(3) The Passage’s Reference to God’s Punishment of Herod
Peter Kirby asserts that contradictory viewpoints in Josephus are no reason to suspect the involvement of an alien hand somewhere in the transmission of our manuscripts. He quotes my (somewhat facile) paraphrase of Zindler’s point:
Neil Godfrey notes another one of the reasons that Zindler gives for suspecting an interpolation here:
In the John the Baptist paragraph the author writes that the reason Herod’s army was
defeated by Aretas was because God was punishing him for his unjust treatment of John.
But nope, that’s not the view of Josephus elsewhere. A few paragraphs later (18.7.2) Josephus writes:
And thus did God punish Herodias for her envy at her brother, and Herod also for giving ear to the vain discourses of a woman.
Kirby’s response is to suggest that Josephus could have thought both things at different times:
These are entirely different episodes, at different times, with different putative causes, and with different results. It is no difficulty to suppose that Josephus could have said both things. It is not as though Herod Antipas could be visited with God’s punishment only one time and for only one reason in the mind of Josephus. That is, the argument has no value even if we do conflate the opinion of “the Jews” with the personal opinion of Josephus in the Baptist passage. This argument might have some force, if the other passage were speaking of the cause being found for the destruction of Herod Antipas’ army as a punishment from God (instead of the cause being found for the banishment of Herod Antipas and his wife as a punishment from God).
That’s all very reasonable but it is also entirely ad hoc rationalisation. It may even be that Josephus, like most of us at some times, did hold contradictory or somewhat inconsistent views. Two things are worth keeping in mind, though.
The first one I should address is my “somewhat facile paraphrase” of Zindler’s argument. Kirby is not tackling Zindler but my summary as if it is the full account of Zindler’s view. Here is what Zindler wrote (and I hope I would today be more careful in how I express the ideas of others than I did in this instance in 2011):
A second … reason for concluding paragraph 2 is an interpolation is that in it Josephus cites – without indicating he believes otherwise – the supposed Jewish view that Herod came to a bad end because of his execution of the Baptist. Elsewhere [18:7:1; 18:255], however, Josephus gives his own – differing – view of why his god punished Herodias and Herod: “And so God visited this punishment on Herodias for her envy of her brother and on Herod for listening to a woman’s frivolous chatter” [Feldman translation].
(Zindler, The Jesus the Jews Never Knew, 98)
Making sense of the scenario as described
Scholarly views that the account of John the Baptist only makes sense if JtB were more than a preacher of ethics and was rather (or as a rationale for his ethics) preaching the coming of a messiah, a feature otherwise deplored by Josephus:
Meier, Marginal Jew Vol 2, p 61 “… in Josephus John is reduced to a popular moral philosopher in the Greco-Roman mode, with a slight hint of a neo-Pythagorean performing ritual lustrations. His message is summed up in those twin virtues seen in Philo and other Jewish Diaspora authors: justice toward one another and piety toward God. The whole point of a special, once-and-for-all baptism, to be administered to Jews only by John (hence his surname), becomes unintelligible. If the Synoptic portrait of the Baptist did not exist, something like it would have to be invented to supply the material that Josephus either suppresses or simply does not know. In a sense, Josephus’ portrait of the Baptist is self transcending; it points beyond itself to some further explanation Josephus does not offer.”
Thomas, Mouvement Baptiste, pp 78-83 “The call to the practice of virtue must be placed within the context of Jewish beliefs; it can only be understood in the line of the prophets: justice and piety must prepare for the coming kingdom. What the crowds must have sought and found in John’s speeches is above all the “good news” of the messianic times, what Saint Matthew calls the proximity of the kingdom of God. . . . However, John’s success, the enthusiasm of the crowd, and Herod’s fears speak volumes and prove that this messianic aspect was not absent from John’s speeches. Moreover, only messianic hope could enthuse the people at that time. . . . So, therefore, the preaching and baptism of John, even for Josephus, despite his denial, have a messianic significance; for him, as for the evangelists, John preaches and baptizes in view of repentance, which in turn is meant to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. This is what emerges from the text when properly understood; it also explains both the great success of John and Herod’s apprehensions, ultimately leading to the imprisonment and death of John. Only the announcement of the imminent messianic times could attract the masses and persuade them to embark on a widespread movement of “conversion” and repentance; only the fear of a messianic uprising could touch Herod and prompt him to take drastic measures against John.” (translation from the French)
Schürer, History of the Jewish People Vol 1, p. 346 “The powerful preacher undoubtedly caused a great stir which was indeed primarily religious but was certainly not without a political impact. For at that tune the mass of the people were unable to differentiate between their religious and political hopes.”
So what we read in Josephus is that “the Jews” or “some of the Jews” held a belief that God punished Herod because of his treatment of John the Baptist. It is later that Josephus writes point blank that God punished Herod listening to the bad advice of a woman.
The question then becomes a far more interesting one. Try to imagine how Josephus came to know that back around the time he (Josephus) was born, “the Jews” and/or “some of the Jews” were in some way declaring (speaking? writing? across generations?) that Herod had met his demise because of his treatment of John the Baptist. Surely the only Jews who would have held such a view were those who were followers of, or at least very sympathetic towards, John the Baptist. But have we not seen that Josephus has provided no credible reason that a large number of ordinary Jewish people would have gathered in large mobs that looked frightening enough to make Herod alarmed for his safety. The scenario we read lacks a plausible explanation.
No, all that we learn from Josephus is that John the Baptist gathered large crowds, so large that the king feared they might turn violently against him, because he was teaching high moral principles, righteousness.
I find that scenario difficult to imagine in reality. (For more background to the argument I am setting out here see below.) I find it far easier to side with those scholars [see side box for some examples] who suggest that the only plausible explanation for the popularity of John the Baptist is that he had been stirring up hopes for a soon-coming messiah. With all that we think we know about Josephus, how could he ever have brought himself to speak any praises at all about such a figure.
And what kind of tradition was supposedly being circulated in Judea a generation or two later so that Josephus learned about these Jews who had enough critical mass for their ideas — that a preacher who won mass followers for preaching ethics and baptizing followers Qumran-style — to be recorded? Recall what we read in Antiquities:
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. . . .
. . . . 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.
What sorts of things were they doing under the sway of John’s eloquent persuasion that so alarmed Herod of John’s power? This account is all very vague but what it lacks in realistic historical detail it makes up for with richness of ideological traits that match what we read in the New Testament.
Is it likely that Jews or “some Jews” in the time of Josephus were reminding everyone that God punished Herod because he killed a man who attracted a popular following for preaching righteousness. I find the scenario hard to grasp for two reasons: that preaching high ethics attracts such a large following from the hoi polloi so that a king feels threatened; that more than a generation later such an unrealistic episode was still being talked about, such was its impact, that the only record of such a “unrealistically(?)” remarkable person and event found went otherwise unrecorded – not even noticed in later rabbinic writings who loved to speak of notables from the Second Temple era.
Am I being unrealistic? Hyper-sceptical? Misreading Josephus? (Serious questions)
In my defence against anyone who thinks so, I would like to point to another discussion of different viewpoints found in an ancient historical source. In Herodotus’s Histories one finds two different reasons given to explain the escape of Croesus from a fiery death, although in this case the two different reasons are artfully combined in a single episode. One of the reasons is attributed to “the Lydians”, reminding us that one of the reasons in Josephus for Herod’s demise is attributed to “the Jews”. (The other reason, in both Herodotus and Josephus, is stated as if it were the author’s own opinion.) One scholar attempts to trace the origin of the Lydian view and does so through the following manner:
An important heuristic device seems to me to be a question that is often used fruitfully in criminology in the absence of clear evidence: Cui bono? Who benefited from using a specific source to support a specific statement in a specific context? (Heinz-Günther Nesselrath p. 87, translation)
In the Herodotus episode Nesselrath shows that the Lydian source, by appearing to be independent, benefited the otherwise endangered reputation of the Delphic oracle, so the answer to “who benefits” from the “Lydian” tradition is the Delphic source — ergo the claim that Lydians passed on such a tradition most likely originate at Delphi. (That argument is not as contrary as it sounds in brief so do read the first few pages to fully appreciate it.)
Given the difficulties with Josephus’s claim that “the Jews”/”some of the Jews” were the source of the view that Herod was punished because of his execution of John the Baptist, it may be worthwhile asking “who benefits” from this claim. The historical record demonstrates resoundingly that the party that has most benefited from this account of what “the Jews” believed has been Christian powers being able to point to an “independent” source to confirm their gospel accounts.
I began by suggesting we keep two things in mind. The second one is that yes, though we do all very often find ourselves holding contradictory ideas, we also tend to notice and refine those ideas once we start to put pen to paper. Perhaps not always, but perhaps this is something to keep in mind, nonetheless. Where else does Josephus express contradictory opinions? (Another serious question)
Kirby next disputes a 2003 argument of Frank Zindler about which since then he himself may well have had second thoughts, so let’s move on.
(4) No Mention of John the Baptist in the Jewish War
Neil Godfrey notes another one of the reasons that Zindler gives for suspecting an interpolation here:
Josephus makes no mention of John the Baptist when discussing Herod in his other book, The Wars of the Jews
Kirby responds with probability mathematics and concludes that there is a 60-40 probability of a failure rate — which looks to me sufficient grounds for at least asking the question and wondering. If someone told me that there was a 40% chance my bank account had been hacked I’d be at least concerned just enough to investigate it seriously.
Probability is all very fine if we are approaching the question as a hypothesis. But if we are looking to see if what we have in Josephus is a reliable historical datum, any measure of reasonable doubt is all we need to be chary about using these words as evidence for what they narrate.
(5) No Mention of John the Baptist in the Greek Table of Contents
Neil Godfrey notes another one of the reasons that Zindler gives for suspecting an interpolation here:
John the Baptist is not mentioned in the early Greek table of contents to the Antiquities of Josephus, but he is found in the later Latin version.
Once again Kirby draws on probability mathematics and concludes:
It will be acknowledged that the fourth and fifth arguments for inauthenticity here are not completely devoid of value, but such limited value as they have must be weighed against the value of the arguments for the authenticity of the passage regarding John the Baptist.
No, I don’t think historical inquiry is always about weighing arguments in a balance and deciding mathematically which ones are heavier. That’s fine for assessing hypotheses, yes, but it’s not how historians (at least any of those of whom I am aware) determine the base “facts” or the evidence for “base facts” that their hypotheses will be built upon.
I often hear among biblical scholars (and their lay followers) the notion that “nothing can be known for certain” in ancient times and that everything comes down to some level of probability. I don’t hear that same view expressed among the general guild of other historians. Biblical historians who appeal to that line are exploiting the loopholes opened to them by postmodernist theory but they are at odds with most other historians when they do so. There are facts that can be determined beyond reasonable doubt: Julius Caesar did conquer Gaul, he did cross the Rubicon, he was assassinated. The historical debates are for most part over competing hypotheses about the whys and the consequences of the known facts and that’s where probabilities enter.
(6) Josephus Had Better Things to Write About
Kirby admits that this argument for an interpolation is merely introduced as a hypothetical argument by a scholar writing in favour of the authenticity of the passage. I know of no-one who has used it as a reason to suspect the inauthenticity of the passage.
(7) The Passage Contains Hapax Legomena
Again Kirby responds to an argument for inauthenticity as it is set out by a scholar arguing against that position. Both that scholar and Kirby have failed to capture the actual import of the argument as others have used it to raise the question of authenticity.
Contrary to what one might expect from Kirby’s discussion, the argument for interpolation is not that the passage contains words not used elsewhere by Josephus, but rather that those unique words are arguably “semantically and conceptually suspect of a Christian hand” (Nir, 36). Nir discusses in some depth how “in describing John and his baptism, the author uses Greek terms derived from the lexicon of Christian theology.” (47) I hope to set out the details of her case in a future post. Till then, check out the previous post on the place of Jewish Christian baptism ideas in conflict with those in the New Testament.
(8) The Passage Regards John Positively
Here Kirby’s argument is based on a false analogy. Kirby writes that John is comparable to other peripheral figures that Josephus seems to admire: Honi the Circle-Drawer and Banus. Indeed one can find points of similarity between these persons and John but one really should not try to ignore the elephant in that room where they are lined up for comparison. Honi and Banus were solitaries. John the Baptist was the head of a very large group of followers. That’s a huge (elephant-sized) difference. As far as I am aware, Josephus never evinces any sympathy for lowly persons with public followings who were deemed to be political threats.
The passage clearly doesn’t envision any actual rebellion on the part of John the Baptist but depicts him as a preacher of a moral philosophy who became popular with the people, which popularity translated into a threat only in the suspicious mind of Herod Antipas.
I have already introduced the problem with this position. We are talking about followers made up of the hoi polloi, the uneducated commoners. Is it really credible that a preacher of moral philosophy drew large crowds of commoners? As a number of scholars have pointed out when trying to make sense of the large following that was drawn to John the Baptist, the gospel narrative makes far more sense when it attributes John’s mass following to his preaching of a coming messiah and “end times”. If Josephus did indeed know of such a historical person it would be most remarkable for him to suddenly whitewash such a person and declare him to be — unlike all other such “false prophets” with mass followings — a wonderful fellow after all. Josephus had no time for those he labelled false prophets, persons who led large numbers astray. He found no reason to strip them of their foibles and try to focus solely on their teaching others to keep the commandments of God.
No, Honi and Banus could be praised because their life was that of “solitary philosophers” or “monks” of some kind, who stood apart from the crowds in their focus on their respective saintly qualities. Their extreme ethics and odd practices made them remarkable points of observation but did not make them leaders of mobs.
Contrast how Josephus treats other prophets who had followings that posed no political threat — except among the suspicions and fears of the rulers:
- the Samaritan prophet who who led crowds to find vessels hidden by Moses on Mount Gerizim;
- Theudas who led a large following expecting the Jordan River to open up as in the days of Joshua;
- the Egyptian prophet who led followers to the Mount of Olives from where they expected to see the walls of Jerusalem collapse;
- the prophet from the wilderness who persuaded many to follow him to the wilderness for miraculous salvation;
Josephus depicted them all as imposters, deceivers, charlatans who contributed to the chaos that led to the fall of Jerusalem. In Josephus’s eyes, mere suspicion on the part of the authorities was sufficient grounds for them to act violently against them. So Kirby’s point that John was not “really” a threat except in the suspicious mind of Herod is void.
(9) The Epithet “the Baptist”
(11) The Statements Regarding Baptism and Sin in the Passage
As above (see point 7) — I plan to cover these points in detail in an upcoming post.
(10) Parallel Opening and Closing Sentences
Kirby does his argument no favours when he decides to call upon Maurice Casey’s ad hominem against Robert Price and his (Casey’s) outright denial of any valid reason to even suspect interpolation:
Price’s conjecture is no more than arbitrary invention, caused by what Price does not wish to believe. Josephus’ passage makes perfect sense as all his own work, and the passage about John fits perfectly where it is.
One will find ample criticisms of some of Robert Price’s views on this blog but I hope they will also find fair context and explanation of Price’s arguments and not the kind of crude, unprofessional dismissal to which Casey was sometimes prone.
Again, I tend to believe that historical research and investigation into sources should primarily involve discussion, testing of ideas most certainly, but not point-scoring debating postures. It’s not about winning or determining what one should “believe” about a source, but a raising of conscious awareness of the complexities and questions that so often inevitably come with many ancient sources. This position is not nihilism or hyper-scepticism. It is applicable to all sources, especially those from ancient times, for all ancient history research. Why not try to apply the standards expected in other historical fields to the questions as they are explored by theologians and biblical scholars?
Maybe the chiastic structure of the John the Baptist passage is irrelevant to the question of its authenticity. The way I would approach the question if I were interested enough would be to see what Price’s sources were for his claims (even contacting Price personally if nothing in print came easily to hand) and to follow those up for study and testing.
Another scholar, John Meier, interpreted the inclusio vocabulary (or chiastic structure) as an indicator that Josephus considered the passage of relatively minor importance and accordingly tried to make it stand apart from the main narrative
Josephus seems to have been at pains to make clear the beginning and the end of the Baptist passage, perhaps because it was for him a minor parenthesis in the much larger story of Herod Antipas, Agrippa I, and other Herodians. Hence Josephus clearly “packages” his aside about the Baptist with an inclusio: certain key words and key themes occur in a cluster at the very beginning (§116 and the first words of §117) and the very end (§119) of the passage.
(Meier, A Marginal Jew, Vol. 2, p. 56)
In other words, the inclusio structure can be used both ways. It can undermine Kirby’s argument, not necessarily buttress it. It can be interpreted as an attempt by Josephus to seal off his John the Baptist moment from the main narrative about Herod. That is, rather than being a narrative foil against the wicked Herod, he is (in Meier’s view) merely “a minor parenthesis”. It follows that the significance of the chiastic structure can be interpreted in different ways according to one’s presuppositions.
Kirby concludes with Nir’s concluding remarks in her 2012 article.
Rivka Nir makes some concluding remarks
Again Kirby does his case no favours when he quotes another scholar’s response to Rivka Nir’s 2012 article, this time that of James McGrath. The section he chooses to quote is packed with the distortions and misrepresentations that characterize McGrath’s full response:
But in response to some of her points, it is worth considering (1) that John need not have been addressing something “mainstream,” and there may not have even been a clear mainstream in this period; and (2) the Mandaeans seem to provide precisely what Nir sees here, a wider Baptist context to which John was responding. Nir also mentions that the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies (2.23) identify John as belonging to the Hemerobaptists – i.e., those who immerse daily.
The similarities with Jewish-Christian baptism can of course be explained very well in terms of Jewish Christianity’s debt to earlier Jewish immersion rituals. Nir further writes:
The author of our passage speaks of Johannine baptism in terms paralleling those used for expiation sacrifices in the temple cult, by means of which the person bringing the sacrifice asks God to accept it so that his sins may be forgiven.
The notion that baptism was a substitute for the Jewish sacrificial cult is manifestly Christian…
It seems on the contrary that Jewish sectarian groups, especially those that disapproved of the temple either on principle or as currently run, regularly substituted or supplemented temple sacrifice with other rituals.
As for McGrath’s inference that Nir is misguided by her reference to a Judean “mainstream” — “there may not have even been a clear mainstream in this period” — he ignores Nir’s clearly explained and uncontroversial use of the term “mainstream”:
1. John’s Baptism and Mainstream (Non-Sectarian) Jewish Immersions
Johannine baptism, as described in Josephus, differs from the ritual ablutions common within the central circles of Second Temple Jewish society as they appear in Josephus, Philo and tannaitic literature.
McGrath simply ignores Nir’s detailed presentation of the evidence pointing to the strong indications that Jewish-Christians followed the sectarian Qumran community in their baptism rituals as opposed to the “ritual ablutions common within central circles of Jewish society” and blithely asserts, without argument, that Nir fails to cover what in fact she does set out in some depth.
Finally, Kirby seems to find relevance in quoting McGrath’s misleading response about Jewish sectarians “regularly substituting” temple sacrifice “with other rituals“. On the contrary, Nir writes that (specifically) baptism (not some undefined generic “other rituals”) was understood to be a substitute for the temple sacrificial cult, not “regularly” but only in few marginal groups such as those behind the Qumran scrolls and the Fourth Sibylline Oracle.
So by introducing McGrath’s response to Nir we seem to have run into a gish-gallop strategy at work. No matter if criticisms are fair or foul, they are all invited to add their bit of “weight” to the scales.
Might be, may be, we simply cannot say
Kirby adds his own comment to McGrath’s quote:
The simplest explanation available for why Josephus might have written this way, then, is that Josephus might have had some historical information regarding John the Baptist, or about the followers of John the Baptist, and it were these Jewish persons (marginal though they may be) who made the distinctions about the baptism of John that they did, which Josephus dutifully reported. And sometimes the simplest explanations are indeed the best.
Whether or not Josephus had heard of this from reliable sources regarding John or about subsequent followers of John, there might also have been motivations for Josephus to make these distinctions. Casey had speculated . . .
That Josephus had mystery religions and their beliefs . . . seems probable. . . . . We simply cannot say exactly which superstitions were in view for Josephus . . .
. . . it may be that the distinction Josephus was making was in opposition to an idea that was not Jewish . . .
Try to imagine the responses that would be elicited if the “other side” tried to argue like the above.
It is no serious argument to opine that Josephus “might have had” other information we do not know about and that other groups “might have” had certain practices, that Josephus “might have had motivations”, that he may have had mystery religion baptisms in mind, and that such ad hoc speculations equate to a “simplest” and “best” argument. The historian works with evidence. If a passage makes little sense in the way it is told (mobs flocking to hear and follow a teacher because he taught high ethics), and more natural and obvious explanations are raised in the literature (only the preaching of a coming new messianic political order explains the mobs flocking to that teacher), it is hardly a serious response to simply say: “But there might have been some other information Josephus had that he doesn’t tell us about….” We do have Josephus’s clearly stated aims and we have no evidence of which I am aware that those extended to critiquing non-Jewish mystery religions.
Yes, it’s necessary to form a hypothesis, but a hypothesis to be of any use has to be tested against evidence. It won’t do to say that “there might be evidence for it that we don’t know about.” If the tests point in a certain direction then that’s where the historian must look. No doubt there were all sorts of things going on in Josephus’s mind but they are beyond the historian’s reach. The historian builds reconstructions on the evidence available and if new evidence emerges later then the reconstruction will be modified accordingly.
When in the field of ancient history we do encounter debates about what information in our sources can be accepted as factual, the debates appeal to independent evidence. They do not appeal to the mere possibility that ancient authors “may have had” reliable sources and “dutifully reported” (like a modern professional journalist?) what they believed to be the facts. Scholars of ancient historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides know that they abhorred gaps in their knowledge and happily filled them in with fabrications.
How are these kinds of questions addressed outside biblical studies?
I am speaking idealistically. In the real world, even outside biblical studies, historians do sometimes debate not only interpretations but also what should be considered “a fact”. I am thinking in particular of the value of Herodotus as a historical source. In 1971 Detlev Fehling published a revisionist critique of Herodotus that argued “the father of history” fabricated most of his sources and wrote more fiction than history. It was in German and it was for most part negatively received — “extremist”, “sheer nonsense”. In 1989 it was published in English and met with mixed reviews. By 2013 a volume of essays (in German, English and Italian) emanating from a conference dedicated to Fehling’s thesis was published. But the arguments focus on what independent evidence can confirm about the statements of Herodotus. They do not appeal to something as vague as “Herodotus may have had sources and motivations unknown to us”.
What other “facts” about the sources are addressed by historians (non-biblical ones, I mean) by means of weighing one list of arguments against another and determining which side as the greater “weight”? We should not use tools for debating hypotheses for assessing what is an “most probable fact” on which other hypotheses are expected to be constructed.
At this point I should link to past articles that elaborate on several of the themes I have set out here. There are so many, however, that I don’t know where to begin. I have written at length so many times about the methods of historians, the nature of ancient historiography, historical methods, and referred to so many modern historians who address these questions: Finley, Mason, Evans, Moles, Akenson, Henige, Davies, …. Until I try to collate all of those posts and set them out in some structured order for easy reference, perhaps the most generic tags I can offer
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. “Josephus’ Account of John the Baptist: A Christian.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 10, no. 1 (2012): 32–62. https://www.academia.edu/9556504/Josephus_Account_of_John_the_Baptist_A_Christian
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