing him as the Lord’s brother, not referring so much to their blood relationship or common upbringing as to his moral life and understanding. If therefore he says that the destruction of Jerusalem happened because of James, would it not be more reasonable to say that this happened on account of Jesus the Christ?23

About the killing of James, Jewish Antiquities recounts that following the death of the procurator Festus and while his successor Albinus was on his way to the Land of Israel (62 ce), the high priest Ananus son of Ananus, without obtaining the procurator’s approval, persuaded the Sanhedrin to execute certain opponents, among them ‘the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James … and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned’ (Ant. 20.200).

As with his testimony about John the Baptist, Origen claims that his account of James, the brother of Jesus, also derives from Josephus, but it is untraceable in any manuscript of Josephus’s works. Nowhere does Josephus ever attribute the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple to the killing of James by the high priest Ananus. Nor, by contrast, does Origen refer to any of Josephus’s specific details concerning James, for example, the political background for his execution.24 We have two testimonies by Origen, on John the Baptist and on James the brother of Jesus, both allegedly draw from Josephus, but are, as provided by Origen, nowhere to be found in any of his manuscripts. How do we account for this?

What Origen tells us about John the Baptist is too short for detecting its source: what he says about James and the circumstances of his death apparently draws on Christian tradition, which similarly calls James ‘the Just’ and regards his death as the reason for the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. These two details about James are found in Eusebius and ascribed to Hegesippus,25 who was Eusebius’s principal source for the second-century history of the church in general and of the Jerusalem church in particular. Hegesippus emphasizes the righteousness of James, who ‘was called the “Just” by all men from the Lord’s time to ours … So from his excessive righteousness he was called the Just.’26 And he is the first to connect the death of James with the destruction of Jerusalem by concluding his account with ‘and at once Vespasian began to besiege them’.27

In view of the affinity between Origen’s testimony and what is recounted about James in Christian sources, scholars have suggested that the Josephus text used by Origen already contained a Christian interpolation28 or that he confused Josephus with Hegesippus.29 If so, then the same may apply to Origen’s testimony about John the Baptist. The possibility that for the death of James Origen relied on some Christian interpolation into Josephus, or drew the James’s testimony from Hegesippus, namely, from an anterior Christian source that he confused with Josephus, may suggest that his testimony about John the Baptist likewise relied on some Christian interpolation into Josephus or an anterior Christian source. That Eusebius does not make it explicit that the Baptist testimony is based on Hegesippus, as he does in the case of James, is no ground for dismissing this possibility outright, as all agree that Eusebius relied on Hegesippus much more than he was willing to concede.30 The fact that Origen’s two testimonies are continuous, coming one after the other, may serve as indirect proof that both were borrowed from the same source and may conceivably have appeared in this order in Hegesippus.

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.

Nir, Rivka. The First Christian Believer: In Search of John the Baptist. Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2019. pp. 37-41

Kirby’s third argument for authenticity: Continue reading “Where does John the Baptist fit in History? — The Evidence of Josephus, Pt 1”