What Did Marx Say Was the Cause of the American Civil War? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

I toyed with the idea of presenting the dishonest, decontextualized quotation of Marx that one finds in both Lost Cause as well as libertarian “scholarship,” and then work back until I revealed the original intent. But then I remembered from psychology classes that the primacy effect is extremely potent and realized that I risked sabotaging my own efforts. So instead I’ll begin with what Karl Marx actually thought, to avoid all ambiguity.

What Marx Thought

In an essay written for the The Vienna Presse, he wrote:

The whole movement was and is based, as one sees, on the slave question: Not in the sense of whether the slaves within the existing slave states should be emancipated or not, but whether the twenty million free men of the North should subordinate themselves any longer to an oligarchy of three hundred thousand slaveholders; whether the vast Territories of the republic should be planting-places for free states or for slavery; finally, whether the national policy of the Union should take armed propaganda of slavery in Mexico, Central and South America as its device. (Marx 1861, p. 71, attributed to Marx and Engels, bold emphasis mine)

What the Many in the British Press Thought 

For the moment, let’s lay aside whether or not we agree with Marx. The question is not what we think, but what he thought. In this essay, Marx and Engels were taking a position against many in the British press. Many of the loud and sanctimonious voices in newspapers of the day were saying that the war had nothing to do with slavery. Early on, in this same essay, Marx wrote, concerning contemporary London media:

In essence the extenuating arguments read: The war between the North and South is a tariff war. The war is, further, not for any principle, does not touch the question of slavery and in fact turns on Northern lust for sovereignty. (Marx 1861, p. 58)

The Quote, Out of Context

The modern mischief begins with stripping away all context, and then presenting the implicit (and false) notion that Marx thought the Civil War was simply a war of aggression and dominance, perpetrated by the North. I first came upon this quotation in a truly dreadful book by Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr. called It Wasn’t about Slavery.

He begins the chapter called “The Election of 1860” with this: Continue reading “What Did Marx Say Was the Cause of the American Civil War? (Part 1)”


Imagine Palestine

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by Neil Godfrey

From archive of teol.ku.dk site

The reason my posts relating to Biblical questions so often express a view that is inconsistent with mainstream narratives has nothing to do with wanting to be different (as the moderator on the earlywritings forum has patronizingly insisted) but everything to do with examining the evidence according to the same methods that are accepted as normative best-practice in other fields of history and classical studies. It was for this reason — identifying what I considered a fundamentally sound method of research and interpretation of evidence — that attracted me to the methods of what is sometimes (and dismissively) termed “minimalism” in explorations of the origins of Judaism, Christianity and the Bible.

So I feel a little reassured when I read that the same so-called “minimalist” authors themselves acknowledge that their approach is nothing other than what is considered uncontroversial in other areas of historical studies. It is only controversial, it seems, in the context of biblical studies — for reasons not hard to fathom. It is even more reassuring and encouraging to see that some of the “minimalist” scholars have taken practical steps to change the way Palestine’s history is understood more generally and taught in Palestinian schools and universities. Given the current ongoing slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza by the IDF it is very difficult to conceptualize anything positive for the future in Palestine-Israel, so one does hope that the candle-flame of The Palestine History and Heritage Project (PaHH) will not be fully extinguished.

The methods — doing history the way other historians are expected to do it

The PaHH project follows research principles set forth in the Copenhagen School’s insistence on producing clear methodological and epistemological evidence based historiography, such as is required in classical history writing, and rejecting the biblical-archaeologically designed history of “ancient Israel” most often presented in historiographies of ancient Palestine. (Hjelm 15)

We do use late historical works (e.g. Arrian of the mid-second century CE) to learn about Alexander the Great around 330  BCE, but in that case we know that Arrian was in turn using writings from Alexander’s own time.

In short, the only legitimate method of finding out “what really happened” in the past is to begin with primary evidence, the evidence from the time and place being studied. If we have much later narratives, accounts, myths, we don’t by default reject them as “lies” but we do examine them and try to trace their origins according to the culture that produced them. And that originating culture has to be determined by independent evidence. We cannot simply assume that a story about King David (or King Arthur for that matter) originated in the time of King David or King Arthur. The only legitimate method demands that we do not mix up the two types of sources. We don’t use Homer’s epics to learn about the historical Helen of Troy, nor Walter Scott’s novels to learn about the historical King Richard and Robin Hood, nor should we use the Bible’s stories to inform us about events that are known to have happened centuries before the Bible’s books were written.

The application of what I call normative historical method to the “history of Israel” has led to some considerable heat:

This has even been the case in the non-theological Biblical Criticism & History Forum – earlywritings.com as I mentioned in relation to my own experience there when attempting to discuss the case for the Bible originating later than the Babylonian exile.

The debate cemented the minimalist-maximalist positions with accusations of ‘revisionism’, ‘anti-semitism’, ‘anti-zionism’, ‘anti-biblical’, and ‘nihilism’, on one side, and ‘fundamentalism’, ‘evangelism’[sic] and ‘bad scholarship’ on the other side. Moving from the discussion of methods in history writing which had been the focus of scholarship since the deconstructionist tendencies of the ‘60s-‘80s, the Bible’s role as witness to its own histories, rather than its ancient mental history, became the primary issue. It became almost “illegitimate” not only to deny or criticize the Bible’s historicity, but also to discuss its origin later than the Babylonian Exile, although the Dead Sea Scrolls had made it absolutely evident that no Hebrew Bible existed that early. The approach taken by the so-called “minimalists” is, however, a basic demand in scientific history writing and is called for if biblical scholars are to be included in the guild of historians. Rather than being the ideologically driven program of a small group it has been adopted, to some extent, ‘by a fairly large number of scholars in response to the collapse of “biblical archaeology”, and the absolute necessity of reconsidering the way in which archaeological data and biblical texts are best related in the search for a critical history’. (Hjelm 50)

The content — imagining a non-biblical history of Palestine

Biblical-influenced history of Palestine or Israel is not limited to evangelicals. But I hope by the time interested readers reach the end of this post they will recognize the need to move beyond our common Bible-influenced histories.

Biblically based history does not only feature in histories written by biblical scholars, but is common in writings by archaeologists and historians alike. (Hjelm 15)

Ingrid Hjelm adds examples to demonstrate what that statement covers, some of which no doubt many readers will at least have seen referenced in online discussions:


  • W. G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001);
  • Israel Finkelstein and N. A. Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (New York: The Free Press, 2001);
  • P. Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander. A History of the Persian Empire (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2002);
  • T.C. Mitchell, ‘The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires and Other States of the Near East from the Eighth to the Sixth Centuries’, in J. Boardman et al. (eds.), The Cambridge Ancient History. Sec. ed., vol. Ill, Part 2 (1991): 322-460;
  • A. Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East. Vol. II, (London: Routledge, 1995);
  • K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: MI, Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 2003)

There is Israel and there is Palestine. Unfortunately, among many of us who have been immersed in a certain view of the Bible and history the term Palestine can easily conjure up images of the other, the outsider, the crude pagan destined to be supplanted, or other Orientalist visions of “the Arab” or even “Islamism”. But the term Israel is also problematic. As Philip R. Davies pointed out in 1992 we find ourselves with shifting images of three different Israels:

1. Historical Israel:

Historical Israel is the Kingdom of Israel / Bit Humri / House of Omri (9th century -720 BCE) — the kingdom that archaeologists have uncovered in the northern region of Palestine. It is known from Moabite and Assyrian inscriptions.

2. Biblical Israel:

Biblical Israel is the 12 tribe confederation, the United Monarchy, the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and the “Israelites” throughout history and tradition in the 2nd – 1st millennium BCE (Hjelm 16)

3. Ancient Israel:

Finally, the Ancient Israel perspective offers a harmonization of biblical traditions with archaeology and epigraphy and uses the name “Israel” indiscriminately of its historical use and verification. In regard to historical research, such traditional “ancient Israel” histories are oxymoronically neither biblical nor historical, but reductionist conflation of biblical myth and historical fact. (Hjelm 16)

See the above list of titles for examples of that kind of harmonization.

Where is there room for Palestine here? We know that Palestine is even denied as a legitimate name in itself by various extremist pro-Zionists and Islamophobes.

Imagining Palestine

Speaking of the Palestine History and Heritage Project, Hjelm explains:

We have chosen to use the term “Palestine” generally, because it is the most consistent name of the area stretching from as far north as Sidon to the Brook of Egypt and from the Mediterranean into the Transjordan with ever changing borders since the Iron Age. It is testified in inscriptions from Ramses III (ca. 1182-1151 BCE) with increased regional comprehension in the 12th-10th cent. BCE. From the neo-Assyrian period (10th-7th century BCE) onwards it is the most common etic collective designation, manifested in the Roman period (1st cent. BCE – 4th cent. CE), and it has been in continuous use until 1967, whence the name became a modern political term for areas that are not Israel or are occupied by Israel. Our use relates to the various meanings of the name throughout three millennia, in which many polities have co-existed, including the ancient kingdoms of Sidon, Ashkelon, Gaza, Gezer, Israel, Judah, Edom, etc. in addition to later Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine provinces and the imperial polities established from conquests by Sassanid Persians, Arab (peninsular) tribes, crusading Europeans, Mamelukes, Seljuks, Ottoman Turks and the British Commonwealth. (Hjelm 10f)

That image reduces the notion of the above three Israels to passing visions in a kaleidoscope of richly varying histories. Certainly a study of “historical Israel” (the first of the three listed above) is a necessary undertaking for anyone who wants to understand the Bible — if only to come to appreciate that the Biblical Israel cannot be identified with the historical Israel. In other words, before studying the Bible’s view of history one would do well to study history on its own terms first. Instead of seeing cultures and today’s descendants of past eras through biblical lenses we would do well to study those cultures and descendants in their own right first.

Palestine is much bigger than “biblical Israel”. A study of Palestine embraces a study of other great city states that dominated the region at various times yet which the Bible only alludes to with a passing or a negative glance, if at all.

Nor is its history limited to a few centuries in ancient times followed by a “dark age” of early Christian and Islamic domination only to be “liberated” and “revived” in 1948 or especially in 1967 with the seizure of Jerusalem — again as the highlighted portion of the above quotation demonstrates.

The relevance of the PaHH must go without saying though I think it must be said at this time, however hard that saying is.

The Palestine History and Heritage Project (PaHH)

The Palestine History and Heritage Project (PaHH) was formed in 2014 with the twofold aim at producing a trustworthy history of Palestine and of offering this history as a basis for the production of new school textbooks which may reflect Palestine’s multi-vocal and multi-facetted history in a form that is scholarly evidence based rather than rooted in traditional religious interpretation.

PaHH is an international and interdisciplinary project, at present counting some 40 members (half of whom are academically situated in the Middle East or are of Middle Eastern origin) related to or working at academic institutions in Palestine, Europe, Africa, and North and South America.

The initiative to form the project came from Dr. Thomas L. Thompson and Dr. Niels Peter Lemche of the University of Copenhagen; Dr. Hamdan Taha, Former Director of the Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, Palestinian Authority; Dr. Ilan Pappe, Director of the Institute of Palestine Studies, University of Exeter; Dr. Issa Sarie, Head of the Archaeological Department, Al Quds University, Abu Dis; and Dr. Basem Ra’ad, the University of London.

The project has been housed at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Copenhagen, with me as project leader until 2017, Dr. Mahmoud Issa as project coordinator and Thomas Thompson as project developer. Although we are now all retired, the faculty has accepted to keep the relationship and non-economic support. Over the years, the project has been funded by minor Danish and British funds to cover workshop and conference expenses. In addition, many Palestinian educational institutions have graciously hosted parts of our workshops and invited us for lectures and discussions. (Hjelm 9f)

Thompson, Thomas L., and Ingrid Hjelm. The Ever Elusive Past: Discussions of Palestine’s History and Heritage. Ramallah, Palestine: Dar Al Nasher, 2019.


Where does John the Baptist fit in History? — The Evidence of Josephus, Pt 7

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing and concluding….. 

Peter Kirby cites an argument for interpolation not from a source agreeing with the argument but rather from a source disposing of it. He quotes Robert Webb:

A second argument is that the nouns used for ‘baptism’ in this text (βαπτισμός and βάπτισις, Ant. 18.117) are not found elsewhere in the Josephan corpus, which may suggest that this vocabulary is foreign to Josephus and is evidence of interpolation. However, we may object that using a word only once does not mean it is foreign to an author. Josephus uses many words only once . . . .

(Webb, p. 39)

I try to make a habit of always checking footnotes and other citations to try to get my own perspective on the sources a book is referencing. If one turns to a scholar who is agreeing with the argument that Webb is addressing, one sees that Webb has presented the argument in a somewhat eviscerated form. Here is how it is presented by a scholar who is trying to persuade readers to accept it as distinct from Webb’s format that is aiming to persuade you to disagree with it.

Against this, it seems that scholars try to blur the fact that this brief pas­sage also contains unique words unparalleled in any of Josephus’s writ­ings, notably words that, as I shall attempt to prove, are semantically and conceptually suspect of a Christian hand — βαπτιστής, βαπτισμός, βάπτισιν, έπασκουσιν, αποδεκτός.

(Nir, p. 36)

I covered the bapt- words in the previous post so this time I look at the other two, έπασκουσιν (as in “lead righteous lives”) and αποδεκτός (as in “if the baptism was to be acceptable“) along with some others. Keep in mind that what follows is sourced from Rivka Nir’s more detailed discussion in her book The First Christian Believer, and all the additional authors I quote I do so because Nir has cited at least some part of them. (To place Rivka Nir in context see my previous post.)

έπασκουσιν (ep-askousin = labour/toil at, cultivate/practise): άρετήν ἐπασκουσιν = lead/practise righteousness/virtue

The word appears in this section of the John the Baptist passage:

For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews who lead [επασκουσιν] righteous lives and prac­tise

justice towards their fellows and piety toward God to join in baptism . . .

There are two possible interpretations here. Should we translate the passage to indicate

  • John was exhorting Jews to practice, labour at, lead virtuous and righteous lives and so undergo baptism?


  • should the scene be translated to indicate that John is commanding those Jews who were known for their righteousness and special virtue to be baptized (for the consecration of their bodies, since they had already become righteous through their living prior to baptism)?

Scholarly opinions are divided. Rivka Nir takes the side of those who interpret it in the latter manner: John is addressing a sectarian group who “practise” a righteous way of living and telling them to be baptized. What is in Nir’s mind, of course, is that the author of this passage was from such a sectarian community.

That we are dealing with an elect group is equally evident in how the passage depicts John’s addressees, whom the author designates as ‘Jews who lead righteous lives and practice justice towards their fellows and piety towards God’. This description lends itself to two readings. Most read the two participles forms έπασκουσιν [lead, practise, labour at] and χρωμένοις as circumstantial attribu­tives modifying the exhortation itself.

Nir, p. 49

It can be interpreted to mean EITHER that John is exhorting Jews to lead righteous lives OR that John is exhorting Jews who lead righteous lives to undergo baptism. In this case the Jews spoken of are initiated into a community…. (See below for the grammatical details of these two possible interpretations.)

A cult defined by righteousness

If we follow the second reading, that the passage is depicting a call for a sectarian group that is identified as “labouring at, practising” righteousness to undergo and “join in” baptism. But if that is the case, what is so distinctive about “righteousness” in this context? Here again scholarly analysis has opened up insights the lay readers like me might easily miss. Righteousness in this context is not a common morality or keeping the rules of the Pharisees or Temple authorities. It is even used in the New Testament to distinguish between the Christian “righteous” sect and the “superficially/hypocritically righteous” Pharisees, scribes and Sadducees. The same is found in the Qumran scrolls. “Righteousness” can denote a sectarian identity. Nir, pp. 50f:

John Kampen examined the term ‘righteousness’ in the Qumran scrolls. He reached the conclusion that unlike its usage in tannaitic sources to denote charity and mercy, at Qumran it denoted sectarian identity and belonging to an elect group having exclusive claim to a righteous way of life. Matthew applies this term in the same sense, in connection to John’s baptism (3.15; 21.32). as well as in the Sermon on the Mount (5.10-11), where the author urges a sectarian way of life distinguished by righteousness. In other words, righteousness marked the sectarian identity of the group and served to pre­serve its boundaries.56 In this passage, as with Matthew and the Qumranites, ‘righteousness’ defines the lifestyle of this elect sectarian group as well as the boundaries separating it from society at large.

56. J. Kampen. “‘Righteousness’ in Matthew and the Legal Texts from Qumran’, in Legal Texts and Legal Issues: Proceedings of the Second Meeting of the International Organization for Qumran Studies. Cambridge 1995. Published in Honour of Joseph Μ. Baumgarten (ed. Μ. Bernstein, F. Garcia Martinez and J. Kampen; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1997). pp. 461-87 (479, 481, 484, 486); Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition, p. 36: ‘The word δικαιοσύνη does not spill out by accident; it is Matthew’s peculiar way of designating the faith and life of Christians and of Christianity in general (cf. Mt. 5.6. 10; 6.1-4). Meier (A Marginal Jew, II. p. 61) points out the resemblance between John’s description in Josephus and in Lk. 3.10-14. which portrays him as exhorting to acts of social justice. This may be accountable to two Greek-Roman writers, Josephus and Luke, who independently of each other sought to describe an odd Jewish prophet according to the cultural models known in the Greek-Roman world. Similarly, Ernst, Johannes der Täufer, p. 257.

Those footnoted references are not the easiest for lay readers to locate but I have copied extracts from a couple of them. See below for the full passages being cited in footnote 56.

The passage does not simply say that John’s followers were obeying the Jewish traditions, but that they were “practising” a righteousness that set them apart from others and that qualified them to enter the cultic community through baptism, a baptism that would, because they were practicing this righteousness, also ritually sanctify their bodies.

A further pointer to the passage being written from the perspective of a distinctive cult practice, a cult that Nir finds signs of in Qumran, the Fourth Sibylline Oracle and various (anti-Pauline) Jewish-Christian sects, is the language used to express the disciples “coming together”, “joining” in baptism.

βαπτισμω συνιεναι : join in baptism

For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews who lead [επασκουσιν] righteous lives and prac­tice [χρωμένοις] justice towards their fellows and piety toward God to join in baptism [βαπτισμω συνιεναι]. . . . When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused [ήρθησαν] to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed.

What commentators have discerned here is that the “joining” in baptism means entering into membership of a sectarian group, indicated by the inference that the call is for all of those who practise righteousness to gather together in a (collective) baptism. See details below.

Others, too, joined : Who were the others?

According to Meier in A Marginal Jew, II, pp. 58f

At first glance, the previous concentration of the passage on “the Jews” as the audience of John’s preaching might conjure up the idea that the unspecified “others” are Gentiles. There is no support for such an idea in the Four Gospels, but such a double audience would parallel what Josephus (quite mistakenly) says about Jesus’ audience in Ant. 18.3.3 §63 (kai pollous men Ioudaious, pollous de kai tou Hellenikou epegageto). However, if we are correct that epaskousin [ἐπασκουσιν] and chromenois [χρωμένοις] in §117 express conditions qualifying tois Ioudaiois, there is no need to go outside the immediate context to understand who “the others” at the beginning of §118 are.

So Meier concludes that the “others” were from the general Jewish population coming to see the righteous community respond to John’s call for baptism, but there is also a possibility that “others” might also refer to Gentiles, as in the Testimonium Flavianum (Ant. 18.63): ‘He [sc. Jesus] won over many Jews and many Greeks’, as well as Christians: Mt. 27.42: Lk. 7.19: Jn 4.37: 10.16: 1 Cor. 3.10: 9.27.

For O. Cullmann (‘The Significance of the Qumran Texts for Research into the Beginnings of Christianity‘. JBL 74 (1955). pp. 213-26 (220-21), such Hellenistic Christians formed the earliest nucleus of Christian missionaries who carried the gospel to Samaria and other non-Jewish areas in the Land of Israel.

Nir, p. 50

For baptism to be αποδεκτός (acceptable) . . .

In this passage, John says that ‘if baptism was to be acceptable [αποδεκτήν αύτώ]’ to God.60 ‘they must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body’.

What kind of baptism might ‘be acceptable’ to God?

In biblical usage, this expression relates to the sacrificial system at the temple to designate an offering accepted by God.61 In the New Testament, the compound adjective αποδεκτός, meaning ‘acceptable’, occurs in con­nection with sacrifices only in 1 Peter: ‘spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God’ (2.3-5). . . .

The author of this passage speaks of John’s baptism in terms parallel­ing the atonement sacrifices in the temple, by means of which individu­als ask God’s acceptance of their offering that their sins may be forgiven. Joseph Thomas64 focused on one of the features of Baptist sects (Ebionites, Nazarenes, Elcasaites) that withdrew from the traditional temple and sacri­ficial worship and conceived of baptism as a substitute for sacrifices. To his mind, cessation of sacrifices and the baptismal rite are interrelated: instead of sacrifices in atonement for sins, it is holy baptism that atones for sins.65 The notion of baptism as replacement for the Jewish sacrificial system is distinctly Christian: Jesus is the expiatory sacrifice in place of the temple sacrifices and his death atones for all the sins of the world.66 By baptism, the baptized identify with Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, becoming a sacrifice them­selves, and their sins are forgiven, as expounded in Rom. 6.2-6.

61. Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet, pp. 166, 203.

64. Thomas. Le mouvement Baptiste, pp. 280-81: J.A.T. Robinson, ‘The Baptism of John and the Qumran Community’, HTR 50 (1957). pp. 175-91 (180).

65. Thomas. Le mouvement Baptiste, pp. 55-56: Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet, p. 120. On baptism in place of sacrificing al Qumran, see subsequently.

66. Eph. 5.2: Rom. 12.1.

Nir, pp. 51f

In the account in Josephus we read that for John’s baptism to be “acceptable” (αποδεκτος) it must not be used to grant forgiveness of sins but for the consecration or sanctification of the body, a function of erstwhile temple sacrifices.

Baptism, a central rite

John’s baptism was being preached and proclaimed, a point in common between Josephus and the Gospels. The Gospel of Matthew underscores the central importance of baptism when he has Jesus command his disciples to go into the world and baptize new disciples.

Moreover, other scholars have wondered why Josephus did not explain the term “baptism” here.

What would Greek and Roman readers unfamiliar with Christian sources understand by this term? They were familiar with the verb βάπτω, which means ‘to dip/be dipped’ or ‘to immerse/be submerged’, and with the verb βαπτίζω, which in classical sources denotes ‘to immerse/be submerged under water’.49 How would they understand a designation refer­ring to someone who immerses others with this particular immersion? How could Josephus use this designation without defining it?50

Moreover, this passage uses two terms for John’s immersion: βαππσμός and βάπτισις. which Christian tradition applied as distinctive of Christian baptism. And it is only here that they occur in Josephus, diverging markedly from the terminology he applies to the Jewish ritual immersion for purifica­tion from external physical defilement.51

49. Metaphorically: soaked in wine. See Oepke. ‘βάπτω’, TDNT, I. p. 535.

50. This bewilderment was already raised by Graelz (Geschichte der Juden. III. p. 276 n. 3): and Abrahams (Studies in Pharisaism, p. 33) noted that this designation might be an interpolation. Mason (Josephus and the New Testament, p. 228) attempts to distinguish between ‘Christ’ and ‘called the Christ’, as in the latter case Josephus would not need to explain the title, and this applies to John, ‘called the Baptist’. Some argue (e.g. Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet, pp. 34, 168) that John’s being called by this name in the Gospels and in Josephus proves it became distinctive of John and the permanent Greek designation, hence its usage by the evangelists as well as Josephus. Indeed, John is called ‘the Baptist’ in the Synoptics, but this epithet is not attached to his name in Acts and in the Fourth Gospel.

51 To describe Jewish immersions, Josephus usually uses the verb λούεσθαι or άπολούεσθαι, as he does for the Essenes and Bannus; see K.H. Rengstorf, A Complete Concordance to Flavius Josephus (Leiden: EJ. Brill. 2002). I. p. 290. But βάπτισις is a term Christian sources apply to the baptism of Christ or Christian baptism; see Athanasius Alexandrinus, Quaestiones in scripturas 41 (M.28.725A); LPGL, p. 284. Origen uses βαπτισμός for John’s baptism, but in many sources this term applies to Christian baptism in general: see Heb 6.2: βαπτισμών διδαχής; Col 2.12: ‘you were buried with him in baptism (έν τω βαπτισμώ), you were also raised with him’; Chrysostom, Hom. in Heb. 9.2 ( 12.95B). This term also applies to the repeated baptismal rites of heretical sects, e.g., Ebionites, Marcionites, etc. See LPGL, p. 288. On the possibility that John’s baptism in Josephus was also a repeated ritual, see subsequently.

Nir, p. 48

It is through discussions of such technical points that Nir argues for a Jewish-Christian provenance of the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities of the Jews. When criticisms against the interpolation view point to comparisons with specific New Testament terminology they are missing a key facet of the argument: the interpolation is said to be consistent with certain Jewish Christian practices and thus contrary to the Christian ideas represented by the New Testament.

I still have some questions about Rivka Nir’s presentation but I have tried to set it out in these posts as fully (yet succinctly) as I reasonably can. The less background knowledge we have the easier it is to be persuaded by new readings. The more we learn about the Jewish and Christian worlds in their first and second century contexts the more aware we become of just how little we really know and how vast are the gaps in our knowledge. There is little room for dogmatism, for certainty, for “belief”, in a field of inquiry where even the sources themselves are not always what they seem. That’s true of much ancient history and it is especially true of the history of Christian origins.

So where does John the Baptist fit in history?

Our most abundant historical sources are Christian. In the canonical gospels John the Baptist is the prophetic voice announcing the advent of Jesus. He is depicted variously as a second Elijah, an Isaianic voice in the wilderness, and as the son of a temple priest. Always he represents the Jewish Scriptures prophesying their fulfilment in Jesus Christ. As such, he functions as a theological personification.

If John’s literary function is to personify a theological message we might think that he could still be more than a literary figure. Could he not also have had a historical reality? Yes, of course he could. But a general rule of thumb is to opt for the simplest explanation. If we have a literary explanation for the presence of John the Baptist that explains all that we read about him in the gospels, then there is no need to seek additional explanations. If there is independent evidence for John in history then we are in quite different territory.

The earliest non-Christian source we have is found in Antiquities 18.116/18.5.2 (by Josephus). If this passage was indeed penned by Josephus or one of his scribal assistants then it would be strong evidence — strong because it is independent of the gospels and in a work of “generally reliable” historical narration — that there was a John the Baptist figure in history, however that figure might be interpreted.

The passage would not confirm the gospels’ theological role of John. After all, in Josephus the JtB passage is set some years after the time of Jesus and Jesus is never mentioned in relation to John.

In the eyes of some scholars, those stark differences from the gospels stamp the passage with authenticity. This would mean that Christian authors took John from history and reset him in time to make him a precursor of Jesus. If this is how John entered the gospels then the common notion among scholars of Christian origins and the historical Jesus have no grounds on which to reconstruct a historical scenario in which Jesus joined the Baptist sect only to break away from it. John would then remain as nothing more than a theological personification of the OT pointing to fulfilment in Christ.

But if there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the passage in Josephus is from a Jewish-Christian hand, then we are left without any secure foundation for any place of such a figure in history. Another proposal is that the passage is genuinely Josephan but removed from its original context where it spoke of another “John” from the one we associate with Christian tradition. What is certain is that the passage raises questions. It is susceptible to debate. It can never be a bed-rock datum that establishes with certainty any semblance of a John the Baptist figure comparable to the one we read about in the gospels.


Detailed explanations of linked points above……

Continue reading “Where does John the Baptist fit in History? — The Evidence of Josephus, Pt 7”


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.


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.


Where does John the Baptist fit in History? — The Evidence of Josephus, Pt 4

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by Neil Godfrey


(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 78-83The 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.”

Whose opinion?

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)

Cui Bono?

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)

Continue reading “Where does John the Baptist fit in History? — The Evidence of Josephus, Pt 4”


Where does John the Baptist fit in History? — The Evidence of Josephus, Pt 3

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey


Above all else, it is the early Jewish-Christian volume of the Pseudo-Clementine writings that provides the most striking parallel to Johannine baptism [in Antiquities of the Jews]

In this post I begin by addressing Peter Kirby’s final argument against Rivka Nir’s case for the John the Baptist passage in Josephus’s Antiquities being an interpolation. (I will return to his intermediate arguments in the next instalment.)

Kirby zeroes in on the logical fallacy of Nir’s argument as he (Kirby) has read it. Unfortunately, Kirby’s rewriting of Nir’s case relies on an interpretation of Nir’s concluding paragraphs that overlooks her preparatory argument and introductory statements through which that conclusion should be read. As a result, he omits two core elements that Nir has stressed in her article. Kirby summarizes Nir’s case this way:

Rivka Nir’s argument, then, if it is boiled down to the basics, runs something like this:

(a) Groups at the margin of Second Temple Judaism, such as the Qumran sect, had beliefs regarding “inner purification,” a “prior commitment to a righteous way of life,” as a “prerequisite for the efficacy of bodily immersion.”

(b) Jewish-Christian sects had similar beliefs regarding “inner purification,” a “prior commitment to a righteous way of life,” as a “prerequisite for the efficacy of bodily immersion.” (The point is also made that it can be considered an alternative to the function of the Temple cult.)

(c) Other Christian sects held that “Christian baptism itself bring[s] about forgiveness of sins.”

(d) Accordingly, the “Josephus account of John the Baptist may reflect an intra-Christian dispute concurrent with the formation of the Christian rite of baptism during the first centuries CE.” (emphasis added)

(e) “Josephus, as is well known, remained a faithful Jew. He was neither initiated into one of the JewishChristian sects, nor did he convert to Christianity.”

(f) “Thus, the inevitable conclusion is that the description of John’s baptism, as provided in the passage under review, was not written by Josephus, but was rather interpolated or adapted by a Christian or Jewish-Christian hand.”

By presenting the above points as the essence of Nir’s argument Kirby is able to make the following “valid” logical criticism:

When we widen the lens just a little, to include a view of the actual audience of Josephus, which was Hellenistic, instead of keeping a strict focus on Judaism and Christianity, as Rivka Nir does, we can clearly see the fallacy of the idea: not Jewish, therefore Christian. Yes, it may be that the distinction Josephus was making was in opposition to an idea that was not Jewish. It is a fallacy of the excluded middle, however, to conclude on this basis that the distinction is being made in contrast to Christian ideas. There are many different beliefs that are not Jewish but also not Christian.

That Josephus had mystery religions and their beliefs regarding forgiveness of sins, just by being washed in certain rites, in view here, seems probable.

But if we go back and read Nir’s essay as it led to her conclusion, we see that Nir is not so logically naive after all and that Kirby’s “boiled down basics” have glossed over key points in her presentation.

. . . But, more than anything else, what clinches the Christian sectarian identity of Johannine baptism in this passage is its characterization as ‘a consecration of the body’ on condition that ‘the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by righteousness’.44 It is an immersion combining external physical purification with inner, moral, spiritual purification, where the latter is a prerequisite for the former.45 Baptism will bring about ritual purification of the body only if the soul has already been purified by righteousness; that is, only if baptism has been preceded by repentance on the part of the candidate. . . 

44) Jewish Antiquities, XVIII, 117.
45) As noted, n. 17 above, the explanatory clause uses wording implying a condition. See Meier, ‘John the Baptist in Josephus’, p. 231; idem, A Marginal Jew, II, pp. 57-58.

(Nir, p. 45)

The debated point Kirby misses is the place of ritual purification of the body. Does baptism, in addition to cleansing one of moral sin, also cleanse the physical body of ritual impurity? (See the side box.) John’s baptism, as explained in the Josephus passage, answers that it does also make one’s body ritually pure IF one has previously turned from sin to righteous living.

That is the point under debate in Josephus’s description of John’s baptism — is the body also ritually pure and under what conditions?

Kirby has overlooked that central point and reduced Nir’s argument to one of merely asking if baptism itself has the power to forgive sin or does baptism “work” only if one repents before baptism. He has missed the importance of the question of bodily purification.

Nir’s argument holds up because the debate over the relation of baptism to ritual purification of the body is only evidenced (as far as I am aware) in sectarian Jewish and Jewish-Christian works. It is not part of mystery religion teachings – at least I know of no evidence that it is. Nor do I know if Josephus anywhere else indicated any interest in polemicizing against rituals of mystery religions.

So a correct boiling down of Nir’s argument to its basics should run something like this:

(a) Groups at the margin of Second Temple Judaism, such as the Qumran sect, had beliefs regarding “inner purification,” a “prior commitment to a righteous way of life,” as a “prerequisite for the efficacy of bodily immersion” — and that efficacy includes ritual bodily purification as well as inner righteousness.

(b) Jewish-Christian sects had similar beliefs regarding “inner purification,” a “prior commitment to a righteous way of life,” as a “prerequisite for the efficacy of bodily immersion.” (The point is also made that it can be considered an alternative to the function of the Temple cult by making the body ritually pure.)

(c) Other Christian sects held that “Christian baptism itself bring[s] about forgiveness of sins” — and disputed the value of baptism making the body ritually pure.

(d) Accordingly, the “Josephus account of John the Baptist may reflect an intra-Christian dispute concurrent with the formation of the Christian rite of baptism during the first centuries CE.” (emphasis added) — given that the question of baptism relating to both inner and physical purification was a uniquely Jewish sectarian and Jewish-Christian one, and one debated by other Christians who disputed baptism’s efficacy in purifying the body. It has no known counterpart in other baptisms such as those of the Mithraists or other mystery religions.

(e) “Josephus, as is well known, remained a faithful Jew. He was neither initiated into one of the Jewish-Christian sects, nor did he convert to Christianity.”

(f) “Thus, the inevitable conclusion is that the description of John’s baptism, as provided in the passage under review, was not written by Josephus, but was rather interpolated or adapted by a Christian or Jewish-Christian hand.” — QED.

I said that two core elements of Nir’s argument should not be overlooked. Here is the second one, coupled with the one above, in the introduction to her concluding paragraphs:

Shedding further light on the early Christian or Jewish-Christian aspects of John’s baptism is the peculiar wording of the Josephus passage. John’s call for baptism is remarkably odd in its formulation. Rather than issuing a straightforward call for a baptism acceptable to God, defined as ‘a consecration of the body’ and qualified by the precondition of a soul already cleansed by righteousness, John (or the author) opts to introduce his appeal by refuting baptism conceived in terms of obtaining pardon for sins. ‘…if baptism [βάπτισιν] was to be acceptable to God’, they must not employ it ‘to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed’.

Such phrasing suggests the possibility of an author engaged in polemic with a competing interpretation of baptism and raises the question: against whom was such polemic directed?92

92) That the description of baptism is formulated in a polemical way has already been noted by Foakes and Lake, The Beginning of Christianity, I, p. 105. In their view, the distinction being drawn is between Johannine baptism and Jewish ritual immersion. A. von Schlatter (Johannes der Täufer [Basel: F. Reinhardt, 1956], pp. 62-63) raises the possibility that Josephus is here attacking the Christian understanding of Johannine baptism or baptism in general or that the passage echoes a preexisting dispute between Christians and Jews over immersion, a dispute that Josephus found in the source material for his information about John the Baptist. Flusser (‘Johannine baptism and the Qumran sect’) has raised the possibility that this is a polemic against Christianity. Likewise, Grant R. Shafer, ‘John the Baptist, Jesus, and Forgiveness of Sins’, Proceedings – Eastern Great Lakes and Midwest Biblical Societies, 26 (2006), pp. 51-67 (59), asks: ‘Does Josephus just refute a Christian tradition that John forgave sins?’

Compare 1 Peter 3:21 where we read what may be best understood as an “orthodox” Christian’s denial that baptism makes the body pure.

This is a symbol of baptism, which now saves you—not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (World English Bible trans)

Now look at a Jewish-Christian’s opposing view and see how close it is to what we read in the Josephan passage:

I have linked to online sources the references in footnote 88 with one exception, the first Rehm reference, which is not available on archive.org. The first reference, not available online afaik, follows :

πλήν τούτοις συνεισφέρειν δεϊ τί ποτέ, δ κοινότητα προς ανθρώπους μεν ουκ έχει, ίδιον δέ θρησκείας θεόυ τυγχάνει. λέγω δη τό καθαρευειν, τό έν άφέδρω οϋση τη ἰδία γαμέτη μή κοινωνείν, δτι τοϋτο ό θεοϋ κελεύει νόμος. τί δέ; εΐ μή καί τή τον θεοϋ θρησκεία τό καθαρεύειν άνέκειτο, υμείς ώς οι κάνθαροι ήδέως άν έκυλίεσθε; διό ώς άνθρωποι έχοντές τι πλείον των άλόγων ζώων (τό λογικοί είναι) τήν μέν καρδίαν των κακών ούρανίω καθάρατε λογισμώ, λουτρω δέ πλύνατε τό σώμα. καλόν γάρ τά άληθή τό καθαρεύειν, ούχ ώς δτι προηγείται τής κατά τήν καρδίαν χαθάρσεως ή τοϋ σώματος αγνεία, άλλ’ ώς δτι ἔπεται τώ άγαθω τό καθάριον. καί γάρ ό διδάσκαλος ήμών ένίους τών έν ήμίν Φαρισαίων και γραμματέων, οι είσιν άφωρισμένοι και τά νόμιμα ώς γραμματείς τών άλλων πλείον είδότες, δμως διήλεγχεν αυτούς ώς ύποκριτάς, δτι μόνα τά άνθρώποις φαινόμενα άγνενοντες τά τής καρδίας καθαρά καί θεω μόνφ δρώμενα παρελίμπανον.

ChatGPT translation:

Nevertheless, one must contribute something at some point, even though he has no commonality with people. He worships his own god. I mean, the act of purification. I say, to purify, that which, being in the chamber of one’s own wife, one should not share, for this is the law of one’s god. But what if, even in the worship of one’s god, he had to purify? Would you, like beetles, be unwilling? Therefore, as humans, having something more than irrational animals (that is, reason), purify your heart from evil thoughts, and wash your body. For it is good for true things to be purified, not because the purity of the heart precedes the purity of the body, but because what is pure follows the good. For indeed, our teacher, one of the Pharisees among us, and scribes, who are separated and know the laws better than others, nevertheless, he rebuked them as hypocrites because they neglected the purity of the heart and only focused on the things that appear to people and the things they do before God.

[A]bove all else, it is the early Jewish-Christian volume of the Pseudo-Clementine writings that provides the most striking parallel to Johannine baptism and inspired my present research. Describing a form of immersion meant to purify the body, the work is most emphatic on its efficacy being conditioned on prior inner purification. The notion is formulated in a manner exactly reminiscent of John’s immersion: ‘…purify your hearts from evil by heavenly reasoning, and wash your bodies in the bath. For purification according to the truth, is not that the purity of the body precedes purification after the heart, but that purity [of the body] follows goodness [of the heart]’.88

88) Clem. Hom. 11.28 (trans. ANF, vol. 8, p. 290) [= this archive.org edition]  bracketed inserts by the present author. See also B. Rehm, Die Pseudoklementinen. I. Homilien, 11.28 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1969), p. 168; Rec. 6, 11, 12 (ANF, vol. 8, p. 155 [= this archive.org edition). Thomas (Le mouvement Baptiste en Palestine et Syrie, p. 178, n. 4) already commented on the resemblance between this passage and Johannine baptism as described in Josephus. An identical formulation of baptism also appears in Kerygmata Petrou, H 11.28.2-4 (E. Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha, ed. W. Schneemelcher; London: SCM Press, 1975), II, p. 125 [= this archive.org edition]. This work, dated to the first half of the second century ce, survives only in fragmentary form and is considered by some to be one of the sources for the Pseudo-Clementines; G. Strecker, ‘On the Problem of Jewish Christianity’, in W. Bauer and R.A. Kraft (eds.), Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), pp. 241-85 (258); Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament, p. 431.

As I said, I jumped ahead to the concluding portion of Kirby’s article in this post. The reason is that I believe this particular argument to be one of the stronger ones for interpolation and was impatient to get it “out there” asap. I will return to some of his earlier points in the next post.



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


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

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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.


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

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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

(1) The Textual Witness Itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would like to have told Celsus, when he represented the Jew as in some way accepting John as a baptist in baptizing Jesus, that a man who lived not long after John and Jesus recorded that John was a Baptist who baptized for the remission of sins. For Josephus in the eighteenth book of the Jewish antiquities bears witness that John was a Baptist and promised purification to people who were baptized.19

Contrary to the usual standpoint in research,20 Origen is not citing the passage from Jewish Antiquities, either wholly or partly. In contrast to his habitually accurate citations of Jewish War, Antiquities and Against Apion, here he uses indirect speech (oratio obliqua). Moreover, he provides no details from this particular passage, and what he says implies he knows nothing about its contents. Quite the contrary, he ascribes to John a baptism ‘for the remission of sins’, which explicitly contradicts Josephus (‘if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed’), and can merely tell us that John baptized Jesus, was called ‘Baptist’ and ‘promised purification to the people who were baptized’. It is only from Christian tradition that he could acquire these details, as noted by Grant: Origen made John’s baptism thoroughly Christian, claiming that he was simply relying on Josephus … The expression “for the remission of sins” is thoroughly Christian and Josephus did not use it.’21

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever the explanation for Origen’s source of information, he was obviously unacquainted with the Baptist testimony in Josephus, and what he says contributes nothing to its authenticity.

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

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


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

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by Neil Godfrey

Until a few days ago it seems that I had either missed or forgotten about a 23,256 word essay from 2015 that rebuts the arguments of some works that I had posted about setting out a case for the inauthenticity of the John the Baptist passage in Josephus’s Antiquities. Not to worry, since it has now engaged my attention and I must leave a response “somewhere on the internet”, however belated.

First things first: What is the point of this discussion?

One can argue at length that Josephus did indeed write the John the Baptist passage but that won’t change the fact that the passage remains disputable. And as long as the passage remains disputable, then the only honest way to handle it in any discussion is to be upfront and admit its debatable status. The question of authenticity will remain a matter of (hopefully informed) opinion. And we know how the saying goes: you are entitled to your own opinion but you are not entitled to your own facts.

This means that when it comes to engaging in historical discussion, we can’t say “Josephus wrote about John the Baptist” in a way that creates the impression to less informed readers that that is a certain fact. It is always obligatory to say something like, “While some scholars disagree. . . .” It’s even more honourable to say it with good grace and respect. No sneering words like “fringe” or “hyper-sceptical” allowed. Even better, it is appropriate to simply ignore disputed evidence entirely insofar as a hypothesis relies upon “certain facts”.

Indeed, the mere “fact” that the question of authenticity of the passage elicits so many lengthy discussions, setting out hypotheses for and against, is evidence enough that the question is not and perhaps never can be settled.

What is the point of this discussion, then? The discussion cannot transform debatable data into certain facts. The more often the question of authenticity is discussed, the more reminders we have that caution is required.

So in the next post I’ll begin to respond in some depth to Peter Kirby’s 2015 post.

In the meantime, what follows is a mini-essay that I found myself composing in an attempt to highlight the differences between opinions and facts in historical research. . . .

Facts and Opinions in History

Historical reconstructions are built on historical facts but the mortar that holds those edifices in one piece is opinion, or hypothesis. If one is convinced that it is a sure fact that Josephus wrote about John the Baptist then one is entitled to reconstruct a historical scenario from that point — but only if one makes it clear that its foundation is hypothetical. One’s own convictions should never be presented as facts in any serious or honest discussion. (It seems silly to have to write that sentence, but I have seen so many biblical scholars engage with their audiences and present their personal interpretations and views as if they are undisputed truth even while knowing full well that those same points are debated among their peers.)

Positivism – too often misunderstood: A dominant approach to history in the nineteenth century was what we know as “positivism”. Some professors of biblical studies or religion have repeatedly declared that an “unrealistic” demand for “certainty” and “facts” belongs to the “bad old positivist” past. (The implication is that one should not protest over the lack of evidence for some of their theoretical reconstructions of Christian origins/the historical Jesus.) Those statements betray an embarrassing ignorance of what positivism means. Historians always rely on “certain facts” such as “Julius Caesar was assassinated”, “the Jerusalem temple was destroyed in 70 CE”, etc. Positivism, however, goes one step further and declares either that those facts are all the history we can know about (that is, we cannot discover causes, results, motivations, behind those “facts”) — or else we can objectively discern causes, results etc in a way that produce scientific laws of history. That’s positivism in a nutshell. Historians always seek out “certain facts”. Positivism is more than that. (See Collingwood, The Idea of History, pp 126ff)

Don’t misunderstand me, though. Historical works are rich in hypotheses, opinions, debatable interpretations — but all of those “iffy bits” are ideally attempts to understand the agreed upon facts and their significance for this or that historical question.

Take one topic from the history of Australia. White settlement here began as a “dumping ground” for convicts after Britain lost the American colonies. That is a fact. (Let’s not get into some of the post-modernist notions that would dispute that point.) But was it the primary reason for Britain’s claiming of Australia and establishing a colony here as most of us have been taught in years past? Now that is debatable. If historians factor in the impact of another datum, the first global war, the Seven Years War of 1757-63, which highlighted Britain’s need for a secure base for sea power that could project into southern and eastern Asia, another perspective on the reason for Britain’s colonisation of Australia emerges. Convicts, the contingencies of global naval power, trade routes, wars — all of these are the “facts” of history. But what makes history interesting is researching those facts and attempting to interpret them, to understand their significance, if any, in how subsequent events turned out. Facts plus (informed) opinions make history.

Admittedly, sometimes facts and opinions do get blurred. Again, the most notable instance of the blurring of what is fact and non-fact involved “the history wars” in which historians fought over whether it was a “fact” that Australian pioneering settlers were truly guilty of mass murders of Aborigines. Or were those claims ideologically driven gross exaggerations, even falsehoods? Major battlegrounds for that “history war” were the multiple archives where researchers flocked in order to dig further into the evidence and to produce more (and more detailed) documented facts. The battle was fought over facts and how to interpret diaries and letters, newspaper reports, court transcripts, government correspondence, police records, etc. Opinions clashed over how to interpret the information uncovered, but the information itself was first established as the authentic records of settlers, government officials, etc. The facts of the records were front and centre of the debate.

Time to return to that John the Baptist passage in Josephus’s Antiquities.

It is one thing to debate the significance of any particular passage written by an ancient author, but it is quite another to enquire into whether a particular passage has been interpolated by some other hand. Opinions will differ. One generation of scholars might generally ignore the passage in Antiquities about Jesus because it was deemed corrupt while another generation might consider it partially authentic and therefore of some use in historical reconstruction.

In the next post I’ll address some of the details in Peter Kirby’s 2015 essay.


The “Objective” and “Neutral” Historian Versus the Provocateur

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

A historian is supposed to stimulate thought. A histo­rian who insists on being neutral, a per­son of footnotes, and does not provoke, is doing a disservice to the profession.

When I think about Germany and about German historians who con­stantly hid behind the ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ of history, I know where that leads.

Those who are col­orless, who are neither here nor there, in the end collaborate with what exists.

Moshe Zimmermann, emeritus professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

A classic example of the “purely objective” historian is another Israeli, Benny Morris, whose works on the events connected with the founding of Israel are widely known.

Benny Morris (Wikipedia image)

In 2004 Counterpunch published an interview with Benny Morris that opened with this paragraph:

Note: Benny Morris is the dean of Israeli ‘new historians’, who have done so much to create a critical vision of Zionism–its expulsion and continuing oppression of the Palestinians, its pressing need for moral and political atonement. His 1987 book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, chronicled the Zionist murders, terrorism, and ethnic cleansing that drove 600,000-750,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948, thus refuting the myth that they fled under the orders of Arab leaders. A second edition of this book is due out this month [= the green cover on the right], chronicling even more massacres, and a previously unsuspected number of rapes and murders of Palestinian women. Thus Morris continues to provide crucial documentation for Palestinians fighting the heritage of Al-Nakba, “The Catastrophe.”

But it was all objectively told and the historian author in fact personally lamented that the expulsion of the Palestinians at that time was left as unfinished business:

But in an astonishing recent Ha’aretz interview, after summarizing his new research, Morris proceeds to argue for the necessity of ethnic cleansing in 1948. He faults David Ben-Gurion for failing to expel all Arab Israelis, and hints that it may be necessary to finish the job in the future. Though he calls himself a left-wing Zionist, he invokes and praises the fascist Vladimir Jabotinsky in calling for an “iron wall” solution to the current crisis. Referring to Sharon’s Security Wall, he says, “Something like a cage has to be built for them. I know that sounds terrible. It is really cruel. But there is no choice. There is a wild animal there that has to be locked up in one way or another.” He calls the conflict between Israelis and Arabs a struggle between civilization and barbarism, and suggests an analogy frequently drawn by Palestinians, though from the other side of the Winchester: “Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians.”

Continue reading “The “Objective” and “Neutral” Historian Versus the Provocateur”


Continuing Dialog with ChatGPT — historical methods

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from https://vridar.org/2023/10/01/a-dialog-with-chatgpt-on-christian-origins/

Me: What, if anything, changes, if we introduce the need for independent corroboration?


The requirement for independent corroboration significantly tightens the standards for historical verification. If historians strictly demand independent sources to corroborate each event or claim, it can add more confidence to their conclusions but also presents challenges:

    1. Higher Confidence in Established Facts: When multiple, independent sources attest to a particular event, person, or phenomenon, the historical confidence in that event’s actual occurrence is strengthened. This is why events in ancient history that are documented by different and independent historians are often considered more reliable.
    2. Loss of Potentially Authentic Material: Many historical events, especially from antiquity, may not have multiple independent attestations. If we strictly require independent corroboration, we risk dismissing potentially genuine historical events or facts simply because they lack external confirmation.
    3. Redefining “Independence”: Determining the independence of sources can be complex. For instance, if two texts share material, but it’s unclear whether one borrowed from the other or both drew from a common earlier source, how “independent” are they? Historians must grapple with these nuances.
    4. Increased Reliance on Archaeology and Non-textual Evidence: If textual sources lack independent corroboration, historians might turn more to archaeological evidence or other non-textual forms of evidence. For instance, an event mentioned in a single ancient text might gain credibility if there’s archaeological evidence that aligns with the account.
    5. Challenges for Religious or Mythical Texts: Texts that describe religious events, miracles, or supernatural occurrences often lack independent corroboration outside of their religious tradition. Requiring external validation could make it nearly impossible to establish many religious narratives’ historical cores, leading to more skepticism about religious figures and events.
    6. Limited Application in Some Historical Contexts: In certain periods or places, there might be only one primary source of information. For instance, certain ancient civilizations or periods in the Middle Ages might have limited extant records. Requiring independent corroboration might hinder the study of these times and places.
    7. Potential for Bias in Surviving Records: The sources that have survived time might reflect particular viewpoints or biases (e.g., those of the ruling class, victors in conflicts, or dominant cultural or religious groups). If these are the only sources available for corroboration, the resulting historical narrative might be skewed.

In the context of historical Jesus research, insisting on independent corroboration would mean relying heavily on non-Christian sources (like the writings of Tacitus, Josephus, or Pliny the Younger) or different Christian traditions that developed independently. However, these sources are limited in number and detail, which would constrain the scope of reliable historical assertions about Jesus.

In summary, while independent corroboration is a valuable standard in historical research, it’s not always feasible and comes with its own set of challenges. Historians often have to balance the desire for multiple attestations with the realities of available evidence.


Me: What are some of the “potentially genuine historical events or facts” that would be “at risk” if we insisted on independent corroboration?


If historians insisted strictly on independent corroboration, many events or details from antiquity (and even more recent history) might be cast into doubt or overlooked. Here are some examples from various time periods and contexts:

    1. Socrates’ Teachings: Much of what we know about the Athenian philosopher Socrates comes from the writings of his student, Plato, and to a lesser extent, Xenophon. There aren’t many independent sources that corroborate specific dialogues or teachings attributed to Socrates.
    2. Julius Caesar’s Commentaries: Caesar wrote commentaries on the Gallic Wars, which provide detailed accounts of his campaigns. While there are other references to Caesar’s actions in Gaul, the specific details of battles, strategies, and interactions are primarily from Caesar himself.
    3. Details from the Chinese Historian Sima Qian: The Records of the Grand Historian, written by Sima Qian in the early Han Dynasty, is one of our primary sources for many events and figures in ancient China. While there are other sources and records, many specific stories and details come primarily from Sima Qian.
    4. Events Described in Epics: The events described in epic poems like the “Epic of Gilgamesh” or the “Mahabharata” don’t have comprehensive independent corroboration. While these are understood to be mythological or legendary to some extent, any potential historical kernels would be hard to verify without external sources.
    5. Autobiographical Writings: Any autobiographical account, from Augustine’s “Confessions” to more recent memoirs, would lack independent corroboration for many personal experiences and reflections.
    6. Specific Events in Jesus’ Life: While there are some references to Jesus in non-Christian sources like Tacitus or Josephus, many specific events, parables, or teachings from the Gospels would lack independent corroboration.
    7. Private Interactions of Historical Figures: Many private conversations, interactions, or letters between historical figures, unless they were documented by multiple independent observers, would fall under suspicion.
    8. Events in Isolated Communities: Historical events that occurred in isolated or remote communities, which might have been documented by a single chronicler or observer, would be hard to corroborate independently.
    9. Reports from Explorers: Many explorers were the first from their culture or country to visit specific lands or peoples. Their accounts, like those of Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta, while valuable, often lack independent corroboration for many details.
    10. Scientific Discoveries and Observations: Many groundbreaking scientific observations, from Galileo’s astronomical findings to Darwin’s notes on the Galápagos finches, were initially based on individual observation without immediate independent corroboration.

This list underscores a fundamental challenge in historical research: the tension between the desire for multiple, independent attestations and the recognition that many events or details are recorded by single sources. Historians often have to weigh the reliability of these sources, considering their proximity to the events they describe, their potential biases, the consistency of their accounts, and other factors.


Me: Can you give some examples of “private interactions of historical figures” that you mentioned?


Certainly. There are many instances in history where our knowledge of private interactions between historical figures comes from limited sources, often the writings of one of the participants or from later accounts that may have been based on personal testimonies. Here are some examples:

    1. Martin Luther and the Diet of Worms: While we have a general account of Martin Luther’s defense at the Diet of Worms in 1521, the exact details, including his famous declaration “Here I stand,” are based on later recollections and not on immediate documentation.
    2. Abraham Lincoln’s Private Conversations: Various accounts of Lincoln’s views, especially those pertaining to slavery and his personal beliefs, come from personal memoirs or letters of those who interacted with him privately, such as his law partner William Herndon.
    3. The Meetings of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin: While there were official minutes and agreements from the World War II conferences involving these leaders, many of the private discussions and side agreements were later recounted by the leaders themselves or close aides.
    4. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams: Much of what we know about the personal relationship between these two Founding Fathers, especially in their later years, comes from their extensive correspondence. While these letters provide insight into their views and relationship, they are, of course, just one side of many interactions.
    5. Conversations of Queen Elizabeth I: There are many accounts of private conversations that Queen Elizabeth I had with her courtiers, suitors, and advisors. However, the exact details often come from the recollections of those individuals or from later accounts.
    6. Napoleon’s Exile on Saint Helena: Many details of Napoleon’s life and thoughts during his exile come from the writings of those who accompanied him, such as his valet Louis Marchand or the Grand Marshal of the Palace, Henri-Gatien Bertrand.
    7. The Relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung: While both Freud and Jung wrote extensively, much of what we know about their personal interactions, disagreements, and eventual split comes from their letters and later recollections.
    8. Gandhi’s Personal Interactions: Mahatma Gandhi’s interactions with close associates, family members, and political figures were often documented in letters or remembered in memoirs, giving us insights into his personal beliefs and strategies.
    9. Marilyn Monroe’s Conversations: Many details about Monroe’s personal life, including her interactions with other celebrities, politicians, and acquaintances, come from personal testimonies and interviews, which often lack independent corroboration.
    10. Meetings of the Bloomsbury Group: This influential group of writers, intellectuals, and artists in the early 20th century had many private interactions and discussions. Much of what we know about these comes from personal letters, diaries, and later recollections.

In many of these cases, while the broad outlines of events or relationships are well-documented, the specific details, nuances, or exact words spoken in private interactions are harder to verify with certainty. Historians often rely on the credibility of the sources, the consistency of accounts, and the context in which the interactions occurred to gauge their reliability.


Me: When you gave “specific events in Jesus’ life” as an example of potentially historical material being “at risK, are you not also falling into the circular reasoning trap?


You’re right to point out the potential pitfall. My intention was to provide an illustrative example, but it’s crucial to unpack the underlying assumptions.

When discussing the events in Jesus’ life as found in the Gospels and other Christian writings, there’s an inherent presumption that some of these events have a basis in historical reality. However, without independent corroboration, establishing which events are historically genuine becomes challenging.

If we were to strictly demand independent corroboration for all events, then many specific episodes in Jesus’ life, as they’re recorded solely within Christian texts, would indeed be at risk of being deemed historically uncertain. However, the phrase “potentially genuine historical events or facts” suggests that there’s an underlying possibility of their historicity, even if not yet confirmed.

The circularity would arise if we were to assert that these events are genuine because they are recorded in the sources, without a robust external basis for that claim. It’s always vital in historical discussions to remain aware of, and transparent about, the assumptions and methodologies underlying any conclusions.

Thank you for drawing attention to this. It’s essential to approach historical research, especially in areas as complex and debated as the life of Jesus, with methodological rigor and critical awareness.


Me: What “robust external basis” can be applied to any particular event or saying in the life of Jesus?


The “robust external basis” for any particular event or saying in the life of Jesus would ideally come from sources outside the Christian scriptures, archaeological evidence, or other non-textual attestations that can corroborate or provide context for the New Testament accounts. Here’s what that might look like:

    1. Non-Christian Written Sources: These are references to Jesus or early Christians by writers who weren’t followers of Jesus. Examples include:
      • Tacitus: The Roman historian Tacitus, writing around AD 115, mentions the execution of Jesus under Pontius Pilate and the subsequent spread of Christianity in Rome.
      • Josephus: The Jewish historian Josephus, in his “Antiquities of the Jews” (written around AD 93-94), contains a controversial passage known as the “Testimonium Flavianum” that references Jesus. While the authenticity of parts of this passage is debated, many scholars believe it has a historical core that confirms Jesus’ existence and crucifixion.
      • Pliny the Younger: In his letters to Emperor Trajan around AD 112, Pliny mentions Christians, their worship of Christ, and some of their practices.
    2. Archaeological Evidence: While direct archaeological evidence specifically corroborating New Testament events is rare, archaeology can provide context. For example:
      • Excavations in Nazareth, Capernaum, and other places mentioned in the Gospels can provide insights into the socio-economic and cultural backdrop of Jesus’ ministry.
      • The discovery of the ossuary (bone box) with the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” brought discussions, though its authenticity is debated.
      • The Pilate Stone, discovered in Caesarea Maritima, confirms Pontius Pilate’s historical existence and his role as a prefect of Judaea.
    3. Comparative Religious and Cultural Studies: By examining the religious, philosophical, and cultural milieu of the 1st century, scholars can determine how unique or common certain sayings or actions of Jesus were in that context.
    4. Internal Textual Analysis: Though not “external,” comparing independent traditions within the New Testament can sometimes provide clues. For instance, if a saying of Jesus appears in both the Gospel of Mark and the hypothetical source Q (reconstructed from material common to Matthew and Luke but absent in Mark), it suggests that the tradition might be earlier than any of these texts.
    5. Early Christian Writings: Early non-canonical Christian writings, such as the Didache, the Gospel of Thomas, or the letters of early Church fathers, can sometimes provide complementary views or echoes of Jesus’ sayings or events in his life.

While these sources and methods can provide context, background, or even corroboration for certain broad aspects of the Jesus story (e.g., his existence, crucifixion, the rise of the early Christian movement), many specific events or sayings remain hard to externally corroborate. Most scholars rely on a combination of these methods, along with critical textual analysis of the New Testament itself, to build a plausible historical portrait of Jesus.


Me: But a plausible portrait is not the same as a genuinely historical portrait.


You’re absolutely right. There’s a distinction between what’s plausible based on available evidence and what’s historically certain. Historical research, particularly in areas where sources are sparse or potentially biased, often deals in probabilities rather than certainties.

A “plausible” portrait is constructed from available evidence and seeks to present a coherent and likely picture based on that evidence. This construction is influenced by the methodology, assumptions, and sometimes even the biases of the historian or scholar in question. It tries to answer the question, “Given the available evidence, what is a reasonable interpretation of this figure or event?”

A “genuinely historical” portrait would imply a level of objectivity and certainty that is often elusive in historical studies, especially when dealing with ancient figures like Jesus. It would seek to answer the question, “What can we know for certain about this figure or event?”

In the case of Jesus, while certain broad strokes—like his existence, his role as a teacher or prophet, his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate—have a high degree of consensus among historians due to their multiple attestations and contextual fit, many specifics of his life, teachings, and actions remain in the realm of plausibility rather than certainty.

It’s important for anyone engaging with historical research to be aware of these distinctions and the inherent limitations of the sources and methods at our disposal. Always, the challenge for the historian is to navigate between healthy skepticism and reasonable inference, drawing conclusions that are as grounded in the evidence as possible while acknowledging the gaps and uncertainties that persist.


Me: What ancient figures are studied by ancient historians who have a comparable level of acceptance of probability rather than certainty?


Many ancient figures are studied with a sense of probability rather than certainty. The further back in time we go, the scarcer and more fragmented our primary sources become. Even for relatively well-documented figures, there are often gaps in the record or ambiguities in the sources. Here are some examples:

    1. Socrates: We don’t have any writings from Socrates himself. Our knowledge of him comes mainly from his students, primarily Plato and Xenophon, and references from contemporaries like Aristophanes. Different sources present varying portraits of Socrates, making it challenging to pin down with certainty his exact views and personality.
    2. Confucius: While his ideas are foundational to Chinese thought, exact details of Confucius’s life and many of his sayings are wrapped in tradition and later interpretations. “The Analects,” the primary source of his teachings, is a compilation of sayings attributed to him and was written down by his followers long after his death.
    3. Homer: There’s ongoing debate about whether Homer, traditionally said to be the author of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” was a historical person, multiple persons, or a symbolic figure representing a tradition of oral poets.
    4. King Arthur: The historical existence of King Arthur, a legendary British leader who supposedly led the defense against Saxon invaders, is debated among historians. The main sources about him, like Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “Historia Regum Britanniae,” were written centuries after the supposed events and are mixed with legend.
    5. Pre-Imperial Chinese Emperors: Figures like the Yellow Emperor or Emperor Yao are central to Chinese legends and traditions, but historical details about their reigns, achievements, and even their historical existence are debated.
    6. Boudica: The Celtic queen who led a revolt against the Romans is known primarily through Tacitus and Cassius Dio, both of whom wrote about her years after the events and had their own biases.
    7. Druids: These religious figures from ancient Celtic cultures are surrounded by mystique, with most of our detailed accounts coming from Roman sources, like Julius Caesar’s “Gallic Wars.” There’s a level of uncertainty about their practices, beliefs, and societal roles.
    8. The Hebrew Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob): While foundational to Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, there’s limited archaeological and external textual evidence for their historical existence and activities.

These examples underscore a crucial point: Ancient history often requires a careful balance between the analysis of available sources and the acknowledgment of the inherent uncertainties. Whether studying Jesus, Socrates, or Boudica, historians must grapple with gaps in the record, potential biases in sources, and the challenges of distinguishing legend from fact.


Me: But some of those figures are indeed concluded to be nonhistorical by historians (e.g. Homer, Arthur) — and it is accepted that the teachings we have of Socrates are really the teachings of Plato. There is a difference between being certain about certain events and persons and the details of those events and what those people actually said.


Absolutely, you’re right to draw attention to these nuances.

    1. Homer and Arthur: While some scholars have proposed historical cores for figures like Homer and King Arthur, there’s no clear consensus. Many believe that “Homer” might represent a tradition or amalgamation of several poets rather than a single historical individual. Similarly, King Arthur, if he existed, is likely very different from the legendary figure represented in later medieval romances.
    2. Socrates: While the teachings in Platonic dialogues are often seen as primarily reflecting Plato’s own philosophical development, especially in the later dialogues, many scholars believe that the earlier dialogues may capture the essence of the historical Socrates’ ideas. Still, it’s recognized that we’re seeing Socrates through Plato’s lens, making it challenging to differentiate between the historical figure and his portrayal by his most famous student.

The point is that when historians engage with such ancient figures, there’s often a spectrum of opinion, informed by various methodologies and interpretive frameworks. Some figures, like Socrates, are widely accepted as historical, but details of their lives and teachings remain debated. Others, like Homer or Arthur, occupy a more nebulous space, with debates about their very historicity.

Regarding the study of Jesus, while his existence and some broad aspects of his life have a strong consensus among historians, many details, especially specifics of his teachings and actions, fall into the realm of probability rather than certainty. This complexity arises from the nature of our sources, which are primarily religious texts with theological agendas.

Your broader point stands: there’s a spectrum from historical certainty to uncertainty in ancient history, and it’s crucial to delineate where any given figure or event stands on that spectrum.


Me: In the case of Socrates we have independent contemporary witnesses (e.g. Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon), but in the case of Jesus we do not.


That’s a valid observation. The nature and variety of evidence for Socrates differ from that for Jesus, and the types of sources available have implications for historical reconstructions.

For Socrates:

    1. Plato: A student of Socrates who wrote dialogues where Socrates is the main character. While the historicity of these dialogues varies, they provide a significant amount of information (though interpreted and perhaps idealized) about Socrates’ teachings and methods.
    2. Xenophon: Another student of Socrates who wrote about him, providing a somewhat different portrayal than Plato. Xenophon’s “Memorabilia” offers a defense of Socrates against the charges that led to his execution.
    3. Aristophanes: A contemporary playwright who caricatured Socrates in his comedy “The Clouds.” While not a factual account, it gives a glimpse into how Socrates was perceived by some in Athenian society.

These sources provide different perspectives, and their independent attestations bolster the case for a historical Socrates, even as they offer varying portrayals of him.

For Jesus:

    1. The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John): These are the primary sources of information about Jesus, but they are theological in nature and were written decades after the events they describe. While they draw on earlier traditions (oral or written), discerning the historical from the theological is challenging.
    2. Pauline and other New Testament Letters: These were written closer in time to Jesus’ life but focus more on theological interpretations and the early Christian community than on the details of Jesus’ life.
    3. Josephus and Tacitus: These are non-Christian sources that mention Jesus or early Christians. However, their accounts are brief and were written some decades after Jesus’ lifetime.

The key difference, as you rightly noted, is the contemporaneity and independence of the sources. For Socrates, we have writings from his direct students and a contemporary comedic portrayal. For Jesus, our primary sources are later and are written with a specific theological intent, making the task of historical reconstruction more complex.

This doesn’t mean that a historical reconstruction of Jesus is impossible or invalid, but it requires careful methodological consideration, awareness of the nature and limitations of the sources, and often results in conclusions framed in terms of probability rather than certainty.


Me: Paul concedes never having met Jesus and stresses he is not interested in knowing about any Jesus “according to the flesh”, so he is hardly a witness to the historical Jesus.


Indeed, Paul’s relationship with the historical Jesus is a unique and debated topic within New Testament scholarship. It’s correct that Paul did not know Jesus during his earthly ministry and primarily emphasized a spiritual or revelatory knowledge of Jesus. Here are some points to consider:

    1. Revelatory Experience: Paul’s foundational experience was his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. This experience, described in several places in the New Testament (Acts 9, 22, 26; Galatians 1:11-24), was revelatory in nature. Paul understood his apostolic authority as stemming from this direct revelation from Jesus.
    2. Not According to the Flesh: In 2 Corinthians 5:16, Paul writes, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.” This statement is complex, and interpretations vary. Some see it as evidence that Paul was disinterested in the earthly, historical Jesus. Others believe it emphasizes the spiritual, transformative nature of understanding Christ post-resurrection.
    3. Historical References: While Paul’s primary focus was on the theological significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection, there are moments in his letters where he alludes to or cites traditions that seem to have a basis in the historical life of Jesus. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, Paul refers to the Last Supper tradition, and in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, he provides a list of resurrection appearances. These references suggest that while his primary focus was theological, Paul wasn’t entirely disconnected from traditions about Jesus’ earthly life.
    4. Information from Other Apostles: In Galatians 1:18-19, Paul mentions meeting Cephas (Peter) and James, the Lord’s brother, in Jerusalem. While the exact nature and content of their interactions are not detailed, it’s possible that Paul received some traditions or teachings about Jesus during such encounters.

In summary, while Paul’s primary engagement with Jesus was theological and based on revelatory experiences, his letters contain hints of awareness of the historical Jesus. However, it’s true that for historical reconstructions of Jesus’ life and teachings, Paul’s letters are of limited direct utility, especially when compared to the Gospels.


Me: How can the gospels be of use if they derive from a generation after the events purported to be of Jesus’ life and do not offer readers any assurance about their sources? Even the prologue in Luke’s gospel is very vague.


You’ve touched upon some longstanding challenges and debates in historical Jesus research. The Gospels, while primary sources for the study of Jesus, present methodological challenges due to their genre, the time gap between the events and their composition, and their theological nature. Let’s unpack some of these issues:

    1. Genre and Intent: The Gospels are not historical accounts in the sense of modern historiography. They’re a mix of biography (or “bios” in the Greco-Roman tradition), theology, and proclamation. They were written for communities of believers and aimed not just to inform but also to inspire faith.
    2. Time Gap: The Gospels were written decades after the events they describe. Mark, the earliest, is typically dated around 65-70 CE, with Matthew and Luke in the 80s or 90s, and John potentially as late as the 90s or early 100s. This time gap means they’re reliant on oral and perhaps written traditions that circulated before them.
    3. Anonymous Authors: The traditional attributions of the Gospels (to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are not found within the texts themselves and were assigned later. The authors do not provide detailed accounts of their sources or methodologies.
    4. Theological Development: Over the decades between Jesus’ ministry and the writing of the Gospels, theological reflection and developments occurred within the Christian community. This evolution is evident in the way the Gospel writers shape their narratives and emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ teachings and deeds.
    5. Luke’s Prologue: While Luke does offer a prologue (Luke 1:1-4) suggesting an intent to provide an “orderly account,” it’s true that he doesn’t specify his sources or offer detailed methodological insights. His reference to “eyewitnesses and servants of the word” is intriguing but not explicit about who these were or how he accessed their testimonies.

Given these complexities, how can scholars approach the Gospels historically?

    1. Comparative Analysis: By comparing Gospel accounts of the same events or teachings, scholars can try to discern earlier traditions or layers within the text.
    2. Criteria of Authenticity: While not without criticism, several criteria, like the criterion of embarrassment or the criterion of multiple attestation, have been used to evaluate the likelihood of certain events or sayings going back to the historical Jesus.
    3. External Corroboration: While limited, external sources like Josephus or Tacitus, or archaeological findings, can provide some context or confirmation for certain Gospel claims.
    4. Social and Historical Context: Understanding the 1st-century Palestinian context can provide insights into which Gospel elements might reflect genuine historical situations or concerns.
    5. Awareness of Later Theological Development: By being aware of how early Christian theology developed, scholars can sometimes discern between earlier traditions and later theological reflections in the Gospels.

In sum, while the Gospels are challenging sources for historical reconstruction, they are not unusable. They require careful and nuanced methodological approaches. Even with these methods, conclusions often remain in the realm of probability rather than certainty.


Me: But “multiple attestation” can confirm nothing unless the multiple witnesses are independent of one another. Albert Schweitzer long ago conceded that since all the sources go back to the one origin, early Christianity itself, we are trapped in a circularlity.


You’re right to highlight the challenge. Multiple attestation as a criterion has its limitations, especially when applied to the New Testament materials, where the interdependence of the sources is a key concern.

Multiple Attestation and Interdependence: The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have a complex literary relationship. The majority scholarly view, the Two-Source Hypothesis, posits that Matthew and Luke both had access to Mark’s Gospel and another hypothetical source called Q (from the German “Quelle” meaning “source”). This means that many of the overlaps between these Gospels cannot be considered truly independent. Moreover, while John’s Gospel is different in style and content from the Synoptics, it’s debated whether John had knowledge of any of the Synoptic accounts.

Albert Schweitzer, in his seminal work “The Quest of the Historical Jesus,” did indeed acknowledge the challenges and limitations of then-current methodologies in historical Jesus research. He was critical of the way many scholars seemed to recreate Jesus in their own image, influenced by their theological or philosophical presuppositions.

Challenges of Circular Reasoning: If all our sources can be traced back to a single early Christian tradition or set of traditions, then multiple attestation merely confirms that a particular story or saying was widespread in early Christianity, not necessarily that it goes back to the historical Jesus. This is a significant methodological challenge.

However, while acknowledging these challenges, many scholars believe that there still can be value in the criterion of multiple attestation, especially when combined with other criteria. For instance:

    1. Different Forms: If a saying or deed of Jesus is found in multiple forms (e.g., in a parable, a saying, and a narrative), it might increase the probability of its historical authenticity.
    2. Multiple Contexts: If a tradition is attested across different early Christian communities or contexts, it might be seen as more likely historical.
    3. Dissimilarity: This is another often-used criterion. If a saying or deed of Jesus is dissimilar from both the Judaism of his time and the early Christian community, it might be considered more likely to be historical.

Still, all these criteria have their own limitations and critiques. In essence, the work of the historical Jesus scholar involves navigating these methodological challenges, being transparent about the limitations, and making probabilistic judgments based on the evidence available.

Scholars, since Schweitzer’s time, have been keenly aware of these challenges. Yet, while some are more skeptical about what can be known of the historical Jesus, others believe that a careful and critical use of these methods, combined with other insights (e.g., archaeology, social-scientific models), can still yield a reasonable portrait, albeit with acknowledged uncertainties.


Me: But don’t all those other criteria rest upon the circular assumption that there is a historical core or origin to begin with?


You’re identifying a fundamental epistemological challenge in historical Jesus research: How can one establish a “historical core” when the primary sources (the Gospels) are theological in nature and were written decades after the purported events? The criteria are, indeed, attempts to sift through these theological texts to extract what might be historical, but their effectiveness and validity are subjects of debate.

    1. Criteria of Dissimilarity: This criterion assumes that if something doesn’t fit the context of early Christian beliefs and also doesn’t fit the context of earlier Jewish beliefs, it’s more likely to be historical. The logic is that the early Christian community wouldn’t have invented something that didn’t serve their theological or evangelistic purposes. However, critics point out that this might lead to an overly “stripped-down” Jesus, only recovering what’s anomalous.
    2. Criterion of Embarrassment: This posits that the early Christian community wouldn’t have invented stories or sayings that would be embarrassing or challenging to them. Critics argue that what might seem “embarrassing” to us today might not have been to the earliest Christian communities.
    3. Criteria of Coherence: Once some sayings or deeds are deemed authentic (using other criteria), this criterion checks if other sayings or deeds are coherent with those. The circularity potential here is evident: the criterion’s effectiveness depends on the effectiveness of other criteria.
    4. Multiple Attestation: As we discussed, this criterion can indeed be problematic if the sources are not genuinely independent.

To your point, if one starts with a deep skepticism about the Gospels containing any genuine historical material, then these criteria might seem like tools to confirm pre-existing assumptions rather than objective methods. Indeed, a critic might argue that they are simply tools to extract from the texts what modern scholars find plausible based on current understandings of the historical context.

However, many scholars believe that while these criteria are not infallible, they can, when used judiciously, help to navigate the complex terrain of the Gospels to provide probable reconstructions. They argue that complete skepticism (i.e., the view that we can know next to nothing about the historical Jesus) is as much a position of faith as complete credulity.

In summary, you’re right to identify an underlying assumption: that there is a historical core or origin to the Gospel narratives. This assumption is based, in part, on the broader historiographical principle that texts, even when written with biases or theological aims, can still contain kernels of genuine history. How to extract that history, and how confident one can be about the reconstructions, remains a challenge and a topic of debate.


Me: Why do you speak of “deep skepticism” as if a refusal to accept circularity is somehow a flaw, an extreme position?


You raise a valid point. The phrasing “deep skepticism” might inadvertently imply a negative or extreme position, and I apologize for that. Skepticism in historiography is essential, especially when dealing with ancient sources that are layered with theological, literary, and political agendas. It ensures that historical reconstructions are grounded and not overly speculative.

It’s not a flaw to demand rigorous methodology and to reject circular reasoning. Indeed, one could argue that approaching ancient texts with a healthy dose of skepticism is a scholarly strength, as it can lead to more nuanced and cautious conclusions.

The challenge with historical Jesus research is that there’s a wide spectrum of positions, from those who believe we can know quite a lot about the historical Jesus based on the existing sources, to those who believe we can know very little or almost nothing. Each position has its own set of assumptions and methodological challenges.

Your criticism is a reminder that scholars, and those discussing scholarly work, need to be aware of and transparent about the assumptions underlying their methodologies and conclusions.


Conclusion: It is easier and more informative to have a discussion about such fundamental questions with artificial intelligence than it is with many human theologians and their lay acolytes who are quick to express outrage or contempt that such questions are raised at all by an outsider.

A Dialog with ChatGPT on Christian Origins

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

While recently attempting to relate the views of the anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse to what we know of Christian origins, I decided to turn to an obliging dialog partner for assistance — ChatGPT. For background you might want to skim through what I wrote about Whitehouse’s models at https://vridar.org/2020/06/20/modes-of-religiosity/

Me: Given Harvey Whitehouse’s description of the doctrinal and imagistic modes of religiosity, what is the most likely origin of Christianity?


Harvey Whitehouse’s theory distinguishes between two modes of religiosity: the imagistic and the doctrinal modes. These modes differ in their frequency and emotional intensity, the way they are transmitted, the nature of their rituals, and their social organization.

    • Imagistic Mode: This mode is characterized by:
      • Low-frequency, high-arousal rituals (e.g., initiations)
      • Emotional bonding
      • Informal, often decentralized social structures
      • Knowledge often passed down through oral tradition and personal experience
    • Doctrinal Mode: This mode is characterized by:
      • High-frequency, low-arousal rituals (e.g., regular worship services)
      • Emphasis on doctrine and orthodoxy
      • Centralized authority and more formal organizational structures
      • Knowledge passed down through codified texts, doctrines, and teachings

Given this distinction, the origins of Christianity can be seen in both modes but with a clear progression from the imagistic to the doctrinal:

    • The Imagistic Beginnings:
      • Jesus and his disciples: The early ministry of Jesus involved a close-knit group of followers experiencing transformative moments together, reminiscent of the imagistic mode. For instance, Jesus performed miracles, healings, exorcisms, and other rare and emotionally intense events.
      • Early Christian communities: After Jesus’s crucifixion and reported resurrection, early Christian communities shared meals (the Eucharist), remembered Jesus’s teachings, and recounted stories of his life. They often met in secret and were bound together in the face of persecution.
    • Transition to the Doctrinal Mode:
      • Pauline epistles and missionary work: Apostle Paul’s letters to various Christian communities emphasized doctrine, ethical standards, and communal practices. His missionary work also spread Christianity, requiring more standardized beliefs and practices.
      • Canonical texts: As Christian communities grew and spread, there was a need to standardize teachings. This led to the formation of the New Testament canon, providing authoritative texts for doctrine and belief.
      • Institutionalization: By the 4th century, with the Edict of Milan in 313 AD and the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, Christianity became a legal religion and later the state religion of the Roman Empire. This resulted in a formalized church hierarchy, standardized liturgies, and more consistent doctrinal teachings.

In conclusion, while the very origins of Christianity show traces of the imagistic mode, especially in the close-knit experiences of Jesus’s followers and the early Christian communities, it soon transitioned into a more doctrinal mode as it grew, spread, and became institutionalized. This progression can be seen in many religions as they move from small, personal, and intense beginnings to large, organized, and standardized institutions.


Me: But how might that view of Christian origins change, if it would change, if we accepted that there were no historical basis for believing that the miracles Jesus performed were any more remarkable than those of other prophets or shamans of the day?


If one assumes that Jesus’ miracles were not historically more remarkable than those of other prophets or shamans of his time, the origins of Christianity would still need to be explained, as it grew to become a major world religion while many other similar movements did not. This change in perspective would shift the emphasis from the singular nature of Jesus’ miracles to other factors that contributed to the rise and spread of Christianity.

    1. Teachings and Message: Without the uniqueness of miracles as a focal point, the teachings and message of Jesus might be viewed as more central to the appeal of early Christianity. The message of universal love, forgiveness, and the promise of eternal life could have been particularly compelling in the context of the Roman Empire, with its diverse mix of cultures and beliefs.
    2. Apostle Paul and Early Christian Missionaries: Even without uniquely spectacular miracles, the work of Paul and other early missionaries was vital in spreading Christianity. Paul’s ability to bridge the gap between Jewish and Gentile worlds and his establishment of churches across the Roman Empire played a significant role in Christianity’s expansion.
    3. Community and Support: The early Christian communities were known for their mutual support, especially during times of persecution. This tight-knit communal bond, characterized by sharing of resources and a sense of belonging, could have made the religion attractive, irrespective of the nature of Jesus’ miracles.
    4. Narrative and Resurrection: The narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection would still remain pivotal. Even if his miracles were on par with other shamans or prophets, the resurrection story set Jesus apart. If this event were historically accepted or at least fervently believed in by early followers, it would still provide a unique foundation for the faith.
    5. Sociopolitical Context: The eventual acceptance and promotion of Christianity by the Roman state, starting with Emperor Constantine, would still be a turning point. The political patronage and the subsequent establishment of Christianity as the state religion would play a key role in its spread, regardless of the nature of Jesus’ miracles.
    6. Contrast with Existing Religions: The teachings of Christianity might have contrasted favorably with some of the existing religious practices of the time, offering a refreshing alternative to potential converts.

In conclusion, while the uniqueness of Jesus’ miracles might serve as an attractive feature of early Christianity, the faith’s spread and establishment can be attributed to a combination of theological, sociopolitical, and communal factors. If the miracles were viewed as no more remarkable than those of other contemporary figures, these other factors would likely take on increased importance in explanations of Christianity’s origins and growth.


Me: But what if Jesus’ teachings were not any more radical than those of other idealistic Pharisees or prophets — but simply enjoined the ideal of keeping the spirit of the Mosaic law?


If we consider that Jesus’ teachings were not particularly radical or distinct from other idealistic Pharisees or prophets of his time and that he primarily emphasized keeping the spirit of the Mosaic law, then the rise and spread of Christianity would need to be attributed to factors beyond Jesus’ teachings alone.

      1. Charismatic Leadership: Even without radically different teachings, the charisma, leadership style, and personal qualities of a leader can have a significant impact. Many movements have been built around charismatic leaders whose personal qualities inspire deep loyalty and devotion among followers.
      2. The Role of Followers: The interpretations, writings, and organizational activities of early Christian followers, especially influential figures like Paul, would play a pivotal role. Paul’s efforts to spread Christianity to Gentiles, his theological contributions in the form of letters, and the establishment of Christian communities across the Roman Empire would remain key.
      3. Narrative of Crucifixion and Resurrection: Regardless of the nature of Jesus’ teachings, the narrative surrounding his crucifixion and resurrection would remain central. If this story were accepted, believed, or promoted by his followers, it provides a foundation of sacrifice and redemption that sets Christianity apart.
      4. Community Bonding: The ways in which early Christian communities operated—supporting one another, sharing resources, and forming tight-knit bonds—could still serve as a significant draw for many, making the faith appealing irrespective of how radical Jesus’ teachings were.
      5. Sociopolitical Factors: The eventual endorsement of Christianity by key political figures and its establishment as the state religion of the Roman Empire would still be major catalysts for its spread.
      6. Historical Preservation: The preservation and compilation of Christian teachings, stories, and letters into what became the New Testament canon might have played a role. Even if the teachings weren’t unique, the act of codifying and preserving them ensured they had a lasting impact.
      7. Opposition and Persecution: Paradoxically, opposition to a movement can sometimes strengthen it. Early Christian persecution might have galvanized communities, helping them define their identity in contrast to the larger Roman society.

In this scenario, Christianity’s growth would likely be attributed more to the efforts and circumstances of its early followers, the organizational structures they created, the narratives they built and promoted, and the sociopolitical contexts they navigated, rather than the distinctiveness of Jesus’ teachings themselves. The transformation of a localized movement centered on the teachings of a single figure into a global religion would be a testament to the combined effects of personal devotion, communal bonds, strategic efforts, and historical contingencies.


Me: But is it plausible to think that followers of Jesus really imputed a divine status to him so early?


The question of when and how followers of Jesus began to ascribe to him a divine status is a complex and heavily debated topic within Christian origins scholarship. Here are some points to consider:

    1. Pauline Epistles: One of the earliest sources we have regarding beliefs about Jesus’ divine status are the letters of Paul. Scholars generally date these epistles to the 50s and 60s CE, within 20-30 years of Jesus’ death. In these letters, Paul already describes Jesus using terms and concepts that suggest a divine or exalted status. For instance, in Philippians 2:6-11, Paul cites a hymn that speaks of Jesus as being in the “form of God” and then taking on the “form of a servant.” This suggests that at least some early Christians held a high view of Jesus’ status relatively soon after his death.
    2. Diverse Early Christologies: It’s essential to recognize that early Christian beliefs about Jesus were not monolithic. There was a range of beliefs about his nature, role, and status. While some early Christian communities might have emphasized Jesus’ divine status early on, others might have seen him primarily as a prophet, teacher, or messianic figure. Over time, as Christianity developed, certain beliefs became more standardized, especially after the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.
    3. Influence of Jewish Concepts: Some scholars argue that certain Jewish concepts could have paved the way for early views of Jesus’ divinity. For example, the Jewish notion of “Wisdom” (as seen in Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon) was sometimes personified and described in terms that bordered on the divine. Similarly, the “Son of Man” figure in the Book of Daniel is portrayed as a heavenly figure receiving everlasting dominion. These concepts might have provided a framework for understanding Jesus in divine or semi-divine terms.
    4. Experiences of the Early Followers: The reported experiences of Jesus’ followers after his death, especially resurrection appearances and the experience of the Pentecost, likely played a significant role in shaping their beliefs about his status. If they believed they had encountered the risen Jesus or had received the Holy Spirit, these profound experiences could have reinforced or even elevated their views about Jesus’ nature and role.
    5. Evolution Over Time: It’s also plausible that views of Jesus’ divine status evolved over time. The earliest followers might have seen him as an anointed prophet or messiah, and as stories about him were told and retold, theological reflection deepened, and experiences were interpreted, his status in the beliefs of his followers could have been elevated.
    6. Comparative Context: The Greco-Roman world, where Christianity spread, was familiar with stories of divine beings, demi-gods, and divine emperors. Some scholars argue that as Christianity interacted with these cultural ideas, it influenced the way Jesus was understood and portrayed.

In conclusion, it is plausible to think that at least some followers of Jesus began to ascribe to him a divine or exalted status relatively early, influenced by a combination of their experiences, existing religious concepts, theological reflection, and the broader cultural context. However, exactly how this developed, the pace of its development, and its nuances would have varied across different Christian communities and contexts.


Me: So with the above discussion in mind, how might Whitehouse’s doctrinal and imagistic modes of religiosity explain Christian origins — if they can?


Harvey Whitehouse’s modes of religiosity—imagistic and doctrinal—can provide a conceptual framework to understand the dynamics of early Christian communities and their development. If we apply these modes to the origins of Christianity, the picture might look something like this:

    1. Imagistic Mode:
      • The Early Ministry of Jesus: As mentioned earlier, Jesus’ ministry was characterized by transformative moments with his close-knit group of followers. Whether it was the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper, or other significant events, these can be seen as low-frequency, high-arousal events typical of the imagistic mode.
      • Post-Crucifixion Experiences: The reported post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples and the Pentecost experience, where followers felt the Holy Spirit’s descent, can be understood as intense, emotional events that deeply bonded the early Christian community.
      • Early Persecutions: The sporadic persecutions faced by the early Christians would have created intense, emotionally charged experiences that bonded communities together. Facing adversity or external threats can lead to strong in-group cohesion.
    2. Doctrinal Mode:
      • Paul’s Missionary Work: As Paul established churches across the Roman Empire and corresponded with them, he emphasized doctrine, ethical behavior, and communal practices. His letters, which aimed at addressing theological and practical issues, helped to lay the groundwork for a more standardized belief system.
      • Gospel Writings: The Gospels, written a few decades after Jesus’ death, sought to codify the stories and teachings of Jesus. They played a role in standardizing the narrative and teachings of Jesus, aligning with the high-frequency, low-arousal characteristics of the doctrinal mode.
      • Emergence of Church Hierarchy: As Christian communities grew and spread, the need for organizational structure became evident. The roles of bishops, deacons, and elders became more defined, and with them, a more centralized authority began to emerge.
      • Ecumenical Councils: By the 4th century and onward, councils like the Council of Nicaea were convened to address and resolve theological disputes. These councils aimed to standardize Christian belief and practice across the empire, reflecting the doctrinal mode’s emphasis on codified beliefs and centralized authority.

In light of this:

    • Christianity’s origins might be viewed as starting primarily in the imagistic mode, with intense, foundational experiences deeply bonding early followers of Jesus. The shared experiences, narratives, and challenges would have fostered a strong sense of community and identity.
    • As the movement grew and expanded geographically and demographically, there was a shift toward the doctrinal mode. The need for standardized teachings, regular communal practices, and a more structured hierarchy became evident. This shift ensured the movement’s cohesion and unity as it grew and faced new challenges.

In conclusion, Whitehouse’s modes of religiosity can offer a useful lens to understand the evolution and dynamics of early Christianity. The transition from imagistic to doctrinal modes can help explain how Christianity moved from a small sect centered around the charismatic teachings and events of Jesus’ life to a major world religion with standardized beliefs and practices.


Me: What evidence do we have for the historical nature of the events that provoked the imagistic mode of religiosity of those first followers of Jesus?


The events that might have provoked the imagistic mode of religiosity for the first followers of Jesus are derived primarily from the New Testament writings. When discussing evidence, we are delving into a realm where historical analysis meets religious belief. Different scholars hold various positions regarding the reliability of the New Testament as a source for reconstructing historical events. Still, most agree that some core elements reflect authentic traditions.

Here’s a look at the potential evidence:

      1. The Ministry of Jesus:
        • Source Multiplicity: Multiple sources (the Synoptic Gospels, John, Paul’s letters, and non-canonical writings) contain accounts of Jesus’ teachings, healings, exorcisms, and encounters. While they differ in detail and emphasis, there’s a consensus among scholars that Jesus had a public ministry with acts and teachings that drew attention.
        • Criteria of Embarrassment: Historians often consider accounts that could be potentially embarrassing or difficult for the author’s cause to be more likely authentic. Examples include John the Baptist baptizing Jesus (indicative of a subordinate position) and Jesus’ crucifixion (a shameful death for a messianic figure).
      2. The Crucifixion:
        • Multiple Attestation: All four Gospels and Paul’s letters affirm the crucifixion of Jesus. Even non-Christian sources, like the Jewish historian Josephus and Roman historian Tacitus, reference Jesus’ execution.
        • Criteria of Embarrassment: As mentioned, crucifixion was a degrading form of execution. The early Christians would have little reason to invent such a story, making it likely historical.
      3. Resurrection Appearances:
        • Paul’s Testimony: In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul lists several individuals and groups who reportedly saw Jesus after his death, including Peter, the apostles, a group of over 500, James, and himself. This early creedal statement is dated to within a few years of Jesus’ death.
        • Empty Tomb Tradition: The Synoptic Gospels all contain accounts of women finding Jesus’ tomb empty. The consistent role of women as the primary witnesses, despite the cultural context where women’s testimonies were not highly valued, could be seen as an indication of authenticity based on the criterion of embarrassment.
        • Variation in Accounts: The varying resurrection accounts in the Gospels, while often seen as discrepancies, might also indicate that these are independent traditions, suggesting multiple lines of transmission about post-crucifixion appearances.
      4. Pentecost & The Holy Spirit:
        • Acts of the Apostles: The book of Acts describes the experience of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles. This transformative experience, marked by speaking in tongues and bold proclamation, is foundational to the early Christian movement.
      5. Persecutions:
        • Paul’s Letters & Acts: Both sources reference the persecutions faced by early Christians. Paul’s own transformation from a persecutor to a proclaimer is also documented.
      6. Non-Christian Sources:
        • Writers like Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and the Jewish Talmud, albeit written a few decades after the events, provide external references to Jesus and early Christianity.

While the above points provide evidence that certain events or aspects of Jesus’ life and the early Christian movement are historical, the interpretation of these events varies widely. Many elements, especially supernatural claims, are matters of faith. Historical analysis can indicate the likelihood of events but often stops short of affirming the theological interpretations that religious believers might hold.


Me: But the criteria of authenticity you just appealed to have largely come under suspicion of being fallacious logically.


You’re right. Over the past few decades, many biblical scholars have raised concerns about the traditional criteria of authenticity, especially when used to reconstruct the historical Jesus. Some of the criticisms include:

      1. Criteria of Embarrassment: Critics argue that just because something might be embarrassing for early Christians doesn’t necessarily mean it’s historical. Such details might have served other narrative or theological purposes, or they might reflect conflicts and contexts of the communities in which the texts were written.
      2. Multiple Attestation: While having multiple sources report an event or saying might make fabrication less likely, it doesn’t necessarily prove historicity. Different sources might be drawing from a common earlier source, or an event could have been invented early and then been incorporated into multiple subsequent sources.
      3. Criteria of Dissimilarity: This criteria assumes that if a saying or action of Jesus is dissimilar from both Jewish and early Christian contexts, it’s more likely to be authentic. Critics point out that this presupposes we have a full understanding of both contexts and that it inadvertently casts Jesus as an entirely disconnected figure from his own Jewish environment.
      4. Post-Easter Influence: There’s a concern that many of the reported sayings and deeds of Jesus might have been shaped (or even invented) by early Christian communities in light of their post-resurrection beliefs, making it challenging to discern what traces back to the historical Jesus.
      5. Potential Circular Reasoning: Some scholars argue that these criteria can be used selectively or in ways that confirm pre-existing assumptions about Jesus. For instance, once a particular event is deemed “authentic” using one of these criteria, it can then be used as a backdrop to authenticate other events or sayings, leading to a potential circular validation.
      6. Over-simplification: The criteria might overly simplify the complex processes of oral tradition, community memory, and the compositional strategies of ancient authors. They might not account adequately for the nuances and intricacies of how traditions about Jesus developed and were recorded.

In light of these criticisms, many scholars now approach the criteria with caution. Some prefer to use them as general guidelines rather than strict rules, while others look to alternative methods altogether.

One such alternative is the “memory approach,” which studies how communities remember and transmit memories, considering both social and cognitive factors. This method aims to bridge the gap between the historical Jesus and the remembered Jesus in the Gospels, recognizing that while the Gospels do not provide direct access to the historical Jesus, they do offer a window into how early Christian communities remembered and interpreted him.

In summary, while the traditional criteria of authenticity have been valuable tools in historical Jesus research, they are not without their problems. Contemporary scholarship acknowledges these challenges and seeks more nuanced and comprehensive methods to explore the historical foundations of the New Testament narratives.


Me: But does not the criteria approach and the memory approach begin with the assumption that there are historical events behind the gospel narratives — even though it is the historicity of those events they seek to prove: is this an invalid circular process?


Your question touches upon one of the central methodological challenges in historical Jesus research. Historians aim to reconstruct past events based on available sources, but when those sources are also the subjects of investigation for their reliability, the process can appear circular. Here’s how the criticism is often framed and some responses to it:

    1. Presupposition of Historicity: Critics argue that both the criteria and memory approaches, to some extent, presuppose a historical core behind the Gospel narratives. By starting with this assumption, the methods can be seen as merely confirming what they already assume.
    2. Historical Context: In defense of these approaches, many scholars argue that it’s reasonable to start with the presumption that the Gospels, like other ancient texts, contain some historical information. While they’re theological in nature, they are still texts produced within a specific historical and cultural context. Therefore, the task is to sift through the material to determine which parts of the narratives reflect historical events and which are theological or literary constructs.
    3. Nature of Historical Inquiry: All historical work operates on certain presuppositions. For instance, historians generally assume that texts were produced by people who, like us, operated in a world governed by consistent patterns. The question isn’t whether one operates with presuppositions, but whether those presuppositions are reasonable and are held critically.
    4. Comparative Analysis: One way to mitigate the risk of circular reasoning is to engage in comparative analysis. By comparing the Gospel narratives to other contemporaneous writings and considering their place within the broader Greco-Roman and Jewish contexts, scholars can gain insights into patterns of composition, myth-making, and historical recording.
    5. Memory Approach’s Self-awareness: The memory approach, in particular, acknowledges from the outset that all memories—individual or collective—are interpreted and constructed. Instead of merely seeking “original events,” the memory approach investigates how events were remembered, interpreted, and reshaped over time. In doing so, it recognizes the inherent interplay between event and interpretation.
    6. Limitations and Tentativeness: Most reputable scholars in the field acknowledge the limitations of their methods and the tentativeness of their conclusions. While some events or sayings of Jesus can be deemed more probable than others, certainty remains elusive. The nature of the sources, the time gap between the events and their recording, and the theological intentions of the authors all mean that reconstructions of the historical Jesus are often offered with a degree of caution.

In summary, while there’s a valid point about potential circularity in historical Jesus research, many scholars believe that by being aware of their presuppositions, employing comparative methods, and acknowledging the limitations of their conclusions, they can still produce meaningful and plausible reconstructions of the past. The challenge, of course, is discerning the line between a historically cautious approach and a circular or overly presumptive one.


Me: It sounds like you’re saying that the cautious scholar is simply aware of the circularity of his endeavour but is unable to avoid it.


That’s a fair way to characterize the challenge. The inherent circularity in historical Jesus research arises from the tension between using the Gospels as sources of information about Jesus while simultaneously trying to assess their historical reliability. Here are a few nuances and clarifications:

      1. Historical Sources are Always Interpreted: Every historical source, not just the Gospels, is a blend of observation, interpretation, bias, and sometimes even fabrication. Historians always engage in the task of discerning how events were perceived, remembered, and recorded. While the circularity in historical Jesus research is more pronounced due to the theological nature of the sources, the process of interpreting and critically assessing sources is a staple of historical methodology.
      2. Criteria and Methodology: The criteria of authenticity (like embarrassment, dissimilarity, etc.) were developed as tools to try to break out of this circle by providing an “objective” means of assessing the Gospels’ content. However, as you’ve rightly pointed out, these criteria have faced criticism and are seen by some as being part of the circular process. Being aware of these limitations is essential, even if it doesn’t wholly resolve the issue.
      3. Historical Probability: One way to navigate this challenge is to frame discussions in terms of historical probability rather than certainty. Instead of aiming for concrete conclusions, many scholars try to determine what is more or less likely based on available evidence.
      4. Comparative Historical Context: Placing the Gospels in the wider context of other ancient writings, archaeological evidence, and the socio-political landscape of the time can provide external reference points against which Gospel accounts can be compared. This comparative approach can, to some extent, help mitigate the risk of circularity.
      5. Transparent Presuppositions: Being upfront about one’s presuppositions is crucial. While all scholars bring certain biases to their work, acknowledging them and being transparent about one’s methodology allows others to critically assess conclusions and arguments.
      6. The Value of the Endeavor: Despite the challenges and potential circularity, many scholars believe there’s value in the endeavor. Even if one can’t establish events with certainty, shedding light on the early Christian community’s beliefs, practices, and self-understanding is itself a worthy historical task.

In conclusion, while the potential for circular reasoning is a recognized challenge in historical Jesus research, scholars aim to navigate this by employing a range of methods, being transparent about their presuppositions, and framing their conclusions in terms of probability rather than certainty.


Me: What other historical research has that kind of circularity at its foundation?


The potential for circularity isn’t unique to historical Jesus research. Many areas of historical inquiry grapple with similar challenges, especially when primary sources are limited, are of a particular genre that blends fact with fiction or interpretation, or come from a context that has strong ideological or religious biases. Here are some examples:

    1. Ancient Mythologies and Foundational Stories: Many ancient cultures have foundational myths or legends, such as the tales of Romulus and Remus in the founding of Rome or the stories about King Arthur in British lore. Determining the historical realities behind such stories, if any exist, is challenging. Scholars can sometimes fall into a circular trap, using the narratives themselves as evidence for the events they describe.
    2. Biographies of Ancient Figures: Ancient biographies, unlike modern ones, often blended historical facts with moral lessons, allegories, and mythologies. The biographies of figures like Alexander the Great or Augustus Caesar, while based on historical figures, contain elements that are clearly legendary or propagandistic. Disentangling the historical from the legendary can be fraught with potential circularity.
    3. Religious Texts: Historical research into figures like the Buddha, Muhammad, or Moses faces challenges similar to those in historical Jesus research. Religious texts often blend history, theology, and interpretation, and determining the historical core can be difficult.
    4. Prehistoric Cultures: For cultures without written records, our primary sources of information are archaeological finds. Interpretations of these finds can sometimes be circular. For example, if a particular type of pottery is believed to be ceremonial based on its location and then another similar item is labeled ceremonial based on its resemblance to the first, a potentially circular argument has been made without external corroborating evidence.
    5. Oral Histories: Cultures with strong oral traditions, but limited written records, present challenges. The stories and histories passed down orally can evolve over time, and when they are finally recorded, the line between historical event and embellished or altered story can be blurry.
    6. Historiographies: When later historians rely heavily on earlier ones without a clear line to primary sources, there’s a risk of circularity. Later accounts might be seen as independent corroborations when they are, in fact, merely repetitions of earlier narratives.

These examples underscore that potential circularity is a challenge in many areas of historical research, not just in studies about Jesus. The key is for historians to recognize these pitfalls and be as transparent and methodical as possible in their methodologies, always open to reevaluation and critique.


I found it most refreshing and challenging to engage with such a “thoughtful” dialog partner. Certain New Testament scholars and their lay acolytes could learn a lot about how to engage with questions that challenge their assumptions and how to respond with civility and professionalism.

I continued the discussion by delving into problems of methodology. See the next post.


Not All Historians Are Equal

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by Neil Godfrey

I have often tried to point out how historians as a rule have very different standards and methods for verifying past events from those we too often find among Bible scholars writing about Christian origins and Jesus himself. Two statements of “non-biblical” historians I have quoted in the past epitomize the divide between the two fields:

From the viewpoint of a professional historian, there is a good deal in the methods and assumptions of most present-day biblical scholars that makes one not just a touch uneasy, but downright queasy.Donald Harman Akenson

and when discussing a prominent New Testament scholar’s efforts to sift the historically probable from the mythical accretions in the gospels a leading ancient historian concluded:

This application of the ‘psychological method’ is neat, plausible, commonsensical. But is the answer right? Not only in this one example but in the thousands upon thousands of details in the story upon which Goguel or any other historian must make up his mind? I do not know what decisive tests of verifiability could possibly be applied. The myth-making process has a kind of logic of its own, but it is not the logic of Aristotle or of Bertrand Russell.Moses Israel Finley

But look what another prominent modern historian has written about the historical veracity underlying the Gospels. It is found in his book titled A Student’s Guide to the Study of History.

Consider the very words of the Gospel of St. Luke, Chapter 2:

And it came to pass, that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled. / This enrolling was first made by Cyrinus, the governor of Syria. / And all went to be enrolled, every one into his own city. / And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem: because he was of the house and family of David. To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child. / And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered. / And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn….

This description—or account—is exactly and thoroughly historical. There is nothing even remotely comparable to that in the accounts of the coming of other gods or founders of religions, whether Greek or Roman or Oriental. Unlike other founders of religions before him, Jesus Christ was a historical person. For believing Christians he was not only a historical person of course, but that is not our argument here. The historicity of Jesus Christ (which we may regard as God’s great gift to mankind) is incontestable: there exist Jewish and Roman and other sources about the fact of his existence, though not of course of all his deeds and sayings (or of their meaning). The very writing of St. Luke is marked by the evidence of something new at that time: of historical thinking.  — John Lukacs, pp 14f. of Student’s Guide — italics original in all quotations; bolding is mine.

Three things to note:

  1. The primary reason Lukacs claims to believe in the historicity of Jesus is the writing style of the Gospel of Luke;
  2. Who would ever have expected to read in a book for students of history the reminder that Jesus Christ may be regarded as “God’s great gift to mankind”?
  3. Other sources testifying to Jesus are added in what appears to be a secondary note that merely confirms the conclusion to be drawn from the first.

Four points to ponder:

— 1. The actual content of that passage in Luke’s gospel is itself fiction! There never was a world-wide census requiring persons to return to their “own cities” to be counted. Such an event is entirely fanciful. Imagine the nightmare of trying to enforce it in reality. The scenario is a fairy-tale event told in the historical genre. The same historical genre goes on to depict angels in the sky talking to shepherds, a virgin giving birth and a host of other miraculous and supernatural events. Are we really to conclude from the “historical style” of Luke that it must be about genuine historical persons and events?

— 2. The Jewish and Roman sources are all written a century and more after the supposed event and can only tell us what some people at that time believed. Worse, some of those sources have a history of being disputed as forgeries. Those kinds of sources — where the origins of the narratives cannot be known — are never embraced as secure and foundational in other historical research.

— 3. Second Temple Judean fiction is known to embrace the historical style but that is no reason to conclude that the contents of those narratives are historical. Witness the historical style introducing the fanciful stories of Esther . . .

This is what happened in the days of Xerxes, who reigned over 127 provinces from India to Cush. In those days King Xerxes sat on his royal throne in the citadel of Susa. In the third year of his reign, Xerxes held a feast for all his officials and servants. The military leaders of Persia and Media were there, along with the nobles and princes of the provinces. And for a full 180 days he displayed the glorious riches of his kingdom and the magnificent splendor of his greatness.

of Tobit . . .

The tale of Tobit son of Tobiel, son of Ananiel, son of Aduel, son of Gabael, of the lineage of Asiel and tribe of Naphtali. In the days of Shalmaneser king of Assyria, he was exiled from Thisbe, which is south of Kedesh-Naphtali in Upper Galilee, above Hazor, some distance to the west, north of Shephat.

of Daniel . . .

In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god. Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility.

— 4. But fiction told with historical verisimilitude was not unique to the Judeans. The Greco-Roman literary world knew it well. If Homer had written a history of the Trojan war with gods fighting humans, a later author appealed to the more rational and sceptical readers of a later generation by finding an account that explained “how it really happened – historically!”

Cornelius Nepos sends greetings to his Sallustius Crispus.

While I was busily engaged in study at Athens, I found the history which Dares the Phrygian wrote about the Greeks and the Trojans. As its title indicates, this history was written in Dares’ own hand. I was very delighted to obtain it and immediately made an exact translation into Latin, neither adding nor omitting anything, nor giving any personal touch. Following the straightforward and simple style of the Greek original, I translated word for word. Thus my readers can know exactly what happened according to this account and judge for themselves whether Dares the Phrygian or Homer wrote the more truthfully-Dares, who lived and fought at the time the Greeks stormed Troy, or Homer, who was born long after the War was over. When the Athenians judged this matter, they found Homer insane for describing gods battling with mortals. . . . — letter claiming to be by the discoverer (Dares the Phrygian) of an eye-witness account of the Trojan War (by Dictys of Crete)

There are people today who still believe in “a historical core” behind one ancient tale told with all seriousness, even though it was originally presented by a philosopher as a myth:

Many great and wonderful deeds are recorded of your state in our histories. But one of them exceeds all the rest in greatness and valour. For these histories tell of a mighty power which unprovoked made an expedition against the whole of Europe and Asia, and to which your city put an end. This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent. Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia.

Other examples could fill a book but I’ll limit myself to just one particularly dry, matter-of-fact biographical/historical narrative introduction:

I set out one day from the Pillars of Hercules and sailed with a following wind into the western ocean. My voyage was prompted by an active intellect and a passionate interest in anything new; the object I proposed to myself was to discover the limits of the ocean and what men dwelt beyond it. For this reason I took a great deal of food on board, and plenty of water. I got hold of fifty men of my own age and interests, as well as quite a store of arms, hired the best navigator I could find at a considerable salary, and strengthened the ship—a light transport—for a long and trying voyage. — from Lucian, A True History.

Is there any reason to disbelieve this introduction? Yes, there is. In this case the author warned us of exactly what he was about to write. We read in the lines immediately preceding that passage:

My subject, then, is things I have neither seen nor experienced nor heard tell of from anybody else: . . . So my readers must not believe a word I say.

The author was in fact writing a parody of works that pretended to be “true histories”:

I trust the present work will be found to inspire such reflection. My readers will be attracted . . . by the novelty of the subject, the appeal of the general design, and the conviction and verisimilitude with which I compound elaborate prevarications, . . . So when I came across all these writers, I did not feel that their romancing was particularly reprehensible; evidently it was already traditional, even among professed philosophers; though what did surprise me was their supposition that nobody would notice they were lying.

So why would Lukacs have confessed to being persuaded by the historical style of the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke — apparently blind to the fact that that style was being used to to describe a fictional event? Another historian pointed us to where we are likely to find the answer:

[T]he reader . . . must re-enact what goes on in the mind of the historian. Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. 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. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog. The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean ; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. — E. H. Carr, p. 23 of What is History?

John Lukacs (source)

We don’t have to ask a friend who may know John Lukacs. We have Lukacs giving an account of the bee in his bonnet in We at the Center of the Universe. There he writes:

. . . I happen to believe in God, and that Christ was his son. (Why I believe this, or perhaps why I wish to believe it, is not easy to tell, being part and parcel of my interior life — something that does not belong here.) Still, what this belief means, and what it ought to mean, is a recognition that Christ’s life among us, on this earth, may have been the cen­tral event in the history of mankind. If so, then this histor­ical event took place in what was then (and not only then but since and in the future) the center of the universe. I know that, being such a believer, I am among a minority of human beings. . . . 

To this I wish to add my anxiety about many believing Christians whose belief in Christ may be honest, sincere, and profound. Evidence suggests that their view of the world and of its history now exists together with, or at least alongside, their belief in endless progress, including the power of humankind to know and rule more and more of the universe, beyond this small planet where God makes us live. Sometimes I fear that as the life of Christ—only 2,000 years ago, a tiny portion of what we know of the history of mankind—becomes further and further away because of the passage of time, the meaning of his words, his life, his calvary may weaken in the imagination of men. . . . — Lukacs, pp. 8f of At the Center.


Akenson, Donald Harman. Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds. New edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Carr, Edward Hallet. What Is History? New York: Vintage, 1967.

Finley, M. I. Aspects of Antiquity: Discoveries and Controversies. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1972.

Frazer, Jr., R. M., trans. The Trojan War: The Chronicles of Dictys of Crete and Dares the Phrygian. Bloomington & London: Indiana University Press, 1966.

Lucian. “A True Story.” In Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon, translated by B. P. Reardon, 619–49. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Lukacs, John. A Student’s Guide to the Study of History. Wilmington, Delaware: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2014.

Lukacs, John. We at the Center of the Universe. South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustines Press, 2017.

Plato. Timaeus. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.