Where does John the Baptist fit in History? — The Evidence of Josephus, Pt 6

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing, with an interlude ….

Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. . . . It is what is already done by the intelligent undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St Jude’s, goes round to a friend at St Jude’s to ask what sort of chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. — E. H. Carr, p. 23 of What is History?

I have been referring mostly to Rivka Nir’s arguments and attempting to demonstrate that they have not been accurately represented by various critics, both scholars and lay. It’s time to take a step back before I set out my final detailed post in which I will look at some specific details of Nir’s attempts to persuade readers that the John the Baptist passage in Josephus’s Antiquities is a Christian interpolation. First, though, let’s backtrack a little and try to explain where I have been coming from.

Who is Rivka Nir?

To get some idea of the sorts of themes she explores in her various publications have a look at her Open University of Israel page. What will probably strike you is the number of major research efforts into exploring the Christian provenance of various “Jewish” texts. (Are they really Jewish or are they Christian in origin? Or are they Jewish with Christian interpolations? Or do they represent a Jewish set of concepts we had mistakenly assumed were unique to Christianity? )

Some of those titles:

  • Joseph and Aseneth. A Christian Book
  • The Hiding of the Vessels of the Temple in the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch – A Jewish or a Christian Tradition?,
  • Paraleipomena of Jeremiah-A Jewish or a Christian Composition
  • Aseneth as the ‘Prototype of the Church of the Gentiles
  • Aseneth – Jewish Proselyte or Christian Convert?
  • “Good Tidings” of Baruch to the Christian Faithful
  • The aromatic fragrances of Paradise in the Greek life of Adam and Eve and the Christian origin of the composition
  • The Appearance of Elijah and Enoch ‘before the judgment was held’ (1 Enoch, 90: 31) – A Christian tradition?,
  • “It is not right for a man who worships God to repay his neighbor evil for evil” Christian Ethics in Joseph and Aseneth (chapters 22-29)

In that context, a book arguing that John the Baptist had no historical Jewish antecedent, that he was entirely a Christian creation, should not come as a surprise.

It is Efron who appears to have persuaded Nir that the John the Baptist passage in Josephus is a forgery. At one place, for instance, Nir writes:

As to the Josephus-like vocabulary and style used by the writer of this passage, a Christian forger would necessarily be conversant with Jose­ phus’s language and style of writing if he wanted to insert this passage without making the forgery conspicuous. Such usage merely proves ‘the imitative linguistic skill ofthe Christian editor, who strove after appearance and attired the imagined testimony with an authentic “Flavian” facade’.17

17. Efron, Formation of the Primary Christian Church, p. 184.

Another point of interest one will notice in that university page is Rivka Nir’s debt to Joshua Efron, another scholar whose views on the authenticity of certain Josephan passages have been discussed on this blog. Nir has acknowledged Efron’s influence:

This research and its methodological principles are based on what I learned from my teacher, Prof. Joshua Efron, who has been my guide and source of inspiration since I began my academic studies. It was at his lectures at Tel-Aviv University during the 1970s that I first heard about the Christianity of the Apocalyptical Literature that constitutes the core of the so-called the “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.” He was then a rather isolated voice who used to refer to Marinus de Jonge’s work The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs as an example of another modern researcher who had arrived to similar conclusions. . . . 

— p. 14 of her doctoral thesis, The Destruction of Jerusalem and the Idea of Redemption in the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch

And in the Preface to The First Christian Believer:

In my research, I subscribe to Efron’s view that even if the apocalyptic vision had its roots in the Hebrew Bible, the apocalyptic composition, focused on the drama of the End, was born within Christian theology. . . . .

Over the years I have forged my own independent position on differ­ent aspects of New Testament research and somewhat moderated Efron’s resolute conclusions, particularly as concerns the identity of the Qumran sect and its place in Jewish society of the Second Temple period. Nonethe­less, I essentially follow his research method and apply it in my approach to historical sources.

So yes, we might be justified in concluding that Rivka Nir is “predisposed” to making a case for the Josephan John the Baptist passage being a forgery, an interpolation from a Christian scribe. Biased!

Meeting Intellectual Bias with Honesty and Humility

Does that mean her arguments are therefore invalid? Of course not. Other scholars, we might equally conclude, are predisposed for any number of reasons to work with the conventional wisdom, within the Christian tradition. Bias of some kind is probably inevitable for any scholar. That’s why we see so often reminders of the importance for a scholar to recognize and to acknowledge their biases. An educated reading of any scholarly work will also mean looking for and identifying the assumptions and biases, even if they are not explicitly stated by the authors, in their books and essays.

When we see different scholars approaching historical sources from different perspectives and coming to different conclusions about the authenticity or provenance of certain pieces of data or passage, then we are obliged to acknowledge that there are sometimes more than one reasonable interpretation of a particular passage in a source.

We can follow debates between the interpretations of opposing perspectives and declare a strong preference for, or even a “belief”, in one view over another. But that preference can never remove the fact that “our view” is not the universally accepted one.

Does that mean there is nothing we can know for certain about history? No. Historians can still use the works of Josephus as an authentic source for how one educated Jew sought to present Jewish history to a Roman audience. The authenticity of most of the information is not suspect. The debates and opinions will be over selected details in the sources. That the authenticity of a few passages are problematic in the eyes of some scholars only means that we cannot have the same level of certainty about them as we do for other passages.

The same questions appear in other areas of historical study. Our surviving manuscripts of the Greek historian Herodotus likewise contain debated passages, one of which has been suspected of being an interpolation subsequent update to the original work to rebut the later historian Thucydides! (Though in this case the “interpolation” or “redaction” is thought to have been made by the original author.)

So what’s the problem? My problem is with scholarship that constructs historical reconstructions on the basis of specific data in the sources that they present as if they were uncontroversial raw facts — as if the debates over those passages among their peers do not exist or are irrelevant. That is, my problem is with what I see as intellectual dishonesty (or is it intellectual arrogance?) from those who know better.

Surely the appropriate way of handling debated data is to explain that it is open for debate and to argue from it accordingly, provisionally, hypothetically. One may disagree with one side of the debate but one can hardly proceed as if there is unquestioned certainty and the debated status can be ignored because one disagrees with the other side.

Most scholars agree…

Another cop-out I have to confess to hating is the line “Most scholars agree that Josephus wrote something about X” when that majority opinion is offered as an excuse to accept that agreement as bed-rock fact. Most of those scholars, surely, must know that what “most scholars agree” on has varied with time even though the data on which the agreement or disagreement is based has not changed at all. So we enter the field of the sociology of knowledge and why it is that certain interpretations win out at certain times over others. Historical factors, societal changes and geo-political movements, and more locally, the specifics of the backgrounds of persons who hold the entry-keys to major publishing outlets.

Enough of these motherhood doodlings. Next post I hope to finish addressing what I have considered to be one-sided discussions (despite the evidence demonstrating the disingenuous nature of protestations to the contrary) of the interpolation thesis for the John the Baptist passage in the writings of Josephus.

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Where does John the Baptist fit in History? — The Evidence of Josephus, Pt 6”

  1. Neil, it may be worthwhile in this thread to quote Morton Smith’s take on the JBap passage by Josephus, from his book 45 years ago, Jesus the Magician (1978).

    1. I have searched and searched again the 1978 Jesus the Magician and cannot find any place where Morton Smith ever addressed the question of the authenticity of the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities. If I have missed it please correct me. The only reference I can find to Ant. 18.109-119 is where Smith cites it along with Mark 6’s account of JtB’s execution (p. 172f) as a source to justify his claims that (1) Herod Antipas had an “unsavoury record” and (2) that Luke had reason to correct some of Mark’s errors (p. 29).

      Morton Smith’s work is an excellent illustration of what can be achieved from within the assumptions and methods of biblical studies among the mainstream biblical/theological departments. It is grounded in the conventional assumption that the gospels are “reports” (Smith uses the word repeatedly) based on assumed “oral traditions” that stem from the historical persons and events they relate. Applied to these starting positions, Smith brings in a wide range of evidence about the nature of psychosomatic illnesses and healings along with beliefs and practices relating to healing miracles in the ancient times, and uses these to rationalize gospel accounts — often by means of implicit use of criteria of authenticity — to construct his hypothetical model of a Jesus behind the gospels.

      All of that is standard method in biblical studies, each scholar seeming to use a different reference point (whereas Smith uses miracle/magical healings, others use models of peasant resistance to imperial rule, philosophical or theological teachings of the day, and so forth).

      But what they have in common is a stark difference in their approach to sources that one rarely finds in other fields of historical research. Rather, I have noticed a number of prominent historians (nonbiblical) express some dismay at the historical approaches of their theologian colleagues. See, for example, Moses Finley’s response to Maurice Goguel: https://vridar.org/2019/01/21/ancient-history-a-funny-kind-of-history/

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