2020-12-20

The Death of John the Baptist — Sources and Less Obvious Contexts

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by Neil Godfrey

Here’s another contribution to our quest for the origins of John the Baptist as found in the synoptic gospels. Recent discussions have centred on the account found in Josephus — see

We have also seen Dennis MacDonald’s suggestion of a Homeric influence in the death of John the Baptist and in his wilderness setting.

So now it’s time to see how other texts, in particular the biblical narratives about Esther and Jezebel, shaped the Gospel accounts.

But first let me interrupt myself with this note: The idea of John the Baptist as an Elijah figure who has to come before the Messiah is not a staple of early Christian beliefs. The Gospels of Luke and John do not present John the Baptist as another Elijah. Rather, they both strongly indicate that they want readers to think of Jesus himself as the newly arrived Elijah. In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist is made to explicitly declare he is not the Elijah to come. In that gospel Jesus himself has been interpreted as an Elijah figure, that is, both as the Elijah at his first coming and the conquering messiah when he comes in glory (even if that means from the time of his crucifixion and resurrection). I suspect that this Elijah motif being applied to Jesus in the fourth gospel is the reason the author moved the cleansing of the temple scene to the beginning of his ministry — to make more sense of the prophecy of Malachi that Elijah would come suddenly to the temple. For a detailed discussion of the Gospel of Luke’s Jesus as Elijah see Jesus the New Elijah.

So the Gospels of Mark and Matthew stand alone in the canon with their interpretation of John the Baptist as Elijah.

Gustave Moreau, L’apparition 1876

The Influence of the Book of Esther

The daughter of Herodias pleased (ἤρεσεν) Herod and he said,

Whatever you ask of me, I will give it to you, up to half of my kingdom! (Mk 6:23)

Here is a widely acknowledged loan from Esther where the Persian king Ahasuerus promises Esther three times. In Esther 2:9 (LXX) we read that “the young girl pleased (ἤρεσεν)” the king who responded:

Then said the king unto her, What wilt thou, queen Esther? and what is thy request? it shall be even given thee to the half of the kingdom. (Esther 5:3; 5:6; 7:2)

Even the head on a platter is found in later versions of Esther:

It is interesting, moreover, that the late Esther Rabbah, perhaps reflecting earlier traditions, describes the head of the former queen being brought in to the king on a platter (4.9, 11) and is thus parallel to the gory conclusion of our story.

From the sefaria.org site:

“If it please Your Majesty, let a royal edict be issued by you (Esther 1:19)”: He said to him: “My lord king, you bring forth the word from your mouth and I will gather her head on a plate“. . . .

“The proposal was approved by the king and the ministers (Esther 1:21)”: He decreed and he brought her head on a plate. (Esther Rabbah 4:9, 11)

At this point we should ask why the evangelist calls Herod Antipas a king even though historically he was not a king but a tetrarch, “a ruler of a fourth part” of the divided kingdom of Herod the Great.

The title “ king” is technically inaccurate …, but its repeated usage here is probably not just a Markan mistake. It is, rather, an example of the evangelist’s irony, for it is prominent in a passage in which Herod is outwitted and manipulated by two women and hamstrung by his own oath and his fear of losing face before his courtiers (cf. J. Anderson, “Dancing Daughter,” 127). Throughout the passage, moreover, we see that this supposed “king” is not even in control of himself, much less of his subjects; he is, rather, overmastered by his emotions, which swing wildly from superstitious dread (6:14, 16) to awe, fascination, and confusion (6:20), to a sexual arousal that seems to border on insanity (6:22-23), to extreme depression (6:26). In this context his pretensions to royal authority (6:16, 27) appear almost farcical; Herod is one who merely appears to rule (cf. 10:42), whereas actually his strings are pulled by others. This ironic portrait of “King” Herod is Mark’s version of a common antityrannical theme, the germ of which is present in the Old Testament (e.g. Pharaoh, Ahasuerus in Esther, the king in Daniel) but that is more explicitly developed in the Greco-Roman sphere from Plato to the Cynics and Stoics: the tyrant is not a true king but a slave to his own passions (Plato Republic 9.573b-580a, 587b-e), and his claim to sovereignty is belied by his inability ׳ to enforce his will and avoid what he hates (Arrian, Discourses of Epictetus 1.19.2-3; cf. 1.24.15-18 and Schlier, “Eleutheros,” 493). (Marcus, 398 f. My bolded highlighting in all quotations)

(Incidentally, I think the same argument applies to Pilate in the mock “trial of Jesus”. The author is not attempting to exonerate Rome at the expense of the Jews but is deploring the failures of both, making an utter mockery of Roman power. See also: Mark’s and Matthew’s Sub Rosa Message in the Scene of Pilate and the Crowd by Andrew Simmons; or at https://www.jstor.org/stable/23488265)

So Herod and Ahasuerus match each other.

Yet doubts must arise. How can a tale so totally unlike the one we read in the Gospel of Mark come to the author’s mind as source material? How can the virtuous Esther possibly be used for an account of the seductive dancer?

Maurice Mergui offers an answer to that question in Comprendre Les Origines Du Christianisme: De L’eschatologie Juive Au Midrash Chrétien.

A Jezebel-Esther syzygy Continue reading “The Death of John the Baptist — Sources and Less Obvious Contexts”


2017-12-19

It works for Esther. Why not for Jesus?

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by Neil Godfrey

Esther before Ahasuerus: Tintoretto

One of the most frequently asked questions about the Book of Esther is: Are the events recounted in it true? In other words, is the book historically accurate? Arguing against the book’s historicity is the fact that many things in the story conflict with our knowledge about Persian history or are too fantastic to be believable. The following points are among the most obvious.

  • We know of no Persian queen named Esther, or any Jewish queen of Persia, and we would not expect there to have been one. Queens came from the noble Persian families, not from ethnic minorities. Moreover, real kings don’t choose queens from beauty contests. In fact, Esther enters the story more like a concubine, and only later emerges as a dignified queen. In contrast, Vashti, who was presumably a queen of proper ancestry and clearly in a high position at court, is treated like a concubine by Ahasuerus.
  • While Ahasuerus has been equated with Xerxes, no Persian king acted or would act the way Ahasuerus did. He is a king who cannot make the smallest decision without legal consultation, and leaves the big decisions to others altogether. Any resemblance to a real Persian king is purely coincidental.
  • To govern a country in which a law could never be changed would make governing impossible.1
  • A decree to annihilate the Jews is least at home in ancient Persia, an empire that is thought to have been relatively benevolent to the various ethnic groups within it, and is portrayed positively elsewhere in the Bible.
  • This is the empire that permitted the Jews to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple, of which there is not a word in Esther.
  • The plot hangs on at least one particular hook that goes against all logic but which is crucial to the story: that Esther could keep her Jewish identity hidden while all the world knew that she was related to Mordecai and all the world knew that Mordecai was a Jew.

In contrast, those who defend the book’s historicity point to the authentic information about the Persian court and its many customs and institutions, and the use of a number of Persian terms. But it is not simply a matter of weighing one side’s proofs against the other side’s, for, when we look carefully at the points for and against historicity, it turns out that the historically authentic material is in the background and setting, while the main characters and the important elements in the plot are much farther removed from reality. If this were a modern work, we would call it a historical novel, or historical fiction. While those terms may not be appropriate for the Bible, we can certainly recognize Esther as a form of imaginative storytelling, not unlike Jonah and Daniel, or Judith and Tobit in the Apocrypha. In fact, such storytelling was common in the Persian and Hellenistic periods, and even Greek historians such as Herodotus, whose writings are given more credibility as history, include imaginative tales in their works. The distinction between history and story, which is such an important issue for us, would not have engaged readers in the Persian period in the same way it does us. To the ancient reader an imaginative story was just as worthy, or even as holy, as a historically accurate one, so to declare Esther to be imaginative does not in any way detract from its value; The message of the Book of Esther and the significance of Purim remain the same whether or not the events of the book were actual.

Berlin, Adele. n.d. Esther = [Ester]: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001. pp. xvi-xvii

Of course in the gospels some of the “too fantastic to be believable” points have been written out and replaced by scholarly inventions. The most obvious example is that Jesus in the gospels was crucified for no good reason (except for being very good and being the messiah); so the gospel truth is replaced by the more plausible notion that Jesus must have been crucified for as a political rebel.

Pilate acts as unhistorically as does Ahasuerus.

But then again …. you never know. I mean, how else can you explain the existence of the Jews today if Esther was not historical? Why would anyone make it up? How else do you explain Purim? Maybe it was historical after all…. ?? (tongue is wedged deep into cheek)

 

 


2013-11-28

History and Verisimilitude: “Real” vs. “Realistic”

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by Tim Widowfield

Yet Another Ehrman-Evans Debate

In a recent Bart Ehrman blog post, he referred to a debate he had with Craig Evans on the reliability of the New Testament, which took place back in January of 2012. If you watch it (perhaps you already have) and you’re familiar with these guys, don’t expect to see or hear anything new. I’ve come to realize that whenever Bart starts a sentence with, “I tell my students at Chapel Hill,” he’s going to tell a story I’ve heard at least ten times already.

However, Evans did say something that caught my ear. If you click on the start button on the video below, it should cue up to the 14:04 mark, at which point Evans says . . .

Second, New Testament scholars, historians, and archaeologists view the gospels as essentially reliable, because they exhibit verisimilitude, a Latin word that means “they resemble the way things really were.” That is, the contents of these writings match with what we know of the place, people, and period described in the document.

Their contents cohere with what is known through other written sources and through archaeological finds. Their contents give evidence of acquaintance with the topography and geography of the region that forms the backdrop to the story. The authors of these documents exhibit knowledge of the culture and customs of the people they describe. Ancient narratives that possess these characteristics are used by historians and archaeologists.

The New Testament Gospels and Acts exhibit a great deal of ver-ee-similitude. They speak of real people — Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, Annas, Caiaphas, Herod Agrippa I, Herod Agrippa II, Felix, Festus — and they speak of real events — the death of John the Baptist, the death of Agrippa I. They speak of real places — villages, cities, roads, lakes, mountains — which are clarified and corroborated by other historical sources and by archaeology.

Continue reading “History and Verisimilitude: “Real” vs. “Realistic””