What Did Josephus Think of John the Baptist?

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by Neil Godfrey

Many scholars assert that behind the obviously interpolated words about Jesus in the Antiquities of the Jews Josephus did in fact write something, either mildly positive or neutral in tone, about him. The problem with that assertion is that it is well recognized among scholars of Josephus that the Jewish historian absolutely hated everyone who, they believe, was taken to be some sort of messianic figure. Accordingly, some scholars propose that what Josephus originally wrote about Jesus was indeed a negative assessment. Hence the ongoing slide into imaginary sources so familiar to historical Jesus studies. What we read in the writings of Josephus about Jesus is beyond the scope of Rivka Nir’s exploration of John the Baptist in The First Christian Believer. But what I found interesting was that one of her reasons for questioning the authenticity of the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities falls into the same basket of reasons for questioning the authenticity of the Jesus passage.

Palestine was riddled with prophets in the decades leading up to the War of 66-70 and John the Baptist (and Jesus, too) should be examined in this context, we so often read in the scholarly literature. The usual suspects trotted out are

  • the Samaritan prophet who led crowds to Mount Gerazim in expectation of finding sacred vessels hidden by Moses
  • Theudas who led a large crowd to the Jordan River in expectation of it parting just as in the days of Joshua
  • the Egyptian prophet who led a crowd to the Mount Olives from where they expected to see God tear down the walls of Jerusalem
  • the prophet from the wilderness who took people out into the wilderness

The attitude of Josephus to all of these prophets is well known. He branded them “false prophets, imposters, deceivers, swindlers, deluders” (Nir, 46) and he blamed them, along with “bandits and robbers” and other rebels for the destruction of the temple at the hands of Rome.

How can we reconcile?

So how can we understand writing about John the Baptist so positively? Nir writes:

44 The word στάσις means rebellion or struggle against the governing authorities, or conflict between two civilian groups: see Ant. 18.62.88 . . . ; and νεώτερος conveys the idea of social-political change or revolution: ‘With this significance the term is often used negatively by those supporting the status quo which is being challenged by that which is ‘‘radically innovative”’ (Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet, p. 37 . . .). 

His abhorrence of these prophets is consistent with his opposition to whoever sought to undermine the legitimate government and strove after any kind of change or revolution. In the passage at hand, John is described as contesting the legitimate regime and instigator of revolution: Herod feared that ‘eloquence [John’s] that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition [στάσις]’ and ‘decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising (νεώτερος), than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation, and see his mistake’. The two terms (στάσις and νεώτερος) imply that John’s activity had rebellious overtones and the potential for political ferment.44

How then can we reconcile Josephus’s negative stance toward these rabble-rousers with his sympathy for John? And not only does Josephus describe him positively, he even justifies those Jews who saw the annihilation of Herod’s army as divine punishment for John’s execution: ‘But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance (μάλα δικαίως).

(Nir, 46f)

Nir notes that some scholars (Schürer, Meier) raise the possibility that Josephus might have made an exception for John the Baptist because of his asceticism. My response to that suspicion is to ask why Josephus did not breathe a word about John’s asceticism. The asceticism of John is an idea that comes from the gospels where it serves an evident theological function as a foil to the teaching of Jesus. If Josephus thought of John as qualitatively different from the other prophets whom he despised then surely we would expect him to make that difference explicit.

At this point Rivka Nir takes up what she considers the primary reason for doubting the authenticity of the Josephan passage: the description of John’s baptism. We’ll look at that in a later post.

Differences between John the Baptist and those other prophets

Continue reading “What Did Josephus Think of John the Baptist?”


On John the Baptist per Josephus – and the murder of Zechariah son of Jehoiada

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by Neil Godfrey

Let’s continue looking at Rivka Nir’s proposal that the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities of the Jews was not part of Josephus’s original work. We continue from John the Baptist’s Place in Josephus’s Antiquities. But be warned. I get sidetracked and explore the broader evidence for both Christian and Jewish views on divine retribution for killing prophets and especially focus on the story that appears to have been the paradigm for all such accounts — the murder of Zechariah in 2 Chronicles.

In my previous post the point was made that the John the Baptist passage appears to have been dislocated from where it would more naturally fit. That is, we have this flow of thought ….

  1. Josephus informs readers that Herod and the king of Nabatean Arabia, Aretas, had a quarrel.
  2. This quarrel, Josephus relates, was over Herod plotting to divorce Aretas’s daughter.
  3. Aretas went to war against Herod and defeated him.
  4. Herod then appealed to Tiberius, the Roman emperor, to punish Aretas. Tiberius ordered his general Vitellius to invade Aretas’s kingdom and bring Aretas back to Rome dead or alive.
  5. The John the Baptist passage appears here as the explanation, according to some Jews, for why Herod’s army had been defeated
  6. Vitellius is said to obey Tiberius’s order and his march towards Aretas’s kingdom is described, along with how he pulled back from his venture on learning of the death of emperor Tiberius.

Rivka Nir suggests that the more natural place for Josephus to give the supposed reason for Herod’s defeat would be between #3 and #4 above.

Rivka Nir also points to the discrepancy between the gospel’s dating the death of John to the time of Jesus (presumably about 30 CE or a little before) and the Josephan account that is set at 36 CE. “How could Josephus claim that the Jews credited Herod’s defeat to John’s death, which preceded it by six years?” (p. 44) But I wonder why the gospel timing of JB’s death should be taken as any more authoritative than Josephus’.

Further, the idea that Herod was defeated in war as divine punishment for unjustly killing a figure prominent in the Christian tradition reminds us of later Christian authors — Hegesippus, Origen and Eusebius — blaming the fall of Jerusalem on the unjust execution of James the brother of Jesus. Nir sees both accounts — the unjust murders of John the Baptist and James the Lord’s brother — as “presumably based on the causal relationship created by Christian theology between the Jewish rejection and crucifixion of Jesus and the temple’s destruction.”(pp. 44f)

I was interested in the evidence for the early Christian authors promoting this idea of a causal relationship between the crucifixion of Jesus and the fall of Jerusalem so followed up as many of Nir’s citations as I could. Here is what I found (all bolded emphasis is mine): Continue reading “On John the Baptist per Josephus – and the murder of Zechariah son of Jehoiada”


John the Baptist’s Place in Josephus’s Antiquities

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by Neil Godfrey

I have been sidetracked from blogging regularly for a while now so I’m long overdue for continuing Rivka Nir’s case (The First Christian Believer: In Search of John the Baptist) for the John the Baptist passage in Josephus being a Christian interpolation. Previous posts are

Now I have to confess my exploration of John the Baptist since last year has been the result of following up Gregory Doudna’s chapter in a festschrift for Thomas L. Thompson. So far I have not posted in depth on Greg’s views but the summaries I have set out with links to the chapter online have generated some discussion: see

In this post the specific point made will serve both Nir’s and Doudna’s views. Nir argues for Christian interpolation; Doudna for a misplaced Josephan passage.

Nir points to James H. Charlesworth’s criteria for identifying interpolations in apocryphal writings. Criteria #2 and #3 would just as easily point to a misplaced passage as a foreign interpolation:

  • (2) if the passage is not integrated into the context syntactically;
  • (3) if the passage is easily removable and upon its removal the text’s sequence becomes clear.

Nir adds another but its relevance applies to examining the passage from a perspective that does not concern us in this post. Here we look at how the passage fits syntactically.

Rivka Nir directs our attention to the thought immediately preceding and then immediately following the John the Baptist passage as earlier addressed by Léon Herrmann — and noted by others, too, as we have seen in several posts over the years. It’s not a new observation but I think it is worth setting it down here again for reference.

Immediately before the JB passage (paragraph 115):

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 [καὶ Τιβέριος μὲν] gave to the president of Syria.

and immediately following (paragraph 120) the JB passage:

So [δὲ] Vitellius prepared to make war with Aretas, having with him two legions of armed men; he also took with him all those of light armature, and of the horsemen which belonged to them, and were drawn out of those kingdoms which were under the Romans, and made haste for Petra, and came to Ptolemais.

Nir’s comment:

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. (Nir, p. 44)

Nir adds another point,

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?

It may be worth adding another detail Nir references, one made by John P. Meier in volume 2 of A Marginal Jew (pp. 59f): The JB passage can be read as an inclusio, as a self-contained capsule.

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him. 

The bolded opening and closing words contain the same concepts:

  • the Jews
  • opinion/thought
  • destruction of Herod’s army
  • divine punishment
  • justly deserved
  • John executed

None of the above (except arguably for Nir’s added “another point”) is inconsistent with Greg Doudna’s view, as I understand it. We will see different interpretations enter with further discussion. What the above does suggest, however, is that the John the Baptist passage as understood by readers in the Christian tradition was not original to the book 18 of Antiquities.

Nir, Rivka. First Christian Believer: In Search of John the Baptist. Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2019.

Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. V. 2. Mentor, Message, and Miracles. New York: Doubleday, 1994.


Early Thoughts on Authenticity of the John the Baptist Passage in Josephus

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing Rivka Nir’s case for questioning the authenticity of John the Baptist in Josephus’s Antiquities…. (First post is here.)

Nir informs us in The First Christian Believer,

By the nineteenth and early twentieth century, historians were suggesting that this passage was a Christian interpolation. (p. 42)

As a general rule, I like to follow up and check the grounds for statements like that. For readers who also would like to know who these early historians were and what they actually said I post here quotations from the sources cited by Rivka Nir.

Heinrich Graetz

This sentence translates as…

Meanwhile, the point is easily settled. Josephus’s narrative [account] about John [the Baptist], his capture and his death (das. 2, 2), is a brazen interpolation like that about Jesus (das. 3, 3), which is has now generally come to be viewed as a forgery.

Graetz, Heinrich. “Von dem Tode Juda Makkabi’s zum Untergange des judäische Staates.” In Geschichte der Juden : von den ältesten Zeiten bis auf die Gegenwart, 3:278 (note 3). Leipzig, Leiner, 1888. https://archive.org/details/geschichtederjud03grae/page/276/mode/2up


Samuel Krauss


The question of the authenticity of the Johannes passage in Josephus has not yet been definitively answered; it is at any rate suspect.

Krauss, Samuel. Das Leben Jesu nach jüdischen Quellen. Berlin: Georg Olms, 1902. p. 257 https://books.google.com.au/books?id=Tu9dpJx1M2oC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false.


Next is that passage I asked for help to translate.

Emil Schürer

Die Echtheit der Josephusstelle ist nur selten angefochten worden (auch Volkmar setzt sie ohne weiteres voraus ; gegen dieselbe : J . Chr . K . v . Hofmann , Die heil . Schrift Neuen Testaments , VII . Thl . 3 . Abth . Der Brief Jakobi 1876 , S . 4 f . ) Zu ihren Gunsten spricht allerdings, dass die Motive für die Gefangensetzung und Hinrichtung des Täuters so ganz anders angegeben werden als in den Evangelien. Da aber Josephus an anderen Stellen sicher von christlicher Hand interpolirt worden ist, so darf man auch hier nicht allzusehr auf die Echtheit vertrauen. Bedenken erweckt namentlich das günstige Urtheil über Johannes, der doch nur nach gewissen Seiten hin dem Josephus sympathisch sein konnte, nämlich als Asket und Moralprediger, aber nicht als der das Volk mächtig aufregende Prophet des kommenden Messias.

Translation with thanks to all those who contributed via email, Facebook and this blog.

The authenticity of the Josephus passage has only seldom been challenged (Volkmar also assumes it without further ado; against the same: J. Chr. K. v. Hofmann, Die heil .schrift Neuen Testaments, VII. Thl. 3rd Abth Der Brief Jakobi 1876, p. 4 f.) In their favor, however, the fact that the motives for the imprisonment and order of the masters are given so completely differently than in the Gospels. But since Josephus was certainly interpolated by a Christian hand in other passages, one should not trust too much in the authenticity here either. The favorable judgment about John arouses concern, who is only sympathetic to Josephus in certain respects could, namely as an ascetic and moral preacher, but not as the prophet of the coming Messiah, who might excite the people.

Schürer, Emil. Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi: Einleitung und politische Geschichte. Vol. 1.364 (note 24). J. C. Hinrichs, 1890.


Rivka Nir stated that Schürer thought Josephus’s positive attitude towards John was suspicious. But when I read the revised English translation of Schürer’s volume I met a different conclusion:

The passage of Josephus was known to Origen (c. Cels. I, 47). Eusebius quotes it in full (HE i 11, 4-6; DE ix 5, 15). Its genuineness is rarely disputed. In its favour is the fact that the motives for the imprisonment and execution of the Baptist are entirely different from the Gospel version. But since the text of Josephus has certainly been retouched by Christian scribes in other passages, the theory of an interpolation cannot be absolutely excluded. Suspicion is aroused by the favourable verdict on John, but against this it should be borne in mind that as an ascetic and moral preacher, he might have been viewed sympathetically by Josephus.

Schürer, Emil. The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, Vol. 1. Revised and edited by Geza Vermes & Fergus Millar. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1973. p. 346 https://books.google.com.au/books?redir_esc=y&id=p75tWhrwGT8C&q=known+to+Origen#v=onepage&q&f=false

Vermes and Millar introduce an emphatic statement that Origen knew the passage in Josephus about John the Baptist, yet Origen’s testimony is ambiguous at best as we saw in the previous post.

Vermes/Millar further make the positive suggestion that “the theory of an interpolation cannot be absolutely excluded” but the intent of the original words is in fact negative according to the several translations generously offered by those who responded to my request:

  • given that other passages in Josephus were doubtless interpolated by Christian hands, one cannot place blind trust in authenticity.
  • since Josephus is interpolated by Christian hand in other places, one cannot trust its authenticity all too much in this case
  • one can’t completely trust this translation either (as it was influenced by a Christian perspective)
  • since Josephus was certainly interpolated by Christians (a Christian hand) in other places, one should not trust too much in the authenticity here either
  • since Josephus has clearly been interpolated in other places, one must not be altogether trusting of the genuineness of this passage

The Vermes/Millar revision presents an opposite idea, leading readers to think that, “Okay, theoretically there is some small chance it is an interpolation”; while other translations suggest, “Given what we know of Christian editing elsewhere we need to be cautious and not be too quick to assume authenticity here.” Continue reading “Early Thoughts on Authenticity of the John the Baptist Passage in Josephus”


John the Baptist: Another Case for Forgery in Josephus

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by Neil Godfrey

Of making many posts about John the Baptist there is no end, and much discussion may weary, or stimulate, the flesh. Here’s another one. This post is the first in a series of perhaps three that intends to raise awareness of Rivka Nir‘s case for the passage about John the Baptist in Josephus being a Christian interpolation. It comes from her book, The First Christian Believer: In Search of John the Baptist.

Nir begins by setting out the reasons scholars generally accept the Josephan passage about John the Baptist [JB] as authentic.

But first, here is the passage:

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 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 (Ant. 18.116-19).

First reason: there are significant differences between the Josephan and gospel portrayals of JB

The scholars who argue for the authenticity of this passage base their case primarily on the differences, modifications and even contradictions between Josephus and the Gospel version. It is reasonable to assume, they argue, that had the hand of a Christian interpolator intervened here, he would fully align the passage with the Gospel account. (p. 33)

I am immediately reminded of Ken Olson’s discussion (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Forger) of how effective forgery works on readers psychologically in the case of the Secret Gospel of Mark. Indeed, Rivka Nir returns to the very same idea later in her discussion with respect to the Josephan passage of JB. But for now, let’s look at those differences that scholars have thought give assurance the Josephus passage is genuine.

Unlike the gospel authors, Josephus

The absence of an apocalyptic and messianic message for JB is said to be consistent with Josephus’s interests throughout his writings — to avoid offending Roman readers with mention of apparent messianic rebel movements against Rome. At the same time, Josephus wished to present the Jewish culture as embodying enlightened philosophical traditions so he portrayed JB as a popular ethical philosopher instead of a prophet of end-times.

Scholars have argued that the gospel account is needed to explain why crowds flocked to JB since they would more likely be attracted by a message of imminent judgment and messianic time than ethical philosophy. The evangelists were also just as motivated to remove suggestions that JB was a political threat as Josephus was to remove messianic associations.

Hence the accounts are viewed as complementary with their differences.

  1. does not associate JB with Jesus or Christianity
  2. gives JB no eschatological, apocalyptic or messianic interest
  3. plants JB in a real political-historical background
  4. gives political reasons for Herod Antipas’s hostility towards JB (fear of mob uprising: contrast gospels where hostility is personal hatred, in particular from Herodias who is not mentioned by Josephus)
  5. has JB imprisoned in Machaerus and executed shortly afterwards (contrast gospels where no place is given and the imprisonment appears to be for a considerable time before his execution)
  6. sets the execution of JB around 35 CE (contrast Gospel of Luke where it appears around 28-29 CE)

Scholars interpret these differences as an indication that there was a tradition about JB independent of the gospels.

Yet, at the same time, these scholars attempt to reconcile this testimony with the Gospels. (p. 34)

Reconciliation is found in the following:

  1. the need for repentance or righteous living in association with baptism
  2. crowds follow John
  3. Josephus’s statement that John had an influence over the attitude of the crowds towards Herod Antipas couples nicely with the gospel account Herod was worried by JB’s criticism of his marriage

Accordingly, these two testimonies are interrelated, complementary and unintelligible independently of each other; and their divergences derive from the difference in point of view, in authorial interest and the tendencies underlying each source, and, in fact, we have one tradition under different mantles. (pp. 34 f)

Second reason: the JB passage has the same vocabulary and style as the surrounding passages

They note, for exampie, Josephus’s inclination to verbosity, his peculiar vocabulary and linguistic forms, his usage of circumlocution, his heavy reliance on participles (participium) and the infinitive (infinitivus) and genitive absolute (genetivus absolutus), in his attempt to imitate classical Greek style, especially Thucydides. Of the many expressions characteristic of Josephus’s style in Ant. 17-19, scholars emphasize his usage of the following paired terms: piety toward God/fear of God (εύσεβεία πρός τόν θεόν) and righteousness (δικαιοσύνη). The conjunction of eusebia and dikaiosunë is typical of Josephus, encapsulating the essentials of ethical philosophy in his time, and is part of the apologetic arsenal in his effort to present Judaism as a philosophical tradition embracing the highest universal virtues. (P. 36)

Third reason: the JB passage appears in all of the manuscripts

Fourth reason: the JB passage is mentioned by Origen

Origen writes, ca 248 CE, in Against Celsus 1.47

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.

So how does Rivka Nir meet the above challenges in order to argue that the passage was not penned by Josephus? Continue reading “John the Baptist: Another Case for Forgery in Josephus”


How and Why the Mandaeans Embraced John the Baptist

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by Neil Godfrey

The Mandaeans live on the banks of the Tigris [see Ancient Whither for an update since Iraq war]. They must live near running water where they can practise their continual baptismal rites. When they were first discovered by [Roman Catholic missionaries] in the 17th century, and it was found that they were neither Catholics nor Protestants but that they made much of baptism and honoured John the Baptist, they were called Christians of St John, in the belief that they were a direct survival of the Baptist’s disciples [such as are mentioned in Acts 18:25ff].

(F. C. Burkitt, 1928, [1931])

Last month I posted links to recent works from a symposium on John the Baptist and expressed appreciation for a reminder from James McGrath that it might be worth taking a closer look at the Mandaean sources when searching for glimpses of “the historical John the Baptist”. This post shares what I have found of interest in my very early follow up reading.


  • What follows draws upon what only a handful of scholars have written about the relationship between John the Baptist and the Mandaeans. The views are debated.
  • I have not read the Mandaean literature, not even in translation, but am relying upon what scholars have written about that literature in summary.
  • What I write today may be (and probably will be) different from what I write another day.

Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley argues in favour of the strong likelihood of a historical link (even if that link is indirect) between John the Baptist and the Mandaeans in The Great Stem of Souls: Reconstructing Mandaean History and in her contribution to A People’s History of ChristianityOf one scholar who does not accept a historical connection Buckley writes:

Shimon Gibson’s The Cave of John the Baptist (New York: Doubleday, 2004) is much too facile in its summary dismissal of the Mandaeans as being of any possible relevance to the historical John (325-26). The idea that John was imported into Mandaeism in Islamic times is untenable.

(Buckley, Turning the Tables on Jesus, 296 – my emphasis)

Before I set out Buckley’s case let’s look at the one she protests is “too facile a dismissal” of a Mandaean association with a historical John the Baptist. Shimon Gibson asks and addresses the key question in The Cave of John the Baptist:

Could these Mandaeans be the descendants of the original followers of John the Baptist? And would it be possible to reconstruct the writings of the first followers of John based on an analysis of Mandaean literature?

Unfortunately, the answer is a negative one: they are definitely not the descendants of the original baptists. The name of the sect is derived from the Aramaic Manda d’Haiye, which means ‘the knowledge of life’. . . . 

The excitement of early researchers suggesting possible links between disciples of John, who had in some fashion preserved his heritage, and Mandaean religious writings was quickly dashed by the scholar F. C. Burkitt who was able to show that there is nothing in the Mandaean literature that could actually predate the fifth to seventh centuries AD. Moreover, those Mandaean writings pertaining specifically to John the Baptist must reflect adaptations from the Gospels and are not alternative writings on John. . . . Some of the Mandaean writings are notably hostile towards Christianity and Jesus, who is described as the ‘prophet of lies’, as well as towards Judaism [note 10.81].

(Gibson, Cave, 325f. Note 10.81 points to Albright’s From the Stone Age to Christianity that also directs readers to Burkitt, and to Lietzmann’s The Beginnings of the Christian Church.)

And so our journey begins. Next stop, some of the comments of F. C. Burkitt:

And a very little investigation makes it quite clear that the Mandaean hostility to Eshu mshiha[=Jesus Christ] is hostility to the fully developed post-Nicene Church. In several places ‘Christ’ is actually called ‘the Byzantine’ (Rumaia), and further we are told that the disciples of this Christ become ‘Christians’, and turn into monks and nuns who have no children and who keep fasts and never wear white clothes like the Mandaeans . . . . In a word, it is not the Christ of the Gospels, but the Christ of fully developed ecclesiastical organization and policy to which Mandaism is so hostile.

(Bukitt, 1928, 229)

An example of Manichean influence: The Mandaeans, then, rejected the Christ of the Catholic Church, born of a woman and crucified, but they accepted the Stranger who appeared in Jerusalem in the days of Pilate, who healed the sick and taught the true and life-giving doctrine, and who ascended in due course when his work was done to his own place in the world of Light. This Personage is called the Stranger, but he is no stranger to the modern student of Christian antiquity : it is clearly the Manichaean Jesus, a personage adopted by Mani from the Jesus of Marcion. In other words it is no new controversial figment of the Mandaeans. (Burkitt, 1928, 231)

What did the contemporary Churchmen say of the Mandaeans? Burkitt in Church and Gnosis:

We have now . . . an account of the Mandaeans by an ancient Mesopotamian writer, writing in the year A.D. 792. He tells us that their founder was a certain Ado, a mendicant, who came from Adiabene, i.e. from the district just north of Mosul. He further tells us that his teaching was derived from the Marcionites, from the Manichaeans . . .

There is no reason to reject the evidence of Theodore bar Konai. . . . It is important to consider how much his evidence comes to. There is a good deal in the Mandaean literature that recalls Marcionite and Manichaean teaching . . . .

(Burkitt, 1931, 102)

And that other cited reference in Gibson’s The Cave of John the Baptist?

The numerous writings of the Mandæans bear witness to the continued existence of the disciples of John for several centuries and perhaps the baptist sect in southern Babylonia at the present time, is the direct heir of John’s work in the days of the Herods. That is asserted nowadays by many weighty persons, and anyone who regards the Mandaean literature as sources can draw an attractive picture of the spiritual power which proceeded from John, and which influenced the religion of Judaism, and especially that of Jesus and His disciples. John’s circle then appears as the nursery of an early gnosis, which united Babylonian, Persian, and Syrian elements in a many-coloured mixture on a Jewish background, and grouped the whole round the ancient Iranian mythology of the first man, that redeemer who descended from heaven in order to awaken the soul bound and asleep in the material fetters of this world, and to open up for it the way to heaven.

This is very intriguing, and gives quite unthought-of perspectives, leading possibly to a new understanding of primitive Christianity; nevertheless we must put it firmly and entirely on one side. It can be shown that the Mandaean literature consists of various strata which come from widely different periods. And the latest of these strata, belonging to the Islamic era—i.e. at earliest, in the seventh century—are those which preserve the notices of John the Baptist; they are modelled on the basis of the gospel records, and distorted till they are grotesque. In the same way, the many sallies against Jesus and Christianity are quite clearly directed against the Byzantine church, and have not the least connection with primitive Christianity. The fragments of the earlier strata belong to a rank oriental gnosis which has run to seed, and have no bearing on the historical John and his disciples.

(Lietzmann, 1961, 43f)

To turn now to a more recent scholar and one whom Buckley engages in some depth (pp 326-330 in Great Stem), Edmondo Lupieri, author of The Mandaeans, the Last Gnostics.

One detail in Lupieri’s work that Buckley disputes that attracted my attention concerned the Mandaean account of their ancestors having migrated from Palestine to Mesopotamia. I was unaware of such an event being a literary trope that can be traced back to the flight of Aeneas with his family from Troy immediately prior to its destruction. That a narrative is a trope does not necessarily mean it cannot also be a historical event, but if a literary-ideological pattern alone offers an explanation for a narrative and there is no independent supporting evidence for historicity then we have no need to go beyond the most economical explanation. Lupieri writes

From the point of view of a comparative analysis it means also that Mandaeanism has aligned itself with those religions that allocate a flight to their beginnings, following upon a persecution. In backgrounds linked to Judaism, this flight or original migration is characterized by a flight from Jerusalem before its destruction,53 which is then explained as a divine punishment.54 The motif is well represented in Judaic traditions — for example, in the so-called “Second Book of Baruch” — but it is above all in Christian or post-Christian traditions where it has found the most ample scope for its development. Already in the Synoptic Gospels there is Jesus’ exhortation to flee to the hills, leaving Jerusalem and Judaea to their destiny of death,55 but most important of all was the legend of a flight of the entire Christian community in Jerusalem from the Judaic capital to Pella, a pagan city beyond the Jordan, shortly before the arrival of the Romans.

53. The event was so traumatic that it exercised a remarkable influence on the belief of all the religions arising from or in some way deriving from Judaism. The legends on the flights from Jerusalem are the religious parallel of the “secular” legends on the original flight-migration from a famous city of the past, afterward destroyed. This is the legend of Aeneas, of course, and of many analogies to be found here and there in virtually all cultures.

54. Also within Judaism, the only way to save the faith after the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem is to consider the catastrophe a punishment decided by one’s own God for sins committed; outside of Judaism, and in particular in Christianity and in Islam, it will be the God of each one (whether thought to be the same God as the Jews’ or not) who punished the Judaic sins.

55. Mark 13:14-27 and parallels.

Lupieri casts light on the problems that arise if that Pella flight actually happened: Continue reading “How and Why the Mandaeans Embraced John the Baptist”


John the Baptist Resources

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by Neil Godfrey

“Authentic” hand bones of John the Baptist on display in Constantinople.

Presentations and readings are now available at the online site for the John the Baptist Enoch Seminar (11-14 January 2021)

James McGrath has additionally posted his take on many of the presentations:

Last month a lengthy discussion ensued from a post linking Greg Doudna’s suggestion about the origin of the John the Baptist anecdote in Josephus’s Antiquities to the dating of the Gospel of Mark: Another Pointer Towards a Late Date for the Gospel of Mark? In the Online Seminar page linked above one can find links to Greg Doudna’s article, or you can simply click here.

Readers who are aware of my approach to historical enquiry will not be surprised to read that I wonder who anything at all can be known about a John the Baptist figure behind the literary/theological figure(s) that long post-date(s) the early first century and offer us no clear pointers to historical sources? To that end, my interest was piqued by comments on Rivka Nir’s book, The First Christian Believer : In Search of John the Baptist. It may be a little while before I can read beyond summaries, articles and reviews, however, given the cost of it. Nir writes in her presentation,

Given the sources as we have them, I am among the few who are skeptical about our ability to reach the historical figure of John the Baptist through the Gospels.

These writings are not sources for getting acquainted with the historical heroes and makers of Christianity, but for accessing how they were perceived and presented by those generations that shaped the traditions about them.

Exactly. (Nir further argues that the detail about JtB in Josephus is an interpolation.)

McGrath continues to call for a closer look at the Mandean literature. That is something I have not attempted for quite some time so I will be interested to read what he has to say about that.

There are many articles and papers on the Seminar site and I have only glanced at the smallest sample in this post. So much catching up to do!

One more thing — I was not aware of a John the Baptist Wiki Encyclopedia before.

Thanks to Greg Doudna for alerting me to James McGrath’s series that led me to the Seminar resources.





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”


Another Pointer Towards a Late Date for the Gospel of Mark?

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by Neil Godfrey

Back in August this year, I introduced a hypothesis that what we read in Josephus’s Antiquities about John “the Baptist” is actually a misplaced episode about the John Hyrcanus II. (See the relevant section linked here in the discussion of the festschrift for Thomas L. Thompson, Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson.) I won’t go into the details of Doudna’s argument yet so check the summary to get the context for this post.

The point here is that if Doudna’s idea is correct then the gospel authors drew their template for John the Baptist from the writings of Josephus in the early 90s. There would be no reason to justify any other source; there was no oral tradition or historical person or event to draw upon — nothing but a literary confusion stands alone as the source.

Now why would the first evangelist to write a gospel (we’ll call him Mark) introduce a story about Jesus with an Elijah-like figure baptizing “all of Judea and Jerusalem” in the Jordan river?

By the way, I stress that Mark does not say “some” of the people of Judea and Jerusalem but he speaks of the whole population being baptized and Matthew follows him here. It is easy to dismiss this phrase as an exaggeration but why would our evangelists exaggerate to such an astonishing extent? Why would they begin the ministry of Jesus with a claim that Judea itself was baptized by John? If we try to imagine the evangelists putting a hyperbolic spin on “historical memories” then we have to wonder why they could not see that they somewhat overdid it and thereby undermined their credibility. Or — there is another explanation…. One of the oldest critics to spell out this alternative was David Friedrich Strauss in the nineteenth century. He wrote:

The baptism of John could scarcely have been derived from the baptism of proselytes, for this rite was unquestionably posterior to the rise of Christianity. It was more analagous to the religious lustrations in practice amongst the Jews, especially the Essenes, and was apparently founded chiefly on certain expressions used by several of the prophets in a figurative sense, but afterwards understood literally.

* By “source”, I mean to exclude the notion that the evangelists used the Jewish Scriptures merely to add a bit of scriptural colouring to what were ultimately historical memories or traditions about Jesus. I mean the narrative described allusively to the Scriptures was itself inspired by the Scriptures. Unlike other historical accounts where historical figures are given mythical overlays, there is nothing left of the figure of Jesus once we remove those scriptural overlays. Alexander the Great and Hadrian may have been compared with Dionysus and Heracles, and Socrates may even have emulated Achilles in one sense, but remove those mythical images and we still have lots of the flesh of the historical persons visible to us. That’s not the case when we remove the myth from Jesus.

Ah yes, we return once more to the Jewish Scriptures being the source* of the gospels. So what are those “certain expressions used by several of the prophets”?

According to these expressions, God requires from the Israelitish people, as a condition of their restoration to his favour, a washing and purification from their iniquity, and he promises that he will himself cleanse them with water (Isaiah i. 16, Ez. xxxvi. 25, comp. Jer. ii. 22).

For those too rushed or lazy to click on the references here they are on a platter:

Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong.

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.


Add to this the Jewish notion that the Messiah would not appear with his kingdom until the Israelites repented,9 and we have the combination necessary for the belief that an ablution, symbolical of conversion and forgiveness of sins, must precede the advent of the Messiah.

9 Sanhedr. f. xcvii. 2 : R. Elieser dixit : si Israélite pænitentiam agunt, tunc per Croeiem liberantur ; sin vero, non liberantur. Schöttgen, horæ, 2, p. 780 ff.

(Strauss, Life of Jesus, Pt 2, ch2, §45)

So we can imagine our first evangelist thinking:

I need to begin by having Israel repent so the Messiah can come — as we understand from our holy books. The Jordan River seems like a logical place to start. That’s where Joshua renewed the covenant with Israel. But how to get them all assembled there? And we need Elijah to be the herald of the Messiah at the same time, as per Malachi. . . . Hey, what was that in Josephus about John the Immerser? … Ah yes, perfect… I’ll use him. He gets arrested and sent to prison, and that’s something I can work with, too. And being a ritual baptizer, how convenient that that fits right in with the conversion of the nation being a washing or sprinkling in the prophets. Right…. here we go, clothing our John with Elijah’s garb and having him represent the “OT”…

And so we have it: all the Jews repent by going out to a John who is redescribed as Elijah and are baptized in the Jordan.

Once that “little detail” is out of the way, the journey of Jesus begins. Of course, the repentance of his people preceding his coming is soon forgotten as demons come in and Jesus has to contend with unbelievers, enemies, and so forth. But many do accept him even if they don’t fully understand what he’s all about till after the resurrection.

Is it likely, though, that Josephus could have been so “sloppy” as to misplace a story about John Hyrcanus so that later readers interpreted his John through their knowledge of the gospels? Recall certain observations I noted in Once more on Josephus, and questions arising . . . .

It is an uncomfortable fact for the more ambitious varieties of source criticism that Josephus has the authorial habit of repeating and contradicting himself, and of varying his terminology. These oddities call for analysis, but they may result from a variety of causes (e.g., sloppiness, rhetorical artifice, multiple editions, copyist’s interventions, and yes, sources);. . . (112).


Many scholars . . . argue that Josephus uses one or more assistants (συνεργοί), or if not assistants then sources, for this section of the Antiquitates.

One can imagine arguments breaking out from time to time in the editorial room.

The Date of Mark?

Continue reading “Another Pointer Towards a Late Date for the Gospel of Mark?”


continuing … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson

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by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to those contributors who encouraged and assisted me to obtain a review copy of this volume, and thanks, of course, to the publisher T&T Clark/Bloomsbury for sending it to me.

The first part of this review is at https://vridar.org/2020/08/25/biblical-narratives-archaeology-historicity-essays-in-honour-of-thomas-l-thompson/

. . .

Continuing the section Part 2. History, Historiography and Archaeology . . . 

Jesper Høgenhaven’s chapter explores evidence in the Qumran texts for how Second Temple Judeans thought about the Biblical writings. We can be puzzled by the way biblical passages were joined to one another to create new texts (Thomas Thompson, Høgenhaven informs us, spoke of a ‘Copenhagen Lego hypothesis’ with regard to 4Q175). An early quotation in the essay jumped out at me since it addresses the basic method of gospel interpretation by Maurice Mergui and Nanine Charbonnel whose books I have been discussing on this blog. (I will be returning to them both in coming months.)

The late Philip R. Davies made the following pointed remark on scholars striving to collect the elements necessary for writing a ‘sectarian history’ based on Qumran scriptural commentaries (pesharim):

The first direction in exegesis of the pesharim must always be towards their midrashic function, for until we understand how these commentaries work – and that means as midrashim – we have no warrant to plunder them for historical data, especially given that (a) no continuous tradition can be established as lying behind them and (b) where they do contain – as we know that they do (I think in particular of 4QpNah) – some historical information, any kind of plausible analogy we could invoke would warn us that it will be mixed up with invention, will be distorted, garbled and anachronistic. (Davies 1989: 27-8)

(pp. 101f. The Davies 1989 link is to the Open Access book at Project Muse)

Amen. I recall Liverani’s observation about lazy historians running with a narrative that looks like history without too much second thought. Investigating the genre of a source ought to be the first priority of any historical inquiry.

So Høgenhaven surveys the way Israel’s past is utilized in various Qumran texts. He concludes that there is little conceptual difference between myths of ancient times and recent historical experiences. Metaphor and history are blurred in a way that it is not always obvious to modern readers which is which. Stories are rewritten, reinterpreted, rationalized, expanded, and commented upon as their functions vary over time. History is salvation history (“or ‘perdition history’), and along with its dualistic motifs, discerning what texts meant to readers at any particular time can be a challenge. Høgenhaven’s concluding reference to “renewed and repentant ‘Israel’ or the faithful and obedient remnant of Israel” as a stock identifying motif for the creators of the texts and their audiences links up with a dominant theme in Thompson’s The Mythic Past.

2 heads: John Hyrcanus II and John the Baptist

Next essay is by Gregory L. Doudna, another scholar some of whose work (especially on Qumran and the DSS) has been addressed here. This time Doudna takes on the passage about John the Baptist in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews. After having read a variety of cases for the passage being an interpolation by a Mandean or Christian hand and other suggestions that the passage is definitely Josephan but straining at ways to reconcile Josephus’s chronology with Jesus, I learn now that there is yet another possible explanation for the various curiosities raised by the account. I admit I approached this chapter with some scepticism but by the time I had finished had to concede that I think Doudna makes a very good case that Josephus’s John the Baptist report is “a chronologically dislocated story of the death of Hyrcanus II”:

In the same way [as another apparently dislocated account], Josephus’s John the Baptist story reads as a doublet or different version of Hyrcanus II chronologically dislocated to the time of the wrong Herod. In this case Josephus did not place the two versions of the death of Hyrcanus II close together in the same time setting as in some of the other cases of doublets. If Josephus had done that, the doublet in this case would have been recognized before now. Instead, Josephus mistakenly attached one of the traditions of the death of Hyrcanus II to the wrong Herod, just as he separately mistakenly attached documents to the wrong Hyrcanus. (p. 132)

I hope to discuss Doudna’s chapter in more detail in a future post.

The next chapter by Jim West is a “re-evaluation” of

the book by Thomas Thompson titled The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David and discusses the appropriateness of his methodology, the correctness of his interpretation, and the continuing importance of his contribution on the topic of the historical Jesus. (p. 138)

West laments the lack of more general scholarly interest in The Messiah Myth given that it has, he claims, been taken up by

an army of ‘Jesus Mythicists’ who latched onto Thompson’s work as support for their view that Jesus actually never existed and who were bolstered by Thompson’s book. (p. 139)

Continue reading “continuing … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson”


Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #4

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by Neil Godfrey

Here we look at the sources in the Jewish Scriptures for:

a. John the Baptist

b. the Baptism of Jesus

c. the wedding at Cana

d. the three temptations of Jesus in the wilderness

Continue reading “Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #4”


Gospels Cut From Jewish Scriptures, #2

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by Neil Godfrey

Here we look at

a. the announcement to the parents of John the Baptist;

b. the heralding role of John the Baptist.

Future posts will continue this series.

Continue reading “Gospels Cut From Jewish Scriptures, #2”


The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels #2: John the Baptist and the Twelve Disciples

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper . . . .


John the Baptist

Maybe I’m just naturally resistant to new ideas but I found myself having some difficulty with Nanine Charbonnel’s [NC] opening stage of her discussion about John the Baptist. (Recall we have been looking at plausibility of gospel figures being personifications of certain groups, with Jesus himself symbolizing a new Israel.) NC begins with an extract from Maximus of Turin’s interpretation: by cross-referencing to Paul’s statements that the “head of a man is Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3) Maximus concluded that the decapitation of John the Baptist represented Christ being cut off from the adherents to the Law, the Jews. Without the head they were a lifeless corpse.

Further, if we accept the passage about Jesus in Josephus’s Antiquities as genuine, NC suggests that it is not impossible that Josephus was writing of what he had heard indirectly from messianic Jews in Rome who had spoken of a figurative or literary figure that was confused at some point with a historical one.

We may not like that interpretation but at least Maximus recognized something symbolic about John the Baptist. As NC reminds us, he was the one who greets the messiah from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:41), the one who asks questions designed to recognize Jesus, the one who acts out Elijah’s confrontation with the lawless Jezebel and king Ahab. Even if we accept the entry about John the Baptist in Josephus as genuine and acknowledge that there was a historical “John the Baptist”, this person is depicted in symbolic roles in the gospels.

John the Baptist by Titian. Wikimedia Commons

NC has more to say but permit me to give my own view, or perhaps a mix of my own with NC’s. John the Baptist is presented initially in the physical image of the arch-prophet, Elijah, and is calling upon all Israel to repent and prepare for the messiah. They all come out into the wilderness to do so. In Luke’s gospel when different groups (soldiers, tax collectors and others) ask John what they should do John replies with the fundamental spiritual intent of the law in each case: be merciful. Surely this is all symbolic of the Law and Prophets being the articles of the covenant made between Israel and God in the wilderness, and just as the early Christians found Jesus predicted in the prophets so John, the final prophet, points them to Jesus the messiah. Later we find the same prophet asking Jesus if he is the one, with Jesus replying with signs as recorded in the Prophets to assure him. John, meanwhile (as NC herself notes as significant), is martyred just as many other prophets before him, and just as Jesus himself will be. The tale is surely told as symbolism and the character John as a literary personification. Jesus emerges from the Prophets. It is the Prophets who all point towards Jesus Christ.

So when John says he is not worthy to baptize Jesus, he is saying that Jesus is greater than the Law and Prophets. Jesus, however, replies that he has come to submit to the Law and Prophets. His baptism represents the emerging in his full spiritual reality the new Israel, the one prophesied in the prophets. This is not the baptism described in Josephus. It is a baptism of repentance, of preparation for the Christ.

The absence of biographical or other historical information is telling. We only have details that call out for symbolic interpretation. The reason each evangelist can modify the narrative is not because they were working with historical data but entirely in their own imaginative interpretation of the way the Prophets pointed readers to Christ.

“John” and Peter race to the tomb

I say “John” for convenience and according to tradition. The Gospel of John notably does not name the disciple, appearing to identify him with the “beloved” disciple

The famous Gregory who became the Pope in the sixth/seventh century identified a possible symbolic meaning of the Gospel of John’s account of John and Peter running to the empty tomb.  Quoted by NC, Gregory sought a meaning in John arriving first at the tomb but not entering, with Peter coming later yet being the first to enter. John was interpreted as the Synagogue, the Jews, who had “come first” to Christ, but failed to “enter”. Peter, representing the gentiles, arrived later but was the first to believe. [See Gregory the Great Homily 22 on the Gospels; see also comments below for further discussion]

The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed . . . (John 20:4-8)

Disciples Running to the Tomb / E. Burnand. Wikimedia Commons

Interesting possibility. But if the “beloved disciple” is rather meant to be an unfalsifiable witness (and he, not Peter, is said to be the one who believed), it is hard to identify the same with the “Jews of the synagogue”. On the other hand, given what we know of Peter as the apostle to the gentiles, the one who stands between Jews and gentiles (hence his “double-minded” reputation?) something along the lines of Gregory’s interpretation does have some appeal.

Other points to consider, as per NC: John (meaning God is gracious) does have a sound similarity to Jonah, another representative of Jews in the old story. (Then we also have Peter being identified in the Gospels of Matthew and John with the son of Jonah.) NC promises to return to Peter in the last chapter. I will be patient.

Again, we have details that are not typically found in biographies. Recall the same point (especially with respect to the Gospel of John) in How the Gospels Became History. Such details appear pointless in themselves; they scream out for symbolic interpretation — and many ministers and preachers have understood this point well enough to prepare many sermons drawing out various meanings for their congregations.

The Twelve Apostles: the twelve tribes of Israel

This one is easier. The twelve patriarchs in Genesis are treated as symbolic representatives of the tribes that bore their names. I think many of us have seen in the Twelve Disciples a new founding group of the “new Israel”.

NC sees three principles underlying any interpretation of the Twelve. Continue reading “The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels #2: John the Baptist and the Twelve Disciples”


Jesus and an Embarrassment-Free Baptism

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by Neil Godfrey

A widespread understanding in much of the literature about the historical Jesus is that Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist is an indisputable fact. The reason for such certainty is said to be that no follower of Jesus would fabricate a story in which Jesus appeared to submit to the authority of John; the event was too well known to be avoided.) That is, an appeal to what is called the “criterion of embarrassment”.

A handful of scholars (e.g. Arnal, Mack, Vaage) have expressed doubts about the historicity of the episode by appealing to its “mythic” character. Others have pointed to the dialogue in the first appearance of the scene in the Gospel of Mark (John says Jesus is greater than he), followed by the Gospel of Matthew’s dialogue in which Jesus has to persuade John to go through with the ceremony (John protests that Jesus should baptism him), then the brief incidental reference to the baptism in the Gospel of Luke (John is arrested and then we have a sideways remark, “Jesus also being baptized”….), through to the Gospel of John failing to mention the baptism completely.

So we see from the arguments attempting to explain the baptism that in at least one gospel the baptism could quite well be simply ignored. Further, as one reader here pointed out,

These allegedly embarrassing undeniable facts are being spread by the Christians themselves. It stands to reason that these story elements serve a purpose in the narrative.

We can also identify many verses in the Old Testament that the author of the Gospel of Mark used in order to flesh out the appearance, setting and words of John the Baptist but those details are for another time.

If the baptism of Jesus was fabricated by the earliest evangelist then we naturally want to know why.

One explanation that is sometimes suggested is that the Gospel of Mark presents an “adoptionist” Jesus. That is, Jesus the man only became a “son of God” at the baptism when the spirit entered into him. If so, then Jesus only became John’s “superior” after he had been baptized.

But reflecting on another recent post, Jesus’ Baptism Based on Abraham’s Binding of Isaac?, I think I can see another explanation, one that does not rely upon the adoptionist view of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.

If baptism in the Gospel of Mark is a symbol of death (as it is in the Epistle to the Romans and in Jesus’ own direct use of baptism as a metaphor for his crucifixion) it would follow, I think, that the baptism of Jesus would be no more embarrassing that Jesus’ crucifixion. (Given the way Paul finds himself boasting about Christ’s crucifixion and the way Mark makes the crucifixion as a central theme of his entire work I cannot accept that claim that early Christians were so “embarrassed” by it that they sought ways to explain and apologize for it.)

By opening his mission with baptism Jesus is said to have begun his earthly career with a symbolic act pointing to his death and subsequent glory.

That explanation would also help us understand why there is no baptism scene in the Gospel of John. That gospel consistently stressed the glory and power of Jesus and remove any “less than perfect” or “less than all-powerful” human attributes. If so, then there was no more room for Jesus to be baptized than there was that the Gospel of John’s Jesus would be in torment or helplessly arrested in Gethsemane.