Tag Archives: John the Baptist

John the Baptist became (or came from) a god?

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In my recent post I referred to an old view that John the Baptist may possibly in some way have originated from the Babylonian water god, Ea. Another scholar who also saw a link with this god was Robert Eisler, but he took the contrary view: that a historical John the Baptist was in some way eventually identified with Ea. He suggests the possibility in his 1920 book, Orpheus — The Fisher: Comparative Studies in Orphic and Early Christian Cult Symbolism. Eisler’s views have always been controversial and I find many of them imaginative discussion-starters rather than convincing conclusions. So it is in that context that I share here what he says about the possibility of John the Baptist’s link with the pagan god.

Eisler is dogmatic in his insistence that John the Baptist was a historical person and flatly denounces the contrary claim by two early Christ Myth proponents, Dupuis and Drews:

It is more than a century since Charles Francois Dupuis, the famous Parisian lawyer and professor of rhetoric , first declared that John the Baptist was a purely mythical personage and his name the equivalent of that of the Babylonian fish-clad divinity Iannes or Oannes. Quite recently the same theory has been repeated in Prof. Arthur Drews’ much-discussed book on the so-called ‘Christ-myth,’ . . . . read more »

Sifting fact from fiction in Josephus: John the Baptist as a case study

Machaerus: According to Josephus it was controlled by Herod’s enemy but the same Josephus (?) says Herod still used it as his own! Image by thiery49 via Flickr

The Jewish historian Josephus writes about both genuine historical persons and events and mythical characters and events as if they are all equally historical. Adam and Vespasian, the siege of Jerusalem and the last stand at Masada, are all documented in a single work of ancient historiography.

Is there some method or rule that can be applied to help us decide when Josephus is telling us something that is “a true historical memory” and when he is passing on complete fiction?

Is genre the answer?

We cannot use genre as an absolute rule. Genre can offer us some sort of guide to the intentions of the author. But Josephus is no better than Herodotus or the historical books of the Jewish Bible when it comes to freely mixing mythical accounts and historical memory within the same ostensibly historiographical scrolls. Genre can deceive the unwary. The myth of Masada has long been accepted as “historical fact” largely because it forms a literary and ideologically aesthetic conclusion to the demonstrably historical report of the siege and fall of Jerusalem. Some information used by Josephus is known without any doubt to be historical because it is independently witnessed by both archaeological remains and external — “controlling” — literary witnesses. But archaeology has also given us reason to believe that the numbers of sieges and conquests of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the sixth century was doubled for literary-theological reasons. read more »

The “Legend” of the Baptism of Jesus (Bultmann flashback)

Posted 6pm. Updated 8:30 pm with note on Thompson’s argument that baptism is a reiteration of OT narratives

Rudolf_Bultmann
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Every so often scholars stumble over evidence that what they are reading in the Gospels is based not on historical events but on theological creativity but they never seem to mind. They nearly always pick themselves up, dust themselves off and look around declaring, “Didn’t hurt a bit” before continuing on their way as if nothing had ever happened.

Not so long ago I wrote a few posts on Bishop John Shelby’s Spong’s arguments that most of what we read in the Gospels is fictional midrash. (Even Dale C. Allison uses that “m” word to describe some of the same narratives in his Constructing Jesus — pp. 448, 451 —  so I guess scholars who object to mythicists using the word ‘midrash’ should have a quiet word with their mainstream counterparts who carelessly encourage them.) The point is that even though Spong argued Gospel stories were not historical memories, he nonetheless insisted that there was a historical foundation to them all. He’s not alone. Dennis MacDonald has argued that many scenarios in the Gospel of Mark are adaptations of scenes in the Homeric epics but he, too, makes a point of explicitly stating that he does not believe Jesus himself is a fiction.

So one feels immersed in familiar waters when reading a 1963 translation of the third edition (1958) of Rudolf Bultmann’s  The History of the Synoptic Tradition (originally published 1921) and finds Bultmann likewise being quick to declare that, despite all the legendary or mythical features of Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus, he nonetheless is not so sceptical  as to deny that John really and truly did baptize Jesus.

Without disputing the historicity of Jesus’ baptism by John,2 the story as we have it must be classified as legend. (p. 247)

If our earliest record of an event is legend then on what grounds do we decide not to question its historicity?

But even more intriguing is an attached footnote that reads:

2 I cannot share the scepticism of E. Meyer, Ursprung u. Anfaenge d. Christent., I, 1921, pp. 83f.  Indeed Acts 1037f, 1324f. prove that the historical fact of Jesus’ baptism is not necessary for linking the ministry of Jesus to John’s; yet not that this linking must be made by the story of a baptism, or that it could only be made if the baptism of Jesus were not an actual historical fact.

So my recent post about three modern scholars who are sceptical about the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John — Bill Arnal, Leif E. Vaage and Burton Mack — are nothing novel. So the scholarly doubt is at least as old as 1921.

So what was Bultmann’s finding that led him to decide the account of Jesus’ baptism was not historical (even though he still believed the event was historical anyway)? read more »

More reasons for an early Christian to invent the story of Jesus’ baptism

Bill Arnal and Leif E. Vaage are not the only scholars who have published doubts about the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. I mentioned them back in January this year. Another was Burton Mack in Myth of Innocence. (The evidence against historicity is in my view overwhelming. I have shown the weakness of the arguments by E. P. Sanders for its historicity and posted before on how the scenes can be explained entirely in terms of literary function and artifice without any need to resort to assumptions of extraneous events outside the text.) But for sake of completeness here is Burton Mack’s argument for treating it as entirely mythical. I highlight in bold type the reasons he sees evident for the need or wish of early Christians to invent the episode. Far from the scene being an embarrassment to the first Christians to have heard the story, it was surely welcomed. Only later evangelists reading Mark’s gospel felt embarrassment over Mark’s account because they had quite different views of Jesus.

The framework stories of the gospels are the most highly mythologized type of material. They include the narratives of Jesus’ birth, baptism, transfiguration, crucifixion, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances. The transfiguration story is purely mythological, as are the birth narratives, the story of the empty tomb, and the appearances of the resurrected Jesus to the disciples. Critical scholars would not say that any of these derive from reminiscences.

The baptism story is also mythic, but in this case may derive from lore about Jesus and John the Baptist. Lore about John and Jesus is present in the sayings tradition, in a pronouncement story, and other legends both in Q and in Mark. John the Baptist was a public figure whose social role was similar to that of Jesus and whose followers were regarded by some followers of Jesus as competitors.

Except for the baptism story, however, there is no indication that Jesus and John crossed paths.

read more »

Mythicist Papers: Background to Christian Myths – a 3 day Death, Nazarenes, the John the Baptist Sect. . . .

Crescent Moon (NASA, International Space Stati...
Image by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center via Flickr

René Salm has translated the first two chapters of a fascinating study by Ditlef Nielsen, The Old Arabian Moon Religion And The Mosaic Tradition (1904) and made them available online at his Mythicist Papers resource page.

He has other resources there, too. Anyone interested in the origins of the “Nazarene” epithet [n-ts-r] applied to Jesus and early Christians, in the roots of the three-day death and resurrection concept in myth, of the (very early) background to what the later emergence of the Mandean or John the Baptist sect, the astrological basis for the Jewish sabbath and “magical” numbers, will find these resources indispensable. I have just completed the second chapter of Nielsen’s book and found it absolutely fascinating.

John the Baptist Foreshadowed in Homer’s Odyssey?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/-lucie-/4321533423/

Another interesting observation in Bruce Louden‘s Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East is his drawing a possible link between John the Baptist and Halitherses in the Odyssey. Louden explains that Halitherses is an aged prophet, close to the hero Odysseus, who warns the nobles in Odysseus’ absence to stop their evil plans or they will suffer the judgment of Odysseus upon his return.

That was enough to send me back to reading the Odyssey and I think the following passage that depicts Halitherses’  “preaching” worth quoting in full. I conclude with another in which Louden shows us that the message of the return of the king to his kingdom in the Odyssey is in a sense called “good news”, a word very similar to “gospel”. read more »

Taking the Gospels seriously, part 2 (What John Baptist supposedly meant to Jesus)

I often find myself wishing some knowledgable scholars who write about “the historical Jesus” would take their Gospel sources more seriously.

To take just one illustration, I don’t know if I have read any scholarly work addressing the baptism of Jesus that fails to make some reference to the “influence of John the Baptist on Jesus”, or to the “calling of Jesus”, or such. The presumption is always that Jesus was some sort of spiritual “seeker” who was profoundly moved in some way by John the Baptist and as a direct consequence was catapulted on his own solo career.

Here is one example of this:

What we do know past doubting is that John had a crucially important impact on Jesus. According to the synoptic tradition, Jesus in some sense received his calling during or just after his baptism. (p. 191 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, by Paula Fredriksen)

And another that is within easy reach on my desk:

We can now see what attracted Jesus to John. John exercised a large-scale and highly successful prophetic ministry of repentance to Israel. . . . He offered salvation and predicted judgement in terms which recreated the Judaism of the prophetic tradition. This explains why Jesus underwent John’s baptism. . . . Jesus thereby joined this vigorous movement of prophetic Judaism. . . . On the occasion of his baptism, Jesus had a visionary experience. . . . (p. 176 of Jesus of Nazareth by Maurice Casey.) read more »

When neither the Gospel nor Josephus makes sense

Execution of John the Baptist
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The image we have from the Gospels of the death of John the Baptist belongs to the world of make-believe fantasy. A man out in the wilderness publicly complains that a king’s marriage is unlawful, so the king has him arrested and imprisoned. Later he is seduced by a dance into making an incautious promise so that he is honour-bound to deliver the head of John on a dinner plate to his new wife.

There’s another story in a historical work by Josephus about how John the Baptist met his death. John had a reputation for teaching people to be good towards one another and reverential before God. His teaching was so persuasive that Herod was frightened John might decide to tell all his followers to rise up and rebel against their king, so had him sent off to prison to be executed. (Antiquities 18.5.2)

Paula Fredriksen, author of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, is one scholar who acknowledges that neither account makes much sense. read more »

5 reasons to suspect John the Baptist was interpolated into Josephus

Said to be the part of the skull (de cranis) of John the Baptist, in reliquarium, Residenz, Munich
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Frank Zindler (The Jesus the Jews Never Knew) gives five reasons to think that Josephus said nothing at all about John the Baptist.

This is something that is not generally welcomed by those who are primarily interested in defending the possibility of any independent (non-Christian) evidence at all for the historical background to the gospel narrative, but it is of interest to anyone who is interested in examining the evidence with an open mind.

Unlike the interpolation of the Jesus passage(s) into Josephus, Zindler suggests that the John the Baptist passage was inserted by a Jewish Christian or “an apologist for one of the myriad ‘heretical’ sects which are known to have existed from the earliest periods of Christian history.” (p. 96) One possibility he offers is even a pre-Christian Baptist of some sort.

Because there are details of John the Baptist in Josephus that are at odds with those we find in the Gospels many scholars, writes Zindler, have been persuaded the words about John the Baptist really were composed by Josephus. But Zindler reminds us that

many non-gospel views of the Baptist existed during the first three centuries (indeed, a decidedly non-gospel type of John the Baptist holds a very prominent place in the Mandaean religion to this day), and an unknown number of them might have held the opinion now supposed to have been that of Josephus. (p. 97)

Here are Zindler’s reasons for believing the passage in Josephus is a forgery. read more »

Did not even John the Baptist recognize Jesus at the Jordan River?

Geertgen tot Sint Jans (15th century): "John the Baptist"
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Mark’s gospel makes little sense if read as literal history, but it packs a powerful punch when read with a mind swept clean of all the other gospel accounts.

The punch the Gospel of Mark hit me with recently was its sentence noting John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus. It’s bizarre if we try to read it as biography or history. But it makes for a great symbolic message about the identity and function of Jesus.

The Gospel begins with John declaring that one far greater than he is to come from God and cover his followers not with water but with the holy spirit. The preamble has informed readers that this coming one is to be the one of whom the Prophets said is the Lord himself. Everyone came out repenting and being baptized.

Then Jesus came along and John baptized him too.

And that’s it. Mark gives not the slightest hint that John baulked and said, Hey, you’re the one! Nope. It’s as if Jesus was the last in line and John routinely baptized him like all the rest.

Then up from the water came Jesus and “he” (only) saw the spirit descending to him like a dove. No one else saw this or the heavens splitting apart, and no-one but Jesus heard the voice from heaven declaring him to be God’s son.

This is strange. It is especially strange if, as many modern interpreters like to think, Jesus was originally a follower of John the Baptist.

No, what Mark is doing here is entirely at a literary level. read more »

Scholars who question the historicity of Jesus’ baptism and why they “do not persuade”

Icon_of_jesus_baptism-138x300I was struck by a sentence by Dale C. Allison in his Constructing Jesus that began as follows:

Indeed, Jesus seems to have submitted to John’s baptism. . . . (p. 53)

Only “seems”? I did not know that any theologian and biblical scholar who accepted the historical reality of Jesus doubted it. So catch that footnote number and make a quick check. Here is the explanatory footnote:

This is rarely doubted, although see William Arnal, “Major Episodes in the Biography of Jesus: An Assessment of the Historicity of the Narrative Tradition,” TJT 13 (1997): 201-26; Leif E. Vaage, “Bird-Watching at the Baptism of Jesus: Early Christian Mythmaking in Mark 1:9-11,” in Reimagining Christian Origins (ed.. Castelli and Taussig), 280-94. Arnal and Vaage do not persuade, in part because, as Mark’s account of the crucifixion and Luke’s theological use of Jerusalem show, remembered facts may not only serve literary ends but may also be fully clothed in legendary and mythological dress. The snag here is that almost every bit of tradition is integrated into the surrounding Synoptic narratives and serves clear editorial ends, so unless we are to find only fiction in the Synoptics, observation of such integration and such ends cannot suffice to determine derivation.

This is why I like Dale Allison so much. He is equal to the most honest biblical scholar that I have encountered who also believes in the historicity of Jesus. He essentially admits his belief is a belief and does not kid himself (or his readers) that his reasoning is not circular. There are a number of other theologians who cannot face this fact about their own writings.

Theologian James McGrath challenged me to address a scholar like E.P. Sanders “point by point” and still deny the historicity of Jesus, and when I did so, including a discussion of what Sanders argues about the baptism of Jesus, McGrath belatedly responded with a weak and meek “I do not agree”. I had hoped for some serious response that included a statement of reasons for his disagreement. I would much rather engage with Dale Allison who does demonstrate an ability to give a reasoned response. read more »

Where Did John the Baptist’s Parents Come From? Reading the Gospels “with Jewish Eyes”

Annunciation to Zechariah. Fragment of russian...
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The names of the parents of both Jesus and John the Baptist were arguably created from the imaginations of the Gospel authors working on Old Testament passages for inspiration. The names were fabricated because of the theological messages they conveyed. There is no evidence to indicate that they were handed down from historical memory.

This is not a “mythicist” or “atheist” argument. It is the result of scholarly research by an Anglican vicar and an Episcopal bishop.

Both have published scholarly reasons for believing that the names Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus, and Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, were carefully selected by early Christians on the basis of their ability to convey particular theological meanings. Goulder and Spong describe this process as “midrash”. Spong explains what he means by this:

How to read the Gospels as Jewish books

[T]here are stories in the Gospels that are so deeply reminiscent of stories in the Old Testament that one might inquire as to the reason for their similarity. Was that accidental or coincidental? Or does it point to something we might have missed? . . .

In a deep and significant way, we are now able to see that all of the Gospels are Jewish books, profoundly Jewish books. Recognizing this, we begin to face the realization that we will never understand the Gospels until we learn how to read them as Jewish books. They are written, to a greater or lesser degree, in the midrashic sytle of the Jewish sacred storyteller, a style that most of us do not begin even now to comprehend. This style is not concerned with historical accuracy. It is concerned with meaning and understanding. read more »

Embarrassing failure of the criterion of embarrassment

Dome depicting the baptism of Jesus by Saint John the Baptist, and a pagan god in the guise of an old man stands to one side holding a leather bag; Arian baptistry, Ravenna, Italy.
Both symbolic (scroll on image to see the text) and embarrassing (don’t double click the image to look at Jesus too closely) baptism scene. Image via Wikipedia

So I hear from commenters that a new foray into demolishing mythicism has been launched by James McGrath with yet one more account of the “criterion of embarrassment”. The curious — yet tedious — thing about this is that while McGrath in particular has faulted mythicists for (supposedly) failing to engage with the scholarship on the historical Jesus, he himself, and some of the other more strident critics of mythicism, have notably failed to engage with the mythicist responses to those scholarly arguments.

James McGrath once wrote:

I have not yet seen . . . . a mythicist who engages a scholar like Sanders point by point and argues the case for drawing a different conclusion.

So when I proceeded to engage E. P. Sanders himself “point by point’ — and one of those points was Sanders’ argument for the historicity of the baptism of Jesus — I was disappointed that there was no response from McGrath. But he can no longer say that he has not yet seen a mythicist who engages a scholar like Sanders point by point and argues the case for drawing a different conclusion. I still await an opponent of mythicism to engage with the argument for the non-historicity of the narrative of the baptism of Jesus that I made in the following posts:

Engaging Sanders Point by Point: John the Baptist

Baptism of Jesus is . . . entirely creative literature

There are many possible reasons why McGrath did not respond to these. But what is not clear is why he would still use the criterion of embarrassment, with the baptism of Jesus as a principle case-study, as if no mythicist argument had ever been mounted against it. Why simply repeat the same argument that mythicists have long since responded to and found wanting? read more »

John the Baptist’s head: a eucharist for the Herods

Herodias' Revenge Museum Mayer van den Bergh, ...
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Mark narrates in 6:14-29 the incident about Herod and John the Baptist in a way that makes the reader see it as endowed with a symbolic meaning. What we get is a perverted counter-eucharist: a deipnon among the Jewish political leaders which is dominated by the passions of the body (sexual desires) and in which the head of John the Baptist is served on a plate. (Fortunately, I am not the only one to read the story like this; cf. . . . . van Iersel B.M.F 1998: Mark. A Reader-Response Commentary, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 164, Sheffield).

This is from Henrik Tronier, Philonic Allegory in Mark [link downloads a 264 KB PDF file. Source:
http://www.pitts.emory.edu/hmpec/docs/TronierPhilonicAllegoryMark.pdf]. I feel incomplete not having read van Iersel, and feeling financially boa constricted when I see that the price of even a second hand copy is well in excess of $100!

Until I read this in Tronier’s article, almost the only literary criticism of this John the Baptist beheading passage that I had ever encountered was commentary on its rambling and irrelevant character, standing out as a curious out-of-place anomaly in the otherwise consistently terse pre-Passion narratives in Mark’s Gospel. The only exception to this pattern that I can recall at the moment is Dennis MacDonald’s linking it with popular stories of the murder of King Agamemnon (on his return from the Trojan War) by his wife Clytemnestra.

So in the absence of $130 to spare on Iersel, here are a few initial observations that might give reason to see this detailed anecdote as more meaningful than rambling after all: read more »