Where does John the Baptist fit in History? — The Evidence of Josephus, Pt 5

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing ……

Peter Kirby focussed on the following point in his article arguing for the authenticity of the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus:

(14) The Word for “Baptism” in the Passage Uncharacteristic of Christian Usage

Kirby cited the scholar Robert Webb who pointed out that the words for “baptism” in the John the Baptist passage in Josephus’s Antiquities (βάπτισις, βαπτισμός), are not the typical “Christian” words and concluded therefore that it is unlikely that this passage came from the pen of a Christian interpolator. I put “Christian” in inverted commas because Webb conflates “Christian” with New Testament literature. But of course Christians produced much literature beyond what is found in the NT that sheds light on this question.

Peter Kirby quoted and elaborated on Webb’s point but overlooked Rivka Nir’s rebuttal of Webb — even though he selectively critiqued the same article by Nir later in his post. Nir wrote:

It is true that the passage does not use βάπτισμα, the most common term for Christian baptism. But the two terms — βάπτισις and βαπτισμός — likewise denote Christian baptism. On βάπτισις see Athanasius Alexandrinus, Quaestiones in Scripturas 41 (PG 28, col. 725); Sozomenus Salaminus, Historia ecclesiastica 2.34, I (PG 67, col. 1029); Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon, p. 284; on βαπτισμός see Heb. 6.2; Chrys. Hom. Ad Heraeos 9.2 (PG 63, col. 78). And especially important for my thesis is its use of heretical ablutions. On frequent ritual washing of Ebionites: Epiph. Haer. 30.2 (PG 41, col. 408); on Marcionite repetition of baptism for remission of post-baptismal sins, see Epiph. Haer. 42.3 (PG 41, col. 700); on Sampsean baptism, see Epiph. Haer. 53.1 (PG 41, col. 960). See Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon, p. 288.

(Nir, p. 35)

So let’s see those references. Yes, they are later than Josephus (as is most of the NT, I think most would agree) . . .

Athanasius Alexandrinus, Quaestiones in Scripturas 41 (PG 28, col. 725 [scroll to page 5, see there τὴν βάπτι σιν] — a fourth century source. Too late, you say? Sozomenus Salaminus is even later — early fifth century. Lampe’s  Lexicon?

p. 284:

p. 288

Hebrews 6:2

βαπτισμων διδαχης επιθεσεως τε χειρων αναστασεως τε νεκρων και κριματος αιωνιου
Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.

I have not been able to find very quickly Greek texts of the other sources so if anyone would like to help out there feel free to contact me with the links. (English language texts are easy to find.)

Webb writes:

Josephus is knowledgeable concerning the βαπτ- word group, for he uses the verbs βαπτιζω 13 times and βαπτω three times.20 He uses no other nouns for ‘baptism’ than those used here, which is quite strange if this text is a Christian interpolation. He never uses the noun βαπτισμα, which is the usual Christian noun for baptism (both John’s baptism and Christian baptism), and we would expect that term here if this text was a Christian interpolation.21 Therefore, the use of this vocabulary is hardly evidence for Christian interpolation.

20 βαπτιζω: War 1.437; 2.476; 2.556; 3.368; 3.423; 3.525; 3.527; 4.137; Ant. 4.81; 9.212; 10.169; 15.55; Life 15; βαπτω: War 1.490; 4.563; Ant 3.102

21 Furthermore, Josephus’ word βαπτισις is never used in the NT or early Christian literature. The other noun he uses, βαπτισμος, is only used for washing dishes (Mk 7.4), or ritual washings (Heb. 6.2; 9.10). The only place it is used for Christian baptism is Col. 2.12, where it is textually uncertain. BAGD, 132; Oepke, ‘βαπτω’, 1.545.

The sentence I have highlighted with bolded type can be misleading to lay readers. As written, it sounds like Josephus speaks of “baptism” with some frequency by using a term alien to Christian usage. But no, that’s not correct at all. Look at all the instances where Josephus uses  βαπτιζω (13 times) and βαπτω (3 times). In no instance would I expect any translator to render the English word “baptism”. They are mostly about drowning or plunging deep….



1:437 …. [Herod] sent [Jonathan], by night, to Jericho and there, by his orders, he was plunged into the bathing-pool by the Gauls and drowned.

2.476 …. Then Simon, after slaying every member of his family, stood conspicuously over the bodies, and raising his right hand aloft for all to see, he plunged the sword up to the hilt into his own throat….

2.556 …. After the disastrous defeat of Cestius, many prominent Jews abandoned the City like swimmers, a sinking ship….

3.368 …. There is no greater coward than the captain who, fearing the stormy sea, deliberately sinks his ship before the tempest.

3.423 …. It dashed some of the ships to pieces against each other on the spot, others it drove onto the rocks. As the waves surged forward, many pushed their way out into deeper waters — so frightened were they of the rock-strewn coast, but even in the open sea the mountainous waves overwhelmed them.

3.525 …. when they ventured to approach, they had no time to do anything before disaster overtook them and they were sent to the bottom, boats and all.

3.537 …. If any of those who had been plunged into the water came to the surface, they were quickly dispatched with an arrow or a raft overtook them.

4.137 …. for supplies which might have been adequate for the combatants were squandered upon a useless and idle mob, who in addition to war brought upon themselves faction and starvation.


4.81 …. When therefore any persons were defiled by a dead body, they put a little of these ashes into spring water, with hyssop, and, dipping part of these ashes in it, they sprinkled them with it, both on the third day, and on the seventh, and after that they were clean.

9.212 …. and the ship was just going to be drowned, and when they were animated to do it by the prophet himself, and by the fear concerning their own safety, they cast him into the sea; upon which the sea became calm. It is also reported that Jonah was swallowed down by a whale, and that when he had been there three days, and as many nights, he was vomited out upon the Euxine Sea . . . .

10.169 …. and when Ishmael saw him in that case, and that he was drowned in his cups to the degree of insensibility, and fallen asleep, he rose up on a sudden, with his ten friends, and slew Gedaliah, and those that were with him at the feast . . . .

15.55 …. Now the nature of that place was hotter than ordinary; so they went out in a body, and of a sudden, and in a vein of madness; and as they stood by the fish-ponds, of which there were large ones about the house, they went to cool themselves [by bathing], because it was in the midst of a hot day. At first they were only spectators of Herod’s servants and acquaintance as they were swimming; but after a while, the young man, at the instigation of Herod, went into the water among them, while such of Herod’s acquaintance, as he had appointed to do it, dipped him as he was swimming, and plunged him under water, in the dark of the evening, as if it had been done in sport only; nor did they desist till he was entirely suffocated. And thus was Aristobulus murdered . . .


15 …. Accordingly I came to Rome, though it were through a great number of hazards by sea; for as our ship was drowned in the Adriatic Sea, we that were in it, being about six hundred in number, 2 swam for our lives all the night; when, upon the first appearance of the day, and upon our sight of a ship of Cyrene, I and some others, eighty in all, by God’s providence, prevented the rest, and were taken up into the other ship.



1.490 …. Now that the war had engulfed the whole region . . .

4.563 ….  Yet though they wore women’s faces, their hands were murderous. They would approach with mincing steps, then suddenly became fighting men, and, whipping out their swords from under their dyed cloaks, they would run through every passer-by.

I am unable to find his “βαπτω” reference in Book 3.

One rarely encounters such a lopsided argument in scholarship, (I hope).

Josephus doesn’t use any βαπτ- words for “baptism” at all. Rather, for that ritual he uses words more usually translated as washing or bathing: λούεσθαι, ἀπολούεσθαι. I quote Rivka Nir again (note that Nir explicitly addresses Webb — another detail Kirby overlooked):

Yet, as of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a number of scholars raised the possibility that this passage is a Christian interpolation, notably Heinrich Graetz, who called it ‘a brazen forgery’ (unverschämte Interpolation).5 Arguing against its authenticity, scholars questioned its integration into the text: it interrupts the sequence of events and flow of syntax, and could therefore be easily removed.6 They puzzled over its positive and supportive tone towards John which is inconsistent with Josephus, the fierce opponent of anyone seeking to challenge the legitimate government or promote change or rebellion of any sort.7 They were equally puzzled by the presence of βαπτιστής, which became the distinctive epithet for John the Baptist in Christian sources.8 That Josephus would use this most explicitly Christian term and leave it unexplained, especially in a work addressed to Greek and Roman readers, they found hard to believe.9 On this point, further incredulity is raised by the presence of βαπτισμός and βάπτισις, the two terms used in the passage for the immersion associated with John. Being quintessentially Christian terms that Christian tradition applied to Christian baptism,10 they occur in Josephus only within this passage, marking divergence from his usual usage of terms associated with the Jewish ritual of immersion—λούεσθαι, ἀπολούεσθαι, meaning to purify a person from external physical defilement.11

5 ) H. Graetz, Geschichte der Juden, III (Leipzig: O. Leiner, 1893), p. 276 n. 3. See further S. Krauss, Das Leben Jesu nach jüdischen Quellen (Berlin: S. Calvary & Co, 1902), p. 257; E. Schürer, Geschichte des Jüdischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi (Hildesheim: G. Olms, 1964; 4th edn 1886), I, p. 438, n. 24; G. Dalman, Sacred Sites and Ways: Studies in the Topography of the Gospels (London: SPCK, 1935; first published 1919), p. 98. See also J. Efron, Studies on the Hasmonean Period (Leiden: Brill, 1987), p. 334 n. 218, who claims the paragraph on James, the brother of Jesus, is likewise a Christian interpolation, pp. 334-36.

6 ) L. Herrmann, Chrestos. Témoignages paients et juifs sur le christianisme du premier siècle (Brussels: Latomus, Revue d’Etudes Latines, 1970), p. 99; idem, ‘Herodiade’, REJ 132 (1973), pp. 49-63 (51).

7 ) Schürer, Geschichte des Jüdischen Volkes, I, p. 438 n. 24; E. Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (175 bc–ad 135), New English Version, revised and edited by G. Vermes and F. Millar (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1973), I, p. 346; M. Goguel, Au seuil l’évangile Jean Baptiste (Paris: Payot, 1928), p. 19; Meier, A Marginal Jew, II, p. 99.

8 ) This name appears in first-century ce Greek only in the synoptic Gospels: Mk 1.4 ὁ βαπτίζων; Mt. 3.1; 11.11-12; 14.2-8; 16.14; 17.13; Lk. 7.20-33; 9.19—ὁ βαπτιστὴς. F. W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 165. See also Just. Dial. 50.2; G.W.H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), p. 288; A. Oepke, s.v. βάπτω, βαπτισμός, βαπτιστής, TDNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), I, pp. 545-46. The common reply to this argument is that use of the same name in the Gospels and Josephus is evidence that this was his known and unique nickname: e.g. Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet, pp. 34, 168. But, neither in Acts of the Apostles nor in the fourth Gospel is this nickname attached to John.

9 ) Graetz, Geschichte der Juden, p. 276, n. 3; Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, p. 33.

10) It is true that the passage does not use βάπτισμα, the most common term for Christian baptism. But the two terms— βάπτισις and βαπτισμός —likewise denote Christian baptism. On βάπτισις see Athanasius Alexandrinus, Quaestiones in Scripturas 41 (PG 28, col. 725); Sozomenus Salaminus, Historia ecclesiastica 2.34, I (PG 67, col. 1029); Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon, p. 284; on βαπτισμός see Heb. 6.2; Chrys. Hom. Ad Heraeos 9.2 (PG 63, col. 78). And especially important for my thesis is its use of heretical ablutions. On frequent ritual washing of Ebionites: Epiph. Haer. 30.2 (PG 41, col. 408); on Marcionite repetition of baptism for remission of post-baptismal sins, see Epiph. Haer. 42.3 (PG 41, col. 700); on Sampsean baptism, see Epiph. Haer. 53.1 (PG 41, col. 960). See Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon, p. 288.

11) See K.H. Rengstorf, A Complete Concordance to Flavius Josephus (Leiden: Brill, 2002), I, p. 290. Typically, this verb is used in reference to Bannus and to the Essenes, as I will show below.

So the words for “baptism” in the Josephan passage are indeed found in Christian usage, in particular in relation to “non-orthodox” Christian baptisms. They may appear late but they do refer to early “heretics” like the Marcionites and Ebionites. Moreover, the same words are never found in Josephus to mean the ritual “baptism” in any other place except in the suspect John the Baptist passage.

A good rule of thumb in academia when trying to overturn an argument is first to set out the targeted argument as strongly as you possibly can — so strongly that its exponents will wish they had put it like that. THEN proceed to dismantle it. That is not what Peter Kirby’s article has done. Rather, Kirby appears not to have even read the entirety of the Rivka Nir article of which he selects decontextualized paragraphs to criticize.

Note: None of the above proves that the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities by Josephus is an interpolation. I hope I have made it clear in this series of posts that I cannot prove that the passage is either inauthentic or even authentic. My sole interest is in trying to raise some awareness among anyone interested that the status of the passage is questionable. It may be authentic. At the same time, however, it is not unreasonable, certainly not “hyper-sceptical”, to entertain serious doubts about its authenticity. Does not the above at least open the door to a reasonable suspicion that the passage is of Christian origin?

Therefore, I suggest that attempts to settle the question by weighing pros and cons miss the point. If one wishes to argue that an argument either way (pro or against authenticity) is unreasonable, is illogical, is invalid for some other reason, then fine — make the case. But trying to win a debate by arguing that one person is more persuaded by one set of arguments than another seems to me to be a waste of time as far as making any relevant contribution to source criticism is concerned. But I will be addressing more generally the potential evidence of Josephus for the historian in the final post of this series.

Kirby, Peter. “The Authenticity of John the Baptist in Josephus.” Peter Kirby: Just Another WordPress Site (blog), May 21, 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.

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

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Neil Godfrey

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