Where does John the Baptist fit in History? — The Evidence of Josephus, Pt 2

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing to respond to The Authenticity of John the Baptist in Josephus. The previous two posts —

1. Where does John the Baptist fit in History? (Or, the Place of Fact and Opinion in History)

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

I would like to reiterate an approach I attempted to emphasize in my opening salvo. I am not arguing a black and white, slam-dunk case. If such existed there would be no discussion about this passage. One does not have to be persuaded one way or the other. I myself do not know if the John the Baptist passage in Josephus is an interpolation. It might be authentic. The best we can do is examine it critically. I think humility requires us to accept that there are reasonable grounds for suspecting it is an interpolation. Given those reasonable arguments there is necessarily some room for doubt. That means that the honest historian cannot dogmatically declare that Josephus wrote that passage. A historical reconstruction cannot validly be built on the conviction that Josephus wrote it — unless one makes clear the questionable nature of one of the foundations of that hypothetical reconstruction. I do not believe I am being hyper-sceptical or extreme. Rather than label arguments as “weak” or “not persuasive” — which sound like subjective impressions to me —  I prefer to address whether arguments are logically valid or invalid and if they can marshal support with relevant evidence. To repeat, it doesn’t matter if one is persuaded or not. What matters is that one recognises that there are reasonable grounds for suspecting the authenticity of the passage. I understand why there will be some dogmatic and emotional resistance to that idea, but dogmatism and emotional attachment are not always the most faithful of friends — especially when working with ancient texts that come from a “culture of interpolations“.

By the way, I have never encountered historians in other (non-biblical) fields build historical reconstructions that rely on disputed evidence on which to stake their “facts” — at least not without acknowledging that the evidence for their claims is disputed. That’s not how history is done elsewhere, as far as I am aware. And the reason I believe I so often find myself at variance with certain conventional wisdoms in biblical studies is because I am always trying to examine the evidence with the same critical methods as are taken for granted in other historical fields. That means I have little time for “criteria of authenticity” and “memory theory” which seem to me to have a unique place in biblical scholarship.

Here is the John the Baptist passage in Jewish Antiquities 18.116-119

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 [on the condition] 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. (Nir, pp. 32f)

. . .

The next point Peter Kirby presents is more technical. He copies at length from another forum one side of a discussion about the place and use of δὲ, a word often but not always translated as “but”.

(15) Ant. 18.120 Incongruous without Ant. 18.116-119 (and Appropriate As-Is)

Here is Kirby’s point:

If Ant. 18.116-119 is removed from the text, it would read:

[Greek text omitted]

So Herod wrote about these affairs to Tiberius, who being very angry at the attempt made by Aretas, wrote to Vitellius to make war upon him, and either to take him alive, and bring him to him in bonds, or to kill him, and send him his head. This was the charge that Tiberius gave to the president of Syria. […]

“But” [δὲ] Vitellius prepared to make war with Aretas, …

This conjunction δὲ is not translated in the readily-available Whiston and Feldman in a way that makes the full force of the difficulty above in the Greek apparent to the English reader. Feldman leaves it untranslated, while Whiston translates it as “so” (which is actually not inappropriate, if it is understood in the very specific English sense of resuming the narrative after an interruption or parenthesis, as it functions after the passage on John the Baptist, not in some different sense of the English). Yet it is very strange if the passage reads as it is shown above.

Oh so close….. Yes, Whiston translates δὲ as “so” and we will soon see that that is indeed a most appropriate translation but not for the reason Kirby proposes.

Kirby follows with a lengthy selection from another forum by citing snippets from one side of a discussion on the use of this δὲ.

Focusing on the one word δὲ alone, though, draws attention away from the fact that what we have here are two words, a correlation, μὲν … δὲ, that are normally a linked pair to express meanings such as the following:

  • both…and,
  • on the one hand…on the other,
  • one person [did such and such]….another person [did this and that],
  • some [said]….others [said],

The Perseus online Liddell & Scott dictionary explains that δὲ can be an adversative (=”but”) and also a copulative (=”and”, “so” etc)

As for translations of the μένδέ pair, the same dictionary explains:

Generally, μέν and δέ may be rendered on the one hand, on the other hand, or as well . . , as, while or whereas, but it is often necessary to leave μέν untranslated.

Here’s an instance in Acts 14:4

εσχισθη δε το πληθος της πολεως και οι μεν ησαν συν τοις ιουδαιοις οι δε συν τοις αποστολοις

But the people of the city were divided some sided with the Jews and some with the apostles

From Dobson’s Learn New Testament Greek:

μὲν…δὲ . . .

When two ideas or words are compared or contrasted they are often liked by μὲν… and δὲ …. In English we often use “but” for δὲ. We do not have a word which quite corresponds to μὲν. “On the one hand” and “on the other hand” are rather too weighty for μὲν and δὲ.

(p. 263)

Ken Olson has written in a forum discussion:

The μὲν … δὲ construction distinguishes one party’s activities from those of another. There’s no requirement of a cause and effect relationship between the two, nor that they be in opposition. To use an example that springs readily to my mind, Jesus in the Testimonium Flavianum won over many of the Jews, but also many of Hellenes. What would be irregular is for the μὲν not to be related to the δὲ which follows it.

(the bolding is mine in all quotations)

Other works explain that this correlative was far more common in classical Greek than it was in New Testament and later times. But a search for μέν and δέ in the Loeb editions of Antiquities will quickly show anyone interested that Josephus made frequent use of it. 

With all of that in mind, we are now in a position to grasp Rivka Nir’s discussion of how the John the Baptist passage can be understood to intrude into otherwise naturally sequential sentences or passages. It can be read as breaking apart the μένδέ structure beyond recognition.

How this passage is integrated into the text is suspect. Inserted midway into the description of events following the defeat of Herod Antipas, betweenTiberius’s order to Vitellius to prepare for war against Aretas and Vitellius’s preparations, it constitutes a self-contained literary unit that disrupts the descriptive sequence.38 In terms of syntax, as Léon Herrmann has pointed out,39 it is inserted halfway through a sentence structured on καί μέν and δε, which suggest the narrative sequence. Namely, between paragraph 115, which concludes with the sentence: ‘These were the orders that Tiberius gave to the proconsul of Syria [και Τιβέριος μέν ταυ τα πράσσειν έπέστελλεντω κατά Συρίαν στρατηγώ]’, and paragraph 120, which opens with the sentence: ‘So Vitellius prepared to make war with Aretas . . . and made haste for Petra, and came to Ptolemais [Ούιτέλλιος δέ παρασκευασάμενοςώς εις πόλεμον τόν προς Αρέταν. . . έπι της Πέτρας ήπείγετο καί έσχε Πτολεμαίδα]’. On removal of the passage, paragraph 120, flows smoothly and uninterruptedly from paragraph 115, and the order of events and correct syntactical structure are retained: Tiberius commands and Vitellius acts.

38. For Meier (A Marginal Jew, 11. pp. 56. 59-60). this literary unit is. by way of an inclusio. framed by certain key words and themes clustered at the beginning and the end. Il opens with ‘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’, and ends with ‘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 lit to inflict such a blow on Herod’.

39. Herrmann. Chrestos, p. 99; L. Herrmann. ’Herodiade’, REJ 132 (1973), pp. 49-63 (51).

(Nir, 43f)

In addition…

Furthermore, Josephus had already explained how ‘all Herod’s army was destroyed by the treachery of some fugitives, who, though they were of the tetrarchy of Philip, joined with Aretas’s army’ (Ant. 114), his seemingly historical explanation for Herod’s defeat which is placed in the appropriate context. Why, then, would Josephus need to provide an additional explanation? And why place it at a distance from his first explanation, and moreover in a way that interrupts the factual sequence?

(Nir, 44)

It is at this point that Nir addressed the chronological and political incongruities vis a vis the New Testament — as quoted in the previous post.

Kirby then introduces the arguments for inauthenticity:

(1) The Text Reads Intelligibly if the Passage Is Removed

We have just seen how syntactic irregularity can be restored if the passage is removed. So a more general “intelligibility” is not the only factor open for consideration.

We also know that Josephus elsewhere broke a narrative with digressions. What is of interest, though, is a comparison of other places where Josephus makes those (removable) digressions. I have selected the “removable” insert passages from Kirby’s list but want to draw attention to how the narrative on either side of those inserts flows. Above we saw how the John the Baptist passage seems to break into what we would expect to be a tight syntactical structure. It interrupts two sentences that belong naturally together: the emperor gives the order and the proconsul obeys. Compare the surrounding passages in each of the following digressions and see if you can find anything similar. Or are the breaks more natural, more logical, such that the digression does not rip apart something like an ordered action and its correlative partner-statement that it was obeyed?

Honi the Circle-Drawer (c. 65 BCE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 14.21-28. 

Because of these promises which were made to him, Aretas marched against Aristobulus with an army of fifty thousand horsemen and foot soldiers as well, and defeated him in battle. After his victory many deserted to Hyrcanus, and Aristobulus, being left alone, fled to Jerusalem. Thereupon the Arab king took his whole army and attacked the temple, where he besieged Aristobulus ; and the citizens, joining Hyrcanus’ side, assisted him in the siege, while only the priests remained loyal to Aristobulus. . . .

And so Aretas placed the camps of the Arabs and Jews next to one another, and pressed the siege vigorously. But as this action took place at the time of observing the festival of Unleavened Bread, which we call Phaska, the Jews of best repute left the country and fled to Egypt. Now there was a certain The saintly Oni Onias, who, being a righteous man and dear to God, had once in a rainless period prayed to God to end the drought, and God had heard his prayer and sent rain; this man hid himself when he saw that the civil war continued to rage, but he was taken to the camp of the Jews and was asked to place a curse on Aristobulus and his fellow-rebels, just as he had, by his prayers, put an end to the rainless period. But when in spite of his refusals and excuses he was forced to speak by the mob, he stood up in their midst and said, “ O God, king of the universe, since these men standing beside me are Thy people, and those who are besieged are Thy priests, I beseech Thee not to hearken to them against these men nor to bring to pass what these men ask Thee to do to those others.” And when he had prayed in this manner the villains among the Jews who stood round him stoned him to death. (2) But God straightway punished them for this savagery, and exacted satisfaction for the murder of Onias in the following manner. While the priests and Aristobulus were being besieged, there happened to come round the festival called Phaska, at which it is our custom to offer numerous sacrifices to God. But as Aristobulus and those with him lacked victims, they asked their countrymen to furnish them with these, and take as much money for the victims as they wished. And when these others demanded that they pay a thousand drachmas for each animal they wished to get, Aristobulus and the priests willingly accepted this price and gave them the money, which they let down from the walls by a rope. Their countrymen, however, after receiving the money did not deliver the victims, but went to such lengths of villainy that they violated their pledges and acted impiously toward God by not furnishing the sacrificial victims to those who were in need of them.* But the priests, on suffering this breach of faith, prayed to God to exact satisfaction on their behalf from their countrymen ; and He did not delay their punishment, but sent a mighty and violent wind to destroy the crops of the entire country, so that people at that time had to pay eleven drachmas for a modius of wheat.

. . . Meanwhile Pompey sent Scaurus also to Syria, as he himself was in Armenia, still making war on Tigranes. And when Scaurus came to Damascus, he found that Lollius and Metellus had just taken the city, and so he hurried on to Judaea. On his arrival envoys came to him from both Aristobulus and Hyrcanus, each of whom asked him to come to his aid.

(All translations are from the Loeb edition of Antiquities.)

Galilean Cave Brigands (c. 38 BCE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 14.415-430. 

Herod, however, did not choose to remain inactive, but sent off his brother Joseph to Idumaea with two thousand foot-soldiers and four hundred mounted men, while he himself went to Samaria, where he left his mother and his other relatives, who had by now made their way out of Masada, and proceeded to Galilee to capture some of the strongholds which had been occupied by the garrisons of Antigonus. He reached Sepphoris in a snow-storm, and as Antigonus’ garrison had quietly withdrawn, he came into possession of an abundance of provisions. . . .

From here he then sent out a troop of cavalry and three companies of foot-soldiers against some brigands living in caves, for he had made up his mind to put an end to their depredations’; these caves were very near a village called Arbela. Forty days later he himself came with his entire army, and under the enemy’s bold attack the left wing of his line gave way, but when he appeared in person with a compact body of men, he put to flight those who had before been victorious, and rallied those of his men who were fleeing. And he pressed on in pursuit of the enemy as far as the river Jordan, to which they fled along different roads ; and so he got into his hands all the people of Galilee except those who lived in the caves? he then distributed money, giving each of his men a hundred and fifty drachmas, and considerably more to the officers, and dismissed them to their winter quarters. Meanwhile Silo and the officers of the men who were in winter quarters came to him because Antigonus was unwilling to furnish them with food; that worthy had fed them for a month and no longer he had, moreover, sent out orders to the inhabitants round about that they were to gather up all the provisions throughout the country and flee to the hills in order that the Romans might be entirely without necessary food and so perish of hunger. Accordingly Herod entrusted the care of these men to Pheroras, his youngest brother, and ordered him to fortify Alexandreion also. And he quickly made it possible for the soldiers to have an abundance of the necessary provisions, and also restored Alexandreion, which had been left in ruins. About the same time, while Antony was staying at Athens, Ventidius in Syria sent for Silo to join him against the Parthians, but instructed him first to assist Herod in the present war and then summon their allies to the Romans’ own war. But Herod, who was hastening against the brigands in the caves, sent Silo off to Ventidius, and set out against them by himself. Now their caves were in hills that were altogether rugged, having their entrances half-way up the sheer cliffs and being surrounded by sharp rocks; in such dens did they lurk with all their people. Thereupon the king, whose men were unable either to climb up from below or creep upon them from above because of the steepness of the hill, had cribs built and lowered these upon them with iron chains as they were suspended by a machine from the summit of the hill. The cribs were filled with armed men holding great grappling hooks, with which they were supposed to draw towards them any of the brigands who opposed them, and kill them by hurling them to the ground. The lowering of the cribs was proving to be a risky business because of the immense depth that lay below them, although the men within them had everything they needed. But when the cribs were let down, none of the men standing near the entrances of the caves dared come forward? instead, they remained quiet out of fear, whereupon one of the soldiers in irritation at the delay caused by the brigands who dared not come out, girded on his sword, and heading on with both hands to the chain from which the crib was suspended, lowered himself to the entrance of a cave. And when he came opposite an entrance, he first drove back with javelins most of those who were standing there, and then with his grappling hook drew his opponents towards him and pushed them over the precipice; after this he attacked those within and slaughtered many of them, whereupon he re-entered the crib and rested. Then fear seized the others as they heard the shrieking, and they despaired of their lives; all action, however, was halted by the coming on of night; and many, after sending spokesmen with the king’s consent, surrendered and made their submission. The same method of attack was used the following day, when the men in the baskets d fell upon them still more fiercely and fought at their doors and threw flaming fire inside, and so the caves, which had much wood in them, were set on fire. Now there was an old man shut up within one of the caves with his seven children and his wife : and when they begged him to let them slip through to the enemy, he stood at the entrance and cut down each of his sons as he came out, and afterwards his wife, and after hurling their dead bodies over the precipice, threw himself down upon them, thus submitting to death rather than to slavery. But before doing so, he bitterly reviled Herod for his meanness of spirit, although the king—for he was a witness of what was happening—stretched out his right hand and promised him full immunity. By such methods, then, all the caves were finally taken.

. . . The king thereupon appointed Ptolemy general in that region, and departed for Samaria with six hundred mounted men and three thousand foot-soldiers to try the issue of battle with Antigonus. 

The next “insert” passages by Josephus are actually a series of incidents all grouped together. So I will quote the edges of the bracketing narrative before and after them.

Meanwhile continuous and countless new tumults filled Judaea, and in many quarters many men rose in arms either in hope of personal gain or out of hatred for the Jews. For example, two thousand of the soldiers who had once campaigned with Herod and had been disbanded, now assembled in Judaea itself and fought against the king’s troops. These were led against them by Achiab, a cousin of Herod, but he was forced out of the plains into higher country by the enemy, who were very experienced in warfare, and by retreating to an inaccessible position, he saved what he could. . . .

Judas son of Hezekiah (c. 4 BCE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 17.271-272.

Then there was Judas, the son of the brigand chief Ezekias, who had been a man of great power and had been captured by Herod only with great difficulty. This Judas got together a large number of desperate.men at Sepphoris in Galilee and there made an assault on the royal palace, and having seized all the arms that were stored there, he armed every single one of his men and made off with all the property that had been seized there. He became an object of terror to all men by plundering those he came across in his desire for great possessions and his ambition for royal rank, a prize that he expected to obtain not through the practice of virtue but through excessive ill-treatment of others.

Simon of Peraea (c. 4 BCE) ~ Jewish War 2.57-59 and Jewish Antiquities 17.273-277. (Removable.)

There was also Simon, a slave of King Herod but a handsome man, who took pre-eminence by size and bodily strength, and was expected to go farther. Elated by the unsettled conditions of affairs, he was bold enough to place the diadem on his head, and having got together a body of men, he was himself also proclaimed king by them in their madness, and he rated himself worthy of this beyond anyone else. After burning the royal palace in Jericho, he plundered and carried off the things that had been seized there. He also set fire to many other royal residences in many parts of the country and utterly destroyed them after permitting his fellow-rebels to take as booty whatever had been left in them. And he would have done something still more serious if attention had not quickly been turned to him. For Gratus, the officer of the royal troops, joined the Romans and with what forces he had went to meet Simon. A long and heavy battle was fought between them, and most of the Peraeans, who were disorganized and fighting with more recklessness than science, were destroyed. As for Simon, he tried to save himself by fleeing through a ravine, but Gratus intercepted him and cut off his head. The royal palace at Ammatha on the river Jordan was also burnt down by some rebels, who resembled those under Simon. Such was the great madness that settled upon the nation because they had no king of their own to restrain the populace by his pre-eminence, and because the foreigners who came among them to suppress the rebellion were themselves a cause of provocation through their arrogance and their greed.

Athronges (c. 4-2? BCE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 17.278-284. (Removable.)

Then there was a certain Athronges, a man distinguished neither for the position of his ancestors nor by the excellence of his character, nor for any abundance of means but merely a shepherd completely unknown to everybody although he was remarkable for his great stature and feats of strength. This man had the temerity to aspire to the kingship, thinking that if he obtained it he would enjoy freedom to act more outrageously; as for meeting death, he did not attach much importance to the loss of his life under such circumstances. He also had four brothers, and they too were tall men and confident of being very successful through their feats of strength, and he believed them to be a strong point in his bid for the kingdom. Each of them commanded an armed band, for a large number of people had gathered round them. Though they were commanders, they acted under his orders whenever they went on raids and fought by themselves. Athronges himself put on the diadem and held a council to discuss what things were to be done, but everything depended upon his own decision. This man kept his power for a long while, for he had the title of king and nothing to prevent him from doing as he wished. He and his brothers also applied themselves vigorously to slaughtering the Romans and the king’s men, toward both of whom they acted with a similar hatred, toward the latter because of the arrogance that they had shown during the reign of Herod, and toward the Romans because of the injuries that they were held to have inflicted at the present time. But as time went on they became more and more savage (toward all) alike. And there was no escape for any in any way, for sometimes the rebels killed in hope of gain and at other times from the habit of killing. On one occasion near Emmaus they even attacked a company of Romans, who were bringing grain and weapons to their army. Surrounding the centurion Arms, who commanded the detachment, and forty of the bravest of his foot-soldiers, they shot them down. The rest were terrified at their fate but with the protection given them by Gratus and the royal troops that were with him they made their escape, leaving their dead behind. This kind of warfare they kept up for a long time and caused the Romans no little trouble while also inflicting much damage on their own nation. But the brothers were eventually subdued, one of them in an engagement with Gratus, the other in one with Ptolemy. And when Archelaus captured the eldest, the last brother, grieving at the other’s fate and seeing that he could no longer find a way to save himself now that he was all alone and utterly exhausted, stripped of his force, surrendered to Archelaus on receiving a pledge sworn by his faith in God (that he would not be harmed). But this happened later.

The main narrative resumes at Ant 17.285

. . . . And so Judaea was filled with brigandage. Anyone might make himself king as the head of a band of rebels whom he fell in with, and then would press on to the destruction of the community, causing trouble to few Romans and then only to a small degree but bringing the greatest slaughter upon their own people.

That’s the group of three “digressions” (or rather illustrations of the theme in the main narrative, if one wanted to be exact about the evidence we are discussing.)

Tholomaus (early 40s CE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 20.5.

Fadus, on being informed of this, was greatly incensed that the Peraeans, granted that they thought themselves wronged by the Philadelphians, had not waited for him to give judgement but had instead resorted to arms. He therefore seized three of their leaders, who were in fact responsible for the revolt and ordered them to be held prisoner. Next he put one of them, named Annibas, to death, and imposed exile on the other two, Amaramus and Eleazar. . . .

20.5 Not long afterwards Tholomaeus the arch-brigand, who had inflicted very severe mischief upon Idumaea and upon the Arabs, was brought before him in chains and put to death.

. . . . From then on the whole of Judaea was purged of robber-bands, thanks to the prudent concern displayed by Fadus.

Theudas (c. 45 CE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 20.97-98.

Monobazus sent her bones and those of his brother to Jerusalem with instructions that they should be buried in the three pyramids that his mother had erected at a distance of three furlongs from the city of Jerusalem. As for the acts of King Monobazus during his lifetime, I shall narrate them later. . . .

During the period when Fadus was procurator of Judaea, a certain impostor named Theudas persuaded the majority of the masses to take up their possessions and to follow him to the Jordan River. He stated that he was a prophet and that at his command the river would be parted and would provide them an easy passage. With this talk he deceived many. Fadus, however, did not permit them to reap the fruit of their folly, but sent against them a squadron of cavalry. These fell upon them unexpectedly, slew many of them and took many prisoners. Theudas himself was captured, whereupon they cut off his head and brought it to Jerusalem. These, then, are the events that befell the Jews during the time that Cuspius Fadus was procurator.

. . . . The successor of Fadus was Tiberius Alexander, the son of that Alexander who had been alabarch in Alexandria and who surpassed all his fellow citizens both in ancestry and in wealth.

Eleazar ben Dinai (30s-50s CE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 20.161.

In Judaea matters were constantly going from bad to worse. For the country was again infested with bands of brigands and impostors who deceived the mob. Not a day passed, however, but that Felix captured and put to death many of these impostors and brigands.. . . .

He also, by a ruse, took alive Eleazar the son of Dinaeus, who had organized the company of brigands ; for by offering a pledge that he would suffer no harm, Felix induced him to appear before him. Felix then imprisoned him and dispatched him to Rome.

. . . . Felix also bore a grudge against Jonathan the high priest because of his frequent admonition to improve the administration of the affairs of Judaea.

The Egyptian prophet (c. 56 CE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 20.169-172 [corr. from 171].

With such pollution did the deeds of the brigands infect the city. Moreover, impostors and deceivers called upon the mob to follow them into the desert. For they said that they would show them unmistakable marvels and signs that would be wrought in harmony with God’s design. Many were, in fact, persuaded and paid the penalty of their folly; for they were brought before Felix and he punished them. . . .

At this time there came to Jerusalem from Egypt a man who declared that he was a prophet and advised the masses of the common people to go out with him to the mountain called the Mount of Olives, which lies opposite the city at a distance of five furlongs. For he asserted that he wished to demonstrate from there that at his command Jerusalem’s walls would fall down, through which he promised to provide them an entrance into the city. When Felix heard of this he ordered his soldiers to take up their arms. Setting out from Jerusalem with a large force of cavalry and infantry, he fell upon the Egyptian and his followers, slaying four hundred of them and taking two hundred prisoners. The Egyptian himself escaped from the battle and disappeared. And now the brigands once more incited the populace to war with Rome, telling them not to obey them. They also fired and pillaged the villages of those who refused to comply.

. . . There arose also a quarrel between the Jewish and Syrian inhabitants of Caesarea on the subject of equal civic rights.

An anonymous prophet (59 CE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 20.188.

For, as we said previously,” they would mingle at the festivals with the crowd of those who streamed into the city from all directions to worship, and thus easily assassinated any that they pleased. They would also frequently appear with arms in the villages of their foes and would plunder and set them on fire. . . .

Festus also sent a force of cavalry and infantry against the dupes of a certain impostor who had promised them salvation and rest from troubles, if they chose to follow him into the wilderness. The force which Festus dispatched destroyed both the deceiver himself and those who had followed him.

. . . About this time King Agrippa built a chamber of unusual size in his palace at Jerusalem adjoining the colonnade.

Eleazar, an exorcist ~ Jewish Antiquities 8.46-49.

And God granted him [Solomon] knowledge of the art used against demons for the benefit and healing of men. He also composed incantations by which illnesses are relieved, and left behind forms of exorcisms with which those possessed by demons drive them out, never to return. . . .

And this kind of cure is of very great power among us to this day, for I have seen a certain Eleazar, a countryman of mine, in the presence of Vespasian, his sons, tribunes and a number of other soldiers, free men possessed by demons, and this was the manner of the cure : he put to the nose of the possessed man a ring which had under its seal one of the roots prescribed by Solomon, and then, as the man smelled it, drew out the demon through his nostrils, and, when the man at once fell down, adjured the demon never to come back into him, speaking Solomon’s name and reciting the incantations which he had composed. Then, wishing to convince the bystanders and prove to them that he had this power, Eleazar placed a cup or foot- basin full of water a little way off and commanded the demon, as it went out of the man, to overturn it and make known to the spectators that he had left the man. And when this was done, the understanding and wisdom of Solomon were clearly revealed, on account of which we have been induced to speak of these things, in order that all men may know the greatness of his nature and how God favoured him, and that no one under the sun may be ignorant of the king’s surpassing virtue of every kind.

. . . Now when Eiromos, the king of the Tyrians, heard that Solomon had succeeded to his father’s kingdom, he was overjoyed, for he was a friend of David, and sent him greetings and congratulations on his present good fortune.

These are but a smattering of the digressions in Josephus but I would be interested to know if any of them break up a narrative sentence by sentence tight logical sequence as does the John the Baptist passage. To my mind none of the above instances break a “this…that” or an “A so B” type of naturally proximate passage.

That’s enough for one post. More to come.

Kirby, Peter. “The Authenticity of John the Baptist in Josephus.” Peter Kirby: Just Another WordPress Site, 21 May 2015, https://peterkirby.com/john-the-baptist-authentic.html.

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

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Neil Godfrey

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30 thoughts on “Where does John the Baptist fit in History? — The Evidence of Josephus, Pt 2”

  1. On one hand, the μὲν / δὲ structure doesn’t seem necessary to balance the two actions; on the other hand, I agree there’s a reasonable argument that removed, the remainder flows well enough.

    Yep, English cannot fully replicate that structure and the reasoning it implies, though a semicolon helps give the general idea of “here are two related things that the reader should be consider together but not necessarily in opposition.”

    Mark’s Baptist-passage is also a strange aside, though as flashback, it is far more intrusive. That doesn’t establish a dependency direction, but it’s another reason one may be built from the other.

    I would guess half or more of the Antiquities would meet the “would anyone miss it?” standard as it is so episodic.

    1. At least the Markan JtB passage serves the function of filling in a space (even if only in creating a pause in the audience’s mind even though a flashback) between the sending out of the disciples and their return. And it can be interpreted as some kind of foil or shadow of the death of Jesus.

      Yes, it is not obvious that the JtB passage is foreign to Josephus. Did a Christian adopt a historical John or did Jews Judaize a “protoChristian-type” John? Or was John a “midrashic” type creation from the beginning — he was given conflicting roles and accounts among different Christian groups and the Josephus account is one more variant. I’m reminded of Paul — when he first appears in the record there are diverse range of Pauls — the author of the ‘genuine’ letters, the author of the ‘deutero-Paulines’, the Paul of Acts, the Paul of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, even Simon Magus? — One might even say the same of Jesus — man? spirit? born of woman? adopted by God? descended from heaven? spoke to hide his meaning? declared himself messiah? …. strange history where leading figures seem to be such chimeras, changing their colours among rival groups.

    2. Thinking more about your point that JtB looks intrusive in the GMark narrative — if I try my hand at the kind of speculative games I sometimes see others play, might we not consider all the JtB passages as after-thought additions to a core narrative? The intro functions to anchor Jesus in the Jewish Scripture tradition and is then for most part forgotten or referenced later as perhaps an afterthought. Not saying that they were “interpolated” into the gospel but that the gospel narrative was based on some core (e.g. compare Ascension of Isaiah) and the “proto-orthodox” JtB served to turn the gospel into what became the catholic gospel.

      Giuseppe will be nodding his head furiously when he reads what I’m imagining here.

  2. I think a focus for understanding the Christian John the Baptist figure should be a new understanding of the Fourth Gospel’s narrative figure John of Jn 1, who is not titled or named “the Baptist” in that text any more than Jesus or his disciples who also baptize. This Fourth Gospel’s John (of Jn 1) is the Johannine community’s John, the legendary John of Asia Minor, the John who is implied author of the Johannine epistles, Revelation, and the referent of the title of the Fourth Gospel, “The Gospel According to John”. (Nothing to do with John of Zebedee, the storied figure of the Twelve.) And this literary and legendary John of the Johannine texts, this literary/legendary/historical John figure, I believe was spun out into the world of texts from the Jewish Revolt leader John of Gischala, contemporary and allied with Jesus ben Sapphat who I believe was spun out into the stories of Jesus, two Revolt heroes.

    The Gospel of Mark has literarily combined this historical Johannine community figure John of the second half of 1st CE with an entirely different and distinct John figure, also historical but misdated in Josephus, Josephus’s John the Baptist of Ant 18, which per my published article is a mistakenly chronologically placed story of the death of Hyrcanus II, misplaced by Josephus, for reasons argued.

    What has been universally missed is that the “John” of the title of the fourth gospel, the “Gospel According to John”, is to be identified with the only narrative character who appears by that name in that Gospel, John of Jn 1. That identification, so utterly obvious once one sees it reading the Fourth Gospel on its own terms, has gone unrecognized in practically the entirety of Johannine literature scholarship.

    The reason the voice of the narrative character John who opens the Fourth Gospel, and the voice of the implied author of that Gospel who is named John in the attributed title heading that gospel, read seamlessly as identical voices, is because they are one and the same.

    This interpretation is in the larger context of a “time shift” argument context of 2nd CE Christian Gospel stories and characters deriving out of stories of figures and contexts of the second procuratorial period and First Revolt, not the time of Pilate.

    If one looks closely, whereas the synoptics’ literary “John the Baptist” figure draws from Josephus’s John the Baptist mixed with the Johannine John, by contrast the Fourth Gospel’s John—the Johannine John of Jn 1—does not derive any of its elements from Josephus’s Antiquities 18 John the Baptizer figure.

    The Johannine John is not Josephus’s John the Baptizer of Ant 18, and neither of those two Johns are historically from the time of Herod Antipas. I see nothing at all Christian in the Josephus John the Baptist passage, only Hyrcanus II who as the long-lived and revered first century BCE Jerusalem high priest oversaw a widespread adoption of “household Judaism” or everyday purification, mikvehs et al (“baptizings” i.e. purification). Anyway this is my interpretation of these John figures.

    1. What, then, do you make of the fact that the text of GJohn attributes its traditions not to John the spiritual leader but to the Beloved Disciple? Is that an interpolation designed to conceal that he was the spiritual leader, in your interpretation? Furthermore, what is your opinion of the claim that the Beloved Disciple was Paul?

      1. My view on the beloved disciple is it was John’s disciple Andrew who became Jesus’s first, which I argued in this article here: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/52498bd2e4b0240948a7a448/t/63713f2cfd425c41037145a0/1668366125615/vo

        I had wondered if it was possible the beloved disciple was the implied author, John of Jn 1, himself (an identification I can find no record ever proposed in the history of scholarship), but in the end concluded that would not work and the text’s voice of its implied author (John) is distinguished from the testimony of the beloved disciple (Andrew) cited as a source.

        I do not have an historical Josephus identification to propose for Andrew, though his brother in the stories, Simon Peter, a Christianized version of the legendary founder figure of the late 2nd century CE “Simonians”, I believe goes back to Simon bar Giora.

  3. As you know, I run a forum. As I know, you might not be visiting it. I think I should inform you just the same. I started a thread to discuss these two blog posts:


    And, also, there is an unfortunate thread that Giuseppe started that I should, regrettably, mention:


    (Where most people disagreed, and one person said this kind of thing led them to desert the forum.)

    1. I keep thinking about whether I should go back to your forum, because it had and has no many interesting people within it and so many interesting perspectives.

      But then I consider the abominable and hypocritical treatment which I received from your forum’s user Secret Alias and I recoil in horror from returning to that place.

      Secret Alias engaged in the following terrible behaviour there towards me: condemning me for using a pseudonym rather than my real name – even as he uses a pseudonym rather than his real name; when I argued against him in ways which supported the positions (but not the writing styles or knowledges) of Russel Gmirkin and Neil Godfrey, he, after having his claims exposed as the naively trusting reliance upon later traditions which they were, tried to avoid addressing my arguments by dismissing me as a sock-puppet until you told him that such actions were against the erules, after which he only apologized to you rather than to me; after publicly condemning Russell Gmirkin for the mere practise of citing sources in support of his claims, condemning me for presenting claims without sources in my argfument against his claims; when I provided sources for my claims, falsely accusing me of providing citations in ways which violated the forum’s rules; when you intervened and told us both that my citation style was acceptable, he claimed that my citations were not supporting an argument; and, as the last straw for me, when I proved to him that I was providing my citations in the context of an argument, he refused to respond to my argument because he claimed that my writing had so many typoes that it was clear that I was not taking seriously the discussion.

      I have been involved in internet discussions for over a decade, notwithstanding my cerebral palsy which means that about 99% of my typing is done with only 1 finger, but before Secret Alias, no person had refused to take my arguments, however controversial they may be, seriously because of my typoes (which I correct as best as I can). Furthermore, the fact that Secret Alias did not use my typoes as a reason to justify refusing to consider my arguments against his arguments until after his earlier efforts to dismiss my arguments against his arguments wqere refuted by me and by you reveals that he was seeking a reason to avoid having to deal with efforts contrary to his without admitting that he was wrong – and insulting me was an acceptable course of action in that context.

      But that does not make for a humane and reasonable discussion about ideas.

      So, Peter Kirby, if you will restrain Secret Alias (as you did restrain John T, to your credit), I would so love to return to your forum.

      1. You have reasonable grievances against Secret Alias (Stephan Huller as he makes no real secret of it). I sympathize with you, and I can’t blame you if it’s easier just to avoid the forum. At the same time, I am open to a dialogue with you on how to run the forum better as I believe you are very reasonable. I also don’t think the comments section is the venue, so please email me at peterkirby@gmail.com or find me on the forum (by message or a post) to talk about it.

        1. Why do you need to have a dialogue with me about how to run your forum? I have no expertise in how to run on-line communities, and you have ignored suggestions from Neil Godfrey that you should prohibit users, whether Secret Alias or other people, from directly insulting other people who are posting on the forum.

          Furthermore, I am no Patrul Rinpoche to cause with no great effort unity and love with my actions, nor an Aryadeva to persuade people to accept my every position through debate.

          I am willing to talk with you through email – rather than returning to the forum – but why I should do so is beyond me at this time.

          1. You don’t need to do so. You just said that you keep thinking about the forum and made a suggestion about how to run it so that you could return. If that is sincere, then you can talk to me about it (but please, not here) because I value your perspective.

            1. But why do you want to have a separate conversation about the matter rather than merely considering the words which I have provided here?

              Ah, well, the people of Jambudvipa are strange in many ways – and I want to help you and to help others enjoy the forum more. So, I will email you, I hope, this weekend.

              1. I’m pleased to see ABuddhist’s protests not being read with any malicious intent and not being interpreted as personal attacks — no gratuitous perceptions of gas-lighting, no mind-reading of an imagined person at the other end. Very good, encouraging even.

              2. I am rather miffed that Mr. Kirby, rather than simply taking my words into consideration, tried to draw me into either a private conversation or into returning to his forum and alleged that my words were probably bothering you here. Due to my business, I have neither time nor desire to do either at this time. Still, I also am encouraged by his willingness to at least pretend to take my words seriously – which certain people within his forum – not just Secret Alias – could not be bothered to do, not only when addressing me but also when addressing you and Mr. Gmirkin.

                I wonder whether anyone will interpret this comment as further proof that I am a sock-puppet! Honestly, I would rather be a sock-puppet for Aryadeva if I could be – but I am no more a sock puppet than Secret Alias cares about seriously engaging with contrary opinions!

              3. I attempted to defend others on that forum from personal attacks and ridicule but that only made me their target and I was the one accused of being abusive! It’s not worth it. Kirby would rather discuss my posts in a thread he set up on his forum than respond here — apart from one opening post. If I return there and the nonsense starts again no doubt my protests will once again be shunted off to the black hole of the “forum business” section while any attempt at an argument that challenges a conventional wisdom will be freely derailed. It’s not worth it.

              4. I am open to a dialogue about how to improve the forum, and I started one on the forum (which seems natural?), where some people have engaged with it already. If you think this is the right venue and if Neil has no objection, I guess we could talk about it more here (but it does seem a little odd to me).

                Do you want a dialogue about how to improve the forum? Your answer suggests no: “Why do you need to have a dialogue with me about how to run your forum?” But you also are “miffed,” and you suggest that I did not “consider” your words. Do I rise only to a “willingness to at least pretend to take my words seriously”? Thanks for that. I offered to talk about it more. You offered to email me, and then you didn’t. I started a discussion prompted, partly, by what you said anyway, I guess because of my complete lack of consideration of your words.

                Now you’re miffed that I didn’t carry on a conversation about it here on this blog. Okay, I guess now I’m carrying on a conversation here on this blog, if you want to converse. But let’s be clear that I’m not trying to “draw you into” it. Really. Go about your business. I’m just here if you do want to talk because that’s what people do sometimes.

              5. Mr. Kirby, there appears to have been some misunderstanding between us, for which I apologize.

                >I am open to a dialogue about how to improve the forum, and I started one on the forum (which seems natural?), where some people have engaged with it already.

                But I have made it clear that I will not return to that forum unless Secret Alias is reined in. Preferrably, a consistent and more comprehensive code of conduct would also be implemented there. For this reason, I did not view the forum’s discussion.

                I note that I am not the only person complaining about Secret Alias’s abusive behaviour’s driving away any desire to participate in the forum; Neil Godfrey has expressed similar sentiments.

                >If you think this is the right venue and if Neil has no objection, I guess we could talk about it more here (but it does seem a little odd to me).

                That is what I want if we must converse about improving your forum, yes. To me, it seems odd that my complaints about your forum, which you apparently take seriously, should lead to emailed correspondence or to my returning tro your unreformed forum.

                >Do you want a dialogue about how to improve the forum? Your answer suggests no: “Why do you need to have a dialogue with me about how to run your forum?”

                I am willing to engage in such a dialogue if you want me to, but I am disappointed that you did not merely implement some rules in direct response to my words. I, after all, am not alone in finding the forum’s rules to be strangely tolerant of abusive and insulting behaviour.

                But you also are “miffed,” and you suggest that I did not “consider” your words.

                > Maybe you have considered or even implemented my words on your forum and maybe you have not. Not being a mindreader nor willing to return to your forum unless you improve the rules, I know not.

                >Do I rise only to a “willingness to at least pretend to take my words seriously”? Thanks for that.

                I apologize for my words, which I now recognize were foolish because they could be misinterpreted. I was not meaning to say that I thought you to be dishonest, only that you have claimed to take my words seriously and I, not being a mindreader, have no way of knowing whether you truly take them seriously. Still, I appreciate your efforts.

                >I offered to talk about it more. You offered to email me, and then you didn’t.

                You were the 1 who raised the possibility of emailed correspondence. But I apologize for not writing to you an email. I have been busy with multiple matters recently, and setting up an anonymous email account and writing to you has not been done by me. I am sorry.

                >I started a discussion prompted, partly, by what you said anyway, I guess because of my complete lack of consideration of your words.

                Because I have not seen the discussion, I cannot say how accurate your claim is, but I trust your words.

                Here, then, are my suggestions for the forum’s new rules.

                1. Prohibit members from directly insulting members. In the past, in response to Neil Godfrey’s request for such a rule, you said that such a rule would only encourage members to indirectly insult each other, but indirect insults are less obvious, less hurtful, and less distruptive to a serious discussion. Compare, for example, saying that a person is a fig tree upon which many birds roost and saying that a person is sexually promiscuous and sexually dishonest.

                2. Prohibit members from accusing other members of not really believing what they claim unless the accusation is supported by evidence. I and Gmirkin were both accused of this by other members. Such accusations are not ideal for discussion about any topic, but are particularly harmful when the discussion is about the origins and development of religion, a matter about which many people have proposed ideas which are controversial but which the proposers regarded as serious suggestions.

              6. Also, do not take criticisms personally (and shove those criticisms to “forum business” where they can be ignored because they are interpreted as personal attacks) when they are in fact heart-felt attempts to call out for respectful and fair treatment of certain other persons against abuse, ad hominem and ridicule by the regular attack dogs on the forum.

              7. ABuddhist, let me just say first of all that you have always exemplified your username. I have always been impressed by you, your patience, and your goodwill. This conversation is no exception.

                After giving it all some consideration, I have decided that the best course of action would be to implement two new rules on the forum. The full announcement is stickied globally here (without suggesting that anyone should actually go visit it if they don’t want to): https://earlywritings.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=11448

                It should be obvious that you are a direct inspiration here, and I hope that you don’t mind that I have incorporated some of your words into the announcement. Without presumption (maybe you don’t want it), please let me know if you want me to mention you by name in the announcement thread.

                Implicit in the announcement, of course, is that the two new rules are binding on all.

                Thank you sincerely for your well-considered words and suggestions.

              8. I thank you for implementing some reforms to your forum and for your words of praise to me. Please feel welcome to mention my name if you want to do so. For my part, I would gladly return to the forum when I have more time. I believe that I and others will enjoy the forum much better now.

  4. This is Kirby. I’m right here. Thanks.

    I can understand the misunderstanding, Neil, but this is not true: “Kirby would rather discuss my posts in a thread he set up on his forum than respond here.” Knowing that you don’t participate on the forum, and out of consideration to you, I tried to keep my discussion of your posts limited to what I commented on your blog (i.e., an exact quote). Other than one time I mentioned that there is a point of disagreement between us (about the argument 2 for authenticity in my outline), as part of a response to Giuseppe, I didn’t discuss your blog posts further in that thread (as far as I can see anyway). Mentioning the thread here was just a courtesy (whether appreciated or not).

    Closer to the truth is this: do I want to discuss your posts at all? Obviously, to some extent I have a desire in me to do so. Several of them involve me in some way, so there is perhaps some ego bruising that I might want to tend to. There’s also the matter of how much I’m interested in the subject of Josephus/John the Baptist itself (which, lately, isn’t much, and previously, wasn’t even that much either, apart from writing one long blog post, which clearly wasn’t without flaws). These are certainly not overwhelming motivations, but they’re there.

    On the other hand, at least once I impulsively started a reply to a blog post in this series and then abandoned it. I’ve been on the internet a long time, long enough to know that you don’t have to put up a response, somewhere, on the internet. As you correctly put it: sometimes, “It’s not worth it.”

    Do you want me to reply? Do you want a conversation with me? I don’t know. Maybe you could let me know. After reading these seven blog posts and your two comments that reply to me or comment on me, it is unclear at best.

    If the subject is a matter of intellectual curiosity (as I would think that it is), which is a matter of pleasure from intellectual pursuits, would it not be reasonable to undertake those pursuits on a mutually cordial and respectful basis? With people who not only want to talk about the subject but who want to talk about the subject with you, specifically, due to a genuine appreciation of one another? Without that, the bitter aftertaste there that can easily outweigh any shortlived sweetness of explicating some idea or defending one’s ego.

    I’m open to talking about it more with you, but I’m not going to force that conversation, especially if neither of us are going to enjoy it. Which is to say, _perhaps_ I would be doing us both a favor by trying to limit my discussion of your blog posts. And I’m okay with that. I wrote something. You put a response up somewhere on the internet. And that’s fine.

    1. I was addressing my comment to ABuddhist as a bit of moral support, not you. I know what he and a few others have gone through very well. I don’t know what you would want to discuss in relation to my posts. My thrust, theme, point, was not the same as your original page that I was using as a springboard for another approach. You presumably have (or at least had) a different interest — trying to determine whether or not it is more likely that the JtB passage is authentic or not. That’s not my point at all, as I hope I made clear in the posts. So if you want to discuss anything relevant to what has been raised here, and you do so without any innuendo about someone just liking to jump to extremist positions a la SA’s constant attacks, or whatever, give it a go. But I have made my point and understood that you were not particularly interested in returning here unless I emailed you especially.

      1. You don’t know of anything I would want to discuss? My impulse to say something and to start a post in reply was about your comments on me, as for example in blog post #5. But if I did, would I just be putting my hand on a hot stove so to speak? Would I be replying to someone unsympathetic and uninterested in what I might have to say?

        1. I am willing to discuss words written and arguments made. I hope for no repeat of the style of discussion on the earlywritings forum, however. Strictly professional is what I would like to aim for. I should have kept my attempts to support ABuddhist off-line.

          I trust any discussion will focus only on what is written without any innuendo, and if anything unprofessional has appeared in my posts then point it out and allow me to correct it and apologize.

          1. Thank you. That’s completely reasonable. Let’s perhaps say that we’ve had some awkward moments, at least, but I certainly don’t want to repeat any of them. I have enjoyed our discussions in the past. I believe that I can also enjoy discussions with you, again, on your blog (or mine, or by email, or whatever). I appreciate your response suggesting that there can be some kind of return to normalcy, which is all that I can ask for or have wanted. I felt it appropriate to start there and clear the air just a bit.

            I provide you my assurances, but more importantly, my conduct here on your blog should be able to speak for itself.

          2. I thank you, Neil, for your supporting me in my efforts; your moral support has been much appreciated. Might I have the honour of emailing you within the next few days? I have some words about matters – including proposed further research ands writing – which I want to share with you.

            You are, of course, free to reject such a thing from me.

            1. You are always free to email me. Incidentally, you might be interested to see what I have in my home — it’s not mine but belongs to someone who is part of my life here:

              (That person has also sometimes commented on the disjunction of seeing Buddhist monks wearing expensive gold jewellery and observed in goldsmith’s shops engaged in trade. Criticism of certain practices by certain monks is not necessarily a sign of being critical of Buddhism as a religion per se.)

              1. >(That person has also sometimes commented on the disjunction of seeing Buddhist monks wearing expensive gold jewellery and observed in goldsmith’s shops engaged in trade. Criticism of certain practices by certain monks is not necessarily a sign of being critical of Buddhism as a religion per se.)

                I entirely agree with the comments which you make and report; I am myself an admirer of those monastics who follow the vinaya, but I understand why different opinions may exist. I have multiple Buddha-images in my house.

                I will email you this weekend, I hope.

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